Hume, Keynes and wisdom

What’s not to like about a book that starts with David Hume’s contribution to economics. In Keynes: Useful Economics for the World Economy by Peter Temin and David Vines begins with a chapter on Hume’s essay ‘Of the Balance of Trade’. They argue that not only was economics born in 18th century Britain, but so too was the first economic model with Hume’s price-specie flow mechanism. This classical tradition of thinking in terms of internal and external imbalance formed the background to Keynes’s thinking about global imbalances – and, this book argues, is an essential prism on today’s global economy.

This short book (and I like a short book) aims to re-introduce the Keynes who thought with such clarity about international links to a modern audience. It includes the historical context, including Keynes’s membership of the Macmillan Committee in 1930-31 and his early thinking about the gold standard, as well as (relatively brief) mention of Bretton Woods. It goes on to walk through the basics of Keynesian international macroeconomics – the IS-LM framework, the Swan diagram showing schedules of internal and external balance, and aggregate demand and supply. There is a final chapter on ‘An International Paradox of Thrift’ which argues there is a parallel between 2014 and the fag end of the gold standard in the 1920s-30s, with too many countries trying to increase savings.

What would Keynes recommend now, they ask, answering that all of Germany, China, the US and UK should expand their domestic economies. Of course, there’s nothing novel about suggesting that Germany and China need to acknowledge the harm their ever-increasing export surpluses have been causing – I’m more surprised by the advice to the US and UK to expand their external deficits further. The book justifies this on the basis that both countries have significant stocks of overseas assets and low interest rates.

This would be a useful book for students starting out on their international macro – it’s a very clear exposition of the basic models. I’m sceptical that one can find all of the wisdom needed to solve today’s problems in re-readings of Keynes, not least because of his trite remark that “in the long run we are all dead.” We’re in Keynes’s long run now, and the flaws with a framework that has looked only at flows (GDP) and not assets (natural, physical capital) are all too plain. Still, the international Keynes is more relevant to today than the domestic Keynes, and the pre-2008 global imbalances problem is still a problem today.

  

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The logic of failure

At the talk he gave last week, Cass Sunstein warmly recommended The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations by Dietrich Dörner. So warmly that I bought a copy and read it on my train journeys yesterday. It’s a very good account of what goes wrong with decision-making in complex situations – including any economic context – although I wouldn’t be quite as glowing in my praise as Prof Sunstein was. Still, definitely one to read, along with Nudge, Predictably Irrational, The Invisible Gorilla, Risk Savvy, Gut Feelings etc etc., if the issue of decision-making is of interest to you.

Some of the psychological territory it covers is familiar from the now-ample behavioural economics literature. This includes the difficulty of making calculations, the salience of recent events or things we just happen to have noticed, the problem of limited attention. However, less familiar was the diagnosis of how hard many people find it to take account, not only of interactions between variables, but also dynamics – it seems almost impossible for many people not to extrapolate in straight lines, and not to be too impatient to wait for feedback.

The book uses the results of lab experiments to illustrate the point over and over, including very simple challenges like including a time delay between setting a regulator dial and achieving the target temperature. The relationship between dial and degrees C is simple and linear in this example, but only one participant is patient enough to wait for the response to her first moves of the dial before finding the right setting. This inability to wait is obviously a near-universal characteristic. Certainly, my husband has this issue with every shower he gets into despite my calmly explaining it to him many times, and ends up with the totally predictable oscillating temperatures as he over-reacts to short-term feedback. (Of course, he does have the patience to be married to an economist.)

The book concludes that people can learn to be better decision makers but concludes with a very long list of the traits that we need to acquire to achieve good outcomes in non-linear dynamic and complex contexts with limited information i.e. the world. I finished reading it feeling more pessimistic. There are many examples given of participants in experiments who concluded that it was efficient to have inflicted a famine on a country on the computer, or that a bad outcome was the result of a conspiracy (by the computer!) against them. As the world is ever more replete with instant feedback, what are the chances of getting a more patient and psychologically sophisticated politics?

Who owns the future? Not you

It’s taken me a while to get through Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future? It was highly recommended to me and I found it an interesting read. But as it’s a book about digital economics by a non-economist, and therefore written in a language foreign to the way I think about the issues, it was a surprisingly difficult read. I don’t think normal people would have the same difficulty.

The theme of the book is that the economy has developed in ways that enable what Lanier calls ‘Siren Servers’ to appropriate the past and present labour of many other people for themselves, and thereby hollow out the middle classes. This situation is the result of the way the Siren Servers – he means Amazon, Facebook, Google etc – have used the presumption that “information is free”, specifically the data they all gather about all of us and by all of us, but advertising is paid for. Lanier quite rightly points out that the customers of these titans are the advertisers, not the individual users. Lengthy user agreements that nobody reads means the corporations take no risks, only revenues.

Lanier seems to believe that eventually this economic structure will become unsustainable because it is destroying normal middle class livelihoods and there will be nobody to buy the products being advertised. The Siren Servers become so big that they eat their environment (just as the financial markets did).

His proposed solution is nano-payments attached to information generated by individuals, whether that’s their ‘data’ or their creative or digital products. “If the system remembers where information originally came from, then the people who are the sources of information can be paid for it.” He points out that HTML, although marvellously convenient, only links one way, while Ted Nelson, an early thinker about linking, argued for two-way links. This is less convenient because of the additional updating required. In fact, the book left me completely unclear how two way linking to enable nano-payments would work in practice. However, Lanier argues: “This is the only way that democracy and capitalism can be in alignment.” Without greater symmetry between supplier and acquirer of information, the information economy will collapse.

