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Undercover Economist

Why the robot boost is yet to arrive

To adapt a 30-year-old quip from the great economist Robert Solow: you can see the robots everywhere except in the productivity statistics. This fact has been puzzling me for a few years now. Productivity growth is disappointing — especially but not only in the UK — and it has been for years. Unemployment is near record lows, and employment is high. All this is the opposite of what one would expect if the robot job apocalypse was upon us.

Yet there is no denying the remarkable advances in various branches of artificial intelligence. The most talked-about example is the self-driving car. This technology has come a long way in a short time, which is more than one can say for the original participants in the 2004 Darpa Grand Challenge, a race sponsored by the US military. With large cash prizes for the first autonomous vehicle to complete a 150-mile course in the Mojave desert, the best effort foundered after just seven miles. The contest became a punchline. Just 13 years later, nobody is laughing about autonomous vehicles.

Then there are deep-learning technologies such as AlphaGo Zero, which took just 72 hours to teach itself to become seemingly invincible at the formidable board game, Go. Alexa, Cortana, Google Assistant and Siri have made voice recognition an everyday miracle. Strides are being made in image recognition, medical diagnosis and translation. There are behind-the-scenes triumphs: deep learning is optimising power-hungry cooling in server farms.

All of this makes the puzzle of high employment and low productivity even more puzzling. Yet there are several ways to resolve it. A simple explanation is that the robot talk is all hype. Computer scientists have been over-optimistic before. Nobel laureate Herbert Simon predicted in 1957 that a computer would beat the world chess champion within 10 years; it took 40. In 1970 Marvin Minsky predicted that computers would have human-like general intelligence “within three to eight years”, a prediction even more inaccurate than Mr Simon’s.

A more encouraging story is that we are understating productivity, for example, by undervaluing the output of services in general and the digital economy in particular, much of which is free and therefore invisible to normal measures of economic output.

A third possibility is that — to borrow an idea from the writer William Gibson — the future has already arrived, but it is unevenly distributed. Perhaps the zero-sum scramble to dominate winner-takes-all markets is simply squandering most of the potential gains.

To tease apart these accounts, a research paper by a team including both sides: Erik Brynjolfsson, an economist well known for his writings on “the new machine age”, and Chad Syverson, one of the leading experts on economic productivity.

The researchers argue that the productivity slowdown is real. It may feel plausible to suggest our data simply are not good enough to recognise that productivity is growing strongly, but the story seems off in a number of ways — most obviously that the productivity shortfall is just too large to be a statistical illusion. Something similar can be said for the zero-sum fight for corporate dominance: it may well be happening, but is it really so wasteful that huge productivity gains simply evaporate?

How, then, to resolve the puzzle? In the simplest way possible: to say, “just wait”. There is no contradiction between disappointing productivity growth now and spectacular productivity growth in the near future.

This is true in the narrow statistical sense that productivity growth tends to bounce around: a bad decade may be followed by another bad decade, or by a good one, and today’s productivity growth tells us little about tomorrow’s.

But it is also true that there tends to be a delay between a technical breakthrough and a productivity surge. The most famous case in point is the electric motor, which seemed poised to transform American manufacturing in the 1890s, but did not realise that potential until the 1920s. To take advantage of the new technology, factory owners had to turn their organisations upside down, with new architecture, processes and training. Prof Brynjolfsson’s early research in the 1990s found companies saw little benefit from investing in computers unless they also reorganised.

If the benefits of today’s new ideas are real but delayed, that may also explain the productivity slowdown itself. Consider the self-driving car: right now it is a research expense, all cost and no benefit. Later, it will start to displace traditional cars, the traditional car industry, and many related businesses from parking garages to automotive repair. Finally, perhaps decades after a self-driving car becomes feasible, the full benefits are likely to be apparent. One does not simply invent a new machine: economic progress requires much more than that.

Perhaps, then, this is a brief lull before an explosion of new technology that will radically reshape the world around us. Or perhaps we are due for another decade or two of disappointment. Either scenario seems possible — and both of them promise an uncomfortable ride.

