Resisting the temptation of quantum economics

On the train yesterday I finished an enjoyable book, The Quantum Moment: How Planck, Bohr, Einstein and Heisenberg taught us to love Uncertainty by Robert Crease and Alfred Scharff Goldhaber. It’s the book of a course this philosopher and physicist teach to students who are a mix of humanities and science majors, and it concerns the interactions between discoveries in physics and the wider culture. Now, I must confess that, despite the simplification here, I still don’t understand quantum mechanics, condensates, entanglement and all that jazz: it feels like my brain can almost grasp what’s going on but despite straining can’t quite get there. I’m not alone but at least I don’t pretend; the book has nice examples of ‘fruit loopery’, meaningless claims of spurious authority based on the impressive sound of quantum terminology. The idea of there being no ‘out there’ outside the model, from which an expert and impartial observer can analyse everything, has obvious resonance for a social scientist. But let’s not pretend to do quantum economics.

Even so, the book is convincing in its argument that the Newtonian world (as imported into culture) of straightforward cause and effect has been replaced by a more uncomfortable world of ‘gaps, inconsistencies, warps and bubbles’. The authors think this is a good thing – perhaps it prefigures a ‘new humanism’ they suggest. Hmm. I’m not so sure about that. But I would agree that: “Understanding and appreciating quantum language and imagery – along with the ability to recognise its misuse in fruitloopery – is part of what it means to be an educated person today.” But is there any truly accessible explanation of it for the non-physicist?  51otp0kfvil-_sx331_bo1204203200_

Food, glorious food

I’ve been reading [amazon_link id=”0691163871″ target=”_blank” ]Hamburgers in Paradise: The Stories Behind the Food We Eat[/amazon_link] by Louise Fresco – slowly, in the (brief) window between going to bed and falling asleep because although a gorgeously produced and fascinating book, it’s too heavy to carry around.

[amazon_image id=”0691163871″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Hamburgers in Paradise: The Stories behind the Food We Eat[/amazon_image]

The book is stuffed full of fascinating stories and facts. It isn’t a history although it contains much history. The chapters take themes, starting with accounts of (food in) Paradise and the fall, with others covering subjects such as biodiversity, scarcity, plenty, bread, fish, obesity. The broad arc of the narrative, though, is the eventual escape from a Malthusian world via the progressive industrialisation of food production, and the questions now about sustainability and the quality of our food and our well-being. Can we return from the hamburgerized modernity to a paradise of moderation in abundance? I haven’t quite finished so don’t yet know her answer.

And the facts! I had no idea that yields in the Netherlands were 10 tons of wheat per hectare, compared with 1-2 tons in Portugal, while rice yields are 7-8 tons per hectare in China and just 4-5 tons in the most fertile parts of India. Who knew you could develop a fatal anaemia from eating broad beans – which on the other hand offer some protection against malaria? But the book is no nerdy tome on farming; its main theme is the culture of food, of growing it and eating it – I’m just picking out examples that appeal to my nerdiness. A lovely book.


It’s the culture, stupid

Bill Clinton of course said, It’s the economy, stupid. But this week I heard a fantastic reminder that culture trumps everything. My nephew, who works in Nairobi, came to dinner this week & told a story about when he was developing an app to teach personal finance. His script said: There are two things you can do with your money. You can spend it or you can save it.

The boss took him aside and said, Actually, you know there are three things you can do with your money. You can spend it, you can save it, or you can share it.

Our chastened nephew re-wrote his script.

Which is a good opportunity to big up a terrific book about poor people and their money, [amazon_link id=”0691148198″ target=”_blank” ]Portfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live on $2 a Day[/amazon_link]. I love this book because it is based on asking poor people about how they use money, and what services they would like. Above all, the answer is secure savings.

