Friday, August 21, 2020

Is it still self-evident that all humans have natural rights?

 

The United States Declaration of Independence states:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. (The accompanying painting by John Trumbull depicts the Declaration of Independence being presented to Congress.)

It is strange that at a time when nearly everyone pays lip service to human rights, few intellectuals still recognize that, properly understood, such rights are self-evident and natural. Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl note that it is not even common now for classical liberals and libertarians to appeal to the natural rights of individuals. They explain:

a large part of the reluctance to appeal to natural rights in explaining and justifying liberty has to do with the idea that speaking of the nature of things is not needed and is not defensible, and indeed that metaphysical realism is either false or senseless” (p 340).

Before explaining metaphysical realism, I must first provide context for the quoted passage. It is from The Realist Turn: Repositioning Liberalism, recently published by Palgrave. This book is the third in a trilogy. The others are: Norms of Liberty, in which the authors explain how liberty enables self-directed individual flourishing to occur without one form of flourishing being given structural preference over others; and The Perfectionist Turn, in which the authors explain, among other things, that self-directedness - exercising our rational capacity to pursue and achieve relevant goods and virtues - is fundamental to human flourishing.


Metaphysical realism is the belief that “there are beings that exist and are what they are apart from our cognition of them and that we can know both the existence and nature of these beings” (p 8). That may be self-evident to you. If so, you have managed to avoid being unduly influenced by philosophers who follow Immanuel Kant in maintaining that the nature of what is known in human cognition is the result of a priori structures of the human mind, rather than the nature of things that exist.

Much of the book is devoted to defending metaphysical realism from its critics. Those critics have a range of differing views, but many claim that the mode of our cognition must enter the content of what is known. It is possible to give a brief sketch of the nature of the responses provided by Rasmussen and Den Uyl, by reference to the way a human can be defined in terms of distinguishing characteristics. The relationship between our conceptual knowledge of the nature of humans and the real nature of humans is analogous to the relationship between a map and the territory it depicts. We begin with an imperfect conceptual map and proceed to improve it step by step to distinguish the characteristics of humans from other kinds of things. Our knowledge of reality is partial and incomplete, but capable of being revised. To cut a long story short, as we condense a vast amount of knowledge, we can come to the view that rationality is a fundamental operating feature of human nature (pp 292-296).

Chapter 3, entitled “On Principle” was of particular interest to me because it involves consideration of similar issues to those discussed by Friedrich Hayek in a chapter of Law, Legislation and Liberty discussing principles and expediency. Rasmussen and Den Uyl end up in much the same place as Hayek. For example, this paragraph seems to me to have a Hayekian flavour about it:

“We do not stick to principle because experience and practice are in need of being ordered, but rather because principles reflect an underlying order that will again come to reassert itself if only those principles are followed. In the economic environment in which we now live, for example, the Aristotelian might advise a steadfast adherence to the principles of a market order rather than piecemeal attempts to patch up the economy and stave off unpleasant consequences, precisely because of an understanding that market principles are the way to bring health back to the economy, even if that means a rough road along the way” (p 117).

That paragraph still makes sense to me if I substitute ‘Hayekian’ for ‘Aristotelian’. Hayek expressed similar sentiments in arguing against “a spurious ‘realism’ which deceives itself in believing that it can dispense with any guiding conception of the nature of the overall order” (LLL, V1, p 64).

However, when I think about the paragraph further I see a problem in accepting that Aristotle’s views – including his just price concept and opposition to lending money at interest - were consistent with “steadfast adherence to the principles of a market order”. Perhaps it is necessary to distinguish what a modern Aristotelian might advise – having had the benefit of having read the works of Adam Smith etc. – from what Aristotle advised.

Rasmussen and Den Uyl define the Aristotelian view of principle thus:

“Here principles are generalized expressions of the nature of things. Like the empiricist, the Aristotelian holds that principles do depend upon experience; unlike the empiricist, the Aristotelian holds that principles are not distortions of reality but expressions of its nature” (p 117).

I see no problem in accepting that the spontaneous order of a free market is an expression of “the nature of things”.

It would be unfortunate to allow the most important point that Rasmussen and Den Uyl make about principles to be lost in a discussion of labeling issues. They argue that “there is in the end no antipathy between principles rightly understood and consequences fully considered”:

The following of principles is itself an exercise of securing good consequences; and good consequences are to be conceptualized in terms of principles” (p 103-4).

When people discuss natural rights a question that often arises is where they come from. To believe in natural rights do we have to believe in a Creator who endows them? Rasmussen and Den Uyl do not appear to address that question explicitly, but they make a strong case that it is possible to reason our way from an understanding of human nature to recognition of such rights as being necessary to prevent various forms of human flourishing from being in structural conflict; and to protect people from having their lives, possessions and conduct used or directed by others for purposes to which they have not consented. The authors contend that a cultural change that enables the natural order to be seen as the basis for individual rights will be required to bring about an understanding of a proper defense of liberty (p 343). As discussed previously, I think a consideration of the nature of human evolution can also help us understand why we (as individuals) tend to have intuitions that other humans have natural rights that should be respected.

Of course, as Rasmussen and Den Uyl acknowledge, there are some people who choose not to recognize or follow ethical principles requiring the rights of others to be respected. As I see it, even in the liberal democracies large numbers of people believe that it is in the nature of things that the political/legal order must involve a struggle by different groups to have their flourishing advantaged at the expense of others. However, the authors have reinforced me in the belief that even when it appears impossible to implement a political/legal order that would sufficiently recognize and protect liberty, it is still worth considering ideal moral frameworks because such visions provide us with reason and motivation to care about practical problems of implementation.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Is it possible to have sensible policy discussions about climate change?

 

Development of public policy depends to a large extent on sensible public discussion to filter out stupid proposals.  Climate change is no exception. The problem is that instead of having sensible discussions a lot of people just accuse one another of being deniers or alarmists, and use political stunts to advance or defend stupid policies.

It is easy to get the impression that most people can be classed as either deniers or alarmists, but surveys suggest to me that such extremists make up a relatively small proportion of the population of most countries. How many people get classified as deniers and alarmists is obviously influenced by the way these concepts are defined.

It makes sense to classify people as “deniers” if they claim climate change is “not a threat”. A survey by the Pew Research Center conducted in 2018 found that the percentages saying that climate change is not a threat vary substantially among the 26 countries included, from 21% in Nigeria to 3% in France and South Korea. Corresponding numbers were 16% in the U.S., 9% in Australia and 4% in Sweden.

The Pew survey found that in most countries a majority viewed climate change as “a major threat”, but it would be an exaggeration to label all those as alarmists. The people I describe as alarmists tend to say things like: “It is already too late to avoid the worst effects of climate change”. An international poll by YouGov, taken in 2019, found that people who say that vary from 20% of the population in France to 4% in Oman. Corresponding numbers were 10% in the U.S. and Australia, 8% in Sweden, 11% in Britain, and 6% in China.