 
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 17 November 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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Undercover Economist

The dangers of dark nudging

“If you want people to do the right thing, make it easy.”

That is the simplest possible summary of Nudge (UK) (US) by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler. We are all fallible creatures, and so benevolent policymakers need to make sure that the path of least resistance goes to a happy destination. It is a simple but important idea, and deservedly influential: Mr Sunstein became a senior adviser to President Obama, while Mr Thaler is this year’s winner of the Nobel memorial prize in economics.

Policy wonks have nudged people to sign up for organ donation, to increase their pension contributions — and even insulate their homes by coupling home insulation with an attic-decluttering service. All we have to do is make it easy for people to do the right thing.

But what if you want people to do the wrong thing? The answer: make that easy; or make the right thing difficult. Messrs Thaler and Sunstein are well aware of the risk of malign nudges, and have been searching for the right word to describe them. Mr Thaler likes “sludge” — obfuscatory language or procedures that accidentally or deliberately encourage inertia. Voter ID laws, he says, are a good example of sludge, calculated to softly disenfranchise. Meanwhile Mr Sunstein has written an entire book about the “ethics of influence” (UK) (US).

And as we are starting to realise, Vladimir Putin is well aware of the opportunity that behavioural science presents, too. Rumours circulate that the Russian authorities are keen recruiters of young psychologists and behavioural economists; I have no proof of that, but it seems like a reasonable thing for the Russian government to do. I am willing to bet that not all of them are working on attic-decluttering.

According to Richard Burr, chair of the US Senate intelligence committee, Russian troll accounts on Facebook managed to organise both a protest and a counter-protest in Houston, in May 2016. Americans are perfectly willing to face off against each other on the streets, but if you want it to happen more often, make it easy.

A number of other memes, political advertisements and provocateur accounts — both left- and rightwing — have since been identified as of Russian origin. Social media networks have unwittingly sold them air time; news sites have cited them; people have shared them, or spent effort refuting them. Nudge isn’t the word for this, but neither is sludge. What about “grudge”?

The Russians are not alone in using grudge theory to manipulate public opinion. Three social scientists — Gary King, Jennifer Pan and Margaret Roberts — recently managed to infiltrate networks of shills in China, who are paid to post helpful messages on Chinese social media. (Their nickname is the “50 cent army”.) Unlike the Russian trolls, their aim has been to avoid engaging “in debate or argument of any kind . . . they seem to avoid controversial issues entirely”. The tactic is, rather, to keep changing the subject, especially at politically sensitive moments, by talking about the weather, sports — anything. If you want potential protesters to make cheery small talk instead, make it easy.

Just as noble tools can be turned to wicked ends, so shady techniques can be used to do the work of the angels. For example, why not disrupt online markets for illegal drugs by leaving bad reviews for vendors? Research by social scientists Scott Duxbury and Dana Haynie suggests that because people rely on user reviews on illicit markets, law enforcement officers could attack those markets by faking negative reviews, thus undermining trust.

The parallel with Mr Putin is alarmingly clear: it is possible to attack democracy and rational discourse by creating an information ecosystem where everyone yells at everyone else and nobody believes anything.

But we should not give too much credit to Mr Putin. He did not create the information ecosystem of the western world; we did. The Russians just gave us a push, and probably not a very big push at that. Perhaps I should say they gave us a nudge.

Social media do seem vulnerable to dark nudges from foreign powers. But more worrying is our vulnerability to smears, skews and superficiality without any outside intervention at all. Messrs Sunstein and Thaler ask policymakers to make it easy to do the right thing; what have we made it easy to do?

It is easy to find a like-minded tribe. It is easy to share, retweet or “like” something we have not even read. It is easy to repeat false claims. It is easy to get angry or personal.

It’s less easy to distinguish truth from lies, to clear time and attention to read something deep, and to reward an important article with something more than a digital thumbs up. But then, none of this is fundamental to the business model of many media companies — or of the social media networks that spread the news.

Nudge, sludge or grudge, we can change this. And we should start by asking ourselves whether when it comes to news, information and debate, we have made it difficult to do the right thing — and all too easy to stray.

