A bit less random reading

I’m still reading through the slightly random pile mentioned in my previous post, and the latest has been The Good-Enough Life by Avram Alpert. As the author of a book called The Economics of Enough, I thought this one would be interesting. It threw me at the start by spending quite some pages on the difference between ‘great’ and ‘good-enough’ and why these terms don’t mean what everyone thinks they mean. This is not a wonderful writing tactic. (Of course, economists use terms that mean something different to other people, like rational, efficient, capital etc but tend not to bother explaining the distinctive disciplinary meaning.)

Anyway, what I took from the book in the end was an argument about the pernicious influence of positional goods (following Fred Hirsch’s classic work The Social Limits to Growth – ironically surprisingly highly priced) in the unequal capitalist system western economies have now, combined with advice about how to opt out of the rat race on a personal level, perhaps through religion – the author seems to be a Buddhist. This makes it a contrast to authors like Robert Frank who advocate societal action – taxing positional goods. It has a nice counter-argument to the ‘get as rich as you can then give (some) money away’ perspective; not only would this make us think well of the robber barons of the early 20th century, it also ignores the negative externalities arising from some individuals getting as rich as ever they can. But on the whole this is a book about individual mindset more than policy proposals.

It does have a lovely cover. I like the kintsugi metaphor.

Screenshot 2024-02-12 at 10.33.00


The Wealth Project

On Monday & Tuesday I attended an absolutely terrific conference, The Wealth Project, which is about “changing how we measure economic progress,” to quote the conference strapline. The aim is to develop concepts and measures of different kinds of wealth so that policies and decisions take due account of the future potential for consumption and well-being, as well as the short term. This has been a preoccupation of mine since at least writing [amazon_link id=”0691156298″ target=”_blank” ]The Economics of Enough[/amazon_link] as well as my [amazon_link id=”0691169853″ target=”_blank” ]GDP book[/amazon_link]. The Wealth Project will produce a book around the end of 2016 or start of next year.

Meanwhile, it’s always interesting to see what books people cite at conferences. This week I noted: C.A.Bayly, [amazon_link id=”0631236163″ target=”_blank” ]The Birth of the Modern World[/amazon_link]; David Hume, [amazon_link id=”1511985208″ target=”_blank” ]A Treatise on Human Nature[/amazon_link]; Karl Polanyi, [amazon_link id=”080705643X” target=”_blank” ]The Great Transformation[/amazon_link]; Dieter Helm, [amazon_link id=”0300210981″ target=”_blank” ]Natural Capital: Valuing the Planet[/amazon_link]. I referred back to the recent crop of GDP books and the Inspector Chen novel featuring GDP growth as villain.

[amazon_image id=”0631236163″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914: Global Connections and Comparisons (Blackwell History of the World)[/amazon_image]  [amazon_image id=”0140432442″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]A Treatise of Human Nature: Being an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects (Penguin Classics)[/amazon_image]  [amazon_image id=”B017LCJ8XE” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Natural Capital: Valuing the Planet by Dieter Helm (2015-05-01)[/amazon_image]

Stewardship for the future

This week brings my first meeting of the Natural Capital Committee, to which I was recently appointed. This is the Committee’s second phase (set for five years), its first running from 2012-2015. As part of my homework, this weekend I re-read chair Dieter Helm’s book [amazon_link id=”0300210981″ target=”_blank” ]Natural Capital: Valuing the Planet[/amazon_link].

51MeUzEvTLL._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_It’s a very accessible and clear explanation of why it’s important to value natural capital and how to go about it. As Dieter explains, there’s no doubt that economic growth has for some time been unsustainable. To be clear, that means that future generations (which could include our older selves) will have lower living standards because we have depleted by so much the capital stock providing economic services. (I would add infrastructure too, as part of the sustainability challenge, and there are similar issues as looking at renewable natural capital.)

The book presents the case for re-investing in natural capital in order to enable sustainable growth – it argues against the ‘no growth’ environmentalists. The mechanism it proposes is an aggregate natural capital rule: “The aggregate level of natural capital should not decline.” If there is damage done in one place, it has to be made good by compensating gains elsewhere. The rule can be applied to renewables, and can be extended to non-renewables by requiring a natural capital fund to compensate for extraction (much as the Norwegians do for their oil and gas extraction).

This is a radical change when you start to look at the amount of money that might be involved. The book suggests it is of the order of at least 4% of current GDP. And of course the details are extremely complicated. To state just two hurdles: we do not have good statistics on natural capital, although the Office for National Statistics does have a programme of work on this; and it is hard to value non-marketed assets and transactions, especially when there are substantial externalities, non-linearities and system interdependencies. Cost-benefit analysis – the only tool economics has to offer – applies to marginal (linear) changes and in practice does not try to value external benefits.

