Steering history?

I enjoyed Oded Galor’s The Journey of Humanity: The Origins of Wealth and Inequality. There are of course lots of grand sweep of human history books around – Ian Morris, Walter Scheidel, Jared Diamond, James Scott, even Yuval Noah Harari, not to mention all the accounts of why modern growth came about – David Landes, Joel Mokyr, Deirdre McCloskey. And many more. So I was slightly trepidatious picking up yet another. However, it’s well worth it.

I hadn’t previously been familiar with Galor’s academic work on growth, shame on me, but find it persuasive. There’s a fundamentally simple story – albeit complex and contingent in how it plays out – about interaction between humans (individually and collectively) interacting with technology in a dynamic where change starts slowly and reaches a tipping point beyond which it accelerates. The collective aspect of this incorporates an institutional trade-off between innovation and cohesion: more diverse societies generate more ideas and innovations, but are less cohesive. The dynamic also embeds path dependence: where you can get to depends on where you start and how you got there in the first place. “We are all the product of, and all contend with, the repercussions of events and behaviours that began decades, centuries and even millennia before we were born.” This model underpins the narrative account in The Journey of Humanity.

Like others, Galor sees the early 20th century as an astonishing period of progress: “It is hard to comprehend the leap in the quality of life experienced by people across the globe.” He also highlights the role of radio: “Radio appears to have had a more dramatic impact on lifestyles and culture than any other invention preceding it.” And the BBC is only 100 years old this year – and still, thanks to the World Service, profoundly important in many low-income and/or remote places.

The book is also nicely written with plenty of stories and interesting nuggets of information. The challenge it poses is, of course, how to get from where we are – under the shadow of a long history – to a world where everybody has attained a high standard of living delivering good health, longevity and quality of life and catastrophic climate change and biodiversity loss have been averted. The cogs are turning as they always have, but the vehicle can be steered.

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All data is social

One of my strands of work at the moment is thinking about data as a social asset, including how to value it. Anybody playing a word association game would probably link ‘personal’ with ‘data’, but the usefulness of any individual data record will generally depend on context – on other pieces of data. Information requires the combinations. What’s more, the way data is categorised and collected is highly socially structured too. If I buy a book online (it has been known), that datum will be classified in different ways to be useful, for the recommender algorithm or for marketing analytics: what genre? how much was the book? what else has she bought?

This is a preamble to this handy Primer on Powerful Numbers, a brief overview of the sociology of data with fantastic lists of references. It’s well worth a read. It sent me back after a long time to Benedict Anderson’s classic Imagined Communities, specifically the chapter ‘Census, Map, Museum’: “The real innovation of the census-takers of the 1870s was not in the construction of the ethnic-racial classifications but rather in their systematic quantification. …… The flow of subject populations through the mesh of differential schools, courts, clinics, police stations, immigration offices created ‘traffic habits’ which in time gave real social life to the state’s earlier fantasies.” On censuses, see also Andrew Whitby’s excellent history, The Sum of The People.

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Census and map-making as social intstruments also feaure in Jürgen Osterhammel’s monumental The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the 19th Century, which I’ve recently been reading. I’m enjoying its woven approach – big themes as warp, teased out across the whole of the globe as weft, to paint a rich tapestry. One example relevant to data being shaped by society and in turn reshaping it is map-making, and the way physical maps in reflecting mental maps led to new actions (say in colonial administration) that in turn alter the physical maps – for example by tighter specification of borders as definitive lines (However, the book’s simply too big for me to hold, even in paperback, so I doubt I’ll get through it all. Given the big book trend, can I plead with publishers to return to the tradition of multiple volumes?)

51Xsz21SnJL._AC_UY436_QL65_As we recognise ourselves to be in a data-driven economy and society, thinking about the social construction of data, the unavoidably social use of data, and the way data will alter the society it catalogues is vital. I’m lucky to have some amazing Bennett Institute colleagues thinking about these questions – Sam Gilbert’s Good Data, Jeni Tennison’s new project Connected by Data, Claire Melamed’s work on data for the SDGs, and Stephanie Diepeveen, Annabel Manley and Sumedha Deshmukh working with me on the value of data including specific applications (eg transport, finance).

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It’s not easy being green

Or so sang the famous frog.

I’ve been dipping into a couple of new how-to books about sustainability. Growth for Good: reshaping capitalism to save humanity from climate catastrophe is by Alessio Terzi, an economist in the European Commission. The book starts with a spirited defence (against degrowthers) of the need for growth, making both the negative case (politically impossible, growth is necessary for job creation) and the positive (what Benjamin Friedman set out in his 2006 book as the moral case for economic growth, and the spirit of Enlightenment discovery). It does an excellent job of pointing out the silences and the inconsistencies in degrowth arguments. After all, we look set to experience degrowth (aka recession) this year and it’s unlikely to be a good experience. And if we’re going to degrow, what do we do about innovation – stop new vaccines? Not all degrowthers are the same but there are certainly some vocal ones who manifest deep ignorance about what is in and out of GDP and what its growth consists in.

