Tim Harford The Undercover Economist

Articles published in 2018

How much would I have to pay you to quit Facebook?

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 27 April 2018.

How much would I have to pay you to give up Facebook? What about email? Or access to search engines? I found myself asking these questions of myself during my recent trip to China, where several familiar services are blocked. But the answers to those questions have a lot to teach us, both about how the economy is doing and about how we might regulate these new digital services.

A new research paper from three economists — Erik Brynjolfsson, Felix Eggers and Avinash Gannamaneni — attempts to measure exactly what services such as Facebook are worth to us. They offered various experimental subjects (adult US residents) the possibility of a cash payment if they quit the social media network for a month, observing which offers were rejected or accepted.

Twenty per cent of the site’s users were willing to quit for as little as a dollar; raise the monthly price to $48 (in 2016) or $38 (in 2017) and half of Facebook’s US users would happily jump ship. No robust data are yet available to show us how the Cambridge Analytica scandal has changed our preferences.

Mr Brynjolfsson and his colleagues used a more informal survey to estimate the value for other services. Their rough-and-ready conclusion is that the typical person would have to be paid about $17,500 a year to do without internet search engines, $8,500 to abandon email and $3,500 to quit using digital maps. Video streaming through sites such as Netflix and YouTube is worth over $1,150 a year; ecommerce $850, and social media just over $300. These numbers vary quite a bit depending on the survey method, but the overall ordering doesn’t change much.

My own experience in China echoed these rankings: it was annoying to lose Google Maps, and it felt essential to replace Gmail and Google search with alternatives (fortunately such alternatives are readily available). There was no alternative to Twitter and Facebook — not unless I fancied rebuilding my social network from scratch — but neither did I mourn their loss. Quitting Twitter for a fortnight felt like quitting alcohol for January. And I didn’t miss Facebook for a second.

The first lesson from this research is that some of these new digital goods have a huge and unmeasured benefit to consumers — “consumer surplus”, in the lingo. This is not entirely news: the economist William Nordhaus has estimated that during the second half of the 20th century, innovative companies generally managed to capture as profits just 3.7 per cent of the social value they created; the other 96.3 per cent went to others, largely consumers.

For example, penicillin saves lives for pennies. Another example: the indoor lavatory. Messrs Brynjolfsson, Eggers and Gannamaneni found that indoor toilets were valued much more highly than any internet service. Lavatories are not expensive, so they produce a huge consumer surplus.

Still, many digital goods are free — and if internet search really is worth $17,500 per person each year, that is equivalent to one-third of US gross domestic product. So perhaps unmeasured consumer surplus is larger than in the past — that, says Mr Gannamaneni, “is still an open question”.

But there is a second important lesson here. Access to email seems to be worth almost 30 times more than access to social media; a good search engine is worth twice as much again. Yet the key suppliers of email and search — Alphabet, Apple and Microsoft — are not worth 50 times more than Facebook, which dominates social media through its own site and its subsidiaries Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp. If they were, they would be $20tn companies.

In other words, Facebook is more effective at turning consumer surplus into profit. This is no surprise, since all your friends are on Facebook. The only serious alternative is not to use social media at all. By contrast, it is easy to find an alternative email provider.

We urgently need a way to turn social media into something more like email — a portable profile that can be taken seamlessly from one provider to another, just as we can take our phone numbers with us from network to network, and dial any other number in the world.

Various proposals now exist: web pioneer Tim Berners-Lee is pushing a system called “Solid”, which enables web users to control their own data and release it to digital services on a need-to-know basis. The Italian MP and tech entrepreneur Stefano Quintarelli has been trying to introduce enabling legislation in Italy.

One final lesson emerges from another research paper — from the economists Susan Athey, Christian Catalini, and Catherine Tucker. Ms Athey and her colleagues asked what value MIT students place on their own private data, and the data of friends. The answer was nothing terribly coherent: students would make very different choices in response to small nudges, and would gladly hand over private data in exchange for a pizza.

The value we place on services such as email and search is clear. The value we place on our own privacy is not. The current mess is hardly a surprise.


My book “Messy: How To Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World” is now available in paperback both in the US and the UK – or through your local bookshop.

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The world is not as gloomy, or wonderful, as you may think

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 20 April 2018.

