Tim Harford The Undercover Economist

Articles published in November, 2019

Cautionary Tales Ep 4 – The Deadly Airship Race

A British Lord wanted to build the best airship in the world – and so he had two rival design teams battle it out to win the juicy government contract. Competition is supposed to bring the best out of people, but run in the wrong way it can cause people (and the things they make) to fall apart in the most horrifying ways.

Featuring: Alan Cumming, Russell Tovey, Rufus Wright, Melanie Gutteridge, Enzo Cilenti and Ed Gaughan.

Producers: Ryan Dilley and Marilyn Rust. Sound design/mix/musical composition: Pascal Wyse. Fact checking: Joseph Fridman. Editor: Julia Barton. Recording: Wardour Studios, London. GSI Studios, New York. PR: Christine Ragasa.

Thanks to the team at Pushkin Industries, Heather Fain, Mia Lobel, Carly Migliori, Jacob Weisberg, and of course, the mighty Malcolm Gladwell.

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Further reading

Two recent and comprehensive books are Bill Hammack’s Fatal Flight (about the R101) and John Anderson’s Airship on a Shoestring

An excellent – but one-sided – account of the airship race is Nevil Shute Norway’s Slide Rulewhile the case for Lord Thomson’s defence is put in Peter Masefield’s To Ride The Storm.  Alfred Roubaille’s description of the crash is from Nigel Blundell’s The World’s Greatest Mistakes.

The BBC made a documentary about R101, including eye-witness accounts. So did the History Channel.

The academic studies:

Dan Ariely, Uri Gneezy, George Loewenstein, Nina Mazar, “Large Stakes and Big Mistakes” The Review of Economic Studies, Volume 76, Issue 2, April 2009, Pages 451–469, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-937X.2009.00534.x

Robert Drago and Gerald T Garvey “Incentives for Helping on the Job: Theory and Evidence”
Journal of Labor Economics, 1998, vol. 16, issue 1, 1-25 http://dx.doi.org/10.1086/209880 

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Why we should all be playing games

“British politics is full of people who think they’re playing mah-jong but they’re actually playing Ludo.” Wise words from Robert Shrimsley on the Financial Times’s politics podcast — but I fear the situation is even worse. British politics may be full of people who aren’t playing any good games at all. That would be a shame for them, and for us. Games are wonderful; we should all be playing more of them.

In truth, any sort of serious hobby seems to be valuable. Many of the smartest people have at least one: Albert Michelson, the physicist who measured the speed of light and won a Nobel Prize, painted well, played the violin, and was a seriously good billiards player.

Billiards is a good game,” he once announced. But it was not as good as painting. Painting was not as good as music. “But then music is not as good a game as physics.” Michelson was not alone. One long-running study of scientists, begun by the psychologist Bernice Eiduson in 1958, found that the most successful scientists tended to pursue arts, sports or music to a high level. In contrast, the less successful scientists “had no comments on hobbies or artistic proclivities either because they had none or found them irrelevant to their work”.

But of all the deep pastimes one might embrace there’s nothing quite like a tabletop game to sharpen the mind, strengthen friendships and ease the soul. A quick internet search will produce countless explanations of why boardgames are good for children — they get them away from screens and social media, subvert family hierarchies, allow them to experience success and failure in a safe environment, and teach social and cognitive skills.

I have no argument with any of that, but games should not just be for children. All those benefits accrue to adults, too.

Almost a decade ago I interviewed Klaus Teuber, creator of The Settlers of Catan, one of the best and most successful modern boardgames. “You can know someone for 10 years,” Mr Teuber told me, “and the first time you play a game with them you see a side you never saw before.”

It’s true. A good game is a refreshing change of tone from gossip or dinner party chit-chat about politics or house prices, yet it remains a convivial activity for consenting adults.

Games can be a serious matter, of course. War games have been used by the military since the early 1800s, when the Prussian army’s love of Kriegsspiel was widely thought to be one of the secrets of their military success. A tabletop war game uses models to represent troops, dice to represent the vicissitudes of war, and an umpire to introduce the possibility of miscommunication. It teaches deeper lessons than simply thinking and planning, while being just as safe.

