Monthly Archives: January 2016

Cost-benefits and twitter follows: eleven weeks of good stuff, week 2

So far so good. It’s Sunday morning, the second week of January and I’m sitting down to write the second installment of my 11 weeks (or thereabouts) of good stuff. Each week I’ll take a section from the manifesto published in A Richer Life, and post it on this blog with some additional commentary.

As I review the not-very-inspiring viewer statistics for last week’s effort, here’s a supremely appropriate second extract:

And kick our cost- benefit habit. Efficiency is not the only virtue. A society needs justice, and empathy, with all the obligations that go alongside them. It’s too easy, faced with a difficult political decision, to emphasize benefits over costs and take refuge in ‘trustworthy’ numbers and scientific calculations. But when we examine those numbers, they turn out to be politics in disguise. We need conversation and debate over what is best, and best for whom, not what is cheapest; to open up the black boxes of measurements and metrics so that we can see what these metrics really are, and what they do. Cost-benefit thinking is corrosive in our own lives too. If we act only in anticipation of a return, we will all be the poorer, while a society where all contribute will be a far richer place. So go to that team meeting, even though it really isn’t part of your job. Take your friend/spouse/children to the play/film/concert, even though you’ll hate it; they’ll have fun and you may well find that’s enough.

The world has changed a great deal since the summer of 2014 when I wrote those words. The horrors of last year – Charlie Hebdo, our awakening to the ‘existential threat’ posed by Daesh, the attacks in Paris, and most of all, the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean and Europe – have forced a sudden maturing of political discourse. While economics still has plenty to say on the topic of migration – largely positive, as it happens – it is just one of many competing voices: the Christian left, for example, represented by Giles Fraser here, or the Archbishop of Canterbury’s careful association of British patriotism with welcome: ‘In today’s world, hospitality and love are our most formidable weapons against hatred and extremism’. Equally, there is an understandable fear, driven by the shadow of attacks that weren’t, and the ugly violence that manifested itself in Cologne on New Year’s Eve.

Closer to home, just look at the change in political discourse over flood defences. At the beginning of 2014 the coalition government demanded a great hike – a 60% increase in benefits – for every pound spent on flood defences. Following this winter’s deluge, we see the environment agency advocating a holistic approach to flood prevention, and stating ‘people will always come first’.

In fact, in such a climate, there is something appealing about the cool voice of reason provided by economic analysis – a dispassionate assessment of the long-term costs and benefits of any action. But it’s clear for now that there are bigger questions at stake.

We must be careful to distinguish between efficiency as a means of distinguishing between solutions to rival problems, and competing solutions to the same problem. In the latter instance, cost benefit has a lot to say. The problem comes in the assumption of transferability. An absurd example will illustrate the point: let’s say the cost benefit payoff of dealing with floods is better than that of dealing with refugees. There is an economic argument to say that we should sort out the floods first, whatever the human costs. That may sound crazy, but in debates over global warming, for example, it’s more or less what many economists have said. When an eminent American economist says that it’s unethical to invest in climate change prevention projects of uncertain return, one can’t help seeing a politics that privileges the haves of the developed world over the have-nots of those countries like Bangladesh.

But my book isn’t really about policy. I’m concerned about the corrosive effect that cost benefit calculations have on us as people – as persons. I argue that individually self-interested action, often driven by cost-benefit analysis, is collectively impoverishing. Private vice is not, despite what contemporary neo-Smithians like to say, a recipe for public virtue. Not at all.

Cost-benefit reasoning is a mode of thinking that we slip into very naturally, so naturally in fact that thinkers such as Daniel Dennet have argued it to be the only truly natural way of thinking. We are all its victims. Indeed, as I drag myself to my shed on a Sunday morning to write these words I can’t help noticing that the views of last week’s endeavour could be numbered on fingers and toes. Why on earth should I bother?

When I’ve finished the blog, I’ll announce it on twitter. I’m fascinated by the economics of twitter, and particularly the cost-benefits of following others. Being a twitter dilettante (a twittertante? A dilettwit?) I just drop in now and then to see what’s going on, catch up on the news and so forth. My friend and fellow twitterante @cfhelgesson captures the mood of this social media existence nicely when describes his news feed as being like rain: when he’s thirsty he can cup his hands and take what he wants, and when he’s not it simply passes by.

A diletwit like me can only cope with following a couple of hundred accounts, beyond which there is a ‘diminishing marginal return’ on each additional follow. (CF, more industrious than I, follows over 700. I will ask him how he does it.) Thus I am operating a clear-cost benefit algorithm for managing my twitter follows; the costs in terms of missed tweets and time required imposed by following one more person outweigh the potential benefits in terms of hilarity, news, political acumen, feline cuteness and so forth. It’s one in, one out, pretty much.

