Archive for the ‘economics’ Category


A Companion to International History 1900–2001, edited by Gordon Martel

12 January 2010

I believe this is the last of the reviews I wrote for the September 2008 issue of Political Studies Review. The next new review should be ready for posting by next week.

A Companion to International History 1900–2001, edited by Gordon Martel

The intent of the Blackwell Companions to History series is to provide compact collections of writings that address the most important, overarching concepts in particular historical fields and look at the changing ways in which historians have approached these concepts. In that tradition, the contributors to Blackwell’s A Companion to International History 1900–2001 have given the editors a volume of concise, well-written historiographical and interpretive essays dealing with both specific areas of interest and broader themes in twentieth century history.

The essays in this volume cover the full span of the twentieth century, looking back to the early years of the century to examine the origins of the First World War and continuing all the way through to the events of 11 September 2001. Broader themes explored include nationalism and imperialism, as well as the changes wrought on the diplomatic world by the shifting balances of power and ideological realignments of the past 100 years. The more area-specific essays look into the topics that are the staple of most any international history survey — the crisis periods of the two world wars and the Cold War, overviews of pre-war and inter-war European alliances and post-war European integration, regional studies of the roles played by Southeast Asia and the Middle East in the post-war world, and even several essays on post–Cold War politics and the effects of globalisation and terrorism. The guides to further reading, located at the end of each chapter, provide briefly annotated lists of selected books and articles for those who are interested in going deeper into a particular subject.

Many of the contributors will be familiar to those who have made a study of contemporary international history, and the quality of the contributions is uniformly excellent. In a collection of such first-rate work, it is difficult to highlight any one or two individual entries as particularly worthy of note. Overall, the Companion to International History is another welcome addition to Blackwell’s high-quality series, suitable not only for students who are just beginning to explore the complexities of international history but also for established scholars who require a handy desk reference for teaching, research, or simply for a quick refresher on major historical themes of the previous century.

First published in Political Studies Review Vol. 6 No. 3 (September 2008): 433–434.
The definitive version is available at


Never Had It So Good and White Heat by Dominic Sandbrook

27 October 2009

I’ve had these books for quite a while now, and finally have had a chance to pull my thoughts on them together into a single combined review. For those who might be interested in another set of opinions, David Edgar also reviewed these two books in the 7 June 2007 issue of the London Review of Books (subscription required to view the full article).

Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles by Dominic Sandbrook

When Historian Dominic Sandbrook wanted to write a history of Britain in the 1960s, he soon realised that merely covering the years 1960-1969 wouldn’t do justice to a period that refused to be confined by something as arbitrary as a set of dates. As a result, he split his work into two parts: the first volume covering 1956 to 1963 (from the Suez Crisis to Harold Macmillan’s resignation), and the second volume covering 1964 to 1970 (the span of Harold Wilson’s first Labour Government). The title of the first volume comes from a comment made by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan — not the phrase ‘you’ve never had it so good’, as it is often misquoted. The actual comment comes from a speech made in mid-1957, in which Macmillan attempted to reassure the public on the state of Britain under his new Conservative Government:

Let’s be frank about it, most of our people have never had it so good. Go around the country, go to the industrial towns, go to the farms, and you will see a state of prosperity such as we have never had in my lifetime — nor indeed ever in the history of this country. What is worrying some of us is ‘Is it too good to be true?’ or perhaps I should say ‘Is it too good to last?’

Macmillan’s assessment did indeed reflect the real improvement in the general standard of living. By 1956, the last official remnants of the years of austerity following World War II were finally fading. Rationing had ended, National Service was on the way out, and with unemployment figures at markedly low levels a new sense of consumer confidence translated into increased spending. And yet as Never Had It So Good presents it, Macmillan’s statement reflected the very real concerns that many people had about the changes taking place in British society in the late 1950s, in a world where many of the old political, social, and economic standards no longer seemed to apply.

