Life, leaving, and existentialism

The Boxer and the Goalkeeper: Sartre vs Camus by Andy Martin was recommended to me by somebody commenting on this blog, I remember not when. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable book, using the soap opera of French intellectual life in the mid-20th century to illustrate the philosophical debates.

I particularly liked the personal touch here. Andy Martin writes about his own intellectual discovery, starting out as an alienated small town teenager who happens upon a copy of Sartre’s L’Etre et le Néant (in fact, he shoplifts it), and from there progresses to university, the Ecole Normale Supérieure, and academic life. I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s in a small town (Ramsbottom) in Lancashire where many people, including my dad and aunts and uncles, then worked in the cotton mills. Occasionally we visited Manchester  – once, I went to London. Our holidays were spent in Blackpool or Filey. From an early age, though, I dreamed of leaving and leading an entirely more glamorous life. Many small town young people do of course, but for in my mind glamour involved philosophy and abroad.

I particularly fixed on philosophy after our French teacher (Mme Sandler, I salute you) started us on Sartre’s Les Mains Sales and told us to read up on existentialism. My entire being came to be focused on becoming a philosopher and spending my career writing books while sitting in a Parisian café. Then I read Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, which was an enlightenment.

Initially, Sartre and Beauvoir seemed more enticing, but before long it was obvious that Camus was more appealing as a person and as a philosopher. The Boxer and the Goalkeeper reinforces that. In particular, Sartre’s political calls post-war look highly morally dubious and I for one am all with Camus as their friendship turned to antagonism. But make your own mind up – read the book. There are some taster extracts here.

A footnote: an entirely different story about leaving behind the north of England, this column by Adnan Sarwar in this weekend’s Financial Times is absolutely beautifully written and thoughtful.

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Corruption and consumption

Teju Cole’s Every Day Is For The Thief is an absolutely terrific book – his Open City is now on my wish list. It is a portrait of Nigeria – Lagos, rather – by a returned Nigerian. One of his main preoccupations is the absolutely pervasive bribery, which he tries to resist but rarely successfully; another the texture of institutional failure and what that means for the country – and how it is linked to the absence of a sense of why history is important. Highly relevant reading for anybody interested in development economics, not to mention a wonderfully written, moving, fascinating book.

Cole writes: “For many Nigerians, the giving and receiving of bribes, tips, extortion money or alms – the categories are fluid – is not thought of in moral terms. It is either seen as a mild irritant, or as an opportunity. It is a way of getting things done, neither more nor less than what money is there for.”  This is subtly different from Katherine Boo’s explanation for corruption in her book in life in an Indian slum, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, where she shows that people are too poor to give up any opportunity to make some money.

Other snippets from Every Day is for the Thief: “One goes to the market to participate in the world. As with all things that concern the world, being in the market requires caution. The market – as the essence of the city – is always alive with possibility and danger. Strangers encounter each other in the world’s infinite variety, vigilance is needed. Everyone is there not merely to buy or sell but because it is a duty.”

“The oil and gas business rakes in lurid profits, there has been a great increase in cellphone use, and the banking sector is frenetic. The newspapers are full of mergers and acquisitions. These are the limits of the boom. It is good news in the sense that increased commerce is creating jobs, that the economy is active, and certain practical needs of the people are being met. Things are not as stagnant as they were in the dark days of the early and mid-90s. But there are now mores erious discrepancies in income levels, even among people with comparable educational qualifications. There is little incentive for people to go into professions that are not lucrative. Consumption, among those who can afford it, is conspicuous.”

And you ask, as I suppose you are meant to, who are the thieves.

Technology in history

I’ll collate the economic history suggestions another time. Meanwhile, though, seeing a recommendation for David Edgerton‘s influential The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900 sent me to both that – which insists that there is too much cheerleading about invention and not enough focus on the implementation of technologies in specific historical contexts – and to his subsequent book, Britain’s War Machine: Weapons, Resources and Experts in the Second World War.

The latter makes some contrarian arguments about the war. Edgerton argues that (a) Britain was the richest and most powerful combatant thanks to its imperial resources – it is a mistake to think of it as a beleagured nation standing alone begging for American charity, and Germany would (and did) struggle to combat it; and (b) the ‘declinist’ histories about Britain after the war (notably Corelli Barnett in The Audit of War and  The Lost Victory etc) are mistaken, as relative decline was due largely to strong growth in other countries.

Edgerton’s argument is pinned on a materialist account of the resources and technology developed and used by Britain. Some of this evidence is very striking. One example is a graphic showing the vastly, vastly greater tonnage of bombs the UK dropped on Germany compared with German bombing of the UK – the horrors of the firestorms and mythology of the Blitz notwithstanding. It’s all very interesting. Britain’s early defeats led to a huge emphasis on increasing production, he writes, saying there was a “powerful sense that the war was a war of production,” with contemporary debate focusing on industrial efficiency, or the lack of it.

The importance of scientific advance in the conflict is obviously a well-known part of the story, from codebreaking (my favourite account is R.V Jones’s Most Secret War) to the Manhattan Project. Edgerton adds to this the sense of Imperial power and the availability of material resources.

