Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Metaphysics of Money

To mention money and metaphysics in the same sentence, as I did at the close of last week’s post, is to invite any number of misunderstandings. The hoary habit of thinking that walls off philosophical questions in a ghetto of abstractions apart from the world of ordinary life gets in the way of clarity here as so often, but there’s an even more basic problem: most people these days have no clear notion of what the word “metaphysics” means in the first place.

The tangled history of the word probably makes that inevitable. A nameless librarian in ancient Alexandria first coined it out of sheer desperation while cataloging the works of Aristotle; most of the treatises got names based on their subject matter – Physics, Meteorology, Poetics, and so on – but one difficult treatise was labeled simply meta phusikoi, “the stuff that comes after the Physics.” Then, as the fourth-grade history paper put it, some other stuff happened – the library of Alexandria burned, Rome fell, what was left of the classical world got tipped into history’s dumpster by a band of helpful Visigoths, and so on. When the dust finally cleared, Aristotle was very nearly the only systematic ancient thinker whose works were still around, and so he became, in Dante’s words, “the master of those who know.”

That meant, among other things, that the labels assigned to his treatises by that anonymous Alexandrian savant became the basic categories of scholarship in the Middle Ages. (Most of them remain basic categories today, which is why your local university has departments of physics, meteorology, and so on.) Metaphysics was no exception, and the philosophical issues Aristotle tackled in that treatise have carried that label ever since.

Those issues are what Aristotle himself called “first philosophy:” an analysis of the basic terms that have to be sorted out before any kind of philosophy can be sure of its foundations. The medieval scholars who blew the dust off Aristotle’s treatise, however, interpreted his work in their own way, which meant that the basic issues of philosophy were redefined in terms of Christian, Muslim, or Jewish theology. By the time the 18th century rolled around, metaphysics as a discipline was almost entirely identified with the theological basis given it by the scholars of the Middle Ages, and so it got dropped like a hot potato as secularism swept the academic world.

By the end of the 19th century even theologians had stopped doing metaphysics in the old style, and most of the people practicing what used to be called metaphysics weren’t using the word. At that point, in a fine display of history’s twisted sense of humor, the word got picked up by the American folk religious movement ancestral to today’s New Age scene, and turned into a label for their own beliefs. The town in southern Oregon where I used to live has a Metaphysical Library, which even had a few books on metaphysics in the philosophical sense of the world, though how they got there I have no idea. The vast majority of the books were on past lives, channeled entities, flying saucers, evil conspiracies, and the rest of the mental furniture of contemporary alternative culture.

Thus it’s probably necessary to point out that when I mention the metaphysics of money, I ‘m not referring to claims that money was invented by a conspiracy of evil space lizards, or that you can get as much money as you want by convincing yourself that money really, really wants to bed down in your wallet. You can find books making both these claims at the library just mentioned, as it happens, but both beliefs – and a good many statements less obviously absurd – are in large part produced by a failure to engage in the other kind of metaphysics, the thoughtful consideration of the basic categories of thought itself.

That sort of analysis seems very abstruse and impractical, until you notice the consequences of ignoring it. Sweeping claims are being made these days about whether certain things exist or do not exist, for example, by people who never seem to have examined their own presuppositions about what it means to exist and how a thing can be known to exist. That’s the problem with the ghettoizing of philosophy mentioned earlier; the philosophical issues you ignore can still sneak up on you while you’re not looking, and turn your best attempts at thinking into gibberish.

This, finally, is where metaphysics and money come together. Last week’s post discussed some of the reasons why you can get better economic advice from a randomly chosen fortune cookie at your local Asian buffet than from the most prestigious contemporary economists. Part of it, as I pointed out, was the way that the boom-bust cycle makes giving bad advice the most lucrative career strategy for economists; another part is due to the attempts of economists to make their field a theoretical science without going to the trouble of grounding their theories in an adequate foundation of historical fact.

Still, there’s a third factor at work, and it’s even more pervasive than the two just named. It’s far from unique to economics – in one way or another, it underlies a great many of the mistakes that are tipping our own civilization into the same dumpster that received the ruins of Rome – but it stands out in the field of economics with particular clarity. Its roots are in a metaphysical error which might as well be called, after one of its most influential practitioners, Descartes’ fallacy.

Rene Descartes is famous nowadays for saying “I think, therefore I am.” Few people these days take the time to find out what he meant by that statement, and fewer still catch onto the radical project that underlay it. Without too much inaccuracy, Descartes can be called the first modern thinker. Certainly he was the first to embrace what has become an automatic presupposition of modern thought, the notion of the individual self as an isolated, independent witness whose thoughts and experiences are entirely its own. What existed, to Descartes, was limited to what he could know, and know precisely, with the same exactness as a geometrical proof.

Descartes was arguing, in effect, that “to be” means the same thing as “to be known,” and “to be known” in turn equals “to be precisely defined.” It’s clear that he recognized, and intended, the sweeping implications of this metaphysical stance. It’s equally clear that a great many of the people who unknowingly follow his lead nowadays either accept those implications uncritically or have never noticed their existence. In the hands of much of modern science, in particular, Descartes’ equation has been blended with a passion for quantitative measurement to produce an even more extreme form of the same logic. To a great many scientists today, what exists is limited to what can be known; what can be known is limited to what can be measured; and what can be measured is treated as though it was identical to its measurements.

You can get away with this in physics, and still do excellent science. The objects studied by physics follow patterns that can be modeled effectively by mathematics, and most of them are so remote from ordinary human experience that anything about them that doesn’t measure easily can be ignored without too much trouble. Try doing this in sciences closer to the realm of everyday human life, on the other hand, and you can count on running into trouble, because in that realm Descartes’ approach is usually a bad idea, and the modern scientific expansion of it an even worse one. What can be measured is only a subset of what can be known, and what can be known, at least in any given situation, is only a subset of what exists; nor does the fact that some properties of a thing can be measured according to some numerical scale prevent it from having other properties at least as important that are not subject to that kind of measurement.

The sort of bad logic that treats quantitative measurements as the only things that really exist is pervasive in the sciences, but its grip is even tighter on those fields of study that want to claim the prestige of science but can’t quite pass muster. Economics could be the poster child for this noxious effect. Down through the generations, against the sound advice of its best practitioners, economists have consistently treated the one thing in their field that can easily and consistently be measured with numbers – money – as though it was the one thing that matters. It’s easy to see how seductive this habit can be, since it seems to allow everything to be measured on a common scale; the problem, of course, is that everything that can’t be flattened out into that common scale gets mislaid, and as often as not these mislaid factors prove to be decisive.

In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith criticizes the notion – as common in his time as in ours – that money is the same thing as wealth. The wealth of a country, he points out, consists of the product of its natural resources and collective labor: in modern terms, it’s the sum total of the goods and services produced by a nation’s ecosystems and economy. In another place, though, he defines wealth as anything that can be valued in money. These definitions do not conflict with one another; rather, they make the crucial point that money is not wealth but the yardstick by which modern cultures measure wealth. This ought to be the first thing we teach children about money, though of course it isn’t.

