Opinion

Edward Hadas

The world at work

Edward Hadas
Jan 2, 2013 15:03 UTC

When I was a boy I was fascinated by my parent’s copy of “The Family of Man”. The book, taken from a 1955 photography exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was like a window into the big world. The beautiful images of people from many countries showed that the human condition was essentially the same everywhere: we all went through the same noble story of birth, love, struggle, religion and death. Much later I learned that the photographer Edward Steichen, who designed the show, wished to inspire exactly such sentiments. In the words of Carl Sandburg, taken from the book’s prologue, the human race was “one big family hugging close to the ball of Earth for its life and being”.

My enthusiasm was typical. The exhibit was extraordinarily popular around the world, as was the book based on it. Tens of millions of people, from sophisticated New Yorkers to Guatemalan peasants, must have felt that the pictures – the French couple kissing, the circle of rapt South Africans listening to a teller of tales – expressed something fundamental and hopeful about the human condition.

Were we right? Was this an accurate representation of the unity and nobility of the human condition? The dawn of a new year is a good time to look back at this one-time cultural icon. The book’s depiction of work – about 10 percent of the 503 pictures, including a Pakistani construction site with elephants, an Iranian shepherd and Americans wearing suits in a boardroom – provides a good test-case.

My childish enthusiasm certainly needs to be tempered. The truths expressed are not really timeless. In fact, the depictions of working men were already old-fashioned in 1955. The hard manual labour which Steichen considered emblematic of masculine toil was on the decline. Bureaucrats and sedentary machine operators might not be as obviously photogenic as the man pictured standing on a girder suspended in mid-air, but would have been closer to the truth. As for women, in the section on work they are mostly shown engaged in domestic drudgery, such as cleaning and carrying water. Such predominantly feminine toil has not been eliminated, but over the last 60 years women have increasingly come to share workplaces – and the corresponding hopes and frustrations – with men.

The array of pictures is on the wrong side of an epochal shift in labour. The decline of farm and harsh factory toil and the rise of offices and services could be almost as important an historical transition as the industrial revolution. Of course, Steichen cannot be blamed for missing this development, but the limited perspective is a reminder that it is hard to be timeless.

Greed, justice and deception

Edward Hadas
Dec 19, 2012 12:15 UTC

Greed contributes to all the economic and financial woes of prosperous societies. The United States and other rich countries produce much more than is needed to support all of their people in comfort, so if desires were all truly modest, there would be few problems. Greed encourages people to decide that their own share is too small. Greed influences the popular desire for GDP growth (more, faster), financial gains (higher house prices as a human right) and total economic security (guaranteed pension, come what may). Voters’ greed encourages governments to spend more and tax less.

During the boom years, politicians and economists consistently underestimated greed’s disruptive power. While few endorsed the extremist view that greed is actually good, even fewer acted as if it were dangerous. The rhetoric changed during the crisis. It has become fashionable to add “greedy” to the description of any unpopular group – bankers, highly paid executives, rich people in general, welfare cheats.

In theory, the entry of greed into the public discourse ought to be helpful. If those subject to immoderate desire could be identified with certainty, then society might take up arms against them. While we might never win the battle, we could at least hope to shame and restrain the malefactors.

A tale of two half-centuries

Edward Hadas
Dec 12, 2012 14:05 UTC

The future rarely turns out as expected. Imagine, for example, two sets of economic predictions for the half-century that began in 1962. The first, the Blind Guide, is written with only the knowledge available then. The second, the Retrospective Guide, is based on what actually happened.

The biggest economic issue a half-century ago was the battle of economic systems: communism versus capitalism. The Blind Guide would have predicted a lively rivalry in 2012. True, communist countries were already falling behind economically in Europe, but political oppression would keep the system well entrenched. Besides, 50 years ago many Western experts still believed that communism’s social levelling and central planning offered poor countries the best hope of rapid economic growth.

In the retrospective volume, the future abject failure of communism has a prominent place. The decline would be slow, but the people would inevitably become increasingly disenchanted with the system’s incompetence, hypocrisy and cruelty. The will of the people ultimately prevailed.

