Philosophers and their eccentricities

January 30, 2010

I have been through the internet, looking for anecdotes about philosophers. Here is a selection:

English philosopher and the ‘Father of utilitarianism,’ Jeremy Bentham left his entire estate to the university College Hospital in London – on condition that his body be preserved and placed in attendance at all of the hospital’s board meetings. Dr Southward Smith was chosen by Bentham to prepare the philosopher’s corpse for viewing. Smith constructed the skeleton and affixed a wax likeness of Bentham’s head [the real one was badly damaged in the preservation process] to it, then attired the body in an appropriate suit and hat According to Smith, ‘The whole was then enclosed in a mahogany case, called the “Auto-icon”,  with folding glass doors, seated in his armchair and holding in his hand his favourite walking stick [with his actual skull resting at his feet]…’ It was acquired by University College London in 1850. It is normally kept on public display at the end of the South Cloisters in the main building of the college, but for the 100th and 150th anniversaries of the college, it was brought to the meeting of the College Council, where it was listed as “present but not voting”. The real head was displayed in the same case for many years, but became the target of repeated student pranks, including being stolen on more than one occasion. It is now locked away securely.

While Aristotle’s work on logic, metaphysics, ethics, politics, and poetics had a profound influence on Western thought, many of his speculations about the natural world border on the absurd. Not only did Aristotle believe that the sun orbits the earth and that objects fall at speeds in accordance with their weights; he also suggested that women have fewer teeth than men and that a baby’s sex is determined by the wind’s direction at the time of its birth.

We may think multi-tasking is a relatively new phenomenon  but the 17th century French churchman and philosopher ,Pierre-Daniel Huet, who lived into his nineties, had a servant follow him with a book to read aloud to him during meals and breaks and thus avoid lost time. He was deemed the most read person in his day.

While supervising the building of his house, and before the North Bridge was opened, Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume customarily took a short cut to the New Town across the Nor’ Loch bog. On one trip he slipped and fell in. Luckily he caught the attention of an old fishwife who, recognising ‘Hume the Atheist’, doubted the propriety of helping him. “But my good woman, does not your religion as a Christian teach you to do good, even to your enemies?”  “That may well be,” she replied, “but ye shallna get oot o’ that, til ye become a Christian yersel: and repeat the Lord’s Prayer…” To her astonishment Hume readily complied, and was pulled out of the bog. Henceforth he was ever ready to acknowledge that the Edinburgh fishwife was the most acute theologian he had ever encountered.

Friedrich Nietzsche worshipped Richard Wagner when they first met (in 1868) and Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy was heavily influenced by Wagner’s views on Greek tragedy. By the time Die Meistersinger was completed, however, Nietzsche’s admiration had soured. His verdict of the opera? “German beer music.”

Alexander the Great, intrigued by stories about Diogenes, sought him out and announced, “I am Alexander the Great. What can I do for you?” “Stand back – you block my light” was Diogenes’ response. While the ordinary person would have lost his head after such an insult, Diogenes was admired all the more, as the great conqueror said, “If I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes.”

The influential medieval philosopher Peter Abelard, who, did important work in ethics and logic, fell in love with a beautiful young girl named Héloïse, whom he was supposed to be tutoring, and they married secretly, though they lived apart. Heloise’s uncle, however, mistakenly thought Abelard had discarded Héloïse by placing her in a convent, and he took revenge by having servants castrate Abelard in his sleep. Abelard woke up and things were never the same between him and Héloïse. It put a bit of a dampener on Abelard’s sex life and Héloïse was forced to become a nun. Héloïse sent letters to Abelard, questioning why she must submit to a religious life for which she had no calling.

