The hamburgerized economy

It’s Saturday, when I try to bring order to my life, and I was just sorting out the teetering pile of books when I unearthed by Louise fresco. It’s a notably handsome book with lovely pictures, so already enticing. Paging through, it looks a fascinating read as well. Although billed as a cultural history, it looks at the dominant role of supermarkets in the way we shop, at genetic modification, at agriculture, poverty and economic development, at the slow food movement and the globalization of food supply.

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

Now, I love food and prepare most of our meals from scratch, buying few ready-made items. Quality is important to me. Eating as a family, round a table, talking, is essential. Yet the slow food movement makes me uneasy, as it often seems to reject the productivity needed to feed everyone, and to embody an approach few can afford. Agricultural productivity needs to increase again. As it happens, I just spotted this tweet on exactly this subject:

AgBioWorld
Global middle class is booming, so is demand for food. More crop per acre is the only way! https://t.co/LM9PFbRAbi https://t.co/VL09pRxOFv
21/11/2015 14:18

On the other hand, the scandals of industrial food production – horse meat disguised as beef, the treatment of animals including stuffing them with antibiotics, obesity, the high-salt, high-fat, high-margin products etc – are unacceptable and probably unsustainable. We will soon be publishing a terrific book by David Fell on food policy and taxation in our Perspectives series. meanwhile, I’m going to read over the Christmas holiday. Fresco concludes: “Without food there is no evolution and no civilization. We are what we eat, literally. … What it means to be human is concentrated in food and our understanding of it. Inevitably, part of that is the consciousness that many have too little to eat, or cannot choose to have the things tah are associated with a decent meal.”

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Happy fish and economic growth

From by Arthur Lewis (after whom my department building is named):

“[T]he advantage of economic growth is not that wealth increases happiness, but that it increases the range of human choice … We do not know what the purpose of life it, but if it were happiness then evolution might just as well have stopped a long time ago, since there is no reason to believe that men are happier than pigs or fishes. What distinguishes men from pigs is that men have greater control over their environment; not that they are more happy. And on this test, economic growth is greatly to be desired. The case for economic growth is that it gives man greater control over his environment and thereby increases his freedom.”

[amazon_image id=”0415407087″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Theory of Economic Growth[/amazon_image]

Shades of Sen’s . Lewis is quoted in H.W.Arndt’s .

[amazon_image id=”0192893300″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Development as Freedom[/amazon_image]

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Lies, damned lies, statistics, and GDP

On the train to Manchester this morning I finished a terrific book I should really have read long ago. I’m very glad I finally have. It’s Morten Jerven’s The title made me think it was only relevant to African statistics, when in fact anybody interested in GDP and national accounts should read it.

[amazon_image id=”080147860X” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Poor Numbers: How We are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do About it (Cornell Studies in Political Economy)[/amazon_image]

The book is short and non-technical, but includes a number of important arguments and examples. Here are the conclusions I take from it:

1. Statistics are the ‘facts’ “states collect to get knowledge about their own economic or social conditions.” Having reliable statistics is a marker of an effective state – “the ability to collect information and taxes are closely related” – and the statistics chosen reflect the power structures and political priorities of states. African states are not effective, their statistics are not reliable. (But this also made me reflect that there is a lot happening in the developed economies for which we have no statistics – and no ability of the state to understand or influence change.)

2. African GDP statistics in the key online databases used by economists – the World Bank, the Penn World Tables, the Maddison database – are inconsistent because of different interpretations of the underlyaing national data, different base years, different price indices. The sources even rank African countries differently in terms of GDP per capita. Econometric work will get different results depending which is used.” Jerven argues that economists need to have a much more detailed understanding of both the data they download and the specifics of individual countries’ circumstances to be able to interpret the numbers.

3. The underlying national level data are unreliable because of a lack of resources and statistical capacity. Surveys are rarely carried out, there is much guesswork, base year changes happen too infrequently, there is political influence.

4. 2 and 3 together mean little reliance can be placed on the standard cross-country regressions using the standard data sets. “These problems undermine any general conclusions drawn about what stimulates or hinders economic development in Africa.’

5. The standard national accounts concepts don’t apply well to developing economies with a large informal sector. The distinction between production and consumption or working and not-working is not as clear. (And may be becoming less clear in developed economies too, as technology blurs these boundaries and working patterns change.)

The book argues that the standard outline of African growth – a dismal 1970s, a better outcome post- structural adjustment remedies, and a recent acceleration in growth is largely ‘illusory’. The recent uplift in particular comes from the World Bank/IMF splicing recent rebased GDP figures onto an earlier series, as Jerven describes it. He argues that more data needs to be collected, in regular surveys, to enable both good statistics and an effective state knowing what is happening in the economy and to its tax base. He also argues strongly for greater transparency by national statistical offices but especially by the international agencies such as the World Bank and IMF, whose say-so determines the methods used to create the statistics and the world’s interpretation of what is happening in each economy.

“Accounting for the national economy is fundamental for government accountability. Without reliable macro data, political transparency is hard to imagine. …. Numbers are too important to be ignored and the problems surrounding the production and dissemination of numbers too serious to be dismissed.”

So don’t make my initial mistake of thinking this is a bit of a specialist book. It’s a fascinating and important read.

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Big data meets humanitarian response

Some time ago I co-authored a report (for the UN Foundation and Vodafone Foundation) with Patrick Meier on the use of mobiles in emergencies and disasters. Patrick has just released a whole book on this subject, going much wider than the original report, .

The technology has already moved on considerably – the Big Data phenomenon, for one thing. Importantly, there’s a chapter covering verification techniques; while we found in the original work that crowd-sourced data (as it wasn’t yet called when we first wrote about this) was often more accurate than ‘official’ information, the more verification the better. There’s also a chapter on digital activism – the book’s website sets out all the chapters with brief summaries.

Digital Humanitarians looks like it has lots of examples and it certainly covers some very important and timely questions. Patrick blogs at iRevolution and his latest post talks about the book.

[amazon_image id=”1482248395″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Digital Humanitarians: How Big Data Is Changing the Face of Humanitarian Response[/amazon_image]

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Eating people is wrong

A proof copy of Cormac Ó Gráda’s  has arrived in the post, and it all looks terrific. I’ve skimmed the title essay, the point being that not all famines result in cannibalism, raising the question – why not? What cultural shifts or social norms might account for the different experiences concerning “one of the human race’s darkest secrets.”

[amazon_image id=”0691165351″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Eating People Is Wrong, and Other Essays on Famine, Its Past, and Its Future[/amazon_image]

The book ends with a reflection on Amartya Sen’s observation in his famous book  (and again in ) that eliminating famine is ‘easy’, but eliminating hunger is not, and we shouldn’t pretend it is so. The task is “constrained by vested interests, by power politics, by poverty, by ignorance, by cynicism and by false analysis.”

Can’t wait to read the bits in the middle. Probably not right after our Christmas lunch.

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