 

 
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 10 November 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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Marginalia

Curious books

I’ve written recently about how much I’ve been enjoying Soonish (UK) (US) by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith, a highly amusing exploration of the latest technologies from satellite launch vehicles to 3D printed houses to gene therapy to self-organising robot swarms.

But what else is out there to celebrate the curious?

I recommend Steven Johnson’s Wonderland: How Play Made The Modern World (UK) (US) – a history of technology and economics with a difference. Johnson covers music, fashion, sports and much else with a lovely light touch.

Caspar Henderson’s new book is A New Map Of Wonders (UK) (US– it’s an exploration of art, science, and the way we perceive the world around us. The book itself is a kind of cabinet of wonders, packed with surprises and delightful digressions.

Puzzle fans will have their minds blown – if you’ve not already encountered it – by Raymond Smullyan’s What Is The Name of This Book? (UK) (USBegins with some silly puzzles, moves to variants of the one-always-tells-the-truth, one-always-lies puzzle, and before you know it you’re in the middle of Godel’s incompleteness theorem.

Richard Feynman was often billed as a “curious character”, although I prefer his lectures to his autobiographical work. Try the astonishing QED (UK) (US). I remember trying to explain this one in the pub to my friends, aged 18.

Claude Shannon’s endless desire to play with things and ideas is explored in a solid new biography, A Mind At Play (UK) (USby Soni and Goodman.

Next on my list: Philip Ball’s Curiosity (UK) (USand Walter Isaacson’s Da Vinci (UK) (US), which has been getting good write-ups.

My UK publishers have a competition going on Twitter to win all seven of my books. Or you can purchase any of them here.

 

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4th of December, 2017MarginaliaComments off
Undercover Economist

A way to poke Facebook off its uncontested perch

We need to talk about Facebook. Google (or Alphabet, if you prefer) is more ubiquitous; Apple makes more money; Amazon is a more obvious threat to the bricks-and-mortar economy; yet there is something uniquely troubling about the social media leviathan.

One concern is Facebook’s unwholesome contribution to our diet of information. Because what we see in Facebook is a function of what our friends share, the site echoes our prejudices. This effect is accentuated — at least modestly — by Facebook’s own algorithms, which have learnt to show us more of what we like to keep our eyeballs on the site.

Then there is accuracy. Whether what we are shown is true or false does not much matter for Facebook’s business model, unless we start to show more interest in not being lied to. For now, fake news entrepreneurs have realised that it is far more profitable to invent eye-catching fables than to research and confirm the everyday truth.

We are also beginning to realise that Facebook is the perfect vector for carefully-targeted advertisements containing dark political smears. A false claim in a TV spot or the side of a campaign bus can be challenged; a false claim carefully targeted to a few thousand voters in a swing state may go unchallenged and, for that matter, unnoticed except by the intended few.

These problems are sometimes exaggerated, and are not Facebook’s alone: Twitter is politically polarised; Google also shows targeted ads; and few Facebook news feeds are as relentlessly blinkered as the pages of a British tabloid newspaper. But Facebook bundles them into a uniquely powerful package.

And the inconvenient fact is that Facebook seems to make us miserable. We log on like joyless addicts, two billion of us each month. I doubt that we truly value Facebook. But we use it anyway. Writing in the London Review of Books, John Lanchester cites numerous studies that suggest Facebook use goes hand in hand with envy and sadness, and quite plausibly causes them. It is also a notorious time-sink and source of distraction.

None of this is good, unless you are Facebook. But behind all these injuries is a final insult: there is no serious alternative. Buyers of Microsoft’s Office and Apple’s iPhone could choose something else. Even dominant services such as Google’s search or Amazon’s store could in principle be challenged. It would be no easy thing to build a better rival, but anyone who did would be just a click away.

In contrast, making a superior social network app is not enough to unseat Facebook: the main appeal of the site is that everyone already uses it. A rival social network would need to somehow attract groups of users en masse, an extremely difficult prospect. Two of the companies that were managing it — WhatsApp and Instagram — were bought by Facebook. It is hard to understand why regulators thought these mergers were benign.

