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Thursday, February 21, 2008
"In a world where expectations are (nearly) everything, to change our understanding is already to change our reality. Not only that, changing things this way is the most plausible, most cost effective and least destructive way of doing so"
Barcelona Urban Legend
"Santiago Rosinyol had had a hard day. As he sat himself wearily down at the top of Las Ramblas a small sign was propped-up awkwardly against his left foot. It read. "To trade: any three ideas of mine for one of yours". Unfortunately that day there were no takers. Nor indeed were there any the next day, or the next one, nor even the one after that. Evidently people thought there must be some kind of catch. Finally, and exhausted, Rosinyol folded his chair, ripped up the sign, and went sadly on his way."
Who am I?
That is a good question. And one I think more people should ask themselves more often. Officially I am currently fifty nine, I live in Barcelona and I have three children - a boy (Morgan) and two girls (Sara and Andrea). If I were pinned down in a corner and had for once to say what I was - as opposed to who I am - I suppose I would say I was an 'economist', although this is a destiny that most of the people who know me well would say I had spent the better part of my life trying to avoid. Pinning it down even further I would probably say I was a macroeconomist (since I have to say that microeconomics has always bored me - almost to tears, and indeed almost to the point of failing my first degree - which is curious since I notice that the vast majority of popular weblogs deal precisely with micro topics. Evidently either most people have understood something which I have failed to grasp, or the opposite is the case.
Filling-in that little box which asks "how would you describe yourself (maximum 50 words)" has always being something of a problem for me. In fact I have the feeling that as soon as someone tries to put a label on me I am already struggling loose trying to escape from it. Perhaps the best commendation to my work was made by my old school headmaster who, in one of those endless termly reports, got right to the heart of things: 'is he trying to prove that any fool can miss a bus?' He was definitely right, I seem to have spent the best part of half a century becoming a specialist in missing busses.
To add insult to injury, I was once described by my Departmental Professor as a 'thief' for accepting my doctoral grant while continuing to spend my time reading the books and attending the courses that I chose to read and that I chose to attend, the ones that I thought were interesting. In a way I am still doing this, reading what interests me, and writing about what attracts my attention. I think I suffer from what was once called 'an excess of curiousity', the kind that kills cats, you know. The scholastics even regarded this as the nearest thing to an intellectual sin. Philosophy is born of wonder, but an excess of it was thought to be fatal. I do take some consolation, however, in the thought that in an age where internet connectivity puts the generalist right back in business, and bigtime, then the optimal level of healthy curiousity per cubic centimetre of neuronal mass may have just risen, and excessive curiosity might now not be the 'vice' it was once thought to be.
At least, this is how I square things with myself.
The humanist psychologist Erich Fromm wrote quite a lot about 'Having and Being'. I'm definitely on the 'being' side of thinks (indeed I just gave away the last consignment of what used to consitute a lifelong collection of books. Don't worry, they were all found good homes, it's just that I don't believe in leaving things around to accumulate dust). Sartre on the other hand indulged himself with the exploration of the boundaries between being and doing. Again he was (existentially speaking) much more on the 'doing' side of things, (as was his writer friend Albert Camus). But there is doing and doing. The last time I was asked what it was I 'did', I replied rather cantankerously, that I don't do, I think.
I mention this here since I suppose, tucked away in that response, somewhere there lies a feeling, possibly even a prejudice, which more or less sums me up. It runs something like this: if more economists spent more time really thinking about what economic systems are, and exploraing audacious hypotheses about how they might work, and how they might relate to other systems which interact with them like the climatic or biological reproductive ones, and less time tinkering around with what appear to be me to be exceedingly ontologically-promiscuous, but at the same time essentially useless, mathematical models, and models which all too often have a highly dubious set of relationships with the day to day functioning of that all too real economic system we encounter all around us in our everyday lives, well I think that if we did that we might (just might), as a profession, make a better 'all round' job of anticipating some of the problems out there in the real world before they actually make their presence only too obvious. (For examples of what I mean, just browse around some of the issues raised on this website, the eurosytem and Bretton Woods II, ageing and low fertility, deflation in Japan, the boom-bust in Eastern Europe etc, etc, etc).
