Category Archives: Economics/Business

Homo Sovieticus

Aeroflot Advertisement, New York Times, 2017

A few months ago, I noticed an advertisement that Aeroflot, the Russian carrier, had placed in the New York Times. The appearance reminded me of an approach I had made to the airline over forty-five years ago, in England, when, obviously with not enough serious things to do at the time, and maybe overtaken by some temporary lovelorn Weltschmerz, I had written a letter to its Publicity Manager, suggesting a slogan that it might profitably use to help promote its brand.

Miraculously, this letter recently came to light as I was sorting out some old files. I keep telling my wife, Sylvia, that she need not worry about the clutter that I have accumulated and taken with me over the years – from England to Connecticut, to New Jersey and to Pennsylvania, and then back to Connecticut before our retirement transplantation to North Carolina in 2001. The University of Eastern Montana has generously committed to purchasing the whole Percy archive, so that it will eventually be boxed up and sent to the Ethel Hays Memorial Library in Billings for careful and patient inspection by students of mid-twentieth century social life in suburban Surrey, England.

I reproduce the letter here:

Letter to Aeroflot, March 1972

It reads:

“Dear Sir,

I notice that you have started advertising on London buses. I have for some time thought that a good slogan for Aeroflot would be: ‘Happiness is just an Ilyushin’, which is a pretty awful pun, but a fairly Russian sentiment. E.G.

. . .В себя ли заглянешь, там прошлого нет и следа;

И радость, и муки, и всё там ничтожно . . .  (Lermontov)

Yours faithfully, R. A. Percy”

[Dimitri Obolensky, in the Penguin Book of Russian Verse, translates this fragment of an untitled poem as follows: “If you look within yourself, there is not a trace of the past there; the joys and the torments – everything there is worthless  . . .”]

I am not sure why Aeroflot was advertising on London Transport vehicles at the time, since the Man on the Clapham Omnibus was probably not considering then a holiday in Sochi or Stalingrad, and anyone who did not have to use the airline would surely choose the western equivalent. Nevertheless, I thought my sally quite witty at the time, though I did not receive the favour of a reply. Did homo sovieticus, with his known frail sense of humour, not deem my proposal worthy of merit? After all, humour was a dangerous commodity in Soviet times: repeating a joke about Stalin might get you denounced by a work colleague or neighbour and sent to the Gulag, while Stalin himself derived his variety of laughs from ordering Khrushchev to dance the gopak late at night, and forcing his drinking-pals on the Politburo to watch him.

I think it unlikely that the state-controlled entity would have hired a Briton as its publicity manager, but of course it may not have had a publicity manager at all. Maybe my letter did not reach the right person, or maybe it did, but he or she could not be bothered to reply to some eccentric Briton. Or maybe the letter was taken seriously, but then the manager thought about Jimmy Ruffin’s massive 1966 hit What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted? (see , and considered that its vibrant phrase ‘Happiness is just an illusion/filled with darkness and confusion’ might not communicate the appropriate atmosphere as Aeroflot’s passengers prepared to board the 11:40 flight from Heathrow to Minsk. We shall never know.

The Stalin-Class S. S. Baltika

My first real encounter with homo sovieticus had occurred when I was a member of a school party to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1965. As we went through customs after disembarking from the good ship Baltika, I recall the officer asking me, in all seriousness, whether I was bringing in ‘veppons’ with me. After verifying what he had asked, I was able to deny such an attempt at contrabandage. I had conceived of no plans to abet an armed uprising in the Land of the Proletariat, as I thought it might deleteriously affect my prospects of taking up the place offered me at Christ Church, Oxford, the following October. Moreover, it seemed a rather pointless question to pose, as I am sure the commissars would have inspected all baggage anyway, but perhaps they would have doubled my sentence if they had caught me lying to them, as well as smuggling in arms. Yet it showed the absurd protocol-oriented thinking of the security organs: ‘Be sure to ask members of English school groups whether they are smuggling in weapons to assist a Troyskyist insurrection against the glorious motherland’.

At least it was not as naïve as the question that the US customs officer asked me, when I visited that country for the first time about eleven years later: ‘Do you have any intentions to overthrow the government of the United States?’. Did he really expect a straight answer? When H. G. Wells asked his mistress, Moura Budberg, whether she was a spy, she told him very precisely that, whether she was a spy or not, the answer would have to be ‘No’. That’s what spies do: lies and subterfuge. If I really did have plans for subversion in the United States, the first thing I would have done when I eventually immigrated here would be to plant a large Stars and Stripes on my front lawn, and wear one of those little pins that US politicians choose to place in their lapels, in the manner that Guy Burgess always sported his Old Etonian tie, to prove their patriotism. So the answer in Washington, as in Leningrad, was ‘No’. That was, incidentally, what Isaiah Berlin meant when he wrote to his parents in July 1940 that Americans were ‘open, vigorous, 2 x 2 = 4 sort of people, who want yes or no for an answer. No nuances’. These same people who nailed Al Capone for tax evasion, and Alger Hiss for perjury, would have to work to convict Tony Percy for the lesser charge of deceiving a customs official.

H.G. Wells, Maxim Gorky & Moura Budberg

I did not manage to speak to many homines sovietici during my time in the Soviet Union, but I did have one or two furtive meetings with a young man who was obviously dead scared of the KGB, but even keener to acquire nylon shirts and ballpoint pens from me, which I handed over at a night-time assignation in some park in Leningrad. That was clearly very foolish on my part, but it gave me an early indication that, despite the several decades of Leninist, Stalinist, Khruschevian and Brezhnevian indoctrination and oppression, the Communist Experiment had not succeeded in eliminating the free human spirit completely. Moreover, despite the ‘command economy’, the Soviets could not provide its citizens with even basic goods. When the Soviet troops invaded eastern Europe in 1944, among other violations, they cleared the shelves, grabbed watches, and marvelled at flush toilets that worked. As Clive James wrote in his essay on Coco Chanel: “It was the most sordid trick that communism played. Killing people by the millions at least had the merit of a tragic dimension. But making the common people queue endlessly for goods barely worth having was a bad joke.”

