Realism and utopia – a guest review

A guest review by Koen Smets

In the same way that most drivers consider themselves better than average, I suspect most people consider themselves realists – not too optimistic, and not too pessimistic. I certainly do, and so I find myself right in the group at which Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists is aimed.

It is Bregman’s first book to be published in English, bundling many ideas that he has written about before, notably in regular pieces for the Dutch website De Correspondent. Its subtitle, The case for a universal basic income, open borders, and a 15-hour work week, suggests it is not quite another lightweight campaigning pamphlet, but an ambitious attempt to show not just why these radical aspirations must be pursued but also how they can be realized. My expectations were raised accordingly. Unfortunately, Utopia for Realists rather falls short of its ambition.

Bregman starts off with a somewhat breathless catalogue of human achievements in health and wealth: we really have never had it so good. The mediaeval fantasy of the Land of Plenty has become reality. Nevertheless, we’re miserable, and for the first time ever we believe that children will be worse off than their parents. That makes it the ideal moment for a genuinely big project, according to Bregman the optimist.

15 hours per week

“Money is time,” Bregman observes. He channels Keynes and John Stuart Mill, both of whom had predicted we would work less and less, and shows how, for many decades, we have been buying time with our increased wealth. But by the late 1980s we suddenly stopped sacrificing money to get even more free time. Bregman blames social pressure, fuelled by commercial interests. Even so, is this is not simply playing into preferences inherent in human nature? Time is only one of the numerous things we can trade for money.

We may work less than our ancestors, but we are weighed down by stress, and overtime is rife. Bregman bombards the reader with solid and comprehensive research to show where it all went wrong, and his conclusion is straightforward. Working less will solve pretty much all our troubles: stress, climate change, accidents, unemployment, emancipation of women, and the ageing population. “We inhabitants of the Land of Plenty could work fewer than 15 hours a week by 2050, and earn the same amount as in 2000,” Bregman says, echoing Keynes’ prediction from 1930, which foresaw the same for 2030.

But if this is such a no-brainer, why are so few people actually working 15-hour weeks? Have today’s CEOs been abandoned by the enlightenment that made business leaders like Henry Ford and WK Kellogg cut the working week in the 1930s? How come the public sector, outside the harsh commercial realities of private enterprise, is not leading the way?

Bregman points at surveys which found that people from all over the world would prefer two weeks’ extra holiday over two weeks’ extra pay by a factor two. So apparently we want more leisure, but we work more. This is reminiscent of what David Ogilvy said: “People don’t think how they feel, they don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say.” Bregman’s solution to this paradox is resolutely paternalistic: “Collective action – by companies, or better still, by countries.”

Poverty

The best way of lifting people out of poverty is to give them money, says Bregman. No sign of paternalism here: “Put the choice in the hands of the poor,” he recommends, eloquently dismissing the myth that poor people cannot handle money. But alleviating poverty by giving one-off cash grants to poor and homeless people is hardly a solid case for a Universal Basic Income (UBI) – a steady income stream going to anyone who “has a pulse”.

The problem is not that people will turn into lazy couch potatoes – the Mincome experiment in Canada in the 1970s showed that people are nothing like the neoclassical homo economicus, who simplistically responds to incentives, and who would stop working if there was free money. There was barely a decline in working hours.

The problem is with the sums. Bregman claims that, “For the first time in history, we are actually rich enough to finance a sizable basic income.” But what size? A study by Matt Bruenig estimates the cost for eradicating poverty in the USA at “only $175 million”. Distributed equally over the US population, every person would get about $550 per year, or just over $10 per week.

And even that needs to come from somewhere – technology, Bregman believes. The robots will come and take our jobs, and that is a good thing: it means we can, “Reject the dogma that you have to work for a living.” Just tax the robots. Sounds simple, but it conceals huge complexity: automation applies differently to different jobs and in different countries.

The world came very close to an actual, real, nationwide unconditional income for poor families – in the USA, no less. Bregman devotes an entire chapter to the rise and fall of a seminal UBI under president Richard Nixon in 1969. But thanks to rhetoric, defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory: the prospect of “inciting the poor to even greater idleness”, based on a tendentious analysis of the welfare system in Speenhamland in 1830s England, was the death knell of the proposal.

