The joy of (economic) geography

I once met the late Doreen Massey, before knowing who she was. It was after the publication of my first book, The Weightless World (intangibles avant la lettre), which she had read and had interesting questions about. It was therefore long before I had anything to do with the academic world. I was a nobody, in other words, and she a highly respected economic geographer. She was open minded enough, and kind enough, nevertheless to have read my book and been willing to talk to me about it.

She died in 2016 and two recent books honour her work. One is the Doreen Massey Reader (editors Brett Christophers, Rebecca Lave, Jamie Peck and Marion Werner) and Doreen Massey: Critical Dialogues (same editors, different priority ordering). I’ve read most of the former and  dipped into the latter. The first thing to note about them is that they reflect the energy in economic geography these days, indeed often far more energy about major economic issues than you find in some economics departments. Massey is one of the people who has made a major contribution to the intellectual strength and curiosity in the discipline.

Now, as I’m not a geographer but an economist, most of the cited literature is unfamiliar, and the language can be a bit of a struggle. So it’s with diffidence that I comment on these books at all. Most interesting to me is the section in the Reader on regional economies, a subject far too much overlooked in mainstream economics, given the regional inequalities in all major western economies including London-centric UK.

For example, in a 1973 essay on industrial location theory Massey pointed out the inadequacy of an economics discipline that was then – certainly pre-Krugman and the revival in economics of economic geography – both (comparative) static and a-spatial. As she noted, it’s hard to understand industrial concentration in space if (a) you ignore location and (b) you’re not interested in dynamic forces. Agglomeration economics – which now dominates this area of research in econ – is, she argues, a narrow lens on the question. If the focus is on the firm’s decision to locate in a place where there are agglomeration externalities, it is all too easy to miss the system effects and the input-output system of the regional or local economy as a whole. The externalities are everything. This too is starting to percolate through business economics at least, in the shape of ‘ecosystems’. Massey got there a generation ago.

There is a lot to interest economists in these books, albeit most will find – as I did – that they are far more overtly political than is the norm in our discipline. No doubt the geographers would argue that economics is covertly political. Anyway, these books contain critiques of capitalism in general, whereas we make our critiques of capitalism specific. It certainly seems odd to criticize economics for being too abstract when critical disciplines such as this are equally so, only in words rather than algebra; there are abstract nouns galore in these two books.  Nevertheless, we economists should be concerned that some of the liveliest work on key economic issues is going on in geography departments. And maybe ‘agglomeration’ isn’t the only approach to issues of economic location?

All the more reason, perhaps, to be as open minded as this important, interdisciplinary scholar was herself.

A PS One of the editors, Brett Christophers, has a new book out soon about the privatisation of public land in Britain, The New Enclosure: The apprpriation of public land in neoliberal Britain. Despite the ‘neoliberal’ in the subtitle, it looks a must-read. His 2013 Banking Across Boundaries was a terrific analysis of the globalisation of finance and lifted the veil on the FISIM issue in the construction of GDP, since cited by me, and recently by Mariana Mazzucato.

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