1862. Rethink… the problem approach does not do it.

We have not been smart in managing our species in the context of the planet. Buckminster Fuller once said

We have the planet and X billion people. Putting them together is just a design problem.

Can we do it? I suggested in the last post that we see ourselves as problem solvers. But problem solving creates new structures that are – let’s face it – problems. Proof? Look at the state of the world. D- at best would be our grade. Think population, pollution, warming, lack of meaning, reduction of people to consumers. The march from feudalism to democracy has taken bad turns.This is not smart. The danger is we will turn this into – you guessed it – anther problem to solve.

I have often said that at Stanford where I spent the last dozen years undergrads are taught  (and grad students have already learned) that the world is an ensemble of problems any one of which can be solved in three years with a grant.

But this time problem solving tends to imply a centralized authoritarian capital intense approach that keeps the flow of money to the 1% intact.

At what level do we rethink? Technology? – no. Tech is going to be important, but for what is not a tech problem.

1861. We want solutions but…

But to create solutions we have to create systems and those systems add together to create a big mess call overpopulation and wars. You can notice that every proposed solution to a problem implies creating more  of what we already have. The point is that solving problems and not solving them both leave us vulnerable.  Maybe solving problems is not such a good measure of the health of a civilization. Maybe we would be better off drawing cartoons and singing songs than solving problems.

1860. Poetry and matter re big data.

listeing to and

Cesar Hidalgo: “Why Information Grows” | Talks at Google

So universe has energy, matter and information. How can they thbe put together?

This implies that society becomes an integrated machine and that jobs are based on networks and connections.

But it does not help us think about the difference between a poem and a painting.

To know something changes our fate,   To understand A but not B affects our fate diffeently than if we understand B but  not A or B and A.

So we are now in a hyped world of rapid speech (check out the video) that biases toward money thought and not poetry thought. Hmm?


1859. State of affairs.

very good summary

David Leonhardt
Op-Ed Columnist

Recommend reading it. Here are some some comments [original text indented.]

he writes

The biggest priority for today’s Congressional Republicans is shrinking the size of government so they can cut taxes for the wealthy.The biggest priority for today’s Congressional Republicans is shrinking the size of government so they can cut taxes for the wealthy.

yes. It is arbitrage. Sell off the government and public property, distribute to the rich, and be prepared to leave the country. This is common talk in Washington, D.C. among the connected even with weak connections. I miss being in DC where I imagine the conversation is 24 hours  each day on what is happening to Trump and th e country. Exhausting but compelling. I miss it.

So from the periphery responding to leonhart’s excellent summary.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, managed to win the presidency on an agenda that promised robust government programs in health care, retirement and other areas.

slightly overstated. DT said a number of times he wouldn’t touch those programs but nothing like robust defense of them. . This who were anxious about soc sec and medicare felt reassured, hence this was a deep lie.

Something was going to have to give, and it’s long been clear that the something would be Trump’s campaign promises. Trump doesn’t actually care much about the working class and has quickly abandoned his earlier commitments.

Yes but striking, this article does not touch on climate, automation, war. The way in which we avoid the core agenda for a kind of fake news core prime agenda  is the real news.

So the problem is that Donald represents no ideas, only winning. The Republican leadership has leveraged nostalgic anxt into support for the super rich. So the Dems and the Rep each represent really about 3% of the population with anything like solid support. The rich for Republican, the Professional class for the democrats. Hence th country is ungoverned and ungovernable.  Is there any constitutional path that is attractive? The road to Pence, the road to Ryan? A small minority cannot govern legitimately a huge quasi democracy. Hence the lack of a constitutional path is unnerving us all.

1858. Two roads from Adam Smith, one taken.

Provocation #89. Adam Smith and the two roads from Edinburgh

The text here is much longer than usual because it is a build-out of what Edinburgh signified for the future of economics.

Two roads diverged in a wood
and I took the one less traveled by
———- Robert Frost

Adam Smith indeed laid out two roads; first path , the health of nations with all the wonderful thoughts about commerce and freedom, and the second path tough talk about what makes that wealth. I want to encourage some clear thinking about the two sides of Smith, the humanitarian and the commercial in balance but history took the commercial path, leaving the humanitarian path under-developed, and near absent in much current economics.

