A most unhappy soap opera

Mountain Tales: Love and Loss in the Municipality of Castaway Belongings by Saumya Roy is an absolutely gripping read, but don’t expect a happy ending. (The book is called Castaway Mountain in the US.) It’s a sort of soap opera about an extended family and community who eke out their living as pickers sorting through the giant Mumbai waste mountains of Deonar. Braided with the events of their lives is the sorry tale of the city’s inability to tackle the toxic and dangerous waste, despite court cases charging them with taking action. CIty and state governments can’t agree, money runs out, for years nothing happens. Meanwhile fires break out covering the whole city in a cloud of dangerous particles and smoke,  toxins leach into the water, and the giant and growing metropolis simply dumps everything from medical waste to rotting food to plastic bags and broken glass. Needless to say, accidents and illness feature prominently. So does gang violence, lack of schooling, hunger and poverty.

The author came across the community of pickers through a micro-credit agency she co-founded in 2010, and the tale stretches over several years. The book makes one feel rather helpless: the characters featured simply pile up more debt, or borrow elsewhere to repay the micro-loans. Weddings and illnesses chew up all available resources and lead to more debt. The local government is clearly incapable. And even if they could close and remedy the waste mountain (as clearly they should before a major disaster strikes), how would the pickers earn at all? So this is not an easy read, compelling as it is, and the book is not in the solutions-finding business. It is a clear-eyed, sympathetic but realistic, description of a way of life none of its readers could have imagined. And even though I’m no hoarder of stuff, it also made me determined to send even less waste to landfill. How much more plastic do we need to throw away?



Learning to grow

I recently re-read Joseph Stiglitz and Bruce Greenwald’s (2014) Creating a Learning Society: A New Approach to Growth, Development and Social Progress (slightly amazed at how many years ago it was published, as I remember hearing Joe Stiglitz give a talk about it in Toulouse when it was just out. Seems much more recent in memory.)

It’s a masterly reframing of how to think about economic development and importantly appropriate policies in terms of quite simple models that are completely compatible with mainstream economics. The policy mix runs counter to what one could describe as conventional (mainstream) wisdom. The book advocates strategic industrial policy – because the models all involve hysteresis, so history matters and policymakers need to think about the path from here to the future; less extreme (albeit enfroced) IP rights because creating the incentive to innovate from a given pool of knowledge has to be traded off against a smaller pool of knowledge; trade/infant industry protection because learning by doing and learning from experience make production important to grow the pool of knowledge. The message about market structure – competition/concentration and static vs dynamic efficiency – is that it’s complicated. There’s no simple relationship.


Above all, when technology is endogenous there can be no presumption that market outcomes are efficient, and policies need to think about how firms and society learn, and not just about allocative efficiency. It’s a great book for students because it demonstrates how to use models to think about complex policy options, and also that it is not bad economics to challenge market first-ism. Although pitched at developing economies, I went back to it to think about the levelling up challenge within the UK economy. Knowledge sticks to people, who stick in places, and as it accumulates places can diverge a lot over time. Given that innovation also requires adequate scale and some means of mitigating the uninsurable risks associated with it, the need for significant policy interventions seems clear to me.




Governing badly in a crisis

I’ve now read Jeremy Farrar’s Spike: The Virus vs the People – the Inside Story, as a follow-up to Vaxxers, and found it also very interesting. It’s less gripping as a personal memoir, although it does track his own involvement in pandemic policy via SAGE (in the UK) and WHO and other international organisations. On the other hand, it is enlightening as an insight into the dysfunctionality of decision-making in the UK & in this way is a companion to Michael Lewis’s Premonition about the US pandemic lack-of-preparedness. Farrar writes: “Many of the UK’s biggest successes during the pandemic were achieved by teams working outside formal government structures and agencies.”

We will (eventually) have an inquiry into the handling of the pandemic by the Westminster/Whitehall and devolved governments but reading Spike makes it clear that any debate about the future governance of the UK or about co-ordination between levels of government within England and the other nations absolutely needs to include lessons from the pandemic. My starting hypothesis will be that across countries there will be a strong correlation between eventual excess death rates and the competence of government, the state’s ability to co-ordinate in a crisis. The pandemic has exposed fragilities of governance.

