Not the smartest animals

The title of Frans de Waal’s latest book is a rhetorical question: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. De Waal’s deep knowledge shines through every sentence, as does his delight in all the creatures (especially other primates) he has spent his career studying. The book is about the evolution of cognition and emotion in animals (including humans). It particularly debunks Skinner’s behaviourism – mental processes as a black box, but manipulable using reward and punishment. (This of course the approach behind the present fashion for behavioural economics, a fashion I find troubling because some of its enthusiasts do so clearly see themselves as omniscient scientists ordering society for the better by manipulating the choices of their less intelligent subjects.)

I learned a lot from the book, including that the elephant brain is the one with the most neurons (about 3 times as many as we do). The neural differences between humans and other primates are not sufficient to make us unique in all aspects (although we clearly are in some, notably language). De Waal argues we should assume continuity, a spectrum of cognitive abilities between different animals, rather than sharp and wide distinctions. He notes that psychology is moving to accept this assumption, but the social sciences tend to assume human discontinuity – “But what does it mean to be human?” he reports social scientists asking him. “I usually answer with the iceberg metaphor, according to which there is a vast mass of cognitive, emotional and behavioural similarities between us and our primate kin. But there is also a tip containing a few dozen differences. The natural sciences try to come to grips with the whole iceberg, whereas the rest of academia is happy to stare at the tip.”

The scientific project must therefore be to develop a unitary theory of different cognitions, how cognition operates in general, and then in the case of each particular species. The book emphasises two important contributors: sense perceptions (is vision the most important to the species? or hearing, or smell?); and social relations (is it a species with strict social hierarchies, like chimpanzees, or solitary, like the octopus?) “Cognition and perception cannot be separated… they go hand in hand,” he writes. (Interesting to reflect on what this means for AI. The question is not so much what androids dream of as what they see or hear.)

To crown a wonderful book, it ends with a quotation from David Hume: “Tis from the resemblance of the external actions of animals to those we ourselves perform, that we judget their internal likewise to resemble ours; and the same principle of reasoning, carried one step farther, will make us conclude that since our internal actions resemble each other, the causes, from which they are derived, must also be resembling. When any hypothesis, therefore, is advanced to explain a mental operation, which is common to men and beasts, we must apply the same hypothesis to both.” As Hume summed it up, “No truth appears to me more evident than that beasts are endowed with thought and reason as well as men.”


Revolt of the data points

Libération has a very interesting article about the politics and ethics of big data. It cites some excellent books, such as Eden Medina’s brilliant Cybernetic Revolutionaries about Project Cybersyn in Allende’s Chile, and Alain Desrosières’ classic The Politics of Large Numbers. It doesn’t mention Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty, which makes exactly this point (and is a cracking read too): «La planification soviétique et l’ultralibéralisme se rejoignent ainsi pour asservir le droit à ses calculs d’utilité.»

There is huge interest in using big data techniques to construct better economic statistics (including on my part!). Here in the UK, the ONS is launching a data science campus. The Turing Institute has just been funded by HSBC to look at economic data (although the release says nothing about the work or the researchers involved, so this looks like very early stages). There’s particular progress on constructing price indices using big data, as in this VoxEU column or the Billion Prices Project.

But, as the Libération article underlines, the utopianism of ‘datacratie’ can tip into a dystopian extreme. The technology looks like it can make the utilitarian project of measuring the costs and benefits of everthing a reality, extracting information from every click, every move, every choice. But when the data points (aka humans) realise what’s happening, they won’t necessarily like it.

Bring on the philosophers and ethicists.



The Enlightened Economist Prize 2017 – the winner!

It has been a tough choice, as ever, to pick one winner out of the 14 titles on my longlist. It was a good year and all 14 are terrific books. After days of mulling it over, three contenders became clear. One was Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth, because even though I disagree with parts of his analysis of today’s economy, it is a brilliant, magisterial work of economic history. All economists should read it. But Prof Gordon has won plenty of accolades for the book already and doesn’t need mine. I really enjoyed also Sam Bowles’s The Moral Economy, on the strengths but importantly the limits of economic analysis based on incentives as opposed to ‘moral sentiments’.


