The current wars

As for us, we’re off to the movies tonight while we still can. This is from our dummkopf premier:

“It is unacceptable that families anywhere in our state can, just because they want this to be over, pretend that it is,” he said.

“It is pretty clear that behind closed doors … they are not practising social distancing.”

According to the hysterics at the Oz – the headline reads “hotspot state threatens to stall nation’s coronavirus recovery” – the number of active cases in Victoria is 121 [not deaths but active cases] out of a population of 6.5 million.

Meanwhile we are off to see The Current War while we are still permitted to use electricity – proper social distancing will, however, be observed:

Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse — the greatest inventors of the industrial age — engage in a battle of technology and ideas that will determine whose electrical system will power the new century. Backed by J.P. Morgan, Edison dazzles the world by lighting Manhattan. But Westinghouse, aided by Nikola Tesla, sees fatal flaws in Edison’s direct current design. Westinghouse and Tesla bet everything on risky and dangerous alternating current.

Oh my goodness, AC turns out to be “risky and dangerous”. Why weren’t we told?

AND NOW HAVING SEEN THE FILM: Normally they say before some movie about some historic event that it is “based on true events” or something like that. This one went even further into the realm of whimsy by saying that it had been “inspired by” actual events. No point in throwing in spoilers although I do provide some kind of judgement at the end. For the most part, though, I will give some of the backstory via an article about how the movie was put together: How Martin Scorsese Saved ‘Current War’ From Harvey Weinstein.

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon finally gets to release his version of his long-in-the-making “The Current War.”

The film, about the competition between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, was originally set to be distributed by the Weinstein Company after Harvey Weinstein recut it, much to Gomez-Rejon’s chagrin. To make matters worse, Weinstein premiered the movie at the Toronto Film Festival in 2017.

“It was incredibly painful,” Gomez-Rejon tells Variety. “Because you go up on stage and you’re representing the cast and crew who took this journey with you, and you know deep down in your heart that you haven’t been allowed to give your best. Or you give your best under those conditions and it’s not good enough.”

The film was almost shelved when the Weinstein Company shuttered following sexual misconduct allegations against Weinstein.

But on Monday night in New York City at AMC Lincoln Square, Gomez-Rejon premiered “The Current War: Director’s Cut.” “I wasn’t sure the film would ever come out, which was heartbreaking,” the film’s screenwriter Michael Mitnik said….

According to Gomez-Rejon, the most important edit has been a reworking of Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Edison, whose fierce fight against Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) to ensure the supremacy of DC electric power was softened in Weinstein’s cut.

“I unapologetically let Benedict’s portrayal of Edison go to the dark side, instead of trying to make him likable,” Gomez-Rejon said. “I think you have to trust an audience. And because we let him do that, his portrayal juxtaposed with the work that Michael Shannon does, builds authentic tension. Now you have a movie that’s worthy of that title.”

Spoiler alert: I don’t know if this can be said any longer, but I think I might have preferred the original cut. The film is essentially a face-off between Edison and Westinghouse, with one the good guy and the other the villain. Also could have emphasised just a bit more how creative entrepreneurial geniuses make the world we inhabit. I could also have done without the 21st century neglected-wife theme. And the jumble of events was really irritating – I recalled in a vague sort of way most of them but the crude use of these events to emphasise modern ideologies was a real downer for me. But should you see it? My wife did think it was beautifully filmed. The present version is 30% at Rotten Tomatoes but we both happily watched it to the end (but it was also the first film we’d seen in three months). The 2017 version was 60% for critics and 79% for the audience. The “director’s cut” is not necessarily an improvement.

Anyway, very pleased to be back at the movies, Dopey Dan notwithstanding.

The arguments never change and the tactics stay the same

The surest evidence I need that someone is an ignoramus about the Cold War is that they are a critic of Joe McCarthy. Much of politics is opaque with many moral considerations involved. For most issues, there are no hard and fast answers, but the Cold War has none of these. The position taken by Joe McCarthy is so unambiguously righteous that to take any other side means someone is ignorant (usually the case) or a person of the left if you are reading something in print. It is the left who continuously bring McCarthy into the story, this being a man who died in 1957. But so long as his name works as a scare word to help entrench the left’s agenda, out his name will come.

So now there is a new bio of Joe McCarthy reviewed here: In McCarthyism’s Long Shadow. The website the review is found on is titled, Law and Liberty which are unambiguously good things, about which the left are its most certain and deadliest enemies. Here is the final para of the review. Do you think you can guess which side the reviewer is on by just reading his conclusion?