Now I know there is a tried and tested Hegelian premise to the effect that the owl minerva only flies after dusk, but do we really have to be so complacent that we continually take this proposition at fully face value while at the same time adopting a prostrate posture? Einstein, I feel, had it right, keep your explanation simple, but no simpler than the complexity of the problem you have in hand necessitates. (Six centuries earlier, Occam, of course, had a very similar thought).
My big (as in biiiiig) bet is that one or two simple parameters can explain more about the whole economic development process than we are conventionally prepared to admit. Pride of place here I would give, of course, to our biological reality, our fertility and our life expectancy, to how these change and to how the changes impact on population age distribution and structure, on performance and on productivity. Much of the rest of our secondary economic epi-phenomena - savings, investment, aggregate demand, interest rates, balance of payments, inflation, productivity - can, I conjecture, be better understood once this fairly basic 'ground-point' has been established. Alfred Marshall had it right, economics has more to do with biology than ever it has to do with physics.
Going back to the practical end of things for a moment, and unwinding history a little by turning realism on its head for a change, I would say - as I indicate in the initial quote at the top of this page - that economists have hitherto been overly obsessed with trying to change the world, and insufficiently so with trying to understandi it!. If as we never cease to tell ourselves expectations matter, then what matters most isn't how things are, but how we perceive them to be.
Finally, to close this whistle stop tour of all my visceral weak spots, three of my favourite quotes on or by Keynes in whose spirit, but not whose letter, I walk:
"John Maynard Keynes was pretty generally regarded as an extremist"
(James Cox, Journey Through My Years, p 367),
"I have sown dragons, but harvested fleas"
and most important of all
"Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past, the ocean is flat again"
(Tract on Monetary Reform p80).
I do not consider myself a Keynesian, yet I admire his life and his work enormously. I consider myself a Keynesian in the spirit of Keynes, not the letter. The times have changed and so have the problems, both theoretically and practically.
Keynes' problem was war, how to pay for it, and how to escape from the consequences of the indebtedness which comes with it. Our problems are different. They stem principally from our changing demography, and are issues like how to maintain our elderly populations free from penury in the longer run, how to handle the resource supply issues which accompany the rapid economic growth of some of the most populous countries of the world, and how to deal with the climatic impacts of the previous two processes, are the big items on our agenda.
However even if the problems may be very different, sometimes the economic dynamics are unnervingly similar: increasing population, like increasing military activity, tends to be inflationary, at least in an industrialised society. Population decline, and paying-off war debts tend, on the other hand, to be deflationary. But perhaps here the comparisons begin and end. We are a new generation and we have new problems. Perhaps the old labels no longer really help. For me the job of the economist, like that of any other scientist, is to try to understand. Paraphrasing a statement from Robert Lucas about economic growth, and appropriating it to my own circumstances: scarcely a day goes by when I don't think about the changing population structure of the planet, and what it means for us all.
Where Am I?
I live and work in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia. Barcelona is a city with a long history and a diverse cultural heritage, which means that here we all speak at least two languages: Catalan and Spanish. Barcelona is, was and always has been a city of tremendous immigration, and with the migration it has always been a dynamic city, a city of cultural change.
Across the twentieth century these migration processes have marked Catalonia's history like little else (with the obvious exception of the civil war and the subsequent Franco dictatorship). The start of the century itself saw Barcelona as the vanguard city of a new Spain, with workers arriving from across the whole country to build the new metro system (Spain's first), and to erect the site for Spain's international Industrial Exhibition, which again, not coincidentally, was held in here. In the 1950's and 60's many more migrants came - in particular from Andalusia and Extremadura - to work in the new, rapidly developing, industries which characterised the end of the Franco era.
Today the migrants come from every farflung corner of this diverse planet, but they have one aim in common, to make their future in this wonderful city. This unprecedented recent migratory wave - Catalonia's population has grown from 6 to 7 million in just five years - is now, once more, making Barcelona the most culturally diverse and the most creatively dynamic city in modern Spain.
So it is fitting that I too who am, like my father before me, and his father before him, a migrant, should come here, to one of the migration capitals of modern Europe. Over the the years that I have been here - 16 to date - It is has become abundantly clear to me that immigration played an important part in Barcelona's history long before the arrival of the most recent and obvious waves. Whether you look to the early Phoenicians and Greeks, the later Romans to the arrival of the Converso Jews, fleeing persecution at the end of the middle ages, or to the migrants from France who came in the late 14th century, in this case fleeing to escape the plague, or if you turn your attention to the great internal Spanish migrations of the second half of the 20th century. One common thread remains clear: the singularity and evident prosperity of Barcelona and Catalonia has been in large part due to the singular combination of the hard-working and business-like mentality of the original Catalan inhibatants of this green and pleasant land and the the constant and steady flow of new and eager workers and citizens. This is the secret of the success, and yes, at a time when the seach for 'viable models' is rampant, it is something which I think it would be well worthwhile exporting.
