How to write

I’ve been on my travels so have a stack of things to post about, but it will have to wait until I’ve waded through the backlog of emails. Meanwhile, though, I polished off Deirdre McCloskey’s Economical Writing: Thirty-five rules for clear and persuasive prose. You don’t have to be an economist to benefit from the book, but it will certainly help many economists – we are not famed for clarity and elegance of expression. I’m a big fan of McCloskey’s writing, although she is something of an acquired taste. But, importantly, she is always a model of clarity.

The book has, as it indicates, a series of short chapters/rules, all good advice. (It’s an update and expanded version of earlier books, with additions on presentations and charts, though advice about the latter is mainly ‘read Edward Tufte’s books’.) It refers to other works and classic advice from authors such as Orwell and Twain. I loved the latter’s: “Eschew surplusage.”

The section that had me cheering was Number 4, being clear. I have long believed that there is nothing in economics that can’t be explained clearly in words; it isn’t string theory after all. “Bad writing makes slow reading,” McCloskey writes. Your reader has to stop and puzzle over what on earth you mean. She quotes Quintilian: “One ought to take care to write not merely so that the reader can understand, but so that he canot possibly misunderstand.” This is harder than it sounds. As the author of several books, I’ve learned that many readers take out of a book whatever thoughts they took into it. Still, what else is worth aiming for if you want to communicate your ideas?

Highly recommended for all who write as part of their work or for pleasure. Pretty much everybody?

Economical Writing, Third Edition: Thirty-Five Rules for Clear and Persuasive Prose (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing)41d9kBQGVVL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_



Stereotypes and (in)justice

I got very distracted by the list of econ & philosophy books I put together with the help of #econtwitter, so haven’t read much new stuff lately. The exception has been Shadows of Doubt: Stereotypes, Crime & the Pursuit of Justice by Brendan O’Flaherty & Rajiv Sethi, a fantastic and sobering book. The theme is the central role sterotyping plays in the criminal justice system. The dominant emotion in the context of crime and punishment is fear. People are making speedy and often high-profile decisions under conditions of great uncertainty, and often, great fear. In the courts there is inconclusive evidence and conflcting accounts. Stereotypes are in effect rules of thumb that enable people to come to judgments about how to act in the face of a possible crime, how to assume other people will behave, about what might have happened.

Most of the examples in the book are American, where dying while black in an encounter with law enforcement seems to happen all too often. Some are high-profile examples like the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates for trying to get into his own house. One of the arresting officers mused that the events might have gone differently if he, rather than his white colleague, had got to the scene first. It was ever thus, the book records – citing a 1944 Gunnar Myrdal 1book, for instance, which pointed out that most of the whites who killed blacks in the 1930s were police officers. Video recordings are making more the old, constant reality more apparent. As for the prison system, the incarceration for the US is the highest in the world per capita (more than five times higher than China’s and falling  disproportionately heavily on blacks and hispanics. “Such rates are unprecedented in world history,” the book observes.) However, for all that there are fewer guns and deaths involved elsewhere, and lower rates of imprisonment, there is obviously a racial aspect to policing and punishment in many countries.

The final chapter is called ‘Hope’, a virtue it suggests should be aspired to. I found this a compelling but depressing book, however. As it points out, although we can try to become more self-aware, stereotyping is an inescapable part of human psychology, like so many other psychological heuristics. It is a means of partitioning the complex environment into categories, to aid understanding and our ability to function effectively. My conclusion after reading Shadows of Doubt is two-fold. One, the US is truly exceptional, and not in a good way. I have no idea how that country can escape from its ‘cold’ civil war, which the current presidency is anyway heating up. After all, the injustice of the US ‘justice’ system has been often described.

Two, for the rest of us it is a question of constant vigilance if individuals are to be protected, or to win justice, difficult in fearful and uncertain times. And at this moment the police and criminal justice systems are widely adopting algorithmic decision processes, automating decisions we know to be flawed – both ineffective and unjust. It is not the algorithms that are biased, nor their technical creators, but the system into which they are being inserted. The system needs fixing before it gets automated.




