The responsibility of the public

It isn’t an economics book but it is about technology: I’ve just finished A Crack in Creation: The New Power to Control Evolution by Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg. It’s a terrific book, really well-written and compelling. Despite knowing nothing at all about biology or genetics, and finding some of the more technical bits quite hard going, I could follow the tale: every point is illustrated with illuminating metaphors and diagrams. And this – CRISPR and associated techniques – is such an important and far-reaching technology, I do think we should all be eager to understand it and think about the consequences. Indeed, we have a responsibility to do so.

By the time you get to the end of the book, it’s clear that this is Doudna’s aim (although co-authored, the book is written as if in her voice): she wants a public debate about CRISPR before it starts to be used to edit the human germline. She would like the debate to avoid the chasm between scientists and public opinion that afflicted GMOs, which became ‘Frankenfoods’ before the public understood that technology at all. But also to acknowledge the significance of CRISPR, with all its potential benefits to tackle diseases.

So I recommend this as a summer read. One final thought: if only Robert Gordon had appreciated that there is more to new technology than playing Angry Birds on smartphones (I exaggerate a little, but he does say the new tech frontier is all about digital entertainment), he might have seen some potential for social welfare in the future as well as in the past.


Mobile contradictions

It’s surprising that there are not more books about mobile communications in general and smartphones in particular. Having been involved since 12 years ago on a strand of work on the economic and social impact of mobiles in low-income economies, when there was already evidence that the effects of the technology were going to be profound, you’d have thought researchers and authors would be all over the territory. Of course, the literature has grown substantially since, but is dwarfed by the work looking at digital in general, or net neutrality, for instance. It’s similar to the strange analytical gap concerning another very powerful technology with huge social effects, the spread of satellite TV in low-income countries from the mid-1990s. And while there is a burgeoning literature looking at social media, I hunger for a big picture synthesis of the social and economic impacts of the set of technologies it relies on, the smartphone and mobile broadband.

Anyway, Anindya Ghose’s Tap: Unlocking the Mobile Economy makes a welcome appearance in this somewhat sparse landscape. It’s a well-written introduction to the various ways US, European and Asian businesses are making use of mobile in developing their services. The book sets up a nice series of contradictions in consumer preferences:

  • people want spontaneity but are predictable and value certainty
  • people are annoyed by ads but don’t want to miss opportunities
  • people want choice but are also overwhelmed by it
  • people value their privacy, and also give away personal data for access to services

After an introductory descriptive section, the book turns to nine forces Ghose (a Professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business) argues are driving the mobile economy. This, the bulk of the book, is really aimed at business readers who want to think through the implications of pervasive smartphone use for their business model. There are lots of examples here of what others are already doing, and the book aregues that in many respects Asian businesses are ahead of US and European counterparts in the ways they have innovated.

The subtext throughout is essentially that too many businesses are sacrificing the long term creation of value – which would require navigating carefully through consumers’ contradictory attitudes – in favour of short-term profit or market share, for example by treating consumer data in a cavalier and exploitative manner. Businesses need to take data security far, far more seriously than they have to date, and also make sure that the service they deliver in return for data is truly of value to their customers.

In short, an accessible book with lots of colour, though definitely aimed at the business audience rather than economists.



Agreeing about GDP, disagreeing about the beyond

It’s always a pleasure for me to have a new book about GDP or economic statistics more generally to read (no surprise!) – and this is no longer such a niche taste as it once was. So I very much enjoyed Lorenzo Fioramonti’s The World After GDP: Politics, Business and Society in the Post-Growth Era, a sequel to his Gross Domestic Problem.

The book rightly points to the fact that the many known flaws with GDP as a measure of economic welfare are becoming still more severe. The environmental issues are obvious. There have been longstanding critiques of the omission of much ‘household production’ (although not, as the book seems to suggest, all informal economic activity as it is household services such as cleaning and childcare that are left out; household products such as food is included in the definition of GDP). Still, as the book observes, GDP conceives of firms and governments as productive and households as non-productive and while this has some logic in terms of transactions, it has none in terms of economic welfare.

The digital transformation of the economy is making measurement ever harder: “One of the crucial flaws of GDP is its inability to capture the dynamic value embedded in all sorts of innovations, especially when they reduce costs, distribute access and increase what economists call ‘consumer surplus’.”

