Thursday, January 29, 2015

How is the Greek financial crisis like the Irish Potato Famine?

David Zylberberg makes the case at Active History:
both reached the severity they did due to macroeconomic policies that prevented discretion in government policy. Simon Wren-Lewis has previously pointed out other similarities between the Irish famine and Eurozone crisis, most notably how cultural stereotypes in London or Bonn allowed policy makers to disregard suffering in Athens and Galway. 
Wren-Lewis notes the Greek consequences of European policies include a spike in infant mortality stillbirths and the return of malaria.

Another historical comparison is with Weimar Germany instead of Ireland, In the 1920s it was Germany arguing that emphasis on rapid debt repayment above all else would devastating and dangerous, while Germany's creditors continued to insist on being repaid.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

History of Tim's

You better start writing it soon, because the Romneyite vulture investors who now own it have begun to dismantle the enterprise. They will be serving instant coffee any day now.

At least we already have a history of the doughnut.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Seventy years

Miriam Friedman, the child second from left, photographed January 27, 1945, the day Russian troops took control of the Auschwitz camps, lives in Toronto today. I could pass by her at the mall or in the subway someday.

Photo and full story here, AP via Global News.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Economic history

I try not to read the Globe's Report on Business. It reads like too much old-timey sports pages used to: always rooting for the home team, and offering hot investment tips that sound a lot like "Lucky Dan in the fifth."

But the weekend's big survey of the world's economic troubles really emphasizes how out of touch the RoB and its reliable sources have been for years. It's perplexing, they say. It's different than anyone has experienced. I've never seen anything like this.  Where this is going, I don't know. It's all interrelated! (This is in lieu of "We've been wrong about everything.")

Then at the end: "Professor Farmer is quick to say he is not a fan of big-spending government stimulus largesse"  ... and neither is the RoB, for sure. But it's pretty clear even from their own reporting that government stimulus largesse remains the solution, even though it's the one the RoB and its experts have been successfully opposing for six years now. Consumers can't spend because they are loaded with debt, and because spending is risky with unemployment still huge and wages being driven down. Money is cheap and central banks are making tons of it available, but business won't borrow it, because with consumers not spending, they are retrenching, closing shop, and laying off. China and the new industrial powers can't save us, because we ain't buying.

And what are governments doing? Preparing for inflation, when the real threat continues to be deflation. Laying off civil servants when unemployment is high. Closing programs when the private sector is least able to replace them. Attacking wages when consumers cannot afford to spend.

Frankly, the solution has seemed pretty obvious since the recession of the Thirties. We have seen this before. When nobody can afford to borrow and spend to get the economy going, it's the right time for governments to do so. Money is cheap, infrastructure and social programs are dying for lack of investment, labour is abundant. If government borrows and spends, production rises, the economy grows, people get jobs and begin to spend again, growth returns. Then the government gets into surplus and earns its money back, as in the early 2000s. It ain't rocket science.

Except the conservative German government, the conservative British government, the conservative European Union, the conservative American congress, and the conservative Canadian government have all been determined for the last six years on the opposite:  If business can't spend and consumers can't spend and unemployment is high ... somehow the solution is austerity. The plan has been to stop governments from spending, create unemployment, let the physical plant run down....  We have a global economic slowdown by deliberate political choice, and now, gosh, if somehow times are still hard, how perplexing! The people making those choices are still presented as serious economic managers instead of dangerous incompetent ideologues.

I was reading on the weekend about the far-left party that has won the Greek elections (it's a prop-rep country, but they will probably get a near majority of seats on 40% of the vote, because the fine print of PR is rigged that way). What they hope for seems not so much far left as mostly like the most orthodox Keynesian economics: when we are all this deep in the hole, could Europe please stop digging?

Then there is Canada. With plunging government revenues because of the oil-price collapse (and everything else), the government promise, yes, they are still determined to balance the budget nevertheless. They just have to cut some more programs.  Yeah, take more money out of circulation, create more unemployment, produce more concern and uncertainty -- that's really going to help, according to these serious economic managers.