It probably ought to be the first thing we teach economists about money, too, but the power of Descartes’ fallacy stands in the way. Money is a unit of measurement, so it’s inherently easy to define, understand, and quantify. Wealth is much less easy to force into the Procrustean bed of numbers; that’s why we use money as a rough and ready way of sorting out the relative value of different kinds of wealth so they can be exchanged without too much trouble. Money is so convenient as a way of measuring wealth that very often it ends up eclipsing wealth, and this is why most economists nowadays, even when they think they’re talking about wealth, are actually talking about money. This becomes especially problematic when, as so often happens, they start attributing to wealth characteristics that are only true of money.

This habit of thought pervades contemporary economics. For a relevant example, watch the way most economists these days brush aside the immense challenges of peak oil with the assurance that if oil ever does get scarce, the market will come up with alternatives. Implicit in this claim is the assumption that any energy source is as good as any other, and that the total amount in the system is effectively unlimited. This is true of money – one dollar bill is worth exactly the same amount as any other, and the total number of dollars in circulation is as close to limitless, these days, as the printing presses of the US Treasury can make it – but it is emphatically not true of energy resources, or of any other form of wealth.

Compare any two energy resources in practical terms and it’s clear that in most cases they’re not even apples and oranges; they’re apples and orangutans. Take petroleum and solar energy as good examples. A highly concentrated form of chemical energy and a rather diffuse form of electromagnetic energy have very little in common, and even when they can do the same things – you can heat a house with passive solar design, for example, or you can heat it with an oil-fired burner – the technologies are totally different. Easy talk about swapping one for the other thus evades the immense challenge and nearly unimaginable cost of scrapping multiple continent-wide infrastructures geared to oil and building new ones suited to solar energy. (There are plenty of other questions that it ducks, too, but this one will do for starters.)

Presumably an economist would notice something odd if he sat down at a lunch counter, ordered the daily special, and was handed instead a box of socket wrenches, even if the price of the wrenches was exactly the same as the daily special. If the economist was starving on a desert island and a crate that washed ashore proved to contain socket wrenches rather than food, the difference would be a matter of life or death. This latter is uncomfortably close to our position just now, as the world’s energy companies race each other and the clock to extract fossil fuels in nearly unimaginable volumes from the Earth’s dwindling supplies. If we allow ourselves to wait until those supplies start to run short, it will be much too late to start retooling our civilization for some other energy resource, even if one happens to turn up.

Because a subculture of erudite scholars in the economics departments of universities have made a metaphysical error, in other words, our civilization may have missed its chance to dodge disaster. It’s hard to think of a better argument for the importance of metaphysics than that. Still, the problem sketched in this post extends much further than I’ve had space to outline here, and the way in which money has metastatized in our society to become the measure of all things has become a massive though unrecognized barrier in the way of any attempt to improve a rapidly worsening situation. We’ll explore that in next week’s post.

59 comments:

ariel55 said...

Dear Mr.Greer,

You seem to consistently confirm the existence of some value which may outlast the craziness, economic and otherwise, which we are experiencing. Did YOU, by chance create the "fourth grade history paper"? Thanks for the thought provoking post!

Steve said...

You might be interested in this link where Robert Kennedy's speech on GDP is detailed. For me it is impossible to imagine any politician giving a similar speech today. Regardless, given that our culture's obsession with money the speech would be unintelligible to most people. http://www.glaserprogress.org/program_areas/measuring_progress.asp

Danby said...

you can get better economic advice from a randomly chosen fortune cookie at your local Asian buffet than from the most prestigious contemporary economists

That's largely because Asians have been down the road before, many times, and have developed some very effective folk wisdom about handling money.

Back to the point of the post, one might express the relationship as the close one gets to free will, the less relevance the numbers have to the subject. Thus, in physics, which deals with inanimate objects, the numbers are all-important. The subject cannot be understood without them. In animal behavior, much less so, except as probabilities. In sociology and economics, numbers are of very little actual use, despite the vast resources spent on acquiring them. In ethics and theology, numbers have nothing whatever to tell us.

zapoteca said...

Mr. Greer,
A beautiful and thoughtful article, clearly argued. I often read your blog when I need to return to clear thinking starting from a premise. We are so inundated with hysteria and random noise! Following along with your writing is a fine counterbalance.

I found great pleasure in your analogous comparison of "apples to wrenches" and "oil to solar". And also from your treatment of the roots of metaphysics, tracing it from antiquity to its misapplication in modern economics. A calming read,and I bask in its clarity.

Thank you again. Hope you are finding Cumberland - that is, this neck of the woods - congenial for your purposes! I wish you would hold a salon or something like that. Word would spread, and people of like mind could find one another. Maybe hold it around a lecture, and have a table of your books. Thinking people in the 19th century used to do this all the time - it was the 'power networking' method of the pre-oil era, if my reading serves me well. Please forgive if that is coming off as demanding.

Loveandlight said...

It occurs to me that perhaps the reason that this metaphysical error involving money made by economists is so widely accepted, is because people in the industrial world are so completely dependent on the money economy to get their basic survival needs met. As you have pointed out in previous posts, that was not the case as relatively recently as 100 or so years ago. When you need money for pretty much everything, it's all too easy to start thinking of money as some kind of omnipotent mystical power that rules all of life.

medved said...

Dear Mr. Greer,

many thanks, this post did it for me. I realized how important is to consider money from a third angle: neither as a practical nor as a moral problem (although they remain both...) It seems to me as absurd, that a real estate agent gets the same kind of money as builder (and much more of it), as it would to my grand-grandfather ploughing the field that "good" money should earned by such abstract operations a software programming, as I do so far... Hope the new book will be out soon and the Archdruid would not mind getting a few oldfashioned dollars for it, though...

Chris said...

I have been struggling to articulate the wealth that is often overlooked by economic indicators; the value of an intact wetlands or the benefit to society of common resources that are often being privatized for profit.

Your post very clearly draws a distinction between wealth and money.

Over the past couple of years I have been educating myself (opening my eyes) to the blind faith we place in money as a store of wealth.

It helps to have clear definitions of what one is thinking about.

Thank You!

Sam McKinley said...

Saturday Night Live once did a sketch on a Bizarro world where McGovern won in 1972. I think the difference would have been much greater had RFK made it to the White House in 1968.

Anyway, economists really need to remember that their roots are in a field once called "political economy" and that they do not practice a "hard" science, but rather a social science.

Elizabeth M Rimmer said...

In my head money is promises. So 125% mortgages was always the numbers game, and toxic assets were always magic beans, and when bankers default, it is about restoring honour, not wealth.
Nice to see some genuine philosophy!

LynnHarding said...

I think of 'wealth' as referring to things that may be exchanged. Money is a medium of exchange. 'Wealth' is related to, but not identical to 'value.' If there are philosophers lurking here they are going to sit up and take notice and I can see from the first comment that people will want to use 'wealth' and 'value' as synonyms. It will get very muddy very fast!

Blindweb said...

As I try to reeducate myself in many things I have memories of all the sections of the text books my teachers skipped in grade school. From what I can recall we skipped most of the sections pertaining to theory, practical use, cultural significance, etc. Basically we skipped any of the macroview parts of the book to concentrate on rote learning . I suspect the teachers didn't understand it themselves, or had various quotas to meet.

Delving into the alternate world of economics one quickly sees the fact that economics is not a science. You quickly come across wildly different concepts of the fundamental measurements economic models are built upon. Concepts like GDP, CPI, inflation, etc.

Laodan said...

