Insecurity, Disenchantment – and Hope?

A World of Insecurity: Democratic Disenchantment in Rich and Poor Countries by Pranab Bardhan covers territory that will be largely familiar to those of us suckers for punishment who have read books like How Democracies Die or How Democracy Ends. It points out the cynicism of populist leaders who, themselves part of the elite, and busy “conniv[ing] at some pruning of the welfare state” and stacking economic regulation in their own favour, nevertheless blame “elites” for the consequences of their own decisions. It notes the “trampl[ing] of due process and the rules and institutions of representative government.” But it also argues that there has been a growing cultural chasm between liberal professions and blue collar workers, facilitating the blame game played by populists. And observes the massive distributional consequences of massive amounts of QE.

The distinctive aspect of the book is looking at rich and poor countries through the same lens, Modi and India in particular. In all cases, he argues, the way to think about the role of the state is its special role “in pooling and underwriting risk for the masses of people” – a task in which most states have recently failed in the face of immense shocks – with more to come as people go cold and hungry this autumn and winter.

In the context of incompetent populist governments, it’s hard to see how the state will step up to the task. Bardhan places his hopes in labour unions and community organistions. The book ends with a plea not to despair, although it’s a gloomy read. The last sentence is a quotation from the last speech by Rabindranath Tagore: “As I look around I see the crumbling ruins of a proud civilization strewn like a vast heap of futility. And yet I shall not commit the grievous sin of losing faith in Man.”

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Books at a conference

This past week I attended the excellent conference of the International Association for Research in Income and Wealth – 75 years old this year, founded and launched by national income luminaries such as Simon Kuznets, Richard Stone and Milton Gilbert. The papers are well worth a browse by all interested in economic measurement. It’s always interesting to hear what books are referred to at a conference, so here are all the references I picked up, dominated by economic measurement but broader in range than you might expect:

Thinking Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman

How to Make the World Add Up – Tim Harford

Trust in Numbers – Theodore Porter

Unto This Last – John Ruskin

Man’s Search for Meaning – Victor Frankl

The Power of a Single Number – Philipp Lepenies

GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History – Diane Coyle

A Brief History of Equality – Thomas Piketty

The Stasi Poetry Circle – Philip Oltermann

A History of National Accounting – André Vanoli

Measuring Social Welfare (1997) and Productivity: Information Technology and the American Growht Resurgence (2005) – Dale Jorgenson

 

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Too complicated for tragedy

George Demartino kicks off The Tragic Science: How economists cause harm (even as they aspire to do good) with the strong accusation that, “The economics profession is culpable in the contemporary backlash against democratic governance, civic obligation, and racial and other forms of equality. It is equally culpable in inducing the social conditions that promote the widespread rejection of expertise in policy-making.” He describes economists as ‘harm accountants’ while asserting that the profession ignores many of the harms caused by its advice. What to make of this set of charges?

Well, the blame game for contemporary ills is not a straightforward one. I’d share it around – with politicians, with financiers, with crooks – while agreeing that economics has significantly helped create the intellectual weather enabling others’ actions. I also agree with two key building blocks in Demartino’s argument. One is that economists are entirely wrong to insist that the positive and normative elements of their analysis are separable (see Cogs and Monsters): the concept of economic ‘efficiency’ is absolutely value-laden, and in an undesirable way. The other is that welfare economics needs rebooting (we will hopefully have a symposium out on this soon), and in particular to highlight the central dilemma of irreconcilably multiple dimensions (incomes and jobs but also community and culture) in evaluating policy choices at the same time that decisions are unidimensional (does the government sign the trade treaty or not?) Elizabeth Anderson is my go-to reference on this.

Having said that, I thought the book over-does the anti-econ rhetoric. Cost benefit analysis (CBA) is indeed highly flawed, and does indeed aim to come up with a single number weighing all costs and benefits against the same kind of metric, and with moral assumptions shovelled into its discount rate. But “morally reckless”? The limitations of CBA are well-rehearsed, especially by economists (including me but also titans like Nick Stern and Partha Dasgupta). The alternative to using CBA is – not using it. And then what? What decision making procedure is better? I was surprised the book didn’t make more of the arguments for participatory processes, for procedural justice, in trying to ease the many dimensions versus one dimension dilemma. Sen in particular emphasises this, and it’s a feature of public value approaches, which extend CBA to incorporate non-monetary dimensions of the choice, in a reasoned and evidenced framework.

I wasn’t particularly wowed either by the book’s alternative calculus of harms, a page-long list setting out a taxonomy in which economic harms form a minority group. The list seems to be top-down, and it isn’t clear what the principles of categorisation are. Nor does it help address fundamental questions. For instance, many of the examples of the harms done by economists consist of trade liberalisation treaties. There’s no doubt these harm certain groups of producers and workers, to which the standard economics response is compensation schemes – which never happen adequately. Many economists have rowed back from the view that trade liberalisation is always and everywhere a good thing. And yet increasing trade has – equally without doubt – underpinned post-war rises in living standards in many countries, and the Asian export-based miracle economies. Saying, ‘but the China shock in the Midwest, but Brazil,’ doesn’t imply trade liberalisation is always bad, which seems to be the assertion here.

