1967. Economy across languages

Provocation #132. Economy across languages. 

Most science begins with a phenomena and explores it. Economics begins with an economy that has been defined, redefined and refined again, always passing through the ideological filters of the times. The result is that  Economy as we develop an economics to understand it  is split off from society. The two, economics and society,  have dangerously  diverged.  Over time, the holistic sense of economy as  estate management (the original Greek) in all its organic details gave way to an economics of commerce and finance.  This is the reason why economics is so destructive, by supporting a view of economic life that tears apart communities, families, individuals and the climate, and why the  way the history  of economics is written, as the triumph of the wonderful present, is only part, and a misleading part, of the story of economics and its attempts to understand economies..

Th very word economy hints at a coherent self-contained systemic concept of something separable from its context  in society. Only those languages derivative from the Greek have the word for economy, such as French  economie (which in French means both economy and economics).  Other languages  without Greek influence have to  make up something to fit when translating from the English.  

In Chinese two characters (as eco-nomos is also a combination of two words) that have been adapted for translation have very different implications from the western economy. . 

The first, jing can mean To manage, to engage,  or via, close to the nomos of economy, but  also meaning “classical or sacred texts. It is one of the words in the title of Lao Tzu’s Dao De Jing The way (forward) and its power (to make things happen). The second, li, means to benefit, to cross a stream, to relieve, to help, to aid, to assist. So In Chinese the words used to translate economy can be read as effort to carry the great past into the future. Not completely different from the western economy which is the effort to make the future (good use of resources for production. Production means to make forward).The difference which may be important is that the Chinese makes it clear that what is carried forward is a great civilization. 

This suggests that the West is uniquely burdened by the implication that economy  is a coherent object for study and policy, mechanical and separable from society.   It really is not a good slice of reality and in practice it has evolved over time  from the holistics of estate management  to the more limited  mechanism of  wealth treated as a physical system owned by capital but not by labor.

If we were to take modern society without the word economy or economics I doubt that we would put together the existing ensemble into such a concept.

1965. People’s stock ownership

We need new economics sufficient to make a significant difference. In provocation #129 I appended a short paragraph that proposed that we enter into a new stock plan for the nation (and as a model for others to follow).

The plan is simple and as I tried it out with people during the week I got a surprising amount of encouragement. 

It starts with two facts:

1. Few people feel part of society. To live in a society where you don’t own a part is pathetic. The people should own their own society.

2. Capitalism is once again  feeling the punch of serious criticism, since it has engendered oligopoly, climate change, and increasing inequality (Piketty 2018) .

Can we include the people and save capitalism?

The idea is simple: requisition ten percent of all the stock ownership in the US (that would be about $3 trillion in value) and put it in a federal holding agency paying dividends once a year to every citizen in the country. (Payout would be,   given  total stock of $30T, ten percent of that is 3 trillion and earning about 2% pay out to each person would be about $2,000. Family of four would be $8,000. (This idea is  a modification of Peter Barnes, first in his Capitalism 3.0, which is based on the Alaska citizen’s fund, and further back, to Henry George, Progress and Property)

The holding agency would not have to do any management beyond being a holder. Normal corporate management would be left in place. But the managers and regular owners would feel the national pressure, now that ownership is spread to all the people  to make decisions in the long-term interest of the country. Since we have to move  the economy in a green direction, now there would be a large constituency coming to bear on the corporations to have sensible polices, including reasonable executive compensation plans. 

This would eliminate some welfare needs and shift people from being welfare recipients to being owners.  I am more willing to sacrifice (say in response to  climate change) if I anticipate that I will benefit

Meanwhile the morale of the country would go up and everyone would be a capitalist, not welfare recipients,  in that they actually are collectively owners of stock that pays out

An advantage of giving dividends rather than stock is that many people would, pressured by economic necessities  sell the stock, as happened in Russia. Provisions would have to be made to keep them however for selling future anticipated payout for current cash. There are probably other pitfalls and corruptions to cope with. The banks obviously would try to turn that stream of income to themselves.

