The joy of (economic) geography

I once met the late Doreen Massey, before knowing who she was. It was after the publication of my first book, The Weightless World (intangibles avant la lettre), which she had read and had interesting questions about. It was therefore long before I had anything to do with the academic world. I was a nobody, in other words, and she a highly respected economic geographer. She was open minded enough, and kind enough, nevertheless to have read my book and been willing to talk to me about it.

She died in 2016 and two recent books honour her work. One is the Doreen Massey Reader (editors Brett Christophers, Rebecca Lave, Jamie Peck and Marion Werner) and Doreen Massey: Critical Dialogues (same editors, different priority ordering). I’ve read most of the former and  dipped into the latter. The first thing to note about them is that they reflect the energy in economic geography these days, indeed often far more energy about major economic issues than you find in some economics departments. Massey is one of the people who has made a major contribution to the intellectual strength and curiosity in the discipline.

Now, as I’m not a geographer but an economist, most of the cited literature is unfamiliar, and the language can be a bit of a struggle. So it’s with diffidence that I comment on these books at all. Most interesting to me is the section in the Reader on regional economies, a subject far too much overlooked in mainstream economics, given the regional inequalities in all major western economies including London-centric UK.

For example, in a 1973 essay on industrial location theory Massey pointed out the inadequacy of an economics discipline that was then – certainly pre-Krugman and the revival in economics of economic geography – both (comparative) static and a-spatial. As she noted, it’s hard to understand industrial concentration in space if (a) you ignore location and (b) you’re not interested in dynamic forces. Agglomeration economics – which now dominates this area of research in econ – is, she argues, a narrow lens on the question. If the focus is on the firm’s decision to locate in a place where there are agglomeration externalities, it is all too easy to miss the system effects and the input-output system of the regional or local economy as a whole. The externalities are everything. This too is starting to percolate through business economics at least, in the shape of ‘ecosystems’. Massey got there a generation ago.

There is a lot to interest economists in these books, albeit most will find – as I did – that they are far more overtly political than is the norm in our discipline. No doubt the geographers would argue that economics is covertly political. Anyway, these books contain critiques of capitalism in general, whereas we make our critiques of capitalism specific. It certainly seems odd to criticize economics for being too abstract when critical disciplines such as this are equally so, only in words rather than algebra; there are abstract nouns galore in these two books.  Nevertheless, we economists should be concerned that some of the liveliest work on key economic issues is going on in geography departments. And maybe ‘agglomeration’ isn’t the only approach to issues of economic location?

All the more reason, perhaps, to be as open minded as this important, interdisciplinary scholar was herself.

A PS One of the editors, Brett Christophers, has a new book out soon about the privatisation of public land in Britain, The New Enclosure: The apprpriation of public land in neoliberal Britain. Despite the ‘neoliberal’ in the subtitle, it looks a must-read. His 2013 Banking Across Boundaries was a terrific analysis of the globalisation of finance and lifted the veil on the FISIM issue in the construction of GDP, since cited by me, and recently by Mariana Mazzucato.

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Economies in space and time

There’s a section of Economic Geography: A Critical Introduction by Trevor Barnes and Brett Christophers about the richness of border zones – not physical ones as these tend to be quite the opposite when it comes to economic activity, but intellectual. Interdisciplinarity has been a buzzword for a long time, and immensely hard to achieve within conventional academic structures. But perhaps its moment has come. At any rate, the number of in-principle interdisciplinary research centres is increasing (including the new Institute for Public Policy at Cambridge, which I join tomorrow). Perhaps more important, more and more people appreciate that solving pressing challenges – ageing, the consequences of climate change, trade wars, technological change – requires multiple social science, humanities and scientific perspectives.

Besides, I’ve always found the borders of economics interesting, including economic geography. The gap between economists who do geography and geographers who think about the economy has perhaps been narrowing in recent times. The book – a textbook but one accessible outside the framework of a university course – makes surprisingly little of what I think must be one of the main reasons for this. Which is that the technology-driven changes in the structure of production and consumption have made face-to-face interaction more valuable. The digital economy is an economy of clusters and dense cities, as well as one of globalisation. The classic Marshallian spillovers are bigger, the more important tacit knowledge (which, it turns out, is often complementary to codified knowledge, rather than a substitute for it). The evident importance of city regions is boosting urban economics and what is typically described as the ‘new economic geography’.

The geographer authors are understandably wary of the way economics is expanding into this territory. We economists do have a habit of presenting as marvellous new insights things other disciplines have known for ages, albeit wrapped in some nice econometrics. However – and inevitably there are some frictions in this process of inter-disciplinary engagement – it’s bemusing-to-painful to see how economics is perceived. The book describes (mainstream) economics as being only about constrained optimisation, which is the kind of reductionist statement an economist might make (and anyway, constrained optimisation under conditions of asymmetric information is everywhere in nature). It also defines the economy and economics as being essentially about ‘materiality’, material resources. Surely this can’t be literally intended? But in that case I’m not sure what this means.

Finally, the book notes – rightly – that economists insist on the importance of models, but conflates this with the use of mathematics. A lot of economists cheered Paul Romer’s assault on ‘mathiness’, but we like non-mathy maths because it is a concise way of trying to ensure models have a certain logical internal consistency and clarity. One could write many of them out in words instead – just as historians do when they model the causes of the first world war or literary critics when they theorize about the imperial perspective in late 19th century English novels. All scholars use models whether good or bad ones, and whether they know – or like – it or not.

These gripes aside, I enjoyed the book a lot. It’s a clear and comprehensive survey of the territory (sorry) of economic geography and at the same time manages the difficult feat of stepping outside the substance to deliver the critique promised in the subtitle. The first half of the book discusses the definition, history, boundaries and theorising/methodology in economic geography. The second half covers topics such as globalization, cities, finance, the environment and technological change. These topics chapters would make useful stand-alone readings for economics courses on the relevant subjects, giving students a healthy alternative perspective. In any discipline, we quickly socialise our students into our usual ways of thinking. Extending their frame of reference must be a useful contribution to their education.

It’s interesting that economic history is clearly enjoying something of a revival in economics, albeit from a base sadly diminished since before my PhD days, when most doctoral programmes had an economic history requirement (mine, at Harvard, still did but I think many others had already dropped it by the early 80s). There is much talk (and some action) now about ensuring economic history is in the standard economics curriculum, and the CORE course for one weaves some throughout the whole text. Economic geography doesn’t have that traction, but I’d be happy to see options at least for economic geography and economic sociology. I for one am also happy to try to explain to other social scientists #whateconomistsdo as long as they will be as patient with me.

PS I also applaud the sensible pricing of this book by the publisher (WILEY Blackwell), in contrast to many textbooks.

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