Piata-Victoriei Square, Bucharest

My only other direct experience with life behind the Iron Curtain was in Bucharest, in 1980. In an assignment on which I now look back on with some shame, I was chartered with flying to Romania to install a software package that turned out to be for the benefit of the Ministry of Home Affairs, probably for the Securitate. I changed planes in Zürich, and took a TAROM flight (not in an Ilyushin, I think, but in a BAC-111) to reach Ceausescu’s version of a workers’ paradise. The flight crew was surly, for they had surely glimpsed the delights of Zürich once more, but knew that they were trapped in Romania, and had probably been spied upon as they walked round one of the most glittering of the foreign cities. And yet: I had been briefed beforehand to bring in some good whisky and a stack of ‘male magazines’ to please my contacts among the party loyalists. This time, I was able to bypass customs as a VIP: my host escorted me past the lines directly to the car waiting for us, where I was driven to my hotel, and handed over my copies of The Cricketer and Church Times for the enjoyment of the Romanian nomenklatura. I spent the Sunday walking around the city. The population was mostly cowed and nervous: there was a crude attempt to entrap me in the main square. During my project, I was able to watch at close hand the dynamics of the work environment in the Ministry, where the leader (obviously a carefully selected Party apparatchik) was quick to quash any independence of thought, or attempts at humour, in the cadre that he managed. A true homo sovieticus daciensis.

The fantasy that occupied Lenin’s mind was that a new breed of mankind could be created, based on solid proletariat lineage, and communist instruction. The New Man would be obedient, loyal, malleable, unimaginative, unselfish, unthinking. Universal literacy meant universal indoctrination. The assumption was accompanied by the belief that, while such characteristics could be inculcated in captive youth, inherited traits of the ‘bourgeoisie’ would have to be eradicated. The easiest way of achieving that was to kill them off, if they did not escape first. There were almost as many executions in the Red Terror of 1918 as there had been death sentences in Russian courts between 1815 and 1917, as Stephen Kotkin reminds us in Volume 1 of his epic new biography of Joseph Stalin. Kotkin also recounts the following: “Still, Lenin personally also forced through the deportation in fall 1922 of theologians, linguists, historians, mathematicians, and other intellectuals on two chartered German ships, dubbed the Philosophers’ Steamers. GPU notes on them recorded ‘knows a foreign language,’ ‘uses irony’.” Irony was not an attribute that homo sovieticus could easily deploy. What was going on had nevertheless been clear to some right from the start. In its issue of June 2, 2018, the Spectator magazine reprinted an item from ‘News of the Week’ a century ago, where Lenin and Trotsky were called out as charlatans and despots, and the revolution a cruel sham.

The trouble was that, once all the persons with education or talent had been eliminated or exiled, there were left only hooligans, psychopaths, or clodpolls to run the country. Kotkin again: “A regime created by confiscation had begun to confiscate itself, and never stopped. The authors of Red Moscow, an urban handbook published at the conclusion of the civil war, observed that ‘each revolution has its one unsightly, although transient, trait: the appearance on the stage of all kinds of rogues, deceivers, adventurists, and simple criminals, attaching themselves to power with one kind of criminal goal or another. Their danger to the revolution is colossal.’” This hatred of any intellectual pretensions – and thus presumptions about independent thinking – would lead straight to Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, with their execution of persons wearing eyeglasses, as they latter could obviously read, and thus might harbour ideas subversive to agrarian levelling.

Oleg Gordievsky

Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB officer who defected to Britain in 1985, crystallized the issue in his memoir Next Stop Execution. “Until the early 1970s I clung to the hope that the Soviet Union might still reject the Communist yoke and progress to freedom and democracy. Until then I had continued to meet people who had grown up before the revolution or during the 1920s, when the Soviet system was still not omnipotent. They were nice, normal Russians – like some distant relatives of my father who were engineers: not intellectuals or ideologues, but practical, decent people, embodying many of the old Russian engineer characteristics so well described by Solzhenitsyn. But then the last of these types died out, and the nation that emerged was composed purely of Homo sovieticuses: a new type had been created, of inadequate people, lacking initiative or the will to work, formed by Soviet society.” [The author acknowledged the ungrammatical plural form he used.] Thus Gordievsky classified both the common citizenry intimidated into submission and the apparatchiks themselves as homines sovietici. He also pointed out that what he found refreshing in English people generally was their capability for spontaneity, their discretion, their politeness, all qualities that had been practically eliminated in Russia under Communism. He may have been moving in sequestered circles, but the message is clear.

I sometimes reflect on what the life of a Soviet citizen, living perhaps from around 1922 to 1985, must have been like, if he or she survived that long. Growing up among famine and terror, informing against family members, with relatives perhaps disappearing into the Gulag because of the whisperings of a jealous neighbor, or the repeating of a dubious joke against Stalin, witnessing the show-trials and their ghastly verdicts, surviving the Nazi invasion and the horrors of serving in the Soviet armed forces, and then dealing with the long post-war deprivation and propaganda, dying before the curtain was pulled back, and the whole horrible mess was shown to be rotten. Yet some citizens had been taken in: they believed that all the suffering was worthwhile in the cause of Communism. In Secondhand Time, the nobelist Svetlana Alexievich offers searing portraits of such persons, as well as of those few who kept their independence of thought alive. Some beaten down by the oppression, some claiming that those who challenged Stalin were guilty, some merely accepting that it was a society based upon murder, some who willingly made all the sacrifices called for. Perhaps it was a close-run thing: the Communist Experiment, which cast its shadow over all of Eastern Europe after the battle against Fascism was won, almost succeeded in snuffing out the light.

(Incidentally, in connection with this, I recommend Omer Bartov’s searing Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz, published this year. Its title is unfortunate, as it is not about genocide. It tells of the citizens of a town in Galicia in the twentieth century, eventually caught between the monsters of Nazism and Communism. It shows how individuals of any background, whether they were Poles, Ruthenians, Ukrainians, or Jews, when provoked by pernicious demagogues or poisonous dogmas, could all behave cruelly to betray or murder people – neighbours – who had formerly been harmless to them. All it took was being taken in by the rants of perceived victimhood and revenge, or believing that they might thus be able to save their own skins for a little longer by denouncing or eliminating someone else.)

