Provocation 248. The limits of bounded concepts.
Economics tends to treat its concepts as though they are rigidly bounded with fixed and universally – timeless- borders. The reality of economic life is its complexity and incompleteness, fitting an evolving complex system where things half emerge and vanish before they are complete. By treating the boundaries of things as fixed, like money, interest, capital as fixed, evolution, making good use of the permeability of concepts is thwarted even as the underlying reality economics is supposed to describe is flowing, kind of like a hot river of lava beneath the surface.
Einstein said “Every true theorist is a kind of tamed metaphysicist.” The problem in economics is there is very little metaphysical thought. (The word comes from meta, behind and physics, and the meaning of behind is more complex than we need right now.) Metaphysical in economics would be to question the meaning of wealth, ownership, capital, private, property, risk, commons and human nature and earth nature (such that human nature and earth nature can work together. But for the most part we just don’t.
Brian Greene endeavors to explore “the breathtaking ways in which restless and inventive minds have illuminated and responded to the fundamental transience of everything” Does this describe the minds of economistss? Some, but not enough. And those that do raise such questions have too limited a range of places to publish.
Economics fixates on growth and the market as though utterly essential for human well-being. In fact these have ratcheted up on each other to the breaking point, long predicted fromMalthus to Club of Rome, and some intermediate moments of threat to that system, such as the Luddites.
But consider the grieving of elephants. Maybe their world has more relationship in it that the commercial ones we have built.
Consider talking on the phone with a robot. The voice is pleasant, even attractive. In normal life if we heard that voice our natural inclination would be to discern the qualities of the person behind the voice, but in the robot case we are thwarted – our aroused human inclination to psych out the other comes up zero. Over time perhaps our willingness to reach out to the person behind the voice is weakened, impoverished, deadened.
Vaclav Smil’s book on Growth fits in with the anxiety of economists to stay with growth. Robert Wright’s earlier book Non-Zero, arguing for the triumph of complexity in biological and social institutions also hints at the need to feel growth is essential. But then we have Joseph Tainter’s great book The Collapse of Complex Societies and Jarad Diamonds’ Collapse. Why are we not thinking about these contradictions?
A recent conversation brought me the idea that history has in fact provided a slow opening cone of possibilities for human societies, possibilities that have led to art, science, democracy, a feeling for freedom and delight in the world. But as complexity creates cross links that end up binding everything in a single system, the openness is being lost and we are the last favored generation. A long opening is being transformed into a long closing.
I am moved to look for low probability scenarios since all the high probability ones are bad. I like Feynman’s
“We are at the very beginning of time for the human race. It is not unreasonable that we grapple with problems. But there are tens of thousands of years in the future. Our responsibility is to do what we can, learn what we can, improve the solutions, and pass them on.” And H.G.Wells’ “Man is a mere upstart.”
Ou ideas are really important. Now most observes see signs of physical decay, but they ignore the social (except in contemporary politics). The fact is that those who read about what is likely to happen are likely to walk away from useless – under catastrophe – jobs before the material events actually happen.
E.O. Wilson writes in his book Half Earth,
We are going to have to learn to become, on balance, less dependent upon complex technologies. Such learning will either be voluntary, or we will suffer the consequences of extending our technological dependence too far into a future that we cannot control. Our fantasies of being able to control nature are exactly why we are in the predicament we are now in. The model of conquest of nature has proven cataclysmic.
PS California needs to threaten to secede to push toward more equal senatorial and electoral college representation. Why doesn’t this happen? Does economics discuss this? Oh, it threatens the market. Oh well.