Felix Martin: How the new economics outgrew the academies

Reports of the death of popular economics turn out to have been greatly exaggerated, as two new books by Edmund Phelps, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, make clear.

Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much 
Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir 
Allen Lane, 304pp, £20

Mass Flourishing: How Grass-Roots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge and Change 
Edmund Phelps
Princeton University Press, 392pp, £19.95

1. Eighteen months ago, I attended a conference on the crisis facing economics. Its title posed a blunt question: “Are graduate economists fit for purpose?” That it was sponsored by two of the largest employers of professional economists in the country – the Bank of England and the Government Economic Service – suggested that their polite answer was no.

There was worse to come. The conference heard that the teaching of economics at universities had been in decline for more than two decades. In 1992, the government’s Research Assessment Exercise indicated that there were 60 fully fledged university economics departments. By 2001 the number had fallen by a third to 41, and by 2008 to only 35. It seemed that not only were employers no longer confident of the value of modern economics, but students did not want to study it – and the government had given up funding it.

Yet we all knew there was something that didn’t quite add up about this dismal picture. Whatever problems might be plaguing economics at the universities, a quick glance at the bestseller lists shows that public interest in the subject is in ruder health than ever. Books such as Freakonomics by Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner, Tim Harford’s The Undercover Economist and Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism are among the most popular nonfiction titles of the past decade. What is going on? How is the apparent death spiral of economics at universities to be squared with the enormous resurgence of interest in the subject among the general public? Anyone who wants to know the answer could do much worse than turn to the two books under review.

2. Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much is by two of the coming men in US economics, Sendhil Mullainathan of Harvard University and Eldar Shafir of Princeton. The book is representative of a growing library aimed at popularising the new school of “behavioural economics”, in which the strict assumptions concerning individual rationality built into old-school microeconomics are jettisoned in favour of a more realistic understanding of individual decision-making derived from experimental psychology. As Daniel Kahneman, a winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics (who, like Shafir, is a psychologist by training), likes to say, traditional economics studied how individuals would act if they were rational; behavioural economics studies how they actually do.

In Scarcity, Mullainathan and Shafir set out to summarise their research on what they believe to be one of the central lessons of modern psychology for economics. This is that there is a generic mindset associated with the experience of scarcity, of money, of time, of friends; indeed, of more or less anything. This mindset, they argue, has its own logic, which has to be understood before a vast array of economic, business and personal problems can be properly addressed.

The authors’ basic argument is as follows. Experimental psychology has shown that the experience of scarcity produces both good and bad results. The good result is “focus”: increased attention and therefore potentially increased effectiveness. Who hasn’t been in a meeting, for example, which was directionless and unproductive until everyone realised that there was only 15 minutes left and everyone got down to business?

This effect of scarcity can also be bad, however. In that case, it should be called not “focusing” but “tunnelling”, in order to emphasise how, as well as concentrating attention on one objective, it draws it away from others that may be just as (or more) important.

The problem with tunnelling is that it shrinks the mind’s capacity to do anything else. It reduces cognitive capacity, or what Mullainathan and Shafir colloquially call “bandwidth”. That then creates a vicious circle – because operating with reduced bandwidth makes it more difficult to escape the circumstances that induced scarcity in the first place. A poor single mother experiences scarcity of money and time; therefore she is constantly stressed out; therefore she can’t think straight about financial matters or planning; therefore she fails to get a better job, or even to register for her benefits on time; therefore she sinks further into poverty and experiences even greater scarcity, and so on.

A criticism often made of behavioural economics is that many of its findings sound suspiciously like statements of the bleeding obvious. Even Kahneman likes to recall how he and his long-time collaborator Amos Tversky used to joke to one another that they hadn’t discovered a single thing that their grandmothers didn’t know. Those who take this view will find much grist to their mill in a book that serves up “discoveries” such as how poor people get more stressed than rich people do when presented with a large and unexpected bill, or that it is harder to sleep well when you have things on your mind.

Though there is some truth in these objections, I think they miss the merits of the approach. It was John Maynard Keynes who mused, “If economists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people on a level with dentists, that would be splendid.” What he meant was that it is easy in economics to come up with vast and abstract theories but very difficult to come up with useful, practical solutions.

A distinctive claim of behavioural economics is that it generates practical ideas for public policy and personal conduct. For the behavioural economists, there is no more sitting alone in dusty faculty offices working out hard problems with nothing but a pencil and a bit of algebra – all in the name of knowledge for its own sake. On the model of proper scientists, they work in “labs”, leading “research groups” and collecting empirical data from randomised experiments run across many continents, all with the aim of informing “evidence-based policy”.

Hence, in the last third of Scarcity, Mullainathan and Shafir present a variety of principles for the design of aid and welfare programmes, for management practices in business and for various kinds of personal decisions and habits. One such principle is that anti-poverty programmes should be more tolerant of faults by the recipients (because, being under stress, they are likely to make mistakes): so, for instance, deadlines for registration should not be too strictly observed. Another is that, because bandwidth per se is an important determinant of poverty, programmes should value it and be designed to build it, or at least make sure not to tax it. So, to all the other benefits of providing convenient childcare should be added the benefit that mothers have a chance to think clearly about whatever else they are doing. These ideas make sense and they sound implementable.