The lack of competition may explain why Facebook retains its grip on our attention despite being clunky and pernicious; a company that faces no serious competition can afford to stop worrying about keeping its users happy. It is easy to imagine a better social network than Facebook: more privacy, a slicker interface, and less fake news. It is not so easy to see how such a rival could tempt entire social groups to migrate together.

Could regulators change this? Perhaps. They could certainly have been more aggressive in scrutinising mergers. But traditional measures such as price regulation seem less relevant to what is, after all, a free service.  Instead, we should ask ourselves if we can find a way to re-introduce serious competition in social networking.

Luigi Zingales and Guy Rolnik of the University of Chicago have proposed an intriguing idea. They build on the concept of “number portability”, the principle that you own your own phone number, and you can take your number with you to a different phone provider. The idea has promise in retail banking.

Zingales and Rolnik suggest an analogy: social graph portability. The idea is that I could take my Facebook contacts with me to another service — call it “ZingBook”. I could read their Facebook posts on ZingBook and they could see my ZingBook posts over on Facebook.  I can send emails from any program or service provider to any other, so why not guarantee interconnection between social networks? I would get whatever it was I liked about ZingBook while maintaining contact with my own social network back on Facebook.

In practice, the Zingales/Rolnik idea faces serious stumbling blocks — making the technology work, preventing cheating, and navigating permissions. If a friend decides to move over to, say, NaziBook, will he still receive my Facebook content? Will I even know where my words are now being viewed?  But the idea of social graph portability squarely addresses one of the big issues of 21st-century economic policy. The new tech titans need serious competition. For a social network, serious competition needs new rules to enable it.
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 3 November 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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Undercover Economist

What AlphaGo Zero teaches us about what’s going wrong with innovation

It is hard not to be impressed — and perhaps a little alarmed — by the progression. In 1997, IBM’s supercomputer Deep Blue beat the world’s greatest chess player, Garry Kasparov. It was a hugely expensive piece of hardware, closely tended and coached by humans.

Go is a far harder game for computers to master than chess. Yet when the AlphaGo programme emerged with muted fanfare in 2016, it comfortably outclassed the world’s best Go players after a few months of training.

Then last week, the AI research firm DeepMind unveiled AlphaGo Zero. It is faster, uses less hardware, beat its predecessor AlphaGo by 100 games to none, and is entirely self-taught. What is more, it achieved this performance after just 72 hours of practice.

The bewildering progress of AlphaGo Zero has fed an already-febrile anxiety about a robot takeover causing mass unemployment. Yet that anxiety sits uneasily with the high employment rates and disappointing productivity growth we see in the US and particularly the UK. There are plenty of jobs, but apparently not a lot of innovation.

There are various possible explanations for this paradox, but the simplest one is this: AlphaGo Zero is an outlier. Productivity and technological progress are lacklustre because the research behind AlphaGo Zero is not typical of the way we try to produce new ideas.

Mr Kasparov’s own perspective on this is fascinating. In his recent book, Deep Thinking (UK) (US), he quotes the late computer scientist Alan Perlis: “Optimization hinders evolution”. In the case of computer chess, Perlis’s maxim describes researchers who chose pragmatic short-cuts for quick results. Deeper, riskier research was neglected. IBM’s priority with Deep Blue was not knowledge, but victory — and victory was a scientific dead end.

That is a shame. Computing pioneers such as Alan Turing and Claude Shannon (UK) (US) believed that chess might be a fertile field of research to develop artificial intelligence in more meaningful areas. This hope was quickly sidelined by brute-force approaches that taught us little but played strong chess.

It is easy to see why a commercial company would have had little interest in the early pattern-recognition techniques now refined by AlphaGo. Mr Kasparov describes an attempt to use them in chess; observing that grandmasters promptly won games in which they had sacrificed their queens, the machine concluded that it should sacrifice its own queen at every opportunity. Yet in the end, these pattern-recognition techniques have proved far more powerful and generally applicable than the methods used by the best chess-playing computers; the question is whether we wish to change our world, or merely win a chess game.