For the political highlights, Sandbrook’s chapter on the events of Suez crisis is fascinating and tightly written, illustrating Anthony Eden’s sudden and steep decline from one of the more capable and experienced British politicians of his time to an ‘enraged elephant’ utterly obsessed with engineering Nasser’s downfall. Sandbrook also provides concise assessments of the 1962 Cabinet reshuffle known as the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ and the various upheavals within the long-suffering Labour Party. Never Had It So Good‘s chapters on social history cover the big developments very well, examining broad trends in drama and art and literature, the growth of teenage culture — and, of course, the rise of the Beatles and other popular music groups that profited from the new affluence. Throughout the book, though, Sandbrook constantly emphasises that the trend-setting youngsters flocking to London and Liverpool around this time were by no means the majority of the population. If anything, he attempts to push the pendulum in the other direction, suggesting that most people were far likely to go home and listen to the cozy dramas of The Archers than to any of the more esoteric productions aired by the Third Programme. Though it’s an admirable attempt at balancing out the narrative, Sandbrook seems so determined to protect his silent majority that he seems to dismiss off-hand many of the real changes that were affecting the United Kingdom at the time. The shifts in public attitudes on immigration, women’s rights, abortion and divorce, and other social issues would receive greater prominence in 1960s, but the groundwork for their changes was laid in the Macmillan years.

Never Had It So Good concludes with the various scandals that plagued the end of Harold Macmillan’s time in office, followed soon after by his resignation due to ill health and the Conservative Party’s leadership fracas from which Lord Home (shortly to renounce his hereditary peerage and become Sir Alec Douglas-Home) emerged as Prime Minister. Yet Sandbrook does not end on the sour note of the resignation — he is already looking ahead to 1964, with the Beatles at the top of the charts and the new television programme Doctor Who sending thousands of children racing to hide behind the sofa as the terrifying Daleks advanced across the screen. After almost 13 years of Tory rule, a country whose people had never had it so good were looking for the new, the fresh, and the exciting, and were preparing to vote in (by a very narrow margin) a Government whose leader promised all of those things and more, with a buoyant optimism that he hoped would be contagious. Never Had It So Good does not invite the reader to linger on the Macmillan years. Everyone, including Sandbrook, seems to be on the way to somewhere else — in this case, on to the next book.

White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties by Dominic Sandbrook

White Heat takes its title from a quotation from the Leader of the Opposition Harold Wilson, given during a speech at the 1963 Labour Party Conference. Wilson urged his fellow party members to equate Labour’s socialism with the seemingly boundless capacity of scientific progress, ready to revolutionise how Britain saw itself at home and abroad:

The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated measures on either side of industry….In the Cabinet room and the boardroom alike, those charged with the control of our affairs must be ready to think and to speak in the language of our scientific age.

Wilson’s words reflected the themes of science, progress, and revolution that were a constant background of the early 1960s. The pressure to be ‘new’ and ‘modern’ produced visible changes, as glass-and-concrete tower blocks replaced Victorian terraced housing and designers embraced synthetic materials and sleekly futuristic lines in fashion and furniture. The Labour Government, despite the slim majority with which it entered power in 1964, intended to push Britain forward to meet the challenges of the Space Age, and the public seemed quite happy to go along — for a time, at least.

Sandbrook writes a crisp political history of the 1960s, drawing heavily on published diaries and memoirs of politicians and other celebrities for good gossip and anecdotes. But when it comes to social history, Sandbrook warns readers against taking a romantic view of the period. He is of the opinion that most of the fashionable movements and trendy ideas of the 1960s lacked real permanence: the protesting students go home at the end of term, the daringly avant-garde play closes within a month, the popular new boutique shuts its doors when the losses from shoplifting and poor business management become too great. To remain popular in the music world, he suggests, even the Beatles had to move away from their cheerful clean-cut image and experiment with mysticism and drugs. Meanwhile, many people distrusted the changes taking place, fearing that immigration and the always-scare-quoted ‘permissive society’ were eroding traditional values and doing irreparable damage to the British way of life. Sandbrook chips away at the myths of a carefree Swinging Britain, focusing more on the fracture points (such as Northern Ireland and growing labour unrest) that would lead to the greater trouble and strife of the 1970s.

