1888. Economics from narrow to aiding species and global management.

Provocation #100

Now is a good time to seriously reconsider economics. Not as a technical field for bureaucrats, but to think of how to manage the earth and govern the species for a fuller humanity for all. An opening economics to replace the closing economics we now have. (Obviously modern economics is not monolithic. There is lots of froth at the edges, but the tendency is still there. We are much more likely to get a research paper on “Reform of the guaranteed annual wage” than a paper on why we have a wage system and what could replace it. (The titles of papers for the January AEA are now on line to check this.)

Economics started with Aristotle’s eco-nomos, estate management, and ends up with the marginalists and the formalists having stripped out the social, dominating the major university departments and journals.. The field has narrowed and tends to leave out history and social thought. We have an economics that, instead of dealing with the whole, as Aristotle did, where economics meant everything of benefit to the estate: land, grain, cattle, spouse, children, slaves, and architecture, but now concentrates on helping the rich manage society not by developing the whole but by surgically removing the part than can be exploited from the whole, like taking the cherry off the top of the hot fudge sundae. Or worse, economists write papers not read by anyone outside economics in public policy or of general interest in society – but even worse, write papers never read by even another economist. Instead of economics being a help to creating a fuller society of happier people, it is a self sealing world of technically siloed language and career management. Circle the wagons.

Can we do better? Can we use economics to undertake the task of managing a much better society with the goal of more attractive living widely shared, where the failure of anyone is seen as a social indication that something needs to be re thought. Society creates poverty and crime and war. The existence of these should be taken as signs that something is not working and now worth rethinking.

In the world of Aristotle’s estate management thinking led Aristotle and Plato to think about how to use surplus from good management to increase leisure for philosophy and politics and to avoid luxury as a wasted opportunity. This continued in early Christianity which continued using explicitly “the economy” , using surplus produced by the good management of the monasteries to allow for meditation and self reflection and be a better person.

As the world grew more populous and more productive concern shifted to making more money and having more power – the good of the elite using the rest of society and losing interest in the questions of the good of the whole. Surplus was consumed by elites and supported the growing state and its power. The reactions of people Like Ricardo and Marx to the increasingly complex society shows that thought struggled keep up with the emerging complexities, but in the attempt narrowed its focus to career based intellectual pursuits, giving up on “political economy”, the attempt to still understand the whole.

From Hanley “The bright confident mornings of the post-war years,, when economists brimmed with the certainties of the near-triumphant Keynesian consensus, had by the 1980s ebbed into embarrassment, and many unsettled issues of economic policy resurfaced. Perhaps coincidentally, the history of economic thought and its companion discipline of economic history began their slide into obscurity, with vacant chairs following their former holders into retirement. Meanwhile, the long march of the mathematicians continued, offering numerate economists the promised prize of their joining the ranks of the ‘hard sciences”. (Hanley, Ryan: Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue)

So what if we reversed the tend and instead of closing economics into formalism we started taking seriously the task of managing the earth and its people for a fuller society of people educated toward their larger mindedness.

I imagine an economics that takes seriously the management of the earth and humanity (and other species, plant and animal)in the quest for a better society. We need new forms of democracy that require much more participation from people who thus need to be healthy and educated and to a degree optimistic and glad to be alive.We need new forms of work that allow people to chose to participate, not out of need but of interest. We need new forms of education to spread the current best practices of more creative and open less hierarchical task organization with its stress on continuous reinvention of work by all who participate and enjoy the community of participation. We need new forms of property and land use to better distribute the advantages to be gained by surplus (reminding ourselves that Aristotle and the christian leadership wanted human development from surplus, not more consumption.)

A few years ago I wrote “Any economics which is not focused on the humanizing of everything and the greening of the planet is an inadequate economics.” Easy to forget. But this would be a true economics honoring its root in estate management with a solid ethical frame for meaningful work and thought.

Economics can be purposeful, as Paul wrote in the Letters to the Ephesians ..”with a view to an economy of the fullness of ages ..things in the heavens and things on the earth.. (Ephesians 1)” and “..to enlighten all what the economy of the mystery which from eternity has been hid in god who created all things.(Ephesian, 1:9 and 3:9). (Quoted from from Leshem “From Oikos to Eclesia to market” That is not modern language but you get the intent of the use of “economy” – to enhance everything. From that early christian use of economy to say Mill, Walrus and Jevons there has been a leap downward in intent and scope.

Smith was clear that commercial society (the word capitalist was not used) had serious downsides, but he hoped we would be smart enough to build compensatory regulations and institutions (broad serious education suitable to a quality of life for the poorest, for example).

Hanley writes: “Specialization through the division of labor is a crucial means by which society increases its wealth. … while Smith holds the division of labor to be a destabilizing force in society, he nevertheless hoped commercial society could cultivate an intellectual and political class suitable to guide it. “

We have seriously failed, but the existence of the attempt should encourage us to reconnect with the task. (Hanley Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue).

That task, to repeat, is to take seriously any sign of social failure and rethink the whole system in the search for better.


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