This is not just a cautionary tale about chess. Corporations have reined in their ambitions elsewhere. Corporate research laboratories once bankrolled fundamental research of the highest importance. Leo Esaki of Sony and IBM won a Nobel Prize in physics, as did Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments. Irving Langmuir of General Electric won a Nobel in chemistry. Bell Labs boasted too many Nobel laureates to list — along with Shannon himself. It was a time when companies weren’t afraid to invest in basic science.

That has changed, as a research paper from three economists — Ashish Arora, Sharon Belenzon, and Andrea Patacconi — shows. Companies still invest heavily in innovation, but the focus is on practical applications rather than basic science, and research is often outsourced to smaller outfits whose intellectual property can easily be bought and sold.

Corporate researchers produce more patents but they are less visible in the pages of learned journals. As Prof Arora puts it, research and development has become “less R, more D”. The AlphaGo research, he says, is an exception. And this matters because most basic research ends up being commercially useful eventually. We like the golden eggs, but we may be starving the golden goose.

All this need not be disastrous if other research bodies such as universities fill in the gap. Yet this is not something to take for granted. As the economist Benjamin F. Jones has documented, new ideas are harder to find. One sign of this is the complexity of research teams, which are larger, full of increasingly specialised researchers and ever costlier.

Perhaps it is naive to simply exhort companies to spend more on fundamental research — but somebody has to. One interesting approach is for governments to fund “innovation prizes” for breakthroughs. Such prizes mobilise public funds and public goals while deploying the agility and diversity of private sector approaches. But such prizes only work in certain situations.

Professional sport has made fashionable the practice of “marginal gains” — rapid optimisation in search of the tiniest edge. It turns out that corporate research took the same turn decades ago. There is nothing wrong with marginal improvements, but they must not be allowed to crowd out more speculative research. Science is a deeper, messier practice than sport. We must continue to devote time, space and money to bigger, riskier leaps.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 27 Oct 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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Other Writing

Budget 2017 shows a reactive government throwing cash at crises

Firefighting is a brave and essential profession, but for a politician it is not a good look. Successive British governments have found themselves locked in a vicious cycle: some part of the public sector is squeezed for money, manages decline for a while, then cracks under pressure. The crisis is extinguished by a sudden spray of last-minute cash — an expensive way to solve any problem — while money and attention is drained from some other area. So the next crisis smoulders.

Philip Hammond, the chancellor, did not create this situation but neither has he shown much sign of breaking out of it. His very first policy announcement was a slug of money aimed squarely at the civil war in the Conservative party: £3bn to be spent on “Brexit preparations”, whatever they may be.

A similar amount was offered to the National Health Service in England over the next few years, in an act of largesse Mr Hammond emphasised was exceptional and “outside the spending review process”. This prompts an obvious question: what is wrong with the spending review process?

What’s wrong — according to a recent report from the Institute for Government — is that the government has been too reactive. It has squeezed public service funding, hoping nothing goes wrong, and doled out cash when it does. The most obvious culprit is Mr Hammond’s predecessor George Osborne, who presided over a sustained period of austerity.

One could reserve some blame for the Labour government which handed Mr Osborne an economy in disastrous shape — and for civil servants eager to make the numbers add up with optimistic forecasts that quality could be sustained during a funding drought. And let’s not even talk about the chancellor’s boss, a prime minister who triggered Article 50 and called a general election without ever seeming to think seriously about the hard choices involved in Brexit.

Meanwhile public services continue to be stretched. The next crisis looms in the prison system; after that, the police service and the UK’s visa and immigration system are likely candidates to show signs of serious strain. So far they have not done so, which may be why Mr Hammond said nothing abut them.

It is hard not to have some sympathy for the chancellor. He stands in the middle of a party in turmoil; he is on the periphery of a predictably difficult Brexit process; he has been handed a huge downgrade in growth and productivity forecasts from the independent Office for Budget Responsibility. None of this is his fault, and he deserves credit for ramping up spending on infrastructure and the housing market. It remains to be seen whether that money will be sufficient, or well spent, but the sums involved are not trivial.

