Ephemeral value and everlasting rubbish

It’s been quite a week and as a reward I read a book I picked up a while ago, Findings by the poet Kathleen Jamie – another in the revived genre of nature writing, I suppose, along with books like H is for Hawk and Nature Cure. Not surprisingly for a poet, this book evokes amazingly sharply the places and times she visits – mainly the Scottish Highlands and islands, but Edinburgh too, and the way they feel in specific lights and weathers. I really enjoyed the book.

One passage set me thinking about value. On a remote island she wanders the beach looking at the washed up debris: “The islands are a 21st century midden of aerosols and plastic bottles, and I was thinking of what we’d valued enough to keep.” The party had collected a quartz pebble worn by the sea into an orb, a bleached whalebone. The things nobody valued, the plastic rubbish, thrown away and never gathered by beachcombers are, alas, indestructible.

There is a book whose title I’ve forgotten about a lost cargo of yellow plastic ducks carried half way around the world by ocean currents when their container fell overboard. There’s plenty of plastic in my life but I’m becoming increasingly disturbed by it. And why is it so cheap? Never mind a carbon tax, how about a plastic tax?

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Aggregating is not adding up

I’m browsing through Alfred Marshall’s Elements of the Economics of Industry. He wrote that earlier economists:

“Paid almost exclusive attention to the motives of individual action, But it must not be forgotten that economists, like all other students of social science, are concerned with individuals chiefly as members of the social organism. As a cathedral is something more than the stones of which it is built, as a person is more than a series of thoughts and feelings, so the life of society is something more than the sum of the lives of its individual members. It is true that the action of the whole is made up of that of its constituent parts; and that in most economic problems the best starting point is to be found in the motives that affect the individual….. but it is also true that economics has a great and increasing concern in motives connected with the collective ownership of property and the collective pursuit of important aims.”

And still increasing, given the public good characteristics of digital goods. The problem of aggregation seems to me an important one, rarely discussed, and exactly where the rational expectations revolution and real business cycle theory went wrong. It isn’t only a question of heterogeneity. There’s the fundamental question raised here by Marshall, that you don’t simply add up individual preferences or outcomes to get aggregate versions.

Debt, no brainers and no-nos

Yesterday I attended the launch of a new CEPR (free) e-book, A New Start for the Eurozone: Dealing with Debt. Written by some of Europe’s most distinguished macroeconomists, it notes that a return to sustainability requires a reduction in the legacy debt burden. It proposes using the seigniorage revenues from the Euro to finance a one-time debt buyback for the most indebted Eurozone countries, reducing their debt-GDP ratios to a sustainable level. This would be combined with a stronger regulatory structure to prevent future debt build-ups (and mitigate the unavoidable moral hazard involved in the first step), and the creation of a safe asset, a synthetic European bond.

A New Start for the EurozoneThis is very far from my area of expertise, so it sounds a promising package of measures but I’m not in a good position to evaluate its details. Among the audience at the launch, the questions centred almost entirely on political economy questions: how could European governments be persuaded to do anything now the markets are calm? how would the new measures sit within the existing institutional framework? could northern Europe (Germany) be persuaded to allow the seigniorage revenues to be used in this way?

In short, an economic no-brainer – that the debt legacy has to be tackled – is a political no-no. The fact that the economic hurdles are huge but the barriers to reform are political was brought home by Gillian Tett’s Financial Times column this morning. She writes: “On the eastern side of the Atlantic, policy makers are now at pains to suggest that a Greek default, or even a eurozone exit, would not be disastrous; at last week’s International Monetary Fund meetings German officials argued that the chance of a Greek exit had already been priced into the markets, and that shocks could be contained.”

She argues – and I agree – that the Eurozone could yet go very pear shaped, and the dangers of renewed systemic financial crisis are non-zero. At least if the pessimistic view is correct, the political economy of reform along the CEPR or other lines will become more favourable.

Non-anachronistic inflation

An interesting-looking book has arrived – I’ve not yet had chance to read it but have paged through. It’s The Truth About Inflation by Paul Donovan. It looks like a very nice overview – historical trends, why it happens, why it matters, the issues with index numbers and when to use different price indices, inflation and debt, and inflation for different social groups. The author is an eminent City economist (UBS) and the book is aimed at investors, but would therefore work as well for students – it’s non-technical but intelligent.

The conclusion touches on the deflation question but says: “This does not mean inflation can now be pushed to one side by an investor as some kind of quaint anachronism of times past.” For one thing, in a low inflation world, small differences in inflation rates make for big differences in outcomes and returns. For another, not all groups of people in society are experiencing any deflation – it depends on your consumption pattern.

Like me, Donovan was marked by the British high inflation experience of the 1970s. He says, “I have long wanted to write a book on inflation.” Economists are indeed strange, he adds. Maybe I’m strange too, but I’m looking forward to reading this.

The joy of GDP – and beyond

Late last week I attended a special IARIW-OECD conference on the future of the national accounts, and don’t tune out – it was fascinating. I’ll write up my own talk soon: one of my two main themes was that whatever approach one takes to measuring economic and social progress, there needs to be a more explicit social welfare framework informing the measurements. It’s often said that GDP is not a measure of welfare but of activity, and yet we freight it with value judgements and use it as an indicator of living standards.

All the alternatives have the explicit aim of measuring welfare but end up usually as ad hoc lists because the analytic framework is only implicit. A recent example is the Social Progress Index published recently (and Michael Porter explains its rationale here), which has 54 indicators in 12 categories and makes a point of excluding economic measures such as employment and income, which seems odd to me given that surely we want to understand the trade-offs. Anyway, the indicators included are all Good Things, but then so are the categories in the OECD’s Better Life Index and the Human Development Index. How should we choose?

Anyway, clarity about the relationship between the economy and nature on the one hand, and the economy and non-efficiency, social indicators on the other, was on the mind of many participants at the conference. The conference papers are well worth a browse.

GDP is certainly a surprisingly popular subject at the moment. Apart from my own GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History, there was Zachary Karabell’s The Leading Indicators (which I reviewed for the New York Times) and Lorenzo Fioramonti’s Gross Domestic Problem. These were all published around the same time. In June there will be Dirk Philipsen’s Little Big Number: How GDP Came to Rule the World and What to Do About It, which I’m half way through and is in the Fioramonti vein. At the conference Quentin Dufour pointed me to a French book (published in English in 2002) by Alain Desrosières, The politics of large numbers: a history of statistical reasoning.

       

The wave of publication is surely a sign that something is shifting? The last big wave of books about measuring the economy dates to the early years of national income accounting, including Richard Stone’s The Role of Measurement in Economics and J.R. Hicks’ The Social Framework.