Where And When The Buck Stops

The Americans have a good old saying about the nature of responsibility: “the buck stops here!” It is, perhaps, less a celebration of the golden rule than a reflection of its significance. As we well know, responsibilities for employments, welfare and so much more depend upon funding. One could well include research projects under the same umbrella, this being an area where I have experienced countless disappointments over the years (and still do…the breadline beckons), as no doubt have many others. Where should “the buck” stop, or start, for research? A popular answer might be “who cares!” and that one should just go along with some desired research project regardless. Where there is a will, there is a way…and so on. But contexts can be a strange thing.

Over the last few years, as I have grown more fascinated with economic history, it has become a refreshing thing to hear economic historians and (some) economic commentators speak. Why? I think the primary reason is that they evidently believe in “straight talking”. I remember a teenage girl surprised me many years ago with an observation that Aristotle said (and I’m taking her word for this one) that the only sign of an intelligent person is that they invariably profess their own complete ignorance. Why? Because we all know far less than what we do not know. Consider that and witness how some economic historians “take on” their subjects. They make fearless judgments about international and national affairs, while equally admitting that they can get things entirely wrong. And yet they have researched their subject more intensely than anyone. It seems that economists pass the “Aristotle test” very well indeed.

What a difference that tone can make from that of so many political historians, who sometimes speak as if to disagree with a particular consensus would be a sign of “embarrassing” ignorance. I think it was Shakespeare who said that “all is vanity” but the particular vanity of this breed of political historian may be a unique thing in itself. Maybe he (or, indeed, she) is not as common as it may seem. The only consensuses that generally exist in life and in many branches of science are that there are no consensuses or, at least, these are perpetually open to change. I think it is for that very reason economic historians are often so incredibly well informed and yet also so admirably fearless. They are, perhaps, an example of the old Christian adage that it is wise to have the grace to “accept the unknown”.

Witness this following talk by Kevin O’Rourke, one of Ireland’s finest economic historians today. He sums up a century of trade statistics in about ten minutes and then comes to a conclusion, drawn from a children’s fable, that it is all a question of whether one acts like an oak tree or a branch:

Great stuff! O’Rourke also gave a rather brilliant lecture on the century since the 1916 rising from an economic perspective last year and helps to sustain a blog on the Irish Economy. Do I agree with everything he says? I am not sure if even he agrees with everything he says, but I am certain that he is a scholar from which one can learn because his enquiring mind is literally wide open. He expresses and revises his theories constantly without fear.

Another Irish “straight-talker” is a man who somehow shouldered a large part of the burden of steering Ireland through a recent financial crisis: Patrick Honohan. How anyone managed that responsibility is beyond me. But witness here his lecture on the role of the Central Bank of Ireland:

In just half an hour, he explains simply and directly the respective roles of European monetary policy and Irish national fiscal responsibility in shaping the Irish economy and why these are not one and the same thing. Personally, I think I could have read a hundred newspaper articles or half a dozen contemporary (political) histories and not once come across such cogent and illuminating analysis on the theme, all expressed in such a “straight talking” manner. Which just serves to remind me of a comment that Garret Fitzgerald once made, that political and economic history writing in Ireland do not seem to have ever met. I think Fitzgerald tried to do a bit of that, through writing a few essays in retirement, without necessarily believing that he succeeded in any fashion. I attempted to do a bit of that in my study of Arthur Griffith, and I know “now” that I failed in a few angles taken therein, but one can always try again…and again…on any subject one likes, surely?

For now, though, I feel like simply throwing out an idea: that perhaps it is the very fact, identified by Fitzgerald, that economic and political histories of Ireland (or maybe even “in” Ireland) have not met that has made many hypersensitive on the theme, perhaps most of all out of a sense of insecurity? I recall a British imperial historian, one of the best of his trade, giving a talk when he gave as a frank judgment that….“yeah, I think was right about a fair few of those things, but as to the rest…nah, on reflection that was just bullshit. I got that wrong”. Did this mean that he lost his job or his writings lost any of their credibility? Not in the slightest! To some extent, it may have even done him a favour (career wise, or otherwise). But in Irish academic circles, I am not so sure that the “Aristotle test” is quite so socially, or professionally, acceptable. Then again…let us hope that I am wrong.

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