The Bitcoin whitepaper was published on 31 October 2008, ten years ago today.
2017 yas been the year of Initial Coin Offers, or ICOs. Some US 4 billion has been raised by ICOs this year. Nor, for the first time, an ICO has been advertised on the London Underground.
Given the massive literature on so-called rationality in the social sciences, it gives one pause to observe what a dark palimpsest the annals of rational choice has become. The modern economist, who avoids philosophy and psychology as the couch potato avoids the gym, has almost no appreciation for the rich archive of paradoxes of rationality. This has come to pass primarily by insisting upon a distinctly peculiar template as the necessary starting point of all discussion, at least from the 1950s onwards. Neoclassical economists frequently characterize their schema as comprising three components: (a) a consistent well-behaved preference ordering reflecting the mindset of some individual; (b) the axiomatic method employed to describe mental manipulations of (a) as comprising the definition of “rational choice”; and (c) reduction of all social phenomena to be attributed to the activities of individual agents applying (b) to (a). These three components may be referred to in shorthand as: “utility” functions, formal axiomatic definitions (including maximization provisions and consistency restrictions), and some species of methodological individualism.The immediate response is to marvel at how anyone could have confused this extraordinary contraption with the lush forest of human rationality, however loosely defined. Start with component (a). The preexistence of an inviolate preference order rules out of bounds most phenomena of learning, as well as the simplest and most commonplace of human experiences—that feeling of changing one’s mind. The obstacles that this doctrine pose for problems of the treatment of information turns out to be central to our historical account. People have been frequently known to make personally “inconsistent” evaluations of events both observed and unobserved; yet in rational choice theory, committing such a solecism is the only real mortal sin—one that gets you harshly punished at minimum and summarily drummed out of the realm of the rational in the final analysis. Now, let’s contemplate component (b). That dogma insists the best way to enshrine rationality is by mimicking a formal axiomatic system—as if that were some sterling bulwark against human frailty and oblique hidden flaws of hubris. One would have thought Gödel’s Theorem might have chilled the enthusiasm for this format, but curiously, the opposite happened instead. Every rational man within this tradition is therefore presupposed to conform to his own impregnable axiom system—something that comes pre-loaded, like Microsoft on a laptop. This cod-Bourbakism ruled out many further phenomena that one might otherwise innocently call “rational”: an experimental or pragmatic stance toward the world; a life where one understands prudence as behaving different ways (meaning different “rationalities”) in different contexts; a self-conception predicated on the possibility that much personal knowledge is embodied, tacit, inarticulate, and heavily emotion driven. Furthermore, it strangely banishes many computational approaches to cognition: for instance, it simply elides the fact that much algorithmic inference can be shown to be noncomputable in practice; or a somewhat less daunting proposition, that it is intractable in terms of the time and resources required to carry it out. The “information revolution” in economics primarily consisted of the development of Rube Goldberg–type contraptions to nominally get around these implications. Finally, contemplate component (c): complaints about methodological individualism are so drearily commonplace in history that it would be tedious to reproduce them here. Suffice it to say that (c) simply denies the very existence of social cognition in its many manifestations as deserving of the honorific “rational.”There is nothing new about any of these observations. Veblen’s famous quote summed them up more than a century ago: “The hedonistic conception of man is that of a lightning calculator of pleasures and pains, who oscillates like a homogeneous globule of desire of happiness under the impulse of stimuli that shift him about the area, but leave him intact.” The roster of latter-day dissenters is equally illustrious, from Herbert Simon to Amartya Sen to Gerd Gigerenzer, if none perhaps is quite up to his snuff in stylish prose or withering skepticism. It is commonplace to note just how ineffectual their dissent has been in changing modern economic practice.Why anyone would come to mistake this virtual system of billiard balls careening across the baize as capturing the white-hot conviction of rationality in human life is a question worthy of a few years of hard work by competent intellectual historians; but that does not seem to be what we have been bequeathed. In its place sits the work of (mostly) historians of economics and a few historians of science treating these three components of rationality as if they were more or less patently obvious, while scouring over fine points of dispute concerning the formalisms involved, and in particular, an inordinate fascination for rival treatments of probability theory within that framework. We get histories of ordinal versus cardinal utility, game theory, “behavioral” peccadillos, preferences versus “capacities,” social choice theory, experimental interventions, causal versus evidential decision theory, formalized management theory, and so forth, all situated within a larger framework of the inexorable rise of neoclassical economics. Historians treat components (a–c) as if they were the obvious touchstone of any further research, the alpha and omega of what it means to be “rational.” Everything that comes after this is just a working out of details or a cleaning up of minor glitches. If and when this “rational choice” complex is observed taking root within political science, sociology, biology, or some precincts of psychology, it is often treated as though it had “migrated” intact from the economists’ citadel. If that option is declined, then instead it is intimated that “science” and the “mathematical tools” made the figures in question revert to certain stereotypic caricatures of rationality.” [Mirowski and Nik-Khah 2017, locations 318-379 of the Kindle edition].
