Growth and civilisation

I’ve been slowly reading Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities by Vaclav Smil. Slowly only because of the size of the book, which means reading it at home. It’s a somewhat eccentric but really rather compelling read. The subtitle indicates its ambition. We do literally go from the growth dynamics of archaea and bacteria all the way to empires, with the common thread being the argument that physics places fundamental limits meaning that almost everything follows the logistic S curve and thus reaches an asymptote – although predicting where the points of inflection will occur is a different matter. “Natural growth taking place on earth is always limited.”

In the final section on economies, Smil quite rightly points out that even if measures of economic activity – notably GDP – remain non-stationary series, such activity is rooted in energy use – echoes here of his tremendous Energy and Civilization. Much of economics has ignored this, regarding early work on energy use in the economy – such as Georgescu-Roegen – as a bit weird, although this is perhaps changing with the onward march of environmental economics. Smil is more sceptical than I am about whether the process of dematerialization of economic growth has shifted the asymptote of the growth curve up and out; I don’t think the concept of sustainable consumption is empty, whereas he does. (Although when it comes to regarding ‘the Singularity’ as nonsense, he and I are at one). He concludes that unless there are strict limits on material consumption, human civilization is doomed, and one gets the firm impression he’s putting his money on doom.

However, the joy of this book is less in the big picture than in the detail. And what a lot of it! The mind boggles at Smil’s extensive reading and absorption of information. We get the speed at which marathons are run – over the entire course of human history; the growth rates of piglets and weight of chicekns over time; sales of small non-industrial motors over time; the envelope for the maximum speed of travel; Kuznets cycles; Zipf’s law for city size….  The middle section of chapters offer a fantastic overview of technical progress over long periods in a wide range of technologies. I love all this detail.

Growth is therefore a tremendous work of synthesis, the biggest of pictures in pointilist form. If Bill Gates hadn’t named Vaclav Smil as his favourite author (“I wait for new Vaclav Smil books the way some people wait for the next Star Wars movie.“), one could imagine him (Smil) as a character in a Borges story. Best of all is the passing comment that nearly all the calculations for all his post-1984 books have been done on a TI-35-Galaxy Solar calculator. Talk about sustainable consumption.

41sJqD+KMbL._SX344_BO1,204,203,200_Before embarking on Smil, we had a week of holiday so I read some non-work books, standout among them The Kites by Romain Gary, whose oeuvre I’m now racing through.

 

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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.

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Making economic miracles

I’ve always really liked Michael Best’s 2001 book The New Competitive Advantage, and his latest, How Growth Really Happens: The Making of economic miracles through production, governance, and skills is a worthy successor. Best, who has vast experience of visiting businesses and learning in detail how they produce their goods and services, centres his account on the idea of a ‘capability triad’. Growth requires success in three linked domains: skills, a production system and a business model. Note how largely intangible these capabilities are – this is not a matter of investing in capital equipment or even inventing molecules or gadgets. Policies should aim at ensuring businesses can access or develop these capabilities, broadly understood, rather than taxes and subsidies.

The book has a number of examples, historical and more recent, illustrating the concepts, ranging from the wartime transformation of the US economy to modern Greater Boston’s reinvention to the present loss of production capabilities and skills in the US; from the UK’s postwar relative decline to Japan and China’s more recent experience.

There is also a chapter looking at the tradition of thinking about production systems and capabilities in the history of economic thought. Smith is there but also some names too often overlooked in modern economics: Charles Babbage; work on increasing returns models by Thomas Schelling and Paul Krugman, following in the footsteps of Alfred Marshall and Allyn Young (author of a 1928 article ‘Increasing Returns and Economic Progress’; and above all Edith Penrose. I knew too little about her work until a fine biography by Angela Penrose, No Ordinary Woman, sent me to it earlier this year. Given the obvious prevalence of increasing returns in modern economies, it’s high time to revisit this tradition.

