Gangsters, politicians and international bureaucrats

Graeme Garrard’s The Return of the State; and why it is essential for our health, wealth and happiness wears its heart on its jacket sleeve. The title will put off some readers and attract others – it will end up preaching to the converted.

The book – just under 200 pages long – starts out with a necessarily brief account of the swing of the pendulum in the centuries-long political debate between those who think more state is the problem and those who think it’s the solution. I began by thinking this could be a useful introduction to, say, undergraduates who hadn’t come across this history before. I also liked the fact that the book weaves in the role of powerful non-state actors – not just today’s mega-corps but also international mafia and the gazillions of dirty money sloshing around the financial system. The role of the illegal economy is overlooked in mainstream economics – probably because there’s no time series data to download and run regressions on.

However, the book then lost me in a chapter (4) that segues from weak states being the prey of multinational criminal gangs to their being similarly vulnerable to the World Trade Organization, World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Of course there is an imbalance of power between these organisations and a weak ‘client’ government but the implied moral equivalence is breathtaking: “While such agencies don’t use armed force, unlike criminal groups, they wield vast economic power that can be more damaging to the authority of the states who [sic] are subject to it than physical force. Weak states are often squeezed between well-armed criminal organisations within and dictatorial economic institutions without. Both show little mercy…” Both tattoed gangsters and suited officials carrying a briefcase are described as ‘tyrants’. I stopped reading then; this is not a meaningful discussion of the legitimacy or the politics of international organisations.

My other comment (on the first half of the book at any rate) is that the account ignores politics. The pendulum swings because of politics, and states are governed by politicians. Politics inflects what the state deliver and how well it does so. Although I lean toward the needing more state side of this debate in today’s context, it’s hard to be optimistic about the capacity of current politics to deliver. A recent UK survey by ONS showed just 35% of respondents saying they trust the government; turn on the news and understand why. The picture is the same in many OECD countries.

So – a timely and important subject but I wouldn’t recommend this one.

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Ethics, culture and economics

It was thought-provoking reading Deirdre McCloskey’s Beyond Positivism, Behaviorism and Neoinstitutionalism in Economics right after Jamie Susskind’s Digital Republic. They’re about different subjects of course, but also have contrasting philosophies. The Susskind book points to more government action, much more, in shaping digital markets, and I agreed with some – althoug not all – of his suggestions. McCloskey is concerned to make the case against the frequently-heard kind of analysis that market failure X requires government action Y to fix it. And I sort of agree with her too. Am I just hopelessly inconsistent?

To take a step back, this book has three messages. One is that it’s incorrect and misleading of economists to claim – as so many of us always do – that the positive and the normative can be separated, and all we’re doing is the objective, evidence-based analysis. In this section the book targets a 2017 paper by Werner Erhard and Michael Jensen that I haven’t read but sounds philosophically naive. For a little reflection – really only a little – shows this to be false: if we’re recommending an action for its good outcomes, ‘good’ is an inherently normative, evaluative criterion. I wholeheartedly agree with McCloskey on this point and wish I’d been able to read this book before writing those sections of Cogs and Monsters.

McCloskey’s second point is to argue for a broader, multi-dimensional, humanities-inflected approach to economic analysis. She takes particular aim at ‘neoinstitutionalists’ from Douglass North to Daron Acemoglu for their reductionist view that economic institutions are wholly described by incentives and utility-maximising outcomes, arguing that standard economic models alone are insufficient for explaining modern economic growth. Her own view – set out in her major Bourgeois virtues trilogy – is that a change in culture toward liberal (in the old-fashioned sense) ideas are needed to explain the scale of change between 1800 and now. Changes in incentives bring small (Harberger-triangle sized) gains, not increases in incomes by many multiples. I’m on board with this too, while still thinking the economic max-U approach brings interesting and useful insights.

Her third aim, though, is to argue for a more libertarian public philosophy: governments mess up economies more than they fix problems, and policies had little to contribute to the massive growth of the past 200 years. Here is where I diverge. For sure there have been many government failures too. Indeed, markets and governments tend to fail in the same contexts and for the same reasons (natural monopoly, externalities, incomplete markets etc). But I disagree with her implied counterfactual that there would have been an even more massive improvement in living standards in the era of modern growth without government. Collective action problems need collective action even if the location of the need shifts over time with technology, or with the complexity of high fixed-cost markets characterised by technological or other uncertainties, or with social expectations. So yes, there are a lot of simple-minded government-can-fix-it proposals – on this point McCloskey takes aim at Mariana Mazzucato‘s claim that the government in effect brought us the smartphone, albeit caricaturing it somewhat. But I’d contend we’ve of late had too little market-shaping policy rather than too much – including in digital domains.