False alarm

I was prompted to attempt to get a handle on the percentages of deniers and alarmists by my reading Bjorn Lomborg’s latest book, FalseAlarm: How climate change panic costs us trillions, hurts the poor, and fails to fix the planet. Lomborg sees climate change alarmism as a greater problem than denial. He suggests that the arguments of the deniers have been “thoroughly debunked” and approves of media refusing to give space to deniers. His main gripe is that media are “failing to hold climate alarmists to account for their exaggerated claims”.

However, it seems to me that different media outlets have different biases. Some pander to the prejudices of the noisy alarmists among their readers, while others pander to the noisy deniers. Unfortunately, the mass media no longer does much to promote sensible discussion of issues that have become politicized.

Lomborg’s book seems to me to advance a coherent viewpoint that could provide a basis for sensible discussion among people who are not wedded to extreme positions. His main points are as follows:

  • Climate change is real. The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere affects global temperature.
  • Global warming will have a negative impact on human well-being. Estimates of the likely damage from global warming by 2100 amount to a modest percentage of GDP (about 4%) if allowance is made for adaptation, fertilization (positive impacts of CO2 on crop yields and forest production) and the expanding bullseye effect (the tendency for more people to live in flood prone and fire prone areas).
  • If all nations met their promises under the Paris Agreement, that would have only a small impact on global warming.
  • With known technology and using the most efficient policy instrument to achieve Paris Agreement targets, the cost involved would be much higher (perhaps 3 times higher) than the expected benefits.
  • There is potential for research and development to reduce the cost of green energy alternatives to use of fossil fuels. However, governments are not meeting the commitments they have made to expand relevant R&D activities.
  • Carbon taxes and green energy innovation will not obviate the need for adaptation to a warmer climate over coming decades. Adaptation is a less costly option than attempting to reduce CO2 emissions to zero over the next few decades.
  • Geo-engineering is worth researching as a backup plan to be used as required, e.g. if the West Antarctic ice sheet starts to melt precipitately.
  • People in low-income countries will be better able to cope with the adverse impacts of climate change if they become wealthier. Holland and Bangladesh both have substantial areas of land below sea level, but Holland can afford infrastructure that enables it to cope better. 

 

My overall impression is that Lomborg has made a serious effort to focus discussion on things that are worth discussing. I have some reservations about his views, which I will mention below, but my initial focus is whether the book is generating useful discussion. I have found a couple of reviews by people who could be expected to challenge the argument that Lomborg advances.

Reviews

The first review is by Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel prize winning economist. Stiglitz’s review was published in the New York Times. Rather than addressing the cost of current policies, Stiglitz appeals to an authority which he seems to view as infallible - an international panel chaired by himself and Lord Nicholas Stern – which apparently “concluded that those goals could be achieved at moderate cost”. I have not been able to find that conclusion in the report of his High-Level Commission, but I can’t claim to have read the document thoroughly. My brief reading left me with the impression that the costs will only be moderate if there is rapid progress in development of green technology. Stiglitz does not acknowledge that Lomborg advocates increased R&D for to promote more rapid development of green technology.

Stiglitz concludes by asserting:

Lomborg’s work would be downright dangerous if it were to succeed in persuading anyone that there was merit in its arguments”.

Rather than engaging in sensible discussion, Stiglitz seems to me to be intent on using polemics to defend alarmism.

Surprisingly, there has been more sensible review in “The Guardian”. That review is by Bob Ward, who is associated with the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change at the LSE. Ward combines his review of Lomborg’s book with a review of Michael Shellenberger’s book, Apocalypse Never. Ward’s remarks are somewhat offensive - he labels the authors as “lukewarmers”, promoting a “form of climate change denial”. Nevertheless, he manages to acknowledge that they make legitimate criticisms of alarmism by environmentalists. He agrees that the world should be investing more in helping poor people become more resilient to climate change. He also expresses sympathy for the view that nuclear power has a role to play in creating a zero-carbon energy system.

My reservations

The main problem I see with Lomborg’s argument relates to the use of GDP as a welfare measure. As well as the usual problems in the use of GDP in this way, there is the additional problem that many of the costs of adaptation are counted as making a positive contribution to GDP. For example, infrastructure investment to build walls to hold back rising sea levels is counted as part of GDP. As such adaptation investment comes to represent an increasing share of total investment, it will crowd out other investments that have potential to enhance human well-being.

This line of reasoning reinforces the importance of R&D that has potential to reduce the cost of alternative energy and hence to reduce the cost of mitigation. If it becomes less costly to pursue greater mitigation over the next few decades, that can obviously reduce the combined total of damage and adaptation costs over the longer term.

My other reservation relates to something that is not central to Lomborg’s argument, as outlined above, but is difficult to let pass. It is his endorsement of the proposition that “if everyone does a little, we’ll achieve only a little”. That seems to me to promote unwarranted pessimism about the likelihood of success of the polycentric approach promoted by Elinor Ostrom.

In a paper presented to the World Bank in 2009, Ostrom suggested that rather than wait for national governments to take concerted action, the best way forward was multi-layered action by individuals and firms, as well as by local, state, and national governments. The polycentric approach is messy, but there are hopeful signs emerging that it is developing sufficient momentum to facilitate effective action. The individual actions of environmentally conscious individuals may not add up to much by themselves, but they seem to be inducing an increasing number of firms to modify their behaviour. Some firms are presenting an environmentally friendly image without doing much to back it up, but others seem to be actively planning for a carbon-free future. The announcement last year by the world's largest asset management firm, BlackRock, that it will put climate change at the centre of its investment strategy, seems to me to signify a substantial change in the way the game is being played. If enough firms adopt R&D, innovation and investment strategies based on expectations of a carbon-free future, those expectations will tend to become self-fulfilling.

Bottom line

Lomborg’s book is not likely to persuade many climate change alarmists (or deniers) to modify their views, but it provides a basis for the rest of us to have sensible discussions about policy options.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Is a good person like flowing water?

The question arises from a Lao Tzu quote that I recently stumbled across:

A person of great virtue is like the flowing water”, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 8.

The passage appeals to me because it seems to accord with my casual observation that good behaviour seems effortless for some people. That may link to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's theory of the flow experience where people in high challenge situations are so deeply involved in what they are doing that nothing else seems to matter. The good people I have in mind would not give much thought to judgements that others might make about their behaviour.

I will return to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's theory later, but first I want to look for clues about the intuitions that Lao Tzu was hoping to convey. To view the quote in context, I have chosen a translation by Red Pine (Bill Porter) who also provides readers with commentary of sages and other translators. Chapter 8 reads:

“The best are like water

 bringing help to all

 without competing

 choosing what others avoid

 they thus approach the Tao

 dwelling with earth

 thinking with depth

helping with kindness

speaking with honesty

 governing with peace

 working with skill

and moving with time

and because they don’t compete they aren’t maligned.”