Is the glass half full, half empty, or laced with cyanide? Last week I wrote about “statistics, fast and slow” — the gap between the world as we intuitively perceive it, and the world as described in spreadsheets. Nowhere is this gap more obvious than when we are invited to reflect on whether things are going well, or badly.

With some telling exceptions, the situation is this: the world is getting better in many of the ways that matter, but we simply don’t realise that this is true. Population growth has slowed dramatically. Most of the world’s children have been vaccinated against at least one disease. Girls are rapidly catching up with boys in their access to education. The world is full of flaws, but progress is not only possible — it is happening.

A new book, Factfulness (UK) (US), by Anna Rosling Rönnlund, Ola Rosling and the late Hans Rosling, describes this knowledge gap, which is at times grotesque: two-thirds of US citizens believe the global proportion of people living in extreme poverty has doubled in the past couple of decades; it has halved. As Hans Rosling used to say, we don’t become this ignorant by accident.

Nor are our misperceptions limited to global development. Surveys by the polling company Ipsos Mori show that citizens of the developed world are also ignorant about our own countries. Most people vastly overestimate the prevalence of crime (which in the UK is dramatically down since the 1990s) and teenage pregnancy (which affects fewer than 1 per cent of 13-15 year old girls). We also seriously overestimate the size of the Muslim population in the west, which suggests that the concerns of tabloid newspapers loom large in our imaginations.

This is not just a statistical phenomenon — it’s a political and psychological puzzle. How worried should we be about unemployment, vandalism, immigration, litter, bad hospitals, or drug dealing? There is no objective answer, but there is a strong tendency for people to be concerned about these issues for their nation, but more relaxed about their local area. We don’t see a serious problem where we live, but we feel strongly that trouble is all around us, just over the horizon. The economist Max Roser — creator of Our World in Data — calls this “local optimism and national pessimism”.

The mismatch is particularly stark when people are asked about their own happiness. Almost all of us are reasonably content: in the UK, 92 per cent of us are “rather happy” or “very happy” with our lives. But we believe that fewer than half of our fellow citizens are in the same cheery situation. The UK is typical in this respect: full of happy people who believe they are surrounded by misery.

This generalised pessimism seems powerful. The one global question that people reliably get right, despite ferocious misinformation campaigns, is the one where the news is bad: do climate experts believe the planet will get warmer over the next century?

So it would be tempting to conclude that we are all systematically too pessimistic about everything except our own experience. That is not quite true. The FT’s chart doctor, Alan Smith, tells me that Saudi Arabians are far too sanguine about the prevalence of obesity: they think a quarter of the nation is overweight or obese, but the true figure is closer to three-quarters. Most people in most countries also underestimate wealth inequality; it’s worse than we think, although, here, the UK is an exception to this belief.

The optimists are not right about everything. Angus Deaton, Nobel laureate in economics, has found that we are too optimistic about our own futures: almost everywhere, people tend to feel that they will be living a strikingly better life in five years’ time. We are doomed to disappointment. Life satisfaction is already high, does not tend to move much, and if anything tends to fall as mid-life approaches.

This misplaced optimism about ourselves is a striking contrast to an equally misplaced despair about our children: across Europe and North America, according to the Pew Research Center, twice as many people believe their children will be worse off financially than they are, rather than better off. Given the past decade of recession and slow recovery, that is not impossible. But economies do tend to grow over the long term, so it is a remarkably grim forecast.

What should we conclude from all this? One plausible hypothesis is that we form many of our impressions about the world from the priorities of the mass media. That would explain why we are pessimistic about most things, but not about obesity, since television loves skinny people.

A second conclusion is that many of us — citizens, the media and mainstream politicians — need to take more interest in the way the world really is. I hardly need to list the political movements that have travelled from the lunatic fringe to positions of power by reinforcing people’s worst fears. But when your policy platform is built on misperceptions, little good is likely to come of it. Optimism and pessimism both have their merits, but right now the world needs a dose of realism.

My book “Messy: How To Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World” is now available in paperback both in the US and the UK – or through your local bookshop.

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Statistics, Fast and Slow

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 13 April 2018.

One way to understand China is to look at the statistics. Real income per person has increased nearly tenfold since 1990. Since the early 1980s, the number of extremely poor people in China has fallen by more than three-quarters of a billion people, more than half the population of the country. China consumed more cement in a recent three-year period than the US used in the entire 20th century.

