Robert Frank’s Under the Influence

Behavioural economics – that branch of the subject which rejects the hyper-rational construct of homo economicus in favour of a more realistic understanding of human behaviour – is now so firmly a part of mainstream policy design that it seems hard to believe that two decades ago almost no one outside of the profession had heard of it.

That changed in 2002, when the Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman was awarded a Nobel Prize for his pioneering work with Amos Tversky on integrating the real-world foibles of human psychology into economic analysis.  Then in 2008, in their monster best-seller Nudge, the Chicago professors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein introduced the wonderful possibility that clever policy might actually subvert the innate cognitive biases identified by Kahneman and Tversky to achieve the Holy Grail of liberal government: getting people to make better choices of their own accord.

What is not widely understood, however, is that Thaler and Sunstein’s nudge theory was only one half of the behavioural economics revolution.  The other half has thus far made much more limited inroads into the public’s consciousness.  With any luck, however, that is about to change; because its story is told in Under the Influence – an invaluable new book from Cornell University’s Robert Frank, another of the founding fathers of behavioural economics.  If policy-makers have any sense, this book will be as important a manual in the 2020s as Nudge was in the 2010s.

You can read my review of Under the Influence for the New Statesman here.

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Philip Coggan’s More: The 10,000 Year Rise of the World Economy

Adam Smith concluded the first chapter of The Wealth of Nations with an observation intended to shock his readers out of their complacency. So miraculous is the power of economic growth, he wrote, that “the accommodation of an European prince does not so much exceed that of an industrious and frugal peasant, as the accommodation of the latter exceeds that of many an African king”.

What was the magic formula that had allowed Europe’s economies to furnish even their poorest citizens with such unprecedented material comfort? Smith made this the ur-question of economic history — and in his masterwork, he supplied the ur-answer. The secret sauce is trade, and the division of labour which it permits. That led to his central policy conclusion: a liberal economic order that gives free rein to trade is to be protected at all costs from the partisans of protectionism and monopoly.

More, a lucid and wide-ranging new history of the global economy from Philip Coggan, is a book firmly in the Smithian tradition. Like Smith, Coggan — a senior Economist journalist and former FT columnist — is concerned that the sheer scale of what compound economic growth has achieved is not generally appreciated. Like Smith, he locates the roots of these tremendous improvements in the spread of markets and the growth of trade. And like Smith, Coggan’s ultimate goal is to defend the virtues of a liberal economic order in an age when those virtues are under siege.

You can read my review of More for the Financial Times here.

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Anastasia Nesvetailova and Ronen Palan’s Sabotage: the Business of Finance

Sam Mendes’s 1917 is the talk of Oscar season – but when I went to see it last week I was prepared to be disappointed.

My fears had nothing to do with the film’s cast or crew. The trouble is that the film’s subject matter is hardly virgin territory.  Make a film about the First World War, and you are pitting yourself against Renoir and Kubrick, to say nothing of Blunden, Sassoon, Junger, and Remarque – and that’s before you even get to the poets.  It is a high bar for any new artistic treatment.

I have to confess that I had a similar sense of trepidation when I began Anastasia Nesvetailova and Ronen Palan’s new book Sabotage: The Business of Finance.  As its title suggests, this is a book about what is wrong with finance and how to reform it.  Moreover, much of the evidence it adduces to answer these questions consists of case studies from the global financial crisis of 2007-09.

As Sabotage itself concedes early on, these are topics which by now been picked over in minute detail in a decade’s-worth of articles, books, plays and films.  Here too the bar for yet another effort is set high.  What new contribution, I wondered, can Sabotage possibly make to set itself apart?

You can find out in my review of the book in the New Statesman.

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2019: Doomsday or Domesday?

In October, 2019, Mario Draghi is due to come to the end of his eight-year term as President of the European Central Bank.  He is in a race against time to avoid an unusual accolade for a central banker: never once to have raised interest rates during his tenure.

In decades gone by, central bankers expected to earn their spurs by their expert navigation of the ebb and flow of the business cycle, skilfully steering the economy between the Scylla of recession and the Charybdis of inflation with the finely-tuned tiller of interest rate policy.

For Mr Draghi, however, no such dexterity has been required.  All he has done is cut rates – eight times, from 1.5% to zero.  The reversal has never materialised.

He is far from alone.  The Bank of England’s Mark Carney has been even less busy.  In the sixty-six months Carney has been in post as Governor, the tiresome chore of adjusting interest rates has troubled him for only three of them – and the policy rate remains a mere quarter of a percent above its lowest level in three hundred years.

Yet the subdued activity levels at the ECB and the BOE are as nothing compared to the splendid lassitude of the Bank of Japan.  Not only has its current governor Haruhiko Kuroda (in office since 2013) never raised rates; his immediate predecessor Masaaki Shirawaka, whose term began in 2008, didn’t either.

This brief survey of three of the world’s premier central banks illustrates a striking fact about the current global economic conjuncture.

