Post # 2039 Leisure and economics

Provocation #207. Leisure and economics.

Early economics was concerned with the well being of society, of all the people. This was limited because people acquiesced to the view that the population was divided between the rich and the poor and then into capitalists land owners,  and the laborers. But there was still a vigorous discussion about how the product should be distributed among them. Smith, Ricardo, Coleridge, Mill and many others in the nineteenth century were involved in complex social relationships – dinners and clubs –  that discussed theses issues. (Read Catherine Gallagher’s The Body Economic life, death and sensation in political economy and the Victorian Novel).

Jumping ahead to WW2, three emerged the view that the hope of technology was to eliminate drudgery and create leisure. Bad work should be done by machines. Women were to stay home (alone) with labor saving devices, the men wre to go to work to earn enough to buy the house to house the machines and their attendant wife. A living family evolved in a few decades into a machine of production and consumption. Tech was supposed to keep making this better, providing relief. What happened?

Some how the stuff produced that was supposed to produce leisure  caused people working harder (in my childhood a working person, say a carpenter, could afford a house and to send children to college.) The extra, which should have relieved labor, was coopted by management and ownership. Economics seems to have abetted this process, or at least stood by seeing but ignoring, or blind to the emerging reality. Falling into the logic of pleasure and pain being a single dimension as an aid to computational approaches seems to have made very small minded thinkers of most. Economics mostly seem to have supported an anti-union attitude – keeping workers from organizing – but not at all critical of the organization of capital. 

The life style of the increasingly rich has not emerged into a new civilization, but into corruption, alcohol, sex, status symbols – not into conversational salons and seminars. The elites have in fact de-educated themselves.

Aristotle was clear that a well managed estate produced a surplus, and the surplus should be used for creating leisure time, for what?  – for the study of philosophy and participation in politics (very different from our slothful view of leisure.) Discussion of the purpose of leisure was shown to be discussable – but we have not done it.

Instead of discussing how better to distribute wealth we are abandoning the poor to marginal employment, unemployment, or climate catastrophe. Any idea of organizing society for the good of all is missing from most contemporary discussions. 

Interesting to look at ways invented that led to increasing inequalities. Limited Liability is one. It removed from individuals the right to sue for damages, thus reducing their real ownership  value of what they have purchased,  because if it fails, the responsibility that should exist is vastly limited. This is an uncompensated taking to the advantage of capital. Imagine a group creating a limited liability corporation to build a large ship which unfortunately sinks in the harbor where it was just launched, and the resulting waves produce damage in the harbor way beyond the cost of the ship. The losers can’t sue for the full damages because of limited responsibility. Limited liability throughout a society, where no one is responsible for much, means there is no responsibility  adequate to the dangers taken on by the institutions of the society.

Post # 2037.

Provocation  # 206 MonopolyEconomics prides itself on mathematical sophistication, yet..

Following up on the previous Post

The functioning of the market is toward monopoly because those with power and money can acquire more power and money at cheeper prices than those with less. We sort of know this, but do we imagine our way to the outcome? Mirowski’s Machine Dreams proposed that the aim of economics is to create s a single system of all interconnected computers. Because computers are based on 0-1 the impression is given that they are already commensurate and programming can create all the useful interconnections.  

The obvious example is the blending of the data of national security with that from  broad based consumerism. The tendency is to have consumers interact with producers ont through large computer networks, in this case,  so far,  Amazon. Who among government, Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft will be the first to buy one of the others? We are moving toward a time when in practice, if not law, only those transactions mediated by Amazon’s computers will be legitimate, and  all produces know that the only way to reach the customers is through the amazon network.   All malls and retail outlets are going out of business and mailed catalogues reach only a Few.  

The security perspective can already identify those who are the enemies of that emerging system. The only way monopolization fails is in places where the system is somehow locally broken. 

Economics is at the center of this emergent monopoly yet it seems not to be discussed much within economics, despite how obvious it is.  Yet its graduates go off to jobs to manage  its emergence, the final realization that all data is interconnected through a single monopoly owned business protected by the national security state.

