Déjà Vu All Over Again

The Great Crash 1929J K Galbraith

The trading floor of the New York Stock Exchan...

The trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange in 1930, just six months after the crash of 1929 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was inspired to read this after Keynes: The Return of the Master and because of its towering reputation. But, to be honest, the first 100 pages or so left me wondering what all the fuss was about. My edition (borrowed from the University of York library) began with a description of how its author found himself, momentarily, at the heart of some red baiting after evidence, based on the research for the book, he gave to a Senate committee caused a minor market hiccough. That was the most engaging part of the opening half of the book – though it is an even more interesting story in the context of the whole text (it seems that some people believe so strongly in their right to make money without work that only a conspiracy can explain away their coming to grief).

But the book was worth persisting with – because as the tale goes on the relevance to the events of the last decade becomes clearer (and, as an additional bonus, one gets a better perspective on the F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s work). What begins as a story of 1920s crookedness does flower into a big story of how and why speculative markets fail and even why recessions turn to depressions.

America’s reaction to the 1929 Crash was the New Deal which, as the book makes clear, was not any sort of Keynesian programme, but rather a wave of regulation. The New Deal essentially failed as a means of riving the economy – or rather it’s impact was much less than its backers hoped for. But it did help create the climate that allowed America to power ahead in the 40s and 50s. Crucial to that was the disarming of the prophets of unrestricted markets – the combination of market failure and sheer crookedness leaving them exposed. Today we ought to have the same – after all the rottenness of much of the financial sector has been exposed and we have had the worst global economic retreat since the 1930s, but I do not sense that we have entered an era of a new worldview on the role and purpose of markets.


A different view of the 1980s

Bedsit Disco Queen: How I grew up and tried to be a pop starTracey Thorn.

Crop of photo with Italian fan (fan cropped out).

Crop of photo with Italian fan (fan cropped out). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Those who know me will recognise that pop stars’ memoirs are not my normal reading, so why break the habit of a lifetime with this particular book? Partly, I have to admit, a little bit of teenage crush on Tracey, who I still dream of meeting at random on some North London street, but more seriously because I like her music and attitude (as shown on Twitter as @tracey_thorn) and because she’s a near-contemporary who seems to have managed to both “made it big” and “kept it real”.

The book, which is charming, gives quite a lot of insight into how all this happened. It’s a lovely book and it’s not possible to read it and not think well of Thorn, though you also get the sense she never quite enjoyed it as much as she ought to have. In fact she comes across as more than a little bit unconfident. You never feel she is fishing for compliments but the endless nervousness about her talent can occasionally wear thin –  as the book covers a quarter century career you do feel maybe she could be a bit more relaxed about it, or at least be a bit more relaxed today about her anxieties of yesterday – she made it after all.

I also have to confess that the book – especially as we approach the present – contains lots of names of people in the music world I do not know or only have a vague sense of – who is this Jeff Buckley she goes weak at the knees over?

Her description of the transformational effects of having children is a very familiar one to me and, I am sure, millions of others, and happened to me a couple of years before her (and my grip on youth culture was loosening before then). That’s my excuse anyway.

But the book has a very authentic feel in the way it describes 1980s student life and music. I never was anywhere close to the music industry then or any other time, but I recognise exactly what she writes of as a consumer rather than producer. It’s view that is, as she notes herself, rather closer to life as it was lived than the interminable tv compilations of LiveAid (though I don’t share her negativity on that) and Princess Di and Duran Duran (“vacuous social climbers” is a great put-down of them).

The book also explains why she and partner Ben Watt have such strange (in comparison to the music) haircuts in this video.

At the end I thought of how Thorn reminds me of several other women I know who have made it in male-dominated worlds, their heads were often screwed on pretty tightly – and to the outside the world they project the aggressive attitude that Thorn admits she previously presented to the world. Perhaps they had and have no choice.


Underselling Keynes

Keynes: The Return of the Master – Robert Skidelsky

Robert Skidelsky at the 1970 general election

Robert Skidelsky at the 1970 general election (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I bought this book some two years ago but have only got around to reading it now, which makes some of my criticisms below a little unfair: the book was clearly written as an emergency response to an economic emergency and the fact that that emergency has lingered on is hardly the fault of the author.

But not all the criticisms to follow are similarly based on the gap between purchase and reading. Skidelsky has a slightly unsavoury reputation in Labour circles – once on the right wing fringes of the party  and in my mind, perhaps inaccurately, he is associated with Stephen Haseler‘s Campaign for a Labour Victory, which seemed, again from memory, to spend most of its time, or at least most of its airtime, arguing Labour needed to get tougher on immigration: a revisionist biography of Oswald Mosley, time in the SDP, an endorsement (again my memory may be faulty) of John Major. All daft ideas and the book gives you a clue to the character that produced them – for it probably spends as much time praising the outdated and oddly quaint ethical ideas of Keynes as it does on his economics, while on the economics it lays a lot of emphasis on Keynes’s opposition to globalisation.

Despite all that it is not a bad book – it is just that it could have been better. (Unfair criticism follows…) Reading it in 2013 as opposed to early 2010, when it was published, one is struck by just how much it under-sells Keynes. Everyday we see the dogmatic assumptions of the neo-classicals take a pounding (though they are forever unwilling to admit their intellectual bankruptcy) and yet this book is a poor source of ammunition. Instead it tells us of how they bested the Keynesians in the 70s, 80s and 90s on the back of sophistry and how we all paid a price for that in 2008.

At times the book seems other-worldly, particularly it the sense it seems to argue that we should stick globalisation back in the bottle. Maybe I am missing the point but the idea that we should route all foreign currency transactions through a Bank of International Settlements seems to have failed to grasp that, in the 21st century, ordinary citizens regularly trade in foreign currencies across borders via the internet.

Having said all this, I did enjoy and would recommend the book.