We asked Diane Coyle to comment on her current work and ideas that have influenced her. Diane is appearing in the festival on 20 May in the panel on how we can build a new future without harming the present.
Which of your own ideas have you been thinking about most recently?
My book is about trying to run the economy for the next generation as well as for ourselves, so I’ve been trying to understand why we’ve become so short term. I’m intrigued by the similarities and contrasts between our own age and the Victorian era. Like us, they faced technological change of unprecedented scale and impact, social turmoil, globalisation – but unlike us, they invested for the next century and believed in progress and the potential for improvement. How can we ourselves, and our politicians and officials, lengthen our horizon in the decisions we take?
What idea of someone else has made most impact on you recently?
I’ve been reading a lot about long term trends in economies – over centuries and even millennia. Ian Morris’s Why the West Rules for Now convinced me of the importance of recognising the historical forces affecting choices being made now. We’re starting from where history put us, in other words. It sounds obvious but policy discussions about the rise of China, for example, often ignore the constraints of demography or past economic development. The other strand of thought that’s had an impact on me is recognising fully the interplay between economics and political choices. The financial crisis, and failure of politicians to stand up to the banks, is one example – terrific books about this include Simon Johnson’s 13 Bankers, Matt Taibbi’s Griftopia, John Lanchester’s Whoops!
What are the most important books/articles/websites of ideas that everyone should read and why?
The concept of ‘most important’ is problematic now that we’re awash in information. I look at a number of aggregator sites – Arts and Letters Daily, VoxEU, Economists’ Voiceand also a lot of data visualisation sites such as infosthetics. I use the people I follow on Twitter to edit and curate information for me too. But it’s inevitably serendipitous. If I have to nominate a ‘most important’, it’s to carry on reading books. The expression and understanding of ideas is different at 90,000 words
compared with 1,000 words or 140 characters.
In 1910 Charles Masterman asked ‘What will the future make of the present?’ What do you think people in the future will make of the present?
A period of transition. We’re still in the transition from 20th century mass organisation to whatever its successor turns out to be – centrally-planned communism became defunct a while ago but its corresponding hierarchical, corporatist capitalism is still on its way out. And also the transition from the western-centric global economy to a different geographical balance. And importantly the social transition being brought about by the microprocessor-enabled technologies (the internet, the mobile phone, biotechnology, new materials etc etc) has barely begun.
What are you most pessimistic about?
Our institutional and political capacity to adjust to and manage significant change for the benefit of everyone.
What are you most optimistic about?
The scope for innovation to deal with many problems, including environmental challenges.
Who are your heroes?
At the moment, the great Victorians. Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, for starters, and the countless others who built our country’s infrastructure, laws, parliamentary democracy, public buildings, libraries, museums… their achievements for the public good vastly outshine ours.
Diane Coyle runs Enlightenment Economics, a consulting firm specialising in technology and globalization, and is the author of a number of books on economics, including The Soulful Science, Sex, Drugs and Economics, and The Weightless World. Her most recent book is The Economics of Enough: How to Run the Economy as If the Future Matters. A BBC trustee and a visiting professor at the University of Manchester, she holds a PhD in economics from Harvard. www.enlightenmenteconomics.com