Keynes in Bloomsbury: The Economist Gets Creative (from the QPB newsletter)

John Maynard Keynes, a giant of 20th-century economics, always believed that economists had to understand history, culture, and human behavior–in addition to markets and finance. He valued creative thinking and had a deeply felt understanding of the “human” side of his chosen field. For that reason, he viewed his friendships with writers, artists, and thinkers–especially those in the famed “Bloomsbury Group”–as crucial to his professional development.

The Bloomsbury Group was named for a notoriously bohemian section of London where its members met, rotating from apartment to apartment. In addition to Keynes, novelists Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster and philosopher Bertrand Russell were regulars at the weekly discussion group. Despite the mixed company, no subject was considered taboo, and the spirited debate sometimes focused quite candidly on sexual issues.

Keynes felt that his exposure to the ideas of group members–and of artists and writers in general–made him a better economist. He believed that it trained him to think more creatively and broadened his understanding of social issues that played a role in shaping the performance of economies.

Prompted, perhaps, by these humanist leanings, Keynes became an influential proponent of “new economics,” which held that governments should influence economic performance through policies and spending programs, rather than leaving them vulnerable to the ups and downs of free markets. His thinking played a significant role in shaping the government-backed jobs and spending programs of the “New Deal,” initiatives that US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt launched to counteract the effects of the Great Depression of the 1930s.

I suscribe to the QPB, Quality Paperback Book Club and also get emails regularly with little tidbits of history in them. Rarely is one not an interesting read. This one came alongside another one about Greenwich Village. Just as the economist felt that to better understand his craft by learning from artists and thinkers of the human side of things, I likewise believe that to understand the human side of things (psychology) one must look at other fields as well, from sports to union negotiations to day care to everything.

The skies were hazy this morning but now they are relatively clear. The temperature has dropped considerably from what it was the last two weeks. It was right pleasant last week and one didn’t need to wear much of a jacket at all during the day. Now it is cold enough to bit the skin while reaching outside for the morning paper. I read a bit this morning about the increasing size of NATO and Rumsfield’s words concerning peacekeeping missions. In the editorial section was one about the notion of America as an empire, which we definitely are. I history class we’d read about the Persian, Roman, Alexandrian empires and look at their borders over the ancient world. Even the borders of the Soviet empire were given in scarlet red borders. However, the borders of today’s empire cannot be shown by a mere border alone. In fact a geographical border doesn’t begin to cover the extent of the empire. I have only the faintest inkling as to the character of our American empire. The entirety of it all is splendidly terrifying. The opposing and helping forces at work are dizzying to myself. But I stray on wisps of thoughts.

Pour myself a bit of coffee, change the tune on they Mythos CD.

I am not against peace keeping missions. Not at all. Whether it is logical or personality based, it is part of my nature. These leanings can be seen in my move to re-enter the Marine Corps reserves, as well as the actions of one of the lead characters in the story that I am writing, Nicholas, corporal of the guard. I do not believe a world is possible, as least anytime soon, where peace will reign, as long as the knee-jerk reaction to violence is still in human nature. It isn’t so much a case for myself to fight for American interests as it is human interests. I can hear the peaceniks screaming at me for that statement, and I do not believe everything to work out all nice and neat. Things are neat inside the libraries, ordered neatly along the shelves, but in the mud they get all jumbled together. A friend said recently that I had two sides to me, waring against each other. She was correct, though the armies used to be a dozen or so instead of the two that are fighting now. However, I have no desire at all to seperate the two armies, to keep the internal conflict raging on. Yes, I am a bundle of contradictions. I make no apology for it.

