Nudging people to be free

I read Cass Sunstein’s latest, On Freedom, while on the train today. It’s both slim and small – just over 100 passport sized pages – so the argument is pretty straightforward. Sunstein is addressing the ‘libertarian paternalism’ critique of nudging. His argument is that suitable choice architecture makes people more, rather than less, free. The book points to earlier responses, such as the fact that there has to be a default so why not use a better one than the status quo? There is always a design. If advertisers are constantly nudging people to eat junk food, why would you *not* want the authorities to nudge in the other direction.

The new element here is the argument that freedom of choice is meaningless without navigation aids: “Freedom of choice is important, even critical, but it is undermined or even destroyed if life cannot be navigated.” His analogy is GPS: people can choose where they want to go but should be helped find the most straightforward route. Freedom needs to be actionable. I was surprised the book didn’t pick up on the attention scarcity point so eloquently set out in Mullanaithan and Shafir’s book Scarcity; it would have been another strand to the argument.

I’m one of those made uneasy by the trend towards nudging, not being sure I do want my government treating me like one of the recipients of an advertising exec’s wiles. One chapter in On Freedom considers the prospect that preferences are endogenous and can be determined by nudges. “After being nudged, they will be happy and even grateful.” This is a highly counter-productive argument for me. Yet I see the strength of some pro-nudge arguments too. Anyway, this book is a very clear and by construction concise case for nudges as freedom.

Price: Check on Amazon

The importance of small decisions

The importance of small decisions (by M O’Brien, A Bentley and W Brock) is a neat little primer on an evolutionary approach to decision theory. I read it under the influence of severe jet lag and so nothing at all should be read into the fact that I find it hard to summarise the argument – there’s also an awful lot of explanation by way of analogy to American football, which doesn’t help me at all. My takeaway is the title, plus this very neat diagram putting decision making modes into four quadrants separated along the dimensions transparent/opaque and individual learning/social learning:


It’s a short book so anyone whose interest is piqued will find it easy to read (sporting analogies aside).


The globots are coming

Richard Baldwin’s latest book, The Globotics Revolution, is a terrific primer on two trends promising to disrupt the world of middle class work in the rich economies. One is competition from ‘Remote Intelligence’ or in other words a tidal wave of talent in countries such as China and India increasingly well able to compete with better-paid professionals in the OECD. The other is comptition from AI, increasingly well able to compete with etc etc. Combine more globalisation and robotics and you get the ‘globotics’ of the title (a terrible word, but never mind). The book argues that the combination is something new and significant in scale, more than just a bit more of existing trends.

The bulk of the book considers each of the two elements in turn, providing excellent, accessible summaries of the economic research and the projections of the likely impact on work. Some of the forces identified may not manifest as fast as expected –  the spread of autonomous vehicles, for instance. The book is also more gung-ho about the continuation of Moore’s Law than many others who pay close attention to the computer industry.

I’m also a little sceptical about the extent to which remote workers will substitute for highly paid professionals, mainly because there is something separately valuable in the know how and experience gained from face to face contact in specific places. With hindsight, it was a mistake for so much manufacturing to be offshored because of loss of engineering know how (see for example this great article by Gregory Tassey); this will be truer in services. Mancur Olson’s point in Big Bills Left on the Sidewalk – that an immigrant to a rich country from a poor one becomes more productive overnight because of the social and physical capital around them in their new environment – applies.

Even so, the bottom line is that job disruption at the lesser and slower end of the range of possibilities will still have a profound impact on people’s livelihoods. We should be getting prepared. Baldwin argues that there is no mystery about the policies needed. He argues for Denmark-style flexicurity, with ease of being fired compensated by significant transitional funding and training – or even for slowing down the pace of change by making it harder to fire people (despite the evidence this contributes to high unemployment rates). With the need to prepare – and to implement far more effective policies than was the case in the earlier phases of deindustrialisation and automation – it’s surely impossible to disagree.

