Monday, February 16, 2009

Two lives of achievement

Helen Suzman, for many years the only Opposition member of the South African Parliament, died last month. (An appreciation.)

I heard her speak once, at Mietta's in Melbourne, and have a copy of her autobiography signed by her, which she was promoting at the time.

Helen Suzman represented a very rich electorate and I remember her being an inspiring example of standing up for decency, one that did not fit some of the more glib and simplistic models of the political world. She was, as one would expect, a fine public speaker. Her feisty personality came across quite strongly and she was, entirely understandably, quite a hero to the (mainly Jewish) audience.

John P. "Jack" Powelson, who ran the Quaker Economist website for some time, also died last month, with the website publishing the obituary he wrote himself. He visited Melbourne at roughly the same time as Helen Suzman, promoting his book (more the ideas in it) Centuries of Economic Endeavor: Parallel Paths in Japan and Europe and Their Contrast With the Third World. I used to have a copy signed by him, but I lent it to someone I later worked with and never got the signed copy back.

Centuries of Economic Endeavor is a book that I devoured at the time and whose analysis still influences the way I look at and think about history. Jack Powelson came across as a thoughtful, decent person with a vast array of experience which he had thought much about. His speech had a certain amount of quiet, self-deprecating wit about it. I remember him talking about his experience of how development economists such as himself would do all this work and give all this advice which would be completely ignored. Which set him off on an intellectual journey to find out what was actually going on and why some societies (North-Western Europe, its offshoots and Japan) were wealthy and many others not.

I see his work as complementing that of Douglass North and Eric Jones (The European Miracle and Growth Recurring). There is also a certain resonance with the work of Robert Putnam.

While Jack Powelson's ideas have stayed with me, what I think of now is his decency. I took the time to comment on what became part of his The Moral Economy (I think he may have published it online as a work in progress) and remember receiving this delightfully gracious thank-you email. He was clearly touched that I had bothered.

They were very different people who I happened to meet at about the same time, one only briefly (when she signed my book) one at a bit more length, but Helen Suzman and Jack Powelson both lived lives that contributed well beyond the ordinary to the betterment of their fellows. Requiescat in pace.

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