If/then

Earlier this year I read Jill Lepore’s These Truths, which made me eager to read her new book, If Then: How One Data Company Invented the Future, as soon as possible. It didn’t disappoint – although I had a couple of reservations about it. More on that later.

The book is the story of a company, Simulmatics, formed by a PR man, Ed Greenfield, and an MIT political scientists, Ithiel De Sola Pool. It aimed to apply computers to the prediction of human behaviour: feed the machine enough data and it would be possible to predict election outcomes, among other social phenomena, and more importantly manipulate them. The convergence of data, computational power and Mad Men behaviourist techniques seemed inevitable and unconquerable. The parallel with the same again this time round but more so is striking, and the book ends with the comparison.

Along the way, Lepore tells a rattling good story about American politics in the late 1950s through to the Vietnam War and Nixon, about the first application of computers to social issues (and Madison Avenue was onto the opportunities early), and also about gender politics. Right from the start, there was a culture of computer bros, hostile to women: “Women’s knowledge was not knowledge.” The cast of characters is fantastic. Many of them I’d never heard of – Eugene Burdick, the best-selling author of thrillers and leading political scientist, anyone? Lepore also writes like a novelist, and an excellent one at that.

That is in fact one of my reservations. Among the notes I was taking were notes on craft – this is genuinely a page turner. And yet ….. when the text gets into the interior lives of the wives of the men, I wonder how she knows? Are there really enough letters and diaries, or is this indeed embroidery?

The other is that I hungered for more context about the impact of behaviourism and of cybernetics, and the broader environment of computerised social engineering. For example, Stafford Beer had his own US consultancy applying cybernetics, going to Chile in the early 1970s to assist with Project Cybersyn (the subject of Eden Medina’s wonderful book Cybernetics Revolutionaries). If Then does acknowledge the early use of computers in advertising but Norbert Wiener gets but a passing reference. And even though Simulmatics failed – so many of its projects turning out disastrously – there is surprisingly little scepticism about whether computers can in fact predict and manipulate humans,  whether Simulmatics or their modern day equivalents in Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.

Having said that, If Then is a wonderful book, highly recommended. Lepore was interviewed by David Runciman in a great episode of Talking Politics for those who’d like another taster – it focuses mainly on those disturbing modern parallels.

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Economics for social animals

I’ve been reading the latest book by Robert Frank, Under the Influence: Putting Peer Pressure to Work. Although I greatly admire his work, and he has a knack for catching the moment – as with Luxury Fever or The Winner Take All Society –  I must confess I found this one a bit dull. This is nothing to do about disagreeing with the idea, which is to bring together thinking about social norms, altruism, positional goods and behavioural peer effects together to tease out policy implications, or rather policy approaches. This all seems blindingly obvious to me, and indeed one of ten lectures in my public policy economics course (one chapter in my Markets, State and People) covers exactly these social influences. I agree, too, that more economists ought to be more aware of social influence: we are not isolated individuals in making choices.

There are some deep questions for economists, once you accept the seemingly incontrovertible evidence that social norms can change, advertising works to persuade us to buy things, and positional arms races occur. What does it imply for a discipline whose models and welfare analysis are based on the concept of fixed preferences? For example, the way price indices are calculated – used to calculate in turn ‘real’ growth and productivity – assumes fixed preferences; but there are constant innovations and new goods, and there is no settled way of taking these into account in dividing pounds or euros spent into price and ‘real’ components.

Back to the book, though. Yes, of course to ensuring economics and policy advice are consistent with evidenced insights from social psychology or cognitive science or evolutionary theory. Yes, of course context affects how people make economic choices. But ….perhaps it was my frame of mind this week, but Under the Influence didn’t sing to me. It seems very long-winded. In fact, the prologue claims as a virtue the repetition in the book, arguing it will help get the message to stick. Students who are not familiar with the material might really enjoy this and find it sinking in. But not one for me.

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Top down *and* bottom up

Charles Stafford’s plea in Economic Life in the Real World: Logic, Emotion and Ethics, is for his fellow anthropologists to take more seriously the methodologies of two other disciplines, economics and psychology. I learned a lot about anthropology from this book, including how much anthropologists disdain economics (I fear we return indifference, on the whole).

Stafford’s argument, in a very interesting and readable book, is that the approaches are complementary: anthropologists focus on the most micro of details, while both economics and psychology are interested in generalisation about human behaviour. Intriguing to see these two bracketed together when psychology has – during the behavioural rvolution – been portrayed as a more realistic version of choice than that (assumed to be) assumed by economists – of course economists have always known that the rational choice version is not ‘realistic’.