On 25 February 1980, after leaving a lunch party held by François Mitterrand, Roland Barthes, the French literary theorist, philosopher, critic, and semiotician was struck by a laundry van while walking home through the streets of Paris. He succumbed to his injuries a month later and died on 25 March at the age of sixty-four.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Austrian-British philosopher who worked primarily in logic, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of language, went to school with Hitler. Until 1903, Ludwig was educated by private tutors at home; after that, he began three years of schooling at the Realschule in Linz, a school emphasizing technical topics. For one school year, Adolf Hitler, who was born a mere six days before Wittgenstein, was a student there, but two grades below Wittgenstein, when both boys were 14 or 15 years old. It is unknown whether Hitler and Wittgenstein even knew of each other, and, if so, whether either had any memory of the other. Years later when living in England Wittgenstein allegedly threatened his fellow Viennese Karl Popper with a poker during an argument about the existence or otherwise of moral rules at the moral sciences club at Cambridge.

Thomas Aquinas was held captive by his family for around two years. Thomas had previously joined the Order of St Dominica his family were none too pleased and he was locked up in the fortress of Giovanni at Rocca Secca. During his imprisonment, his family tried desperately to talk him out of his chosen vocation. His brothers went so far as to send a beautiful woman to his room to seduce him and break his oath of celibacy. He chased the girl from his room with a poker retrieved from the fire. The duration of his imprisonment he then spent in study, just as he would have if he had actually been in Paris. Eventually, his mother granted him freedom, and Thomas finally was able to return to the Dominicans. They were relieved to discover that he was as educated in theology and the scriptures as he would have been if he had not been sidetracked

One Sunday morning Adam Smith, famed for his absent-mindedness, wandered into his garden. Soon thereafter, thoroughly engrossed in philosophical contemplation, he passed into the street and began walking. Some time later, he was roused from his reverie by the ringing of church bells. Parishioners arriving for the morning service were amused to encounter the eminent philosopher – wearing only his nightgown – in Dunfermline, twelve miles away from his home.

Augustine was famed for his licentious youth. Indeed, the future saint had a mistress for many years and produced an illegitimate son. “Give me chastity and continence,” he once remarked, “but not yet.”

Pythagoras (whose cult forbade the eating of beans and the poking of fire with an iron poker) harboured many unusual beliefs. Seeing a puppy being beaten one day, for example, he implored its owner to desist: “It is the soul of a friend,” he claimed, “which I recognized when I heard it crying out.” Pythagoras, however, did not always extend such courtesies to human beings. On one occasion, for example, he became upset when a student, Hippasus, correctly concluded that the square root of 2 was an irrational number (a number inexpressible as a normal ratio). Pythagoras, who found the notion of irrationals philosophically abhorrent and denied their existence, promptly sentenced Hippasus to death by drowning. According to Pythagoras, the even numbers were female and the odd numbers male. Moreover, many integers had symbolic meanings: 1 stood for reason, 2 for opinion, 3 for poetry, 4 for justice, and 5 for marriage; 7 held the secret of health and 8 the secret of marriage.

After the Jacobins came to power following the French Revolution, Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, the French philosopher, mathematician, and early political scientist, was sheltered by a widow who bravely insisted that he remain with her despite the risk that she would be killed if discovered harbouring a fugitive. Concerned for her safety, Condorcet quietly slipped away and went into hiding in a stone quarry. There he remained for three days, until driven by hunger to a local tavern (in the village of Clamart), where he ordered an omelette. When the cook asked him how many eggs he desired, Condorcet, with an aristocrat’s ignorance of such concerns, ordered a dozen. His suspicions aroused, the tavern-keeper asked Condorcet about his trade. “I am a carpenter,” he replied. “You’re no carpenter,” the tavern-keeper replied, snatching up the outlaw’s hands. Condorcet was promptly hauled off to prison and was found dead the next day in his cell.

In Slovenia’s first democratic elections (in 1990), Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek ran for a seat on Slovenia’s four-person Presidential committee. He finished fifth. Nonetheless, Zizek was delighted by the result. Had he been elected, he later remarked, his first action would have been to resign. “I thought the position meant that you had a meeting once a week, and then a certain influence and power,” he recalled. “But no, it was a twenty-four-hour-a-day job, with all these stupid social obligations.”  A few years later, Zizek was asked to consider becoming a government minister. He declined. “The Prime Minister said, ‘Do you want Science? Culture?'” he recalled. “I told him, ‘Are you crazy? Who wants that crap? I am only interested in two posts – either Minister of the Interior or the head of the Secret Police!'” “People are always asking me, ‘Why don’t you get a job in the States?'” Zizek remarked on another occasion. “But I am not interested, basically. Why, if you have a job where you do nothing, would you change it for a job where you have to do something?”