His reinterpretation is certainly interesting, and it must always be fruitful to test received wisdom. His claim that postwar decline is misinterpreted is less convincing, however. Surely the loss of Empire is a decline, whether you think it was a good thing or not? And the transition to US superpowerdom postwar is clear.

I see from his website that Prof Edgerton is working on currently working on Capitalism, Empire and Nation: a new history of twentieth-century Britain, a forthcoming book for Penguin. That will be an essential read.

Economists and humanity

Peter Smith sent me his new book The Reform of Economics: How the complex systems approach is building a realistic and humane alternative to laissez-faire. In a letter accompanying it, he said he has two motivations. One is to get economics out of the trap of over-simplifying so that models can use linear algebra and thus be made ‘tractable’. This is one of the things that makes complexity economics and agent-based modelling appealing; virtual economies run on a computer do not need to be solved algebraically.

The other aim is to make economic methodology something more like normal scientific methodology. Economic method consists of choosing some basic postulates and making deductions from them. The deductions can then be tested against data. Normal science involves both induction and deduction. Careful empirical observation will shape theory.

The book dates the choice of the purely deductive path to Lionel Robbins and his 1935 essay The Nature and Significance of Economic Science. He defined economics as the science of constrained choice, which, “Not only excludes uncertainty, but it also excludes from the scope of economics both institutions and the medium-term evolution of economic systems.” This isolates economics from the institutional framework of the economy, and hence from what determines the availability of resources over time – it makes economics an inherently static subject.

Natural scientists do regard economics as bizarrely non-empirical – I’ve been in multi-disciplinary conferences about both macroeconomics and behavioural choice at which biologists exclaim about how rarely economists discuss data, for all that they might go away and test hypotheses. One of the joys of being on the Competition Commission for eight years was how profoundly evidence-based the process is, and hence a real insight for an economist used to generalising about how companies behave. There aren’t many business people who think about marginal cost curves and production functions.

The Reform of Economics is a game of two parts (not halves). It is mostly a critique of economic methodology but also has a useful introduction to agent based modelling. It ends on an upbeat note I very much like:

“Economics is becoming a much more interesting area in which to work and learn; and we have every hope that a more realistic and effective reformed science of economics will also be a more humane one. For, ultimately, economics is about the well-being of humanity.”

Cautious giant leaps

The argument of Why Government Fails So Often and How It Can Do Better by Peter Schuck is set out wonderfully succinctly in the title, and the book does an excellent job of telling half of the story about the role of governments and markets in delivering economic outcomes.

The chapters cover a range of reasons for ‘government failure’. To list them, they are: incentives not aligned with the policy’s aims; non-rational choice; lack of information; lack of flexibility in delivering outcomes when circumstances change or things don’t work out; lack of government credibility so essential co-operation is not forthcoming; mismanagement including fraud and abuse. Schuck argues that these barriers to policy success have a “deep, structural, endemic nature.”

The book has many examples of policy failure – it’s an American and to be honest far less amusing version of The Blunders of Our Governments by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe. It’s hard to argue with the examples. This book cites also Clifford Winston’s Government Failure versus Market Failure, which has many more. indeed, there have been loads of policy failures, in all kinds of places and contexts.

An aspect of the argument here that I strongly agree with is the failure of policy analysts to build themselves into their ‘impact analysis’ or whatever framework they use for assessing the likely success of the initiative. In other words, the incentives the policy will create for the people affected to change their behaviour are hardly ever incorporated. Economists often think of themselves as being ‘outside’ the society, in a benign deus ex machina role.Yet all policies alter people’s behaviour and have many side-effects.

Schuck’s book does end with a chapter on policy successes – in fact it finds nine, including Airline Deregulation in 1978, the 1975 Earned Income Tax Credit, the food stamp program, the interstate highway system and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. However, it concludes: “It is hard to know for sure why these (and other) policies have succeeded when so many others have failed. Low costs, simple implementation, strong public good characteristics, and replacing far worse policies are all given as potential explanations. However, Schuck also concludes: “To succeed, the programs needed to engage the actors’ self-interest; they did not need to create new values or transform behaviors.” But he believes that the ‘low hanging fruit’ has gone.

Hence his main recommendation – be cautious. “Realistic meliorism” – make things a little bit better but keep your ambitions modest. The policy ‘doing better’ bit of the book’s title is doing far less.

I’m all for realism. There’s a missing half of the story here, though, which is how government actions unavoidably shape markets, so that to argue ‘don’t do much and just leave it to the market’ is in itself a policy. Collective choices are inevitable and government is how we make those choices. Why Government Fails So Often should be read alongside Colander and Kuper’s  recent book Complexity and the Art of Public Policy, which is about policy as determining the structure of a complex, and uncontrollable (in the old-fashioned policy sense) economy and society.

That approach is hard to get right too, but as it’s impossible not to have a structure within which markets operate, because here we are at a point in history where we have actually existing markets, it surely makes sense for governments to think about that structure. And while caution, in the face of the record of policies ranging from the inept to the horribly counter-productive, is surely sensible, thinking about structure does not automatically point to incrementalism.  Sometimes a cautious giant leap might be just the thing.