Making our own progress

This is my least favourite day of the year, so I’ve been gazing moodily out at the rain while reading this and that online. Courtesy of Andrew Kelly of the Bristol Festival of Ideas, I came across this extraordinary essay, Dark Ecology, by Paul Kingsnorth. I can’t do justice to its existential gloom – it needs to be read to get the full, intense flavour of its despair and anger. It took me on to the Dark Mountain Manifesto, launched by Kingsnorth in 2009. Point 1 of the manifesto is:

“We live in a time of social, economic and ecological unravelling. All around us are signs that our whole way of living is already passing into history. We will face this reality honestly and learn how to live with it.”

Empires and societies clearly do collapse. Ecological disasters occur. There is a large literature on it – recent references would include Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies and Jared Diamond’s Collapse.

The Collapse of Complex Societies (New Studies in Archaeology)

And yet, New Year’s grouch though I am, the Dark Mountain call to withdraw from modern, technological society does not convince me at all. It conflates environmental questions, which any sensible person will be concerned about, with a range of different economic and social questions. It therefore rejects any application of the conventional framework of policy thought to the environmental problems – whereas I believe pricing carbon properly would be the biggest single step possible towards environmental sustainability, meaning anybody who cares about this should be focused on the political economy of raising the price of carbon-use.

This isn’t to say there won’t be some dark times ahead. The global economy isn’t remotely out of the financial/economic crisis, and political leaders haven’t begun to respond adequately to tackle huge challenges ranging from the fiscal via the demographic to the ecological. But progress, including technological progress, is both possible and continuing; while many of the problems identified by Kingsnorth are in principle soluble. To take one (minor) example, his “human scale” shops are feasible – it is weak competition policy and dismal planning policies that have turned the UK into a monoculture of giant stores.

Indeed, I hope Dark Mountainism doesn’t spread too far, interesting as the manifesto is. As Paul Krugman set out in a brilliant but relatively unknown QJE paper (pdf), History versus Expectations, in 1990, the rate at which the economy grows depends fundamentally on positive expectations for the future outweighing the habits of the past: people need to have a sense of progress for it to occur. Much better to engage with the world and change it, than to withdraw from it.

A happy, peaceful and prosperous 2013 to all readers of this blog –  and here’s to making it happen.

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Most popular posts of 2012

It’s that time again. The most popular posts on this blog are somewhat surprising – who would have thought the character and methodology of economics was such a draw? The top 10 of 2012 were:

1. A macroeconomist tells me off – read, presumably, by the tribes of Paul Krugman admirers, as many of them took the time to tell me off again in their comments

2. The Enlightened Economist Prize – won by Ariel Rubinstein’s Economic Fables

Economic Fables

3. Tribes of economists – about the divisions in the profession

4. The assumptions economists make – a review of the book of the same title by Jonathan Schlefer

Assumptions Economists Make

5. Oh no, not happiness again – one of my rants against targeting ‘happiness’, required all-too-frequently

6. Unicorns, Higgs Bosons and macroeconomics – a write-up of an international symposium on the state of macro

7. Teaching humans to be economists – a trailer for the conference I organised in early 2012 on the teaching of economics, whose papers are collected in What’s The Use of Economics

What’s the Use of Economics?: Teaching the Dismal Science After the Crisis

8. Romantic nihilism – more on the anti-growth, ‘happiness’ bandwagon, linked to my book The Economics of Enough

The Economics of Enough: How to Run the Economy as If the Future Matters

9. A mess beyond fixing? – a review of Robert Peston’s book How Do We Fix This Mess?

How Do We Fix This Mess?: The Economic Price of Having it All, and the Route to Lasting Prosperity

10. American plutocracy – the evidence – linked to Martin Gilens’ book, Affluence & Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America

Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America (Russell Sage Foundation Copub)

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Class, housing and the economy

Lynsey Hanley, author of Estates: An Intimate History, was one of the speakers at the Festival of Economics in November. I just read her book, which is terrific. It restores to centre stage the key issue of class in understanding British society and the economy – and in thinking about the challenge of tackling embedded poverty, which is almost always located in these specific areas of housing we call estates. (Funny to think their name must have originally meant to evoke the arcadian idyll of country estates.)

Estates: An Intimate History

I’ve long thought we talk too little about class in the policy debate. Take schooling, for example. Children at London’s schools on average now have higher attainment than the English average; but I’ve lost count of the number of middle-class London friends who claim to have opted for private schools for their children because they’re worried about their education. Nonsense (I think) – they’re actually more worried about the social contagion of mixing with working class children. Nobody is entitled to call themselves left-wing or progressive, in my view, if they opt out of their local state schools, that is opt out of their community. As Estates points out, they key failure of the education system has been the low expectations, on the part of teachers and politicians alike, of what children from low income families can achieve.