 

There is no explicit mention of “flow” in that translation or in the associated commentary, but it still seems consistent with the imagery of flowing water.

In his commentary, Chuck Gullion, the Libertarian Taoist, sums it up:

It all boils down to being content to simply be yourself. We expend way too much effort comparing and competing with others. Lao Tzu is wanting to show us a better Way. Be like water!”

Red Pine notes that some translators have difficulty in accepting that kindness is the correct word in the line “helping with kindness”, because of Lao Tzu’s professed “disdain for the social virtues”. In An Introduction to Daoist Philosophy (previously discussed here)  Steve Coutinho explains that Lao Tze opposes cultivation of the ethical virtues (including humanity and rightness) on the grounds that cultivation converts the virtues into objects of desire, thus becoming an obstacle to flourishing. Paradoxically, much of the Tao Te Ching presupposes “recognizably ethical values” (pp 64-5).

In Csikszentmihalyi's view, the flow experience requires cultivation. He suggests that the normal condition of the mind is one of informational disorder, with conflicting desires, intentions and thoughts jostling each other in consciousness. Innate talents cannot develop unless a person learns to control attention to get the heart will and mind on the same page. Flow tends to occur when a person faces a clear set of goals that require appropriate responses.

 
Csikszentmihalyi’s perception of good is activity leading to the increase of complexity and order, while evil is analogous to entropy:   

“Good is the creative overcoming of inertia, the energy that leads to the evolution of human consciousness. To act in terms of new principles of organization is always more difficult, and requires more effort and energy. The ability to do so is what has been known as virtue” (Loc 2031/2382).

The idea of evolution toward greater complexity has intellectual appeal, but “creative overcoming” seems far removed from the idea that goodness is like flowing water. Csikszentmihalyi may even be seeking to distance his view of flow from that imagery, because he suggests that the evil which causes pain and suffering usually involves “taking the course of least resistance”, for example acting “in terms of instinct alone”.

Would acceptance of the imagery of goodness as being like flowing water be likely to tempt people to view instinctive “red in tooth and claw” aspects of nature as providing reason to accept that “might is right” in human conduct?

To answer that question, it is helpful to consider the view of Zhuangzi, a Daoist philosopher who followed Lao Tzu. Zhuangzi observed that there must be genuine humanity before there can be genuine understanding of the relationship between what is human and what is natural. Coutinho notes:

“According to Zhuangzi, there is something salvageable about our humanity: it is not pure artifice. There is a central core of genuineness that is natural. When we nurture this genuine humanity, we reconnect with the natural world, become more distanced from the everyday hopes, fears, and anxieties that plague us, and are more tranquil and accepting of all our circumstances” (p 112).

As I see it, cultural evolution has left us with intuitions that it is good to be the kind of person who manages his or her own life wisely in ways that respect the natural rights of others. We greatly admire those who bring out the best in the people they interact with most closely. Our language reflects an understanding that humane conduct is ethical. Cruelty is often described as inhuman. We have come to perceive voluntary cooperation for mutual benefit as good, and predation as bad. It should be easy for us to understand that a spontaneous order evolving from the actions of free individuals is the most natural form of human society.  

In that context, the imagery of a good person being like flowing water may help people to understand that ethical conduct is integral to their human nature. That kind of imagery might help people to set goals that are consistent with their values and to stay on course toward acquiring better habits, perhaps ultimately reaching the point where goodness becomes effortless.


Sunday, June 21, 2020

How good is this image of self-actualization?



When you think about Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, what is the image that appears in your mind? I expect that most people who have some knowledge of the concept would think of a pyramid in which needs are layered one on top of the other, with physiological needs at the bottom and self-actualization needs at the top. If you have no idea what I am talking about, there is no need to worry. Andy Ogden’s sailboat illustration, provided above, is better. That image has been used effectively by Scott Barry Kaufman in Transcend, his recently published book which seeking to update Maslow’s hierarchy.

Kaufman points out that the pyramid image was created by a management consultant rather than by Maslow. He argues that the pyramid “had the unfortunate consequence of reducing Maslow’s rich and nuanced intellectual contributions to a parody and has betrayed the actual spirit of Maslow’s notion of self-actualization as realizing one’s creative potential for humanitarian ends”.

I have read many books aimed at the self-help market, but Transcend has more endorsements by psychologists than any I have previously read. Those praising the book include Martin Seligman, Steven Hayes and Steven Pinker. My inner economist tells me that there must be something wrong with a book preceded by five pages of praise, but I haven’t found much wrong with this one.

Kaufman’s sailboat image captures Maslow’s idea that all needs can be grouped into two main classes, deficiency needs and growth needs. The planks of the boat represent deficiency needs and the sails represents growth (or self-actualization). 

In explaining his metaphor, Kaufman suggests:
Life isn’t a trek up a summit but a journey to travel through – a vast blue ocean, full of opportunities for new meaning and discovery but also danger and uncertainty”.

The deficiency needs that comprise the boat, safety, connection, and self-esteem work as a dynamic system. Under good conditions they work together toward greater security and stability. Under unfavourable conditions, they can lead toward insecurity and instability, causing people to focus attention on defending themselves.

The growth needs comprising the sails are exploration, love, and purpose. Kaufman suggests that “the drive for exploration is the core motive underlying self-actualization”. It involves the desire to seek out and make sense of novel, challenging and uncertain events. Love and purpose can build on the fundamental need for exploration. Loving is noted to be a powerful force, linked to growth, compassion, coping and authenticity. Purpose is defined as “the need for an overarching aspiration that energizes one’s efforts and provides a central source of meaning and significance in one’s life”.

Kaufman sensibly emphasizes the hazards of attempting to fulfill a need for purpose without working on other areas of growth:
“It is entirely possible to choose a striving that brings out the worst in yourself and others because it is motivated by a desperate, never-ending quest to fill a deficiency in one of the security needs, whether it’s safety, belonging, or self-esteem”.

The need for transcendence is depicted as being in the sky above the sails. Kaufman suggests that transcendence “goes beyond individual growth (and even health and happiness) and allows for the highest levels of unity and harmony within oneself and with the world”. Some further explanation might be helpful for those who, like me, read that and think immediately that they don’t need mystical experiences. The transcending experiences written about are not all mystical. Kaufman notes that transcendence incorporates a “unitary continuum,” of experiences ranging from becoming engrossed in a book, sports performance, or creative activity (what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as the flow experience), to experiencing awe at a beautiful sunset etc, all the way up to the great mystical illumination.

A particularly useful contribution of the book is to make a clear distinction between healthy self-esteem and narcissism. Kaufman points out that narcissism is not just high self-esteem, in the sense of a quiet and sturdy confidence in oneself. Narcissists feel superior; they are arrogant and unwilling to accept criticism.

