Jacques Parizeau Remembered by a Parliamentary Contemporary

When the Quebec Legislature began its first post-election session in November of 1989, the first speaker was Jacques Parizeau. It was my first day there as an Equality Party Member, and he surprised me, by giving a very non-partisan address, almost the kind one would expect from someone like a Lieutenant-Governor. He was amiable and wide-ranging, and drew our attention to the painting above the Speaker, of an early sitting of the Lower Canada Parliament in 1793, when it was first decided that French would be allowed, entitled ‘The Language Question in Quebec’. He almost seemed to be hinting at an underlying reality: that the Legislature was on most days an oil painting masquerading as an action film, or a theatrical performance, in which he was looking forward to playing the role of a lifetime.

Throughout the five years that followed, he mostly continued to maintain this distant, de haut en bas, approach in both criticizing the Liberals and in dealing with his own colleagues. These latter referred to him in his absence as “Monsieur”, recalling a Bourbon heir to the throne, and not with great affection. The fiercest attacks on Robert Bourassa and his Ministers were not led by him, but came from the PQ House Leader, Guy Chevrette, and the Party Whip, Jacques Brassard, Member for Lac Saint-Jean, and the wittiest speaker in the House. Parizeau was slow and ponderous in Question Period, and was sometimes the worse for drink, but I soon learned that he was going through a difficult time, as his Polish-Canadian first wife was dying of cancer. When her funeral came, it was in a beautiful service at the E’glise Saint-Germain in Outremont, and seemed almost a state occasion. He was bowed down with visible grief. All kinds of notables were present; I observed that Camille Laurin had changed his hair dye to orange.

His usual pomposity was sometimes broken by displays of intense emotion. On June 13, 1990, the day that a bitterly disappointed Robert Bourassa had to announce the failure of the agreement’s ratification, Parizeau stood up from his desk, walked across the Assembly floor, and embraced him. He also declared immediately afterwards, “I or Bourassa will lead Quebec to sovereignty,” one of his countless failing predictions. But most of the time, he not only seemed like a professional actor, not that uncommon with all kinds of politicians, but more unusually, an actor amused and detached from his own performance. He was more than courteous and courtly to me and the three other Equality Party Members, paying us compliments and even giving occasional helpful tips on how to amplify a point we were making.

I was sometimes charmed. Months after the Meech failure, when everyone was emoting about some kind of future referendum, he had made a speech that started, “Les Que’be’cois ont un habitude d’e’chec.” I countered in my own following address by instead suggesting that a better term was ‘un habitude de paradoxe’, and expanded on that theme. After I finished, he walked over to me and told me, in English, that “while the views that you have expressed are obviously ones with which I cannot agree, I have never heard them given better expression in this House.” At a later time, when I asked Lise Bacon, then the Minister responsible for Quebec Hydro, why the latter could not provide the same kind of useful financial information readily made available by other provincial hydro-electric utilities, Parizeau slammed his desk and bellowed loudly in English, “Damned good question!” Who could fail to be warmed by these engaging gestures?

I could tell several other similar tales, probably caused in part by his wildly unrealistic hopes, not that he could ever win over the majority of Quebec anglos, but might at least reduce our blanket hostility and the effectiveness of our opposition. But Robert Libman and I, at least, were little moved. I always saw Parizeau as a man of impenetrable self-regard; certainly cultivated and polished, but living in a private bubble, quite dogmatically attached to the statist centralization he had studied at the London School of Economics, taught in his HEC courses, and implemented, in his earlier career as an upper-level civil servant. I hadn’t seen the results of this earlier activity as entirely benign, and separatism aside, I shuddered at the idea of him ever gaining a free hand to create his own kind of utopia. His amiable comparisons of himself with Pierre Trudeau scarcely reassured me. I thought both of them fitted the definition of an intellectual as a man who turns a personal neurosis into a national catastrophe.

He also had an unmatched flair for dropping verbal bricks, very frequently on the feet of members of his own party. My personal favourite, from back in the era of the first Referendum, was when he commented that a ‘Oui’ would win if it were held just after three a. m., when all the bars had closed, but would fail in the daytime. The one that permanently damaged his reputation was, of course, his angry attribution of the narrow 1995 Referendum defeat to ‘money and the ethnics’. However, while I don’t find it easy to be very fair in assessing Parizeau, I think he got too much odium for this particular comment. Parizeau had many failings, but I never thought he was any kind of racial bigot, even a closeted one.

In fact, the media seizure on this dark moment rather missed line always the point about what was really destructive about his way of imagining the world. While the conventional tributes now pouring in at his death seem to be largely of the de mortuis ni nisi bonum kind, even the more critical ones evade the manifest evidence that he was not so much a man with the failings of most politicians, but an immovable Platonist, almost a solipsist. He loved a vision of ‘Quebec’, but I don’t think he had a great deal of fondness for its actual people, not even for many French Canadians who think themselves ‘nationalist’ on a more prosaic level.

Parizeau was already almost forty years old when he decided to become a kind of political heretic in 1969, but thereafter remained an immovable one. He had some of the qualities commonly seen as those of Great Men, but Great Men stake all on grand projects, often leaving a great deal of wreckage behind them even when the projects succeed. When the projects fail, all that is left is the colourful and tragic biography of a supreme egoist. Parizeau may have recognized this; as that early comment about winning a referendum only if held when the bars were closed, perhaps it was his secret fear through the decades. The 1995 Referendum failure was his tragic finale, another moment of great theatre; not so tragic for everyone else.

PAH Seventh 2015 Article. Submitted to PAH June 2, 2015.

[Neil Cameron is a Montreal Writer and Historian, and a Quebec MNA 1989-1994.]

The Politics of Decline and the Leadership Factor

Anyone born after 1965 may now scarcely realize just now pervasive the idea of socialism was for over half a century after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Western adoration of Marxism-Leninism dwindled in the post-1945 Cold War years, but a broader faith in ‘social democracy’ did not. The New Left of 1965-75 brought some new adoration for Castro and Mao, but that soon faded. Western economic troubles of the 1970s, rather than encouraging further statism, reduced confidence in the ‘mixed economy’ policies widely adopted after World War II, and the influence of free-market economic thinkers gained wider and wider acceptance.

In the 1980s, Thatcher and Reagan triumphed over Soviet Marxism, and restored domestic prosperity through deregulation and privatization. They were emulated worldwide, and in the following decade, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton largely endorsed the new dispensation. Today, five years since the worst financial crash since 1929, socialist ideas are scarcely making a roaring comeback, beyond stumbling Obamacare in the U.S. There is little sign of a re-appearance of the much broader ideological and legislative current of the first half of the century. But understanding that current can still offer insight on the present.

‘Social democracy’ transformed Britain in 1945-51. in some ways permanently, and with worldwide influence. Its practical implementation owed a great deal to the ‘planning’ long prepared by Fabian intellectuals, and to British ‘Chapel’ Christianity, ‘owing more to Methodism than to Marx’. Almost all the early Labour party leaders displayed this background, many first honing their political oratory as lay preachers.

