Coffee table economics

I’ve been enjoying paging through Steven Medema’s The Economics Book: from Xenophon to Cryptocurrency, 250 Milestones in the History of Economics, not least because it has lots of lovely pictures. It’s a history of economic concepts –  that starts in 700 BCE with Hesiod to cryptocurrencies in 2009. Each entry has a beautiful illustration, no mean feat when it comes to illustrating Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium (a photo of the ECB), National Income Accounting (women washing dishes at home and hence not contributing to GDP), or Utilitarianism (Jeremy Bentham’s catalogue of the different sources of pleasure and pain). The pictures make it exactly the kind of book you’d be happy to have on the coffee table but it’s more than that: the selection of concepts and the capsule explanations do make it a useful starting point for people who’ve maybe read the terms or think they ought to know something about economics but have no idea where to start. They can start here without embarrassment (Hicks-Allen consumer theory, the School of Salamanca, the Shapley value….) and follow up elsewhere. It’s also a bargain – get the hardback, not the Kindle version.

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Automation, the future of work and giraffes

Daniel Susskind’s A World Without Work: Technology, Automation and How We Should Respond is a very nice overview of the issues related to technological unemployment – will it happen, how will it affect people, and what policy responses might make sense. As the book notes, it is impossible to predict the number/proportion of jobs that might be affected, or how quickly, with detailed studies coming up with numbers ranging from about a tenth to about a half. But that there will be disruption, and that past policies have not dealt well with the consequences, is far less uncertain. Even if you believe that the economy will in time adjust the types and amount of work available – and so in that sense this time is *not* different from the past – the transition could be painful.

The book has three sections. The first looks at the history of technological unemployment and why we might expect AI to lead to a new wave. The second sets out the task-based analysis introduced by David Autor and others to sketch how the character of people’s work can change significantly. While dismissing the lump of labour fallacy, it argues that one of the main symptoms will be increased inequality. It predicts, gloomily, that this will get worse and that some people will be left with no capital and redundant human capital,, “leaving them with nothing at all.” I’m not sure that will be politically viable, judging from current events, but the logic is straightforward.

The final section turns to potential policy responses: improved education – heaven knows, we need that; ‘Big State’ – “a new institution to take the labour market’s place” – in effect more tax and a UBI; and tackling Big Tech through competition policy – yep, I’m definitely up for that. Finally, Susskind argues that part of the role for the Big State is to ensure we all have meaning in our working lives, replacing the job as the source of people’s identity, though I wasn’t sure how this should happen.

It’s a clearly-written book, covering concisely ground that will be familiar to economists working on this territory, and providing a useful overview for those not familiar with the debate. Although I’m not a fan of UBI, the other policy prescriptions seem perfectly sensible – perhaps too sensible to be inspiring.

41mVd8pmXCL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_I must say that my other recent read has made me even more sceptical about the scope for AI to take over from humans. Recently I noted there has been a wave of terrific books on AI. Add to the list Janelle Shane’s You Look Like A Thing and I Love You. You’d be absolutely mad not to read this bok. It had me in hysterics, while making it super-clear what’s hype and what’s realistic about current and near-future AI. And explaining why image recognition AI is so prone to seeing giraffes – many giraffes – where there are none. An absolute must-read.

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Calculating the economy

One of the books I’ve read on this trip to the AEA/ASSA meetings in San Diego is The People’s Republic of Walmart by Leigh Phillips and Michael Rosworski. This is a very entertaining projection of the socialist calculation debate onto modern capitalism.

41JGcj2r26L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_The starting point is the Simon/Coase realisation that big firms are internally planned economies – if it works for Walmart, why wouldn’t it work at larger scale? The authors’ hypothesis is that economic planning might work better now that we have so much more powerful computers and better data.

I’d recommend the book as an introduction to the socialist calculation debate for those unfamiliar with it (ideal for students). It cites some of my favourite books including Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty and Eden Medina’s Cybernetic Revolutionaries. Some chilling lines – about Stalin’s purges, for instance: “Anyone with any expertise was placed under suspicion.” It’s a great read.

Am I persuaded? Not entirely. Technology clearly will change organisational configurations, but it has just as much been decentralisation of firms and extended supply chains as it has been giant Walmart-type firms. I’m also sceptical that the data available is actually the information needed to plan an economy, or that it’s easy to access and join up. Still, it’s the right question, and a reminder that the boundary between market, state and other forms of organistaion is not set in stone but needs constant negotiation – in fact, I know a great book about this about to be published: Markets, State and People.

