Humans need not apply

As one would of course expect from the economics correspondent of The Economist, Ryan Avent has written a very clear account of the way digital technologies, and the globalisation driven in part by technology, is changing the ways people can earn a living. The Wealth of Humans: Work and its Absence in the 21st Century brings together the debate about robots destroying jobs, arguments about the ‘death of distance’ and literature on the re-emergence of cities as economic hubs, the issue of inequality, and the more recent discussion of whether or not the world is in for an era of ‘secular stagnation’. The focus is on three related trends: automation, globalization, and the enhanced productivity of a highly skilled minority of people.

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It ends up being a rather pessimistic synthesis. The starting point is unarguable: “Society must go through a period of wrenching political change before it can agree on a broadly acceptable social system for sharing the fruits of this new technological world.” A few years ago this would have seemed hyperbole, but no more. And yet the rest of the book tends to suggest that this political change cannot happen. Essentially, Avent does not believe enough people can become educated or skilled enough to share the benefits of automation and globalisation with those happy few whose cognitive skills have made their incomes increase. He does not think as many as 50% can complete tertiary education. “The proportion of highly educated workers to less educated workers is no longer going to grow in the growth-boosting, inequality-dampening way it once did.”

Part of this, I’d take issue with. I don’t agree that skill upgrading has ‘run out of steam’. The character of tertiary education clearly needs to change; we are in a stage like the persistence of classical education in the late 19th century. The educational establishment is slow to change – but it will, or it will be disrupted. But I’m much more persuaded by James Bessen’s argument (in Learning by Doing) that in the later stages of the technological transformation of production, the necessary skills are steadily standardised and thus able to be codified and taught. And, while addressing the ‘lump of labour’ fallacy, Avent nevertheless argues that, “The problem is the sheer abundance of labour.” Yet he also sees technology replacing ‘expensive’ labour. Surely labour=people=knowledge, pretty key in an endogenous growth, knowledge-based economy. It seems more likely that ‘work’ will be redefined, with a role for appropriately skilled humans, as it has been so many times before.

There are some very nice details indeed in the book. I didn’t know that Robert Gordon used to ask audiences whether they would rather give up post-2000 technology or indoor plumbing – the answer used to be the former, until smartphones came along. And indeed in the developing world, people would clearly rather have their phones and the internet. (An aside: indoor plumbing is a great example of why technology is social more than it’s technological. It’s a simple and well-known technology, yet one many countries are unable to make work for them.) Arvind Subramanian’s term ‘fluff not stuff’ for weightlessness (cf The Weightless World) was new to me, although perhaps a little too derogatory-sounding for the source of most of the value-added in developed economies.

Avent concludes that the reason to be pessimistic is that there is ‘no-one in control’, able to pilot society wisely through the upheaval. Looking back over the past 200 years, someone thinking they are ‘in control’ seems a pretty bad idea to me. But, to get back to the starting point, the politics, I’d agree that this is the territory for pessimism. Where leadership to generate a sense of progress and confidence would be desirable (because expectations matter no end for the economy), we have politicians reacting to people’s fears. It’s understandable, but it isn’t what we need.

1989 and all that

One of the most brilliant history books I’ve ever read is the late Tony Judt’s Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945. It was revelatory, not just because he was a brilliant writer, but also because of that framing of modern history on this side of the Atlantic as a story of all of Europe. The Iron Curtain turned out to have been an internalised barrier too. So Judt was able to reveal the epochal importance of German reunification and membership of the EU for other central and Eastern European countries. For many of us ‘Remainers’, the failure of the official campaign in the UK’s disastrous EU referendum to remind voters about how hard won modern Europe has been was inexplicable.

I’ve just finished Europe Since 1989: A History by Philipp Ther (a translation from the German original). While not on the same scale, Ther acknowledges his debt to the way Judt framed the continent as a whole. Having said that, this is a book focusing largely on the experience of the former Soviet bloc, and exploring the reasons for the different outcomes for different countries. One message is how much earlier history influences the present, for example in the differing cultural and social attitudes to entrepreneurship, or conformism. Another is the extent to which east Germany (and Berlin until relatively recently) suffered from what Ther describes as “the most radical shock therapy in postcommunist Europe.”