McCarthy was an opportunist politician who glommed onto an issue that frightened the American public. His sudden ascent was, in part, owed to missteps by the Truman Administration which initially downplayed the extent of Soviet subversion. From the President’s own characterization of the Hiss Case as a “red herring,” to Secretary of State Acheson’s comment after his conviction that he would not turn his back on Alger Hiss, many Americans gained the impression that the Administration did not take the issue seriously enough. That Truman also reversed FDR’s willingness to tolerate cooperation with communist and pro-communist forces, culminating in the ouster of Henry Wallace and his allies in 1948, began an effort to weed communists out of the government, built NATO, resisted communist aggression in Korea—all before McCarthy’s rise—is compelling evidence that whatever its errors or missteps, liberal anti-communism got it mostly right.

It is one of the hallmarks of the left in dealing with Joe McCarthy and his defenders to concede that he was right but overstated the case or went too far. The classic case in our own time are the punishing reviews that have been visited on Diana West’s must-read exposure of the Roosevelt White House. This is the book that has been criticised by many a supposed member of the anti-communist right: American Betrayal: The Secret Assault on Our Nation’s Character. Her home page, which you really ought to frequent, is http://dianawest.net/Home/tabid/36/Default.aspx or you can link here. It’s as much a lesson in contemporary politics to read the reviews of her books by supposedly anti-communist writers as it is to read the books she has herself written.

Diana’s latest post is Plus Ca Change Plus C’est La Meme Communists. She is discussing how the army was deployed in 1932 to defend the White House from the same kinds of tactics found on the streets of Washington today.

Nearly ninety years ago, “Red organizers” were already using civil strife — in this case, the stress and poverty of thousand of unemployed WWI veterans nearly three years into the Great Depression — to try to spark a violent overthrow of the federal government, or cause as much chaos and mayhem as possible in the attempt while demonizing the anti-communist President Hoover and General MacArthur.

Interestingly enough, the D.C. police commander, Pelham Greenford, was more on the “woke” side than we might expect of law enforcement at the time. Fortunately, the D.C. government and the Secretary of War were clearly on the side of protecting law, order and the White House, and not the agitators — patriotic support President Trump has not enjoyed.

Here’s how events unspooled in 1932. Thousands of “Bonus Army” protestors had camped out in and around the District on federal property since May. After Congress failed to comply with their demands to issue an immediate bonus for their war service, President Hoover was able to get a bill passed providing them with travel fare home. Thousands left the city. Those who remained were increasingly under Communist Party influence and increasingly violent.

After twice advising against providing Army assistance to Washington metropolitan police, MacArthur writes, “on July 28, the crisis was reached.”

A mob 5,000 strong began to move up Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Treasury Building and the White House. The police were outnumbered five to one. [Police commander] Glassford was mauled and stripped of his police superintendent’s gold badge, gunfire broke out, and a score or more were badly injured. It was evident that the situation had gotten beyond the control of the local authorities.

A request was immediately made through the Board of Commissioners for the District of Columbia for federal troops.

Note that in 2020, after three days of rioting and looting in D.C., including in and around Lafayette Square during which some 60 Secret Service and special agents “sustained multiple injuries” defending the White House, and St John’s Church was torched, D.C. Mayor Bower was more adamant about fending off  National Guard assistance than fending off protestors. She even went so far as to eject members of the Utah National Guard from a D.C. hotel, and, infamously, permitted 16th Street, NW, to be emblazoned with the words “Black Lives Matter.”

As for the book under being reviewed above, this is the start of its description at Amazon

The definitive biography of the most dangerous demagogue in American history, based on first-ever review of his personal and professional papers, medical and military records, and recently unsealed transcripts of his closed-door Congressional hearings.

If you want to actually understand McCarthy and his travails, this is the book you must read: Blacklisted by history : the untold story of Senator Joe McCarthy and his fight against America’s enemies by M. Stanton Evans. A revelation page after page.

Hayes on Keynes worksheet

This is a review of another book on Keynesian economics just published. It is found on the SHOE list. The review is below, and below it are some idiocies that really are modern beliefs about Keynes that are fore square wrong however common they may be. The bits in bold are my own highlights.

M. G. Hayes, John Maynard Keynes. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2020. xv + 195 pp. $25 (paperback), ISBN: 978-1-5095-2825-7.

Reviewed for EH.Net by A. Reeves Johnson, Department of Economics, Maryville College.