Unfair wages

Another of Bregman’s bêtes noires is the gap between the wage for a job and its societal usefulness. Why, he wonders, should wealth shifters like bankers earn more than wealth creators like teachers or indeed garbage collectors? He might as well get worked up about the fact that even the most expensive litre bottle of water costs a lot less than a kilo of gold.

Are there really ever more people earning money without contributing anything of tangible value to society? Once all societal needs – food, shelter, healthcare, education – are fulfilled, things shift to the individual transaction level. We may regret the fact that there are so many lawyers in the US, and be puzzled by the fact that this doesn’t mean Americans are better protected than citizens of countries with fewer attorneys. But somehow, every lawyer is – we may assume – deriving her income from someone who willingly pays her for her services, money her client has a choice to spend differently. Unless we can show why this is not a mutually beneficial transaction, value – in the eye of the beholder – is being created.

Bregman’s solution is simple, though: “Higher taxes would get more people to do work that’s useful.” It seems to escape him that a higher tax doesn’t discriminate between the incomes of people who shift wealth and those who create wealth. It penalizes both in the same way.

Redistribution and efficiency

Much of the book is balanced and factual, but on a few occasions Bregman morphs into a campaigner on speed. There is a weird rant against advertising. There is a bizarre attack on the market economy (“The modern marketplace is equally uninterested in usefulness, quality, and innovation. All that really matters is profit.”) There is a peculiar condemnation of our “fixation on ‘efficiency’ and ‘gains’, as though society were nothing but one big production line.” These contribute little or nothing to the central ideas, and the style erodes the credibility of the book’s other arguments..

Bregman – no doubt to the delight of the owner of this blog! – also devotes almost an entire chapter to the most widely used instrument for measuring progress, Gross Domestic Product, taking great relish in demolishing it. But he is really kicking in an open door: the shortcomings of the GDP are well-known and well-documented. None of the alternatives, from Gross National Happiness and the Genuine Progress Indicator to the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare and the OECD’s Better Life Index satisfy him either.

By now, it should not be a surprise that Bregman advocates a larger public sector: they can leverage activities that “cannot be made more efficient”, such as education and healthcare. He believes that, “The more efficient our factories and our computers, the less efficient our healthcare and education need to be; that is, the more time we have left to attend to the old and infirm and to organize education on a more personal scale.” This is an idiosyncratic interpretation of the concept of efficiency.

Bregman seems to miss the fact that we are economic beings: if we sacrifice something, whether it’s time, effort or money, we want to get something in return that we feel is worth it. We want to be efficient when it’s not the task we are enjoying, but the outcome of the task. That is not only why the Land of Plenty is so appealing, but also why we have made so much progress towards it.

A larger public sector without any notion of efficiency sounds like a dangerous path to take. Yet Bregman says, “Governing by numbers is the last resort of a country that no longer knows what it wants, a country with no vision of utopia,” as if the amount of subsidy the state will give to ‘inefficient’ activities, and the ways in which it will be able to raise the necessary revenue are not numbers that, eventually, matter greatly.

Open Borders

But Bregman also has a libertarian streak. He criticizes conventional aid for spending pitifully small amounts of money to projects with questionable outcomes. If we were really serious about relieving global poverty, we would open our Western borders. That would make the world twice as rich as it is now, and boost wealth by sixty-five trillion dollars.

So what stops us? We are hypocrites, hiding behind fallacious objections. Migrants will take our jobs, they will force our wages down, they are too lazy to work, and they’ll never go back. Bregman counters them all, as in the best parts of the book, with plenty of evidence. But the angst across the EU in relation to a population of refugees amounting to barely 1% of its population shows that we’re some way off accepting the economic logic of the win-win argument of open borders.

A disappointed realist

In the final chapter, Bregman wonders whether he might be caught out by confirmation bias: “If I’m being honest, I sometimes wonder if I’d even let myself notice if the evidence were pointing another way. Would I be observant enough – or brave enough – to have a change of heart?”

Ultimately, the book majors on explaining why its three central radical thoughts are good ideas – and this is indeed a hallmark of confirmation bias. Looking at the arguments against, and putting up solid counterarguments is not enough. “The question is not can new ideas defeat old ones; the question is how,” says Bregman. And on that last question, the answers are sadly lacking.