A digital crop

I spent the holiday weekend sitting in the sunshine reading digital economy books of varios types (in between cooking for the family and playing with the 10 week-old). First up was Steffen Mau’s The Metric Society, one of the slowly expanding genre of sociology of economic measurement books. The underlying theme is the use of metrics to quantify the qualitative, and the consequences of the appearance of objectivity: “By assigning a number to the thing observed, we take a step toward objectivizing it.” At the same time, measurement ‘disembeds’ phenomena from local context and knowledge. “Numbers not only isolate information from its original context but also place it in extended comparative contexts.” The added spice in this book is the ever-growing scope of the use of data as digitalisation marches on. And, like other similar books, The Metric Society is pretty pessimistic – this implies, it suggests, a panopticon society with entrenched structures of inequality. After all, “Categorical systems, once established, become extremely hard to overthrow.” However, I decided the power of numbers gives some reason to be cheerful. As Mau writes: “The nomination power invested in indicators, data and measurements can potentially restructure whole areas of society and impose new logics of action.” As Lenin said (quoted here): “We must carry statistics to the people and make them popular.” My new motto. While people might find an obsession with economic statistics a bit – nerdy – in fact it’s a revolutionary programme!

41sQCo09PuL._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_The Metric Society: On the Quantification of the Social

The second book was a proof copy of Democratic Capitalism at the Crossroads by Carles Boix, out next month. I probably shouldn’t give too much of a preview before its publication date, but this is about the interplay between the economics and politics of digital – as the subtitle puts it, ‘technological change and the future of politics.’ The first half of the book compares three modes of capitalism, the 19th century Manchester variety, the 20th century Detroit variety and the 21st century Silicon Valley one. The second part discusses the interaction between digital technology, especially AI, and the labour market. Quite a lot of this covers the economic literature on the issue of the skill bias of technical change, and the resorting of jobs into tasks in extended supply chains, so this is familiar territory. The polarisation of jobs and wages is linked to populist politics and the prognosis is somewhat gloomy – the author is a bit techno-determinist, taking the ‘half of all jobs’ to be taken by robots line as more of a forecast than a thought-experiment. The book ends with some rather generic recommendations – enhance skills, pay a universal basic income. I’m sure it’s right to draw the link between the economic and political polarisations, but I’m more in the territory of taxing multinationals, capping CEO pay, enforcing competition policy etc.

415Rzs1j8qL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Democratic Capitalism at the Crossroads

The third was How to Be Human in the Digital Economy by Nicholas Agar. It advocates ensuring there are ‘human’ jobs as more and more activities get automated – in effect, the book takes Baumol’s well-known prediction about the growing share of employment in the least productive sectors, and, labelling this the ‘social economy’, argues against seeking ever greater efficiency in these jobs. Although I agree – and hence it means interrogating what we mean by ‘productivity’ in different types of job – I found the book rather rhetorical. Eg, “AI is the digital superpower that thwarts traditional human responses to technological unemployment.” Whereas Boix has rather too many numbers and charts, Agar has too few. The latter’s suggestion for paying for the “less productive” social economy is the Lanier/Weyl data-as-labour idea, but otherwise it is not very specific about how to create the desired social economy.

51MF72+uFHL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_How to Be Human in the Digital Economy (The MIT Press)

Anyway, it’s quite interesting to see this crop of books on AI/digital and the future of the capitalist democracies. No doubt there are many more to come.


Economics and philosophy

UPDATE 2 – I’ve now done some sorting of the list. OK, the categorisation is inevitably arbitrary but it seemed helpful as the list got so long. More suggestions in the comments. And huge thanks to all who contributed.


Econtwitter is wonderful. Yesterday, an undergraduate emailed me to ask for book recommendations about the overlap between economics and philosophy. I recommended:

Agnar Sandmo Economics Evolving 
D M Hausman and M S McPherson and D Satz Economic analysis, moral philosophy, and public policy 

Then I asked Twitter, and here is the resulting, much longer, list. I won’t editorialise about them, although some are not good undergraduate intros in my view. One striking thing is how few recent overviews there are, however (as @esamjones also pointed out on Twitter). Huge thanks to all who made suggestions. This is a fantastic collective list.

