The unknown pioneer

Many people – including economists, I suspect – won’t recognise the name Colin Clark. Yet he has at least as much claim as Simon Kuznets to be known as one of the pioneers of national income accounting. I came across Clark’s work when researching my book on GDP, and was pleasantly surprised to know that he had been a Fellow (and much earlier a student) at my Oxford college, Brasenose. Eventually I put two and two together and realised that the very nice chap I had spoken to at various events was Colin Clark’s youngest son David, another Brasenose student.

Anyway, this is all by way of preamble to saying how much I’ve enjoyed reading Alex Millmow’s biography, The Gypsy Economist: The Life and Times of Colin Clark. This is the first biography of somebody who worked as a young man with Keynes, taught Richard Stone, and produced some of the first modern statistics on national income; and later corresponded with Kuznets and Lewis, creating the field of development economics alongside them. In 1984 the World Bank honoured him as one of the 10 pioneers of development economics, along with Hirschman, Myrdal, Rostow, Bauer and others. Clark was influential in the Labour Party, being particularly close to Hugh Dalton, before spending many years in Australia, as a government economist in Queensland. Later he returned to England for some years, where he was involved in the founding of the Institute for Economic Affairs.

It is natural to ask why, given his scholarly work, Clark is so unknown now. After all, Stone, Lewis and Kuznets all went on to win the Nobel. The answer probably lies in that career history, and political trajectory. Actually, Clark not only left academia for years to take up a policy role, he also seems to have torpedoed his chances in two other ways. One – emerging clearly from between the lines of the book – is that he was a maverick character, possibly even cantankerous. The other is that he converted to Catholicism and became an ardent advocate of ‘distributivism’, which seems to have been a romantic philosophy advocating small rural communities and the virtue of farming. The biography quotes throughout many comments to the effect that Clark was brilliant but his books and papers were disorganised – lacked an organising analytical framework – and were sloppy in many regards. One typical comment described him as, “Brilliant, original, provocative, eccentric and sometimes just plain wrong.”

Having said this, there are many fascinating aspects of Clark’s thinking that emerge here, including some themes that have re-emerged in economics more recently. One is an early and lasting interest in increasing returns to scale, stimulated by working with Allyn Young. The second is simply the opening up of development economics through the empirics of long-run trends: Clark, like Kuznets, did not focus on (what became) GDP but – in his case – on statistics including income distribution, leisure, macroeconomic stability, and natural resource use and depletion. His Catholicism made him interested in non-state, non-business economic institutions such as churches but also friendly societies and unions – an openness to the economic role of a variety of community institutions only just returning in today’s mainstream economics. It also meant he was pro-population growth (he & his wife had 9 children themselves), considering it essential for per capita growth as modern endogenous growth theories imply, and a fierce critic of the Ehrlich ‘population time bomb’ argument.

This very informative biography made me rather ashamed not to have known anything about Colin Clark until a few years ago, even when his papers were sitting in my college library. I learned a lot more from reading it. The book fills a gap in the history of economic thought, and about the history of policy economics in Australia. (Alas, it’s priced for libraries.)

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Onions and eternal vigilance

This might sound weird, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Plague Cycle: The Unending War Between Humanity and Infectious Disease by Charles Kenny. It’s an absorbing history of exactly what the subtitle says, arguing that Malthus was wrong even when he was right: populations were indeed kept in check in a natural cycle for most of history, but the way this happened was infection, not starvation, when population sizes and densities increased by enough to make human settlements attractive homes for various pathogens.

As the book describes, people found responses to waves of disease: keeping strangers out or confining them; cooking and spices (hotter countries or regions have spicier cuisines). Who knew that, “[M]any spices kill bacteria. Garlic, onion, allspice and oregano inhibit or destory every bacterium they’ve been tested on.” But the significant breakthroughs, allowing urbanisation and modern economic growth through agglomeration, depending on the technological advances that started piling up just as Malthus’ book was published.

I say technological, but some advances were ideas requiring no laboratory. Oral rehydration therapy, devised by Indian doctor Dilip Mahalanabis in 1971, is cheap and simple. “But for its full potential to be realised, everyone has to know about it.” The book tells us that 95% of parents in Kerala know to give fluids to a child with diarrhea, but, “In West Bengal – where Dr Mahalanabis did his life saving work over four decades ago – more than half still give children less to drink.”

