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

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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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
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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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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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Stephen Hawking’s restless scientific curiosity pulled us all in

A few months ago, my teenage daughter and I went to see a lecture by Stephen Hawking at Oxford’s Mathematical Institute. The event had been postponed once because he was unwell; I worried that his body might finally give out, albeit five decades later than doctors had expected. Yet a new date was set and Hawking duly arrived, as if from another world, to deliver a spellbinding talk in his distinctive synthetic voice.

I had given a lecture myself at the same venue earlier, striking a pessimistic tone: it was easy to pollute the stream of conversation about science and statistics, I said, and simply intoning the facts would not dispel misinformation. Hawking, who died this week, went some way to restoring my hope. He showed that it was possible to communicate difficult ideas, if you went about it in the right way.

What was his secret? He acknowledged that his disability attracted the spotlight, but there was much more going on than the spectacle of a brilliant mind in a malfunctioning body.

First, he did not patronise his audience: presenting the most complicated ideas was a sign that he respected our intelligence. If we did not grasp everything, we would still be better off for having tried.

“I know the book is difficult,” he commented after his A Brief History of Time (UK) (US) had become a bestseller. “It does not matter too much if people can’t follow all the arguments. They can still get the flavour of the intellectual quest.”

That instinct was right. His talk demanded concentration. Most of it was beyond my daughter. Much of it was beyond me. Then Hawking would crack a joke about hairy black holes, and the audience would all be back on the same page, laughing, and ready for another attempt to scale the intellectual heights.

Second, he was immensely curious. “My goal is simple, “ he said. “It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.”

That sort of curiosity is contagious. It makes us want to join his hunt for answers, rather than passively receiving (or rejecting) information from an expert who claims to know them already.

The third quality followed from the first two: unlike some public intellectuals, Hawking was not very interested in conflict for the sake of it. The economist Paul Krugman and the biologist Richard Dawkins are instructive contrasts to Hawking: both are brilliant communicators, but they often present their ideas as a battle between good and evil, wisdom and stupidity.

When you have a noble cause it can be tempting to pursue it in an antagonistic way: Economy, a charity that aims to improve economics literacy, has been fundraising with an endorsement from writer George Monbiot saying that economists are “a pox on the planet”.

These insults seem to work, at first. If you call out your opponents as fools, knaves, or even transmissible diseases, you enthuse your own supporters. But you will win few new converts when every issue becomes a matter of tribal loyalty.

We humans are social creatures. Given a choice between being right on a partisan question (abortion, guns, Brexit, globalisation, climate change) and having mistaken views that our friends and neighbours support, we would rather be wrong and stay in the tribe. This becomes clear in surveys of views on climate change: college-educated Republicans and Democrats are further apart on the topic than those who are less educated.

If our goal is to persuade, the curiosity-driven approach works better than the conflict-driven one: the evidence suggests that curious people are less subject to the temptations of partisanship. When the national conversation becomes polarised, we need to encourage curiosity about how things work rather than them-and-us tribalism.

Hawking, of course, did have robust political views. He criticised the UK health secretary Jeremy Hunt for cherry-picking evidence on the National Health Service and spoke out against Brexit. But after the referendum went the other way, he continued to argue in favour of mutual understanding and solving problems together, rather than dismissing voters as ignorant.

If experts want to persuade us to wrap our minds around a complex issue, they need to get us to abandon our cynicism towards unwelcome information. It does no harm to be the most recognisable scientist on the planet, but Hawking also understood that insults do not work. Instead, he treated us with respect and fired our enthusiasm.

Towards the end of his lecture, after a difficult discussion of quantum effects near the boundary of a black hole, Hawking offered a simpler idea: “If you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up. There is a way out.”

It was a message any teenager could hold on to. I sat next to my daughter and thought about how Hawking had lived such a rich life under the burden of an apparently unbeatable illness.

We have been told that people have had enough of experts. That is true for some experts. It wasn’t true for Stephen Hawking.



Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 16 March 2018.

