November 21st, 2010

_A People's History of Science_, Clifford D. Conner

I feel like I've been very tolerant of a very questionable book. I may have, however, hit my limit, which is a pity, because I'm almost at the end. Perhaps I will skim. Here is the offending section:

"The Great Depression revealed that the capitalist system, left to its own devices, has become so productive that it is no longer capable of generating enough purchasing power to absorb all the products with which it continuously floods the market. [Wait for it. That's wrong, but that's not the problem.] John Maynard Keynes explained to Franklin Roosevelt that to create enough "aggregate demand" to keep the economy from freezing up, governments would henceforth have to create new purchasing power (i.e., new jobs) [Yeah, he said that.] by engaging in massive deficit spending. [New paragraph here.] It would not suffice to merely "prime the pump" and then step back to allow the invisible hand of supply and demand to reestablish economic equilibrium. Government deficit spending was destined to become a permanent [italicized] condition, with deficits continuously increasing [last two words italicized]. When questioned as to what would happen "in the long run" as governments continued endlessly piling up mountains of debt, Keynes's famous riposte was, "In the long run we are all dead.""

That's not what Keynes proposed at all. Keynes said when people quit buying, you'll get into a nasty death spiral unless someone starts buying. Absent anyone else buying, the government needs to buy. Jobs are _not_ necessary to transfer spending power to people, altho sometimes they are useful; witness the popular "stimulus" programs of the Bush years. More importantly, Keynes did _not_ think that a well-run government would have ever-increasing deficits/a permanent condition. When other buyers were willing to spend again, government's role was to step back: reduce its spending as other people spent. If everyone got going really nutty with the spending, government was expected to step in and make it harder for people to spend, so as to avoid the flip side [ETA: of ] deflation [ETA: which would be inflation].

When Keynes used his one liner, he was making a _really_ good, humane point: we shouldn't make children and the elderly and the powerless and disabled and so forth suffer now because of an ideal that predicts that perhaps maybe someday in the far flung future, something might happen. Something really bad is happening now. Deal with the hypotheticals later. There are problems with this as an approach to life, but not in the choices Keynes was urging leaders to make.

Conner has done a lot of creepy things in the course of this book, but this one is _really_ infuriating, partly because it is a sin of commission with no one else to blame. The eurocentrism, the total FAIL on women: those were sins of omission. Quoting _Black Athena_, well, he got suckered by someone else. But he went out of his way here to slander Keynes.

There is some interesting information and analysis in _A People's History of Science_ by Clifford D. Conner, but separating the wheat from the chaff is not worth it unless you are bored and starving. It has a favorable quote from Howard Zinn on the cover, and the main effect of _that_ is to make me wonder what I would think of Zinn if I reread him this year.

Despite its subtitle: (Miners, Midwives and "Low Mechanicks"), there is not anything to speak of in here about midwifery (which was the original impulse to buy it), which is a real pity. His rhetoric, in general, is appalling: he alternates regularly between attacking people more or less because they have credentials and using quotations from credentialed people, claiming they are trustworthy because they are members of the establishment.

Also, he spends a couple pages on the Darby clan, without mentioning anything about the women in the group. Regular readers may recall that when I stumbled upon the tale of Coalbrookdale, it caused me to toss a bad history book that invented an entirely fictional (and wildly inaccurate) story of one of the Darby women because the author couldn't be troubled to look the Darby clan up.

Don't go anywhere near this stinky turd of a book. I might go a little further and suggest avoiding the publisher (Nation Books) as well. 2005 printing, and the imprint emblem on the spine is of a manual typewriter with red paper in flames coming out of it. I'm thinking that's a great symbol for them. Wholly inflammatory in a completely obsolete, irrelevant and, in this case, inaccurate, way.