Mick James, Top-Consultant.com’s management consultancy columnist reviews The Price of Fish: A New Approach to Wicked Economics and Better Decisions by Michael Mainelli and Ian Harris.

What does cake cost these days?

What’s so difficult about the price of fish—the theme authors Michael Mainelli and Ian Harris have chosen to illustrate some of the thornier problems facing the world today? I only have to walk down the road with a fiver in my pocket to get a delicious piece of fish (and a ridiculous portion of chips). But planning a celebratory fish supper for my 90th birthday is more difficult. Even if I start saving now, there may not be any edible fish by then. (And if there is, one is reminded of the episode of the sci-fi comedy Futurama in which the cryogenically frozen Fry discovers the compound interest on his meagre savings has made him a multi-billionaire. But this is only just enough for him to buy the world’s last tin of anchovies). And it’s not like we aren’t aware of this: I once shared a table with a group of pious American gastronomes who ostentatiously passed over the fish menu muttering about “sustainability”. My counter argument, that, given this story was only going to end one way, one should try and eat as much fish as possible didn’t go down at all well (unlike the turbot, which was excellent).

But clearly something has gone wrong with the concept of price: how can I possibly be able acquire this irreplaceable commodity so cheaply? We’ve become so accustomed to price being the handle whereby we can grasp vast webs of past and future interactions—a three or four digit summary of everything you need to know about a product—that it’s very disturbing when the handle comes off in your hand.

What to do? Any fisherman worth his salt (or at least one who owns the indispensable Ashley Book of Knots) will immediately run you up a spare almost anything out of rope.

Which is essentially what Mainelli and Harris set out to do in this book—weaving together four strands: choice economics system and evolution to try and construct a way we can grasp wicked problems such as the price of fish and make better decisions in a world that, as they put it, needs a bit of saving. Our simple handle needs to be replaced with something a little more sophisticated. As one of their references puts it, some problems are so complex you have to be incredibly intelligent and well-infomred just to be undecided about them.

So this book, you should be reassured, is not a simple list of things “they” should do do put the world to rights. A lot of people nowadays seem to think that issues of sustainability and the breakdown of financial systems have simply opened a back-door to readmit the planned economy. But Mainelli and Harris are quick to show that fish won’t fly: they believe in the power of markets, but argue that, paradoxically, markets require considerable amounts of leadership and creativity to work. But this will only happen if the abstractions of econopmics and psychology, and a dozen other fields are connected with the real commerce that happens everyday at the quayside—and each other.

So Mainelli and Harris are not just theorists, but very good listeners, and have managed along the way to fillet some of the more interesting books that have come out recently and weave recent thinking on things like behavioural economics and “nudge” theory into their argument (the book is a goldmine of quotable quotes).

A key theme of the book is measurement, and the way it skews our decisions about the present and the future: we’ve all come across companies that are devouring themselves because of a poor choice of metrics or internal returns. It’s not a comfortable thought that the world is run on similar principles.

Mainelli and Harris are well aware of the Wildean adage about the man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, but to show knowing the true price of anything is quite an achievement. It starts with ourselves and the strange way we make decisions and extends throughout the system. If we can’t work out how much to pay for our cod and chips, how can we possibly work out what to pay a chief executive? I recently realised I resented paying more for a pair of glasses than I would for a camera—which when you think about it makes no sense at all.

Mainelli and Harries don’t necessarily offer easy answers, and indeed encourage a healthy scepticism about panaceas. But they do offer shards of light along the way: a great story in the book is of how the simple expedient of equipping Ceylonese fisherman with mobile phones (so they could check prices before landing their fish) enabled them to increase their incomes while reducing prices to the consumer. Markets can work—you just can’t just expect them to labour away for you like fairy cobblers while you sleep. But it is going to require some work, otherwise we are doomed to live in a world where we always get what we pay for but never what we want.

I was lucky enough to be reading this book on holiday, from a vantage point where I could see lone fishermen plying their trade from single-engined boats in the bay below. It would be nice to be able to do that again in the future.

As a counterpoint, I was also reading The Hammer and the Cross by Robert Ferguson, which looks at how the Vikings both challenged and to an extent defined the emerging world of Christendom. It’s very much about a conflict of values: as much effort was expended trying to bring the raiders into the fold of Christianity as to defeat them militarily.

How much time the old Vikings would have had for price theory is debatable. A typical Viking fish recipe would starts: “First find someone who’s caught a fish. Slay him, take his fish and laugh uproariously as he writhes in the dust before you.” But the Vikings would have had a lot of respect for much of our current (Western) lifestyle. Like them, we love living high on the efforts of others and looking forward to an apocalypse that destroys the world with fire and water.

What they would have found harder to grasp is our desperate need to do all this and still come out as the good guys. They were quite happy to be bad-asses, but modern philosopher-economists, such as Mainelli and Harris, have to grapple with this problem: we don’t just want to live the good life, but feel good about ourselves as well, and that’s a tough nut to crack. As a modern Marie Antionette might say, let them have their cake and eat it. But what’s the price of cake these days?

All views expressed in this article are those of Mick James and do not necessarily reflect the views of Top-Consultant.com and Consultant-News.com.

Contact Mick with your views or suggestions at: mick.james@top-consultant.com
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