Onions and eternal vigilance

This might sound weird, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Plague Cycle: The Unending War Between Humanity and Infectious Disease by Charles Kenny. It’s an absorbing history of exactly what the subtitle says, arguing that Malthus was wrong even when he was right: populations were indeed kept in check in a natural cycle for most of history, but the way this happened was infection, not starvation, when population sizes and densities increased by enough to make human settlements attractive homes for various pathogens.

As the book describes, people found responses to waves of disease: keeping strangers out or confining them; cooking and spices (hotter countries or regions have spicier cuisines). Who knew that, “[M]any spices kill bacteria. Garlic, onion, allspice and oregano inhibit or destory every bacterium they’ve been tested on.” But the significant breakthroughs, allowing urbanisation and modern economic growth through agglomeration, depending on the technological advances that started piling up just as Malthus’ book was published.

I say technological, but some advances were ideas requiring no laboratory. Oral rehydration therapy, devised by Indian doctor Dilip Mahalanabis in 1971, is cheap and simple. “But for its full potential to be realised, everyone has to know about it.” The book tells us that 95% of parents in Kerala know to give fluids to a child with diarrhea, but, “In West Bengal – where Dr Mahalanabis did his life saving work over four decades ago – more than half still give children less to drink.”

As the book goes on to explain, the techniques for defeating disease, from the simple to sophisticated vaccines (although – again, who knew? – Gandhi was an opponent of vaccination), enabled urban agglomeration and globalisation. For all their downsides, these have been the dynamo of modern prosperity: people exchanging ideas (in ways that Zoom etc just don’t make possible). It cites Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo’s finding that infant mortality rates are now lower in urban than in rural areas, an amazing reversal of the historic gradient.

The book ends with the new challenges, from anti-microbial resistance, to sentiment about vaccines and the toll taken by the Wakefield scandal, to the institutional challenges manifest in tackling Covid19. While The Plague Cycle represents work predating this pandemic, it could not have been published at a more timely moment. There will be more pandemics. Antibiotics and antivirals are ceasing to be effective because of over-use and mis-use. Continuing basic research has to be funded. I hope everyone will read this and do all they can to get across the message of eternal vigilance in this ‘unending war’.

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Baumol meets Marx

I read Jason Smith’s Smart Machines and Service Work: Automation in an Age of Stagnation because there was a positive discussion of it on Twitter. I’d describe it as a mash-up of Baumol (‘cost disease’) and Marx (‘exploitation’).

The first part of the book is a rant about technology and why today’s tech will not increase productivity. It channels Robert Gordon and criticises economists like Erik Brynjolfsson (or before him Paul David) for arguing there are delays between innovation and the productivity effects they produce.

I have the same problem with this as with Gordon’s magnum opus: it might turn out to be correct that today’s techs have no productivity impact, but focusing only on digital entertainment and communication devices is completely unpersuasive. Vaccines, hello? The wave of biomedical innovation like the development of mRNA vaccines has rested on the plunging cost of gene sequencing, enabled by computation applied to massive amounts of data. Lab benches, test tubes, and also computers. The transition to green energy supply will require large-scale computation to manage storage, networks and grids. Additive manufacturing has many potential applications including printing organs and tissues. These applications are genuinely slow to emerge: large additional investments in equipment are needed, the organisational and ethical hurdles are high, other discoveries might be required to make them economically viable. We’re lucky so much of the prior mRNA research had been done before 2020.

Anyway, the book halfway through then turns to the growth of the service sector, the automation of routine tasks, and the debate about the potential impact on jobs. It looks back, too, at the well-known decline in middle-income jobs and growth of the contingent workforce. Having introduced Baumol’s familiar ‘cost disease’, it then turns to a Marxist analysis. Having never learned Marxist economics I found this quite interesting but heavy going, as it has its own jargon. Still, it is surely right to consider the impact of automation in the context of power struggles, or class conflict.

