Monday, August 29, 2005

If Age but Could and Youth but Knew

New York Times, 28 August 2005; eTaiwan News, 29 August 2005 ("voice of the people, bridge to the world")

Ben Stein, of whom I have written here in praise of his understanding of economic policy has written some advice for your ‘Freshers’ going up the their Universities for the first time; in doing so he reveals why he is well informed in economics

“Until I got to my later economics courses with the redoubtable Professor C. Lowell Harriss, and until sophomore year, when it was my luck to have as a mentor and friend the visiting professor Milton Friedman, the greatest economist since Adam Smith, I knew little of how to get and spend and invest.”

Some accolade for Professor Milton Friedman; a might exaggerated, maybe, but I won’t quarrel about it. He certainly spoke and wrote a lot of sense’ The only time I heard him lecture was when he visited The University of Strathclyde and gave a powerful address on monetarism to a pack auditorium. He opened with his greetings to the ‘Republic of Letters’, - the ‘one true republic’ he called it. The University authorities had been expecting ‘trouble’ from opponents of Mrs Thatcher’s policies (those were those kinds of days). None materialised, which left the attendant University Janitors prominently placed around the hall, presumably to deter trouble, the best informed Janitors in monetary economics of any other British university.

Stein continues:

“I have read what in my opinion are the two greatest works of economics ever written: "The Wealth of Nations" by Adam Smith and "The Monetary History of the United States" by Milton Friedman and Anna Jacobson Schwartz, my mother's best friend from Barnard. Neither book makes much reference to connections, except for a sneering reference by Smith to "aldermen's wives" and their obsession with "place." And on the macro level, connections mean little. But on a personal level, they mean everything… Vitally, success in life is so much about connections and whom you know, those staples of bubbe meises (a Yiddish term meaning something like "grandma's wisdom") and so little about memorizing even the greatest of plays, like "Richard II," or knowing how to weigh the moon, that there should be a special seminar in making and keeping connections. It is embarrassing and demeaning that this should be so, but it is so and has always been so.”

Should Ben Stein read my “Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005: ISBN: 1-4039-4789-9) he will see the great extent to which Adam Smith practiced what Ben preaches about using ‘connections’, or what was known in the 18th century as working the ‘Interest system’.

Smith owed all of his advancements, from Glasgow to Oxford University (1740); from unemployment in Kirkcaldy to paid Lecturer in Edinburgh (1746-8); to appointment as Professor of Logic at Glasgow University in 1751 to Professor of Moral Philosophy in (1752- 63); to appointment as tutor to the young Duke of Buccleugh (1764-6); and his final appointment as a Commissioner of Customs in Scotland (1778-90) to his connections and his powerful political alliance with the 2nd and 3rd Dukes of Argyll, the government’s ‘fixers’ in Scotland.

In fact, Adam Smith is a model case study in how to get to know people and to get people to know you. His case shows that ability is seldom enough; without it, luck might help; but with it and with connections the combination is devastating. It would possibly make suitable material for Stein’s wished for ‘special seminar in making and keeping connections'.

Ben Stein also adds (there is much more in his article than I can quote here without breaching copyright!):

“Even more vital is the ability to work. Many college students think that work is slavery and captivity. Far from it. Labor is dignity, mental health, a grasp on reality. Freud said that nothing grounds a person so powerfully in reality as putting emphasis on work ("Civilization and Its Discontents"). In "Tommy," the Who said that "freedom tastes of reality" - at least I think that's what they're saying. Work, especially when combined with clear thought, makes possible a career of plenty and achievement and pride. Work is the key that turns almost any lock in the material world."

I have always believed, always said, especially to my children and to anybody I hear demeaning work, or worse, demeaning the people doing what they regard as humble jobs: “There is dignity in work”. And this applies to whatever work you do. Never, ever, be too proud to accept a job when you need one that is ‘below’ your normal line of work. Being voluntarily unemployed is demeaning; making an effort to feed and maintain yourself and your family (which includes anybody depending on you) is never demeaning, no matter what work you do.

Adam Smith retained his respect for the ‘common labourer’ (they did not have wives with the petty wishes of ‘Aldermen’s wives’) no matter how high he rose in fame. He worked hard for his pension, but typically, he gave most of it away in acts of private charity and died with a modest residue. A moral man, indeed.


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