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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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.