Even on paper, it is the most dramatic explosion of economic activity in human history. Seeing it with your own eyes is another experience entirely.

Nothing in the statistics truly prepared me for a journey across Guangdong, the southern province of China that has been at the forefront of this growth. Start at Hong Kong — the ultimate high-rise city — and walk into its mainland twin, Shenzhen. Then in the shadow of the Ping An skyscraper, which dwarfs the Empire State building, catch a bullet train across the province.

Where London might have a single big block like Trellick Tower, Shenzhen will have a cluster of a dozen identical monoliths, crammed with apartments. Next to that cluster, another dozen of a different design. Then another, and another. Here and there, in the distance across the haze, would be a Manhattan-esque cluster of skyscrapers. The towers marched on and on, all the way — or so it seemed to me — to the city of Guangzhou: 45 minutes or so of high-speed travel through what seemed an infinite vista of concrete.

That night, tucked into bed in the picture-postcard landscape of Yangshuo, I couldn’t sleep. The endless tower blocks scrolled through my mind. What if we had lost our six-year-old son in the middle of Guangdong? So many people. So much concrete.

There was nothing in this experience to contradict the economic data; in fact, the two perspectives on China’s growth were perfectly complementary. But they felt very different. To borrow the terminology made famous by Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, (UK) (US) the statistics spoke to my mental “system 2” — the deliberate, effortful processing of logical or mathematical information. The train journey tapped into “system 1”, a swift and automatic forming of impressions, making of comparisons and recognising of dangers. This was statistics, fast and slow.

Some will be tempted to dismiss the statistics as irrelevant book-learning, and declare that only personal experience matters. There is certainly something in that, especially when a situation is fast-moving or contains soft, hard-to-quantify details. As the Nobel laureate economist Friedrich Hayek remarked, the “knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place” is important and often neglected.

HR McMaster — who before he was US president Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, was a counterinsurgency pioneer in Iraq — had a similar concern. He once told me the army used to wrongly believe that “situational understanding could be delivered on a computer screen”. It would be convenient if that was possible, but as Gen McMaster and his colleagues learnt the hard way, it is not. Sometimes you have to be there to understand.

But while there is a lot to be said for the rich and vivid lessons of personal experience, they have an obvious limitation: we cannot be everywhere and see everything. And what we do see may be as unrepresentative as the sloppiest of surveys. My trip to China took in tourist spots and high-speed rail links. As a result, I formed an indelible impression of a very particular slice of China.

The skew in our personal experience affects us when at home almost as much as when travelling. We are surprised when an election goes against us: all our friends agreed with us, so why did the nation vote otherwise? Newspapers and television carry tales of lottery wins and fairytale romances, terrorist atrocities or gruesome assaults by strangers. None of these stories reflect everyday life; all of them are viscerally memorable and seem to take place in our living rooms.

And there are more subtle ways in which personal experience can mislead. For example, most of us who ride on London buses will attest that they are packed. Yet the average occupancy of a London bus is just 17 people. How so? Most people witness the full buses — that is why they are full — while empty buses are observed only by their drivers.

It is not quite fair to say that our fast-and-loose “system 1” impression is a lie. It really is true that most people travel on busy buses. But if we want to understand emissions per passenger, we need a statistical perspective.

A new book by the late Hans Rosling and his family, Factfulness (UK) (US), advocates the merits of understanding the world both through the data and through personal experience — not of news stories or tourist traps, but of the everyday lives being lived all over the world. “Numbers will never tell the full story of what life on Earth is all about,” wrote Rosling, despite being the world’s most famous statistical guru. But the story they do tell matters. In statistics, as elsewhere, hard logic and personal impressions work best when they reinforce and correct each other.


My book “Messy: How To Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World” is now available in paperback both in the US and the UK – or through your local bookshop.

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Understanding the wisdom and madness of crowds

James Surowiecki’s modern classic The Wisdom of Crowds (UK) (US) set a very high bar for the field. (Why has James not written another book?) This is one of those books that gets talked about a lot, with the emphasis on the idea that the average opinion of the crowd can be very smart indeed – hence prediction markets, etc. etc. etc. All that is true and interesting, but in fact Surowiecki discusses lots of other situations where a group needs to make a decision and covers groupthink and all that good stuff. In short it is a messier and more complex – and also deeper and more interesting – book than many people realise. Well worth a read, or a re-read.