Thomas Schelling — a cold war strategist and winner of the Nobel Prize in economics — once wrote: “One thing a person cannot do, no matter how rigorous his analysis or heroic his imagination, is to draw up a list of things that would never occur to him.” War games offer a solution to that conundrum: the experience of trying to outwit a gaming opponent makes the unimaginable start to seem familiar.

More elaborate field exercises can produce a great deal of understanding. Steven Johnson, author of Farsighted, argues that a major US Navy war game exercise in 1932, “Fleet Problem XIII”, highlighted the vulnerability of US naval bases to attack from Japan. The game produced the insight, if anyone cared to use it.

But the highest form of gaming is, of course, the role-playing game, of which Dungeons & Dragons is the most famous example. Role-playing games are notoriously difficult to describe, but they combine the dice-rolling rules of a war game with the long-running characters of a soap opera, and a healthy dose of improvised theatre and “let’s pretend”.

Martin Lloyd, the creator of the children’s role-playing game Amazing Tales, argues that such games have all sorts of benefits: they bring friends together, inspire individual and collective creativity and require problem-solving. They have sometimes been used with more ambitious therapeutic goals in mind — for example, to help people on the autism spectrum develop social skills, and as an alternative to group therapy for military veterans. But for most gamers the point of games is that they are enjoyable in a deeper way than most mere entertainments. They create moments of enchantment to rival the finest music or theatre. A good game has you solving puzzles, throwing yourself into improvised acting, and then helpless with tears of laughter. The friendships I’ve forged over the gaming table have been the ones that have lasted.

But Mr Teuber put it best. “Every day we work hard and we make mistakes and we are punished for those mistakes. Games take us to another role where you can make mistakes and you don’t get punished for them. You can always start another game.”


Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 1 November 2019.

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Cautionary Tales Ep 3 – LaLa Land: Galileo’s Warning

Galileo tried to teach us that when we add more and more layers to a system intended to avert disaster, those layers of complexity may eventually be what causes the catastrophe. His basic lesson has been ignored in nuclear power plants, financial markets and at the Oscars…all resulting in chaos.

Featuring: Archie Panjabi, Mircea Monroe, Enzo Cilenti, Ed Gaughan and Rufus Wright

Producers: Ryan Dilley and Marilyn Rust. Sound design/mix/musical composition: Pascal Wyse. Fact checking: Joseph Fridman. Editor: Julia Barton. Recording: Wardour Studios, London. GSI Studios, New York. PR: Christine Ragasa.

Thanks to the team at Pushkin Industries, Heather Fain, Mia Lobel, Carly Migliori, Jacob Weisberg, and of course, the mighty Malcolm Gladwell.

[Apple] [Spotify] [Stitcher]


Further reading

Among many, many journalistic accounts of the LaLa Land / Moonlight mix-up, try the Hollywood Reporter’s oral history and the BBC’s Truth Behind Envelopgate.

Benjamin Bannister on typography at the Oscars.

Galileo’s Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences.

Charles Perrow’s Normal Accidents introduces the idea of complex, tightly-coupled systems and has good accounts both of the Three Mile Island and the Fermi reactor accidents. Just after we’d recorded the episode, I heard the sad news that Charles had died on November 12th. He’ll be missed.

The official report of the commission investigating Three Mile Island, chaired by John Kemeny.

Meltdown by Chris Clearfield and Andras Tilcik first drew the link between Perrow’s work and the La La Land fiasco. It’s a great book; check it out.

Dowell and Hendershott’s classic article about backfiring safety systems is No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Case Studies of Incidents and Potential Incidents Caused by Protective Systems.

Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things discusses confusing instrumentation.

My previous article What Banks Should Learn From A Nuclear Reactor uses Charles Perrow’s ideas to draw parallels between banking and nuclear accidents.

Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big Too Fail has the scoop on what happened when Bob Willumstad met Tim Geithner.

The new three-envelope system was described in Vanity Fair.



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What exactly is so bad about uncertainty, anyway?

The one certainty in politics at the moment is that it is uncertain. From a British point of view, there is the apparently endless game-playing over Brexit — coupled with the looming prospect of an unpredictable and highly consequential general election. I’m sure I don’t need to elaborate on the situation in the US.

The received wisdom is that political uncertainty is bad news, at least for the economy. Is that really true? And, if so, why? If we understand the problem a little better we may also have a sense of whether there is any chance of improvement.