However, Labour’s greatest leader, Clement Attlee, Oxford graduate and Gallipoli veteran, was an agnostic. Pipe-smoking and unassuming, he was a reassuring anchor of his party in the tumultuous two decades from 1935 to 1955. Even Margaret Thatcher admired him in her memoirs, as ‘all substance and no show.’ In the 1945 general election, the first in ten years, Attlee led Labour to a landslide victory, taking almost double the number of seats retained by Churchill’s Conservatives. The victory came not only from working-class voters, but from a substantial proportion of the middle class. Then and afterwards, the majority of voters were less attracted to the party’s more radical firebrands, like the fiery Welsh journalist, Aneurin Bevan. Attlee brought with him several capable lieutenants, Bevan included. Labour leaders in 1940 had provided necessary support to Churchill, who had given them major offices in his wartime administration, while he concentrated on the war. Attlee had been Deputy Prime Minister, and the stolid trade unionist Ernest Bevin had been indispensable as Minister of Labour.

The new government had not only a five-year apprenticeship in the exercise of power, but had no sympathy for Soviet Communism, and little more for domestic Marxist or quasi-Marxist intellectuals. It also had the advantage of dealing with a general population already familiar with years of state controls, and holding widespread belief, even among many Conservatives, that a decisive ‘collectivist’ change was both morally desirable and practically achievable. Despite a disintegrating Empire, and finances in ruins, Labour had no hesitation in launching a highly ambitious socialist program. Aneurin Bevan, drawing on a wartime plan, launched the still-existing National Health Service, and the Bank of England was swiftly nationalized. More gradually, nationalization was imposed on coal, iron, steel, railways, and airlines. Punishing taxes were applied to high incomes, over 90% in the top bracket.

The changes brought improved working conditions for millions of labourers, but no improvements in wages. Crippling strikes did not disappear. Other severe problems also proliferated, many the now familiar ones produced by peacetime giant state monopolies. By 1950, Attlee and his colleagues were tired and becoming more and more divided between Attlee-like moderates and radical Bevanites. The country did not enjoy coercive egalitarianism, by then associated with years of dreary austerity. In 1951, Churchill, although by then old (he was born in 1874) and ailing, returned to power, promising to ‘make Britain great again’.

Aristocrat-led Conservative governments followed for well over a decade. The old industrial working class declined steadily in numbers, so that the Labour Party needed more and more voting support from the middle class. Later Labour governments gradually shed even the rhetoric of 1945. In 1964, Harold Wilson campaigned on a promise of a ‘white-hot technological revolution’, meaning in practice mostly an expansion of universities. Post-Tony Blair ‘New Labour’ has lacked even that much of a slogan, and is not far from post-Thatcher Conservativism. Even the travails of British and world capitalism since 2008 have not produced many renewed calls for more statism. But the confident pro-capitalism of the Thatcher era has faded. The long collectivist turn in British politics, reaching back to the start of the 20th century, may be petering out, but with capitalism no longer much celebrated either, even on the right.

The Britain of 1945-51 showed that a parliamentary and non-violent leftist political movement could gain power, under a war-elevated and capable leader like Attlee. But even he and his best ministers hardly built a new ‘Jerusalem’ by attempting to run ‘the commanding heights’ of the economy through state monopolies, applying suffocating levels of taxation, and trying overall to make people behave in ways that most did not really wish to behave. Early doubts were heard: Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom had arrived in wartime (1944). and was soon followed by the early postwar Ordeal by Planning by John Jewkes. But free-market arguments had only gradual impact, even with Conservatives, led by noblesse oblige aristocrats until the 1970s.

Bankers, doctors, and other professionals largely disliked the new dispensation, some emigrating, but most stayed. However, even the enduring varieties of statism generated a host of new and enduring problems. As in the U. S. and Canada, libertarian thinktanks now press for more privatization in health services and schools. The current Conservative/Liberal coalition has made a few moves in that direction, but without Thatcher’s zeal and determination.

The ‘quiet revolution’ Attlee government had many conservative aspects. It gently adjusted the nation to the disappearance of long years of imperial power and overseas opportunities, and the painful acceptance of a secondary world role to the U. S., which it joined with it in resisting Soviet Communism and adopting its own nuclear weapons. Its welfare-state policies produced at least tolerable institutions, while its nationalizations unintentionally demonstrated empirically the follies of more utopian hopes. Margaret Thatcher made a necessary correction to the direction taken by Attlee, but her triumph came only after severe splits in both her own party and Labour’s, brought to a head by impassable crises. The postwar British economy, even if subjected to horrendous class conflict, might have done far better with policies more like hers, but for a time, that was not what most of the people wanted, and they had good reasons. The final irony of the mixed inheritance of Attlee’s 1940s collectivism and Thatcher’s 1980s individualism has been the subsequent arrival in both major British political parties of purely professional political leaders with no idea at all of where to go. In that, too, much of the world continues to emulate Britain.

PAH Second 2014 Article

Kennedy, Roosevelt, and Chameleon Politics

A new book recently appeared called JFK, Conservative. Its author, Ira Stoll, born about a decade after Kennedy’s death, has noted Kennedy’s 70% general approval rating among Americans, and tried to claim him for the right. He has a case. Kennedy did sound very different from his Democratic Party successors. He ran to the right of Nixon in 1960, was a Cold War hawk, and pushed a large tax cut at home. He had an active aversion to liberal doves in his own party. Ronald Reagan sometimes sounded more like him than all top Democrats since Jimmy Carter.

But Stoll’s ‘conservative’ Kennedy can be better understood as displaying the adaptive chameleon qualities of major political leaders. Their followers may settle for the old principle of ‘standing where they sit’, but leaders, like chameleons, may not only change colour, but more important, change to match the colour of the shifting background on which they find themselves. One colour may be required to please the activists and ideologues of one’s own party, a very different one by electorates. Kennedy came out of a very different overall climate of opinion fifty years ago, and in a Democratic Party still dependent on conservative Dixiecrat Southerners. In trying to make sense of politics today, it is still useful to recall just how large the chameleon factor can be, in both rhetoric and practice.

A striking demonstration of chameleon scamper was provided seventy years ago by James Burnham, a onetime Trotskyist, by World War II reincarnated as a tough-minded conservative. In his 1943 book, The Machiavellians, he contrasted deceptive ‘idealistic’ political language with that of a more ‘realistic’ kind, giving Dante’s De Monarchia as an example of the first, Machiavelli’s The Prince and Discourses as an example of the second. He traced a Machiavellian succession in later Italian ‘elite’ political analysts like Pareto and Mosca.

Burnham agreed with Machiavelli in finding human nature and its political articulation largely constant over time and place. His study of Italian thinkers over the centuries was intended to enlighten Americans, by then accustomed to Franklin Roosevelt for a decade. The most startling passages in The Machiavellians are in the first three pages, which reproduce the now almost entirely forgotten official platform of the Democratic Party in 1932, and the addresses of Roosevelt in the election campaign that followed:

‘In the 1932 Platform of the Democratic party we may read the following:

‘Believing that a party platform is a covenant with the people… and that the people are entitled to know in plain words the terms of the contract to which they are asked to subscribe, we hereby declare this to be the platform of the Democratic party. The Democratic party solemnly promises… to put into effect the principles, policies, and reforms herein advocated…

‘We advocate:

‘An immediate and drastic reduction of governmental expenditures by abolishing useless commissions and offices, consolidating departments and bureaus and eliminating extravagance, to accomplish a saving of not less than 25% in the cost of the Federal government…

‘Maintenance of the national credit by a Federal budget annually balanced on the basis of accurate executive estimates within revenues…

We condemn:

The open and covert resistance of administrative officials to every effort made by Congressional committees to control the extravagant expenditures of the government… The extravagance of the Farm Board, its disastrous action which made the government a speculator in farm products…’

Burnham went on to show that this pledge was upheld by Roosevelt, in several speeches, including his July 2, 1932 one accepting the Presidential nomination: “As an immediate program of action we must abolish useless offices. We must eliminate… functions that are not definitely essential to the continuation of government. We must merge, we must consolidate subdivisions of government, and… give up luxuries which we can no longer afford… I propose… that government of all kinds big and little, be made solvent and that the example be set by the President of the United States and his cabinet.”