Excellent presentation of the intellectual short cut taken by modernity. "Descartes can be called the first modern thinker", yes. But out of what ground did his thinking sprout and grow? How did Europe compost over the earlier centuries the substance that later formed the ground out of which sprouted the philosophic tenets of modernity? This is not laid out here.

lagedargent said...

Very educating and enlightening, Mr. Greer. Thank you.
As to Descartes' thesis, in 2005, I suggested a twist in accordance with our reality of today - 'Inlogito ergo sum' - 'I am logged in, so I exist'.
I admit it's not regular Latin, but more appealing to the Latin challenged, by association, than the grammatically more correct - 'Inlogitus ergo sum', or 'inlogita' in 50% of cases.

John Michael Greer said...

Ariel, no, it was cited in one of those books of fractured history extracted from schoolchildren's essays. In fourth grade I would have been a lot more wordy.

Steve, thanks for the link.

Danby, free will is one confounding factor, sheer complexity is another, and the difference between quantitative and qualitative difference is a third; medieval Catholic theologians might have disagreed with you that number has no place in theology, but they'd have been talking about numbers as qualities rather than quantities, of course.

Zapoteca, it's not demanding at all. I've talked to the folks at Main Street Books up in Frostburg about doing a reading there when The Ecotechnic Future comes out; stay tuned for details.

Loveandlight, bingo. Next week's post will explore this.

Medved, I have bills to pay like everyone else, so of course I'll take the dollars!

Chris, you're welcome.

Sam, if McGovern had won we would have had the Carter administration four years early. I'm not at all sure that Robert Kennedy's election in '68 would have made a huge difference, either.

Elizabeth, thank you. We'll get into the nature of money next week.

Lynn, well put. We ought to be able to manage some clarity here, though.

Blindweb, there's a great passage in one of Schumacher's books about that moment of insight where one realizes one's teachers don't actually know what they're talking about. That ought to happen much more often in economics classrooms than it does.

Laodan, since I'm not writing a history of Western thought and try to keep my posts under 2500 words, yes, a lot of background didn't get included.

Lagedargent, excellent! These days, even the most ungrammatical Latin pun is worth applauding.

Isis said...

JMG,

As a math grad student, I have some rather selfish reasons for being very concerned about all this quantification business. Namely, as the consequences of the misapplications of mathematics become harder and harder to ignore, the whole project of mathematics (and not just that of its bastard children such as modern economics) might get tossed into a historical garbage can.

Few mathematicians speak up about this. Many look down on mathematical economics and such as inferior to the 'real math', but still, it's these (mis)applications of our field that bring money to our departments. And so we tolerate them, without too much criticism. But we (and our descendants) might end up paying a higher price for our current silence than we thought we bargained for.

J Gav said...

JMG

This is a very welcome follow-up to the idea you'd spoken of before in terms of "false assumptions." Taking it a step further, you're at metaphysics' doorstep.

I've come to see that place as something like: "Get your premise (or co-premises) wrong and you can't get there from here." As you point out, that is exactly what we've done, jumping on the Descartes bandwagon en masse so enthusiastically that we've forgotten where we wanted to go. The M├ęthode (excuse the pun) trumps the aim. When the frame of reference is sufficiently stripped down, just watch how well it works! Uh, until it doesn't anymore ... when it's overtaken by resource depletion, for instance.

Perhaps analogous to asking, not necessarily the wrong questions, but stunted questions. A trivial example of which might be to wonder "How much wood would a woodchuck chuck ...," then scurrying off to quantify woodpiles without completing the ditty: " ... if a woodchuck could chuck wood." It can't.

Duncan Kinder said...

What you have to say about metaphysics and money is fine and good so far as it goes; but, really, did not Charles Dickens make the same point, earlier and better, with respect to Ebeneezer Scrooge in The Christmas Carol?

jagged ben said...

As a former philosophy major (who happened to have studied at one point the medieval Islamic Aristotelians) I have to thank you for giving an excellent history of 'metaphysics'. Many philosophy professors could not do as well.

I'm not sure that Descartes scholars would all agree that he believed that "“to be known” in turn equals “to be precisely defined.”" Nor does this follow necessarily from "I think therefore I am." I only offer these nitpicks up because I hope that no one will take your criticism of Descartes as license to ignore the entire tradition of 'Western' philosophy that arguably began with him. Personally, I generally think that a better understanding of metaphysics can be gained by comparing Descartes and Hume than by reading anyone who came before them. (Well, I suppose Lao Tzu could be an exception...)

While it's certainly true that some strains of modern thinking developed along the lines you describe (culminating with 'logical positivism'), it's also true that the foundations of knowledge have always been at issue in that philosophical tradition. Indeed, the failure of philosophers ever to agree on strong 'foundations for knowledge' has led various philosophical traditions (many of them tracing back to Nietzsche) to begin leaving behind Descartes style modernism (as you describe it) quite a while ago. Many if not most of those conversations bear little to no responsibility for the false presumptions of contemporary economics. My favorite philosopher, Richard Rorty (a pragmatist much in the tradition of Dewey) would certainly agree that to the extent that economists fail to hang onto the real word, their discipline is mere babble.

RDatta said...

Lawd, that was a good one. And the Archdruid is right - the same mischief is perpetrated in so many other areas of human endeavor.

In medicine for instance, the ability to quantify has made numbers extremely useful and critically important. But seeking the right set of numbers may depend on something so subtle as a patient's inflection of a word or two: so subtle that even the physician may not be aware of it when picking up the cue.

But since these cannot be quantified, their existence goes unacknowledged.

maros.ivanco said...

Waw. With Descartes you tried to cross a very thin ice and you drowned, because Descartes is consistent with his definition of existence whereas your argument is based on the redefinition of the term. I wouldn't blame the Descartes for the incompetence of economists, but if you must... ;-) Anyway, I realize that certain policies/ways of thinking can indirectly lead to incorrect thinking, so I can accept your hypothesis, although I think the "reduction of everything to money" has its roots in the presumption of unlimited resources. Once one starts to deal with limitness of resources, quality appears.
Wonderful post, and your ideas are challenging...

vegan_satori said...

Money is another fine trap we've gotten ourselves into. Removed from direct contact with the sources of our food, clothing, shelter and transportation through the abstraction of money, we have allowed ourselves to be disenfranchised from the Earth itself. Not only homeless, so many have no 'right' to the land of Earth at all. Money enables privatization, and poverty. When money becomes worthless, humans might regain a connection to real wealth, the Earth and Sun, and all the rest -- especially ourselves. But no illusions -- human life, if we survive our own induced wave of mass extinction, probably won't be easy when money and oil and a conducive climate are fading memories. We probably won't be sipping cocktails on a tropical beach while gambling on Wall Street.

rainman said...

Good article JMG. I have long wondered about our fixation with money as the only measure of value, and your post provides a good perspective.

I suppose now my remaining question is "why is this idea so sticky?" (Innate laziness? Too much sugar? Bad balance of Omega3 and 6? Too busy?)

Perhaps it's like one of those optical illusion pics - once you've seen the other version of the image, it's hard to go back to not being able to see it. To me it's obvious that measuring everything in purely monetary terms is a poor approximation of reality - yet I can't recall what satori I underwent to get here. Aren't we odd things, really, us humans?

Love the desert island story!

John Michael Greer said...

Isis, that's a real issue. In your place I'd start looking for things that mathematics can do that will make sense to people on the long road down.

Gav, thank you. It will be a long time before I look in quite the same way at the woodchucks who forage for plantain in my back yard.