The one percent, the primary losers in this transaction, have to compare this loss to the loss of social upheaval and much stronger taxes and potential loss of everything through social system collapse. Ten percent seems politically feasible because it is reasonable. 

This can be justified by returning to older values of equality,  as Emma Rothschild writes

For Arthur Condorcet O’Connor, the Irish general who married Condorcet’s daughter Eliza, “the Turgots, the Condorcets, the Smiths” were the “fathers of the science” of political economy, whose principles, including “the eternal principle of equality,” had been overturned by the “new sect of so-called economists” of the post- Revolutionary reconstruction. (Economic Sentiments page 4) 

Capital begins with the fruits of cattle breeding. The new head, cap, is new surplus and can be re-bred. The question since Mesopotamian times has been,  how is the herd and it surplus to be managed? The “divided”, the divided, is part of the answer, but how distributed is the key, to social morale.The use of the word “stock” is inherited from  that cattle culture.

1963. Petra.


Screen Shot 2018-04-10 at 10.05.54 AM.png

The blend of architecture and greening. Then we have

Writing early in the first century A.D., the Greek historian Strabo reported that while foreigners in Petra are “frequently engaged in litigation,” the locals “had never any dispute among themselves, and lived together in perfect harmony.” Dubious as that may sound, we do know that the Nabateans were unusual in the ancient world for their abhorrence of slavery, for the prominent role women played in political life and for an egalitarian approach to governing. Joukowsky suggests that the large theater in the Great Temple that she partially restored may have been used for council meetings accommodating hundreds of citizens.

Strabo, however, scorns the Nabateans as poor soldiers and as “hucksters and merchants” who are “fond of accumulating property” through the trade of gold, silver, incense, brass, iron, saffron, sculpture, paintings and purple garments. And they took their prosperity seriously: he notes that those merchants whose income dropped may have been fined by the government. All that wealth eventually caught the attention of Rome, a major consumer of incense for religious rites and spices for medicinal purposes and food preparation. Rome annexed Nabatea in A.D. 106, apparently without a fight.

Read more: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/reconstructing-petra-155444564/#HhkZ84fTQEhbOPzh.99

1959. Bureaucrats and war.

Professionals assume that the outcome of their work is some effect of their part of the bureaucracy. Those who plan for war assume war. The result is that the future is predictable: it is what the segments of the bureaucracy are working to make happen.

Given the way the press is handling China-US rivalry  war seems to be the only possible outcome.  We need to treat China as a co-worker with us focused on the world’s problems. No co-worker is perfect (twin of ourselves) but we have to make do, and can. Trump’s way of seeing the world as bullies and losers is very dangerous. These are countries, not corporations.

1958. End of the nation state.

Another serious article that needs to be considered.


The nation state arose as a response, the Tretay of Westphalia, 1648 I think,  to the mainly dispersed wars in Europe of the 1400-1600’s. But the solution made each king an autocratic, especially with religion. The wars since can be attributed to the weaknesses in that arrangement, which created local identities rather than European ones, And so here we are.

What is at stake here and in the 1997 post is the fate of state consortia to deal with climate change or corporate consortia to do the same. Both are weak. Is the California experience providing hope that instead of either states or corporations moving toward a  solidly authoritarian consensus, can we get a more democratic response that can still deal with climate change?

These are in response to the important book

Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future

1922. The problem of seeing the economy as a system.

To see an economy as a system is implicitly to treat it as though it’s a coherent set of parts that are adapted to each other. this implies the system has an internal integrity and purpose and those who interact with the system should help to keep it functioning, to repair it if it is in trouble rather than replace it with something new and better, but alien to the original intents.

But if the economy is really an aggregate of decisions and revisions made over centuries by people who did not know each other and had different frames of reference, then the economy is a hodgepodge, a colage, and there is no reason to not re-think any of the parts. There is no underlying system integrity that has to be preserved.