It is an odd thing, peacekeeping missions. For again, were I to be called to go on an assisgnment to, say, Bosnia or Rwanda to assist, I would pack up a journal, a camera, and a book on Spinoza, along with my gear and go. I am not sure as to what the legislation is like on the matter (I’ve not investigated it) but it seems to me that should a person in the middle of a semester of college suddenly be called off to fight in a war, then that person’s college semester should be refunded to the student for the purpose of re-starting again on his/her return, at no penalty to the student. This may already be the case, or it may not. If not, I should probably bring attention to the matter. Back to my point. I do not shy away from the possibility of going off to fight in a war, though I’d much rather stay in a coffee shop with a thick book, a hot latte, and a perhaps some amiable company. But another side to the problem is manifestation of one’s own destiny, and this pertains to countries as well. Suppose an armed rebellion takes place in Hawaii, they begin asserting their independence, citing that the distance of the U.S. from Hawaii diminishes our concerns for their affairs, that they are better suited to self government than we are. In other words, the very same language used by the colonies against British Parliament. Today we might send peacekeeping troops to Hawaii, but would we have liked for Austria, Germany, Russia, and Spain to have sent peacekeeping troops to the colonies to help the British? The genocide in Rwanda was a horrible occurence, another chapter in a long history of conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsis, going back to the 15th century. At one time it was the Tutsis who dominated the Hutus. It is easy for us in our living rooms to click off the Simpson on the t.v., open a can of beer from the fridge, and say casually to the dog sitting next to us that we should send troops in to quell the genocide. And I agree that we should quell the genocide. The footage provided by U.N. troops on Hutus attacking Tutsis with machetes (women and children also) in streets was horrifying. Yet what do we do afterward? We send in troops, tell everyone to put down their machetes and rifles and to stop killing each other, give medical attention to the thousands and thousands of people in refugee camps, and then what? Do we instill a sense of government? Just because we give them a framework for a democracy does not mean that peace and justice will reign. Look at the lynchings in the South during between 1900 and 1970 alone. Where is the justice there? And what of the relations between the two? As hard as it is to fathom to some, “yankee” is still considered a bad word to some southerners and deep in the heart of many a white southerner is the love of the plantation, of being the master of the house. Not much investigation is given to the darker aspects of this (the slave ownership) but the charm of the antebellum houses and style of archectecture by some of the houses of the rich show our deepest feelings. It isn’t surprising, for the majority of whites in the South prior to the Civil War did not own slaves and were dirt poor themselves. The plantation class kept in them the notion that if they worked hard, they too might someday become head of a plantation and own slaves. Suppose you found out that your mother was once raped by a man while you was a small child. Now that man is supposedly turned around his life, is the minister of a church or a respected teacher, and he wants to give to the community in pennance for his crime, and he wishes to make amends to your mother. Would there be any mistrust between you and him (and what of your mother)? Even if he tried very hard to do well, would there always be a level of mistrust? It would in my case (even though I do not get along with my current mother) and I cannot imagine the deep smoldering hatred and fear within a person after having their entire family wiped out in a genocide against a backdrop of centuries of fighting. And who is to say that democracy is best? Suppose there was a region in the world and the citizens said “you know what? We don’t want the crap that you Americans go through every year. We want a constitutional monarchy instead.” and they instill one in their country (after all, it is their liberty to create whatever form of government for themselves that they wish is it not?) and the monarchy begins to focus its energy on building better infrastructure, better energy systems (such as look at Norway’s use of solar panels along its highway system, an idea that might be coming to California… I am crossing my fingers), the “total” education of the children and its citizens, and better health care.

It may very well be that there is no situation where it is entirely pure for a peacekeeping force to intervene. Yet does this take away from a need to intervene at all? Consider a husband hitting a wife. I am walking down the street, drinking my coffee, and I hear screaming. I look into the window of a house and see a husband push his wife across the room rather forcefully into the wall. I rush inside, toss my coffee at his head as a distraction as I connect into his knees with a kick to take him town quickly, where I then turn his arms around his back and pin his head down into the ground with a locking hold (very effective too). Did I do the correct thing? Part of me says yes, but part of me says no. I can remember as a kid standing in the next room, eavesdropping on my parents as they fought. My dad held a quiet voice and said “honey, calm down, listen to me for a moment” and she’d yell profanities back at him, then picked up a knife and vowed “I’ll kill you you sonofabitch”. My dad then quietly walked out of the house and out into the forest, attempting to calm down his anger, his frustration, his heartbreak. I stayed in the house and I remember something happening to mom, I can’t remember what it was, if she passed out or vomited or starting crying or what… it is a blank spot in my memory. All I remember is that I became immediately concerned for her and I ran out into the forest behind the house and found my dad walking underneath the hickory trees, his eyes told me the story of his heart and I told him, breathless from running, what happened, and the sudden change in his face from pain to concern and he quickly ran fro the forest, across the cow pasture, into the house to take care of her. It is part of my nature, everwanting to be gallant and chivalrous, to assume the man to be the evil one over the woman in a domestic dispute, but I know that women can be far more cruel than this gallant notion of them percieves. Violence, hatred, cruelty, malice… these things are not gender specific in the least. Now, suppose in my little example of coming across the domestic dispute I had pinned the man down, only to look up and see the woman stand up, run over to the corner of the room to pick up a pistol lying on the floor and start shooting at the man, catching me in the crossfire. The man had acted out of self defense (but I did not see this from the window) and now both he and I are now shot. I have said that I do not hit women in a fight, and for the most part this is true. Yet one must understand something here also… I do not hit people in a fight at all if I can help it. My first response is generally to leave the situation. If I cannot leave I’ll try to talk down the situation. If I cannot talk it down I’ll deflect it and if I cannot deflect it I’ll sometime pin down a person. It is much easier to pin someone than to box with them. If matters continue to escalate and as a last resort I’ll strike someone. I’ve not had to strike someone in many years. I cannot remember the last person I’ve hit. I’ve put a dangerous hold on very few people, have pinned a bit more, have diffused even more, and have walked away from the most situations. Should the person be a man or a woman I’ll handle it the same. If things escalate so far to where I have no choice, I would indeed strike a woman. But it isn’t something that I look forward to doing.

