The merit of methodological individualism: individuals count

I’m reading David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History, which accompanies the excellent BBC series (& is an amazing bargain at ¬£6 for a big hardback on Amazon at the moment). Just a short way in, I’m delighted to find reference to the true origins of Thomas Carlyle’s description of economics as ‘the dismal science’. Carlyle was, as Olusoga notes, “an apologist for slavery.” He thought economics was dismal because prominent economists were in the abolition campaign, and thereby – in his view – undermining the sanctity of private property rights with their ‘expertise’. This was surely an occasion when the methodology of economics – based on identical, individual agents – was surely on the side of right. There is an excellent detailed essay on this in the Library of Economics and Liberty (in 2 parts).

Cotton Famine Road, above Norden

Cotton Famine Road, above Norden

Among the others on the right side at this time were those Lancashire mill workers who supported the Union blockade of the southern ports in the American Civil War, despite the great personal cost the Cotton famine imposed on them. I hadn’t heard of Cotton Famine Road, despite growing up nearby. Manchester still remembers the episode thanks to the donated statue of Abraham Lincoln. There was a super In Our Time about it a while ago.

Lincoln in Manchester

Lincoln in Manchester

I’ve also enjoyed the book’s demolition of the vile Enoch Powell, a pompous man who prided himself on historical knowledge, as completely unhistorical in his beliefs about the England of yore.

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New books, more to read

It’s always exciting getting the new catalogues and a couple of Spring 2017 ones have recently landed. There are quite a few enticing titles in the Princeton University Press one (my own dear publisher of course). Cass Sunstein has #republic, about democracy in the social media age, Jean Tirole’s Economics for the Common Good will be out in English, and Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler looks intriguing – it seems to take the Piketty-esque line that violent episodes are needed to equalise society, looking at the long sweep of history since the stone age. I also like the look of Erika Rappaport’s A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped The Modern World (and I thought it was cotton…..)

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Speaking of Piketty, Harvard University Press has After Piketty edited by Heather Boushey, Brad DeLong and Marshall Steinbaum. Philosopher Pascal Bruckner has a book called The Wisdom of Money, somewhat contrarian in our anti-capitalist times. Mark Granovetter’s Society and Economy looks like a must-read. I’m intrigued by Barak Rishman’s Stateless Commerce: The Diamond Network and the Persistence of Relational Exchange – an exploration of a surviving ethnic trading network.

Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to the holidays to make a dent in the current towering pile of books….

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Digi-trust-busting

As someone who spent eight years on the Competition Commission, the changing shape of competition in the digital world is a question of compelling interest to me. Mainly, I blocked mergers, but the exceptions were retail inquiries where the growing competition from online retailers (especially Amazon) was, to me, a clear constraint on merging high street chains (some of my colleagues were less convinced – this was 2001-2009). Looking more recently at the literature on digital platforms, it is clear that economists have to step up and deliver new, practical analytical tools for competition authorities. As Jean Tirole and his co-authors famously established, the old tools of market definition and SSNIP tests are inadequate for assessing competitive conditions. And when the dynamics of competing for versus in the market, and the evolution of ecosystems, are so important now, the longstanding failure of competition economics to deliver a systematic way of thinking about static versus dynamic impacts of mergers really matters.

This is a long-winded preamble to mentioning Virtual Competition: the promise and perils of the algorithm-driven economy by Ariel Ezrachi and Maurice Stucke. The authors clearly are concerned about the failure of competition policy tools in the new context, and although it tries to be even-handed the book paints a picture of a world of increasing market power, to the detriment of consumers and citizens.

The most interesting thread in the book from an economist’s perspective is the reflection on the role of information in markets. Reductions in search costs should improve consumer and economic welfare, make markets more competitive. However, the greater availability of information in the online world is illusory because there is a staggering imbalance. Digital platforms have an extraordinary amount of extra information about us – and there are very interesting chapters covering the struggle between platforms, advertisers, app developers etc to gather and aggregate the personal information. However, the information we consumers get about the goods and services we’re looking to purchase is diminishing. The book raises the question as to whether the use of cookies and geo-tracking is enabling ever-better price discrimination by platforms and online sellers; there has been no systematic evidnce that this is so, but then it would be hard to gather the data to test this properly.