Though the concluding chapter of Never Had It So Good looks ahead with interest to the Wilson years, White Heat closes with a wistful look at the popularity of the World War II sitcom Dad’s Army, a symbol of the growing cult of nostalgia that Sandbrook claims is the real legacy of the 1960s. Poets like Philip Larkin and John Betjeman wrote paens to a simpler Britain of sleepy country churches and soot-covered northern towns, and the Kinks and the Beatles popularised openly nostalgic songs like ‘The Village Green Preservation Society’ and ‘Penny Lane’. Even miniskirts, one of the most iconic symbols of the Swinging Sixties, warred with ankle-length Victorian-inspired dresses in fashionable circles towards the end of the decade. Sandbrook’s melancholy message is really that Britain in the 1960s was not all that keen on change; at least, not at the speed with which it seemed to be happening. And in spite of the real advancements that was made during the decade in the women’s movement and in other broader campaigns for social progress, White Heat suggests that the decade burned itself out long before it actually came to an end.


Commentary: Bagehot on the ‘history wars’

5 October 2009

A recent article from the Economist‘s Bagehot on the history wars among British politicians prompted me to ponder the use of history as a stick with which to beat one’s political opponents.

It’s hard to disagree that hearkening back to past failures is, as Bagehot puts it, ‘a comforting kind of displacement activity….less a way of understanding the future than avoiding it‘. Watching Prime Minister’s Question Time during the Blair years was rather like playing a drinking game, preparing a shot glass in anticipation of the first mention of ‘the shambles we inherited from 18 years of Conservative Government’ or some iteration on that phrase. At some point around 1999 (possibly even earlier), the phrase lost whatever meaning it might have had, and became an almost expected part of Question Time regardless of who was facing the Prime Minister on the Opposition benches. Good for at least one shot in the PMQs drinking game, if nothing else.

I suspect that much of the impetus for the ‘history wars’ comes from New Labour’s own attempts to reinvent itself and distance itself from the problems of the Wilson and Callaghan years, as Anthony Seldon and Kevin Hickson’s collection of articles and essays suggests. Unfortunately, this insistence on disavowing the past seems to have left Labour without much to stand on except its current record, and the Tories aren’t much better when it comes to facing down the demons of the Thatcher and Major years, especially on questions related to Europe. History does make a very good stick for beating one’s opponents, but more often than not it ends up being like the magic cudgel in the Brothers Grimm fairytale that will spring out of its sack and start hitting anyone in sight, indiscriminately, until the right command is found to stop it. At the moment, it seems, no one’s figured out how to make it stop.


Semi-review: The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World by Niall Ferguson

25 March 2009

I’ve been attempting to write a book review post on Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World, but the Economist has provided an assessment that all but sums up most of my main points. The book is indeed rushed, and though it starts out well enough it does become more uneven as the chapters progress. The earlier chapters do a decent job of introducing the basic evolution of certain key facets of high finance — government bonds, company stocks, insurance and pensions, and the like — but Ferguson drops in a lot of financial terms without always providing basic explanations, which will frustrate the uninitiated and exasperate the expert. Nonetheless, careful readers who are not afraid of chasing up footnotes will likely find much more information for further reading — in fact, one might be better off simply reading the footnotes and starting from there.

The Ascent of Money provided me with a few other titles to look into, so I suppose I owe it to mention that much. But overall, it was more than a bit of a letdown.

(Also, a quick note to mention that my review backlog is reaching embarrassing proportions — I hope to have a few more full reviews ready to post quite soon.)


Commentary: London Review of Books articles

6 October 2008

Not really a true commentary from me, but rather links to two particularly interesting articles in recent issues of the London Review of Books.

1) From the 11 September 2008 issue, Ross McKibbin on the currently skewed ideological alignments in British politics. It ends with a fascinating thought-experiment on what a reformed three-party House of Commons might look like, even if you don’t agree with how he chooses to parcel out certain MPs.

2) From the 25 September 2008 issue, Donald MacKenzie on the importance of Libor, one of the more crucial but least understood aspects of the world’s current economic woes. Even if you’re suffering from information overload on matters financial, it’s worth reading as a well-written introduction to an often confusing subject.


The Roaring Nineties: A New History of the World’s Most Prosperous Decade by Joseph E. Stiglitz

3 August 2008

I’ve opened up a new tag for this review: economics. I have a few books in the queue that will fit nicely into this tag, and I’m looking forward to posting them.

