Tim Harford The Undercover Economist
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  • Adapt – Why Success Always Starts with Failure


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Undercover Economist

Fatal Attraction of Fake Facts Sours Political Debate

He did it again: Boris Johnson, UK foreign secretary, exhumed the old referendum-campaign lie that leaving the EU would free up £350m a week for the National Health Service. I think we can skip the well-worn details, because while the claim is misleading, its main purpose is not to mislead but to distract. The growing popularity of this tactic should alarm anyone who thinks that the truth still matters.

You don’t need to take my word for it that distraction is the goal. A few years ago, a cynical commentator described the “dead cat” strategy, to be deployed when losing an argument at a dinner party: throw a dead cat on the table. The awkward argument will instantly cease, and everyone will start losing their minds about the cat. The cynic’s name was Boris Johnson.

The tactic worked perfectly in the Brexit referendum campaign. Instead of a discussion of the merits and disadvantages of EU membership, we had a frenzied dead-cat debate over the true scale of EU membership fees. Without the steady repetition of a demonstrably false claim, the debate would have run out of oxygen and we might have enjoyed a discussion of the issues instead.

My point is not to refight the referendum campaign. (Mr Johnson would like to, which itself is telling.) There’s more at stake here than Brexit: bold lies have become the dead cat of modern politics on both sides of the Atlantic. Too many politicians have discovered the attractions of the flamboyant falsehood — and why not? The most prominent of them sits in the White House. Dramatic lies do not always persuade, but they do tend to change the subject — and that is often enough.

It is hard to overstate how corrosive this development is. Reasoned conversation becomes impossible; the debaters hardly have time to clear their throats before a fly-blown moggie hits the table with a rancid thud.

Nor is it easy to neutralise a big, politicised lie. Trustworthy nerds can refute it, of course: the fact-checkers, the independent think-tanks, or statutory bodies such as the UK Statistics Authority. But a politician who is unafraid to lie is also unafraid to smear these organisations with claims of bias or corruption — and then one problem has become two. The Statistics Authority and other watchdogs need to guard jealously their reputation for truthfulness; the politicians they contradict often have no such reputation to worry about.

Researchers have been studying the problem for years, after noting how easily charlatans could debase the discussion of smoking, vaccination and climate change. A good starting point is The Debunking Handbook by John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky, which summarises a dispiriting set of discoveries.

One problem that fact-checkers face is the “familiarity effect”: the endless arguments over the £350m-a-week lie (or Barack Obama’s birthplace, or the number of New Jersey residents who celebrated the destruction of the World Trade Center) is that the very process of rebutting the falsehood ensures that it is repeated over and over again. Even someone who accepts that the lie is a lie would find it much easier to remember than the truth.

A second obstacle is the “backfire effect”. My son is due to get a flu vaccine this week, and some parents at his school are concerned that the flu vaccine may cause flu. It doesn’t. But in explaining that I risk triggering other concerns: who can trust Big Pharma these days? Shouldn’t kids be a bit older before being exposed to these strange chemicals? Some (not all) studies suggest that the process of refuting the narrow concern can actually harden the broader worldview behind it.

Dan Kahan, professor of law and psychology at Yale, points out that issues such as vaccination or climate change — or for that matter, the independence of the UK Statistics Authority — do not become politicised by accident. They are dragged into the realm of polarised politics because it suits some political entrepreneur to do so. For a fleeting partisan advantage, Donald Trump has falsely claimed that vaccines cause autism. Children will die as a result. And once the intellectual environment has become polluted and polarised in this way, it’s extraordinarily difficult to draw the poison out again.

This is a damaging game indeed. All of us tend to think tribally about politics: we absorb the opinions of those around us. But tribal thinking pushes us to be not only a Republican but also a Republican and a vaccine sceptic. One cannot be just for Brexit; one must be for Brexit and against the UK Statistics Authority. Of course it is possible to resist such all-encompassing polarisation, and many people do. But the pull of tribal thinking on all of us is strong.

There are defences against the dead cat strategy. With skill, a fact-check may debunk a false claim without accidentally reinforcing it. But the strongest defence is an electorate that cares, that has more curiosity about the way the world really works than about cartoonish populists. If we let politicians drag facts into their swamp, we are letting them tug at democracy’s foundations.
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 23 September 2017.

