Humanising economists

Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn From The Humanities, by Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro, made me groan slightly, inwardly, when it arrived at Enlightenment Towers. Did I really want to read another book criticising economics, having just tackled two other recent arrivals in the econ-bashing genre?

In fact, it’s rather a nice argument for economists paying more attention to stories. It also softened me up by starting out by pointing out, quite rightly, that the humanities (‘dehumanities’, the book calls them) have to a large extent brought their decline on themselves by devaluing the idea of great literature, teaching bowdlerised politics and sociology, and generally disappearing down the rabbit hole of critical studies.

Broadly, I agree wholeheartedly with the view that economics, narrowly understood as modelling and empirics, needs to be supplemented by careful attention to history, ideas and culture. This matters because important variables are unquantifiable; because people do not only take decisions on ‘economic’ grounds; and because causes simply can never be identified by looking at macro data, which need narrative to make sense of the numbers. It also matters in a meta way. As this book argues, empathy is vital so researchers understand that some people think differently from them and are not bad or stupid for doing so: “The narrower the set of values entertained and entertainable by our major educational institutions, the less empathetic they become to the population at large, and the more they wind up turning themselves into trainng grounds for one social gruop to maintain its pre-eminence.” A vital message for the academy in our times.

The bulk of the book is devoted to examples of economists who fail to understand the importance of stories and humanity (eg Gary Becker) and those who completely get it (eg Joel Mokyr). I would challenge some of the details or interpretations. For instance, the authors criticise the use of ‘QALYs’ (quality adjusted life years) to evaluate the selection of patients for costly treatments by the UK’s NHS, seemingly imagining that hospitals look at individual patients and take account of their earning potential before deciding to treat them or not. This is an absurd projection of the practices and mores of the US health market on the UK’s non-market system. Still, elsewhere the book makes the very good point that cost benefit analysis is widely tainted by the use of market values only to evaluate benefits – the example is spending to eliminate the parasitic disease of river blindness in sub-Saharan Africa, prevalent in poor areas where people do not earn much – meaning the value of the project hard to demonstrate to donors.

The moral of the book, for economists, is read more history, or novels even. For researchers in the humanities – well, maybe that’s their next book, but the advice probably isn’t to become more like economists.


Is it really curtains for globalisation?

Finbarr Livesey’s From Global to Local: The Making of Things and the End of Globalisation is a terrific read, although I’m not completely persuaded by the argument that the transformation of production by global supply chains will be reversed. In fact, the book gives a nuanced and highly informative account of why firms manufacture what they do where they do – making, too, the entirely valid point that the political context is highly uncertain and we could be seeing not only a retreat from hyper-globalisation but a full-blown canter toward nationalism and protectionism. The world has seen such unwindings before.

The first part of the book describes how the increasing specialisation of manufacturing, enabled by technology and declining transaction costs, led to the development of long cross-border supply chains. It then goes on to roll forward the evolution of both transport/transactions costs and automation, covering issues such as containerisation and shipping costs, the oil price, the move to regional trade deals, and agglomeration economies. These are some of my favourite subjects, and these chapters give a very nice synopsis of the economic issues.

However, one of my queries about the argument arises in the section on agglomeration. The suggestion here is that the economic forces of agglomeration apply to cities in developed economies but perhaps not so much in the emerging markets. “One of the open questions is whether the massive collection of companies making so many things in southern China has become a self-reinforcing cluster, a location with its own internal gravity binding manufacturers to it for a significant time into the future. …. [G]iven the rise of automation and the desire of leading firms to retain design and intellectual property control over their products, some of the clustering forces for places like Guangzhou and Shenzhen may not be as strong as thought at first glance.” My guess – no more than that – is that while automation will lead to some ‘reshoring’, as Livesey suggests, the Chinese manufacturing centres do in fact have some distinctive capabilities: the ability to manufacture to consistent standards on a large scale; unparalleled logistical expertise; and growing R&D/design capabilities in a number of products from clothes design to renewables.

Having said that, the book is very strong in describing the complexity of the production decisions facing manufacturers now, and there is loads of interesting detail. One chapter covers environmental issues, including the now widespread drive to reuse and recycle (IKEA is a nice example here). Another looks at trade policy and politics, and the importance of proximity (hello, Brexiteers!), leading some companies to switch their focus from exporting to markets to owning production assets in those markets: “Government regulations on foreign ownership will become the new trade barrier,” as otherwise companies may not be able to access certain markets at all. There is a chapter about automation and additive manufacturing, and the implications of smaller factories, with lower retooling costs, becoming economically viable. Labour costs will become steadily less decisive as a reason for locating production in an emerging economy (although I think that reason has been over-stated sometimes.)

