Festival of Economics

The third annual Festival of Economics is happening in Bristol next month, from 20-22 November, and tickets are selling well. There’s a fine crop of books associated with the speakers too:

How To Speak Money by John Lanchester

The Social Life of Money by Nigel Dodd

 

Housing: What’s the Plan by Kate Barker

Free Lunch by David Smith

Free Lunch: Easily Digestible Economics

Economics After the Crisis by Adair Turner

How Do We Fix This Mess? by Robert Peston

Prisonomics and Greekonomics by Vicky Pryce

Why Fight Poverty? by Julia Unwin

Reinventing London by Bridget Rosewell

and of course

GDP: A Brief But Affectionate History by Diane Coyle

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Walter Lipmann, public economist

A new biography, Walter Lippmann: Public Economist by Craufurd Goodwin, is a very interesting portrait of someone not all that well known now. I ended it appreciating that Lippmann was a more important figure in early 20th century America than I’d realised, perhaps a Martin Wolf of his day. The mixture of intellectual rigour and status with an ability and urge to communicate with the wider public is relatively rare, and important in modern democracies, with all their political and economic complexities. Lippmann was probably the first ‘public economist’.

I was aware of Lippmann only through his 1920 book Liberty and the News, which for some random reason sits on my shelves, and Public Opinion, published in 1922. The biography concentrates instead on his books and columns on economics and political economy, tracing the development of his thought as he watched the Depression and war unfold, and engaged with both Keynes’s and Hayek’s work. Throughout the decades, however, in an era when the old order was dying, Lippmann challenged the attractive certainties of the extremes, observing that ‘free’ markets had never existed, and that collectivism relied on censorship, spying and terror. This search for a way to manage the modern economy, and deliver to voters in democracies the economic well-being or assurance they demanded, while safeguarding liberty, remained his theme throughout, above all in The Good Society.

Lippmann sounded (in The Method of Freedom) rather like a modern behavioural economist: “The classical economists over-estimated the enlightenment which is based on self-interest and the fortitude based on self-reliance. … Imitation, the herd instinct, the contagion of numbers, fashions, moods, rather than enlightened self-interest, have tended to govern the economy.” And elsewhere, he emphasised the importance of institutions, regretting the fact that economists had not combined their powerful analysis with a ‘humanly satisfactory’ social philosophy. Economics needed to show concern not only with liberty, but with a ‘concern always for those who could not cope with modernity,’ as Goodwin puts it.

Lippmann, always interested in education and closely involved in the economics department at Harvard, was unable, though, to resist the tide of increasing specialization, to stop the schism between the humanities and social sciences, or the isolation of economics from politics, philosophy, psychology and history. What a shame.

This is a timely biography. Lippmann’s concern to navigate through the real complexities and uncertainties of a transitional, even revolutionary, economic era while avoiding the appealing, easy answers was admirable. So was his determination to explain to fellow citizens the economic debates of the day. Not surprisingly, I find the idea of a public economist very attractive. As a character, Lippmann seems slightly unappealing – brilliantly successful from his undergraduate days on and wholly plugged in to the establishment, he comes across as rather smug, although this is no doubt partly because of my anachronistic reading of his letters as quoted here. There is also perhaps a bit too much detail in the book for the mildly interested reader, although having said that it is well-written and not at all too long. Lippmann is well worth re-discovering as we continue through our own period of economic and political upheaval, and this book sheds light on what made him an important figure who deserves to be better known.

 

Hume, Keynes and wisdom

What’s not to like about a book that starts with David Hume’s contribution to economics. In Keynes: Useful Economics for the World Economy by Peter Temin and David Vines begins with a chapter on Hume’s essay ‘Of the Balance of Trade’. They argue that not only was economics born in 18th century Britain, but so too was the first economic model with Hume’s price-specie flow mechanism. This classical tradition of thinking in terms of internal and external imbalance formed the background to Keynes’s thinking about global imbalances – and, this book argues, is an essential prism on today’s global economy.

This short book (and I like a short book) aims to re-introduce the Keynes who thought with such clarity about international links to a modern audience. It includes the historical context, including Keynes’s membership of the Macmillan Committee in 1930-31 and his early thinking about the gold standard, as well as (relatively brief) mention of Bretton Woods. It goes on to walk through the basics of Keynesian international macroeconomics – the IS-LM framework, the Swan diagram showing schedules of internal and external balance, and aggregate demand and supply. There is a final chapter on ‘An International Paradox of Thrift’ which argues there is a parallel between 2014 and the fag end of the gold standard in the 1920s-30s, with too many countries trying to increase savings.