Duncan, I don't claim to be a rival to Dickens. Still, the point apparently bears repeating.

Jagged, I certainly don't mean to dismiss modern Western philosophy because one of its founders made a metaphysical mistake, especially as it's one that many later western philosophers have reexamined in their own ways. It's precisely the fact that scientists haven't made use of the resources of philosophy that has caused so much science -- and of course also would-be sciences such as economics -- to build theories on the basis of flawed metaphysical assumptions. Since, by and large, science rather than philosophy has shaped the cultural conversations of our time outside a fairly narrow set of academic circles, this means that these same flawed assumptions have permeated contemporary culture, despite the efforts of philosophers among others to point to the problems this has caused.

RDatta, an excellent example. Still, it's hard to point to a field of study in today's culture that hasn't gotten caught in the same trap.

Maros, internal consistency is not necessarily a good thing. The delusions of raving schizophrenics are often masterpieces of internally consistent logic. Descartes is always consistent; the problem is that his logic leads to serious trouble when you apply it to the (very often inconsistent) real world.

Vegan, every human society uses some symbolic structure to organize the distribution of goods and services among members of a community. Hunter-gatherer bands use kinship structures and religious taboos, we use money -- different forms, same principle. I don't think there's anything wrong with money (or, for that matter, kinship structures and religious taboos) in the abstract; there are some serious problems with how we have come to use money (and be used by money) in today's world, and I'll be talking about those in next week's post.

Rainman, the "stickiness" of money as a marker for wealth has complex roots. Vico would likely have said that it represents the sort of movement toward greater and greater levels of abstraction that always takes place in the third stage of the historical cycle. More on this next week!

Bill Pulliam said...

A curiosity of linguistics...

I note that in contemporary casual usage, if you pose a question that by the original definition would have been "metaphysical" (e.g. "Well, what do you really mean by 'wealth?'") someone will tell you "Oh don't get all philosophical." They won't say "Oh, don't get all metaphysical." As so often happens the words rotate around through the meanings, and white becomes black (as it has indeed done in the evolution of language).

w g carr said...

Wow, metaphysics and economics: it makes my little head spin. I suppose since the time of the discoveries of animal and plant husbandry the concept of property and its sibling money have been with us. I understand hunter-gatherer societies (where humans spent 99.999% of their time evolving) don't have those concepts and the inequalities they produce. Whether this is good or bad is a metaphysical question or possibly just your point of view.

Certainly alot of evil has come with property/money in that peeps need to protect it from their neighbors whose covetousness can lead to theft, war, etc. Or, it can be a Ben Franklin-like aphorism where thrift and industry result in one being more secure from nature, starvation, cold and etc.

Dan Olner said...

Thanks again for your deeply thought-provoking article. However, you paint a caricature of economics and quantitative methods. It's not an uncommon attack. There are very important reasons for attacking ways in which 'quant' has been used throughout history, but with your choice of targets there's a definite risk of throwing the quantitative baby out with the philosophical bathwater.

For a general overview of typical critiques of economics, and why they don't represent the discipline fairly, I strongly recommend Diane Coyle's "the soulful science: what economists really do and why it matters." There's a google book preview online - you'll see from the intro there's some crossover with what you're saying. I don't say this because I think you're entirely wrong: I just think your argument will be stronger with a fuller appreciation of the diversity of the discipline.

A central point for me: Isis is right, maths has been abused. As you rightly say, you can clothe your discipline in the shiny garb of "proper science". Many disciplines, from economics to sociology, are guilty of that. But maths can be used to describe the world in many ways: the biggest fault of economics has been to allow one school of thought to build an almost unassailable tower of 'the correct approach'. In a way, that's understandable: no system of thinking progresses without some conservatism about its central tenets. There has to be something of a common language too, or no discussion can happen at all.

The problem is not the discipline, then: it's the tangled, symbiotic relationship between a particular school of economics and political power: you won't work your way up in the World Bank without having been steeped in that, and having gone to the right university. But its that power structure that's the problem, not the discipline of economics itself.

Right now, there's something of a Cambrian Explosion of approaches to economic thought. Many mathematical approaches are being used to describe different facets of reality.

On a specific example from your article: economics has a useful account for someone valuing food more than wrenches. It's an old economic problem: how come diamonds are usually valued so much more than water, though we need water far more? If you end up on that desert island with no fresh water but a shiny set of spanners, you'll have a hint of the answer: the spanners are worthless to you in that situation.

... "bad logic that treats quantitative measurements as the only things that really exist." Very common, you're right - it's very bag logic and very bad science. Have you read James Scott's Seeing Like a State? He has a fantastic parable of the ecological consequences of this approach (matching Hayek's view of economics) - the German state used to count trees to gauge potential revenue, by passing through the forest with bags of coloured nails for different size trees and subtracting the remainder. Later, they planted forests in that image - and slowly the forests died (after many decades) because their measuring could not see the ecosystem. As a modeller its a parable I have stapled to my forehead, a matter I reflect on here (which has a more detailed outline of Scott's parable).

The conclusion for any model of complex systems: don't confuse your bag of nails with reality. As with the example of utility above: it's one useful, descriptive account that provides insights into the way people think about value. It is far from the whole story.

Last quick note: I also recommmend Philip Ball's "Critical Mass" - a history of attempts to apply quant methods to human beings. p.s. there's also a soulful science blog, where Diane reviews many books.

maros.ivanco said...

You interpret Descartes's saying as "to be, is to be measured", but I think the more precise interpretation is "to be, is to be observed". The 'observation' has a little bit "wider" meaning than 'measurement'. If you change the word 'measure' with the word 'observe' in your essay, the inadequacy of your argument becomes more obvious. Even today, there are many phenomenons, which are observable (and thus exist in Descartes's point of view) but are not measurable. An example is the difference in the quality of "any two energy sources", which you have observed, even thought it lacks quantitative measurement by economists.

Although I agree with your conclusions, I think the second and third of your "three reasons" can be marked by the same label: The premature scientification (the second - the theory is not empirically justified + third, modified by my argument - non-utilization of the scientific method of exploration).

You indirectly posed an interesting proposition, that the problems we face are inherent in our way of thinking, in our method of exploration. Which I think is valid and sound. I also wonder, is there a cause, what is the cause, and can we avoid it?

Tony said...

With apologies for going way off-topic, I recently read your paper on Catabolic Collapse. I've been thinking a lot about collapse resulting from over-complexification (I haven't read The Collapse of Complex Societies, but I feel I get the point).

I work in local government. Let me tell you: things are getting crazily complex. I feel like I'm walking through some sort of surreal wonderland, where we engage in the most immense struggles to make the most amazingly incremental progress. Part of that surreal wonderland, of course, is the complete lack of understanding of such fundamental issues as the nature of irreplaceable non-renewable resources, the dangers of climate change and mass extinctions... and the unspoken, utterly insane metaphysics that undergird the though processes of the vast majority of people around me. To paraphrase Daniel Quinn, I feel like a Martian anthropologist. Sometimes all I can do is scratch my head and wonder.

Rainman - I also don't know what satori I underwent to get here. I wish I could find a way to recreate it for others.

J Gav said...

