Lionel Robbins on economics

I just re-read the famous Lionel Robbins Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science. Every time one reads a book, it’s with new preoccupations and interests. So this time, here’s what jumped out at me:

“Value is a relationship, not a measurment. … It follows that the addition of prices or incomes to form social aggregates is an operation with a very limited meaning.”

“The idea of precise ‘correction’ of price changes over time is illusory.”

For Robbins, economics is essentially price theory. He wrote the essay of course in 1932, just before the development and subsequent rise to prominence of aggregate economic measures and price indices. But I think he was right to underline the pervasiveness of relative price changes and the consequences for aggregation.


The Enlightened Economist Prize 2018 – the winner

It’s been a tough decision this year – the longlist was both long and excellent. So it has taken me a while to select a winner. But it is…

Republic of Beliefs – Kaushik Basu (my review here)

The punchline, as summarized in my review, is: “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.” It’s a compelling and important book, and very readable.

I can’t resist adding tthree runners up, not least because they probably won’t feature in the usual annual round-ups of books.

Exact Thinking in Demented Times – Karl Sigmund (my review here) – about the intellectual ferment of logical positivism in Vienna, an absorbing intellectual history of a time and place, whose legacy is with us still.

No Ordinary Woman – Angela Penrose (my review here)

I knew too little about Edith Penrose before I read this excellent biography. It sent me to reading some of her work for the first time.

Accounting for Slavery – Caitlin Rosenthal (my review here)

A book I picked up by chance, really, and a fascinating – if disturbing – account of the accounts of the US slaveowning economy, and how the large scale plantations paved the way for manufacturing to operate at scale in the US as well.


A behavioural economics primer

There are so many books about behavioural economics, including bestsellers like Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, Thaler’s Misbehaving, Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, and the original Sunstein and Thaler Nudge, you might wonder if we need another. It turns out the answer is yes. Behavioral Economics: Moving Forward by Fabrizio Ghisellini and Beryl Chang is aimed at students rather than a more general audience – it even has a few equations. Its real contribution though is to explain the distinction between the ‘American’ approach, which lists many psychological ‘biases’ and frames them as deviations from the standard rational model, and the ‘German’ approach (ie. Gerd Gigerenzer) which accounts for the well-known ‘behavioural’ behaviours as rational satisficing given a limited attention and brain energy budget.

The first half of the book discusses the shortcomings of the standard rational maximising approach (a bit overdone for my tastes), and explains the behavioural alternative, especially the ‘German’ version, which is presented here in the light of Herbert Simon’s work on satisficing and attention. The second half consists of seven open questions for behavioural research, including how to make sense of the proliferation of apparent ‘biases’, how to deal with time preference, the tensions in ‘libertarian paternalism’ and biased nudgers, and the formation of expectations.

So having started with the same question the authors use to open the book – do we really need another one – I’d agree with them that there is a gap to fill. This is a really useful book for introducing students to behavioural economics and the key research questions in the field, far more so than the pop behavioural literature, excellent as some of it is. Unfortunately, it won’t get widely used given the shocking pricing by the publisher (Palgrave Macmillan) – it must be so frustrating for authors to have a publisher who sets prices only libraries will ever pay (and decreasingly often at that).


A hymn to expertise

How often could you say a book about the workings of government departments, even including a Department of Agriculture org chart, is as gripping as a thriller? Michael Lewis is such a teeth-gnashingly good writer that he’s pulled this off with The Fifth Risk. Ostensibly about the chaos the Trump ‘administration’ is bringing to government as it expropriates whatever it can for personal financial benefit, the book is fundamentally a description of and hymn to the vital role of expertise in modern societies.

Expertise, and a strong sense of public service mission. It does so through interviews with a range of experts who have recently left government service – experts on nuclear weapon safety (managed by the Department of Energy), child nutrition (USDA), meteorology (the NOAA in the Commerce Department) and even social science (also in the NOAA, because what was the point of ever more accurate tornado warnings if people didn’t respond to them by evacuating their homes?)

It is, therefore, fundamentally a terrifying book. All these dedicated scientists waited for the new Trump administration to contact them after the election. And waited. And waited some more. Nothing. No interest in governing, in detail, for instance in why a small town storing nuclear waste might poison vast areas of the western United States and the Colorado River if the DoE didn’t spend billions a year on remediating and containing the problem. And of course, the ‘Administration’ gets away with it because so many voters had no interest either. This is where we are.

Anyway, a brilliant book. Do read it.



The joy of (economic) geography

I once met the late Doreen Massey, before knowing who she was. It was after the publication of my first book, The Weightless World (intangibles avant la lettre), which she had read and had interesting questions about. It was therefore long before I had anything to do with the academic world. I was a nobody, in other words, and she a highly respected economic geographer. She was open minded enough, and kind enough, nevertheless to have read my book and been willing to talk to me about it.

She died in 2016 and two recent books honour her work. One is the Doreen Massey Reader (editors Brett Christophers, Rebecca Lave, Jamie Peck and Marion Werner) and Doreen Massey: Critical Dialogues (same editors, different priority ordering). I’ve read most of the former and  dipped into the latter. The first thing to note about them is that they reflect the energy in economic geography these days, indeed often far more energy about major economic issues than you find in some economics departments. Massey is one of the people who has made a major contribution to the intellectual strength and curiosity in the discipline.

Now, as I’m not a geographer but an economist, most of the cited literature is unfamiliar, and the language can be a bit of a struggle. So it’s with diffidence that I comment on these books at all. Most interesting to me is the section in the Reader on regional economies, a subject far too much overlooked in mainstream economics, given the regional inequalities in all major western economies including London-centric UK.

For example, in a 1973 essay on industrial location theory Massey pointed out the inadequacy of an economics discipline that was then – certainly pre-Krugman and the revival in economics of economic geography – both (comparative) static and a-spatial. As she noted, it’s hard to understand industrial concentration in space if (a) you ignore location and (b) you’re not interested in dynamic forces. Agglomeration economics – which now dominates this area of research in econ – is, she argues, a narrow lens on the question. If the focus is on the firm’s decision to locate in a place where there are agglomeration externalities, it is all too easy to miss the system effects and the input-output system of the regional or local economy as a whole. The externalities are everything. This too is starting to percolate through business economics at least, in the shape of ‘ecosystems’. Massey got there a generation ago.

There is a lot to interest economists in these books, albeit most will find – as I did – that they are far more overtly political than is the norm in our discipline. No doubt the geographers would argue that economics is covertly political. Anyway, these books contain critiques of capitalism in general, whereas we make our critiques of capitalism specific. It certainly seems odd to criticize economics for being too abstract when critical disciplines such as this are equally so, only in words rather than algebra; there are abstract nouns galore in these two books.  Nevertheless, we economists should be concerned that some of the liveliest work on key economic issues is going on in geography departments. And maybe ‘agglomeration’ isn’t the only approach to issues of economic location?

All the more reason, perhaps, to be as open minded as this important, interdisciplinary scholar was herself.

A PS One of the editors, Brett Christophers, has a new book out soon about the privatisation of public land in Britain, The New Enclosure: The apprpriation of public land in neoliberal Britain. Despite the ‘neoliberal’ in the subtitle, it looks a must-read. His 2013 Banking Across Boundaries was a terrific analysis of the globalisation of finance and lifted the veil on the FISIM issue in the construction of GDP, since cited by me, and recently by Mariana Mazzucato.