Tim Harford The Undercover Economist

Undercover EconomistUndercover Economist

My weekly column in the Financial Times on Saturdays, explaining the economic ideas around us every day. This column was inspired by my book and began in 2005.

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.

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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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Monty Hall and the game show stick-or-switch conundrum

Forget Fermat’s last theorem. The most vexing challenge in mathematics just might be the Monty Hall problem. Monty Hall — born Monte Halparin — presented nearly 5,000 episodes of Let’s Make a Deal, the US game show that inspired the puzzle.

It is an onion of a conundrum; layer after layer, and guaranteed to make you cry. The puzzle is this: a contestant faces three doors. Behind one of them is a big prize such as a Cadillac. Each of the other two doors conceals a booby prize such as a goat.

The contestant chooses a door, hoping to win the grand prize. But just as the door is about to be opened, Hall steps in and halts proceedings. He opens one of the other two doors instead, revealing a goat. Then he turns to the contestant. Would they like to switch to the other closed door? Or would they prefer to stick with their original choice?

The problem was initially posed in The American Statistician in 1975, by Steve Selvin, but achieved national prominence when Marilyn vos Savant wrote about it in Parade in 1990. She suggested that it pays to switch doors. Her reward was a mailbag full of letters assuring her she was wrong — some from prominent mathematicians. John Kay’s inbox also overflowed when he addressed the problem in 2005 in the Financial Times.

What should the contestant do? Mathematically, it seems not to matter: there are two doors now, so surely they face a 50-50 proposition. And as it happens, many people prefer to stick. They have made their choice and would regret switching if it did not work out.

More careful analysis, however, reveals that the contestant should switch. One way to think of the problem is to notice that their chance of picking the grand prize was initially one in three.

Hall’s intervention does not change that, but it does guarantee that if they failed to pick the correct door initially then they will definitely get the prize by switching. Two times out of three, switching will win the prize.

A second way to think about the problem is to exaggerate the underlying process. Imagine 100 doors, but still only one grand prize. The contestant picks a door, probably not the correct one. Hall then opens 98 other doors, revealing no prize.

Should we really conclude that we have learnt nothing about the other door? The first door was picked at random but the one that Hall has left closed was selected with great care. With probability of 99 per cent, switching will win the prize.

A third way to attack the puzzle is to run an experiment. It will quickly reveal what intuition does not: the contestant should switch. In Ms vos Savant’s experience, many mathematicians changed their minds only on the basis of empirical evidence — which is revealing, since the underlying proof, using Bayes’ theorem, is not especially technical.

Some people will find these explanations persuasive, and others will not. Over the years I have concluded that there is something about the Monty Hall problem that makes it wonderfully resistant to our intuitions.

And there is a twist in the tale, too: after Ms vos Savant brought the problem to national attention, the journalist John Tierney visited Hall himself and they began to play the game repeatedly at his dining-room table, with car keys representing the grand prize and a pack of raisins serving as the goat. At first, things went as Mr Selvin and Ms vos Savant had explained: switching won the prize far more often.

Then, suddenly, things changed. At the beginning of a game, Mr Tierney pointed to one of the options. “Too bad,” said Hall, immediately. “You’ve just won a goat.”

He did not offer Mr Tierney a chance to switch. He did not always make such an offer in the game show — why should he make it now?

Hall’s change of approach turns a probability puzzle into what we might call a cheesecake bet. In the musical Guys and Dolls, Nathan Detroit offers Sky Masterson a bet that Mindy’s sells more strudel than cheesecake. Sky is sceptical, and rightly so, since Nathan already knows the answer. For much the same reason, a contestant in Let’s Make a Deal should ask themself: “If it is really such a good idea to switch, then why has Hall offered me the chance?”

I have great respect for the way Ms vos Savant faced down a posse of contemptuous mathematicians. But we must be careful not to confuse a precise mathematical description of a game for the vagaries of reality itself, something Nassim Nicholas Taleb has named the “ludic fallacy”. Rigorous mathematical thinking can be invaluable, or it can leave you blinkered and on the wrong side of a cheesecake bet.

The solution to the formal Monty Hall problem is counterintuitive and incontrovertible. But the right approach in the game show depended on what Hall himself was trying to do in offering the choice. Was he benevolent, malevolent, or simply aiming for great television?

