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.


What’s wrong – and right – with economics

I didn’t expect to enjoy Robert Skidelsky’s new book, What’s Wrong With Economics: A Primer for the Perplexed, for he has long been forthright about his low opinion of economics and economists; and so it proved.

He makes some good points, nevertheless. Indeed, some I strongly agree with, as do a lot of other economists. For example, many of us would agree about the importance of studying economic history; even some of the nerdiest econometricians and theorists I know devour the big new econ history books. Likewise about the importance of taking into account psychological realism – behavioural economics, hello! (Though standard rational calculation of self-interest often matches reality better – it’s all about the context.) Institutional economics is everywhere now, in the tradition of Coase, Williamson, et al. Lord Skidelsky approves of it (albeit preferring the old institutionalism to the new transactions-cost based approach); he just seems to be under the misapprehension that it’s a neglected part of the discipline.

In sum, there is indeed much here that I and many other economists of my acquaintance agree with. Big ticks to history, institutions, psychological realism, even to acquaintance with sociology or anthropology.

So why did I not enjoy the book? It talks about “the poverty of neoclassical economics under its carapace of techniques.” This is absurd. While certainly there is some excess ‘mathiness‘, technique is a vital thing in any discipline. Even historians have techniques, and models (‘the causes of the first world war’). Does this carapace consist of too much ‘theory’? As Beatrice Cherrier has blogged, there has been a significant shift to applied work in economics, even though its description as the ’empirical turn’ has been over-stated.

But above all, despite insisting on the importance on both economic history and the history of economic thought, the book is ahistorical in its approach to economics. It attacks an economics it labels as ‘mainstream’ or ‘neoclassical’. Whatever it means by mainstream, this isn’t what most economists do. As ever in such critiques, the book only talks about macroeconomics, doesn’t cite a single piece of applied microeconomics, but above all ignores the fact that economics has changed in the past 10, 20, 30 years.

I do think there are serious methodological issues in the present (‘mainstream’) economic paradigm – my next book, Cogs and Monsters, out around this time next year, will be about this.

Meanwhile, What’s Wrong With Economics is concise, clearly and elegantly written and spends half its length demonstrating that the other half is – well, about what’s right with economics.51FqQfM-ouL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_


Coffee table economics

I’ve been enjoying paging through Steven Medema’s The Economics Book: from Xenophon to Cryptocurrency, 250 Milestones in the History of Economics, not least because it has lots of lovely pictures. It’s a history of economic concepts –  that starts in 700 BCE with Hesiod to cryptocurrencies in 2009. Each entry has a beautiful illustration, no mean feat when it comes to illustrating Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium (a photo of the ECB), National Income Accounting (women washing dishes at home and hence not contributing to GDP), or Utilitarianism (Jeremy Bentham’s catalogue of the different sources of pleasure and pain). The pictures make it exactly the kind of book you’d be happy to have on the coffee table but it’s more than that: the selection of concepts and the capsule explanations do make it a useful starting point for people who’ve maybe read the terms or think they ought to know something about economics but have no idea where to start. They can start here without embarrassment (Hicks-Allen consumer theory, the School of Salamanca, the Shapley value….) and follow up elsewhere. It’s also a bargain – get the hardback, not the Kindle version.




Going to extremes

Richard Davies obviously made the kind of road trip many of us only dream of to write Extreme Economies: from Akita in Japan to Santiago in Chile, from Glasgow to Kinshasa. The locations he chose illustrate one of three characteristics – survival (refugee camps in Jordan, post-tsunami Aceh, a US prison in Louisiana), failure (Panama’s Darien Gap, Kinshasa in DRC, and post-industrial Glasgow), and the future (ageing Japan, digital Estonia, unequal Chile. As the book sums it up: “The year 2030, for most people on earth, will be a cocktail of these three cities: an urban society that is old, technologically advanced, and economically unequal.”

The book is a great read – I tore through it. An economist who can write so well while at the same time explaining the economic principles so clearly is always a joy. I will admit to being rather envious of the opportunity he had to visit all these places. Getting out and visiting should be required for all economists, whether they are writing about development and progress as Davies is, or about industrial organisation or education. You always learn something not only relevant but also important. One of the things I did love about this book was the painless administering of some substantial chunks of economic research – it’s an ideal read for eager 6th form students or undergraduates. It might encourage them to appreciate that economics is not only important but also exciting.

