Time for the next techno-enviro-social paradigm?

On this week’s flights I read Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve by Ian Morris. I thoroughly enjoyed Morris’s big book, Why the West Rules (For Now), a grand sweep of economic and social history in the vein of (Guns Germs and Steel, Collapse) Jared Diamond. This new book is a series of essays based on his 2012 Tanner Lectures at Princeton, with comments/criticisms and a response. So it’s much shorter and less detailed than the previous one, although a very good and enjoyable read nonetheless.

Morris comes across here as a sort of Karl Marx meets Jared Diamond. In a nutshell, his argument is that humanity has grown better at using the prevailing energy technology to acquire more kilocalories of energy for use, up to a ceiling. At that ceiling, a new energy basis for society evolves, importantly affecting population density and the size of human social groups, and replaces the previous social/technical paradigm. Domestication of grains and animals enabled farming to replace foraging. The extraction of fossil fuels and their harnessing as steam power led to industrial societies in place of agrarian ones.

Each of these three paradigms involves a different kind of social relations: egalitarian in foraging societies because co-operation is necessary for hunting and gathering, and nobody has a lot of property; hierarchical ones in agrarian societies because some people accumulate property to be defended, and a biological division of labour between the sexes emerges too; and industrial ones more egalitarian with respect to politics and gender but tolerant of wealth inequality. There has been little if any biological evolution among humans – and through the millennia the same basic characteristics (or even values) such as the capacity for love, a sense of fairness etc, exist – but there has been cultural evolution. Specifically, values evolve, being shaped by interaction with the physical, social and intellectual environment. Is it acceptable to treat women as chattels or to have slaves? Do animals have the right to humane treatment? Does marital fidelity matter? These kinds of values have changed significantly.

Although it seems highly plausible that the material and technical basis of a society plays an important part in shaping its higher level values, and that population density and the size of social groups will be important, there is something that feels a bit deterministic about Morris’s argument. It may be that at this short length the arguments become caricatures, with less scope for nuance, because the four critiques of the argument aren’t all that convincing either.

The book has lots of facts, always appealing to me. For instance, did you know the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron had intercepted and freed 150,000 Africans being shipped across the Atlantic to the US between banning slave trading in 1807 and the outbreak of the US Civil War in 1865?

It ends rather gloomily, pointing out that the big transitions he identfies – from foraging to farming to fossil fuels – occurred when successful societies hit the “hard ceiling of what was possible given their stage of energy capture and found themselves taking part in a natural experiment….. More often than not, people failed to revolutionize their energy capture and suffered Malthusian collapses.”

Perhaps, he muses with unseemly cheer, that’s about to happen to us unless we can solve the climate change issues. So that’s our choice: a catastrophic collapse of civilization, or a new techno-enviro-social paradigm.

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Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Why Are We Waiting: the logic, urgency and promise of tackling climate change is Nick Stern’s second book on this subject, the first being A Blueprint for a Safer Planet. In the new book he aims to combine fear and hope – fear of the consequences of not taking big steps now, and hope that the need to change is an opportunity for new technologies and growth.

The first part of the book, “A Planet Between Peril and Prosperity,” sets out these two elements. Stern is at the gloomy end of the range of views about the likely rise in mean global temperatures and the consequent economic and social risks. Unless the world acts within a decade or two, the window for limiting the temperature rise to a manageable 2 degrees C will be closed, he says, before proceeding to dangle hope with a chapter about the potential for a “new energy-industrial revolution.”

The second part of the book is an interesting challenge to climate change sceptics (of course) but also to some of the economists who are less pessimistic. Stern challenges the application of economic methods that assess the costs and benefits at the margin – inappropriate he rightly argues when you are discussing big changes. He has a chapter discussing the flaws in the conventional ‘integrated assessment models’ used in the literature. Stern argues: “They have assumed strong underlying growth, plus only modest damages from big increases in temperature, plus very limited risk.” If you disagree as he does with all three assumptions, the consensus forecasts look Panglossian. A final chapter in this section assesses the debate about ethical assumptions and how these are captured in the modeling, a debate first triggered by the Stern Review. His critics argue that he makes an extreme assumption about the right discount rate to use to assess future costs and benefits; but he has not changed his view.