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Not-so-free markets

Thomas Philippon’s The Great Reversal: How America Gave Up On Free Markets, my pre-Xmas Day reading, deserves the positive reviews it’s been getting. It’s a highly accessible synthesis of Prof Philippon’s always-illuminating research into the empirics of US finance and competition. The argument is neatly summed up in the final part of the book: the US economy has become meaningfully less competitive, leading to higher prices, lower wages and lower productivity, and the main explanation is regulatory capture – the extraordinary (in scale and effectiveness) corporate lobbying in the US. The method of argument is set up near the beginning: all the possible explanations for the rise in concentration are listed:

  • there isn’t really an increase in concentration, it’s a data issue
  • competition has declined in lots of US industries
  • superstar firms are so successful they are organically gaining market share
  • technology is driving winner-take-all market structures
  • foreign competition means there has been domestic globalisation so it’s the overseas-adjusted concentration that matters
  • the growing importance of intangible assets explains concentration

The first part of the book explores these different hypotheses in the US data. The two left standing are decreased domestic competition with some – incomplete – mitigation from overseas competition. For my taste the book takes the available data on intangible assets far too seriously – they are highly incomplete and have limitations – but on the other hand part of the value of intangible assets is politically created (eg over-long copyright, scope for patent trolling). There is a ton of interesting evidence along the way – my favourite table is 13.2, the star companies over the decades; it shows that today’s tech stars are actually smaller in most ways (market cap, profitability and especially employment share) than star companies even of the 50s, 60s and 70s. There’s a very interesting section on how unintegrated they are with the rest of the US economy compared with the past.

Part 2 of the book is a compare and contrast between the US and EU, observing that the EU’s Single Market and enforcement by independent EU-level bodies means European markets are now notably more competitive than their US counterparts (not that Philippon sounds particularly impressed with other aspects of the EU economy). There is a neat political economy explanation for the independence of regulators: no individual country wants another country to dominate so independence is a Nash equilibrium.

The third part of the book covers campaign finance and lobbying in the US – no surprises – while the fourth part looks more closely at some individual sectors. The eye-opener is finance: despite extraordinary technological advances and innovation (after all, finance is one of the most ICT-intensive industries), the sector is no more efficient now than at the time of  the original JP Morgan. “Why is the non-financial sector transferring so much income to the financial sector?” Philippon asks. Lack of entry, and heavy-handed regulation (often a barrier to entry) are the culprits. I do constantly find it extraordinary that finance, having almost brought down the global economy and cost gazillions in lost output, is back to exactly where it was in the mid-2000s. We could go round the goldfish bowl again. This more than anything signals the political power of the finance lobby: the sector paid a negligible price for its actions.

So all in all, The Great Reversal is an important read. I also welcome one of the concluding points: Philippon writes, “I was surprised by the gap between economic research and policy,” in researching the book. I couldn’t agree more. Too few academics have any incentive to produce timely and policy-relevant research, as opposed to their strong incentive to produce narrow papers that will (slowly) get published in a small number of journals. Thank goodness for engaged academics like Prof Philippon.

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Killer doubts

After a fantastic recent workshop I read Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. I’m late to this (it was first published in 2010) & had read some reviews, but this didn’t make the book any less shocking. The subtitle is ‘How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming.’ Part of the scandal is that it was literally a handful of people who abused their scientific credentials in one area to persuade the media and public that there was meaningful scientific doubt about the lethalness of smoking or the reality of global warming. These were mainly men who had worked as cold warrior scientists, mostly physicists, but nevertheless commenting in an authoritative tone on biomedical or environmental science.

The book’s hypothesis is that the doubt-merchants – consulting for big companies or paid through free-market foundations the corporations had established and funded – were scientists turned anti-science because they were opposed to regulation. Regulation was what communists did; capitalist corporations should be free to do what they want. The tactics used in each of the examples where there was a solid academic consensus about the issue – the hole in the ozone layer, tobacco, anthropogenic global warming, acid rain, etc – was a trifecta: point out that there is always some scientific doubt about something (indeed – science progresses by skeptical enquiry and there are always more avenues to explore); argue that the costs of remedying the issue are disproportionately high; attack the scientists as ideological and mainly interested in progressing their own careers (those elitist ‘experts’). Scientists were portrayed as at best the enforcers of the nanny state, wanting to prevent people enjoying their natural liberties.

I can sort of understand the psychology of conservative Cold Warriors who, over time, burrow ever further into their own reality bunker – recall, it is literally the same small group of people in the US over time, joined in the 1980s by some UK free marketeers. I am less able to understand the media, however. The book describes the corporate lobbyists’ use of the ‘fairness doctrine’ in US TV broadcasting, requiring balanced coverage of controversial matters. The issues described here were not controversial – the controversy was manufactured. It was not hard in these cases to discern where the opinion of the great majority of scientists lay. This is literally a core part of the job of journalists and their editors – figuring out how to tease something close to fact out of a conflicting set of statements by people with their own agendas and interests.

Yet the false balance is widespread in journalism still. In 2011 on the BBC Trust we commissioned a report from Professor Steve Jones on the BBC’s science coverage and he highlighted the danger of this false balance interpretation of its editorial requirement of ‘due impartiality’. He wrote: “Attempts to give a place to anyone, however unqualified, who claims interest can make for false balance,” and the opposite of impartiality. It’s a few years old but I commend it still, along with the sobering Merchants of Doubt. After all, in some of the cases described in the book, people died when sufficient doubt was sewn in the public mind to inhibit regulatory action; and when it comes to global warming the stakes are huge.

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