(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘France

“Monetary policy is one of the most difficult topics in economics. But also, I believe, a topic of absolutely crucial importance for our prosperity.”*…

Basement of a bank full of banknotes at the time of the Mark devaluation during the economic crisis in the Weimar Republic

What can we learn from a twentieth century economist who was a critic of Keynes and a staunch advocate of the Gold Standard? Samuel Gregg considers the career of Jacques Rueff

Money, it is often said, makes the world go round. The inverse of that axiom is that monetary disorder brings chaos in its wake. As we learned from the hyperinflation that wreaked havoc in 1920s Germany and the stagflation which hobbled Western economies throughout the 1970s, the effects of such disorder go far beyond the economy. Further complicating the problem is that restoring monetary stability is invariably a painful exercise, often bringing unemployment, recession and lasting social damage in its wake.

As a rule, monetary theory and monetary policy are dry affairs, dominated by highly technical discussions concerning topics such as the nature of capital or the likely impact of interest-rates set by central banks. One thinker who did not conform to this mould was the French monetary theorist Jacques Rueff (1896-1978). Arguably France’s most important twentieth-century economist, Rueff played a major role in shaping the Third Republic’s response to the Great Depression in the 1930s, designed the market liberalisation programme that saved France from economic collapse in 1958, and emerged in the 1960s as the leading critic of the US dollar’s role in the global economy and a prominent advocate of a return to the classic gold standard.

Rueff was, however, much more than an economist. A graduate of the École Polytechnique, he was among that small elite of civil servants trained in administration, engineering, mathematics, the natural sciences, foreign languages, and political economy whose role was to inject stability into the perpetual political pandemonium of the Third Republic. But even among that highly-educated cohort, Rueff stood out for the breadth and depth of his knowledge and his willingness to integrate it into his economic reflections. For Rueff, the significance of monetary order went beyond issues such as economic growth or employment, as important as they were. Ultimately, it was about whether Western civilisation flourished or embraced self-delusion…

Gregg recounts Rueff’s career, his championing of “real rights” (e.g., property rights) vs. “false rights” (which involve the state declaring something such as unemployment benefits to be a right and then trying to realize it through means that destroy real rights), and his advocacy of a return to the Gold Standard (part of his critique of the use of the U.S. dollar as a unit of reserve)… all positions with which reasonable people (including your correspondent) might disagree. But Gregg reminds us that Rueff’s most fundamental goal– a healthy society– surely remains desirable, and that his fear of the chaos that monetary meltdowns can cause is only too justified…

Monetary order wasn’t everything for Rueff. His writings reflect deep awareness of the ways in which culture, religion, philosophy, music and literature influenced civilisational development. Nonetheless Rueff insisted the threats posed by monetary disorder were more than economic. For him, civilisational growth was impossible without monetary order…

Let us not allow means with which we disagree to obscure important ends.

After examining the economic chaos of the early twentieth century, monetary theorist Jacques Rueff argued that without monetary order, civilizational growth is impossible: “Jacques Rueff’s quest for monetary order,” from @DrSamuelGregg in @EngelsbergIdeas.

* Maxime Bernier

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As we remember that neither should we allow ends with which we disagree to obscure important means, we might spare a thought for Leonid Kantorovich; he died on this date in 1986. An economist and mathematician best known for his theory and development of techniques for the optimal allocation of resources, he is regarded as the founder of linear programming— for which he received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1975.

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“Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities”…

Richard Whately’s 1843 book on whether Napoleon actually existed deserves to be turned into a documentary. It is either (1) an extreme example of skepticism, or (2) satire, or (3) satire of an extreme example of skepticism, or (4) a straightforward debunking of Napoleon’s existence, or—and my preferred interpretation—(5) the first example of French deconstruction…

Faulkner argued that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Ted Gioia (@tedgioia) offers a timely historical example: “Historic Doubts Relative to Napoleon Buonaparte.” Via his wonderful newsletter.

* Voltaire

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As we contend with conspiracists, we might we might recall that it was on this date in 1804 that Napoleon Bonaparte was in fact proclaimed Emperor of France by the French Senate– at least in part an unintended consequence of Britain’s declaration of war against France (again), exactly one year before, in response to Napoleon’s “activities” in Italy and Switzerland… (Napoleon formally crowned himself “Emperor Napoleon I” on December 2, 1804 at Notre Dame de Paris.)

Jacques-Louis David’s portrait of Napoleon (1812)

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May 18, 2021 at 1:01 am

“History may be divided into three movements: what moves rapidly, what moves slowly, and what appears not to move at all.”*…

Out of Italy was Braudel’s attempt to… explain a historical flash in the pan: the Italian Renaissance.