Roosevelt returned to these themes frequently throughout the campaign. In a radio address on July 30, 1932, for example, he concluded: “Any government, like any family, can for a year spend a little more than it earns. But… a continuation of that habit means the poorhouse.”

Burnham argued that Roosevelt and the men who compiled his party platform could not simply be dismissed as liars, nor that they were ‘utterly stupid, with no understanding of economics or politics or what was going on in the world…’

‘These men… though they doubtless knew less than everything and less than they thought they knew, were surely not so ignorant as to have believed literally what the words seem to indicate. Perhaps the words do not really have anything to do with cheap government and sound currency and balanced budgets and the rest of what appears to be their subject matter. [my emphasis; N. C.]

Not so differently, Burnham maintained, Dante’s De Monarchia, apparently an ‘idealized’ general work on morality and political philosophy, was not what it appeared. His Florence had been bitterly divided by partisans of the Holy Roman Emperor, the Ghibellines, and two quarreling factions of Guelphs, partisans of the prosperous city’s own political power. Dante had once supported one wing of the Guelphs, a defeated one, and bitterly disillusioned and exiled in the 1290s, he was by then writing a disguised advocate’s brief supporting a new Emperor. For Burnham, the great Italian poet was a devious political theorist, masking self-seeking and reactionary purposes in a language of pure ideals. Machiavelli, on the other hand, unveiled the nature of real politics with cool detachment, so candidly that he has ever since been an object of public condemnation and discreet private study.

As for Roosevelt, he did keep some promises, notably in pushing repeal of Prohibition. He briefly even tried to balance the budget, cutting military spending by a third. and cutting veterans’ benefits, federal employees’ salaries, and expenditures on research and education. But these actions were all soon seen as mistakes, and most benefits were restored or even increased by 1934. More than that, Roosevelt’s famous ‘100 days’ following his entry into office in March of 1933 were not just a shift in emphasis from his 1932 platform; they have been recalled ever since as representing an entirely different and massively interventionist political philosophy. However, what they actually constituted was Roosevelt’s lightning response to a nation-wide bank panic, to additional indications that the Depression was getting worse, and even to the frightening emulatory temptations suggested by the simultaneous arrival of Hitler’s dictatorship in Germany.

Roosevelt could hardly be counted a ‘conservative’, even in the months when, as a very popular and liberal New York Governor, he endorsed that conservative-friendly 1932 platform. Whatever can be said of New Deal economics, his intutive understanding of the desperate public mood in 1933 made him a chameleon par excellence. His transformation has continued to confuse liberal and conservative writers who try to explain past or present politics in purely ideological terms, their own or the ones they fondly attribute to political leaders.

PAH First 2014 Article

Neil’s 2013 Annual Review

[Sing to Air of ‘Good King Wenceslas’]

Thomas Wolfe once wrote a thought, that sadly lives forever;
You can’t go home again, he taught; you really do so never.
Pam Wallin shed prairie home, Duffy left the ocean,
Useful places they would roam; seemed a simple no-otion.

Having thought their only job had expenses porous;
Travel bought, they’d later sob, to sing in Tory chorus.
Afflicted with self-image bloat, from decades on TV,
They wound up in a sinking boat, from which they sang o-off-key.

As senators they did not look like Roman stern patricians,
Instead with office that they took to serve the P. M.’s missions.
Expenses not their proper right became a dreadful tangle,
Ensnaring helpful Nigel Wright, left in wind to da-angle.

Meanwhile Rob Ford was revealed as mini-Berlusconi;
Prim Toronto gasped and reeled, fearing more baloney.
Stephen Harper must despair chains he’d forged with tro-olls,
Daily thrusts from Tom Mulcair, raise Justin in po-olls.

Could the P. M. be brought down, by threats Lilliputian?
He must fight to keep his crown, trade deal his solution.
Hockey book his work of years, comes with labours frantic;
Kept at least some Jewish cheers; went to Lac Mega-antic.

Pauline Marois beat him there, gaining lots of pra-aise;
Hiding that her cupboard’s bare, shows she can ama-aze.
PQ’s found a ghastly way to delight its tro-ops:
Headgear cops to win the day, cheered on by the du-upes.

In the States, Obama shrinks, losing in his gambles,
Poll support now daily sinks, Obamacare a shambles.
Should have sought the elflords’ aid, Apple or else Google;
They deliver when they’re paid, only then will bu-ugle.

Putin claimed he’d make the call, stopping gas in Syria;
Miley swung on wrecking ball; twerked to teen hysteria.
Affleck’s Argo won awards, Iranians shown decei-eived;
Then Iranians sought accords, few were much relie-ieved.

The best of times, the worst of times, Dickens always knew;
Scrooge’s ghosts brought by the chimes, still thrill small fry anew;
Rejoice we still, to be alive, shrug off fear and danger,
Celebrate our buzzing hive’ good news from the ma-nger.

– Merry Christmas to All from Neil Cameron, December 2013.

PAH 16th 2013 Article

 

Appearance and Reality at Seventy-Five

All my adult life, my November 19 birthday has come when Remembrance Day was still on my mind. My father and his brothers and sister all served in the First World War, my father as a medic on the Western Front, his two brothers as riflemen, and his sister as a nurse tending wounded soldiers. My father’s service ultimately led to his early death before I was three, a quarter of a century after Vimy Ridge. The Spanish Flu killed his sister in 1918. My father’s brothers survived, but one of their sons, a bomber pilot, was killed in a 1944 raid on Berlin.

Neil Cameron of Montreal

Their deaths, joined with millions of others, came home to me fully when, with three friends, I first went overseas in 1960-61, working in England and hitchhiking all over Europe. Previously studying mathematics in university, the experience led me to start over in history. In Europe I began to grasp just how tragic the first half of the century had been, and how much it had shaped everything since. I also began realizing that distinguishing what happened in history from its constant mythic recapitulation was harder than I had thought, Half a century later, I now know that doing that is the work of a lifetime, as one learns new things from the past and new perspectives from the present.

I turned 25 in 1963, so the heavily mythical aspects of history have also long been long brought home to me by the assassination of John Kennedy three days before that. I heard the news in McGill’s Redpath Library, and when I left the building a couple of hours later, saw young women sobbing uncontrollably all over the campus. I was not comparably touched by this intense boomer grief. Only a few years older, I saw the world through the Dostoevskian filter of the deeply disillusioned literary figures of the previous two decades, and was far more influenced by Orwell, Koestler, and Camus than by any postwar political leaders. I did not dislike Kennedy, but had never been touched by his mystique. Having watched the 1960 Presidential election from Europe, I thought there was little to choose between Kennedy and Richard Nixon, two Cold War liberal hawks.. This may sound strange today, but was once commonly believed, including in the U. S., so much so so that Arthur Schlesinger produced a campaign pamphlet for the Democrats called Kennedy or Nixon: is there any Difference?

