Knowledge as a public good – honest!

Yesterday was the meeting of the European Advisory Board of Princeton University Press, of which I’m a member along with some very distinguished people from other disciplines. It’s always inspiring to see the Press – my own publisher – making such a success (in terms of numbers of books sold, revenues and global reach) of high quality, peer reviewed books with an emphasis on accessibility to non-academic readers. (In fact, on the tube on the way there as I stood looking around the carriage, there were at least half a dozen people within sight reading books. I think physical books are baaaack bigtime, and the figures seem to agree.)

We had a discussion about the obvious: what do Brexit/Trump/dislike of facts and experts imply both for universities and for a scholarly press? David Runciman made the point that we academics see ourselves as producers of knowledge, a public good in a knowledge economy. The votes suggest half the public doesn’t agree, whether they are right or wrong.

He also strongly criticised the ‘impact agenda’ which is now part of the Research Excellence Framework. I somewhat disagree with this, as it seems entirely healthy for academics to have to think about the outside world and how their work meshes with it. I do agree with David’s point that the way ‘impact’ is interpreted in practice favours the London universities, Oxford and Cambridge, as people are often expected to demonstrate their ‘impact’ through contacts with “elite networks of influence” (in his words). In the UK, they are massively London-centric. However, if so many citizens fail to see any positive spillovers from academic work – knowledge production – it’s all the more important to think about how to improve and demonstrate impact in ways that don’t centre on influencing Whitehall and Westminster.

An eminent political scientist, David said the book he was turning to to understand political trends is Democracy for Realists. I must add it to the ‘to read’ pile.41pmvn6eael

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The moral consequences of economic decline?

In his FT column today, the ever-thoughtful Tim Harford has written about the dangers of moving into a zero-sum world, with the economy heading into a post-Brexit recesssion and in a political atmosphere which is already a game of grievances and blame. The column cites a wonderful book, Benjamin Friedman’s (2005) . I’m biased, as Ben was my thesis adviser, but I do believe it to be a truly important book, especially for anyone also concerned about sustainability.

The book asks whether economists are right to care about economic growth, and finds the affirmative answer in political economy and the inter-relationship between growth and institutions. I wrote briefly about the book in 2012, worrying then about the rise of political extremism. Looking at the book again today, I am struck by its warning about the adverse consequences of withdrawing the state from social support, and its concern about the distribution of the benefits of economic growth. This now looks very prescient.

“Broadly distributed economic growth creates the private attitudes and public institutions that foster, not undermine, a society’s moral qualities,” Ben writes. “At the outset of the twenty first century, America’s problem is not unemployment. It is the slow pace of advance in the living standards or the majority of the nation’s citizens.” Rising living standards – for all – make societies more open and democratic. Unfortunately we in the UK seem likely to be testing what happens when living standards are falling, and the already-have-nots find they have even less.

[amazon_image id=”1400095719″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth[/amazon_image]

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It’s all about GDP

Who would have thought economic statistics would become such a hot topic? Certainly not me when I decided a couple of years ago to write a book about GDP for non-specialist readers. It isn’t as if GDP has lacked for critics. Over the decades there have been both environmentalist and feminist critiques, not to mention the blossoming interest in the direct measurement or targetting of happiness or subjective well-being. Still, there is a new wave, more focused on the political economy and historical context of the policy focus on GDP growth and rankings. There are (at least) two conferences on statistics over the next few months, following a joint RES/RSS/IFS conference earlier this month. Surely the scholarly debate, like the policy interest reflected in the Bean Review, is a precursor of change?

The latest book I’ve read is Matthias Schmelzer’s . The book begins with what has become familiar territory, the development of the forerunner of GDP and the system of national accounts in world war II, building on pioneering work by Colin Clark and Simon Kuznets. What became GNP (and GDP) differed crucially from these pioneers’ ideas, however, by moving away from a clear relationship with economic welfare, and embedding Keynesian macroeconomics. As Schmelzer writes: “The emergence of macroeconomic policies based on such theoretical constructs as consumption, demand, savings, investment, expenditure and their relationships made the rigorous measurement of these aggregates a public necessity, reaching far beyond the mere interest in the comparative wealth of a country and the different production factors.”