Meanwhile Mr Hammond increasingly resembles a beaten-down dad in the middle of a raucous children’s party, trying to tidy up the mess on his hands and knees while the chaos continues around him. One five-year-old sits kicking on his back and another tries to spread Nutella in his ear. He has reached into his pockets and hurled out a few sweets, but his best efforts are unlikely to be enough.

For now, the cycle of emergency spending continues. There was a telling moment as the chancellor turned to discuss a real fire, the Grenfell Tower disaster. The House of Commons rightly fell silent. The tragedy should never have happened, said Mr Hammond. He then announced that he would be spending some money on the aftermath. Crisis, then cash. Same old story.

 

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 22 November 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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23rd of November, 2017Other WritingComments off
Marginalia

Fun escapist stuff that for some reason I am reading

Possibly the perfect Christmas present for the fun-loving person in your life…

Top of the list is the magnificent Soonish (UK) (US) by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith, a book I was happy to endorse. This is properly funny – as one might expect from the creator of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal – but it’s also bang up to date in its exploration of the latest technologies from satellite launch vehicles to 3D printed houses to gene therapy to self-organising robot swarms. I learned so much I didn’t know and had a lot of fun learning it. Read this book.

For people looking for something Sudoku-ish with a bit more bite, try Alex Bellos’s Puzzle Ninja (UK) (US) the very latest puzzle ideas from Japan with Bellos in typically charming form as he meets the puzzle-masters and discusses their new creations.

Helen Arney and Steve Mould, two thirds of the Festival of the Spoken Nerd, offer The Element in The Room (UK) (US) – fun sciencey-stuff for all ages.

And short-and-sweet (and for gaming nerds only) I enjoyed Sly Flourish’s brief but effective The Lazy Dungeon Master (UK) (US). Good stuff on how to prepare less but have better games.

And I might modestly mention my own 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.

PS My UK publishers, Little Brown, are hosting a competition on Twitter to win copies. Details here.

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22nd of November, 2017MarginaliaComments off
Undercover Economist

Disruption can be a benefit – shame our politicians are giving us the wrong sort

“We seem to be living in the riskiest moment of our lives, and yet the stock market seems to be napping,” said Richard Thaler recently. He is not alone in expressing such views, although since he had just won the Nobel memorial prize in economics, his comment understandably drew attention.

Money is loose and global economic growth is robust, yet the strength and the stability of the S&P 500 is still puzzling. This week it was the 30th anniversary of Black Monday, the largest-ever one-day crash in US stock prices, and it is eerily quiet.

One explanation of the puzzle is that markets have finally got smart: when behavioural economists turned their attention to financial markets in the 1980s, two key findings were that shares were implausibly volatile and implausibly cheap. They are now much less volatile and much less cheap; perhaps that is simply a long-awaited recognition of the way things should be. Perhaps.

An alternative view is that, while 2017 seems risky, it really isn’t. This is hard to believe. Among the obvious political risks: Donald Trump’s attempts to undermine both the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Iran nuclear deal; the rise of the far right in Germany and Austria, with Marine Le Pen waiting for President Emmanuel Macron to stumble in France; serious unrest in Spain over the Catalan independence movement; a Brexit process that seems as unclear as ever; and of course, the small-yet-conceivable chance of a nuclear war on the Korean peninsula. This is no time to panic, but it hardly seems a time for euphoria either.

There is never a good moment to create uncertainty over the prospects of a nuclear first strike. As the great Thomas Schelling once explained: “If I go downstairs to investigate a noise at night, with a gun in my hand, and find myself face to face with a burglar who has a gun in his hand, there is a danger of an outcome that neither of us desires. Even if he prefers to just leave quietly, and I wish him to, there is danger.” The danger results from mutual uncertainty over what the other person may do.

Other threats are less apocalyptic, but still have the potential to cause serious economic harm. Those who think Brexit will boost the British economy — I am not among them — have begun to acknowledge that the uncertainty is damaging. Business can no longer afford to wait for the British government to finish negotiations with itself and begin serious negotiations with the EU27.

