Things and Beyond

I’ve been reading Frank Trentmann’s Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the 15th century to the 21st, which has taken a while as it’s 600+ pages. It has been an enjoyable read but with two flaws – more on these later.

The book does what it says in the subtitle, drawing on a major research programme, and is truly impressive in its scope and detail. It traces global (and genuinely so although with a strong tilt to the West) trends in consumption through the long sweep of history. It links these trends in behaviour to trends in thought about personal and social ethics, and the individual in the family and in society. It addresses the entire chain of production and consumption from resources to waste. It draws on a wide array of disciplinary knowledge, including philosophy, history, sociology and even some economics.

The book sets up a tension through all of this material: “The view that being and having are opposites … has a very long history. But so has an alternative trajectory that sees people as only becoming human through the use of things.” Among other forces, technology keeps this tension alive over time, as new things keep on appearing. And it’s interesting to see that certain things are particularly compelling – stockings for one. The 17th century knitting framemade better, cheaper stockings possible, and the early national accountant Gregory King estimated in 1688 that 10 million pairs a year were purchased. This reminded me of the tidal wave of nylon stockings sold by Dupont – 800,000 pairs on 15 May 1940, the first day of sale, alone.

Consumption clearly depended on rising incomes, and the book traces a switch to “the creation of value through consumption, not just production” from the 19th century – it argues that consumer society has its roots in the Industrial Revolution rather than as is often argued the post-war boom. There’s an interesting couple of sections – in the light of the way technology is currently blurring the previously sharp consumption/production divide – on the role of consumer durables. I disagree with Trentmann’s suggestion that, “The appeal of goods such as the automatic washing machine was far from self-evident.” He notes that the aggregate time spent on household work was not reduced significantly by such consumer durables – and then observes in passing and ignores the class distinctions. Middle class women were decreasingly likely to have servants and did more of their own housework. Working class women – like my mother and Hans Rosling’s – were truly given hours of time by automatic washing machines. John Kenneth Galbraith (I’m sure he never did an iota of laundry in his life) said consumer durables enslaved women; but even if – as he argued – easier washing meant more washing to have cleaner clothes, why is this not a better outcome?

Turning back to that original tension – does our relationship with things dehumanize us or the opposite? Is consumerism basically bad or good? – I’m with Hume. As Trentmann describes the Humean view: “An encounter with a new object was one way in which intelligence and feeling were inspired and strengthened.” (And isn’t this one of the big questions about AI and consciousness – can intelligences without sense perceptions become conscious?)

The modern no-growther’s disdain for consumption seems to me to be of a piece with the instinct in the past that gave us sumptuary laws. Rich folk thought poor folk should stay in their place, dressing up the restrictions on the purchases the masses were allowed to make in moralising garb. But as Adam Smith put it, it was, “[T]he highest impertinence and presumption for kings and ministers to watch over the economy of private people, and to restrain their expense, either by sumptuary laws, or by prohibiting the importation of foreign luxuries. They are themselves always, and without any exceptions, the greatest spendthrifts in society.” Of course we need to pay far greater attention to resource use and to waste, but it is the affluent who are cavalier about the importance of growing real incomes and consumption – Janan Ganesh in his column today describes them as ‘too-rich-to-care bohemians’.

There is lots to enjoy in Empire of Things, therefore; I’m exactly the kind of reader who likes detail of the sort its pages are packed with.

I would have liked more economics, and more figures. There is a nice section on the mutual interaction of prices and tastes, as with the switch in British taste from coffee to tea in the later 1700s: a chart of tea and coffee prices would have been nice. But I have two bigger criticisms. One is that the book seriously needed an edit. The argument gets swamped in detail and it should have been 25% shorter. Some sections, especially those on non-western trends, fall between two stools – insufficiently detailed in themselves but enough to distract from the flow.

The biggest issue I have, however, is that the book never addresses the distinction between material and non-material consumption. It puts really a great deal of emphasis on the physical nature of consumer goods – and then skips to a discussion of some non-material aspect of consumption such as public health measures or public education, or leisure activities like the cinema. The issue of increased expenditure on services and intangibles is dismissed in just over two separate pages (out of 690), by saying that spending on housing, transport and food combined accounts for the same proportion of the household budget in 2007 as in 1958; and that in the OECD as a whole material consumption rhas continued to rise. Yet people are spending a growing proportion of their incomes on warmth, space, travel, variety, quality, entertainment as they grow richer. The immaterial is embedded in the material, and there is absolutely no reason to be complacent about the environmental footpring of the global economy; but (even knowing I may be biased about this) it is surely a significant development in the history of consumption (albeit a transition of affluence) that value is being created largely by the non-material now? (The forthcoming Capitalism without Capital by Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake addresses this.)

Still, it’s probably a good sign when a huge book leaves you more inclined to ask for more rather than wishing there had been less, and the balance tips that way for me despite it being in need of a blue pencil in parts.