[amazon_image id=”1107130603″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Hegemony of Growth: The OECD and the Making of the Economic Growth Paradigm[/amazon_image]

The book provides a distinctive focus by exploring in detail the role of the OECD in the spread and normalisation of the new accounting standards and, by the late 1950s or early 1960s, the adoption of GDP growth as a policy target. The organisation’s forerunner, the OEEC, had been the distributor and overseer of Marshall Aid throughout Europe. The American administration had, as it still does, great influence over its approach. The heating up of the Cold War led the Kennedy Administration to insist on the centrality of growth, making GDP as much a weapon of the Cold War as it had been of the Second World War. Schmelzer says: “The public acceptance of economic expansion as a political goal, as well as the active support of influential societal groups such as capital, labour or the press, had to be actively produced.”

He goes on to describe how orienting the OECD around the goal of growth took it steadily into areas of policy previously not linked to the economy at all, such as science policy and education. In addition, through the aid donors’ club at the OECD, the Development Assistance Committee, the idea became firmly embedded that economic growth and development were essentially the same. Through both geographical reach and policy expansionism, the book portrays the OECD as a key organisation in shaping the ‘growth paradigm’ – even though it also, paradoxically, also gave birth to the earliest, and influential, critique of ‘growthmanship’ in the shape of the Club of Rome report.

The book ends by speculating that the famous ‘hockey stick’ of exponential growth might be about to become an equally familiar S-curve because of ‘secular stagnation’, not least because of environmental limits. Schmelzer argues that GDP growth is part of the paradigm of ‘high modernism’ so brilliantly described in Seeing Like A State. The ‘hegemony of growth’ may be ending; it is certainly changing as the context has changed so dramatically. My money is on the idea of growth being transformed in order to measure better sustainability and economic welfare, but this is exactly what all the new wave of scholarship is investigating. The outcome will be just as contingent and negotiated through political and historical processes as the emphasis on GDP growth was in the first place.

This book provides an interesting perspective on the GDP debate; I hadn’t previously registered the importance of the OECD’s role in particular. The author has clearly dug deep into the archives and provides a lot of fascinating material, shedding new light on what is steadily becoming increasingly well explored territory. There are other new books for the non-specialist out on this subject. I have reviews on two out soonish, Ehsan Masood’s (in Nature) and Philipp Lepenies’ (in the Journal of the History of Economic Thought).

[amazon_image id=”B01FKTBW3O” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Power of a Single Number: A Political History of GDP by Philipp Lepenies (2016-04-26)[/amazon_image] [amazon_image id=”B019G14YKK” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Great Invention: The Story of GDP and the Making and Unmaking of the Modern World[/amazon_image]

These titles join an older batch of general titles; not only my own but also Zachary Karabell’s , Dirk Philipsen’s , Lorenzo Fiaramonti’s , Sen, Stiglitz and Fitoussi’s .

[amazon_image id=”0691169853″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History[/amazon_image] [amazon_image id=”1451651228″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Leading Indicators: A Short History of the Numbers That Rule Our World[/amazon_image] [amazon_image id=”0691166528″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Little Big Number: How GDP Came to Rule the World and What to Do about It[/amazon_image] [amazon_image id=”1780322720″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Gross Domestic Problem: The Politics Behind the World’s Most Powerful Number (Economic Controversies)[/amazon_image] [amazon_image id=”1595585192″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Mis-Measuring Our Lives[/amazon_image]

And there are more. Morten Jerven looks at African economic statistics in . Brett Christophers addresses the measurement of finance in . Expect more to come!

[amazon_image id=”B00FKYOLGU” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Poor Numbers: How We are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do About it (Cornell Studies in Political Economy (Paperback)) (Paperback) – Common[/amazon_image] [amazon_image id=”1444338285″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Banking Across Boundaries (Antipode Book Series)[/amazon_image]

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Taxing the Rich (how to)

Do you want to raise more taxes from rich people, dear Reader? I thought so. Then a read of in the United States and Europe by Kenneth Scheve and David Stasavage is illuminating.

[amazon_image id=”0691165459″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Taxing the Rich: A History of Fiscal Fairness in the United States and Europe[/amazon_image]

Apart from anything else, the historical data on top tax rates is fascinating. There have really only been two big moves in top income (and inheritance) tax rates: up, a lot, from the 1920s to around 1950; down, by half of a lot, mainly in the 1980s but drifting down subsequently. It is also interesting to note the contrast between the US/UK top marginal rates and the rest of the developed world – about 40% vs about 60%. As in so many areas, the fact that data and economic research are heavily US-centric has a distorting effect on economic policy debates elsewhere. Extraordinarily, the burden of total taxation on the highest income bracket in the UK reached 90.7% during the second world war (compared to 19.1% for the bottom group). Talk about progressive.