Formal structures of government are one thing. Another message I took from Spike is the importance of personal relationships and the serendipity that introduces: “I thought, probably like most people, that the world works through official or formal channels but much of it operates through private phone calls and messaging apps.” This absolutely speaks to my bias that as soon as possible we should get back to conferences and in-person meetings. The nature of online communication is such that it excludes much exchange of tacit knowledge or small bits of information, not to mention trust-building.

The book has unflattering things to say about a number of people involved in pandemic response, not least some leading politicians; and praise for the dedicated scientific leadership. There are clearly different accounts (from the political and SAGE sides) about who said what when at key stages, particularly summer into autumn of 2020, which I guess an inquiry might get to the bottom of; Spike should perhaps be subtitled ‘an inside story’. The pandemic is not over either, and your ranking of which countries did worst will depend on your metrics: case numbers, cumulative deaths, cases and economic hit combined. Unfortunately the UK does not do well on any of these: something for us to ponder.



Heroines of science

I *highly* recommend Vaxxers by Sarah Gilbert and Cath Green, two of the Oxford covid vaccine team. It’s a great read, explains the science really clearly, and is full of interesting detail about the process from the prior research, the realisation of need very early in 2020, all the way through to manufacturing and vaccination campaigns. The two authors have written alternating chapters. A few points will stick with me:

  • Plenty of people saw the pandemic coming but prior preparation to create a vaccine just wasn’t funded adequately. The book is brilliant on the soul-destroying processes of funding applications (oh how I empathised), and how little they are fit for the purpose of rapid development at scale of a new vaccine. Props to the University of Oxford for funding the early stages by putting its own money at risk.
  • Luckily, this team and others around the world did have a ton of prior science and manufacturing experience to draw on, hence the ability to move so quickly.
  • The experience of dealing with media and politics led Sarah Gilbert to write: “Certainly next time – and there will be a next time – we should add some political scientists to the team.” I had a committee-side seat on UKRI funding processes in 2020, and it was an eye-opener to me how few (read: none) of the big science applications included social scientists. It’s starting to change. But the same holds for climate science, or any science addressing big societal problems.
  • There needs to be more global regulatory co-operation, and better preparation over everything from travel to supply chains. It will cost money. But Covid19 was known (before it existed) as Disease X: “Disease Y is coming.” The money will be well spent.
  • The whole tearm worked heroically hard – there’s a nice profile in today’s Guardian.
  • The response from the public to the request for trial volunteers was also heroic. Most people in the UK have been not only pragmatic but in fact brilliant about the vaccine, despite the antics of a small but vocal minority.

I’ve now started on Jeremy Farrar’s Spike, which also looks like being a gripping read.



Taxation made fun

The other book I left half-finished before our holiday was Rebellion, Rascals and Revenue by Michael Keen and Joel Slemrod. Believe it or not this is a very jolly book about taxation – covering textbook issues such as tax design, tax burden, tax administration etc. The underlying message about the economics is: it’s complicated. Indeed, it isn’t just about economics, but tightly intertwined with politics and power. The implicit follow-on message: there cannot be an ideal tax system good for all time. Indeed the book ends with the challenges posed by globalisation and digitalisation, suggesting some possible solutions – even hinting at the prospect that land value tax is one of these.

The fun comes in through the many historical episodes of taxes going wrong. This makes it a kind of tax version of the wonderful Crewe and King Blunders of Our Governments, which I always put on my public policy economics reading list. The book takes us from medivaeval times to the present and around the world (albeit with a US-UK bias). The knowledge and range of the authors is impressively encyclopaedic, and the quality of the writing is superb.

So I greatly enjoyed reading the book with the slight reservation that it isn’t clear who the intended audience is. At 500 pages with detailed footnotes it is a bit long for the general reader, unlikely to get picked up in airport bookshops (remember those?) I could see recommending sections to students for a bit of light relief as well as a non-technical account of issues they are covering in their public finance courses; but it isn’t a text book. There isn’t a discernible narrative, chronological or analytical arc – it’s episodic and didn’t seem to suffer from my reading it in separate chunks. Having said that, the book will answer any question you might ever have had about taxation in principle or practice and is highly entertaining too. What a combination.