Some of the terrain will be familiar to McCloskey’s readers – the importance of ethics in economics, of culture in growth, the misleading cult of statistical significance. I enjoyed reading this book nevertheless – her style is a bit of an acquired taste and I like it although I know others don’t. And it’s a compact discussion of some crucial issues economists should be contermplating. Even where I disagreed, it made me think.

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Casting off the digital chains

The joy of travel to conferences – conversations with people you wouldn’t set up a Zoom to chat to, hearing new research you wouldn’t dial in to a webinar to hear, and the travel time for reading. It definitely (still) outweighs the aggravation of checking in. My recent Eurostar journeys saw me through Jamie Susskind’s The Digital Republic: On Freedom and Democracy in the 21st Century.

We held a workshop on a first draft of the book at the Bennett Institute, where Jamie is an affiliated researcher, so I suppose I’m bound to look kindly on it. It’s an ambitious and largely persuasive diagnosis of the political problems caused by the power of big tech, and a set of proposed solutions. It’s thoroughly argued – as you’d expect from a skilled lawyer –  and avoids the sweeping generalisations and analytical wooliness of some well-known attacks on the digital giants.

The book has many parts. It starts by setting out the fact of digital power and why this is a significant political problem – and one created by law: “There is nothing natural about the power of modern business corporations. They accrue power because the law allows them to.”  It follows this with an analysis of the more granular problems, such as dark patterns, the coding of significant ethical decisions, the pretence that ticking the T&C box is meaningful consent (“When we click ‘I agree’ we are usually surrendering, not agreeing”), and so on.

The book then moves on to set out four republican principles (NB not in the US party sense of the word, but in the engaged, free citizen sense):

  • the preservation principle: democracy must be protected
  • the domination principle: no power can be unaccountable
  • the democracy principle: powerful tech should reflect the moral and civic values of those it affects
  • the parsimony principle: governments shouldn’t constrain companies more than they have to.

All seem perfectly reasonable, at least in the abstract. Then, refreshingly for a book about the need for countervailing power to big tech, Jamie has a lot of proposals. Among them are:

  • deliberation and mini-publics to determine the limits of digital behaviours
  • tribunals to hear complaints about treatment by big tech
  • professional certification of software and ML engineers
  • an inspectorate of algorithmic decision making
  • a duty of openness on tech companies
  • more appropriate anti-trust policies
  • minimum standards for social media platforms eg to prevent harassment, foreign interference in elections etc

I don’t agree with all of the suggestions – some (eg compulsory licensing for anyone who codes software) seem to fall foul of the parsimony principle – but that isn’t the point; the point is that governments are not powerless in the face of digital power. Indeed there is an awful lot they could be doing to tackle the ills while recognising the great benefits the tech titans have brought.

Anyway, I enjoyed reading the book, and relished its can-do approach. I agree about the need for constraint on unaccountable digital power. Was I wholly persuaded? No, and mainly because there’s an assumption of beneficent governments doing all this on our behalf. It’s reasonable to doubt either their goodwill or their competence. More on this in my next post after I’ve finished reading Deirdre McCloskey’s latest offering.

61pyJfOI4FL._AC_UY436_QL65_Other reviews: Joahn Naughton in The Guardian, Andrew Lilico in The Telegraph….

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What comes after the Knowledge Economy?

Nick O’Donovan’s Pursuing the Knowledge Economy: A Sympathetic History of High-Skill, High-Wage Hubris is an interesting evaluation of the policy consensus of the 1990s and early 2000s concerning the opportunities afforded by digital technology and globalisation for a transition to better jobs in the western economies. My own 1997 book The Weightless World (25 years ago this year!) features as one of several capturing that economic policy zeitgeist, what the book terms (following Peter Hall) a ‘growth regime’ – “a set of economic policy ideas and assumptions that are underwritten politically by a distinctive coalition of supporters.” In other words, a mental model of how the economy can prosper that becomes the policy zeitgeist. (Although I’d challenge the focus of this concept on just firms and governments, as the concept ignores the household and voluntary sector, both large and being affected by digital.)

