The Science of Economics? What Works, and How Much…

We do seem to be talking more about economics – what it should do and look like. But there is still a whiff of revolution about calls for the discipline to be more evidence-based and, well, scientific. This article, by Philip Aldrick in the Times yesterday, argues for more careful scientific approaches, and this is worth noting. Of course, in the natural sciences, this would be taken as read. Drugs need to be extensively trialled before they are sold and used to treat disease in humans. But for some reason, in the social sciences, theory and ideology have the ability to shape policy just as much as evidence.

Aldrick’s piece cites two studies launched by Nesta, a UK Innovation think tank, roughly seven years ago. The first was a retrospective review of the effectiveness of business clusters; do small businesses do better when they are closely located and can share location and labour advantages? The second was a randomised controlled trial on whether tax relief for small creative companies worked. The results of the studies were not their most important findings however.

For the sake of finishing a story, the first study proved relatively inconclusive, and could not find any clear correlation between clusters and growth. The second study found that tax and financial incentives were helpful in the short term for small creative businesses, but after 12 months any advantage had faded.

So, what was the main impact? The reason these two studies are remarkable are for their illustration of research methods. While retrospective reviews – generally the majority of most empirical work in the social sciences – can only look for correlation, randomised controlled trials (RCTs) can go deeper, further, and can identify causative factors. In other words, we can target specific factors and identify why things happen. This is important because it means we can be more scientific about what works, how it works, and why. And this means we can begin to base policy on evidence rather than theory. RCTs also offer a way of measuring the extent of policy impacts. By having a test group and a control group, we can gauge the extent to which a policy really makes a difference. And that means we can evaluate whether a policy is financially and economically viable. So, RCTs offer a way of seeing not only what works, but how much.

Why is this news? Similar to other recent posts on here, there is increasing discussion of economics and how the discipline can be improved in the mainstream media. Aldrick’s argument is that economics – both the research and the formulation of policy – can and should be more scientific in its approach. And to this end he calls for more RCTs and longer term studies testing causation before policy is enacted. The government has launched the Business Basics Fund with Nesta to carry out trials investigating, among other things, productivity. UK productivity lags behind that of other countries, attributed generally to poor management practices. But how can management practices be altered to improve productivity?

Questions like this lend themselves readily to RCTs where different techniques can be trialled in comparison with a control group. Nevertheless, there are questions of macroeconomics that are not suitable for trials. We cannot test interest rates or tariffs, for example, against control groups. And this remains a problem for the larger questions tackled in macroeconomics, where theory remains a significant influencer of policy.

Calls for greater use of careful empirical data in shaping economic, legal and social science policy is not new though. Economic sociology, economic sociology of law, and sociolegal approaches have long stressed the need for analysis and understanding to be based firmly in the real world, on real data, and about real people. Increasing access to big data and AI could enhance this. As Aldrick states, “Economics is a social science. Why not make it more scientific?”

Waiting on the market?

The UK government has finally declared a climate emergency. This is great news of course, but what does it really mean in practice? And what is this doing on a blog about law and economics?

The government in the UK has subsidised the purchase of new electric and low emission vehicles in a a bid to support and stimulate the market. But at the end of 2018, the government reduced the available subsidy rates, the makes and models of cars that were eligible, and capped the number of vehicles that could be purchased under the scheme. It’s really no surprise then that the rate at which electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles have been sweeping the market has fallen since the subsidy reduction. Indeed, sales of plug-in hybrid cars fell by one third in the period to April 2019. This is, of course, against the backdrop of a clean air crisis, a backlash against Diesel engines and emissions scandals, and the Extinction Rebellion protests calling for every tighter emissions limits.

So, it would make sense for the government to support the clean(er) transport industry, including electric and low emission vehicles. More to the point, the industry seems to be crying out for a level of oversight, investment, and general co-ordination. While some companies have started to set up charging networks across the UK, these are often not cross-compatible, resulting in up to 15 different types of charging points that drivers of electric cars have to navigate. What’s more, charging points tend to congregate in wealthier areas of the country, while residents in poorer areas struggle to find a single charging point. On top of this, most experts agree that if the electric car revolution is to take off, fast charging – or the ability to charge a car to 80% in 30 minutes – is essential for the success and sustainability of the network. The problem is that the national grid in the UK is simply unable to support the required wattage, or provide the increased levels of electricity required. We would, literally, face a melt down. The answer is a massive investment and overhaul of the underlying infrastructure.

So here we turn to economics. Once again, the problem is not technology. We have the knowledge, the tech, and the skills to make the green revolution happen. It comes down to economics.

The UK government has repeated its mantra that it is waiting for “the market” to step in and develop the charging networks for electric vehicles. Meanwhile, “the market” currently complains that there is insufficient basic infrastructure available for them to build on. This is not a new dilemma, and as Mariana Mazzucato has documented, a great deal of the tech that has driven progress over the last half century has developed out of state-funded R&D. Steve Jobs did not “invent” GPS or the touch screen; he took the technology and packaged it up in a shiny box.