The evidence from the research of various economists suggests that uncertainty is indeed a brake on economic activity. Nuno Limão and colleagues have shown that uncertainty over trade policy is itself a kind of barrier to trade. Meredith Crowley and colleagues have found that UK companies were less likely to enter EU markets, and more likely to exit, if those markets were more exposed to the risk of a breakdown in Brexit negotiations. And Nicholas Bloom has found that uncertainty — measured in various ways — tends to be a cause of recessions as well as a consequence. So the problem is real, but what exactly is causing it?

One theory is that there is something deeply unsettling about ambiguity. Back in 1961, a promising young economist named Daniel Ellsberg explored this issue in the Quarterly Journal of Economics. (Mr Ellsberg later became far better known as the whistleblower who leaked the Pentagon Papers.)

Mr Ellsberg imagined a gamble involving two urns, each known to contain a hundred red or black balls in total. The first urn contains 50 red and 50 black balls. The second has an unknown mix. Let’s say I offer to pay you $100 if the ball you draw out of an urn is red. From which urn would you prefer to pick — the first or the second? Most people prefer the first. But people also prefer the first urn if they are paid $100 for a black ball instead. It’s not that they feel their chances are better — logically, the first urn cannot possibly be a better choice for both red and black. It’s just that . . . well, the known risk feels less uncomfortable than the ambiguous risk.

That aversion to the unknown may explain part of why uncertainty seems to corrode the foundations of the economy. But I suspect that the main problem is something far less ethereal.

Imagine you are an entrepreneur with plans and permits to build, say, a cardboard recycling facility in Peterborough. If there is a fairly soft Brexit, or no Brexit at all, you think that a large plant would be profitable. If there is a hard Brexit, or even no deal, you still think you can make money with a smaller installation. What do you do?

Simple: you wait. You wait even though you would want to build some kind of factory under any circumstances. You wait because you will make a better decision if the Brexit uncertainty resolves itself. The uncertainty makes it more profitable to delay.

That’s the theory. What do the data suggest? In the UK, private sector investment is remarkably weak, given that the UK has not been in a recession. In fact, it is hard to find a parallel where a growing UK economy has been accompanied by such feeble investment. This weakness has persisted since about the time of the 2016 referendum. It is weak both historically and compared with the situation in the US and Germany. Perhaps that is all a coincidence, but I rather doubt it.

In the face of uncertainty, companies will value flexibility. The economists Benjamin Nabarro and Christian Schulz, contributing to the Green Budget of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, make an intriguing argument. They speculate that given persistent Brexit uncertainty, this desire for flexibility is being satisfied by hiring workers instead of making large investments in capital. That is a way to expand output without doing anything irreversible. It’s good news for jobs, and bad news for investment and productivity.

My example of the cardboard recycling plant implied that uncertainty will tend to depress investment, but uncertainty is not always an obstacle in that way. If the building permit for that recycling facility was about to expire, making this a now-or-never decision, you would find yourself making your best guess and building something. If the uncertainty would not be resolved until 2025, you might also decide the costs of delay were too great, and build immediately.

There are even cases where uncertainty encourages exploratory investments: not knowing what will happen, you try to ensure that you have a toehold in every possible future. For example, the mere possibility that a large country’s government might get serious about climate change encourages research into low-carbon technologies.

Not all uncertainty depresses investment, then. But if there is a scenario guaranteed to put everyone’s plans on ice, it is this: a major decision with weighty consequences that is forever being postponed. If that reminds you of anything, you are not alone.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 25 October 2019.

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Cautionary Tales Ep 2 – The Rogue Dressed as a Captain

One crisp Berlin morning, in 1906, a small group of soldiers were led on an extraordinary heist by a man they believed to be a captain. So how did an ageing nobody in a fake uniform trick them into taking part in the crime of the century? Some say we humans will obey orders from anyone who dresses the part… but the real reason why we fall for tricksters time and again is far more interesting. Fraudsters and charlatans reel us in slowly by using psychology against us.

Featuring: Alan Cumming, Russell Tovey, Rufus Wright, Melanie Gutteridge and Ed Gaughan.