GDP growth, inflation, and unemployment in the world’s most advanced economies have long since recovered to historically normal levels following the crisis of 2008.  Yet their financial systems remain mired in a gigantic and unprecedented experiment – one which has resulted in a decade of monetary policy paralysis.

Recent turbulence on the world’s stock markets suggests that many investors are nervous at the prospect of the central bankers’ bringing this Great Monetary Experiment to a close.  Less fretted over – but no less problematic – are the consequences of allowing it to continue.

You can read what I think they are in my latest article in the New Statesman.

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James Buchan’s John Law: A Scottish Adventurer of the Eighteenth Century

Anyone who feels gloomy about the current state of the world’s advanced economies — with their public finances groaning and their policymaking paralysed by vested interests — should spare a thought for France in September 1715.

That was the month in which Louis XIV, the Sun King of Versailles, died after 72 years on the throne and half a century of near-constant war. He left behind a necrotic economy, a treasury on the verge of bankruptcy, and a system of state finance that depended on a vast class of rentiers virulently opposed to any kind of entitlement reform. Philippe, Duc d’Orleans, France’s newly appointed regent, was at a loss for what to do.

Into this desperate situation stepped one of history’s most extraordinary, versatile, and enigmatic characters, and the subject of James Buchan’s masterly new biography — a little-known Scots gambler, adventurer, and sometime economist by the name of John Law.

I reviewed Buchan’s John Law: A Scottish Adventurer of the Eighteenth Century in the Financial Times on September 1, 2018: you can read it here.

I explain in my review that my one regret is that Buchan does not explore Law’s actual ideas in more detail.  That is a pity, because in my view Law was a visionary theorist and policy-maker, many of whose ideas are even more relevant today than they were three hundred years ago.

I therefore strongly recommend that anyone interested in Law reads not just Buchan’s biography, but also Antoin Murphy’s John Law: Economic Theorist and Policy-Maker – which remains the gold standard on Law’s theoretical and practical innovations.

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Paul Tucker’s Unelected Power

A few weeks ago, President Erdogan of Turkey announced on the campaign trail that if he is re-elected later this summer, his first act will be to take control of interest rates back from the Central Bank of Turkey.

The currency markets were shocked: the Turkish lira promptly dropped by 10%.

The reason is that President Erdogan’s bold proposal flies in the face of what has been for forty years the modern consensus on the best way to conduct monetary policy.  Politicians, that consensus holds, will always be tempted to prioritise popularity at the ballot box over economic stability, resulting in boom-bust cycles ultimately detrimental to growth and employment.  The setting of interest rates should therefore be delegated, it says, to a technocratic central bank, which will have the political independence to take the longer term view.

President Erdogan, however, sees things differently.  “When people fall into difficulties because of monetary policies, who are they going to hold accountable?” he asked: “They’ll hold the president accountable.”  In a democracy, the President was arguing, it is not enough for those who make policy to be competent and effective.  When their actions determine who gets what and why, they have to have legitimacy as well; and democratic legitimacy is the one thing that technocrats, almost by definition, lack.

Who is right –  the modern consensus, with its emphasis on the need for expertise and independence; or the President, who says accountability and legitimacy should take priority?  The underlying issue is summed up in the title of this new book by Sir Paul Tucker – the former Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, and now a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School.  It is why, when, and how elected governments should entrust their capabilities to Unelected Power.

In my view, it is difficult to overstate the importance this question – and therefore how valuable and timely this book is.  You can read my review of it in the New Statesman magazine here.

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The Global Economy: Status Anxiety

Last weekend saw 2018’s first big conclave of the global economic policy-making elite at the Spring meeting of the International Monetary Fund’s governing board in Washington, DC.  The world’s central bankers, finance ministers, and investors gathered to hear the global financial watchdog’s latest update on the state of the world economy.

The news was positive. World GDP growth is forecast to be just under 4 percent both this year and next – stretching the global expansion into its eleventh year.  China and India, the great juggernauts of the emerging world, should grow at around 6.5 and 7.5 percent respectively.  The US – the largest economy in the world – will start to benefit from President Trump’s opening of the fiscal floodgates, and as a result, seems set to break the 1991-2001 record for its longest postwar expansion.  Even in Brexit-beleaguered Britain, the unemployment rate has just hit its lowest level since 1975.

Yet rather than reveling in this bonfire of the economic record books, expert opinion in the US capital – like the public mood across many much of the West – was strangely full of foreboding.  Amongst the general public, statistics such as those just quoted seem curiously at odds with the lived experience of a joyless recovery hallmarked by austerity and uncertainty.  The experts themselves have more faith that the numbers reflect reality.  But amongst the professional forecasters too there is a nagging sense that the good times cannot last – that there is another downturn just around the corner, and that the longer we go without a recession, the more likely it is that there will be one next year.

Are these fears of false progress and impending doom misplaced, or are we indeed living in a fool’s paradise?  Where does this mismatch between perception and reality come from?  The answer is to be found, I think, in two critical features of the global recovery since 2008.

I explain what they are in my latest article in the New Statesman, available here.

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