As the book goes on to explain, the techniques for defeating disease, from the simple to sophisticated vaccines (although – again, who knew? – Gandhi was an opponent of vaccination), enabled urban agglomeration and globalisation. For all their downsides, these have been the dynamo of modern prosperity: people exchanging ideas (in ways that Zoom etc just don’t make possible). It cites Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo’s finding that infant mortality rates are now lower in urban than in rural areas, an amazing reversal of the historic gradient.

The book ends with the new challenges, from anti-microbial resistance, to sentiment about vaccines and the toll taken by the Wakefield scandal, to the institutional challenges manifest in tackling Covid19. While The Plague Cycle represents work predating this pandemic, it could not have been published at a more timely moment. There will be more pandemics. Antibiotics and antivirals are ceasing to be effective because of over-use and mis-use. Continuing basic research has to be funded. I hope everyone will read this and do all they can to get across the message of eternal vigilance in this ‘unending war’.

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A brace of Leviathans

As welcome distraction from the misery of not being able to see any close family at Christmas after all, I’ve read (late, I know) The Narrow Corridor: How Nations Struggle for Liberty by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson.

The basic argument is well known. Inspired by Hobbes’ Leviathan, they argue that nations experience a dynamic whereby there is a sort of saddle path (a narrow corridor) between not enought government (‘absent Leviathan’) and too much (‘despotic Leviathan’). To stay in the corridor (‘shackled Leviathan’), there needs to be a balance of power between government (which has to be strong enough to be effective) and society (which has to be strong enough to prevent government tipping off the path in either direction. Slightly oddly, they call this the Red Queen effect after the on-the-spot race between Alice (in Wonderland) and the Red Queen – odd because it is never made completely explicit that they’re referring to a dynamic process rather than an adequate balance. I infer the former, but it’s implicit in the examples that make up the bulk of the book.

For there is a whistle stop tour of pretty much all of recorded human history. I’m not sure this works well, although at least the book is only a third of the length of Thomas Piketty’s Capital and Ideology, which came with its own tote bag. I have to confess I started to read the latter but was not distressed to find it quarantined in my office in the March lockdown. The first section of that is all history. It’s fantastic that top economists have discovered history of course, but it’s difficult to get the right focal length – what’s the right amount of detail to inform readers without it becoming classic economic imperialism? I did enjoy reading the book, but personally, I’d have edited down The Narrow Corridor’s capsule histories.

Other quibbles. The book seems to demonstrate the struggle for stability and absence of conflict at least as much as for liberty, despite the subtitle and blurb emphasising liberty only. Hobbes was more in the territory of order versus anarchy. There’s even a hand grenade on the paperback cover. And, having spent most of the book presenting the three Leviathans as exhausting the possibilities (there’s a neat diagram), the ‘paper Leviathan’ is introduced to deal with countries that govern despotically and at the same time incompetently – think some Latin American or African states. And perhaps some formerly-shackled Leviathan countries heading in that direction…..

Having said all this, well worth a read, as well as a useful reminder that there have been dark times before and yet things go on.

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Accounting for progress

I read Stephen Macekura’s The Mismeasure of Progress: Economic Growth and its Critics in proof, and just enjoyed reading it again now it’s been published. People who know about my work won’t be surprised to hear that this is just my cup of tea. The question preoccupies me as much as it ever did – what counts as progress and how do we count it? – along, increasingly, with the issue of who gets to answer the question.

There are now quite a few books about the limitations of GDP, or history of GDP, or both (eg as well as my GDP: A Brief But Affectionate History, Matthias Schmelzer’s The Hegemony of Growth, Philip Lepenies The Power of a Single Number, Ehsan Masood’s The Great Invention, Brett Chrostophers’ Banking Across Boundaries, and more). So Macekura has this recent literature to build on as well as older classics including Alain Desrosieres and Theodore Porter. What he brings is a unified story about the critics of GDP and the System of National Accounts told from the 1940s on, and particularly including the perspective of the economists and statisticians working on or in developing economies.

That the arcana of economic statistics matter is clear from the start: “Accounting and accountability are closely intertwined,” Macekura writes. His framework is James Scott‘s powerful concept of state ‘legibility’. This makes the imperialist habit clear when it comes to the history of national accounting in the colonies of western powers. As one Colonial Office official put it, the UK had to ‘level up’ its colonies, and would do so by increasing their GDP growth. Hmmm. That term is oddly familiar.