Philip Mirowski and Edward Nik-Khah : The Knowledge We Have Lost in Information: The History of Information in Modern Economics. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books. The books are listed in reverse chronological order, with the most recently-read book at the top.
- Dan Shanahan : Camelot Eclipsed: Connecting the Dots. Independently published.
- China Mieville : October: The Story of the Russian Revolution. UK: Verso.
- Joshua Rubenstein (Editor) : The KGB File of Andrei Sakharov. USA: Yale University Press.
- Henry Hemming : M: Maxwell Knight, MI5’s Greatest Spymaster. UK: Preface Publishing.
- Evelyn Waugh : Edmund Campion, Jesuit and Martyr. UK: Longmans.
- Alison Barrett : View from my Tower: Letters from Prague, March 1985 – May 1988. A fascinating series of letters from wife of the British Ambassador to members of her family about her time in Prague, in the period of stasis just before the Velvet Revolution.
- John O Koehler : Stasi: The Untold Story of the East German Secret Police. USA: Basic Books.
Gleichgewichtzustandwiederherstellungsmoeglichkeit (German, noun): The possibility of re-establishing a condition of equilibrium.
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of The Telegraph puts eloquently and compellingly the prosecution case for the greatest deliberate economic misfortune of our era. He argues that this gross failure of democracy leads him to vote to leave the EC. But, as President G. W. Bush used to say, you are either at the table or you are lunch. This failure should mean we redouble our efforts to reform European institutions and rid them of the Dutch-German austerity policies which so dominate economic policy.
Nobody has ever been held to account for the design faults and hubris of the euro, or for the monetary and fiscal contraction that turned recession into depression, and led to levels of youth unemployment across a large arc of Europe that nobody would have thought possible or tolerable in a modern civilized society. The only people that are ever blamed are the victims.
There has been no truth and reconciliation commission for the greatest economic crime of modern times. We do not know who exactly was responsible for anything because power was exercised through a shadowy interplay of elites in Berlin, Frankfurt, Brussels, and Paris, and still is. Everything is deniable. All slips through the crack of oversight.
Nor have those in charge learned the lessons of EMU failure. The burden of adjustment still falls on South, without offsetting expansion in the North. It is a formula for deflation and hysteresis. That way lies yet another Lost Decade.
Has there ever been a proper airing of how the elected leaders of Greece and Italy were forced out of power and replaced by EU technocrats, perhaps not by coups d’etat in a strict legal sense but certainly by skulduggery?
On what authority did the European Central Bank write secret letters to the leaders of Spain and Italy in 2011 ordering detailed changes to labour and social law, and fiscal policy, holding a gun to their head on bond purchases?
What is so striking about these episodes is not that EU officials took such drastic decisions in the white heat of crisis, but that it was allowed to pass so easily. The EU’s missionary press corps turned a blind eye. The European Parliament closed ranks, the reflex of a nomenklatura.
While you could say that the euro is nothing to do with us, it obviously goes to the character of the EU: how it exercises power, and how far it will go in extremis.”