Poor Monsieur Descartes

Somewhat brutally dualistic and loath to approach the vital question of Substance. Unceremoniously pitches Essentialism overboard (not that the latter doesn't also have its problems) and replaces it with Solipsism. There, I've said it. At least I've given a couple of the headings that make Cartesianism less than satisfactory to me. Does that mean that I think the Archdruid has underscored his importance in the evolution of Western thought so as not to miss a good session of Descartes-bashing, a popular philosophical blood-sport a few years back? Hardly.

It seems a safe bet to assume that none of the major currents among our civilization's philosophies popped out of Jupiter's thigh fully-formed, Descartes being no exception. Shall we have a go at Aristotle then, or the Scholastics, or would you rather wait for the Enlightenment to come along and really lay into them? How about saving our best whacks for Auguste Comte and the Positivist movement who, after all, were much more directly involved in elbowing metaphysics out of the picture in the 19th C?

My point, of course, is that I don't see any blame game going on here or any reason for one to exist. I think, rather, that JMG is biding his time in developing background to explore something else, something deeper. Maybe something related to the underpinnings of the way we see the world and (attempt to) organize it in accordance with that viewpoint, unbeknownst to ourselves. Why do we pick up this ball, rather than some other, and run with it as far as our legs will carry us? How would we even recognize it if we ever scored a metaphysical touchdown?

Mutatis mutandis, the same applies to the quants, the other focus of JMG's post. How could Black and Scholes, the undeniably brilliant Nobel Prize winners, have possibly foreseen what their derivative-modeling would become? The CDOs (Collaterlized Debt Obligations) and CDSs (Credit Default Swaps) which now hang over our heads like a modern-day Sword of Damocles?

i couldn't quant my way out of a paper bag but twice weekly I collaborate with a team of young quants who model carbon footprints and the like with a view to helping municipalities and regions better manage their resources, infrastructure and urban planning. Both the people and the politicians like it because it's "green" and because it tells them where their financial resources will do the most good. Their order book runneth over to make sure that cities' sewage systems don't.
Pecunia non olet.

wylde otse said...

One thing I have learned here today is that there is indeed a word that rhymes with orange: orangatang. (or Orangoo, the free spell-check)
All you do is turn the words upside
down.

Second, that the ideal place to browse economically for fortune cookies is at at an Asian buffet (even tasty rabbit). (oh you are good JMG)

I won't go on here that I got through 2 yrs calculus without studying, or that Dr.J.Harlow announced to the class, holding
up my term exam paper ...looking at me; "You will be a great mathematician one day"...
and when the class roared with laughter (because I was also the class clown) thinking it was some joke...he went on. " I have been teaching this course for 30 yrs, and I have never seen anyone solve this problem in such a brilliant unique way."
(of course I had forgotten the solving formulae - and yes, I too am still awaiting aforementioned prophesy - ok, maybe my discovery of the largest number in existence is yet to be made known. The largest number is * 1 * or 'one' - all other numbers adding up to it. For instance, a number is not ever complete by itself, but part of a sub-set... {unless it is one}... so * 2 * or 'two' is merely 1 divided into 2 parts, or however many you chose. To make the largest number, you add all the little numbers - which you can cut up until you are udderly tired)

Nor will I briefly mention that I was the prez of the university chess club, or other such things.

To the point: I walked into Dr. Charles' Economics Class, years later, at another university.
He wrote on the blackboard with huge exhuberant script: " KEYNES *IS* ECONOMICS "

I stared in disbelief; looking at the faces of my 40 or so fellow chelas - but they were rapt. Thereupon he began frantically filling up the board with many many formulae and numbers, non-stop, only a brief tattered word now and then. All these beautiful numbers - spoke for themselves, yet I knew that they would never add up to much - he was going the wrong way. I quietly picked up my books and left, never to turn back. (Besides, if Keynes WAS economics, then why wouldn't I merely buy all his books?)

So it is with great delight that I am getting (with thanks to you and your brilliant collaborators) a genuine lesson in economics.

ChristineStone said...

At a slight tangent, I feel it is worth pointing out there are differences between accounting and economics. For my accounting degree we discussed such things as why we use historical cost, instead of replacement cost, to value assets, and what is wrong with putting an 'intangible asset' such as rights to a brand name on a company balance sheet. There was a lot of thought-provoking theory alongside the book-keeping. However, when on the economics course the lecturer started saying how every 'rational' person 'maximises their utility', I just thought it was insane!

Gavin said...

Appropriate tech gets mainstream press: An interesting article here - http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2009/oct/03/malawian-teenager-builds-wind-turbine - about not just appropriate technology but also the already-existing Third World salvage economy.

Sorry that this is probably a bit off-topic, but I know this stuff is an interest of yours and a past subject many times, John, and thought you'd appreciate the link.

Patz said...

JMG: “What can be measured is only a subset of what can be known, and what can be known, at least in any given situation, is only a subset of what exists; nor does the fact that some properties of a thing can be measured according to some numerical scale prevent it from having other properties at least as important that are not subject to that kind of measurement.”

JMG, the above, taken from your thread states as succinctly as possible why economics as a a study is so flawed as to be not so much useless, as dangerous. However! I think you’re off the track when you say:

“Because a subculture of erudite scholars in the economics departments of universities have made a metaphysical error, in other words, our civilization may have missed its chance to dodge disaster. It’s hard to think of a better argument for the importance of metaphysics than that.”

To say that we might have “dodge[d] disaster” gives too much credit to our capacity to understand a course we’re on and correct it. We are a species driven by a biological imperative to maximize and utilize our resources. As long as we were hunter gatherers we could live sustainably. Once we invented agriculture we were on a course that could only end at the cliff’s edge of dieoff.

History, especially that of empires, can be seen in the light of searching for and exploiting resources. If other populations were in the way they were killed off or put to use.

People cannot, as opposed to ‘will not,’ live within their means. Look at the results of President Carter trying to tell people they had to conserve energy. Someone was bound to tell them they didn’t have to. It just happened to be Ronald Regan.

To put it into your terms JMG, our brain is a subset of our biology; it is not in the driver’s seat.

William said...

As a side note to this posting and related comments, I think it's interesting how money has a psychological aspect. People project so many of their hopes, fantasies, and fears onto and into money. Just the thought of having a lot of money can make some people more happy and relaxed, while the thought of losing it can make many anxious and unsettled. Psychologist James Hillman observed that we project our psychic depths onto this mercurial, abstract yet concrete entity called money. I don't really understand money, but I suppose the high-paid economists don't either!

John Q said...

Well, I fully support you views on metaphysics and how it impacts our everyday lives. However, I have 1 1/2 bones to pick: the half bone to pick has to with you not more strongly noting that more than just being a wanna-be science, economics is a bit of hoax. Modern day economics fails so spectacularly because politics have been de-coupled from it. To be fair to you, you do mention that economists of today fail because they want to skip over history but that is because they are not engaged in the "enterprise," pardon the pun, of POLITICAL-ECONOMY. Incorporating history would spell doom for the dominant system's ideological hegemony. Economists are here to make sure that doesn't happen and that instead the focus is on hocus-pocus. It is now you see it (as in trillions of tax-payer dollars) and now you don't.

As I know you are aware, classical economists, such as the much revered Adam Smith and his counterpart, who remains anathema to many, Karl Marx were political economists. Whatever one thinks of each of these figures, at least they were engaged in the correct field. In so far as that was the case they were a bit more honest even if they occupied opposite political poles.