I have an instinctive sympathy with the book’s argument, but do not think the unsustainability in capitalism we all can see at present boils down to the absence of micro-payments implemented via two-way hypertext linking. One question is Jean Tirole’s: will new digital giants benefiting from network effects come along and displace Google et al? If that hasn’t happened within, say, a decade, then the time would come to regulate these vital utilities to ensure they serve the public interest. More generally, I would look at beefing up competition policy as one of the levers to loosen the political power acquired by ‘Siren Servers’ – in which category I’d include the financial sector as well as the ICT sector.

The question of distributing productivity gains to the population as a whole is not confined to the digital economy either. While it’s right to be concerned about the jobbing musicians and journalists whose jobs are being destroyed by “free” online content, there are lots of other standard middle class jobs seeing living standards decline, so the economic and political issues go far beyond what’s covered in Who Owns the Future? For of course this started some time ago with blue collar jobs. However, it’s an interesting book, and it’s always worthwhile to hear what experts in other fields have to say about economic issues, for their different perspective. I think Lanier’s diagnosis and solution will have quite wide appeal.

Money as a process, not a thing

Nigel Dodd’s The Social Life of Money is fascinating. I’ve never understood money and don’t think I do yet. One of the signs of its abstraction as a concept is the way people bring their own interpretations to it, perfectly plausibly.

In my first ever job, in the Treasury in the mid-1980s, I had the task of looking at the properties of different linear combinations of deposits, all corresponding to different definitions of money – not that I over-thought it at the time. Economics textbooks over the years have blithely carried a completely fictional, institution-free account of the money multiplier, and give us probably the least plausible explanation, typically – and unhistorically – claiming money emerged from barter trade.

Information scientist Jaron Lanier’s book Who Owns The Future, which I’m currently reading, says, “Money is simply another information system.” Digital identity and currency guru Dave Birch tells us Identity is the New Money. This echoes Keith Hart in his classic The Memory Bank: “The two great memory banks are language and money. Exchange of meanings through language and of objects through money are now converging in a single network of communication, the internet.” Another anthropologist David Graeber in his tome Debt: The First 5000 Years rooted money in group cultures. Nigel Dodd is a sociologist so he gives us the sociological perspective.

     

Dodd’s book starts by looking at the various origin myths and links each to current (sociological) monetary theories. It then takes money by theme: capital, debt, guilt, waste, territory, culture and utopia. The chapter covering the terrain most familiar to economists is that on debt, but it takes an entirely different perspective, with Keynes and Minsky the principal economists named here. The chapter’s conclusion gives its flavour: “A monetary system that i defined by an over-arching orientation toward the interest of creditors is inimical to democracy. …. Democracy, or society, now appears to be in open conflict with the needs of finance. Debt is no longer facilitating capitalism, it is driving it.”

In a way, I found this book very heavy going because it is written in the language of sociology, and with lots of references unfamiliar to me. But it’s good for any of us to look through the lens of a different discipline. I find Dodd’s conclusion persuasive – that money is not a thing but a social process. This tallies with Dave Birch’s argument that the combination of ubiquitous mobiles and their record of a dense social graph means digital identity is fast becoming the latest manifestation of money.

Dodd also presents the paradox that money is both outside the realm of values it describes, as the means of measurement, and inside it as a particular commodity with a value – he quotes Georg Simmel as saying money is both the measure and measured. And he links this self-referential character to the capacity for financial bubbles and crises to inflate themselves. True value lies in the social life of money, in the activities of human societies.

What this means for monetary policy is another matter entirely, and Nigel Dodd’s forays into economics are far less persuasive – not that there seems to be a more compelling approach to money on offer from the macroeconomists either at the moment. Sticking a bit of ‘institutional’ friction into DSGE models to represent the banking and shadow banking sectors can only be a sticking plaster until monetary economists start to take seriously the insights to be drawn from sociologists and others.

Trains, planes and no automobiles

On my planes and trains just recently I read Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy. No automobiles in my travels, and, as it happens, not much about the automobile left in Motor City either.

It’s a gripping read, in the same post-crisis-America genre as The Unwinding by George – another superb read that paints a depressingly realistic picture of life for so many people in the post-industrial US. Detroit is a rather gonzo journalism version – LeDuff used to report from war zones. As it turns out, that perspective seems all to appropriate when he returns to his home city.

One of the most depressing aspects is how quickly and comprehensively the polity and economy crumble when trust or social capital falls below some threshold. Everybody is afraid. Normal contact and transactions become impossible. There are, for example, no high street names left in the city of Detroit, none – the chain stores have all left. Politics had become – this was written before the official bankruptcy – absolutely venal with all the usual manifestations of corruption and incompetence that characterise poor countries with failed institutions.When LeDuff writes: “The entire country was being run into the ground by a generation infected with incompetence and greed,” he surely speaks for many of his fellow citizens. Among the most incompetent, as portrayed here, are the managers of the big auto companies, whose bailout by the Federal Government in 2009 did nothing to stem the tidal wave of job losses.

The book is interesting about the loss of this factory work. It doesn’t romanticise it at all, recognising how dull, dispiriting and disempowering it is. At the same time, LeDuff argues that it taught workers an important perspective on the world and – at least in the past – an understanding of the nobility of the hard grind. “Turning away from our birthright – our grandfather in the white socks – is the thing that ruined us,” he writes of his generations aversion to the discipline of hard graft that – at least – factory work gave earlier generations.

The collapse theme harks back to my last post here, about how essential trust is to a modern (any) economy. Detroit offers an example of the post-trust economy. Read this book and be afraid.