The economy we have is a short blip in history. Discovery of fire, domesticating animals, organizing in families, empires, feudalism, industrialization using capital from increases in land value, wars, over-production,  consumerism: yet we tend to attribute a rock solid presence to the economy as if it and its major structures and the concepts to name them are part of the long duree, almost universal, almost timeless, while our society, like those ferrys leaving South East Asia for Australia, are overloaded with problems we do not seem able to solve and likely to sink of their own weight. Fred Hoyle, the cosmologist in his book 10 Faces of the Universe says that if we solve the energy problem without solving social problems we will sink the species,, because the forces that lead to war, population increase, and inequality will use the increased energy for their own purposes If those purposes are still in place. A minor example is that LED Replacing conventional lighting in cities is leading to an increase in the amount of Illumination from the existing costs rather than cutting costs and energy use with the same levels of illumination.

We have so broken our economics into specialties that we are not dealing with the general problems.

In the Adam Smith spin factory it was important that somebody remember that they were making pins with all the division of labor of labor, but In economics, the division of labor into segments and specialties forgets that we are making a society.

Things change and morph, but economics tends to think of the economy as a kind of platonic concept that can be discovered in nature and was not made by men (mostly). Real change is considered impossible and we have to live with TINA. We are hobbled by our own assumptions.

Five new books I find extraordinary that are opening up the range of thought about who we are, how we have coped, and what might – might – happen.

1. Dotan Leshem The origins of neoliberalism from Jesus to Foucault
The humor in the title masks the seriousness of the content
Two key points: first is that Aristotle and Plato both said that surplus beyond existing needs would be produced by a “well manage estate.“ (the meaning of ‘economy’. The question they both asked was what to do with the surplus. They agreed surplus should be used for leisure to engage in politics and philosophy and not for consumption of unnecessary goods and trinkets. Second, Lesham shows that the language moved into early Christianity and can be found even in St. Paul who uses the word economy, the well-managed estate, to discuss the management of God’s kingdom on earth. The understanding that good management lead to surplus was used in the new context of the Christian community and monasteries.

The Origins of Neoliberalism: Modeling the Economy from Jesus to Foucault

The idea of surplus is maintained but shifted to meditation and prayer. The early church leaders were aware that the population was expanding and that to reach an infinite god the well-managed estate should grow in order to take care of the larger task. The logic for growth moved into the standard economic thinking later centuries, Now turned into “we need growth to meet humans’ insatiable needs”.

2. James Scott, Against the Grain. A deep history of the earliest states.

The argument is complex beginning with the fact that early states were not created around settled agriculture, and settled agriculture was not a response to need for food but as part of the new states maintaining the boundaries of slavery. Early settlements had lower quality of life and worse diet. Also history has exaggerated the role of large settlements because they were the places that left artifacts easier to study. The result has been to ignore the significance of life lived outside compounds. The book has radical reframing on almost every page.

Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States

3. Andro Linklater, Owning the Earth: The transforming history of land Ownership. more radical reframing. The first property that could be called private property (As distinct from personal items) were patents. Patent‘s were the first registered and named pieces of property that existed without some kind of restriction in the form of entails and ownership by the monarch. These restrictions on land ownership (The form of almost all property)could not be borrowed against. Patents were assigned to Individuals without entails. The first land that could be borrowed against was that created by the US homestead provisions where the government sold the title to land free of any entailing. The result is such land could be borrowed against which led to the freeing up the capital to build factories and railroads. The increase in land value rather than the output of production was the major source of investment capital. The book is sophisticated and mature and full of interesting detail.

Owning the Earth: The Transforming History of Land Ownership

4. I can add Jack Goody, Capitalism and Modernity. Breaks the link between the West and innovation. And in this context well worth the time to watch the video of last weeks seminar on China. Both imply more marginalization of “the West” than we are used to.

Capitalism and Modernity: The Great Debate

5. Germano Maifreda From Oikonomia to Political Economy. The details of thinking, mostly lost to modern histories of how we got from the Greeks to Adam Smith. Wonderful writing.

