Tim Harford The Undercover Economist

Articles published in February, 2018

Books for people who love numbers

I’ve yet to encounter a maths book with the winning charm of Alex Bellos’s Alex’s Adventures in Numberland (UK) (Here’s Looking At Euclid in the US). Strongly recommended journey through mathematical ideas, both whimsical and essential.

Speaking of whimsicality, I also recommend Matt Parker’s Things To Make And Do In The Fourth Dimension (UK) (US) and Hannah Fry’s The Mathematics of Love (UK) (US).

A shout out for John Allen Paulos’s Innumeracy (UK) (US) – I fondly remember reading this in the 1990s and having my eyes opened to the world of numeracy and innumeracy.

Jordan Ellenberg’s How Not To Be Wrong (UK) (US) is a story-rich, clear exposition of the maths all around us.

A more unusual pick: Apostolos Doxiadis offers us the rather brilliant mathematical novel Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture (UK) (US) which works very well as a novel of obsession and secrecy, but will teach you a bit of maths as a side effect. Doxiadis also wrote the ambitious and excellent Logicomix (UK) (US) – a history of logic in comic form.

Vicky Neale’s Closing the Gap (UK) (US) is an excellent account of recent progress in prime numbers, but also one of the best accounts you’ll read by a mathematician about how mathematics research is done and how it feels to do it.

And recently arrived on my pile, David Acheson’s The Calculus Story (UK) (US) which is a very clear explanation of calculus (wish I’d had it as a maths student!) along with some history of the subject.

 
My recent 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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26th of February, 2018MarginaliaComments off

Should the government try to maximise happiness?

“Money can’t buy me love,” sang The Beatles, although it is doubtful that this was a rigorous empirical claim. Still, nobody disputes that there’s more to life than money and a new book, The Origins of Happiness (UK) (US) argues that happiness should be a guide to government policy.

Two years ago this would have been part of the zeitgeist: one of Barack Obama’s senior advisers, the economist Alan Krueger, was a noted expert in “subjective wellbeing” (happiness to you and me), while former UK prime minister David Cameron also championed the idea. It now seems strangely out of step with the times: whatever you think is driving Britain’s current PM Theresa May or US president Donald Trump, it seems unlikely to be surveys of life satisfaction.

Still, it is easy to sympathise with Thomas Jefferson’s remark, shortly after he stepped down as US president, that “The care of human life & happiness, & not their destruction, is the first & only legitimate object of good government.”

The question is what that means for government policy — and whether the academic study of wellbeing can help. The five authors of The Origins of Happiness, including Professor Richard Layard of the London School of Economics, focus on answers to the question “Overall, how satisfied are you with your life these days?” on a scale of 0-10.

It’s not an absurd question, but if a group of academics proposed reforming a nation’s economic institutions and industrial strategy on the basis of answers to the question, “Overall, how rich do you think you are these days, on a scale of 0-10?” we might reasonably object that our evidence base was too fuzzy to provide much guidance.

Nor is it clear whether someone moving from three to four on the scale is enjoying the same boost to happiness as someone moving from seven to eight. And what does “10” really mean? Is it literally impossible to become happier from there — or, Spinal Tap-style, should there be room to go up to 11?

These questions might trouble only the philosophers, except that Lord Layard and his co-authors write of a “revolution in policymaking” based on findings such as “an extra year of education directly raises your own happiness by 0.03 points on average throughout life”. This suggests a confident policy swagger that I confess to lacking myself.

Still, a meagre kind of knowledge is better than no knowledge at all, and it would be wilful to ignore what people tell us about how they are feeling. So what do we learn?

First, we have a love-hate relationship with our jobs. We know from panel data (interviewing the same people more than once over time) that being unemployed is miserable and stays miserable for many years. This is a good argument in favour of policies that promote low unemployment — something Japan, Germany, the UK and the US have managed to do, and France, Italy and Spain have not.

But while unemployment is depressing, work itself is no paradise. Self-employed people are happier than employed people by the same margin that unemployed people are less happy. And Mr Krueger and Nobel laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman have shown that of all the day-to-day activities we engage in, commuting and work are the least enjoyable — while of all the people we spend time with, colleagues are bad and bosses are worse.

