Crashed

Adam Tooze’s much-praised history of global political economy from the period just before the Great Financial Crisis to the present – Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World – is indeed a terrific read. It’s a detailed (600+ pages) synoptic account of the political forces that enabled a few dozen banks to entwine the world’s economies in an interlinked web of credit at massive scale, and the political reactions to and consequences of the crisis. One might quibble that some parts of the story are sketchier than others, but then it’s always a good sign to be hankering after more of a book rather than less. Making the parts into a convincing whole is a major achievement.

There are several central points the book emphasises. One is the extent to which the dollar underpinned the whole global financial market construct – and consequently the extent to which the Fed bailed out the whole world after the crisis. Another is busting the myth that the crisis was Anglo-Saxon: the continental European banks were in it up to their eyeballs, with equally ineffective regulatory oversight, such that they too had massive maturity mismatches (like the US banks) and also massive currency mismatches (whereas it was all dollars for the US banks). Tooze is also forensically critical of the lack of a coherent European policy response – both the ECB (especially under Trichet) and the German political establishment come in for particular fire. The policy response to the Greek crisis in particular was abysmal – as was clear at the time. It was always apparent, certainly by 2012, that debt restructuring was essential, and that the bailout was for German and French banks more than for Greece.

The book explores the interplay between the financial crisis and geopolitics, particularly the desire of both China and Russia to ensure the transition – already heralded but revealed by the role of the dollar to be exaggerated – from a unipolar to a multipolar world. Above all, it draws the lines from the possibility of the crisis, and the crisis response, to the current political situation: “Though it is hardly a secret that we inhabit a world dominated by business oligopolies, during the crisis and its aftermath this reality and its implications for the priorities of government stood nakedly exposed. It is an unpalatable and explosive truth that democratic politics on both sides of the Atlantic has choked on.”

Quite so. Here in Brexit Britain, those working in the City have by and large continued to draw their large bonuses, retire early, holiday in exotic places, while post-crisis ‘austerity’ due to the way the crisis torpedoed public finances means many fellow citizens need to use food banks and are seeing local services like social care and libraries starved. Whatever you think about the consequences, the anti-establishment protest vote, in the UK and elsewhere, is entirely understandable. I’ve been completely gobsmacked by how little consequence of the crisis there has been for the financial sector and those working in it. The same went for the rest of Europe, creating “the sense that Europe’s welfare state was being subjected to a relentless program of rollback driven by the demands of bankers and bond markets.”

So too in the US. Tooze describes the election of Trump as the “most disorienting event experienced by the American political class in generations.” It seems likely to me to be even more damaging for the United States than Brexit will be for Britain. Disorienting, but really hardly surprising. It isn’t only the lasting, scarring financial, emotional, health costs the crisis inflicted on millions of Americans (“The grief and distress caused by the crisis were forces to be reckoned with”) but also the way the Fed’s crisis response and the Obama administration programs contributed to polarising American politics. This happened elsewhere, too. Inevitably perhaps, during the firefighting technocratic responses took priority over democratic legitimacy. We see the lasting consequences in the (slightly abstract) disdain for ‘experts’.

Nobody comes out of Tooze’s account particularly well, although some fare less badly than others (eg Bernanke vis a vis Trichet). Some readers will disagree with the economic diagnosis – for there are people who believe the austerity was essential, the fiscal bomb having been detonated by the crisis. There is more sympathy for the Syriza government than many of its interlocutors in Brussels, Berlin and Paris would share. There will be too much detail for some readers – it helps to know what haircuts and CDOs and repos are. Nevertheless, ten years on, Crashed is an essential read to understand the state of the world, and a troubling read, thinking ahead to the next ten years.

Share

The Community of Advantage

I very much enjoyed reading Robert Sugden’s The Community of Advantage: A Behavioural Economist’s Defence of the Market. It tackles the aspect of behavioural economics that has always troubled me: the presumption that there’s a wise policy-maker who somehow knows better than I do what’s good for me and will act like a government version of Mad Men to non-coercively get me to choose accordingly. In other words, libertarian paternalism is a contradiction in terms, and in reality. In fact, I’m torn because – like many other “experts” –  I do think economists (or doctors, or engineers, or farmers, or nuclear physicists etc) often do know better than most of us what makes for a better outcome. Even in less expert domains, such as the provision of news, it is surely better not to give people exactly what they want, if that’s bias-confirming news rather than impartial and accurate news.

However, Lord Reith and other paternalists didn’t pretend to be ensuring people got what they *really* want, rather than what’s good for them according to the paternalist. As Sugden points out early in this excellent book, most behavioural economics implicitly assumes it’s possible to discern a set of ‘true’ but latent individual preferences, undistorted by the various psychological mechanisms identified in the literature. It addresses policy prescriptions to a benevolent social planner, the policy maker – in other words it takes what’s referred to as “the view from nowhere”, an impartial spectator outside society. This enables a normative assessment of behavioural policies. It’s an appealing idea in many ways, and an admirable effort to take this impartial perspective. But it is of course open to the standard public choice critique and has led (as I argued in my Tanner Lectures some years ago) to bad economic policy choices. Sugden also criticises Sen’s alternative of finding impartiality in the ability of a proposition to withstand reasoned public debate; “I cannot see why I am morally required to justify my private choices by reasoned arguments and to expose those arguments to public scrutiny,” he writes.