From Oikonomia to Political Economy: Constructing Economic Knowledge from the Renaissance to the Scientific Revolution

Let’s add two

Goetzmann, Money Changes Everything, showing the deep story of complex finance back to Mesopotamia and 2000+ BC. Goetzman by the way has a solid interest in art as can be seen by his twitter tweets.

Money Changes Everything: How Finance Made Civilization Possible

Francis Fukuyama Political Order and Political Decay, showing the complexity of history since the renaissance. I think it also shows the futility of trying to change the Economics while ignoring politics. We tend to be aware of economic history but not the rich political history it is embedded in. This book is a solid political history well worth the reading.

Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy

1919. Timelines

I find it very useful to get people to do a time line on how we got here(our current moment in history). Very typically it goes

  • primitives
  • Agricultural empires
  • Feudalism
  • Industrialization.

With a stress on discontinuities.

An alternative, rarely considered is that across the  changes is the underlying continity of elites ruling the situation, and that eleites were able  to manage across boundaries, for example, going from land wealth to industrialization (see Raymond Willimas  The Country and The City for that history).





1903. Treating the economy as if it is a thing.

Provocation #106. Treating the economy as if it is a thing.

Imagine a car parked on the street We think we see that car for what it is. But we do not see the flows within which it is embedded. – the finance, the road rules, the factory, the material extraction from open  iron-ore pits and reducing trees to plastic, the flow of oil from ancient submerged forests to oil platforms and the ships and pipelines coming to our house, and what this did to the culture of the Bedowins.

In the same way we think we “see”the economy, but are unaware of its embededness in flow and change.
-We see it as  changeless natural object, unaware of the influence of Plato’s thinking that concepts are real and hidden in phenomena ready to be discovered. Hence “economy” must be real, a pure stand-alone thing.
-That surplus of economy is the result of a well managed estate (said Aristotle and Plato) and should be used, not for consumption, but for leisure for philosophy and politics.
– Capitalism is a tweaking of the understanding of sexual reproduction, cap, new head of cattle with all the questions of who owns it, and what can be done with it.
– That private property comes from proper, what is proper to a man of rank to show his status in society, (are you dressed properly for the meeting?) and private comes from privatus, to remove from the public sphere. Private property is a shifting concept, and could keep on shifting.
– The Gnostic use of economy is borrowed from the Stoics to describe the way the cosmos is dispensed by Devine oversight. Hence a community with a structure and a purpose – economy, from Christianity and the idea of the community under god’s plan called, from the time of St Paul throughout Christianity “God’s household”, using the word economy, an expanded sesne of household management, that sets the conditions for the modern economy as separate from politics, and maybe larger. than the realm of the mere political
-And the Christian sense of the limitless human in quest for a limitless God in the 4th century, the first model of unlimited growth as the human person could grow, becoming, in relation to understanding god.   Becoming was a new concept, and the idea of growth used for society and people a new innovation that grips us still.
– Harvey’ s blood flow as a model of an economy and the metaphor taken back and forth in the decades before Adam Smith: from body as flow of blood to economy as the flow of the “blood” of money and manufactured goods. Freud used the “economy of sexual desire.”
– Galileo and friends: numbers are real but words are arbitrary. Hence he said society should be measured, not described.
Adam Smith thought market came from barter by individuals, not realizing that “individual” is a social construct. -we start from society and evolve individuals, not from individuals, to society, and that barter never happened: the hunt or harvest was brought to the camp, settlement or village, stored and distributed, and that the nomos in eco-nomos came from early greek anomia meaning equal distribution. So nomos, law, moves full circle from protecting distribution to protecting private property. The market evolved from that distribution system.
We need a much more fluid recognition and imagination about economy and what it is about if we are to figure out to what it could be about and avoid the. systemic failures we are already in.

1890. Politics in an age of global warming

How to face the issues we are now confronting? What policies, what politics, what action?   People generally seem to think that the right idea will save the situation. But real history is always the playing out of forces, aided by ideas, in conflict where the outcome has gone to the stronger.  This implies that we need a system of give and take, not violent but expressive, arguing, convincing, until a path emerges. This has been the hope of the humanist side for a long time.

