Meta-policy

It turns out that being involved in a start-up – the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge – is pretty busy. So although I’ve been reading, it’s a couple of weeks since I had chance to post a review. However, the passage of time means I can now write about Kaushik Basu’s The Republic of Beliefs, which is one of the most interesting and exhilarating books I’ve read for ages.

The book concerns the application of game theory to law and economics, which sounds dry but is profoundly important. Basu addresses a meta-question: why are some laws obeyed and some not? His answer voyages through the traditional law and economics literature but also social norms, history and institutions. He write: “For the law to develop roots and the rule of law to prevail requires ordinary people to believe in the law; and to believe that others believe in the law. Such beliefs and meta beliefs can take a very long time to get entrenched in society.” And, of course, it doesn’t happen in all societies.

To tackle the question, Basu looks at how to model (game theoretically) the actions of the functionaries of the state, the law enforcers. As he points out, the difference between social norms and laws is usually taken to be self-enforcement versus enforcement by the police or judiciary. So it’s necessary to think about when either kind of enforcement occurs. For how could law – “jottings on paper” – work other than by altering the payoffs of the game? There’s a logical mistake to assume that law enforcers will automatically enforce the law, as is normally done in the literature, without making an rational calculation about what’s in their best interest when everybody else is assumed to be a calculating rational maximiser.

But if the law enforcers are brought into the game rather than being assume deus ex machina, how does the law change behaviour and outcomes at all? The answer must be that it changes people’s beliefs about what other people might do. The law can try to create new focal points in the game of life: “The might of the law, even though it might be backed by handcuffs, jail and guns, is in its elemental form rooted in nothing but a configuration of beliefs carried in the heads of people in society. … It is in this sense that we are citizens of the republic of beliefs.”

This conclusion has a striking consequence: “any outcome that is made possible by creating a law could have happened without the law,” Basu argues. Outcomes can come about either through formal legislation or through informal social sanctions, although the law might help bring about the self-sustaining edifice of beliefs more readily. But laws that do not direct the economy to one of many possible equilibrium points will not be observed. Hence in societies where there is a good deal of corruption, the law is trying to enforce behaviour among law enforcers that is not in their interests, and so will fail.

Basu discusses the long shadow of history in the light of this. As he points out, there has been a good deal of attention paid (much of it outside of the field of law and economics) into how to create new focal points. Less has been paid to how to erase focal points – which is something the western democracies might well want to do after this era of madness is over, for example in terms of acceptable behaviour online or violence to individuals from ethnic minorities: “Memory, in these kinds of problems, tends to leave a residue that is hard to erase.” Law abiding behaviour founded on the belief that laws are followed is sticky, but so is its opposite.

The book speculates that in the game of life the deep ambiguity about the future – what will the set of games be? – also makes ‘focal players’ important. Some people may be able to set the meta-framework: “In war and conflict, where one has to encounter sudden and unexpected scenarios, it is important to have a well-specified leader.”

In general, we need to understand better the role of the process of the creation of laws and social norms, including how they can erode, tipping society from a ‘good’ to a ‘bad’ equilibrium. I find thinking about these regime shifts – which are clearly under way in many societies now – in these terms of self-enforcement incredibly powerful. The online world makes this doubly the case – as Basu writes: “Thanks to the march of technology, market structures are changing in ways that need smart collective interventions to make sure we do not sink the boat by each trying to enhance our own self-interest, … We may need to think of different kinds of legal and governmental interventions so enable the economy to function effectively.”

I hope nobody is put off by the appearance of game theory. This is a beautifully written book, very profound, and the small number of payoff matrices clearly explained. The Republic of Beliefs offers a distinctive and revealing perspective on public policy, and couldn’t be more timely.

 

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Finance, the state and innovation

Yesterday brought the launch of a new and revised edition of Doing Capitalism in the Innovation Economy by William Janeway. Anybody who read the first (2012) edition will recall the theme of the ‘three player game’ – market innovators, speculators and the state – informed by Keynes and Minsky as well as Janeway’s own experience combining an economics PhD with his experience shaping the world of venture capital investment.