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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 as well as my . 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, ; David Hume, ; Karl Polanyi, ; Dieter Helm, . 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]

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China and GDP

I’ve been a bit unwell this week so have been relaxing with not one, not two, but three detective novels – Chief Inspector Chen in the series by Qiu Xiaolong set in Shanghai. They’re hardly action packed but they have a lot about Chinese politics and also the fabric of everyday life, including food. Fascinating.

One of this week’s has a plot about environmental activism against industrial pollution. Whatever China’s GDP growth has been – much disputed – it has been fast enough to have exacted a serious environmental cost. Inspector Chen reports back to his Party patron: “I focused my research on issues of the environment. … Pollution is so widespread that it’s a problem all over China. To some extent, it’s affecting the core of China’s development with GDP-centred growth coming at the expense of the environment. It can’t carry on like this, Comrade Secretary Zhao. Our economy should have sustainable development.”

I’ve been working on a paper on the political economy of economic statistics, for a conference in 10 days. Many, many people would agree with Chief Inspector Chen, and not just about China, but it’s hard to move from GDP-centred to something else centred without a consensus about what the something else should be. Perhaps China could assist the political economy of such a transition given its need for a measure that can show increasing economic welfare without costing the earth.

[amazon_image id=”1473616786″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Don’t Cry, Tai Lake: Inspector Chen 7 (Inspector Chen Cao)[/amazon_image] [amazon_image id=”1473616808″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Enigma of China: Inspector Chen 8 (Inspector Chen Cao)[/amazon_image] [amazon_image id=”1473616824″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Shanghai Redemption: Inspector Chen 9 (Inspector Chen Cao)[/amazon_image]

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Be afraid. Be very afraid.

is Nick Stern’s second book on this subject, the first being . In the new book he aims to combine fear and hope – fear of the consequences of not taking big steps now, and hope that the need to change is an opportunity for new technologies and growth.

[amazon_image id=”0262029189″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Why are We Waiting?: The Logic, Urgency, and Promise of Tackling Climate Change (Lionel Robbins Lectures)[/amazon_image]

The first part of the book, “A Planet Between Peril and Prosperity,” sets out these two elements. Stern is at the gloomy end of the range of views about the likely rise in mean global temperatures and the consequent economic and social risks. Unless the world acts within a decade or two, the window for limiting the temperature rise to a manageable 2 degrees C will be closed, he says, before proceeding to dangle hope with a chapter about the potential for a “new energy-industrial revolution.”

The second part of the book is an interesting challenge to climate change sceptics (of course) but also to some of the economists who are less pessimistic. Stern challenges the application of economic methods that assess the costs and benefits at the margin – inappropriate he rightly argues when you are discussing big changes. He has a chapter discussing the flaws in the conventional ‘integrated assessment models’ used in the literature. Stern argues: “They have assumed strong underlying growth, plus only modest damages from big increases in temperature, plus very limited risk.” If you disagree as he does with all three assumptions, the consensus forecasts look Panglossian. A final chapter in this section assesses the debate about ethical assumptions and how these are captured in the modeling, a debate first triggered by the Stern Review. His critics argue that he makes an extreme assumption about the right discount rate to use to assess future costs and benefits; but he has not changed his view.

The third and final part is about political economy – why the negotiations are so hard, how to get fast-growing developing economies to sign up to urgent action, why is everything so slow? The book argues that this is the result of the analytical errors he sets right in part 2, and psychological barriers to change, and a communication deficit. But surely it’s much simpler? Nobody – person or country – has an individual incentive to bear the short term cost of change, while the costs of climate change are uncertain, 20 years into the future, and a collective problem. It will take an extraordinary politician to solve the global collective action problem in advance, rather than reacting to events. So the book concludes, “Why are we waiting?” I am not sure the market is waiting – there seems to be a lot of energy innovation under way. As for policy, surely we need individual nation state governments to do what they can through carbon taxes, or plastic bag taxes, or policies to ‘green’ power generation – and not wait for an all-encompassing international agreement?

This is not to say Nick Stern is wrong to be so concerned. The outcome he fears clearly has a non-zero probability even if you don’t agree with him. So I’m all for action. Anybody who is interested in the economics and political economy of climate change policy will want to read this book.

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Not-so-green economics

I’ve been mulling over some statements in  by Alexander Klose. He says logistics has become the “third largest sector of the economy”. That in Germany 10% of energy use is accounted for by data centres – and that there are more than 5 million worldwide, whose CO2 emissions (from their production and use) is approaching those of global air traffic.

[amazon_image id=”0262028573″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Container Principle: How a Box Changes the Way We Think (Infrastructures)[/amazon_image]

A modest amount of rooting around online hasn’t enabled me to verify these rather eye-opening facts, if they’re correct. Does anybody know of sources for such figures? (This Scientific American article reports some signs of decoupling of CO2 emissions from growth in the aggregate; prior to 2000, the energy-intensity of GDP growth had apparently been declining.)

 

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