On balance Smith remained the humanist but the next generation took to the ideas of the autonomy of the economy removed from political concerns of equity and fairness and the health of the whole society. It is that path that has been fateful for economics and hence fateful for society. Why did it happen? Of course we in 2016 are much more aware of the complexity and potential lines of failure of an economy than were the people of the late 1700’s.

Throughout Smith’s lifetime there is ambiguity as to the enlightenment: does it support a more humane view, or is it on the side of abstraction? Does enlightenment replace the terrors of religious intolerance with a more open society, or does enlightenment lead to the national security state? Still good to read Stephen Toulmin’s Cosmopolis for the arguments.

Emma Rothschild’s (ER) Chapter 2 in Economic Sentiments is entitled “Adam Smith and Conservative Economics, ” and is a great review of the shift in attitude from Smith the writer of 1776 to Smith as read by 1786.This chapter makes clear the two paths of society and economics and the reason why posterity took the path of commerce as being the essence of The Wealth of Nations.

Her key idea is that conservatives wanted to separate economics from Political Economy. They did not want to hear about class and poverty. It was the time of the French Revolution, and owners of land and capital (like slaves, shipping, banking and manufacturing)were afraid of an enlightenment threatening their dominance in the social structure. Smith had been a true egalitarian, not exactly in quantity of money but in the quality of life, education and security. As the social concerns were stripped out of Smith’s thinking, the resulting “economics”, lacking much of a base in the details of society, was ripe to attract careers of those looking to formalism and identified as science, though it took several decades till mathematizing was central to the new economics., what is now called classical economics.. John Stuart Mill a decade later strongly advocated such a separation. [based on the false idea that economy was concrete and politics abstract. Smith’s humanitarian concerns were considered seditious at the time.It was a time of fear, of the French Revolution, th Luddite anti-machinery movement, and secret court proceedings which deported people in Scotland for speaking of ideas similar to Smith’s critical of class privilege. This ion part motivated the shift for Smith’s “followers” from the path of social concern with all classes of society to a path for economics concerned with the interests of capital and subject to quantitative modeling..

The fear that accompanied the pressure to separate economics from politics has remained part of what economics became: put crudely, a plumbing manual for the rich. Being aligned with power and wealth has always been a major aspect of economics. My impression is that many of the classical economists had wealthy merchant or lawyer fathers.

[I have put together a group of quotes to back up that picture of the shift from social thought to political economy to pure economics.. No need to read them all. My comments in [..]’s. Otherwise text is from ER or her quotes, mostly from Smith. Here are some notes, a few from Chapter 1 and most from ER’s chapter 2. ]

We start with Napoleon. “ …what Napoleon in St. Helena, studying the Wealth of Nations, described in 1816 as the new system of “freedom of commerce for all,” which had “agitated all imaginations” in the “furious oscillations” of modern times.”[Sets the theme: new system, freedom, and agitated imaginations that were attractive and repellant at the same time to commentators on the commercial developments of the times.]

[And the whole story of Smith’s two paths is described:] Beatrice Webb looked back in 1886: “The Political Economy of Adam Smith was the scientific expression of the impassioned crusade of the 18th century against class tyranny and the oppression of the Many by the Few. By what silent revolution of events, by what unselfconscious transformation of thought did it change itself into the ‘Employers’ Gospel’ of the 19th century?” [Italics mine]

The Wealth of Nations was reduced, in the reviews of 1800, to little more than a single “principle,” and Smith himself to a zealot of “Freedom of Trade.” Yet the most subversive parts of the Wealth of Nations and the Theory of Moral Sentiments … which horrified the Scottish Tories—were not even concerned with commercial policy. The occasions when Smith becomes most indignant are the very moments which were “covered up or explained away” …. in the 1790s.