I found the detail interesting – Ther is obviously familiar in great depth with many of the former planned economies. I had one big frustration, which is that the entire post-1989 history is interpreted through the prism of ‘neoliberalism’. I agree with my colleague Colin Talbot that this is largely used as a generic term of abuse, one often aimed at economists in general. Ironic, really, when applied in the context of the dramatic economic collapse of the non-market economies. Ther isn’t as bad as many users of the term, in that he does appreciate that there was a specific ideological project – spearheaded by Reagan and Thatcher, supported by a group of economists. However, while talking freely about ‘neoliberal hegemony’, he also writes: “The political practice of reform in eastern Europe always diverged from pure theory,” and “Brussels’ agenda was not strictly neoliberal,” (writing about transfers of funds to the former communist countries amounting to many times the amount of Marshall Aid). He continues: “Overall, European integration and its attendant programms were a tremendous success.”

So one ends up with the impression that the first neoliberal wave was Jeff Sachs with his ‘shock therapy’ theory, and the second was Vaclav Klaus. It’s a bit thin, although of course the ‘shock therapies’ were simplistic and indeed quickly disowned by many economists. So although at least this book doesn’t claim all of economics, the mere idea of economic reform in a disintegrated planned economy, is neoliberal, it’s an analytical frame that hinders rather than helping understanding of post-1989 Europe.

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Post-truth rhetoric

Mark Thompson’s new book [amazon_link id=”1847923127″ target=”_blank” ]Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics?[/amazon_link] might seem a bit off-topic for a blog covering economics books. But the EU referendum campaign put debate about economics on the frontline. According to opinion polling, nearly 90% of professional economists in the UK agreed a Leave vote would prove harmful to the economy (by the way, not all in the two months after the vote – it’s an assessment of longer term trade and investment prospects). Economists were also among those pointing out that the claim of £350m a week extra for the NHS could not be a true claim because the UK’s net payment to the EU is nothing like so big (so did the UK Statistics Authority; and indeed, the claim has now been dropped by the Leavers – nowhere to be seen on their website). As a consequence, Brexit campaigners dismissed ‘experts’ and indeed Michael Gove, a senior politician, compared 300 who signed an open letter to the newspapers (including me) to Nazi scientists. (He did later apologize.)

[amazon_image id=”B019CGXR6G” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Enough Said: What’s gone wrong with the language of politics?[/amazon_image]

Of course, it isn’t just Brexit. Step forward Donald Trump. Populist politics everywhere are ‘post truth’. Mark Thompson’s book is about the language of this phenomenon. He looks at issues such as climate change, the MMR vaccine; at the arrival of spin techniques; at distrust in politics. He analyses the highly effective rhetorical techniques used by the post-truthers, and the role of the media in amplifying the phenomenon. It isn’t just social media and polemical online news entities, although they play a large part. Thompson also points the finger of blame at traditional quality news organisations – including the BBC, of which he used to be Director General – for falling for the idea of ‘false balance’. In other words, that every pro-Remain economist must be balanced by one of the eight pro-Leave economists. I’m not sure he would have taken a different tack, were he still in the job earlier this year: the relentless right wing attacks on the BBC’s funds, on its supposed ‘bias’, on its independence have undermined its editorial confidence. However, I do agree with him about its referendum coverage, as do Ivor Gaber of the Political Studies Association and the Electoral Reform Society, which considered coverage by the public service broadcasters too combative, like a Punch and Judy show rather than a serious deliberation.

Experts get part of the blame too, for a failure to communicate. Technocrats deploy a ‘weirdly affectless and dehumanised style,’ he writes. I hope not me, but certainly agree economists need to try harder to communicate. This faultline between technocracy and popular democracy has been a long time in the making, though: Daniel Bell warned about it in [amazon_link id=”B00I61SKOI” target=”_blank” ]The Coming of Post Industrial Society[/amazon_link]. Unfortunately it’s clear that politicians and media (of all kinds) are locked into a vicious circle of neither side being able to discuss real trade-offs or hard choices. So that only really leaves the experts. And Thompson points out that expert language needs to change. It cannot stick with reasoned argument , but needs to add the appeal to emotion and the badge of good character (to complete the triad of traditional rhetorical tools). “Technocracy is itself a product of the rationalist enterprise, so we shouldn’t be surprised when today’s policy experts contrast their world of evidence-based and hyper-rational discussion with the irrational language world of retail politics.” Not surprised, but clearly we need to extend our repetoire to persuade others.

