All the way from the Stone Age and back again?

There’s a growing genre of books, the long sweep of human history from a social science perspective. The ur-text must be Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man (the DVD of the series is still available and, I think, still fascinating despite being so old-fashioned.) I suppose the recent wave started with Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel (1997), and more conventional economic histories such as David Landes in the Wealth and Poverty of Nations (1998). More recent contributions have come from Ian Morris, with Why the West Rules – For Now (2011) and The Measure of Civilization (2013), and Diamond again with Collapse (2005).

The latest is Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, just published in the UK with a lot of publicity razzmatazz. I’ve not read it, just this extract in The Guardian. It touches on how we measure progress, and is happiness a better aim than GDP. It isn’t entirely clear to me what the conclusion is – that we were happier in the Stone Age? To which the answer is surely the economist’s sceptical revealed preference argument: see how many voters want to revert to a hunter-gatherer society. Or is Harari instead arguing for giving evolution a bit of a boost?

“Humans are not adapted by evolution to experience constant pleasure, so ice‑cream and smartphone games will not do. If that is what humankind nevertheless wants, it will be necessary to re-engineer our bodies and minds. We are working on it.”

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The state and the energy market

Dieter Helm knows more than most people about the UK energy market. His website is packed with useful papers, and I really enjoyed his recent book The Carbon Crunch. He has another one due out next year, Natural Capital: Why It Matters – Prof Helm chairs the Natural Capital Committee.

This week I read through one of his older books, Energy, the State and the Market: British Energy Policy Since 1979, published in 2003, having only dipped into it previously. It’s an excellent, detailed account which intertwines economics, history and political analysis – as any rounded understanding of energy markets would require. Energy is so fundamental to the economy that it will always be a political issue, and private ownership simply changes the role of the state from producer to regulator.

Although obviously written long before the recent concern about prices and market structure, now being scrutinised by the Competition and Markets Authority, the book makes plain the inevitable trilemma: efficiency, affordability and sustainability. The political debate has got no closer to acknowledging the unavoidable trade-offs in the 10 years or so since the book was written.

There is, by the way, a good comment here on the University of Manchester Policy blog on the market reference by Martin Stanley, former Chief Exec of the Competition Commission.

The other thought prompted by reading the book it is how terrifically complicated the markets for gas and electricity are – and how constrained the future choices are by past investments and institutional structures. I thought I knew this already, as I’m a member of a stakeholder advisory panel for EDF Energy in the UK, but seeing all the detail set out in one place has really underlined it. It is striking in Helm’s account how frequently major, disruptive structural decisions have been taken on the basis of assumptions about oil prices and growth that have proven massively wrong. Not a very cheering read after news this week that the National Grid is seeking emergency supplies because it expects electricity shortages this winter.

The Worldly Philosophers – the better half

Yesterday’s post on the women problem in economics prompted a comment asking who would be included in a female version of Robert Heilbroner’s classic The Worldly Philosophers. A Twitter conversation later, here is my curated version of the suggestions.

Harriet Martineau

Harriet Taylor

Clara Collet

Rosa Luxembourg

Beatrice Webb

Barbara Wootton

Social Science and Social Pathology [By] Barbara Wootton, Assisted by Vera G. Seal and Rosalind Chambers

Joan Robinson

The Accumulation of Capital (Palgrave Classics in Economics)

Phyllis Deane

The First Industrial Revolution. Second Edition.

Anna Schwartz

The Great Contraction, 1929-1933 (Princeton Classic Editions)

Elinor Ostrom

There were also Twitter suggestions about women economists living and working now, including: Anne Kruger, Dambisa Moyo, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Emily Oster, Esther Duflo, Helene Rey, Deirdre McCloskey. But I can think of many others and I think a Worldly Philosophers-type collection would need to stop short of modern times. One needs a bit of hindsight to judge lasting influence, although I’m sure many of those on the list will qualify in time.

Economics and women

Economics has a women problem. It’s obvious enough just looking at the talking econo-heads who appear on TV, but the data confirm the impression. Studies by the Women’s Committee of the Royal Economic Society have found that in academic research and employment, women are in a minority in economics departments, and the proportion declines the higher the level – women are under-represented as professors in particular. The latest report also finds a decline in the proportion of undergraduate economics students who are female (although numbers overall of economics students have been rising).