I was prompted to write this piece, and dredge out some old memories, by my reading of Odd Arne Westad’s The Cold War a few months ago. In many ways, this is an extraordinary book, broad in its compass, and reflecting some deep and insightful research. But I think it is also a very immoral work. It starts off by suggesting, in hoary Leninist terminology, that the battle was between ‘communism’ and ‘capitalism’ – a false contrast, as it was essentially between totalitarianism and liberal, pluralist democracy. (For a fuller discussion of this issue, please read Chapter 10 of Misdefending the Realm.) Westad goes on to suggest that the Cold War’s intensity could have been averted if the West had cooperated with the Soviet Union more – a position that ranks of sheer appeasement, and neglects the lessons of ‘cooperation’ that dramatically failed in World War II. (see  But what really inflamed me was the following sentence: “There were of course dissidents to this ameliorated view of the Cold War. In the Soviet Union and eastern Europe some people opposed the authoritarian rule of Communist bosses.” On reading that, I felt like hurling the volume from a high window upon the place beneath, being stopped solely by the fact that it was a library book, and that it might also have fallen on one of the peasants tending to the estate, or even damaged the azaleas.

Some people opposed the . . .  rule’? Is that what the Gulag and the Great Terror and the Ukrainian Famine were about, and the samizdat literature of the refuseniks, and the memoirs of Nadezhda Mandelstam and Yevgenia Ginzburg, and the novels of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and many many more? Did these people protest noisily in the streets, and then go home to their private dwellings, resume their work, perhaps writing letters to the editors of progressive magazines about the ‘wicked Tories’ (sorry, I mean ‘Communists’)? How on earth could a respectable academic be so tone-deaf to the sufferings and struggles of the twentieth century? Only if he himself had been indoctrinated and propagandized by the left-wing cant that declares that Stalin was misunderstood, that he had to eliminate real enemies of his revolution, that the problem with Communism was not its goals but its execution, that capitalism is essentially bad, and must be dismantled in the name of Equality, and all that has been gradually built with liberal democracy should be abandoned. Roland Philipps, who recently published a biography of Donald Maclean (‘A Spy Named Orphan’), and who boasts both the diplomat Roger Makins (the last mandarin to see Maclean before he absconded to Moscow) and Wogan (‘Rockfist’) Phillips (who served as an ambulance-driver with the Republicans in Spain) as his grandfathers, asked Wogan, shortly before he died in 1993, where he stood on the durability of Communism. “He said that Stalin had been a disaster for the cause but that the system was still inherently right, would come round again, and next time be successful.” Ah, me. Wogan Phillips, like Donald Maclean, was a classic homo sovieticus to the end.

Wogan (‘Rockfist’) Phillips

As we consider the popularity of such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, it is as if all the horrors of socialism have been forgotten. A few months ago, the New York Times ran a full-page report on the disaster of Venezuela without mentioning the word ‘socialism’ once: it was apparently Chávez’s and Maduro’s ‘populism’ that put them in power. A generation is growing up in China that will not remember Tiananmen Square, and the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution will not be found in the history books. Maybe there is an analogy to the fashion that, as a schoolboy, I was given a rosy view of the British Empire, and was not told of the 1943 famine in India, or the post-war atrocities in Kenya. But I soon concluded that imperialism was an expensive, immoral and pointless anachronism, and had no interlocking relationship with liberal democracy, or even capitalism, despite what the Marxists said. This endemic blindness to history is ten times worse.

So why did my generation of teachers not point out the horrors of communism? Was it because they had participated in WWII, and still saw the Soviet Union as a gallant ally against Hitler?  Were they really taken in by the marxisant nonsense that emerged from the Left Bank and the London School of Economics? Or were they simply trying to ratchet down the hostility of the Cold War, out of sympathy for the long-suffering Soviet citizenry? I cannot recall a single mentor of mine who called out the giant prison-camp for what it really was. Not the historians, not the Russian teachers. The latter may have been a bit too enamoured with the culture to make the necessary distinction. Even Ronald Hingley, one of my dons at Oxford, who was banned from ever revisiting the Soviet Union after his criticisms of it, did not encourage debate. I had to sort it out myself, and from reading works like Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror, Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Marchenko’s My Testimony, Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned, and Ginzburg’s Into the Whirlwind. On the other hand, under the snooker-table in my library rests a complete set of the Purnell History of the Twentieth Century, issued in 96 weekly parts in the 1960s. (Yes, you Billings librarians: soon they too shall be yours.) In part 37, that glittering historian, TV showman, hypocrite and Soviet stooge A. J. P. Taylor wrote: “Lenin was a very great man and even, despite his faults, a very good man.” For a whole generation, perhaps, the rot started here. That’s what we mostly heard in the 1960s. But Lenin was vicious, and terror was his avowed method of domination.

President Putin is now trying to restore Stalin’s reputation, as a generation that witnessed the horrors of his dictatorship is now disappearing. So is Putin then a homo sovieticus? Well, I’d say ‘No’. Maybe he was once, but he is more a secret policeman who enjoys power. The appellation should be used more to describe those cowed and indoctrinated by the regime rather than those who command it. Putin’s restoration of Stalin is more a call to national pride than a desire to re-implement the totalitarian state. Communism is over in Russia: mostly they accept that the Great Experiment failed, and they don’t want to try it again. More like state capitalism on Chinese lines, with similar tight media and information control, but with less entrepreneurialism. As several observers have noted, Putin is more of a fascist now than a communist, and fascism is not an international movement. Maybe there was a chance for the West to reach out (‘cooperate’!) after the fall of communism, but the extension of NATO to the Baltic States was what probably pushed Putin over the edge. The Crimea and Ukraine have different histories from those in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and I would doubt whether Putin has designs on re-invading what Kotkin calls Russia’s ‘limitrophe’ again. He is happier selectively cosying up to individual nations of Europe, especially to those countries (e.g. Poland, Hungary, and now maybe Italy and Austria, and even Turkey) whose current leaders express sympathy for his type of nationalism, while trying to undermine the structure of the European Union itself, and the NATO alliance.