Not surprisingly, though, Thompson’s book is weaker on solutions than on diagnosis. After all, the degradation of public discourse, the post-truth world, is a difficult and entrenched problem a long time in the making. But for the analysis – and the insights from a distinguished and experienced journalist and news executive – the book is well worth a read.

 

Capital and its morals

[amazon_link id=”0674743806″ target=”_blank” ]Capital Without Borders: Wealth Managers and the One Percent[/amazon_link] by Brooke Harrington, a sociologist at Copenhagen Business School is utterly fascinating. Harrington trained as a wealth manager over a two year period and then conducted 65 interviews around the world with other wealth managers – mainly white middle aged men, mainly from fairly well-off backgrounds themselves. This is a rare window into their world – I’ve often wanted to see more sociology or anthropology looking at the financial markets, and here is exactly such a study.

[amazon_image id=”B01INP11GU” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Capital without Borders[/amazon_image]

One intriguing aspect is the way families are the organising social structures managing the staggering wealth of the one percent. Harrington notes that the wealth managers’ main role is ensuring assets stay within the family over generations, but adds: “In some cases the fortune that holds the family together may also destroy it.” The wealth managers find themselves arranging payments for mistresses, negotiating divorces, dealing with siblings at war – protecting the family assets in spite of the family.

The book starts with a history of the emergence of the role of the trustee in mediaeval and later English common law – the trust being the main vehicle still for wealth management, with innovations from the likes of the British Virgin Islands. Wealth managers are often lawyers trained in the Anglo-Saxon legal tradition because of this heritage. The history of the role lies in a knightly tradition of loyalty and chivalry, rather bizarrely; certainly, the interviewees emphasise service and loyalty to their ‘clients’. They are far less well paid than many other roles in financial services.

The character of the business is changing, however, with the emergence of so many ‘ultra-ultra-high net worth individuals’ from Asia, who are far less comfortable than, say, traditional British rich families with the idea of handing over control of their assets to a trust structure. As one interviewee comments of the ‘new rich’: “It takes them a while to grasp the idea that it’s not their money once they put it in trust.” They enjoy the fruits but the assets themselves are to be safeguarded for the family and the future. I must say I find this idea that one can control the future strange indeed, but it clearly motivates many of the very wealthy.

The other part of the one percent world view that shines out of the interviews is their absolute belief in the injustice of any claims on their wealth – taxes of course, thieving governments, but also any creditors. The book cites Gabriel Zucman’s excellent [amazon_link id=”B018SQABD8″ target=”_blank” ]The Hidden Wealth of Nations[/amazon_link] on the scale of the tax losses. Harrington writes: “For ultra-high net worth clients, it seems, being obliged to honor their debts, pay the costs of government, and otherwise obey the laws of the land are offenses to liberty.” She adds that this fear of governments, laws, taxes, makes the business of wealth management one of safeguarding assets, rather than growing them. It is a profoundly un-productive business – the parable of the talents comes to mind. By freezing wealth on this scale, productive economic growth is diminished.

London and the British Virgin Islands (a UK territory) are the main hubs of this secretive wealth management business. One wealth manager says Asian clients refer to offshore corporations in general as ‘BVIs’. But there is competition from the up and coming Cook Islands, a speck in the middle of the Pacific – twice blacklisted by the Financial Action Taskforce and criticised by the EU as an ‘unco-operative jurisdiction’. They don’t care: the business now accounts for 10-15% of GDP. The Caymans also get a special mention for creating the Special Trusts Alternative Regime, which can last for ever and in total secrecy. The STAR trusts allow the ultra-ultras their wish to guarantee the continuation of the family’s assets for generations to come, paying no tax, in total secrecy, and with an unusual degree of control.