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Undercover Economist

Echoes of a bygone age show Britain losing its sense of direction

“It’s that 1970s vibe again,” a senior colleague tells me. This being the Financial Times I presume he is picking up echoes of a bygone economic and political milieu, rather than gleefully anticipating the re-emergence of flares or X-rated movie theatres. Either way, it is hard to venture a firm opinion on the matter: as late as the 1990s, I was still at school. My recollection of James Callaghan is pretty hazy, and I know Edward Heath only through a charming book of Christmas carols that he compiled after leaving office. (Millennials and foreigners confused by the direction this column is taking may be interested to know that both men were UK prime ministers.)

There certainly are parallels: now, as then, politics is dominated by the two big parties; the nation is led by a weak minority government; and Jeremy Corbyn’s views seem politically relevant. There is even an economic echo: the unemployment rate, at 4.3 per cent, is back down to the levels last seen in 1975, when I was in nappies.

But in other ways it feels absurd to compare today’s economy with that of 40 years ago. The uptick in inflation that has attracted some attention this week — to 2.9 per cent on the consumer price index measure — is a molehill compared with the Himalayan peaks of yesteryear, with retail price index inflation rarely slipping below 10 per cent per year and sometimes exceeding 25 per cent. With inflation at 25 per cent, prices double every three years; with inflation at 2.9 per cent the doubling would take a generation. Bank of England base rates then shuttled breathlessly between 5 and 15 per cent — whereas they sit today, as they have done since 2009, at record lows. The price of oil remains of interest not because it has spiked but because it has halved.

And rather than joining the European Economic Community in a desperate attempt to save the British economy, we are now leaving in a desperate attempt to . . . well, I am still trying to figure that one out.

But those are the dry numbers. What of the zeitgeist, the more ineffable spirit of the times? That is a curious question. Dominic Sandbrook, a leading British historian of the 1970s, reminds us of the words of Callaghan to his Labour party colleagues in 1974: “Our place in the world is shrinking: our economic comparisons grow worse, long-term political influence depends on economic strength — and that is running out . . . If I were a young man, I should emigrate.”

Callaghan’s mournful diagnosis cuts deep today. Much of the country knows how he felt. But the curious thing is that half of them believe that the UK was doing just fine until we voted for a once-in-a-generation act of self-harm last June. The other half were as gloomy as Callaghan until the Brexit vote gave them hope. Say what you like about the 1970s, at least their grimness is a fact that we can agree on.

Then, national humiliation was inflicted by the need to approach the International Monetary Fund for help — and everyone could agree that this was not an encouraging development. Now, national humiliation is in the eye of the beholder and we have either broken free of decades of subjugation to Brussels — or voted to make ourselves a laughing stock. I hope the rest of the world is enjoying the joke, at least. Our foreign secretary is Boris Johnson, our prime minister is “strong and stable”, our foreign policy is built on the steadfastness of President Donald Trump, and our back-up plans include Mr Corbyn and the Conservative member of parliament Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Economically, our 2017-era service industries and just-in-time supply chains are highly unlikely to survive a hard Brexit unscathed, despite the gung-ho cheerleading of a few economists who seem to think nothing much has changed in international economics since David Ricardo outlined the principle of comparative advantage in 1817.

Jill Lepore, a Harvard history professor, commented not long ago that she was wary of glib historical comparisons: “Trump is like Andrew Jackson”; “Cryptocurrencies are like the tulip bubble”. Rather than squashing together the past and present like an accordion, she advocates expanding the instrument, “stretch it open as far as you can, so you can see the distance”.

So if we stretch the accordion out, what do we see? A country that becomes more open, liberal, tolerant, wealthy and confident but also more economically unequal. The rise in inequality largely took place in the 1980s, but only became politically salient after the banking crisis of 2007. But also, perhaps, a country that now, as then, has lost a sense of direction. What ever you think of the journey, we travelled a long way under Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. But we have been becalmed now for a decade. Where exactly are we going? Ponder again this week’s unemployment and inflation numbers, which reinforce the picture of the UK economy that has become familiar: plenty of jobs, but not a lot of money.
The nation, like its government, is working flat out and going nowhere.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 15 September 2017.