Like many young Canadians in the early 1960s, I was a ‘quasi-unilateralist’ anti-nuke, although growing more uncertain as I read the powerful arguments of the nuclear deterrence theorists. Kennedy was more hawkish than Nixon, and made me nervous, even when I approved of his actions. The possibility of worldwide nuclear annihilation was a theme of popular books and movies of the late 1950s and early 1960s, oddly disappearing with the arrival of the real war in Vietnam. The last and most brilliant of these apocalyptic nuclear fantasies, the 1964 black comedy film Dr. Strangelove, actually showed an obsolete catastrophe by the time it appeared, based on the failed recall of a single H-bomb equipped B-52. New ICBMs were twenty times as fast, so that Soviet ones could arrive here in about twenty minutes from launch. When I watched the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis on TV in the Stanley Tavern, I wondered if I might be incinerated before closing time.

A year later, Jack Ruby’s bizarre murder of Lee Oswald swiftly launched the now 50-year-long mythic reconstruction of the Dallas events, laid on thick every November. I always found the assassination obsession almost ludicrously disproportionate. Many Montreal university students of the 1960s at least half-believed the early conspiracy mongering of Mark Lane, who came here in 1968 to plug his book, Rush to Judgement. I learned, from an American professor who knew him personally, that Lane was a colossal liar on all matters, and he was soon joined by a gigantic troop of honestly confused witnesses, plausible liars, and supermarket tabloid detectives. I have always been reasonably sure, on a conscientious and tedious reading over the decades, including the best of the conspiracy literature, that Oswald acted alone. But I have never expected that this view would ever completely prevail

Seventy years ago, Albert Jay Nock observed that only a few people try very hard to understand the real history of events; the many instantly convert all striking ones into myths. The fifty years since 1963 have shown him right. Conspiracy spinners have always been able to draw on a larger American myth, making the the Revolution a new Divine Revelation, the martyred Lincoln the sinning nation’s Redeemer. Kennedy’s murder provided a more recent and photogenic sacrificial lamb, and the invention of many rival Satanic agents. In Julius Caesar, after Brutus has called for all the assassins to stoop and wash their arms in the fallen demigod’s blood, Cassius says, ‘How many ages hence shall this our lofty scene be acted over, in states unborn and accents yet unknown!’ Brutus adds that the death will be marked in future ages ‘in sport’, thus long anticipating Oliver Stone’s JFK. Granted that Lyndon Johnson was a quite genuine monster, well-qualified for the role of Dallas Cassius, the conspiracists are unconvincing and inferior playwrights.

By the late 1960s, I was back in England, by then married and raising children, studying the role of the British scientific elite in both World Wars. I could by then see how much of WW II had been enshrouded in myths as well, in successive accumulating layers. I found the study of primary source documents both exhilarating and chastening. I found, for example, that Winston Churchill’s fabled matchless courage was genuine, but was combined with some huge faults, and that he had been a great mythmaker in his own right, obscuring how both Wars had quickened the overall decline of British power and the triumph of American hegemony. I also saw that the Wars displayed some enduring failings of all modern industrial societies.

Over my lifetime, I have had my own modest historical moments. I was almost blown up by an OAS bomb in Paris in 1961, and a few months later was in an equally tense Berlin, just days before the East Germans built its dividing wall. In August of 1965, I was in Berkeley, California, watching a New Left crowd of baby boomers mark the 20th anniversary of Hiroshima, and heralding a cultural revolution. I met creepy FLQ members in a Sherbrooke Street after-hours bar, two years before the murder of Pierre Laporte. In England, I interviewed many of its greatest scientists, including some who made crucial contributions to how WW II was won. From 1989 to 1994, elected to the Quebec Legislature as one of four candidates of the protest Equality Party, I had a ringside seat for the Canadian constitutional agony of those years. But I have mostly remained a moderately worldly history student and teacher, conservative, sceptical, and unfailingly fascinated by real human achievements and reliable foolishness. I have been very lucky, in when and where I was born, in the life I have led and thought, in my family, friends, and intellectual influences, and I am grateful to a God in whom I only partially believe. I learned early that studying and experiencing history will only be of limited help in changing oneself or changing the world, but that history is an antidote to the unrecognized madness and myth that always shapes the ideas of the moment. For that, it is indispensable.

PAH Fifteenth 2013 Article – Published on the Prince Arthur Herald website on November 19, 2013.

Reflections on HUM, NEO, and LETS

What was really surprising about Bibian Bovet, the trans-sexual former prostitute, eventually rejected municipal political candidate, and, most startling of all, advocate of a new currency, was that she surfaced in Montreal. She would have appeared a far less astonishing arrival in Vancouver, where even her ideas about barter and currency innovation would have seemed less remarkable to locals already using a currency of their own called Seedstock.

British Columbia has long been the favoured destination of colourful people with unconventional ideas, afflicted by what I call HUM, or Harmless Utopian Madness. Harmless, because not advocating subversion or violence; utopian, not because all the unconventional ideas are foolish, but because they are advanced with little sense of the world’s vast indifference; madness, because even what are begun as highly rationalist political or economic programs take on the character of lifelong religious obsessions. The B. C. HUM tradition was launched by the provincial Premier of the 1870s, Amor de Cosmos, prospector, entrepreneur, journalist, and orator, who was declared insane in his last years. Ever since, HUM, while found worldwide, has in B. C. reached almost Californian proportions. It lives in small Vancouver bookstores, in little colonies in the interior, and even in occasional grand conferences. And one of the permanent manifestations of HUM is the pursuit of the good society through some heterodox reform of banking and currency.

These schemes become more significant in eras of broad and deep discontent with capitalism. The odd HUM even turns into a real political force. In 19th century France, the followers of the unworldly Henri de Saint-Simon, who strangely imagined himself a disciple of Isaac Newton, first turned themselves into a mystical sect, devoted to bringing about a ‘marriage’ between the ‘male’ civilization of Europe and the ‘female’ one of Asia. That meant they gave passionate early support to the development of transportation networks, including both the building of railways and of the Suez Canal. The white-robed, groupie-trailing Saint-Simonian guru, Prosper Enfantin, started out as the Son of God and ended as president of a railway company. Europe and America have provided several more recent examples of individuals who went from HUM to highly successful careers as entrepreneurial capitalists.

Furthermore, most economic HUM, even of the clearly crank variety, has still held a certain amount of insight. Not everything argued by the Single-Taxer Henry George, the Social Crediter Major Douglas, or the Nobel-Prize-winning Oxford Chemist, Frederick Soddy, was pure folly. But while even less-known to the Canadian general public, the most durable, intellectually respectable, and interesting economic HUM has been that of the followers of the German businessman, anarchist, and economic thinker, Silvio Gesell (1862-1930). The B. C. interior even used to have a colony dedicated to following the principles of NEO – the Natural Economic Order – the English title of Gesell’s most important book – and other such colonies are sprinkled all over the earth.

Gesell began a successful career as a businessman and financier in Buenos Aires in the 1880s, and moved back and forth between Germany, Argentina, and Switzerland throughout his life. He was almost ruined in a terrific Argentinian crash of 1890 and the subsequent long depression, and was led to reflect long and hard on the nature of banking, interest, and national currencies.

Even economically literate present readers may have scarcely heard of Gesell, or at most recall him faintly from a brief reference in a history of economic thought. But even a brief web consultation shows that he was never regarded by academic professionals in economics as a crank and complete outsider, in the manner of George or Major Douglas. The complete text of The Natural Economic Order can be found on the web, and on its original English publication, it was praised by a substantial array of famous economists, including two Nobel Prize winners. Not only that, Maynard Keynes gave an admiring summary of Gesell’s ideas in his General Theory.

