So much to read

There are lots of books in my in-pile, and I’ve had a very busy autumn (not least writing a book). But the Spring 2018 catalogue from Princeton University Press arrived and there are tons of absolutely enticing new titles forthcoming. Given my interests, The Tyranny of Metrics by Jerry Muller is a must-read.

Price: Check on Amazon

Radical Markets by Eric Posner & Glen Weyl looks intriguing – the argument is that inequality can be diminished and growth enhanced by a radical extension of the scope of markets. Talk about contrarian, in the current climate.

Daniel Cohen’s The Infinite Desire for Growth is out in English, looking at what growth has been about historically and what future progress will look like.

I’m super-eager to read Michael Best’s How Growth Really Happens, as a huge fan of his The New Competitive Advantage. The blurb says it combines the experience of hundreds of factory visits, economic thought from Babbage to the modern day, and historical episodes of econmoic transformation.


Paul Tucker, formerly of the Bank of England and now at the Harvard Kennedy School, has written Unelected Power, about the role of central bankers and other technocrats in modern economic government.

This is just the first few pages! Further in is The Republic of Beliefs by Kaushik Basu. Love his papers on this territory.

Dani Rodrik’s Straight Talk on Trade features too, published earlier this month – I’ve finished reading this and will write my review soon.


Reading the Festival of Economics

Last week was the 6th Festival of Economics, which I curate and the outstanding Festival of Ideas team, Andrew, Zoe and Amy organize. There’s a Storify of some of the sessions by the Economics Network. As ever, we had some terrific authors speaking either at the Festival or in the preceding few days, so here is a list of their recent books.

Eric Beinhocker The Origin of Wealth

Robert Peston WTF

Michael Lewis The Undoing Project

Gordon Brown My Life, Our Times

Price: £12.50
Was: £25.00

Dave Birch Before Babylon, Beyond Bitcoin

Gloria Origgi Reputation: What it Is and Why It Matters

Jean Tirole Economics for the Common Good

Price: £16.96
Was: £24.95

Jonathan Haskel Capitalism Without Capital: The Rise of the Intangible Economy

Martin Sandbu Europe’s Orphan

& my own GDP: A Brief But Affectionate History





Greetings from the multiverse

It has been a week of mad travel so although I haven’t posted much, at least I’ve had plenty of time to read. One of the books was, well, extraordinary. In a really good way, although I have no idea what to make of it in terms of substance. It’s The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World by David Deutsch. He’s a computational physicist so it is very much not an economics book, but Deutsch is bravely going far beyond the boundaries of his own discipline, something to be applauded given the height of the silo walls in the academic world.

His argument is that there is such a thing as progress, which began with the Enlightenment (the British rather than the romantic Continental variant), and that humans are rather special. The engine of progress is not empiricism, nor accurate prediction, but rather the ability to conjecture and see whether conjectures are consistent with what else we’ve learnt about reality, rejecting them if not. The scientific method consists not in careful observation followed by theorising, but the creative development of theories or hypotheses which then have to be confronted with observations, with robust mechanisms of rejection. So all this is somewhat contrarian, even I know, but it also seems pretty persuasive. Even the parts about how unlikely and therefore central to progress humans are in the universe.

Ah yes, the universe. One of the most gripping sections of the book is its explanation of quantum mechanics. I’ve never pretended to understand at all what this implies about the nature of reality. I still don’t, but Deutsch does nevertheless give one of the clearest explanations I’ve come across. To which the only reaction is awe at the sheer weirdness of the multiverse and therefore everyday life. I don’t think being on an overnight flight had much to do with my reaction. This is seriously weird.

It is all very enjoyable, including wonderful factoids and expressive comparisons along the way. That Oxfordshire is really a bleak deathtrap without so many human innovations to sustain life. That it is easy to confuse mathematical abstractions with physical facts (eg that the angles of a triange add to 180 degrees – only in maths, not on the ground). (By the way, economics is riddled with this kind of error; I give you ‘capital’ or ‘goods’.) That an American born today has more chance of being killed by an asteroid than of dying in a plane crash.

The one section I didn’t much appreciate tries to explain social choice theory. Even given that I know a lot more about this than about quantum physics, and other readers will know more about other subjects covered here, from evolutionary biology to astrophysics to philosophy, this is not a criticism – this is the inevitable downside of inter-disciplinarity. But we need more of this.