For Braudel, history was a struggle to see connections across the high walls of academic disciplines. This kind of approach to the past, showing that all ‘civilisations have their feet on the ground’, is Braudel and the Annales school’s most important legacy: the value of interdisciplinary research, as exemplified by their radical programme, is now so tacitly accepted as to be hardly worth mentioning.

If Italy’s rise must be explained, so, Braudel thought, must its decline. Today, historians are not so concerned with questions of cultural supremacy and decay; they don’t view culture as a vital force that can be ‘concentrated and exhausted’ in a couple of centuries. But the explanation for the fizzling out of this creative energy in the mid-17th century vexed Braudel. He saw the seeds of Italy’s decline within its greatness, borrowing Léon Brunschvicg’s image for ancient Greece’s influence (which Brunschvicg in turn had taken from Hegel): the owl of Athena takes flight only at nightfall. ‘Rightly or wrongly,’ Braudel wrote, ‘it seems to me that there must be a kind of nightfall preceding, and determining, almost every case of cultural greatness. It is the darkness that provokes a multitude of lights.’ The catastrophes of the Italian Wars (1494-1559) and a declining economy were the shadows that prompted the brilliance of Renaissance art and culture; it was peace and economic tranquillity that ‘spread like treacle through Italian life’ after the treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559. Greatness (and influence) was born in darkness.

To make his point Braudel asks us to imagine conversations with three Baroque architects: with Agostino Barelli (from Bologna), standing outside his Theatine Church in Munich in 1660; with Carlo Antonio Carlone (from Como), as he began work on his Church of the Nine Angelic Choirs in Vienna in 1663; and with Andrea Pozzo (from Trento), while he oversaw the construction of his Jesuit Church in Vienna in 1701. Three Italians, three major building projects outside Italy. They would have been surprised to learn that Italy was on the path to decline…

How could cultures as vibrant as Baroque Italy or interwar Europe have been so radically diminished? Italy’s economic dominance would be supplanted first by the capitalist burghers of the Netherlands and then by English industrialists….

Braudel’s writing also sought to confront the inability of even the greatest historians to predict what would happen next. In this light, his pessimism about human time and human stories can be hard to face… And yet Braudel is optimistic about human civilisations:

Mortal perhaps are their ephemeral blooms, the intricate and short-lived creations of an age, their economic triumphs and their social trials, in the short term. But their foundations remain. They are not indestructible, but they are many times more solid than one might imagine. They have withstood a thousand supposed deaths, their massive bulk unmoved by the monotonous pounding of the centuries.

Nothing changes, and individual lives barely leave an imprint. But this is not tragic determinism. It is an unshakeable belief in the persistence of human history through time. ‘A Renaissance,’ Braudel writes, ‘is always possible.’

On Fernand Braudel‘s Out of Italy, and an appreciation of its insightful author, a leader of the Annales school of history: “Down with Occurrences.”

* Fernand Braudel

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As we think in time, we might recall that it was on this date in 1803 that Spanish representatives in New Orleans executed documents ceding sovereignty over the Louisiana Territory to France. Twenty days later, France transferred the Territory to the United States.

The U.S. gained possession of 828,000 square miles of territory (an area that includes all or part of 15 current U.S. states and 2 Canadian provinces).  Americans had originally sought to purchase only the port city of New Orleans and its adjacent coastal lands; but Napoleon, cash-strapped by his war with England, offered the (much) larger parcel– and the U.S. quickly agreed.

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The modern continental United States, with the Louisiana Purchase overlaid

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November 30, 2020 at 1:01 am

“We all know that an angry electorate is a voting electorate”*…

Further to yesterday’s post

The final vote tallies still aren’t known, but the media verdict of this presidential election is in: it’s 2016 all over again. Four years ago, in the hours after Donald Trump declared victory on the strength of 306 Electoral College votes and the ballots of nearly sixty-three million Americans, I wrote a column about the failures of the press throughout that campaign, and declared that “journalism’s moment of reckoning” had arrived. “Reporters’ eagerness first to ridicule Trump and his supporters, then to dismiss them, and finally to actively lobby and argue for their defeat have led us to a moment when the entire journalistic enterprise needs to be rethought and rebuilt,” I wrote then.

It is astonishing, today, how little we seem to have learned since. Once again, opinion polls were overhyped and under-scrutinized. Some of them were also wildly off—and, though that’s different from 2016, when the polls were largely accurate but widely misunderstood, it doesn’t let media organizations off the hook for their treatment of the numbers. Newsrooms leaned too heavily on polls as a substitute for on-the-ground reporting, and they were led astray. Journalists spent too much time talking to each other on Twitter, inhabiting an alternate algorithmic reality that bore little resemblance to the life of the country. And major media institutions made it all but impossible to envision that, despite the wealth of reporting on the president’s lies and his racism and his circus—nearly half the country remains beholden to the man and his beliefs. “We can’t go back to assuming, just because we think Donald Trump is an outlier, that he is not connecting to a lot of American people in ways that, frankly, a lot of us cannot understand,” Claire McCaskill, a former Missouri senator, said Wednesday morning on MSNBC. The feeling of déjà vu, and of lost journalistic opportunity, is inescapable…

Kyle Pope (@kylepope), editor of the Columbia Journalism Review on lessons unlearned: “What the polls show, and the press missed, again.”