Sugden advocates instead a contractarian approach, so rather than asking is aggregate welfare maximized, the question is: “is it in the interest of each individual to accept the rules of that institution, on the condition that everyone else does the same”. The behavioural challenge is devising economic institutions satisfying this condition with respect to individuals who do not know what their preferences are. To translate this into a normative criterion useful for policy, Sugden proposes that: “It is in each individual’s interest to have more opportunity rather than less.” In other words, there is an an analogue to the invisible hand theorem: “The guiding idea is that a well-ordered economy is an institutional framework that allows individuals to co-operate with one another in the pursuit of what they perceive as their common interests.” He traces the approach to Hume’s view of good institutions in a well-ordered society as self-reproducing and self-enforcing conventions – self-enforcing because of mutual advantage, albeit emerging in an evolutionary way in society. Moral reasoning is addressed to individuals rather than a nebulous ‘policymaker’ outside of society.

A couple of technical chapters demonstrate that the contractarian approach is a generalisation of the usual welfare theorems in an exchange economy. The book then turns to policy questions: what kind of regulation can be justified in normative terms if the criterion is expanding individual opportunity (rather than satisfying their ‘true’ latent preferences)? For example, what about someone choosing how much to save for their retirement, a well-known behavioural policy example. Sugden suggests: “Behavioural economists’ propensity to interpret context-dependent preferences [like the opt-out/in pattern] as evidence of self-control problems may be a side-effect of their commitment to the model of the inner rational agent.” He argues that the policy drive to increase personal retirement savings is driven by policy regimes in which pensions are privately provided – so the behavioural policy is there to serve the regime rather than the individual. “A contractarian solution to this problem may require some form of compulsory saving.” In short, the nudge is a fig leaf and the better policy (increasing individuals’ opportunity sets) would be a straightforward regulated contribution.

The term ‘community of advantage’ comes from Mill. Sugden is making an ardent liberal case, while recognising the realities of human psychology. I remain somewhat torn. To go back to Lord Reith, British TV viewers, when asked, are very clear that they prefer watching sport, comedy, movies and soap operas, but they also definitely want their licence fee to support the provision of impartial news, children’s programmes, educational material and other wholemeal stuff. Those preferences are not latent, but rather acknowledge explicitly the mutual as well as the individual benefit. However, Sugden’s approach is very attractive & I’d say The Community of Advantage is a must-read for those interested in behavioural and welfare economics.

Share

Made by Humans: the AI condition is very human indeed

A guest review by Benjamin Mitra-Kahn, Chief Economist, IP Australia

There is a lot of press about the coming – or going – of artificial intelligence, and in Made By Humans: The AI Condition  Ellen Broad has written a short but comprehensive account of the state-of-play which deserves to be read by anyone wanting to know what is happening in AI today, certainly if you want to get in on the conversation.

The book is very contemporary, and if you haven’t had the time to attend every conference and workshop on AI since 2015, then you’re in luck. Broad has been to them all, and this book will catch you up on all the developments. The book also offers a series of insights into the challenges that AI and big data present – because it is about both – and the questions we should ask ourselves. These are not the humdrum questions such as who a self-driving car should choose to crash into (although a randomized element is suggested), but some bigger and much more interesting questions about whether we need to be able to inspect the algorithm that made the decision. Does the algorithm need to be open source or does it need to be exposed to expert review to ensure best practice, and should the data that trained the algorithm be openly accessible or available for peer-review. Using every example about data and AI from the last three years, Broad steps through the issues under the hood that are only now being thought about.

This naturally brings up the question of government regulation. This is something Broad has changed her mind about, which she discusses openly in a book that moves between a technology story, personal discovery and ethical discussions. There is a role for regulation says Broad, and the fact that we don’t yet know what that regulation could be, or should be, is handled with some elegance. Technology is not a nirvana , computer code sometimes held together with “peanut butter and goblins” and written by people who are busy, under-funded or just average. Simply aiming to ‘regulate AI’ however is akin to wanting to regulate medicine: It is complex, dependent on who you impact, their ability to engage, and the risks as well as the situation. It is a human-to-human decision ultimately. Not perhaps the argument one expects in a book on AI by the ex-director of policy for the Open Data Institute and previous head of the Australian Digital Alliance. But it is about humans, and the AI condition is about humanity – about fairness, intelligibility, openness and diversity according to Broad.

The book finishes with US Senators questioning Facebook about Cambridge Analytica, and the recent implementation of the GDPR (data governance, not a new measure of GDP), which quickly dates the book, but that is a choice the author makes explicitly. This book is about the current conversation on big data and AI, and it is about participating in that conversation. It is not about the last 50 years of ethics and the history of computers. There is an urgency to the writing, and as someone interested in this, I found myself updated in places, and challenged in others. Reading this book will allow anyone to particpate in the AI debate, knowing what Rahimi’s warning about Alchemy and AI is, being able to discuss the problems around the COMPAS sentencing software, or seeing why Volkswagen’s pollution scandal was a data and software scandal first. If this is a conversation you want to engage with, Broad’s book is an excellent starting point and update.

