Monday, March 23, 2009

Paul Rivlin

Paul Rivlin is a Senior Research Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Tel Aviv University. He is the author of The Dynamics of Economic Policy Making in Egypt (1985), The Israel Economy (1992), Economic Policy and Performance in the Arab World (2001), and papers on defense economics and Arab economies.

His new book is Arab Economies in the Twenty-First Century.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I am reading Peter Hennessy’s Having it So Good: Britain in the Fifties. This is the second volume of his history of Britain after the Second World War and takes up the story from Never Again: Britain 1945-1951. These books are encyclopedic covering many aspects of life including sport, diet, religion, dress, politics and economics and have a long historical sweep. In the late 1940s and early 1950s some of Britain’s leaders were Edwardians, with experience in and before the First World War. Understanding them means understanding the world they were formed in and this is included. The remarkable achievement of these books is that the reader is never lost in the detail. The author steers through many subjects and then brings the reader back to the main road and the main point.

For someone born and brought up in the Britain of the 1950s, Hennessy conveys the details of a world that I was too young to see. Britain in the early 1950s was an interesting mixture. It had undergone the massive transformation that the Second World War and the post-war Labour government had generated through social policy and nationalization. It was losing its technological edge because of the burden of military spending and its unwillingness to engage in activist industrial policies that were successfully introduced in France and West Germany. Britain’s difficulties in contemplating closer relations with Europe are one of the most important sections of Having it So Good. In the 1970s, when I studied economics at Cambridge, Europe and industrial policies were hardly mentioned: legacies last although they have changed since then.

In the 1950s some leading members of the British establishment were more liberal on key social issues, than the public. It took until the 1960s for the country to move forward on these issues and for the primacy of social class to begin to fade and so the Britain in the 1950s was a repressive place that provoked the anger so brilliantly characterized in London theatre by John Osborne's Look Back in Anger.

The differences between right and left were not so clear cut as was once thought: Bevin was one of the toughest on the Soviets in the early cold war; Churchill favored negotiations. Eden was an old imperialist; Macmillan understood the winds of change. Churchill, Butler and Macmillan all were or became what have been called ‘One Nation’ politicians favoring high or full employment to limit social and economic deprivation.

These volumes help us understand not only what happened in the past but also what is happening today. As I write these lines, Britain is being buffeted by the massive financial crisis affecting the world economy. For twelve years it has had a Labour government that embraced financial deregulation that its Conservative predecessors began, with disastrous results. One of many interesting sequences is a discussion with Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England since 2003. His perspectives on the long term development of the economy are significant partly because of their insight but also because of the office which he has held during a period in which the British banking system has collapsed. He demonstrates a deep understanding of social and political context that affects the economy. It will be interesting to see if, in one of his promised later volumes, Hennessy finds out what King thinks about the financial crisis that Britain experienced while he was governor.

A study of how reluctant Atlee’s government was to interfere in the economy - despite it willingness to nationalize and revolutionize social policy- helps make the course of British economic policy more comprehensible. There is a profound conservatism about British economic policy than is true of both the major political parties. This contrasts to social liberalism that has been prevalent since the swinging Sixties when major social reforms were enacted. In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher reversed One Nation economic policies and began to deregulate financial and other markets, but was unable repeal the social reforms of the 1960s.

Hennessy demonstrates the value of studying, reading and writing good history: it throws light on the past and helps us understand the present.
Read an excerpt from Paul Rivlin's Arab Economies in the Twenty-First Century, and learn more about the book at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue