A hymn to expertise

How often could you say a book about the workings of government departments, even including a Department of Agriculture org chart, is as gripping as a thriller? Michael Lewis is such a teeth-gnashingly good writer that he’s pulled this off with The Fifth Risk. Ostensibly about the chaos the Trump ‘administration’ is bringing to government as it expropriates whatever it can for personal financial benefit, the book is fundamentally a description of and hymn to the vital role of expertise in modern societies.

Expertise, and a strong sense of public service mission. It does so through interviews with a range of experts who have recently left government service – experts on nuclear weapon safety (managed by the Department of Energy), child nutrition (USDA), meteorology (the NOAA in the Commerce Department) and even social science (also in the NOAA, because what was the point of ever more accurate tornado warnings if people didn’t respond to them by evacuating their homes?)

It is, therefore, fundamentally a terrifying book. All these dedicated scientists waited for the new Trump administration to contact them after the election. And waited. And waited some more. Nothing. No interest in governing, in detail, for instance in why a small town storing nuclear waste might poison vast areas of the western United States and the Colorado River if the DoE didn’t spend billions a year on remediating and containing the problem. And of course, the ‘Administration’ gets away with it because so many voters had no interest either. This is where we are.

Anyway, a brilliant book. Do read it.

 

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Once upon a time in the British Economy

Managing the Economy, Managing the People: Narratives of Economic Life in Britain from Beveridge to Brexit by Jim Tomlinson is an interesting economic history of modern Britain. It appealed to me from the first page, where Tomlinson talks about the absence of a fixed meaning for the term ‘the economy’. The book therefore focuses: “[O]n the ways in which successive governments, in seeking to manage the economy, have sought simultaneously to manage popular understanding of economic issues.” In other words, to manage the economy is to tell a persuasive story about it – to have a narrative in other words.

This is not, as many economists’ first instinct will tell them, woolly nonsense. It is because there are many possible self-fulfilling (or self-averting) outcomes, given the role of both expectations about the future and interactions between individuals. In different ways many fine economists are starting to incorporate such insights, from Roger Farmer in macroeconomics to Robert Shiller, George Akerlof and Dennis Snower, Kaushik Basu, and George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton.

Anyway, as Tomlinson points out, talking about the electorate misunderstanding economic reality is therefore missing the point that economic outcomes are to some degree always constructed (and besides, it backfires – people don’t like to be told they’re stupid and should listen to clever folk). The body of the book therefore traces the ebb and flow of these political and policy acts of construction, and the interplay of ideas, ideologies, and events. The first part considers some of the key narratives, broadly chronologically – “You’ve never had it so good,” “rolling back the state,” etc. The second part looks at the period through the lens of key macroeconomic indicators, and why some are more salient at specific times due to the way they feature in public debate.

An interesting conclusion considers two broader narratives’: the rise of neoliberalism; and deindustrialisation. Tomlinson argues that while academics (outside economics) focus on the former, the latter – having had a briefl flurry of scholarly interest in the late 1970s – is more significant in understanding the trajectory of people’s lives in postwar Britain. The book comes to a rather sudden halt, and it is by no means a vanilla economic history of Britain, but it’s a stimulating read.

 

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Crashed

Adam Tooze’s much-praised history of global political economy from the period just before the Great Financial Crisis to the present – Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World – is indeed a terrific read. It’s a detailed (600+ pages) synoptic account of the political forces that enabled a few dozen banks to entwine the world’s economies in an interlinked web of credit at massive scale, and the political reactions to and consequences of the crisis. One might quibble that some parts of the story are sketchier than others, but then it’s always a good sign to be hankering after more of a book rather than less. Making the parts into a convincing whole is a major achievement.

There are several central points the book emphasises. One is the extent to which the dollar underpinned the whole global financial market construct – and consequently the extent to which the Fed bailed out the whole world after the crisis. Another is busting the myth that the crisis was Anglo-Saxon: the continental European banks were in it up to their eyeballs, with equally ineffective regulatory oversight, such that they too had massive maturity mismatches (like the US banks) and also massive currency mismatches (whereas it was all dollars for the US banks). Tooze is also forensically critical of the lack of a coherent European policy response – both the ECB (especially under Trichet) and the German political establishment come in for particular fire. The policy response to the Greek crisis in particular was abysmal – as was clear at the time. It was always apparent, certainly by 2012, that debt restructuring was essential, and that the bailout was for German and French banks more than for Greece.