The third and final part is about political economy – why the negotiations are so hard, how to get fast-growing developing economies to sign up to urgent action, why is everything so slow? The book argues that this is the result of the analytical errors he sets right in part 2, and psychological barriers to change, and a communication deficit. But surely it’s much simpler? Nobody – person or country – has an individual incentive to bear the short term cost of change, while the costs of climate change are uncertain, 20 years into the future, and a collective problem. It will take an extraordinary politician to solve the global collective action problem in advance, rather than reacting to events. So the book concludes, “Why are we waiting?” I am not sure the market is waiting – there seems to be a lot of energy innovation under way. As for policy, surely we need individual nation state governments to do what they can through carbon taxes, or plastic bag taxes, or policies to ‘green’ power generation – and not wait for an all-encompassing international agreement?

This is not to say Nick Stern is wrong to be so concerned. The outcome he fears clearly has a non-zero probability even if you don’t agree with him. So I’m all for action. Anybody who is interested in the economics and political economy of climate change policy will want to read this book.

Hope amid the gloom?

Anybody in the UK who is feeling gloomy about the General Election result could deepen their gloom by reading the new edition of Danny Dorling’s Injustice: why social inequality still persists. The book has quite an upbeat conclusion: “Slowly, collectively, with one step back for every two taken forward, we inch onwards to progress; we gradually undo the mistakes of the past, and recognise new forms of injustice arising out of what we once thought were solutions. … Everything it takes to defeat injustice lies in the mind. What matters most is how we think. And how we think is metamorphosing because – everywhere – there are signs of hope.”

Clearly this new and greatly revised edition of the book was written before the election. What’s more, everything that is new in it ought to make a campaigner for social justice even gloomier. The indicators collected in the book have at best improved only a little since the financial crisis – household indebtedness, income inequality, for instance. Perhaps even more noteworthy is the apparent absence of any change in the zeitgeist, or public philosophy. When the first edition was published in 2010, many commentators thought the scale of the crisis would lead to a significant swing in public opinion away from Big Finance, markets and greed. With the exception of popular disapproval of unseemly bonuses in the socially destructive banking industry, that doesn’t seem to have happened.

Or has it? Dorling presents some evidence – Janet Yellen calling extreme inequality ‘un-American’, international efforts to collect unpaid taxes from rich globocrats, popular dislike of elites. It’s not much, perhaps. One could add a few more examples, like today’s call from the OECD for tech companies to stop their “aggressive tax planning”. Is this enough to justify a belief that the social and economic order will change. Dorling writes, optimistically in the circumstances: “No-one can truly know what will be sufficient to change deeply held and institutionally transmitted beliefs.”

In a terrific book, Masters of the Universe, Daniel Stedman Jones described the long process of organising, campaigning, debating by many people that paved the way for the triumph of the individualist ‘free market’ philosophy from 1980 and is still our official public philosophy. Who knows how long it will take how many people who dislike this to pave the way for an alternative – but when a system change of this kind happens, it happens relatively quickly (over a decade at most) and is then dramatic.

Injustice replaces Beveridge’s original Five Giants with new ones: elitism, social exclusion, prejudice, greed and despair. The book links these in a vicious circle of social and economic inequality – exactly why single policy measures are drops in the ocean and a broader change is needed, Dorling argues, collecting all the evidence one could need to conclude this. I wouldn’t want to predict whether we’ll get it or not; that will depend on what we all do, and think, next.

It’s the power, stupid

What’s not to like about a book with the title The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureacracy. This is a book of essays by Occup Wall Street activist and LSE anthropologist David Graeber, author of the tome Debt: The First 5000 Years. Well, various things. Just like his previous book, I enjoyed the read, strongly disagreed with some points and strongly agreed with others. That makes for quite good entertainment.