Fioramonti also highlights the political economy of GDP – its role as a sole criterion for assessing success or failure, and the growing ‘administrative uses’ such as debt and deficit rules expressed as a percentage of GDP, distorting policies. Unlike Ehsan Masood (in The Great Invention), who argues for a replacement for GDP, Fioramonti favours a suite of indicators. I don’t know which I think is better – there is a strong argument for needing more than one dimension of measurement but there are too many dashboards and sets of goals already. And perhaps people can only pay attention to one summary statistic? Either way, as Fioramonti says here, economic transformations go hand in hand with transformed measurement frameworks.

He makes some points I hadn’t considered and will think about more. For instance, the switch from GNP (the total output of all nationally-owned entities) to GDP (the total output produced within the national territory) provided “an accounting system in support of neoliberal economic globalization,” he writes. That ‘in support of’ suggests intentionality – I don’t know what the historical process was but doubt this was the case. However, it’s an interesting question whether the switch enabled or encouraged globalization (I’ll overlook the n-word).

While there’s much I agree with, there are also points on which I disagree, sometimes strongly. For instance, there is a truly bizarre section on competition, which Fioramonti sees as a wholly negative phenomenon, creating negative externalities. He alludes to competition as ‘random, disorganized interactions’, and yet at the same time describes it as a top down, and centralized process. I’m not sure how he thinks the technological change he refers to elsewhere happens without rivalry between businesses, and clearly sees markets as centralized – but then, how does competition come in to it? He argues also for localized, co-operative production which seems to me a largely romantic dream, which is feasible for some kinds of business (including, perhaps ironically, some ‘sharing’ platforms), but does not scale to an economy capable of providing goods and services to the population as a whole. This section cites Eleanor Ostrom, whose work is indeed marvellous, highlighting the range of possible collective economic institutions, other than markets and centralized states. However, she also underlines that the institutions she explores cannot function beyond a certain scale. The idea that all or many of the products and services in modern economies could be produced at homespun scale is a nonsense. But then, I also think the idea of a post-growth era overlooks the intangible character of modern growth and anyway requires some honesty about what the politics of no-growth would be like – think 10 years of stagnant real earnings, not cosy homesteading.
Still, a certain amount of disagreement adds savour to the book. I really enjoyed reading it, and so will anyone interested in the GDP and measurement debates – and there are plenty of you out there.


Performing (economic) miracles

The metaphor ‘economic miracles’ as applied to the few once-poor countries that have achieved a trajectory of catch-up growth is revealing: these growth dynamics are spectacular, but happen very rarely. In their terrific new book, Beating the Odds: Jump-Starting Developing Countries, Justin Yifu Lin and Célestin Monga give the best overview account I’ve read of how countries might begin to achieve the lift-off from poverty trajectory, and an outline of how in practical terms governments might go about it. And although directed at poor countries, their analysis is more general.

The book points out that mainstream thinking is both impractical and factually wrong. Impractical because, given the emphasis on institutions now, the advice is often: “Be more like Denmark.” Sure, that would be marvellous. Incorrect, because the examples we have of countries reaching escape velocity for the most part did not have the fine, transparent and effective institutions or high-quality infrastructure now usually recommended as preconditions.

One of the platitudes they attack is that corruption or at least bad governance is the main barrier holding back poor countries. Rich countries have corruption scandals too, they point out. Are these less severe than in poor countries? They ask whether the role of money in US elections or corporate lobbying in the west is really ‘less corrupt’. Is the expected 20% tip everywhere in the US different from the expectation in say India that one will make payments to all kinds of people – in both cases, people not earning very much can’t afford not to expect the tip.

So if not western-style institutions or education or infrastructure, what does lead to growth? The book answers: “Sustained growth takes place because of continuous technological upgrading, institutional innovation and structural change.” At the heart of the process is an evolving set of factor endowments. Poor countries must start from the reality of labour intensive resources, and must focus on using what they have; it’s all about (latent) comparative advantage. The factor endowments will change over time, and hence the need for changing institutions and adopting additional technologies. All countries are different: there is no standard, abstract model. High-profile failed ‘big push’ efforts typically ignored the reality of factor endowments – this includes examples such as Zaire’s (DRC) attempt to start up an auto industry in the 1970s, or Indonesia’s bid to enter the shipbuilding market, when neither had the capital or the skills to produce these goods, nor high enough incomes for a domestic market to grow.  Successful ‘miracles’ start with what they have, continuously diversify, and identify and encourage agglomeration economies.