All of this is somewhat beside the point from my initial feeling on reading of Rumsfield’s address to the former Soviet states on their presence of NATO. As I’ve tried to illustrate somewhat that I am for peacekeeping forces, but that I also hold the extremely murky waters of morality concerning such, that I view dissonance of opinion and peace protests and such a very much needed part of the social dialogue, I am fearful of a giant military organization. You see, I am a proud flag waving American, it is true. Yet as being a proud flag bearing American I hold it as part of our sacred spirit of character to rebel against oppression. Should Oregon become unduly oppressed by the rest of the U.S. to the effect of our secession from the union, I hold it as our right to do so should we choose. How would we do so if we had to face not only the considerable U.S. forces, but also the forces from other members of NATO as well? They are, afterall, sent to aid U.S. troops in a peacekeeping mission are they not?

A quick question popping into my mind is “why are chemical weapons wrong to use?” There are varieties of such that can be used on a battlefield, that disperses quickly enough, and pose the same risks to civilians as other forms of weapons. I am not saying that I relish the opportunity to fight in an environment with nerve agents. I am not advocating for their use. But what is is that makes them unacceptable to us “civilized” nations but smart bombing a building in the middle of a city okay? What if we kept CNN on the battlefield, but gave the soldiers pike staffs, swords, shields, armor, and let them fight it out like the days of old. We might be less likely to send in troops (or maybe not) for oil in Kuwait. But I suspect that this isn’t so much of a logical notion as it is the sentiment in me that sympathized with the knight’s utter distaste for the new blackpowder firearms coming onto the field of battle. It was un-gentlemanly to fight as such from a distance.

Back to an earlier train of thought. With the consolidation of power increasing year to year, it becomes more and more important for organic communities of thought to emerge. I am not against the liberal and conservative “think tanks” in our system today. But I find them entirely too limiting. Wouldn’t it be better if we took some of our leading think tanks of opposing ideas and merged them into one? That is one thing that I like about Eugene, is that there are definitely different elements here. It is not just a hippie town at all. It used to be a timber capital (though timber is still very strong here). I talk about the notion of bringing different sides of the timber debate to the same table and forest activists are keen on the idea, but generally only from the notion of swaying the timber execs to their side. How can there ever be any dialogue if that is the extent of their “open mindedness” (in other words… no open mindedness)? But again, I stray. Reading this email today (cited above) I thought about such a community in Eugene. There possibly exists elements of such a thing now, particularly close to the campus, but it is relatively hard for me to crack into. It would be kinda cool to go to a coffee shop and join in on a discussion on whatever with artists, writers, economics majors, computer science students, retail clerks, assembly line workers, nurses, timber workers, feminists, socialists, capitalist…. as long as no one group tried to stack the house in their favor (a tactic used in some of the community debates I’ve seen).

And in thinking about that coffee house, I think about a country. Replace the country and its diverse citizens with a coffee house filled with diverse people like mentioned above. Freedom of speech and liberty would deem that it is okay for the environmentalists to come showed up dressed in green paper mache tree trunks, with banners reaing “stop clearcutting” and stand in the corner shouting chants and songs as the table of timber workers. The timber workers get fed up and move to another corner and turn their backs on the chanting environmentalists. A feminist grabs the microphone and starts her vagina poems while a mother cups her hands over her young son’s ears and holds a children’s book on her lap and tries to finish a story to him. Some dreadlocked hippies start dancing to some reggae in the middle of the cafe and the computer science students start up a slideshow on the wonders of programming languages and turn off the lights. Every group continues on their own course of interests, attempting to drown out or sway the course of the others to theirs (the dreadlocks try to get the swimsuit models to dance with them around the improptu fire). It turns into utter chaos. Where is the best way? Which is the more important, for the individual groups to be able to move along their own agenda, or for the social harmony of the coffee house?

Would I have to call in a peacekeeping force? (grin)

It is 12:30 and I’ve been here for over an hour now. Time to check the mail and do laundry.


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