The book is a series of essays, ostensibly about bureaucracy, but really about the iniquities of neoliberal capitalism, which is not at all an arena of individual liberty but on the contrary a highly circumscribed system of exploitation. ‘Bureaucracy’ does service as a catch-all term for the set of rules through which the oligarchy in cahoots with the government restrict the options of the great mass of people.

There is certainly something in this portrayal of a society of rich people and large organisations able to act as they please while the great majority experience a highly regulated life. Think about wanting to open a small cafe or a two-person plumbing business, and the extent of certification and inspections that are needed. Or opening a bank account. Graeber writes that we spend hours entangled in paperwork to apply for licences or pay taxes or open accounts, and: “The paperwork we do exists in this sort of in between zone – ostensibly private, but in fact entirely shaped by a government that provides the legal framework, underpins the rules with its courts and all the elaborate mechanisms of enforcement that come with them but – crucially – works closely with the private concerns to ensure the results will guarantee a certain rate of provate profit.” All the more so in these days of outsourcing of state functions such as determining eligibility for benefits. There has been, he says, a gradual fusion of public and private power into “a single entity, rife with rules and regulations.”

So I think there is something in this. Matt Taibbi was onto the same point in Griftopia when he argued that all the people who seem crazy to support Tea Party policies actually do have an arbitrary and unfriendly government controlling their lives.

Where I strongly disagree with Graeber is in his analysis of how to respond. The good part of his argument is about experimenting with other kinds of association and collective organisation, not government but not for profit, perhaps idealistic but worth trying. However, he also writes: “Do not underestimate the importance of sheer physical violence,” drawing on the experience of protests like the 1999 Battle for Seattle riots against the WTO.

He also has a long excursion into technology, arguing that the pace of change peaked in the 1950s or 60s, and that current technological change is not delivering things people might actually want such as flying jet packs. The high hopes of the 1960s as manifested in Star Trek, say, have not materialized. No beaming up, no holodecks etc. Instead, technology has been diverted to military causes. Apart from the fact that the military have always influenced technological research, this is a fact-free essay. I’d want to see some kind of evidence, because if you look at things like either price declines (or how many hours of work are needed to purchase a unit of computer power, or light), or the character of post-1960s discoveries  (medical advances, compelling technologies such as mobile telephony) then there seems to me to be decent evidence for no slowdown. Why can’t computers think yet? Well, give them time. Economic historians like Paul David and David Landes have pointed out how long and variable and unpredictable are the lags between discoveries and their economic and social impact. The dreams and fears about electricity probably peaked more than 60 years before its use had become widespread.

Still, disagreements don’t really matter with a book like this. It’s enjoyable to read something thought provoking with lots of interesting material. I enjoyed the Star Trek riff (“The Federation is Leninism brought to its future absolute cosmic success… a happy conjuncture of material abundance and ideological conformity”) and the potted history of the German Postal system of the 19th century and its influence on future ideal societies, and his review of the third Batman movie and its political interpretation. This book is also less than half the length of Debt, Bureaucracy having a shorter history I suppose. Although actually the one thing this isn’t really about is bureaucracy, but instead another Graeber take on power.

What should rule the world after GDP?

The Little Big Number: how GDP came to rule the world and what to do about it by Dirk Philipsen is out next month. As a GDP-afficionado, I was eager to read it and found it an enjoyable read and generally thought-provoking, although not agreeing with the author on all points.

My main disagreement was more about tone and exaggeration in what is a rather emotional book. There are for example assertions like: “It is safe to say our ancestors, for some 200,000 years prior to the agricultural revolution, engaged in labour only to the very extent to which it helped them survive.” Really? No cave paintings, ancient jewellry, religion? Was Stonehenge essential for survival? Or, because of our “fixation with the accumulation of things”, trying to capture the reality of late 18th century life “by saying that people were poor would represent a fundamental misread.” So were they not less well-nourished than us with more illnesses and shorter lives and many children dying in infancy? Did women (and even men) not spend hours in domestic drudgery? I don’t hesitate to call people in the 18th century poor on this basis; it’s nothing to do with a passion for accumulating cars or handbags. I don’t want more than one washing machine but wouldn’t be without the one – just like Hans Rosling’s mother.