So whom to fear now – outside Islamoterrorism? Maybe homo europaensis? I suspect that the affection that many Remainers have for the European Union is the fact that it is a softer version of the Socialist State, taking care of us all, trying to achieve ‘stability’ by paying lip-service to global capitalism while trying to rein it in at the same time, and handing out other people’s money to good causes. And it is that same unresponsive and self-regarding bureaucracy that antagonizes the Brexiteers, infuriated at losing democratic control to a body that really does not allow any contrariness in its hallways. (Where is the Opposition Party in Brussels?) I did not vote in the Referendum, but, if I had known then of all the legal complexities, I might have voted ‘Remain’, and fought for reform from inside. But my instincts were for ‘Leave’. If the European Project means tighter integration, political and economic, then the UK would do best to get out as soon as possible, a conclusion other countries may come to. The more oppressive and inflexible the European Union’s demands are (to discourage any other defectors), the more vigorously should the UK push against its increasing stranglehold. That does not mean goodbye to Goethe and Verdi, or those comforting ’cultural exchanges’, but it does require a bold stance on trade agreements, and limitations on migration of labour. We should beware of all high-faluting political projects that are experimental, and which remove the responsibility of politicians to their local constituents, as real human beings will be used (and maybe destroyed) in the process. A journalist in the New York Times wrote a few weeks ago that he was ‘passionate’ about the European Union. That is a dangerous sign: never become passionate over mega-political institutions. No Communist Experiment. No New Deal. No Great Society. No European Project. (And, of course, no Third Reich or Cultural Revolution.) Better simply to embrace the glorious muddle that is liberal democracy, and continue to try to make it work. Clive James again: “It is now part of the definition of a modern liberal democracy that it is under constant satirical attack from within. Unless this fact is seen as a virtue, however, liberal democracy is bound to be left looking weak vis-à-vis any totalitarian impulse.”  (I wish I had been aware of that quotation earlier: I would have used it as one of the headliners to Chapter 10 of Misdefending the Realm.)

I close with a riposte to A. J. P. Taylor, extracted from one of the great books of the twentieth century, The Stretchford Chronicles, a selection of the best pieces from Michael Wharton’s Peter Simple columns in the Daily Telegraph, from 1955 to 1980. These pieces are magnificent, daft, absurd, hilarious, and even prescient, where Life can be seen to imitate Art, as Wharton dismantles all the clichéd cant of the times, and anticipates many of the self-appointed spokespersons of loony causes and champions of exaggerated entitlement and victimisation who followed in the decades to come. Occasionally he is simply serious, in an old-fashioned way, as (for example) where he takes down the unflinching leftist Professor G. D. H. Cole, who in 1956 was trying to rally the comrades by reminding them that ‘while much has been done badly in the Soviet Union, the Soviet worker enjoys in most matters an immensely enlarged freedom’, adding that ‘to throw away Socialism because it can be “perverted” to serve totalitarian ends is to throw out the baby with the dirty bath-water’. Writes Wharton:

“This is familiar and most manifest nonsense. What has gone ‘amiss’ in Socialist countries is no mere chance disfigurement, like a false moustache scrawled by a madman on a masterpiece. It is Socialism itself, taken to its logical conclusion.

The death of freedom, the enslavement of the masses, the withering of art and culture, the restless, ruthless hunt for scapegoats, the aggressive folie de grandeur of Socialist dictators – these are no mere ‘perversions’ of Socialism. They are Socialism unperverted, an integral and predictable part of any truly Socialist system.

We are not faced here with so much dirty bath-water surrounding a perfectly healthy, wholesome Socialist baby. The dirty bathwater is Socialism, and the baby was drowned in it at birth.”

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Economists’ Follies


At Ashley’s school in San Jose, CA. October 2016

(James, Alyssa, Ashley, Coldspur, Julia, Alexis & Sylvia)

In my Commonplace Book of 2008, I recorded the following nugget: “There is no greater nonsense than that uttered by a Nobel prize-winning economist in a mood of moral indignation”, attributing the apothegm to ‘Anon.’. But that was pure invention: I had actually come up with the saying myself, and indulged in a bit of subterfuge to give it a bit more authority. If the World watched, however, it said nothing.

I can’t recall what particular speech or article had prompted my expostulation, but the trend goes back a long way, with Karl Marx the obvious prototype, even though not all economists’ absurdities are expressed in a mood of moral indignation. John Maynard Keynes died before the Nobel Prize for Economics was instituted, but his contribution: “In the long run, we are all dead” is a good place to start. It was either an unimaginative truism, or else a colossal lie, in that, while he and all his Bloomsburyites would indeed be dead within a decade or two, the heritage that he and his acolytes would leave behind would dog future generations, and there is nothing easier for politicians to do than leave a legacy of debt to posterity. One notorious example who did catch my attention was the 1992 Nobelist, Gary Becker. He once wrote a piece for Business Week (I have it somewhere in my clippings files), which recommended that housewives  ̶  he may have called them ‘homemakers’  ̶  should be paid for the work they did. It must have been utterances like this that caused the New York Times to dub Becker ‘the most important social scientist of the past fifty years’, as it reflects a tragic confusion in the economist’s brain between Effort and Value. Moreover, who would check whether the housework was done properly? If the government were to pay housewives for their contributions, it would need a Bureau of Domestic Affairs to be set up, with supervisory rights, inspection capabilities, a system of fines, as well as all the trappings of equal opportunity hiring, overtime pay, health care benefits, proper vacations and pensions for all its employees. Who would be paying for all this? One might as well suggest that I should be paid to do the gardening or the yardwork.

And then there’s Paul Krugman, whose ‘progressive’ rants (yes, that’s how he classifies himself, as if everyone who disagrees with him is some regressive Neanderthal – not that I have any bias against the Neanderthal community, I hasten to add, as most of them were upstanding characters, with reliable opinions on such matters as free childcare and climate change, and actually passed on some of their genes to me), appear regularly in the New York Times. Krugman  ̶  the 2008 laureate  ̶  once famously said that the US National Debt (now standing at about $19 trillion), is not a major problem, ‘as we owe it to ourselves’. In which case, one might suggest: ‘why don’t we just write it off’? I am sure we wouldn’t mind. Krugman lives in a Keynesian haze of 1930, and is continually arguing against austerity, and recommending that now is the time to increase the debt even further by ‘investing’ (note the leftist economist’s language: government spending is always ‘investing’, not ‘spending’) in infrastructure and education in the belief that this will get the economy ‘moving’ again, and foster wealth-creation, not just consumption. Keynes in fact recommended increasing government spending during times of recession, and putting it away when times were good, when the rules of national and global economics were very different from what they are today. The policy of today’s leftist economists seems to be to encourage governments to spend a lot when times are good, and even more when times are bad, criticizing any restraints on spending as ‘the deficit fetish’ (see Labour MP Chris Mullin in the Spectator this month).