Producers: Ryan Dilley and Marilyn Rust. Sound design/mix/musical composition: Pascal Wyse. Fact checking: Joseph Fridman. Editor: Julia Barton. Recording: Wardour Studios, London. GSI Studios, New York. PR: Christine Ragasa.

Thanks to the team at Pushkin Industries, Heather Fain, Mia Lobel, Carly Migliori, Jacob Weisberg, and of course, the mighty Malcolm Gladwell.

[Apple] [Spotify] [Stitcher]


Further reading

The best English-language account I could find of the Kopenick story is by Benjamin Carter Hett. “The ‘Captain of Köpenick’ and the Transformation of German Criminal Justice, 1891-1914,” Central European History 36 (1), 2003.

I first read about the story in Nigel Blundell’s The World’s Greatest Mistakes. Other accounts are at Strange History  and The Rags of TimeKoepenickia offers various contemporary German newspaper accounts. There are many small differences in the accounts but the overall story remains just as remarkable.

The definitive account of Stanley Milgram’s experiments is Gina Perry’s Behind the Shock Machine and Alex Haslam was interviewed by Radiolab in a great episode about the same topic.

An overview of the evidence on tall presidents is Gert Stulp, Abraham P. Buunk, Simon Verhulst, Thomas V. Pollet, “Tall claims? Sense and nonsense about the importance of height of US presidentsThe Leadership Quarterly  Volume 24, Issue 1, 2013.

The study of gubernatorial elections is Daniel J Benjamin & Jesse M Shapiro, 2009. “Thin-Slice Forecasts of Gubernatorial ElectionsThe Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 91(3), pages 523-536, 02.

Daniel Hamermesh’s Beauty Pays looks at the overall evidence that appearances matter – including in politics.



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Cautionary Tales Ep 1 – DANGER: Rocks Ahead!


Torrey Canyon was one of the biggest and best ships in the world – nevertheless its captain and crew needlessly steered it towards a deadly reef known as The Seven Stones. This risky manoeuvre seems like utter madness, but the thinking behind it is something we are all prone to do when we fixate on a goal and a plan to get us there.

Featuring: Enzo Cilenti, Ed Gaughan, Rufus Wright and Melanie Gutteridge.

Producers: Ryan Dilley and Marilyn Rust. Sound design/mix/musical composition: Pascal Wyse. Fact checking: Joseph Fridman. Editor: Julia Barton. Recording: Wardour Studios, London. GSI Studios, New York. PR: Christine Ragasa.

Thanks to the team at Pushkin Industries, Heather Fain, Mia Lobel, Carly Migliori, Jacob Weisberg, and of course, the mighty Malcolm Gladwell.

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Further reading

Two authoritative books were written about Torrey Canyon shortly after the events described in the podcast, and I’ve relied on both of them.

One is Oil and Water by Edward Cowan, and the other is The Black Tide by Richard Petrow. Both excellent, both long out of print.

For a more contemporary discussion of plan continuation bias I strongly recommend Meltdown by Chris Clearfield and Andras Tilcik.

This book also contains a good description of Marlys Christianson’s study of plan continuation bias in emergency rooms, “More and less effective updating” in Administrative Science Quarterly 2018.

The study of landings at Hartsfield-Jackson airport is Chris A. West’s “The Barn Door Effect“.

The dark tale of Sir Cloudesley Shovell is told in Dava Sobel’s hugely enjoyable book Longitudealthough I am sceptical Sir Cloudesley actually survived long enough for anyone to murder him.



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The weakest link theory that explains our economic woes


I was delighted to see Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer announced as winners of the Nobel memorial prize in economics. By championing the use of randomised controlled trials in development projects, they have added large and useful doses of rigorous evidence to a discipline that can be overfond of reasoning from a comfortable armchair.

The spotlight this week has understandably been on Prof Duflo. She is a superb economist, highly charismatic and the youngest winner by far. She is also only the second woman to win the prize, after Lin Ostrom in 2009. Since Prof Ostrom was a political scientist, and not as well known in the economics profession as she should have been, Prof Duflo is arguably the first female economist to win the prize. That has huge symbolic importance for a profession that continues to struggle with diversity.

All three winners have made major contributions beyond the championing of randomised trials that won them the prize. Prof Kremer, in particular, has made an unusual series of insights. With Seema Jayachandran, he proposed a way to constrict funding to oppressive or corrupt regimes. An international court could declare that their borrowing was “odious” and need not be repaid by a successor government. This declaration would dissuade banks from lending in the first place.