The answer, of course, is more jobs, and better jobs, please. And for that matter, it seems that more time in satisfying romantic relationships would also help — but I prefer to leave the government out of that.

Lord Layard and his colleagues argue in general for evaluating government spending using “a method of cost-effectiveness in which the benefits are measured in units of happiness”. Some policies — such as providing ready-mix concrete floors to poor households in Mexico — pass this test easily. Others do not.

Lord Layard has long been an advocate of devoting more resources to treatment for depression and anxiety. He is right. Even a modest success rate would go a long way here. But beyond that, much depends on the capacity of government to deliver what matters. Better schools, we’re told, improve the emotional wellbeing of children, which is an excellent investment in happiness. Fine, but nobody is in favour of worse schools and the researchers confess to knowing very little about what features of a school are correlated with happy pupils.

There is much in the idea of an activist happiness policy to amuse or horrify anyone with laissez-faire instincts. But to the extent that we think governments can sometimes bodge their way into bettering the human condition, there’s a case to look at what people say makes them happy with their lives.

As a cautionary note, however, I offer Adam Smith’s warning against the person who “seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chessboard”. Whether a politician seeks to maximise national income or national happiness, Smith’s critique rings just as true.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 26 January 2018.

My recent 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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The case for ending Amazon’s dominance

It should not be difficult to love Amazon. To consumers, it offers choice and convenience. Countless internet ventures have relied on its cheap, flexible cloud computing services to start and scale up. Amazon makes titans such as Walmart work hard for their revenue, offers a shopping search engine that is Google’s only serious rival, raises the bar for television networks and sells tablet computers at a price to make Apple loyalists stop and think.

Amazon is also giving the US economy what it needs. Two economists, Germán Gutiérrez and Thomas Philippon, have argued that corporate America is underinvesting. One reason is that companies are impatiently funnelling cash to investors and executives rather than take a long-term view.

If that is a worrisome state of affairs — and it should be — then Amazon is the shining counterexample. The online retailer’s strategy is driven not by short-term profit but by investment, innovation and growth. If only there were a few more companies like Amazon, capitalism would be in a happier spot.

But there’s the rub: there aren’t more companies like it. It’s unique, and an increasingly terrifying force in online commerce. Should regulators act? If so, how? It’s worth first disposing of a bad argument: that Amazon must be challenged because it makes life miserable for its competitors, some of which are plucky mom-and-pop operations. However emotionally appealing this might seem, it should not be the business of regulators to prop up such businesses.

Regulators have a tendency to slip into the role of protecting incumbents with surprising ease. Marc Levinson’s history of container shipping, The Box (UK) (US), describes Malcom McLean — the entrepreneur behind containerisation, a risk-taking visionary reminiscent of Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos. When McLean tried to expand his operations, one of his largest obstacles was the Interstate Commerce Commission in the US, which regulated US railways from 1887 and interstate trucking from 1935.

The ICC, writes Mr Levinson, had to approve each new route, every new commodity and any new price schedule. When McLean wanted to start a trucking route at a low price, he had to hire lawyers and argue his case at the ICC, while his competitors protested bitterly — “unfair and destructive”, said the railways. He did not always get his way.

Antitrust authorities should not be in the business of making life easy for incumbents. What, then, should they do? There are two schools of thought. One is to focus on consumers’ interest in quality, variety and price. This has been the standard approach in US antitrust policy for several decades. Since Amazon makes slim profits and charges low prices, it raises few antitrust questions.

The alternative view — which harks back to an earlier era of antitrust during which Standard Oil and later AT&T were broken up — argues that competition is inherently good even if it is hard to quantify a benefit to consumers and that society should be wary of large or dominant companies even if their behaviour seems benign. The collapse of companies from Lehman Brothers to construction services business Carillion reminds us that size can be a problem when a company is weak as well as when it is strong.

The narrowing in antitrust thinking is described by Lina Khan in a much-read article, “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox”. Ms Khan berates modern antitrust thinking for its “hostility to false positives”, arguing that it has become incapable of saying anything insightful about modern tech companies.