Then there’s Philip Ball’s superb book Critical Mass (UK) (US) – which really lit my fire when I read it back in 2005. Ball’s book asks what social scientists can learn from ideas in physics and chemistry about how large groups of decision-makers behave. Lots and lots of interesting ideas and good stories. A good alternative, although I do not recall it so vividly, there is Steven Strogatz’s Sync (UK) (US); it has been commercially successful so the wisdom of crowds suggests you might take it seriously.

Michelle Baddaley’s new book Copycats and Contrarians (UK) (US) is a good accessible survey of what different academic disciplines have to say about herding, fashion, group dynamics and all such things. I blurbed the book and said, “‘A wide-ranging cross-disciplinary perspective of why we run with–or avoid–the crowd, and why it matters, from choosing a restaurant in a tourist trap to believing fake news. I learned a lot, and you may too.”


Then on the psychology of group decision-making there is Wiser (UK) (US) by Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie. I love this book – my favourite by Sunstein, even better than Nudge. Lots of fascinating ideas about polarisation, echo chambers – and plenty of intriguing research.

Or, try Scott Page’s The Diversity Bonus (UK) (US)Page writes with great clarity about complex ideas in algorithms and complexity science, so you’ll learn a lot about those subjects. But the book is also an excellent argument in favour of embracing cognitive diversity in problem-solving teams.

Next up: the always-interesting Francesca Gino has published a brand new book about breaking out of groupthink called Rebel Talent (UK) (US). It’s next on my list to read.

My own book Messy: How To Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World discusses group dynamics and creative friction in the second chapter, and that’s one of the chapters that seems to have struck a chord with readers.

Come for the complex network analysis of the teams which made the best computer games in history, stay for the mind-blowing “Lord of the Flies” research into 10 year old boys at summer camp. The book is now available in paperback both in the US and the UK – or through your local bookshop.

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8th of May, 2018MarginaliaResourcesComments off

Judge the value of what you have by what you had to give up to get it

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 6 April 2018.

I’m not one to collect inspirational slogans, but here’s one I like: “Judge the value of what you have by what you had to give up to get it.” Perhaps I took it more seriously because it was pinned to the corkboard of an inspirational friend; she always seemed to be off for another expedition to Mongolia or Patagonia.

But my fondness for the motto may reflect that it describes an under-appreciated idea in economics: that of opportunity cost. And I’ve come to realise that our collective failure to think rationally about opportunity costs can be used as a weapon against us.

The principle of an opportunity cost does not at first glance seem hard to understand. If you spend half an hour noodling around on Twitter, when you would otherwise have been reading a book, the lost book-reading time is the opportunity cost of the tweeting. If you decide to buy a fancy belt for £100 instead of a cheaper one for £20, the opportunity cost is the £80 shirt you could otherwise have bought. Everything has a cost: whatever you were going to do instead, but couldn’t.

We should weigh opportunity costs with some care, mentally balancing any expenditure of time or money against what we might do or buy instead. However, observation suggests that this is not how we really behave. Ponder the agonised indecision of a customer in a stereo shop, unable to decide between a $1,000 Pioneer and a $700 Sony. The salesman asks, “Would you rather have the Pioneer, or the Sony and $300 worth of CDs?”, and the indecision evaporates. The Sony it is.

This vignette was sketched in a research paper entitled “Opportunity Cost Neglect”, published by five behavioural scientists (in 2009, hence the mention of CDs). What makes the anecdote curious is that it is hardly an act of genius to figure out that buying the $700 Sony stereo would save $300, nor that $300 will buy $300 worth of CDs. It is not that the indecisive shopper couldn’t work this out, but that the explicit trade-off never crossed his or her mind.

Various experiments in the research paper supplement the anecdote with some data. And other research in psychology suggests that our attention is far narrower and more fleeting than it seems. As psychologist Nick Chater explains in a remarkable new book, The Mind is Flat (UK) (US), the brain generates powerful illusions of continuity. It stitches together what is actually a patchwork of fleeting impulses and perceptions.

We feel intuitively that we are able to check our phones while simultaneously keeping an eye on the road ahead, but we can’t. We think we can summon to mind a clear image of a tiger, whiskers twitching, fur shining, licking its lips. But asked to draw a tiger we start to struggle. Do the stripes on its legs loop laterally around, or run vertically?