Lynsey is brilliant in writing about the effect of the physical environment of post-war council estates on their inhabitants. “It has insanity designed into it,” she writes of the example of the Wood estate in Birmingham, where she grew up. Estate inhabitants have worse health, including mental health, lower life-expectancy, higher risk of drug abuse and unemployment. The book describes the interaction of the dreadful design of the housing, using poor quality materials and not maintained, with the evolution of housing policy. In particular, the Thatcher era sale of council housing, with local authorities forbidden from using the proceeds to build new homes for rent, meant the rump of unattractive estates were quickly filled with the ‘problem’ families. They became isolated locations for one class only, the underclass. Their downward spiral was then inevitable – from the inner city slums of the Industrial Revolution to the ‘slums in the sky’ tower blocks, whose inhabitants above the 5th floor are likely to be on benefits and members of an ethnic minority.

As she notes, Thomas Sharp in his 1949 book Town Planning was clear about the danger of one-class communities – he described them as “social concentration camps: places in which one social class is concentrated to the exclusion of all others.” Add in the absence of amenities – shops, pubs, parks, buses – and they became the exact opposite of the Jane Jacobs ideal of a vibrant urban community (in The Death and Life of Great American Cities).

Of course, one challenge in post-war housing policy was the shortage of housing, given strong demand and planning restrictions. (I think that Lynsey en passant assumes too readily that all of the green belt has to stay sacrosanct – only 1.5% of the UK’s land area is built on, only 2.3% in England – see also Kate Barker’s excellent Review of Housing Supply and , and Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts.) In the immediate post-war years the shortage was so acute that many returning servicemen had to live in prefabs – as my parents and aunties did for some years.

My auntie and uncle, cousin and big brother, outside the family prefab

The UK’s housing crisis is still acute, although now middle-class young people too cannot easily afford to buy a first home, and many middle-class as well as working-class families will struggle to pay their mortgage if interest rates ever go up. Despite the sluggish economy house prices in some areas have continued to rise, so pronounced is the shortage, while other areas have a surfeit of homes to buy and unmet demand to rent. This market does not work at all well. It also destabilizes the economy as a whole. One day, one of the political parties will see an opportunity in this. But it is a huge challenge too.

I highly recommend Estates. Good reading alongside Owen Hatherley’s A Guide to The New Ruins of Great Britain (I’ve not yet read his latest, A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys Through Urban Britain), as well as the other books referred to above. And I just bought Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class by Owen Jones, another book about the neglected and disparaged working class.

Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class

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Through the Eye of A Needle

Over the past few days of holiday I’ve read Peter Brown’s Through The Eye of A Needle. It’s about the effect of increasing wealth in the early church in western Europe, changing it from a new religion emphasising austere living and personal charity, in the Roman empire, to a rich institution increasingly exercising worldly influence after the Fall of Rome. The duty of well-off Christians morphed from using their money in individual acts of philanthropy (in what the author describes as a ‘counterculture’ like flower power in the 1960s) to, instead, donating it to the church. From the end of the fourth century, the rich converted to Christianity and, as they entered the church, took leadership roles in it. From the late fifth century onwards, the book shows, church leaders turned their energy to the administrative role this implied.

Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD

This is not at all a subject on which I’ve got any background knowledge, but it proved an interesting dip into a time and subject about which I know very little. The book is packed with description and spans all of western Europe and the Mediterranean. It was intriguing to try to step into the mental world of people living in the centuries right after the fall of Rome – not that the mediaeval mindset was much less different from our own, but the high Middle Ages are a somewhat more familiar period.

This was also, of course, a decisive period for the church as an institution that fundamentally shaped western societies, and I had never really thought before about how it came to be so influential from its early beginnings as a protected but minority religion, among the pagans, in the Roman empire. As this is a big book, more than 750 pages of beautifully produced hardback, the worldly festival of Christmas is probably the ideal time to have read it, in more than one way – propped up with it on the sofa, surrounded by material goodies but with ethereal carols on the radio in the background.

Reviewers who know far more about this period than I do have given the book glowing praise – for example Tim Whitmarsh in The Guardian and Tom Holland in History Today.

 

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Whose internet?

It was with great excitement that I read this morning that John Naughton‘s new book From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: What You Really Need to Know About the Internet is out. I’ve ordered it pronto, and am sure it’s a worthy successor to his A Brief History of the Future: Origins of the Internet from 2000; but meanwhile he has written a column about the new book in today’s Observer.

From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: What You Really Need to Know About the Internet

The theme of the column is the intensifying struggle to control the Internet – on the one hand by authoritarian governments, as demonstrated at the recent ITU-organised WCIT-12 World Conference on International Telecommunications, and on the other hand by large corporations – something that always happens in the communications and media sector, as Tim Wu documented in his brilliant book The Master Switch.

MASTER SWITCH THE AIR EXP by WU TIMOTHY ( Author ) ON Mar-01-2011, Paperback

Naughton writes: “Ever since the internet burst into public consciousness in 1993, the big question has been whether the most disruptive communications technology since print would be captured by the established power structures – nation states and giant corporations – that dominate our world and shape its development. And since then, virtually every newsworthy event in the evolution of the network has really just been another skirmish in the ongoing war to control the internet.”

Interestingly, I heard some two years ago that China was becoming much more active in the UN organisations but especially the ITU (International Telecommunications Union) based in Geneva. Maybe that diplomatic investment is paying off. I agree with John Naughton that the struggle is going to be immensely important.

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