The book explores the interplay between the financial crisis and geopolitics, particularly the desire of both China and Russia to ensure the transition – already heralded but revealed by the role of the dollar to be exaggerated – from a unipolar to a multipolar world. Above all, it draws the lines from the possibility of the crisis, and the crisis response, to the current political situation: “Though it is hardly a secret that we inhabit a world dominated by business oligopolies, during the crisis and its aftermath this reality and its implications for the priorities of government stood nakedly exposed. It is an unpalatable and explosive truth that democratic politics on both sides of the Atlantic has choked on.”

Quite so. Here in Brexit Britain, those working in the City have by and large continued to draw their large bonuses, retire early, holiday in exotic places, while post-crisis ‘austerity’ due to the way the crisis torpedoed public finances means many fellow citizens need to use food banks and are seeing local services like social care and libraries starved. Whatever you think about the consequences, the anti-establishment protest vote, in the UK and elsewhere, is entirely understandable. I’ve been completely gobsmacked by how little consequence of the crisis there has been for the financial sector and those working in it. The same went for the rest of Europe, creating “the sense that Europe’s welfare state was being subjected to a relentless program of rollback driven by the demands of bankers and bond markets.”

So too in the US. Tooze describes the election of Trump as the “most disorienting event experienced by the American political class in generations.” It seems likely to me to be even more damaging for the United States than Brexit will be for Britain. Disorienting, but really hardly surprising. It isn’t only the lasting, scarring financial, emotional, health costs the crisis inflicted on millions of Americans (“The grief and distress caused by the crisis were forces to be reckoned with”) but also the way the Fed’s crisis response and the Obama administration programs contributed to polarising American politics. This happened elsewhere, too. Inevitably perhaps, during the firefighting technocratic responses took priority over democratic legitimacy. We see the lasting consequences in the (slightly abstract) disdain for ‘experts’.

Nobody comes out of Tooze’s account particularly well, although some fare less badly than others (eg Bernanke vis a vis Trichet). Some readers will disagree with the economic diagnosis – for there are people who believe the austerity was essential, the fiscal bomb having been detonated by the crisis. There is more sympathy for the Syriza government than many of its interlocutors in Brussels, Berlin and Paris would share. There will be too much detail for some readers – it helps to know what haircuts and CDOs and repos are. Nevertheless, ten years on, Crashed is an essential read to understand the state of the world, and a troubling read, thinking ahead to the next ten years.

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Meta-policy

It turns out that being involved in a start-up – the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge – is pretty busy. So although I’ve been reading, it’s a couple of weeks since I had chance to post a review. However, the passage of time means I can now write about Kaushik Basu’s The Republic of Beliefs, which is one of the most interesting and exhilarating books I’ve read for ages.

The book concerns the application of game theory to law and economics, which sounds dry but is profoundly important. Basu addresses a meta-question: why are some laws obeyed and some not? His answer voyages through the traditional law and economics literature but also social norms, history and institutions. He write: “For the law to develop roots and the rule of law to prevail requires ordinary people to believe in the law; and to believe that others believe in the law. Such beliefs and meta beliefs can take a very long time to get entrenched in society.” And, of course, it doesn’t happen in all societies.

To tackle the question, Basu looks at how to model (game theoretically) the actions of the functionaries of the state, the law enforcers. As he points out, the difference between social norms and laws is usually taken to be self-enforcement versus enforcement by the police or judiciary. So it’s necessary to think about when either kind of enforcement occurs. For how could law – “jottings on paper” – work other than by altering the payoffs of the game? There’s a logical mistake to assume that law enforcers will automatically enforce the law, as is normally done in the literature, without making an rational calculation about what’s in their best interest when everybody else is assumed to be a calculating rational maximiser.

But if the law enforcers are brought into the game rather than being assume deus ex machina, how does the law change behaviour and outcomes at all? The answer must be that it changes people’s beliefs about what other people might do. The law can try to create new focal points in the game of life: “The might of the law, even though it might be backed by handcuffs, jail and guns, is in its elemental form rooted in nothing but a configuration of beliefs carried in the heads of people in society. … It is in this sense that we are citizens of the republic of beliefs.”

This conclusion has a striking consequence: “any outcome that is made possible by creating a law could have happened without the law,” Basu argues. Outcomes can come about either through formal legislation or through informal social sanctions, although the law might help bring about the self-sustaining edifice of beliefs more readily. But laws that do not direct the economy to one of many possible equilibrium points will not be observed. Hence in societies where there is a good deal of corruption, the law is trying to enforce behaviour among law enforcers that is not in their interests, and so will fail.