The book traces the historical evolution of the policy ideas, mainly the centre left (Blair & Brown in the UK, Clinton in the US), and the way the financial crisis torpedoed any optimism about new opportunities to upskill the workforce and create satisfying new jobs. It also politely critiques the knowledge economy analysis in itself, essentially for unfounded optimism about the scope for new technologies to complement rather than substitute for labour and for ignoring the transition costs associated with globalisation. O’Donovan also points out the policy blind spot – until very recently – about increasing market concentration and rent extraction. Just a few people have long pointed to this as a source of economic problems, among them Brett Christophers.

There certainly was plentiful hype – Thomas Friedman’s books leap to mind. I’d defend The Weightless World on the basis that it predicted greater spatial and income inequalities and paid attention to social tensions, and would argue that I was prescient (much too soon…) about gig employment patterns and new digital currencies. But I also overlooked the costs for some people of the reordering of global production, or at least assumed policy would be sensible enough to look after them. At the same time, the Knowledge Economy paradigm did encapsulate some significant changes under way in the structure of the economy. I think O’Donovan somewhat underplays the insights while rightly pointing out the irrational exuberance.

The book ends by linking the failure of the Knowledge Economy growth regime to post-2008 political polarisation, and hoping that the current period of disillusion and volatility will in fact prove an opportunity for a new, better “growth regime” to develop. Let us hope….

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Politics by numbers

Limits of the Numerical: the abuses and uses of quantification (editors Christopher Newfield, my dear colleague Anna Alexandrova, and Stephen John) is right up my street. It’s a collection of thoughtful essays exploring exactly what the subtitle says, some general and some relating to specific issues of quantification in education and healthcare, and (by Anna and Ramandeep Singh) the measurement of wellbeing.

The aim of the volume is to move beyind what it characterises as the Original Critique (set out in some classics like Desrosières and Porter). This critique points to the historical context of measurement and quantification, and the use of the presumed authority and objectivity of numbers as an instrument of politics or power. As the introduction points out, the Original Critique assumes this deployment of numerical thinking is successful. Yet in recent years expertise – generally involving evidence and numbers – has been steadily demonized, and independent evidence-based agencies have either been targets for populism or lost legitimacy more broadly.

One sign of the demise of expertise was the New Public Management era of Blair and Clinton, disciplining experts by use of quantitative targets. Subsequently populists have deployed numbers against experts too, but in their case appealing to public opinion or crowd size. Thus, “The numerical idiom became just another part of the degraded rhetoric of politics.” But perhaps the real nail in the coffin of quantified expertise was the financial crisis and its aftermath: whatever the experts were doing, it didn’t deliver: “Against the promise of governance by the numbers, the 2008 meltdown and everyday experience both revealed a regime of incompetence, political interference and elite bias.”

There are interesting dives into the spread and effects of higher education rankings – as the book notes, audit culture here has become performative, bringing into being the measureable phenomena; orphan drugs – featuring the “unholy alliance” between patients and pharma companies seeking to profit from financial incentives to develop drugs for rare diseases; and climate science.

I was particularly interested in the chapter on the measurement of wellbeing as Anna and I are co-authors on this subject, and indeed I attended an excellent conference on wellbeing research last week. The chapter sets out the different definitions and hence methods of quantification of wellbeing and sets out what it calls “Letwin’s dilemma” after the former minister who helped introduce wellbeing measurement to UK official statistics. The dilemma is that most philosophical and psychological approaches recognise separate dimensions of wellbeing, but a political sponsor needs a simple, measurable and comparable concept  to compete with other ‘hard’ metrics in the choices facing givernments. This is a genuine dilemma; but the chapter argues against what has become the single metric in policy debates, a scale-based measure of Life Satisfaction, as too reductive and detached from underlying psychological phenomena. This is exactly the debate I had at the conference with Richard Layard, the UK’s most influential researcher on wellbeing.

I polished off the book in just over a day, and it would interest anybody working on the sociology and politics of measurement and related areas, taking forward the now well-known critique of quantification and linking it persuasively to the political trends of the past decade.

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