It was “since Adam Smith,” in Jean-Baptiste Say’s description, that political economy, defined “as the science concerned with wealth,” had been distinguished from the quite different discipline of politics. The economist George Pryme, the first professor of political economy at the University of Cambridge, looked back with some alarm, in 1823, at Smith’s jumbling together of economic and political concerns. “Since his time the distinction between Political Economy and pure Politics, has been generally observed,” Pryme wrote. Political economy had become an inoffensive and orderly subject; “though it may seem less interesting than Political Philosophy, its utility is more extensive, since it is applicable alike to a despotism and to a democracy.” [Which we may be about to find out.]

[Smith was broad in his social perceptions, holding society and economy together, writing] “..that the poor laborer “supports the whole frame of society,” yet is “himself possessed of a very small share and is buried in obscurity”; that “it may very justly be said that the people who clothe the whole world are in rags themselves”; or that “laws and government may be considered . . . in every case as a combination of the rich to oppress the poor.”

[ER continues] Economic life was intertwined, in these turbulent times, with the life of politics and the life of the mind. Economic thought was intertwined with political, philosophical, and religious reflection. [Smith’s first book was on astronomy and his last paper was on Italian Poetry.]The life of cold and rational calculation was intertwined with the life of sentiment and imagination. The sources of economic opulence were to be found [ER is here describing the state of thought prior to WN], it was thought, in political and legal institutions, and in the history of the human mind. They were to be found, most of all, in the dispositions or ways of thinking of individuals; in the disposition to discuss and dispute and to think about the future; in the unfrightened mind.

Condorcet and Smith—who have become emblems of the cold, hard, and rational enlightenment. ….Smith has come to epitomize the one-sided, reductionist enlightenment of lais-sez-faire economics; the “conservative” enlightenment.” But both were concerned with what Condorcet described, in 1790, as “the restoration of the most complete freedom” in commercial policy. Both were also interested in economic dispositions, and in the politics of a universe of uncertainty. Both were interested in economic life as a process of discussion, and as a process of emancipation. [This was the optimistic view of commerce as a replacement for the more militaristic court culture of late feudalism and early nationalism after the Treaty of Westphalia. It was thought, that commerce would lead to a softening of manners and more congeniality for less heroic sword wearing egos.]

Political economy, in the period with which the book is concerned, was seen already as a science of sorts. Condorcet indeed complained, as early as 1771, about the deluded use of “the language of geometry” in “the economic sciences,” [This hints at the complexity with no single narrative, but parallel narratives moving in society at the same time. Economics is not a single coherent story. Imagine a history of chess and a history of the piano both covering the same time period and awkwardly collapsed into a single story. Economics is like that, more collage than system.]

[ER writes,] The book is about late eighteenth-century descriptions of sentiments and dispositions in economic life, and the idea of an unfrightened mind; of a way of thinking of individuals, emancipated, at least from time to time, from fears of violence, injustice, and vexation.

The public debates [of the times] were the dispute over free commerce in subsistence food, over the relations between commerce and government in the grain trade, and over the transition to commercial freedom. Smith and Condorcet, Hume and Turgot wrote, sometimes at great length, about freedom of commerce; none of them was a political economist in the professional sense that became familiar in the early years of the nineteenth century. All of them also wrote about philosophy, the history of science, the history of ideas, and about politics. ..and the dispute over apprenticeship and mastership guilds: over laissez-faire in the market for labor, public instruction…

For Arthur 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.[ Smith’s ideas were being replaced by pragmatic class realism].

Events, in Smith’s description, have both external and internal causes, or causes to do with circumstances and causes to do with sentiments. It is the neglect of these internal causes, Smith says, which makes the writings of modern historians “for the most part so dull and lifeless.”….yet it will be more interesting and lead us into a science no less useful, to wit, the knowledge of the motives by which men act.” Smith’s lifelong study, his first biographer, Dugald Stewart, wrote in 1793, was of “human nature in all its branches, more particularly of the political history of mankind.” He was concerned with the “principles of the human mind,” the “principles of the human constitution,” the “natural progress of the mind.” [This is what we have lost in the path taken, along with..]The Wealth of Nations is in Smith’s description a “very violent attack . . . upon the whole commercial system of Great Britain.