 

Mark Gerard Hayes, formerly of Robinson College, Cambridge, was a post-Keynesian economist who committed his academic life to the study of John Maynard Keynes. In his preface to John Maynard Keynes, Hayes reminisces that his over forty-year study of Keynes eclipses the time Keynes spent in his own scholastic pursuits.

Having invested an effective lifetime to become one of the trusted expositors of Keynes’s economics, it’s hard to imagine someone better suited than Hayes to distilling the economics of Keynes to less than 170 pages (graphs and tables included, no less). Even so, as an analytical biography written for undergraduates with or without formal training in economics, Keynes is an ambitious project. Its primary object is not solely to introduce readers to Keynes, but, specifically, to reiterate Keynes’s critique of classical economics in accessible language. But, Hayes is a veritable authority on Keynes, and his many years of devotion to the subject materialize in a refusal to take shortcuts. It should come as no surprise, then, that the exposition is rigorous, and, for many undergraduates, unsparing.

I note here that reviewing this work through the lens of an academic and an instructor on Keynes offers too little scope. The value of Keynes is understood by its ability to inform its intended audience. Therefore, to fairly assess this book, I offer the following review with its target readership in mind.

Keynes sets out with a brief statement of purpose and summary of the book’s trajectory in the opening chapter. Hayes then delves into classical thought in the form of a corn model in Chapter 2. The core argument is familiar, although its representation may not be. Marginal products determine the respective rates of utilization and of remuneration of labor and capital as profit-maximizing farmers organize production under conditions of diminishing returns. Hayes then delves into classical thought in the form of a corn model , echoing the dubious “continuity thesis” implicit in The General Theory. In any case, this chapter will be tough going for students unacquainted with mainstream economics, but provides a necessary transition to Keynes’s mature thinking.

Chapter 3 naturally turns to The General Theory and offers a concise and careful exposition of the principle of effective demand. Keynes’s non-standard concept of demand as income expected from production is first defined in order to underscore two fundamental features absent in the classical model: the role of future expectations shaping present behavior and the monetary nature of economic activity.

Hayes’s unique approach to the principle of effective demand is well-suited for undergraduates due to his manner of making concrete what Keynes left as abstract. Two instances stand out. For one, Hayes takes Keynes literally by designating the short term as one day. This firmly places the argument in historical time, while also promoting greater conceptual clarity than conventional definitions of the short term admit.

What’s most instructive about Hayes’s approach, though, is his tripartite classification of business into employers, investors and dealers. Keynes’s aggregate demand-supply framework is a constant source of confusion due, in no small part, to its anti-Marshallian rendering of supply and demand in which business appears on both sides of the aggregate market. But Hayes’s expository device disentangles aggregate supply from aggregate demand by mapping employers onto the supply curve, and dealers and investors onto the demand curve. Further, dealers play the critical role in finding, or not, the point of effective demand. In a skillful delineation of the multiplier, dealers adjust their daily inventories by selling spot to meet the increasing consumer demand while buying forward to replenish inventories. Whether the point of effective demand is reached ultimately depends on the fulfillment of dealers’ medium-term expectations, which, as Hayes notes, is unlikely given the uncertainty of consumer demand.

Chapter 4 extends further into The General Theory by fixating on Say’s Law and hence the theory of interest. As in the preceding chapter, Hayes sets out again by fixing ideas. Saving is income not consumed; income is the money value of net output; and, in aggregate, saving takes the form of physical goods. As the rate of interest is the rate on loans of money, an assumption shared by both loanable-funds theorists and Keynes, and saving represents a physical quantity of goods, the rate of interest is a matter of the supply and demand of money.

Hayes addresses liquidity preference after an interlude into Keynes’s investment theory. Because of the interest-centric perspective adhered to, a result of an analytical narrative that puts Say’s Law into the foreground, investment serves as a mere backdrop to discuss liquidity preference. Hayes does briefly address fundamental uncertainty and its relation to investment decisions, but there’s no mention of the marginal efficiency of capital nor its relation to the rate of interest.

Perhaps more troublesome, though, and bearing in mind the intended audience, is that Hayes repeats Keynes’s inconsistent usage of “investor” in The General Theory to mean both buyer of newly produced capital assets and holder of money, debts and shares. This inconsistency engendered confusion among Keynes’s readers; to reproduce it in an introductory text comes off as negligent. It’s all the more unfortunate to find it in a chapter intended to reveal the confusion between money and saving.