The book ends on an oddly positive note, given the jobs-ocalypse it predicts: “I am optimistic about the long run.” In the very long term it forsees an economy where the things machines (and I guess offshore workers) cannot do: more local, more human and more prosperous (thanks, robots!) society. “Our work lives will be filled with far more caring, sharing, understanding, creating, empathizing, innovating and managing …. The sense of belonging to a community will rise and people will support each other.” This is wonderfully upbeat, a world where machines do all the drudge work and humans brew craft beer and care for each other. It’s hard to see how to get there from today’s fractious world where the absence of a sense of community is pretty manifest in many places and only the few can afford the craft beer. I hope he’s right, though.

Agree with the book’s rosy long-term vision or not, it’s a thorough introduction to the economic debates about globalization and automation, and the forces that are going to change our world in the next few decades, populist backlask or no.


Inventing the property market

Desmond Fitz-Gibbon’s Marketable Values: Inventing the Property Market in Modern Britain is an interesting history of exactly what the subtitle says: the institutions and practices that created the forerunner of today’s anonymous, professionalised property market out of the thickets of traditional social relations that still characterised property ownership at the end of the 18th century. It’s a very nice study of the development of an economic institution: the creation of physical marketplaces, the standardisation and publication of information flows, the development of relevant professions such as auctioneer, estate agent, surveyor, even the invention of suitable filing systems and procedures for enabling viewings of properties. This had to bring together the building of suitable premises for auction rooms or the purchase of estate agency offices, legal and governance practices, social norms, the creation of professional development pathways, and much more.

This all sounds a bit niche, perhaps, but I’m a sucker for the detail of markets as economic and social institutions (& never tire of recommending John McMillan’s Reinventing the Bazaar). This is a very nice study, and, importantly, ends with a chapter on the ‘Limits of Marketability’, looking at the battles to preserve open land and the struggle that led to the formation of the National Trust in 1970. The nascent property industry painted property markets as democratizing: “At present the land is held by the few but the day is coming when it will belong to the many,” said the Estates Chronicle in 1898. But land held by all is important too. To be read alongside Brett Christophers’ The New Enclosure (reviewed here).


Where did economics go wrong

David Colander and Craig Freedman have an answer. ‘Where Economics Went Wrong‘, to give the title of their new book, is answered by the subtitle: ‘Chicago’s Abandonment of Classical Liberalism’. They have something very specific in mind by this, namely the move from widespread acceptance by economists that economic policy does not follow from economic theory, but rather is “a blend of engineering and judgement”, an art rather than a scientific endeavour. They continue: “Clearly one wants evidence-based, objective analysis of policy. An art and craft methodology uses theory and science whenever it can.” But policy is messy and requires a methodology recognising the unavoidable role of normative judgments.” This is what they mean by classical liberalism.

The Chicago School upended this, the book continues, by “removing the firewall between economic science and policy” from the 1930s on. It did so to further a laissez faire agenda, insisting that economic science justified the conclusion in real life policy that the market should be left to its own devices. It merged economic theory and science with economic policy advice. This agenda held sway for some decades, embedded in policy by politics and the electoral success of Reagan and Thatcher.

I must say I found this argument confusing  at first because of my own perspective that the problem for much of 20th century economics was the ‘separation protocol‘ between positive analysis and normative advice, expressed by Lionel Robbins and later by Milton Friedman. However, I think it’s a similar point in fact: the claim they made was that positive economic analysis was appropriate for policy, and value judgments could be coralled into the domain of political choice, about which economics has nothing to say.

Many economists probably still think this, but my sense is their number is diminishing. Colander and Freedman end the book with an overview of the work of six economists they perceive to be working in the ‘art and craft’ policy tradition: Dani Rodrik, Ed Leamer, Amartya Sen, Ariel Rubinstein (love his book Economic Fables), Alvin Roth, Paul Romer. A shame they’re all men but I for one approve of the selection, with that major caveat.

The book is an inside-the-beltway one, of interest mainly to history of thought folks I would guess. Having said that, it does highlight a key methodological issue of importance to all applied economists.