What would Keynes recommend now, they ask, answering that all of Germany, China, the US and UK should expand their domestic economies. Of course, there’s nothing novel about suggesting that Germany and China need to acknowledge the harm their ever-increasing export surpluses have been causing – I’m more surprised by the advice to the US and UK to expand their external deficits further. The book justifies this on the basis that both countries have significant stocks of overseas assets and low interest rates.

This would be a useful book for students starting out on their international macro – it’s a very clear exposition of the basic models. I’m sceptical that one can find all of the wisdom needed to solve today’s problems in re-readings of Keynes, not least because of his trite remark that “in the long run we are all dead.” We’re in Keynes’s long run now, and the flaws with a framework that has looked only at flows (GDP) and not assets (natural, physical capital) are all too plain. Still, the international Keynes is more relevant to today than the domestic Keynes, and the pre-2008 global imbalances problem is still a problem today.

  

Update: I’ve been reprimanded on Twitter for misrepresenting Keynes. It’s true that his “long run” comment was a reference to how useless it is to think about equilibrium outcomes when the world never gets to equilibrium. However, whenever I’ve seen it quoted, it has been in the sense of there being no need to worry about long-run consequences of a favoured action. Still, to be accurate, I should indeed have attributed the triteness not to Keynes but to subsequent uses of the remark.

The logic of failure

At the talk he gave last week, Cass Sunstein warmly recommended The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations by Dietrich Dörner. So warmly that I bought a copy and read it on my train journeys yesterday. It’s a very good account of what goes wrong with decision-making in complex situations – including any economic context – although I wouldn’t be quite as glowing in my praise as Prof Sunstein was. Still, definitely one to read, along with Nudge, Predictably Irrational, The Invisible Gorilla, Risk Savvy, Gut Feelings etc etc., if the issue of decision-making is of interest to you.

Some of the psychological territory it covers is familiar from the now-ample behavioural economics literature. This includes the difficulty of making calculations, the salience of recent events or things we just happen to have noticed, the problem of limited attention. However, less familiar was the diagnosis of how hard many people find it to take account, not only of interactions between variables, but also dynamics – it seems almost impossible for many people not to extrapolate in straight lines, and not to be too impatient to wait for feedback.

The book uses the results of lab experiments to illustrate the point over and over, including very simple challenges like including a time delay between setting a regulator dial and achieving the target temperature. The relationship between dial and degrees C is simple and linear in this example, but only one participant is patient enough to wait for the response to her first moves of the dial before finding the right setting. This inability to wait is obviously a near-universal characteristic. Certainly, my husband has this issue with every shower he gets into despite my calmly explaining it to him many times, and ends up with the totally predictable oscillating temperatures as he over-reacts to short-term feedback. (Of course, he does have the patience to be married to an economist.)

The book concludes that people can learn to be better decision makers but concludes with a very long list of the traits that we need to acquire to achieve good outcomes in non-linear dynamic and complex contexts with limited information i.e. the world. I finished reading it feeling more pessimistic. There are many examples given of participants in experiments who concluded that it was efficient to have inflicted a famine on a country on the computer, or that a bad outcome was the result of a conspiracy (by the computer!) against them. As the world is ever more replete with instant feedback, what are the chances of getting a more patient and psychologically sophisticated politics?

Who is nudging whom?

Cass Sunstein has been visiting the UK and last week I attended a breakfast at which both he and the LSE’s Paul Dolan spoke. Prof Sunstein’s latest book (which I have read) is Why Nudge?, and Prof Dolan’s (which I haven’t yet) is Happiness by Design.

    

As ever, the evidence about the effectiveness of various nudges is impressive. Nor is there any answer to the point that some choice architecture is inevitable, the only issue is whether you want it to be the status quo or something that can achieve better outcomes. But neither speaker could answer the question I have about the legitimacy of nudging: who decides what is ‘better’? Is it the (largely) white, male, middle class experts who work in the policy world? What will the wider consequences be of adopting nudges that get ordinary people to pay more income tax and cheat less on benefits, without looking for nudges that get bankers to pay themselves lower bonuses or extract more corporate tax revenues from big companies?

Both speakers made some interesting points, though, about the research agenda. There are conflicting behavioural findings to be somehow reconciled, more needs to be understood about how context makes a difference to outcomes, and there is a straightforward need for much more evidence from RCTs.

Fascinating stuff. Surely the fact that we can’t not nudge in some way makes the legitimacy question all the more urgent.