How then do people rack up 10,000 follows? Surely the cost of keeping up with each of these additional follows will greatly outweigh any infinitesimal marginal benefit? Unless, of course, the game is different; if a user is only interested in building up his or her own following, then the economics suddenly work out very well. There is no cost in any additional follow because one has no intention of paying any attention to anything they do, nor is there a cost for any additional follower. But if one sees value in a huge following the marginal return on each follower is increasingly large. The whole economy is suddenly upside down. (The same applies, oddly, to the business of being super rich. When one is wealthy enough to start buying yachts, football clubs and politicians, each extra dollar becomes worth a whole lot more than the last one.)

If one follows total strangers in the expectation that some of them will follow you back, then following huge numbers is an efficient and instrumental means of generating value, and ‘building an online platform’ as the marketers like to say. I was followed last week by ‘a self-taught photographer and photoshop artist located in Los Angeles’ who tweets gorgeous head shots and theatrical bon-mots to an audience of 11,000, but follows 9,999. Including me. Enough said.

Presumably, not everyone follows back, and that 9,999 number requires careful curation. 30,000 follows to 10,000 followers might look bad; better to keep it level. So every time I encounter a twitter profile following a four figure number, or more, and a matching level of followers I think ‘Aha!’

I’m sure anyone with any level of sophistication regarding social media figured this out long ago – but on the other hand, if they did, why does the following trick still works at all? (Maybe it doesn’t – maybe there is, across twitter, a diminishing marginal return on following for followers. That would be truly ironic.)

I instinctively dislike this game. There are two ways of approaching twitter. The first is as a community, where one can share jokes and articles, strange gifs and pictures of cats and all the other things that make the Internet go round. The emphasis, though, is on share, because sharing implies receiving and participating as well as giving. It involves a certain degree of empathy in as much as one expects that people may be interested in whatever it is that one has chosen to tweet. It involves treating people as worth something in them themselves.

The second is to treat twitter as a gigantic tool for self-aggrandizement: building an online profile, getting famous, driving business, ultimately cashing in. It involves asking people to pay attention to you – to spend their time, their efforts on you – without any sense that you will pay attention in return. That additional follow, your ten thousandth, is a trick, a con. It is a message sent to someone saying ‘Hey, you’re interesting…’ that means no such thing.

Of course, if cost benefit is your only measure of moral purpose, then such a game is completely legitimate. It’s a cheap and easy way to hoover up followers, and you’d be a fool not to. That’s why cost benefit alone is such a damaging moral standard, because it mandates instrumental and collectively impoverishing courses of action. The twitter following game is a synecdoche for a much bigger discussion: we need ways of talking and thinking that transcend cost benefit in our own private lives as much as our public sphere. If everyone behaved according to the rules of the twitter following game in real life, we really would have some problems.

All of which brings me back to the business of writing this blog. If I were driven by cost benefit alone I would have sat in the warm and read the paper, pausing only to follow a few more hundred total strangers. I certainly wouldn’t have spent a precious Sunday morning hunched in the shed, peering at the screen, tapping out words while my toes go steadily numb.

I’d like it to be read, of course. I’d like the number of readers to exceed the number of my fingers and toes (so if you like it, please pass it on!). But that’s not why I wrote it. I did so because I said that I would, and I have a promise to keep to myself as much as to the invisible Internet. I did so because I know some people –CF, perhaps – will read it, and I hope they will like it. Perhaps it will raise a smile here and there.

And finally, I did so because I consume blogs too, many of them very good, and I want to be a genuine part of that community of writers and thinkers. I don’t expect this blog will make me rich and famous, and I’m not building an online platform; I simply believe that the world is a better place for the collective effort of writing decent prose and sticking it online. Because lots of us think that, it is.

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Eleven weeks of good stuff

It’s New Year. The time of December parties, Christmas celebrations, of self-indulgence and sofa-slouching is over. The Hogmanay hangover is easing its vile claws from your frontal lobes. It’s time, as diet gurus and health fads tell us, for the New You; for a booze-free January, a gym subscription, and resolutions that must not be broken in the first few days.

In the spirit of all those thirty-day programmes, I am offering my own contribution to our self-improvement. Eleven weeks of good stuff, or thereabouts.

The epilogue to my book, A Richer Life, contains a Manifesto – suggestions for ways in which we might improve our political discourse, our polity, and our personal lives. Introducing it, I wrote:

‘We are all economists now. Every day we think in terms of cost and benefits, and follow the measure of our own self-interest. In the shops, in politics, even in love, we expect value for money and efficiency, high returns for low risk. Economic reasoning is withering our social and political institutions, and the strategic, instrumental self-advancement that it advocates is corroding our personal relationships.

How can we be different? How should we think, talk and act; what tools should we use and institutions should we build to be better persons? What must we do to live a richer life?

