The class window

On one of the recent long flights, I read JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. I’m late to this phenomenon, I know. Although it probably doesn’t bear the weight of analysis brought to bear on it in all the many column-inches (or digital equivalents) written about it, I thought it was a well-written insight into the knot of economic and cultural barriers facing many ‘left behind’ families. As the title indicates, it’s about the specifics of the white working class in a now economically depressed part of the US – including the catastrophic drink and drugs epidemic. However, there is here a more universal picture of the interplay between loss of economic opportunities, the poverty, and certain social norms (or if you prefer cultural habits) that matter less in good times and become dysfunctional in bad times. The resulting vicious circle is hard to break into. A few especially driven or lucky individuals – like the author – manage.

The later chapters on Vance’s time at Yale Law School rang especially true for me – the dawning realisation of how little you know about how the world of privilege works. I remember well arriving at Oxford as a 17 year old and being just as utterly baffled about the number of knives and forks set out at dinner. What on earth were you supposed to do with all of those? And as for artichokes??? Every working class kid arriving at an Ivy League School or Oxbridge has in some form a tremendous culture shock experience.

So I thought the book well worth a read. It doesn’t have Big Solutions, but then there aren’t any. It does give readers a window into a certain kind of life most of them will not have experienced directly, and that’s valuable.


Intellectual property as theft

I’ve been dipping into a new (and free to download but you can choose to support it by paying for a paperback or Kindle copy from Amaxon) book by Rufus Pollock, The Open Revolution. I’m not great at reading whole books online, hence the dipping. What I’ve read, though, I really like. It states: “This book is about making as much as possible of that information available to as many people as we can, since wealth, information and the opportunity to create them are now profoundly entwined”  – the information in question being private, digitally recorded and stored information, anything that could be patented or copyrighted.

The book starts by underlining that any property rights – and all economists agree well-defined property rights are fundamental to economic growth – are defined by politics and law and social norms. The argument that the intellectual property rights that currently prevail are problematic for the digital economy has been made before, and is forcefully made again here. The book argues for ‘open information’, that “can be universally
and freely used, built upon and shared.

The book looks at patent and copyright protection, and draws the link to the accumulation of significant digital market (and political) power. It then jumps from the unquestioned powers such as Google and Facebook to a chapter on music streaming and Spotify – a marvellous service and one that can hardly be described as exercising undue power, especially when facing up against the recording industry titans. Pollock argues for replacing Spotify’s commercial model, which involves it in policing copyright protection, with a state-sponsored streaming model whereby governments collect a tax and allow citizens to access any streamed music:

“With no fee per track and no limitation on use, this all-you-can-eat buffet is a prototype for how one aspect of the Open world would operate. Money would of course have to be collected somehow to fund it, but instead of ten dollars a month to Spotify, this
could be a special fee incorporated in your taxes or added to your internet or mobile bill. This money would then be distributed according to usage, through remuneration rights fees.”

Subscription models are also of course all-you-can-eat ones and so similarly fit well the low or zero marginal cost economics of online. The difference between Spotify and this government-sponsored version of music streaming is scale: the more users pay, the lower the average fee. This is the rationale for public service broadcasting, so in effect we already have this model in the UK. My household pays an absolutely bargainiferous £2.89 per week to have access to a vast array of content for which the BBC has dealt with all the IP negotiations. I’m a huge fan of this model. But I don’t see why poor old Spotify – another marvellous service – should be prevented from asking for £10 a month for its streaming services.

So I’m with the book on the over-reach of IP laws in the digital age. I’d strongly argue for intense regulatory scrutiny of the advertising funded model of Google and Facebook, which might force them to an alternative business model – a flat fee, and utility regulation for some of their services perhaps. Some jurisdictions have started inquiries into the online ads market, almost a duopoly. But I’m not persuaded  public versus private ownership and control of the access services is the central issue. For sure, given that digital goods are essentially public goods and natural monopolies, there’s a free riding issue which argues for tax financing, but the first step must be to tackle the ridiculous IP laws.

There’s also a deeper question, I think, which is what one is paying for when it comes to fees to access digital content. The book argues: against “restrictions on which BBC programmes are freely accessible (having, of course, been paid for by the British public) and when, and where, to digital watermarks, paywalls around newspapers…”

Well, I happen to know something abuot restrictions on online acccess to BBC programmes, having chaired the original iPlayer approval process. One source of restriction is indeed a byzantine set of rights – different broadcast platforms in different countries may have specific rights to certain ‘windows’ or time periods. The licence fee payer in these cases has only paid for limited access rights, much as one might wish the limits to be less retrictive and the costs lower. Another source of restrictions was the desire on launching the BBC’s online services not to foreclose potential competing services, a worthy application of competition policy, and also not to cannibalise too quickly the BBC’s own linear services and commercial offer. These restrictions have been relaxed over time. The licence fee also buys not just the intangible asset of programmes – and I’m all for making the archive as freely available as possible – but also the continuing costs of investing in new content. The high initial fixed costs have to be covered. Similarly, I’m all in favour of newspaper paywalls – how else is new journalism going to get financed?

Anyway, this is as far as I’ve got. It is – as will be obvious – a stimulating read, although some of this will be familiar to those who have engaged with the ‘open’ argument before (eg James Boyle’s The Public Domain or Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture). I’d be interested to hear other people’s reactions to these arguments. Although quibbling, I’m broadly very sympathetic to them. I’ll be buying a hard copy to read it properly….