(Personal gripe – the book also ignores Scitovszky’s 1941 refutation of the Hicks-Kaldor compensation argument. Which in my view restates the existence of fundamental dilemmas in policy choices…. the welfare evaluation all depends whose perspective you look at it from.)

So, is economics too reductionist? Yes. Are economists over-confident in their ability to solve problems? Often, yes. Is economics too paternalistic, assuming a god’s-eye view it cannot possibly have? Indeed. Was the shock therapy approach to post-1989 Russia a disaster? Yes! I agree with all of this. And yet I think it’s much more complicated than this book claims. 71vagYXe2KL._AC_UY436_QL65_

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The slouch of history

Like many people, I’ve been eagerly anticipating Brad Delong’s Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the 20th Century, and it doesn’t disappoint. Brad was a couple of years behind me in the Harvard graduate economics programme, was an early adopter of blogging, and has been a prominent online presence ever since. So his argument in one sense is no surprise, but it comes together as an unmissable book, even for a devoted reader of his tweets.

The book starts by framing the central point: the economy, and people’s lives, have been utterly transformed by the long 20th century of 1870ish to around 2010 in a continuous tide of change both ‘marvelous and terrible’. During that long 140 year century, the average economic growth rate (we are US/west focused here) was just over 2% a year, before and since, below 0.5% a year. Income levels doubled every 33 years during that period: “A revolutionized economy every generation cannot but revolutionize society and politics, and a government trying to cope with such repeated revolutions cannot but be stressed in its attempts to manage and provide for its people in the storms.” We’re now back down to doubling about every 150 years, which actually seems just as stressful for governments given the expectations of the previous four or five generations.

The structure of the book is then (unsurprisingly) chronological. It begins with the first era of globalization, between 1870 and 1914, when the key global flow was people: a hundred million people migrated across national borders. Governments embraced openness of all kinds, though, and there were revolutionary declines in transport costs. The 1870 launch of RMS Oceanic, an iron-hulled steam-powered passenger ship, cut travel time across the atlantic from a month to nine days and 3rd class fares opened the journey to all but the very poorest Europeans. The vast waves of migration helped make the US the dominant economic power of the 20th century.

The book moves on to the economy of empires in the first part of the 20th century. The mechanization of industry in the imperial North turned the colonized South into an economic periphery, exporting raw commodities and importing manufactures. These were, “Unable to build communities of engineering practice that might provide a path to greater, industrial, riches.” Their labour force was not literate in sufficient numbers, there wasn’t enough financial capital to invest in factories.

World War I and the Depression follow, and the narrative traces two currents of thought shaping post-1918 outcomes. During this period there was no hegemon – only the US could have been, given the weakness of post-war Britain, and it rejected that role as provider of global public goods such as financial stability for all. So the ideas of a return to an 1870-1914 liberal market order competed with ideas focused on social rights and relationships. Economists broadly fell into camps – this was the era of the socialist calculation debate – but policy elites in the West doubled down on austerity.

On we go to Russia and socialism in practice, and the brutality of Leninist and Stalinist economics: “Of the 1800 delegates to the 17th Congress in 1934, fewer than one in 10 went on to be delegates to the 18th Congress in 1939.” The rest were dead or in Siberia, while forced collectivization spread famine and death. Fascism and Nazism deformed much of the rest of Europe in the 1930s, and then came the catclysm of the second world war and Holocaust. As the chapter points out, not everyone shed their opposition to the bundle of policies that could be characterized as fascist. Some Hayekians in the 1980s, such as supporters of Pinochet, found their contrast with socialism appealing. (Mrs Thatcher gets a favourable passing mention as a firm opponent of the methods, even as she approved of the libertarian economics.)

World War II gives way to the Cold War in this sobering march of 20th century history, while the spillovers from Cold War led to many false developmental starts in the Global South – alongside the amazing successes of development in some East Asian countries. The book sees the contrast as one between the aim of self-sufficiency in Latin America and countries in the Soviet orbit versus the assumption of the need to survive in export markets in East Asia – the latter had no great powers pouring in resources, or interfering and advising.

The only bright spot in this long century appears to be les trentes glorieuses, the three post-war decades of social democracy. What was their magic? A high rate of investment. Full employment but no upward wage pressure as there remained (in most of Europe) and under-employed agricultural labour force to pull in. Steady growth in industries that reached their technological maturity in that era, enabling the location of industrial production to spread to more places.

But it didn’t last. The redistribution of social democracies came into increasing tension with the conditions for innovation and growth. The logic of how governments operate differs from the logic of efficient production, so nationalized industries became wasteful and ineffective. Sometimes only moderate efficiency is fine, or indeed welcome, but there are limits. In 1979 we saw the neoliberal turn. Why so? “In my view the greatest cause was the extraordinary pace of rising prosperity during the Thiry Glorious Years, which raised the bar that a political-economic order had to surpass in order to generate broad acceptance.” people had come to expect rapidly rising incomes and broad equality of outcome, and high employment and low inflation. If this stability stumbled, the order had to change.