The book has some sections where it pauses to ask what is actually meant by ‘productivity’, a question of evergreen interest to me. It touches here on the issue of time use and time saving in services, and on activities crossing the production boundary, making it hard to measure ‘true’ productivity. As it points out, many previously household (uncounted) activities became marketed during the 20th century (‘commoditised’), and are often low-pay and precarious. However, the book then veers back to the more abstract class struggle.

All in all, I found the book quite interesting for its novel (to me) perspective, and it is well written. But much of the (non-Marxist) economic literature it draws on will be familiar to many people enticed by the subject matter. What it adds to the technology debate is, quite rightly, the issues of power and deregulation of the labour market,  beyond discussions of gig platforms. But it didn’t tell me anything new about the productivity puzzle.

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White elephants and icons

I just read a marvellous 1980 book, Great Planning Disasters by Peter Hall. The first half of the book consists of specific case studies. To qualify, the cases have to have been costly, involved processes of planning by public authorities, and have been perceived by many people to have gone wrong. Those included are London’s third airport saga (indeed), London’s ‘motorways’ (no, they don’t exist),  Concorde, San Francisco’s BART system, and the Sydney Opera House. Also included are two schemes that looked like they would be disasters but turned out not to be: California’s new university campuses and the British Library.

One of the interesting things about the book is having an additional 40 years of hindsight. The London airport saga continues, with Heathrow now having not just a 4th and indeed a 5th terminal but still not an additional runway. Stansted has become London’s 3rd airport, sort of, though we have the bijou London City as well. Concorde alas is no more: I remember still the exhilaration the crowd I was in felt at an open air concert in Kew Gardens felt when it flew overhead toward Heathrow, after the announcement the small fleet would be retired. The British Library has been a clear success. The Sydney Opera House had to have a major refurbishment. But as I ask my students when we discuss cost benefit analysis, do you think it should never have been built: is it an icon or a white elephant?

The second part of the book draws out the themes from the case studies, discussing it from the perspective of the actors and their incentives: affected communities, bureaucrats and politicians. One theme in all the case studies is that major projects take a long time to conceive, plan, approve and fund, and during that time political actors change, as does the zeitgeist. Individuals can have a big impact. One striking example is that an influential and forceful advocate of locating the new British Library next door to the British Museum (where he was chair of trustees) became an influential and forceful advocate of its actual site next to St Pancras when he was made chair of the new national libraries’ board. Technology changes too, costs rise – always – and demand forecasts over decades are almost sure to be wrong, albeit in an unknown direction.

There is no easy answer to the conundrum of how to avoid great disasters. The book recommends taking care with forecasting techniques, having regard to distributional consequences (and how this affects the politics), and communicating the uncertainties. I think the conclusion I draw, having been thinking about this, is that planning big projects is a political, not merely a (complicated) technical, decision. That makes two things important: building enough consensus, and aligning all the interventions that could make a project a self-fulfilling success. Oh, and multiplying the initial cost estimates many times over, except not too much to scare people from approving and investing in the first place.

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Sense about data

I don’t agree with absolutely everything Sam Gilbert writes in his book Good Data: An Optimist’s Guide to the Digital Future. But this is one of the best books I’ve read about the new world of the data-driven economy and society. Now, I am biased in the sense that Sam is a colleague, a research affiliate at the Bennett Institute. On the other hand he has terrific credentials for writing objectively about what has become a contentious subject, having worked as an early employee of a successful data-driven start up (insurer Bought By Many) and having undertaken academic research into these questions. (It was here at Cambridge and it sounds like it was tough going – sorry, Sam.)

As the book notes, the prevailing narrative in the academic and even policy world is the “surveillance society” one: our privacy is being massively invaded without our consent by evil capitalists who retain all the profits. Regular readers of this blog will know my view that Shoshana Zuboff’s book Surveillance Capitalism is almost literally unreadable, but nevertheless the trope has stuck. Yet, as Sam points out, the data driving targetted advertising isn’t individual data but aggregated behavioural data. The early section walks the reader through how you actually use Facebook to advertise. He also makes the point that people don’t mind their public profile data being used to advertise to them; they sometimes are disturbed by ads that do use behavioural data but – and the book describes how – it is reasonably easy to change settings so it doesn’t happen. Instead you get irrelevant ads.

