Books History Women's history

Reading a fine history of Delphi

A shorter verson was first published on Blogcritics

There’s a whole book about the history of Delphi, and the material to fill it handsomely, because it was an important place in the ancient world, influential and often rich for many of the centuries from before Greek history was recorded well into the 4th century AD.

But it wasn’t, by and large powerful. It wasn’t the centre of an empire, it never had large bodies of troops to call on, it lived in large part on its wits, navigating its way through the Persian Wars (probably rather less than heroically), the Peloponnesian War, centuries of Roman emperors and their foibles.

That makes its history, I found, particularly interesting. Most of the human race, for most of our history, has lived like this, town burghers, village elders, huddling anxiously together, trying decide which side to choose in a conflict, or whether they can get away with sitting on the fence, calculating whether flattery is a good option, or an appearance of independent mindedness. Most of us haven’t been at the centre, from which most history is written, but the peripheries, trying to cope with the power of the centre.

That balancing act is central to Michael Scott’s very readable but still scholarly and serious complete account of the Greek settlement’s history. I was particularly impressed by his credible refusal to try to answer unanswerable questions: not choosing which record of the oracle’s pronouncements to “believe”, but acknowledging that they were shaped to the purposes of the writers who recorded them often centuries after their reported utterance.

He doesn’t try to solve the puzzle of the lack of a chasm beneath the temple of Apollo, while recording the recent geological revelations that the site is at the centre of two fault lines, perfectly placed to produce the fissured bedrock beneath the temple, through which fumes of ethane, methane and ethylene, from the underlying bituminous limestone might have risen. Indeed, he notes that intoxication of the priestess, if part of the practice, doesn’t really do anything to explain how for 1,000 years carefully crafted prophecies emerged from the depths of the temple and were at the centre of maintaining the economic future of a inconveniently located site that had nothing obvious to recommend it as a place for a visit beyond its mystique.

He’s also interesting on the place of the oracle at its peak time, that of the classic period of Greek history, when city states with varying methods of government often used it as a “tie-breaker” in making tough decisions about their actions – his comparison with management consultants is interesting, although I rather like the idea of turning his approach around: thinking about management consultants as being like the Pythia – about the same level of science and probably as good at judging the desires of those who employ them.
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Books History Politics

Behind our unwritten constitution…

Little known facts: ” The 1713 Place Bill, which would have taken all government ministers out of parliament and split the executive from the legislature, failed to get on the statute book only because the vote on the third reading in the Lords was tied. The Reform Act of 1832 was later thought so good they named it Great, but on its second reading in 1831 was carried in the Commons by a single vote, as was the vote of no-confidence in Jim Callaghan in 1979 that led to Mrs Thatcher’s first election victory.” (p5)

“Sir William Paxton … bought his Carmarthenshire seat with 11,070 breakfasts, 36,091 dinners and 25,275 gallons of ale, carried on treating the electorate with food and booze until a series of Corrupt Practice Acts in 1854, 1883 and 1885.” (p. 11)

From Parliament: The Biography, Volume 1, by Chris Bryant.

Books Politics

Notes from Diane Coyle’s “GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History”

A short and worthwhile one-sitting read – she can’t help in the end being an economist of her time and place, but she’s at least a critical one…

p. 13-14 Simon Kuznets in the US during the Depression was trying to calculate national income – his figures in January 1934 showed it had halved 1929 to 1932. But he saw his task as trying to measure welfare rather than just output. Quoting him “It would be of great value to have national income estimates that would remove from the total elements which, from the standpoint of a more enlightened social philosophy than that of an acquisitive society represent dis-service rather than service. Such estimates would subtract from the present national income totals all expenses on armaments, most of the outlays on advertising, a great many of the expenses involved in financial and speculative activities, and what is perhaps more important, the outlays that have been made necessary in order to overcome difficulties that are, properly speaking, costs implicit in our economic civilization. All the gigantic outlays in our urban civilisation, subways, expensive housing etc,… do not really represent net services to the individual comprising the nation but are, from their viewpoint, an evil necessary in order to be able to make a living.”

But of course there was a war coming …

“It is startling to look back over the decades and realise how recent consumerism is. … it wasn’t until 1950 that 75% of US households had a washing machine, and the same benchmark wasn’t reached in Europe until 1970. Cars did not reach three-quarters of the US population until the 1970s but the European countries didn’t catch up until the late 1990s.”

