last night, dream of my visiting an art school. I start in a studio, architecture students all straight lines in their drawings. the kind of design we can call “dollar per sq foot architecture.”, post bauhaus, bauhaus without quality. i wonder down the hall, well, not wandering, searching. I come to a dance studio, the same kind of room, concrete high windows, cubed, painted institutional green. Somehow a conversation and the students between moves on the floor are talking about asking for organic spaces. I am thinking, each has the answer for the other, how to get them together? One dealing with the body and its aliveness, and the other with materials. Two worlds. in the background my thoughts turn to Kenneth Burke’s “scene-act ratio” – the scene contains the action to be performed there.
provocation # 139, Must economics support governance?
“The economy is broken and the politics to fix it is broken. So what do we do?”
Economics, appearing to be independent, is an instrument of governance. It is probably best seen as a sign of legitimacy for the governance we have and probably has to appear to be supportive of that governance.
Economics has to be the “normal science”, to use Kuhn’s vocabulary , the science that fills in rather than expands outward, not revolution in thought but making facts fit the accepted paradigm: capitalism, private property, corporations, individualism, law to protect property, journalism to help accelerate the flow of products and services, Keynesian wars that stimulate he economy.
Very few economics papers (less true of books) start with any mention of a serious problem to be solved. Inequality is the one that most likely breaks into the text. But there the efforts are to shift the resulting inequality but not to deal with underlying causes. But even with inequality it is usually a bloodless sweatless reference without any description of human consequences. Nothing like the opening chapters of Richard Russo’s memoir, Elsewhere, describing the impact on the human lives of the decline of industrial Pennsylvania where he grew up, nor Umair Haque’s Why America is the World’s First Poor Rich Country – Eudaimonia and Co, nor the New Yorker’s “How George Orwell Predicted the Challenge of Writing Today” in a society of all lies and schizophrenia.
The New Yorker · by Masha Gessen · June 10, 2018
Perhaps the reality is that governance is crucial for society. We just have to have it. This means thinking through elites and the how are they chosen, how rewarded, how kept enough under control that they don’t rip out the wealth and destroy the society. But all societies seem to require an underclass and miserable working and living conditions for a significant part of society to create the wealth to motivate the elites.
If this is true then it follows that the task of economics is to help the elites govern in which case we need to understand the world from their point of view. We hope we can do better towards creating a more humane society, the kind that Smith, Keynes and many others hoped would emerge from the further evolution of society. Can we do it? Or maybe we just should stay out of the way. These are very uncomfortable thoughts. Provocations, not conclusions.
The G20 has the following on its webpage: (actually the wiki page for G20 because the footnote to the text has gone missing. (https://www.g20.org/about_faq.aspx#5_What_are_the_criteria_for_G-20_membership)
Purpose: Bring together systemically important industrialized and developing economies to discuss key issues in the global economy.
The language. “global economy” looks innocent but read closely it suggest that there is a global economy that is different from the global society (just a part of it) and different from the global intersection between humans and nature. These are, as the leaderships tend to want it, pushed to the side. The economy can improve but we don’t have to consider those marginalized and other “externalities,” except to the extent their inclusion supports growth and stability. In particular issues that question growth are avoided and the use of green to accelerate growth is not questioned.
Language is powerful and we need to learn how to read it. The justification, not spoken, is that the world needs to be governed, however uncomfortable. That means holding elites together and in place and subordinating the economy to that purpose.
Many economists assume that economic history comes in two phases
1. Early and casual up to Adam Smith
2. Commerce and industry, From Adam Smith
What is striking to the broad ranging reader is how much detail and analysis there is before The Wealth of Nations. Instead of two phases, a better match is in four or five. (Each of the following paragraphs could make a long discussion.)
1. Greek “Economy” as estate management. A holistic concept that deals with every activity of production and social life on the estate which was the only social unit inside the greek communities. There was no market in Athens, but the estates were complex, producing the food and crafts. Plato and Aristotle were aware that the well managed estate could produce a surplus, and it should be used for leisure for study for politics and philosophy. In non western societies there is no single concept that contains all of what we mean by economic activity. It is an achievement of classical Athens that still affects economy and economics. It is an open but interesting question if this use of economy and economics helps us evolve in a crisis time, or freezes the current state of thought.