It feels too obvious to state that a network of charging points for electric vehicles across the UK needs to be integrated and cross-compatible. It also feels obvious to state that this network needs to be connected to a grid that has the capacity to charge the nation’s cars, if we actually want people to move to cleaner, greener, options. It also feels like common sense to point out that this level of integration, planning, and investment needs to come from the state, as the only entity with sufficient oversight, patience, and funding. Or, at very least, it needs to come from “the market” working closely with the state to achieve clearly set targets that can establish a nationwide network that avoids duplication and achieves integration for the greatest value and usability.

The markets for broadband and mobile phone coverage are instructive here. There are still areas in rural Somerset in 2019 that have no mobile phone coverage. Understandably, where the market is left to decide where to invest, it will do so where the returns are greatest, and this is in towns and more densely populated areas. Given the basic underlying premises of business and shareholder value maximisation, this is to be expected.

The problem arises when ideology and a die hard belief in neoliberalism takes hold and denies the valuable role that state involvement can play. Writing in 1944, Karl Polanyi emphasised the utopian nature of the ideological divide between state and market, and criticised the belief that the free market was entirely self-regulating. He pointed out that both market and state relied on the other, and that some degree of state oversight and involvement was necessary if society was to avoid the worst effects of the free market. To use the example of the telecommunications failures, the government can step in at this point and regulate the operation of the market to ensure that everyone has access to broadband, whether they live in London or rural Somerset, and regardless of the cost to the company bidding for the contract.

At the same time, the market benefits from state involvement, and the examples of infrastructure such as an enhanced national grid, green power and a network of clean vehicle charging points on which the green transport industry can flourish is an archetypal example of where the close collaboration between the two spheres has never been needed more.

Is “economics” society’s operating system?

Is economics society’s operating system?

Is economics now society’s default, or de facto, operating system? And what does this mean? I heard this mentioned in passing on the radio the other day in another context. But it struck me as a really useful and interesting analogy to the role of economics in society, and the values and goals that we subconsciously prioritise.

An operating system is system-wide software that manages computer hardware and software resources, and which provides common services for computer programmes. It operates as a base on which all other functions rely for resources and access – it sets the rules of the game. Similarly, we can see economics, in particular neoclassical economics, as performing a similar function within society, although widely unrecognised and largely subconsciously. It does this, as I suggest below, through setting the rules of the game as well as providing the vocabulary and grammar that we use to talk about the game.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s piece in the Times Higher Ed this morning, on the impact of competition and marketization in higher education, perfectly summed up some of the issues of economics-as-operating-system, but in the specific context of higher education.

Fitzpatrick writes that while friendly competition can be helpful, “when the competitiveness that fuels excellence and prestige becomes based in the logic of the market, universities lose sight of their true purpose”. In a detailed and thoughtful piece, she argues that excellence in academia and higher education has embodied the norms of the market, and competition between academics, between faculties, between institutions and between fields of research has become the main means of determining achievement, excellence, and promotion. The metrics that are used to determine success – publication in the right place, impact, and so on – are based on orthodox, or neoclassical economics and the assumptions, biases and norms contained therein.

Fitzpatrick asks what we could achieve instead if we moved from competition to collaboration within faculties and within higher education more generally. What could we achieve by articulating our goals and values and determining excellence in relation to the achievement of those goals and values rather than against one another?

Fitzpatrick’s argument relates to higher education, which is in a state of flux at the moment given the questions surrounding its funding and the role of higher education in society more broadly. The answer is, of course, not quite so simple, as to challenge or step outside of the mainstream competitive framework inherently makes oneself “uncompetitive”. Funding and prestige are therefore potentially sacrificed – a leap into the unknown that so far, only the University of Ghent has been prepared to take.

In other words, the system perpetuates and reproduces itself, while being almost impossible to step outside of. However, within the sphere of higher education, there is some level of awareness of the metrics, competition, and implications of this on career progression, wellbeing and industry more broadly, even if there is no clear or simple solution.

But the article raises broader issues that relate to my research, and the comment about economics – particularly neoclassical economics – functioning as a de facto operating system throughout society. The difference here is the general lack of awareness about the way that neoclassical economics shapes the way that society functions. Even within economics as a field of study and research, there is a generalised monoculture.

We can point to economics notions like competition and a belief in the free market, ways of measuring (GDP, for example), profit maximization, and so on, as having pervaded social consciousness and public discourse to such an extent that they guide and influence policy making even tacitly. By effectively fixing the rules of the game, and even the way we talk about the game before playing it by supplying the vocabulary and grammar, economics functions as a social operating system. And the sooner we are more aware of the impact of this, the sooner we can begin to challenge its effects.