Smith writes about the goal of commercial society: “It ends in a new, enlightened society of independent individuals, reasoning and disputing, trucking and exchanging, being fair and deliberate, seeing through their own prejudices, having conversations about vexation and oppression,” [He did not see fully the rise of institutions and concentration of wealth. He saw enough to criticize early forms of these but not their full manifestation, to which he would have been opposed. He was against any tendency to monopoly in any form and an advocate of the state taking a strong hand in education, health and public infrastructure.]

There was a lot of travel between France and England. Hence the French thinkers are part of the story] In Turgot’s description, free commerce is a “debate between every buyer and every seller,” in which individuals make contracts, listen to rumors, discuss the values of one another’s promises, and reflect on the reality of risk.” [An idealized widely accepted view of economy at the time.]

“The source of opulence, Smith says at the beginning of the Wealth of Nations, is to be found in the trucking disposition which is common to the most dissimilar characters (a philosopher and a common street porter, for example), and which is itself a consequence of the faculties of reason and speech. The “fair and deliberate exchange” of civilized society is to be contrasted to the “servile and fawning attention” of relations between unequals . [This was at a time when the shift to market looked like a move towards exchanges between near equals. The plumber and the baker, not the laborer and the castle owner.]

[ER continues] Economic life is at the same time a matter of sentiment. “It is chiefly from this regard to the sentiments of mankind, that we pursue riches and avoid poverty,” Smith wrote in the Theory of Moral Sentiments, of the desire to be attended to, and taken notice of, which is in his description the great object of worldly toil and bustle… Sentiments are the objective of economic striving, and they are also the adjunct of economic exchange. The judgments of individuals, in the relationships of commercial life, are judgments, often, about one’s own and other people’s sentiments. [Note that economy is here based on taste and fads, much harder to mathematize than the “needs” assume in later economics – utils. The tendency in economics has been to materialize and objectify , losing insights into the richer minds of real people.]

…are interested in what Smith describes as “the characters, designs, and actions of one another.” They feel shame, and seek respect, and think about esteem. They have “anxious and desponding moments.” Tax reform, Condorcet wrote, would relieve “the sentiment of oppression,” and freedom of commerce would reduce, for the poor, the horror of being ignored; “the idea of being counted for nothing, of being delivered up, without defense, to all vexations and all outrages.” [Hard to imagine such sensitivity in modern journal articles.]

But the indefinite idea of a sentiment was at the heart of Smith’s and Condorcet’s political and moral theory. Sentiments were feelings of which one is conscious, and on which one reflects. They were also events that connected the individual to the larger relationships in which he or she lived (the society, or the family, or the state). The “man of society,” in Smith’s translation of Rousseau’s Discours sur l’inégalité, is “always out of himself”; he “cannot live but in the opinion of others, and it is . . . from their judgment alone that he derives the sentiment of his own existence.”

The two most important conditions of commercial prosperity, for Smith and for Condorcet, are the improvement of political and legal institutions and the independence of individual dispositions. “Order and good government, and along with them the liberty and security of individuals,” the circumstance which is for Smith at the heart of the progress of opulence, has the effect of making possible the enfranchisement of opinions and sentiments. Individuals are free of “servile dependency”; they exert their industry “to better their condition”; they are no longer “continually afraid of the violence of their superiors”; they have a sense of their own security. [Note that he is concerned for the feeling of security, not of land holders, assumed, but of labor and serfs.]

Independence of mind is in turn a consequence, as well as a condition, of commercial prosperity. Commerce and manufactures gradually introduced order and good government, in Smith’s description of late medieval European towns, and “this, though it has been the least observed, is by far the most important of all their effects.” Individuals become less dependent on their landlords and superiors, and are less subject to the fear of sudden destitution. These effects are even more pronounced when the benefits of opulence are extended to the greater part of the people, to “servants, labourers, and workmen of different kinds.”

We can feel here a criticism of property and status that will lead to the reassessment of Smith’s central point [freedom of person gets replaced by freedom of capital].