A realist would have wanted to see how the loss and risk aversion that prevent the West from opening up its borders to economic migrants could be conquered.

People in the rich West have plenty of options to make different trade-offs between time and money. The barriers to adopting a 15-hour week are not high, and both employers and employees would be fools not to take advantage of the apparent win-win situation it offers. Yet it’s not happening. A realist would have wanted to see an explanation for this reluctance, and ideas on how to overcome it.

And above all, a realist would have liked to see solutions to the fundamental issue with a UBI: how to pay for it. The problem, as Bregman explains, is not that the UBI will be a disincentive to work. It is that, in order to raise enough money to provide a UBI that is high enough to live on, it is the taxation on high incomes that will act as a disincentive. “Only a fraction of our prosperity is due to our own exertions,” says Bregman. But the other fraction is not generated without some exertion. And if there is not enough incentive for people to actually put in the effort to produce 100%, even if they’re only personally entitled to 10%, the other 90% remains elusive.

Koen Smets is an accidental behavioural economist, who works as an organization development specialist. He uses elements from both orthodox microeconomics and behavioural economics to bring about behavioural change. He is on Twitter as @koenfucius

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Markets in all their glory

I knew I was going to enjoy The Inner Lives of Markets by Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan when, early in the book, it mentions the use of Kakutani’s fixed point theorem in the proof of existence of general equilibrium. Not that this should put you off. All of the economics covered in this delightful book (shipping on 9 June in the UK, already shipping in the US) is described clearly and with a lovely lightness of touch.

As the book explains, “A market is just a technology, a mechanism where participants have the chance to directly affect resource allocation through an expression of their preferences.” They can be organised and run in many ways, and are varyingly effective at that principal task of allocating resources. The book begins (after an introduction featuring the famous Radford paper (pdf) on the economy of a WW2 prisoner of war camp) by explaining the elegant abstraction of general equilibrium theory and the welfare properties of markets. It goes on to the variety of ways in which the welfare properties do not hold, due to asymmetries of information, through the lens of a particular model or approach to modeling.

The first of these is Akerlof’s lemons model of second hand car sales – the adverse selection that can ultimately cause a market to collapse when sellers have more information about the product than buyers. Of course there are markets for second hand cars: devices such as warranties and nice showrooms help compensate for the information asymmetry. The book goes on to Spence’s introduction of signalling in labour and other markets.

There is a nice chapter covering auctions – including online auctions – and how these are evolving. The use of online auctions is decreasing over time; it seems the transactions costs are actually rather high, at least for most buyers. As the chapter observes, prices achieved in online auctions on sites like Ebay are about 10% lower than fixed prices for the same items, so this is rather a high transaction cost. The ‘auction discount’ across markets has grown over time from 3% in 2003 to 15% now. I liked this observation in the book about the scope for using auctions: “This lack of use [in practical applications] of the Vickrey [2nd price] auction was something of a puzzle to economists, who were captivated by the way that, in its elegant simplicity, the mechanism helped magically cure the bidders’ headaches over strategizing and over-paying.” It reminded me of a conversation with a friend who was helping test the auction one regulator had designed for a sale of spectrum licences; she said, “It was great fun. The economists assumed we wouldn’t talk to each other but of course we cheated like anything!”

The book proceeds on to digital platforms, and ends with Roth-style matching markets such as the kidney exchange – the latter a shorter version of Roth’s own excellent book, Who Gets What and Why.

One of the interesting threads through this new book is the strong defence it puts up of the integral role of maths in economics. Critics of economics often, of course, see the mathematization of the subject as one of its big flaws – how can you reduce the complexity of society to a few equations? Equally of course, this is nonsense (even though – as Paul Romer has explained – there is misuse of maths too): the humanities also use ‘models’, but with words rather than symbols – the causes of the First World War? Actor-network theory? And careful statistical inference cannot happen without representing the relationships being tested algebraically. The Inner Lives of Markets goes further, explaining that key insights in understanding and improving the way markets work came about because economists were using mathematics. Akerlof got his ‘lemons’ insight from attending a class on topology. Auction theory and market design similarly depend on sophisticated algorithms.