A new working paper (pdf) by Mirco Tonin and Jackline Wahba of the University of Southampton finds that the gender gap precedes university: despite the relatively high pay and the potential for an influential career offered by an economics degree, in the UK only 27% of students enrolling for economics degrees are female, compared to 57% of all students enrolling for university. (They use the UCAS data on acceptances for the 2008 round.) They find no evidence of universities discriminating against would-be female economists; the gap lies in the fact that girls are less likely to apply to do economics, even after controlling for individual characteristics, type of school and region. A large part, but not all, of the gap is due to the differences in girls’ A level choices at school, as they are less likely to have chosen maths and economics at 16.

The paper therefore urges better maths preparation for girls in high school, so that more of them choose to study it for longer. Some people, of course, would urge economics to become less mathematical, but I’m not one of them, although it should never be only about the mathematical models. In many ways, a more ‘real-world’ economics would need more proficiency – think, for example, about network theory, or the use of non-linear dynamic systems in macroeconomics.

The paper landed in my email in the wake of the arrival of a new book, Why Gender Matters in Economics, by Mukesh Eswaran. It’s fascinating.

There are three sections, covering: whether women and men behave differently in economic situations (more or less altruistic, risk averse etc) and their power within households when it comes to economic decisions; gender in markets, which covers the labour and credit markets and globalization; and finally a section on the institution of marriage looking at questions such as access to birth control and fertility rates. It’s a non-technical book, having grown out of an undergraduate course. It discusses these questions in the setting of both poor and rich countries. Of course, it does not summarize all the empirical literature on these questions, but it gives readers the analytical tools to think about them, and enough of a flavour of the state of evidence on the answers.

The book ends on a sombre note, reporting the evidence of a decline in the subjective well-being of women, either absolutely or relative to men, in recent data for developed and developing countries.

We certainly need more women economists for its own sake – there is likely to be distortion in the questions addressed by any subject which is only a quarter female, and an odd sociology. To give just one example, the absence of data on unpaid work in the home makes it hard to evaluate lots of policy proposals concerning (paid) labour force participation; the economists and statisticians who concluded unpaid domestic labour should be outside the GDP production boundary were men.

Beyond this, though, Tonin and Wahba are right to say that a career in economics is potentially influential. Economists wield great influence over public policy, including policies affecting the lives, economic power and ultimately the well-being of women. There is lost ground to make up. Girls, women, brush up on the maths a bit if you need to, but above all come and study economics!

Science, social science and problem solving

A guest post by John Green

A good friend, and a good scientist, has long bemoaned the paucity of scientifically qualified persons in upper echelons of power in the UK – and anywhere else for that matter. In his view (and mine, for what it’s worth) those who make plans for an unknowable future purely on ‘gut feeling’, ‘it worked before’, ‘it’s part of our tradition’, are rushing blindfold into the future. Any or all of those things might be true but our environment is constantly evolving, and the conditions that made for previous successful outcomes may no longer apply.

Science looks for evidence of how things happened in the past to try to predict what might occur in the future. We need people of vision who can speculate about what the future might hold for us but we also need those who can analyse and gain some understanding of what has gone before, who can experiment with the knowledge they have gained to highlight future scenarios and can monitor change and seek to correct for unanticipated deviations.

Another scientist, a friend of mine in later life, had gained distinction in his own field of aeronautical engineering and had then become a very effective civil servant; but he left the public service for industry because he judged that no scientist would ever reach the highest civil service rank, that of Permanent Secretary. That was in the 1950s. If anyone with a scientific education has climbed those dizzy heights in the intervening period it has never come to my notice. Scientific thought, evidence-based decision making, plays too little part in public affairs.

However, there is another side to this. Having been a member of a scientific society for over 70 years, and having used science in a half century working life, I retain a general interest in scientific issues in the media; and my impression is that the most senior figures, societies and organisations of ‘science’, which usually is taken to refer to the natural sciences,  are constantly asking for, pleading for, even demanding more and more funds. They promising tangible benefits but without much consideration of how the ‘benefits’ might impact on ‘society’. Scientists may regret that the educational background of lawyers, politicians, captains of industry, denies them the use of the rigour of scientific methodology or even a proper appreciation of advice from the scientific community. But the science bodies themselves appear to make little concerted effort to consider the potential impact of their explorations on the individuals and communities which comprise society as a whole. George Bernard Shaw’s Andrew Undershaft, in the play Major Barbara was a chemical manufacturer rather than a scientist but he said of the chemical which he offered for sale, ammonium nitrate, that what happened next was not for him to decide. Whether it was used as an explosive or as an agricultural fertiliser was neither his concern nor responsibility.

Natural, ‘hard’, science, biology, chemistry physics and so on, scarcely recognise the existence of social, ‘soft’, science, sociology, economics and the like, the study of the interactions between individuals and groups of individuals. And when it comes to research funding for science in the UK it has been reported that social science is funded by much less than a tenth of the sums lavished on hard science. This cannot be right.