The summary can be found on the web as well. Keynes described Gesell as a ‘strange, unduly neglected prophet who only just failed to reach down to the essence of the matter’. He also recognized HUM on the way: ‘Gesell…became the revered prophet of a cult with many thousand disciples throughout the world…Since his death in 1930, much of [this] peculiar type of fervour…has been diverted to other in my opinion less eminent prophets…I believe that the future will learn more from the spirit of Gesell than from that of Marx.’ He also thought that Gesell’s work was not really complete, and he pointed out some weaknesses, but still pronounced the main principles as sound.

Gesell’s big idea was that interest on money sets a limit on the growth of real capital. Money is different from other assets because of its absence of ‘carrying costs’, and can be kept out of productive use. Keynes agreed with Gesell that the overall rate of interest over centuries of time had been shown to be remarkably stable. He also thought there was nothing wrong in principle with Gesell’s proposal of ‘stamped’ currency: notes which had to be regularly updated by weekly buying and affixing stamps for some agreed fraction of their face value, preventing banks and other money holders from storing value merely by sitting on their holdings. The idea was also tried in 1930s Alberta by the Aberhart Social Credit government, but had this swiftly disallowed by the Canadian federal government. The inconvenience of the procedure never made it any overpowering rival of ordinary national currencies, but Gesell’s additional proposal for a kind of communitarian anarcho-capitalism was more successful In fact, Switzerland has had a functioning community bank of this kind since 1934, called ‘WIR’; Bibiane Bovet cited its example in her letter to investors.

Gesell and several similar English, French, Belgian and German interwar economic theorists were largely successful businessmen. engineers, or scientists, often broadly educated, but with limited academic credentials. However, they all understood something vital about currencies that is sometimes forgotten by Wall Street megabankers and distinguished professors, which is that the way currencies function as either a store of value or a medium of exchange depends ultimately on trust. While his ideas attracted thousands of people worldwide in the 1930s, they stayed in the realm of HUM because of factors like the rise of the dictators, another World War, and then the bipolar Cold War that followed.

But what has been happening since the 1990s has been something new in the long history of LETS (‘Local Exchange Trading Systems‘). Steadily improving computer hardware and software available to individuals have already led to a huge proliferation of alternative currencies, now electronic, for every purpose from computer gaming to shopping for produce. Currencies are coming to be recognized as ‘brands’, that can be competitively assessed. So the prophecy of Keynes that the world would eventually owe more to the spirit of Gesell than the spirit of Marx may finally be coming true. And Ms. Bovet, despite sounding a bit weird, and having troubles with the Financial Markets Authority, may yet turn out to be one of the prophets of tomorrow’s world.

PAH Fourteenth 2013 Article

Published on November 4, 2013, in the Prince Arthur Herald as A theory on Harmless Utopian Madness

The Values Charter as Jumbo Shrimp

If demonstrable failures in logically consistent reasoning were a punishable criminal offence, most politicians would be in jail. Quebec nationalists would be especially likely to be forced to don striped suits, facing charges as habitual offenders. There is little hope of seeing this appealing fantasy realized, so it is more useful to examine why so many self-contradictory expressions and propositions, scourged in philosophy and law classrooms, are so readily advanced in politics, nationalist politics especially.

For movements seeking ambitious changes, there is an unstated first principle: sauce for the goose must never be sauce for the gander. The principle is mandatory when trying to rouse any new sense of moral entitlement. It is always hypocritical, requiring selective targets and selective outrage. At the moment, for example, gay political activists are making loud noises about the ‘anti-gay propaganda’ stance of Vladimir Putin, while being almost mute about the many countries in which homosexuality is illegal, unlike Russia, and treated with far more savagery.

Similarly, in Quebec and elsewhere, many of the most ardent advocates of interventionist government policies aimed at re-arranging public behaviour are graduates of expensive private schools intended to enter them into high prestige employments and expensive neighbourhoods, comfortably remote from any unpleasant consequences of the improvements they favour. Compulsory rules are for the geese; protection from the farmyard for the ganders.

Quebec’s nationalist politicians, who represent only an uncertain aspiration at best, have always found it difficult to transform the projections of their egos into the shared purposes of a broad electoral base. If a large and enduring majority shared their views, a party like the PQ would scarcely need to exist. There have been exciting moments when nationalists have almost conceded this possibility. In June of 1990, when Robert Bourassa had to rise in the Quebec legislature to formally acknowledge the failure of the Meech Lake Accord, Jacques Parizeau, then the Official Opposition Leader, walked across the floor and embraced the Liberal Premier. Not long afterwards, with his usual unmatched flair for dropping bricks, he declared in public, “I or Bourassa will lead Quebec to sovereignty.”

However, the fevers of 1990 subsided, and when Parizeau led the province into the 1995 Referendum vote, even after calling on the more charismatic Lucien Bouchard for assistance, their combined forces could not raise a ‘Yes’ vote of over 50%. The demographic changes since then augur still lower percentage limits for any future referendum. Francophone immigrants, and children of non-francophone immigrants raised in French, might feel little emotional attachment to Canada, but have largely become trilingual Montrealers, not enthralled by separatist dreams either.

Hence the PQ is now a party founded on an ‘option’ that does not exist. It has become otherwise largely defined by deference to the interests of the public sector unions and to the mass agitation of college students; declining political assets, even for holding their off-Montreal voting base.

Their current attempt to escape this blind alley, the so-called ‘Values Charter’, is another oxymoron in its own right, like Bill 101’s accompanying ‘Charter of the French Language’, proposing the kind of legislation that ‘charters’ are normally intended to prevent. While it is obviously a gamble for electoral advantage, its many critics have been dismayed that it seems to be having some success at just that. However, its elite and popular francophone support can not be simply dismissed as being based on ‘bigotry’ alone. It also displays a local fondness for yet another tacit oxymoron, best called ‘cosmopolitan parochialism’.

The ‘old’ French Catholic pre-1960s Quebec was never as cloistered and confined as the approving mythology of Lionel Groulx had it. But its main intermediary relationship with the wider world for two centuries was through English language, political institutions, and business. But that was changed, not only by the newer kind of political nationalism, but by the Trudeau government’s formal endorsement of ‘multiculturalism’ in a 1971 Act of that name. When Keith Spicer, the frequently indiscreet first Official Languages Commissioner, was interviewed on CBC English TV in the 1970s, he described the Act as a ‘bribe’ (his word) for ‘ethnic’ Canadians, especially in the West, to get them to accept Official Bilingualism. Cynical Ottawa bureaucrats treated it as being little more than a program of new subsidies for ‘dance, diet, and dress’.

In Quebec, on the other hand, it was regarded with suspicion, as possibly establishing the notion that the French Canada could become just another tile in the big mosaic, not just in the rest of Canada, but in Montreal. However, even nationalists wanting to jettison more and more ‘trans-Canadian’ institutions have also become anxious to avoid being identified as the partisans of a narrowly tribal French Canadian movement, ‘Opened to the world’ by modern mass media and by travel, they have sought some outside additional authentication. The U. S., anglophone and individualistic, will not do. The consequence has been a superficial but politically significant turning of eyes to Europe.

