Provocation #115. Economics should be about the the full spectrum of the basics, Some musings:
Economics has become increasingly abstract, mostly through the influence of mathematics and the marginalists. But the reality of economy is organic. Manuel De Lande in his book Assemblage Theory says that in mechanical systems the parts maintain the integrity of their properties, but in organic systems the parts do not maintain the integrity of their properties.
Human society starts with concerns for food and reproduction. The institutions build out from this ground. The first signs of trade and craft start there, with pots and cutting instruments and grain grinding slabs. Activity we call economic is organized around feeding clothing and housing a few generations ay a time.
Early counting systems dealt easily with grain because it is a measurable commodity and when economists now think of markets they are drawn to commodities that fit that logic, still thinking of grain or stocks (root word as grocery stocks or stock up), or shares in a market that are fully quantified.
“the city-states were dependent on grain: wheat and barley in Mesopotamia, millet in China, maize in Mesoamerica. The reason is that cereals are easy to tax: they ripen at predictable times, the size of the harvest can easily be assessed, and the grain can be divided, transported and distributed in precisely measured rations by weight and volume.” (from Scott, Against the Grain)
Where this has gotten economics to is a field that feels autistic, lacking in feeling for people, obsessed with quantification and commensurability.
Economics ought to be about food and population management in the context of protecting the environment. Instead I can take a casual walk through some land covered with redwoods and the owner sees nothing but board feet. Even the roots holding the soil are unnoticed.
The middle class whose passing is lamented emerged during and after WW2 as the class of intermediate managers coordinating the new complex corporations (McNamara at Defense oversaw the B-29 which had a million parts). The GI bill trained millions to be managers, but independent of the product. Chocolate and refrigerators, same management issues. Their job was to gain control and turn their businesses into monopolies.(a Xerox ad for television shows a group of managers. One puts a folded shirt of the table and the CEO says “what’s that?” and the junior officer says “It’s what we make.”)
Hunter gatherers moved in open terrain catching gazelles, birds, squirrels, rabbits.. 120 different kinds of meat moving in seasonal cycles with 100 different edible plants.. Early settlements remained porous as people took the opportunity of planted crops but maintained the freedom to move out when the local cropped failed. The density of grain, population, and livestock in a concentrated space is the source of a state’s power.
“The primary purpose of the walls around the merging city-states may have been to keep people in, not to keep the barbarians out. In some early states human domestication took a further step: written records from Uruk use the same age and sex categories to describe labourers and the state-controlled herds of animals. Female slaves were kept for breeding as much as for manual labour.” (again Against the Grain)
Economy is, as Aristotle meant it: estate management, the care and feeding of the people on land well managed. Remember home ec in high school? How we looked down on it. Big mistake. It is the core competency for humans.
As the middle class is being replaced by computers (everything from the management of the care and use a Caterpillar diesel to a law firm or bank), we end up with an elite and an underclass. The elites will own the robots (German for slave).
The function of government is to prevent the majority being the prey of the elites.” (Jonathan Israel), but government seems now to be too weak and acquired to be able.
Economics is fascinating because it (should) crosses lines from theory to pragmatics and really includes everything. Yet it is taught as a narrow formalism.
So what might be new economic thinking?