That brings me to the major bone of contention I have with your essay. I think you are giving economists a bit too much credit. If they are as smart as you say they are, surely at some point many realize that more than just telling people what they want to hear, they are in the business, much like Smith, Ricardo, Stuart and others in their day, of providing a theoretical foundation, or should I simply say justification for Capitalism in particular and top-down class society in general. In other words, providing a cover for what really amounts to exploitation, enclosure, dispossession, slavery (ordinary and wage) genocide, colonialism and, finally, the potential rendering of the biosphere into an unlivable state.

Like most of our species, economists decide what to do or believe in (at the heart of which is usually some narrow self-interest) and then construct suitable justification for it after the fact. Cynical? Maybe, but it sure seems to fit my experiences and observation of the human condition. Or perhaps, the experiences and observations of someone who resides in the belly of the beast.

As I told a friend a while back, without any hard proof other than my experiences and intuition if you will, I believe we, as a species, evolved to produce speech as much to deceive as inform. Certainly, the modern media-industrial complex in the U. S., seems to bear that out. Our erstwhile president, whom I saw through immediately, is their greatest creation yet. And this is from a black man who is expected to bow before the king (certainly no King) because it means we have arrived (sic)!

Nevertheless, I commend you on an excellent essay. You did cover a lot of ground. I am looking forward to reading more.

Draco TB said...

The Dahlem report - 17 pages on why modern economics is wrong.

Quoting JMG:
there's a great passage in one of Schumacher's books about that moment of insight where one realizes one's teachers don't actually know what they're talking about. That ought to happen much more often in economics classrooms than it does.
I'm pretty sure it does but as Steve Keen says in his Debunking Economics (http://www.debunkingeconomics.com/) the scepticism is taught out by the time the economists are a couple of years into study.

Worldbridger said...

As long as people think time is money instead of time is art, we will always be in trouble.

John Q said...

I would add, that as long as we think we can get something for nothing, we will continue to suffer.

J Gav said...

Lots of interesting comments here. On the subject raised by Draco TB, i.e. that resistance to the dominant ideology is "taught out" of us, there's a presentation by Sir Ken Robinson among the TED Talks (available at their site) which runs something like this: any notion of educating the whole person is "educated out of us" at an early age. We're educated from the neck up, our bodies serving only as a means of transport in order to get our head to the next meeting ...

More directly as concerns money, I find it noteworthy, despite obvious features which set them apart, that money and oil share such central characteristics in our civilization, namely 'volum' and 'flow.' That becomes quantity and velocity in the case of money, reserves and flow rate for oil. Though, in our conception of them, both can be considered wealth in their reserve or stock-piled form (gold in a bank vault, oil in the ground) if they don't circulate they fail to serve one of the key functions we have assigned them and that is 'liquidity.' It's no coincidence that oil has been mooted by some as a replacement for the dollar as a 'reserve' currency.

So it is that what we derive use or exchange value from is no inherent quality of either but rather our expectations re: what they are supposed to do for us. (See JMG's reference to socket wrenches in last week's Archdruid Report).

J Gav said...

Oops. Gotta re-read 3 times before hitting that send button! The end of my previous comment should have read " ... the use and exchange value of money and oil derives LESS from inherent qualities than from our expectations ..." since, obviously, the inherently liquid quality of oil has a great deal to do with its use value.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, true enough -- and rather odd.

WG, property was invented a long time before money; the ancient Egyptians, to name only one example, managed an extremely sophisticated civilization without any abstract medium of exchange. Still, you're quite right that whether this is good or bad is a value judgment, and thus up to the individual.

Dan, I'm delighted to have fielded a response from an economist. Of course my discussion here was confrontational -- deliberately so -- and less nuanced than, say, a 500-page book might be. Still, I'm curious as to where the alternative economists were when the housing bubble was being inflated, or, for that matter, where alternative economists are when peak oil comes up for discussion. A voice from among economists challenging the mainstream economic consensus on issues such as these would be very helpful, you know.

Maros, you need to reread the post. I did not say that Descartes said "to be" equals "to measure"; I said that contemporary science, riffing off Descartes, equated "to be" with "to be quantifiable." I don't at all mind being critiqued for what I say, but I object to being critiqued for what I didn't say!

Tony, it may be off topic but it's a worthwhile data point. I've heard much the same thing elsewhere, too.

Gav, the problem with the quants is purely that they too often assume the omniscience of their models, in the face of far too much evidence. Can quantitative analysis be useful? Of course, but any tool can be misused, and this one seems to be trying to make itself the poster child for that fact.

Otse, Dr. Charles was practicing theology, not economics. Glad to hear that you responded accordingly.

Christine, I have a great deal of respect for accountants and bookkeepers. (I married one of the latter, in fact.) When an accountant discovers that the till doesn't balance, she checks her figures, finds the error, and corrects it. When an economist discovers that the till doesn't balance, he invents a theory to explain why it shouldn't balance. There's no question in my mind which of the two is the useful response.

Gavin, thank you! I saw the article, but it's a good one to get into circulation.

Patz, I think it's going beyond the evidence to insist that human beings are biological robots programmed to breed and eat themselves out of house and home. There are, as I keep on pointing out, many examples of agricultural societies that have been stable over millennial time scales; ours just doesn't happen to be one of them, and bad economic reasoning is part of the reason why.

William, an excellent point. Freud pointed out, curiously enough, that in the language of dreams money and excrement were interchangeable concepts. There's a lot of symbolic and psychological complexity to money, and that's often been left out of analyses, to their detriment.

John, Dan Olner insists that I'm being too hard on economists, and you insist that I'm being too easy on them. I take this as a good sign that I'm pretty close to the mark. Of course some economists are venal and others obsessed with ideology, but I don't think it's fair to dismiss the entire science as a deliberate sham. I forget who it was who said it's a mistake to chalk up to conspiracy what can be explained by stupidity...

Draco, thanks for the link!

Worldbridger and John, two very nice epigrams. Thank you!

Gav, we'll be getting into the difference between wealth and value shortly. All in good time...

John Michael Greer said...

George (offlist), religious diatribes are never on topic here. Religious diatribes full of circular logic are, if possible, even less on topic. You might also take the time to find out what I actually believe before trying to argue against my beliefs -- it's a bit as though I were to insist that you believe that the Trinity is an old man, a sheep, and a bird.

John Q said...

Well, perhaps I should have been a bit more succinct. I do feel that economics done the way it's done today is a more apologetics than insightful analysis. However, I am OK with political-economy. You asked, " I'm curious as to where the alternative economists were when the housing bubble was being inflated, or, for that matter, where alternative economists are when peak oil comes up for discussion." The answer: nowhere to be found and the answer to why is that can be found in modern economics reflexive avoidance of politics. It seems to me that the political structures of a society is tightly bound to its economy. But of course, because recognizing this as where the rubber meets the road will inevitably lead to the questioning of the status quo, it is non-starter. Only when things go bad and it seems safe to get into the water do most "alternative economists" come out and are seen and heard.

The upshot for me is that how can I take a so-called profession seriously whose practitioners, or at least most of them, willfully keep their head in the sand, ignore history and by extension politics, and only seem to raise their head once disaster has struck. To me, such behavior smacks of cowardice and opportunism. Palming it off as stupidity seems to me to be a cop-out. Many of them are certainly intelligent and resourceful enough to secure well paid positions in business, academia and government. No, they are not dumb and I agree there need not be a conspiracy; it is just a nice confluence of interests. This serves the powers that be quite nicely thank you.

