A woman economist in charge

It has been a bit of a week, trying to get my dear husband the right medical care after he fell and smashed his elbow in the rain and darkness just over a week ago. Although he’s, thankfully, patched up with mesh, sellotape etc now, my concentration hasn’t been terrific. So mainly I’ve been reading detective novels. However, I did notice that Rachel Reeves’s book, The Women Who Made Modern Economics, has been published. I read a proof copy a little while ago, and would recommend it.

There are really two books combined here. One is a straightforward account of the work of important and often overlooked women economists, such as Beatrice Webb and Mary Paley Marshall via academics like Joan Robinson and Esther Duflo, all the way through to influential policy economists Christine Lagarde and Janet Yellen. As well as being mini-histories, these sections aim to show why and how being female influenced for the better the economics, by bringing to bear a different kind of experience or understanding of the context in which policies operate. They are nicely written, and I wholeheartedly agree on the importance of diverse experience to improve economic analysis, but the biographical details are not novel.

The second element is more interesting in the present political context, namely the picture the book paints of Reeves’s own framework for thinking about economic policy, which she grounds in her own life experience and in the ideas of the economists she writes about. Given that this highly impressive politician looks increasingly likely to be the UK’s next Chancellor, this is of real interest. I think the book paints a pretty coherent picture of a strategic approach to the supply side of the economy, combined with a clear-eyed view about the importance of macroeconomic stability, and the strong sense of social justice you would hope for from a senior Labour figure. Reeves rejects simplistic ‘free marketism’ while being obviously in favour of businesses succeeding. She emphasises the importance of taking into account unpaid care, still typically women’s work. She attacks the continuing gender pay gap and Britain’s retreat from overseas aid.

Reeves is of course an economist by training and by work experience (Bank of England and the banking sector). There are specifics I might disagree with her about – but her economic philosophy as set out here is consistent and credible. Of course, all the good sense on display in her analysis will be needed, given the legacy being left by the present government for its successor.

Folks, we might be in line for a Chancellor with a sound grasp of economics beyond the textbook (or the blackboard, to use Coase’s term) and an interesting hinterland. The two strands of The Women Who Made Modern Economics don’t, in my view, sit together comfortably; the ‘lessons’ drawn from the historical figures for some aspect of modern policy, to link the strands together, are a bit strained. But the sense and coherence of Reeves’s personal manifesto for the economy makes it well worth a read.




I’ve *thoroughly* enjoyed The Maniac by Benjamin Labatut (as I did his first, When We Cease to Understand the World). It’s a sort of fictionalised biography of John von Neumann, although very different from a non-fictional biography – like the excellent The Man From The Future by Ananya Bhattacharya – in taking some liberties. The structure is a series of short memory snapshots by people who had known him – his daughter, his 2nd wife, colleagues like Wigner and Morgenstern – with (generally unflattering) perspectives on both the man and the work.

In recent years I’ve been increasingly obsessed with the influence of early 20th century middle European/Vienna circle thought in sumperimposing the positivist/normative dualism on Cartesian dualism. This has given economics – among other modern intellectual disciplines – both its analytical strength and its massive limitations. At its heart are Godel’s incompleteness theorems: the point of The Maniac is to link this question to the modern world of computation and AI. Can AI ever become ‘alive’ or think for itself? Well do you believe Gödel applies to a Turing machine with the Von Neumann architecture – or not? Labatut’s novel ends with Von Neumann dying of the cancer that eventually destroyed his extraordinary intelligence, and leaving the reader wondering whether the great man’s late obsession with computation and the evolution of life was an early sign of madness, or brilliance.

I enjoyed also Stephen Budiansky’s biography of Godel, Journey to the Edge of Reason. And recently listed some other books I’ve read of late on positivism and its discontents. By coincidence I’m also partway through Sergii Plokhy’s Atoms and Ashes, which starts with the US race to detonate hydrogen bombs after the war, and the fallout from the Ivy Mike test – and also can thoroughly recommend Philippe Sands book, The Last Colony, about the Marshall Islanders’ long journey through the international courts for compensation. (I don’t watch movies in general but should maybe make an exception for Oppenheimer.)

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Books at a workshop

A while ago I took part in an interesting interdisciplinary workshop at The New Institute in Hamburg on the broad theme of a ‘new Enlightenment’. There was more than the usual amount of recommending books, thanks to the fact that people don’t know each other’s academic literatures. Here’s what I managed to jot down – I’ve read quite a few but not all:

Globalists Quinn Slobodian

Can We Afford the Future Frank Ackerman

How to Blow Up A Pipeline Andreas Malm

The Logic of Collective Action Mancur Olson

Why Some Things Should Not Be For Sale Debra Satz

Economic Calculation and Forms or Property Charles Bettelheim

Capitalism Against Capitalism Michel Albert

Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists Rajan and Zingales

The Great Leveler Walter Scheidel

Education, Justice & Democracy Danielle Allen and Rob Reich

There were many papers cited too – it’s always good to bring a reading list home from a conference.


The Paper Age

October already!

I just finished reading Dinner With Joseph Johnson: Books & Friendship in a Revolutionary Age by Daisy Hay, thanks to a couple of train journeys and a quiet evening alone at home. I enjoyed it a lot. It’s one of the mini-genre of books (like The Lunar Men) that paints a picture of an era’s ideas through a description of the people who gathered to talk and wirte and indeed paint about them. In this case it’s Britain of the 1770s to 1790s, and the centre – although an enigmatic character himself compared to some of his famous authors and illustrators – was Unitarian publisher Joseph Johnson. The central event giving the book its narrative arc is the French Revolution, and the subsequent crackdown on freedom of speech and worship by the British Government.

Anyway, the relevance here is this passage about a magazine started by Johnson, the Analytical Review (great title). One reviewer is quoted: “This is a PAPER AGE.” the book continues, “Paper had become the engine of Britain’s emergent capitalist economy, as banknotes, share certificates, contracts and promissory notes circulated out from London into the provinces and across the globe.” The magazine estimated that nine tenths of Britain’s trade relied on the medium of paper.

I suppose ours is an ELECTRON age. Although electrons, as Ed Conway makes so plain in the excellent Material World, depend entirely on a material substrate.

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