It is the same with opportunity cost. We tend to feel that our choices reflect the whole picture: as crisp and vivid as the tiger, a balanced consideration of all the alternatives. But often we spend money simply out of habit or instinct.

Drawing our attention to opportunity costs, no matter how obvious, may change our decisions. The notorious falsehood on the campaign bus used by Vote Leave during the 2016 referendum campaign was well-crafted in this respect: not only could the UK save money by leaving the EU, we were told, but that money could then be spent on the National Health Service.

One could certainly debate the premise — indeed, the referendum campaign sometimes seemed to debate little else — but the conclusion was rock solid: if you have more money to spend, you can indeed spend more money on the NHS. (Just another way in which that bus was a display of marketing genius.)

We would make better decisions if we reminded ourselves about opportunity costs more often and more explicitly. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of time. Many of us have to deal with frequent claims on our time — “Can we meet for coffee so that I can pick your brains?” — and find it hard to say no. Explicitly considering the opportunity cost can help: if I meet for coffee I’ll have to work an hour later, and that means I won’t be able to read my son a story before bedtime.

There may also be situations where we make the opposite mistake. If you save £100 in some act of thriftiness, that is £100 you can spend on a case of wine, or a good shirt, or dinner for two. But you cannot spend the same £100 on all three. While we would be wise to explicitly consider what else we might do with our money, we should be careful not to spend it over and over again — something political manifestos have a tendency to do.

So, the inspirational motto is right. We should judge the value of anything by what we had to give up to get it. And we should get in the habit of doing this deliberately. If it was an automatic process, we would need no inspirational motto to remind us.

My book “Messy: How To Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World” is now available in paperback both in the US and the UK – or through your local bookshop.

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4th of May, 2018Undercover EconomistComments off

Understanding Algorithms

You’ve probably noticed that there are a lot of algorithms about these days, doing everything from recommending a walking route to figuring out how to beat the world’s best players at Go. But what are they, really, how do they work, and how will they change the world?

I’ve read some excellent books recently on the subject and have a few recommendations.


For a fun and memorable discussion of how specific algorithms work (even how you might use them yourself to sort out your sock drawer or find a nice apartment) then try Algorithms to Live By (UK) (US) by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths. I enjoyed this book very much, although not quite as much as Brian Christian’s The Most Human Human (UK) (US), which is all about how to have a better conversation, whether you’re a human or a bot. It’s one of my favourite books, ever.


On the economic and social implications of artificial intelligence, I strongly recommend Prediction Machines (UK) (US), by Ajay Agrawal, Joshua Gans, and Avi Goldfarb. Since I wrote “What We Get Wrong About Technology”, I’ve been telling people not to overlook simple, cheap innovations (paper, the shipping container, concrete). Space travel and supercomputers get all the press. Just being cheap doesn’t. But being cheap can transform the world. “Prediction Machines” gratifyingly chimes with this idea: the authors argue that artificial intelligence is best thought of as a way of producing super-cheap predictions; predicting what you might buy, predicting whether a shadow on a scan is cancer, predicting what the Japanese translation of this sentence might be.

Implication 1: good predictions reduce uncertainty, and lots of things we do are a response to uncertainty. For example, freezers (uncertainty about what and when I will want to cook) Airport lounges (uncertainty about how long it will take me to get to the airport means I show up early). AI is therefore bad for airport lounges.

Implication 2: sufficiently good predictions are game-changers. If Amazon’s recommendation engine gets good enough, they can take the risk of shipping me stuff I haven’t yet bought.

Implication 3: “judgement” becomes an important complement to predictions. How bad is a false positive when I predict a fraudulent credit card transaction and annoy my platinum card holder? What about a false positive diagnosis of cancer?

Implication 4: AI rarely replaces an entire human job directly. It tends to replace specific tasks – small slices of what we think of as a job. Reimagining/reengineering workflow will be an important competitive advantage.

As a bonus, the book has lots of good examples and is written clearly. I learned a lot.


For a sceptical take on the limits and the toxic side-effects of machine learning, there’s Cathy O’Neil’s passionate, political and very readable Weapons of Math Destruction (UK) (US) or the new book Artificial Unintelligence (UK) (US) by Meredith Broussard, which I have barely skimmed but seems to contain a very good mix of storytelling, history and technical ideas. Promising.




