If/then

Earlier this year I read Jill Lepore’s These Truths, which made me eager to read her new book, If Then: How One Data Company Invented the Future, as soon as possible. It didn’t disappoint – although I had a couple of reservations about it. More on that later.

The book is the story of a company, Simulmatics, formed by a PR man, Ed Greenfield, and an MIT political scientists, Ithiel De Sola Pool. It aimed to apply computers to the prediction of human behaviour: feed the machine enough data and it would be possible to predict election outcomes, among other social phenomena, and more importantly manipulate them. The convergence of data, computational power and Mad Men behaviourist techniques seemed inevitable and unconquerable. The parallel with the same again this time round but more so is striking, and the book ends with the comparison.

Along the way, Lepore tells a rattling good story about American politics in the late 1950s through to the Vietnam War and Nixon, about the first application of computers to social issues (and Madison Avenue was onto the opportunities early), and also about gender politics. Right from the start, there was a culture of computer bros, hostile to women: “Women’s knowledge was not knowledge.” The cast of characters is fantastic. Many of them I’d never heard of – Eugene Burdick, the best-selling author of thrillers and leading political scientist, anyone? Lepore also writes like a novelist, and an excellent one at that.

That is in fact one of my reservations. Among the notes I was taking were notes on craft – this is genuinely a page turner. And yet ….. when the text gets into the interior lives of the wives of the men, I wonder how she knows? Are there really enough letters and diaries, or is this indeed embroidery?

The other is that I hungered for more context about the impact of behaviourism and of cybernetics, and the broader environment of computerised social engineering. For example, Stafford Beer had his own US consultancy applying cybernetics, going to Chile in the early 1970s to assist with Project Cybersyn (the subject of Eden Medina’s wonderful book Cybernetics Revolutionaries). If Then does acknowledge the early use of computers in advertising but Norbert Wiener gets but a passing reference. And even though Simulmatics failed – so many of its projects turning out disastrously – there is surprisingly little scepticism about whether computers can in fact predict and manipulate humans,  whether Simulmatics or their modern day equivalents in Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.

Having said that, If Then is a wonderful book, highly recommended. Lepore was interviewed by David Runciman in a great episode of Talking Politics for those who’d like another taster – it focuses mainly on those disturbing modern parallels.

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Fracturing and building

The Age of Fracture by Daniel Rodgers was strongly recommended by one of my followees, Paul Nightingale, on Twitter and he made it sound like just my cup of tea. Which it is. It’s an intellectual history of late 20th century America, and the way the public sphere of ideas transitioned from a focus on institutions and social relations to an individualist perspective. This was most apparent in economics, which is where the book starts, but spread across many domains of policy and research – the book has chapters on race, class, gender, as well as politics in general. The hinge was the late 1970s/early 1980s, just about the time I spent four years living in the US, so reading this brought back many memories of that first Reagan term, the rise to prominence of Newt Gingrich, and the ‘declinist’ bestsellers published a few years later, Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism.

Age of Fracture is beautifully written, and I was particularly impressed by its scope – the breadth of knowledge of so many different domains is amazing. In the chapter (‘The Rise of the Market’) on the rise of abstract rational expectations economics, divorced from time, place and relationships, Rodgers gives a masterly summary of the evolution of the discipline. “The new intellectual movements in economics pushed to its limits the extent to which society could be analytically dissolved altogether into its individual utility-maximising parts.” As the chapter points out, the victory of this approach was never total, and by the end of the 1990s was moving on to a new focus on institutions, transactions costs, behaviour and networks. Nevertheless, individualism became the leitmotif of the public realm of ideas – and on the British side of the Atlantic too.

The transatlantic traffic was not all one way. The chapters on race and particularly gender emphasise the role of French post-structuralism, which swept over cultural studies and much of the humanities, and still seems to be destroying those departments. In paving the way for a sense of identity as something self-determined, it created a libertarianism of the left alongside the market libertarianism of the right. In both cases, Rodgers writes, “The libertarian vision of society was radically timeless.” Voluntary identities, voluntary transactions, are disembodied from actual history. Whether rational expectations economics or the originalist perspective on the US constitution, time – future or past – is instantly accessible. Both featured the desire to “locate a trap door through which one could reach beyond history and find a simpler place outside of it.”

The book is wisely silent on whether the climate of ideas is changing now, amid the storms of pandemic, authoritarianism rising in the US and elsewhere, social fracture. It reminded me of this comment in Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel lecture (flagged up on Twitter recently by Nicholas Gruen): “Designing institutions to force (or nudge) entirely self-interested individuals to achieve better outcomes has been the major goal posited by policy analysts for governments to accomplish for much of the past half century. Extensive empirical research leads me to argue that instead a core goal of public policy should be to facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans.”

Quite. But fracturing is easier than building. ‘Building back better’ is harder still.

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Time and times

I went into my office on Friday to pick up some books out of their quarantine, mainly things i need to get papers written, but I also rescued Changing Times: Economics, Policies and Resource Allocation in Britain Since 1951 by Martin Chick. I’ve torn through it, a very interesting book.

As the subtitle indicates, it’s a history of postwar economic policy in the UK, ranging over six decades and issues spanning industrial policy, macro and trade policies, environmental, labour market, health and education policies. It’s also only 400 pages, to give an indication of the quite long focal length it necessarily requires. Given this broad span, the structure of the book is provided by the theme of time. Time in two senses: how policies relate to the distribution of economic welfare between generations; and the importance of assets, stocks as well as flows, and in particular the state’s withdrawal from investment in the future over this period.