In writing the book, Kaufman has drawn on Maslow’s unpublished writings to illustrate the range and depth of his thinking. This passage, written by Maslow about 50 years ago, has contemporary relevance:
 It is … vital to emphasize that a democratic society is rooted in a set of feelings toward other people—feelings like compassion and respect. …  If we did not trust other people, if we did not like them, if we did not pity them, if we did not have brotherly or sisterly feelings for them, then a democratic society would of course be out of the question. Obviously, human history provides many examples to prove this point.

Readers may have guessed already that I am impressed by Kaufman’s book. In my view he does an excellent job in bringing together many findings of psychologists relating to personal development. I particularly like the imagery in his use of the sailboat metaphor because it recognizes that each individual has prime responsibility for his or her own journey through life.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

How is behavioral economics relevant to human flourishing?



The practitioners of behavioral economics have tended to direct their research findings mainly at “choice architects”, including paternalistic governments. For example, in their book, Nudge, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein adopt the term “libertarian paternalism” to propose:
Choice architects can preserve freedom of choice while also nudging people in directions that will improve their lives”.

An example might help to clarify what a nudge involves. If the government were to invest a certain proportion of your income in a superannuation fund on your behalf this would amount to a nudge, rather than a push or a shove, if you were allowed to withdraw the funds at any time to use as you wished. Because of a tendency for people to avoid choices, or to choose default options, such an arrangement would be likely to result in more investment in superannuation than one that relied solely on tax incentives. It would do this without the interference in personal choice that is involved in compulsory superannuation, such as exists in Australia. (That example is taken from my review of Nudge.)

However, if you view human flourishing as an essentially self-directed activity, as I do, you may be sceptical about claims that such nudging can improve your life. Even if the people doing the nudging have your interests at heart, their perception of what will improve your life will not necessarily accord with your own preferences.

In the example provided above, additional transactions costs may be imposed on the person being nudged. For example, investment in superannuation might not be the best option for a young person wanting to save for a deposit on a house. Over the longer term, the value of an investment in a superannuation fund could be expected to rise to a greater extent than cash in the bank, but short term fluctuations in equity prices make superannuation a less suitable vehicle for shorter term saving. Withdrawing funds for a house deposit could result in capital losses being incurred.

Robert Sugden suggests that “something is clearly wrong if economists think that their response to the discovery of mistakes in individual decision-making must take the form of a recommendation about public policy” (The Community of Advantage, p 44). If you want to help individuals to make better decisions it makes more sense to address the information to those individuals rather than to address it to autocrats.  (I have previously discussed The Community of Advantage here, here and here.)

Sugden makes the point that nudgees (people who are nudged) do not always explain their failure to follow expert advice in terms of self-control problems. For example, an obese person who fails to follow expert advice about choosing fruit rather than cake, could explain his choice in a range of different ways that do not involve a self-control problem. If he sees nothing wrong with his choices, he has no reason to want to be nudged by having the fruit placed in a more prominent position in the cafeteria relative to the cake (p 47).

However, if the obese person acknowledges that he has a self-control problem, research findings about the influence of placement of products on consumer purchases might help him to modify his behaviour. His trusted advisers might be able to suggest how he could nudge himself to make better choices. By coincidence, earlier today, I heard a news item indicating that there is a supermarket chain in Australia that refrains from placing confectionary near checkouts. That information could be relevant to a person with an acknowledged self-control problem, who was wanting to avoid impulse purchases of confectionary.

The fact that supermarkets often place confectionary near checkouts illustrates that choice architects may not always have paternalistic motives. It should not be assumed, however, that their motives are exploitive. Supermarkets want loyal customers, so it is not likely to be in their interests to have shoppers end up feeling that they have been manipulated to make unhealthy choices and/or to spend more money than they wanted to spend. It is possible that the placement of the confectionary helps give most shoppers good feelings about their shopping experience. The nudge that one person views as manipulative may be viewed by others as benign, or even as providing a helpful reminder.

As a rule, it is good to be aware how you are being nudged in the choices you make. It is necessary to be aware that you are being nudged, as the first step in making a conscious choice to accept or reject the suggestion involved. Behavioural economics can make a useful contribution in helping to make us aware of how nudges may affect the choices we make.

Sugden suggests that behavioural economists who discover possible mistakes in individual decision-making are in an analogous situation to epidemiologists who discover an apparent causal relationship between some activity and the prevalence of an illness. The epidemiological findings are made available to the public in various ways and begin to influence behaviour prior to any public policy intervention being contemplated (p 43). 

Similarly, happiness researchers who discover that average life satisfaction of various groups is affected by factors such as leisure, or commute times, are providing information that individuals may wish to consider in the choices they make.  Individuals are likely to be affected differently, but rarely so differently that information about others is irrelevant.

Sugden acknowledges that normative economics has almost always been directed toward public decision-makers rather than private individuals, but suggests that “since economists often characterize their discipline as the science of rational choice one might expect them to recognize the potential value of helping individuals to make better decisions in their private lives” (p 43). He notes that Philip Wicksteed, one of the founders of neoclassical economics, presented economics as a study of the “general laws of the administration of resources” and insisted that these laws apply “from end to end of life”. He gave practical advice on how to avoid common mistakes in decision-making. The passage quoted above reflects the role he saw for economists in helping people to make better choices.

Sugden’s view that there is a role for economists in helping individuals to make better choices seems somewhat at variance with the view of James Buchanan. In his article “What should economists do?”, published in 1964, Buchanan argued that the theory of choice should be removed from “its position of eminence in the economist’s thought processes”. He suggested that economists should concentrate their attention on human behaviour in market relationships and other voluntaristic exchange processes, and upon the various institutional arrangements that can arise as a result of this form of activity.

I maintain the view, as previously expressed, that Buchanan is correct in identifying the heartland of economics to be concerned with voluntaristic exchange processes, but that does not rule out the potential for economists to make useful contributions in helping individuals to make better personal choices. It is in the latter context that behavioural economics is most relevant to human flourishing.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

What are the implications of declining productivity growth in high-income countries?



The graph shown above indicates that productivity growth rates in high-income countries have declined. That decline seems evident even if we disregard the low productivity growth in the years immediately following the global financial crisis. (Selection of high-income countries for inclusion in the graph was based largely on aggregate GDP.)

The productivity indicator used in the graph - multifactor productivity (MFP) – is that part of GDP growth that cannot be explained by changes in labour and capital inputs. It reflects the influence of technological progress and production efficiency.

The most obvious implication of a decline in MFP growth rates is a lower rate of growth in per capita incomes. Declines in MFP growth are sometimes offset by more rapid growth of employment, through higher immigration, or more rapid growth of capital stock, through higher investment levels. However, such offsetting factors are not sustainable over the longer term.

