Economies in space and time

There’s a section of Economic Geography: A Critical Introduction by Trevor Barnes and Brett Christophers about the richness of border zones – not physical ones as these tend to be quite the opposite when it comes to economic activity, but intellectual. Interdisciplinarity has been a buzzword for a long time, and immensely hard to achieve within conventional academic structures. But perhaps its moment has come. At any rate, the number of in-principle interdisciplinary research centres is increasing (including the new Institute for Public Policy at Cambridge, which I join tomorrow). Perhaps more important, more and more people appreciate that solving pressing challenges – ageing, the consequences of climate change, trade wars, technological change – requires multiple social science, humanities and scientific perspectives.

Besides, I’ve always found the borders of economics interesting, including economic geography. The gap between economists who do geography and geographers who think about the economy has perhaps been narrowing in recent times. The book – a textbook but one accessible outside the framework of a university course – makes surprisingly little of what I think must be one of the main reasons for this. Which is that the technology-driven changes in the structure of production and consumption have made face-to-face interaction more valuable. The digital economy is an economy of clusters and dense cities, as well as one of globalisation. The classic Marshallian spillovers are bigger, the more important tacit knowledge (which, it turns out, is often complementary to codified knowledge, rather than a substitute for it). The evident importance of city regions is boosting urban economics and what is typically described as the ‘new economic geography’.

The geographer authors are understandably wary of the way economics is expanding into this territory. We economists do have a habit of presenting as marvellous new insights things other disciplines have known for ages, albeit wrapped in some nice econometrics. However – and inevitably there are some frictions in this process of inter-disciplinary engagement – it’s bemusing-to-painful to see how economics is perceived. The book describes (mainstream) economics as being only about constrained optimisation, which is the kind of reductionist statement an economist might make (and anyway, constrained optimisation under conditions of asymmetric information is everywhere in nature). It also defines the economy and economics as being essentially about ‘materiality’, material resources. Surely this can’t be literally intended? But in that case I’m not sure what this means.

Finally, the book notes – rightly – that economists insist on the importance of models, but conflates this with the use of mathematics. A lot of economists cheered Paul Romer’s assault on ‘mathiness’, but we like non-mathy maths because it is a concise way of trying to ensure models have a certain logical internal consistency and clarity. One could write many of them out in words instead – just as historians do when they model the causes of the first world war or literary critics when they theorize about the imperial perspective in late 19th century English novels. All scholars use models whether good or bad ones, and whether they know – or like – it or not.

These gripes aside, I enjoyed the book a lot. It’s a clear and comprehensive survey of the territory (sorry) of economic geography and at the same time manages the difficult feat of stepping outside the substance to deliver the critique promised in the subtitle. The first half of the book discusses the definition, history, boundaries and theorising/methodology in economic geography. The second half covers topics such as globalization, cities, finance, the environment and technological change. These topics chapters would make useful stand-alone readings for economics courses on the relevant subjects, giving students a healthy alternative perspective. In any discipline, we quickly socialise our students into our usual ways of thinking. Extending their frame of reference must be a useful contribution to their education.

It’s interesting that economic history is clearly enjoying something of a revival in economics, albeit from a base sadly diminished since before my PhD days, when most doctoral programmes had an economic history requirement (mine, at Harvard, still did but I think many others had already dropped it by the early 80s). There is much talk (and some action) now about ensuring economic history is in the standard economics curriculum, and the CORE course for one weaves some throughout the whole text. Economic geography doesn’t have that traction, but I’d be happy to see options at least for economic geography and economic sociology. I for one am also happy to try to explain to other social scientists #whateconomistsdo as long as they will be as patient with me.

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PS I also applaud the sensible pricing of this book by the publisher (WILEY Blackwell), in contrast to many textbooks.

5 thoughts on “Economies in space and time

  1. Hi Diane,

    Where are the best economic departments in UK universities?

    I know the LSE has quite a prestigious department, with the likes of Paul Cheshire, Henry Overman and Vernon Henderson.

    • There are lots of good ones Steven. Apart from my new and previous employers (Cambridge and Manchester), Warwick, Bristol, UCL, Oxford, York, Sheffield, Leeds, Birmingham, …. It also depends whether you’re asking about research and if so which sub-fields, or teaching.

      • Thanks for your reply.

        I am very interested in housing and urban economics. I am interested in the determinants of house prices, whether it is supply restrictions or the financialisation of housing. I’m interested in how this interacts with the political economy and the wealth distribution.

        I am interested in whether we have a spatial misallocation of labour due to high house prices in productive cities.

        I am interested in the work of Ed Glaeser and am trying to work my way through a technical book of his, although I will need assistance.

        I would like to get into research, but I’m coming from a non-traditional route. I got my Masters in Engineering from Cambridge 10 years ago and have since worked in producing online educational websites. I’m doing a Graduate Diploma via the LSE in Economics. I’m not really sure how I would get back into academia with no track record.

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