George said...

JMG - re reading what you believe, I did. You believe we are at another crux of civilizational collapse. It was a legitimate question, and not a diatribe, at all, unless you have decided to have no truck with any differing view at all, in which case, go with (well, I would say "with God," but to avoid offense, with whatever aspect of nature strikes you in awe at the present moment).

You seem to hold out hope that a revived pagan fellowship can carry over the worthwhile relicts of this civilization to whatever rises in its place.

While I may not be quite THAT pessimistic, I would acknowledge the risk and legitimate nature of your concern. One institution in various aspects, has managed the task of civilizational salvage you set yourself, once in the person of the Irish clerisy whose forebears had voluntarily left druidry, completely outside of Roman influence -- and not just once -- in that example, which you cite for your own precedent, but two times in addition, in the collapse of medieval western Christendom in plague, and in the East in the collapse of the Byzantine Greek civilization.

I still wonder why you have made such a choice, when those you claim for example, historically, made the opposite one under no compulsion, and yet also accomplished the task you set yourself.

spottedwolf said...

Herein reminds me of the discussion I had with a WW2 veteran elder over money breeds power/power breeds money....butting heads until we switched headings from $$ to strength....words..words..words. How cornfusing they can become. maybe thats why any debate needs ground rules and definition of terminologies. The subjectivity of anthropocentric cultures will always obfuscate and frustrate an active mentality John...but you already know that..heh, heh, heh!!!

and I think...rather I'll postulate that our friend,the Wyldeman, has done at least as many psychotrophs as I have !! Hahahahahahah!!!!

Good stuff...as always, my friend.

John Michael Greer said...

John, fair enough. I'd point out, though, that when economists go into business for themselves -- again, the example of LTCM comes to mind -- their predictions are no better than the ones they make for the media and the public.

George, thanks for trimming the diatribe. While it's still off topic for this post, it's got enough relevance to the general project of this blog to be worth a response.

Many religions have served as the framework for cultural conservation in the twilight of civilization; Toynbee argues that one of the standard features of civilizational decline and fall is the emergence of a religious movement or two to pick up the pieces. Christianity happened to be on the spot as Rome went down. Buddhism and Taoism have both done the same thing repeatedly in China's repeated cycles of decline. There are many other examples, spanning the whole range of human religious experience; polytheisms have done just as good a job as monotheisms, for example.

Do I think that contemporary Druidry is suited to that purpose? Probably not, unless every other faith out there falls down on the job. (I've said this several times in print; you really do need to do your homework before wading in here to proselytize.) We're a very small and diverse movement with a lively sense of irony and no great interest in converting other people to our way. Still, it's absurd to suggest that I ought to choose my religious belief on the basis of whether I think it's a useful tool for weathering the collapse of a civilization. I choose my religious belief because I find its teachings good and beautiful and true. I hope to Hannah you would say the same thing about yours!

Spotted Wolf, no argument there. I make my living from words, but there are times when I think we'd all be better off if we went back to pointing and grunting.

John Q said...

Well yes, it is true their predictions might even fail themselves. But if I recall, LTCN was bailed out. Again, politics rears its ugly head. Why worry about failure when one has a death grip over the commanding heights of the society and can make your problem(s) everyone's problem(s). As it was often put in the past year or so of dizzying trillion dollar bailouts, all these institutions which were deemed fail-safe have been magically redefined as to-big-to-fail. This is why Wall Street is doing so well while the rest of the economy (meaning us) is catching hell. Again, while this can be understood under political-economy, it leaves economics confused, perplexed and in shock.

Patz said...

JMG: "Patz, I think it's going beyond the evidence to insist that human beings are biological robots programmed to breed and eat themselves out of house and home."

To paraphrase you I couldn't in a short post give a nuanced version of the point I was trying to make. No, I don't think we are robots etc. But how we are as individuals, families or small groups is not necessarily how we are in much larger entities, countries, continents and such.

Whether a few agricultural societies* have managed to be sustainable over millennia does not negate the fact that the world has not. As you know even before the recent history of fossil fuel use the world had a problem of sustainability. The history of the New World was driven by the European need to expand its resource base.

I think one of the great blind spots of our species is its deep-rooted, brain-centered sense of exceptionalism. And one of the great questions of evolutionary biology is whether we can rise above our own particular biology and chart a different course.

My answer is that we cannot and even the question is illogical--akin to asking if we can be who we are not.

By the way would you mind referring me to your writings on sustainable agricultural societies?

Finally, thanks so much for your exceptionally well-written essays; they are a pleasure to read. Even if the topics inspire something else.

Draco TB said...

Quoting Patz:
I think one of the great blind spots of our species is its deep-rooted, brain-centered sense of exceptionalism.

I agree that this does seem to be a problem. When people talk about AGW and it's effect they always talk about how many people are going to die and/or be negatively affected. They don't talk about the thousands, possibly millions, of species that are likely to go extinct.

And one of the great questions of evolutionary biology is whether we can rise above our own particular biology and chart a different course.

We're intelligent and so that happens to be possible although there are always some people who think that they can everything they want. China's one child policy is a great example of this - it was implemented once they realised that they wouldn't be able to support the population at it's previous growth level. Over time it will bring them back into sustainability within their own resources.

So, it is possible, but almost everyone in the Western world will scream blue murder over the "oppression" and not recognise it as a necessity for survival.

das monde said...

Almost all scientific output (in any field) indeed follows standard methaphysics of measurement, experimentation, falsification. But that does not mean that scientists are not aware of particular methaphysical difficulties. Some of them are even well expressed and discussed - but most of the time, acceptable communication level (in articles, etc) is within an established paradigm. Beyond that, there is media communication of science - and there methaphysical restrictions are even more simplistic.

When it comes to economics, add to this a lot of political noise and business interest. What happened to economics after the 1960s, is not a usual academic affair at all, even for the dismal science of economics. Keynes was thrown out rather liberally, and the Chicago "neoclasical" recipes took the stage with a lot of cash help and political-international authority. Since then, economics is basically a corrupt science, supplying needs of the justifying ideology. You can make a case that all possible scientific and human vices were impressively amplified: senseless assumptions and methodology, ignorance of history, technocratic elitism, turning a blind eye to obvious factors (like debt dynamics). Even Krugman recommends that sabbaticals at the Hoover Institution and job opportunities on Wall Street are nothing to sneeze at.

Where were the alternative economists? You can bet that there were economists reading Schumacher, Veblen, Minsky, even Marx - but they were increasingly in minority. A work in that direction was politely allowed in ordinary conferences - but no more than that. To get a publication in a top journal, or to get into media spotlight, corporate financing or deciders' attention, you had to start with the assumptions of rational behavior and self-correcting markets. How many jokes of "economists predicting ten of the last four recessions" have you heard?

The idea that money measures anything is one of those tacit ideas that economists (and all people and nations) had to learn to assume automatically. Yeah, money measures how hard-working you are, how worthy to others - all that stuff. For a while, that illusion looked a little credible - but can it be maintained any more?

In fact, money is nothing but wealth vouchers - surely not wealth itself. How many wealth vouchers do you want?

J Gav said...

Draco TB and Patz,

You raise some worthwhile points but it's difficult to go along with all of your conclusion.

