My husband has written a terrific book

When Rory was writing Always On: Hope & Fear in the Social Smartphone Era I was firmly shut out of the process. He required none of my constructive criticism, just lots of cups of tea and the occasional, “How marvellous, darling.” Well, the book is out in a couple of weeks, the copies arrived, and I’ve been allowed to read it. And it’s terrific – a front row view of the key developments, the business of tech, and the social trends for good and ill this technology (only with us for relatively few years) has unleashed.

Rory & I recently celebrated our 31st wedding anniversary, so I lived through all these stories. I well remember the holiday in Mallorca almost torpedoed by his obsesssive phone calls; the embarrassing Google Glass episode; the endless new gadgets; and since last March as we’ve all been working from home have been able to hear most of the BBC tech team’s online editorial meetings. “Leo again!” we chorus when the phone rings at 7.45 am, or over lunch. Anyway, I didn’t need the book to know the ins and outs. It’s still a terrific read. Do buy it! It will make him happy and bring great cheer to the family dining table.

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The unknown pioneer

Many people – including economists, I suspect – won’t recognise the name Colin Clark. Yet he has at least as much claim as Simon Kuznets to be known as one of the pioneers of national income accounting. I came across Clark’s work when researching my book on GDP, and was pleasantly surprised to know that he had been a Fellow (and much earlier a student) at my Oxford college, Brasenose. Eventually I put two and two together and realised that the very nice chap I had spoken to at various events was Colin Clark’s youngest son David, another Brasenose student.

Anyway, this is all by way of preamble to saying how much I’ve enjoyed reading Alex Millmow’s biography, The Gypsy Economist: The Life and Times of Colin Clark. This is the first biography of somebody who worked as a young man with Keynes, taught Richard Stone, and produced some of the first modern statistics on national income; and later corresponded with Kuznets and Lewis, creating the field of development economics alongside them. In 1984 the World Bank honoured him as one of the 10 pioneers of development economics, along with Hirschman, Myrdal, Rostow, Bauer and others. Clark was influential in the Labour Party, being particularly close to Hugh Dalton, before spending many years in Australia, as a government economist in Queensland. Later he returned to England for some years, where he was involved in the founding of the Institute for Economic Affairs.

It is natural to ask why, given his scholarly work, Clark is so unknown now. After all, Stone, Lewis and Kuznets all went on to win the Nobel. The answer probably lies in that career history, and political trajectory. Actually, Clark not only left academia for years to take up a policy role, he also seems to have torpedoed his chances in two other ways. One – emerging clearly from between the lines of the book – is that he was a maverick character, possibly even cantankerous. The other is that he converted to Catholicism and became an ardent advocate of ‘distributivism’, which seems to have been a romantic philosophy advocating small rural communities and the virtue of farming. The biography quotes throughout many comments to the effect that Clark was brilliant but his books and papers were disorganised – lacked an organising analytical framework – and were sloppy in many regards. One typical comment described him as, “Brilliant, original, provocative, eccentric and sometimes just plain wrong.”

Having said this, there are many fascinating aspects of Clark’s thinking that emerge here, including some themes that have re-emerged in economics more recently. One is an early and lasting interest in increasing returns to scale, stimulated by working with Allyn Young. The second is simply the opening up of development economics through the empirics of long-run trends: Clark, like Kuznets, did not focus on (what became) GDP but – in his case – on statistics including income distribution, leisure, macroeconomic stability, and natural resource use and depletion. His Catholicism made him interested in non-state, non-business economic institutions such as churches but also friendly societies and unions – an openness to the economic role of a variety of community institutions only just returning in today’s mainstream economics. It also meant he was pro-population growth (he & his wife had 9 children themselves), considering it essential for per capita growth as modern endogenous growth theories imply, and a fierce critic of the Ehrlich ‘population time bomb’ argument.

This very informative biography made me rather ashamed not to have known anything about Colin Clark until a few years ago, even when his papers were sitting in my college library. I learned a lot more from reading it. The book fills a gap in the history of economic thought, and about the history of policy economics in Australia. (Alas, it’s priced for libraries.)

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Banks versus business

The latest in my catch-up reading has been British Business Banking: The Failure of Finance Provision for SMEs by Michael Lloyd. This is obviously a bit niche but of great interest as the vacuum in finance for growing businesses has often been identified as one of the reasons for the UK’s weakness in translating an excellent research base into lasting commercial success and eventually productivity gains. The stock of bank lending to SMEs in the UK was £166bn at the end of 2018, according to an OECD survey. (It will perforce have increased signigicantly in 2020.) If this sounds a lot, it was only about one tenth the stock of their residential mortgages. The UK banking sector just doesn’t do much business lending.

I’ve long thought lack of competition is a key part of the story. The commercial banking sector has consolidated steadily over the decades – I’m old enough to remember some of those swallowed up, like Williams and Glyns and National Provincial. In this book Michael Lloyd argues that while the development of an oligopoly might have been part of the cause of the SME finance gap, introducing more competition won’t be part of the cure now. There has been some new entry such as Santander, but the newcomers are not interested in the SME sector either.