The heroes of the tale in some ways are economists such as Phyllis Deane of NIESR and Dudles Seers, founder of the Institute for Development Studies, for their appreciation that economies are not all the same. The fabric of life in low income countries was profoundly different from the standard framework it was supposed to fit. However, western critics of the focus on economic growth – whether for this reason or because of the increasing concern with environmental limits – were in turn criticised by some economists and others from the countries concerned, who considered that to not prioritise growth was a western luxury. “The Limits To Growth report [1972] prompted a strong backlash from experts in the Global South,” Macekura notes. He goes on to argue that, “Growth critics often sought to replace one set of numbers in governance with another. They mounted a technocratic critique of technocracy that claimed the basic problems of contemporary life could be resolved through the use of socially relevant and more specialized data.”

The book ends with a picture of the critics of growth and of GDP (overlapping but certainly not identical sets) in recent times, flagging questions such as the measurement of the financial sector, as well as the ever-more pressing sustainability issues. He ends with a call for a wider set of metrics but also for enfranchising people to participate in the debate about progress. There is certainly quite widespread interest in matters of measurement, for all kinds of reasons, now. GDP is rapidly losing its legitimacy but the need for the social accounts that enable accountability is more important than ever.

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Amartya Sen

My colleague Lawrence Hamilton has written a terrific summary of the work of Amartya Sen, in a book in Polity’s Key Contemporary Thinkers series, just called Amartya Sen. It’s a fantastic introduction to the oeuvre written in a very accessible manner. I’ve read Sen’s books most relevant to my own discipline, and his work on social choice is of course pretty technical; nevertheless, it is clearly explained here.

The deep interest all economists ought to have in Sen lies in his profound – and successful –  challenge to utilitarianism, the philosophical foundation on which economic theory has been constructed. Much of what I do now is motivated by the need to rethink the practicalities of economic policy given that the social welfare standard we think we use to compare different policy outcomes is so flawed. So for example, our Bennett Institute Wealth Economy project looking at people’s access to certain types of asset is one attempt to find a set of economic statistics to measure progress that speak to the idea of Sen’s capabilities and functionings – just as GDP growth speaks to utility.

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Having said that all economists ought to be interested, relatively few are. When I once wrote an op ed along these lines, a very distinguished senior economist emailed me to say if I wasn’t a utilitarian, I wasn’t an economist. Another very distinguished economist couldn’t see the disjuncture between Paretian welfare economics and the fact that policy economists make social welfare judgements all the time in cost benefit analysis, competition assessments, evaluations of tax policy etc. We are socialised so early and thoroughly into utility-thinking that it’s hard to step outside it.

Lawrence’s book introduces Sen’s key ideas in social choice and his concept of capabilities. I found very helpful the way it highlights the importance of incompleteness of information in turning Arrow’s work into a possibility rather than an impossibility theorem.  It also very elegantly critiques Sen’s work, largely its failure to address the practical political and institutional realities, and undue optimism about people – for instance, in Sen’s emphasis on deliberative processes. What is the role of expertise? How does political power as it is distributed in reality affect the process of deliberation? Very topical challenges, to which Sen’s work does not offer answers. As the book says, “Theories of social choice have tended to assume that people’s preferences are given, but it is a fact of life in democratic politics that on a lot of issues people do not have clear preferences.

This is an issue for economics too: the construction of the deflators used to turn nominal pound or dollar GDP into ‘real’ GDP, on which so much policy hangs, relies on a theory of constant, known preferences which determine the utility of consumption, and yet modern economic growth is all about creating wants for new goods and services for which preferences have to be created. So at a time of rapid innovation it is not at all clear what the deflators and ‘real’ GDP measures are measuring.

What is nevertheless compelling about Sen’s approach is its focus on human agency, which “Drives [Sen’s] major conceptual innovation or development but also for assessment of standards of living in all contexts: his capability approach.” It isn’t the goods that matter but what people can do with them.

In short, all economists ouht to read Sen’s major works, but if they haven’t definitely ought to read this introduction. Excellent for students too, and for people in the policy world who would like an overview.

Amartya Sen (Key Contemporary Thinkers)

 

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