Concerning blind spots, there are no doubt plenty, which will always be rationalized down the road to explain the whys and wherefores. But, Patz, does 'rising above our own particular biology' imply that other species (those which are now going extinct at record rates, for example) have some built-in miracle cure for their 'hard-wiring?' As for our own, I'm not at all sure that we humans are as hard-wired as many believe. If the famous 'Gestalt bubble' probably exists on some level, I don't see it the end-all comment on our future. We've just been too lazy, complacent or 'busy' to notice what other possibilities are out there.

I feel you're right to say that when a society becomes overly oppressive, people shouldn't scream about it. They should instead revolt! That would involve more shouting than screaming. Against corruption, for example, the moral rot which has engulfed the country through its government, corporate and financial "elites." More than, say, from the people themselves, who have only allowed themselves to be cowed into submission, into mindless consumerism and a general dead-headedness which precludes most forms of effective action.

Though I share your concern for other species, TB, being personally involved in a project directly related to the issue, I don't share your pessimism regarding human nature, which, for me, remains to be defined, if such a definition is indeed even necessary ...

Why is it that Americans seem capable of revolt only in terms of planting a few vegetables and being nice to animals? This has nothing to do with 'human nature' and a whole lot to do with American society.

BrightSpark said...

I noticed mention of the Ancient Egyptians, and a comment that they did not have money. This is true, however, they functioned quite successfully on a grain-based exchange system which had demurrage aspects. For instance, a "storage fee" was deducted from grain holdings based on the amount of it was in storage. This focused people's attention on assets of real value rather than abstract wealth. Those who place hope in the design of complementary or alternative money systems with negative interest/demurrage often use Ancient Egypt to back up their assertions.

I'm not saying it's the answer, but if a money system rewarded long term thinking and action over short term gain, then it would help to get us through the tough times ahead.

That's certainly the area I'm working in at present.

Patz said...

Draco said:
"We're intelligent and so that happens to be possible although there are always some people who think that they can everything they want. China's one child policy is a great example of this - it was implemented once they realised that they wouldn't be able to support the population at it's previous growth level. Over time it will bring them back into sustainability within their own resources."

Draco, check the China population clock published by Minnesota State U. It is updated in real time and shows births since Jan 1, 2005 running at about twice the death rate. That amounts to continuing exponential growth.

But more importantly, the trajectory of their economy is to increase their resource use footprint by orders of magnitude. China is second to the US in oil consumption and its demand growth is roughly 7+% per year. With a population of 1.3 billion they may well overtake the US as the least sustainable country in the world.

Draco TB said...

Quoting Patz
Draco, check the China population clock published by Minnesota State U. It is updated in real time and shows births since Jan 1, 2005 running at about twice the death rate. That amounts to continuing exponential growth.

That is presently true but once the people who were born to multiple child families prior to the advent of the one child rule in the 1970s start to die from old age that will start to reverse. I wouldn't really expect to see that for another 20 or 30 years at least though. In fact, in a century or so I would expect them to remove the one child rule as that is itself unsustainable as you'll eventually run out of population.

But more importantly, the trajectory of their economy is to increase their resource use footprint by orders of magnitude. China is second to the US in oil consumption and its demand growth is roughly 7+% per year. With a population of 1.3 billion they may well overtake the US as the least sustainable country in the world.

I didn't say that they'd done everything needed to become sustainable within their own resources. I used China's one child policy as an example that it could be done.

Quoting J Gav
I feel you're right to say that when a society becomes overly oppressive, people shouldn't scream about it.

I didn't say that. I said that people in the Western world will see needed actions such as China's one child policy as oppression and revolt against those actions and thereby decreasing their survival envelope.

Mity said...

I agree with this statement of maros.ivanco: I think the "reduction of everything to money" has its roots in the presumption of unlimited resources.

And perhaps it's possible to go even one step further and state a hypothesis that people might be biologically programmed to treat the environment as without any limits (at least under some conditions).

I think that could have something to do with the game theory and the way how selection (as in evolution) works.

When I cannot have any guarantee that others won't plunder a valuable resource then it's better strategy to be one of those who plunder rather then those who don't :-(

Tony said...

das monde made a joke about economists predicting "ten out of the past four recessions," which reminded me immediately of all the statistical manipulations US federal agencies put our economic data through. Even though I think most of us reading these comments would agree that our orthodox methods of measuring the economy are sorely lacking (where does human happiness, ecological well-being, etc., fit in?), I wonder how many of us are aware that even those sub-par metrics are so mangled by the government good-news machine that they can't even successfully measure the mainstream's definition of "economic progress." A good place to go for a breakdown of how the US Gov't manipulates its statics is shadowstats.com, or chrismartensen.com. Shadowstats in particular has a series of alternative data sets - alternative economic history, if you will - that showcases how incredibly far off even our orthodox understanding of economic reality is, compared with what the US gov't puts out. A concrete example: my gov't says that the national unemployment rate is currently just unter 10%. According to shadowstats.com, the real unemployment rate is just over 20%. I don't think I need to emphasize how hugely important that is, if it's true. As Dmitry Orlov has said, "collapse is personal"; it happens for each of us individually. For up to 1-in-5 Americans, it's already happening.

If I were to revise the joke I quoted at the top of this comment, I'd say "US economists have successfully deluded themselves into seeing two out of the past four recessions, and into believing there are such inane things as 'jobless recoveries.' " Ok, so that's not very punchy, but you get the idea!

I'd love to know if anyone was aware of similar "lying with statistics" going on elsewhere in the world.

J Gav said...

What's new?
Americans' problems (well, yes, "predicament", (the Archdruid is again right on target there) are at least as much due to their refusal to bind with Nature as with their inability to recognize a Situation, arising from environmental, "resource," financial and so forth causes. Potentially converging. That's a serious thought. A couple of historical considerations concerning monetary issues. The notes are mine.

"The refusal of King George III to allow the Colonies to operate an honest money system, which freed the ordinary man from the clutches of the money manipulators, was probably the primary cause of the Revolution." Note: The English Parliament had passed the Currency Act of 1764, outlawing American money, then called Colonial Scrip, and plunging them into a prolonged period of severe economic distress.

"Never was a great historical event (i.e. the American Revolution) followed by a more feeble sequel. A nation arises to claim for itself liberty and sovereignty. It gains both of these ends by an immense sacrifice of blood and treasure. Then when vgictory is gained and secured, it hands the national credit - that is to say the national treasure - over to private indivudals, to do as they please with it! ... Americans of the Revolution had before them ... the hitsorical examples of Greece and Rome. In these states the main contention from first to last between the aristocratic and popular factions arose out of and centered in the monetary system; the greatest of all dispensers of equity and inequity.... They had only to take care that the seed they planted was genuine ... Well they planted! They planted financial corporations ... they planted private money ... they planted financial exemptions from public burdens ... In a word, they planted another revolution!"
Alexander Del Mar, monetary historian and head of the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, in his 1899 book, The History of Money in America.

J Gav said...

Tony,

I think "lying with statistics" is pretty much standard practice just about anywhere you go.

I can only speak from closer-up experience concerning France, where it's been a fixture for a good long while. Pinocchio's nose might be a little shorter there than in the USA, which is no doubt world champion, but it's long enough.

electrodes said...

I've been writing poetry since around the age of 14, and each time I did I felt happy, wealthy, rich, prosperous... That's true. No amount of money could ever measure that. I've often expressed the same thoughts in other words. Very, very interesting post.