My new book is “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy”. Grab yourself a copy in the US or in the UK (slightly different title) or through your local bookshop.

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Why Thaler’s Nobel is a well-deserved nudge for behavioural economics

Richard Thaler has won the Nobel memorial prize in economics, an award that had been anticipated for some time. Mr Thaler is a behavioural economist, one of the group of economists who applies insights from psychology, or perhaps plain common sense, into the idealised world of economic modelling.

One trivial behavioural insight that Mr Thaler is fond of mentioning concerns a large bowl of cashew nuts he once served to dinner guests over drinks. Observing his guests hoovering up the contents of the bowl, he removed it to the kitchen so as not to spoil everyone’s appetite. The guests could in principle have stopped of their own accord; nevertheless they were pleased to see temptation removed.

Early in his career, he started making a list of “Dumb Stuff People Do” on the blackboard in his office. The cashew nut example was on the list, and it is a classic piece of Thaler thinking: obvious, trivial, fun and yet completely beyond the scope of traditional economics to model. Mr Thaler’s insight is that such trivia might lead to important analytical and policy insights.

Thomas Schelling, Nobel laureate in 2005, was also a master of these deceptively simple observations of human nature. And Daniel Kahneman — a psychologist, mentor for Mr Thaler, and winner of the prize in 2002 — had with Amos Tversky laid the foundations for behavioural economics.

Mr Thaler advanced the field in two important ways. He campaigned for behavioural economics to be taken seriously within the economics profession. He also brought it into the policy environment with his book Nudge (co-authored with Cass Sunstein) and his support for behavioural policy units in the White House and 10 Downing Street.

Within the profession, Mr Thaler found a pulpit in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, an academic journal supplied to all members of the American Economic Association. His Anomalies column was witty and sharply reasoned, highlighting strange features of the economic and financial world that standard economic theory could not explain, and rigorously debunking unconvincing attempts at rationalisation.

His evangelism for behavioural economics has been successful, at least in microeconomics: it is commonplace to see economic models incorporate psychological realism, and Mr Thaler himself was president of the American Economic Association in 2015.

In the policy world, Mr Thaler’s most famous idea was to use behavioural insights in pensions policy — for example, by enrolling people in a pension scheme by default, while giving them the choice to opt out. The stakes here are much higher than with cashew nuts: default enrolment has, according to the UK pensions regulator, increased participation in private-sector pension schemes from 42 per cent to 73 per cent between 2012 and 2016.

Rational economic man does not care — or even notice — whether a pension is opt-in or opt-out. He simply calculates (instantly) whether it pays to participate and chooses accordingly. Mr Thaler’s insight is not only that people are not perfectly rational (that much is obvious, even to the most traditional of economists) but that apparently small departures from rationality can have outsized impacts.

Mr Thaler’s catch-all advice: whether you’re a business or a government, if you want people to do something, make it easy. This year’s choice of Nobel Prize winner is an easy one to like.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 9 October 2017.

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Behavioural economics books to enjoy

Congratulations to Richard Thaler, who has been awarded the Nobel memorial prize in economics “for his contributions to behavioural economics”. Thaler is a worthy winner. In addition to his academic contributions, alongside the likes of Daniel Kahneman and Robert Shiller, he has been the leading evangelist in the profession for behavioural realism in economics.

Thaler’s influence on policymakers has been unparalleled, in part thanks to his book Nudge (UK) (US) with Cass Sunstein. I wrote a quick appreciation of Thaler for the FT (subscription req.) and this much longer piece a couple of years ago asking what lay in store for behavioural economics.

Here are a few of my favourite behavioural economics books:

Daniel Kahneman Thinking Fast and Slow (UK) (US) – now the bible of behavioural economics, full of fascinating experiments and examples.

Michael Lewis The Undoing Project (UK) (US) – a touching biography of Kahneman and Tversky. Skip the first chapter, but the rest is beautiful storytelling and insightful.

Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie Wiser (UK) (US) – the best book I know about group decision-making and how to overcoming polarisation and groupthink.