So next comes along Joseph E. Stiglitz, the 2001 Prize recipient.  Earlier this year he published “The Euro: How A Common Currency Threatens the Future of Europe”, which I think is an absolutely muddle-headed and irresponsible project. Not that he doesn’t bring an honest concern to bear on the perils of the euro, but a) sensible persons (including me) have been pointing out for ages that financial integration is impossible without political integration, so the overall message is nothing new; and b) it is not clear whether he is talking about the future of the European Union or Europe itself, or why the health of ‘Europe’ is tied to a shared currency. Worry not: the flyleaf informs us that the guru ‘dismantles the prevailing consensus around what ails Europe, demolishing the champions of austerity while offering a series of plans that can rescue the continent – and the world – from further devastation.’ Apart from the fact that, if there is a ‘consensus’ about what ails Europe, his would be a lone voice in the wilderness, one can only marvel at his hubris.

Stiglitz shows he does not understand what he calls ‘neoliberalism’, the belief in the efficacy of free markets, at all. He characterizes neoliberalism as ‘ideas about the efficiency and stability of free and unfettered markets’, and wants to bring the power of the regulator – him who knows best – to address the instability of markets. ‘With advances in economic science [sic], aren’t we supposed to understand better how to manage the economy?’, he inquires in his Preface, without specifying what he regards as ‘the economy’ – the total output of all the countries of Europe?   ̶  or why he claims economics is a ‘science’. And, if he is a Nobelist, shouldn’t he be answering such questions, not posing them rhetorically?  (This month, Janet Yellen, the chairwoman of the US Federal Reserve, expressed the following alarming concern: “The events of the past few years have revealed limits in economists’ understanding of the economy and suggest several important questions I hope the profession will try to answer.” From his recent see-sawing, Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, appears to be similarly bewildered. Over to you, Joseph.)  But markets are inherently unstable: that is why they are markets. Joseph Schumpeter was the economist who introduced the notion of ‘creative destruction’ to explain how previously dominant players can be swept away by innovation and organizational sclerosis. Such ideas disturb econometric regulators like Stiglitz: they would prefer to have a clearly defined number of players in a market, allow them to make enough profit to keep their investors happy, but ensure that there should be enough competition for each to keep on its toes, but not so much that any individual company should actually fail. Yet such a set-up quickly drifts into crony capitalism, like the US health insurance ‘market’, where supporters of President Obama’s disastrous Affordable Care Act admit that the role of the regulators is to keep insurance companies solvent. Or politicians meet with ‘business leaders’ in the belief that they are discovering what ‘business’ wants; today’s ‘business leaders’ know very well that they do not represent the interests of a competitive market, but gladly go along with the pretence, and look for favours to protect them from the upstarts. Be very wary when journalists (or politicians) start talking about ‘the business community’: it proves they don’t get it.

What is more, Stiglitz demonises his intellectual foes. Even though their ideas have been ‘discredited’, ‘they are held with such conviction and power, immune to new contrary evidence, that these beliefs are rightly described as an ideology’. (p 10) Unlike his own ideas, of course, which are naturally ‘scientific’. “Modern scientific [sic!] economics has refuted the Hooverite economics I discussed in the last chapter.” (p 54)  “Doctrines and policies that were fashionable a quarter century ago are ill suited for the 21st century”, he continues (p 269), but he quickly adopts the Keynesian doctrines of eighty-five years ago, without distinguishing what is fashion and what is durable. (Keynes made some notoriously wrong predictions, especially about automation and leisure.) People who disagree with Stiglitz are madmen: “Today, except among a lunatic fringe, the question is not whether there should be government intervention but how and where the government should act, taking account of market imperfections.” (p 86: his italics) Yet it is clear that, while he denigrates the designers of the Euro for applying free-market economics to the reconstruction of Europe’s economies, categorising them as ‘market fundamentalists’ is utterly wrong. Those architects may have believed, as Stiglitz claims, that ‘if only the government would ensure that inflation was low and stable, markets would ensure growth and prosperity for all’, but such an opinion merely expresses a different variation on the corporatist notion that governments can actually control what entrepreneurialism occurs within its own borders. After all, as Stiglitz admits, the chief architect of the European Union and the euro was Jacques Delors, a French socialist.

The paradoxes and contradictions in Stiglitz’s account are many: I group the dominant examples as follows:

1) Globalisation: For someone who wrote “Globalization and its Discontents”, Stiglitz is remarkably coy about the phenomenon in this book. The topic merits only three entries in the index, much of which is dedicated to some waffle about ‘the global community’. For, if globalization is an unstoppable trend, it must require, in Stiglitz’s eyes, political integration to make it work, on the basis of the advice he gives to the European Union. “The experiences of the eurozone have one further important lesson for the rest of the world: be careful not to let economic integration outpace political integration.” (p 322) Are you listening, ‘the rest of the world’, whoever you are? Yet the idea of ‘World Government’ is as absurd as it was when H. G. Wells suggested it a century ago. By the same token, however, if Europe believes it can seclude itself from globalization effects by building a tight Customs Union, it must be whistling in the dark. Stiglitz never addresses this paradox. Nor does he recommend the alternative – a return to aurtarkic economies, which would be an unpalatable solution for someone who has to admit the benefits of trade. No: he resorts, as in his proffered ‘solution’ for the Euro crisis, to tinkering and regulation.