2. The early Christian phase where estate was re-designated as God’d kingdom made for humans, and the management became the us of the estate, the christian community and the monasteries, to create ethical humans oriented towards god and humans activity to carry out god’s purpose. Key ideas were the Christian community as an economy segmented off from the society as a whole and explicitly called “the economy” as a design project with a clear goal – becoming a better human closer to god, and growth as needed to reach the infinite god. (Good references, Neoliberalism from Jesus to Foucault by Dotan Leshem, and “THE KINGDOM AND THE GLORY: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government” Agamben, Giorgio, Mandarini, Matteo, Chiesa, Lorenzo. Our current understanding, while dropping the specific christian goal, keeps much of the feeling of what an economy is : closed system, competitive, growth, good for humans, and more to be explored.
3. The shift from god domination to nature as the totality of the world. Certainly several generations of economic thinkers (not yet so named) worked to understand local productive activity in nature, the physical organic process, rather than in god’s project for us. The legacy of this period is huge, Best Source is Margaret Schabas The Natural Origins of Economics. I can hardly nudge you enough to read this amazing book. The thinking about blood, water, oil, air, electricity as flows had a major impact.
4. The industrial where value s produced not by land but by human action. Most 19th and 20th century activity in society and hence in economics, now named, elaborated on the mechanical and the industrial. The engineers and the mathematicians play a large role in keeping the focus on the physical stuff of life but away from the agricultural and social.
5. We might add treating digital, informational and the algorithmic as the whole economy. Good source is Manuel Castells Aftermath (the state of the world after institutions – states and corporations) are undermined by the internet).
What is important is the extent to which economics exists within these cultural shifts. The normal assumption, that economics is an ensemble of discrete and stable topics, such as interest, debt, trade, taxes, profit, labor, becomes a very different set of assumptions when we focus on historical and cultural context. Is the future of economics based on rethinking the details, or shifting the culture?
Economics looks at the world segment called economy and thinks of it as a system of a finite number of discrete variables that can be dealt with a few or a handful at a time.. These might share correlations or work with or against each other. It compares to the constraints of golf. A real economy is different from what economics presupposes. A real economy has people moving against each other, looking for gaps in the system, trying to break out into new possibilities for profit or capital gains. The real economy is more like soccer, where some go for where the ball is, others for where it might be, than like golf. There must be equations? Stubborn. The real sport is in the scatter, Schumpeter’s “creative destruction”.
Economy is not just trends toward stability. These exist but are constantly undone by human action, from corruption to creativity. The economy is not a closed system of quantifiable parts, a single representative agent, but like a warm pond in springtime, buzzing, confusing, mating, devouring. The literate would say economics is baroque. Economics would be better off if it tried to characterize the economy. We desperately need good stories of what is actually happening. Quantification can be a powerful helper, but not if its culture dominates the field. As it is, Economics is mostly a submaximizer: more wealth for the wealthy at the expense of the whole. More for the whole, but existing and forseeable distribution means less for the majority.
Capital began as the birthing of cattle. The question then and now is, who owns it? It has always been an elite organized against the rest. As Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ask, “was there ever a time we could have said ‘no’?”
some old thoughts in the original draft of GardenWorld.
Conservatives believe in a rich texture of society and tradition, where families and forms of governance arise through a constant and slow adaptation of institutions to the reality of managing the human species in the real world. Conservatives like the idea of mixing churches, families, communities, officials, press, banks, and local geography, all in a complex arena of mutual adapting. They see this structure as vulnerable, and needing constant attention. Conservatives are not egoists centered in self, but care about society, knowing that the whole affects the development of the individuals who then care for society.