For inside stories of behavioural economics try Thaler’s Misbehaving (UK) (US) and David Halpern’s Inside the Nudge Unit (UK) (US).

And for behavioural science to brighten your day, there’s Think Small (UK) (US) by Halpern’s colleagues Owain Service and Rory Gallagher, or How To Have A Good Day (UK) (US) by Caroline Webb.

Enjoy! And if you’d like a reminder that the old rational choice school of thought has some intriguing insights to contribute, may I (ahem) recommend my second book The Logic of Life (UK) (US).

 
My new book is “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy”. Grab yourself a copy in the US or in the UK (slightly different title) or through your local bookshop.

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9th of October, 2017MarginaliaResourcesComments off
Undercover Economist

True diversity means looking for the knife in a drawer of spoons

Forget the new year’s resolution: September, not January, is the time for new starts. College freshers are preparing to leave home, graduates are ironing shirts and blouses and dressing up for their first day in the office. Recruiters and admissions tutors are hoping they made the right choices.

So how do we select the best people for a course or a job? It seems like a sensible question, yet it contains a trap. In selecting the best person we might set a test — in a restaurant kitchen we might ask them to whip up some meals; in a software company we might set some coding problems. And then the trap is sprung.

By setting the same task for every applicant we recruit people who are carbon copies of each other. They will have the same skills and think in the same way. Allowing recruiters some subjective discretion might loosen this trap a little, but it might equally make it worse: we all tend to see merit in applicants who look, speak, and dress much like we do. Opposites do not attract, especially when it comes to corporate hiring.

This is unfair, of course. But it is also — for many but not all tasks — very unwise. Scott Page, a complexity scientist and author of a new book, The Diversity Bonus (UK) (US), invites us to think of people as possessing a kind of cognitive toolbox. The tools might be anything from fluent Mandarin to knowing how to dress a turkey to a command of Excel keyboard shortcuts. If the range of skills — the size of the toolkit — matters, then a diverse team will boast more cognitive skills than a homogenous team, even one full of top performers.

The logic of this toolbox model is obvious in certain contexts: any good heist movie will have the bruiser, the charmer, the hacker, the explosives expert, the strategist and the cat burglar. It is clear why such a diverse range of skills is needed and it is obvious that no single test could recruit such a team: it has to be constructed with diversity in mind from the start.

But within a corporate environment the same logic often tends to be forgotten. Everyone has been recruited using the same cookie-cutter template; everyone is proficient at a similar set of tasks, and the range of thinking skills suffers. The IMF is full of economists. Congress is full of lawyers. Football management is full of ex-footballers. If someone does happen to have hidden talents that will be by accident, not by design.

This homogeneity may not be disastrous. If you want to recruit 10 truck drivers you probably just need the 10 safest, most reliable drivers you can find, because the drivers will be working as individuals, not sparking off each other. But in any situation where a range of problems have to be solved together as a team, diversity can help.

Scott Page’s model of diversity — less a glorious rainbow of superficial attributes, more a toolkit crammed with different skills and perspectives — is a powerful way to appreciate the problem with homogeneity. If recruiters keep looking for the same skillset then an organisation risks, in the words of philosopher-queen Alanis Morissette, having 10,000 spoons when all it needs is a knife.

The standard model of graduate recruitment is almost helpless when faced with this problem. Yes, one can have diversity coaching, checking that certain demographic groups aren’t being discriminated against. But when one candidate at a time is being recruited, it is hard to do much about diversity because diversity is not a property of individuals, it is a property of groups.

So how to solve the problem? Rory Sutherland of Ogilvy, an adman with a keen interest in behavioural science, has suggested recruiting people in groups. If an organisation recruits five people at a time then a couple of vacancies can be reserved for wild-cards — people who don’t fit the mould but have interesting talents. But the definition of “interesting” is itself a tricky one, and not every organisation has the luxury of recruiting in bulk.

What makes matters worse is that we often do not appreciate the value of diversity when we see it. One study of problem-solving (by Katherine Philips, Katie Liljenquist and Margaret Neale) found that groups containing an outsider were far more proficient at solving murder-mystery puzzles than groups made up entirely of friends.

