My memory, found again in the LSE library

Like many of you, I’ve been following, with shock and amazement, the tale of Greg Mortenson, the author of Three Cups of Tea.

If 60 Minutes is correct (and with allegations such as these, the target deserves the benefit of the doubt), then Mortenson fabricated much of his best-selling book.

But then I remembered this talk by Chris Chabris, a neuroscientist, in which he talks (starting at minute 5) about “the illusion of memory.”

In brief: We trust our memories, but we shouldn’t, because many of them are wrong. The human brain reconstructs the past by telling stories (an extremely familiar idea here on The Hannibal Blog), and it does so by conflating different events, people, times and anecdotes. So when politicians (among others) seem to “lie” about their past (remember Hillary Clinton dodging sniper fire in Bosnia?) they are probably making honest and all-too-human mistakes of memory. (Whether this applies to Mortenson, I have no idea.)

In any event, as I was watching the 60 Minutes report, a fear suddenly struck me. What if I myself misremembered anecdotes in my own book? (To be published, as it happens, by Riverhead, which is part of Penguin, which also owns Viking, which published Three Cups of Tea.)

So I thought of the personal bits in my book. There aren’t that many personal memories — most of it is based on history and biographies, with sources. But there are some. For instance, there is a part where I recall burrowing through the dusty shelves of the library at the London School of Economics, in 1994 or 95 when I was a graduate student there, and finding, to my considerable surprise, a book that turned out to be the PhD thesis of my father. I remember how the book cracked as I opened it, and I recall noticing that nobody had ever checked it out.

Never mind why I told that little anecdote in my book (it makes sense in the context). Suddenly I was afraid whether this was in fact how it happened. Was it there, at the LSE, where I found it? Or perhaps at the nearby University of London library? Or perhaps around that time at some library in Germany? Does the LSE library even have the book? (That would be very embarrassing.) If I did find it there, is it true that nobody had ever checked it out? Was the cover grey, as I recall? Had I just dreamt the whole damn thing?

So I fact-checked my own memory.

Fortunately, the LSE library does have the book, as can nowadays be ascertained online. What about the rest?

So I called the library. I expected a phone tree. There was none. Somebody named Andy Jack answered.

Having spent years in California, I have learned never, unprompted, to attempt irony or humor because that can fall so utterly flat in America. So I was bracing myself for a long and complicated explanation and an awkward request for help — in short, a conversation as pleasant as calling, say, an American health insurance company.

Instead, within seconds, I was reminded of my old world over there: For Andy was, of course,

  1. British and
  2. at the LSE.

I barely got out three or four words (alumnus … book … Three Cups of Tea… anecdote…) when he understood.

His reply came in a tone that contained … irony. Very subtle, just a nod, really. At once, I knew this was going to be easy, unAmerican.

At that instant, I realized that he was already walking up the stairs. Whither? To the shelf! Before I knew it, he was holding my dad’s thesis in his hands and confirming my memories.

What a relief. I had remembered everything correctly. The cover is blue now, but that’s because the book literally fell apart at some point and had to be rebound. Andy told me it has 164 pages, plus 22 more of references. My dad’s name is in gold. It has indeed never been checked out, at least not since they changed computer systems, which was after my time. But it has no barcode :), so it could not have been checked out!

Andy, by this point, took pride, you understand, in making an anecdote in a book — my book, unpublished and completely unknown to him — correct and good. If you’re reading this, Andy, thank you.


I know, I know. You’re at the edge of your pew. What was my dad’s book about?

Why his PhD thesis, published in Bonn in 1967, was not an international bestseller, nobody knows. Its sex appeal is obvious. The title is:

Probleme einer allgemeinen aussenhandelspolitischen Liberalisierung

That means something like: Problems with a general liberalisation of international trade

I divulge this reluctantly, because you may pounce on the copy, spread the meme virally, and we all know where that might lead for my dad: Sudden fame, groupies, temptation, trashed hotel rooms, my mom destabilized.

The regulars among you might already have made a few other connections:

  • My dad, in his thesis, was exploring the tradition of Ordoliberalism and Austrian Liberalism, which has also cropped up here on The Hannibal Blog.
  • Without knowing about his thesis, I was, in 1995, doing almost the same thesis at the LSE (hence my discovery).
  • My dad, for his part, had been taught by his own uncle and godfather, who was the main implementor (as economics minister and then chancellor) of Ordoliberalism in West Germany, up to right about the time of my dad’s thesis. Here they are again, below:

What Uncle Lulu would do today

Gerhard Kluth Ludwig Erhard

What would my great-uncle Lulu, better known as Ludwig Erhard, West Germany’s first and most famous economics minister and subsequent chancellor, do today if he were a policy maker in Washington?

