The polarised republic

Cass Sunstein’s #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media is very timely, as we all, horrified, watch the American republic splinter ever more irreparably since the election last November. The book links the literature on filter bubbles and social media dynamics with the actual political impact in the US context, and the constitutional implications.

It cites the growing empirical literature on political polarisation as a result of the spread and increasing use of social media, especially Facebook. (Of course, conventional media have contributed to the polarisation as well – there are some empirical studies such as this one.) Some of the figures Sunstein cites are startling, such as the polling showing that both Republicans and Democrats have growing increasingly likely to express “displeasure” if their child were to marry someone with the opposite political affiliation (49% and 33% respectively in 2010, up from 5% and 4% in 1960, presumably higher still now). This far exceeds the “displeasure” expressed about inter-racial relationships.

Much of the book concerns the scope for deliberative democracy, or getting people to talk to each other and talk through problems. Technology could in principle enable this, although it currently does the opposite. At the same time, the other occasions on which we would all ‘meet’ different kinds of people, from different classes and races, and different opinions, have shrunk. There is more social sorting in real life. The conventional broadcast media are being displaced, and narrower themselves. (Not to mention now being under attack by Trump and Bannon.) Sunstein isn’t too starry eyed about democracy, though: “For many political questions, what matters is getting the facts straight, and for that you need experts, not deliberative opinion polls.” Hooray!

Communications and the media are exceptionally important in a democracy (cf Amartya Sen) and are at the epicentre of the current maelstrom of populism. I was interested in Sunstein’s emphasis on the importance of media ‘solidarity goods’, a special form of merit good that promotes social interaction, debate, understanding, a sense of shared citizenship and solidarity. He suggests solidarity goods are essential to build social capital.

The book resists the temptation to offer quick fixes – there aren’t any. Instead it underlines the priciples of any measures that might make things better: exposing people to material and ideas they wouldn’t otherwise choose or experience; ensuring citizens have a range of common experiences; ensuring policy debates have substance – ‘expertise’. It’s clear to me there are some sharp questions about the regulatory framework governing social media and the online world in general, questions regulators have been pretty keen to avoid so far. It’s time for them to do so now.


Digitally productive households

I’ve been mulling over matters statistical – which if turnout at this week’s ONS International Economic Statistics conference was anything to go by are becoming increasingly popular – and recently have been focused on the ‘production boundary’. This divides the activities included in GDP from those that are not. The theory is that GDP just includes monetary transactions at their exchange value. The practice is different: non-marketed government activities are included, and so is ‘imputed rent’, the hypothetical amount owner-occupiers pay themselves to live in their homes. The argument is that as people switch between renting anfd owning, and as countries differ in the proportion of owner-occupiers, it would distort comparisons over time or across countries to leave it out.

The consequence is that in the main figures we use to assess the health of the economy, businesses and governments are considered productive and households are not. Feminists have long disagreed, as women have mainly done household work. So indeed did Simon Kuznets. Today I came across (courtesy of this post) this quotation from his 1947 article in the Journal of Economic History, ‘Measurement of Economic Growth’:

[A]t least three major institutions are to be distinguished: the family, the business enterprise, and the state. Unless a measure of total output is to reflect the growth of a given institution alone, it obviously should include all economic production within the family, the business enterprise, and the state. Yet most measures of national income note only market-bound output, including almost all state production but omitting large portions of productive activity which, not being market-bound and forming an integral part of family life, are not considered properly economic. There is a definite choice here between totals more comprehensive but less homogeneous and those less comprehensive but more homogeneous.

However unimportant this difficulty may appear for short-term studies, in the long periods implied in measuring economic growth the problem is of too large a magnitude to be dismissed easily. Such long periods are characterized by important shifts in the weights of these different institutions, and reducing the scope of measurement will necessarily produce a substantial bias. Of the quantitatively impressive growth of total output in this country, as measured in the ordinary estimates of national income, a large part is to be associated with the extension of the business at the expense of the family sector. Consequently, one important prerequisite for a more efficient measurement of economic growth lies in the inclusion of such sectors of production that easily escape the statistical eye. As specific examples we may cite the capital formation involved in the work of American farmers in bringing virgin land into cultivation, or the work within the old- fashioned large family, so much of which has been taken over in recent decades by business firms.

It is pretty clear to me that – in addition to the steady shift toward households purchasing ever-more services previously produced at home (from child care to ready meals and restaurants) – digital activities are blurring this boundary. We’re undertaking online more work that used to be marketed, for example acting as our own travel agents and bank tellers – and for that matter supermarket cashiers as more stores introduce the terrible machines that will increase their measured productivity by substituting household labour for paid labour. We’re producing digital public goods such as open source software, which create their own difficulties for the national accounts. We’re using household assets like cars and spare rooms to earn money in the “sharing” economy.

Anyway, this is what I said at the conference this week – there’s a paper in preparation, which I’ve been working on in my role as an ONS Fellow. Not surprisingly, this was controversial with some of the national accountants in the audience!