So the book ends with the political success of the neoliberal order – winning the Cold War – and its economic failure. And here we are. We haven’t reached utopia but living standards are massively higher than in 1870. It hasn’t been a smooth course – far from it – a slouch rather than a march. But people are so much better off than the mass of humanity before the long 20th century.

The strength of the book – as well as its immense scope and depth (more than 500 pages) is that it’s a work of political economy, braiding the different strands of ideas, Hayek, Polanyi and Keynes. Although what it ignores (and fair enough) is the series of technologica revolutions. In addition, there are plenty of pleasing asides and details. Humans love narratives, so, “The secret weapon of the economist is the ability to count.” Or, “Contests and gift exchanges have more psychological resonance. It is more satisfying to receive (or give) a present or to win a prize than to buy the exact same thing…. By ignoring and trying to suppress these dimensions – to require that everything pass through a cash nexus – the market society dehumanizes much of life.” I like that it doesn’t claim there are easy lessons from the history, but insists that there are indeed subtler lessons. Definitely one to read – or pre-order: out on 15 September.

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What is the free market?

There are a couple of important books out in September that I’ve had to restrain myself from writing about too far ahead of publication. Brad Delong’s Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the 20th Century will be published mid-month. A week or so later – and it can also be pre-ordered now – is Jacob Soll’s Free Market: The History of an Idea. So I’ll write about the latter first.

The premise of the book is that, “We are in an essentially abusive relationship with free market thought,” which has had adverse consequences that finance and big business have stacked the economic system in their favour while the little people take on high debt burdens and pay taxes, in the pretence that ‘the market’ must prevail. To recover from this dysfunctional relationship requires a task of intellectual history. What is this ‘free market’ idea and how has it come to veil a state and regulatory structure favouring the rich over the rest?

The book takes this task seriously: “To understand the origins of free market thought, it is first necessary to understand Cicero’s philosophy.” So, not Adam Smith then. Successive chapters go on to the conceptualisation of markets and what we would now call ‘the economy’ in the late Roman period, the Middle Ages, Renaissance Italy, early modern Britain, Colbertist France, the Dutch Republic, and on through the Enlightenment, French Revolution, Adam Smith, Industrial Revolution and age of Empire.

The book identifies a sort of historical pendulum: “When there is political stability and a developed economic system, it can seem as if markets just emerge on their own and sustain themselves. The fall of Rome, however, showed that when society collapses, strong and sustained state intervention may be necessary to build back the market.” The Mediaeval period was one of these. Another was the Netherlands after the Dutch War of Independence: “Windmills were the product of Dutch traditions of communcal investment dating from privately-funded medieval public works…. Citizen investors worked together to create public infrastructure. This long tradition of private-public partnership laid many of the commercial foundations of the Republic.”

The post-Adam Smith version of free market thinking is traced here to paradoxical roots in Colbert, usually thought of as the architecht of mercantilist state management. The seeming endless violence and suffering experienced by the mass of 17th century French people led Colbert’s sucessors – children and nephews – to turn back to Cicero’s vision of voluntaty exchange among Rome’s aristocracy. Add in Christian ethics and here are the foundations of rational self-interest and ordered exchange. As is now better appreciated, Adam Smith’s free market vision was founded on the ethical system he had written about in his Moral Sentiments before The Wealth of Nations. The free market was built not on greed but on social responsibility.

The book then canters toward the post-1980 bowdlerisation of this free market ideal, via ever faster swings of the pendulum for and against state activity. Soll concludes that much free market thinking is simply utopian, markets as magic. “This model, however, no longer seems realistic or relevant. After decades of deregulation and expanding free trade, the world has experienced regular cycles of economic crashes and government bailouts, along with burgeoning wealth inequality, wars, and climate and health disasters. Equilibrium eludes us.” And indeed the state remains a major economic actor, in the US as well as China, albeit in different guises.

So the dilemma remains: the ‘free market’ is a fiction and we get closest to it in historical periods of stability. But governments can be at best inefficient and at worst corrupt and authoritarian. “But the historical record shows that, as economies grow in complexity, so governments grow in response, for better or worse.” The free market? It would be a good idea. But more important than how the economy is organised is the social and moral context in which we carry out our investments and exchanges. The final word: “Faith in the market alone will not save us but hewing to those old virtues might.”

So, a very interesting read – I really learned a lot from the long historical perspective on the origins of what became the modern version of free market thought. Some of it was a bit surprising & perhaps historians of thought will contest it. I’d have liked more on the post-world war two aspects but that’s probably a different book (and indeed Delong covers that period).  I fundamentally agree with the conclusion, though: economies exist in and as part of societies, so the social and moral relations are fundamental. And – for economists – ideas about the right way to behave really matter, not just as innovation or endogenous growth, but (as Deirdre McCloskey has pointed out in her major trilogy) as the enabling or limiting environment for both markets and state to function.

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