2) Austerity: On the other hand, Stiglitz has much to say about ‘austerity’. Unsurprisingly, he is against it, defined as ‘cutbacks in expenditure designed to lower the deficit.’ But he then goes on to make some astounding claims about it: “Austerity has always and everywhere had the contractionary effects observed in Europe: the greater the austerity, the greater the economic contraction.”  (p 18) “Almost as surprising as the Troika’s not learning from history – that such private and public austerity virtually always brings recession and depression – is that Europe’s leaders have not even learned from the experiences within Europe.” (p 312)  No evidence is brought forward to support such assertions. Is he not familiar with the austerity of the Labour Chancellor Stafford Cripps between 1947-1950, which was necessary in order to foster an export effort, and was seen as successful? Or Reynaud’s austerity policies in France in the 1930s, which led to economic recovery? Unfortunately, ‘austerity’ has come to imply meanness of politicians unwilling to hand out entitlements with funds they don’t have (the belief of those who concur with that definition being  that such spending will inexorably lead to wealth creation), rather than signifying a well-designed good-housekeeping move to protect the currency. Yes, austerity will not work as a policy for Greece: debts will have to be forgiven in some measure, since (as Keynes told us in The Economic Consequences of the Peace), people reduced to slavery will never create enough wealth to hand a portion over to others. But a large part of the problem there was government overspending and poor tax collection – a lack of ‘austerity’.

3: Confidence: Stiglitz is dismissive of any softer aspects of economic decision-making that may get in the way of his ‘scientific’ thinking. ‘Confidence theory’ is another of his bugbears. “The confidence theory dates back to Herbert Hoover and his secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon, and it has become a staple among financiers. How this happens has never been explained. Out in the real world, the confidence theory has been repeatedly tested and failed. Paul Krugman has coined the term confidence fairy in response.” (p 95) Stiglitz never explains how anybody was able to conduct ‘scientific’ experiments on something as vague as ‘confidence’ in the real world. Moreover, Paul Krugman is a good mate of Stiglitz, and they clearly belong to a Mutual Admiration Society. “Joseph Stiglitz is an insanely great economist”, puffs Klugman on the back-cover. But then, there must be different types of confidence, since Stiglitz later states: “Indeed, Mario Draghi, head of the European Central Bank since 2011, may have saved the eurozone, with his famous speech that the ECB would do whatever it takes to preserve the euro – and in saying that, restoring confidence in the bonds of the countries under attack.”  (p 145) But ‘confidence theory’ never works! Shome mishtake shurely? Absent-mindeness? Or sophistry?

4: Productivity: Stiglitz seems as muddled by productivity as do most economic journalists. He appears to share the popular opinion that increased productivity is important, as it leads to greater prosperity. That was one of the goals of the Eurozone, after all, with its free flow of labour and capital. (p 70) But common-sense tells us normal people that productivity can be applied only to a certain task. If it takes fewer employees, and less capital, to make 1000 widgets, than it did before, the benefits will accrue to the owners of capital (and in turn the pension funds) rather than to the general working populace (as Piketty has pointed out). Only if the displaced employees can find alternative similarly well-paid employment will overall prosperity increase. Stiglitz, somewhat reluctantly, seems to accept this viewpoint, but gets there in a devious way: “In the eurozone, across-the-board average hours worked per worker have declined – implying an even worse performance.” (Would fewer hours worked not suggest better productivity? Britain is reported to have lower productivity – and lower wages – than most European rivals, but less unemployment. Is that good or bad?) And then: “But most of the advanced countries will have to restructure themselves away from manufacturing towards new sectors, like the more dynamic [= ‘unstable’?] service sectors.” (p 224) But what is required to make this happen? Yes, government intervention. The market does not perform this task very well, so what is needed is ‘concerted government effort’. By individual nations? By the EU? Stiglitz is not sure, as he knows such policies are largely precluded within the eurozone. And it is not clear whether everyone will fall over themselves trying to provide services to a declining manufacturing sector – especially when those services are moving overseas as well. What is to be done? What will people do to earn a decent living? That is the perennial problem.

5: Markets: Stiglitz does not understand how markets work. In reality, they are not ‘designed’, as he claims. They do not pretend to lend themselves to stability. Their members compete, and sometimes fail. Yet he severely criticises those who he claims do not understand his view of them, for example as in the following observation about distortions: “But, of course, in the ideology of market fundamentalism, markets do not create bubbles.” (p 25) What market fundamentalists would say is that markets will make corrections to bubbles in due course, so that overpriced (or underpriced) assets will return to their ‘correct’ value once information is made available, or emotions are constrained. Moreover, failure is an inevitable outcome of the dynamism of markets, and, in order to keep trust in those entities who behave properly, mismanagement and misdemeanours of those who break such trust must be seen to fail. (An enormous slush of capital – primarily Oriental – is currently looking for safe havens in Western countries, and is almost certain to create another bubble.) In addition, there is no ‘banking system’: banks are no different from any other corporation. A loose and dynamic range of institutions provides various financial services: they will lend as they see fit, and, if they miss an opportunity, a competitor should pick it up. The answer to the recent errors of Wells Fargo on the US, for instance, is not more regulation, but a massive exodus of its customers to other banks, and visible punishment for the executives who let it happen. Bailouts lead to moral hazard: investment is always a risk. Yet the Stiglitzes of this world close their eyes to reality, seeing a business environment where established companies should be entitled to survive, making enough profit to satisfy the pension funds and their investors, but not so much that they would appear greedy and exploitative, and should try to maintain ‘stability’ to contribute to ‘full employment’. ‘Stability’ is the watchword of Stiglitz and his kind (like the Chinese government trying to maintain the ‘stability’ of the stock-market), but it is impossible to achieve.

Enough already. There are some other oddball things, such as his dabbling with referenda when the going gets tough: “There could be a requirement, too, that, except when the economy is in recession, any increase in debt over a certain level be subject to a referendum within the country.” (p 243) Surely not! And I don’t claim to understand his remedy for fixing the euro without dismantling the eurozone itself, something that apparently involves carving it up into different sectors. But Stiglitz has really written a political pamphlet: the eurozone is for some reason important to him, as it is to those who think that only political integration will prevent a reoccurrence of the dreadful world wars that originated there. “A common currency is threatening the future of Europe. Muddling through will not work. And the European project is too important to be sacrificed on the cross of the euro. Europe – the world – deserves better.” (p 326) That belief in ‘the European project’, and the disdain for those who would question it, is what divided Britain in its recent referendum.