Many of the critics of PPP [purchasing power parity] conversions also argue there is an ideological bias, although usually entirely unconscious, in the process. taking the PPP-based GDP comparisons on this basis at face value makes the trends in world poverty levels and income distribution look more encouraging than they really are. And if poverty has been declining rapidly and inequality between countries not getting wider but rather possibly diminishing, as the comparisons suggest, then there is no reason to worry about the process of globalization of international trade and investment that characterised the 1990s and 2000s. This is obviously a pretty fundamental question … To some extent the answer is obvious from the way everyday life in Chinese cities has visibly changed: there has certainly been a big increase in living standards for a large proportion of China’s urban population, and that’s enough to affect the global picture. Beyond that, though, the answer does depend on how the GDP of different countries is converted on the same basis.”

p. 62
“By 1968 there had been a quarter century of absolutely extraordinary growth. … Western living standards had approximately trebled since 1950… There was a job for everyone who wanted one… A man could act as a breadwinner for the whole family, reasonably secure in his job and well paid with a secure pension.’

p. 78
“Until relatively recently, there was very little evidence on which economists could base their views about how economics grow. The number of countries for which GDP data were available increased slowly, and only reach 60 as late as 1985. For many of these, the data were of poor quality. … Even those who had been gathering some kind of national income statistics for a long period did not have data series that were consistent over time … the empirical work … was augmented by historical studies using data on GDP for a range of countries going back to the year 1000. Angus Maddison … extraordinary International Comparison Project undertook the immense task of finding from a wide range of historical sources all the raw statistics needed to construct GDP, on its modern definition, backwards through history .. now an essential resource…(but) economists now use Maddison’s statistics blithely, without the due caution required… involved a lot of assumptions and clever guesswork.

p. 82 “Wal-Mart is the leading example of how a business can transform its productivity using their technologies. McKinsey estimated that Wal-Mart on its own accounted for a substantial proportion of the pickup of American productivity in the late 1990s. To achieve this, the company developed a model of sourcing goods from China and other low-cost countries, through an extremely sophisticated logistics operation, and retailing the goods in massive out-of-town stores.” [To which of course I’d add, massive external costs not accounted for, from the health care of their workers, met by the government, to the emissions from transport and pollution from production of those goods…. and more…]
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Books Politics

Notes from After the Great Complacence: Financial Crisis and the Politics of Reform

In the pre-2007 period, central bankers, regulators and senior economists “repeated the same reassuring but ill-founded stories about the benefits of financial innovation and “the Great Moderation”. These stories mattered because they framed the purpose, intent, and tone if policies towards finance and they legitimated a gross failure of public regulation around securitisation and derivatives I the 2000s. This followed on from a more general undermining of public regulation of finance which began in the 1980s and flecked a collective belief that the (financial) market forces, left to their own devices, would allocate capital efficiently, improve the robustness of financial markets, and deliver socially optimal outcomes. The judgement that financial innovation was a beneficial process (and part of a new golden age) was the made on the basis of very little supporting evidence and argument.”

“The financial sector…imposed huge costs on the rest of the economy by requiring expensive bailouts and triggering recession… Worse still, the policy Estes failed in their public service duty of preventing capitalist business from privatising gains and socialising losses … None of this is unusual I benighted dictatorships or oligarchies, where the privatisation of gains and the socialisation of losses usually indicate the presence of an uncontrolled and predatory elite. But this drama is different … First, technocrats like Ben Bernancke and Mervyn King are implicated in the making of a catastrophe: if these public servants cannot be accused of venality, it is perhaps more alarming to find them trading opinion on the basis of their authority and expertise. Second, the drama of reactionary consequences and cuts is now being played out in democracies like the UK and US which have mass franchises,electoral competition and traditions of intervention for progressive redistribution. Yet, the post-crisis political drama (so far) doesn’t have a “never-again” ending; the moneymaking financial elites are not clearly subordinated and the technocrats and politicians cannot agree on how to change the management of finance so as to prevent further disaster.” P. 13

The process of financialization since the mid-1970s has been described as one which has given financial markets and motives great influence over corporations and households. This process can be measured in terms of the rise in debt or financial assets … The democratisation of finance required the narrative co-option of the masses into elite-led financial processes … Not about creating financialized capitalism but reinventing a different kind of financialized capitalism. When Tawney and Bukharin criticised financialized capitalism in the outward period, they focused on upper-middle class rentier claims to unearned income. Now finance has been democratised by the inclusion of the masses as consumers of savings and credit products; 70pc are homeowners in most capitalist countries except Germany, and everybody is credit-dependent in ways which provide feedstock for the wholesale financial markets. But wealth and income are increasingly unequally divided, partly because the major financial centres like London have turned into machines for the mass production of millionaires from amongst the working rich in investment banking and fund management.” P. 24
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Books Environmental politics History

From the East Anglian fens to the fragile wilds of Chernobyl

Tim Dee’s Four Fields is a title reflecting a bit of a conceit – it might equally be called “interesting natural things I’ve seen around the world”. It ranges widely from the fens of East Anglia to the horrors of nature distorted around Chernobyl, with a digression to a near-abandoned tobacco farm in South Africa to follow a honeyguide, to the American prairie and site of Custer’s last stand.