The second part of the book is an exploration of what steps can turn the growth we have into the sustainable variety, and sets out a green strategy. It does include the economist’s favourite tool of carbon pricing, but also government strategic regulation and investment, and the role of finance and business.

Which takes me to the second, The Unsustainable Truth: How investing for the future is destroying the planet and what to do about it by David Ko and Richard Busellato. They are investment managers and their peers are one of the target audiences. This is an extended sermon on the need for the investment industry to take the future into account in a broader sense than financial returns. They offer the almost-certainly unpopular thought that funding pensions of the future through their industry is not compatible with sustainability: “We do need to consider a life without our pension investments. This does not mean that we should not invest, but it does prompt us to rething how we support each other as we age, and investments need to arise from that context.”

The book, which is full of anecdotes and lively examples, also urges everyone to try things out that will help with sustainability – car sharing, walking further, spending more time with our neighbours. Businesses too – try out small changes that might make a difference. It’s an appealing case, but it seems to me the self-motivated small changes will never add up to be big enough. Governments are going to need to get involved and make us do things differently, just as they have already with the incentives for recycling waste and the switchover to electric vehicles.

But, as Kermit knew, it’s not easy. Particularly when there’s a government that believes in the magic of the market to solve all problems.

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More incompetent than neoliberal?

“Neoliberalism is a term which should, I think, not be used,” writes David Edgerton in his chapter in The Neoliberal Age? Britain Since the 1970s edited by Aled Davies, Ben Jackson and Florence Sutcliffe-Briathwaite. I agree. It’s handy shorthand for a philosophy of government that has had some prominence since 1979/80 but is used in ways that obscure rather than illuminate ideas. Some writers (eg Wendy Brown) using the term seem to class *all* economists/economics as neoliberal, yet lumping Joe Stiglitz with Eugene Fama really seems bizarre even though both think about how information shapes people’s individual economic decisions.

This conference volume is an exploration of the nuances and hence the question mark in its title. The broad conclusion is that something more complex and even contradictory than an ideological neoliberal movement has been going on. This is despite the rhetoric deployed by some UK politicians since Thatcher – the reality has been messier. As my colleague Peter Sloman puts it in his chapter on the welfare state: “The conjunction of anti-welfarist discourse with welfarist practice is not unique to the UK but is perhaps particularly striking in Britain.” We’ve never walked the talk fully – because politics. The editors’ intro sums this up nicely: not only have there been other intellectual influences than any neoliberal or free market ideologies, but to paint everything for the past 40 years as part of a grand neoliberal tide ignores “the role of economic and social change in setting broad constraints on the path of public policy.”

In fact, just revising a paper some co-authors and I are about to resubmit on the UK’s levelling up plans has made me glumly ever more certain that the dominant trend in UK politics is sheer incompetence, wired in to structures of government. We have a centralised state so determined to cling on to its power to determine policies that it repeatedly undermines the capacity of all the devolved and local governments and other agencies either to feed information in to the policy-making process or to implement the resulting decisions. Sovereign Westminster/Whitehall omnishambles.

Anyway, I haven’t read all the chapters yet but this is an interesting book, testing the neoliberal lens on a range of policies and perspectives, and finding it distorts the messiness of the historical landscape.

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Books about books

It’s turning out to be a bit of a week, but I have read (a) Thomas Piketty’s new book, A Brief History of Equality – out next month, am reviewing it for the FT. All I’ll say for now is that he presumably got the title idea from my GDP: A Brief But Affectionate History….; and (b) The Bookseller’s Tale by Martin Latham and No-one Round Here Reads Tolstoy: Memoirs of a Working Class Reader by Mark Hodkinson. These were comfort reading, and I enjoyed them both in different ways. The former is a bookseller’s reflections with some personal history threaded through. The latter is a personal history by a reader/writer/publisher with some thoughts about books and literature threaded through.

This meant that although I liked The Bookseller’s Tale I *loved* No-one Round Here Reads Tolstoy because it is so much about my life with books. Hodkinson grew up one town over from me in Lancashire (Rochdale rather than Ramsbottom) at almost the same time (1970s), in a house with one book in it (we had one shelf of books) on a council estate (we were on the first street outside the estate). A key difference between us is that I got selected to the local grammar school by the 11-plus exam, that narrow but effective ladder up the social scale available to bright kids until the introduction of comprehensive schooling.

The memoir absolutely captures the flavour of time and place, and the sense of alien abduction that affected a voracious working class reader. All the details down to the trade-in market stall where my dad bought his westerns for 10p and sold them back for 5p, while I scoured the boxes for Penguins. Highly recommended (along with my all-time favourite on this theme, Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes.)

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