Syriza in Greece seems to be tagged as far left because the consensus has been so far-right. Maybe we need a little far left in Canada too.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Prize watch: the Taylor for 2015

The shortlist announcement for the Charles Taylor Prize in Nonfiction came out ten days ago, according to the QuillBlog
  • Plum Johnson, They Left Us Everything
  • David O’Keefe, One Day in August: the Untold Story Behind Canada’s Tragedy at Dieppe
  • Barbara Taylor, The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in our Times
  • M.G. Vassanji, And Home Was Kariakoo: A Memoir of East Africa
In recent years the Taylor has had a leaning for big historical titles --  Andrew Preston on American religion, Tim Cook on the First World War, Richard Gwyn on Macdonald, Thomas King on aboriginal history -- or for memoir (Ian Brown on his disabled son, Andrew Westoll on living with chimpanzees), and it has traditionally had a weakness for any nonfiction written by a prominent novelist (Carol Shields, Wayne Johnston, Rudy Wiebe, etc.).

There is a bit of each in this list:  Johnson and Taylor have written memoirs, Vassanji and Winter are novelists. I wouldn't have thought of O'Keefe's Dieppe book as the leading historical nonfiction last year (or indeed that there is an untold story of Dieppe!), but there's another historian's book on the list.

According to The Guardian, Barbara Taylor is a British historian of feminist and radical movements (she was born in Canada but has lived and worked in Britain). She has also lived with mental illnesses much of her adult life, and the memoir apparently blends personal experience with a history of changing treatments for mental disabilities.

Winner early in March.

HIstory of racism in Canada

What do we blame for First Nations poverty and dispossession, asks Scott Gilmore in the powerful study of Canadian racism in the current Maclean's:
Our justice system, unable to even convene Aboriginal juries? Band administrators, like those in Attawapiskat, who defraud their own people? Our health care system that fails to provide Aboriginal communities with health outcomes on par with El Salvador? Politicians too craven to admit the reserve system has failed? Elders like Chief Ava Hill, cynically willing to let a child die this week from treatable cancer in order to promote Aboriginal rights? Aboriginal people themselves for not throwing out the leaders who serve them so poorly? Police forces too timid to grasp the nettle and confront unbridled criminality like the organized drug-smuggling gangs in Akwesasne? Federal bureaucrats for constructing a $7-billion welfare system that doesn’t work? The school system for only graduating 42 per cent of reserve students? Aboriginal men, who have pushed their community’s murder rate past Somalia’s? The media for not sufficiently or persistently reporting on these facts?
His options are: either native people themselves for being crooked and weak (the bolded examples) or else Canadian authorities for not being paternalistic enough (the italicized ones).

He doesn't even raise as an option the fact that if Canada lived up to its existing treaty obligations and accepted aboriginal land titles and land rights, the First Nations of Canada would almost immediately cease to be one of the poorest demographics and become one of the wealthiest. And all the other problems he mourns would begin to be solved.

He doesn't even consider it an option. Boy, do we have a long way to travel yet.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

This month Canada's History

James Cook by artist Robin Brook
... has Barry Gough on James Cook's Canadian explorations on the cover.  Medical historian Christopher Rutty explores the history of smallpox in Canada.  Jim Burant, late primo of the Ottawa archives picture division, introduces the almost inappropriately beautiful First World War sketches and watercolours by soldier-artist Bill Stark.

To my mind the startling article this month is "The Serpent Slayer," Vancouver history teacher Janet Nicol's appreciation of Xwechtaal, or Andrew Paull (1892-1959), the under-appreciated west coast aboriginal rights activist and legal advocate. I had not known that in 1911 Paull, who grew up on the Squamish reserve in North Vancouver, completed the articling requirements for legal practice, but was never called to the bar because he was not on the voters list -- and refused to be, because registered Indians had to surrender their aboriginal status in order to be voters.

Paull was never allowed to call himself a lawyer or avail himself of lawyers' privileges, but effectively practised aboriginal rights law all his life.  Sounds like there is a good case here for an apology and a posthumous call to the bar by the Law Society of British Columbia, which long had a remarkable array of tools with which to deny recognition to ethnic minorities and political radicals. Despite such obstacles, in the 1920s Paull, a founder of the North American Indian Brotherhood, a precursor to the Assembly of First Nations, was pursuing the kinds of legal arguments that Canadian courts only began to take seriously a couple of decades ago.

My own column, "Rhymes with ISIS," considers what the Chanak crisis of 1922 suggests about the depressing history of Canada's part in Western invasions of the Middle East.

If you subscribed, you would already have received your copy.

