Work (and more) in digital times

This week I’ve been dipping in to Work in the Digital Age: Challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, edited by Neufeind, O’Reilly and Ranft. This is a collection of short essays brought togoether by Policy Network, the centre-left ‘progressive’ think tank. It’s a chunky book, starting with sections essays on prospects for employment and the character of work. These cover, for example, the likely impact of automation in destroying and creating jobs, and the nature of work in the ‘gig’ economy. A section on labour relations and the welfare state follows. There are then chapters on individual European countries, ordered according to the ‘digital density’: Scandinavia and the Netherlands are classed as high, the UK and Germany medium, France, Italy and Central and Eastern Europe as low. There are also chapters on the US, Canada and India. The comparisons between countries were at the heart of the project, and I admit to not having read these chapters.

Given that I read so much of the economic literature on these issues, I haven’t found anything startlingly new so far, although there are some interesting perspectives. For example Martin Kenney and John Zysman consider the question of financing technology start-ups when they face a long period of losses because of what’s known in the platform literature as the chicken and egg problem: a platform needs users on both sides – riders as well as drivers for instance – because it won’t attract riders without enough drives and won’t have enough drivers unless it has a user base. The winner-take-all success stories then look for a long period of rents to recover those early losses, although many platforms simply fail. The essay argues that it is not clear whether this financing model is creating economic and social value. (I argue in a forthcoming paper that this is one aspect of the wider failure of competition economics to have figured out how to compare static welfare gains and losses to dynamic ones.)

In other chapters, Ursula Huws et al report new surveys on the extent of gig work or crowd work – from 9% in the UK to 22% in Italy, usually as part of a broader spectrum of casual work; Monique Kremer and Robert Went set out an agenda for ensuring automation does not increase inequality, covering the direction of robotisation, the enhancement of complementary skills, and distributional policy instruments; and in an introductory essay Luc Soete on the productivity paradox discusses similarities with and differences from previous technological revolutions. The final chapter sets out a reform agenda – education and training; work transitions; social protection; redistributive taxes and transfers; and investing in infrastructure and innovation. This is high level stuff, and therefore a bit motherhood and apple pie. Having contributed essays to this kind of collection myself, I know this pitch of generality is inevitable, but do ache for some policy specifics as opposed to ‘a new inclusive narrative’.

For an overview of the technology and work debate, this is a useful volume, though, and it can be downloaded free from here. It’s certainly a good place to start for a comparative perspective, and the references to country-specific literature look really useful.


The not-so-secret secrets of research

The Secret Life of Science: How it Really Works and Why It Matters by Jeremy Baumberg won’t hold many surprises for economists working in academia. The increasing role of publication metrics in career prospects, even though everyone knows them to be counter-productive or even pernicious. The narrowing of scholarly horizons within disciplinary silos partly for this reason and partly (in the UK) because of the REF exercise. The creaking peer review system. The debate about open access and the monopoly power of certain journal publishers. I don’t know whether the same is true in the humanities and other social sciences, but the description of the systemic pressures and the way they make it ever harder to allow intellectual curiosity and boundary-crossing work free rein – for some very good reasons – makes this book a reflection on more than the natural sciences, but rather on the institutional framework for research as a whole, into which citizens pour a good deal of funding.

There are, however, additional issues in the sciences, not least the very high cost of equipment and facilities in some areas, and the failure of the funding system as a whole to be able to reflect on and implement societal priorities. Another difference is the institutional framework, with much scientific research (to varying degrees across countries – there are interesting figures in the book) occurring in the private sector. Baumberg also discusses the ever-rising number of scientific researchers, in what seems to be a sort of winner-takes-all dynamic of funding concentrating in elite groups and no signs of increasing diversity, producing seemingly ever-decreasing returns.

Although the issues may be familiar, the book usefully presents them all as a combined system challenge. It is pretty factual and even handed, but one ends with a strong sense of the need for some system-wide reforms. Baumberg has no silver bullet solution, and quite right too. He makes some suggestions such as introducing other kinds of metrics than citations, finding some ‘anarchic’ ways to fund science, creating better and different career structures for postdocs.

I read the book just after Richard Jones’s and James Wilsdon’s thought-provoking and trenchant report on ‘biomedical bubble’ in the UK. I doubt The Secret Life of Science will appeal to the general audience as it’s much more about the institutional framework than about the scientific research. But although researchers will already know – and live in their daily lives – the issues flagged up in the book, it’s a timely warning that the scientific endeavour that has brought our societies astonishingly greater prosperity and improvements in the quality of life is sclerotic and failing to deliver for the societies funding research. Hard as it may be for a young researcher struggling under all these pressures to regard herself as part of the despised ‘elite’, that’s the big issue facing scientific and other research. Time to tackle it.