The striking thing about this study, though, was that the successful groups with an outsider didn’t realise they were being successful, while the cosy underperforming groups of friends were complacent, not realising how badly they were doing. Having the outsider around helps us solve problems, but don’t expect us to be grateful, or even to notice anything other than social discomfort.

The hard truth is that to find new solutions to old problems we must often work with people we don’t really understand. I won’t pretend this is easy, but I cannot wait to pull off a heist with Scott Page, Rory Sutherland and Alanis Morrissette.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 8 September 2017.

My new book is “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy”. Grab yourself a copy in the US or in the UK (slightly different title) or through your local bookshop.

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Messy – paperback publication day US

messy-us-cover

The paperback of Messy is out in the US! You can order from Amazon here or find out more about the book and other places to buy here – or if you have a good local bookshop then please support it by picking up the book there.

I had a lot of fun – and no small amount of heartache – writing the book. Tyler Cowen says it is my “best and deepest”; Brian Eno comments, “It’s a very very good book, full of wise counterintuitions and clever insights”; while The Economist comments that it “masterfully weaves together anecdote and academic work.”

To get a flavour of what the book is all about, there’s my TED talk here – or you can check out my Messy inspired reading list, too.

4th of October, 2017MarginaliaComments off
Undercover Economist

When doing nothing is the best option

The leaders of the free world are returning from their holidays. Must they? Surely no good can come of this.

While on vacation Donald Trump managed to eject most of his advisers, threaten a nuclear war with an unabashed North Korea, and display an unnerving willingness to see things from the Nazi point of view. Goodness knows what he will do now he’s fully back on the job. Theresa May returned from her Easter holiday with the splendid idea of calling a snap general election, so I can hardly contain my excitement as I wait for her latest brainstorm.

A flawed leader leaves us grateful for the quiet days, and one of the saving graces of Mr Trump’s administration is that, while he has many bad ideas, he is not always committed to them. Promising to build a wall, rip up Nafta and discriminate against Muslims and transgender people is damaging enough, but at least the follow-through has been patchy. It is a fragile mercy, but Mr Trump seems to prefer complaining about the US government to leading it.

Mrs May’s lack of leadership is more valuable. The British people have dealt the British establishment an unplayable hand: a parliament strung out between several lunatic fringes, and a referendum result that is hard to interpret and even harder to deliver. With the prime minister powerless, her ministers are showing signs of quiet realism. Yes, the country is chugging towards a train-crash Brexit, but at least our politicians are tying fewer hostages to the tracks.

Since I disagree with most of what Mrs May and Mr Trump are trying to do I might be expected to celebrate every day on which they do not do it. But there may be a deeper principle here: in many areas of life we demand action when inaction would serve us better.

The most obvious example is in finance, where too many retail investors trade far too often. One study, by Brad Barber and Terrance Odean, found that the more retail investors traded, the further behind the market they lagged: active traders underperformed by more than 6 percentage points (a third of total returns) while the laziest investors enjoyed the best performance.

This is because dormant investors not only save on trading costs but avoid ill-timed moves. Another study, by Ilia Dichev, noted a distinct tendency for retail investors to pile in when stocks were riding high and to sell out at low points.

It would be nice to recommend laziness as a universal principle, but alas many companies have turned consumer inertia into a revenue stream. Sometimes we must rouse ourselves to cancel a gym membership or find a cheaper insurance policy. Still, there are many situations where doing nothing is a sound tactic.

The same can be said of medicine. It is a little unfair on doctors to point out that when they go on strike, the death rate falls. Nevertheless it is true. It is also true that we often encourage doctors to act when they should not. In the US, doctors tend to be financially rewarded for hyperactivity; everywhere, pressure comes from anxious patients. Wiser doctors resist the temptation to intervene when there is little to be gained from doing so — but it would be better if the temptation was not there.

Some politicians expertly dodge demands for action. Tony Blair was often accused of recycling announcements, turning a single policy into a dozen press releases. But better one decent policy announced a dozen times than a dozen half-baked policies each announced once.