I was less persuaded by the claim that the results of this fascinating research agenda constitute “a radical reconceptualisation of poverty”. I fear that this might be an example of the tunnelling the authors do so much to warn against. Scarcity certainly convinced me that it is important to understand that indigent rag traders in India experience debilitating stress from constant threats by the moneylenders on whom they depend for working capital and that schemes to alleviate this would be highly worthwhile development interventions. Yet that should not distract us from the dominance of the cultural, social and political roots of poverty – the iniquities of caste, political disenfranchisement and the failings of the judicial system – and students of development economics will, I hope, continue to learn also about old-fashioned ideas such as land reform and political revolution.

However, Mullainathan and Shafir never claim to have all the answers. They style their book as “an invitation to read about a science in the making” and it is indeed a succinct, digestible and often delightfully witty introduction to an important new branch of economics.

3. For all Keynes’s criticism of economists’ overweening ambitions, he also believed in the value of big-picture thinking. He taught that economics is “a moral science and not a natural one” and that the good economist should therefore be a “mathematician, historian, statesman [and] philosopher – in some degree”. As such, he would have been equally in favour of another branch of economics that has thrived in the past decade and a half – one that operates at the opposite end of the spectrum to the behavioural and experimental economists. Its exponents collaborate not with psychologists but with historians and political scientists and they have returned to the macro-historical questions of classical political economy; above all, to Adam Smith’s ur-question of why some countries are richer than others. This field, too, has encountered no shortage of interest from the general public, with the popularity of books such as Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms and Daron Acemoglu’s and James Robinson’s Why Nations Fail, published last year.

Mass Flourishing by Edmund Phelps, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, is recognisably representative of this genre – yet highly unusual, both for the breadth of its scope and for the manner in which it confounds ideological categorisation. It begins by arguing that while material wealth is important, what defines a truly prosperous society is the degree to which its citizens achieve the intangible benefit of living a good life. But what is a “good life”?

Phelps traces a consistent, humanist conception of this from Aristotle to Thomas Jefferson: a life in which the individual is able to grow, to realise herself and, indeed, to create her human identity through her search for knowledge and understanding and the exercise of her creative faculties. To be able to lead such a life is to flourish – and when most people in a society are able to do so, we have arrived at the book’s first core concept: mass flourishing.

Historically speaking, Phelps further argues, very few economies have provided the conditions for such mass flourishing. Those that have succeeded have been characterised by the second core concept of his book: economic modernity. It was only once Renaissance humanism, Enlightenment rationalism and baroque vitalism had mixed together to produce the culture of modernity that economies oriented to experimentation, innovation and self-improvement at the grassroots level evolved. The result was a century-and-a-half-long golden age – from around 1825 to roughly 1975 – in countries such as the United States and Britain that developed “modern economies”.

These modern economies were different, Phelps argues, not only from the static economies of the medieval world but also, crucially, from the numerous capitalist and materially prosperous economies of today that are no longer or never were properly modern. Just to be a dynamic economy – that is, to be open to social change and capable of rapidly adopting new technologies, as continental Europe and Japan were after the Second World War – is not enough. Nor is it sufficient to be a nation that makes significant advances in science or technology, as the Soviet Union did. It is the economic culture of modernity that leads to grass-roots innovation and so the self-realisation that matters. That and that alone is the philosopher’s stone.

It is easy to be suspicious of an argument as wide-ranging as this – and, summarised in this way, Phelps’s thesis may sound simplistic and his historical claims naive. His unequivocal approval of modernity might not be to everyone’s taste: after all, the mindset of modernity was the backdrop to the nightmare of Kafka’s Trial as well as the humanity of Joyce’s Ulysses and was responsible for the delusions of Italian futurists and Soviet communists as well as the Whiggish optimism of Bloomsbury and the Fabians. I, too, was sceptical when I started Mass Flourishing. Yet, overall, I found that the more I read of it, the more my expectations were confounded and the more I found myself thinking that its basic thesis has a great deal of truth to it.

So ashamed was I of my initial assessment, once I had finished reading through Phelps’s fascinating, versatile and profound book, that I was put in mind of those immortal lines by Mark Twain: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years . . .”

4. So what do these two very different books have to tell us about the elusive crisis in economics? The answer is that they are excellent examples of two things. The first is the huge variety of fascinating new thinking (and new applications of old thinking) that many leading economists have been engaged in over the past 15 years. The second is that the pioneers in these new fields have curiously succeeded better at communicating directly to the general public through popular writing than they have in convincing the rest of their profession to reorient what is taught by economics degree courses and how.

Fortunately, that conference’s pronouncement of the death of economics has turned out to have been greatly exaggerated. The Financial Times recently reported that more than 26,000 students took economics at A-level this year, which represents a bigger year-on-year growth than in any other subject and a 50 per cent increase from 2007. The ongoing economic crisis is no doubt an important factor in stimulating their interest. Yet the huge impact of efforts by innovative academic economists to bring their subject steeped in history, psychology and the real world to the general public has surely played a critical role, too. It only remains for orthodox curricula to catch up.

Felix Martin is an NS columnist. His book “Money” (Bodley Head , £20) has just been longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award

Magic numbers: the public's interest in how economies work is in ruder health than ever. Photograph: Larry Sultan/Gallery Stock.

Macroeconomist, bond trader and author of Money

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change