Taking time seriously in economics

I’ve been much taken with Consumption Takes Time: Implications for Economic Theory by Ian Steedman, published in 2001 based on  his Graz Schumpeter lectures. Prior to reading it, I was aware only of Becker’s famous 1965 paper (which I cite in my forthcoming paper on the implications of digital technologies for the production boundary) and of Jonathan Gershuny’s As Time Goes By, and his work on time use surveys.

Steedman works through basic microeconomic theory when a time identity (all time must be used up) and the fact that consumption takes time are included. The results are rather sweeping. Non-satiation fails for obvious reasons. There are always inferior goods – in fact, always Giffen goods and Veblen goods. Small price changes can lead to discontinuously large quantity changes. The existence of a general equilibrium is not clear.

Although Becker’s paper is often cited, time to produce (his focus) and time to consume are not taken seriously in economic theory. They should be, and all the more so in a services-intensive economy where technology is above all reallocating people’s time use and making some services far more efficient (albeit in a way we never measure).

Why this lacuna? I’d guess it’s because the analytics are complicated and there’s no data (absent proper time use surveys). Not a good enough excuse. Economies exist in time and space – and so do economic agents.


More things to read (gulp)

Many books + little time = frustration. And my publisher is about to make it worse. Upcoming this autumn from Princeton University Press:

Digital Renaissance: What Data and Economics Tell Us about the Future of Popular Culture by Joel Waldfogel

Dark Commerce: How A New Illicit Economy is Threatening Our Future by Louise Shelley

Austerity: When it Works and When It Doesn’t bu Alberto Alesina, Carlo Favero and Francesco Giavazzi

The Discrete Charm of the Machine: Why the World Became Digital by Ken Steiglitz

Gods and Robots: The Ancient Quest for Artificial Life by Adrienne Mayor

Democracy and Prosperity: The Reinvention of Capitalism in a Turbulent Century  by Torben Iversen and David Soskice


Is my argument covered in gargoyles?

Now that I’m paddling at the edge of the inter-disciplinarity ocean – dangerous waters – I read – on the recommendation of esteemed colleagues – Metaphors We Live By (1980) by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. I gather it has been highly influential, and it was indeed stimulating read. However, I struggled with parts of the argument, which started brilliantly: we use metaphors, often informed by our bodies, in language and thought. ‘Up’ and ‘forward’ are powerful when incorporated in metaphors, because we stand up and walk forwards. I really enjoyed being prodded to think about the use of language and what it would mean to take metaphors seriously. Why does ‘ your argument has a solid structure’ work but ‘your argument is covered in gargoyles’ not? Why can we have raw facts and half baked ideas but not sautéed or poached data?

However, I struggled with the labelling of some ways of speaking as metaphors at all. I can see ‘argument as war’ is one. But is ‘inflation is an entity’? It’s an analytical construct for sure, but it isn’t exactly not a thing either. So is ‘inflation is lowering our standard of living’ really a metaphorical construction. Are ‘time is a resource’ and ‘labour is a resource’ metaphors at all? The further I got into the book, the less I was persuaded.

Evidently the book played into the objectivism vs relativism debate, and the authors sensibly accept that the ‘real world’ clearly constrains our conceptual system, although they are on the relativism end of the see-saw. As the title of chapter 27 puts it: “How metaphor reveals the limitations of the myth of objectivism.” They argue that the way we use language means objects (out there in the real world, as it were) are entities relative to our interaction with the world, and our projections onto it. Properties of objects are interactional rather than inherent, in their view. No doubt this is philosophically incoherent, but I’m not sure why there can’t be inherent properties as well as those we perceive through our interactions with the world and categorise, metaphorically or not.

The book ends with a paragraph on economics which is half spot on: “Political and economic ideologies are framed in mataphorical terms. Like all other metaphors, political and economic metaphors can hide aspects of reality. But in the area of politics and economics, metaphors matter more because they constrain our lives.” I think Deirdre McCloskey (The Rhetoric of Economics) or Albert Hirschman (The Rhetoric of Reaction) would agree. However, this coda seems half gibberish too, at least to this literal-minded economist: why is ‘labour is a resource’ a metaphor because it fails (as a metaphor) to distinguish meaningful from meaningless labour?

Anyway, among other reading, Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel is marvellous. I laughed and I cried (literally, not metaphorically). I only quite enjoyed Cees Nooteboom’s Roads to Santiago. I read Cass Sunstein’s latest, The Cost Benefit Revolution, out in September – when I’ll review it. I’m spoilt for choice for my next one, as the in-pile is teetering at the moment. When I’m super-busy, as these at months have been, acquiring a new book seems to be a purchase of the implicit time to read it. If only!


And the in-pile:

Photo on 20-07-2018 at 14.01