Here are my suggestions. Some are big ideas, and others are things we can each do today. Together, they call for nothing less than an inversion of contemporary political economy: for an economics that is grassroots, not top-down, for trade that is embedded in relationship, and for a world where the claims of capital and property and are not allowed to ride roughshod over the dignity and worth of individuals.’

There are eleven suggestions. Not for any particular literary or aesthetic reason, but simply because I stopped when I had done. Once a week, for the next eleven weeks, I’m going to post each one on my website with some elaboration and comment. I hope they will make you think, and even better, talk. Maybe even act. If you like them, pass them on, tell your friends. If you don’t – fair enough, but I hope you stopped to think why. (If you didn’t, I suggest you listen to Tim Minchin on the virtue of being hard on your opinions).

So here’s point number one.

  1. Let’s cure our obsession with price. We must find a way of speaking about priceless things – the environment, biodiversity, culture, care, relationships, quality of life – that does not depend on price. Putting a price on nature, for example, makes it interchangeable and consumable, an outcome that is neither needed nor intended. Something is priceless, as the philosopher Roger Scruton points out, because we discover its value only through experience and interaction and therefore there is nothing for which it can be meaningfully exchanged. The virtues of a loving relationship are worked out and manifested as we go through life: they defy foreknowledge and transcend price. We must cultivate a political discourse dignified and intelligent enough to recognise the limits of our knowledge and accept the worth of things around us.

Price is often shorthand for knowledge. According to mainstream economic theory, it is the price mechanism that translates our rich and varied preferences into a single currency through which needs can be met. But the logic of the market often takes another step and claims that price is the only way of knowing about something. Virtues which cannot be expressed in price cannot be virtues at all. To say that something is priceless – a work of art, for example – often just means that it is very, very expensive.

Price is all knowing, and that omniscience means that we must be able to see into the future. Possible benefits must be factored into present price, just as the future revenue streams from a new piece of machinery in a factory are factored into its upfront cost. This is how the discourses of contemporary life encourage us to think about the choices we make. A purchase, a leisure activity, a new fitness regime, a new job, a boyfriend or girlfriend – all of these are to be planned as investments and understood in terms of their payoffs.

But Scruton, himself a defender of markets, hits the mark when he says that pricelessness means exactly the reverse: that for whatever reason, we cannot know or understand what these future values may be. The only way to find out is by doing, sometimes putting ourselves at risk in the process. The tendency to price is a tendency to control, a will to power over the uncertainty and chaos that adds depth – delight and despair – to our lives. Who would wish to live like a factory machine?

Accepting the limits of our ability to price things involves a certain humility and requires us to develop other ways of speaking and thinking. There is an argument that putting a price on nature gives it a seat at the table, allowing it to be factored into calculations and decisions. That argument is really an indictment of our own lack of imagination: we have to find other ways of allowing the priceless to speak.

There’s a subtle politics at work in our obsession with price. Prices are numbers and we tend to think of numbers as objective and scientific. But all kinds of mechanisms may be at work in the construction of those numbers. In my book, I talk about the practicalities of finding prices for things that can’t be bought and sold – landscapes and bodily organs, for example – and show how tendentious and political many of these mechanisms are. They are often unfair, too. Once we get into the land of calculation, the person with the biggest calculator always wins; the supermarket’s calculative power and customer data is a hugely powerful tool in shaping our choices. A neoliberal free market enthusiast will argue that the market is the biggest calculator of all. It is, indeed, but not one that is necessarily fair – ability and willingness to pay are not the same thing at all.

Price is a mode of speech available only to those who are able to pay. By taking price as the sole measure of value, we exclude and disenfranchise those who can least afford to be excluded.

Three good reasons to cure our obsession with price.

A well-known brand of cosmetics advertises itself with the slogan ‘because you’re worth it’. These words serve to focus the action of valuing – of worth and deeming worthy – on ourselves, while reducing everything and everyone else to commodities exchangeable in pursuit of our own satisfaction. These For a New Year’s resolution we could try the reverse – ‘because they’re worth it’ – as a justification for any kind of action.

Now that is a slogan I’d like to hear in public life.

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The problem with economics, again

A very happy New Year to all – to celebrate, here’s something from the archives. I wrote this for the LSE Politics and Policy blog in the spring of 2014, just after my book had been published. It circulated for a while, and popped up again at the end of the year as one of the blog’s ten most interesting reads from 2014. I’ve seen it on twitter a couple of times since. It hasn’t gone out of date: the year of horrors that was 2015 threw up so many issues about which economics would have something to say, notably the crises over European debt and migration. With typical humility and understatement I chose the title ‘The problem with economics’. So, without further ado, here it is once again:

‘In my recent book, I Spend Therefore I Am, I claim that economics is itself one of the biggest problems we face today. By economics, I don’t just mean something that happens in universities, but a way of thinking based on and institutionalizing certain assumptions: that we are driven primarily by self-interest, organised by competition, and governed by the calculation of future returns over costs. I argue that the logic of the market has even become embedded in our daily, personal interactions. And I suggest that, as the real challenges for our future – such as the distribution of wealth, global welfare and climate change – cannot be usefully discussed, let alone settled, in those terms, economics itself is in need of some attention.