Yet I can’t help concluding that Stiglitz and his colleagues are much closer to the architects of the euro, and thus part of the problem, than he would ever admit. The belief that expert economists, with their mathematical models and their Nobel prizes, can somehow understand how an ‘economy’ works, and possess the expertise to fine-tune it for the benefit of everybody, and somehow regulate out of the way all the unpredictable missteps that will happen, is one of the famous modern illusions. When separate decisions are made by millions of individuals, and companies and firms devise any number of strategies for new technologies, new markets, some whimsical, some wise, to suppose that all such activity can be modeled and projected, in order to supply enough taxable revenue to fund any number of favourite programmes, is simply nonsense. It is as if such experts had never worked in the real world, managed a start-up, struggled to make a payroll, had to lay off good people, dealt with a sudden competitive threat, faced an embarrassing product recall or an employee rebellion, or wrestled to bring a new product successfully to market. Yes, of course, capitalism is flawed, some executives are absurdly overpaid, compensation committees are largely a joke, and corporate boards are frequently useless, risktakers should not be generously rewarded for playing recklessly with other peoples’ money (and being rewarded for failure as well as success), and the notion that ‘aligning executive goals with those of shareholders’ does not magically solve anything if the former get away like bandits just once because of cheap stock options, while the latter who wanted to be there for the long haul simply watch from afar . . .  When all is said and done, common prosperity still relies on private enterprise and profit.

Those who believe in expert management of ‘the economy’ simply have it all wrong. Except under war conditions, governments of liberal democracies cannot control the wealth-creation processes of their populace. They can spend money cautiously, knowing how unpredictable private wealth-creation is, and simply try to foster the conditions that encourage entrepreneurialism. Alternatively, they can put the currency at risk by running massive deficits, and they can plunge the place into the depths through socialism (see Venezuela), or abet a death spiral like that of Greece or Puerto Rico. But the one thing they should not do is carelessly engage Nobel Prize-winning economists to give them advice. As a postscript to the self-indulgent advice from Keynes that I quoted earlier, two prominent economists, Paul A. Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, and Peter G. Peterson, former secretary of commerce, jointly offered the following observation concerning the National Debt in the New York Times this month: “Take some advice from two observers who have been around for a while: The long term gets here before you know it.”  But neither of them has won the Nobel Prize.

P.S. A few hours after I completed this piece, I read a feature encompassing an interview with Stiglitz by the editor of Prospect, Tom Clark, in the October issue of the magazine. The article quoted Keynes’s biographer, Robert Skidelsky, as saying: ‘the likes of Stiglitz and Krugman have got their Nobel prizes, then given up developing the economic ideas, and drifted into radical political commentary instead.’ Too true. If Stiglitz is not a charlatan, he is hopelessly confused. I would not change a word of what I wrote.

P.P.S. After the publication of last month’s installment of ‘Sonia’s Radio’, three items have come to light. A reader sent me some provocative statements concerning Sonia from Soviet archives, a 2014 book I read about WWII counter-espionage has inspired some fresh observations about Trevor-Roper and the Double-Cross System, and my attention has been drawn to an archive freshly published (by the NSA) on German wartime intelligence. I shall report more, and make some textual amendments, next month – probably in the omnibus version only, to keep the integrity of the monthly posts whole.

This month’s Commonplace entries appear here.


With Alyssa, Alexis and Ashley

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The Myth of Buying Market Share

A few years after I became an analyst/consultant at the Gartner Group, I was introduced by one of the DBMS vendors to the thoughts of Geoffrey Moore, who had some original ideas about the challenges of high-tech companies in introducing their disruptive products to mainstream buyers. His book, ‘Crossing the Chasm’ (1991) quickly became a classic in technology circles (see, and I adopted his ideas in evaluating and guiding the strategies of companies in my bailiwick. Some CEOs claimed to be familiar with the theories, and even to putting them into practice, but since the distinct message in the early years of the Technology Adoption Life Cycle was ‘focus’, they understandably struggled to keep their companies in line. ‘Chasm’ thinking requires a proper marketing perspective, but independent VPs of Marketing in technological start-ups are a bit of a luxury, and VPs of Sales always think of Marketing as something that supports their Sales Plan, rather than of their Sales Plan as something which realizes the Marketing Plan. Trying to close a deal to unqualified and unsuitable prospects is frequently an exciting challenge for such types.

As my career at Gartner wound down, and I considered retirement, I chose to move to a small software company in Connecticut. I was quickly brought down to earth: as a Gartner consultant, I had earlier been engaged by the company for a day’s work, at quite high fees, during which the managers attending dutifully wrote down all I said, and nodded appreciatively. When I became an employee, however, and started suggesting (as VP of Strategic Planning) to the CEO how she might want to change some of the processes (such as not having the R & D plan changed each month after the latest visit by a customer or prospect to the development facility in Florida), I was swiftly told: ‘You don’t understand how we do things around here, Tony’. That was not a good sign. So I picked up my thinking about Chasm Crossing, tried to talk my CEO out of an acquisition strategy (devised to show muscle to the Wall Street analysts, but in fact disastrous), and reflected on how financial analysts misled investors about markets. I had learned a lot from the first software CEO I worked for, back in the early 1980s, but he was another who didn’t understand the growth challenge. ‘Entrepreneurial Critical Mass’ was the term he had used to persuade his owners to invest in an acquisition strategy that was equally misguided: I had had to pick up the pieces and try to make it work.  (This gentleman was also responsible for bringing to the world the expression ‘active and passive integrity in and of itself’ to describe the first release of a new feature, which presumably meant that it worked perfectly so long as you didn’t try to use it.)   My renewed deliberations now resulted in an article, titled ‘The Myth of Buying Market Share’, which explained how completely bogus estimates of ‘market size’ misled CEOs and investors into thinking that all they had to do to be successful was to pick up a portion of a fast-growing ‘market’. I believe it was published somewhere, but I cannot recall where.