The Roaring Nineties: A New History of the World’s Most Prosperous Decade by Joseph E. Stiglitz

Joseph Stiglitz, it might be said, knows a little something about economics. He was a professor of economics at Stanford University, served as a member and later chairman of the Clinton administration’s Council of Economic Advisers (a group of appointed economists who provide policy analysis and advice for the executive branch), went on to become chief economist at the World Bank from 1997 to 2000, and was the winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics. Not only was he in a position to witness first-hand the economic boom of the 1990s, but he also bears some responsibility for both the boom and the subsequent fallout that later affected people all around the world. The East Asian financial crisis of 1997, the mass protests at the Seattle WTO meeting in 1999, the collapse of corporate giants like Enron and the tarnished records of major accounting firms like Arthur Andersen and Merrill Lynch — there are no shortage of incidents to consider in any book that seeks to blend historical analysis with coverage of current events. Stiglitz has been a critical commentator on international economics in the past, most notably in his 2001 book Globalization and Its Discontents which lambastes the IMF and the World Bank for aggravating poverty in many places around the world. In The Roaring Nineties, Stiglitz attempts to paint an economic picture of the title decade, exploring the reasons for the boom and subsequent bust that made the 1990s resemble the financial panics of 1890s in more ways than one.

The book as a whole is really an expanded version of an article that Stiglitz wrote for the October 2002 edition of The Atlantic Monthly. In both the article and the book, he points out that while the 1990s were undoubtedly a time of high optimism and growth in the business community, the foundations were being laid for the problems that were to come. Accounting standards were growing more and more lax, the greed of CEOs and other high-powered corporate figures remained generally unchecked, and deregulation of certain industries like telecommunications and utilities exacerbated existing inequalities to a degree that would not be fully felt until after the end of the Clinton administration. ‘Creative accounting’ and ‘crony capitalism’ are two of Stiglitz’s particular phrases to describe the practices of the decade. And he has no small amount of contempt for George W. Bush’s handling of the U.S. economy, which he claims worsened the fallout of the tech bubble’s bursting and only underscores the problems inherent in pandering to the very wealthy few at the expense of the far less wealthy majority.

The primary difficulty faced in expanding an article to a book is that you have to provide enough substance to add to or elaborate on your original ideas. The Roaring Nineties suffers from a tendency towards clunkiness and periodic heavy-handedness in the expansion that veers towards sanctimonious. Stiglitz almost can’t seem to decide whether he should be beating his breast or washing his hands of responsibility for the outcome of the 1990s — he tries to do both, and it doesn’t work very well. The economic history is certainly sound, and the conclusions are solid and well reasoned, but I wonder if the book might not have been improved by a co-author who hadn’t been quite so in the thick of things, as it were. Something to consider, at any rate.


The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber

27 July 2008

I wrote this review quite a while ago, and wasn’t entirely satisfied with the organisational structure of my first attempt. I think I like this version a bit better — it seems slightly clearer than my initial review — but I may end up revisiting it later on to make a few more tweaks to it.

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber

German political economist Max Weber wrote extensively on what sociologists today would consider the ‘sociology of religion’, specifically regarding the effects of religious beliefs on social structures and the economic activities that developed in different societies. His best-known work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, coined the phrase ‘Protestant work ethic’ to represent one particular connection he noticed between religion and economics and its effect on the historical development and evolution of capitalism.

Simply put, Weber suggests that some Protestant denominations, specifically those of the Calvinist or ‘Puritan’ school of thought, came to view economic success as an outward sign of an individual’s chances of salvation. Those who worked hard, saved much, spent little, and prospered financially seemed to be marked (to mortal eyes) as God’s chosen, and their example fed back into the religious teachings of their communities and continued the same interconnected cycle of religion and economics. These teachings, Weber theorises, contributed to the growth and development of capitalism in the economies of European countries like the United Kingdom and Germany, as well as in the American colonies — specifically, those of New England and the mid-Atlantic regions — where the more Puritan types of Protestant settlers made their homes. Weber also suggests that the religious basis of this school of thought and action gradually faded and blurred over time (as in Benjamin Franklin’s sayings, which emphasise thrift and hard work with less overt emphasis on the spiritual reasons for these practices), leaving behind only the more secular side of the drive towards personal financial prosperity.