WHY AM I ?
Why am I doing these all this internet stuff that is. (More fundamental questions will have to be answered elswhere). The conventional answer would probably be that I hadn't got anything better to do at the time. But I'm sure my friends and family would remind me that that isn't true. Another very good explanation would be that running a blog and updating website pages helps you to order your thoughts, to classify and not lose your ideas. Again, you can share your discoveries - this is a little more difficult since first of all you have to locate the people who might be interested in them, or better said, they have to locate you, but perhaps this amounts to the same thing in the long run.
Deep down I suppose I'm doing this because I've rather stupidly convinced myself that I've got something to say. In particular you'll probably notice I tend to get rather excited about the way the population structure of our planet is in the process of changing. I also happen to hold the opinion that the history of our species is one of continuous migration (right from the very earliest days of our origins African origins). This reality feels rather strange since we tend to think of ourselves as sedentary, spending our time as we do establishing tribes, comunities, nations etc. What we actually do best and most is move, adapt and change. Perhaps this is another example of the lack of conformity between our self-image and our reality. In any event the recent patterns of global migration are not new, they are the continuation of processes that go way, way back. Our identities are changing, and one of my objectives here will be to try and chronicle how this is happening. The bottom line is that these two phenomena, demographic change and global migration are probably going to have important, and undoubtedly unexpected, consequences, and I'm going to try to follow and record them here, on my website and thorugh my weblog.
In my childhood days - I grew up in the UK of the nineteen-fiftees, in the grimy northern and decidedly unromantic city of Liverpool - there was an establishment TV commentator - Richard Dimbelby - who was always wheeled out to talk us through the things which were then thought to be important, and no matter what the occasion there he was (in fact two of his sons seem to have pretty successfully carried on the family tradition). I have always retained my youthful admiration for the masterful and dignified way he did what he did (even though my feelings about the events being commented-on has undoubtedly changed with the changing of the years).
So maybe that's my real ambition in doing all this, to be a sort of Dimbelby voice-over for the process, the self-conscious part of consciousness or whatever. (If I said just plain and simple that I was here to be a witness that would sound rather religious which it isn't meant to be, so let's just wind this up by saying that I like the thought of all this going to its eternal destiny in the hard drives of Brewster Kahle's Wayback Machine).
Finally I can't escape without saying something about my dear friends the bonobos. First of all what the hell are bonobos? Well in case you didn't know, bonobos and chimpanzees are our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, and bonobo's are, in fact, genetically closer to us than chimpanzees. If you don't know much about them you can find lots of information about bonobos at The Bonobo Conservation Initiative. You can also inform yourself there about the fact that BONOBOS ARE IN DANGER due to the fact that the last remaining populations are to be found in central Africa (in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in an area of war and conflict. It is especially ironic that the last remaining members of a pacific and affectionate species should be endangered in this way by their human cousins.
I was first 'turned on' to Bonobos by the work of Richard Wrangham. An interesting interview with Wrangham can be found here, and a good introduction to the life and mores of bonobos can be found in this article from Scientific American by Frans de Waal (one of the first to seriously study bonobos).
The esential and obvious point is that bonobos are really a metaphor, a metaphor based above all in the fact that they resolve conflicts through affection, and not, as is all too often the case with their chimpanzee and human kin, through the use of tribal violence and aggression. Incidentally another thing humans have in common with chimps is territoriality, so the next time you hear someone slagging off a newcomer from some distant shore, just remember THIS BEHAVIOUR HAS BIOLOGICAL MORE THAN CULTURAL ORIGINS. Oh, we are so, so sophistocated. I'm still not decided whether this, following Nietzsche is 'human all too human', or following Eudald Carbonell, is rather 'human, not yet sufficiently human'. Be that as it may I canot help but share the hope of Norbert Elias that there is somewhere here a Civilizing Process is at work, or, as I prefer to call it, a domestication process.