But it was the accounts of the fens I found most fascinating, possibly for their combination of history and ecology. Dee reports on the draining of Whittlesey Moor, the last fen mere to be so treated, in 1851. An iron column, 22 feet high was driven into the peat until it rested on the clay, it’s top level with the peat. “The water was pumped from Whittlesey in a matter of days. Locals strapped planks to their feet to walk on the mud and gather the fish that were dwoning in air. Eels and others were taken by the ton… the lake gave up a censer and an incense boat, which the last Abbot of Ramsey had lost in its watery flight from the Dissolution Commissioners of Henry VIII. The skeleton of a gramps (a dolphin of some species, possibly a killer whale) was also found, a leftover from more marine times. The water birds … went with its water. Previously, eight punt-gunners had made a living shooting its ducks. Three thousand wildfowl had been taken from the decoy on Holmes Fen in one week. Eight bitters or buttercups had been shot on Whittlesey in one day.” And on the column, Dee says … “its crown is now 12 feet clear of the earth, an iron-green stick in the birch-crowded day.” (p. 28) – a result of the peat soil shrinking.

Yet the earlier, pre-drained, fenland had been immensely productive, a part-wild, part-farmed place. “there were always people in every field and on every fen… reeds and sedges scythe for teaching; duck and fish tapped for food; peat dug for fuel; litter … off marsh plants for coarse hay. … Reeds grew in the wetter part of the fen. After winter frosts stripped them of their flags, old stems of four years or more were cut for roofing and younger stems were mixed with litter for fodder… Coopers sought the bullrushes on the fen, their long round stems were dried and placed between barrel staves where, on contact with fewer or whatever else was in the barrels, the stems would swell and keep the joints watertight. … Osiers from willows on the fen were cut for baskets, eel traps and foggot binds; thicker branches made good scythe handles. To keep the stick swollen and the fastening firm between harvests, scythe would be stored under the fen water, like moon-slivers of rusting silver.”
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Books Feminism History

The more things change … girls and moral panics

Have been reading Carol Dyhouse’s excellent Girl Trouble: Panic and Progress in the History of Young Women.

It begins with the white slave panic of the late 19th and early 20th century, concluding “girls travelling along in the 1900s were much more likely to be accosted by social workers determined to protect young innocents than pumps or predators. England’s ports and railway stations were by then swarming with voluntary social workers undertaking to safeguard young country girls about to enter they big city.” The panic had real consequences – “The social historian Dorothy Marshall, who grew up in the North of England before the war, recalled an unhappy year spent at a boarding school in Blackpool where she was subjected to lurid accounts of white slavery from other girls in the dormitory. Dorothy’s parents … instilled anxious warnings. Looking back, Dorothy considered that these early fears ‘provided one strand in my make-up, it is one I should be very happy to do without’.”(p 26)

I hadn’t previously heard about the Girls’ Friendly Society, which was obviously huge for decades, and vicious…. Dating from 1875, “stood for an uncomprising standard of purity. Loss of virginity meant loss of virtue and disqualified a girl from being or becoming a member. An early attempt (in 1878-9) to soften this rule, in order to allow work with girls who repented of any ‘lapse from grace’ met with opposition from both the founder, Mrs Townsend, and the bishops. The society’s aim was the prevent girls from ‘falling’. Upper-class lady ‘associates’ took it upon themselves to act in a semi-maternal capacity towards unmarried, working-class girls,…. astonishingly successful in the UK and even internationally, with strong links throughout the British Empire…. peak membership in 1913, with 39,926 associates and 197,493 members in England and Wales….a massive publishing endeavour… the aim was to combat the appeal of ‘shilling shockers and penny dreadful’ … offered uplifting stories of moral endeavour and self-sacrifice, often illustrated with images of female saints, and with floral motifs. White flowers, of course, carried a special symbolic charge. Snowdrops and lilies were emblems of feminine purity and heavily resorted to by Victorian sentimentalists. A separate group of organisations calling themselves Snowdrops or White Ribbon bands flourished alongside the GFS from around 1889 to 1912, particularly among factory girls in the North and the Midlands. … All this flowering-plant imagery became somewhat stretched at times: The Snowdrops featured an obituary column under the subtitled ‘Transplanted’. (p. 28-30) Reformers in the GFS “only succeeded in changing the rule as late as 1936 and even this was in the teeth of strong opposition, and many of the old guard resigned” (p. 34)
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