However, the Enlightened Economist Prize winner for 2016 is a book that was enjoyable to read, informed me about all kinds of things I hadn’t known, and is full of insights about the relationship between money and politics, and the nature of property and value. It’s a great example of history helping one think more clearly about the present and maybe the near future. It is Rebecca Spang’s Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution.

Rebecca, if you read this, it means I owe you a nice lunch or dinner if we’re ever in the same place.








Talking statistics in the woods

I just spent a couple of days at an excellent conference, The Political Economy of Macroeconomic Indicators, organised under the new Fickle Formulas programme led by Prof Daniel Mügge of the University of Amsterdam. Authors of several of the wave of books about GDP itself were there: me (GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History), Philipp Lepenies (The Power of a Single Number), Lorenzo Fioramonti (Gross Domestic Problem) and Dirk Philipsen’s (The Little Big Number). We also had with us Tom Stapleford (The Cost of Living in America), Brett Christophers (Banking Across Boundaries) and Yoshiko Herrera (Mirrors of the Economy) and Florence Jany-Catrice (The Social Sciences of Quantification) (and also Faut il attendre la croissance?)

It was also a great conference for hearing speakers refer to other books. I’ve already read Matthias Schmeltzer’s The Hegemony of Growth and  Ehsan Masood’s The Great Invention. Classics were mentioned, such as Alain Delarosière’s The Politics of Large Numbers. There were others I definitely need to have a look at. The New Global Rulers, for instance. Jacob Assa’s The Financialization of GDP. Paul Edwards’ A Vast Machine. I did feel the most orthodox of the multi-disciplinary crowd; the other economists would mainly describe themselves as heterodox, I think, and there were moments when I played ‘neoliberal’ bingo, so often was the term used. Good for me, no doubt.

The woods at the Drakenburg conference venue in Hilversum

The woods at the Drakenburg conference venue in Hilversum


London as another country

Ben Judah’s This Is London has the subtitle ‘The stories you never hear, the people you never see.’ Although only published earlier this year, even that recent past already feels like another country in the nasty, mean-spirited xenophobia of Brexit Britain.

Not that the book is remotely starry eyed about the way immigration has changed the capital. On the contrary, the rich people who feature are the unpleasant rich, Russian oligarchs or Middle East princelings, or, worse, people traffickers. But most of the people he talks to are poor, albeit perhaps a bit less poor than if they had stayed in their home countries. And it isn’t that ‘we’ really don’t see them, because there they are, cleaners, baristas, serving in corner shops, begging on the streets. But the fear of poverty (described so brilliantly by Julia Unwin in her book Why Fight Poverty?) makes it more comfortable to not to pay attention or think about them. To be sure, Ben Judah also goes to parts of the city I’ll never get to, sleeping rough or in a doss house, hanging out in Willesden kebab and gambling shops. 41n4dhn0ul-_sx328_bo1204203200_A bit of a hierarchy of migrants emerges, Albanians and Romanians at the bottom as the nastiest or most desperate, whom none of the others like. The Polish builders – as all of us ‘native’ Londoners know (I’m a migrant from Manchester) – are on the whole skilled and hard working. They wonder: “why do the English wander into expensive sandwich bars and lose more than one hour’s wage for just one meal deal?” They think the English workers are lazy and stupid. Indeed, there are employers who agree. Interestingly, Polish women can earn more than men because they have better English and cleaners earn more than minimum wage. Interesting because it seems to affect the psyche of Polish men. But there’s also an economics question here: why don’t Polish men work as cleaners for the additional £3 an hour?

The book is great reportage and paints a picture of the capital few of its middle class inhabitants will ever see. It was a page-turner, a more or less sympathetic but carefully observant portrait. I don’t think it’s a completely representative picture, though. London is too mixed for the middle class=British-born, white and poor=foreign, black formula to be true any more. Opinion poll and voting evidence seems to suggest the people who live in London are comfortable with how it is. It was the non-urban rest of England that isn’t.