The argument for passivity has been strengthened by the rise of computers, which are now better than us at making all sorts of decisions. We have been resisting this conclusion for 63 years, since the psychologist Paul Meehl published Clinical vs. Statistical Prediction. Meehl later dubbed it “my disturbing little book”: it was an investigation of whether the informal judgments of experts could outperform straightforward statistical predictions on matters such as whether a felon would violate parole.

The experts almost always lost, and the algorithms are a lot cleverer these days than in 1954. It is unnerving how often we are better off without humans in charge. (Cue the old joke about the ideal co-pilot: a dog whose job is to bite the pilot if he touches the controls.)

Perhaps it is no coincidence that many august institutions are designed not to support wise action but to prevent foolishness. Supreme courts, independent central banks and the EU are often at their best when applying the brakes. No wonder so many of the deepest Eurosceptics — from Jeremy Corbyn to Marine Le Pen — are the politicians with the longest list of self-harming policies.

It is human nature to believe something must always be done. Yet we overrate our abilities to do it and it is awfully hard to make the case for passivity. The task is not made easier by campaigners wanting a policy, newspapers wanting a story or the patient wanting a pill. Who dares to offer them nothing?

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 1 Sep 2017.

My new book is “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy”. Grab yourself a copy in the US or in the UK (slightly different title) or through your local bookshop.

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Books about how to see into the future

(One prediction I’m willing to make is that the US paperback edition of Messy is out on Wednesday. Buy buy buy! More about the book here.)

 

Walter Friedman has a fascinating history of economic forecasting in the early 20th century: Fortune Tellers (UK) (US). Well researched, full of interesting detail, and some of these guys (Irving Fisher, Roger Babson) were remarkable characters. For an insight into Fisher’s rival as an economist and investor, John Wasik’s Keynes’s Way To Wealth (UK) (US) is a fun light read.

Paul Goodwin’s Forewarned (UK) (US) is a broad survey of different forecasting approaches. I learned a few interesting things – but also felt Goodwin never quite reached a conclusion.

Philip Tetlock, with Dan Gardner wrote Superforecasting (UK) (US). Tetlock is one of the most interesting social scientists alive, and this research project into who does and does not make good forecasts is fascinating. (You might also look up Tetlock’s brilliant earlier, nerdier Expert Political Judgement and Gardner’s earlier polemic Future Babble, books which led to this collaboration.)

People who are interested in an alternative approach, scenario planning, might check out this offering from two of my former colleagues in Shell’s scenario planning team, Rafael Ramirez and Angela Wilkinson: Strategic Reframing (UK) (US). I haven’t yet read the book but I have no doubt about the qualifications of its authors, and the scenario method is a clever approach to an almost impossible future-gazing task.

Finally, this BBC Radio program about economic forecasting is good fun.

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28th of September, 2017MarginaliaResourcesComments off
Marginalia

Hunting for the 51st thing – suggestions for further reading or listening

Loyal listeners and readers will know that Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy  is turning into Fifty-One Things, at least in radio form. We have a short-list of six candidates to be made into a special final episode. Please vote here before noon GMT on Friday 6 October 2017.

But the loyal-of-loyal listeners might want some suggestions for further reading and/or listening.

If you’d like to know more about an early episode in the history of credit cards, try 99% Invisible’s episode The Fresno Drop.

Steven Johnson’s excellent technological history How We Got To Now (US) (UK) focuses on just six key inventions rather than fifty – and glass is one of them.

GPS, meanwhile, gets a book all of its own: Greg Milner’s PinPoint (US) (UK).

To understand the role of irrigation in China, try Philip Ball’s The Water Kingdom (US) (UK) – or if you want a quick hit on irrigation in Bali, there’s this.

For the pencil, there’s only one place to go: Leonard Read’s classic, I, Pencil.

And spreadsheet enthusiasts can enjoy Planet Money’s special episode, imaginatively titled Spreadsheets! 

And if you’d like to pick up a copy of  my own book, it has received some lovely reviews. It’s out now in the UK and in the US (with the title Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy).  Do feel free to order copies for all your friends…

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25th of September, 2017MarginaliaComments off
Undercover Economist

Trump, Bannon, and the terrible lure of zero-sum thinking

As visual metaphors go, it wasn’t bad: Donald Trump ignoring expert advice and risking calamity by staring up at the sun as the moon’s shadow passed across America. Self-destructiveness has become a habit for this president — and for his advisers. A recent example: former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon called Robert Kuttner, a prominent progressive journalist, to declare that his internal foes in the administration were “wetting themselves”. Shortly after Mr Kuttner wrote about the conversation, Mr Bannon was out.