The authors are firm advocates of strategic industrial policies, in the sense of continual upgrading of hard and soft (legal, financial, educational) infrastructures to suit the changing needs of the private sector, the goods and services it produces and the markets it serves. “Clearly, individual firms cannot internalise all these changes cost effectively, and spontaneous co-ordination among firms to meet these new challenges is often impossible. … For this reason, it falls to the government either to introduce such changes or to co-ordinate them proactively. This essential piece of the growth and development puzzle has been missing in the standard model and the traditional development policy framework.” The government also needs to provide information (about say technologies, management techniques and markets) and provide initial human capital (training): “The social value to the economy as a whole of the first movers’ investments is usually much larger than their value to specific firms.” Finally, governments may need to attract FDI or incubate new activities, “to overcome deficits in social capital and other intangible constraints.”

These roles for active government policy are surely valid – and as much for the UK as for a low income economy. The authors are deeply sceptical about the value of (much) foreign aid and especially the multiple conditionalities attached.

In short, “Modern economic growth is a process of continuous structural changes in industry and technology and in political and socioeconomic institutions.” This is as true now as it has been everywhere since the late 18th century. As the book points out, this is not a radical new idea – it quotes Simon Kuznets saying so in 1966, and indeed economists from Marx and Schumpeter to Robert Solow and Joseph Stiglitz have made essentially the same point. Somehow, though, by the time the official aid organisations get involved, the policy advice has been bowdlerised into a standard set of impossible conditions, not recognising how counter-productive these can be in a second-best world.

Elsewhere, the authors have developed a more practical toolkit (the GIFF, growth identification and facilitation framework) for governments to identify their economies’ specific endowments and niches. The downside of recognising the importance of context is that one cannot sum up an economic development programme in ten universal bullet points. In general terms, the book supports export zones and infrastructure investment, and mitigating rent-seeking through exposure to the sunlight of foreign competition as well as political leadership.

The book ends with The Conference of the Birds: thousands of birds embark on a long and perilous journey but only 30 make it the whole way. When they reach their destination, they find the mythical king they were looking for is a reflection of themselves. Achieving successful development cannot start with a list of mythical missing ingredients as preconditions. Development economists and donors have been wrong to insist on an ideal model, Lin and Monga argue – and they are no keener on the latest development economics fashion for experiments and RCTs, as these ask micro questions and get micro answers; they cannot address the need for structural transformation. The bottom line is pragmatism, and the willingness to embark on the long and perilous journey, like the brave handful of birds in the 12th century Persian story.


Humanising economists

Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn From The Humanities, by Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro, made me groan slightly, inwardly, when it arrived at Enlightenment Towers. Did I really want to read another book criticising economics, having just tackled two other recent arrivals in the econ-bashing genre?

In fact, it’s rather a nice argument for economists paying more attention to stories. It also softened me up by starting out by pointing out, quite rightly, that the humanities (‘dehumanities’, the book calls them) have to a large extent brought their decline on themselves by devaluing the idea of great literature, teaching bowdlerised politics and sociology, and generally disappearing down the rabbit hole of critical studies.

Broadly, I agree wholeheartedly with the view that economics, narrowly understood as modelling and empirics, needs to be supplemented by careful attention to history, ideas and culture. This matters because important variables are unquantifiable; because people do not only take decisions on ‘economic’ grounds; and because causes simply can never be identified by looking at macro data, which need narrative to make sense of the numbers. It also matters in a meta way. As this book argues, empathy is vital so researchers understand that some people think differently from them and are not bad or stupid for doing so: “The narrower the set of values entertained and entertainable by our major educational institutions, the less empathetic they become to the population at large, and the more they wind up turning themselves into trainng grounds for one social gruop to maintain its pre-eminence.” A vital message for the academy in our times.

The bulk of the book is devoted to examples of economists who fail to understand the importance of stories and humanity (eg Gary Becker) and those who completely get it (eg Joel Mokyr). I would challenge some of the details or interpretations. For instance, the authors criticise the use of ‘QALYs’ (quality adjusted life years) to evaluate the selection of patients for costly treatments by the UK’s NHS, seemingly imagining that hospitals look at individual patients and take account of their earning potential before deciding to treat them or not. This is an absurd projection of the practices and mores of the US health market on the UK’s non-market system. Still, elsewhere the book makes the very good point that cost benefit analysis is widely tainted by the use of market values only to evaluate benefits – the example is spending to eliminate the parasitic disease of river blindness in sub-Saharan Africa, prevalent in poor areas where people do not earn much – meaning the value of the project hard to demonstrate to donors.

The moral of the book, for economists, is read more history, or novels even. For researchers in the humanities – well, maybe that’s their next book, but the advice probably isn’t to become more like economists.