Chapters 5 and 6 take as their theme Keynes’s “long struggle to escape from habitual modes of thought and expression,” and especially as this escape concerns monetary theory. Hayes moves swiftly through technical aspects from A Tract on Monetary Reform and A Treatise on Money. Allusions to recent financial events enliven the prose and interrupt the brisk pace of Hayes’s analytical exposition to give the reader an appreciated respite. Still, these chapters, and especially Chapter 5, beset the reader with a kind of textual vertigo. Hayes juxtaposes Keynes’s early work against The General Theory, while enduring ideas (e.g., on the nature of money as debt) are interspersed between the two. These deficiencies don’t detract from Hayes’s extension of the principle of effective demand into the international sphere in Chapter 6, which deserves praise.

The book’s final two chapters assess Keynes’s legacy. Free from the burdens of crafting an analytical narrative, these final chapters establish an organic flow. Chapter 7 begins with a statistical comparison of the “Keynesian Era,” roughly the years 1951-1973, against other historical periods. Despite Hayes’s penchant for statistical inference on the basis of descriptive statistics, his broad-brush comparisons nicely segue to a consideration of how Keynesian was Keynes. Keynes’s policy positions, as borne out by the textual evidence, are then compared to his subsequent followers. Would Keynes be an advocate of Modern Money Theory and support a job guarantee program for developed countries? Almost certainly not. Keynes agrees with post-Keynesians that monetary policy is a rather ineffective instrument to manage the economy, right? No. Keynes’s primary policy proposal was to keep long-term rates low to encourage private and public investment. Linking Keynes’s thoughts on policy to current debates will no doubt interest those navigating today’s landscape.

Chapter 8 continues to dispel popularly-held beliefs on Keynes’s thinking. Hayes deflates the most pervasive myth of Keynes as the figurehead of lavish, even reckless, government spending programs. The unappreciated nuance concerns the ends to which government borrows. While increased borrowing for consumption is likely inevitable during recession, these deficits should be recovered over the course of the upswing. For Keynes, there is no permanent role for government consumption, in contrast to government investment.

The shortcomings I’ve cited relate almost exclusively to the disparity between the book’s elevated content and its targeted readership. Though easily digestible at times, I fear this book is beyond the grasp of undergraduates without training in economics. It will draw interest from dedicated neophytes, advanced students and academics looking for a concise and honest appraisal of Keynes’s work. Indeed, unlike other treatments that reveal more about their authors than the subject (Hyman Minsky’s John Maynard Keynes comes to mind), Hayes’s faithfulness to Keynes’s economics may well irritate some post-Keynesians for its, at times, conservative tone; while intriguing New Keynesians and others to notice that their concerns and positions on critical policy matters share a likeness with Keynes’s.

With his final work, Hayes confronted the onerous task of consolidating an encyclopedia of knowledge. But his passion for the subject cannot be abridged. While Hayes’s Keynes marks an end to a life of dedicated scholarship, in turn, it may mark the beginning for its readers.

 

These are specifics that I have highlighted.

Hayes then delves into classical thought in the form of a corn model. 

Perhaps more troublesome, though, and bearing in mind the intended audience, is that Hayes repeats Keynes’s inconsistent usage of “investor” in The General Theory to mean both buyer of newly produced capital assets and holder of money, debts and shares. This inconsistency engendered confusion among Keynes’s readers; to reproduce it in an introductory text comes off as negligent. It’s all the more unfortunate to find it in a chapter intended to reveal the confusion between money and saving.

Chapter 4 extends further into The General Theory by fixating on Say’s Law and hence the theory of interest.

Saving is income not consumed; income is the money value of net output; and, in aggregate, saving takes the form of physical goods.

Saving represents a physical quantity of goods, the rate of interest is a matter of the supply and demand of money.

Keynes’s primary policy proposal was to keep long-term rates low to encourage private and public investment.

Hayes deflates the most pervasive myth of Keynes as the figurehead of lavish, even reckless, government spending programs.

For Keynes, there is no permanent role for government consumption, in contrast to government investment.

 

The highlighted bits are from the review and below in unbolded type are my own comments.

Hayes then delves into classical thought in the form of a corn model.

Does anyone seriously believe that when Keynes was writing The General Theory that the economists he was dealing with were framing their arguments about anything at all on a corn model of growth and distribution?

 

Chapter 4 extends further into The General Theory by fixating on Say’s Law and hence the theory of interest.

If one is specifically intending never to understand the slightest thing about Say’s Law, focusing on the theory on interest is about as good a way to do it as one might find.