Economics for Christmas

Edward Hadas
Dec 5, 2012 12:51 UTC

The Christmas season is a particularly good time to think about the fundamental weaknesses of conventional economic theory. Frenzied shopping for gifts cannot easily be reconciled with the standard model’s dour “economic man”, a creature who “who inevitably does that by which he may obtain the greatest amount of necessaries, conveniences, and luxuries, with the smallest quantity of labour and physical self-denial”, in the classic definition of John Stuart Mill. The joyful Christmas season is also a good period to offer praise for a line of economic thinking which draws on a much more flattering view of human nature.

Historically, this approach has been closely associated with the Catholic Church, but “Catholic Economics” is a misleading title, since the thinking is not denominational – for example, Justin Welby, the incoming leader of the Church of England, is a fan. It is not really religious; many atheists would reject the conventional assumption that people always and everywhere calculate their selfish advantage. In honour of the season, I will use “Christmas economics” to describe this anti-Scrooge analysis, which is based on what might be called the Christmas economic person. Unlike the simple and narrowly rational economic man, this is a complicated creature, largely motivated by the desire to be and to do good, but also prone to greed and foolishness. That combination is illogical, but it is realistic; people always show a frustrating mix of virtue and vice.

A comparison shows the advantages of Christmas economics over the standard approach. Consider the difference between the conventional idea of a market and “giving in order to acquire”, a phrase used by Pope Benedict XVI in his Caritas in Veritate. Note that the economists’ market is not a physical place to shop, like a supermarket. It is a conceptual place where purely self-interested economic men trade with one another until they are all as satisfied as they possibly can be, a state known as equilibrium.

Candidates as consumer products

Edward Hadas
Nov 21, 2012 15:06 UTC

Barack Obama did not win the election because more Americans thought he would be a better president than Mitt Romney. More Americans voted for the incumbent than for the challenger, but it is Obama’s superior campaign organisation, and not his personal appeal, that deserves most of the credit. In particular, his product managers were better than Romney’s at using the technique of “data mining”.

The technique, pioneered by supermarkets, is conceptually simple: measure everything and tweak as necessary. In practice, it is a delicate affair. Suppose a popular soft drink has 4 percent higher sales when it is stocked next to a salty snack than when healthier raisins are its shelf-neighbour. Should shelf locations be swapped? There are many variables: the effect on sales of salty snacks and raisins, the profit margins of the different products, and customers’ sensitivity to any price changes. Most of the effects are tiny, but the study of millions of data, including a large number of computer simulations, can increase a retailer’s revenue and profit by a few percent.

In elections, data mining can bring votes to candidates and can increase the supply of contributions which pay for vote-gaining advertising. The work is detailed. Time magazine reports that the Obama campaign carefully tested how much more likely undecided voters in each close state were to yield to the blandishments of local rather than to out-of-state volunteers. The superiority in detailed computer work – “We ran the election 66,000 times every night”, as one expert explained to Time – probably gave Obama a few more percentage points of votes than Romney. It was the margin of victory.

The angel is in the detail

Edward Hadas
Nov 14, 2012 15:47 UTC

Barack Obama will not solve America’s most profound economic problems. That is not a partisan political statement about the newly re-elected president. Had Mitt Romney won last week’s contest, he also would not have been able to reduce unemployment, improve the trade balance, rebuild U.S. manufacturing excellence and strengthen the middle class. The fixing of the American economy is just not a one-man or one-woman job.

The Federal Reserve is trying to help with one of those problems, unemployment, but the central bank does not possess the refined tools needed to address this complex issue. Indeed, bold decisions made by the highest authorities cannot resolve any of the developed world’s greatest economic problems. The devil – and the angel – is in the innumerable details.

Of course, there are times when big policy decisions change the course of economic history, as when the new governments of formerly communist countries abandoned central planning, or when the U.S. government rescued its banking system during the last financial crisis. Less dramatically, changes in government deficits and central bank policies on interest rates can moderate fluctuations in the economy by compensating, to some extent, for hyperactivity or sluggishness.