Unlike Ms Khan, I share modern antitrust’s hostility to false positives; there is a real cost to cumbersome and unnecessary meddling in a dynamic and rapidly-evolving marketplace. Donald Trump’s history of publicly attacking Mr Bezos is worth pondering too: do we really want the US government to have more discretion as to who is targeted, and why? We should not wish to return to a world in which a plucky new competitor must beg regulators — over the objections of incumbents — for permission to cut prices. We should be grateful that Mr Bezos did not face in the 1990s the regulatory obstacles that Malcom McLean dodged in the 1950s.

Yet for all this, I am deeply uneasy about Amazon’s apparently unassailable position in online retail. Yes, customers are being well served at the moment. Yet the company has acquired formidable entrenched advantages, from the information about customers and the suppliers who sell through it, to the bargaining power it has over delivery companies, to the vast network of warehouses. Those advantages were earned, but they can also be abused.

Antitrust authorities face a difficult balancing act. Regulate Amazon and you may snuff out the innovation that we all say we want more of. Punish it for success and you send a strange message to entrepreneurs and investors. Ignore it and you risk leaving vital services in the hands of an invincible monopolist.

There are no easy options, but it is time to look for a way to split Amazon into two independent companies, each with the strength to grow and invest. If Amazon is such a wonderful company, wouldn’t two Amazons be even better?

 
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 19 January 2018.

My recent 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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Review of The Tyranny of Metrics by Jerry Muller

Jerry Z Muller’s latest book is 220 pages long, not including the front matter. The average chapter is 10.18 pages long and contains 17.76 endnotes. There are four cover endorsements and the book weighs 421 grammes. These numbers tell us nothing, of course. If you want to understand the strengths and weaknesses of The Tyranny of Metrics (UK) (US) you will need to read it — or trust the opinion of someone who has.

Professor Muller’s argument is that we keep forgetting this obvious point. Rather than rely on the informed judgment of people familiar with the situation, we gather meaningless numbers at great cost. We then use them to guide our actions, predictably causing unintended damage.

A famous example is the obsession, during the Vietnam war, with the “body count” metric embraced by US defence secretary Robert McNamara. The more of the enemy you kill, reasoned McNamara, the closer you are to winning. This was always a dubious idea, but the body count quickly became an informal metric for ranking units and handing out promotions, and was therefore often exaggerated. Counting bodies became a risky military objective in itself.

This episode symbolises the mindless, fruitless drive to count things. But it also shows us why metrics are so often used: McNamara was trying to understand and control a distant situation using the skills of a generalist, not a general. Muller shows that metrics are often used as a substitute for relevant experience, by managers with generic rather than specific expertise.

Muller does not claim that metrics are always useless, but that we expect too much from them as a tool of management. For example, if a group of doctors collect and analyse data on clinical outcomes, they are likely to learn something together. If bonuses and promotions are tied to the numbers, the exercise will teach nobody anything and may end up killing patients. Several studies have found evidence of cardiac surgeons refusing to operate on the sickest patients for fear of lowering their reported success rates.

It’s easy to sympathise with this argument, and I do. (I made some similar points in a chapter of my book Messy.) The Tyranny of Metrics does us a service in briskly pulling together parallel arguments from economics, management science, philosophy and psychology along with examples from education, policing, medicine, business and the military. It makes the case for professional autonomy: that metrics should be tools in the hands of teachers, doctors and soldiers rather than tools in the hands of those who would oversee them.

In an excellent final chapter, Muller summarises his argument thus: “measurement is not an alternative to judgement: measurement demands judgement: judgement about whether to measure, what to measure, how to evaluate the significance of what’s been measured, whether rewards and penalties will be attached to the results, and to whom to make the measurements available”.

This is a strong argument, but there are gaps in it. The book does not engage seriously enough with the possibility that the advantages of metric-driven accountability might outweigh the undoubted downsides. Tellingly, Muller complains of a university ratings metric that rewards high graduation rates, access for disadvantaged students, and low costs. He says these requirements are “mutually exclusive”, but they are not. They are in tension with each other, but a college that achieved all three goals would be a triumph rather than a logical absurdity.

The risk of trusting the professionals is that a bad teacher or police officer might coast undetected; or that a coterie of insiders might promote their own protégées, excluding women or ethnic minorities. Data-gathering efforts promise to spot prejudice, incompetence, back-scratching and worse. Perhaps they are doomed to fail, but in a world where insiders have covered up for each other far too often, we should not dismiss them too quickly.