Finally, I’ve been fortunate enough to read the manuscript of Hello World (UK) (US) – out in September – by Hannah Fry. This is really a superb overview: lots of good stories, clear explanations, and it’s wide-ranging. I think if you want a general guide to the new world of data-driven computing you couldn’t do much better than this.




My book “Messy: How To Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World” is now available in paperback both in the US and the UK – or through your local bookshop.

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30th of April, 2018MarginaliaResourcesComments off

A Monetary Remedy for the Mid Life Crisis

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 30 March 2018.

“The time has come when we boomers are going to have to reach into our own pockets.” That was the view of David Willetts — formerly UK minister for higher education — a few weeks ago.

It sounds as though Mr Willetts was calling for a tax on the over-55s, but he was in fact drawing attention to the more mainstream idea of raising taxes on wealth. But perhaps we should be bolder. Why not raise taxes on the over-55s? It seems like a terrific policy to me, at least until I grow a little older.

We do have age-related subsidies, such as Medicare in the US and state pensions in many countries. The UK government even waives its quasi-income tax, national insurance, when working people pass pension age. But these explicitly aged-based measures are rare.

It is more common to see policies that redistribute between the generations as a side effect of something else. The introduction of higher university tuition fees in the UK — thanks in part to Mr Willetts himself — was designed to fund the expansion of universities at the expense of those who benefited from them. Alas, it also spared anyone who already has a degree while burdening the young with debt.

Then there is housing: tight planning restrictions from San Francisco to London help to squeeze house prices higher. That benefits people who already have houses, and they tend to be older than those who rent.

Low interest rates cut both ways, pushing the price of assets higher, but making it harder for retirees to live off their accumulated savings. Each policy has a differential effect on different generations that is largely accidental.

Perhaps we should be more deliberate about this. But trying to figure out which generation, if any, is more deserving is not straightforward. Should we look at a snapshot, or a life cycle?

The snapshot view is that at any given moment, young people have low-wage jobs and debts, while older people have higher-wage jobs and assets, so we should tend to redistribute from old to young.

The life-cycle view is that at any given age, each cohort tends to be richer than its forerunners, so we should tend to redistribute from young to old. Recently, the young have been worse off either way, which does at least resolve the dilemma.

Another question is whether we should focus on money. That seems natural; money is easy to redistribute. But money is not necessarily what matters most.

Young people have little cash, but they are fitter than the rest of us. They are taut and pert where we are flabby and saggy. And they have yet to have their dreams dashed.

All this becomes abundantly clear when we ask people about how they feel their lives are going. Gallup uses the following question: “Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally stand at this time?”

Without exception across the continents, people in their late teens and early twenties tend to give the most positive responses to this question. According to young people, young people are doing just fine.

In Africa and ex-communist nations, life just gets worse as you get older. In anglophone countries, the story is more of a midlife crisis then recovery. There is a dip in people’s life evaluations between the mid-twenties and mid-fifties, followed by a marked improvement; I am 44, which puts me right in the middle of the Slough of Despond.

There may be something quite deep behind this. A team including primatologists, psychologists and the economist Andrew Oswald has even found evidence of a midlife crisis in great apes.

A new research paper from Angus Deaton, Nobel laureate in economics, also finds that we are all persistently disappointed by life. Around the world, people tend to feel that in five years’ time they will have climbed a rung or two on life’s ladder, but most of us fail to do so. It is not quite clear why: did we not get as much money, status and sex as we were hoping for? Or did we get the money, sex and status, but found that it left us wanting?

Prof Deaton explicitly takes on the question of redistributing between the generations, more as a thought experiment than a firm policy proposal. Yet even the thought experiment is intriguing. In the US, he finds that the people who would have their wellbeing most improved by a cash injection are the middle-aged, people between their forties and their sixties. Yes, we have money, but we could really use some more.

The young and the aged do not really need money anyway: they are enjoying themselves regardless. Perhaps they could be prevailed upon to give a bit more to us? I will have a word with my father and my children. I am sure a dose of economic analysis will cure them of any doubts.

My book “Messy: How To Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World” is now available in paperback both in the US and the UK – or through your local bookshop.