Big data will emerge as the mangement and governance structure of society. No need to vote because Amazon knows your preferences. Google has photoed your street,  it is all put together.  Who you are is now more clearly represented in the amazon-google-gov nexus than you are known to yourself. “Relax”, they say, “you are taken cae of.” But the reality is they take care of themselves with cash flow through the nexus to themselves, the  few. This fact will be hidden from the press and the networks. 

The problem with big data is that it can ferret out some measurable element that is, however small, present in much of the population, but it misses entirely what is powerful and idiosyncratic to only a few. 

The trouble is that if something goes wrong, like a hyper-energized climate that threatens major players in the monopoly tending system, no action will be taken. 

Fred Hoyle, the cosmologist, proposed in his Ten Faces of the Universe (1977) that the reson we are not visited by other planets is because no civilization as solved the political problem of how to survive internal political civil wars while developing the technical sophistication that would allow them to arrive here.

Good background to this line of thinking is in the Youtube interview by Naomi Klein of Shoshana Zuboff about her book  The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. My view is that the interview is much better than the book but  the book is rich in detail. 

Why is it, that in politics and economics, the more penetrating and and humane books are being written by women, not men?  My understanding, which could be wrong, is that women, not given access to the standard career paths, had to find other ways, and this kept them on the sidelines from which a better perspective can be gained than for those in the mainstream. Not being in the spotlight they are left freer to think.

Post # 2035 Global management ​needs good economics

Provocation #203 Management needs good economics.

As society gets into trouble with climate, AI,  and governance, it is clear that we face major problems that are not being well managed.  If we start with the Greek economia as estate management we see that the concept was holistic: how to manage the estate for the well being of the people, with lots of discussion about what that meant.

Our own society is not being managed at the holistic level. The economists’ major perspective is equilibrium dynamics but the reality is business, investment nd politics are trying, Schumpeter style, to create disequilibria. Economists tend to assume that that equilibria  will lead to convergence, one solution, but in fact an achieved equilibrium is very subject to breakdowns and  punctuated equilibrium, where suddenly, instead of convergence, many new paths of divergence open up simultaneously.

If we were to think of the management of society as working management to create food, health, education and living conditions for all, we recognize that such management of the whole would require an economics as a major tool and perspective on what works, what doesn’t, and how to keep doing better.

The Greeks at Athens  also discussed the fact that the well managed estate produced a surplus and that the purpose of the surplus was to create leisure for philosophy and politics. Our view of surplus is to reinvest it in a cancerous process of growth without  a goal.

Unlike science,   economics  seems to fear contemplating hypotheses, “What if?” Economists seem compelled   to start with a set of numbers,  and then fit modeled curves to them. Poverty of thinking? What if our model of economy is not good for society because it systematically restricts the imagination of the economists “Make sure your papaer has some tables, some graphs and some equations, and avoid politics or popularization”

Speculation about how to manage the whole is not permitted while what we need is guidance. “Tell us what needs to be managed:  nuclear sites, air traffic.., production of the basics and their distribution.”  But economics seems to be absent from the task of managing the world. 

Governance needs an economics as a major tool for management.  Economists  brush off most concerns by saying  its just politics. In fact there has hardly ever been a time, with the growth of complexity and networks,  when economics is more needed. And what happens if it doesn’t provide the guidance and tools  for global managers?

Economy began focused on organic – grain, cattle – but over time has drifted to the industrial and the commercial where  the organic, especially food, makes up a smaller part of the consumer world. But needs  have not changed that much and going back to a proper management of the organic for human survival and quality-of-life is reemerging as necessary because climate change will shift the possibilities of food production and populations, leading to shortages and wars if we are not successful at  a task we havent yet undertaken. 


Computer programs  as models. When a  computer wins at Chess or Go, it has no experience of winning. We humans play for the enjoyment of the process. The computer has no such experience. What has been simulated is the mechanics of possibilities, not the experience of playing the game. Seems like a very weak simulation of the human experience. Nor can the computer experience disgust or awe. 


Comments needed.

post #2034. Essential quibbles. Economics misses the point.

If the use of fossil fuels are not going to cut be cut sufficiently  (eliminated) to prevent a 3 or 4° rise, are we willing to discuss how such a failure that might  unfold?