Nor does this book reckon with evidence that mechanical statistical predictions often beat the subjective judgment of experts. This was demonstrated by psychologist Paul Meehl in his 1954 book Clinical versus Statistical Prediction. Subsequent research has supported his claim, while campaigners for evidence-based medicine such as Archie Cochrane and Sir Iain Chalmers have made a strong case not simply to take expert medical opinion on trust. Overconfident experts have been humbled by statistical methods frequently enough for the phenomenon to have been worth a chapter.

Finally, and perhaps most curiously, there is no discussion of computers, cheap sensors, or big data. In this respect, at least, the book could have been written in the 1980s. It is a strange omission, especially since Muller would surely have much to say about big data and algorithmic management.

All this, however, is criticism from a position of admiration. Many of us have the vague sense that metrics are leading us astray, stripping away context, devaluing subtle human judgement, and rewarding those who know how to play the system. Muller’s book crisply explains where this fashion came from, why it can be so counterproductive and why we don’t learn. It should be required reading for any manager on the verge of making the Vietnam body count mistake all over again.
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 24 January 2018.

My recent 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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15th of February, 2018Other WritingComments off

The Logic of Failure

The most original book I read this week – after a recommendation from the always-worth-listening-to Cass Sunstein – was The Logic of Failure (UK) (US) by Dietrich Dorner. Dorner sets experimental subjects difficult simulation games (they all sound a little bit like Sim City to me) and observes as they try to master the games alone or in groups. Most of their actions have unintended consequences that are predictable in principle, but often confounding to the players. For example, if you eradicate the tsetse fly then the cattle will prosper, but as the cattle population booms, grass and water will be depleted. Drill more wells and you can get more water – until the entire water table is depleted. Then a famine looms; all foreseeable if only you can keep the whole system in mind and follow the chain of consequences.

Dorner studies the successful players, and the less successful, and looks for patterns – do they ask enough questions? Too many decisions? Too few? Do they blame others, become frustrated? Do they begin to obsess about trivia? While the methodology itself is clearly somewhat limited, it’s enormously thought-provoking.

(By the way, having been reminded of the book’s existence by Cass Sunstein, I should mention that his book with Reid Hastie, Wiser (UK) (US) is the best book I know about group decision-making and how to overcoming polarisation and groupthink.)

I’ve also been reading about military history. I re-read Norman Stone’s WWII: A Short History (UK) (US) which is astonishingly good. Bracingly brief and opinionated, but a remarkable way to gain perspective on what can easily become a bewildering mash of highly partial pieces of folk history.

Also – for a perspective on the brilliant but dreadfully flawed tank strategist J.F.C. Fuller – I read Mark Urban’s Generals (UK) (US) which I enjoyed, and suspect I’ll be back to in due course. There was plenty of useful and telling detail in one chapter than in an entire biography of Fuller I spent the morning reading in the Bodleian – Mark Urban is able to see the wood and the trees. Well done.

13th of February, 2018MarginaliaComments off

Lessons from history in how to spot a bubble

Here are three noteworthy pronouncements about bubbles.

“Prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” That was Professor Irving Fisher in 1929, prominently reported barely a week before the most brutal stock market crash of the 20th century. He was a rich man, and the greatest economist of the age. The great crash destroyed both his finances and his reputation.

“Those who sound the alarm of an approaching . . . crisis have somewhat exaggerated the danger.” That was a renowned commentator who shall remain nameless for now.

“We are currently showing signs of entering the blow-off or melt-up phase of this very long bull market.” That was investor Jeremy Grantham on January 3 this year. The normally bearish Mr Grantham mused that while shares seem expensive, historical precedents make it plausible that the S&P 500 will soar from present levels of around 2,700 to more than 3,500 before the crash occurs.

Mr Grantham’s speculation is striking because he has tended to be a savvy bubble watcher in the past. But as any toddler can attest, it is not an easy thing to catch one before it bursts.

There are two obvious ways to diagnose a bubble. One is to look at the fundamentals: if the price of an asset is unmoored from the cash flow it is likely to generate, that is a warning sign. (It is anyone’s guess what this implies for bitcoin, an asset that has no cash flow at all.)