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Books to make you feel better about the world

I recently reviewed the excellent Factfulness (UK) (US) by the late Hans Rosling, his son Ola and his daughter-in-law Anna. It’s an absolutely terrific, inspiring, and wise book, which among many other things is likely to make you feel better about the world. This is not because everything is rosy, but because most people’s perceptions of the world are badly skewed by a mixture of outdated ideas, dramatic media stories, and our own instincts to spot the worst and most frightening facts about the world. Hence “Factfulness” is a relaxing condition.

Bravo – everyone should read this book. But there are some others to look out for.

Charles Kenny, in Getting Better (UK) (US), also points to dramatic progress in achieving some (not all) of the goals that really matter, and in showing the connections between economic growth and progress on health, education, freedom and happiness. He also explores what else needs to be done to get the most out of development aid and to make development work for everyone; this is a nice complement to Factfulness, which is more focused on helping people understand the world.

Steven Pinker, in Enlightenment Now (UK) (US) also reviews this progress. But where Pinker differentiates himself is in Better Angels of Our Nature (UK) (US), which even for an optimist like me is surprising in its message that violence, torture and cruelty – measured in a variety of ways – has been in widespread decline for centuries. Well worth your attention, and I found Pinker persuasive in rebutting many of the obvious objections.

Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built In Hell (UK) (US) takes a different tack, telling stories of the way people respond to disasters such as 9/11, Hurricane Katrina or the Blitz. Solnit argues that the famous “stiff upper lip” is a common response across communities. We scare each other with tales of looting and anarchy, but in fact most communities pull together.

One of the best and most thought-provoking books I’ve ever read – although sadly it did not make me feel as good about the world as the others – is David Mackay’s Sustainable Energy Without The Hot Air (UK) (US). David, who died far too young, goes step by step through the way we consume and produce energy, teaching us how to make estimates, what really matters, and what the most promising sustainable energy sources might be. Spoiler alert: sustainable energy will probably involve some very hard choices. Utterly brilliant book and it is available online as a free resource.

I suppose I should mention my own Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy (UK) (US) – although I don’t see the book as making an argument for progress as such, it’s impossible to ponder the list of ideas and inventions, from the contraceptive pill to the cold chain, the S-bend to the light bulb, without feeling grateful for those who went before us. It’s true that barbed wire was a bit of a mixed blessing and leaded petrol was an unmitigated disaster – but still, where would we be without paper, or beautiful beautiful concrete? A French journalist told me that the book put me squarely in the category of optimistic Anglo-Saxons, so there.


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23rd of April, 2018MarginaliaResourcesComments off

Even in Trump’s White House, chaos has its limits

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 23 March 2018.

“So many people have been leaving the White House. It’s actually been really exciting and invigorating,” said Donald Trump earlier this month. “I like turnover. I like chaos. It really is good.” It is not clear whether he was joking — the remark was made during a light-hearted dinner speech — but, for Mr Trump’s sake, one hopes he meant it.

The past month has seen the resignation of his communications director Hope Hicks, the downgrading of his son-in-law Jared Kushner’s security clearance, the resignation of his senior economic adviser Gary Cohn, the sacking-by-tweet of the secretary of state Rex Tillerson, the escorting-out-of-the-building of his aide John McEntee, the firing of Andrew McCabe, deputy director of the FBI – and now HR McMaster has gone too.

Along the way Mr Trump has railed against the investigations of special counsel Robert Mueller. Chaos reigns.

It remains unclear how much method there is in all this madness, but there may be more than we think. Mr Trump does not drink, but his leadership style is reminiscent of “drunken boxing” — a style of martial arts associated with staggering around unpredictably until your opponent lets his guard down, whereupon you pop him in the mouth.

The disadvantage of chaos is that it is destabilising; the advantage is that it may destabilise your foes more than you. About four decades ago the US military strategist John Boyd (UK) (US) gave a series of influential talks about this idea. Boyd, whose admirers included senior Republican Dick Cheney and management guru Tom Peters, argued for rapid, confusing manoeuvres, improvised if need be, with the aim of disorienting the enemy. Create enough chaos and you could completely paralyse your foe. If the chaos made life uncomfortable for your own side, no matter. Synchronisation, said Boyd, was not for organisations, but for watches.