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A clever nudge to improve diversity

In the introduction to my book, The Undercover Economist, I invite readers to imagine that, as they leaf through the pages, there’s an economist sitting nearby. Because he’s an economist, he sees things — hidden patterns, curious puzzles — that they might not notice. The book had been out for a decade when a young economist wrote to me. She had a simple question: why was my undercover economist a “he”?

I was reminded of the question this week by the musician David Byrne’s embarrassment. Mr Byrne, formerly of Talking Heads, has just realised that his new album is a string of collaborations with men. He apologised for being “part of the problem”.

It is easy for white men in a white man’s world to do this sort of thing without malice — almost by default. Sometimes we need a nudge to do better. Frances McDormand has just such a nudge in mind. Accepting her second Oscar for best actress on Sunday, she invited every female nominee in the room to stand up. “Look around, ladies and gentlemen, because we all have stories to tell and projects we need financed,” she said. Adding a final enigmatic phrase: “inclusion rider”.

Inclusion rider? The idea was proposed a couple of years ago by media researcher Stacy Smith. Ms Smith observed that minor characters could easily be demographically representative of a film’s setting — which is likely to mean more women, more ethnic minorities and more disabled actors on screen. An A-List celebrity could simply insist on this requirement — an inclusion rider — in his or her contract.

This is a clever nudge. A straightforward demand for “more diversity”, however reasonable, can be evaded. A black Superman or female Gandalf apparently feels too bold for some studio executives. But the inclusion rider clause is specific and straightforward to satisfy; nobody is going to die in a ditch to make sure that straight white men get all the bit-part roles. Off-screen jobs could be covered, too. And it’s easy to imagine Hollywood A-listers throwing their weight around on this point.

There is no doubt that Hollywood movies fail any reasonable test of being demographically representative. The most famous test — imperfect but instructive — is named after cartoonist Alison Bechdel. To pass, a movie must contain two women, who talk to each other about something other than a man. A low bar, it might seem, but a surprising number of movies fail.

Despite some prominent examples of more diverse casting (the recent superhero movies Wonder Woman and Black Panther and the Oscar-winning Moonlight, which ironically fails the Bechdel test) it is not obvious that the situation is improving. Even online reviews are dominated by male reviewers.

We shouldn’t blame Hollywood alone for this. Data scientist Ben Blatt, author of Nabokov’s Favourite Word Is Mauve (UK) (US) conducted a computer-aided analysis both of recent fiction bestsellers and classics of the literary canon. One simple test: how often does the word “he” appear, relative to the word “she”?

In The Hobbit (US) (UK), JRR Tolkien’s adventure story that contains a variety of fairytale protagonists, none of them with wombs, the word “he” is used 1,900 times. The word “she” appears only once, referring to Bilbo’s mother. That is an outlier, but Mr Blatt found that many male novelists wrote about a world in which the opposite sex barely existed. This was far less true for female authors.

The economics profession has a particular problem when it comes to diversity, according to research by economists Amanda Bayer and Cecilia Elena Rouse. In the US, more than 50 per cent of both bachelor’s and doctoral “Stem” degrees — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — are now awarded to women. But, in economics, the proportion is just 30 per cent and shows no sign of improvement. Economics is also behind the curve in including some ethnic minorities.

To the extent this reflects discrimination, or a hostile environment for women, that is a disgrace. And if it is purely, or even partially, that young women don’t find economics appealing, we economists should be asking why not. A monoculture in academia is unfair, and it leads to blind spots, like the significance of unpaid housework.

One recent study is a nice reminder that a more inclusive environment can pay dividends. The Norwegian Defence Research Establishment randomly assigned female recruits into mostly male squads of six. During eight weeks of boot camp, the squad members trained together and shared a single dormitory. The experiment markedly shifted the attitudes of the men, with substantial increases in their evaluation of mixed-gender teams, and more egalitarian views on women and housework. “Gender stereotypes are malleable and can be altered by integrating,” noted the economists who ran the experiment.

There is a vast difference between an eight-week boot camp and the experience of watching a movie or reading a book that reflects our diversity. Still, we make what progress we can. I shall follow the topic of inclusion riders with interest. And the mysterious protagonist of The Undercover Economist? That street-smart enigma is now a “she”.
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 9 March 2018.

