2000s >> 2009 >> no-1256-april-2009

Book Reviews

A deficit of logic

The Credit Crunch.
Graham Turner. 2008. Pluto Press.

Graham Turner has made a number of appearances on BBC2’s Newsnight in recent weeks, helping Paul Mason deconstruct the credit crisis and slump.

Turner is a Keynesian of sorts and a fan of ‘quantitative easing’ i.e. of central banks flooding the financial markets with liquidity in the hope that this will get banks lending again, literally giving people more money to spend. As history demonstrates though – and Marxian economics explains – the practical effect of this is further doses of currency inflation as it is likely to accelerate the continuing overissue of inconvertible paper currency that has been going on since the Second World War.

This book is currently one of the most widely available explanations of the financial crisis in UK bookshops. But in essence it is a confused book and Turner seems to think that the reason the Keynesian remedy hasn’t worked on any previous occasion is because the policy levers weren’t pulled in quite the right order, or at quite the right time.

As an illustration of the book’s confusion, there are a large number of pages discussing in great detail what Turner apparently sees as the supposed significance of trade deficits and surpluses in various countries affected by the asset price bubble. But then he concludes, all of a sudden and for no particular or stated reason – much in line with the historical evidence but against the line of his own argument presented here – that ‘It does not matter that much whether a country is running a trade deficit or a surplus: a bubble is a bubble, and there are far too many around’. Indeed.

Though it includes some interesting and useful statistical data and graphs, after this point it was difficult to take the book entirely seriously and George Cooper’s rival explanation in the Origin of Financial Crises (reviewed in March) is clearer, more in accordance with reality and much to be preferred.


Capitalist childhood

A Good Childhood: Searching for values in a competitive age. Richard Lazard and Judy Dunn. Penguin, £9.99. 2009.

Some of us have a good childhood; others don’t. Of course it all depends on what you mean by a good childhood. Is it to own a lot of things – or to be happy? Is it more important to have a good relationship with others – or with yourself?

This book is based on the report of an 18-month survey sponsored by the Children’s Society, and is written by an economist and a psychologist. It deals with a wide range of issues connected with childhood: family, friends, lifestyle, values, schooling, mental health and inequalities. Its centre-left viewpoint is well illustrated by the remark “With immense courage the Labour government committed itself in 1999 to abolishing child poverty by 2020…”

The authors are critical of excessive individualism, by which they mean “the belief that the prime duty of the individual is to make the most of her life, rather than contribute to the good of others”. They reject some features of the face of childhood in present society, but they want to scrub that face clean rather than remodel it. Thus the media “should be embarrassed at the amount of physical violence which they put out and advertisers should be embarrassed at their encouragement of premature sexualization, heavy drinking and over-eating”. No question of the media and advertisers stopping their malign and profit-seeking influence on youngsters—just suggest that they should feel embarrassed at what they do.

The authors are far from holding the view that there is no such thing as society. Indeed they write of moral education that “it needs to offer a vision of a good person and a good society”. But most of the solutions they propose to childhood problems are at the level of individual behaviour rather than societal change: “If we want to improve our quality of life, we must above all produce better people.”

Archbishop Rowan Williams, patron of the Inquiry Panel, contributes an elegantly waffly 12-page afterword in which he claims that “the report ask far more from churches and religious communities – as it does from all kinds of bodies in our society”. The text does in places have a vicarish tone (“Children are a sacred bush”). But the nearest the report gets to churchy religion is to refer to spirituality as “an uplifting experience”,


Selling Your Father’s Bones.
By Brian Schofield, Harper Press, 2008

This is a fascinating account of the fate of Nez Perce (rhymes with Fez Purse) people of the north west of the USA and their land. It uses the narrative of the desperate 1877 flight from their old homeland in the Wallowa valley towards exile in Canada, as a means to describe the exploitation and near destruction of the West through a particularly rapacious form of capitalism. The industrial pollution (the mile wide purple pit of Butte, Montana, is very memorable) and destructive agriculture are vividly depicted. As a history of a “Native American” group, it is especially useful as it brings the subject right up to date – an annoying feature of books of this nature is the close of the narrative at the loss of political independence, usually deep in the nineteenth century. The contrast between the desolation left after the death of the settler’s dream (the scary empty landscapes of No Country for Old Men) and the relative success of the communitarian Nez Perce rewards the reader with vicarious pleasures and hints towards the very real benefits, both economic and social, which socialism will bring.

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