 

Keynes’s non-standard concept of demand as income expected from production is first defined in order to underscore two fundamental features absent in the classical model: the role of future expectations shaping present behavior and the monetary nature of economic activity.

Both of those supposed absences are not absent at all. Of course, if he never goes past Ricardo, then he would not know it. Is it possible to believe that classical economists saw no role for future expectations in shaping present behavior or that economic activity was affected by monetary factors. If you believe that, you are as ignorant as it is possible to be about the history of economic theory.

 

Saving is income not consumed; income is the money value of net output; and, in aggregate, saving takes the form of physical goods. As the rate of interest is the rate on loans of money, an assumption shared by both loanable-funds theorists and Keynes, and saving represents a physical quantity of goods, the rate of interest is a matter of the supply and demand of money.

That “saving represents “a physical quantity of goods” is absolutely correct since it is a definition. It is also the only sound way to conceive of saving since an economy is a process that allocates all of the productive resources in existence within an economy to their highest valued uses. By recognising at the same time that the rate of interest is a matter of the supply and demand for money is precisely the way in which all classical economists looked at the process of saving and investment. This is Wicksell and not Keynes (1936), although it is Keynes (1930).

 

Keynes’s primary policy proposal was to keep long-term rates low to encourage private and public investment.

In saving Keynes’s reputation he has to abandon what Keynes himself wrote. Nothing to do with public spending or short-term deficits. Over the side goes Can Lloyd George Do It? (1930).

 

Hayes deflates the most pervasive myth of Keynes as the figurehead of lavish, even reckless, government spending programs. The unappreciated nuance concerns the ends to which government borrows.

It was Keynes who wrote how fortunate the Egyptians had been in having pyramids to build or for the mediaeval economies to have been blessed with the construction of cathedrals. It was Keynes who suggested burying bank notes and then have them excavated to create jobs. Certainly not permanent spending on waste, but while the recession was on and while it was deep, Keynes certainly advocated all of that.

 

For Keynes, there is no permanent role for government consumption, in contrast to government investment.

There was no role for permanent government investment either. When at full employment, as Keynes wrote, classical principles would prevail.

 

Camus’ The Plague

Not a single person I once was friends with back in Canada has changed their political position in all the years since I’ve known them, not a single one, and I’ve known them all for more than fifty years. It really is weird. Most I am happy to see when I go home but we seldom discuss politics; some I can still talk politics with but it is always through gritted teeth (theirs) and I never bring politics up. Some I do not bother seeing when I am there and why I avoid them is always for political reasons. And not one of them I see more frequently than once every two years since I hardly ever get back. As I say, weird. Yet why dealing with the coronavirus is a political issue is hard to explain, but it is. The virus will never disappear, it will always mutate, and I do not expect us to stay in lockdown forever. And while perhaps I should be, I am not frightened by it even though I am in the high-danger zone according to age and “co-morbidities” and it may get me yet.

Just finished Albert Camus’ The Plague. It was written in the 1940s as a political allegory about radical political views being akin to a virus. Today it reads just like a story about a plague-ridden population put into lockdown. The political allegory is near invisible. The horrors of an epidemic are made very clear.

The point of the story is to use the virus as a metaphor for totalitarian political repression. The irony today is that actual existing political leaders have used the spectre of a virus as a means to repress populations all around the world by arguing they have done so to protect them.

As for The Plague, it is only a story:

Oran was decimated by the bubonic plague in 1556 and 1678, but all later outbreaks (in 1921 – 185 cases, 1931 – 76 cases, and 1944 – 95 cases) were very far from the scale of the epidemic described in the novel.

Brilliantly written and well worth reading, especially now.

“I foresee the worst depression since the Great Depression right around the corner”

I am grateful again for the moderator at the Societies for the History of Economics discussion thread for putting up another review of The Price of Peace, the book subtitled, “Money, Democracy and the Life of John Maynard Keynes. This review is from The New York Times. More of the usual mythology.

Carter’s explications of macroeconomic theory are so seamlessly woven into his narrative that they’re almost imperceptible; you only notice how substantive they are once you get to his chapter on Keynes’s notoriously dense 1936 book, “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money,” and realize that you’re riveted by a passage on fluctuations in liquidity preference because you somehow know exactly what it is that Carter is talking about.

