Money stuff

Modern money is intangible, electrons whizzing around – unlike older forms of money, whether paper and coin, or wartime cigarettes, or huge stone wheels. Paid: Tales of Dongles, Checks and Other Money Stuff, edited by Bill Maurer and Lana Swartz, is a reminder that even the 1s and 0s have a material basis – such as credit card machines, dongles, mobile phones, and indeed the whole physical infrastructure of the wired and wireless networks and the electricity network. What’s more, the less tangible the tokens of exchange, the more important the accounting system recording transactions. This explains the emphasis crypto folks put on the blockchain, but as one of the essays in the book points out, this has its drawback as nothing is reversible, not even transactions that ought to be reversed. There is no substitute for trust in a co-ordinating institution that keeps record.

The book is a nicely illustrated collection of essays by money afficionados from different disciplines, and spanning the Inca civilisation to Dogecoin. As a collection, there’s no central argument – except that we would do well to remember the physical and social embededness of money. There are lots of, “Well, who knew?” moments, which makes it an enjoyable read – at least if you have a fact-magpie mind like mine. I particular enjoyed Keith Hart’s reminiscence of becoming a fence and money lender during his PhD fieldwork in Ghana – which gave rise to the notion of the informal economy; I’ve met Keith (a fellow Mancunian) and love his book The Memory Bank.

Also Swartz’s essay about cash, and the notion that technological innovation in money – the Diners Club card and later credit cards – was forced by the postwar economic boom and associated travel. It reminded me of my first job at the Treasury in the 1980s, trying to find a monetary aggregate that wouldn’t grow too damn quickly for a monetarist government, at a time when rapidly increasing use of ATMs and credit cards was affecting the velocity of money and making monetary aggregate control a hopeless task.

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Capitalism, property and production

Capitalism: The Story Behind The Word by Michael Sonenscher is an enjoyable short read (with a great cover) that does what the subtitle says. It compares the history of ‘capitalism’ with the history of the idea of ‘commercial society’ and the division of labour, making the case that the two referred to different economic arenas. Capitalism concerned capitalists: people who lent money to governments to fund war and other expenditure. It was thus a concept relating to public finance and taxation, and concerned with private property. Commercial society and the division of labour were concepts used in broader societal debates about the organisation of production, markets and prices – issues that predate the general use of the word ‘capitalism’. The essay argues that the distinction is worth keeping, although this may be a losing battle as ‘capitalism’ has swallowed the wider issues – and much of the wider contemporary literature on these latter has been largely forgotten.

Among other things, a quotation from Hegel struck me: “Money is not in fact one particular resource among others; on the contrary it is the universal aspect of all of them, in so far as they express themselves as an external existence in which they can be apprehended as things. Only at this extreme point of externality is it possible to determine services quantitatively and so in a just and equitable manner.” (This is obviously not the modern usage of the term ‘externality’.) I was surprised to see a rationale for using the measuring rod of money as a common standard from this author.

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Use it or lose it – semiconductor version

I highly recommend Chris Miller’s Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology. It starts with the history of the development of semiconductors, which might be familiar from other Silicon Valley histories (such as Margaret O’Mara’s also excellent The Code). But the book then goes on to less familiar and more recent territory, encompassing the technological changes needed to manufacture ever-more precise chips and the huge scale, complexity and sophistication of their fabrication. This introduces companies that have recently become familiar (AMSL in the Netherlands, making the machines that are needed to do the fabrication, and TSMC in Taiwan, which produces more than 90% of the most advanced chips) – and also others key to the process that are still not very well known in general.

The narrative arc is a steady shift from US leadership in both technology and manufacturing, to Asian leadership in manufacturing and rapid catch-up – especially in China thanks to large-scale subsidies and IP theft – in some slices of the technology. The result is an extraordinarily complex global supply chain with a number of very narrow 1 or 2 firm bottlenecks. The best to hope for seems to be a version of the Mutually Assured Destruction doctrine: no country can afford disruption. The worst? Massive disruption of all aspects of modern economic life.

That there would be some shift seems inevitable: as East Asian economies developed in the late 20th century they would always try to move up the value chain into more sophisticated sectors. However, the book is quietly but strongly critical of the pro-globalisation philosophy of the US (and rest of the west) that gave up on retaining core manufacturing and engineering competencies at home – their loss didn’t matter until it really did, with the re-emergence of geopolitical strife. As the book puts it, there was a “liberal internationalist ethos that guided officials of both political parties amid America’s unipolar moment.” Yet Andy Grove’s paranoia was valid, when he said in the early 2010s: “Abandoning today’s ‘commodity’ manufacturing can lock you out of tomorrow’s emerging industry.” (One of the best summary articles making eactly this point is Gregory Tassey in JEP in 2014.)

There is a lot of interesting detail. For example, I hadn’t realised how much Darpa focused on educational infrastructure – funding students and workshops, and university computer equipment, as well as futuristic tech research. There are lots of great examples of the difficulty of copying advanced chip technology because of the necessary tacit knowledge: for instance, every AMSL photolithography machine comes with a lifetime supply of AMSL technicians to tend to it. This is either hopeful – China will find it hard to catch up fully –  or not – the US or EU will not be able to catch up with TSMC because of the latter’s vast embedded know-how. Another example is the fact that defence dollars bought 72% of all integrated circuits produced in 1965, but Robert McNamara’s deffence budget cuts led Robert Noyce of Fairchild to bet on the consumer market and slash chip prices from $20 to $2. Annual US computer sales went from 1000 in 1957 to 18,700 a decade later.

All this and much more. The book has no easy policy solutions but is an essential contribution to current debates about industrial policy.

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An economic experts paradox?

Anna Killick’s book Politicians and Economic Experts: The Limits of Technocracy makes for interesting reading, if you’re an economist interested in policy. The book summarises a research project based on interviews with politicians engaged (currently or in the recent past) in economic policy issues, in five countries: Denmark, France, German, UK and US. My main takeaway from the book is that politicians on average have low respect for economists – albeit for varying reasons depending on their country and ideology. For example, some see economists as political commentators, a comment made about someone like Paul Krugman in the US. Others despair more generally about the lack of consensus in economic advice. One quoted comment is that there have been no new big ideas in economics since Keynes, and no substantive progress, unlike medicine. Many comments complain about economists’ inability either to communicate effectively or to appreciate political constraints (the latter being something I’ve written about – if the outcome of an economic analysis simply can’t be implemented, the analysis is at best incomplete.)

The book concludes: “The most powerful insight into politicians that this study offers is their unease about any further ceding of power to economic experts…. they have been shaken by the populist manifestations of the past five years; Brexit, Trump, the rise of the AfD, the RN and the yellow vests. They have only one choice: to re-engage with voters on economic issues, in a contested form, in the political domain.” I agree that previously technocratic areas of policy are becoming unavoidably areas of political contestation.

So why a paradox? Because the language and concepts of economics still hold such powerful sway in many areas of policy – a case Elizabeth Popp Berman makes for the US, or debate about ‘the Treasury View’ in the UK. And indeed I would argue strongly for the importance of technocratic input into decisions concerning complex areas, with better communication, and a sensitivity to the political dimensions. There’s also a lot of interesting detail in the book – the distinctiveness of the French, the much greater polarisation of the Americans, the identity of the economists or schools of thought different politicians cite.

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