This messy, improvised approach to tactics is not entirely new. Sun Tzu, the near-mythical author of The Art of War, declared that “quickness is the essence of war”, but also advised being “without ascertainable shape”. This sounds like the incessant, incomprehensible activity of the Trump White House.

It also sounds like the campaign for the UK to leave the EU in 2016. The Brexiters seemed hamstrung by the fact that they ran two mutually suspicious campaigns — Leave.EU and Vote Leave. “It wasn’t one of my adverts,” said Nigel Farage about Vote Leave’s bus, while Boris Johnson said Mr Farage’s inflammatory poster about refugees was “not my campaign” and “not my politics”. This left the Leave campaign, as Sun Tzu advised, “without ascertainable shape”, so voters picked which ever message resonated, while the Remain campaign did not know where to look. Dominic Cummings, of Vote Leave, later said a united Leave campaign would have been easily defeated.

On the battlefield, the master of messy improvisation was the German general Erwin Rommel. He championed swift, energetic action, even if it left his own men scrambling to figure out what was happening. “I have a feeling that things are in a mess,” lamented one Berlin-based general of Rommel’s north Africa campaign in 1941. They were, but for many months the chaos took a worse toll on the British than the Germans.

The same fast-paced seizing of opportunities has worked for some businesses. In the early years of Amazon, Jeff Bezos was clear that he needed to get ahead of rivals such as Barnes & Noble and Toys R Us, even if it meant chaos within Amazon. A more methodical start-up would have been caught and crushed. “It’s a messy process,” Mr Bezos told his biographer, Brad Stone (UK) (US), but there was simply no time to be meticulous. A visitor to an Amazon warehouse in the run-up to Christmas in 1999 would have said the company was a shambles, but the chaos paid off. Amazon bled money but shipped on time, while rivals have been struggling to catch up ever since.

Of course the more ponderous forces of planning and organisation may reassert themselves in the end. Mr Trump has an uncanny ability to dominate the news cycle, change the subject whenever he wants, and turn the spotlight away from his critics and towards himself. This was a huge asset during the election campaign but is a mixed blessing in government.

Facebook’s old mantra, “move fast and break things”, suddenly looks less clever. Mark Zuckerberg must now explain exactly what he has broken.

The Brexiters are running into the limits of the improvisation, ambiguity and self-contradiction that worked so brilliantly as a campaigning strategy, and indeed as a way of managing their own divisions. On a playing field criss-crossed by technical and legal details, EU negotiator Michel Barnier’s ploddingly careful preparation now seems to be paying dividends.

Even the unpredictable Rommel was eventually defeated, by Bernard Montgomery’s cautious and meticulously planned application of force at El Alamein. Montgomery was in no hurry as he assembled everything he needed. Mr Trump may have noticed that Robert Mueller is displaying the same patience.

My book “Messy: How To Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World” is now available in paperback both in the US and the UK – or through your local bookshop.

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The past, present and future of banking


(Business seals; Rishengchang Museum.)

Not long ago I was fortunate enough to visit the Rishengchang in Pingyao – which I tentatively understand to be the oldest “draft” bank in China, allowing merchants to send money across the nation. Pingyao is well worth a visit, if ever happen to be in that part of China. It put me to thinking about some fine histories of money and banking I’ve read in the past few years.

I knew a little about the Chinese system of Feiquan or “flying money” from reading William Goetzmann’s excellent Money Changes Everything (UK) (US), which has a vast trove of material on money and finance in China.

Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy (UK) (US) also described the Chinese inventions of paper, paper money, and forms of banking. I just loved the way that paper money blew Marco Polo’s mind.

For another magisterial take on money and banking, try Felix Martin’s Money: An Unauthorised Biography (UK) (US).  Martin writes deftly and his book, especially the first half of it, is packed with fascinating historical anecdote and colour.

For a take on banking in the great depression, try Lords of Finance (UK) (US) by Liaquat Ahamed. This book won the FT’s Business Book of the Year award a few years back – a riveting account of how the Great Depression could have been prevented, and wasn’t.

And for the present and future of banking, I strong recommend John Kay’s Other People’s Money (UK) (US), which begins with the question: if we were designing a financial system to do what we say a financial system is supposed to do, would it look anything like Wall Street today? (Spoiler: the answer is no.) Kay is an elegant writer, a well-informed historian and a superb economist. This is a terrific book.

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16th of April, 2018MarginaliaResourcesComments off


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