But the truly harmful temptation here is not eclipse-gazing or indiscreet interviews. It’s another idea that Mr Bannon proposed to Mr Kuttner: that the US was in “an economic war with China”. It seems intuitive; many ordinary Americans feel that they cannot win unless China loses. But the world economy is not like a game of football. Everyone can win, at least in principle. Or everyone can lose. Falling for Mr Bannon’s idea of economic war makes the grimmer outcome far more likely.

Like many dangerous ideas there is some truth in it. The American middle class has been suffering while China has been booming. Branko Milanovic, author of Global Inequality (UK) (US), has produced a striking elephant-shaped graph showing how, since the late 1980s, the rich have been doing well, as have many other groups, including the Asian middle class. But earnings near though not at the top of the global income ladder have stagnated. That does not demonstrate harm from China: there is the fall of the Soviet Union to consider, and the struggles of Japan.

However, another study, from David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson, has shown the lasting impact of the “China shock”. It was no surprise that competition from China put some Americans out of work, but Mr Autor and his colleagues showed that the effects were more locally concentrated, deeper and more enduring than expected. These are important and worrying findings.

But Mr Bannon’s “economic war” is a cure far worse than the disease, and a misdiagnosis of how the world economy works. America has still benefited from trade with Asia and attacking China — even metaphorically — will do nothing for the American middle class. This is because it is surprisingly hard to find a zero-sum game in the real world.

Most commercial transactions offer benefits to both sides, otherwise why would they take place at all? A trip to a restaurant provides good food and a pleasant evening for me, gainful employment for the waiting staff and the chef, and a lively environment for the neighbourhood. Everyone can gain. There are zero-sum elements to the affair: every penny I hand over is a loss to me and a gain to the restaurant staff or owner. But it is best all round not to obsess too much on such matters.

Zero-sum thinking apparently makes for good politics but bad policy. The UK government has shown an unnerving tendency to treat its EU negotiations as a zero-sum affair, in which the Europeans can “go whistle”, in the words of foreign secretary Boris Johnson.

In the Brexit referendum the Vote Leave campaign turned on a zero-sum claim: we send money to the EU, we should spend it on ourselves. The form of the argument was as powerfully misleading as the details: the focus on membership fees pulled the attention of voters away from the idea of the EU as a club of co-operating nations.

Populists of all stripes focus on zero-sum arguments because they’re easy to explain and emotionally appealing. Any toddler understands the idea of grabbing what someone else has; most adults prefer a situation where everyone gains.

The theory of zero-sum games was developed by the mathematician John von Neumann and the economist Oskar Morgenstern in their famous book published in 1944. It works fine for analysing chess and poker, but by itself zero-sum thinking is not much use to an economist who analyses a world full of win-win situations, of gains from trade.

Zero-sum thinking is not even that helpful to a military strategist. Von Neumann was a cold war hawk: “If you say bomb the Soviets tomorrow, I say why not today?”, Life magazine quoted him as saying. “If you say bomb them at five o’clock, I say why not one o’clock?” He was a genius, but it does not take a genius to see the blind spot in his thinking.

The populists may lack the genius but they have the same blind spot. Not coincidentally, the focus on zero-sum rhetoric has drawn attention away from more plausible solutions, many of which are purely domestic: higher quality education, publicly funded infrastructure investment, antitrust action to keep markets functioning competitively, and a more constructive welfare state which supports and encourages work rather than stigmatises and punishes idleness.

The biggest risk is that zero-sum thinking becomes self-fulfilling. Given oxygen by years of slow growth, it will lower growth further. By emphasising conflict it will intensify it. The US is not in an economic war with China, but could start one. That might help Mr Trump. It would not help those he claims to defend.

 
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 25 August 2017.

My new book is “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy”. Grab yourself a copy in the US or in the UK (slightly different title) or through your local bookshop.

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