After his house in Môtiers was stoned on the night of 6 September 1765, French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau took refuge in Great Britain with David Hume, who found lodgings for him at a friend’s country estate in Wootton in Staffordshire. Neither Thérèse nor Rousseau was able to learn English or make friends. Isolated, Rousseau, never emotionally very stable, suffered a serious decline in his mental health and began to experience paranoid fantasies –  he believed he was the victim of an international conspiracy, led by David Hume. He wasn’t, but Hume was delighted when the Frenchman got the hump and shoved off back to the other side of the Channel.

Though the science wars had burst on the university world years earlier, the event that brought them to public notice was the publication in May 1996 of an article by Alan Sokal, a physicist at New York University, in an American cultural-studies discussion journal, Social Text. It argued that unifying the currently incompatible theories of quantum mechanics and general relativity would produce a postmodern, ‘liberatory’ physics. Once his paper was safely in print, Mr Sokal revealed it as a spoof, made up of ideas and quotations from various postmodernist philosophers and mined with mathematical absurdities which the editors ,who do not send articles to referees, had failed to spot.


Robocall and other new words

January 30, 2010

Here is a selection of new words I found on the Wordspy website:

cyberdisinhibition

A temporary loss of inhibition while online.

robocall

An automated phone call that plays a recorded message

email apnea

The unconscious and temporary suspension of regular breathing while checking and reading email

nontroversy

A false or non-existent controversy.

tramp stamp

A lower-back tattoo, particularly on a woman who ensures the tattoo can be seen by wearing a short top and low-rise pants.

Palintologist

A person who studies or is fascinated by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.

black dog syndrome

In an animal shelter, the tendency for black- or dark-coated dogs to be passed over for adoption in favor of lighter colored dogs.

grab-and-goer

A person who dislikes shopping, or does not have much time for shopping, and so tends to select items quickly and without much thought.

Plutophile

A person who likes the dwarf planet Pluto, particularly one who objects to Pluto’s status as a dwarf planet.


My media week 31/01/10

January 30, 2010

As a card-carrying sceptic I have to mention Saturday’s demonstration in which the Merseyside Sceptics Society will stage a “mass overdose” outside Boots stores around Britain tomorrow to protest against the chain’s continuing sale of homeopathic remedies and to argue that such treatments have no scientific basis. The event,  is called 10:23 in an allusion to Italian chemist Avogadro’s number determining the amount of molecules in a given solution, The protesters will swallow the contents of entire bottles of homeopathic pills to make the point that such remedies “are nothing but sugar pills.”  Homeopathy protesters to take ‘mass overdose’ outside Boots

In Radio 4’s religious programme Beyond Belief Ernie Rea discusses whether self-inflicted pain is a valid or offensive form of discipline. It’s a fascinating subject and you hear a wide range of opinions, including a member of Opus Dei. The podcast is available until Monday but you will still be able to listen to it at the Beyond Belief homepage.

The Millions website has a piece about book piracy. It begins like this:

For several years, it seemed as though the book industry was getting a reprieve. As the music industry was ravaged by file sharing, and the film and TV industry were increasingly targeted by downloaders, book piracy was but a quaint cul de sac in the vast file sharing ecology. The tide, however, may be changing. Ereaders have become mainstream, making reading ebooks palatable to many more readers. Meanwhile, technology for scanning physical books and breaking the DRM on ebooks has continued to advance. Here is the article: Confessions of a Book Pirate.

I listen to EconTalk podcast every week with the excellent Russ Roberts. His newest project is a rap version comparing Keynesian and Austrian approaches to business cycle – Fear the Boom and Bust. Fortunately Roberts doesn’t actually do the rapping. The video features Billy Scafuri as John Maynard Keynes and Adam Lustick as F. A. Hayek. You can watch the video, download the song to your iPod, read the lyrics and find links to Keynes and Hayek here.


