I try to be open-minded about WFH

I’ve been dipping into Julia Hobsbawm’s forthcoming book The Nowhere Office: Reinventing Work and the Workplace of the Future, which is a very nicely written and upbeat assessment of the shift in white collar working habits as a result of the lockdowns.The book sees the pandemic-wrought changes as an opportunity for a healthier model of office work.

I’m not an unbiased commentator, having (a) long been able to work a day or two a week at home and (b) absolutely *loathed* work-from-home rules. It has been bad for my mental health, bad for the generation of ideas and energy, and made running a research team, and teaching, far harder. So I’m emotionally disinclined to agree either with the prediction that WFH will be the new norm or with the assessment that this will be a good thing. To wrap some logic around it, the force of agglomeration economies in knowledge-based activities has not reduced.

Still, lots of very smart people disagree so I’m trying to keep an open mind. My Productivity Institute colleague Cary Cooper is one, and he and I have debated this (on Zoom….). Nick Bloom at Stanford is another, with some super-impressive research. And now Julia’s book. I don’t want her to be right, but perhaps she is, at least about office workers. After all,  many jobs have no WFH option.

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How to invent ideas

I found Zorina Khan’s Inventing Ideas: Patents, Prizes and the Knowledge Economy very interesting. It uses an impressive assembly of empirical evidence about inventors, patents, the administrators and recipients of innovation prizes and awards, and industrial exhibitions – largely in the US, UK and France – to support a specific analysis of what enabled the US to become the most innovative and richest industrial nation from the late 19th century on. As she points out, much of the literature asks why Britain was the first country to experience an industrial revolution, so the question itself is distinctive.

Her argument is that compared with Europe, there were “dramatic differences in the new approach to growth that were manifested in early US policies.” The key difference – supported by the mass of evidence – is a far greater emphasis in the US on patents (as a market-oriented innovation system) rather than prizes and awards (an administered system). A second and consequential difference is the preponderance of incremental and commercially successful innovations in the US. “Elites have always mistrusted markets: wealth and influence often lead to the convistion that the insights of the favored fiew can outperform spontaneous co-ordination,” Khan observes. The US was strongly anti-elitist (at least in that era), whereas “the most significant variable affecting whether or not a British inventor received a prize was elite education at Oxford or Cambridge,” neither university at the time focused on technical or scientific excellence.

Along the way to supporting its argument that the marketplace of ideas beats elite technocracy, the book demolishes quite persuasively the recent trend toward innovation prizes as an effective incentive mechanism. Less persuasive is the argument that patent trolling is no greater a problem than it ever was (although there clearly was a lot of litigation over patents in the 19th century).

It also makes the point that European and American patent systems operated differently. The specific institutional details mattered. So the conclusion one could draw is that the underlying elitism of European societies and egalitarianism of the US does more to account for latter’s emergence as technological leader. In which case, the longer term outlook for the US staying at the frontier may be less rosy. In any case, much food for thought in the book, and fascinating empirical and historical detail.

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Muddle, muddle, toil & trouble

It’s back to routine tomorrow, with too many (>0) Zooms in the schedule. Still, I’ve been making the most of the extra reading time since New Year, and have now polished off Duncan Weldon’s Two Hundred Years of Muddling Through. This is an aptly-titled economic history of Britain since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, a story of accidental successes and forseeable failures, told with verve.

War features prominently in the story, as it would any industrialised nation’s economic history. Raising taxes to fight wars paved the way for the expansion of the franchise and growth of the state. And the legacy of war, either financial or physical, shaped much of the 20th century’s economic history. The distinctively British parts of the experience are the long shadow of the landowning aristocracy and our dysfunctional politics, giving us a uniquely warped political economy with a ruling class running the entire country as if it were a colony (See Tom McTague’s marvellous recent article in The Atlantic on this.)

I’ve grown interested in the role of the Treasury in this, having sort of read (only sort of because reading online) a fascinating Kings College London PhD thesis by Tom Kelsey, Picking Losers: Concorde, nuclear power, and their opponents in Britain, 1954-1995. His research established the effective internal Treasury opposition to these postwar efforts to stay on the frontier of technologies the US did not clearly dominate: what we got was a shadow of what ministers had planned. (Although of course the great counterfactual is what would Britain’s role in the computer industry have been were it not for the UK gestablishment insisting on secrecy postwar as the Americans did not, and were it not for their persecuting Alan Turing.) Anyway, I’d have liked a bit more about where the consensus around economic ideas in UK policy came from, as these shifted over time. (And is there a long-view history of the Treasury looking at how it has preserved a largely consistent culture and worldview over centuries? Today’s fiscal hair shirtism inside that building is wholly consistent with the decision to go back on the Gold Standard, for example.)