He anyway sees the gap as a quasi-cultural one, linked to the “free market” philosophy embraced more eagerly in the UK even than in the US, and in the centralisation of banking decisions. He advocates a restoration of relationship banking spearheaded by a state Investment Bank. What we are getting instead is a National Infrastructure Bank – needed, but unlikely to do a lot for SMEs around the country. However, I find the relationship argument persuasive: I’d see it in terms of a vast loss of information that has come about through bank mergers and centralisation. Automated decisions are based on too little information, whereas old-fashioned bankers in boots would have a wealth of information about local SMEs.

It’s a hard problem to solve even with a government willing to have a go. Still, this is an interesting book for those worrying at the issue, well worth a read.

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And, not or: state and market

A holiday weekend, so I’m working my way through the book pile. I’ve raced through the absolutely excellent Privatizing Welfare Services: Lessons from the Swedish Experiment by Mårten Blix and Henrik Jordahl. This should go on any public policy course reading list in future, and is also a must-read for the policy world too. Lessons from other countries can be valuable, and in the UK we tend mainly to look at the US and to a lesser degree other Anglophone places, so this overview of Sweden’s experience is very welcome.

For Sweden has experienced a transformation in the past 4 decades from the post-war comprehensive cradle-to-grave welfare state to one where 17% of public services are provided by the private sector. This includes major services in healthcare, nurseries and schools, and elderly social care. As the book says, there has been a large amount of evaluation of the reinvention of Sweden’s welfare state, but not much of it in English. So this critical overview is invaluable.

The authors argue that without reform, the old-style welfare state would have become increasingly costly and ineffective. Citizens were by the 1980s dissatisfied with quality. The first, and controversial, steps came in the mid-1980s; for example in 1984 the first private pre-school received public funding. The economic crisis of 1992 cemented what seemed inevitable. However, service privatization has proceeded gradually if steadily rather than in a Thatcher-style ideological wave. This meant that its evident early successes, in expanding availability and improving choice, made it too popular for Social Democrat governments to reverse. In addition, different municipalities proceeded at different paces, so successes spread by imitation.

The book is organized thematically. Chapters cover quasi-markets, spending controls and efficiency, welfare reform, competition and choice, management of welfare services, and public opinion. Its conclusions are nuanced. Service privatisation has generally been effective in improving outcomes and improving the financial sustainability of the social contract, the authors conclude. But there are challenges.

One is the existence of information asymmetries between the state and private providers (I’m reminded of the excellent Hart, Schleifer and Vishny paper, which also always goes on my reading lists). Another is that the world is constantly changing, so no arrangement of collective choices is likely to stay unchanged for ever; it must respond to context. However, the other point that leaps out for me is the benefit of having both public and private service provision. This both reduces the information asymmetries (as the state is a provider too), and ensures that competition occurs along more dimensions than price alone (mitgating against cost and quality reductions for the sake of profit). All conclusions consistent with the view I set out in Markets, State and People.

The only downside – it is, alas, an expensive book. But one well worth recommending to your library.

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Endogenising economists

I’m afraid I was underwhelmed by The Power of Creative Destruction by Philippe Aghion & his co-authores Céline Antonin and Simon Bunel. The book falls between the two stools of textbook for econ courses and overview for the general reader. It is based on course notes and has that tone (and charts/tables/referencing of the literature), but all the technical apparatus students would need has been removed. Professor Aghion is of course a terrific economist who has published lots of excellent papers on growth and innovation. However, that too is a downside here, as the book is the Aghion view of the world rather than a broader survey of the economics of innovation and growth.

The oddest aspect of this is his contrast between the Solow neoclassical growth model and the ‘new paradigm’ of Aghion-style Schumpeterian growth. Set aside this claim to novelty, which might cause many other Schumpeterian economists to raise an eyebrow; there is nothing here about the competing workhorse approach of endogenous growth models. Paul Romer makes it to the footnotes, Paul Krugman’s increasing returns models not that far, Ken Arrow too isn’t mentioned. Joseph Stiglitz fares best out of the prominent thinkers about markets, growth and development in the context of increasing returns. The book is more or less an account of Prof Aghion’s own research, and his own papers (excellent as they are) are the most-often cited. So while accepting the importance of creative destruction and new ideas, the absence of much about information and ideas is pretty glaring. There is a chapter about R&D but little about the economic models endogenizing it.

I could quibble about other features too, such as relying on patents to measure innovation, but it’s this missing aspect of the dynamics – the scope for endogenous, self-fulfilling or -averting phenomena – that seems a particularly big gap. The discussion of intellectual property lacks any nuance: it is simply asserted that patent protection is essential. Of course it is, but that isn’t the point of the present policy debate, which is exactly about whether the right balance between patent-protected monopoly and broad access to new ideas has been struck.

41eUnCMDnVL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_On the other hand, I also read Carlo Rovelli’s Helgoland and warmly recommend it. It sets out his view about quantum phenomena as manifestations of the fact that reality is relational: nothing is experienced, perceived, measured, or understood except in relation to everything else. “Every vision is partial. There is no way of seeing reality that is not dependent on a perspective. …. The actor of this process is not a subject distinct from phenomenal reality, outside it, nor any transcendent point of view; it is a portion of that reality itself.. …. Relations make up our ‘I’, as our society, our cultural, spiritual and political life.”

This appeals strongly to my intuition and echoes the argument of my forthcoming book, Cogs and Monsters, one of whose key threads is the point that economists can not stand outside the society they seek to analyse. Even the economists are endogenous.

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