A guide to historical fiction

January 24, 2010

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” This quote comes from the 1953 novel by L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between. And in recent years many people have been travelling to this country via historical fiction; there has been a glut of books taking us back in time – Cold Mountain, The Girl with the Pearl Earring and Restoration to name but a few. And all of these have been made into Hollywood films. I myself have just finished reading Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel, which is about Thomas Cromwell and is set against the backdrop of the court of Henry VIII. And I have also been watching the third series of The Tudors with Jonathon Rhys Meyers as the six-times married monarch.

We need to define what we mean by historical fiction. Looking on the internet one definition I liked referred to a historical novel as one set fifty or more years in the past and which is based on research. Not everyone will agree with this definition but it is a nice starting point for discussion. Historical fiction can also be divided into different subgenres. Here are some typical ones:

Traditional Historical Novels

These novels portray a historical period, place, and its inhabitants in a realistic way. For me the best example is Mary Renault, whose most famous works are set in Ancient Greece.

Sagas/Multi-Period Epics

These may focus on the domestic lives and family relationships of the protagonists. The action often takes place over various generations. Some authors condense this into one volume, whereas others prefer multiple volumes. Edward Rutherfurd uses a place – London, Dublin or New York as the central character. Into this milieu he transplants four to six fictional families and their descendents, who interact with real historical figures. His books tend to last around 1.000 pages, divided into a number of parts, each representing a specific period in the history of the place. This is rather formulaic but his novels are well-researched and do give you a feel for the history of a place.  

Historical Mysteries and Thrillers

In these novels fictional detectives from the past have to solve crimes, using techniques appropriate to the time period. At the same time we are immersed in the culture of a particular place. Examples include detectives such as Ellis Peters’s 12th-century monk/sleuth, Brother Cadfael and Lindsey Davis’s ancient Roman detective Didius Falco.

Romantic Historical Novels

These novels are set before WWII and the most famous subgenre is the regency romance. They are not generally characterised by their accuracy and their heroines often are for more educated than would have been typical at that time. What comes to mind is the helpless heroine who is rescued by the dashing hero. These novels are often known as “bodice-rippers” It is virtually obligatory for the cover picture to show the swooning, scantily-clad ample-bosomed heroine being grabbed by the hero.  Romantic fiction is not my cup of tea but it does enjoy a large following. Examples include Barbara Wood and Georgette Heyer

Historical Adventure

These novels go at breakneck speed and their heroic protagonists, always men, travel all around the world in their quest for adventure or to defeat their foes. Authors such as CS Forrester, Bernard Cornwell and Arturo Perez-Reverte spring to mind.

Alternate History

These novels examine alternative possible outcomes for past events, exploring how history may have changed as a result. As you may remember I am a big fan of counterfactuals as a way of making history more appealing. There is genre of fiction based on this premise.  My favourite has to be Harry Turtledove, who imagined aliens getting involved in WWII.

For some critics the term historical fiction may be an oxymoron. But I think that it is a fascinating way to bring history alive. I’ve never been into Tolkein I think the real world is so much more interesting than this artificial world. What really got me hooked on Rome were the book and the TV series of I Claudius. I love the feeling of being transported into another time period.

However, this is a complicated endeavour. I remember hearing a historian complaining about historical films. He said that they would claim that everything on the set was an exact reproduction of the particular period. But then the characters would open their mouths and would say things that no one of that period would have come out with. It is really important to capture this worldview. I’m not so worried if the author gets all the facts right but I don’t want them to project our ideology onto this period. Mary Renault is one of my favourite authors in this respect. I want someone to see both the differences and the similarities with our world. These similarities can be uncanny. In Ben Hur Messala tells his childhood friend you are either with us against us, a turn of phrase which George Bush would use to garner support in his War on Terror.