The  book is an ideal read to introduce students to these areas of economics, and to describe to general readers the power and usefulness of a part of economics not very visible to the public but where substantial progress has occurred during the past 10 or 20 years. (The authors’ previous book, The Org, did the same for industrial organisation.) Digital platforms for example wouldn’t exist without digital technology, but equally wouldn’t exist without the economic technology. The Inner Lives of Markets is a very nice complement to and update of one of my favourite books, John McMillan’s Reinventing the Bazaar. It is clear and readable, with lots of examples of familiar, everyday contexts. It would be terrific if the message gets out that economics is about so much more than the ups and downs of the financial market and the arcana of macroeconomics.

Taxing the Rich (how to)

Do you want to raise more taxes from rich people, dear Reader? I thought so. Then a read of Taxing the Rich: A History of Fiscal Fairness in the United States and Europe by Kenneth Scheve and David Stasavage is illuminating.

Apart from anything else, the historical data on top tax rates is fascinating. There have really only been two big moves in top income (and inheritance) tax rates: up, a lot, from the 1920s to around 1950; down, by half of a lot, mainly in the 1980s but drifting down subsequently. It is also interesting to note the contrast between the US/UK top marginal rates and the rest of the developed world – about 40% vs about 60%. As in so many areas, the fact that data and economic research are heavily US-centric has a distorting effect on economic policy debates elsewhere. Extraordinarily, the burden of total taxation on the highest income bracket in the UK reached 90.7% during the second world war (compared to 19.1% for the bottom group). Talk about progressive.

The book discusses the forces driving the trends in taxation of the rich. The authors’ main point is that war has been the principal driver, with the sense of fairness the result of the calls the state made on citizens at those times. It was at times when the government demanded immense sacrifices from the majority of the population that the effective social contract ensured the wealthy paid: “War mobilization changed beliefs about tax fairness. It created an opportunity for new and compelling compensatory arguments that increased support for taxing the rich.” In other words, while the arguments for taxing the rich have always relied on fairness, the notion of fairness has changed at different times. The book demonstrates that as wars created opportunities for profit for capitalists, thanks to wartime production, the demand they should shoulder more of the tax burden gained great traction.

The book challenges the previous consensus that the consensus in favour of strongly redistributive taxation, to compensate for the sacrifice of ordinary people, lasted for any length of time after world war two. And to the extent there was, it anyway steadily crumbled. The book agrees that globalization, and a new emphasis on incentives for economic growth, played a part in reducing tax rates on the rich as the 20th century wore on. But they argue that a more important factor was the weakening of the kind of compenstory arguments that had been available in wartime. “Different compensatory arguments can be made today, but they have a smaller impact. In today’s debates about progressive taxation, observers often fail to appreciate this fact.”

The book reports a representative survey of over 2000 Americans showing that the top marginal tax rate they select is in fact below today’s rate of 39.6%. There appears to be little support from this for higher taxation. To put it another way, Americans don’t see why Silicon Valley should be taxed because Wall Street was bailed out – although they oppose the bailout. The lesson is: ‘fairness’ is not an abstract concept. You have to find a fairness argument with traction, and the compensatory arguments being used by the left today do not have that. Looking back to the 19th century, before the era of global war provided a strong compensatory argument, the principles that enabled increases in taxes on the rich concerned equal treatment for all within the tax system: as existing taxes were raised on land, new mercantile fortunes were untaxed. So taxation was extended in its coverage. The authors suggest looking to the thickets of exemptions and special privileges rather than the headline-grabbing top marginal rates. Interestingly, this is something Jo Maugham emphasised this week. Maybe he had read this very interesting book. David Stasavage also spoke at this recent LSE Conference on inequality.

 

Economic thought and its idiosyncracies

This weekend my reading was Economic Thought: A Brief History by Heinz Kurz. It really is brief, just 183 pages, starting with the Ancient Greeks and ending with behavioural economics and RCTs. So it sets out the broadest outlines of economics, with a strong bias towards macroeconomics and thinking about economic systems. Marxism is covered – indeed, gets a whole chapter of 14 pages – but industrial organisation is absent save for a bit of Schumpeter and a bit of new institutional economics.