Conservatives appreciate the histories and achievements of the different nations, and enjoy learning from others, travel, reading history and bringing home what they have learned. Conservatives tend to be modest and not flamboyant. Conservatives prefer solid friendship to opportune relationships, and they are suspicious of motives, yet kind to those they find worthy. They are protective of their own and challenging of others. They prefer complexity of character supporting selfless love rather than the blatant psychology of the deal. They tend to see decisions in multigenerational terms more than in multi-factional differences. They see time more than opportunity and tend to accept hierarchy as the price of stability. Their basic tendency is to want to hold on, fearing loss. Conservatives at their best are organic. At their worst attracted to frozen hierarchy and militarism, using technology but hostile to science.
It is clear that we do not have a healthy conservative leadership.
Progressives tend to have a delight in growth and development, in expression and talent, and also have a good ear for the pain and suffering caused by social life and institutions. They tend to love the stranger and be casual towards those at home, feeling that we can learn from others and that those around us are good natured and can figure it out for themselves, and good at cooperating for the good of the nested communities from local regional national and international, and see their mutual interdependence. Progressives know that our fate is dependent on institutions and rules. They want openness with some security. They tend to be open to all comers who are willing to join us. Progressives like change and find the past constraining of action. At their best progressives hope more than despair and are good experimentalists naturally aligned with science. At their worst they are self satisfied, mechanical, and shallow.
It is clear that we do not have a healthy progressive leadership.
Economists tend to use concepts like levers on a dashboard controlling a few variables . Wren Lewis writes this morning
“…strong employment growth coupled with weak output growth means something is very wrong with productivity, and we cannot have sustained growth in real wages and living standards without productivity growth.
This approach leaves most variable out of consideration. In this case, profit, wealth concentration, and lets add greenhouse gases. People are mesmerized by A up B up or A up B down structured argumnents.
It might be that lowering productivity – more workers for same out put or less output with fewer workers or – perhaps less output with more workers, less profit and maybe shared lowering benefits lowering for all to meet greenhouse conditions.
- Lower productivity
- Lower wages
- Lower growth
(No consideration of profit nor wealth concentration)
- Lower productivity
- Lower profits
- Lower wages
- More jobs with reduced wages (or some form of GI)
- Reduction in greenhouse gases
- = Good and urgent.
The approach of wanting a few variable argument tends to push away, to exclude, other variables, other narratives.
“As wages go up purchasing power goes up.” Not necessarily. In much of the poorer part of the world wages are going up, lets say by a factor of three, but prices by a factor of five (as people are moved into high rises far from food production.)
Provocation # 134
In a time of crises, what is the role of institutions, in particular economics? To the extent economics maps adequately onto the real world as it has recently existed, what happens to that mapping when the world rapidly changes? The models that have been in use tend increasingly to not fit, and cannot be made to fit because they use existing “variables” that are not representative of the new world? Does economics just drag its feet as it is pulled forward reluctantly, actually being part of the conservative momentum?
Economics could be an amazingly challenging and interesting social science as it spans both theoretical – like science – and pragmatic – like journalism and law and lets face it, interesting gossip – No other social science is as close to the pragmatics of human action yet much of the time so far removed in its concepts from the phenomena of the economy.
We tend to believe that there is some substantial permanent world and we have found it. Hence we are smarter than the others, closer to power, closer to the core of unfolding events. Probably not true: all is flux, some long term, some short, and we get it all mixed up. Certainly smugness is one of the chief sins of many economists. As such we miss much of what is interesting and worth study.
Here is a beautiful example of cross boundary thought, from Seaford Richard Seaford-Money and the Early Greek Mind_ Homer, Philosophy, Tragedy-Cambridge University Press (2004)
“Whereas gifts create solidarity between individuals from different groups, solidarity within the group is created by distribution, or redistribution. “
The Geeks of Athens believed that civilization starts with legally mandated redistribution toward equality. First came hunters who shared the kill, then sacrifice which maintained the tradition of distribution, and the use of law – the nomos of eco-nomos came originally from neimen, equal distribution. There would not be a law created if not needed, in this case equal distribution mandated against greed and inequality.
This is so rich because it hints at ways out of our current dysfunction.
Who will be the first leaders, either business, politics, education, or other, to step forth and say we must cut greenhouse gases, we must cut transportation, cut beef production, and a few more, we will lose jobs, and we have to think of how to re-distribute income . Not one at a time because then the solution to one makes the others worse.