 

 

Share

Work (and more) in digital times

This week I’ve been dipping in to Work in the Digital Age: Challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, edited by Neufeind, O’Reilly and Ranft. This is a collection of short essays brought togoether by Policy Network, the centre-left ‘progressive’ think tank. It’s a chunky book, starting with sections essays on prospects for employment and the character of work. These cover, for example, the likely impact of automation in destroying and creating jobs, and the nature of work in the ‘gig’ economy. A section on labour relations and the welfare state follows. There are then chapters on individual European countries, ordered according to the ‘digital density’: Scandinavia and the Netherlands are classed as high, the UK and Germany medium, France, Italy and Central and Eastern Europe as low. There are also chapters on the US, Canada and India. The comparisons between countries were at the heart of the project, and I admit to not having read these chapters.

Given that I read so much of the economic literature on these issues, I haven’t found anything startlingly new so far, although there are some interesting perspectives. For example Martin Kenney and John Zysman consider the question of financing technology start-ups when they face a long period of losses because of what’s known in the platform literature as the chicken and egg problem: a platform needs users on both sides – riders as well as drivers for instance – because it won’t attract riders without enough drives and won’t have enough drivers unless it has a user base. The winner-take-all success stories then look for a long period of rents to recover those early losses, although many platforms simply fail. The essay argues that it is not clear whether this financing model is creating economic and social value. (I argue in a forthcoming paper that this is one aspect of the wider failure of competition economics to have figured out how to compare static welfare gains and losses to dynamic ones.)

In other chapters, Ursula Huws et al report new surveys on the extent of gig work or crowd work – from 9% in the UK to 22% in Italy, usually as part of a broader spectrum of casual work; Monique Kremer and Robert Went set out an agenda for ensuring automation does not increase inequality, covering the direction of robotisation, the enhancement of complementary skills, and distributional policy instruments; and in an introductory essay Luc Soete on the productivity paradox discusses similarities with and differences from previous technological revolutions. The final chapter sets out a reform agenda – education and training; work transitions; social protection; redistributive taxes and transfers; and investing in infrastructure and innovation. This is high level stuff, and therefore a bit motherhood and apple pie. Having contributed essays to this kind of collection myself, I know this pitch of generality is inevitable, but do ache for some policy specifics as opposed to ‘a new inclusive narrative’.

For an overview of the technology and work debate, this is a useful volume, though, and it can be downloaded free from here. It’s certainly a good place to start for a comparative perspective, and the references to country-specific literature look really useful.

Share

The not-so-secret secrets of research

The Secret Life of Science: How it Really Works and Why It Matters by Jeremy Baumberg won’t hold many surprises for economists working in academia. The increasing role of publication metrics in career prospects, even though everyone knows them to be counter-productive or even pernicious. The narrowing of scholarly horizons within disciplinary silos partly for this reason and partly (in the UK) because of the REF exercise. The creaking peer review system. The debate about open access and the monopoly power of certain journal publishers. I don’t know whether the same is true in the humanities and other social sciences, but the description of the systemic pressures and the way they make it ever harder to allow intellectual curiosity and boundary-crossing work free rein – for some very good reasons – makes this book a reflection on more than the natural sciences, but rather on the institutional framework for research as a whole, into which citizens pour a good deal of funding.

There are, however, additional issues in the sciences, not least the very high cost of equipment and facilities in some areas, and the failure of the funding system as a whole to be able to reflect on and implement societal priorities. Another difference is the institutional framework, with much scientific research (to varying degrees across countries – there are interesting figures in the book) occurring in the private sector. Baumberg also discusses the ever-rising number of scientific researchers, in what seems to be a sort of winner-takes-all dynamic of funding concentrating in elite groups and no signs of increasing diversity, producing seemingly ever-decreasing returns.

Although the issues may be familiar, the book usefully presents them all as a combined system challenge. It is pretty factual and even handed, but one ends with a strong sense of the need for some system-wide reforms. Baumberg has no silver bullet solution, and quite right too. He makes some suggestions such as introducing other kinds of metrics than citations, finding some ‘anarchic’ ways to fund science, creating better and different career structures for postdocs.

I read the book just after Richard Jones’s and James Wilsdon’s thought-provoking and trenchant report on ‘biomedical bubble’ in the UK. I doubt The Secret Life of Science will appeal to the general audience as it’s much more about the institutional framework than about the scientific research. But although researchers will already know – and live in their daily lives – the issues flagged up in the book, it’s a timely warning that the scientific endeavour that has brought our societies astonishingly greater prosperity and improvements in the quality of life is sclerotic and failing to deliver for the societies funding research. Hard as it may be for a young researcher struggling under all these pressures to regard herself as part of the despised ‘elite’, that’s the big issue facing scientific and other research. Time to tackle it.

Share