Harrington asks interviewees about their ethical perspective, given the context of concern about inequality. After all, their training teaches them that discretion is more important than reporting illegal activities by their clients. So, she asks them, are they not concerned about the erosion of the tax base and hence public services, or the growing inequality? Not much, is the answer. Indeed, the wealth managers’ key skill is regulatory and tax arbitrage between different nation states, so how could they agree? Shockingly, a London-based wealth manager she interviews, ‘Drew’, based in a law firm, boasts that his firm employs a significant number of the UK’s 14 Parliamentary Agents. I didn’t know about this role: these are the only non-MPs allowed to address Parliament and the critique draft legislation. They are fixed, hereditary positions. Harrington points out: “It actually gives an institutionalized voice, at the highest levels of government, to the representatives of the richest members of society. While that once meant representing the railroad barons and landed gentry of the United Kingdom, the Parliamentary Agents at Drew’s firm – and others – now typically act as a voice for the interests of high net worth individuals from outside the country.”

My one frustration with the book is that Harrington does not offer any potential solutions – and why should she? However, there is a passing comment that Israel has created incentives for its wealth managers to co-operate with the tax authorities – but she does not explain how this happened or how it works. I’d have liked to know because all national governments clearly need to do the same, and especially the UK’s government, having created the giant maw of illegal finance in London.

 

Google and growth

I was disappointed by Douglas Rushkoff’s [amazon_link id=”0241004411″ target=”_blank” ]Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity[/amazon_link], in the sense that my expectations were high and it didn’t live up to them. To start with the positives, it’s a  good read, and I share Rushkoff’s concerns about aspects of the ever-more-digital economy. There’s the inequality at self-destructive levels in many OECD countries. The obscene amounts of money many corporate execs pay themselves. The determination of some of the digital titans to entrench their monopoly power and indeed extend it to more markets. The intrusiveness of online surveillance for profit. The undermining of content creation in news and the creative sector as Google and Facebook vacuum up a large and growing proportion of the advertising revenue. All of that, yes.

[amazon_image id=”1617230170″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity[/amazon_image]

It is, though, all familiar and Rushkoff doesn’t offer much that seems either new or practical to combat it. In terms of policies, he advocates a sub-40 hour work week and a universal basic income. Both have supporters, both are problematic. He also advocates new, community currencies, enabled by blockchain. Technology might be making it more feasible (although I’m a blockchain sceptic because of the energy requirement), but people have been writing about local and community currenies for decades.

Above all, though, Rushkoff wants companies to change their behaviour, treat workers well, and focus less on ‘growth’. And this was my biggest frustration with the book. He makes no distinction between financial ‘growth’ in the sense of short term profits and share price (so VCs can get their money out, shareholders get their returns and execs cash in their options), and economic growth in the sense of goods and services, often innovative, valued by consumers. Heaven knows, that needs to be sustainable too. But there is a difference between, say, changing corporate law to ban quarterly reporting or share option schemes, and limit financial short termism, and the changes in behavior and policy that would ensure sustainable economic growth. Of course they are linked, including throuhg corporate behaviour. But while bringing about an end to the financialisation would be desirable indeed, bringing about an end to economic growth would be very undesirable. After all, for many people in the western economies, there hasn’t been any economic growth for a decade or so, and the results are not pretty.

I also disagree on one other key point. Rushkoff writes: “The economy is less like a forest or weather system than it is like a technology or a medium. It was created not by God but by people.” Leaving aside divine agency, I’d argue the economy is both – both a natural system of creatures (us) acting in accord with our biological nature, and a system we have some ability to change. It is therefore incredibly complex (in both normal and technical senses). While possible to change its course, this is not as straightforward as saying ‘we’ need to do this or that – adopt the blockchain, introduce a minimum income, report on long term rather than short term profits – and all will be well. Google’s monopoly power is a good place to start, but I’d place more of my hopes on Margarethe Vestager’s use of competition powers than on Google’s executives following this book’s advice to act sustainably.

So in short, a book whose heart is in the right place, but too garbled in its analysis to appeal to me.