With his wife, Rachel Glennerster, now chief economist of the UK’s Department for International Development, he set out the case for an “advanced market commitment” to fund the development of vaccines and medicines that the market would otherwise be unlikely to provide. That proposal later took shape as a $1.5bn fund to pay for a pneumococcal meningitis vaccine that did not yet exist. Several hundred million children have since received the vaccine.

Then there’s Prof Kremer’s O-ring Theory of Development, which demonstrates just how far one can see from that comfortable armchair. The failure of vulnerable rubber “O-rings” destroyed the Challenger space shuttle in 1986; Kremer borrowed that image for his theory, which — simply summarised — is that for many production processes, the weakest link matters.

Consider a meal at a fancy restaurant. If the ingredients are stale, or the sous-chef has the norovirus, or the chef is drunk and burns the food, or the waiter drops the meal in the diner’s lap, or the lavatories are backing up and the entire restaurant smells of sewage, it doesn’t matter what else goes right. The meal is only satisfactory if none of these things go wrong.

Once you start to think about O-ring problems, you see them everywhere. A bank is useless if you can’t trust it to keep your money safe from hackers. The most stylish and comfortable car is worth nothing without reliable brakes. You can build a sophisticated factory in a jungle but your efforts will be in vain if you can’t keep the road to it open.

What’s less obvious is that the logic of O-ring problems dramatically changes the way an organisation — or an entire economy — works. Because a single failure can doom an entire project, several things follow. The first is that like attracts like: the best chef does his or her best work with the best suppliers and the best waiters in the best kitchen. It is pointless to ask the best waiter to serve poisonous slop made by an incompetent chef, and pointless to ask the best chef to prepare meals into which an incompetent waiter will sneeze. To spread out the talent is to squander it.

(Prof Kremer’s own career offers an example: he was a research assistant for a paper co-authored by Larry Summers, future US Treasury Secretary. Another assistant was Sheryl Sandberg, future Facebook chief operating officer. High performers seek out high performers.)

The second implication is that inequality is endemic. Since the most skilled workers have the most skilled colleagues and the best equipment, they are vastly more productive than others who are only fractionally less skilled. A modest variation in skills leads to a huge variation in wages. This is why blue-chip companies recruit only from elite colleges and universities. Why take a chance on someone whose face doesn’t fit? Policymakers trying to create a more equal society must find some way to swim against this tide.

Third, O-ring economies are self-perpetuating. If an economy has undrivable roads, unreliable electricity, impassable queues at customs, corrupt courts, and untrained workers . . . well, where is progress to come from? Improve the roads and you’ll still be foiled by the electricity; train the workers and the crooked legal system will still take you down.

For an individual, the question is how much education should I try to acquire? It depends on how much skill others have. If I can’t reach a job market full of highly competent people, there is little point in wasting time and effort developing skills that will be wasted.

The O-ring model is merely a simple way of thinking about how an economy might work — albeit one that seems packed with insight. Prof Kremer didn’t stay in his armchair for long. He and this year’s other winners have been demonstrating just how much economics, wisely used, can deliver.


Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 18 October 2019.

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Hug your enemy rather than wrestling the pig

Brexit has already taken quite a toll on the British economy, and worse may be lying in wait. But the political damage seems graver. Lies, threats and insults have become ubiquitous. So has open contempt both for the opposite side and for once-respected institutions. As for the situation in Northern Ireland, or diplomatic relations between the UK and the rest of the EU, let’s not even think about it. (The English usually don’t.)

It’s tempting to obsess about the tone of politics, but that is a trap. If we spend our time wringing our hands over the form of the political conversation, it leaves little space to think about the content. Remember the lesson of the lie on the bus: a fact-checking dispute about the UK’s contributions to the EU successfully consumed all the oxygen in the 2016 referendum, leaving no breathing space for a discussion of the issues involved. The exact claim didn’t matter: what mattered was that in order to dominate attention it had to be palpably false.