On the problem(s) with polls, pair with “Of course Trump’s voters lie to pollsters. You call us all racists” (with an eye to the phenomenon it addresses– and the questions raised by the rationale it offers…)

For one (very compelling) account of why Pope’s project matters, see Fintan O’Toole’s “Democracy’s Afterlife.” (For more, see also Ron Brownstein, Roxane Gay, and George Packer on the same family of issues… there are lots of diagnoses abroad in the infosphere at the moment; these are among the best your correspondent has found.)

And for a resonant but different take on the necessary role of “honest journalism” going forward, see also Jay Rosen’s “America’s Press and the Asymmetric War for Truth.”

* Donna Brazile

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As we look more deeply, we might recall that it was on this date (18 Brumaire in the French Republican Calendar) in 1799 that thirty-year-old Corsican General Napoleon Bonaparte overthrew the Directory in France and established the Consulate, ending the power of the revolutionary oligarchy and creating himself as First Consul… or dictator.

Napoleon in the Coup de 18 Brumaire (detail of an oleo by Bouchot)

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November 9, 2020 at 1:01 am

“He got his fat dreams, he got his slaves / He got his profits, he owns our cage”*…

 

slave ship

Plan, profile and layout of the slave ship The Séraphique Marie

 

For a generation, the relationship between slavery and capitalism has preoccupied historians. The publication of several major pieces of scholarship on the matter has won attention from the media. Scholars demonstrate that the Industrial Revolution, centred on the mass production of cotton textiles in the factories of England and New England, depended on raw cotton grown by slaves on plantations in the American South. Capitalists often touted the superiority of the industrial economies and their supposedly ‘free labour’. ‘Free labour’ means the system in which workers are not enslaved but free to contract with any manufacturer they chose, free to sell their labour. It means that there is a labour market, not a slave market.

But because ‘free labour’ was working with and dependent on raw materials produced by slaves, the simple distinction between an industrial economy of free labour on the one hand and a slave-based plantation system on the other falls apart. So too does the boundary between the southern ‘slave states’ and northern ‘free states’ in America. While the South grew rich from plantation agriculture that depended on slave labour, New England also grew rich off the slave trade, investing in the shipping and maritime insurance that made the transport of slaves from Africa to the United States possible and profitable. The sale of enslaved Africans brought together agriculture and industry, north and south, forming a global commercial network from which the modern world emerged.

It is only in the past few decades that scholars have come to grips with how slavery and capitalism intertwined. But for the 18th-century French thinkers who laid the foundations of laissez-faire capitalism, it made perfect sense to associate the slave trade with free enterprise. Their writings, which inspired the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776), aimed to convince the French monarchy to deregulate key businesses such as the sale of grain and trade with Asia. Only a few specialists read them today. Yet these pamphlets, letters and manuscripts clearly proclaim a powerful message: the birth of modern capitalism depended not only on the labour of enslaved people and the profits of the slave trade, but also on the example of slavery as a deregulated global enterprise…

[Adam] Smith became far more influential than his teacher. As his own version of laissez-faire ideas came to seem like common sense in the following century, the pioneering Gournay Circle was largely forgotten. Their sense that the slave trade was a prime example of free trade in action disappeared. Yet the writings of Gournay and Morellet reveal that modern capitalism is entangled with slavery in multiple, profound ways. Slave labour supplied the cotton, sugar and other vital commodities. The profits from the sale of slaves created fortunes on both sides of the Atlantic. And, in a disturbing paradox, the founding fathers of laissez-faire saw the slave trade as a showcase of liberty.

The chilling tale of a “secret ingredient” in capitalism-as-we-know-it and of the 18th-century thinkers behind the laissez-faire economics that power it: “Slavery as Free Trade.”

* Richie Havens, “Fate”

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As we face history, we might recall that it was on this date in 1789 that partisans of the Third Estate, impatient for social and legal reforms (and economic relief) in France, attacked and took control of the Bastille.  A fortress in Paris, the Bastille was a medieval armory and political prison; while it held only 8 inmates at the time, it resonated with the crowd as a symbol of the monarchy’s abuse of power.  Its fall ignited the French Revolution.  This date is now observed annually as France’s National Day.

See the estimable Robert Darnton’s “What Was Revolutionary about the French Revolution?

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Storming of The Bastile, Jean-Pierre Houël

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July 14, 2020 at 1:01 am

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