All in all, Livesey predicts: “[I]t is likely we will see anything from a 20-30% fall in global merchandise trade (services are not affected the same way) over the coming decade.” This is quite a bold prediction, implying a big restructuring of production and diminution in importance of cross-border supply chains, given how much of merchandise trade now consists of components rather than finished products. I’m not sure about this, yet do agree with that the technological, political and economic conditions that shaped the world of global supply chains are changing substantially.

From Global to Local makes a great combination read with Richard Baldwin’s The Great Convergence published earlier this year. They offer two different sets of lenses on the organisation of the world of production. One could add Stephen King’s Grave New World, a pessimistic, big picture perspective on global political economy.

Reflecting on these three recent books, they need to be combined with looking at implications for employment and incomes. As David Autor pointed out in his IFS lecture last week, trade has contributed enormously to the biggest decline in poverty recorded in human history as China has grown – and the loss of jobs, income and status among some (not very numerous) groups of people in the west, a narrow but deep cost of technology & globalisation. We surely need to think much harder about the social and economic welfare implications of current trends, including whose welfare, given how badly prepared economists and politicans were for the implications of past developments. Globalisation and automation started to eat western livelihoods around 1980, and the failure to make sure those who lost out were properly compensated with appropriate policies goes quite a long way to explain today’s politics.


Wise and foolish finance

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading The Wisdom of Finance by Mihir Desai. It aims to humanise finance in two ways. One is by pointing out to non-finance folk that finance is dealing with inescapable aspects of the human condition: risk and uncertainty, asymmetric information, values, stewardship for the future. The other is by pointing out to finance folk how finance can and should serve society.

The approach is to draw examples from literature and history – and films and TV shows – demonstrating the way financial techniques absolutely permeate life. The cultural references range from The Simpsons to Jane Austen, Euripides to Bob Dylan, linked to recent events in business and the financial markets. The book starts with the fundamentals: insurance against risk, opening with The Maltese Falcon. It goes on to discuss options, valuation, leverage, and M&A.These chapters have lots of examples that could prove useful in the classroom, as well as being an enjoyable read.

The latter part of the book takes a more philosophical turn, and rather than explaining finance to the uninitiated reflects more on the character of the financial sector and the motivations of those who work in it. What drives people to lead highly leveraged personal existences rather than opting for simplicity (taking leverage broadly to mean building interdependence with other people in order to benefit from their skills or resources – and correspondingly owe them commitments in return)? Is it always possible to identify the ‘right’ course of action in a context such as financial failure or takeovers? Here the book quotes Martha Nussbaum:

“To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control that can lead you to be shattered in extreme circumstances, in circumstances for which you are not yourself to blame. And I think that says something very important about the condition of the ethical life. That it is based on a trust in the uncertain, a willingness to be exposed.”

Needless to say, this almost existential openness is not what comes to mind when we think of finance, of Enron, Madoff, the sub-prime frauds. So Desai ends by pondering – without reaching a firm conclusion  –  what makes so many people in the financial markets so unethical, or at least driven by selfishness and greed. He also gives us a wonderful model of an ethical financier. It is Alexandra Bergson in Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!, the homesteader who borrows to invest and brings the land to life. What a great example. I devoured Willa Cather’s books some 30 years ago and had forgotten about them. It sin’t finance that’s good or bad, it’s people.

The Wisdom of Finance ends with a nice afterword pleading for inter-disciplinary alertness, citing C.P.Snow’s famous The Two Cultures and E.O.Wilson’s Conscilience, both excellent books.

All in all, highly recommended, for those who already know a lot about finance, and those who don’t.


Live long and prosper – economists and Vulcans

I’ve very much enjoyed Manu Saadia’s Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek. Many economists are fans of science fiction, detective fiction, or both (as I long ago described here) and I’ve long been a fan of Mr Spock, indeed posting this sticker in the front of my copy of Theil’s Principles of Econometrics. Paul Krugman made a similar link in his well-known account of being drawn to economics by Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series.

IMG_4148Trekonomics joins Star Trek: The Human Frontier by Michele and Duncan Barrett as an excellent book about what the franchise says about society. It’s an interesting, enjoyable riff about the economics of the series: the implications of abundance, what work means, the absence of money, the implications of the replicator. I most enjoyed a rant about the anti-humanism of Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 The Population Bomb (and besides, it was completely wrong), and a section about the psychology of people in a society where there is no poverty, and no inequality of access to material resources (reputation and Star Fleet rank being another matter). There is also a chapter about the tragedy of the commons which might well turn up in my teaching next semester. This is a problem not even the wise and benign Federation can solve.

Manu Saadia argues that the calm and rationality of Vulcans, and indeed the humans in later series of Star Trek, are hard for 21st century humans to empathise with. We don’t care about these perfect characters, he writes. Maybe it’s because I’m an economist, but it’s Spock, not Kirk or any of the humans, who is my hero. The Vulcan greeting could be an economist’s motto.

Live long and prosper!


