Curiosity without borders

Recently I got C.P.Snow’s The Two Cultures down from the shelf, to refer to for my essay with Andy Haldane in January’s Prospect. It was recently reissued with Snow’s own 1964 addition of a reflection on the reactions to his 1959 lectures, and with an interesting introduction by Stefan Collini. This week I read the whole thing again.

What people remember is the vicious personal attack on Snow by F.R.Leavis, itself seeming to be an examplar of the chasm between the scientific and literary cultures that Snow had described.The essay is more balanced than this Punch and Judy version suggests: Snow certainly does not suggest that scientific knowledge is superior in any cosmic epistemological ranking. Both frames of reference are needed: “The clashing point of two subjects, two disciplines, two cultures… ought to produce creative chances. In the history of mental activity, that has been where some of the break-throughs came.”

What he does say is that the culture of the humanities dominated public life at the time, in the UK more than in the US and USSR, and that people from that literary culture did not feel the need to know the basics of the culture of science and technology. He suggests the attitude descended from the “Luddite” rejection of the Industrial Revolution by writers such as Ruskin and Blake, whereas, as the essay puts it: “With singular unanimity, in any country where they have had the chance, the poor have walked off the land into the factories as fast as the factories could take them.”


Snow also points to the class-bound conservatism of the English (I mean English, not British) education system. It elevated the classics and literature as the appropriate subjects for the grooming of the elite via grammar and public schools and the top universities. Science did find its place, but was looked down on – certainly where it shaded into engineering and technology. Unlike Germany, France or the US, engineering was not a subject for a gentleman to study; this was more appropriate for the lower social orders.

This seems to me largely true, of the 1950s and 60s, and even now. Why else would successive British governments still feel the need to proseletyse for the ‘STEM’ subjects, if it were not that we had such a big gap with other countries to close? When you sit watching ‘University Challenge’ on TV and shout out the answers, I’m prepared to bet that the scientists can answer a few more humanities questions than vice versa. Our education system still forces young people to specialise absurdly early and absurdly sharply in either the sciences or the humanities. We still have an education system that allows far too many people to emerge saying, “I’m no good at maths,” which is like saying “I’m no good at thinking,” when it’s just that the symbols for getting thought onto paper or screen are different.

Snow insisted that the controversy missed the main point of his lecture, which was to underline the importance of scientific culture for economic development in poor countries. Here, though, his argument is – with hindsight – naively optimistic. “Since the gap between the rich countries and the poor can be removed, it will be,” Snow wrote. The scientific and technical knowledge being available, all that was needed was capital – a big task but a feasible one. Six decades later, it is clear that the gap can be closed but need not be. Electricity and indoor plumbing are very old technologies, as yet unavailable to very many inhabitants of poor countries, whereas mobile phones are a relatively new technology now available to and used by almost everyone in the world.

The missing element is what Snow described in his 1964 reflection as the third culture, the social sciences, and their perspective on “the human effects of the scientific revolution”. He blamed his English education, which meant he was “conditioned to be suspicious of any but the established intellectual disciplines.” 

I think the inhabitants of the culture of the humanities are broadly speaking at least as suspicious of the social sciences as they are of the natural sciences and technology: what they like about the social sciences are the historical and literary aspects, and what they dislike are the parts that use the scientific method, i.e.confronting human society with empirical evidence to test hypotheses systematically, even using maths. They often describe economists, for example, as suffering from ‘physics envy’. Maybe some do, but equations are just symbols for a prism on the world which might permit the testing of hypotheses. Even historians have models – hypotheses about causes and consequences – but they use words as their symbols, and sequences of events as their empirical evidence.

So I’m with Snow on the importance of crossing boundaries. He writes, “Unless one knows, production is as mysterious as witch doctoring.” Not enough people understand how things get made, whether cars or software systems. Not enough people understand how radio waves work or why epigenetics is worth getting your mind around. And not enough scientists read poetry, too. Here’s to curiosity without borders!


Not waving but drowning?

“My argument, based on the experience of my years in the Chicago ghetto, is that the poor are actually more resilient and economically creative because they have much bigger obstacles to overcome,” writes Sudhir Venkatesh in Floating City: hustlers, strivers, dealers, call girls and other lives in illicit New York – in a reference back to his previous book, Gang Leader for a Day.