Some years ago I happened across a paper on how to arrange a work station so that all the levers, handles and switches were in the optimum position for the operator. I knew of research going on into novel machinery and took the paper to the overall chief, someone I had known for years. I found that he wasn’t interested; he told me his people were looking to robot operation, which would have the additional advantage that, at least at that time, robots were not being recruited to unions with membership of the TUC. I did try to suggest that machine operators are also consumers. It seemed unlikely that robots would develop an appetite for the food, drink, and other consumables enclosed in the packaging the machines were being designed to produce. Operatives displaced from employment would no longer have the wherewithal to purchase those products – would the robots be laid off in turn? But my friend made it clear that was not his but someone else’s problem.

More recently I read a book which discussed how it might be possible to move to a more comprehensive measure of well-being than the crude and simplistic Gross Domestic Product, and such a departure might offer some insight into how ‘well being’ could be enhanced for the less advantaged in societies. I was able to follow the argument but there was some mathematical underpinning which was out of my reach. I have long practice in judging others whose mathematical dexterity far outstrips my own and this author has gained my trust but I thought that it would be interesting for someone with real mathematical facility to have a look, just to confirm to me that the sums added up, and I knew of just such a person who also had a similar outlook on life to my own. That person is a Nobel laureate whose mastery of complex mathematical theory underlay the work for which the prize was given, so I commended the economics book. Sadly, the response I got was, ‘Don’t do economics’.

Our world is one of increasing specialisation, full of those who ‘know more and more about less and less’. As editor of a journal aimed at helping those engaged in trying to avoid or contain workplace health hazards, I found it extremely difficult to find a reviewer for a book offering a general oversight of the subject. Generalists were either superannuated or as rare as hen’s teeth, everyone ‘active’ had a speciality and anything outside that speciality was foreign territory. Managers of every style of enterprise, public or private, charitable or profit-focused are hypnotised by the Friedman ethic that everything can be reduced to a cash equivalent, they know in immense detail the price of everything are entirely ignorant of the value of anything. Every activity is split out to cost centres and success is in accumulating more of them than the opposition. There was a story, some years ago, just possibly apocryphal, of a university which had within its biology school a department of chemical biology, and within its chemistry school a department of biological chemistry.

During the second world war the military set up Combined Operations in which the knowledge, ability and resources of people from different branches of the forces and even from different nations were brought together to take on a specific task. Once the task was complete the team dissolved and another team was created with a suitable combination of skills appropriate to the new task. A similar approach was made post-war in major reconstruction processes. The over-arching aim was, for Combined Operations, to win the war, for the reconstruction teams, to rebuild the country. Individuals subsumed personal interests for the greater good.

There is nothing novel about team working but the usual historical pattern has been of a leader with a team using their varied skills to work to the leader’s plan. The idea of assembling individuals with the perceived required skills and leaving the team as a whole to devise its method of working to a desired goal was not entirely novel and various attributions have been made as to its authorship – one, according to a Wikipedia entry, being the South African commander and later Prime Minister, Jan Smuts.   Multidisciplinary teams are in use in some areas of the NHS but the increasing specialisation and cost centre approach to management and budget allocation in organisations generally provides obstacles.

On the other hand the exponential expansion of available information in the digital age, whilst it feeds the appetite for even more ‘specialisation’ must also make an even stronger case for multidisciplinary team working and for gaining an understanding of how such teams can be assembled and enabled to work most successfully. Recently (August 2014) the Headmaster of Eton has used the pages of that learned educational journal the Radio Times to question an educational pattern judged on examination results based on papers which students take entirely on their own. He suggested that in China doubts are being cast about the even more disciplined strategy in that country and there are moves to look at what others, including the UK, have done and are doing which could lead to a more joined-up approach to the unresolved problems which we know to exist in our world and those, as yet unknown, which, experience suggests will confront us or our successors in the future.

An older and wiser colleague during the war (WW2) had to turn his hand to finding ways of keeping factories operating in face of bombing, of labour and material shortages whilst also devising ways of meeting requests to manufacture entirely novel items for the armed forces. He told me that when faced with a problem the most important thing is not finding the right answer but asking the right question.

John Green has had a half a century career applying scientific methodology  to problem solving in industry and commerce.

He says he worked at the ‘ragged edge’ rather than the ‘cutting edge’ of science. I have been corresponding with him for some years about my books and other matters. I’m grateful for his permission to post here these reflections on different modes of knowledge and joining them up.