Quantum economics?

I’m at the International Symposium on Forecasting in Boulder at the University of Colorado & just heard an interesting keynote by mathematician David Orrell. I have his newest book, Quantum Economics on my pile, as yet unread. I was slightly put off by the title of his previous book Economyths: Ten Ways Economics Gets It Wrong, assuming it to be another contribution to the tendentious econ-bashing genre. However, I’ll give Quantum Economics a go now, as the talk made it sound possibly a less strained/bizarre metaphor than one might imagine, incorporating discontinuous macro processes, indeterminate prices, absence of equilibrium, and the importance of historical context. I don’t know if you need quantum theory to incorporate such features but it makes the book sound worth a read. Not sure I can muster the enthusiasm for Economyths, however ..



Pop science and natural philosophy

Partly thanks to having had a few long flights, I’ve been reading some popular science books – I find them bizarrely relaxing & am sure it’s good for me to keep up. In order of reading:

Reality Is Not What It Seems by Carlo Rovelli. I thoroughly enjoyed this beautifully-written  book, and thought for the duration that I finally understood something about quantum theory. This grasp evaporated when I closed the book, needless to say (but it’s loops, not strings, ok?) I highlighted lots of fascinating observations eg “The world of quantum mechanics is not a world of objects; it is a world of events.” And, “All events in a system occur in relation to another system.”

Scale by Geoffrey West. Another really interesting & a discipline-boundary-leaping exploration of what the title says: how do things behave as they get bigger, things being everything from small bugs to mega-cities. On the latter, he observes that physical infrastructure does not need to grow linearly with city size, but anything social increases more than linearly as cities grow – hence economic agglomeration effects. The one thing that troubled me is that West uses ‘economies of scale’ to mean decreasing returns, the kind of language barrier that contributes to the challenge of inter-disciplinary work.

Cognitive Gadgets by Cecilia Heyes. Brilliant book on cultural evolution, by an experimental psychologist crossing into cognitive science and evolutionary biology. I’m going to review this separately. If her argument is correct – and it persuaded me – it has big implications for the idea of social progress.

The Synthetic Age by Christopher Preston. I bought this after hearing him talk at the Hay Festival but was a bit disappointed in the book. The argument is that the new geological age should be thought of as synthetic because nature is now so wholly made by humans  – the entire Holocene can be thought of as anthropocene in a sense, he argues, as humans started to affect nature. Now we have the power to shape it entirely. He looks at synthetic biology, climate engineering etc. The talk was quite balanced about the merits and dangers of such technologies, but the book pretty clearly against their use without being convincing about it.

I also read Tara Westover’s Educated, an extraordinary and gripping book.

Also, to round off yesterday’s 10 hour flight, Benjamin Black’s Prague Nights. A fine 16th century crime caper set in mad Rudolf’s capital, featuring a young ‘natural philosopher’ as its hero.

Oh for the days when one person could hope to range across all of existing scientific knowledge….


If it isn’t creative, you don’t have much of an economy

I went to the launch last week of Patrick Kabanda’s The Creative Wealth of Nations, and was lucky enough to hear the great Amartya Sen (who wrote the foreword) give an introduction. It’s a terrific book, looking at the role of the arts in human well-being and economic development.

Kabanda grew up in Uganda in troubled political times, won a scholarship and graduated from Juilliard, then became for a time a World Bank development expert. This interesting range of life experience has convinced him of the importance of culture and the arts for three reasons: the direct economic importance of the cultural sector, the role of culture in stimulating the imagination and generating ideas, and its encouragement of collaboration and social capital. If it isn’t creative, you don’t have much of an economy.

The book covers several perspectives: there is a section making the general case for the economic importance of the arts; one looking at trade including the role of digital and tourism; chapters on gender and on the role of the arts in mental health and urban life; and one about data, and the paucity of statistics and weaknesses in conceptualising and measuring the creative industries and their economic development role.

There is an astonishingly small literature on the economics of arts and culture, given their importance in our lives but also – patently – the economy In the UK for instance it’s only recently that we’ve come to debate the ‘creative sector’ even though it’s comparable in scale to the financial sector. There are exceptions – Tyler Cowen is a prominent one. I’ve wondered if this reflects an avoidance of some difficult economic questions concerning how to handle public goods, externalities and self-fulfilling phenomena but this hasn’t kept economists from analysing environmental issues or financial markets. So I’m not completely sure of the reason. It’s tempting to suggest it’s because economists so often either don’t have or (more often) hide their human hinterland because of the culture of economics itself. Perhaps it’s because of the absence of data, the gaps in our understanding of how to measure intangibles with public good characteristics), and indeed the unmeasurability of some aspects of the arts. (The book kindly quotes me riffing on this.)

This lacuna in the economics literature of course makes The Creative Wealth of Nations all the more welcome. I particularly liked the chapters on mental health – so important for economic development in some countries and, crucially, in some rapidly-growing mega-cities fraught with violence in their slum areas – and on cultural tourism, both very thought provoking. The chapter on digital considers the oligopoly in the music industry and advocates a competing platform (dTunes, music for development) to create a market for local musicians who are below the radar of the big players.

As well as being a fascinating exploration of an area too little considered in economics, the book is also a throughly enjoyable read. It’s really well written and constructed around an extended musical metaphor – above my head but much appreciated anyway.