Key friends agreed with Smith…Hume … economy consists in the circumstance that “riches are dispersed among multitudes,” and that the “high price of labour” is the source of “the happiness of so many millions.” The high price of labor, for Smith, increases the industriousness and the “good spirits” of the laborer; it inspires “the comfortable hope of bettering his condition, and of ending his days perhaps in ease and plenty.” ..in a society in which the “different causes of equality” reinforced one another. There would be greater equality of instruction, which would lead in turn to greater equality of industry and of wealth. [Note the similarity to the progressive hopes about the Internet and the share society.]There would be enough equality, at least, to exclude “all dependence,” and to ensure that no one was obliged to depend blindly on others, in the ordinary business of life or in the exercise of individual rights.

[But what was positive led to growth and that led to problems. ] The rise of civilized and commercial society was by no means only beneficial, in Smith’s and Condorcet’s depictions. It can indeed be full of danger, under certain conditions, for the dispositions of ordinary people. The division of labor, in Smith’s description, can “benumb the understanding” and lead the mind into a “drowsy stupidity.

Commerce and manufactures gradually introduced order and good government, in Smith’s description of late medieval European towns, [Smith and Condorcet tried to hold on]. ..universal public instruction was for both Smith and Condorcet an efficient remedy, and the only remedy, for this evil. The eventual objective of a commercial society is not “equal enlightenment.” It is the prevention, at least, of “that inequality which brings with it a real dependence, and which compels a blind confidence.”

The most heroic outcome, in this history of the human spirit, was to be the slow vanquishing of fear. The rise of commercial and civilized society is associated with the replacement of superstition by philosophy; in Smith’s description, “when law has established order and security, and subsistence ceases to be precarious, the curiosity of mankind is increased, and their fears are diminished.”

But with the decline of fear – and superstition and religion – the scientific attitude arose to fill the void. And that attitude aligned with he desire for law, order and the defense of property. [A word about property. Very Important. It come from “proper”. What is proper to a man of rank to show his status in society.. Thus property is a social sign, and wearing the wrong clothes in public could get you into a lot of trouble. Those signs; My sword, my horse, my castle became proper property. We still use this, “are you dressed properly?”]

The public sphere however could be“agitated by a vague fear of scarcity,” and guided by individuals who sought “to excite their fears, and to profit from them.” Wrote Condorcet about grain riots. The fears of the poor and the fears of the subaltern magistrates eddied together and augmented one another.[Important to see how repressive and dangerous the times are for writers and conversationalists, an atmosphere that led Smith to be extremely cautious in his writings, thereby making it easier for the next generation to ignore his more radical thoughts.] The famous Scottish sedition trials began early in 1793, and they were concerned with words which were ominously close to Smith’s. The most publicized trial—of Thomas Muir, a lawyer who was sentenced to fourteen years’ transportation in August 1793—was over the crime of “exciting disaffection to government.” In the words of the prosecution: “He said, that their taxes would be less if they were more equally represented; and that from the flourishing state of France, they could not bring their goods to market as cheap as Frenchmen.”

.. Smith’s description—is that the minds of individuals will be less frightened, and their lives less frightening. Commerce will flourish only in a state with a regular administration of justice, or in which there is a “certain degree of confidence in the justice of government.” The flourishing of commerce and opulence is in turn a source of confidence, in that people are less afraid of falling into destitution at the slightest accident. They are confident of ending their days in comfort.Enlightenment, in the late eighteenth century, was considered to be a disposition, and also a sect. In the first sense, it was a way of thinking and seeing. It was a condition of the human mind, undepressed and unneglected.

As in Hegel’s “struggle of the enlightenment with superstition,” in his Phenomenology of Spirit of 1807, enlightenment was the dominion of “pure insight and its diffusion,” and it seeped into men’s thoughts like a “perfume,” or like an “infection.” It is this kind of enlightenment with which I [ER] will mostly be concerned; with the disposition of enlightenment, in economic and in political life.