In most instances, and in the longer term, it seems reasonable to expect a ½ percent lower rate of growth in MPF to be reflected in a ½ percent lower rate of growth in average incomes. Over 10 years, a decline in average income growth from, say, 2 percent per annum to 1.5 percent per annum would amount to the difference between a 22 percent and 16 percent increase in income.

That is not negligible, but it doesn’t cause me a great deal of angst. As noted previously on this blog (in a post written when I was more sceptical about the number of countries experiencing a decline in productivity growth) the slow-down in measured productivity growth in the U.S. and some other countries may be attributable, in part, to difficulty in measuring the outputs of the information and communications technologies (ICT) industries. When consumers can download more stuff that they do not have to pay for, the quality of their lives improves, even though that isn’t reflected in average income and consumption measurements.

It is also likely that some part of the decline in measured productivity growth may be attributable to environmental and social regulation. I am sceptical about the merits of much of that regulation, but I acknowledge that some of it provides benefits to humans that should be offset against associated income losses.

However, there is an implication of declining productivity growth that governments and their dependents should be thinking more seriously about. That is the potential for revenue growth to decline. Unless the revenue to GDP ratio is raised, a lower rate of growth of MFP is likely to translate to lower growth of government revenue. (Note that the same difficulty in measuring the outputs of the ITC industries for productivity estimation also applies to measuring income, sales and value added for tax purposes.)

Lower revenue growth has interesting implications in the context of expected ongoing increases in government spending. As previously discussed on this blog, under existing programs, substantial increases in government spending seem likely to occur as the proportion of elderly people in the populations of many countries continues to rise.

So, why not raise the revenue to GDP ratio by changing the tax mix in favour of more efficient taxes that have less adverse effects on economic incentives? The political obstacles to tax reforms have not always been insuperable, but revenue-raising reform proposals are less likely to be supported than revenue-neutral proposals.

Another option is to raise the revenue to GDP ratio by raising tax rates. That is also likely to encounter political obstacles but, more importantly, the adverse effects on incentives seem likely to further reduce productivity growth. The marginal excess burden of taxes tends to rise as the tax rate is increased (see discussion here).

Yet another option is to let public debt continue to rise and hope debt servicing doesn’t become too much of a problem. We may actually see some problems emerging with that strategy over the next few years with increased public debt incurred in response to COVID-19. Perhaps central banks will succumb to government urging to over-stimulate economies to allow the “inflation tax” to reduce debt to GDP ratios. However, that would make ongoing debt accumulation a more costly strategy because it would result in high interest rates and thus higher costs of debt servicing over the longer term.

We haven’t considered debt default, but you have to be desperate to consider that!

My point is that governments and their dependents do not have any easy options available to adjust to an ongoing decline in productivity growth.

Economists advising governments will likely suggest that the best way forward is adoption of a package of reforms (including tax reforms) to raise productivity growth, combined with action to prune government spending. What governments will do, however, will depend to a large extent on the relative political power of different interest groups. In most countries, that seems to me likely to point more toward spending cuts than toward productivity-increasing reforms.

So, it seems reasonable to speculate that declining growth in productivity will be ongoing and result in cuts in government spending in policy areas where political resistance is likely to be weakest. Which policy areas are likely to be most affected?

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

What are innovation commons?



“An innovation commons is a system of rules for cooperation to facilitate pooling of information in order to maximize the likelihood of opportunity discovery”. That is how Jason Potts defines innovation commons in his book of that name.

Hopefully, that brings to mind hobbyists meeting in coffee shops, somewhere on the internet, or at backyard barbecues where they are tasting home brews and exchanging information about recipes. If so, you are on the track toward an understanding of innovation commons. If you have heard stories of successful entrepreneurs who obtained their most valuable ideas by interacting in similar ways, you might sense that innovative commons can be very important.

It might surprise you to learn that until recently few economists understandood the importance of innovation commons. Of course, those with an interest in technology would have read at some stage that Steve Jobs was once a member of the Homebrew Computer Club, and know of similar stories about other entrepreneurs who started as hobbyists or enthusiasts exchanging information freely with people with similar interests. However, it is one thing to know such stories and something quite different to realize that your professional understanding of the innovation process needs an overhaul.

Economists have thought of innovation in several different ways that view a single organization or individual as a prime mover. Innovative firms allocate resources to research and development, which leads to the launching of new products or adoption of cost-reducing technologies. Joseph Schumpeter’s bold entrepreneurs play the central role in innovation, leading to a dynamic process of creative destruction. Israel Kirzner’s innovative entrepreneurs are alert to profit opportunities. Edmund Phelps’ grassroots innovators are struck by new ideas, and then become investigators, experimenters and managers of innovation.

You might think that economists should be excused for overlooking the importance of innovative commons because they are a relatively new phenomenon. Jason Potts makes the point that common-pool innovation has existed since the beginning of market capitalism. He cites discussion of the Republic of Letters by Joel Mokyr, an economic historian. The Republic of Letters set up norms and incentives that supported a market place of ideas among the educated elite in Europe in the latter part of the 17th and early part of the 18th centuries (for a brief summary see my review of The Culture of Growth). In The Enlighted Economy, Mokyr makes a strong case that in Britain during the 18th century the ‘legitimization of systematic experiment carried over to the realm of technology’. He suggests that the proliferation of provincial ‘philosophical’ societies discussing practical and technical issues often served as clearing houses for useful knowledge between natural philosophers, engineers and entrepreneurs (p 48).

Recent examples of areas of technology where innovation commons are important include blockchain, civilian drone technology, AI and gene editing.

Jason Potts’ own innovative contribution has been to develop an economic framework to explore the collaborative processes through which information comes to be available in a form that a potential entrepreneur can discern as a profit opportunity, if sufficiently alert. The framework Jason has developed contributes to understanding of the knowledge, coordination and governance problems associated with innovation commons. In developing that framework, he draws heavily on insights of Friedrich Hayek about the importance of distributed knowledge, and insights of Elinor Ostrom about governance of commons.

Innovation involves a knowledge problem because relevant information is distributed so that each person with relevant expertise can only know part of the picture, and there is great uncertainty about how that information might be useful. Innovation commons enable individuals with expertise to cooperate to pool information and discover opportunities. The formation of such commons is ad hoc and rules for governance develop spontaneously to promote cooperation.

Innovation commons tend to be temporary. Once they have created information about entrepreneurial opportunities, that valuable resource is likely to be exploited by some member who can effectively capitalize on it. At that point the conventional model of entrepreneurship comes into its own, and the commons collapses to some other institutional or organizational form.

Much of the book is taken up by discussion of rules of innovation commons, institutions such as industry organisations and a critique of conventional approaches to innovation policy (public investment in innovation and building infrastructure for innovation).

