1640. Provocation # 10. Numbers short change narratives

The provocation is: we are too stuck on numbers and not enough on narrative. Every research paper has an underlying narrative that tells the story of why this research, why this researcher and what is in it for the field and the reader.

But often  that narrative is implicit, hidden in references (often unread by the writer).

The result is to support an apparent objectivity that prevents talk of individual lives and class issues. The assumed big framing  story is that it is all about growth, Whose agenda is growth? Since all change implies winners and losers it is important to ask. Economics tries much of the time to act as though the political conflict of who benefits and who loses  is not relevant.

Take big data, treated as a great advance. But big data is terrific at finding some factor that has a low but positive correlation across many members of a class,  but big data is terrible at finding things of great  significance if there is only one or a few in the data set, such as Shakespeare. Missed by big data. The implication, what is good for mass markets is good but things that are craftsman unique are not very relevant. Look at what the one percent do with their money. Buy art for example, a status sign of taste and individuality and wealth. But data has only a limited role in the art world. Why does it have such a major role in the consumer or homeland security world?

I have been reading Adelman’s biography of Albert Hirschman, The book is filled with suggestions for tough topics for discussion. Here I will just pull a few quotes.

Lets start with two quotes

After stomping about the fields [of development projects] and listening to his witnesses, it became clear that advocates of the project had overstated its benefits and understated its costs. They simply found it too hard to resist claiming wonders such as being able to “make the desert bloom.” So, to promote the venture, they low-balled the expenses; “undercosting” could take the place of “overselling.”  Whereas the Invisible Hand was casually deceptive, the Hiding Hand was actively so—and stimulated people into action. While a project manager might wind up with ulcers because someone’s original calculus was wrong, there were all kinds of benefits, public and private, many of which escaped the trained eye of the cost-benefit calculator because they balanced costs only against planned, expected, rewards. This kind of gaming induced people to do things they otherwise wouldn’t.

Most economists act a though any change adds something to the existing state of affairs. But  all change is always comprising additions and subtractions.  Hirschman’s point is that even bad changes can break open systems for the entry of good outcomes not anticipated  by the project maangers Much of Hirschman’s career was showing that the reverse is also true:  that apparently good projects can have deeply negative consequences. A railroad that cuts across cultural boundaries to increase trade leads to civil war.

The narrative is really important and we spend very little time on it, assuming that growth is the aim and we don’t need to ask the deeper questions.

The second quote also from Adelmanm’s biography of Hirshman.

Economists tended increasingly to enhance their progress by eliminating exogenous forces from their models, and political scientists were doing the same, explaining political change wholly in terms of political categories. Hirschman marveled at, as he put it elsewhere, “the noble, if unconscious, desire to demonstrate the irreducibility of the social world to general laws!”  If he found the search for “parsimonious” theories in search of universal explanations a fruitless pursuit, in less charitable moments he called it “mindless,” bent on oversimplifying in order to control.

Why does this happen. Part of this provocation is to suggest that the reason is not scientific, but because it removes economic discussions from the narratives of social conflict, so it has no political implications and existing society can be left alone.  The stress on the numerical rather than the narrative  makes life for young researchers much easier than having to maser historical narratives. In a small world of ideas (I lived in Mexico and experienced this) people read and discuss widely. But  as communities from larger those discussions disappear and only career and gossip remain, with a vastly reduced range of topics and experience. Looking at the narrowness of topics in department seminar series t is hard to imagine how summing up across all the papers could yield  a coherent view of society.  In fact the larger issues are rarely mentioned in the vast majority of presentations.

I read a paper yesterday from the Journal Of Social Issues on interchange between money  and property. There is no mention in the paper of any person or group that benefits or is affected by the dynamics between property and money. In the paper property is treated as a legally defined and unambiguous term with no history outside contract law. That implies that there is no alternative to current traditions of property and its role in society.

But the idea of property arises – need a a little history here –  from what is proper to a man of rank to show his position in society, “properly dressed” etc. This status stuff acting as a sign in a community, gets removed from the community and treated as private object, not a social ritual.    This  transition from sign status to modern property just might be up for reassessment in a time of recognized extremes of inequality. But if what it is (either property or money) is treated as fixed for all time, there is not much to talk about.

For whom is such a paper written? Why is the logic pretty tight but the narrative so weak?

This is probably too long but it is really raining here in Northern California and there is not much else to do 🙂


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