Does the surveillance capitalism theory matter? Sam argues that it does because it is leading businesses to close, or not start up, because of the regulatory or reputational uncertainty around using data analytics. Analytical tools that helped smaller companies compete with Amazon have been shut down. He says, and I strongly agree: “Allowing your search data to be collected, anonymised, aggregated with other people’s data and put into the public domain is a benefit to society.” I’d probably go further: much as care is needed about anonymisation and privacy, the surveillance trope in its focus on individuals is a neoliberal as can be. The data economy could be a social or a gift economy, not an individualist one: a positive sum game not a zero sum one. The book gives examples of societally positive things that are not happening because of the chilling effect of the dominant debate.

Of course, it’s not simple. But some odd decisions are being taken. One example I learned here is that the German government in 2017 set rules requiring autonomous vehicles to be strict utilitarians: if there is an unavoidable collision, the algorithm must minimise the total number of casualties, not prioritising its own occupants. I thought economists were the last utilitarians of this kind.

The book completely acknowledges that big tech companies need to have legitimacy and their power must be acceptable to the societies in which they operate. That’s certainly not where we are. Their behaviour has significantly degraded their social licence to operate. Sam offers a useful checklist of policy approaches to restore this. I have some ideas that don’t feature here, including the ones we suggested in the Furman review regarding interoperability and the scope for competition in ways similar to open banking. I’m also far less of a fan of the ad-driven business model than Sam is, not that I’d ban it; the drive for clicks to attract advertisers does seem to be at the heart of some of the worst effects of Facebook and Google. He and I would agree on making the ad tech market far more transparent and honest. I’d also consider either an ad tax or a public option: a strong competitor with a different business model which would force competition along the quality dimension.

Having quibbled, this is a terrific book. Knowledgable, thoughtful and very well written too. Also, Sam is a great colleague so I hope you’ll buy his book….. even if (especially if?) you already disagree.

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Epic reading

Well. It’s been a slow blogging start to March because I’ve been reading Yuri Slezkine’s 1000-page The House of Government. What an amazing book.

It’s an account of the Russian Revolution and the early years of Lenin and Stalin up to the second world war. The book is unlike anything I’ve read before, and is utterly compelling. It braids together an argument presenting early-Soviet Bolshevism as a millenarian religious sect, the sequence of events that led up to the Terror to a large degree as reflected in literature and literary debates, and the perspective of the families who lived in the House of Government, the huge mansion blocks opposite the Kremlin that housed the nomenklatura. The extent of the sources on which the book is based is simply staggering, from archival records to newspapers to personal letters and photographs, and evidently also many conversations with people who had been children at the time. The fact that throughout many hundreds of pages we have met and seen the wives and children makes the final section – parents arrested in the night and never seen again, young children sent to orphanages after their early years of privilege – incredibly affecting.

The device of using the building as the lens on history is what makes the personal thread so effective, but clearly also means this is – despite its length – an incomplete account of early Soviet history. Indeed, it assumes a lot of background knowledge, which I could more or less dredge up from 1st year comparative politics. Nor do I know what I think about Bolshevism as a sect of true believers: it seems plausible in some ways, but again is unlikely to be the whole story. At least, other forms of Marxism are available.

But you shouldn’t approach The House of Government as you would an ordinary history book, even though the people are real, and their words from letters and diaries are quoted at length. It’s obviously a very personal interpretation. I did end up thinking that along with Svetlana Alexeivich’s Second Hand Time, this book opened an emotional window on the USSR that help understand it current-day Russia: traumatic historical events cast a long shadow. Get ready to read an epic. And to read it with a table or pillow to prop it on.

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