European countries have never had the Western Hemisphere’s welcoming assumptions about immigrants, and has clearly been having real problems with Muslim ones. Especially over the last seven years or so, their leaders have been taking a harder and harder line on both immigration in genera and the whole concept of multiculturalism. The recently re-elected Angela Merkel has flatly declared the latter a failure, to a standing ovation at the last convention of her party. David Cameron has agreed. France has been moving in the same direction for years now; even the traditionally tolerant Dutch and Scandinavians have changed course. General European apprehensions have clearly been increased by high youth unemployment, but there is also alarm about Muslims showing little inclination to assimilate or even partially integrate into their host societies, instead withdrawing into sullen urban enclaves, maintained more by welfare payments and petty crime than gradually improving paid employment.

Pauline Marois may not have all that detailed an understanding of these developments, as was revealed in her quickly-withdrawn but expedient comments that multiculturalist Britain is now plagued by constant bomb-tossing. She got her message out, and it is about more than visible head coverings. The ‘Values Charter’ requires a mask of it own; the dual pretence about the existence of a new ‘sacredness’ of a ‘secular’ Quebec state and society, dodging the obvious observation that the largest single religion in contemporary Quebec is collectivist political nationalism itself, and the additional one that this province can pick and choose immigrants and shape their urban cultural behaviour, while continuing to drive out the Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and miscellaneous who would have been most likely to provide the province with adequate future tax revenue. Perhaps they should raise a statue to the 19th century New England Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who maintained that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Across the frontiers of time and space, great windbags reach out to each other and touch, convinced that, through the magic of language they are able to convert very bad-smelling prawns into tasty jumbo shrimp.

PAH Thirteenth 2013 Article

 

A Logical Paradox and a Historical Quarrel

About 600 B. C., Epimenides, a Cretan, declared that all Cretans lie all the time. This seemed to imply that, if he was telling the truth, he was lying, and vice versa. Philosophers have wrestled with this apparent logical paradox ever since. Some think they have successfully resolved it, by introducing devices like different ‘levels of language’, but it still makes ordinary readers uncomfortable.

The paradox in pure logic disappears if qualifiers are added, instead providing something like this: ‘Epimenides was a Cretan who claimed to belong to the .1% of Cretans who did not lie all the time, and felt himself justified in claiming that 99.9% of Cretans did.’ But this introduces a different kind of problem, one about history and historians. Finding the truth about Epimendes and his fellow Cretans could be just as difficult, and even more complicated. The qualified and non-contradictory statement brings in three new levels, since it requires some kind of documentary source, at least one historian of the Cretans to produce the statement, and at least one reader to assess it. There may not be much real evidence about Cretans living in 600 B. C., or that Epimenides even existed. Unlike the philosophical logician, the historian can not just postulate him, and proceed from there. The historian’s reader has something else to worry about, which is whether the historian seeks above all to increase understanding of life and thought in Cretan antiquity, or is more concerned with pleasing a contemporary Cretan political party or the Cretan chamber of commerce.

This latter problem is a central one, whether in thinking about the remote past or just the last half-century, and in decisions of what to teach about both. A century ago, it was believed that history with temporal remoteness was a real advantage in reaching truth; learning about the Greeks and Romans was seen as the best way to discover the real nature of historical change, in language, thought, and action, undistorted by confusing present noise. That concept of history could not be maintained through the rise of mass public education in the 20th century, which brought demands for the formal study of more recent years, but that also brought more uncertain and divided counsels about just how modern historical studies should be composed. For most of the 20th Century, the usual common replacement for classics in liberal college and university education in Europe and North America has been one or two survey courses ranging from antiquity to the present. Only students ‘specializing’ in history would take more chronologically defined courses, like ‘Europe 1914-45’, or thematic ones, like ‘Science and the Enlightenment’.

But ‘history’, conceived as a required study in public educational institutions, has also frequently been something quite different from broad surveys or broad themes. Governments frequently instead try to impose some kind of ‘history of the nation’. That involves some serious limitations even when the ‘nation’ is a very old and broadly influential entity, like one of the major European countries, or at least a large one, like the United States or Brazil. But applied to small and even would-be ‘nations’, such courses can at most be justifiable as useful instruction in civics or local government. Especially when imbued with political myth, it is pretension and even near-fraud to call such courses ‘history’. Even if well-taught, the initial premise represents the near-opposite of what the study of history was originally intended to do, which was to broaden the mental horizons of students.

Nationalist politicians, however, seldom ponder such distinctions. The current minority PQ government has recently announced that it plans to introduce a compulsory cegep course in the history of Quebec. But this suggests both a short memory and a deficient understanding. The two consecutive majority PQ governments of 1976 – 1984 tried to do the same thing. They claimed public support, the personal enthusiasm of Rene Lévesque and his cabinet, and the initial support of the majority of the history teachers on their provincial curriculum committee, most of them in those days young francophones cheering on the projet nationale. But the compulsory course in the history of Quebec still failed to arrive, even after eight years. The reasons were instructive about the wider history of our own times.

When that previous attempt was launched in 1977, I was one of the history teachers on the curriculum committee, representing John Abbott College, and like all the anglos and a few francophones on the committee, I was part of a minority opposed to such a compulsory course. Our opposition made the case that if there was to be any single compulsory course at all, it should be a broad background survey of our common roots, extending back long before the founding of New France, and taking in more general European history. We were politely received; Aaron Krishtalka of Dawson College drew special praise (“Bonne adresse!”) even from voting opponents, for his eloquent and closely-reasoned argument for European history. We didn’t win over their votes, but over the following years, watched gusto for the ‘national’ course fade, for more ironic reasons.

What stymied the introduction of the course was not so much our case as was a devaluation that had happened to the study of history everywhere, the combined effect of the ultra ‘presentist’ 1965-75 era and of proliferating extreme specialization and multiplication of disciplines, including in the cegeps. With that came the implicit idea that history of any kind was ‘just another course;’, like psychology or computer programming. The space that once would have been available for it was already filled with four compulsory courses in ‘philosophie’ (‘humanities’ in the anglo colleges), and by the additional optional but popular courses in ‘social sciences’. All were now given by unionized teachers, most with immovable tenure. The mercurial flow of the cegeps in their opening years at the end of the 1960s had been swiftly replaced by entrenched silos of hardening bureaucratic concrete, growing harder every year.

Over fifteen years after I first attended the history curriculum committee, I was elected on the West Island for the protest Equality Party. I almost immediately became an independent voting member of the Education Committee of the Legislature, remaining on it for the five years of 1990-1994. The Liberals, like the PQ before them, run through a long series of Ministers of Education, most of them not doing much. However, by the start of the 1990s, a rising roar of discontent with the cegeps was being heard from business, the universities, and the general public. Furthermore, this coincided with the arrival at the Education Ministry of Claude Ryan, who had the intellectual depth, assurance, and firm authority to break through bureaucratic concrete and make things happen. I was happy to find, not only that his own strong preference for a compulsory history course was for the same kind of broad survey that Aaron Krishtalka and I had advocated many years before, but that the change could be implemented by taking a slice from the union hiring halls of philosophie/humanities. Even the PQ opposition was desultory rather than passionate.

