I’ve said this before many times, and I have even written about it, but I do not hesitate to say it again: I have lived a charmed life, totally enabled by the fortunate circumstances of my birth. I have been brought to this subject because yesterday I heard a recent interview of Barack Obama by David Letterman (it’s on Netflix), and both agreed that whatever talent they might have had, they would have been unable to achieve what they had without luck.
Talk about luck! I was born into the family of a village carpenter who made his living by selling farm gates and cow byres to local farmers, and through hard times brought up his children, of whom I was the last of six. I was born in 1928. My birth had such an explosive impact on the world that within a year the global economy had shattered into pieces, and everyone, including my father, had to scrabble to make a living. I lived through all of that, oblivious.
But the lives of my older brothers, the eldest born 18 years before me, were all affected by the global Depression in the most fundamental way possible: they were ordered by my father to stop going to high school, and to begin working for him, without pay for several years. They didn’t like it, but they had to do it. The one closest to me, only six years older, was told on a Friday afternoon that on Monday he would start work at a building supplies firm. He didn’t like it, in fact, he hated the job and the firm, but was stuck in it until he was drafted into the army during the Second World War. He didn’t like that, either, but he managed to survive a posting to New Caledonia in the Pacific (emerging only with a broken toe suffered in a regimental Rugby game), and later to Egypt, where he fell in love with the beautiful daughter of a wealthy Greek family (and I fell in love with the picture he sent of her) until the time came for him to say, so long, it’s been great to know yuh.
So not only was I too young to have been fundamentally affected by the Depression, but also I was too young to have to go to war. As my brothers slogged it out in barracks, I was running and jumping to my heart’s content at school. I was just turned 17 when VE (Victory in Europe day) arrived, and I started to work in the local newspaper at the end of that year, 1945. I remember the day on which Field-Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery, the notably eccentric military genius who chased Rommel across North Africa to begin the turnaround in the fortunes of our side, visited our small town, and was rapturously greeted at the Town Hall by the citizenry.
As if it wasn’t enough good luck to have emerged from the Depression and the War, two of the greatest calamities that ever befell the human race, without so much as a scratch (in fact, the only thing I ever had to do was to learn how to handle a rifle as a member of the high school cadets, a compulsory task from which there was no escape even for a boy who routinely was a sluggard at fulfilling his civic duty), the fact is that the luck that befell me after the war was even more extraordinary, because every person in our white, wealthy, privileged part of the human race shared in the good fortune along with me. And the good fortune was this:
* First, beginning in 1945, and going on until 1970, the world entered into an era marked by the most favourable weather, leading to the best growing conditions, that probably farmers had ever known before in history.
* Second, this favourable weather was the basic condition that allowed our societies to enter into a period of full employment. In our small country in the South Pacific we had been wise enough to elect a Labour government in 1935, which began to take measures that lifted the worst conditions, for example, in 1938 creating the first National Health Service in the English-speaking world. At the same time, my family’s fortunes began to improve when my dad got contracts to build several hundred of the so-called State houses that the new government embarked upon. (Again, looking back from this distance, this government under which I grew up sounds like a government that, having been elected to do socially responsible things, actually went ahead and did them. A posture that, in today’s world would make it almost unique.)
Five years after the war, I was ready to embark on my investigation of the outside world, and the conditions were tailor-made for a young couple like my wife and myself, both well-trained in our professions, to move from country to country, getting jobs without any major difficulty, and enjoying the spectacle of a world relaxing after the horrors of war. In England, where we wound up for three years, 1951-54, we arrived when food rationing was still in force, and to visit France in 1952 and witness the shops groaning with the most delectable food imaginable (especially for a couple of rubes from Down Under) was to experience a delight that opened our eyes to pleasures hitherto unknown to us.
We were moving in a world that, compared with our present day, was easy to move around in. Perhaps it was easier for members of the so-called British Commonwealth than for people at large, but I often say that I emigrated successively to four different countries --- Australia, India, Britain and Canada --- and in each case, so different from today, I could have stayed for the rest of my life, had I wanted to.
This weekend I have come across an article written for the Toronto Globe and Mail by Yanis Varoufakis, the charismatic, intellectually brilliant man who was (briefly) Greece’s Finance Minister during that country’s recent trauma. He deals with the same post-war period in which I was exploring the world, and his take is extremely interesting. He writes:
In 1944, the New Deal administration in Washington understood that the only way to avoid the Great Depression’s return at war’s end was to transfer America’s surpluses to Europe….and Japan, effectively recycling them to generate foreign demand for all the gleaming new products --- the washing machines, cars, television sets, passenger jets --- that American industry would switch to from military hardware.
He adds that the “global currency unit based on the American dollar” required fixed exchange rates, almost-constant interest rates and banks ---boring banks, he calls them mischievously --- operating under severe capital controls.
This dazzling design, also known as the Bretton Woods system, brought us a golden age of low unemployment and inflation, high growth and impressively diminished inequality. Alas, by the late 1960s, it was dead in the water.
By this time, Varoufakis remarks, the US, with federal budget and trade deficits, was no longer capable of stabilizing the system. So on August 15, 1971 President Nixon announced ejection of Europe and Japan from the dollar zone. As if on a pre-arranged key, at just this time the weather conditions began to become less favorable, and the golden age for agricultural growth came to an end.
Well, I have to thank Varoufakis for explaining from an intellectual standpoint the facts of my instinctively experienced journey around the world between 1945 and 1971.
I suppose I need only say: I told you so. I have been lucky enough to have lived through one of the golden ages of human existence, comparatively speaking, following my incredible luck in having missed both Depression and war in my younger years.
How can anyone have been so lucky?
* * * *
I should add that Varoufakis’s book about his experience among the decision-makers of Europe, Adults in the Room: My Battle with the European and American Deep Establishment, gives a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes as to how these weighty decisions are made, a process that should scare the bejesus out of any sane person. He had to withdraw from that particular battle when he was betrayed by the leaders of the party he had joined, the Syriza government of Greece. But he has since founded a group called the Democracy In Europe Movement25 (DIEM25) which he promises is going to take an active part in the forthcoming May 2019 elections to the European Parliament. Varoufakis was criticized by many on the Left for not wanting to withdraw Greece from the Eurozone, when he had some influence, but, as so many people decided after the Second World War, he believes it is better for Europe’s nations to get along together instead of killing each other, so he has preferred to set about improving the European Union by reforming it.