After I read the book (first published in 2011), I looked at some reviews. Most reviewers enjoyed it too, even though, as the New York Times review pointed out, “The chutzpah of this guy is beyond belief.” But concludes, “He is exactly who he is, and he is well worth getting to know, and we are very lucky indeed to have him.” So I wasn’t deranged by aircraft fumes; this is a book worth reading.



Social limits to growth

In preparing for an event tomorrow celebrating the 40th anniversary of the publication of Fred Hirsch’s The Social Limits to Growth, I’ve naturally been re-reading the book. It’s full of comments that leap out from the page, such as this: “The extent of interdependence of many forms of consumption in advanced, urbanized societies has brought increasing recognition that to give effect to public choice among the available economic alternatives represents a still unresolved intellectual and administrative problem, rather than requiring merely the sweeping away of impediments to the working of the market mechanism.” And, “To see total economic advance as individual advance writ large is to set up expectations that cannot be fulfilled, ever.”

These comments reminded me very much of Will Baumol’s long overlooked book (his PhD thesis!), Welfare Economics and the Theory of the State, which I read quite recently. Part of his argument is that interdependence is far more extensive than in textbook world. The changes in the character of the economy since 1977 have made this ever more true. Hirsch is of course famous for the concept of positional goods, where there are negative consumption externalities – I am worse off if you have the status symbol and I don’t. Some of this has been absorbed in modern signalling models. However, positive consumption externalities – network effects, direct and indirect – are now becoming widespread too.

The conventional matrix of goods (according to whether they are easy or hard to exclude and rivalrous in consumption or not) needs extending:

—————————-Easy to exclude                        Hard to exclude

Rivalrous+neg externality      Positional                           Commons good

Rivalrous                               Private good                      Commons good

Non-rivalrous                         Club good                         Public good

Non-rival+pos externality       Network club                     Network commons

In only one of these boxes does the standard ‘free market’ presumption apply.





Reclaim your attention

I caught up with Timothy Wu’s The Attention Merchants: The Epic Struggle to Get Inside Our Heads on my recent travels. It’s a very interesting history of advertising, not surprisingly US-focused. There are some compelling characters in the earlier part of the story – some I knew about already like Bernays, others unknown such as the rather extraordinary Claude Hopkins. Advertising and media have always, I guess, attracted outsize characters. And some of the tales about the impact of ads are astonishing – early campaigns promoting smoking as a health-giving activity; the genius of the ‘Marlboro man’ campaign, taking Marlboro from a 1% market share to the 4th bestselling brand in the US in less than a year.

The book is excellent (as one might expect from the author of The Master Switch, a terrific book) on the interplay between technological and commercial or creative innovations. Wu writes: “Technology always embodies ideology, and the ideology in question [with the spread of cable TV] was one of difference, recognition and individuality.” The arrival of many upstart channels successfully contested the broad middle ground previously held by the main networks, and with it the cohesive, mass attention of network TV viewing.

The book moves on from old media to new media, and I also enjoyed the section on the early days of the internet and the stumbles and successes in getting all of us online. Email was an early killer app, which one forgets. “It may be hard for some to imaine a moment when receiving email was considered a big deal.” But there was indeed the movie You’ve got Mail featuring AOL in a comedy romance. Wu also reminded me that AOL got people online by sending them a physical disk in the post, or later free on the front of magazines – apparently they mailed several hundred thousand floppy disks in a 1993 mailshot – and got a 10% success rate. The company’s chief marketing officer said, “50% of the CDs produced worlwide had AOL’s logo on them,” by the late 1990s, the book reports.

As it gets towards today, the book is a bit less compelling, and I think this is because it’s so hard to get one’s mind what’s going on in the world of attention-grabbing. Of course, we know Google and Facebook are eating all the ad revenue (and attention) but there’s that fraudulent, algorithmic, complicated market, the imperative of SEO, and the fragility of offline advertising. Not to mention the blurring of news, native ads, fake news, and random dog and cat videos. It would be unfair to criticise Wu for not pinning down all this, and the addiction of social media, in a final chapter, and I’m not. The book really ends with that promising moment when ad blocking looked like a thing; but events have moved on.

There is an afterword about Trump, “the attention merchant turned President,” and then an epilogue calling for technologists to turn their focus to “the goal of reclaiming our time and attention” in these days of clickbait and the ludic loop of browsing and checking all social media without cease. The grim alternative? “The enslavement of the propoganda state as well as the narcosis of the consumer and celebrity culture.” But it isn’t just down to technologists – the battle for attention starts with oneself.