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May 29, 2011
David Warsh, Proprietor


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Now Change the Rest

The Economist was founded in 1843 by James Wilson, a hat manufacturer temporarily brought low by one of global capitalism’s first identifiable business cycles. By a series of courageous re-inventions over 168 years, it has managed to become, and then remain, one of the most influential editorial voices in the world.

It is time for another of those periodic reinventions.

Wilson’s original prospectus announced his determination to take part in “a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.”

At the time, as unworthy, timid ignorance he had in mind mainly Great Britain’s Corn Laws, protectionist measures against the importation of grain adopted thirty years before as part of a burgeoning battle between landowners and manufacturers.  The Economist quickly won its battle for free trade, whose advantages only recently had been perceived. Its devotion to the advancing frontiers of knowledge has been often redeployed over the years. Wilson’s motto still appears in fine print on the contents page of every issue.

That bias in favor of intelligence was on display again last week with the magazine’s cover story. It was illustrated by a depiction of Earth as seen from space, the riveted plates of its surface partially loosened here and there to disclose the inner workings of the planet. The tag-line proclaimed cheerfully, “Welcome to the Anthropocene.”

The lead editorial put the matter succinctly:  “Humans have changed the way the world works. Now they have to change the way they think about it, too.”

Geologists concerned with the antiquity of the Earth, the accompanying article explained, had designated the most recent episode in its four-billion-year history the Holocene epoch, the accompanying article explained

These roughly 12,000 temperate and stable years since the last ice age had been the home of modern humanity.  They were merely the most recent phase of the much longer Quaternary period, a time in which glacial advances alternated with periodic warming trends. The Quaternary in turn was tucked away at the end of the 65-million-year Cenozoic era, a period in which shifting tectonic plates opened the North Atlantic, cast up the Himalaya Mountains and played host to the rise of mammals and flowering plants. Even the Cenozoic was only the tail end of the Phanerozoic Eeon, a half-billion-year span whose beginning is dated from the first appearance of complex organisms in the fossil record.  All this had been established by the community of earth scientists with considerable certainty, and then ever-increasing certainty,  in the century and a half since The Economist began publishing.

Now, the article continued in high Economist style (Anglicized spelling and all), “there is a movement afoot to change humanity’s co-ordinates.

In 2000 Paul Crutzen, an eminent atmospheric chemist, realised he no longer believed he was living in the Holocene. He was living in some other age, one shaped primarily by people. From their trawlers scraping the floors of the seas to their dams impounding sediment by the gigatonne, from their stripping of forests to their irrigation of farms, from their mile-deep mines to their melting of glaciers, humans were bringing about an age of planetary change. With a colleague, Eugene Stoermer, Dr Crutzen suggested this age be called the Anthropocene—“the recent age of man.”

The term has slowly picked up steam, both within the sciences (the International Commission on Stratigraphy, ultimate adjudicator of the geological time scale, is taking a formal interest) and beyond. This May statements on the environment by concerned Nobel laureates and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences both made prominent use of the term, capitalising on the way in which it dramatises the sheer scale of human activity.

The Economist doesn’t quite come out and assert that global warming is taking place.  Its customary skepticism toward expert consensus that may have been too quickly achieved remains intact. But its survey goes on to give a good précis of the biogeochemical problems facing humankind:  atmosphere, water, energy, food, species diversity.

The article concludes that the evidence is strong that a new age in the history of the earth had indeed begun. “It may seem nonsense to think of the (probably skeptical) intelligence with which you interpret these words as something on a par with [the discovery of] plate tectonics or photosynthesis.  But dam by dam, mine by mine and city by city it is remaking the earth before your eyes.”

Here is the remarkable thing. Nowhere in either essay – the editorial or the article itself – do the words “government” or “governance” appear.  This is not altogether surprising.  The Economist was founded in the early days of scientific economics, a time of powerful mood swings, Malthusian gloom dominating in one decade, technological optimism in the next. Delight in market organization was in the air – its previous little-understood capacity to coordinate activities and generate order with little need for domineering (and nest-feathering) regulation that had been the dominant tradition of the past.  The magazine’s preference emerged early on for hands-off policies of laissez-faire as against government control.

Yet the magazine’s greatest editor, Water Bagehot, recognized in the 1860s that there were responsibilities in emergent capitalism that only governments could assume, centralized control of the banking system chief among them.  Eighty years later, in the 1940s and ’50s, the magazine gradually came to support Keynesian views that governments bore responsibility for mitigating the ups and down of the business cycle.

Today a further change is required if the editors are to continue to prefer intelligence to ignorance. They write, “The term ‘paradigm shift’ is bandied around with promiscuous ease. But for the natural sciences to make human activity central to its conception of the world, rather than a distraction, would mark such a shift for real.

The shift required – one that already has begun under editor John Micklethwait, but one which still has far to go – involves the recognition that the social sciences have begun to integrate concepts of governance, organization and cooperation into the center of their conception of the world, rather than confining them (as they were in The Wealth of Nations) as something of an afterthought to the last section of Smith’s great book.

Giving up a reflexive faith in laissez-faire while deepening its appreciation of market technologies will not be easy. A telling subhead in last week’s editorial asserts, “The new geology leaves all in doubt” – an echo of a famous sentiment expressed when the collective certainties of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – the Biblical account of Creation and the comfort of a geocentric universe – were giving way to the heliocentric understanding of the cosmos. The changes in self-conception entailed by the arrival of the Anthropocene age are hardly less momentous.  Humankind must accept responsibility not just for nature, but for itself – a new age not just for geology but for for political economy as well..

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David Leonhardt, economics columnist of The New York Times, reported last week that economist Paul Romer, an influential growth theorist, has joined the economics faculty of New York University, three years after leaving the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University to pursue his Charter Cities iinitiative. Leonhardt notes that Romer taught at NYU last year as a visiting professor; his new responsibilities include an Urban System Project at NYU’s Stern School of Business.

Some years ago I wrote a book substantially about the work that Romer had done in a succession of universities:  the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the Universities of Rochester, Chicago and California (at Berkeley); and Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. NYU in recent years has become a hotbed of serious economics.  It is good to see an unusually talented economist embedded again in a university, an institution that, for the most part,  takes seriously the claims of community.

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