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Undercover Economist

How referendums break democracies

The Dutch parliament have just agreed to abolish advisory referendums. I don’t blame them. I did not much care for the result of the latest referendum that was held in the UK, so I confess to disliking referendums with the fervour of a sore loser.

The winners no doubt feel more cheerful about the idea but even they may agree with this: the campaigning process was corrosive, and the consequences for the health of British politics have been even worse.

This scepticism might be seen as kicking democracy when it is down. The Pew Research Center found last year that 17 per cent of Americans think military rule would be a good idea, while 22 per cent favoured a strong leader “without interference from parliament or the courts”. The numbers in the UK were fairly similar.

Most of us still believe in democracy, but even its staunchest supporters will admit that it has its flaws. The most obvious of these is that we voters pay little attention to the issues. Consider Jeremy Corbyn’s recent shift; his opposition Labour party now advocates the UK leaving the EU but remaining in the (or “a”) customs union — not to be confused with the single market. This has been roundly agreed to be a significant change in the political landscape. But the now-momentous-seeming distinction between the customs union, the EU and the European single market was obscure to all but the wonkiest of wonks until a couple of years ago (myself included). It surely remains obscure to most voters today.

I do not mean this as a criticism of the voters. Why should we pay attention? We have other things to do. A decade ago, economist Bryan Caplan’s book The Myth of the Rational Voter (UK) (US) argued that it made sense for us to express our misconceptions, prejudices and tribal loyalties at the ballot box, since doing so was almost costless.

A voter thinking of popping to the polls and then trying out a new pizzeria would be perfectly rational in checking out TripAdvisor, rather than the party manifestos. This is because her vote will almost certainly not make any difference to her life, but her choice of restaurant almost certainly will. We vote because we see it as a civic duty, or a way of being part of something bigger than ourselves. Few people go to the polls under the illusion that they will be casting the deciding vote.

If voters are not paying close attention, then what might we expect from a referendum? The psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking, Fast and Slow (UK) (US), writes, “When faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.”

The difficult question in a referendum might be, “Should the UK remain in the EU?”; the easier substitution is, “Do I like the way this country is going?”

Another simple heuristic is this: “If one of the options was awful, they wouldn’t be asking, would they?” Except that in the UK’s referendum on EU membership, for reasons of short-sighted political expediency, they did ask.

Of course, any democratic system is weakened by the fact that voters are not paying close attention. But representative democracy provides a line of defence against voter ignorance, by asking us to elect someone to make considered choices on our behalf.

I can’t fix a blocked drain, so I ask a plumber to do it for me. I am not sure whether that blotch on my cheekbone is malignant, so I ask a doctor. And I am, truth be told, a bit vague about the difference between the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights, which is why I elect an MP who can call on the advice of civil servants and the House of Commons library on my behalf.

I may make the same knee-jerk, tribal decision in an election as in a referendum, but at least I will be assisted by my recognition of longstanding party brands. Just as we recognise brands like Apple, Coke and HSBC, most voters know the difference between Conservative and Labour, or Republican and Democrat. We vote for people who seem to share our instincts and trust them to handle the details.

These brands have another advantage: they provide their owners some modest incentive to tell the truth and keep their promises. The shortlived campaigns that coalesce to fight referendums have no such constraints.

That points to one other disadvantage of a referendum: there is nobody to hold to account after the result. Theresa May campaigned for Remain. Three-quarters of MPs were for Remain. So if the result of the exit process goes badly, who can be blamed? Not them — and we’re certainly not going to blame ourselves. The buck stops nowhere.

No voter can master every issue, and few voters try. Any democratic system must cope with that. Referendums, instead, invite us to ignore the question, give the snake-oil peddlers an edge, concentrate our ignorance into a tightly focused beam, and hold nobody accountable for results. They magnify the vulnerabilities of our democracies and diminish their defences. The Dutch are wise to avoid them.


Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 2 March 2018.