Well, that rings true. The illicit economy manifests countless signs of creativity, enterprise, and the resilience of the human spirit. Floating City is not just a document about the lives of low income – and higher income – New Yorkers engaged in illegal economic activities; it is about the many connections between the legal and the illegal economies. He writes: “Global cities offered new social connections that could be monetized, above ground, and below in the black market.”

Chicago in the 1990s, the subject of the previous book, was a city of local neighbourhoods and dense, localized social connections. New York in the 2000s was becoming a city of new connections crossing all kinds of borders – the boundary between legal and illegal, the boundaries between social classes, breaking down, leaving individuals navigating new social networks with unfamiliar rules. The book concludes: “In the new world, culture rules. How you act, how you dress, and how you think are part of your toolkit for success. … The ability to cross boundaries is vital. New York forces multiple social worlds on you whether you like it or not.” Hence the floating between worlds – although more often sinking. As the Stevie Smith poem puts it, “I was much further out than you thought, and not waving, but drowning.”

The book is fascinating, and anybody with an interest in the illicit economy should read it. That ought to include all economists (although it probably won’t). The public conversation we have about the economy largely ignores the scale and pervasiveness of the shadow economy. From time to time it breaks through, as when the official statisticians announced they would include estimates of illegal marketed activity such as the drugs business and prostitution in GDP. On the whole, though, we politely ignore how big the whole thing is, from the scale of the international drugs and people trafficking trades all the way to rich folks with Swiss bank accounts looking for efficient tax arrangements, or companies that are ostensibly British but have a surprising number of Caribbean subsidiaries.

What I didn’t like about the book – and its predecessor – is the prominence of the author himself in the lives he documents. No doubt it is intellectually honest to underline the presence of the social science observer in the events he is observing, but for me he ends up sharing too much. I found it very uncomfortable, and was only partly reassured by the references to the university ethics committee. Having said that, authentic portraits of life on the margins of our global cities are welcome. And it’s a well-written and even gripping read.

Reading about cities

The essays in Patrick Keiller’s The View From The Train will appeal to anyone who enjoys the psychogeography genre – Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital etc – and I do. They are more interested in the economics of cities, and particularly inequality and public space, than many of the other psychogeography books, however. There is overlap for example with Anna Minton’s Ground Control and Lynsey Hanley’s Estates. Yesterday I wrote about the observations Keiller makes on ports and on housing. Although I don’t agree with all he says, it’s very interesting.


I must be in a cities mood, as I picked up and have now started reading Sudhir Venkatesh’s Floating City, which is an ethnographic approach to globalised, financialised, unequal New York City. As I’ve got flights today and tomorrow, I should be able to report back soon.

20 years on and still in a state

The subtitle of Will Hutton’s new book How Good Can We Be? conveys the message very concisely: ‘ending the mercenary society and building a great country’. It is the heartfelt product of the times we’re in, the post-crisis, mid-austerity, fractured-politics state of the UK. Readers of Will Hutton’s Observer columns will not be surprised by his diagnosis of the country’s ills. Nor will readers of his first bestseller, The State We’re In, which was published in 1995.


That first book caught the mood of the nation. We had had enough of Thatcherism, of the short termism of finance and the divisiveness of class in Britain, the inequalities of opportunity and outcome. The book became a sort of handbook for people on the left of politics working to bring about what turned out to be Tony Blair’s landslide first general election victory in 1997. Hutton is clearly disappointed by how Britain turned out after three Labour terms in office, as well as by the post-2010 coalition. For the new book – although quite measured in how it says so – clearly sees New Labour as misguided in its adherence to the Thatcherite insistence on the pre-eminence of markets, markets, markets. “Craven attitude to private is best notion,” goes the index summary of one of the passages about New Labour. The Blair governments turned out to have no interest in the kind of ‘stakeholder’ capitalism advocated in The State We’re In. It was seen as too close to the traditional Labour approach to the economy, perhaps. New Labour was very keen – understandably – to ensure it was seen as business-friendly.

How Good Can We Be? uses different terminology and of course notes the different political context – the devolutionary forces, the impact of austerity, the  fragmentation of support for the major parties and rise of UKIP. But it insists on essentially the same analysis and approaches. The book emphasises the importance of the institutional fabric of the economy and society in between ‘state’ and ‘market’, and on the fact that government and private sector have to work in harmony in any successful advanced economy, rather than seeing each other as incompatibly opposite ways of organising economic activity.

