The experiment has started so let’s make it work

An optimistic book about the future of liberal democracies – surely not? But yes, that’s what Yascha Mounk has delivered with The Great Experiment: How to Make Diverse Democracies Work. It’s a book of three parts, the first of which is all about why diverse societies generally fail, starting with the innate human tendency to divide into us and them.

After this gloomy start, which is what we now expect from books about democracy, Mounk notes that this is too bad as most OECD (and other) countries now have diverse populations, and despite populism it is hard to conceive that going back to the more homogenous mid-20th century is possible. So the book goes on in the second part to set out a vision of what a diverse liberal democracy might look like. It argues strongly for “the core commitment of philosophical liberalism,” namely that the state has a responsibility to respect the moral autonomy of its citizens, which means setting limits to its own authority and also protecting individuals from the “cage of norms”, restrictions on autonomy set by their own religious or ethnic group. It also advocates for cultural patriotism, rather than nationalism or the civic patriotism of shared values. I like this alternative very much – it seems to me we are brought together by language, landscape, tv shows, sport, the way buildings and shops look etc. I’d add humour, very distinctive between different countries.

The final part starts with “reasons for optimism” – one of which is that actually, most of the diverse democracies are slowly making progress toward better integration, accepting that people have diverse and multiple identities. The book also argues that optimism is important because it will affect actions and outcomes. It acknowledges what it terms the ‘Chapter 10 problem’ – the generally unsatisfying list of policies at the end of a book, as demanded by publishers and indeed readers. It doesn’t really provide this so much as a few general reflections, concluding: “Constructing diverse democracies that command the enthusiastic support of the great majority of their citzens is going to be hard.” But what choice do we have other than to try? The Great Experiment is already well under way.

So I liked the upbeat message. I don’t think there’s much that’s new here for readers of the death of democracy genre, but the arrangement of the argument into an optimistic outlook is very welcome.

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Calling economics PhD students

Thanks to a couple of train journeys – upcoming travel is going to be so good for my work-related reading! – I read again The Economist’s Craft: An Introduction to Research, Publishing and Professional Development by Michael Weisbach. Again, because I looked at a copy in draft a while ago.

I highly recommend this book for economics PhD students and their supervisors. As my blurb for it says, it’s the book I needed when I was starting out. It’s full of advice both wise and practical. It starts with the selection of a research topic, which is surprisingly hard – getting from a broad area of interest to an addressible specific question or hypothesis is something a lot of people struggle with. There are five chapters about writing papers/chapters, which might seem a lot except Professor Weisbach argues researchers should think of writing the paper as part of the research process rather than a dreaded add-on at the end. So this section integrates doing research with writing it, and incorporates sound advice such as not obsessing about statistical significance at the expense of meaning and actual significance. I wholeheartedly agree with all this. The competition to publish is intense and writing good papers is fundamentally important. It’s how disciplinary knowledge progresses.

There is then a section about presentations (don’t put too much on one slide! don’t prepare 50 slides for a 20 minutes slot! don’t stand looking at the display with your back to the audience! A lot of senior academics could do with paying attention), circulating papers and the publication process. The final section is about being a good academic, winding up with becoming a good thesis advisor and planning a research trajectory. Pretty much every page has some points to take on board.

In short, aimed at a specific audience, but for all of its target readers, very well worth buying and reading.

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Steering history?

I enjoyed Oded Galor’s The Journey of Humanity: The Origins of Wealth and Inequality. There are of course lots of grand sweep of human history books around – Ian Morris, Walter Scheidel, Jared Diamond, James Scott, even Yuval Noah Harari, not to mention all the accounts of why modern growth came about – David Landes, Joel Mokyr, Deirdre McCloskey. And many more. So I was slightly trepidatious picking up yet another. However, it’s well worth it.

I hadn’t previously been familiar with Galor’s academic work on growth, shame on me, but find it persuasive. There’s a fundamentally simple story – albeit complex and contingent in how it plays out – about interaction between humans (individually and collectively) interacting with technology in a dynamic where change starts slowly and reaches a tipping point beyond which it accelerates. The collective aspect of this incorporates an institutional trade-off between innovation and cohesion: more diverse societies generate more ideas and innovations, but are less cohesive. The dynamic also embeds path dependence: where you can get to depends on where you start and how you got there in the first place. “We are all the product of, and all contend with, the repercussions of events and behaviours that began decades, centuries and even millennia before we were born.” This model underpins the narrative account in The Journey of Humanity.

Like others, Galor sees the early 20th century as an astonishing period of progress: “It is hard to comprehend the leap in the quality of life experienced by people across the globe.” He also highlights the role of radio: “Radio appears to have had a more dramatic impact on lifestyles and culture than any other invention preceding it.” And the BBC is only 100 years old this year – and still, thanks to the World Service, profoundly important in many low-income and/or remote places.