There is also an interesting discussion of ways to combat an increasing tendency for enemies of innovation to prevent it, thus contributing to a slowdown in productivity growth, particularly at the technology frontier. The enemies of innovation present themselves as having concerns with safety, sustainability, tradition, fairness, justice etc. even when their intention is to avoid the losses they are likely to incur from disruption of existing technology.

Who will engage those enemies? This is a collective action problem: the costs are borne individually, but the benefits are an industry-specific public good that accrue to all who follow.
In some instances, the first mover can capture sufficient benefits to make it worthwhile to engage the enemies of innovation. Uber may have done that with its ride-sharing technology.

Jason suggests that governments may also help. One role he suggests is promoting collective learning to demystify a new technology. He mentions public broadcasting in that context, but public broadcasters seem to have been more comfortable helping the enemies of innovation. At a more ambitious level, he suggests that governments should work toward “a social contract, culture and institutional system that are tolerant of innovation and prepared to engage with its enemies”. Good luck with that!

Jason also suggests that innovative commons can play a role in creating a large pool of participatory stakeholders, each with a vested interest in developing the technology and its institutional (regulatory) framework. Examples include open-source software and technologies that have emerged from hackerspaces, such as 3D printing and cryptocurrencies.

Are innovative commons likely to result in a fundamental change in society?
Jason Potts’ answer:
“The innovation commons—including the adaptive behaviors and the institutions that compose it—are … a natural part of an open, evolving, market economy. They are not prima facie evidence of an emerging turn to a new type of more cooperative economic society.”

That is probably right! Nevertheless, as previously discussed here, it is possible to conceive of circumstances in which new technologies that are evolving in innovation commons - blockchain technology and decentralized collaborative organizations – could result in some quite fundamental changes in society.

Monday, April 6, 2020

What did Yeats mean by "Horseman, pass by"?



In one of the most popular articles on my blog I speculated about the meaning of the epitaph on W B Yeats tombstone:
“Cast a cold Eye
On Life, on Death
Horseman, pass by”.

The article was posted in October 2013 and has attracted many comments since then.
A few hours ago, Beth Prescott sent me a comment by email, which I am reproducing below, with her permission.

However, before reading Beth’s comment, it would be helpful for you to read an anonymous comment that she refers to:
“In ancient China, there is a phrase said "Human life is just like a white horse pass by a tiny crevice, it's only a blink of time." This phrase comes from the philosopher Zhuangzi's book, "Zhuangzi: Knowledge travel to the North". And the story in the book is that, when Confucius asking Laozi what is "Zhi Dao(至道,the basic reason of everything)", and Laozi answered with this phrase, and told Confucius that either life or death is inevitable and common in life, it is just a change of matter, there's no need to happy or mourn. But "Dao" is the only eternity through a man's spirit. If Yeats did take this story in his mind, then perhaps he agreed Laozi by writing these lines.
This is just my thought, and sorry for my grammar mistakes, I'm not an English speaker.”  

I think the ancient saying referred to by my correspondent can be sourced to Chuangtse. I found something very similar in The Wisdom of Laotse, and have reproduced it above.


Beth Prescott writes: 
"Horseman, pass by”
I've been hearing this phrase in my head for several days - entirely without knowing where it came from or whom it came from. So, of course, I Googled it and quickly came upon your blog post about it from several years ago. I don't know Yeats well. I've always been intrigued and curious, but life has so far never permitted a long perusal of him and his life.

In fact, I am so distracted by current events I couldn't even make myself read the entire poem. Usually I can settle to a task better than this, but not now.

I did read through all the comments to your blog and was arrested by the anonymous comment from, presumably, a Chinese person. His (or her) use of English was very familiar to me, since I have worked with and for Chinese American researchers here at the University of Oregon.

It was the image he evoked of a white horse striding past a crevice in a rock and that that tiny crevice was the whole of a human life, even perhaps, the whole of human history. It reminded me of something an older brother told me 60+ years ago: ‘maybe the entire universe and all of its seeming eternity of time is really nothing more than the air in somebody's tire, and someday the tire may have a flat’. I think my brother added in that last bit.

This image has stuck with me all of my life: that we are necessarily constrained by our worldview and cannot easily - or at all - look outside of it. The idea that even our vast universe is really part of something else, something unknowable, something much vaster and more sweeping, something with a different purpose, possibly utterly different.

That what we think is important is, yes, important to us and we must live our lives as if these things are important. They are important. To us. Workmen must continue to work. Cradles must continue to be filled.

But we should also live our lives with the understanding that there is ‘something else going on’ and that the forces that gave rise to us and to our universe are probably beyond our understanding. Our entire universe, our entire history of life is perhaps no more than the instant in time it takes for a white horse to stride past a small crack in a wall.

If Yeats absorbed the philosophies of other cultures and times, as it appears that he did, then I think in this poem he was striving to arrive at a different perspective, a different view of himself, of his own place in the grand scheme of things, of his entire life.

I think he is saying in those final lines, that he realizes that all of the Sturm und Drang of his own life is in reality nothing more than a sliver of an insignificant moment in some much larger scheme. I think he is affirming that teaching of Lao Tze. That when he says ‘Horseman, pass by’ I think he is affirming - in a very positive way - this view of life.  He is even content with it. A quite remarkable final thing to say to the world."

Thanks Beth!

Thursday, March 26, 2020

How can governments mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on human flourishing?



This is an appropriate question for economists with an interest in public policy to be considering. It recognizes a possible role for governments and recognizes that an approach focused on human flourishing is likely to be more appropriate than one focused entirely on reducing the death rate or reducing adverse impacts on GDP.

The possible role for government stems from the perception that people who are most vulnerable would not able be to protect themselves adequately without some government intervention. People who know they are vulnerable have a strong incentive to practice social distancing, but personal circumstances often make that difficult. Without the threat of coercion, it is unlikely that we will see the degree of social distancing necessary to reduce the rate of spread of the virus. In that event, hospital services are likely to be over-whelmed by the number of people requiring treatment. 

As always, with government intervention, there is a risk that the cure will end up worse that the disease, but the risk is probably worth taking in this instance.

What is the appropriate indicator of human flourishing to be used as a policy objective? There isn’t just one! The prime candidates, per capita GDP and average life satisfaction both suffer from the same flaw – they don’t account for the impact of early death on the well-being of the dear departed. We should continue to consider the impacts of policies on death rates as well as their impacts on the well-being of the living.

Per capita GDP was never intended to be a measure of well-being, but it is relevant. Many factors that impinge on well-being – such as the ability of people to afford food, housing and health care – are influenced by per capita GDP levels. However, per capita GDP cannot account for impacts of coercive policy interventions, such as enforced home confinement, on psychological well-being.

Average life satisfaction seems to be a reasonable indicator of the average psychological well-being of groups of people. It is a poor indicator of economic and social progress because it doesn’t account for the extent that members of one generation perceive themselves to be better off, or worse off, than members of preceding generations. Fortunately, that deficiency is not pertinent for present purposes.
There is some evidence that lock-down and GDP decline have potential to have substantial negative impacts on average life satisfaction.