If  economy is   embedded in society, that just  means complex  feedback loops between the two. Discussing these feedback loops requires understanding both the economy and society. If you look at economics curricula there is almost nothing about society.

How can it be that the rich are getting richer and the poor are being lifted out of poverty at the same time? Sleight-of-hand.  The  income of the poor is going up, let us agree for the moment, but the prices of real estate,  access to art museums, the fees for national parks,  are all going up more rapidly.

Both the impact of society on economics, and the  impact of economics  on society are mostly left out of our modeling. 

Post @ 2031 Climate and migrations

Provocation # 199 migrations and climate

Provocation . Just back from Malaysia working with others to set up an  initiative on global warming, a hopefully more holistic approach to economics, philosophy, politics [All three of these words come from Athens.]

While there I met Stephen Oppenheimer who wrote out of Eden, the history of how humanity under pressures of climate change for a couple of hundred thousand years responded with a combination of DNA changes  and migrations. I like this because it was an overview of our human history without any explicit reference to Economics. Economics could not have existed yet because it means household management and there were no households: there were groups on the move. South Asia was one large landmass including all of the islands. When a new melting happened, all the land flooded and the people dispersed, and they carried their DNA with them to many other parts of the world. The Bering Straits, for example, was a landmass larger than India. It is an amazingly dynamic story and one cannot help but feel for the lives lived and lost in these events.

But the similarity to our own time, the climate change, large migrations, and the conflicts of populations on the move also is deeply poignant and maybe terrifying, because it’s our time not yet history’s.

He writes

“I guess it will depend immediately on what our various cultures drive us to do to ourselves and to our environment. Our aggressive behaviour, aided by the demands our growing populations make on our environment, give us the unwanted capacity to impose stress or even to extinguish our species. Our white-hot modern technology would not be able to burn an escape hole from the impoverished prison our small planet might become for the majority of its inhabitants. How we adapt to our fouled nest, and avoid fouling it further, again depends on our immediate capacity to evolve our culture. If we do survive another near-extinction, self-imposed or otherwise, our successors may be biologically different, but there is no doubt that they will be culturally different”

I am really delighted when we find a new voice.

Excerpt From

Out of Eden: The Peopling of the World

Oppenheimer, Stephen

Post # 2025 Capitalism and economics as plumbing

Provocation # 196

Economics can be seen as a kind if systems maintenance manual, plumbing for the flow of dollars in the economy. If economics were more seriously interested in science it would raise questions like: what is capitalism, what is socialism and if we understand these, is there a third possibility?


The financial times has a challenging article on when economic good is driven at a strategic level so that it becomes a huge force in society,  by pulling and pushing millions out of their villages, breaking up their lives and communities, in the effort to make their lives better. 

But the reality is the land goes to weeds attended by the old and sick who have been left behind. Then the economy slows and those who went to the cities are struggling, losing hope. How do we struggle to help the billions while sensitive to their lived lives?

The fight for survival in China’s abandoned rural towns

Need to be a subscriber.


Four very serious and difficult readings on global heating. I would very much appreciate reactions to these, each saying the climate problem is more difficult than the previous.

Andreas Malm Fossil Capital

The problem is not human nature but capitalism and capitalists. Society seems to lack the leverage to do anything

Naomi Klein This Changes Everything

Capitalism is the problem but there are things we can do

Roger Annis

Real socialism and a different regime needed

Alexander Dunlop

True socialism won’t work because green energy still costs lots of environmental damage. The energy and materials cots for producing a single wind turbine are shockingly high. No way out.

Post # 2024 Revisit escape from freedom

Rethinking our institutions in the context of regaining the opening to freedom is one way of looking at the task.

This is certainly a time of tension. We have missed the obvious point – that we should have been creating an environment good for growing people across generations, in communities, and families. As a society, we are unable to deliver compassion where it is needed.  We need an economy that will support an ecology so that we will be healthy and educated,  and in love with life. But to do this we need a vision of where we are trying to get to. Our current world situation, including people, land and all that is spread out around us,  is not doing well. We need an approach which nurtures the world and its people, not just an enabler of an elite.