The book ends with some reflections about the links between the productivity slowdown of the past 10 years and diminishing capabilities in the affected economies it mainly looks at the US here. Like a growing number of others (see for instance this article by Gregory Tassey), Best argues that the worst long-term consequence of offshoring has been the loss of know-how embedded in production systems and skills. The way to address this? A policy framework aimed at strategic economic development, something that has been lost from the vocabulary of policy for a generation, although tacitly recognised perhaps in the UK’s debates about an industrial strategy.

There’s a mass of interesting detail in the book – perhaps too much compared to the more reflective sections, but then the ideas do pick up on Best’s earlier work where there is much more on the conceptual framework. How Growth Really Happens is well worth a read, along with the earlier book – so much so it’s on the Enlightened Economist Prize 2018 longlist.

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Economic history of the world, short version

Daniel Cohen’s The Infinite Desire for Growth is a nice bird’s eye view of the debated issues concerning economic growth from the dawn of civilisation to the present and future. Translated from the French, it starts with a rather masterly synopsis of the issues debated in some of the recent works on growth in the distant past, such as Ian Morris’s Why the West Rules for Now, and some older ones like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, Joel Mokyr’s Gifts of Athena (not to mention French works I haven’t read). The first section covers the distant past up to the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution.

The second part canters through some of the recent debates: the singularity, automation and robots, the stagnation versus measurement of digital debate, Piketty and inequality, and the vulnerability of the interconnected global economy to crisis and collapse. Cohen agrees with Robert Gordon‘s contention that innovation just ain’t what it used to be. There’s a final section with some reflections on culture, happiness (lack of), and the question of the demise of democracy. This cites Daniel Bell’s marvellous Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. The question is whether our societies are capable of dealing with future upheavals – be they tech related or a crisis of climate or contagion – if growth has permanently slowed. I would say the conclusion here is a resounding ‘don’t know’. Which is fair enough.

All of this fits into 153 pages. I’m a bit of a fan of short books, so say this just to indicate the focal length here. The book kept me happily occupied for a 2 hour train ride. And it’s a real service to summarize some very chunky economic histories.

My main complaint – which grew in force as I read on – is that a book citing a vast literature only mentions three women’s names, one of them being Margaret Thatcher. The others are Esther Boserup (who gets a proper name check) and Sandra Black (in a footnote). Do women really have nothing to say about all of human (economic) history and the future economy?

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High hopes for growth

I’ve been re-reading (after a long time) David Landes’ The Unbound Prometheus, having found a 2nd hand copy in a Sedbergh bookshop, Westwood Books, earlier this year. It’s an interesting read, albeit showing its age (I found a 1993 edition, but the first was 1969). I’d forgotten that he looked at post-2nd world war growth in the final chapter, which also concludes with some reflections about the links between technological innovation and economic growth.

“The effective utilization of scientific and technical knowledge requires a whole sequence of decisions and action in the world of production and distribution. Pioneering entrepreneurs and managers must be prepared to risk money on the translation of ideas into commercially feasible techniques; while others must be incited by the prosepct of gain, or the fear of loss, to follow suit.” He goes on to say that the quality of management, the skills of the workforce, consumer tastes must also fall into place. “Scientific creativity is by no means an assurance of growth.” Interesting to see Paul David’s argument in The Dynamo and the Computer prefigured here. Growth is “a marriage of knowledge and action”, not the outcome of the impersonal forces of supply and demand.

Above all, growth will vary according to the particular needs, opportunities and history of different economies. Even the role of government varies greatly, Landes argues. The common factor in the postwar period, however, was, “A revolution of expectations and values. The expectations were not new; they were a return to the high hopes of the dawn of industrialization, to the buoyant optimism of those first generations of English innovators. Yet never before had they been so widespread; and never before had they been so strikingly confirmed by the facts.”

The trentes glorieuses seem like prehistory in today’s unsettled world. I’m not a techno-pessimist, and disagree with Robert Gordon’s thesis. But vision (expectations, we might say in economese) is a constant that really matters. I’ve always liked Paul Krugman’s 1991 QJE paper, History versus Expectations, on the importance of people weighting the future as more important than the past, if an economy is to grow. No high hopes, no growth.

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