Nonetheless, Weber takes care to state that this ethic was not the only factor in the development of the new economic order, nor still was it the most important factor. But he views the Reformation and the Protestant religion as one very specific influence on the modern system of political economics. As both a work of economic history (from one of the last political economists to emerge from the traditions of the German Historical School of economics) and a work on the sociology of religion (from one of the founders of this particular discipline), it is hardly surprisingly that historians, economists, sociologists, and religion students have all been able to find something of value in The Protestant Ethic over the year.

The edition I read was Talcott Parsons’ translation of The Protestant Ethic, which I found to be a very good English-language edition. At times, I almost appreciated his clear and concise footnotes (and the explanations they provided) more than the actual text of the book. My edition also has a superb introduction by Anthony Giddens, which goes into very interesting detail about the writing process that went into the creation of The Protestant Ethic and its relation to Weber’s other works on the sociology of religion. Since the notion of a ‘Protestant work-ethic’ has long since passed into common parlance, to the point where most people who use it would have a difficult time explaining what they actually mean by it, it’s certainly interesting to look at the work that coined the phrase and see precisely what the author originally intended by the concept.


A Beautiful Mind: The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash by Sylvia Nasar

5 February 2008

I’ve been meaning to acquire this book for a while, but it was one of those books that tend to sit on the ‘to buy’ list for ages without any action being taken on it. Thanks to BookMooch, though, I received a nice (and pretty much free!) copy only a little while ago.

A Beautiful Mind: The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash by Sylvia Nasar

Game theory, the branch of applied mathematics that looks at strategic choices and interactions within social situations, is a key field of study in many different social sciences and other academic fields. One of the creators of the founding principles of game theory was an eccentric but brilliant mathematician who had made a name for himself among the young, up-and-coming scholars at Carnegie Mellon and Princeton in the late 1940s and early 1950s: John Forbes Nash, Jr. Nash’s publications and theories were (and still are) regarded as mathematical breakthroughs, but by the latter half of the 1950s Nash’s eccentricities began to reveal a deeper disturbance in his mind. Wild flights of fancy regarding secret numerical patterns and codes that only he could detect gave way to outright delusions of sinister worldwide conspiracies. In the frightening grip of paranoid schizophrenia, Nash all but vanished from academic life, drifting in and out of mental hospitals and fighting against his family’s attempts to get him to stay in treatment. A new generation of students who read his articles and studied his theories often assumed that he was either dead or locked up in an insane asylum somewhere. But as the years passed, Nash struggled to work through his mental illness and gradually regain his ability to function in society — and by the time his name was given as one of the winners of the 1994 Nobel Prize in Economics, he had recovered enough to work on mathematics once more.

Sylvia Nasar’s biography of Nash has won any number of awards and has been adapted for a well-known film, and it’s not difficult to see why; Nash’s story is by turns fascinating, sad, tragic, and powerful. The book has a light, conversational voice, almost chatty in tone, but the writing style by no means detracts from the solidly written prose and the easy flow with which she carries the narrative of Nash’s life — quite the contrary, in fact. Mathematics can be a daunting subject to approach even when the calculations involved are simple ones, and Nash’s work dealt with highly technical proofs and complicated equations that could easily frighten off a casual reader. One of the best aspects of Nasar’s book is how she handles the mathematics to ensure that the ideas remain comprehensible to a lay audience. She mentions the basic principles of the proofs and equations that Nash and his colleagues developed, but she generally avoids trying to delve too deeply into more technical language for her explations and descriptions. The overall effect seems to encourage truly interested readers to look to other sources for the actual mathematics, while at the same time allowing the rest of her audience to feel informed and aware, if not absolutely initiated into the details of Nash’s work. It’s a difficult balance to strike, and Nasar manages it well.

Fans of the movie starring Russell Crowe will note the many changes that the filmmakers made to adapt Nash’s story to the screen. The movie is more of a revisioning than a true adaptation — among the biographical details left out of the movie were Nash’s bisexual proclivities, his troubled relationships with his sons (one born to his wife, the other born to a girlfriend he had had before marriage), and some of the more unsavoury remarks he made during the worst times of his illness. But as far as biographies go, A Beautiful Mind is an intriguing story of a remarkable man, who even today works hard to keep the upper hand on a mental illness that nearly shattered his career and his life beyond hope of recovery.