I reproduce the article here. I have not changed a word: it could benefit from some tightening up in a few places, and some fresher examples, but otherwise I would not change a thing, even though it is now sixteen years old. At the time I wrote it, I contacted Geoffrey Moore, and sent him the piece. We spoke on the phone: he was very complimentary about my ideas, and we arranged to meet for dinner in San Francisco, where I was shortly to be attending a conference. I vaguely thought that I might spend my last few years actually putting into practice some of the notions that had been most useful to me in my analyst role, and wanted to ask Moore about opportunities at the Chasm Group. So, after the day’s sessions were over, I approached him, introduced myself, and said how much I was looking forward to dinner. He was brusque – dinner was off. Obviously something better, somebody more useful, had come along. I was for a few minutes crestfallen, but then realized that I would never want to work for someone who behaved that rudely. I resigned from the software company a month later and began my retirement a bit earlier than planned. Since then I have never touched the industry again, apart from one day’s work for another small software company in New Jersey that desperately needed help, and wanted to hire me as VP of Marketing after I did a day’s consulting for them. North Carolina beckoned, and I have never regretted getting out when I did.

After receiving a fascinating observation from a reader (via Nigel Rees), I have posted an update to my piece on ‘The Enchantment’. The normal set of Commonplace items can be found here.                                                                                                                   (January 31, 2016)

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Turing and Cripps (and later update)

In our first visit to the movies for several years, Sylvia and I went to see The Imitation Game a few days ago. (What was the last film we went to see: Lawrence of Arabia? Brief Encounter?? I forget.) We enjoyed it very much: I could forgive most of the liberties taken with history, although the decision to introduce the spy John Cairncross in a case of double-blackmail, with the claim that MI6 had installed him deliberately so that he could leak secrets to the Russians, was palpably absurd and unnecessary. I have a special enthusiasm for Alan Turing, as readers of this site will recall from my posting here at the end of last November, and Sylvia was better able to understand the links between crosswords, cryptography and espionage that occupy the dark side of my character.

Yet you may not have noticed a brief annotation I made in July 2012, when I commented that the Times had published, on the exact centenary of Turing’s birth (June 26, 2012) a Listener Crossword Puzzle (’SUM’ – geddit?) that celebrated his achievements in imagining a universal computing machine. I was a little muted about this event, because the puzzle contained a blatant error, about which I am still sorely embarrassed. Both the Puzzle Editor and I had overlooked a tiny calculation error in the encoding of one of the answers.

Now, in my more thoughtful moments, I reflect on the phenomenon of ‘deliberate’ errors introduced as a means of communicating to the receiver that something is wrong. When the Nazis turned round captured SOE agents, dropped by parachute into the Netherlands in WWII, the radio operators ignored the lack of messages that would have confirmed they were safe, because SOE staff in London did not want to believe that their efforts had been sabotaged. Thus the famous Englandspiel, in which several agents died. A similar mistake happened when the CIA tried to infiltrate agents into Albania in the late 1940s and early 1950s. (See Operation Valuable Fiend, by Albert Lulushi.) And I have always wondered whether Kim Philby’s identification of the Secret Intelligence Service as MI5 (instead of the correct MI6) in My Secret War (p 32) represented a plaintive cry to his old mates that they should recognize that the whole memoir was being ghosted – or, at least, controlled  – by the KGB. Lastly, when I noticed in the National Archive at Kew that a Report on the Communist Party written by the MI5 officer Jane Sissmore in 1935 was titled ‘Investigation by SS into Activities of the CPGB and Indentification [sic] of its Members 1935’, it occurred to me that this very capable and literate person may have inserted that error to indicate that she was very unhappy about compiling such a report. So maybe the error I made could be interpreted as saying ‘I am a Prisoner in a Listener Crossword Construction Factory and Cannot Get Out’. No, it was just a really clumsy boner.

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One of the books I read in January was Tony Judt’s Ill Fares The Land. It was rather sad. Sad, because Tony Judt, who must have been a delightful man, died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, at the age of 52, in 2010. But also sad, because the book is an elegy to the decline of The Left and all its aspirations, at the same time betraying all the hopeless impracticality of the so-called social-democrat Left. (I have never been a member of The Left.) It is as if Judt and his kin think that we can all have secure jobs, and nice houses, and travel to work in environmentally-friendly transport, and enjoy free childcare and expert healthcare until we retire and enjoy safe inflation-proof pensions – all without having to worry about the sordid business of actually creating any wealth. The book is scattered with a number of unexplained clichéd terms: ‘social democracy’, ‘market failure’, ‘financial stability’, ‘social market’, ‘rational market management’, ‘endemic inequality’, ‘social justice’, and is liberally strewn with a host of semi-rhetorical questions suggesting that ‘we’ have to do something. It appears to emphasise the role of the nation-state, but says hardly anything about the European Community. Etc. etc.

I think I shall have to return to this subject next month. I am no economist, but I don’t think that matters, as economists disagree about all this stuff anyway. All I know is that I hope my financial portfolio does not hold any Greek debt. When I ponder over the question of how those poor Hellenes are going to pay back their 240 billion Euro debt, I think of Keynes and The Economic Consequences of the Peace, and what he said about economic slavery. (Is there a deliberate mistake here?) So, as an educational antidote to the maunderings of The Left, I borrowed David Stockman’s The Great Deformation; The Corruption of Capitalism in America from the Public Library, but, after reading one chapter, I decided life was too short for me to read 700 pages on economics, and took it back. And maybe we need Sir Stafford Cripps to remind us what Austerity really means. He was the authentic ‘Left’.

The normal set of Commonplace items appears for the month here.  (January 31, 2015)

I don’t normally add late notes to my monthly post, but an odd thing happened today. I was reading in the New York Times about Podemos, the left-wing Spanish Political party, and a march it was holding in Madrid. Podemos’s leader, Pablo Iglesias, was accusing Prime Minster Rajoy of ‘wanting to humiliate our country with this scam they call austerity’. (Heigh-ho . . .) Furthermore, Rubén Aguilar, a Spanish telecom technician, was described as waving a Greek flag ‘out of solidarity’, and was quoted as saying: ‘We’re better off economically than our Greek friends, but we share their determinatiom to put the interests of people back ahead of economic goals like debt repayment.’ Yet this hardly inflammatory paragraph does not appear in the on-line version of the piece! What is going on? Is it now not allowed to suggest that debts to the EU and central banks may not be repaid?

I have sent a message to the Public Editor at the NYT to find out what is going on. (February 1, 2015)

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