How important is accuracy? A couple of films about recent events bring this into relief. In the film In the Name of the Father the poster of Jimi Hendrix in the jail cell is a 1993 MCA reissue. This is pretty trivial. In the movie about the boxer Rubin Carter, the world championship bout with Joey Giardello is portrayed as a fix. Apparently the reality was different and even Carter himself, didn’t dispute the decision at the time. This is very serious. Firstly. because it is an insult to Giardello, whose training skill and sacrifice get in the way of the story that the director wanted to tell. I am also worried that if they can be so fast and loose with the truth in this instance, what credibility does the rest of the film have? Just because Bob Dylan sang about it doesn’t make it true. Books too can give a false impression. In I Claudius Robert attributes more murders to Livia than she was really responsible for. The problem is that it is difficult to know what happened all those years ago.  In The Da Vinci code Dan Brown claimed that 5 million women had been burned at the stake as witches. While the number is in dispute, most reasonable estimates put the true number of people burned – men and women – at between 40,000 and 60,000. Dan Brown was not alone in this error – this figure was also claimed by radical feminist Andrea Dworkin.

But I remain a fan. It is the job of schools to teach history. We will be in a sorry state if we depend on Hollywood or novelists for knowledge of history. Historical fiction can bring history to life in a way that non-fiction is just not capable of. Once that interest has been aroused, you can then go on to read what professional historians have to say.


The 10 most historically inaccurate movies

January 24, 2010

Last year The Times did this list about blunders in historical movies :

1 U-571, 2000

Rather cynically, American screenwriter David Ayer depicted American rather than British naval officers capturing the first Enigma machine, “in order to drive the movie for an American audience.” The first Enigma machine was in fact seized by officers from HMS Bulldog in 1941 and by the time the USA joined the war later that year, Britain had cracked the code. The post-release furore led Tony Blair, Prime Minister at the time, to agree that it was “an affront to the memories” of those involved and Bill Clinton, then US President, to write a letter emphasising the film’s fictional nature. In 2006, Ayer told the BBC he had come to regret the alteration: “Both my grandparents were officers in World War II, and I would be personally offended if somebody distorted their achievements.”

2 Braveheart, 1995

Not only was the Scottish hero William Wallace gruesomely executed in 1305, having been captured by the English at Falkirk, but seven centuries later his memory was exhumed, smeared with blue face paint and mutilated by Mel Gibson. Wallace was not the poor villager the film depicts, but a landowner and minor knight. The litany of fibs extends from Wallace’s love interest (Queen Isabella would have been about two-years-old at the time) to his kilt – a garment not developed for another three centuries. The historian Sharon L. Krossa likens it to “a film about Colonial America showing the colonial men wearing 20th century business suits.”

3 10,000 BC, 2008

This tale of a mammoth hunter travelling across the prehistoric globe to rescue his bride, features some surprising revelations. Were sabre-tooth tigers bull-sized? Could man train Woolly Mammoths to help build pyramids? Did we invent sailing boats so early? Unfortunately the answer to all these questions is no. In fact, the filmmakers incorporated so many animals then extinct, or yet to evolve, and so many future technologies and geographical impossibilities that Archaeology magazine was compelled to review – and pan it: “Unsurprisingly, this tribe is starving, but it is hard to have sympathy for them because any culture that tries to hunt mammoths with a net gets what it deserves.”

4 The Patriot, 2000

Gibson (rugby) tackles history again with his turn as an honest farmer drawn into the American Revolutionary War, which historian David Hackett Fischer claimed in the New York Times “is to history as Godzilla was to biology.” Crimes erroneously attributed to British soldiers include immolating villagers inside their church, an atrocity actually committed a century and a half later by Nazis in the French village of Oradour-sur-Glane. Meanwhile the director Spike Lee complained that the film “dodged around, skirted about or completely ignored slavery.” There is also strong evidence that Francis Marion, the basis for Gibson’s character, was a slave-owning serial rapist who murdered Cherokee Indians for fun.

5 Pearl Harbour, 2001

The protagonists of Pearl Harbour, George Welch and Kenneth M. Taylor, are based on two real-life US Army Air Corps Second Lieutenants, but the film weaves such a wildly inaccurate account of their love lives and sky-swooping exploits, that the cinematic incarnations have been rendered fictional. Before his death in 2006 Taylor told his son he thought the movie was “over-sensationalized and distorted.” The film’s villains fare no better than its heroes – the Japanese are reduced to a war-hungry stereotype that even in 1967 embarrassed TV bosses enough to mask it in latex and it call Klingon before broadcast.