This doesn’t 100% work as a thematic structure but it is nevertheless extremely interesting to reflect on some familiar trends and episodes in postwar economic history through this lens. Chick also draws on a huge range of the economics literature in order to cover the various policy areas, and has obviously spent hours in the National Archives reading Treasury papers and other policy documents. (Indeed, by the <6 degrees of separation rule, he lodged with my in-laws while staying at Kew to do the archive work.)

My favourite chapter was the one on privatisation of state-owned industries, which politely eviscerates the rationale for the policy. As Chick writes: “What was perhaps under-appreciated at the time of privatisation was the historical novelty of trying to induce large sunk investment from utilities operating in competitive markets.” After all, profit rates in the utilities sector are never spectacular. He goes on to interpret nationalisation as being “preferred to regulation as a means of extracting for consumers the benefits of improvements in productivity.” Privatisation was introducing risk into areas “from which it had been absent for decades”, the risk of costly, lumpy investments not delivering an adequate return, and technological risk – as well as altering the distribution of returns.

However, there is loads of interest in every chapter even for someone who has read a lot of the economic and political history of this period. For instance, the London smog of 5-8th December 1952 is thought to have led to the deaths of 4000 Londoners, a staggering number. Yet it wasn’t until 7 months later that the government even appointed the Beaver Committee on Air Pollution. The same chapter on environmental policy is super-interesting on the relationship between stocks and flows of different types of natural asset – fish vs oil.

Chick concludes the book: “Considerations of time and space affect all of the major issues of concern today (housing, utility output, global warming, infrastructure, educational opportunities, access to healthcare, trade, the internet and so on).” I have quibbles about the book – for instance, it would have been nice to replace dense paragraphs describing data and trends with some charts. But in the end, what’s not to like about a book with references ranging from Derek Parfit and Frank Ramsey to articles about the Cod Wars of the 1970s or technical reports on council house sales?

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Self-evident truths?

Reading Jill Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States has been quite a commitment – 800 pages and too big to carry around even as a paperback. It was well worth it. What a brilliant book.

Even at such a length, to cover the history of the US from Columbus to Trump requires a long focal length. The thread Lepore draws through the entire text is slavery and race, America’s original sin, and the intention of the Founding Fathers (“We hold these truths to be self-evident…”) and meaning of the American constitution. What does the founding dedication to equality mean in practice? But this is too reductive. This is a dense, rich book well worth the two weeks it has taken me to read.

Lepore is a wonderful writer, which helps. Consider the early section where she discusses the deal at the 1787 constutional convention to count a slave as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of determining states’ populations and therefore representation in Congress – a deal that gave southern states a lasting advantage in the legislature. During a break, Madison asked after the whereabouts of one of his slaves, Anthony: “Anthony had gone looking to be five-fifths of a person.” He had run away.

Or this: “Walter Lippman wore a three piece pinstripe suit the way a tiger wears his skin, but the cue to his acuity came in the raised eyebrows, as pointed as the tip of an arrow.”

The more modern sections are more familiar, but I like the way Lepore uses certain themes to ensure the book is more than one thing after another. The key ones for the 20th century are the media – the term “fake news” was in circulation in the 1930s, when Goebbels was an admirer of Edward Bernays, and both opinion polling and modern lobbying and campaigning were taking off – and computer technology. “Computers are often left out of the study of history and government, but starting at the end of the Second World War, history and government cannot be understood without them. Democracies rely on an informed electorate; .computers … would both explode and unsettle the very nature of knowledge.”

It turns out – now I look her up – Lepore has a podcast called The Last Archive, which must be worth a listen. I came across These Truths in a New York Times article about what Joe Stiglitz is reading – many other appealing reads on his list.

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Globalisation past and future

Sitting in quarantine in my office is the Piketty tome, Capital and Ideology, the book that’s so ridiculously massive it arrived with its own tote bag. I’d got far enough in to it to reach the long historical section, to which my first reaction was he didn’t need to show us all his workings in such immense detail.

Another economist who has turned to history is Jeff Sachs in his latest, The Ages of Globalisation: Geography, Technology and Institutions. Sachs has long been alert to the implications of geography for economic outcomes; in this book he adds a very long historical perspective. So long that we start in paleolithic times at 10,000 BCE. The narrative is framed in terms of seven ages: paleolithic, neolithic, equestrian (domestication of horses), classical (Rome/Han China, ocean (start of European empires), industrial and digital.

There has been a trend towards these long-perspective books in recent times: Ian Morris’s Why the West Rules (For Now), Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse, James Scott’s Against the Grain, the dreadful Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. If you have read a number of these, then much of the ground covered in Sachs’s book will seem familiar; there’s only so much that is known about paleolithic times. Its great merit – especially if you haven’t read any of the others – is that it’s concise, and sends the interested reader to other sources. It doesn’t need its own tote bag, and Sachs wears his own extensive reading lightly. He’s a very clear writer, too, and the book has some lovely (colour) charts and maps.

The pitfall of taking this synoptic approach is that a lot hangs on the narrative thread and underlying argument. Sachs’s seven ages work quite well in this regard, and do include sections on China, India, and the Islamic world. The argument in this book – a bit like Martin Sandbu’s new book, The Economics of Belonging, which I am reviewing for another publication – is that we shouldn’t be turning our back on globalisation. It can be made to work better for the many, not just the few, if we take the SDGs and international organisations seriously and reform the latter.

I’m sceptical that reforming the UN will fix anything. One of the earlier threads that gets lost in the final ‘what to do’ chapter is the way technologies shape what is feasible in terms of governance as well as shaping the form of economic globalisation that occurs. Still, it’s a good thing there are still some advocates for globalism rather than nationalism, and for the global public good. It’s a pre-pandemic book but post-publication events suggest this is the time to argue for at least some parts of the international order to be strengthened.

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