What a rare thing – a blog post.
At the end of another writingful year I thought it worth noting a few of the achievements now likely to vanish into posterity. There are, after all, so many words out there, mostly words about words. Like book reviews. I have written six this year, the most recent published just now in Prospect Magazine, about “The Future of the Professions: How Technology will Transform the Work of Human Experts”, by Richard and Daniel Susskind.
Here it is. And here, an excerpt:
Technological improvement is theoretically limitless. Eighteen years have passed since Deep Blue, an IBM computer, beat Garry Kasparov at chess. Since then, as Moore’s law has predicted, computer processing power has doubled every 18 months; now Kasparov would struggle to beat your iPhone. Four years ago, IBM’s Watson beat two of the greatest champions ever to play Jeopardy!, an American television game show demanding erudition and lateral thinking. Watson’s method was brutal: load up terabytes of unstructured data, apply probabilistic algorithms and spit out an answer … But it is too early to extrapolate such improvements into a future in which the machines take over the decision-making role of humans. As a feat of futurology, this book could have benefited from a more sceptical take on how monopolies evolve to shield themselves from the forces that threaten them. The Susskinds set out a model for the evolution of professional work in which the last stage is “externalisation,” where the deep practical knowledge of the professions is released to the commons. Knowledge wants to be free, and market forces will drive it that way. Yet, as they acknowledge, professions also show a profound reluctance to share. This is understandable. A legal firm does not spend years accumulating an understanding of specialist law only to give it away.
The rest were at the FT. The most popular by far was of a book by Yanis:
Often it reads less as a work of economics, more a drawn-out conspiracy fable that just happens to use economic terms; the author, at times appearing confounded by supply and demand, is determined to see Machiavellian impulse behind every flow of capital. One of the mysteries the book clears up is how Varoufakis could so annoy Greece’s creditors that his departure proved essential for a deal.
I (almost) felt conflicted writing one on Will Hutton’s latest, as I know and like the man. But I was not convinced:
What I find less convincing in How Good We Can Be are his remedies, which, given his goal of “ending the mercenary society”, can look strangely small. As in previous works, Hutton’s focus is firmly on ownership and governance. But against the macroeconomic sweep of the financial crisis, demanding that companies “declare their business purpose on incorporation” feels like a rather dilute response. Requiring directors to outline their virtuous intentions through yet another layer of narrative reporting will not magically elicit greater results.
I also know and admire Lord Turner, whose Between Debt and the Devil is well admired. But, again, not wholly convinced:
Macroeconomics allows no controlled experiments. This one great financial crisis stemmed from several causes. To distinguish the essential from mere side effects is not easy. What if funding had been less flighty, banks better capitalised or central bankers less blithe about finance? How significant was the rise in oil prices, given how it scrambled inflationary signals at the very worst time? Is it meaningful to blame a culture of short-termism in Wall Street? Sifting such a welter of detail, I was left in two minds. Turner’s comprehensive account suggests what might be called “credit determinism” — but it could equally prove that such a crisis required every unlucky star to align.
It was hard not to like Richard Thaler’s gentle stroll through the birth of the somewhat overhyped Nudge movement. I remember having to complete this on that miserable May night.
Just like ordinary economics, the behavioural offshoot is a tool to be used, and like any tool can be applied well or badly. As Thaler says at the very end of Misbehaving, the real triumph for his field will come when it ceases to exist and is fully absorbed by the broader discipline that ignored it for so long.
And finally, probably the weakest book I have read, by Tariq Ali. The old lion roars to little real effect about The Extreme Centre
This book does a better job of describing Ali’s sadness at the failure of the left than expanding on why. The closest thing to a consistent explanation is human corruptibility before the temptations of money. But the book never explains why perennially incompetent capitalists always have enough of the folding stuff to keep the system going.
So many hours, so many words. Sorry, it all feels a bit … bubblish right now. What are all these arguments for, anyway?