Basu discusses the long shadow of history in the light of this. As he points out, there has been a good deal of attention paid (much of it outside of the field of law and economics) into how to create new focal points. Less has been paid to how to erase focal points – which is something the western democracies might well want to do after this era of madness is over, for example in terms of acceptable behaviour online or violence to individuals from ethnic minorities: “Memory, in these kinds of problems, tends to leave a residue that is hard to erase.” Law abiding behaviour founded on the belief that laws are followed is sticky, but so is its opposite.

The book speculates that in the game of life the deep ambiguity about the future – what will the set of games be? – also makes ‘focal players’ important. Some people may be able to set the meta-framework: “In war and conflict, where one has to encounter sudden and unexpected scenarios, it is important to have a well-specified leader.”

In general, we need to understand better the role of the process of the creation of laws and social norms, including how they can erode, tipping society from a ‘good’ to a ‘bad’ equilibrium. I find thinking about these regime shifts – which are clearly under way in many societies now – in these terms of self-enforcement incredibly powerful. The online world makes this doubly the case – as Basu writes: “Thanks to the march of technology, market structures are changing in ways that need smart collective interventions to make sure we do not sink the boat by each trying to enhance our own self-interest, … We may need to think of different kinds of legal and governmental interventions so enable the economy to function effectively.”

I hope nobody is put off by the appearance of game theory. This is a beautifully written book, very profound, and the small number of payoff matrices clearly explained. The Republic of Beliefs offers a distinctive and revealing perspective on public policy, and couldn’t be more timely.

 

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Remembrancing the national debt

My husband teased me for saying The National Debt: A Short History by Martin Slater was a rattling good read, but it is. Published in late May, it puts the ‘austerity’ debate in illuminating context.

This is the UK’s national debt we’re talking about, and the book starts in the Middle Ages and ends at the financial crisis. For government debt is about high politics, from the needs of feudal monarchs to fund armies increasingly consisting of mercenaries to the long battles – in the Civil War, literal battles – over the respective powers of monarch and Parliament, to the effective private sector default in 2008 that led to banks being bailed out with the government borrowing to purchase bank equity of uncertain future value.

The history is delivered with a light touch and nice anecdotes. For instance, income tax was so hated than both times it was scrapped after its early, temporary introduction – all the records were destroyed, by immersion in water in 1802 and by burning in 1815. It turned out, however, that there was an official called the Remembrancer whose job was to keep a copy of all government financial records. This post was so obscure, that nobody had noticed and the copies were found many years later. (Created in 1154, the post still exists. What a great job title.)

There are boxes on famous economists’ views of the National Debt – including Karl Marx, who like all the others frowned on public indebtedness. He noted that most institutions in Britain were ‘Royal’ but the debt was ‘National’: another way working people had to support, through taxes to pay the interest, the rentier classes.

I learned that the founding President of the Royal Economic Society (no, not ‘National’) was an economist I’ve never heard of: George, Viscount Goschen, whom Slater describes as “perhaps one of the most economically literate Chancellors of the Exchequer to hold office before the late 20th century.” He wrote text books, encouraged the expansion of the universities, and was also President of the Royal Statistical Society.

The book ends with a (painlessly) theoretical section setting out a very clear explanation of debt sustainability. It does involve two equations, but even the most algebra-averse reader will be able to cope. The history behind the upward-ratchet of the net debt to GDP ratio makes it all too apparent that usually governments treat their purchases of assets (such as bridges or nationalised corporations) as capital expenditure but their sales of assets as current revenue, available to be spent on political priorities. For sustainablility, the government’s primary surplus of tax revenue less current spending, relative to the size of the economy, needs to be at least as big as the debt to GDP ratio, multiplied by the gap between the interest rate and growth rate (remember Piketty‘s famous r>g inequality). A higher growth rate is always the deus ex machina hoped for by governments struggling with high debt and interest payments. Currently, the UK’s national debt would start to decline (relative to GDP) with a modest 0.9% of GDP primary surplus, but that is quite a turnaround from the present deficit.

As Slater says, however, it is not straightforward to decide what the optimal level of the debt ratio would be; there is probably no better option than waiting for growth to do the job. The book concludes with a plea for a more comprehensive accounting for the government’s finances; the experimental whole of government accounts go a long way toward including other obligations that will fall on future taxpayers. Even these do not include non-legally binding future payments – such as state pensions or the NHS – while future PFI obligations are included as notes but are not in the figures. The politics of national debt are not going to get any easier.

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