Entry from May 18, 2014

Apparently, in biblical archaeology, there is something called the "too good to be true" rule, recently invoked in connection with the "Jesus’s wife" fragment of papyrus that some have tried to use to justify a re-think of 2000 years of Christian teaching, not only about the life of Christ but also about sexual morality and Church discipline. The rule states "that if a relic emerges that seems to address exactly the concerns of a modern audience — such as sex and women in Christianity — then skepticism is warranted." Yet almost as interesting as the rule itself is the fact that we only heard about it after other reasons for doubting the authenticity of the papyrus emerged. I suppose that, up until then, it would have seemed too much like party-pooping or raining on the parade of those who were so excited by the discovery just because it was too good to be true.

I wonder if there can be a similar rule in economics? Certainly, I have not hitherto seen any indication on the part of those who have so enthusiastically welcomed the publication of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century that there might be any reason for skepticism about its supposedly exhaustive and unimpeachable documentation, which has been brought before the public in support of its central proposition — namely that the very rich have been getting far richer in comparison with the non-rich than can be healthy for democracy. Nor has there been any disclaimer that caution on their part might be in order since they were already pre-disposed (to put it mildly) to believe this. Now that Martin Feldstein has come forward with some reasons for thinking that the Piketty numbers have left important qualifications out of account, maybe we can expect a similar moment of self-doubt and even self-reproach from Paul Krugman and his kind. Or maybe not.


Overflying and underwriting. . . As the son of an insurance man myself, I am always on the lookout for romantic and adventurous examples of the breed. True, they are rare but they do exist, or so I conclude from a perusal of the seemingly inexhaustible riches of the Daily Telegraph’s obituaries pages. The other day there appeared a splendid notice of the death, at age 104, of Charles Hughesdon, said to have been "a daredevil aviator, champion ballroom dancer, insurance broker and airline executive who married the film star Florence Desmond and boasted of affairs with Shirley Bassey and Margot Fonteyn." Alas, the use of the word "boasted" in that sentence is presumably literal rather than figurative, since the information appears to come from "his spectacularly indiscreet memoirs, Flying Made it Happen" — although in other respects and in spite of what are said to have been his humble origins, the late Mr Hughesdon appears to have been a gentleman.

The most exciting part of his long life must have been the time that he, along with his co-pilot David Llewellyn, was forced to crash-land in a remote jungle area of Northern Rhodesia (as it then was) while participating in the 1936 Schlesinger African Air Race from Portsmouth to Johannesburg, causing him to observe with equally spectacular political incorrectness that he wondered if the natives who escorted the two injured aviators to their village head-man were cannibals. "I was in trouble if they were," Hughesdon is said to have observed, "because Llewellyn didn’t carry much meat on him." The things those old empire builders could get away with saying, even as recently as 2002. Later, he also served as a flying instructor in the war, though he was deemed too old for combat. As an insurance man, however, perhaps his proudest achievement would have been that, in spite of having endured such dangers, he so far outlived all actuarial expectation.

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