[amazon_image id=”0691148198″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Portfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live on $2 a Day[/amazon_image]

Reading on the train

I’m off in a while to Bath to speak at the Literary Festival about [amazon_link id=”0691156794″ target=”_blank” ]GDP: A Brief But Affectionate History[/amazon_link] – both delighted and mildly surprised at the continuing interest in the subject. To read on the train to and fro, I’m dithering between [amazon_link id=”0674725654″ target=”_blank” ]The Rise and Fall of Neoliberal Capitalism[/amazon_link] by David Kotz and [amazon_link id=”1846684749″ target=”_blank” ]Pinkoes and Traitors[/amazon_link], Jean Seaton’s history of the BBC over the years 1974-1987.

[amazon_image id=”0691156794″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History[/amazon_image]  [amazon_image id=”0674725654″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Rise and Fall of Neoliberal Capitalism[/amazon_image]  [amazon_image id=”1846684749″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Pinkoes and Traitors: The BBC and the nation, 1974 – 1987[/amazon_image]

The former looks like an economic version of the political history of the creation of the “free market” economics described so well in Daniel Stedman-Jones’s excellent book [amazon_link id=”0691161011″ target=”_blank” ]Masters of the Universe[/amazon_link]. At a couple of gatherings of people who are ‘masters of the universe’ recently, it’s clear to me they think the writing is on the wall for the model from which they’ve profited so much. What’s odd about today’s political discourse is that politicians won’t acknowledge (in public) that a big structural change is under way – hence, I guess, the general despair about politics as usual and appeal of populists.

[amazon_image id=”0691151571″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics[/amazon_image]  [amazon_image id=”B00EDJEVWM” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Armchair Nation: An intimate history of Britain in front of the TV[/amazon_image]

The Jean Seaton book covers my formative years as a teen and young adult. I loved Joe Moran’s cultural history of British TV, [amazon_link id=”1846683912″ target=”_blank” ]Armchair Nation[/amazon_link], not least for the reminders of the shared culture that shaped me. At the time I was completely unaware of BBC corporate issues, as most people are most of the time. At the end of April I get to the end of my nine year stint as a BBC Trustee, so am in reflective mode and might go for this book first. (After the end of April, I can reverse the opinion-ectomy anyone linked with the BBC has to undergo because there is always some moron who thinks one’s personal views reflect organisational “bias”….)

Indians, Turks and Homo Economicus

There are still a few of my holiday reads I’ve not yet posted about. One was Amit Chaudhuri’s [amazon_link id=”1908526181″ target=”_blank” ]Calcutta: Two Years in the City[/amazon_link], the author’s reflections on moving back to a city he had known well as a child, his conversations with people he met in the streets and in other ways, on Bengali culture (virtually unknown to me save for a couple of Satyajit Ray films and what bits I’ve picked up from reading Amartya Sen, for example in [amazon_link id=”0141012110″ target=”_blank” ]The Argumentative Indian[/amazon_link]). There is little about the economy in it, although plenty of observation. Chaudhuri writes:

“Will someone in the social sciences write a dissertation on how the rise of individualism in Bengal (in contrast to the West) destroyed rather than energised entrepreneurship, at least on home ground; how, in India, caste and community drive capital and the free market?”

I presume somebody has but don’t know – maybe a reader can give some pointers?

[amazon_image id=”1908526181″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Calcutta: Two Years in the City[/amazon_image]

I read, too, Orhan Pamuk’s early novel [amazon_link id=”0571275958″ target=”_blank” ]Silent House[/amazon_link] – out in a new English paperback, although it was his 2nd novel, written in 1983. I’m a huge fan of his work. This one is set at a time 30 years ago of political and social tension between modern, affluent, urban young people and their poor, rural, unsuccessful counterparts – so well worth reading now. Like [amazon_link id=”0571218318″ target=”_blank” ]Snow[/amazon_link], it achieves the great imaginative accomplishment of helping the reader completely understand how some people come to hold such different, and unappealing, views.

[amazon_image id=”0571275958″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Silent House[/amazon_image]

I thought both books were great – good reads and able to give the reader a real sense of another world, where people think and behave differently. A reminder of the importance of culture to social science, and an antidote to the (sometimes useful) assumption of homo economicus.