Gibson Hall, London, venue for DevCon1, 9-13 November 2015. There was some irony in holding a conference to discuss technology developments in blockchains and distributed ledgers in a grand, neo-classical heritage-listed building erected in 1865. At least it was fitting that a technology currently taking the financial world by storm should be debated in what was designed to be a banking hall (for Westminster Bank). The audience was split fairly evenly between dreadlocked libertarians & cryptocurrency enthusiasts and bankers & lawyers in smart suits: cyberpunk meets Gordon Gekko.
The destruction by the Troika of the Greek economy and Greek society that we have witnessed these last five years may have one good outcome: it may bring reform to at least one of the organizations responsible, according to this scathing indictment by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in the London Telegraph today. An excerpt:
The International Monetary Fund is in very serious trouble. Events have reached a point in Greece where the Fund’s own credibility and long-term survival are at stake.
The Greeks are not withholding a €300m payment to the IMF because they have run out of money, though they soon will do.
Five key players in the radical-Left Syriza movement – meeting in the Maximus Mansion in Athens yesterday – took an ice-cold, calculated, and carefully-considered decision not to pay.
They knew exactly what they were doing. The IMF’s Christine Lagarde was caught badly off guard. Staff officials in Washington were stunned.
On one level, the “bundling” of €1.6bn of payments due to the IMF in June is just a technical shuffle, albeit invoking a procedure last used by Zambia for different reasons in the 1980s. In reality it is a warning shot, and a dangerous escalation for all parties.
Syriza’s leaders are letting it be known that they are so angry, and so driven by a sense of injustice, that they may indeed default to the IMF on June 30 and in so doing place the institution in the invidious position of explaining to its 188 member countries why it has lost their money so carelessly, and why it has made such a colossal hash of its affairs.
The Greeks accuse the IMF of colluding in an EMU-imposed austerity regime that breaches the Fund’s own rules and is in open contradiction with five years of analysis by its own excellent research department and chief economist, Olivier Blanchard.
Greece’s public debt is 180pc of GDP. The loans are in a currency that the country does not control. It is therefore foreign currency debt. The IMF knows that Greece cannot possibly pay this down by draconian austerity – the policy already implemented for five years with such self-defeating effects – and the longer it pretends otherwise, the more its authority drains away.
It is has pushed for debt relief behind closed doors but only half-heartedly, unwilling to confront the EMU creditor powers head on. Objectively, it is acting as an imperialist lackey – as Greek Marxists might say.
Indeed, it has brought about the worst possible outcome. The Fund’s man on the ground in Athens – Poul Thomsen – has pushed the austerity agenda with a curious passion that shocks even officials in the European Commission, pussy cats by comparison.
This would be justifiable (sort of) if the other side of the usual IMF bargain were available: debt relief and devaluation. This how IMF programmes normally work: impose tough reforms but also wipe the slate clean on debt and restore crippled countries to external viability.
It is a very successful formula. On the rare occasion when the IMF goes wrong it is usually because it tries to prop up a fixed-exchange rate long past its sell-by date.
All of this went out of the window in Greece. The IMF enforced brute liquidation without compensating stimulus or relief. It claimed that its policies would lead to a 2.6pc contraction of GDP in 2010 followed by brisk recovery.
What in fact happened was six years of depression, a deflationary spiral, a 26pc fall in GDP, 60pc youth unemployment, mass exodus of the young and the brightest, chronic hysteresis that will blight Greece’s prospects for a decade to come, and to cap it all the debt ratio exploded because of the mathematical – and predictable – denominator effect of shrinking nominal GDP.
It is a public policy scandal of the first order. One part of the IMF has issued a mea culpa admitting that its own analysts misjudged the fiscal multiplier badly. Plaudits to them.
Another part of the Fund continues to push new variants of the same indefensible policies, demanding a combined fiscal squeeze from pension cuts and VAT rises equal to 1pc of GDP this year and 2pc next year even as the economy lurches back into recession.
Ashoka Mody, former chief of the IMF’s bail-out in Ireland, refuses to criticise his former colleagues on the European desk, but the meaning of the words I quoted last night are clear enough.