This season’s versions of the lie on the bus are the insult and the threat. Boris Johnson specialises in the insult. A freshly coined one this week was “uncooperative crusties”, although his crass responses to MPs reminding him of Jo Cox’s murder will live longer in the memory. The prime minister’s adviser Dominic Cummings prefers the threat — recall his infamous clash with the MP Karl Turner, who complained, “I’ve had death threats overnight”, to which Mr Cummings retorted, indefensibly, “Get Brexit done”.

Yet it was Mr Turner who started the altercation, with camera in tow. It added to the bitter circus, while distracting from the absurdity of demanding that anyone “get Brexit done” — which makes as much sense as telling a pregnant woman “get the child done”. Mr Cummings will have been pleased enough with that distraction.

A no-deal Brexit would be the beginning of a bitter negotiation about what comes next. Agreeing on a deal would require previously undiscovered capacity for compromise and, again, would begin further discussion. Even revoking Article 50 and calling the whole thing off, presumably after a bitterly fought referendum, would hardly end the matter. There is no “done” here — just a long journey ahead.

Wherever that journey may lead, we need to find a way to get along with each other along the way. So here are three ideas. First, we should do ourselves and each other the favour of engaging with the issues. From the Irish border to the sense of hopelessness in some British towns, there are problems to solve. Next time you’re faced with someone whose politics who dislike, you may get along better if you discuss what can be done to help Blackpool or Merthyr Tydfil rather than which politician is the most despicable.

Second, we should try to avoid scorning people who seem — to us — underinformed. That’s partly because it behoves us to show humility: most of us know less than we think about how the world around us really works. How many of us can honestly say we’d thought through the difference between the single market and the customs union until after the referendum? How many can honestly say we fully understand it now? But it’s also because sneering at someone’s ignorance is a missed opportunity to explore an issue together. Most people we meet have something to teach us, and we have something to teach them.

Third, and most important, we need to remember that the people on the other side of the debate are still people — and usually people who, like us, want the best for themselves and the country. In response to the times we live in, my wife, a portrait photographer, has taken to asking people if they’re willing to be photographed hugging somebody who disagrees with them. Of course, the politicians refuse: Andrew Adonis and Nigel Farage had no interest in cuddling for her camera.

But what has been striking is that nobody else wants to hug across the political divide either. The request is not to hug Messrs Farage or Corbyn or Trump, but to hug an ordinary acquaintance with whom you disagree. As a Remainer, would you be willing to hug a Leaver, or vice versa? People hate the idea. Hugs are nice. But hug one of them? Never.

Fine. Perhaps the hug is too much for we emotionally reserved Brits. But if not a hug, might we at least hope for a handshake and a respectful conversation, rather than ostracism or shouting?

At the moment, everyone seems to agree that half the people in the country are ignorant, wicked or both. The only disagreement is over which half. A few people — some in politics, some in the media — find fertile ground in this outrage. It’s barren for the rest of us. We can do better.

One starting point is the old proverb, “Don’t wrestle with a pig. You get dirty and the pig enjoys it.” There’s truth in that. We just need to find a version that doesn’t dismiss our opponents as pigs.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 11 October 2019.

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Cautionary Tales…

Exciting news – I have a new podcast series ready to burst out upon an unsuspecting world. It’s called Cautionary Tales – true stories of catastrophe and fiasco, sparkling with top acting talent, with the aim of making you wiser with every word. I’m writing and presenting the series and will be adding a soupcon of social science to the narrative. [Apple] [Spotify] [Stitcher]

While you wait for the first episodes to drop on November 15th, I thought I’d share a few of my favourite books about making mistakes.

I received Nigel Blundell’s The World’s Greatest Mistakes as a Christmas gift when I was a child – a strange and compelling array of catastrophes, from famous air crashes and military blunders to amusing vignettes such as the bride who accidentally married the best man. The stories seemed well researched (although no list of references) and were briskly told. That book is long out of print, but I suspect that Blundell’s new book A Century of Man-Made Disasters will have similar qualities.

Levy and Salvadori’s modern classic Why Buildings Fall Down is a skilfully illustrated and fascinating way to learn about structural engineering by studying what happens when it all goes wrong.

For books about human error you could take a look at my list of my favourite behavioural economics books but try also Kathryn Schulz’s beautiful meditation on error, Being Wrongand Tavris and Aronson’s excellent Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) James Reason’s more technical quasi-textbook Human Error.  

