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Antony Anderson: Our best friend—whether we like it or not

Commentary

Canadians’ ignorance of our own history is a pervasive and regrettable problem. The Hub is pleased to play a small part in attempting to turn this tide by presenting a weekly column from author and historian Antony Anderson on the week that was in Canadian history.

January 16, 1965: Prime Minister Lester Pearson and President Lyndon Johnson sign the Auto Pact

On the surface, they couldn’t be more different, the Oxford-educated diplomat and the down-to-earth Texan. 

Greeting a head of state to ratify a major trade agreement, Pearson stepped off the plane dressed in a formal dark suit with a classic homburg hat. Having scheduled this bilateral meeting at his ranch, Johnson showed up in casual work gear. He considered the Canadians friends so he paid them the compliment of dispensing with protocol. Getting his PMs mixed up, Johnson stood in front of the press and called Pearson “Mr. Wilson” (after the British PM Harold). No offence intended and Pearson, ever the pro, took none. The American and Canadian entourages were marshaled into a convoy of helicopters, jeeps, and golf carts and whisked across the desert landscape to the ranch.

Along the way, Johnson invited Pearson to do shots of bourbon. The Canadian declined. At one roadside pit stop, the president then invited the prime minister to join him taking a leak out in the open. Again, Pearson declined and no doubt, graciously so. The president’s language was laced with profanity. Pearson described it later as merely “sulfurous” and he of course refrained from using any foul language in kind. 

At the ranch, Johnson darted like a dragonfly, taking endless calls, cutting off conversations to watch the multiple TV sets to suddenly sharing secret communiques with his Canadian guests who simply had to go with the manic flow. Such are the privileges of the superpower, and such are the limitations of the middle power status. Johnson pressed Pearson several times for some kind of Canadian military commitment in Vietnam. Once again, Pearson had to decline. He managed, as every PM must, a fine balancing act of accommodation and deflection. Fortunately, he had some credit in the bank. Canadian military observers were already in Vietnam monitoring a ceasefire accord, almost worthless, through the International Commission for Supervision and Control, largely ineffectual. The year before, Canada had moved quickly to send peacekeepers to keep the lid on Cyprus for which Johnson had thanked Pearson. 

Despite their jarring differences in style and temperament, the two men were professional politicians. They didn’t need to be friends or even like each other. They needed to serve their country’s mutual interests. The Auto Pact was one of those sweet spots in the relationship that delivered a win-win for Canada and the United States—a trade agreement that proved very good for business and which ensured a secure place for the Canadian auto industry in the larger North American marketplace. The details had been worked out by officials. The leaders were there for the signatures and the cameras, though Pearson would need Johnson to expend some time and attention to ease passage through the labyrinthine tunnels of Congressional approval, and this the president did. 

Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson (left) and President Lyndon B. Johnson talk with the media at Camp David in Thurmont, MD. on April 3, 1965. The Associated Press.

This harmony would be shattered in just three months when Pearson traveled back to U.S. soil to accept a peace award in Philadelphia. In his speech, he praised American intentions and goals in Vietnam, expressed Canada’s support for the larger strategic goal of containing communism, and then made a tentative tactical suggestion that Washington consider, at some point, a pause in the current bombing campaign to encourage the North Vietnamese to start peace talks. He thought he was offering sensible advice from a supportive neighbour who was a tad concerned about the terrifying escalation taking place. Johnson didn’t see it that way.

The president invited Pearson to his country retreat, Camp David, and then after a tense, surly lunch —where one observer was troubled to see Johnson taking only one Bloody Mary instead of his customary three—Johnson took Pearson outside to the terrace. He screamed. He raged. He wouldn’t let Pearson get in a word in. He even grabbed Pearson by the lapels and is thought to have exclaimed at one point, “You pissed on my rug”. Pearson—again the professional diplomat—did not appear to take offence.Lawrence Martin The President and the Prime Ministers (Doubleday Canada 1982) p. 2

He knew he had knowingly committed a terrible faux pas that any entry-level diplomat would shrink back from in horror: you do not appear to question i.e. criticize, especially in public, another nation’s foreign policy on their home ground. Pearson however felt compelled to commit such a blunder to save Johnson from being overwhelmed by the hawks in his administration. Flailing in vain for victory and release, the beleaguered Johnson saw himself as a moderate fighting a vital war for his fellow allies who largely and selfishly wanted nothing to do with the spreading quagmire.

After the one-way shouting match, Johnson and Pearson returned from the terrace, faced the press in a distinctly cool atmosphere, claimed they had conducted a friendly exchange of views, and then went their way. The two leaders, ever professional, remained civil but no more than that for the rest of their tenures. Johnson would later complain to the Canadian ambassador that “You screwed us on the Auto Pact!” but he never did anything to damage it. 

