One for font addicts

To my delight, The Eternal Letter: Two Millennia of the Classical Roman Capital turned up in the post. I know there are plenty of font addicts out there. It’s a beautiful book, a hymn to traditional serif fonts. Although a sans serif person myself, the essays and pictures in this are a delight.

Beautiful letter

Beautiful letter


How to change the world

If you’re involved in your community as a school governor or in a local campaign, or if you’re planning a revolution, I can’t recommend Srdja Popovic’s Blueprint for Revolution highly enough. Popovic was a founder of Otpor!, the Serbian anti-Milosevic movement, and of CANVAS, the organisation passing on the lessons of that success to others around the world.

Blueprint for Revolution does not at all gloss over the fact that every situation is different, and some are much harder to change, so the book is not a detailed ‘how to’ guide for all occasions. But the principles it describes are surely universal: above all, non-violence is vital because (a) if you choose violence you’re taking on your strongman where he is strongest and (b) most people are not violent so you have to choose that route if you want most people on your side. There is also a particular emphasis on using humour as the most effective and universal way of dissipating fear.

I also particularly like just the sheer pragmatism of the book. Start with small issues that lots of people care about – Popovic quotes the immortal line of Liz Lemon, saying most people want a quiet place to sit to eat their sandwich. Go step by step towards a clear ultimate goal (democracy, say) and have a strategy to get there but also be flexible about tactics. Identify the pillars on which your target regime rests and go after them. Plan, plan, plan. Build coalitions: a huge Lord of the Rings fan, he notes that while it was the hobbits that won it in the end, it took a group of squabbling elves/dwarves/wizards/humans/hobbits together to ensure victory. Be prepared for the long haul, and don’t think things are over when you topple your dictator (i.e. if your ultimate goal is democracy, there is much further to go after the Tahrir Square moment….)

The book tells the stories of a number of revolutions but makes it clear that the practical lessons apply to any kind of activism from this largest scale to the smallest. Read, digest, and start thinking about the practical jokes.

Reading the Unreadable

Who knows what by-ways of the web made me buy a 2nd hand copy of The Practice of Everyday Life by Michel de Certeau? Economists have a bad reputation for our use of jargon and impenetrable style of writing, but I find the this semiotics-inflected sociology/cultural studies impossible to understand. Every paragraph has a few words italicised and a few others in quotation marks – and I could never abide linguistic philosophy. As one of my least favourite philosophers wrote, Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” – I wish!

Wikipedia tells me: “Perhaps the most influential aspect of The Practice of Everyday Life has emerged from scholarly interest in Certeau’s distinction between the concepts of strategy and tactics. Certeau links “strategies” with institutions and structures of power who are the “producers”, while individuals are “consumers” acting in environments defined by strategies by using “tactics”. In the influential chapter “Walking in the City”, Certeau asserts that “the city” is generated by the strategies of governments, corporations, and other institutional bodies who produce things like maps that describe the city as a unified whole.”

I’d got just a whiff of this before I gave up – everyday life as a kind of low-profile AdBusting rebellion against the powers that be, outwardly confirming, inwardly subverting. It isn’t often I completely fail with a book but this has defeated me. Happy to post it to anyone who’d like it. It has a very nice cover…


Educating economists

Yesterday I attended a conference organised by the Economics Network and hosted by the Bank of England on the subject of revisiting curriculum reform in economics (the talks from that event were collected, with other contributions, in What’s The Use of Economics?)  Revisiting because it is three years since the conference I organised in the same location that kicked off the process of reform.

The new conference focused on practicalities, the hows, whereas the first was more about the whether and why. While there was substantial agreement among the participants yesterday about the kinds of change needed – more real world engagement , some interdisciplinarity, openness to different ideas – it’s fair to say there isn’t a consensus about what to put in a new curriculum. The ideals among different participants in the debate range from incremental reform to a substantial and serious revamp to a whole new, heterodox curriculum explicitly not centred on any ‘mainstream’ approach. It would be a healthy outcome to have more variety between the offers of different economics departments than the conformity that exists at present, so this range seems fine to me – although I do think employers of economists will continue to require a set of basic skills and knowledge which are currently delivered by the existing ‘mainstream’.

There was – among others – a session on the first year of experience of teaching the CORE course whose creation was led by Wendy Carlin. The development of the basic material was supported first by INET and Friends Provident Foundation is now supporting the work that will enable its wide use by many teachers and students, including independent learners. INET is now instead funding Robert Skidelsky with Ha-Joon Chang and others to develop a fully heterodox alternative.

There was also an excellent session on what students ought to learn about data, with contributions from Richard Davies on online big data, Jonathan Haskel with a very interesting business school perspective including the use of case studies (modern and historical), and Steve Pischke on teaching econometrics to undergraduates who will probably not go on to masters degrees but will head out into jobs. Pischke made some important points about any teaching of undergraduates: given their high school experience, they are not used to independent critical thinking and are uncomfortable with ambiguity and judgements.

All this and much more. The event was recorded so I’ll post the link when it’s available. The Twitter hashtag was #revisitecon.

I came away feeling very optimistic about the way the debate has moved in three years from a question about whether any change was possible to much more detailed practicalities.  There are plentiful barriers to changing the curriculum and the approach to teaching economics, but there is a broad alliance and plenty of momentum for reform in the UK now. It would be interesting to know what is happening in other countries?

Innovating for good

Yesterday I read this Project Syndicate comment by Kermal Dervis arguing that the returns to publicly-funded R&D have been essentially privatised – a point also made by Mariana Mazzucato including in her new volume, Mission Oriented Finance for Innovation. The comment includes some interesting suggestions such as a publicly-owned venture fund, although Nesta’s Stian Westlake has pointed out that there are some problems with the broader argument. I’d add to his list the basic argument about the diseconomies of centralised decision-taking when you’re talking about ideas, something amply demonstrated by20th century experience.

In particular, Stian argues, and I completely agree, that it is both necessary and hard to account for the full social welfare effects of publicly-financed innovation – these go beyond the financial return. The discussion yesterday on Twitter sent me back to Creating a Learning Society by Joseph Stiglitz and Bruce Greenwald. This is a book I’ve yet to work through properly, and it’s quite a demanding tome. Looking today at the key chapters only underlines the challenge of thinking through social welfare – and therefore policy implications – of innovation in the modern economy. For starters, ‘knowledge’ has the characteristics of a public good and a natural monopoly. Innovation requires accounting for risk, in imperfect capital markets – and there’s pure uncertainty too. There are complicated dynamics, path dependence, and probably instability.

It leaves me thinking (a) we’re a long way from being able to make definitive policy recommendations about how to boost innovation, although I’m sure it includes state as well as market activities. And (b) there’s a lot of work economists need to do on standard welfare economics, which has a dusty 1970s (or earlier) feel to it.