May 1st, 2006


The other JK

The famous economist JK Galbraith has died at 96. As far as I know he was a relatively liberal (as in left-wing, the opposite of conservative, not as in laissez-faire) and apparently nice economist, despite working in Harvard and being adviser to Roosevelt, and then US ambassador to India. Maybe he was comfortably nice from a position of privilege, or he was a bit naive, or very realistic. Who knows. But anyway.

I've had occasion to meet him once, when he gave a lecture to a relatively small audience in the very nice library in the Old College (part of the University of Edinburgh) many years ago. There was actually a point in attending his talk, as in he said something I found new. He said the Soviet Union, when it was established in 1917-ish, was not an advance in democracy or a regression in economics. It was relatively indifferent in democracy and a fantastic advance in economics over the hopeless feudal system that existed in Tsarist Russia.

Galbraith proceeded to claim that the Soviet union continued to be an overwhelming economic success for decades, and eventually failed not due to economic stagnation (which is the textbook cause believed by westerners) but simply because soviet society had grown modern and relatively affluent to the point that Soviet politics and Soviet economics, which both failed to modernise, were antiquated for it. To put it another way (my metaphor), the patient became well enough to want rid of the medication.

I paraphrase wildly, and blame me if I've not relayed the message correctly. It was at least 10 years ago. But i did find it fascinating and I still would like to read a good, believable account of why the Soviet Union collapsed.

From the Washnigtom post: Iconoclastic Economist John Kenneth Galbraith Dies

Knowing it all

It occurs to me, partly as a result of having Aris, but not just, that as a person with sort of scientific training living today, I'm able to answer almost any "How does this work?" question. Not for everything, but really for the great majority of things I can give a satisfactory account of their operation. I tend to take this for granted, but it is, well, remarkable.

I presume those of you who are of the same technical bent (and by definition privileged westerners) can do the same. How does it feel not to be in this position? To look at a plane, a computer, a power plant, or a volume scanner and really have no idea how the thing works? To use things every day that operate as if by magic?
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