My experiences on both the curriculum committee of the 1970s and the legislature committee of the 1990s lead me to suspect that the current PQ government, even if it should happen to win a majority in the next provincial election, will be no more successful with this renewed project for compulsory ‘national’ history than its predecessors. I also doubt that if the change were carried out, it would do much more to propagate separatist nationalism. What is taught in history courses always depends more on who teaches them than on even the most detailed calendar requirements, and Quebec history teachers of the new century are now largely a mixture of near-retirement baby boomers and newly hired 20-somethings. If they have any unified ideological inclination, it is probably represented by Denys Arcand’s trilogy of progressive disillusionment, from The Decline of the American Empire to The Barbarian Invasions and The Dark Ages.

The real weakness of college history teaching today is not local, but universal: that still-existing disastrous notion that history is ‘just another subject’, when it should really be, like language itself, one of the foundation stones of all adult understanding of the world. As Alfred North Whitehead once remarked, you can be provincial in time as well as in space, and that is a besetting sin of this era. Survey mandatory courses, if well-taught, at least reduce some of that temporal provincialism. Mandatory college instruction in the history of Quebec comes closer to offering the historians’ variation of the paradox of Epimenides. All good historians try to tell the truth, but all historians restricted to the narrowly particular are offering a lie about what history should teach.
PAH Twelfth 2013 Article.

 

Of Mice and Magnanimity

Pascal Covici was a Romanian Jewish immigrant who came to the U.S. as a twelve-year-old with his family just before the start of the 20th century. In the 1920s, he became a bookseller and editor, and by the 1930s was running a high quality small publishing house called Covici-Friede. He was sometimes the target of self appointed guardians of public virtue, as when he was the first publisher in the U.S. of Radcliffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, the first ‘above ground’ book to deal openly and sympathetically with lesbianism, and when he published books that were a great deal better, but heavily laced with profanity and obscenity by the standards of the time. Covici-Friede, always on an insecure financial footing at the best of times, disappeared after 1939, but how the firm failed, and what Covici did afterwards remain a story of permanent interest.

Covici was for years the publisher and friend of John Steinbeck. He ‘discovered’ Steinbeck, but the early years of his discovery were ruinous. Steinbeck apparently came to him with one of his first books in the early 1930s, and Covici thought it good, but told Steinbeck it would never sell. He chose, however, to publish it anyway. He was right; the book got some friendly reviews, but had very poor sales, so that Covici lost money. Steinbeck came to him with another book, and Covici again told him that it was good but would not sell, nonetheless publishing it anyway, and losing even more money. There may even have been a third such expensive plunge. Finally, at the end of the 1930s, Steinbeck came up with Of Mice and Men.

Mice was a huge success, but too late; Covici went broke. However, he moved to Viking Press. A much larger publisher. as an editor, taking Steinbeck with him. Hence he was still responsible for the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, and later Steinbeck novels, stories, and journalism as well. Steinbeck became both a critical and popular success from then on, with the cinematic Grapes, starring Henry Fonda, becoming and still remaining the iconic film about the Great Depression. It has been widely held that there was some decline in the quality of Steinbeck’s later work, but he still won the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature. He also became personally friendly with Lyndon Johnson, and was a hawk on the Vietnam War, in which his son fought, thus falling out of favour with his liberal former admirers, much as they had turned against John Dos Passos and James T. Farrell in in their own later politically incorrect years.

Steinbeck’s books, at least Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, and Cannery Row remain assigned readings on many high school and college courses in American literature, and have retained some popularity among general readers as well. But I have an additional reason for memorializing Pascal Covici, beyond his dogged resolution in bringing Steinbeck to the world. The failure of his publishing house gave him less freedom and opportunities to cultivate promising new writers in the way he had with Steinbeck, but he moved on to launch a great internal enterprise at Viking of a different kind. I don’t know whether it was entirely his own idea, or whether he had been influenced by the example on the other side of the Atlantic provided by Allen Lane, who was quickly moving from the original narrow range of his green paperback Penguin reprints to other lines issued in different colours, like the more scholarly pale blue Pelicans, But in any case, Covici created something entirely different of his own. He began the publication of a long series of thick reprints of 600-700 pages, also released in relatively inexpensive paperbacks, generally called ‘Portables’. Most were devoted to a single notable writer or scholar, like The Portable Swift or The Portable Voltaire. A few were more wide-ranging anthologies, like The Portable Elizabethan Reader.

For me, and I am sure for many of my close contemporaries in age, the ‘Portables’ made up a large proportion of my real liberal education in my undergraduate and graduate years. They were at least as important as even the best courses my friends and I took in literature, philosophy, and history, many of the introductory survey courses in all of these once being almost identical at all Canadian universities. These courses sometimes assigned a ‘Portable’ or two, but in my own case, and I think that of many other young people of the period from about the end of World war II to the early 1960s, we read several more of them, sometimes re-read favourite ones, and were also frequently be led on to additional works by the same authors. Each book was edited by a distinguished scholar in his own right, providing useful assistance, but no overwhelming scholarly apparatus, and contained one or two large pieces, either complete plays or novellas or long extracts from novels or philosophical studies, and shorter stories, essays, and poems.

I have now forgotten a great deal of what was in these books, even some of my favourites of the time, but I have no doubt at all that they changed my overall understanding, reasoning, and taste. I was not all that fond of the Elizabethans, and may not have finished that particular collection, but otherwise, I read the complete volumes with fascination and great pleasure. Not necessarily in this order, I recall reading all of the following: The Portable Plato; The Portable Chaucer; The Portable Voltaire; The Portable Milton; The Portable Defoe; The Portable Swift; The Portable Nietzsche; The Portable Thomas Mann, and The Portable Mencken; perhaps one or two more that I can’t recall. I still have some scattered around my bookshelves. Pulling down my long-treasured Portable Swift, 600 pages, edited by Carl Van Doren, which I bought over half a century ago, I find that the green-and-red soft cardboard jacket lists its price as $1.25 ($1.45 in Canada). The inside cover has a summary bio of Swift at the top, and of Carl Van Doren at the bottom, and the facing page outlines the scope and purpose of the whole series.

Covici died in 1964, but Penguin, which swallowed Viking many years ago now, keeps at least some Portables in print today, which are unchanged in content, but have brighter and glossier covers, and now cost about twenty times as much in our cheaper dollars. The older I get, the more I have come to realize how much all of us who want to read and learn and understand owe to good publishers and editors, and I wonder how many suitably apprenticed and gifted ones are still appearing today. The fine ones of the past sometimes came from modest origins, like Covici himself, often from impecunious but cultivated European Jewish immigrants to England, the U. S. and Canada. Others have been drawn from monied old families, but even these ones usually did their work in small quality houses. Some of the latter are still being born, but are more easily drowned out than ever before, not only by the increasing concentration of a few giant octopuses like Penguin and HarperCollins, but also by the mixed blessing of e-books and Kindle readers.

I didn’t really appreciate the thought and care that had gone into Covici’s Portables when I was in my teens and twenties, despite the admiring blurbs on their jackets from scholars and newspaper reviewers, and I would guess most other young readers little pondered these matters either. Perhaps many readers never do think much about such things. In my own case, I happened to work for some years in bookstores and for university libraries, which eventually drove home to me what a fine thing had been done for me and for the world by Pascal Covici.

He was no model of how to be a profitable publisher, that role better filled by Michael Korda at Simon & Schuster, But he was a model of another virtue required of a civilized society, of magananimity. Covici was magnanimous both in the generosity and courage he displayed in bringing out a new writer like Steinbeck, and in the vision he showed in revivifying great old ones in his Portables. Jack McClelland showed a similar magnanimity in launching Canadian writers and reprinting valuable older ones, but I was more impressed by Covici, who gave fresh life to the literature and thought of a larger world. I hope our e-book age can still produce some new version of him. Perhaps some young contributor or reader of The Prince Arthur Herald will qualify. He or she might also, like Covici, respond to being given a lemon by thinking of a way to make another new kind of lemonade.