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Undercover Economist

Zombie companies walk among us

For vampires, the weakness is garlic. For werewolves, it’s a silver bullet. And for zombies? Perhaps a rise in interest rates will do the trick. Economists have worried about “zombie companies” for decades. Timothy Taylor, editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, has followed a trail of references back to 1989, noting sightings of these zombies in Japan from the 1990s, and more recently in China.

The fundamental concern is that there are companies which should be dead, yet continue to lumber on, ruining things for everyone. It’s a vivid metaphor — perhaps a little too vivid — and it is likely to be tested over the months and years to come if, as almost everyone expects, central banks continue to raise interest rates back to what veterans might describe as “normal”.

Claudio Borio of the Bank for International Settlements recently gave a speech in which he worried about the tendency of low interest rates to sustain zombie companies. Mr Borio has consistently been concerned about the distorting effects of low interest rates, but the zombie element of his argument adds a new twist.

Researchers at both the BIS and the OECD, the club of wealthy nations, have found evidence that low interest rates seem conducive to the existence of zombies, which they define as older companies that don’t make enough money to service their debts. As interest rates have fallen around the world, such zombies have become more prevalent and have also shown more endurance.

On average, across the US, Japan, Australia and western Europe, the proportion of firms that are zombies has risen fivefold since 1987, from 2 to 10 per cent. The zombies walk among us.

Why should we worry? One obvious answer is that zombies absorb resources. If a zombie retailer occupies a space on the high street, that makes it harder and more expensive for a start-up or a successful competitor to move in. The same goes for any resource from advertising space to electricity, and of course it goes for staff, too.

We would usually expect a thriving company to be able to outbid the walking dead for anything necessary, from a finance director to a unit in an industrial estate. But the status quo always has a certain power, and in some cases, the zombie might be at an unfair advantage.

Consider a zombie bank, propped up by a government guarantee but basically insolvent. Gambling on resurrection, it tries to expand by offering high rates to depositors and cheap loans to creditors. In the late 1980s, Joseph Stiglitz — later to win a Nobel memorial prize in economics — proposed a “Gresham’s law” of savings-and-loan associations based on this tendency: bad associations crowd out good ones.

More recently, the collapse of Carillion, a large British outsourcing and construction firm, showed a similar dynamic. The more Carillion struggled, the more desperate it became to win new business — which meant aggressive bids in competitive auctions, dooming Carillion while starving competitors of business.

Having written an entire book about the importance of failure, I am naturally sympathetic to Mr Borio’s argument. Modern economies have a low failure rate — probably too low.

Still, one should not be too cavalier about this point. To ordinary ears, bankruptcy sounds unambiguously bad. If you spend too much time thinking about zombie firms and economic dynamism, bankruptcy starts to sound unambiguously good.

Cut down those zombies and let highly productive new firms grow in the rich soil, fertilised by those zombie corpses, sounds like — forgive the play on words — a no-brainer.

But should we really be so pleased that so many of the UK’s coal mines, or the auto suppliers of Detroit, have been successfully killed off? If nothing has replaced them, there is nothing to celebrate.

One of the lessons of recent economic research by economists David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson has been that productive new firms do not necessarily spring up as we might have hoped. Mr Autor and his colleagues have, in a series of influential papers, tracked local areas subject to the sudden shock of competition from imported Chinese products. Their conclusion: recovery is neither quick nor automatic.

Nor is it always easy for laid-off workers to stroll into fresh jobs: if you have worked for several years stitching soft toys, then the obvious next step when the toy factory lays you off is to start stitching shirts or trousers instead. Unfortunately, that is also the obvious next move for the importers, or the robots.

We can make a long list of policies that might help new productive firms to get started and expand: education, infrastructure, flexible regulations, small-business finance and so on. There is some evidence in favour of these policies, but no checklist can guarantee results.

Still, that is where to focus our attention as the zombies start to expire. The easier it is to start a new idea, the more hard-nosed we can be about killing off the old ones. It is necessary that the zombies must die, but that cannot be where the story ends.