The book discusses the forces driving the trends in taxation of the rich. The authors’ main point is that war has been the principal driver, with the sense of fairness the result of the calls the state made on citizens at those times. It was at times when the government demanded immense sacrifices from the majority of the population that the effective social contract ensured the wealthy paid: “War mobilization changed beliefs about tax fairness. It created an opportunity for new and compelling compensatory arguments that increased support for taxing the rich.” In other words, while the arguments for taxing the rich have always relied on fairness, the notion of fairness has changed at different times. The book demonstrates that as wars created opportunities for profit for capitalists, thanks to wartime production, the demand they should shoulder more of the tax burden gained great traction.

The book challenges the previous consensus that the consensus in favour of strongly redistributive taxation, to compensate for the sacrifice of ordinary people, lasted for any length of time after world war two. And to the extent there was, it anyway steadily crumbled. The book agrees that globalization, and a new emphasis on incentives for economic growth, played a part in reducing tax rates on the rich as the 20th century wore on. But they argue that a more important factor was the weakening of the kind of compenstory arguments that had been available in wartime. “Different compensatory arguments can be made today, but they have a smaller impact. In today’s debates about progressive taxation, observers often fail to appreciate this fact.”

The book reports a representative survey of over 2000 Americans showing that the top marginal tax rate they select is in fact below today’s rate of 39.6%. There appears to be little support from this for higher taxation. To put it another way, Americans don’t see why Silicon Valley should be taxed because Wall Street was bailed out – although they oppose the bailout. The lesson is: ‘fairness’ is not an abstract concept. You have to find a fairness argument with traction, and the compensatory arguments being used by the left today do not have that. Looking back to the 19th century, before the era of global war provided a strong compensatory argument, the principles that enabled increases in taxes on the rich concerned equal treatment for all within the tax system: as existing taxes were raised on land, new mercantile fortunes were untaxed. So taxation was extended in its coverage. The authors suggest looking to the thickets of exemptions and special privileges rather than the headline-grabbing top marginal rates. Interestingly, this is something Jo Maugham emphasised this week. Maybe he had read this very interesting book. David Stasavage also spoke at this recent LSE Conference on inequality.

 

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Going beyond GDP: walking the talk

Today I’m working on a talk for a conference organised by the Royal Economic Society, Royal Statistical Society and Institute for Fiscal Studies on the agenda for modernising economic statistics. The day’s programme covers a wide range of questions including regional statistics and measuring the digital. My contribution will be about ‘beyond GDP’. I was just reflecting that in the two years since my book, GDP: A Brief But Affectionate History was first published there have been enough other books on this issue to declare it a new genre.

Precursors were in 2009:

by Sen, Stiglitz, Fitoussi (the report of the Commission set up by former President Sarkozy)

[amazon_image id=”B00E32LW1C” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Mismeasuring Our Lives: Why GDP Doesn’t Add Up by Stiglitz, Joseph E., Sen, Amartya, Fitoussi, Jean-Paul published by New Press, The (2010)[/amazon_image]

and in 2013:

by Marc Fleurbaey and Didier Blanchet

[amazon_image id=”019976719X” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Beyond GDP: Measuring Welfare and Assessing Sustainability[/amazon_image]

Then:

by Diane Coyle

[amazon_image id=”0691156794″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History[/amazon_image]

by Lorenzo Fioramonti

[amazon_image id=”1780322720″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Gross Domestic Problem: The Politics Behind the World’s Most Powerful Number (Economic Controversies)[/amazon_image]

by Morten Jerven

[amazon_image id=”0801451639″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Poor Numbers: How We are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do About it (Cornell Studies in Political Economy)[/amazon_image]

Later:

by Dirk Philipsen

And new/forthcoming:

by Ehsan Masood

[amazon_image id=”1681771373″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Great Invention: The Story of GDP and the Making (and Unmaking) of the Modern World[/amazon_image]

by Philipp Lepenies.

[amazon_image id=”0231175108″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Power of a Single Number: A Political History of GDP[/amazon_image]

When this kind of thing happens, there is certainly change afoot.

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