An interview with Diane Coyle, author of GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History
What inspired you to get into your field?
A brilliant tutor. I went to university with the aim of becoming a philosopher, planning for a career sitting in Parisian cafes thinking deep thoughts. But Peter Sinclair, now Professor of Economics at the University of Birmingham, inspired me with his enthusiasm for economics and its power to explain and perhaps even improve the world.
What is the biggest misunderstanding people have about what economists do?
Most people think that economics is mainly macroeconomic forecasting, and they think most economics is based on the assumption that we are all selfish and ultra-rational, and only care about money. A generation ago, a narrow approach to economics did dominate the subject, and there are still some economists who don't see anything wrong with the reductionist version, but most of the economics practiced today is far, far more in touch with the 'real world'. Unfortunately, the update hasn't yet reached economics textbooks and courses - hence the importance of the INET CORE curriculum project
What would you have been if not an economist?
A dancer - not that I'd have been good enough!
What was the most interesting thing you learned from writing GDP?
It was that the way people think of 'the economy' has changed so much over time. We have Angus Maddison's figures based on calculations of GDP going back through time, but up until the mid-20th century this was not how people thought about the aggregate economy. GDP and Keynesian macroeconomics co-evolved.
What do you think is the book's most important contribution?
To demystify GDP, which most people hear as gobbledygook on the news; and to remind or tell them that how we measure economic activity is the result of many conventions and judgments. There is no natural object called GDP out there - it is a human construction, and what it measures is not well-being or social welfare, but simply a specific definition of economic activity.
Describe your writing process. How long did it take you to finish your book? Where do you write?
I fit the research around day to day life but need to find chunks of time for writing. This means my patient family are used to me spending a couple of hours every day tapping away at my laptop when we're on holiday. I managed one (short) book once on maternity leave, typing one handed with the baby on the other arm.
Do you have advice for other authors?
Just start. Write a lot and read a lot, as writing is a craft skill. Read George Orwell on the English language if that's the language you're writing in. And for non-fiction, you have to find a system for organizing the ideas and material - I always find this the hardest part and there's always a stage when I have pieces of paper with headings laid out over the floor of my study
What are you reading right now?
Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century, and The Infatuations by Javier Marias.
What is your next project?
I'm helping out on that project. I'm writing a new public policy economics course to teach to undergraduates at the University of Manchester. In terms of research, I'm interested in two aspects of digital change: the continuing reshaping of supply chains, through both organizational and geographic change; and the implementation of public policy. There's no point doing a wonderful economic analysis of a policy issue if you don't also think about the political economy and practicality of implementation.