The question comes from Cheri, and it got me thinking. So I asked my dad (pouring tea for his uncle and godfather above). Dad, who is also an economist, knows best how the gears of Lulu’s mind ground.

(Disclaimer: I am writing this not as a correspondent of The Economist, but only as a family member of Erhard’s.)

So, thirty-one years after Lulu’s death, dad had this to say:
The first question is what he would have done before all of this transpired: Would this catastrophe have happened in the first place?
I think he would have fought much earlier and more vehemently against this absurd “compensation” culture in America. (He was known as the Masshaltekanzler–ie, the chancellor who keeps things measured and reasonable.) The bonuses and salaries of some of the characters at the center of the current American crisis were obscene, and the short-term basis of their calculation counterproductive. So maybe this alone would have sufficed to prevent some of today’s excesses.
He probably also would have railed against the unrestrained consumption mania that prevailed in America during the good years (which would have made him very unpopular in America). Savings rate = 0. This is why the crisis is now hitting so many so hard.
He was always and implacably for a politically independent–completely independent!–central bank [ie, “Fed”] which was to have only one mandate: to preserve the value of the currency. (The Fed’s mission, by contrast, is to mind both the economy in general and prices in particular; but since Greenspan, economic growth seems to take precedence over prices and the currency.)
Lulu was always very well informed and interested in new trends in banking, and he almost certainly would have demanded strict controls over these exotic new breeds of securities [credit-default swaps and what not].
One question is whether he would have succeeded with these policies in America. Probably not. His style was to educate, and appeal to, the public directly. At his height, he was so popular and trusted among ordinary voters that he could cajole his own party into following his ideas in direct contravention even of the party’s platform. This style would not work today, and certainly not in America.
What would he do today? The heart attack has already occurred, so now the patient first has to be kept alive. The trick is to keep him on life support without changing the underlying structure of the economy in ways that could lead to irreversible damage in the future.
For example, Lulu would have been against giving Detroit, under the guise of life support, carte blanche to merge or form alliances that might become, in effect, cartels or quasi-monopolies. Even and especially in the banking market, he would have been concerned about creating super-institutions [“too big to fail”] that will sooner or later demand special treatment in Washington.
Above all, he would have already started campaigning, with stump speeches and such, for free trade internationally, lest anybody anywhere jump to the disastrous conclusion that protectionism, even in specific industries, might be the answer. Such a turn would actually kill the “protected” industries in the medium term and lead to a cascade into even worse disaster [as happened during the depression: see the Smoot Hawley Tariffs].
Most urgently: Re-establish confidence (perhaps Obama has the flair that Lulu once had). And get the inter-bank lending market working again.
But he would have been concerned that the Fed’s current approach of just printing money might lead to inflation before long. He would also note that America has a pretty shoddy infrastructure today. If somebody were to fix it in a big way now [as Obama appears intent on doing], à la Keynes, even Lulu would find a sympathetic word. 😉 [Ie, ordinarily he would not be a Kenesian.]

Uncle Lulu

That guy with the cigar on this West German stamp from 1987 is my great-uncle, Ludwig Erhard, or “Onkel Lulu” in our family.

Why is he on this blog?

Newspaper cutting of my dad and his uncle

Newspaper cutting of my dad and his uncle

Because is life is one of those I trace in my book, to show that that what happened to Hannibal and Scipio happens to all of us, one way or another.

My dad pouring tea for his uncle, the chancellor, in the 60s

My dad pouring tea for his uncle, the chancellor, in the 60s

In Germany and continental Europe, Ludwig Erhard is a household name. In America, he is not, but should be. He is famous for being a founding father of post-war (West) Germany, its first economics minister, the father of its currency (the Deutsche Mark), and then its second chancellor (ie, prime minister). He is credited with causing the stunning economic growth of the 1950s, sometimes called (but not by him) an “economic miracle”. And he is probably the most steadfast proponent of freedom, tolerance and open and fair markets in German history.

Dad and Lulu again

As my father’s uncle and godfather, he practically raised my father after my grandfather died. I only met Lulu when I was very small (he died in 1977). He liked to hide Easter eggs for me in his steep hillside garden by the Tegernsee, an Alpine lake south of Munich. His influence lives on, in Germany, in our family, and now in my book.

My mom with Lulu in New York, where I was born

My mom with Lulu in New York, where I was born