From Hobbes to Locke – and back again?

I’m a fan of Deirdre McCloskey, but accept that her writing style is a bit marmite – it’s always clear but she has a rather arch tone which some readers don’t like. Some of her books are also rather long, and the three in her terrific Bourgeois Era trilogy, The Bourgeois Virtues, Bourgeois Dignity and Bourgeois Equality, fall into this camp. They repay the time required, drawing as they do on McCloskey’s extensive reading and research (to get a flavour of how extensive, look at some of her posted course syllabi here).

Now, however, anybody unwilling to commit the time to the whole Bourgeois Era trilogy can read instead this new summary version by McCloskey and Art Carden, Leave Me Alone and I’ll Make You Rich: How the Bourgeois Deal Enriched the World. Where Acemoglu and Robinson’s Narrow Corridor takes inspiration from Hobbes, this book is inspired by Locke, and argues that liberty is the key to the great enrichment of the past two and a half centuries.

At a time when the mood – and reality – of the times is swinging toward state intervention in the economy – and rightly so, given the potentially Hobbesian world to which the combination of market power and pandemic have brought us – it’s all the more important to keep an open mind and take these arguments from economic liberty seriously. Don’t be put off by the blurbs on the back from Stephen Davies of the IEA and Matt Ridley. Besides, the sweep of McCloskey’s historical knowledge is such that the book is just a good read (if you like the tone), and a fraction of the length of the trilogy!

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Technology old and new

For the usual kind of slightly random reason, I re-read David Edgerton’s excellent book The Shock of the Old this past week (having read it when published in 2006 as he was an interviewee on an Analysis I was presenting [http://news.bbc.co.uk/nol/shared/spl/hi/programmes/analysis/transcripts/27_07_06.txt]). It’s generally aged very well, and is of course a necessary corrective to technology hype. The main argument is that the history of technology tends to be told as a a breathless account of inventors and shiny new inventions, rather than the more representative but complicated story of economic conditions and uneven diffusion and use. So at any moment in time, many overlapping technologies serving the same basic needs will be in use around the world.  What’s more, the same hype gets recycled. For example there’s a quotation from George Orwell in 1944 complaining that people were over-hyping the ‘death of distance’ due to the airplane and radio, when the same claims had been made before 1914!

It is undoubtedly true that different technologies overlap in use, and indeed there’s quite a large economics literature about diffusion and the need for complementary investments before inventions and innovations deliver productivity benefits.  To this extent, Edgerton is railing against an imaginary foe. He is also very sniffy about the concept of ‘weightlessness’, which he misinterprets as a claim about declining employment shares for primary and secondary sectors of the economy. It is not this, but rather a description of the distribution of value added in the economy, and one that has been borne out fully by trends in the past 2 or 3 decades.

The other point that he seems to me to under-play – oddly, given his emphasis on the importance of contest for the use of technologies – is that they are all social. There are countries unable to provide a reliable electricity supply not only because they are low or mid-income but because they do not have the institutions to support the complex supply arrangements: not just sub-Saharan Africa but also California. Or take the book’s example of the Pill, which it argues is an incremental change in contraceptive technologies. Yes and no. Each of the Pill’s characteristics – women in control, reliable, and not requiring a fitting by a doctor – might seem a small shift from condoms, douches, IUDs and diaphragms, but together they did deliver a compelling new method and a radical change in social relations.

Having said all this, The Shock of the Old is a bracing corrective to techno-hype, something certainly still needed.

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Accounting for progress

I read Stephen Macekura’s The Mismeasure of Progress: Economic Growth and its Critics in proof, and just enjoyed reading it again now it’s been published. People who know about my work won’t be surprised to hear that this is just my cup of tea. The question preoccupies me as much as it ever did – what counts as progress and how do we count it? – along, increasingly, with the issue of who gets to answer the question.

There are now quite a few books about the limitations of GDP, or history of GDP, or both (eg as well as my GDP: A Brief But Affectionate History, Matthias Schmelzer’s The Hegemony of Growth, Philip Lepenies The Power of a Single Number, Ehsan Masood’s The Great Invention, Brett Chrostophers’ Banking Across Boundaries, and more). So Macekura has this recent literature to build on as well as older classics including Alain Desrosieres and Theodore Porter. What he brings is a unified story about the critics of GDP and the System of National Accounts told from the 1940s on, and particularly including the perspective of the economists and statisticians working on or in developing economies.

That the arcana of economic statistics matter is clear from the start: “Accounting and accountability are closely intertwined,” Macekura writes. His framework is James Scott‘s powerful concept of state ‘legibility’. This makes the imperialist habit clear when it comes to the history of national accounting in the colonies of western powers. As one Colonial Office official put it, the UK had to ‘level up’ its colonies, and would do so by increasing their GDP growth. Hmmm. That term is oddly familiar.

The heroes of the tale in some ways are economists such as Phyllis Deane of NIESR and Dudles Seers, founder of the Institute for Development Studies, for their appreciation that economies are not all the same. The fabric of life in low income countries was profoundly different from the standard framework it was supposed to fit. However, western critics of the focus on economic growth – whether for this reason or because of the increasing concern with environmental limits – were in turn criticised by some economists and others from the countries concerned, who considered that to not prioritise growth was a western luxury. “The Limits To Growth report [1972] prompted a strong backlash from experts in the Global South,” Macekura notes. He goes on to argue that, “Growth critics often sought to replace one set of numbers in governance with another. They mounted a technocratic critique of technocracy that claimed the basic problems of contemporary life could be resolved through the use of socially relevant and more specialized data.”

The book ends with a picture of the critics of growth and of GDP (overlapping but certainly not identical sets) in recent times, flagging questions such as the measurement of the financial sector, as well as the ever-more pressing sustainability issues. He ends with a call for a wider set of metrics but also for enfranchising people to participate in the debate about progress. There is certainly quite widespread interest in matters of measurement, for all kinds of reasons, now. GDP is rapidly losing its legitimacy but the need for the social accounts that enable accountability is more important than ever.

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What you need to know about Strongmen

I’m biased about this one: my dear friend Professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat at New York University has a new book out. It’s Strongmen: How They Rise, Why They Succeed, How They Fall. The book looks at how personal authoritarian regimes come about in democracies or  through democratic processes, and covers strongmen ranging from Hitler and Mussolini, Mobutu and Pinochet, to Putin and Trump. It’s an illuminating approach because the book discusses their common tactics and features across time and space – for these types learn from each other – and also tracks changes, for instance in the use of different types of media over time. The book also ends on a cheerful(ish) note: strongmen do fall. And the more personal their authoritarianism, the more inevitable that end is. Their methods are counter-productive in the end because they do not govern well, people can eventually lose their fear of opposing publicly the regime and resistance has an impact, and they age: posing with no shirt doesn’t work so well as muscles sag.

Anyway, do read it. It’s so relevant. I’m not going to celebrate Trump’s defeat until he actually goes. There are a lot of wannabe authoritarians around elsewhere as well as the ones we have currently in countries such as Hungary or Turkey. This book has great insights about the dynamics of strongmanism, which I fear will not go away any time soon.

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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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