My sense is that many voters have strong reservations about the role of markets, and big business is hardly admired these days; but the simplistic Thatcherite approach to economics still has a far, far stronger grip on officialdom and the public policy conversation than it has inside the economics profession. It’s dispiriting to read, after two decades, that many of the same long-term British economic problems (skills, infrastructure, short-termism in finance) have not abated.

I hope it will be widely read during the election campaign. Hutton has plenty of interesting policy suggestions – if anything, they add up to quite a modest programme. Even people who disagree with his politics ought to be willing to consider with an open mind proposals that might help address some of the glaring issues such as the need for economic devolution around the UK including English regions, or the fraught question of corporate taxation. It remains to be seen whether this new book catches the national mood as the first one did 20 years ago.

Famine, hunger and markets

Cormac Ó Gráda knows more than most people about famines, historical and modern, and his short book of essays, Eating People is Wrong, is superb. It encapsulates in five chapters some key messages.

First, that cannibalism – ‘famine’s darkest secret’ – does occur, occasionally. Most often when it does, desperate people eat the bodies of those who have already died. Occasionally, people are murdered to be eaten. But the taboo is strong so cannibalism is rare even in terrible famines. Yet Ó Gráda concludes that we cannot assume ‘some silent cultural shift or civilizing process’ has made it a thing of the past.

The second chapter takes a careful look at the Bengal famine of 1943-44, and broadly agrees with Amartya Sen‘s famous conclusion that it was a famine of policy rather than nature. “The famine was made inevitable by the authorities’ failure to recognize publicly that there was a shortfall, abd by the extra demands on food imposed by the war effort. The famine was the product of the wartime priorities of the ruling colonial elite.”

The third chapter interested me the most. It looks at several famines to test whether free markets make them worse (because food is shipped out of the famine region); or better (because higher prices induce higher food supplies); or worse because of information failures and uncertainty. Another, related issue is how well markets work in normal times – if they are not competitive normally, perhaps profiteering by middlemen and landowners is worse during a famine. The empirical work described in the chapter points to the importance of context: the response of markets to price signals does not function well in conflict zones – in Somalia, for example, the conflict segmented markets for grain. However, during other episodes, “markets worked more smoothly than might have been expected on the basis of a reading of qualitative and fictional accounts.” A key piece of evidence is the reduction in variation in food prices linked to greater integration of different regional markets due to increased flows. Movements in grain prices seem to have prompted supply responses and trade flows. Recent examples include Malawi and Niger in the 2000s. The same mechanism – greater integration, via mobile phones in these cases – has led to reduced variation in food prices in contexts ranging from Indian fisheries (Rob Jensen) and crops in Niger (Jenny Aker). This is a fascinating chapter. The important issue it doesn’t address is the strong sense so many people have that markets should not be allowed to operate at times when fairness matters more than efficiency – reflected in those ‘qualitative’ accounts. Wartime rationing is a clear example. I think it would help to make clear the efficiency/equity trade-off in these extreme contexts.

The fourth chapter is about China’s Great Famine. It is a critical account of some recent books, including Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine, which Ó Gráda regards as too ‘engage’ and insufficiently dispassionate. However, he does not dispute the huge scale or human costs. The chapter is really about the role of human agency in causing famine. It also raises the question of how at the time the famine was so invisible to the rest of the world, and also to many in China but outside the worst-affected areas.

Finally, the book discusses the problem of famine – rare, now, outside conflict zones – and that of hunger, not at all rare. It is critical of NGOs whose raison d’être was urgent famine relief for switching to their own self-perpetuation. They do not leave a country after a crisis, and the book points to the adverse effects imports of foodstuffs have on local supplies, once a food crisis has ended. The intrusion into the operation of local markets is in this kind of context very damaging. “Food aid in a crisis situation may avert famine; granted continuously in ‘normal’ times it may simply injure or destroy an already vulnerable domestic agricultural sector.” Non-famine malnutrition now causes far more death and disease than does famine. Eliminating hunger is proving far harder than eliminating (mostly, for now) famine.