WITH the publication of Building a New Scotland this week, we have started on the road to the referendum. The paper is very good. I have become used to hearing economists describing the Scottish Government’s approach to economic and social development as more imaginative and more persuasive than the UK Government’s – with the latter’s habit of alighting upon meaningless slogans: “Big Society”, “Strong and Stable”, “Brexit means Brexit” and “Get Brexit Done”.

This is the difference between having a Prime Minister who has blundered through life, happily saying whatever he thinks his audience wants to hear, and a First Minister who delights in detail.

It is also the difference between having a UK Government which cannot look beyond an electoral cycle, and a Scottish Government which is committed to achieving long-term economic transformation.

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It builds on other work – not so much, as Craig Dalzell has suggested, the report of the Scottish Growth Commission, but rather the substantial resources which went into developing the Government’s National Strategy for Economic Transformation. When that was published, I read it as a framework for the economics of Scottish independence. We can now see clearly that that was indeed its purpose all along.

On Tuesday morning, while Nicola Sturgeon was setting out the economic case for independence, I was having a conversation which began from the statistic that the ratio of male to female winners of the Nobel Memorial Prize in economics is about 43 to one. Since the first award of the prize in 1969, it has gone to only two women. Elinor Ostrom, who won it in 2009, was a political scientist. The 2019 winner, Esther Duflo, won her prize before she was 50.

It is almost as if there is someone in the Swedish Academy of Sciences, panicking about the lack of female winners, and wanting to show that there is no systematic discrimination against women by making awards to female academics, co-incidentally on the 40th and 50th anniversaries of the first awards.

As I mentioned last week, Ostrom’s work is all about how systems emerge naturally to enable the management of resources.

It will be an essential guide as we take on the existential challenges of climate change.

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Duflo’s work is very different. Firstly, it has involved the development of new techniques for analysis, drawing on the protocols for randomised control trials which have been used for decades in drug testing. Her research team has spent decades applying these techniques in research among the poorest communities in the world, systematically exploring what types of treatments are beneficial, and which have no effects, on communities’ ability to develop, and leave poverty behind.

For example, in the debate among economists about whether to distribute mosquito nets freely to reduce the transmission of malaria, or to sell them (at a low price), so that people will value them more, Duflo comes down on the side of free delivery – not because that fits into a grand worldview of development, but because the experimental evidence suggests that the take-up of free nets reduces transmission rates, not only among their users, but across the whole community.

This is, of course, the same argument we make for free immunisation as part of public health measures – your immunisation reduces the probability you will become infected, and therefore the probability you will infect others.

On the one hand, we have Ostrom showing us the accumulated evidence of organisations emerging naturally to manage resources effectively. On the other, we have Duflo demonstrating that, very often, a small amount of external support can make the formation of these organisations and structures much easier.

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Together, they tell us that we cannot simply rely on Adam Smith’s invisible hand to bring about order spontaneously. Think of the hand as being arthritic and weak. It can do light tasks, but nothing involving heavy lifting or fine motor co-ordination.

Ostrom and Duflo are important representatives of how economics is increasingly concerned with questions about how we manage information, and how capabilities emerge. That word “capabilities” can take on almost any meaning. Capabilities need not be physical, or mental, but can involve social organisation.

The ability of a business to take credit is a capability, based largely assessment of character. We have the capability to send people to the Moon. We do not, it seems, have the capability to end hunger. Or we have the capability but lack the desire.

Building a New Scotland is an impressive start. It is not the whole prospectus but mostly a promise that, with independence, the country will acquire new economic capabilities. The problems it seeks to address – around raising research and development, sustaining innovation, business formation, entrepreneurial growth, labour productivity, and, ultimately, wages – are deep-seated, long-lasting, and difficult to overcome. It offers prosperity, rather than wellbeing.

Scotland is much more than its economy. Its people are much more than workers or consumers. Yet a cursory reading of Building a New Scotland could give the impression that the Government considers people to be valuable because they are productive.

That would be a world in which governments would treat the NHS as a workshop for repairing workers, and education as if it is no more than a training ground for young workers. We sometimes seem to be perilously close to that last mistake. We need to be clear that after independence, the economy will be the servant of the people.