Adam Smith (in Gavin Kennedy’s Adam Smith a moral philosopher)

He believed in working through the governing arrangements of society. In a passage remarkably relevant for today, he called on those ‘prompted by humanity and benevolence’ to ‘respect the established powers and privileges even of individuals, and still more those of great orders and societies, into which the state is divided’ and suggested that a reformer be contented ‘with moderating, what he often cannot annihilate without great violence’, and above all to remember that ‘when he cannot conquer the rooted prejudices of the people by reason and persuasion, he [must] not attempt to subdue them by force …’.

Greg and Paul Davidson in the book entitled Economics for a civilized society asks simply for a balance between conservative or a liberal principles worked out through a political process.

But  by the hurricanes in the Gulf and Asia we are being pushed by climate change amplified by  through human decisions made over a long time period, perhaps the whole of human existence, to take on a more authoritarian approach because the normal process of politics in a quasi-democratic society is too slow.In the past we could always afford a more conversational, diplomatic and non violent approach – even though we often took violence as the solution,

I sense that under the pressures from Trump within politics and the effects of climate change coming from nature we are squeezed and time is not on anyone’s side.

1889. Houston and beyond

I have followed much of the reporting on Houston, Harvey and earlier, Katrina, Iraq, the California drought and rains.  Obviously we are slow to imagine the scope of these events. As citizens and as governments. Houston faces the problem of – how many people displaced? We have two middle class family friends who live in Houston. Houses destroyed. Houston has 2.3 millian and the surround area adds up to over 6m.  Food? Heath? These are obvious problems along with just getting dry. But schools? Jobs? Vehicles? Animals? Migrations out to other parts of the country? I don’t see much reflection that imagines into the future in what will turn out to be have been accurate.  Why? fear of saying the obvious is part, but failure to imagine , failure to grasp scale, failure to grasp our human vulnerability also seems important. Our biological body which can only see at best most of the  time about thirty feet without technology is not terrific at long-term big scale perception nor imagination.

I have spent time recently looking at the 1906 earthquake, not in San Francisco – we sort of know that story, but 60 miles north in Santa Rosa and up on the Russian River where I live. Mucho destruction, loss, ruin. Worse was the 1861 flood that took out half the state’s economy and turned the central valley into a continuous lake, deep enough that we did not get islands. Staggering death, half the cattle in the state drowned. Memory? Even hard to find in wiki if you don’t what you are looking for – and even then.

It seems to me utterly given that we will have another earthquake of 1906 size, and another rain -45 straight days = like 1862. But we hardly are aware. About the flood

The Great Flood of 1862 was the largest flood in the recorded history of Oregon, Nevada, and California, occurring from December 1861 to January 1862. It was preceded by weeks of continuous rains and snows in the very high elevations that began in Oregon in November 1861 and continued into January 1862. This was followed by a record amount of rain from January 9–12, and contributed to a flood that extended from the Columbia River southward in western Oregon, and through California to San Diego, and extended as far inland as Idaho in the Washington Territory, Nevada and Utah in the Utah Territory, and Arizona in the western New Mexico Territory. Immense snowfalls in the mountains of the far western United States caused more flooding in Idaho, Arizona, New Mexico, and Sonora, Mexico the following spring and summer as the snow melted.

From Wikipedia  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Flood_of_1862 and the article says every hundred years average.  It will happen here.

And for Santa Rosa. https://www.c-span.org/video/?328273-1/1906-earthquake

I have been noticing that city,  state and regional planning move toward the future as though it is  like the present plus ten percent. Like the present: sunday day, people going about their lives. But the planning is not discussing the inevitable earthquake nor such serious flooding.

I have the feeling that building for a future with earthquakes and floods would actually lead to better planning and building, not just for the future, but for the present. We would build for recoverability, flexibility and less loss of life and assets, and this would be better building anyway.

Of course we can expand this point of view out to include the planet and its people. Look at your current planning.  Will it look pretty stupid post event?