6 Apocalypto, 2006

If you thought it strange that Apocalypto’s Mayans ransack a village of their own people for sacrificial victims and slaves, your suspicion was justified. Maya expert Zachary Hruby told the National Geographic that there is no evidence of this behaviour, “Captives appear to have been taken during war.” In fact, the brutality of Mayan life is exaggerated throughout the film. The kidnapped villagers are supposedly hunters living deep in the jungle, when they would probably have been farmers living on manicured land, and they are murdered in mass sacrifices, an Aztec practice. The ubiquitous Gibson produced and directed the film.

7 Amadeus, 1984

Some years after Mozart’s death in 1791, a rumour circulated in Vienna that Antonio Salieri, court composer to Emperor Joseph II, had plotted the Austrian’s death – an assertion upon which Amadeus is based. But if Salieri was murderously jealous of Mozart he gave little clue to it. His contemporary Anselm Hüttenbrenner claimed that Salieri spoke of the prodigy “with exceptional respect,” and Mozart’s widow Constanze trusted the Italian enough to ask him to tutor her son. It is possible that Salieri was wary of usurpation by the young genius, but the rumoured vitriol was probably propaganda fabricated as part of the rivalry between Italian and German schools of music.

8 Gladiator, 2000

Joaquin Phoenix’s Commodus is a coward who lusts after his sister Lucilla and murders his father, Marcus Araelius. In reality Commodus’s accession ended Pax Romana, two centuries of peace and minimal expansion by the empire and he has been described as a capricious show-off. But his father probably died of smallpox and far from falling in love with Lucilla, Commodus had her murdered after her involvement in an assassination attempt upon him. Ultimately, he was strangled in the bathtub by the wrestler Narcissus after twelve years of rule, not as the film asserts, while a new emperor, in a gladiatorial arena at the hands of Maximus – a fictional general based on Narcissus.

9 Young Victoria, 2009

Prince Albert really did prove his devotion to the pregnant Queen Victoria by bundling her into the well of a carriage during an assassination attempt, but he did not absorb the bullet this film dealt him. The gunman either missed or the pistol jammed, but the royal couple escaped unscathed. Screenwriter Julian Fellowes insisted that accuracy was paramount in his script, but that the alteration was necessary to show Albert’s deed to be “the act of bravery and selflessness that it was.” According to the News of the World, the present Queen was not amused by his decision.

 

10 Marie Antoinette 2006

In her stylised biopic of Marie Antoinette, Sofia Coppola sidelined the simmering politics of the French Revolution to focus exclusively on costumes and cakes. But while Marie lost her head for taking a similar stance, she might have lost it sooner had she propagated the film’s assertion that it took the queen a decade to conceive because Louis XVI was afraid of sex. The delay was almost certainly medical and in 2002 the historian Simone Bertière ascertained from royal correspondence that it was probably Louis’ “bracquemart assez considérable” mismatched with Marie’s “l’étroitesse du chemin” that blighted their love life. Perhaps too indelicate for Kirsten Dunst to explain between mouthfuls of macaroon.


My media week 24/01/10

January 24, 2010

Twenty years ago The Observer Magazine published an issue that looked ahead to London in 2010. did the experts get it right? Britain in 2010 – as predicted in 1990. There are also predictions for 2030.

The LSE organised a conference called What kind of economics should we teach? It was about the failure of many professional economists predict the timing and magnitude of the current crisis. 

Reason.com had a couple of things about the perception of Che Guevara that tie in with  a piece I did  called But he built some beautiful autobahns, which dealt with the asymmetric outrage about communist and fascist atrocities. There is an article,  Exorcising The Ghost and a short video, Che Guevara Killer Chic: Hollywood’s Sick Love Affair With Che Guevara.

The BBC has begun a series called A History of the World in 100 Objects, in which the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, tells two million years of human history through objects from the British Museum’s collection. The 15-minute podcasts are available here. The 100 programmes will be broadcast in three tranches through the year. I shall definitely be taking them with me this summer to enhance the experience of visiting this unique museum.