This incident brings to mind a quip Pearson apparently made at some point in his long career dealing with Washington, that they were just the “show-biz side” of a continental relationship so vast and intricate that the big economic and cultural wheels just keep on churning no matter who is in power; sometimes with more noise and friction, sometimes like silk, but the churning does not stop. 

Perhaps this is why historians and journalists keep quoting the eternally apt insight from Robert Thompson, MP and federal leader of the Social Credit Party in the 1960s: “The Americans are our best friends, whether we like it or not.” Most of the time we like it. When we don’t, we know the shouting match will eventually end. Neither of us is going anywhere. 

Patrick Luciani: Who is the greatest economist of all time?

Commentary

In the latest Hub book review, Patrick Luciani reviews GOAT: Who is the Greatest Economist of all Time and Why Does it Matter? by Tyler Cowen (2023) which assesses the cases of some of the top economists in history to determine who can lay claim to being the greatest among them.

Who is the greatest of all time, or the GOAT, among economists? It’s a fascinating question but an odd one as well. One would think that the greatest would depend on one’s political stance. Tyler Cowen, a well-known professor of economics, best-selling author, podcaster, polymath, and co-founder of the highly successful Marginal Revolution website, has released a 350-page book, available for free online, that tries to answer the question. It was his COVID lockdown book that kept the inveterate traveller busy at home. 

When I started reading, I was hooked. It was fascinating getting a refresher about critical economic ideas but also the personalities behind them. Every page carried new information. Cowen achieved the impossible, turning the history of economic thought into a page-turner, bringing to life the ideas of six economists who have shaped the world we live in. 

Cowen lays down a few criteria for a proper evaluation to get past the problem of political bias. Any candidate for the GOAT prize must be original, of great historical importance, a carrier of essential ideas, and know lots of micro and macro theory and empirics. Finally, any candidate must not be “too wrong” on the “substance of issues.” In other words, you might be a great thinker, but if your ideas can’t survive the test of time, you’re off the list. 

The shortlist of great economists who get their own chapters are Milton Friedman, F. A. Hayek, John Maynard Keynes, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Malthus, and—no explanation needed here—Adam Smith. The surprise is that Karl Marx didn’t make the final six. For all his fame and disruptive influence, the 1917 Russian Revolution made him famous, not his economic intelligence. 

Another surprising omission was Paul Samuelson, the first American to win the Nobel Prize in economics. His 1948 textbook Economics has gone through 16 editions and sold over four million copies. That book has educated more students of economics than any before or since. Samuelson was a brilliant economic modeller and was primarily responsible for bringing deep math to the science of modern economics. But according to Cowen, Paul Samuelson didn’t understand economics

Here’s some evidence: Samuelson got the Soviet Union wrong. He insisted that the Soviets would catch up and overtake the United States and believed a socialist command economy could “function and even thrive.” Samuelson also got the 1970s and ’80s recessions wrong and insisted that wage and price controls were the way to fight inflation. Despite his brilliance, Samuelson’s arrogance stopped him from considering that the Chicago school under Milton Friedman might be on to something. 

Here’s a summary of Cowen’s final six. 

Friedrich August Hayek

As a fan of Austrian economics, Tyler Cowen claims that Hayek’s three best articles are superior and more important than the top five articles of any other economist. High praise, without a doubt. Hayek argued that knowledge of how the economy works doesn’t reside in the minds of policy experts but is dispersed as “bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess.” 

The message is that we can never fully know that “knowledge.” And we weren’t going to find that knowledge with sophisticated econometrics. Therefore, allocating resources by economic planners to solve economic problems is doomed to fail. The best we can do is “find the best decentralized mechanism for improving opportunities.” That insight has changed how we think about economics today, with profound implications for growth and prosperity. One weakness was Hayek’s skepticism about modelling or deep data analysis to address economic problems. 

John Maynard Keynes

Keynes certainly meets most, if not all, of Cowen’s criteria. There’s no question that Keynes was the most attractive economic thinker of the lot. He’s the one that Cowen would choose to spend time with because his world went beyond economics and into the arts and diplomacy. Keynes was a man of culture as a member of the Bloomsbury Group with Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forester, who pursued his varied sexual relationships with “true ardour,” which made him stand out from the crowd of boring bureaucrats and professors. 

As an economist after the Second World War, his influence on international and domestic policy was enormous and unimaginable without him. Great as he was, Cowen tells us he wasn’t that good an economist. His famous book, The General Theory, “is riddled with microeconomic mistakes and ambiguities, such as confusion between movements of curves and shifts along curves.” He had poor terminology, was unclear about elasticities, and confused average and marginal rates. 