At the start of the internet era, there was great optimism that this was a technology for empowering consumers with more nearly perfect information, allowing easy price and product comparisons. In fact, it may be returning us to the era of the bazaar, with reducing transparency of information about prevailing market prices and conditions. “In a market that is in reality controlled by bots and algorithms, what power does the invisible hand posess?” Instead, maybe we have a digitalized hand, determining the specific market price in any given context. As others have done (Francis Spufford in Red Plenty – not cited – and Eden Medina in Cybernetic Revolutionaries – which is cited here), the book notes that in the limit a profit-maximizing market with perfect information and a social-welfare maximising central planner similarly well-informed would reach the same prices and allocations (although contrasting distributions).

The book does a good job of describing the changing dynamics of competition in digital markets, and why there is every reason to be concerned. Written by two lawyers, it is frustrating that it hardly mentions the economic research literature, which is proliferating even if not yet reaching policy-ready conclusions. The authors also over-do some of their critique of digital businesses – for example, they include a section on the use of framing and choice architecture to manipulate consumer choice, but that dates back to the pre-digital days of Mad Men. Still I share their view that we are in an age similar to those of the giant industrial trusts, and some digi-trust-busting is going to be needed.

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The social life of electricity, continued

I devoured Then There Was Light: Stories Powered by the Rural Electrification Scheme in Ireland on my train journey back from the Bristol Festival of Economics yesterday. It’s a delightful collection of reminiscences about this scheme taking electrification to the countryside (ie most of Ireland) during the 1940s and into the 1950s. In fact, coverage only reached 100% of all the remote islands in 2000, and some hamlets were eventually depopulated as electricity never got to them.

The book is a reminder of what a poor and agrarian country Ireland was until, well EU accession really. The essays by men who worked digging post holes and driving trucks often start with the relief they felt on getting, not only a job, but one for a government body paying decent wages. Being hired for the work changed their lives. Most are written by people who spent at least part of their childhood in darkness lit only by candles and paraffin lamps, with mothers doing all the laundy by hand. One writer calls the scheme one of the most transformative events in Ireland’s 20th century history as a nation, and by the end of the book, this doesn’t seem like hyperbole.

It’s fasinating to read about the hesitations some people had: about the cost not only of getting hooked up to start with but also the vulnerability to having to make ongoing payments for power. For many new customers, this was the first regular bill payment they experienced; about the dangers – would it harm the cattle or burn down the house? And about whether it would change the character of life for the worse. Parish priests were often key advocates for electrification, and so were women, who quickly saw the potential benefits of electrical domestic appliances. The company also had a PR and sales team – the book has illustrations showing some of the demos and delightful adverts: “Electricity saves money in the farmyard!”

Above all, the book is a reminder that all technology is social. Not only do new technologies need complementary investments  Рhouseholds paying for their internal wiring and switches, or street lights, for example Рpeople have to be able to see the benefits as well as the costs (faster milking, no more washing by hand), and these often need demonstrating in practice before they are believed. Electricity in particular is also a social technology, involving collective decisions to create and sustain the incentives to make it function. The investments are long-term, they change places dramatically; and although the technology is now old, it is both essential and dangerous.

So it is that many countries still cannot provide a consistent universal electricity supply and even advanced economies experience power cuts and underinvestment. If western political systems lose their ability to create consensus and collective, long-term action there will be many bad consequences but one of them might well be disrupted electricity supplies. This is not alarmist: I spent chunks of my teenage years doing homework by candlelight too. We had the power stations and the wires, but not the social and political infrastructure in the years of unrest and strikes in the 1970s.

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Rural electrification

Electricity is one of the most interesting technologies for social scientists. Paul David’s brilliant essay, The Computer and the Dynamo, uses it as an example to illustrate why it can take years or decades for the productivity effects of new technologies to appear – because of the need not only for initial investment but vast complementary investments. The social and economic institutions and incentives to deliver a consistent supply need to be just so – many countries have never managed it and the most advanced can have frequent failures. Think power cuts in California, or potential shortages in the UK given the absence of enough new investment in generation in the past, only now starting to be fixed.

Anyway, that’s by way of saying I am already *loving* Then There Was Light about the rural electrification scheme in Ireland in the mid-20th century. It was a hard sell at first, to conservative, and poor, famers. “By all accounts, farmers were slow to see beyond the costs, until they were asked by young ladies at dances whether they had ‘got the electricity in?'” Everyday cost-benefit analysis. Brilliant. With a moral perhaps for rural roll-out of superfast broadband?

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