“Everything that we have learned over the last five years is that it is stunningly bad economics to enforce austerity on a country when it is in a deflationary cycle. Trauma patients have to heal their wounds before they can train for the 10K.”
“I am frankly shocked that we are even having a discussion about raising VAT at all in these circumstances. We have just seen a premature rise in VAT knock the wind out of a country as strong as Japan.”
“Syriza should recruit the IMF’s research department to be their spokesman because they are saying almost exactly the same thing as Syriza on the economics of this. The entire strategy of the creditors is wrong and the longer this goes on, the more is its going to cost them.”
The IMF’s Original Sin in Greece was to allow the urbane Parisian Dominique Strauss-Kahn to hijack the institution to prop up Europe’s monetary union and the European banking system when the crisis erupted in 2010.
The Fund’s mission is to save countries, not currencies or banks, and it certainly should not be doing dirty work for a rich currency union that is fully capable of sorting out its own affairs, but refuses to do so for political reasons.
It was of course a difficult moment in May 2010. The eurozone was spinning out of control. There were no backstop defences – due to the criminal negligence of Europe’s leaders and banking regulators – and fears of a euro-Lehman were all too real.
Yet leaked minutes from the IMF board meetings showed that all the emerging market members (and Switzerland) opposed the terms of the first loan package for Greece. They protested that it was intended to save the euro, not Greece.
It loaded yet more debt onto the crushed shoulders of an already bankrupt country, and further complicated the picture by allowing one large French bank and one German bank – no names please – to offload much of their €25bn combined exposure onto EMU taxpayers.
“Debt restructuring should have been on the table,” said Brazil’s member. The loans “may be seen not as a rescue of Greece, which will have to undergo a wrenching adjustment, but as a bailout of Greece’s private debt holders, mainly European financial institutions”.
Arvind Virmani, India’s member, was prophetic. “The scale of the fiscal reduction without any monetary policy offset is unprecedented. It is a mammoth burden that the economy could hardly bear,” he said.
“Even if, arguably, the programme is successfully implemented, it could trigger a deflationary spiral of falling prices, falling employment and falling fiscal revenues that could eventually undermine the programme itself.” This is exactly what has happened.
The Fund might have atoned later by acknowledging its special duty of care towards Greece and softening the terms. It did not do so. We should hardly be surprised if Syriza is now on the warpath.
The IMF needs to be careful. It has itself become an emblem of bad governance. Mr Strauss-Kahn was caught in flagrante delicto, only to be replaced instantly in a political stitch-up by another French finance minister (of quality and integrity – but that is not the point). Mr Strauss-Kahn’s predecessor was recently indicted in Spain for fraud.
The institution cries out for reform. There is no justifiable reason why the job of managing-director should go by divine right to a European, nor why the Europeans still control eight seats on the IMF board.
. . .
These anomalies should have been sorted out at the time of the Strauss-Kahn debacle – along with quota reform blocked by the US Congress – all the more so since China and a host of rising reserve powers were already bursting onto the scene by then.
Leadership failed. The West disgraced itself. No wonder Asia is now going its own way with a rival set of bodies.
Greece’s firebrand government is bringing matters to a head for an institution already in trouble, but one with a superb staff and still worth saving.
Mrs Lagarde must stop playing the role of a diplomat. She must take off her European hat and speak instead for the organisation she leads and for the world.
She must confront the EMU creditors head on and in public. She must tell them, in blunt language, that they share much of the blame for the current impasse.
She must make it clear to them that Greece needs sweeping debt relief – as a matter of economic science, whatever the morality – and that the refusal of the creditors to face up to this elemental fact is now the chief impediment to a solution. And she should tell them that the IMF will no longer play any part in their deceitful charade.
If she does not do so, and if the lack of leadership by Europe’s political class leads to a catastrophic denouement on every level, then let it be on her head too.
Yanis Varoufakis, Greek Minister for Finance, speaking at a press conference in Berlin on 5 February 2015:
“As finance minister in a government facing from day one emergency circumstances caused by a savage debt deflationary crisis, I feel that the German nation is the one nation in Europe that can understand us better than anyone else.