Similar damage is likely to be done by Donald Trump’s attacks on Nafta. As the economist Nuno Limão has shown, unpredictable trade policy is itself a form of trade barrier.

And yet, despite all these political risks, the world economy might benefit from a little more disruption. Whether a more volatile stock market might usefully puncture complacency, in the real economy volatility can be an asset. We should expect old companies to fade and die, being absorbed or replaced by fresh ideas: that corporate failure is the flip side of economic vitality.

For example, a study by Kathy Fogel, Randall Morck and Bernard Yeung — published in 2008 — compiled lists of the 10 largest employers in each of 44 countries across the world. More churn in the list was a sign of a strongly growing economy, and a predictor of fast growth to come, too. The results were being driven by the extinction of corporate dinosaurs more than the rapid ascent of new stars.

The upbeat word to describe this process of success through failure is dynamism. But economic dynamism is at risk. The economist John Haltiwanger has charted a fall since the early 1980s in the rate of start-ups, business exits, job creation and job destruction. It is probably not a coincidence that low-productivity companies are able to limp on rather than disappearing.

Calm waters eventually stagnate. It is time to agitate the real economy. But how? Even acts of economic vandalism such as a train-crash Brexit can have unexpected benefits, much as Tube strikes have been shown to help some commuters discover better routes. Yet overall the costs of chaos seem likely to outweigh the benefits.

There are more positive ways to shake things up: looser planning regulations in the sclerotic UK economy, more infrastructure in much of the western world, and support for small-business finance, would all add much needed fizz to the economic system.

And the authorities could be much more assertive in challenging market power. According to the economist Luigi Zingales, federal antitrust cases in the US were five times more common between 1970 and 1999 than since the year 2000. In a world of high profits and high concentration, that passivity is hard to excuse.

I have little doubt that financial markets will rediscover the knack of panicking in due course, but the real economy may need more help. If only our politicians would stop shaking the nitro-glycerine of geopolitics, and start stirring the cocktail of market forces instead.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 20 October 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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Undercover Economist

Richard Thaler: How to change minds and influence people

The best thing about Thaler, what really makes him special, is that he is lazy.” So said Daniel Kahneman, winner in 2002 of the Nobel memorial prize in economics. Prof Kahneman was talking about Richard Thaler, who has emulated that achievement 15 years later. Prof Thaler’s thesis adviser, the economist Sherwin Rosen, put it differently: “We didn’t expect much of him.”

The story of how a lazy and unpromising man won a Nobel memorial prize is perhaps just as important as what he won the prize for. The Nobel announcement recognised Prof Thaler “for his contributions to behavioural economics”. But there’s another way to describe the way he reshaped economics: he persuaded a large group of successful people with a strongly held view of the world to change their minds.

What was that view? To oversimplify, it was that all of us are Spock-like rational optimisers, able to instantly trade off risk and reward, rebalance a spending plan in the face of a price change, and resist temptations such as chocolate brownies or payday loans.

Of course, no economist has ever quite believed this. But for several decades most economists believed that departures from the world of Spock were small enough, rare enough and random enough that they could be ignored. Humans weren’t quite like Spock, yet when building economic models and formulating economic policies, we could treat them as if they were.

This approach is not as absurd as it might seem. It’s flexible, powerful, and consistent. It is often close enough to reality to be useful. Prof Thaler himself told me: “If you want one unifying theory of economic behaviour, you won’t do better than the neoclassical model.”

Yet the power of the neoclassical approach made it hard to challenge. Prof Thaler wasn’t the first Nobel laureate to operate outside that paradigm — others include Maurice Allais, Herb Simon and Thomas Schelling. Yet all these men, while admired, did not manage to divert the mainstream of economic thought beyond the well-worn channel of rational optimisation. It was Prof Thaler who shifted the norms of how economics is practised, both in academia and in the policy world.