“The General Theory” aside, the rough outline of the Keynes story is that nobody with any power listened to his visionary proposals before the crisis of the Depression hit; after that, almost everyone did. Keynes’s ideas were radical, Carter writes, but he was staunchly anti-revolutionary: Having been traumatized by World War I, Keynes was at pains to persuade some of his Marxist students at Cambridge that a more just and equitable society didn’t have to come at the point of a gun. An activist government and deficit spending could alleviate suffering and spur growth, he reasoned, and the world eventually obliged. As much as Franklin Roosevelt didn’t like running a deficit, his New Deal offered one version of how Keynesianism worked; World War II offered another.

Of course, Harry Truman offered a third version. At the end of World War II, Truman immediately sacked all of the millions who had been in the armed forces and closed virtually the entire armaments industry, thus creating the largest mass of unemployed people in history. At the same time, and immediately the war was over, he balanced the budget, eliminating the largest deficit as a proportion of GDP in history. And the result: the largest and most sustained period of growth in history. I might contrast The Price of Peace and its review with this: The Politics of Fear, whose sub-title is, “For economist Robert Higgs, Covid-19 is just the latest emergency justifying expanded government power”. Lots there to ponder, and it should all be read, but will merely quote this:

“I foresee the worst depression since the Great Depression right around the corner. That alone would be enough to bring forth a host of bad government policies with long-lasting consequences. Many such policies have already been adopted. But much more awaits us along these lines.”

And there is no doubt that the reviewer sees “The Price of Peace” as relevant to bringing our economies out of the present lockdown. This is from her opening para:

Zachary D. Carter’s outstanding new intellectual biography of John Maynard Keynes, offers a resonant guide to our current moment, even if he finished writing it in the time before Covid-19.

There have been so many breakages in our structure of production in the past few months there is nothing that might not yet happen, and there is no telling how bad it might get. We are so far beyond anything that Keynes ever wrote about or dealt with that calling up his name is a total irrelevance. Does it no longer ever occur to most economists to leave things to the market to sort themselves out?

“I Told You So, You F’n Fools”

I had a friend, as far to the left as they come, who was thrilled to see the Soviet Union fall in 1991 since there would no longer be the bad example of socialism in action to deter others from joining the cause. We manage now to dissuade people from joining the Nazi Party, although we do not seem to be able to warn anyone about the dangers of any authoritarian system which are always of the left, no matter what name we given them. After all, Nazi means National Socialist in German. What has brought all this to mind is this: Inhuman power of the lie: “The Great Terror” at 40. It’s now been around 90 years since the start of the Great Terror itself; the 40 years only refers to the date of the publication of Conquest’s book in 1968 while the commemorative article was written in 2008. The story itself never grows old although fewer and fewer see its relevance.

The Great Terror refers to the purges that took place in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. To give this more statistical accuracy, between 1937 and 1938, about seven million Russians were arrested, one million executed, and two million more or less murdered by the inhuman conditions of the Gulag. Throughout the entire period—roughly 1934 to 1939—there were not fewer than 15 million victims, overall. These are conservative estimates, and it’s worth bearing in mind that this abattoir system was invented, operated, and maintained “in detail” from the top, as against revisionist claims that Stalin and his cadre were unaware of the death count of their gruesome mechanism of state repression.

The article is really about Robert Conquest whose books should be read by anyone who wants to understand why every obstacle to political power is essential if you want to preserve your freedom, your prosperity, and ultimately in far too many cases, your life.

This anecdote yields quite a lot, I think, about more than Conquest’s winning personality (Kingsley Amis to Philip Larkin: “Bob just goes on as if nothing has happened”). It also speaks ably of what has made him, apart from his groundbreaking research, such a powerful historian: irony and a wry sense of humor have offset some of the most tragic passages committed to print in the last hundred years. (“The sequence Lenin-Stalin-Khrushchev-Brezhnev was like a chart illustrating the evolution of the hominids, read backward.”) As Amis plausibly, but inventively, tells it, when the publisher of The Great Terror asked Conquest what he’d like to re-title the book in its second edition, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and new archival material from Moscow vindicated almost all of its key judgments: “Well, perhaps, I Told You So, You Fucking Fools. How’s that?”

I hope you will forgive the title.

My favourite book ever

No one will any longer read it, but it is the best story by the world’s greatest story teller. It is The Histories by Herodotus. I mention it only because it is discussed here in War for the West, written by possibly my favourite living essayist, Joseph Epstein. The subheading for the article is, “What if the Persians had defeated the Greeks?” Just a bit of the article to give you a taste, and what I have found wonderous was that not all that long ago, the mayor of Athens was someone named Themistocles.