Things and Beyond

I’ve been reading Frank Trentmann’s Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the 15th century to the 21st, which has taken a while as it’s 600+ pages. It has been an enjoyable read but with two flaws – more on these later.

The book does what it says in the subtitle, drawing on a major research programme, and is truly impressive in its scope and detail. It traces global (and genuinely so although with a strong tilt to the West) trends in consumption through the long sweep of history. It links these trends in behaviour to trends in thought about personal and social ethics, and the individual in the family and in society. It addresses the entire chain of production and consumption from resources to waste. It draws on a wide array of disciplinary knowledge, including philosophy, history, sociology and even some economics.

The book sets up a tension through all of this material: “The view that being and having are opposites … has a very long history. But so has an alternative trajectory that sees people as only becoming human through the use of things.” Among other forces, technology keeps this tension alive over time, as new things keep on appearing. And it’s interesting to see that certain things are particularly compelling – stockings for one. The 17th century knitting framemade better, cheaper stockings possible, and the early national accountant Gregory King estimated in 1688 that 10 million pairs a year were purchased. This reminded me of the tidal wave of nylon stockings sold by Dupont – 800,000 pairs on 15 May 1940, the first day of sale, alone.

Consumption clearly depended on rising incomes, and the book traces a switch to “the creation of value through consumption, not just production” from the 19th century – it argues that consumer society has its roots in the Industrial Revolution rather than as is often argued the post-war boom. There’s an interesting couple of sections – in the light of the way technology is currently blurring the previously sharp consumption/production divide – on the role of consumer durables. I disagree with Trentmann’s suggestion that, “The appeal of goods such as the automatic washing machine was far from self-evident.” He notes that the aggregate time spent on household work was not reduced significantly by such consumer durables – and then observes in passing and ignores the class distinctions. Middle class women were decreasingly likely to have servants and did more of their own housework. Working class women – like my mother and Hans Rosling’s – were truly given hours of time by automatic washing machines. John Kenneth Galbraith (I’m sure he never did an iota of laundry in his life) said consumer durables enslaved women; but even if – as he argued – easier washing meant more washing to have cleaner clothes, why is this not a better outcome?

Turning back to that original tension – does our relationship with things dehumanize us or the opposite? Is consumerism basically bad or good? – I’m with Hume. As Trentmann describes the Humean view: “An encounter with a new object was one way in which intelligence and feeling were inspired and strengthened.” (And isn’t this one of the big questions about AI and consciousness – can intelligences without sense perceptions become conscious?)

The modern no-growther’s disdain for consumption seems to me to be of a piece with the instinct in the past that gave us sumptuary laws. Rich folk thought poor folk should stay in their place, dressing up the restrictions on the purchases the masses were allowed to make in moralising garb. But as Adam Smith put it, it was, “[T]he highest impertinence and presumption for kings and ministers to watch over the economy of private people, and to restrain their expense, either by sumptuary laws, or by prohibiting the importation of foreign luxuries. They are themselves always, and without any exceptions, the greatest spendthrifts in society.” Of course we need to pay far greater attention to resource use and to waste, but it is the affluent who are cavalier about the importance of growing real incomes and consumption – Janan Ganesh in his column today describes them as ‘too-rich-to-care bohemians’.

There is lots to enjoy in Empire of Things, therefore; I’m exactly the kind of reader who likes detail of the sort its pages are packed with.

I would have liked more economics, and more figures. There is a nice section on the mutual interaction of prices and tastes, as with the switch in British taste from coffee to tea in the later 1700s: a chart of tea and coffee prices would have been nice. But I have two bigger criticisms. One is that the book seriously needed an edit. The argument gets swamped in detail and it should have been 25% shorter. Some sections, especially those on non-western trends, fall between two stools – insufficiently detailed in themselves but enough to distract from the flow.

The biggest issue I have, however, is that the book never addresses the distinction between material and non-material consumption. It puts really a great deal of emphasis on the physical nature of consumer goods – and then skips to a discussion of some non-material aspect of consumption such as public health measures or public education, or leisure activities like the cinema. The issue of increased expenditure on services and intangibles is dismissed in just over two separate pages (out of 690), by saying that spending on housing, transport and food combined accounts for the same proportion of the household budget in 2007 as in 1958; and that in the OECD as a whole material consumption rhas continued to rise. Yet people are spending a growing proportion of their incomes on warmth, space, travel, variety, quality, entertainment as they grow richer. The immaterial is embedded in the material, and there is absolutely no reason to be complacent about the environmental footpring of the global economy; but (even knowing I may be biased about this) it is surely a significant development in the history of consumption (albeit a transition of affluence) that value is being created largely by the non-material now? (The forthcoming Capitalism without Capital by Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake addresses this.)

Still, it’s probably a good sign when a huge book leaves you more inclined to ask for more rather than wishing there had been less, and the balance tips that way for me despite it being in need of a blue pencil in parts.