One of the book’s examples about habitats and how to think about the trade-offs compares great crested newts and nightingales. Both are protected species, but nightingales’ habitats are much harder to recreate elsewhere, arguing for a higher barrier to developing the kinds of woodland where they live. I can’t resist recounting an anecdote about newts. If you visit construction sites, as I sometimes have, there will often be a fence half a meter high around the work – to keep out the newts, which have to be carefully relocated from inside the site to outside. In my BBC Trust days, I was quizzing the great Sir David Attenborough about the fate of the poor great crested newts. He said (and who knows, maybe he was joking) that the newts had only got into the legislation by accident and the little creatures are not at all rare. Indeed, he had some in his suburban garden. If you were a newt, isn’t that the best garden you could pick as your home?

Male Great Crested Newt (Triturus cristatus) with breeding colours, underwater, captive UK

Male Great Crested Newt (Triturus cristatus) with breeding colours, underwater, captive UK

Anyway, I’m delighted to have been appointed to the Committee. It speaks to my own pre-occupations with sustainability ([amazon_link id=”0691156298″ target=”_blank” ]The Economics of Enough[/amazon_link]) and measuring the economy ([amazon_link id=”0691169853″ target=”_blank” ]GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History[/amazon_link]). This is exciting territory in terms of the economics, and profoundly important in terms of all our futures.

[amazon_image id=”0691156298″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Economics of Enough: How to Run the Economy as If the Future Matters[/amazon_image]  [amazon_image id=”0691169853″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History[/amazon_image]

The unsustainable is never sustained

There’s a flurry of interest about a new NASA-funded study on the prospect that our complex industrial societies are poised for collapse. It indeed sounds like a very interesting piece of work. But is this new? Jared Diamond’s Collapse was surely a forerunner. Paul Seabright’s The Company of Strangers majored on the potential fragility of the complex, intertwined global economy in which we all depend on the activities and goodwill of strangers – so far, so good but clearly vulnerable.

But the grandfather of this complexity and collapse of civilisations theme was Joseph Tainter‘s 1988 The Collapse of Complex Societies. He talks about it here on You Tube.

For me (as discussed in The Economics of Enough) the moral is that the unsustainable is never sustained, and the only question is how society moves to the sustainable trajectory – sustainability including the social and financial as well as the ecological dimensions. Collapse is the least desirable option.

[amazon_link asins=’0241958687,052138673X,0691146462,B00FOT375W’ template=’ProductAd’ store=’enlighteconom-21′ marketplace=’UK’ link_id=’b9f85e86-5e61-11e7-be1f-2d9ec3a124c7′]

Vulnerability and sustainability

John Naughton’s column in today’s Observer about governments’ online spying sent me to Cory Doctorow’s essay of a few days ago about the parallels between a secure internet and public health. Both are worth a read.

They set me thinking about the meaning of sustainability. My last book, [amazon_link id=”0691156298″ target=”_blank” ]The Economics of Enough[/amazon_link], was about sustainability defined broadly to include not only environmental issues but also economic assets including human capital and infrastructure and social sustainability (hence inequality). All matter for the fundamental question of whether or not future generations will be able to have at least as high a standard of living as we do. Many people in the developed economies think the answer is ‘no’ when they look at what’s happening to house prices, pensions, student debt and a lacklustre economy with no real wage growth. It’s hard to separate the effects of cycle and trend & I think it’s too soon to lose hope, but the idea of ‘secular stagnation’ is around.

[amazon_image id=”0691156298″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Economics of Enough: How to Run the Economy as If the Future Matters[/amazon_image]

Anyway, I thought about the question of changes in assets of all kinds as an indicator of sustainability. The two columns made me realize I didn’t think enough about risk questions in that book. No doubt this features prominently in the environmental literature. But when you think about various examples – the effect of floods or unrest in Thailand or the Japanese earthquake on auto industry supply chains, the vulnerability of the UK’s west country to one train line right next to the coast being washed away in storms, or indeed the extraordinary vulnerability of the whole of the global economy to malign activities affecting the internet – the sustainability of the economy is obviously in question.

I find the Doctorow/Naughton parallel with public health persuasive. How would we react if we learned that the government was dealing with the threat of bird flu by secretly developing particularly virulent strains of the virus to use on – well, on whom exactly? –  rather than working on a vaccine.

Ian Goldin’s new book, [amazon_link id=”0691154708″ target=”_blank” ]The Butterfly Defect[/amazon_link], out in May, looks at exactly this kind of question. One to look out for. He’s talking about it in Oxford soon.

[amazon_image id=”0691154708″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Butterfly Defect: How Globalization Creates Systemic Risks, and What to Do about It: How Globalization Creates Systemic Risks, and What ot Do about it[/amazon_image]