Many readers will like the polemical tone of The Little Big Number; it’s obvious I didn’t. Apart from that, this is an interesting book looking at the history of GDP, its inadequacies as a measure of social welfare, and the environmental consequences of seeking continuing economic growth. It covers some of the same ground as my own GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History, with additional detail. The book identifies the turn to growth rather than levels of national income as a policy aim in the 1950s. Philipsen attributes this to American optimism as the victor in World War 2. I wonder if it isn’t more related to the dawning Cold War, and the need to demonstrate over and over again that the American system was superior to the Soviet one? Geoff Tily (pdf) pinpoints an OECD document of 1961 as the first official reference to targetting growth, so quite a while after the end of the Second World War. (And as ever for anyone who hasn’t read it, I highly recommend Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty.)

The Soviet bloc used Net Material Product as their definition of ‘the economy’. The statistics were highly suspect, even those calculated as a best effort by the CIA; it wasn’t really until the mid-1980s, with glasnost, that the true, sustained weakness of growth in the planned economies became evident. There is a nice anecdote in the book: “Once Soviet archives opened to historical research in the years after 1991, we learned that American GDP figures of the Soviet national economy had been far more accurate than estimates provided by the Soviet Union’s own economic planners, who found it near-impossible to come up with reliable data for their centralized planned economy. What did Soviet planners do? They spied on American economists calculating Soviet GDP, and then incorporated what they learned from their American colleagues into their own planning.” Of course, the Americans were spying on the Soviets to get the basic data. Who knows what the figures meant? But the queues and shortages and poor quality of goods were all real.

The second half of the book looks at the ‘Beyond GDP’ debate, although oddly asserting that nobody paid much attention to the issues between Robert Kennedy’s assassination and Congressional hearings in 2001. This is a little US-centric; the global environmental movement kept the candle burning for alternatives all through that period. Philipsen concurs with the kinds of indicator like the Global Progress Index that show progress coming to a complete halt in the 1970s. This always seems absurd to me: even if that was a real turning point in terms of costs to the environment, which gets a heavy weight in the alternative index, there has been a lot of welfare-enhancing innovation and straightforward growth since the 1970s. It’s not just the invention of tamoxifen or the internet, but the fact that more westerners live in houses with phones, indoor toilets and central heating. Sure, there’s a trade-off with the environment but is that really no progress? Nor is Philipsen interested in the issues about defining either market output or social welfare for the growing category of digital goods that are often free and have strong public good characteristics.

As for what to do about it, the book advocates ditching GDP completely, and having a national dialogue about economic goals based on the principles of sustainability, equity, democratic accountability and economic viability. It isn’t clear how this prescription fits with the several ‘dashboard’ initiatives under way now, which are described here. The dashboard approach is attractive, as is public consultation. However, it isn’t yet clear which dashboard is best or what should go in it – it’s easy to end up with a laundry list of good things, and no analytical framework for assessing outcomes or trade-offs. So the real need now is for the hard grind of the kind that Kuznets, Stone and Meade and their many colleagues sustained through the 1930s and 40s in creating the national accounts to make a GDP-plus set of social accounts practical.

I still think dropping GDP altogether would be a mistake – hence ‘affectionate’. How would a government run fiscal policy or a central bank monetary policy without a nominal GDP figure and some of the national accounts detail? The national accounts statistics as a whole also contain a lot of the material that could furnish a meaningful dashboard, so again it would be a waste of an intellectual asset to ditch all of that.

However, the answer to the underlying question, are we going to move ‘beyond GDP’ is: yes.