Andrew Lilico: ‘Doughnut Economics’ by Kate Raworth

I have read many books in my life, and reviewed quite a few. I can safely say I have never hated a book more than this one. That is probably not unrelated to the fact that I doubt I have ever read a book for which I was less the target audience. And one should bear that in mind in considering what I say about it. After all, if I were a Calvinist theologian and chose to review a movie entitled ‘A pornographic proof of atheism’, would I really be entitled to declare I found its arguments weak and its conclusions shocking? As someone with a PhD in economics, head of an economics consultancy, devising policy for many governments, perhaps it should be unsurprising that I am unimpressed by a book purporting to overthrow and replace economics as we have known it?

Yet even if I tried to place myself into the mindset of a sympathetic reader I would still have to feel this book was poor. It makes assertion after assertion about economics that is simply false, and even if the initial assertion were true, what is done with that assertion would still be wrong, raising a rickety homestead of Error on a stilt-bed of Falsehood.

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This is not just an occasional problem. It is relentless throughout the book. We are told that economists regard firms as atomic units and do not seek to unpack them or look inside. Coase? Marginal costs? Theory of contracts? Economics of asymmetric information? Apparently none of these things exists. We are told that in an economics textbook the only mention of ‘power’ will be in relation to energy. Monopoly power, monopsony power, bargaining power, outside options — apparently none of these things is of any interest to economists. Perhaps most bizarrely, Raworth accuses economists of assuming and implicitly teaching that ‘a woman’s place is in the home’, a claim so frankly weird that I have no idea how to argue against it.

Her main theme is that economics teaches that maximising GDP is the sole or main goal. Well, that’s just blatantly false. Insofar as orthodox economic reasoning accepted any goal, it would be maximising ‘welfare’, and the paradigm form of utility functions includes consumption and leisure. In many advanced economies, average hours worked, for those working ‘full-time’, have fallen over many decades. Have you ever heard any economist declare this a Bad Thing? Doubtless you’ve heard economists suggest it was bad if unemployment rose or labour force participation fell, but does anyone think it’s bad if full-time hours fall, even though GDP would presumably be higher if full-time hours were longer. No. Because (inter alia) leisure is of value as well as consumption.

Now it may well have been the case that, at least for several decades from the 1930s onwards, governments sought to use economic policy to maximise GDP even if economists did not consider that their main goal. And it wasn’t merely that governments sought to grow GDP rapidly. All over the world, in major countries, they sought to grow not merely as fast as they could, but often specifically faster than the economies of their political enemies. Raworth does not ask herself the obvious question about that: why? If she had done so, she might have realised that the answer was that if you let your enemies grow faster than you for any length of time, then in an era of industrial wars you would be overtaken, militarily dominated, and then your populations would be taken as slaves by authoritarian rulers or (from the other side) exposed to the decadent immorality and depraved injustices of liberal capitalism. In Europe, if economies had failed to grow fast enough, producing mass unemployment (like the 1930s) and famine (like the 1940s), there would have been fascist coups or communist revolutions. And, oddly enough, politicians consider that kind of thing a Bad Idea.

Raworth condemns economics for seeking to produce technical methods for achieving goals independently of what those goals might be. She also condemns economists for assuming economic decision-makers are selfish. Again she’s wrong about that. Modern economics is expressed in terms of value functions where people can have whatever goals they want, and there is no assumption that those goals are solely self-interested. But as with many other issues, even if she were right about economics assuming that she’d still be wrong. She wants to say we should embed within economics goals that include reducing inequality and living sustainably on our planet. I disagree with both those. I don’t care about inequality at all and I believe humanity should seek to be a multi-planetary species within a currently economically relevant timescale, and we should be prepared to devote a non-trivial portion of the Earth’s resources to achieving that. Does the fact I don’t share her goals mean I’m not permitted to do economics and have to invent a subject of my own? Economics is, perhaps, based on the idea that we don’t all necessarily want the same things. The reason for that is: we actually don’t.

Maybe we should forgive the deep naivete and extensive errors of her discussions of the Global Financial Crisis, since her mistakes, though scarlet, are shared by so many other popular analyses of those events. But it all adds to the general sense that the reasoning is shallow and the author insufficiently informed about the subject matter to be as ambitious as she is in attempting to reinvent things she doesn’t understand.

One discussion she presented that I did find of genuine interest was where she explored the perils of seeking to price everything – e.g. if we pay children to read books, could that corrupt or replace the love of reading? Or if we charge fines for collecting children late do parents more willingly arrive late, seeing the fine as an overtime charge they’re content to pay? Her discussion of how this issue applies in Development Economics settings was quite valuable. But what made her discussion there more interesting was its more orthodox use of economic reasoning (understanding goals, collaboration and habit-formation) than her weak critiques of economics elsewhere.

This was a rare respite. Even the pictures are bad. As a project, she actually has quite a nice idea. She identifies a series of classic images she says make us inclined to think about economics a certain way and to subconsciously accept, unchallenged, assumptions about matters that are actually contentious. So she wants to replace those images with new ones. So far, so good. But what she actually does is to replace a series of elegant images that abstract away vast complexity to focus, beautifully and concisely, upon the nub of important issues with, instead, fantastically busy diagrams that create the illusion of being ‘more practical’ and ‘more realistic’ by using vast numbers of words (the ‘doughnut’ itself has 50 words on it!) and complex arrows that obscure rather than illuminating.

Economics is not in crisis and doesn’t need reinventing. It is in robust good health and producing extremely useful insights that are improving lives every day. Theoretical and applied economics grow and adapt all the time, including expanding to cover new topics such as industrial symbiosis, asteroid mining, the intellectual property implications of 3D printing, the insurance of autonomous vehicles and the pricing of publicly-available training information used by AI. Economists design auctions for carbon permits, devise progressive tax regimes that seek to address inequality, and incorporate endogenous behavioural responses into epidemiological models. Economics helps you achieve your goals whatever they are, progressive or liberal, authoritarian or communitarian, Earth-preserving or Martian-terraforming-focused.

We don’t need to reinvent economics. We just need to understand it properly and apply it correctly and with imagination. Unfortunately, reading this book will not help you to achieve any of that.

‘Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist’ by Kate Raworth was published in 2018 by Penguin (ISBN: 9781847941398). 384p