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.

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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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More must-reads

I’m excited by the appearance of David Edgerton’s The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth Century History at Enlightenment Towers. The Shock of the Old and Warfare State are both thought-provoking, rather brilliant, contrarian histories seen through the lens of technology. I hadn’t registered that he had a new book out, so am delighted. Love the cover, too. It’s a big book – will take me some time to report back.

Meanwhile, the Princeton University Press catalogue for Fall 2018 has just arrived too and there are so many fantastic-looking new books coming out that it’s hard to contain my excitement.

 

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Cyborgery

With two Eurostar trips in one day on Monday ( to take part in the AFSE Conference in Paris) I raced through Mark O’Connell’s To Be A Machine. It’s an account of the Silicon Valley-centric transhumanist movement – Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity, Peter Thiel and Google funding research into immortality, uploading brains out of the feeble human body to alternative ‘substrates’, and so on. It’s a superbly-written book, respectful of its subjects while clearly disagreeing wholly with them – and successfully making the case that this is a religious rather than a scientific movement. The book manages to be both full of insight and very funny. I was aware of this movement – thanks to my ISC colleague Richard Jones’s book ‘Against Transhumanism’ (the clue is in the title) – but had no real idea of its reach among brilliant and influential people one would have never have imagined to be so – well, bonkers is the only word that comes to mind. Bonkers and yet in some cases powerful and very much worth taking seriously for the questions their belief-set raises.

Well worth a read.

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