The imagined north

I’ve felt weirdly silenced for the past few days while this blog was down – am sincerely hoping the tech problems are fixed for good now. Meanwhile I’ve been writing a paper, an outline, a research proposal, and reading for light relief Peter Davidson’s The Idea of North. It’s a cultural history that does what it says on the cover, a lovely book. It has many wonderful passages but the most quirky, I suppose, was the revelation about the economic significance of beaver pelts in the exploration and staking of claims in Canada. The highly desirable fur led to ever-expanding hunting of the creatures, which in turn prompted fighting between different tribes as well as competing imperial explorers. “The pursuit of ever more distand beavers thus become the impetus both for mapping and for the creation of empires, indigenous and colonial.”

It set me thinking about what else I’ve read about norths. I have a treasured signed copy of Seamus Heaney’s North. There’s Paul Morley’s The North about the north of England. Ted Hughes and Faye Goodwin’s Remains of Elmet, ditto but more poetic. Charles Nevin’s Lancashire, Where Women Die of Love, ditto, in a very different way. Elizabeth Bowen’s novel To the North.

Moving to a wider geographic stage, Jill Ker Conway’s memoir, True North, Into the Silence by Wade Davis about George Mallory and Everest, Francis Spufford’s brilliant (like all his books) I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination.

I’m sure there must be others. As Davidson says, there is something so simply evocative about the phrase: “To the North.”

Wandering around looking at people

My concentration has been rubbish this week, waiting for the youngest son’s A Level results (he did well). So I indulged in reading Laren Elkin’s Flâneuse: Women Walk the City. Very enjoyable reflections on women walking in cities, on women writers carving out independence, and also on uprooting in this globalised world.

It joins my list of excellent books about wandering around cities looking at people. Two by Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust and A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Patti Smith’s latest memoir, M Train. The Lonely City by Olivia Laing. Jan Morris, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere. Geert Mak’s In Europe.

I’d have thought this was a rich vain, so I’m sure others will have suggestions. Anyway, with son 2’s next steps sorted, it’s back to economics books for me now.

On difference

Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes was the last of my holiday reading, just finished. It is as excellent as you’d expect from all the reviews and prizes. As well as being a fascinating account of the intellectual history of psychiatric/medical approaches to autism, including the dramatically changing approaches to diagnosis and treatment/support, it’s very well written. For instance, I liked the description of Leo Kanner, a central character, as having “the woebegone countenance of a sad beagle.” The book also has sections on the links between autism and the technology and sci-fi fan communities, dating back well before SIlicon Valley. The book quotes an expert on science fiction as describing the “subversive impulse at the heart of science fiction as an expression of ‘cognitive estrangement’ from the mainstream.

[amazon_image id="1760293288" link="true" target="_blank" size="medium" ]Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter About People Who Think Differently

I was frustrated to learn on page 375 that, throughout the disputes and discoveries in the US I’d been reading about so far, British researchers and doctors were “light years ahead of their American peers in their understanding of autism”; this is a highly US-centric book. British readers might also be surprised that Simon Baron-Cohen gets just two passing mentions. I’m certainly no expert but think he’s quite well known on this side of the Atlantic. The despicable Andrew Wakefield does get appropriately – ie. highly critically – described. My other frustration was that – given my lack of knowledge of the subject – there wasn’t more of a summary of the state of play at the end of the book. It’s clear enough that there is no ‘epidemic’, but rather a better understanding of the character of autism and much more diagnosis; and that the explanations are to be sought in genetics, not environmental factors. Still, I’d have liked a bit more.

Of course, wanting more of a 520 page book is a good sign. Interesting, compelling and important.

Markets and humans

Brank Milanovic has an interesting post on what he decries as the commodification of life by markets, something that will surely strike a chord with the many fans of Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets and others. While I absolutely agree that there ought to be limits to what resources are allocated by markets as opposed to other means, Branko lost me in this early paragraph: “The most obvious case is commodification of activities that used to be conducted within extended families and then, as we became richer and more individualistic within nuclear families. Cooking has now become out-sourced and families often do not eat meals together. Cleaning and child-rearing have become more commercialized than before or ever.”

The trend towards buying ‘domestic’ services outside the home dates back decades now, linked to urbanisation and women’s participation in the paid workforce. The switch from home cooking to ‘outsourced’ meals, and similar market activities, has saved women millions of hours of labour in the home. I’m all for it.

Indeed, one of the social advantages in general of a switch toward markets (or ‘commodification’) is precisely the anonymity of the market as compared with the personal (patriarchal) power relations involved in from home production and household/village economic activity. Robert Putnam’s classic Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy touches on this in its contrast of northern and southern Italy – the south being more family-centred, with ‘strong ties’, in all sense of the word family, the north more oriented toward ‘weak ties’ in the wider urban community. Partha Dasgupta’s Economics of Social Capital is very good on this tension.

Branko’s post goes on to criticize the so-called ‘gig’ economy. Again, I think this isn’t so straightforward. Some of the ‘gig’ corporations are deeply unpleasant and the conditions of work unsatisfactory. However, those conditions are determined by workers’ outside options in the job market, so corporations’ behaviour to these workers can be improved by the framework of labour law and its enforcement. There is every reason to believe – from the numbers participating if nothing else – that very many people appreciate the opportunity to make money from participating in this segment of the economy; and indeed that it offers a route into the formal job market for people who otherwise find it hard to participate (see for example this on Uber in France by Anne-Sylvaine Chassany).

Branko writes: “The problem with this kind of commodification and flexibilization is that it undermines human relations and trust that are needed for the smooth functioning of an economy. ” This seems obviously true, and indeed the tension was identified by Daniel Bell in his The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, and all its forerunners.

I’d certainly agree that western economies are not in a good place in terms of this balance now. But to illustrate this, I wouldn’t pick on the exactly the examples of markets that empower women and marginalized workers.


Ethics *and* dirty realism in public policy

Ethan Bueno de Mesquita’s new book, Political Economy for Public Policy, has just landed at Enlightenment towers. I’m excited about this book, which I read at the proof stage. As I say in the blurb I provided, “This book brings some much-needed clarity and rigor to the analysis of public policy: What are the aims of policy, what are the inescapable dilemmas and trade-offs, and what are the pitfalls in government action? Above all, its essential message is that effective policy analysis is impossible without taking account of the political realities and the difficulties of implementation.” And as one of the other comments puts it, there is no other book like it.

Why so? Well, it’s a mildly technical textbook – nothing too alarming – combining the rigour of economics in approaching public policy (voting rules, game theory, Arrow etc) with the philosophical foundations and politics of implementation. It aims for a consistent synthesis, and largely succeeds. I like the way it starts with the ethical issues, and puts questions of trade-offs and distributional issues up front. And I like just as much the fact that it is so clear about the incentives faced by policymakers and the dirty realism of political constraints.

As a bonus, there’s also a super-clear appendix explaining game theory for students who haven’t come across it elsewhere.

Well worth a look if you teach political economy or public policy. There are exercises at the end of each chapter, and further reading. I will set some chapters for my course.