UPDATE Now even more added – but this goes far beyond the original brief for an introduction for an undergraduate. There’s also a bias in the recommendations toward books critical of economics (or at least its ‘mainstream’) and, again, I think for an economics undergraduate a more neutral intro would be a better starting point. Anyway, I leave this here as a list, not a curriculum.


The Worldly Philosophers, Robert Heilbroner

Jon Elster’s Nuts and bolts for the social sciences

General philosophy

Julian Reiss, Philosophy of Economics

Frank Hahn and Martin Hollis’s Philosophy and Economic Theory

Joan Robinson, Economic Philosophy

Harold Kincaid, Don Ross Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Economics

Cartwright & Montuschi Philosophy of Social Science

Ethics/markets/justice/social choice

Nozick Anarchy State and Utopia

Rawls A Theory of Justice

Contested Commodities – Margaret Reading

The Value of Nothing Raj Patel

Several books by Martha Nussbaum

Ken Binmore’s Playing Fair, Just Playing, or Natural Justice

Tomas Sedlacek’s The Economics of Good and Evil

Hausman & McPherson’s Economic analysis & moral philosophy

Emma Rothschild, Economic Sentiments

Jerry Muller, The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Modern European Thought

L’Enfer Des Choses Dupuy & Dumouchel

The Moral Economy Sam Bowles

John Brooms Weighing Goods

Debra Satz Why Some Things Should Not Be For Sale

Ben Friedman The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth

Jesse Norman, Adam Smith: What He Thought & Why It Matters, chapters 6-10

Will MacAskill Doing Good Better

Anything by Toby Ord

If You’re an Egalitarian How Come You’re So Rich G A Cohen

M White The Oxford Handbook of Ethics and Economics


Deirdre McCloskey The Rhetoric of Economics

Kenneth Boulding Economics as a Science

Francesco Guala’s work, eg Methodology of Experimental Economics, then Understanding Institutions

Explanation and Human Action by A R Louch

Tony Lawson Reorienting Economics

Sheila Dow Foundations for New Economic Thinking

Wade Hands Reflection without Rules

Better ways of doing economics

Albert Hirschman, Exit, Voice & Loyalty

The Social Limits to Growth, Fred Hirsch

Thomas Schelling Micromotives and Macrobehaviour

Mahbub-al-Haq. The Poverty Curtain

Paul Seabright The Company of Strangers

Robert Sugden The Community of Advantage

Kaushik Basu The Republic of Beliefs

Dani Rodrik Economics Rules

Other classics

Adam Smith Theory of Moral Sentiments

Michel Foucault Birth of Biopolitics

F Hayek The Market and Other Orders







The value of time

I ran across a reference to Elizabeth Cohen’s The Political Value of Time online somewhere and was interested because I’ve been working with Leonard Nakamura on time use as an alternative economic welfare measure. It’s really a very interesting book, though a bit dry and somewhat repetitive. The key point is that “time is a valuable good that is frequently used to transact over power.” States have temporal as well as geographic borders. States have the power to command citizens’ time – through age limits for voting, or prison sentences or curfews.

Time is also one of the constituents of democratic order through processes such as the length of election campaigns or the age of majority: process is what makes durational time political. “Time works elegantly as a means to translate intangibles like loyalty and civic virtue into precisely measured political terms.” Indeed, time has a useful dual function of appearing to be objective and at the same time able to be situate in a specific social context and political order.

The book considers the critique that attempting to make different values commensurable is inherently reductive: “temporal commensuration in particular is able to wring procedural solutions from contradictory points of view.” Cohen refers to Cass Sunstein’s idea of Incompletely Theorized Agreements (ITAs), which allow people to agree on the specifics of a decision without agreeing on the principles – such as agreeing sentencing guidelines without agreeing whether the aim of punishment is retribution or rehabilitation. Many – most? – political systems are built on contradictions. Processes inscribed in time are one means of reaching decisions.

Although value pluralism, be it Aristotle or Elizabeth Anderson or Amartya Sen – is intuitively appealing, states do take decisions and there is always an implicit reduction to one dimension. This is an issue that’s becoming pressing as AI algorithms start to take government decisions – they’re uber-utilitarians who decide super-fast. Cohen argues in this book that using time as the common measure is less reductive than money. It’s a very interesting approach.

The Political Value of Time: Citizenship, Duration, and Democratic Justice