An article entitled ‘Health, distress and life satisfaction of people in China one month into the COVID-19 outbreak’, has recently been published by Stephen X Zhang, Yifei Wang, Andreas Rauch, and Feng Wei. The article is a pre-print and has not been subjected to peer review, but no major flaws are obvious to me. As might be expected, the study suggests that the life satisfaction of people with chronic medical conditions was adversely affected in locations with severe outbreaks of COVID-19.

However, the life satisfaction of people who exercised a lot was also adversely affected in locations with more severe outbreaks, suggesting frustration at restrictions imposed. Those who were able to continue to work had higher life satisfaction than those who had stopped work, with people who were able to work “at the office” having higher life satisfaction than those who worked at home.

The relationship between per capita GDP and average life satisfaction is complicated. Average life satisfaction is relatively high in countries with high per capita GDP, but tends to grow very slowly, if at all, as per capita GDP rises further in such countries.  However, there is some evidence suggesting that when per capita GDP falls in high-income countries, this is likely to be accompanied by substantial declines in average life satisfaction. Austerity in Greece reduced per capita GDP by about 26% over the decade to 2017 and was accompanied by a decline in average life satisfaction of about 20% (GDP data from OECD and life satisfaction data from World Happiness Report, 2020).

Hopefully, COVID-19 will result in much smaller declines in per capita GDP than in Greece. and economic recovery will be much more rapid.

What are the trade-offs involved in shut-down? The human welfare implications of shutting down large parts of an economy for an extended period are enormous. However, a short close-down of all those activities in which social distancing is difficult might be preferable to a less severe and more prolonged lock-down. Tomas Pueyo’s discussion of the hammer and dance (see graphic above) makes sense to me, even if the Hammer needs to last more than 3-7 weeks.

Social distancing and lock-down is an investment in buying time. Buying time for what? It can’t be for development of a vaccine. That will take too long!

It makes sense to buy time to build up the stock of respirators, ICU beds etc. to help cope with an influx of hospital patients needing treatment.

It also makes sense to buy time to obtain testing equipment that can give accurate results within a short time frame. Speedy and accurate testing has potential to enable infectious people to be detected and temporarily taken out of circulation, so that the rest of the population can return to something like normal life.

This post has not yet referred to stimulus packages. I support giving money to people to help them survive a crisis that is likely to depress aggregate demand. Please note, however, that what people can buy depends ultimately on what is produced. When an economy closes down the necessities of life tend to become scarce.

My conclusions:
  • Policies to mitigate COVID-19 should be considered from a human flourishing perspective rather than solely in terms of either minimizing deaths or minimizing damage to an economy.

  • The best policy seems to be to buy time by enforcing strict social distancing for a relatively short period rather than less strict distancing for a longer period. The policy aim should be to buy enough time to enable hospitals to cope better with an influx of patients and to put in place a testing regime that can enable life to return to something like normal as soon as possible.
Postscript: May 6, 2020
There isn’t a great deal of substance that I would like to change in this article with the benefit of 6 weeks hindsight. The graphs showing possible outcomes in terms of exponential growth and bell curves still look right. Some countries, including Australia, have moved along to the end of “the hammer” phase of the bell curve and are beginning the tricky “dance”. Perhaps infection rates may be greatly under-estimated and there is now considerable herd immunity, but I doubt it.

Although the governments of some countries are behaving abominably, at this stage I am confident that in Australia the intervention ‘cure’ (palliative might be a better word) will not be worse than the disease. To a large degree, the shutdown occurred spontaneously, with governments playing catchup, as large numbers of people stayed home, and businesses shut down. There has been some coercion, e.g. shutting of beaches in metropolitan areas and travel restrictions. Some police have risked public goodwill by excessively diligent (stupid) enforcement, e.g. picking on individuals sunning themselves in parks many metres away from any other human. Most people seem to be following social distancing rules because they accept that it is a sensible precaution to take for their own benefit and/or the benefit of others.

From an analytical perspective, I have been reminded that it is possible to incorporate deaths and economic considerations in a common metric if you try hard enough. Richard Layard, Andrew Clark et. al. have presented a WELLBY analysis that seeks to do that in a paper entitled, ‘When to release the lockdown: A wellbeing framework for analysing costs and benefits’. The authors use estimates of wellbeing-years (based on life satisfaction surveys) to balance the impact of policy decisions upon the number of deaths from COVID-19 against incomes, unemployment, mental health, public confidence and other factors (including CO2 emissions).

Their analytical framework looks elegant, but I am concerned about the implied policy context. It seems to me that this kind of analysis is more relevant to decision-making by a benevolent dictator (one applying utilitarian philosophy) than to a society where government should see its prime responsibility as protecting the lives and liberty of citizens.

Another article that has been brought to my attention is: ‘Some basic economics of COVID-19 policy’, by Casey Mulligan, Kevin Murphy and Robert Topel. This article looks at the trade-offs we face in regulating behavior during the pandemic.  It uses conventional cost benefit analysis to consider several possible policy objectives, including buying time and limiting the cumulative cost of a pandemic that will ultimately run its course. They conclude:
The key difference in terms of the optimal strategy is whether our focus is on keeping the disease contained. If the objective is to buy time, then our analysis favors early and aggressive intervention. This minimizes the overall impact … . In contrast, limiting the cumulative cost of a pandemic that will ultimately run its course argues for aggressive policies later, when they will have the biggest impact on the peak load problem for the health-care system and when they will have the greatest impact on the ultimate number infected”.

The authors conclude by listing some simple economic principles to guide how public policy should proceed when faced with a new but poorly understood pandemic. Those principles include buying time upfront, and using that time wisely to gather information to implement a screen, test, trace and quarantine (STTQ) policy. They suggest that both the “buy-time” and long-term containment strategies will have to be based on an effective STTQ policy.

The approach adopted by Mulligan et. al. of considering the nature of trade-offs and suggesting policy principles is more to my liking. If these authors had used their conventional cost benefit analyses to provide specific recommendations of the kind provided by Layard et. al. I would raise the same concerns about the implied policy context of advising a benevolent dictator, rather than informing a democratic political process.


I have misgivings about the valuation of life in both studies, but have not considered the relative merits of each approach, and have nothing better to offer other than directly considering the economic cost of saving lives under alternative strategies.  

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Does dialogue imply recognition of natural rights?



Two philosophers, John and Robert, were travelling in a lawless country when they were attacked by two bandits. In the initial exchange of gunfire, Robert and one of the bandits were killed. The other bandit had John in his sights, and John thought he was about to be shot.

John shouted: “Please don’t kill me. That would be a violation of my natural rights”. The bandit laughed. “I don’t believe in natural rights”, he said. “Around here, I decide who has rights, and you don’t have any.” 

