Thursday, March 18, 2010

Michael Gilbert, Fear to Tread--And Rationing

One writer whose work I have come very lately to is Michael Gilbert (1912-2006). A couple of months ago I read his first mystery novel, Close Quarters (1947). I subsequently read Smallbone Deceased (1950). (I give thanks nightly for Tom and Enid Schantz and the Rue Morgue Press, whose work keeps a large number of authors in print, when they might otherwise be entirely forgotten.) And I just finished his 1953 novel, Fear to Tread (1953) (out of print, but available from numerous used book sellers).

In Fear to Tread, Gilbert tells the story of the headmaster of a minor council school (what we in the US would call a public school) in London, to whom a series of unusual events occur. Largely because he can’t leave well enough alone. The plot moves right along, even if the ending is somewhat forced (everything sort of comes down with a thump at the end). What is perhaps most interesting to me is that the book deals directly with post-World-War-II shortages and rationing in England. Gilbert lays out a convincing scenario for the development of a highly organized black market operation, convincing enough that I wondered whether it was based on fact. The principal characters were reasonably well-developed and acted in ways that their characters would have suggested. All in all, a reasonably good book, one I’m glad I read and more than glad to recommend. And Gilbert was, I think, still developing as a writer; it was only his 7th book.

What it made me think about, though, was the persistence of rationing and explicit shortages in post-World-War-II England. While I knew that such shortages had existed, I had never read an explanation for it, and so I investigated.

Tony Judt, in his book Postwar (which I cannot recommend strongly enough; it is magnificent), provides this explanation:

“In order to increase the country’s exports (and thus earn vital foreign currency) almost anything was either rationed or simply not available: meat, sugar, clothes, cars, gasoline, foreign travel, even sweets. Bread rationing, never imposed during the war, was introduced in 1946 and not abandoned until July 1948. The government ostentatiously celebrated a ‘bonfire of controls’ on November 5 1949, but many of those same controls had to be re-imposed with the belt-tightening of the Korean War, and basic food rationing in Britain only ended in 1954—long after the rest of western Europe” (pp. 162-163).

This is not really an explanation. Simply rationing consumer goods will do nothing (to speak of) to increase exports, which are dependent on demand for British goods in other countries. So it’s income in other countries that matter, and the prices of British goods. Rationing has no effect on either of those. The exchange rate—the price of the Pound in other currencies--matters greatly, and what Britain needed was for the Pound to become less valuable—lower-priced, That would have led to expanded exports. But the world was under a regime of fixed exchange rates during that time, and the value of the Pound remained roughly constant at (for example) $2.80 to the Pound from 1950 on, after depreciating by about 30% from the end of the war to 1950.

Judt suggests that the objective was to amass foreign currency—but to what end? Dollars, or Francs, or Lira were valuable only as a means of purchasing goods from other countries. And while rationing was not effective at boosting exports, it was (in combination with currency controls) effective at reducing imports.

Exports did, in fact, roughly double between 1947 and 1954, but this is hardly a surprise (given that British exports during the war were essentially zero). Imports also roughly doubled.

The only plausible alternative explanation, since Judt’s won’t work, is that the British government used rationing as a means of damping down inflationary pressure. This seems to have worked moderately well, as the average annual rate of inflation in Britain in the decade immediately following the war was about 6% (and most of that in 1946. 1947, 1950, and 1951). Except that the measured rate of inflation is hardly a useful guide to the “real” rate of inflation when rationing and other controls are in place.

So I’m still looking for the “why” of rationing. Gilbert’s book does a very nice job with the “what,” in the context of ordinary people’s daily lives.

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