EU for the 2018 economics Nobel

Edward Hadas
Nov 7, 2012 14:44 UTC

It may be a little early, but I want to make a conditional nomination for the 2018 Nobel Prize for economics. If all goes well, the European Union, which has just won the 2012 Peace Prize, will by then have met the criteria for the economics award: a “work on economic sciences of eminent significance”. The EU writes in deeds rather than essays or equations, but the unconventional form only adds to the accomplishment. Here is a preliminary draft of the citation.

The European Union is awarded this prize for its advances in the theory of economic organisation in modern industrial economies. The EU has added to our knowledge of the relationships between the economic good and political goals, between bureaucracy and entrepreneurial initiative and between private and state ownership. It has also contributed to the study of managing economic change. The EU’s “European theory” is supported by the most persuasive evidence: a unified, prosperous and fairly just economy.

The European arrangement is sometimes called the Social Market Economy. That title captures two key tenets: that the economy should always be considered as part of the broader society, and that competitive markets should play a major role in modern economies. However, “Social Market” misses several important European ideas: that regulation and enterprise should be mutually reinforcing; that supranational and national governments can perform complementary economic tasks; that many economic activities, including health care and education, are best offered by enterprises which are neither under direct government control nor purely private and profit-seeking; and that meritocratic bureaucracies can make valuable contributions in all parts of the economy.

Admit economic ignorance

Edward Hadas
Oct 31, 2012 13:40 UTC

It is time for economists to admit that they are stumped. Four years after being blindsided by Lehman Brothers’ collapse, the profession is still stumbling in the dark. Policymakers and pundits still make confident pronouncements, but the conclusions are radically different. The expert disagreements give away the truth: ignorance reigns.

Here are six crucial questions which professionals should stop pretending they can answer:

1) What creates retail inflation?

If, as some economists think, ample supplies of money push up prices, then the current inflation rates of around 2 percent are inexplicably low. After all, monetary and fiscal policies have never been as generous. If, as other professionals believe, prices fall when there is excess supply of goods and labour, then inflation rates are inexplicably high. Production is still well below trend levels and unemployment rates have rarely been as high.

Unrealistic Nobel economics

Edward Hadas
Oct 24, 2012 12:34 UTC

Stable pairwise matching won Lloyd Shapley and Alvin Roth the Nobel prize for economics. It is an idea that is simple, slightly illuminating for economists, occasionally useful for everyone – and profoundly misleading.

The matches in question are between members of two groups, for example potential husbands and potential wives, or medical school graduates and hospitals that might employ them. The “stable” is defined narrowly: the pairing off is stable as long as no individual can find a way to improve his or her situation by trading partners. What counts as “improvement”? The game theory of Shapley and Roth does not really address that question.

The simple idea, demonstrated by Shapley a half century ago, is that under certain conditions a methodical process of elimination – many rounds of tentative pairings – leads to stability. Take a pool of equal numbers of would-be brides and grooms. The men keep on proposing to their favoured women. At first, only the irresistible men garner acceptances from the most appealing women. Gradually, though, each less attractive man will win the favour of some less attractive woman, who accepts the sad reality that she cannot do any better. At the end, while many people may wish they had a different spouse, no one will be able to arrange a trade. Any alternative pairing will be less desirable than the current one to one side or the other. That is exactly game theory stability.

Welcome the U.S. relative decline

Edward Hadas
Oct 10, 2012 13:53 UTC

Whoever wins the U.S. presidential election will preside over a relative decline in the country’s global economic position. He should, but probably will not, accept the inevitable.

There was a time when almost everything about the American economy set the world standard. In 1960, The United States was the world’s largest market. It had by far the most developed infrastructure, easily the best educational system and undoubtedly the most business-friendly government. It was the source of most innovations, from safe highways and comfortable suburban houses to computers and advanced pharmaceuticals.

Those days are long gone. The creation of the European Union has left the U.S. market in second place. Overall, the infrastructure in Europe and Japan is at least as advanced. The United States is still the global leader in many areas of industry, education and government, but it has fallen behind in some, and the gaps have narrowed in all.

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