One cannot award so grand a victory to any single city-state or heroic figure, yet without the Athenians and Themistocles Greece would doubtless have fallen to Xerxes. Thermopylae apart, during the Persian war the Spartans, in Peter Green’s words, showed “over-cautious conservatism, slowness to move in a crisis.” In the war itself no city-state paid a higher price than the Athenians, having their city occupied and destroyed and all of surrounding Attica devastated by Persian troops. The Persian invasion goaded Athens, abetted through the suasion of Themistocles, to convert from a standard hoplite infantry to a naval power. When the Athenian silver mines at Laurium struck a rich vein, Themistocles convinced the assembly at Athens that the profits from the mines, rather than be divided among the populace, be used to build the Athenian fleet up from 70 to 200 triremes. He had also convinced them to build up the fortifications round the harbor at Piraeus, which would house these ships.

A tougher sale came later when Themistocles persuaded the Athenians to desert their city before the onslaught of the Persians and board their new fleet, with older men and women and children and their valuables sent off to safety at Aegina, Salamis, and Troezen. The winning strategy at Salamis, that of drawing the Persian ships into the narrow straits where the Greek triremes awaited, was also devised by Themistocles, and the Greek victory at Salamis is surely among the most significant battles in all history. Perhaps most impressive of all, Themistocles was able to convince the various Greek city-states to set aside their rivalries and join together, if only temporarily, to fight the barbarian foe. As Plutarch writes, Themistocles “put an end to all the civil wars of Greece, composed their differences, and persuaded them to lay aside all enmity during the war with the Persians.”

What makes Themistocles of special interest is that he wasn’t, like Pericles or Marcus Aurelius, a man of sterling character. He was closer to a Chicago politician, an operator, a main chancer, not above accepting bribes nor bribing others. No one was more adroit than he at manipulating the new Athenian democracy, perhaps because no one more embodied it in his person than he. “Themistocles,” wrote the classicist Maurice Bowra, “was the personification of the vigorous Athenian spirit.” In the language of the current day, Tom Holland notes that “he could infight, he could network, he could spin.” Herodotus does not pass up an opportunity to emphasize Themistocles’ wiliness. But Themistocles was ultimately wily for the public good. “I cannot tune a harp,” Themistocles said, “but I know how to take a modest city in hand and raise it to greatness.” Which is precisely what he did.

What happened after that you will need to read Epstein’s article to find out, or perhaps better, to read Herodotus’s Histories for yourself.

Boring beyond inanity

Since no one seems to have mentioned it anywhere else, I can see just how uninterested anyone is in Malcolm Turnbull’s memoire which is discussed in The Oz today, exclusively: Inside Malcolm’s big-picture world of gossip and axe-grinding. This lack of interest is a clear sign of how lack-lustre he himself was, how incompetently he dealt with the events he oversaw and how dull his reflections on his time in office are. This is beyond tedious, and I only raise it here so that we are aware that the book will be available Monday. It’s the only reason I can think of to be pleased that many bookshops are now shut.

Malcolm Turnbull has sensationally claimed that Scott Morrison and the Coalition he once led didn’t deserve to win the 2019 election and delivered highly personal accounts of his relationship with the current Prime Minister and scathing assessments of his former cabinet colleagues.

In his highly anticipated memoir, due to be released on Monday, Mr Turnbull recounts his own version of events that led to his dismissal as prime minister in August 2018, while revealing the darkest days of a political career that was marked by a bout of severe ­depression.

In claims that will be hotly disputed by those he attacks, Mr Turnbull says that colleagues of Mr Morrison, including the Prime Minister’s now closest confidants Mathias Cormann and Peter Dutton, had once described Mr Morrison as a “Machiavellian plotter” who could not be trusted.

According to those who have read the manuscripts, Mr Turnbull describes Mr Dutton as a “narcissist” and “self-delusional” in his belief that he could become prime minister while revealing his personal anguish at what he believes was the ultimate betrayal at the hands of his finance minister, Senator Cormann.

If these are the highlights, cannot picture anyone actually making it through the book.

In the time of the Great Plague of London 1665

Above is an adaptation from the Sound of Music which gives a sense of how little actual fear there is at present about the Corona Virus. Very la dee dah. Below are extracts from Pepys diary which was written during the time of the Great Plague in England during the seventeenth century in which a much more sombre tone is struck. There is today almost no genuine fear, although plenty of terror spread, almost certainly by those with an unstated agenda afoot.