The other approach is to look around: are people giddy with excitement? Can the media talk of little else? Are taxi drivers offering stock tips?

At the moment, however, these two approaches tell a different story about US stocks. They are expensive by most reasonable measures. But there are few other signs of speculative mania. The price rise has been steady, broad-based and was hardly the leading news of 2017. Given how expensive bonds are, it is hardly a surprise that stocks also seem pricey. No wonder investors and commentators are unsure what to say or do.

It seems all so much easier with hindsight: looking back, we can all enjoy a laugh at the Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, to borrow the title of Charles Mackay’s famous 1841 book, which chuckles at the South Sea bubble and tulip mania. Yet even with hindsight things are not always clear. For example, I first became aware of the incipient dotcom bubble in the late 1990s, when a senior colleague told me that the upstart online bookseller Amazon.com was valued at more than every bookseller on the planet. A clearer instance of mania could scarcely be imagined.

But Amazon is worth much more today than at the height of the bubble, and comparing it with any number of booksellers now seems quaint. The dotcom bubble was mad and my colleague correctly diagnosed the lunacy, but he should still have bought and held Amazon stock.

Tales of the great tulip mania in 17th-century Holland seem clearer — most notoriously, the Semper Augustus bulb that sold for the price of an Amsterdam mansion. “The population, even to its lowest dregs, embarked in the tulip trade,” sneered Mackay more than 200 years later.

But the tale grows murkier still. The economist Peter Garber, author of Famous First Bubbles, points out that a rare tulip bulb could serve as the breeding stock for generations of valuable flowers; as its descendants became numerous, one would expect the price of individual bulbs to fall.

Some of the most spectacular prices seem to have been empty tavern wagers by almost-penniless braggarts, ignored by serious traders but much noticed by moralists. The idea that Holland was economically convulsed is hard to support: the historian Anne Goldgar, author of Tulipmania (US) (UK), has been unable to find anyone who actually went bankrupt as a result.

It is easy to laugh at the follies of the past, especially if they have been exaggerated for the purposes of sermonising or for comic effect. Charles Mackay copied and exaggerated the juiciest reports he could find in order to get his point across.

Then there is the matter of his own record as a financial guru. That comment, this time in full, “those who sound the alarm of an approaching railway crisis have somewhat exaggerated the danger”, was Mackay himself, writing in the Glasgow Argus in 1845, in full-throated support of the idea that the railway investment boom of the time would return a healthy profit to investors. It was, instead, a financial disaster. In the words of mathematician and bubble scholar Andrew Odlyzko, it was “by many measures the greatest technology mania in history, and its collapse was one of the greatest financial crashes”.

Oddly, Mackay barely mentions the railway mania in subsequent editions of his book — nor his own role as cheerleader. This is a lesson to us all. It’s very easy to scoff at past bubbles; it is not so easy to know how to react when one may — or may not — be surrounded by one.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 12 January 2018.

My recent 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 money, the mind, and the planet

A range of books passing across the desk at the moment! I’ve enjoyed Dan Ariely and Jeff Kreisler’s Small Change (US edition is Dollars and Sense) which is a mashup of all the best in behavioural economics research, whimsical chat and financial advice. Fans of Dan’s earlier work will find this rather familiar – especially if they’ve also read the very good Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes (UK) (US) by Belsky and Gilovich, which covers similar ground in a more sober style – but its a fun book with some wise advice.

I have also been revisiting On The Psychology of Military Incompetence (UK) (US) by Norman Dixon, a fascinating book, if one which looks strange to my modern eyes in some ways. Dixon is excellent in his account of military errors; his explanation is also excellent in some ways and odd in others. Too much about eg the impact of how generals might have been toilet trained as toddlers – but then I realised that this predates the modern behavioural literature on heuristics and biases. Still: thought-provoking!

Tim Jackson has sent me the second edition of his book Prosperity without Growth (UK) (US) with a note saying he wasn’t sure how much I’d agree with it. I’m not sure either, having not made the time to read it in depth, but I turned directly to the chapter on the “Myth of Decoupling” – a subject about which a lot of nonsense has been written – and was impressed with the balance and more importantly the attention to the evidence. I am more optimistic than Tim about decoupling, the idea that an economy can grow without ever-increasing energy and resource use – but can’t fault his chapter on the topic.