He writes: “As a matter of routine, anthropologists accuse economists of being obsessed with ‘individual rational choosers’, but it is surely anthropolgists who are obsessed with detail.” There’s a bit of a paradox here: economics does apply methodological individualism on the whole, and easily overlooks social influences (though not entirely). Yet our concern is with outcomes at aggregate as well as individual levels. Economics is certainly universalist. It was interesting to see psychology being put in the same camp, as a universalist approach.

The plea is therefore for anthropologists to recognise that human psychology is at the heart of economic agency – it isn’t all about historical and cultural context. There is a nice chapter analysing the pros and cons of Robert Lucas’s approach to human capital and economic development, confrinted with the way people in a Taiwanese village think about the education of their children. The book ends too by pointing out that while anthropology resists quantification at all costs, the people whom the author had spent time with during his fieldwork considered numeracy and quantification to be important, not least for their economic lives.

There is surely an interaction between general human characteristics and cultural specificities. Both approaches are needed for a rounded understanding of society. I am particularly interested in the possibility for qualitative methods to inform causal inference, given that empirical identification of statistical relationships in complex systems of economic interactions is pretty much impossible. Identification needs to come from outside the model, rather than by torturing statistical correlations with dubious ‘instruments’.

Anyway, I enjoyed reading this book and welcome the anthropo-econo debate.

51Mcz+Z4MHL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve also nearly finished Jeanette Winterson’s Frankisstein, which is terrific.

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Wolves on the trading floor

My lockdown days have become filled with Zoom meetings at the expense of reading on tubes and trains. I’m definitely going to try to cut down on the online calls, which are exhausting (& I hope tech-land is working out why, and trying to fix it).

Meanwhile, I read a very good biography of Walter Gropius by Fiona MacCarthy, another of the wonderful Maigret novels, and also The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: risk taking, gut feelings, and the biology of boom and bust by John Coates.

It’s a really interesting book about the role biological/neurological responses in decision-making, applied to the financial market context. It will surprise nobody to learn that testosterone is one of the key players, generating bull markets (hah!) and excess risk-taking. “Traders are walking time bombs, and banks invariably light the fuse, dangling before them huge risk limits and bonus payments.” There seem some obvious regulatory interventions in the financial context eg ban bonus structures and mandate 50% female employees on trading floors. The book points out that at most 5% of traders are women, even though they outperform men over the long term.

The book braids together sections on the biology and sections tracking the various hormones and nervous impulses in a financial market boom. It’s a terrific read and super-clear. The author is a financial markets guy turned research scientist and having both sets of insights is illuminating.

The part that most interested me though – and that put me on to the book via an FT article about the impact of uncertainty on our health – was pondering what it means for a computer to think and make decisions when human decision-making is so firmly embodied, driven by our physical features, the way the chemicals in the blood stream and the nervous signals shape perception and emotion. The book I’ve now started (Economic Life in the Real World by Charles Stafford ) cites Antonio Damasio’s work in Descartes’ Error: people whose emotions are affected by brain injury are worse at making ‘rational’ decisions. Reason and emotion – involving biochemical and neurological phenomena – go hand in hand. Meanwhile, we are building AIs according to an idea of ‘reason’ modelled on homo economicus.

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Nudging people to be free

I read Cass Sunstein’s latest, On Freedom, while on the train today. It’s both slim and small – just over 100 passport sized pages – so the argument is pretty straightforward. Sunstein is addressing the ‘libertarian paternalism’ critique of nudging. His argument is that suitable choice architecture makes people more, rather than less, free. The book points to earlier responses, such as the fact that there has to be a default so why not use a better one than the status quo? There is always a design. If advertisers are constantly nudging people to eat junk food, why would you *not* want the authorities to nudge in the other direction.

The new element here is the argument that freedom of choice is meaningless without navigation aids: “Freedom of choice is important, even critical, but it is undermined or even destroyed if life cannot be navigated.” His analogy is GPS: people can choose where they want to go but should be helped find the most straightforward route. Freedom needs to be actionable. I was surprised the book didn’t pick up on the attention scarcity point so eloquently set out in Mullanaithan and Shafir’s book Scarcity; it would have been another strand to the argument.

I’m one of those made uneasy by the trend towards nudging, not being sure I do want my government treating me like one of the recipients of an advertising exec’s wiles. One chapter in On Freedom considers the prospect that preferences are endogenous and can be determined by nudges. “After being nudged, they will be happy and even grateful.” This is a highly counter-productive argument for me. Yet I see the strength of some pro-nudge arguments too. Anyway, this book is a very clear and by construction concise case for nudges as freedom.

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