This is a terrific book to recommend to 6th formers and students who know little economic history. When I was a student there was a gap for just such a book – Sked & Cook’s Postwar Britain: A Political History came out during my undergraduate years. I had a 1958 book, British Economic Policy Since the War by Andrew Shonfeld. (Both hard to find now, but still on my shelves.) Robert Skidelsky’s magisterial biography of Keynes wasn’t published yet though I read the Roy Harrod one. We are now blessed with many histories particularly of the 20th century – David Edgerton, Correlli Barnett for instance – albeit with a more detailed focus. Two Hundred Years of Muddling Through is a lively, clear and balanced overview of British economic history, & I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.

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Letting the Red Wall speak

This is a meetings-free week, taking advantage of the fact that people are largely willing to take no for an answer until mid-Jan, and I’ve also still got (I hope) quite a fierce email autoreply telling people to go away. It’s amazing how much more work this makes possible, even leaving time to catch up on reading. The latest book, which I started when it came out but has since been parked on the side table, is Sebastian Payne’s Broken Heartlands: A Journey Through Labour’s Lost England.

I really enjoyed this. It’s classic, careful yet evocative reportage from ‘Red Wall’ seats across the northern part of England. It starts in Gateshead, the author’s home territory, and, via a number of these once solidly Labour and now – extraordinarily – Conservative constituencies, ends up in Burnley, close to mine. It’s a very fair book: Payne lets people talk, reports what they said at decent length, and limits his own opinions to comments on prospects for the various parties in elections that lie ahead. (There’s a bit more discussion of electoral arithmetic than I wanted but that’s a quibble.)

One key message I took is not to over-generalise. There is indeed a lot of poverty in the Red Wall seats but also a lot of affluence, in the places where old heavy industry has been successfully replaced, so part of the story is the growth in numbers of ‘natural’ Conservative voters around the country. The truer generalisation is the substantial decline of public amenities around the English regions – transport, libraries, pleasant high streets. Another message – and in fact one on which the book quotes me (and many others) – is the crying need for devolution of powers within England.

A few other things struck me. One – a parenthesis in the Sedgefield chapter – was this: “nearly all the Red Wall seats had a train station closed in the infamous [Beeching] programme.” Reminded me of this marvellous paper on the Beeching cuts by Steve Gibbons. What economic, social and cultural vandalism Dr Beeching unleashed with the massive scope of his cuts: a great lesson in the imperative of taking into account network effects and spillovers in a cost-benefit framework, and the fact that some subsidies are worth every penny.

Another section was a discussion with Neil Kinnock, in which the former Labour leader observed that what has been lost is not so much collective sentiment in former industrial areas as the security that came with the social fabric of the post-war era. Kinnock said that modern individualism “is a source of choice but it’s also a source of weakness and insecurity. You’re on your own. In previous decades the one thing you weren’t, in richness and then poverty, was on your own.” I read this as Keir Starmer made security the theme of his New Year speech so presumably this will be part of Labour’s pitch for 2024.

Above all, though, Broken Heartlands is a terrific read and gives a real flavour of its territory. I’m just glad it wasn’t me out on the road in the North in the cold, wet winter of a pandemic.

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A quarter century of digital thinking

2022 is the 25th anniversary of the publication of my first book about digital technology, The Weightless World. I was browsing through it today, feeling mildly self-satisfied about its continuing relevance, including being well ahead of the curve in spotting the importance of phenomena such as intangibles, or gig work, or agglomeration patterns.

Quite a nice photo fell out of it too, of me at work writing the book in summer 1996 in a gite in Brittany. (The author photo in the back is scarily young-looking.)

IMG_2176Then, even better, I found on page 23 (UK edition) of this quotation from Marx in Das Kapital which helps explain to myself why my interest in digital and an interest in Nature and social and environmental sustainability are two sides of the same coin and so do form a coherent set of questions to study – sometimes it has felt like riding two horses that are heading in different directions:

Technology discloses man’s mode of dealing with Nature, the process of production by which he sustains his life, and thereby also lays bare the mode of formation of his social relations, and of the mental conceptions that flow from them.” (Book I, Ch 15).

Indeed, many people are I think sensing the links between digital change and sustainability challenges. We’re going to be looking more at these in the Bennett Institute in 2022.

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