Here, in contrast, are Samuel Pepys Diary – Plague extracts. I have just been reading the actual diaries for these dates and what reading only the extracts does is give you a false impression of how preoccupied he or anyone else was with the plague that surrounded them, especially in the year that the plague reached “plague proportions”, in 1665. There was no question that he took these events seriously and solemnly, but they were sidelights to other events, most notably the ongoing war between England and the Dutch. This is from May 24, 1665.

Up, and by 4 o’clock in the morning, and with W. Hewer, there till 12 without intermission putting some papers in order. Thence to the Coffee-house with Creed, where I have not been a great while, where all the newes is of the Dutch being gone out, and of the plague growing upon us in this towne; and of remedies against it: some saying one thing, some another.

This is from June 7, 1665, which also has a sidelight reference to Global Warming as it then was.

… it being the hottest day that ever I felt in my life, and it is confessed so by all other people the hottest they ever knew in England in the beginning of June – we to the New Exchange and there drunk whey; with much entreaty, getting it for our money, and would not be entreated to let us have one glasse more. ….

This day, much against my Will, I did in Drury-lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord have mercy upon us” writ there – which was a sad sight to me, being the first of that kind that to my remembrance I ever saw. It put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy some roll tobacco to smell to and chaw – which took away the apprehension. [Houses infected by the Plague had to have a red cross one foot high marked on their door and were shut up – often with the victims inside. Tobacco was highly prized for its medicinal value, especially against the Plague. It is said that at Eton one boy was flogged for being discovered not smoking.]

This from three days later, on June 10.

In the evening home to supper, and there to my great trouble hear that the plague is come into the City (though it hath these three or four weeks since its beginning been wholly out of the City); but where should it begin but in my good friend and neighbour’s, Dr Burnett in Fanchurch-street – which in both points troubles me mightily.

To the office to finish my letters, and then home to bed – being troubled at the sickness, and my head filled also with other business enough, and perticularly how to put my things and estate in order, in case it should please God to call me away – which God dispose of to his own glory.

Nothing much until the middle of August, and then only this:

It was dark before I could get home; and so land at church-yard stairs, where to my great trouble I met a dead Corps, of the plague, in the narrow ally, just bringing down a little pair of stairs – but I thank God I was not much disturbed at it. However, I shall beware of being late abroad again.

This from August 31, which was the peak moment.

Up, and after putting several things in order to my removal to Woolwich, the plague having a great increase this week beyond all expectation, of almost 2000 – making the general Bill 7000, odd 100 and the plague above 6000 ….

Thus this month ends, with great sadness upon the public through the greateness of the plague, everywhere through the Kingdom almost. Every day sadder and sadder news of its increase. In the City died this week 7496; and all of them, 6102 of the plague. But it is feared that the true number of the dead this week is near 10000 – partly from the poor that cannot be taken notice of through the greatness of the number, and partly from the Quakers and others that will not have any bell ring for them.

As to myself, I am very well; only, in fear of the plague, and as much of an Ague, by being forced to go early and late to Woolwich, and my family to lie there continually.

September 14, 1665. Total deaths on the way down, although inside London still on the rise.

…my finding that although the Bill [total of dead] in general is abated, yet the City within the walls is encreasd and likely to continue so (and is close to our house there) – my meeting dead corps’s of the plague, carried to be buried close to me at noonday through the City in Fanchurch-street – to see a person sick of the sores carried close by me by Grace-church in a hackney-coach – my finding the Angell tavern at the lower end of Tower-hill shut up; and more then that, the alehouse at the Tower-stairs; and more then that, that the person was then dying of the plague when I was last there, a little while ago at night, to write a short letter there, and I overheard the mistress of the house sadly saying to her husband somebody was very ill, but did not think it was of the plague – to hear that poor Payne my waterman hath buried a child and is dying himself – to hear that a labourer I sent but the other day to Dagenhams to know how they did there is dead of the plague and that one of my own watermen, that carried me daily, fell sick as soon as he had landed me on Friday morning last, when I had been all night upon the water … is now dead of the plague – to hear … that Mr Sidny Mountagu is sick of a desperate fever at my Lady Carteret’s at Scott’s hall – to hear that Mr. Lewes hath another daughter sick – and lastly, that both my servants, W Hewers and Tom Edwards, have lost their fathers, both in St. Sepulcher’s parish, of the plague this week – doth put me into great apprehensions of melancholy, and with good reason.

The plague continues throughout England although in London, due to the Great Fire of 1666, the plague had all but ended. This is the final plague entry, dated April 4, 1667.

One at the table told an odd passage in this late plague: that at Petersfield, I think, he said, one side of the street had every house almost infected through the town, and the other, not one shut up.