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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Chrystia Freeland's Prize Winning Stupidity

Chrystia Freeland is a star in the higher journalism: some kind of high mucky muck at Reuters, formerly at The Financial Times, and briefly at Canada’s Globe, and now a prize winning author. Her Plutocrats has just won the $15G Lionel Gelber Prize. She has jumped on the trouble with billionaires bandwagon and seized a big drum.

I haven’t read her book and won’t unless someone pays me.

But we can get the measure of it from a widely published trailer, ‘The Self-Destruction of the 1 per cent.’ I have my copy from The New York Times.

This adapted extract from her book flatters the middle brow chattering classes by showing off a bit of what must be for most obscure, if romantic, history.

Her text is Why Nations Fail, another book I haven’t read, but which sounds like a fine example of the lucrative genre of lessons from history for people who know no history.

Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, economists, not historians, tell the story of how Venice, around 1300, closed its oligarchy by creating a Libro d’Oro recording the existing families with a right to sit in its Grand Council and closing it off. This was known as the Serrata, the closing. According to Acemoglu and Robinson, and Freeland, this led to the decline and fall of Venice.

This is simply stupid. Venice remained a great power for roughly four centuries after the Serrata.

Venice’s prosperity and power were based on its effective monopoly on trade with the East in a Western Europe where power was diffused under feudalism.

Around 1500 the Ottoman Turks had seized control of the whole Eastern Mediterranean, the Portuguese led by Vasco da Gama had opened a sea route to the East, Columbus had discovered America, and a new world of riches was opened, and France was on the way to becoming the first absolute monarchy and a great power.

These developments led to the, at first relative, decline of Venice. Serrata or no Serrata they would have happened.

And whatever the consequences of the Serrata the pretentious parallel Freeland seeks to draw with the flowering of billionaires in the United States is absurd.

Far from being a closed group the plutocrats are almost all new men. And the Serrata was not in the long term a plutocracy nor closed. When Venice needed money to fight the Turks, or the French, new money could buy in. And by the 18th century the roughly 2000 in the Libro d’Oro were not the 2000 wealthiest families in Venice. Many were quite poor barnabotti, too proud of their families to strive to make a ducat but swaggering about and making trouble in the Grand Council.

Freeland’s ‘Self-Destruction’ is a tissue of stupidities including a most inapposite invocation of Marx, at which Karl would have barked, and several references to her meetings with the great, either good or bad.

Bring on the prizes!