Behavioural economics is now respectable in places from the American Economic Review to the World Bank. Whether or not you think behavioural economics matters, as a feat of persuading people to change their minds this is a case worth studying. So how did he do it? We could all do with knowing, because the world is full of stubborn-minded people who need to be persuaded to change their views about important things.

Part of the story is simple persistence: Prof Thaler’s first behavioural economics paper was published in 1980; he has been banging this drum for a long time. More important was that Prof Thaler fully understood what he was criticising. It is all too easy to attack those with whom we disagree based on the haziest idea of what they think and why they think it. But he grasped perfectly why his fellow economists embraced rationality, and the arguments (good and bad) they used to defend it. Prof Thaler engaged honestly and thoughtfully with the mainstream.

His third technique was to look at the facts — not only clever statistics, but everyday facts about human existence. We find snack food hard to resist. We divide up money into separate mental accounts — rainy-day money, an entertainment budget, money for food, money for clothes. If we find a fine old bottle of port in the attic, we might refuse to sell it for hundreds of pounds, even though we would not dream of spending a three figure sum on a bottle of anything. Having secured agreement on these facts, he then moved to arguing that they might matter.

Finally, Prof Thaler engaged people’s sense of curiosity. His long running series “Anomalies”, published in the widely-read scholarly Journal of Economic Perspectives, would often begin with a puzzle — some piece of behaviour or pattern in the data that simply didn’t make sense from the mainstream point of view. He would then explore the puzzle, extend it, and consider various possible solutions.

Economists would talk about these anomalies in faculty coffee rooms. They would, at Prof Thaler’s invitation, send in their own suggestions. Rather than telling his opponents they were wrong, Prof Thaler would present a conundrum and invite everyone to discuss it together. One of his critics, the great Chicago economist Merton Miller, was reduced to complaining that Prof Thaler’s anomalies were a distraction from serious modelling because they were simply too interesting.

Which brings us back to his laziness. Prof Kahneman thought Prof Thaler’s laziness made him “special” because it meant that he could only be bothered to work on the most fascinating questions. Maybe.

But perhaps the truth is that laziness isn’t special at all. Prof Thaler realised that most of us are lazy. Most of us don’t want to think hard about our beliefs, or challenges to them. His solution was to make sure those challenges were simply too intriguing to ignore.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 13 Oct 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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Some podcasts you should hear

Forgive me not linking, because different people will access their podcasts in different ways, but here are a few feeds I suggest you check out:

Radio 4’s Seriously feed contains two documentaries a week, with a marvellous range of techniques. The US storytelling style is wonderful, but there’s more variety in the Seriously stable, and while it sometimes misfires or is ponderous, when it works it’s glorious. Three recent episodes worth checking out: The Edge of Life (about suicide and suicide prevention), Who’s Looking At You (quite brilliant about the effects of universal surveillance) and The Trainspotter’s Guide To Dracula, featuring Miles Jupp.

99% Invisible needs no plug from me but they’re awesome. An ear-catching recent episode discussed the universal basic income not as a piece of economic policy but as a design decision – and 99PI has got me exploring all kind of interesting topics, from barbed wire to Frank Lloyd Wright’s affordable homes.

Jon Ronson’s The Butterfly Effect is clever, curious and surprisingly moving. Series One is about the porn industry, but Ronson talks to all kinds of people and takes the story in a variety of unexpected directions. Bravo.

Just catching on is the After On podcast; free-flowing extended chats with fascinating people such as Ev Williams of Twitter, Blogger and Medium, or Chris Anderson of TED. Well worth a listen.

And finally, Radio 4’s Analysis is back and I particularly enjoyed the episode on the way the Houses of Parliament are falling apart. No, it’s not a metaphor. Except it is obviously partly a metaphor…

And finally finally, Jessica Abel’s book Out On The Wire (UK) (US) spills the beans about how great radio and podcasts are made.

Oh, and finally finally finally, you should of course listen to every episode ever made of Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economyall 52 of them. Details about the book here.

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9th of November, 2017MarginaliaComments off
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Tim Harford is an author, columnist for the Financial Times and presenter of Radio 4's "More or Less".
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