We need to manage the globe for the benefit of humanity.  No person or group should be marginalized. Can we learn to balance decentralization and centralization?

We need an image of where we are going. The last 100 years plus have been dominated by images of tech city, gleaming chrome, concrete, dead. What if we turned it around, focusing on the biological, the plant and animal, the scenic and parkland view? The proposal is to shift our efforts from a mechanical tech-based civilization to a biological, psychological and socially focused civilization. Technology will be necessary, even attractive and fun – but needs to be managed into relationships with the rest. Can we reduce privilege and increase compassion?  

Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom, written at the beginning of WW2, Made it clear that we had created a culture with  opportunities for new human freedom, but through narrowness of vision  we were missing the opportunity. He was writing in a different time but this time, our time,   raises the same questions.

Post # 2023. No plan for the societal side of climate change

Provocation # 174.

So far as I am aware, there is no plan proposed by anybody that deals with the social disruption of climate breakdown and the social disruption of trying to prevent that disruption in anything like implementable detail. If you know of any please let me know.’

The Green New Deal proposed by Cortez and supported by Naomi Kline still suggests that we can get sufficiently more green while growing the economy into fuller employment with increased equity and avert the collapse. But there are few details.

At best, if we are to attempt to mitigate global heating, many jobs will have to cease because they use so much fossil fuel. Is anyone planning for such a transition with its disruptions?

Serious mitigation probably means stopping lots of economic activity. Even if new economic activity arises at the same time, it will not be in the same space, which means millions moving. The disruption would be intense and the time lags devastating. We have no serious analysis of what jobs must continue or we get catastrophes, such as maintaining nuclear reactors. Left alone they will explode.

Not discussing these and making plans means that we support muddling through the next few years. But at some point, public reaction to our being stupid about the inevitable will stir up serious anger.

The new factor might be a youth movement, already developing, demanding radical changes. But there is no plan for what those radical changes would have to be (not just technological but political and institutional). How do you take back the core wealth of the 1%without civil war?

Post # 2021 If we avoided the word “economics”

What if economics is unnecessary to understand economy? If we had no discipline of economics we might have common sense about the economy, the pragmatic relations of humanity and society to the material world in all its manifestations. “Economics” has been aligned with elite needs from its early use just after Wealth of Nations as the nation became an instrument of wealth centralization rather the good of the whole.

“Economy” goes back to the Greeks.  “Economics”, probably from Alfred Marshal, early 1800’s, was an attempt to  – by adding “ic” to be scientif- ic. (Economic and economics do no occur in Wealth Of Nations. The adjective “economical” does a few times  in the sense of austere management. “Economy occurs a few times, always in the context of a specific: “the economy of the rich” , “The economy of private people”, and a few times as “political economy”. 

(From Wikipedia – The discipline was renamed in the late 19th century primarily due to Alfred Marshall from “political economy” to “economics” as a shorter term for “economic science”. At that time, it became more open to rigorous thinking and made increased use of mathematics, which helped support efforts to have it accepted as a science and as a separate discipline outside of political science and other social sciences)

Interesting to imagine if accounting had been taken as the basis for understanding the economy rather than  economics .

As it is, economics has been a force for fragmentation (“separate discipline outside the other social sciences”) making it hard to understand the economy in all its relations between society, people and the material world). 

Economics has a strong tendency to be pulled into ideologies.

We miss out on common sense about how to make a good world, and we are left with  fighting fragmentation of social thought.

Post # 2020. Which scenario?  will economics help manage the choice?

Provocation # 171 which scenario?  will economics help manage the choice?

As the political situation deteriorates we can foresee several possible groupings of interests

1. The Democratic party of the professional class (The Clinton grouping)

2. The disaffected: economically injured or threatened. Ferguson, et al, described)

3. The progressives:  Scandinavian style  social democracy and identity politics.

4. The Catastrophe grouping: global heating, tech replaces workers, government is broken and illegitimate, collapse of food production.

5. The holders of assets.

How will mainstream economics play among these four? Can it help manage the choice, or will it simply work to maintain continuity and existing momentum?  

Seems to me like a serious opportunity for economics.