The term refers to how the complicated interactions between government, providers of finance and capitalists drive technological innovation and economic growth. The overlapping institutions create an inherently fragile system, the book argues – and also a contingent one. Things can easily turn out differently.

The book starts with a more descriptive first half, including Janeway’s “Cash and Control” approach to investing in new technologies, and also an account of how the three players in the US shaped the computer revolution. This is an admirably clear but nuanced history emphasising the important role of the state – through defense spending in particular – but also the equally vital private sector involvement. I find this sense of the complicated and path dependent interplay far more persuasive than simplistic accounts emphasising either the government or the market.

The second half of the book takes an analytical turn, covering financial instability, and the role of state action. It’s fair to say Janeway is not a fan of much of mainstream economic theory (at least macro and financial economics). He includes a good deal of economic history, and Carlota Perez features alongside Minsky in this account.

The years between the two editions of the book, characterised by sluggish growth, flatlining productivity, and also extraordinary changes in the economy and society brought about by technology perhaps underline the reasons for this lack of esteem. After all, there do seem to be some intractable ‘puzzles’, and meanwhile, just in time for publication, Italy looks like it might be kciking off the Euro/banking crisis again. The experience of the past few years also helps explain the rationale for a second edition. That’s quite a lot of economic history and structural change packed into half a decade.

Although I read the first edition, I’m enjoying the second as well. And for those who didn’t read the book first time around, there’s a treat in store.

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Economic history of the world, short version

Daniel Cohen’s The Infinite Desire for Growth is a nice bird’s eye view of the debated issues concerning economic growth from the dawn of civilisation to the present and future. Translated from the French, it starts with a rather masterly synopsis of the issues debated in some of the recent works on growth in the distant past, such as Ian Morris’s Why the West Rules for Now, and some older ones like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, Joel Mokyr’s Gifts of Athena (not to mention French works I haven’t read). The first section covers the distant past up to the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution.

The second part canters through some of the recent debates: the singularity, automation and robots, the stagnation versus measurement of digital debate, Piketty and inequality, and the vulnerability of the interconnected global economy to crisis and collapse. Cohen agrees with Robert Gordon‘s contention that innovation just ain’t what it used to be. There’s a final section with some reflections on culture, happiness (lack of), and the question of the demise of democracy. This cites Daniel Bell’s marvellous Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. The question is whether our societies are capable of dealing with future upheavals – be they tech related or a crisis of climate or contagion – if growth has permanently slowed. I would say the conclusion here is a resounding ‘don’t know’. Which is fair enough.

All of this fits into 153 pages. I’m a bit of a fan of short books, so say this just to indicate the focal length here. The book kept me happily occupied for a 2 hour train ride. And it’s a real service to summarize some very chunky economic histories.

My main complaint – which grew in force as I read on – is that a book citing a vast literature only mentions three women’s names, one of them being Margaret Thatcher. The others are Esther Boserup (who gets a proper name check) and Sandra Black (in a footnote). Do women really have nothing to say about all of human (economic) history and the future economy?

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Excellent books by my colleagues

My new home, the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge, is located at present in a politics and international relations department. It’s intriguing to experience the different kind of millieu and conversations that come with new disciplinary territory. Anyway, I’ve naturally read the books recently published by a couple of my colleagues.

Michael Kenny is the co-author with Nick Pearce of Shadows of Empire: The Anglosphere in British Politics. It looks at the history of the relationship between Britain and the English-speaking Commonwealth countries, mainly in the light of the Conservative Party’s lurch to Brexit. Interestingly, I started reading David Edgerton’s The Rise and Fall of the British Nation last night and he insists on the importance of Britiain’s links with Europe rather than Empire (or Dominions or Commonwealth) from early in the 20th century. Kenny and Pearce similarly find inconsistencies and flaws in the argument that the Anglosphere is a reality, and a realer reality than Europe; but they also describe the way that belief has persisted and, recently, managed to persuade just enough voters and subsequently parliamentarians to back their gamble. Shadows of Empire is mostly about the Tory party and the revival of the idea of the Anglosphere from the 1990s on. It doesn’t explore Labour’s Atlanticism and earlier, painful Labour rifts all that much. For a talk on the book, there’s this from the Festival of Ideas.