Judging by some of the reviews, I have ruffled a few feathers. I have been accused, even by the more benevolent, of doing economics a disservice, setting it up as a straw man to be knocked down. In one sense this is true. In the UK, at least, university departments of economics are heterodox, interesting places, housing scholars of all hues: Marxist economists, development economists, and labour economists who work happily alongside behavioural economists and financial econometricians. I freely admit this but it’s what happens outside universities that matters, and the diaspora of one particular kind of economic thought, that represented in economic textbooks, PPE degrees, and the business case justification, is almost universal.

Universal it may be, but fit for purpose it is not. It crowds out other values and leads conversation into a cul-de-sac of squabbles over calculation. In February, a major healthcare institute hit the headlines with the suggestion that statins (anti-cholesterol drugs) should be prescribed to the majority of men over 50 and women over 60, on the grounds that it is more cost-effective to flood the nation with drugs than deal with a tsunami of heart-related health care issues. This may be true but it obscures some more pressing questions: should we eat less, eat better, spend more time out of the office, and be subjected to less stress? Is there something fundamentally wrong with the organization of our society of which heart disease is just a side-effect?

The economist’s answer is that we just need better (read more complex) models. But ceding authority to models rob us of the ability to talk about what we should do, or even to recognize that the best we can do is far from good enough. If we object to contested and complex models sitting as unelected legislators in our parliament, then more sophisticated models will simply worsen the situation: more sophistication equals less transparency and less opportunity for the lay-citizen to contest the models’ judgement.

This kind of economics is ever present in our public discourse. It appears when we ask what we should do about higher education or the flooding in the South West. Government officials charged with looking after culture are obsessed by the Treasury’s Green Book and preoccupied by the thought of market failure. The way that we talk tells us what counts and what does not and helps us assign value to certain things. But talk alone is not enough to ensure the dominance of economics in our public and private lives. For that we need economic things: models, tools and organizational architectures. It’s not a metaphorical ploy to suggest that economic artefacts are active legislators in the world around us. The complexities of arriving at a decision in the modern world force us to share the burden of calculation with devices, which become, in the words of the French sociologist Michel Callon, ‘prostheses’ for economic action. These things do. They act in the world and our agency is shared out amongst them.

So, for example, when one adopts the methods of the Green Book, or switches on an investment bank trading screen, one takes up calculative tools in which certain economic assumptions are embedded. The discounted cash flow, central to business case analysis, produces in the world a very particular set of effects with its roots in economic theory – the diminishing value of money (and sometimes persons) in the future. Philosophers may be less than happy with its assumptions (how can one discount a life?) but every day in offices and trading rooms around the globe, the discounted cash flow really does make the world into a place where the future is worth less than the present.

Often, economic devices are naturalised such that we often don’t notice their effects. Let me offer another example. My colleague Shiona Chillas and I have spent some time investigating the mechanics of online dating sites. We have been able to trace the progress of particular economic ideas and methodologies into the construction of dating algorithms and interfaces. When a user enters the site, they form a temporary partnership with the machinery and act in a certain way, to maximise return on their own value. Our findings align neatly with the substantial body of research on the tactics of users on the sites: they become economic, they shop, they maximise dynamic preferences. Some sites analyse previous searches and show you matches according to your ‘revealed preference’. The machine knows you better than you know yourself, so long as you choose a partner as you might a pair of trousers. Under these conditions, it’s impossible to maintain the fiction that a user’s choices are not shaped by the site’s mechanics, when the machinery does so much of the work. Nor is it much of a defence to claim that the school disco was also instrumental. It may have been, but the cybernetic rationality of online dating is something else altogether. We don’t know for sure how much of this cyborg dater spills into the world around us, but I suggest that the prognosis is not benign.

Many will agree that our economized public discourse is lacking. But examples like online dating, healthcare, and the grimy world of Punternet (an online review site for sex workers, promising that better information will lead to ‘less stressful, more enjoyable and mutually respectful visits’) encourage me to push the argument a little bit further. Economic rationality is powerful, and in its thoroughgoing solipsism it drives out other virtues: if we must only care about ourselves, how can we possibly care about others? When we reduce our interpersonal relations to calculations of cost and benefit, disciplined by competition and mediated by the manifold devices of economics in the world – the same discipline that we must focus upon ourselves – then we run the risk of losing something far more precious: our humanity.’

Happy New Year to you all. I hope 2016 brings us all good things.

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