Alas, we can no longer ask him. Hall died in September. But the Monty Hall problem will live on.

 
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 6 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

The pendulum swings against privatisation

Political fashions can change quickly, as a glance at almost any western democracy will tell you. The pendulum of the politically possible swings back and forth. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the debates over privatisation and nationalisation.

In the late 1940s, experts advocated nationalisation on a scale hard to imagine today. Arthur Lewis thought the government should run the phone system, insurance and the car industry. James Meade wanted to socialise iron, steel and chemicals; both men later won Nobel memorial prizes in economics.

They were in tune with the times: the British government ended up owning not only utilities and heavy industry but airlines, travel agents and even the removal company, Pickfords. The pendulum swung back in the 1980s and early 1990s, as Margaret Thatcher and John Major began an ever more ambitious series of privatisations, concluding with water, electricity and the railways. The world watched, and often followed suit.

Was it all worth it? The question arises because the pendulum is swinging back again: Jeremy Corbyn, the bookies’ favourite to be the next UK prime minister, wants to renationalise the railways, electricity, water and gas. (He has not yet mentioned Pickfords.) Furthermore, he cites these ambitions as a reason to withdraw from the European single market.

That is odd, since there is nothing in single market rules to prevent state ownership of railways and utilities — the excuse seems to be yet another Eurosceptic myth, the leftwing reflection of rightwing tabloids moaning about banana regulation. Since the entire British political class has lost its mind over Brexit, it would be unfair to single out Mr Corbyn on those grounds.

Still, he has reopened a debate that long seemed settled, and piqued my interest. Did privatisation work? Proponents sometimes mention the galvanising effect of the profit motive, or the entrepreneurial spirit of private enterprise. Opponents talk of fat cats and selling off the family silver. Realists might prefer to look at the evidence, and the ambitious UK programme has delivered plenty of that over the years.

There is no reason for a government to own Pickfords, but the calculus of privatisation is more subtle when it comes to natural monopolies — markets that are broadly immune to competition. If I am not satisfied with what Pickford’s has to offer me when I move home, I am not short of options. But the same is not true of the Royal Mail: if I want to write to my MP then the big red pillar box at the end of the street is really the only game in town.

Competition does sometimes emerge in unlikely seeming circumstances. British Telecom seemed to have an iron grip on telephone services in the UK — as did AT&T in the US. The grip melted away in the face of regulation and, more importantly, technological change.

Railways seem like a natural monopoly, yet there are two separate railway lines from my home town of Oxford into London, and two separate railway companies will sell me tickets for the journey. They compete with two bus companies; competition can sometimes seem irrepressible.

But the truth is that competition has often failed to bloom, even when one might have expected it. If I run a bus service at 20 and 50 minutes past the hour, then a competitor can grab my business without competing on price by running a service at 19 and 49 minutes past the hour. Customers will not be well served by that.

Meanwhile electricity and phone companies offer bewildering tariffs, and it is hard to see how water companies will ever truly compete with each other; the logic of geography suggests otherwise.

All this matters because the broad lesson of the great privatisation experiment is that it has worked well when competition has been unleashed, but less well when a government-run business has been replaced by a government-regulated monopoly.

A few years ago, the economist David Parker assembled a survey of post-privatisation performance studies. The most striking thing is the diversity of results. Sometimes productivity soared. Sometimes investors and managers skimmed off all the cream. Revealingly, performance often leapt in the year or two before privatisation, suggesting that state-owned enterprises could be well-run when the political will existed — but that political will was often absent.

My overall reading of the evidence is that privatisation tended to improve profitability, productivity and pricing — but the gains were neither vast nor guaranteed. Electricity privatisation was a success; water privatisation was a disappointment. Privatised railways now serve vastly more passengers than British Rail did. That is a success story but it looks like a failure every time your nose is crushed up against someone’s armpit on the 18:09 from London Victoria.

The evidence suggests this conclusion: the picture is mixed, the details matter, and you can get results if you get the execution right. Our politicians offer a different conclusion: the picture is stark, the details are irrelevant, and we metaphorically execute not our policies but our opponents.

The pendulum swings — but shows no sign of pausing in the centre.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 29 September 2017.

