On the importance of kindness

A global epidemic can seem rather abstract, until someone you know personally is killed by it. Last week Emeritus Professor of Economics at Birmingham University Peter Sinclair died at the age of 73 from COVID-19. I and many other remember him very fondly from his days as a teacher on our Oxford MPhil Economics course, when he was a Fellow of Brasenose College.

The book of condolences at Birmingham University reveals the scale and range of people who were influenced by Peter, perhaps most famously the former Prime Minister David Cameron, who was tutored by him and described him as “one of the cleverest people I ever met”. Peter was exceptionally well read in economics and contributed greatly to the British economics profession, not least in his work at the Bank of England.

But it is as a wonderful teacher that I remember him. He was endlessly patient and above all, kind. When a student said something, his face was open and welcoming, his body would incline towards you so you knew he really wanted to hear what you had to say. He exuded kindness life few other people I’ve met. Years after leaving Oxford, I met him at a seminar in Cambridge, where he pretended (I thought) to remember me among the many students he had taught over the years. But a contemporary of mine who met him at the Bank of England told me Peter remembered his name, so perhaps he really did remember me.

I recall one seminar on the biggest macro puzzle of the mid-1980s, the enormous rise in the value of the US Dollar. From 1980 to mid-1985 the dollar rose about 50% (see the chart below). Peter laid out a number of possible explanations, one of which stuck in my mind for its brevity: fundamentals rule in the long run only (which he abbreviated to FRILO).

Peter was particularly good at explaining complex macroeconomic problems in a way that gave you the sense (at least for a while) that you understood them. His influence lives on in this blog I wrote about he difficulty of forecasting exchange rates.

The dollar puzzle was eventually resolved by the famous Plaza Accord (a deal reached in the Plaza hotel in New York), the last time that the major industrial nations successfully intervened in the foreign exchange markets. The dollar then fell as dramatically as it had previously risen, with a corresponding huge rise in the Japanese Yen, which some (including the Chinese government) regard as a key cause of the subsequent Japanese asset bubble, the largest in all of history, the bursting of which caused such damage to Japan.

The virtue of kindness

My friend and former colleague David Hitchcock has often emphasised to me the importance of kindness. It’s not as heroic a virtue as courage or mercy, but in small doses it makes the world bearable.

George Orwell wrote an essay about Charles Dickens, who is still one of Britain’s most famous and popular writers, at least if judged by the never-ending series of film and TV adaptations of his books.

Orwell criticised Dickens for appearing to think that all would be well with the world if only people would be kinder to each other. Orwell thought this was naive: the miserable poverty and extreme inequality of Dickensian Britain could not be alleviated by the rich just being a bit nicer; Orwell, a convinced socialist, argued that Dickens failed to see that the underlying evil was private property. As Orwell put it, “The truth is that Dickens’s criticism of society is almost exclusively moral.”

I sympathise with Orwell to the extent that sometimes structural changes in power are needed to address great injustice and suffering. But only the most utopian social reformers think that we can achieve perfection by changing structures and systems. Radical attempts at perfect systems have not just been disappointing, they have brought tyranny and mass murder (the Stalinist Soviet Union, Maoist China and Cambodia under Pol Pot).

To be fair to Orwell, a stern and unblinkered critic of Soviet Russia (see both Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four) his vision of socialism in Britain was pragmatic, limited and consistent with the traditional suspicion of the ordinary British people to anyone in authority. I recall that his essay shows a lot of sympathy for Dickens.

As Immanuel Kant warned us in 1784, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”

Which means that we will always live in an imperfect world whose rough edges can be smoothed only by the kindness shown by others. This is not just when we encounter material poverty, it’s a way of treating others even in the advanced and prosperous world that most of us still enjoy (more or less at present).

I will end with another quotation, one I have used before but it deserves repeating. It is sometimes attributed to Plato, but there is some doubt about that. No matter who said it, I think of it as a fitting tribute to Peter Sinclair:

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

2 Responses

  1. Brett Hetherington

    The “case for kindness” is barely even a start on making life better for our species. Orwell, summed up Dickens’ naïve mistake being an outlook where: “individual kindliness is the remedy for everything.”

    Ultimately, it’s so often those from The Establishment who conveniently believe that being kind to one another will actually change anything meaningful. It’s the perfect substitute: an excuse to just tinker at the edges while capitalism sends the middle class down the black hole of the economy that works “for all of us.”

    Your idea that kindness “makes the world bearable” is self-serving. Being kind to a beggar makes us feel better but it does nothing to materially improve someone’s life in anything but a short term.

  2. Simon Taylor

    Agreed, kindness is necessary but not sufficient to improve the world, hence my sympathy for Orwell’s criticism of Dickens.

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