The man of the system

I’ve started reading Hubris: Why economists failed to predict the crisis and how to avoid the next one, by Meghnad Desai. It has this great quotation I’d forgotten (some time since I read it) from Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments:

“The man of the system …. seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it.”

Echoes, too, of the fabulous Seeing Like A State by James Scott.

   

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Not-so-green economics

I’ve been mulling over some statements in The Container Principle by Alexander Klose. He says logistics has become the “third largest sector of the economy”. That in Germany 10% of energy use is accounted for by data centres – and that there are more than 5 million worldwide, whose CO2 emissions (from their production and use) is approaching those of global air traffic.

A modest amount of rooting around online hasn’t enabled me to verify these rather eye-opening facts, if they’re correct. Does anybody know of sources for such figures? (This Scientific American article reports some signs of decoupling of CO2 emissions from growth in the aggregate; prior to 2000, the energy-intensity of GDP growth had apparently been declining.)

 

Shipping containers redux

Regular readers will know of my interest in shipping containers. It pre-dated Marc Levinson’s excellent The Box.In fact it must date back a long way – one of my favourite TV series when young was The Onedin Line.

Recently I’ve been following these Postcards from a Supply Chain, and also read Rose George’s Deep Sea and Foreign Going (which I reviewed here). The latest in this genre is The Container Principle: How a Box Changes the Way We Think by Alexander Klose.

A collection of essays, this touches on the history of the industry and the economics of transportation and trade. But it is more concerned with the wider question of the cultural impact of containerisation. “Containers play as decisive a role in the organization of people, programs, and information as they do in that of goods,” writes Klose. “They not only physically appear in every imaginable place in the city (such as subway stops and airports) and in rural areas, they also appear in such cultural domains as architecture and urban planning, psychology, philosophy, pedagogy, business administration, communications and information, film, television, theatre and art.”

And cliches. Thinking outside the box, anyone?

There are chapters that riff on various aspects of containers, of which my favourite was the one about logistics, which is largely historical. Klose argues that modernity has a logistical logical structure, making the shipping container its “most successful material object to date…. Containerization is a prevailing cultural technology of the 20th and early 21st century.” I think I buy that argument. The book has lots of fantastic illustrations. It suffers a little from critical/media studies-speak but only a little, and more than makes up for it by bringing a different lens to this very familiar object.

Economics and humankind

Sitting in my colleague Terry Peach‘s office, I picked up Alfred Marshall’s Economics of Industry. I knew the phrase ‘the ordinary business of life’ of course, not least because Roger Backhouse used it as the title of his book on the history of economic thought. What I’d never realised was just how good the whole intro of Marshall’s book is:

“Political economy, or economics, is a study of man’s actions in the ordinary business of life; it inquires how he gets his income and how he uses it. It follows the actions of individuals and of nations as they seek, by separate or collective endeavour, to increase the material means of their well-being and to turn their resources to the best account. Thus it is on the one side a study of wealth, and on the other and more important side, a part of the study of man.”

In fact, it was hard to put it down once I’d started. It turns out to be a cracking read. I like the sentiment (making due allowance for the archaic use of ‘man’) and the way it’s expressed. I certainly see economics as part of the study of humankind, sitting alongside other human sciences – not only the social sciences but psychology and relevant parts of biology too.