The book is also nicely written with plenty of stories and interesting nuggets of information. The challenge it poses is, of course, how to get from where we are – under the shadow of a long history – to a world where everybody has attained a high standard of living delivering good health, longevity and quality of life and catastrophic climate change and biodiversity loss have been averted. The cogs are turning as they always have, but the vehicle can be steered.

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All data is social

One of my strands of work at the moment is thinking about data as a social asset, including how to value it. Anybody playing a word association game would probably link ‘personal’ with ‘data’, but the usefulness of any individual data record will generally depend on context – on other pieces of data. Information requires the combinations. What’s more, the way data is categorised and collected is highly socially structured too. If I buy a book online (it has been known), that datum will be classified in different ways to be useful, for the recommender algorithm or for marketing analytics: what genre? how much was the book? what else has she bought?

This is a preamble to this handy Primer on Powerful Numbers, a brief overview of the sociology of data with fantastic lists of references. It’s well worth a read. It sent me back after a long time to Benedict Anderson’s classic Imagined Communities, specifically the chapter ‘Census, Map, Museum’: “The real innovation of the census-takers of the 1870s was not in the construction of the ethnic-racial classifications but rather in their systematic quantification. …… The flow of subject populations through the mesh of differential schools, courts, clinics, police stations, immigration offices created ‘traffic habits’ which in time gave real social life to the state’s earlier fantasies.” On censuses, see also Andrew Whitby’s excellent history, The Sum of The People.

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Census and map-making as social intstruments also feaure in Jürgen Osterhammel’s monumental The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the 19th Century, which I’ve recently been reading. I’m enjoying its woven approach – big themes as warp, teased out across the whole of the globe as weft, to paint a rich tapestry. One example relevant to data being shaped by society and in turn reshaping it is map-making, and the way physical maps in reflecting mental maps led to new actions (say in colonial administration) that in turn alter the physical maps – for example by tighter specification of borders as definitive lines (However, the book’s simply too big for me to hold, even in paperback, so I doubt I’ll get through it all. Given the big book trend, can I plead with publishers to return to the tradition of multiple volumes?)

51Xsz21SnJL._AC_UY436_QL65_As we recognise ourselves to be in a data-driven economy and society, thinking about the social construction of data, the unavoidably social use of data, and the way data will alter the society it catalogues is vital. I’m lucky to have some amazing Bennett Institute colleagues thinking about these questions – Sam Gilbert’s Good Data, Jeni Tennison’s new project Connected by Data, Claire Melamed’s work on data for the SDGs, and Stephanie Diepeveen, Annabel Manley and Sumedha Deshmukh working with me on the value of data including specific applications (eg transport, finance).

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It’s not easy being green

Or so sang the famous frog.

I’ve been dipping into a couple of new how-to books about sustainability. Growth for Good: reshaping capitalism to save humanity from climate catastrophe is by Alessio Terzi, an economist in the European Commission. The book starts with a spirited defence (against degrowthers) of the need for growth, making both the negative case (politically impossible, growth is necessary for job creation) and the positive (what Benjamin Friedman set out in his 2006 book as the moral case for economic growth, and the spirit of Enlightenment discovery). It does an excellent job of pointing out the silences and the inconsistencies in degrowth arguments. After all, we look set to experience degrowth (aka recession) this year and it’s unlikely to be a good experience. And if we’re going to degrow, what do we do about innovation – stop new vaccines? Not all degrowthers are the same but there are certainly some vocal ones who manifest deep ignorance about what is in and out of GDP and what its growth consists in.

The second part of the book is an exploration of what steps can turn the growth we have into the sustainable variety, and sets out a green strategy. It does include the economist’s favourite tool of carbon pricing, but also government strategic regulation and investment, and the role of finance and business.

Which takes me to the second, The Unsustainable Truth: How investing for the future is destroying the planet and what to do about it by David Ko and Richard Busellato. They are investment managers and their peers are one of the target audiences. This is an extended sermon on the need for the investment industry to take the future into account in a broader sense than financial returns. They offer the almost-certainly unpopular thought that funding pensions of the future through their industry is not compatible with sustainability: “We do need to consider a life without our pension investments. This does not mean that we should not invest, but it does prompt us to rething how we support each other as we age, and investments need to arise from that context.”

The book, which is full of anecdotes and lively examples, also urges everyone to try things out that will help with sustainability – car sharing, walking further, spending more time with our neighbours. Businesses too – try out small changes that might make a difference. It’s an appealing case, but it seems to me the self-motivated small changes will never add up to be big enough. Governments are going to need to get involved and make us do things differently, just as they have already with the incentives for recycling waste and the switchover to electric vehicles.

But, as Kermit knew, it’s not easy. Particularly when there’s a government that believes in the magic of the market to solve all problems.

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