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What have economists been writing about in 2021?

From the pandemic and its economic consequences to climate change, economists have been writing about how we can understand and tackle both current challenges and those we are likely to face in the future.

Economic research is mainly published in academic journals and disseminated to a wider audience through the media and blogs, and indeed sites like the Economics Observatory. Yet books are an important way of sharing economic thinking with the public, and non-fiction publishing in general has been flourishing given people’s intense interest in understanding what’s happening in the world today.

The pandemic and its economic consequences have continued to be a preoccupation, needless to say. One high-profile book looking at the economic aspects was Adam Tooze’s Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World Economy. Tooze is an economic historian at Columbia University whose previous bestseller, Crashed, was a forensic analysis of the financial crisis and its consequences. He is a prolific blogger and Tweeter. Shutdown is a month by month account of the pandemic, the economic policy responses and the consequences. Although very much a first draft of history, the book is wide-ranging and dismally compelling in its argument that the pandemic is the first of the many crises we will face in the Anthropocene era.

A different perspective is provided by Ryan Bourne’s Economics in One Virus: An Introduction to Economic Reasoning Through Covid-19. This does what it says in the subtitle, using events in the United States such as supply shortages and bailouts, the fiscal stimulus and emergency loans to deploy some useful economic concepts – from a broadly free market perspective.

Charles Kenny’s The Plague Cycle takes a very long view of humanity’s battle with infectious diseases, looking at past successes in medicine and public health, and also future challenges. As he points out, being able to combat infection has been one of the most important triumphs of human society, requiring both innovation and also social structures that encourage co-operation. Both will be needed in the face of the inevitable future zoonotic pandemics.

Economic geography and health economics are centre-stage in Survival of the City: Living and Thriving in an Age of Isolation by Edward Glaeser and David Cutler. These two Harvard economics professors use the evidence from past pandemics and past changes in urban economies to peer forward and explore how well cities will survive the shock of the past two years. They conclude that – although work patterns will stay altered with more working from home in future – the nature of an ideas-based economy will continue to focus activity in cities. The book also offers lessons about how to manage better inevitable future public health crises.

Other books have taken a broader perspective on the nature of modern capitalism, and the reasons the system seems to be in crisis. Two prominent policy makers contributed their diagnosis and advice: Mark Carney, the former Bank of England Governor, in Value(s) and Minouche Shafik, also formerly at the Bank of England and now director of the London School of Economics in The New Social Contract. Another big picture assessment is James Plunkett’s End State. They have different emphases: Shafik takes a global perspective, Plunkett focuses more on the transformation of work, while Carney highlights the challenges of tackling climate change. 

With COP26 in Glasgow in November, climate change and nature have been another focus of attention by economists. One standout publication was the Dasgupta Review, commissioned by HM Treasury, a comprehensive framework for putting nature back into the picture in economic decision-making. Among the books, Gernot Wagner’s Geoengineering: the Gamble is worth picking out. It makes the case for trying to cool the earth by reflecting solar radiation back into space. Economists tend to focus on economic tools such as carbon taxes or direct payments for ecosystem services (such as paying Brazil not to burn down the Amazon) so it’s interesting to see this prominent environmental economist argue for an engineering solution.

Of course, the range of economics books is broad, and this year has brought a wealth of interesting reads. Amartya Sen’s memoir, Home in the World, is a wonderful account of his early life, student days in Calcutta (as it then was) and Cambridge, and early academic career. It is a book full of colourful detail concerning time and place, and also insights into what shaped Sen’s profound contributions to economics and philosophy.

Gillian Tett’s Anthro-Vision is – as the title suggests – written by an anthropologist (and now leading Financial Times writer). It makes a persuasive case for incorporating anthropological insight into the study of economics and economic policymaking. Rebellion, Rascals and Revenue by Michael Keen and Joel Slemrod is an entertaining romp through the history of taxation. Yes, it makes thinking about taxes fun! With a light touch it explains key concepts such as tax incidence and the political economy dimensions of raising money for governments to spend.

Finally, economics itself has come under the spotlight. Prominent heterodox economist Steve Keen published The New Economics: A Manifesto, intended to provide students with an alternative macroeconomic framework. It is aimed at the student audience rather than the general reading public.

Intended for both, my Cogs and Monsters: What Economics is and What It Should Be urges the profession to address its dreadful lack of representativeness to ensure that a wide enough range of perspectives and experiences are brought to bear on research; and to start asking big questions rooted in real world challenges, rather than only the incremental, narrow pieces of research that are rewarded with publication in academic journals. As has been pointed out, the five main general journals that determine appointments and promotions in economics departments have hardly ever included articles on climate change (although there are excellent environmental economics journals publishing plenty of relevant research).

Above all, the world is going to be facing plenty of big challenges – exactly why the Economics Observatory was founded.

Where can I find out more?

Author: Diane Coyle
Photo by freestocks on Unsplash
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