PAH Eleventh 2013 Article    08/08/2013

Black Swans, Algorithms, and the Human Factor

Andrew Coyne recently argued (National Post, July 25), that the Lac Megantic disaster was the kind of once-in-a-lifetime event which, however horrifying, left no real ‘lessons’ for governments and regulating bodies. He feared politically-motivated, hugely expensive, and probably futile ‘runaway regulation’, what British journalists call ‘SMBD’ [‘Something Must Be Done’] action SMBD is nearly always ill-considered, of little real value, and carrying all kinds of bad effects of its own. Coyne made some good sense, bit I think he went too far in his dismissal.

Deregulated transportation since the 1980s has been turning into something quite different from what it is still largely imagined to be, by both its mainly economist advocates and its mainly politically leftist opponents. ‘Free market’ economists have long maintained that the whole broad political wave of deregulation has been an almost unmixed blessing, replacing obsolete, inefficient, and badly-run state-imprisoned enterprises, and unleashing the innovative potentialities of competitive private enterprise. There is no doubt that the change has brought many visible successes. While especially associated with the political leadership of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, deregulation was largely continued in the era of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Some journalists, Andrew Coyne among them, have also cheered on the new dispensation. In fact, Coyne has several times lambasted the Harper Conservatives for failing to go far enough in cost-cutting and shrinking the size and role of government..

Opposition to the worldwide deregulating turn has come mainly from the trade unions and the radical environmentalists. They have been raising their voices noisily again since the 2008 Crash, not only holding deregulation responsible for what went so wrong in the financial markets [where they at least have a case of sorts], but claiming that the whole development was a mistake. This more general attack has not had much impact; it is very hard to defend the idea, for example, that the monopolistic and tightly-regulated telephone companies of the first seven decades of the 20th century should have been preserved. On the other hand, economic libertarianism has sometimes acquired its own touches of ideological dogma, taking for granted the assumption that all issues, political, social, and cultural as well as economic, can be readily resolved by appealing to Hayekian or Friedmanite principles.

But as the 2008 Crash in the financial markets demonstrated, there can be major problems in ‘industry self-regulation’, not problems that can really be fixed by a tangle of new lasws and regulations, but requiring some serious ‘rethinking’ in the industries themselves. In particular, modern commercial transportation of all kinds does not now merely show the effects of competitive private ownership, but of the rise of computerized mathematical algorithms as a means of integrating land, sea, and air transport in a way that was not even possible as recently as 1980. The full implications of this change are only gradually being understood, even by the designers of the algorithms. They are as large in their own way as those from containerization for ship and land cargo.

Algorithms are step-by-step ‘recipes’ that can be applied to almost every kind of changing but partly repetitive commercial activity, from the pricing and trading of financial instruments to the scheduling and ‘optimal path’ for ocean and coastal shipping, trains, trucks, and air freighters, all now coming to be seen as part of giant interconnected networks. Until around 1980, the mathematics sometimes required looked too daunting, even for professional mathematicians. Their difficulties can be illustrated by a classic algorithmic issue, the ‘Travelling Salesman Problem’. The idea is to find the most time-efficient or ‘optimal path’ for a series of deliveries on a transportation route. The number of routes increases factorially with the number of stops. Simple enough with three stops, for which there will be 3 x 2 x 1 = 6 routes. However, for only eight, there will be 8 x 7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 = 40,320. At twelve, there are already over 5 billion routes, and even at only twenty, there are over 100 quadrillion possible paths.

Nonetheless , what teams of mathematicians using superfast computers were eventually able to do was design algorithms which can produce an ‘optimal tour’, with no shorter one possible, for any specific example provided, even one involving thousands of stops. These are now being applied more and more to scheduling, to loading and unloading of goods, and to making possible communication systems between central offices and large moving collections of ships, trucks, and trains The algorithms have been spreading like cellphones. UPS, for example, was still working out its ‘same day deliveries’ by rules of thumb and pins on a map at the start of the 1980s, but after 1982, when it had to accommodate itself ton next-day air delivery, scheduling became far more complicated. The company quickly realized that it needed project managers who knew how to use algorithms, and by 1986 bought a ‘logistics’ company to help them.

This new world of computerized algorithms was a major factor making it possible for hard-driving railway executives like Paul Teller, Hunter Harrison, and Ed Burkhardt to buy, sell, and re-organize large new combinations of railway companies made out of the corpses of old giant lines. Burkhardt, who most Canadians had never heard of a month ago, and not fondly regarded at the moment, had previously been accustomed to being hailed in the transportation world as a leading star of this new world, and holds all kinds of railway companies in his fief along with the ill-fated Montreal, Maine, and Atlantic, also advising Communist on how to create their own efficient privatized lines. But it appears that Burkhardt, and railway executives in general, may have failed to learn the lessons that the algorithmic project managers at UPS have.

UPS found that getting their fully algorithmic program working was far harder than they had at first assumed. What they had first thought would take a year to work out instead took a decade, and the work is still not completed. They gradually realized that they did not merely have to be concerned with the mathematics of scheduling, numerical distances, and delivery or transfer points, but with the sometimes irrational and habitual behaviour of their clients and drivers. Emotional factors, it was found, changed things like truck driver behaviour on their routes. One major trucking company even applies ‘predictive analysis’ of when drivers have a greater risk of being involved in a crash. A divorce, a drop in pay, even a sudden and unexpected demand to make a large route change, may lead to frequent speeding and rapid lane changing. Trucks are simple, and can be stored anywhere, while drivers are complicated, and like to go home at night, or at least not sleep in their trucks. It matters whether they are happy.

At UPS, Yellow Freight, and other major transportation companies, they have been learning more and more about how to use mathematical algorithms. But equally important, they have been learning how important ordinary human elements still are. What the tragic derailment at Lac Megantic appears to have shown is that this element was being given inadequate weight in the modern system of deregulated ‘lean’ railways that replaced the old tangle of bankrupting lines. This had not just applied to MM&A, but, as Ed Burkhardt himself commented after his return to his Chicago offices, throughout the whole industry.

So Coyne was right that it is unlikely that new Canadian government regulation will produce much benefit, even in safety. A future train catastrophe could be of an entirely different kind than the Lac Megantic one, like the recent high-speed passenger train disaster in Spain. But such events are still likely to have a large impact on the assumptions previously held by railway executives and their company shareholders on the way they can direct their computerized, algorithm-directed transportation networks. The MM&A crash may also have a long-term influence on the political and economic appeal of oil pipelines, on the maximum tolerated size of trains, and on just what rolling stock and tracks can still be assumed to be useful. Whatever kind of perfect storm of possible errors by the Nantes firefighters, brake failures, and so on, it was still clearly an event that had a great deal to do with the behaviour of the missing engineer. It was the people of Lac Megantic who paid the most terriible price for the ‘systemic failure’, but Burkhardt and all those modern railmen grown too used to thinking of their railway business in terms of electronic maps in central offices have also had to learn that even the most automated and computer-sophisticated systems still have to allow for the human factor. No algorithm can eliminate that. Free market economists need to keep that in mind as well.