After that I read David Runciman’s How Democracy Ends, a superbly written and deeply gloomy book about the political pathologies we see all over the western world. Slow but inevitable decline, is his answer. He challenges the view that this is the 1930s all over again, arguing it’s unlikely that there will be anything directly comparable to those horrors – although accepting all bets are off should Trump/North Korea fire nuclear weapons, or a pandemic occur, or some other catastrophe. Instead, he forsees steady atrophy, because after such a long innings as a form of government, representative democracy has lost the capacity to resolve challenges like filter bubbles and rampant conspiracy theory-itis. The argument brought to mind Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, a polity fossilized by the long accretion of its own traditions – I often think of this dysfunctional realm when pondering something like the jungle of habit, interests, regulation and legal challenge in bits of policy I know anything about. There’s a talk based on the book on the Talking Politics podcast.

Price: £10.49
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Remembrancing the national debt

My husband teased me for saying The National Debt: A Short History by Martin Slater was a rattling good read, but it is. Published in late May, it puts the ‘austerity’ debate in illuminating context.

This is the UK’s national debt we’re talking about, and the book starts in the Middle Ages and ends at the financial crisis. For government debt is about high politics, from the needs of feudal monarchs to fund armies increasingly consisting of mercenaries to the long battles – in the Civil War, literal battles – over the respective powers of monarch and Parliament, to the effective private sector default in 2008 that led to banks being bailed out with the government borrowing to purchase bank equity of uncertain future value.

The history is delivered with a light touch and nice anecdotes. For instance, income tax was so hated than both times it was scrapped after its early, temporary introduction – all the records were destroyed, by immersion in water in 1802 and by burning in 1815. It turned out, however, that there was an official called the Remembrancer whose job was to keep a copy of all government financial records. This post was so obscure, that nobody had noticed and the copies were found many years later. (Created in 1154, the post still exists. What a great job title.)

There are boxes on famous economists’ views of the National Debt – including Karl Marx, who like all the others frowned on public indebtedness. He noted that most institutions in Britain were ‘Royal’ but the debt was ‘National’: another way working people had to support, through taxes to pay the interest, the rentier classes.

I learned that the founding President of the Royal Economic Society (no, not ‘National’) was an economist I’ve never heard of: George, Viscount Goschen, whom Slater describes as “perhaps one of the most economically literate Chancellors of the Exchequer to hold office before the late 20th century.” He wrote text books, encouraged the expansion of the universities, and was also President of the Royal Statistical Society.

The book ends with a (painlessly) theoretical section setting out a very clear explanation of debt sustainability. It does involve two equations, but even the most algebra-averse reader will be able to cope. The history behind the upward-ratchet of the net debt to GDP ratio makes it all too apparent that usually governments treat their purchases of assets (such as bridges or nationalised corporations) as capital expenditure but their sales of assets as current revenue, available to be spent on political priorities. For sustainablility, the government’s primary surplus of tax revenue less current spending, relative to the size of the economy, needs to be at least as big as the debt to GDP ratio, multiplied by the gap between the interest rate and growth rate (remember Piketty‘s famous r>g inequality). A higher growth rate is always the deus ex machina hoped for by governments struggling with high debt and interest payments. Currently, the UK’s national debt would start to decline (relative to GDP) with a modest 0.9% of GDP primary surplus, but that is quite a turnaround from the present deficit.

As Slater says, however, it is not straightforward to decide what the optimal level of the debt ratio would be; there is probably no better option than waiting for growth to do the job. The book concludes with a plea for a more comprehensive accounting for the government’s finances; the experimental whole of government accounts go a long way toward including other obligations that will fall on future taxpayers. Even these do not include non-legally binding future payments – such as state pensions or the NHS – while future PFI obligations are included as notes but are not in the figures. The politics of national debt are not going to get any easier.

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