The book also includes some important threads. One is the environment as an economic as well as intrinsically valuable asset. Darien’s economy depends on extraction from the jungle, living now on its future potential: “The puzzle is why, in a region where everyone knows the environment is being degraded, the people of Darien can’t manage the economy in a way that stops it happening.” This segues into a discussion of the ‘tragedy of the commons’. Later, though, it’s Glasgow’s social capital, another overlooked asset, that’s pinpointed as one source of failure: “When an economic force is shared, unseen and hard to measure, you will do too little to protect it.” I couldn’t agree more. Social capital features in all the examples here, either as a source of resilience or a cause of failure. It isn’t a sufficient explanation of economic outcomes – for example, in the chapter on refugee camps in Jordan, one thrives and the other fails because of external forces shaping the structure of the camps and their economic potential – but it is a necessary element.

Davies picks this up in the conclusion: “The biggest gap in economics is the way it completely ignores social capital.” This is why our Bennett Institute Wealth Economy team is exploring the measurement of social capital. Economics doesn’t entirely ignore it – it gets lables such as ‘institutions’ or ‘goodwill’ – but is treated as a black box at best. So I agree with the book that economics will have more to offer the world if we measure and understand better the “subtler and more human aspects of income and wealth.”

Meanwhile, I recommend enjoying the tour through the rebuilt Aceh, refugee camps in Jordan, the market in Kinshasa, Lousiana’s Angola prison and all the other economies featured here. And I hope some TV producer will pick up the book and take its author round the world all over again to film it.



Once upon a time

It’s very interesting the way interest in narratives is popping up in so many places. The Royal Society has been looking at narratives in AI and in science more generally. Now Robert Shiller of Irrational Exuberance (and Nobel Prize) fame has a new book called Narrative Economics: How Stories Go Viral and Drive Major Economic Events. The book builds on a lecture he gave a couple of years ago. It begins: “This book offers the beginnings of a new theory of economic change that introduces an important new element to the usual list of economic factors: contagious popular stories that spread through word of mouth, the news media and social media.”

As the preface notes, the idea isn’t new; the 1894 Palgrave’s Dictionary of Political Economy mentions narrative economics. Robert Merton’s well-known concept of self-fulfilling (or self-averting) prophecies covers much of the territory of narrative dynamics. But perhaps today’s economy is more vulnerable than ever to contagion. An early chart in the book illustrates the surge in the proportion of articles across several socal science and humanities disciplines that contain the word ‘narrative’. Economics and finance are well behind history (of course) but also anthropology, sociology and political science.

Anyway, the book is about how narrative contagion affects economic events. It has in mind epidemic models, as well as – well, narratives. Each chapter focuses on a number of examples. The first section starts with Bitcoin as an example of how narrative affected behaviour and outcomes, then introduces some of the concepts concerning how narratives ‘go viral’ and the psychology of contagion. Part 2 is a brief section setting out ‘seven propositions of narrative economics’ (including ‘truth is not enough to stop false narratives’. Quite.) Part 3 describes recurring economic narratives such as financial boom and bust, or automation and jobs. The final part of the book sets out questions for research.

The book is always interesting, but somewhat bitty, one example after another, lacking a grand theory of narrative framework. However, as Shiller points out in the final section, there is plenty of scope for quantitative approaches to understanding the economic role of narratives, particularly using recent text analysis tools. A cynic might paint this emphasis on narrative – also recently explored by George Akerlof and Dennis Snower – as classic economic imperialism. After all, she might say, sociology and anthropology have been onto this for years. Some economists might on the other hand dismiss the emphasis on narratives as a source of dynamics as woolly nonsense, merely anecdotal. But both responses would be too negative.

A move to extend the use of qualitative approaches in economics should be welcomed, and an extension of the also-welcome revival of economic history. Narrative Economics joins a couple of other recent books, such as Morson and Schapiro’s Cents and Sensibility and Uncertain Futures edited by Jens Beckert and Richard Bronk in restoring the humanity to economics.