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Fatal Attraction of Fake Facts Sours Political Debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Undercover Economist

When doing nothing is the best option

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Undercover Economist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Undercover Economist

The psychological biases that leave us unprepared for disaster

This column was written and first published a week before Hurricane Harvey struck the US coast. – TH

Who saw the global financial crisis coming, who didn’t and who deserved blame for the forecasting failure? After a decade of debating these questions, I wonder whether we shouldn’t be asking a different one: even if we had clearly seen the crisis coming, would it have made a difference? Perhaps — but perhaps not.

Consider New Orleans in 2004. With a terrible hurricane bearing down on the city, officials realised that the situation was grim. The levees were in disrepair and a storm surge could flood the low-lying city. A hundred thousand residents would be unable to evacuate without help, and not enough help was available. A plan was hatched to evacuate families to the Superdome, a sports stadium, but managers there warned that it simply could not house so many. If only there had been more warning of disaster.

Some readers will recall, though, that the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina took place in 2005. The storm of 2004 was Hurricane Ivan, which, after lashing the Caribbean, weakened and turned aside from New Orleans. The city had been given almost a full year’s warning of the gaps in its defences.

The near miss led to much discussion but little action. When Hurricane Katrina hit the city, evacuation proved as impractical and the Superdome as inadequate as had been expected. The levees broke in more than 50 places, and about 1,500 people died. New Orleans was gutted. It was an awful failure but surely not a failure of forecasting.

Robert Meyer and Howard Kunreuther in The Ostrich Paradox (UK) (US) argue that it is common for institutions and ordinary citizens to make poor decisions in the face of foreseeable natural disasters, sometimes with tragic results. There are many reasons for this, including corruption, perverse incentives or political expediency. But the authors focus on psychological explanations. They identify cognitive rules of thumb that normally work well but serve us poorly in preparing for extreme events.

One such mental shortcut is what the authors term the “amnesia bias”, a tendency to focus on recent experience. We remember more distant catastrophes but we do not feel them viscerally. For example, many people bought flood insurance after watching the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina unfold, but within three years demand for flood insurance had fallen back to pre-Katrina levels.

We cut the same cognitive corners in finance. There are many historical examples of manias and panics but, while most of us know something about the great crash of 1929, or the tulip mania of 1637, those events have no emotional heft. Even the dotcom bubble of 1999-2001, which should at least have reminded everyone that financial markets do not always give sensible price signals, failed to make much impact on how regulators and market participants behaved. Six years was long enough for the lesson to lose its sting.

Another rule of thumb is “optimism bias”. We are often too optimistic, at least about our personal situation, even in the midst of a more generalised pessimism. In 1980, the psychologist Neil Weinstein published a study showing that people did not dwell on risks such as cancer or divorce. Yes, these things happen, Professor Weinstein’s subjects told him: they just won’t happen to me.

The same tendency was on display as Hurricane Sandy closed in on New Jersey in 2012. Robert Meyer found that residents of Atlantic City reckoned that the chance of being hit was more than 80 per cent. That was too gloomy: the National Hurricane Center put it at 32 per cent. Yet few people had plans to evacuate, and even those who had storm shutters often had no intention of installing them.

Surely even an optimist should have taken the precautions of installing the storm shutters? Why buy storm shutters if you do not erect them when a storm is coming? Messrs Meyer and Kunreuther point to “single action bias”: confronted with a worrying situation, taking one or two positive steps often feels enough. If you have already bought extra groceries and refuelled the family car, surely putting up cumbersome storm shutters is unnecessary?

Reading the psychological literature on heuristics and bias sometimes makes one feel too pessimistic. We do not always blunder. Individuals can make smart decisions, whether confronted with a hurricane or a retirement savings account. Financial markets do not often lose their minds. If they did, active investment managers might find it a little easier to outperform the tracker funds. Governments, too, can learn lessons and erect barriers against future trouble.

Still, because things often do work well, we forget. The old hands retire; bad memories lose their jolt; we grow cynical about false alarms. Yesterday’s prudence is today’s health-and-safety-gone-mad. Small wonder that, 10 years on, senior Federal Reserve official Stanley Fischer is having to warn against “extremely dangerous and extremely short-sighted” efforts to dismantle financial regulations. All of us, from time to time, prefer to stick our heads in the sand.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 18 August 2017.

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