The Coaseian Milkman

It is one of life’s joys when a new book turns up unexpectedly in the post, and last week Edge publishing kindly sent me one that on the face of it was a bit of a random choice. It’s The Milkman by Michael Martineck. Mysterious because it’s a science fiction novel set in a future dystopian America – specifically the Buffalo, New York area. Still, I’ve been travelling a lot and was glad of some light relief, and The Milkman turned out to be a page-turning read.

Besides, the publisher’s decision to send me the book became less mysterious as the pages turned. Not only does it feature an economist as one of the good guys (yessss!) but it has a highly topical set of economic issues at its core. The book asks what happens when the marketisation of public goods, and the globalisation of the world economy, is taken to its extreme? This dystopian world is run by three global mega-corps which have eliminated governments as highly inefficient. There is no guilt or innocence: simply a question of whether each person’s (sorry, asset’s) net present value to the corporation that owns him/her is positive or not. What is their future contribution to profit, how much will they cost to keep healthy, when will their value as a deterrent to other awkward customers exceed their value in their workplace? This is also a constantly online world – people are tied, and tracked, by smart watches. Public space, and public goods, have vanished. All the externalities have been internalised under the corporate umbrella.

So I won’t pretend it’s the most literary novel I’ve ever read, but I really enjoyed it. What’s not to love about a storyline that takes Ronald Coase seriously?


Truth emergencies

I very much enjoyed Rebecca Solnit’s book of essays, The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness.

Among the many interesting perspectives is her take on the aftermath of disasters, and critique of some standard stories of post-disaster disorder – reports or looting and violence. Solnit’s argument is that ‘looting’ is often – usually? – a grotesque misinterpretation of people trying to cope with chaos – with no electricity, no functioning payments system, no logistics – and taking reasonable steps to get food and water. As for violence, she argues that most people become unusually solicitous of the needs of others in the wake of a natural disaster, and that violence often is perpetrated by authorities fearful of losing control – “elite panic”. She describes the way this happened in Haiti, and in New Orleans post-Katrina, when the authorities and white vigilantes shot at black men on the streets, many of whom turned out to be trying to do what the authorities should have been doing, helping the stranded and vulnerable. Anybody who read Dave Egger’s book Zeitoun will find that strikes a chord. Without doubt crimes are committed, she accepts, but “far more people did heroic things.”

She concludes: “A disaster unfolds a little like a revolution. No one is in charge and anything is possible. The efforts of elites, often portrayed as rescue or protection, are often geared more towards preserving the status quo.” Emergencies are always truth emergencies. This struck a real chord with me because of a report I co-authored with Patrick Meier some years ago for the UN Foundation and Vodafone Foundation about the role of information in disasters – more vital than you can imagine unless you have been caught up in one. (Just think about how helpless or angry or frustrated you feel when your train halts for 5 minutes and there is no announcement – and then magnify that feeling in intensity a thousand-fold.)

The book also has two terrific essays on what Silicon Valley money and incomers are doing to San Francisco (not good) – fabulous observation of the ‘Google bus’ invasion. She writes also about climate change and ecology, the far North, growing food, Detroit, and much else. It has been an ideal companion for me for a couple of hectic weeks. Solnit will be in Bristol for the Festival of Ideas Cities Festival next November.

Post-Festival reading

This year’s Festival of Economics in Bristol ended yesterday and was another great success. The thing that most delights me, as the programmer, is the engagement of the (large) audiences with the issues debated by the panels. The aim of the Festival is to ensure there is a forum for debate between economists – and other social scientists and practitioners – and members of the public. We are in extraordinary times and it is essential to have a public space for discussion. In our small way, and with huge thanks to the organisers of the Festival of Ideas and all the sponsors, we achieved that again.

A while before the Festival I blogged about the books by contributors. This is an update about the books they variously mentioned in their talks.

Bridget Rosewell cited Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano on the fear of technological unemployment. Gavin Kelly referred to John Stuart Mill‘s assessment of the Industrial Revolution (it had had no impact, he said in 1870 – the point being that in the previous 70 years real wages had risen by just 0.4% a year, whereas they trebled between 1870 and 1950). I referred to Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s The Second Machine Age. Adair Turner quoted statistics from Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. Nigel Dodd referred to Keith Hart’s The Memory Bank. An audience member quoted Francis Fukuyama,The Origins of Political Order.

There are lots of tweets under #economicsfest, and when the videos are online I’ll add the link here. Next year’s Festival of Economics will take place from 12-14 November. Ideas for subjects are welcome!

The revolution will not be disintermediated

I’m on the road this week, University of Manchester, BBC North, and the Festival of Economics in Bristol. My book companion is Rebecca Solnit’s Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness, a collection of essays. It’s as brilliant as any fan of her writing would expect.

One essay, The Butterfly and the Boiling Point, is about the many little causes of popular rebellions that accumulate until, suddenly, large-scale protest erupts on the streets and in public squares. The title alludes to the the idea in complexity theory that the merest flap of a butterfly’s wings in one part of the world can change the path of a hurricane on the other side of the globe. Small causes turn into big consequences. But in thinking about political movements, there are many butterflies and their flaps have no consequences until there are enough separate little causes that the boiling point is reached.

Solnit discusses why popular rebellions in 2011 happened where they did – Tunisia, Egypt – but could not happen in the US. “It is remarkable how in other countries, people will simply one day stop believing in the regime that had, until then, ruled them.” Fear evaporates. There is a sudden shift in consciousness. She argues that it could be because the US lacks “symbolically charged public spaces.” The capital city isn’t a centre, and many other cities lack centres. “Revolution is an urban phenomenon,” she writes. “It’s all very well to organize on Facebook and update on Twitter, but these are only preludes. …. You need to be together in body for only then are you truly the public with the full power that a public can possess.”

The revolution will not be disintermediated?

Rights versus utils

Does this make me a bad person? I wasn’t wowed by John Dewey’s The Public and its Problems. This wasn’t because of any disagreement with its arguments so much as finding it a rather waffly, even dull read.


In fact, the opening argument is persuasive, drawing the distinction between a public – a collective identity beyond the household or immediate community, with principles and officials for mediating different interests – and the abstraction of ‘the state’ that features in political thought. In my translation, Dewey is in the camp of Elinor Ostrom in looking for a natural history of how collective institutions and decision-making mechanisms emerge, albeit on the scale of the nation or beyond.I like, too, his insistence on the importance of understanding concrete circumstances, including when it comes to understanding the powerful special interests that get in the way of the public interest and effective democracy.

One interesting point he makes is the way the economic doctrine of laissez faire, built on economics based on utilitarian philosophy, has merged with the philosophy of natural rights, despite the contradiction between the two approaches. The laissez faire approach said private profit served social prosperity, in the absence of any meddling, because of the harmonious character of natural law, or divine providence. Jeremy Bentham was particularly critical of the natural rights doctrine. He said they are, “Simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense, — nonsense upon stilts.” He said they encouraged mischievous individualism and revolution against established governments. Rights are, “The fruits of the law, and of the law alone. There are no rights without law—no rights contrary to the law—no rights anterior to the law.” The law being properly determined by the greatest good of the greatest number – nothing could trump the hedonic calculus.

Anyway, I’m sure there’s more of his work I ought to read but that will do me for the time being on Dewey.