No-one understands better than the people of this land how a severely depressed economy, combined with a ritual national humiliation and unending hopelessness can hatch the serpent’s egg within its society.
When I return home tonight, I will find myself in a parliament in which the third-largest party is not a neo-Nazi party, it is a Nazi party.”
West Germany received debt relief in 1953, yet now seeks to deny it to the rest of Europe. The policies of the German government of Mrs Merkel reminds me of the British Government’s hypocrisy in the Great Depression: insisting that Australian Federal and State Governments continue to pay all interest and loans owed to British lenders, while at the same time seeking debt relief for British loans from American creditors. Every Australian economist, including no doubt the former Sydney University academic Dr Varoufakis, knows the name of Sir Otto Niemeyer, bullying representative of colonial rapacity.
Niemeyer came first in the 1906 British Civil Service entrance examination in which John Maynard Keynes came second, according to Richard Davenport-Hines’ fine new biography of Keynes.
It was, of all people, Elizabeth Windsor who laid the charge most forcefully. Opening a new building at the LSE, weeks after Lehman Brothers imploded, she asked one of the dons why no one had seen the meltdown coming. In the years since, it has often seemed as if students are more serious than their lecturers about pursuing the monarch’s concern.
Undergraduates at Sheffield and Cambridge have set out to rattle the foundation stones of their discipline. In Manchester, they went further, organising the Post-Crash Economics Society and securing more eclectic instruction, through a new Bubbles, Panics and Crashes module. Covering the former Fed boss, Ben Bernanke, as well as the interwar Marxist, Kalecki, the course was not reducible to right or left. It offered something closer to economics as understood in Keynes’s Cambridge. Manchester, however, has now declined to accredit the course, and instead opted to pull the plug.
There are, of course, outstanding scholars within the economics mainstream. Its pre-eminent theorist, Kenneth Arrow, wrote for the Guardian within weeks of the crisis that the discourse he helped develop – about finance improving the distribution of risk – had become increasingly vulnerable to rival analysis, which emphasised how markets go awry where buyers and sellers have different information. The roots of that evolution go back to the 1970s, but it has picked up since 2008. The mainstream can also fairly point out that “non-linear” phenomena, such as bubbles and panics, are inherently hard to predict, which half-answers the Queen’s question.
The awkward thing, however, is that there were those who spotted at least the possibility of trouble on the horizon; it is just that they were rarely mainstream economists. Several journalists were asking sharper questions than academics. To take one example, the FT’s Gillian Tett, who has a background in anthropology rather than economics, asked where the frenzied debt dance would end. A grasp of the human propensity for herding is more useful in getting a handle on bubbles and crashes than any postulations about the individualistic calculations of rational economic man.
The failure to spot the crisis raised wider questions about the discipline’s usefulness. It can shelter behind unavoidable ambiguities regarding the price of both labour and capital. Will workers respond to income tax cuts by striving for the extra earnings they can now keep or by skiving, on the basis that they can now afford to take more time off? Do high interest rates induce savers to scrimp or encourage them to go out and blow their extra return? No one can say without interrogating the data – which good economists do try to do. But hopes of clear answers are retarded by departments that treat the subject as a branch of applied mathematics, and by practitioners less concerned with the insight than the arithmetical tractability of their models.
These shortcomings go back to “the marginal revolution”, which jettisoned the dynamic, sweeping preoccupations of 19th century classical political economy in favour of a narrower but more precise concern with movements between market equilibrium. But the big questions that concerned Mill, Marx and Smith are now rearing their heads afresh.
Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy unearthed the hidden moral assumptions of all the theory. Daniel Kahneman spent his career exploring how the way economic choices are conceived affects what decisions are made, but these days he can pack out Westminster Hall by speaking about his conclusions. Now Thomas Piketty – who spent long years, during which the mainstream neglected inequality, mapping the distribution of income – is making waves with Capital in the 21st Century. Nodding at Marx, that title helps explain the attention, but his decidedly classical emphasis on historical dynamics in determining who gets what resonates in a world where an increasing proportion of citizens are feeling fleeced by the elite. The tide of intellectual history is on the side of Manchester’s students.”