I’ve also received a copy of Earth at Risk (UK) (US) by Henry and Tubiana, which seems to be a chewier more academic exploration of “natural capital and the quest for sustainability”. Endorsement by Bill McKibben.

 

 
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6th of February, 2018MarginaliaComments off

Why Microsoft Office is a bigger productivity drain than Candy Crush Saga

A few weeks before Christmas, an impish chart appeared on the Bank of England’s unofficial blog. It compared plunging productivity with the soaring shipments of smartphones. Typical productivity growth in advanced economies had hovered steadily around 1 per cent a year for several decades, but has on average been negative since 2007. That was the year the iPhone started to ship.

Nobody really believes that the iPhone caused the productivity slowdown — a more obvious culprit would be the global financial crisis — but it is hard to find people who think that their phones are an unalloyed blessing. If in 1968 an economist or computer scientist had been told that 50 years later we would all be carrying wirelessly networked supercomputers in our pockets, he or she would have been staggered at the potential. I doubt they would have realised quite how much time we would spend liking Instagram posts, playing Pokémon Go and sending each other digital interruptions.

The costs of this distraction are starting to become apparent. I wrote recently about the research of Gloria Mark of the University of California, Irvine. Prof Mark argues that reorientating yourself after an interruption tends to take between 20 and 25 minutes. We all know how a moment’s inattention can turn into a clickhole of distractions. She also points out that once we get used to being interrupted by others, we start interrupting ourselves, twitchily checking email or social media in the hope something interesting might turn up.

Yet digital devices slow us down in subtler ways, too. Microsoft Office may be as much a drag on productivity as Candy Crush Saga. To see why, consider Adam Smith’s argument that economic progress was built on a foundation of the division of labour. His most celebrated example was a simple pin factory: “One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points” and 10 men together made nearly 50,000 pins a day.

In another example — the making of a woollen coat — Smith emphasises that the division of labour allows us to use machines, even “that very simple machine, the shears with which the shepherd clips the wool”.

The shepherd has the perfect tool for a focused task. That tool needs countless other focused specialists: the bricklayer who built the foundry; the collier who mined fuel; the smith who forged the blades. It is a reinforcing spiral: the division of labour lets us build new machines, while machines work best when jobs have been divided into one small task after another.

The rise of the computer complicates this story. Computers can certainly continue the process of specialisation, parcelling out jobs into repetitive chunks, but fundamentally they are general purpose devices, and by running software such as Microsoft Office they are turning many of us into generalists.

In a modern office there are no specialist typists; we all need to be able to pick our way around a keyboard. PowerPoint has made amateur slide designers of everyone. Once a slide would be produced by a professional, because no one else had the necessary equipment or training. Now anyone can have a go — and they do.

Well-paid middle managers with no design skills take far too long to produce ugly slides that nobody wants to look at. They also file their own expenses, book their own travel and, for that matter, do their own shopping in the supermarket. On a bill-by-the-minute basis none of this makes sense.

Why do we behave like this? It is partly a matter of pride: since everyone has the tools to build a website or lay out a book, it feels a little feeble to hand the job over to a professional. And it is partly bad organisational design: sacking the administrative assistants and telling senior staff to do their own expenses can look, superficially, like a cost saving.

But it is also that some of these jobs are a pleasant diversion from the key task at hand. Even filling out expenses may be soothing to some, and designing your own PowerPoint presentation can be quite fun for the presenter, if not for the hapless audience.

Smith worried that repetitive work would make us “as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become”. That risk remains. Technology can unbundle tasks, leaving human workers with grimly narrow duties.

But for other workers, general-purpose computers push back against Smith’s concern. Design a pretty graph, search the internet for cartoons for a presentation, use a price-comparison site to book some travel, craft an eloquent post on LinkedIn, and office life starts to look mildly entertaining — even if there isn’t much time left to do the jobs for which we’re paid. Setting games and social media aside, there are plenty of ways for workers to use their computers to do their jobs less efficiently while having more fun, perhaps without even meaning to.

I suspect this is but a small part of the productivity slowdown. And I feel ambivalent about it. A day full of distractions is rarely satisfying. On the other hand, I would not wish to spend each hour sharpening 5,000 pins.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 5 January 2018.

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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