Chávezonomics

January 17, 2010

This week’s announcement by the Venezuelan government that they were going to devalue their currency gives me an excuse to talk about that darling of the left Hugo Chavez. I am normally sceptical about anyone who let-wing journalists fawn over so much but Chávez is undoubtedly an intriguing character. The right too seem to be obsessed with him. The conservative Heritage Foundation ranked Chávez’s Venezuela 183rd out of 187 in terms of authoritarian governments in the world. He has had 19 elections in 11 years. This is not Cuba. Thousands of people regularly take to the streets to protest against Chávez and people go on television calling him a dictator. Again, this is not something that goes on in Cuba. There is more to democracy than holding elections but Chávez clearly does enjoy considerable support in his country. However, in this post I want to look at Chávez’s economic policies.

In relation to this of course we have to refer to the recent devaluation or adjustment of the bolivar. This is a two-tier devaluation; it devalues the currency to 4.3 and 2.6 against the dollar, from a rate of 2.15 per dollar, which had been in place since 2005. The measure represents a 17 percent and 100 percent devaluation respectively. His claim that there was absolutely no reason for anybody to be raising prices of absolutely anything did strike me as a little bizarre. I may be an armchair economist but if you devalue a currency then it is worth less and logically prices will have to go up. Am I missing something here? Chávez has the gift of the gab and went on in true populist style:

I want the national guard on the streets with the people to fight against speculation. Publicly denounce the speculator and we will intervene in any business of any size.” Chávez, unlike the vast majority of economists, believes in price controls. They sound wonderful but as economist Thomas Sowell always says about a particular policy, you have to ask a very simple question: And then what? Unfortunately history shows that they do not work. The Roman emperor Diocletian introduced price controls, which resulted in a decline in supply, which combined with the increased demand led to massive shortages. These shortages led the emperor to denounce the hoarding of food. This is exactly the kind of demagoguery which Chávez also likes to engage in; political leaders can always find someone else to blame for the bad consequences of their own policies.

Chávez was for a number of years the beneficiary of the oil boom. This gave Venezuela a huge windfall, and Chávez was able to redistribute that money. But for many analysts oil can be a mixed blessing. This is known as the curse of oil wealth. Venezuela has been producing oil since 1928 and was one of prime movers in the founding of OPEC in the 1960s The petroleum sector dominates the economy, accounting for approximately a third of GDP, around 80% of export earnings, and more than half of government operating revenues. OPEC co-founder Juan Pablo Perez Alfonzo predicted in the 1970s, “oil will bring us ruin.” He called it “the devil’s excrement.” This may seem paradoxical but there are numerous examples around the world – Saudi Arabia Nigeria and Russia are obvious examples. There are a number of reasons for this. One idea that I find particularly interesting is that when a country is not resource-dependent, its governments have to tax citizens, who demand efficient and responsive government in return. This relationship is broken in resource-rich countries, where the money goes directly to the government, which is not responsive to their needs.  Countries whose economies are dominated by resource extraction industries can often be more repressive, corrupt and badly-managed. Many of Chávez’s predecessors have fitted this description perfectly.

Chávez also likes his nationalisations. The underlying assumption here is that foreign investment is by its very nature exploitative. But if you look at the reality many of the poorest places in the world are those which do not receive Western investment. The vast majority of money is actually invested in the western countries. Very little is invested in Africa because investors are afraid of not getting their money back. By nationalising many sectors Chávez is sending a message. Who would really want to invest in a country like this, when at any moment you could have your assets seized? Business needs a stable climate to thrive.

The best judge of Chávezonomics of course will be time. The whole question of how nations become prosperous is complicated. China has become rich ignoring many of the prescriptions suggested by the West and with little inclination for democratic freedoms. However I don’t feel that Chávez has any real economic solutions. What he has had so far is all that oil money, which he has been very adept at spreading around; his populist policies have played well with the Venezuelan electorate so far. But he seems to have no idea of how wealth is actually created. The rest of the Venezuelan economy seems to be in a pretty sorry state. Inflation stands at more than 25%. The next few years are going to test the value of Chávez’s “Socialism for the 21st Century.  I think many will be disappointed by the outcome.