According to Cowen, Keynes never nails microeconomics. By those standards, Keynes would have flunked an intermediate microeconomics exam. Keynes was a big-picture guy who never quite saw the deep complexity of an economy, and his simple models couldn’t solve messy real-world problems. Keynes was also an avid supporter of eugenics, an antisemite. He also suggested in his German translation of his General Theory (yes, Cowen also reads German) that his investment theory was closer “with totalitarianism than with laissez-faire.” 

Milton Friedman

 Although without the charisma of Keynes, Friedman has all the ingredients of a GOAT. His scholarship is, without a doubt, Nobel Prize-level stuff, a prize he won in 1976. His historical study of the Monetary History of the United States, with Anna Schwartz, was a landmark in helping us understand the Great Depression. In the real world, he also led the reforms against the military draft and supported floating exchange rate policies that have proven essentially correct. He seems vindicated in advocating vouchers to improve public school education levels and advocated a negative income tax to help the poor, an idea now picked up by the Left. He has also influenced the Federal Reserve’s attention to money supply and prices. He has spread the gospel on the values of freedom and free market principles, along with his macroeconomic ideas, which are on par with Keynes’s influence. Cowen’s criticism seems to centre on Friedman’s position that economic problems are easy to resolve and simple to understand. He had little time for government programs to help the poor and blamed the state for the poverty that existed. Cowen was also miffed by Friedman’s attack on complex modelling, insisting that their predictive value counts even if the assumptions aren’t realistic. 

Malthus and Mill

I admit I was surprised to see Thomas Malthus and John Stuart Mill as among the six best economists on Tyler Cowen’s list. I never considered them economists in the strictest sense. If Cowen says they belong, they belong. 

On Malthus, I would have thought his prediction that population growth would always outstrip food production and lead to widespread famine has proven to be one the biggest gaffs in economic thinking. He completely missed the boat on the role of agricultural innovation and technology. But Cowen reminds us that Malthus was right for 99 percent of human history, and we shouldn’t be too hard on him because he missed that one percent. Today, Malthus’s ideas have worked their way into how we think about environmental sustainability. The word “Malthusian” is part of our vocabulary when we talk about protecting the earth and husbanding its resources. For that, Thomas Malthus deserves a place in the top six. 

Cowen also gives high praise to John Stuart Mill, better known as a political philosopher than an economist, though his economic writing is extensive. He regards Mill’s The Subjection of Women, which is not usually considered a book on economics, as “an excellent tract on women and the economics of gender and discrimination” and campaigned strongly for complete legal equality for women. Mill knew more economics than anyone in his time and was “all-encompassing in a way that no other GOAT contender can claim.” According to Cowen, Mill’s argument for liberty relied much on economic concepts such as “decentralization, anti-paternalism, and externalities,” ideas developed decades before Hayek and Friedman. However, it was strange to learn that Mill, who was a utilitarian first and a progressive second, favoured capital punishment and argued as much. Cowen holds high admiration for Mill’s learning and broad education and considers him the most profound thinker of them all. 

 Adam Smith

I would have guessed that Adam Smith would walk away with the top prize as the greatest of all time. Or is he? His contributions to economic theory are well-known even by non-economists, such as his articulation of the division of labour, economies of scale, and how a free-market system based on self-interest drives the betterment of society by an unplanned “invisible hand.” He saw the deep flaws in mercantilism and understood the power of open trade to advance national wealth and how the price system transfers information to increase or decrease production. 

Cowen reminds us that his thinking went beyond these concepts to argue that the division of labour also applies to national defence and the necessity for countries to protect their liberty and prosperity with well-trained standing armies. Smith’s two books, The Wealth of Nations and Theory of Moral Sentiments, together stress the need for individuals to break from “being excessively narrow, short-sighted, and obsessed with local information.” Here, Smith parts ways with Socrates, who saw teaching as the duty of elites, while Adam Smith saw a role for state subsidies to support the study of sciences and philosophy for everyone. Smith was a wide-ranging thinker beyond his reputation as an economist. 

The verdict

So, who is the GOAT? 

In the final chapter, Cowen summarizes the pros and cons of the six finalists. Without looking at the last section, my bet was on Milton Friedman. Cowen takes us on a journey of economic ideas without coming down on anyone as the Greatest Economist of all Time. However, he chose—to my surprise—John Stuart Mill as his informal winner and was his clear favourite as a thinker. Consolation prizes go to Milton Friedman as the best economist and Adam Smith as the most original and foundational economist.

Tyler Cowen ends by lamenting that we will never see the likes of these thinkers again because the scholarship of economics has fundamentally changed. Economists are now smarter and better trained but are no longer the “carriers of ideas.” Instead, they have become clever testers of hypotheses. Long gone are the thinkers who can imagine beyond their specialized fields. Pity.