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

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Oxfam, #MeToo and the psychology of outrage

This week I overheard someone describing Oxfam as “all a bit Jimmy Savile”. When the UK’s most prominent development charity finds itself being compared to the UK’s most infamous sex offender, it’s safe to say that Oxfam has had a bad week.

The allegations are certainly disturbing: that senior Oxfam staff made liberal use of prostitutes in the wake of the catastrophic Haiti earthquake of 2010 — a crime, as well as an abuse of trust — and that Oxfam quietly showed them the door rather than take a blow to its reputation. The blow has landed now, and it is a heavy one. (Oxfam denies there was any cover-up.)

This is hardly the first wave of outrage to break. Before Oxfam there was the Presidents Club dinner — a men-only fundraiser at which waitresses were treated as sex objects. One FT investigation and the organisation was closed within hours.

There was Harvey Weinstein and the emergence of the #MeToo movement from niche to mainstream. There was the UK parliamentary expenses scandal. Then there are campaigns to take Cecil Rhodes’s statue off an Oxford college, and — from a different political direction — campaigns to ban transgender people from using the public bathroom they prefer.

Where does the outrage come from, and why does it seem to emerge so suddenly? Media reporting is often a trigger, but for every hard-hitting investigation that unleashes a sustained storm, a dozen squalls blow over swiftly.

One clue comes from a large research study of jury-style deliberations, conducted by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and David Schkade, along with Cass Sunstein, who has recently been exploring the dynamics of outrage. (Mr Sunstein was a senior official in the Obama administration, co-author with Richard Thaler of Nudge and is a legal scholar at Harvard Law School.)

This study looked at debates over punitive damage awards against corporations. When individual jurors felt a corporate crime was outrageous, the group displayed a “severity shift”. The group’s verdict could be more severe than any individual’s initial impression. The jurors egged each other on.

But juries could also display a “leniency shift”; if individuals thought the crime was trivial the jury as a whole would often feel even less worried. Sometimes we don’t know how to feel until we see how other people feel. We are, rightly, much more relaxed about gay cabinet ministers than we used to be, and this is partly because everyone sees that everyone else feels there is nothing shameful about it.

The severity shift and the leniency shift contribute to outrage being unpredictable. Our initial impressions are reinforced once we see what other people think.

But not all of these shifts are in favour of progressive causes. One experiment — conducted by economists Leonardo Bursztyn, Georgy Egorov, and Stefano Fiorin — examined people’s willingness to support an apparently xenophobic organisation. In 2016, people often wanted anonymity before they were willing to back the xenophobes.

US president Donald Trump changed that. When people were reminded that Mr Trump was leading in the polls in their state, anonymity no longer mattered. When the experiment was rerun after his election victory, the result was the same: some people were xenophobes and some were not, but in the Trump era, nobody kept their xenophobia in the closet.

The force of these jolts to public opinion is amplified by several other factors. Over the past year, it has become safer to speak out about sexual harassment, but it has also become riskier to make light of it. This reinforces the trend.

And the sudden salience of an issue may bring further problems to light. One woman tells her story of sexual assault at the hands of a famous man, and other women come forward to say that he’s done the same thing to them.

Or, since everyone is now concerned about sexual exploitation by Oxfam staff in Haiti, where else has this happened? How often? Journalists ask questions that could not have been asked a decade ago. Regulators open investigations. Other charities scramble to get ahead of the story.

The self-reinforcing dynamics mean that unpredictability is a feature of the outrage system. They also suggest that we need to learn two lessons.

The first is that we should ask ourselves, is there anything that happens in my profession, industry or community that is taken for granted, but that the wider world might view with sudden outrage? The in-crowd may lure each other into viewing transgressions with a leniency-shifted forgiveness. When everyone else pays attention, the leniency shift may flip to a severity shift.

The second is to beware tribalism. Outrage may be unpredictable, but once it has grown it is easy to manipulate for political ends, whether noble or reprehensible. Surrounded as we are with people who share our sense of outrage, it is easy to wonder why some other group just doesn’t seem to feel the same way.

Righteous outrage is a powerful weapon, and one that has smashed many barriers of injustice. We should pull the trigger of that weapon with care, not with abandon.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 16 February 2018.

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