On Alan Greenspan, Metaphors, and Allegory (With a Detour to Montaillou)

My apologies for the long blogging silence these past months.  Teaching the much-feared Dartmouth winter term was as challenging as ever.  Maybe it takes a full spring term to recover from the winter term.  But here we are again, with fresh energy and news from the interwebs.  In case you haven’t heard: the season produced a remarkable crop of historical statements by Very Wise Men in business and finance.   There was first of all Alan Greenspan’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal of March 29, 2011, which contained this gem:

Today’s competitive markets, whether we seek to recognise it or not, are driven by an international version of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” that is unredeemably opaque. With notably rare exceptions (2008, for example), the global “invisible hand” has created relatively stable exchange rates, interest rates, prices, and wage rates.

As Henry Farrell noted,

It’s best not to interpret this as an empirical claim, but a carefully-thought-out bid for Internet immortality. It has the sublime combination of supreme self-confidence and utter cluelessness of previously successful memes such as “I am aware of all Internet traditions” and the “argument that has never been made in such detail or with such care,” but with added Greenspanny goodness. I tried to think of useful variations on the way in to work this morning – “With notably rare exceptions, Russian Roulette is a fun, safe game for all the family to play,” and “With notably rare exceptions, (the Third Punic War for example), the Carthaginian war machine was extremely successful,” but none do proper justice to the magnificence of the original.

Photo: flickr

Within 24 hours, the clever folks at Crooked Timber generated more than 330 Greenspanisms along those same lines, forming one of the most hilarious comments’ threads in memory.  An instant classic.  Greenspan’s legacy as Chairman of the Fed might be rather shaken, but his contribution to the history of rhetoric is now undisputed.

This could be a great parlor game (are there still parlors anywhere?) for the historically inclined:

“With notably rare exceptions (1346-48, for instance), the Black Death had little impact on medieval society.”

“With notably rare exceptions, Chernobyl reactor #4 functioned splendidly.”

“With notably rare exceptions, Austrian Archdukes rather enjoyed their trips to Sarajevo.”

And so forth.

Not to be outdone, Google’s Chief economist, Hal Varian, had this to say in The Economist‘s pages:

If you look at the history of the world, up until 1700 nothing much happened—GDP growth per capita was essentially flat. Then the wonderful Industrial Revolution happened and things took off.

Enough to give this medievalist an apoplexy of course, but Varian then continued:

There’s a recent study out of the University of Michigan, where they had a team of students find answers to a set of questions using materials in the campus library. Then another team had to answer the same set of questions using Google. It took them 7 minutes to answer the questions on Google and Continue reading

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