Markets, states and humans

I was eager to read Paul De Grauwe’s The Limits of the Market because I profoundly agree with its premise that the false dichotomy between ‘the state’ and ‘the market’ has led to bad public policies and lower social welfare. The book is a short overview of the flaws of this dichotomous view of the world. It organises its discussion around two sets of reasons why a ‘free market’ is a meaningless abstraction: externalities and ‘internalities’.

The idea of an externality is familiar of course – that individual choices by a person or business have consequences, good or bad, for others. Once you start thinking about it, you realise externalities are pervasive. Indeed, they include many not acknowledged in standard economic theory which assumes fixed preferences, when of course preferences are socially determined. As De Grauwe points out, it is not easy to address externalities with government policies (not that this means there’s no point in trying): “The market fails in the face of externalities. When this happens, the government must step in. However …. that is also the moment at which the discrepancy between individual and collective interest is widest.”

The word ‘internality’ is new to me – though this is the second time I’ve come across it used by a Francophone author. It refers to the capacity humans have to make decisions that damage their ‘rational’ self-interest. I would think of this as a failure of one of the other assumptions of standard welfare economics, namely individual utility maximisation. The book makes use of Daniel Kahneman’s distinction between System I thinking (emotion, instinct) and System II (reasoned calculation). Market outcomes that satisfy the latter can adversely affect – say – our fairness instinct. “This dissatisfaction creates an opportunity for governments to fill the emotional gap left by the free market and to focus on System I, which steers our emotions. Many emotions find an outlet through government.” Well, most people probably have rather negative feelings about government, but one sees what he means.

The book is an extended reflection on this dual set of market failures, and the inevitable involvement of both (coercive) government actions and individual choices in the economy. I ended up being a bit disappointed, as it does fall between the two stools of accessibility for the general readership and technical rigour for professional economists, so I didn’t feel I got tremendous new insights. It’s also expensive for a very short book (£25 for 160 pages), albeit not in stupid academic book price territory. Still, the framework set out for thinking about the roles of government and market is neat, and I’ll recommend it to students who are particularly interested in the welfare economics but won’t want anything technical.

Humans and financial markets

Well this is exciting: the proof copy of the new book by my brilliant former classmate Andrew Lo (now director of the MIT Laboratory for Financial Engineering) has arrived. It’s Adaptive Markets: Financial Evolution at the Speed of Thought. Paging through, & from conversation with him, the book is a synthesis of modern financial economics and psychology/evolutionary biology, with some AI and neuroscience in the mix. It aims to get away from the stale ‘the efficient markets hypothesis is right/wrong’ dichotomy and looks instead at the interaction between rational calculation and what we know of the structure and non-rational habits of human decision making.

The book starts with a historical perspective; it ends with the financial crisis and recent developments, and discusses what regulatory framework is appropriate. A proposal that seems utterly sensible is to establish a financial market analogue to the National Transportation Safety Board, a standing expert (sorry!) body that investigates transport accidents to determine causes and recommend regulatory adjustments if necessary.

I can’t wait to read it. The book is equation-free and I know from graduate school experience that its author (also co-author of the classic A Non-Random Walk DOwn Wall Street) is so clever he can explain really difficult things ultra-clearly. Looks like one for all interested in financial markets. It will be out in April so I’ll review it properly closer to the date.)


Urban futures: the ultimate how-to guide

The latest in our Perspectives series is out now: Britain’s Cities, Britain’s Future by Mike Emmerich. Mike, for those who don’t know him, was a key architect of the devolution deal for Manchester, and prior to that had worked in the Treasury and 10 Downing Street. It’s hard to think of anyone who has had such a ringside view – from both sides – of the debate about the role of the UK’s major cities in the economy and society.

The book starts with the historical perspective, looking (from the perspective of agglomeration economics and political economy) at why the big industrial cities like Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield and Birmingham rose, and declined, and may be on the point of renewal. The following two sections reflect on the role of cultural and social life, and institutions and politicla governance, in explaining the fortunes of a city.

The final chapter has some suggestions for cementing the current phase of renewal – vitally important in the post-Leave vote political landscape. In short, stop thinking small, and stop thinking ‘now’. Success takes a generation or two but we needs to start investing at scale, for a very long time. Specifically:
1.  More and better transport, with political consensus so the projects get delivered.
2. Build more housing and invest in the schools and amenities to make every neighbourhood feel liveable
3. City, business and universities – strong local institutions – must work together
4. Strong local skills institutions involving (& funded by) both employers and the state, and different in different cities, not national templates.
5. Create jobs for the people ‘left behind’ starting with high quality, publicly funded temporary jobs in their community.

This all requires a long-term planning horizon, money, and above all political commitment at the centre and locally. A tall order perhaps, but with a better chance of hapening now than at any time since the 1960s. If you want to know more, Mike’s your man, and the book is available to pre-order now – with you by the weekend.

BTW, this is the 11th Perspective, and we have some cracking new ones in the pipeline. There are a couple of promotional offers available for a while, one for the existing titles, and a discounted subscription to the forthcoming ones.51cT3hSZocL