Monday, January 19, 2015

History of the no brainer

The people who say some policy is a "no brainer" either haven't engaged their own brains or do not want you to engage yours.

The fixed election date was one of those policies that was promoted mostly as a no brainer.  We were not supposed to be skeptical about it or explore deeply into its potential consequences. It was a no brainer, just implement it.  Somehow taking powers away from parliament is always good, even though parliament's ineffectuality is always the problem we come back to.

Now we have fixed election dates established in law in Canada and most of the provinces, though indeed the laws are frequently revised and often evaded for partisan convenience. Here Chantal Hébert starts the counter revolution, observing how they have made our politics worse in all the ways they promised to make them better.

What other ideas in this area get promoted as no brainers? I think the leading one is proportional representation, the idea that we should deal with the malign influences of excessive party dominance by giving the parties even more power over who sits in the legislatures.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

History of the earcnanstan

Now this is how historians should get together

Howcumzit that so often the best history bloggers are medievalists?  Probably for the same reason that many of the best historians are medievalists, but that's just the same mystery.

Which is by way of saying that I read The Hobbit with my daughter when she was quite young, and since she and her sister grew up to be huge fans of the Lord of the Rings films, we made a point of seeing the Hobbit films together, even though she is all grown up now. I kinda hated how they turned that little fable into another LoTR franchise. But we carried through on the tradition.

After the third and final instalment recently, I picked up the book again -- to cleanse my palate, more or less, but also because I wanted to check if the jewel called the "Arkenstone" that figures prominently at the end of the movie is also in the book. Yes, it was there, playing more or less the same role in the plot, but with less hysteria about it, natch.

But now I know a great deal more about the Arkenstone -- Old English, earcnanstan, 'precious stone'  --  because of this remarkable blog post from A Clerk of Oxford.  And I know about the Clerk of Oxford because Eleanor Parker, the clerk herself, yesterday won the Digital History Prize at the History Today History Prize ceremonies.

Must say, from the photos they post, that I have not been to a history event in Canada half so swish since the early days of the Dominion Institute, when they used to par-tay.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

That's M-a-c-small d!

Fame in Canada.  Two hundred years, and the poor guy still can't get people to spell his name right.

Canada's History Society webinar series UPDATED with Halifax talks too

Canada's History announces for this winter and spring a pretty impressive series of webinars about doing history in and through interesting places, events, techniques, and technologies.

Info online, register online, do the whole thing online.  Starts January 27.

Update, same day:  Keith Mercer's blog notes a new historical talks series starting in Halifax, and wherever you are, you should open the link to see the images he has of the amazingly spectacular new Halifax Public Library building where they are being held

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

History for kids

Historiann launches a discussion at her blog about books about history as gifts for kids, particularly girl kids. I'm a bit staggered by her correspondent who says how hard this is. I would have thought that in our culture, particularly given the renaissance in books for children that has been afoot the last few decades, any historically literate reader could build great toppling piles of appropriate choices. As indeed most of the commentators do.

Also I'm less surprised, but struck as usual, by the Planet America assumptions even these culturally sensitive and no doubt widely travelled commentators take for granted.  None of them comes up with a non-American title or topic!

I found it pretty easy to come up with a shelf of Canadian titles: Anne or anything by Lucy Maud, the recent Hello Canada and Our Canadian Girl series, anything by Kit Pearson, Shantymen of Cache Creek or the other novels in the Bains series by my friend Bill Freeman, Paul Yee's Tales from Gold Mountain, Afua Cooper's Angelique, and anything by Janet Lunn (not least The Story of Canada I got to write with her). That last seems to be the one nonfiction that comes quickly to mind, but in fact there have been floods of finely written and often beautifully illustrated "information books" on Canadian historical subjects. Here's a pretty terrific list of a hundred Canadian books for kids with quite a bit of historically linked content.

But young Canadian kids (and their parents) I have know are surely exposed as well to many of the American titles in the Historiann lists, and to Little Women and many more American historically-themed books, plus global stories like the Royal Diaries and Cue for Treason, and the Rosemary Sutcliffe novels, and The Diary of Anne Frank, and didn't some guy write a short history of the world just for kids? (And this other guy, E.H. Gombrich wrote A Little History of the World.) Well, it's too easy to list the output of non-American titles -- can American readers really be so sheltered from all these?  I don't think so....