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Refresher course: Thatcher's enduring lessons

Sunday, Feb. 26, 2012
 

When the Trib phoned Claire Berlinski in Istanbul, Turkey, she hadn't yet seen the movie "The Iron Lady," for which Meryl Streep, who portrays Margaret Thatcher, was nominated for Best Actress at tonight's Academy Awards.

But along with headlines involving capitalism, socialism, eurozone woes and the Falkland Islands, the movie has helped bring Berlinski's 2008 book "'There Is No Alternative': Why Margaret Thatcher Matters" back into the spotlight -- in a new Basic Books paperback edition with a new preface by the author. An American with an Oxford University doctorate in international relations who has lived in Britain, Thailand, Laos, France and Turkey, she discussed the book, Thatcher and Thatcherism.

Q . With your background, are your perceptions of Thatcher different from those of typical Americans?

A . I was in Britain during the latter part of the Thatcher years ... . My instinct at the time was that something interesting was going on ... . (I)t was only later that I thought this might be a worthy subject of a biography, aimed primarily at American audiences -- there's a lot felt about Thatcher in the United States but not that much known about her ... historically. ... (A)nd many, many Republican leaders like to claim they're politicians in her mold. I thought it was important to know exactly who she really was and to understand why she was significant -- not just in Britain but as a politician globally ... .

Q. How does America 2012 compare to Britain 1979, when Thatcher came to power?

A. (T)he most relevant thing (is) that she stands as a rebuke to any politician who says, "This just cannot be done." ... (T)here are political lessons there ... especially in terms of taking the electorate along with you as you present fairly complicated ideas about how markets work, how private property works ... . I'm really saying that American politicians are not doing a very good job of explaining this. ... Why it is, for example ... that inequality in itself is not a bad thing. ... She stood for a recognition that people have disparate talents, different abilities and different willingness to work, and that that should be rewarded differently ... . But to be able to make that case to people ... to whom it doesn't sound all that intuitively right is an enormous political skill.

Q. How does Argentina's saber-rattling now over the Falkland Islands compare to what Thatcher dealt with?

A. The last time ... I think it could have been said that some of the blame was ... on Thatcher ... because there had been incoherent signaling on this ... and there was some real reason for the junta to think (the British) weren't serious about defending (the Falklands). Now, I think this time, their signaling has been pretty damned unambiguous. I don't know whether the reports of a nuclear-armed (British) submarine in the area are correct, but I suspect they probably are -- I think they really learned a lesson.

Q. How would Thatcher be dealing with today's European economic crisis if she were in power?

A. She saw this coming ... in a way that was so prescient that you just wonder why she's not getting more credit for it ... . I think ... she would say ... that it's going to be incredibly difficult to restore sovereignty and the ability to form an independent monetary policy, an independent economic policy, to the individual European states. But without that, you have exactly the mess you're looking at.

Q. What's the biggest misconception these days about Thatcher?

A. (T)hat she stood for complete lack of regulation in the economy ... . "Regulation" is another word for "law," and she absolutely did not believe in lawlessness at all. ... (S)he believed in free markets and rule of law, and there's this extraordinary myth that suggests that she was responsible for this unregulated explosion of credit in the banking industry. ... (S)he was a proponent of very stringent banking regulation. ... I certainly do not think that she would have approved of the level of indebtedness that we're now seeing in the Western economy because she abhorred debt -- she really did. ... I think that when her name is associated now with untrammeled greed, it's simply not true.

Q. What about Thatcher is most neglected, overlooked or forgotten these days?

A. I think people forget what that time during the Cold War felt like and the degree to which people really believed that communism was on the ascendant and this free-market business was just completely passe ... and it was just time to manage the gradual demise into a shabby socialist mixed economy everywhere. ... Some of these things she said are just worth remembering ... . And there's probably always going to be a tension between people who think it's a great idea to collectivize an economy and people who don't think it's a great idea, because the first idea is so naturally tempting that it's so hard to understand why it's a bad idea.

NEW PAGES TO TURN

Why Capitalism?

by Allan H. Meltzer

(Oxford University Press USA)

Concise -- just 168 pages -- and passionate in its defense of free-market principles, "Why Capitalism?" is how Carnegie Mellon University's Allan H. Meltzer University Professor of Political Economy answers those who question capitalism's value after such economic disasters and scandals as the high-tech and housing bubbles, widespread layoffs and the Enron and Madoff frauds. "Only capitalism, he writes, maximizes both growth and individual freedom," says the publisher. Meltzer notes that capitalism, unlike socialism, adapts to any culture that recognizes private ownership of production's means; that laws counter to its fundamentals, such as those that redistribute wealth, don't work; that European welfare states haven't overtaken market-oriented America; and that capitalism's problems stem from such universal human faults as dishonesty, not from capitalism. Intelligent yet accessible, "Why Capitalism?" is a handy, timely primer on a basic issue playing a large role in 2012's presidential election -- and in our nation's future direction.

SHELF LIFE: COUNTING THE DAYS

The upcoming Feb. 29 -- and the ancient Mayans' supposed prediction that the world will end before leap-year 2012 can -- illustrate calendars' importance.

Determining when to plant and harvest crops and hold religious observances were early forms of both temporal and spiritual power.

By 1700, the accumulated inaccuracy of the Julian calendar amounted to the better part of two weeks. When the British Empire switched to the more accurate Gregorian calendar, the day after Sept. 2, 1752, became Sept. 14, 1752.

Technology such as atomic clocks has since refined our calendar. Learn more from the following titles selected especially for A Page of Books readers by manager Karen Rossi and staff at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's Downtown & Business branch.

Calendar: Humanity's Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year

by David Ewing Duncan

(Bard, 1998)

Time's Pendulum: The Quest to Capture Time -- From Sundials to Atomic Clocks

by Jo Ellen Barnett

(Plenum Trade, 1998)

Empires of Time: Calendars, Clocks, and Cultures

by Anthony F. Aveni

(University Press of Colorado, 2002)

The Book of Time: The Secret of Time, How it Works and How We Measure It

by Adam Hart-Davis

(Firefly Books, 2011)

Maya Calendar Origins: Monuments, Mythistory, and the Materialization of Time

by Prudence M. Rice

(University of Texas Press, 2007)

2012 and the End of the World: The Western Roots of the Maya Apocalypse

by Matthew Restall and Amara Solari

(Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2011)

A Page of Books, written and compiled by Alan Wallace, appears on the last Sunday of each month.

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