And for the all-important intersection of the maths-comedy-error Venn diagram, Matt Parker’s delightful Humble Pi


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The risks in raising the minimum wage

You can have too much of a good thing. Somebody should mention this to Sajid Javid, the UK’s new chancellor of the exchequer. This week he announced an increase in the minimum wage to two-thirds of the median wage, bringing it to around £10.50 per hour. His plans are to come to fruition in 2024, assuming there are no unforeseen events in British politics in the interim.

The US House of Representatives has the same deadline in mind for a plan to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15. After the 2020 election, they may get their way.

I fear that we are creeping towards a serious mistake — maybe not now, but soon. And it isn’t too late to correct it. There are three elements to the mistake. The first is the scale of the changes afoot. When the minimum wage was first introduced in the UK in the late 1990s, only a few hundred thousand workers were paid it. Last year, 2m workers received the minimum wage. And according to the Resolution Foundation, a think-tank that has been strongly supportive of increases in the minimum wage, if it had been at two-thirds of median income last year, nearly 5m workers would have been covered — rather than 2m. Mr Javid’s proposal is a dramatic expansion in the number of people whose wages are set by the government rather than by supply and demand. The proposals in the US are even more seismic. This is a bigger idea than most people realise; let us hope it is also a good one.

The second element of the mistake is to politicise the minimum wage. That is old news in the US, where it see-saws up and down according to the whims of Congress. Over the decades it has been as low as $4.17 and as high as $11.55 in today’s money. The last sharp increase was in 2007-2009 — that is, in the teeth of the great recession. Most countries use a formula or a technocratic committee to set the minimum wage. The UK was among them, until 2015, when one of Mr Javid’s predecessors, George Osborne, decided there might be some fleeting political advantage in sidelining the committee and claiming credit for raising the minimum wage. Mr Javid has done likewise. British politics, after all, has had enough of experts.

This is unwise because the judgment of where to set the minimum wage is essentially a technocratic one. There is a trade-off. When we forbid an employer to pay less, we hope that low-paid workers will get a pay rise, but fear that they will simply get the sack. The trade-off requires evidence to assess. What’s more, the trade-off is asymmetric. Any rise in the minimum wage earns immediate praise, while the jobs lost are lost gradually, as firms ponder new hires or buy labour-saving machines. When benefits are immediate and costs are delayed and hidden, it is best for everyone’s sake to delegate the decision to someone who isn’t running for re-election.

Nor is it easy to undo a mistake. Once a minimum wage rises too far, and the new machine is installed or the factory is moved offshore, reversing the policy will not easily bring the old jobs back.

The third element of this potential mistake is the rebranding of the minimum wage as a “national living wage”. This is a serious conceptual error. A minimum wage should be set with reference to the trade-off between better pay and fewer jobs. That is true whether it is half what anyone could live on, or 10 times as much.

I’m all in favour of everyone having enough income to live on — and in a rich country such as the UK or the US, “enough to live on” should mean much more than just food, clothes and shelter. But if a decent living wage is higher than a minimum wage that would destroy jobs by the million, that is not a problem that minimum-wage legislation can solve. Instead, it requires the government to provide some kind of basic income or tax credit. Mr Osborne’s rebranding of the minimum wage was coupled with reductions in tax credits; it was the perfect smokescreen. In the longer term, a minimum wage needs to be bolstered by investment in education, infrastructure and other productivity measures that allow every worker a chance to earn a good wage. If workers don’t have an environment in which they can be productive, higher pay cannot simply be wished into existence.

I don’t mean to strike a tone that is too apocalyptic. In the UK, increases in the minimum wage have eaten into the problem of low pay with no apparent impact on employment and only a small sign of an impact on hours worked. The international evidence is mixed: on balance it suggests that minimum wages can and do destroy jobs for the low-skilled, but perhaps not as dramatically as we economists once feared.

It’s possible, but not certain, that further rises will bring further benefits. Yet it is dangerous to view the minimum wage as a free lunch, something to be dished out by politicians without pondering either the evidence or the risks. It is more like a strong medicine with serious side effects. It should be prescribed with caution and under expert supervision — not mixed with sugar and downed in one gulp.


Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 4 Oct 2019.

My book “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy” (UK) / “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy” (US) is out now in paperback – feel free to order online or through your local bookshop.

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