Hirschman and Zappa: Shout-out to Business Day

Albert Hirschman held posts at Yale, Columbia and Harvard.

I want to give a shout out to the sub-editors (and leader page editors) of Business Day for keeping a reference to Frank Zappa in a serious column on Economics and Public Policy-making that appeared in the paper this week.

Sub-editors are probably the least appreciated professionals in the newspaper world. There are very few young, or even mid-career reporters who have anything nice to say about “subs” or “copy editors,” as they are referred to in North America. As I have grown older, however, I have come to appreciate them more. If only because they fix my mistakes.  Other than that, having subs leave your language, metaphors, allusions  or diction intact may have to do with seniority. I have been writing from the time well before I lost my barnet. Either way, it’s self-assuring.

Having tried subbing, I can admit that I am horrible at it….

I don’t know if it is quite appropriate, but this passage from The Scholars, by William Butler Yeats sums up, at least in my mind, the value (and appreciation) of sub-editors.


Bald heads forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s despair 

Anyway, I remember, many years ago, a sub replacing the word “marshall” with “martial” throughout a piece I wrote on the Marshall Plan. I did not pick it up, as I had developed a habit of not always reading my own work after it has been submitted. It was hellishly embarrassing when someone pointed out the error, and the wholesale change of meaning.

I have to confess, nonetheless, that I am among those people who need a sub. The era of blogging has made it even more obvious. I console myself, however, when I notice typos or grammatical errors on webs-pages of the BBC or the Guardian, hands down two of the best sources of news and information.

Let me say, then, that I appreciate it when subs “get it”; when they leave references or allusions to things, concepts, events or even pieces of music and film, intact, in your submission.

I’m a great fan of cockney rhyming slang, and often tempted to us it in some of my newspaper columns, but that might be pushing it a bit too far. I have used flytaal – the language I was immersed in as a child, and that I still use in the company of old friends – in one or two pieces, but that, too may be too esoteric and obscure in writing about political economy in a more serious newspaper like Business Day.

I enjoy the act of writing more than seeing my own words in print. I will write a bit more about the act of writing in a separate post. More recently I have kept copies of the editions of Business Day that carried my bi-weekly column so I may refer to them for invoicing at the end of each month. Sometimes, I scan the column and place it online, mostly on Twitter, a week after the date of publication. I do this to encourage people to actually buy the newspaper, or buy a subscription; newspapers need to be kept alive.


Frank Zappa in Oslo, 1977

Back to this week’s column, and my appreciation for the editors at Business Day. The passage that was kept intact, in this week’s column, was the following:

“There are important precedents for using a crisis to give birth to better things; more in the explorative ways of Albert Hirschman, than through the psychedelia of Frank Zappa”

The reference to Hirschman (a former economist who died in 2012, and who wrote the classic work, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States) was because of his encouragement of exploring new ideas during times of crisis. He believed that the challenges of addressing poverty, unemployment and the impact of successive crises made room for “unexpected creativity” and economic growth that was carefully planned. In this sense, a crisis can create room for the birth of new ideas. Frank Zappa was, of course, a lead member of the 1960s rock band, The Mothers of Invention. Crisis becomes, then, the mother of invention, which is, in turn, a play on the proverb, “Necessity is the Mother of Invention”.

Its amazing what you see when you look.

For further reading on Hirschman, see:

This piece by the New York Review of Books.

Obituary of Albert Hirschman by the New York Times.


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