Monday, 26 March 2012

The Price Of Fish

The Price Of Fish by Michael Mainelli and Ian Harris (Nicholas Brealey 2011 – ISBN 978-1-85788-571-2)

“What does that have to do with the price of fish?” That is a question often asked in the UK when we encounter seemingly random and unconnected events. It is an unusual title for a book. However, the subtitle gives the game away. The full title of the book by Michael Mainelli and Ian Harris is: ‘The Price Of Fish: A New Approach To Wicked Economics And Better Decisions’. As is true in many economics texts, the seemingly unconnected are, actually, well connected.

Wicked problems are those which are messy, circular, inconsistent, and aggressive. The sort of problems we encounter in real life. Wicked economics is the use of a set of economic principles to attempt to solve wicked problems. Almost by definition, such solutions are generally complex, inconsistent, and circular. This is quite a step forward because it contains an implicit rejection of the Enlightenment view that for every problem, there is a single, unique, and optimal solution. The world of wicked problems is one in which there is no right solution, ‘better’ or ‘worse’ solutions are difficult to define, where we live with profound unintended consequences, and where we struggle to find a compass that will suggest the right thing to do.

The right thing to do is an important aspect of the book. It takes the view that the point of economics is not to produce an elegant solution but to have a tangible impact upon the real world. To allow us to make better decisions in the real world. For example, in explaining the ‘winners curse’, we can see why it is that competitive tendering for contracts will almost always result in a sub-optimal result, both for the contractor and for the client. But what can we do about it? One response is to refuse to engage in ‘beauty parades’. Your competitor will always win the contract, but not at a decent profit margin, leaving you a clearer field in the longer term.

There are a large number of really interesting ideas in the book. However, one that struck me as very useful, from the perspective of an economist, was the idea of viewing money as a means of communication in a relationship of trust. Money says something about us as people. It defines how we value ourselves, others, and the material things around us. A core issue in economics, one that has rarely been explained, is the concept of value. Perhaps economists have been looking in the wrong place? Perhaps we should have been looking into studies in inter-personal relationships for answers to the question of value? It could be the case that the study of communication theory would be more useful to us than monetary theory. I find these to be very interesting thoughts.

This is not a simple book. Some of the concepts it contains are quite complex. However, they are explained in a way that will allow a non-technical reader to get to grips with them quite easily. It provides a framework and structure whereby we can view wicked problems and attempt their solution. That alone commends this book.

© The European Futures Observatory 2012

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