The bandit moved closer, so John didn’t need to shout his response: “The government of the country I come from also takes the view that there are no natural rights. It claims that it has the authority to decide who has rights and what rights they have. It is wrong and so are you”.

The bandit asked John to explain what was wrong with claiming that rights are determined by the people with power. John replied: “By engaging in dialogue with me about rights, you are implicitly recognizing my natural right to self-direction. If I didn’t have that right, I would not have been able to consider your argument and to reject it”. 

The bandit laughed again, before asking: “Where did you get that idea from?”. John explained that the idea had come from Hans-Hermann Hoppe.[i]

While John was explaining Hoppe’s idea, the bandit became distracted by a wasp hovering around his face. John took advantage of the situation to pull out a small handgun that he had concealed in his clothing and to point it at the bandit.

With the tables now turned, John said: “Give me good reasons why I shouldn’t shoot you”. The bandit pleaded that he didn’t deserve to be killed because that would be disproportionate punishment. He explained that he was not responsible for killing Robert and said that he didn’t intend to kill John.

John responded: “In the defence that you have just presented, you have claimed the right not to be subjected to disproportionate punishment. That means you have contradicted your earlier statement that you do not believe in natural rights. Have you changed your mind? Do you now believe in natural rights?” 

The bandit claimed that he did now believe in natural rights. John was not sure that he was being truthful, but had already decided to spare his life. John decided that, under the circumstances, it would be enough punishment to lecture the bandit at length about the principle of estoppel, that Stephan Kinsella has applied to natural rights dialogue.[ii]

A couple of days later, John was discussing the incident with Peter, another philosopher friend, whom he knew had often claimed to be a natural rights skeptic. After John had related his story, he added the thought: “I am now having regrets that I didn’t shoot that bandit when I had the chance”. Peter responded: “No, you did the right thing! Killing him would have been disproportionate punishment”.

John saw an opportunity to make an important point: “Peter, do you realize that by acknowledging that there is such a thing as disproportionate punishment you have implicitly recognised the existence of natural rights?” John then gave Peter a reference to Stephan Kinsella’s discussion of rights scepticism.[iii] 

I leave it for you, dear reader, to decide how this story might end. I would like to think that the bandit and Peter have both now stopped claiming that they don’t believe in natural rights.


[i] Hoppe, Hans-Hermann, 1989, A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism: Economics, Politics, and Ethics.
[iii] Kinsella, op.cit. loc 1886-1921/8713.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Is cultural change responsible for a long term decline in productivity growth?



The story of cultural change that Edmund Phelps tells in Mass Flourishing has a happy beginning and a sad ending.

Phelps’ cultural story of the advent of rapid economic growth in Britain and America in the 19th century is much like that of Joel Mokyr and Deidre McCloskey (discussed here and here). The main difference is Phelps’ greater emphasis on grassroots innovation within firms.

Phelps makes a strong case that Joseph Schumpeter, famous for his theory of entrepreneurship, over-emphasized the importance of exogenous scientific discoveries (external to innovating firms) as a source of innovation. Phelps probably goes too far in downplaying scientific advances, but his story about the importance of grassroots innovation to the emerging modern economies seems highly plausible. He suggests:
“a modern economy turns people who are close to the economy, where they are apt to be struck by new commercial ideas, into the investigators and experimenters who manage the innovation process from development and, in many cases, adoption as well” (p 26).

Phelps describes a modern economy as “a vast imaginarium – a space for imagining new products and methods, imagining how they might be made, imagining how they might be used” (p 27).

A substantial part of the book is devoted to a discussion of socialism, as practiced in the Soviet Union, and corporatism, as practiced in Italy and Germany in the 1930s. The contemporary relevance of that discussion become relevant later in the book in his discussion of reasons for the decline in productivity growth that seems to have occurred in the U.S. since the 1960s.

Phelps’ focus on the U.S. economy as the main driver of technological progress seems appropriate. He notes that European countries experienced high productivity growth while playing the technological catch-up game, but their productivity growth has generally been lower than in the U.S. in recent decades. He attributes their lack of dynamism to ongoing corporatism over the decades since World War II. The classical corporatist model - involving state direction of industry and promotion of solidarity and social responsibility – has been augmented with codetermination of labour and capital (instead of owner-control) and stakeholderism (instead of a focus on income generation).

The author suggests that corporatism has also grown in the United States. Industries that have been subject to government policy interventions have been affected by a new populist type of corporatism as businesses have sought to use their political influence to mould government regulation to their advantage. The result is a “densely interconnected system of mutually beneficial relationships between private and public’, which tends “to redirect the economy’s innovation toward politicians”. He notes that supporters refer to that system as industry policy and detractors refer to it as corporate welfare. It should be referred to as rent-seeking.

The cultural change that Phelps sees as leading to a decline in economic dynamism is not fully reflected in changes in economic freedom indexes. He sees a deterioration in the “core functioning” of modern economies. This involves, among other things:
  • Managerialism, short-termism and the rise of a “money culture” in business, with wealth-seeking turning people away from innovation.
  • A rise in the litigiousness of American society - people who devote their time and energy to suing one another have less time and energy for innovation.
  • Excessive patent protection resulting in an economy clogged with patents – “a creator of a new method might require as many lawyers as engineers to proceed”.
  • More people aspiring to attain social station rather than to achieve something.
  • Adolescent culture – less willingness to accept temporary austerity in the quest for achievement; less ability to concentrate intensely (unable to resist distractions of social media).
  • A resurgence of traditional values putting more pressure on business to allow people to work from home etc.


Has this cultural change in U.S. business caused a decline in the long-term productivity growth rate? If so, what can be done about it?

In a series of posts written in 2015, I was sceptical that there had been a decline in long term productivity growth. I suggested that the slow-down in measured productivity growth in the U.S. and some other countries may be attributable, in part, to difficulty in measuring the outputs of the information and communications technologies (ICT) industries. I also noted research findings suggesting a technological diffusion problem, rather than a slow-down in technological advances, with productivity growth of global frontier firms remaining relatively robust.

The addition of a few more years of data seems to lend support to the view of the historical pessimists that there has been a long-term decline in U.S. productivity growth. And Phelps’s cultural change explanation does seem plausible.

Unfortunately, the remedies that Phelps offers are less plausible. He suggests that governments can act to restore dynamism if they become aware of its importance and gain some practical knowledge of how innovation is generated. He suggests:
Nations will have to push back against the resurgence of traditional values that have been suffocating in recent decades and revive the modern values that stirred people to go boldly forth toward lives of richness”.

Edmund Phelps seems to be hoping that a reinvented corporatism, perhaps inspired by the starship Enterprise, will foster grassroots innovation and be less prone to rent-seeking than the industry policies it replaces. Good luck with that!

I prefer to put my faith in the potential for new technologies to disrupt and subvert populist corporatism.