9780231172585

Within its self-imposed limitations of space and selectivity, the book does a decent job in outlining the key features of, say, classical thought and the marginalist turn – for example, Kurz emphasises the introduction of the emphasis on the flow of commodities produced each year in classical thinking. I learned a few new names: Hermann Heinrich Gossen, anyone? I hadn’t heard of him before, but learn here that he introduced the earliest version of marginal utility theory. I thought the discussion of utility theory is particularly good. Kurz writes:

“Compared with cardinal utility theory, ordinal utility theory – with its rejection of interpersonal comparisons – dramatically privileges the individual relative to society. In this perspective, the individual, one might say, is in principle attributed a right to veto public decisions that affetc his or her (subjective) well-being … As a consequence, economic policy seems unable to improve social situations. Since every policy alternative has some gainers and som losers, how could one ever judge the gains of the former against the losses of the latter, if interpersonal utility comparisons are prohibited?”

Very clear. There are a couple of other points where Kurz highlights interesting and deep methodological issues – another one, for instance, critiques Heckher-Ohlin-Samuelson in terms of its assumption of a single homogeneous ‘quantity of capital’. And in a short section on economic geography, there’s the point that in a constant returns to scale world assumed by so much of economics (including productivity accounting), “economic activity will be evenly distributed across a homogeneous plain, carried out by autarkic units of production and consumption.”

So, some nice insights. I did find myself wondering what audience the author had in mind as he wrote. He tries to explain some concepts – indifference curves, Keynesian aggregate demand, Hicks-Kaldor compensation and Skitovsky’s rebuttal – in a couple of pages at most. Economists reading this book wouldn’t need the explainers. Normal people reading it will find these far too condensed and impenetrable. As one of the former group, I’d have traded off the attempts at explanation of basic concepts for some more of Kurz’s critique of the ideas he is covering. Still, this would be a useful book for students just starting to get into the history of thought – one step beyond The Worldly Philosophers, and a prelude to a bigger book like Saadmo’s excellent Economics Evolving.

 

Surviving disruption through paranoia

Joshua Gans’s new book The Disruption Dilemma is aimed at business readers. It takes the famous Clayton Christensen analysis The Innovator’s Dilemma – a change in the competitive landscape that even a well-managed business might not survive – and sets out the possible strategies the defensive firm might successfully deploy. In doing so, Gans argues that the original disruption story is too simplified, and there are different kinds of challenge, some more threatening to incumbent survival than others.

As Gans points out, ‘disruption’ has become an over-used term, so he is specific about addressing fundamental shifts in the landscape. Where Christensen and many of his successors have focused on defences against the demand side of disruption where a new entrant offers a product to a niche group of customers, Gans is interested in the supply-side, when the disruptions  use an entirely new technology or approach to production. For this means the incumbent businesses find it very hard to respond. To do so effectively means completely redrawing the fundamentals of how they produce their product or service. The book advisers readers not to worry about ‘demand side’ disruptions but to focus their efforts on how to prepare for a ‘supply side’ event

Counter-intuitively, one of Gans’s defensive strategies is to run a highly integrated organisation that is in the habit of working on a sequence of innovations – which runs contrary to the usual advice to ‘disrupt yourself’ with some kind of skunk works. This is the dilemma of the title: if you run a highly integrated business, then you can’t try the independent unit option. The other strategies are: ensure you have some unique complementary assets (something John Kay has always emphasised); and don’t tie your corporate identity to your technology.

This all seems sensible advice and the case studies cited are very interesting. I have to say, though, that although Gans concludes than Andy Groves overdid the paranoia – “academic research and market experience demonstrate that the fear of inevitable and imminent disruption is unfounded” – I’m not so sure. Or at least, labelling management in a time of technical change as ‘disruption’ might well be exaggeration, but it doesn’t meant the job of managing a business is easy. Stuff happens all the time, and the really difficult decisions need to be made when the stuff has started happening but your business is still doing fine. Paranoia seems the right attitude.

Even for the non-paranoid and possibly over-relaxed, this is a nice, concise overview of the disruption debate and possible responses. It is firmly rooted in proper research, the best kind of business book.