J. G. A. Pocock has by contrast emphasized the plurality of “enlightenments,” as a series of programs for the reform of the relationships between religious and political institutions. [Pocock is a very interesting political writer. Most recommended is his Machiavellian Moment, about the increasing toughness of North Atlantic political thinking. In the US Hamilton]

[The restoration, after the French Revolution, was a major part of the shift in the reading of Smith from the humanist to the commercial free trader free marketer.] Burke, in the Reflections on the Revolution in France, finds the origins of “this enlightened age,” “this new conquering empire of light and reason,” this epoch of “‘enlightened’ usurers,” in the “cabal, intrigue, and proselytism” of a society of “philosophic financiers,”

DeTocqueville, The “Economists have had less brilliance in history than the philosophers,” he wrote; they nonetheless express, even more than the philosophers, the “single notion” in which “the political philosophy of the eighteenth century consists.” This is the idea that it is appropriate “to substitute simple and elementary rules, derived from reason and from natural law, for the complicated and traditional customs” of particular societies at particular times. The past, for the Économistes, was “the object of a limitless scorn.” They argued for the abstract and the general; for administrative simplicity, for “public utility” without “private rights,” for “laisser faire” or “the free exchange of commodities” without “political freedoms.

But Condorcet at the end of his life profoundly opposed to the “enthusiasm” of public enlightenment, and of public education. Independence of mind, the condition to which the Économistes and the men of letters of the 1750s were least attracted, in Tocqueville’s description, was for Condorcet a paramount good. To impose enlightenment ws sometimes a form of despotism. “dazzling men instead of enlightening them.” The eventual prospect, for individuals, was to be free of “submission even to the authority of enlightenment.” [The abstract view [illusion?] of what an individual is was shifting. Not a laborer or small manufacturer, not a large landlord or industrial owner. But an abstract person person without identity, without friends, without community.

The disposition of enlightenment, like the sect of philosophical enlightenment, was intimately intertwined with economic thought. In the disputes over economic reform of the 1770s and 1780s, it was seen as a condition of individual men and women, in their usual and local lives. They were unfrightened, and disposed to form their own judgments. “Every individual, it is evident, can, in his local situation, judge much better than any statesman or lawgiver can do for him,” Smith says in the Wealth of Nations. The entire system of freedom of commerce, Turgot wrote some years earlier, or of “leaving each person free to do what he wants,” is founded on the presumption that “each individual is the only judge of the most advantageous use of his land and his labor. He alone has the local knowledge without which the most enlightened man reasons only blindly.” “Laissez nous faire,” Turgot describes the merchant Le Gendre saying to Colbert; let us be the judges of what to do. “Laissez-les faire,” Turgot himself says, of educational foundations; let families choose the education of their children. “The cart drivers, the millers, the bakers are for them a class of heroes,” the Chevalier says of the exponents of commercial freedom, in Galiani’s Dialogues sur le commerce des blés; “everything is painted in smiling colors in this picture of the world which they have in their imagination . . . the vices, the unjust passions have disappeared from it.”

The economists ignore “the deceits, the passions, all the ruses of avidity, all the ruses of fear,” Diderot added in his “Apologie de l’abbé Galiani”; the “tranquil flow” of economic forces is rather “a tumultuous conflict of fear, of avidity, of greed.” William Playfair, in his eleventh edition of the Wealth of Nations, says that Smith “makes a love of traffic the basis of all wealth,” [important to see the mental turmoil that in part supported the move to the cool rationality of marginalization and differential equations. That turmoil supported the shift to the commercial side of Smith’s thinking, leaving the humanitarian behind on the path not taken.]

This idyll of individual understanding was at the heart of the new philosophy of enlightenment in Turgot’s and Diderot’s France. The enthusiasm for enlightenment in the sense of scientific knowledge—for les lumières—was by the 1750s, in France, the subject of extensive derision. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discours sur les sciences et les arts of 1750, with its sarcastic evocation of the spectacle of man “dissipating, by the enlightenment of his reason, the darkness in which nature had enveloped him,” its depiction of political figures who “speak only of commerce and money,” and its peroration against the “republic of letters,” was an early, influential criticism of the sect of enlightenment. It was countered, by d’Alembert and Diderot, with an ideal of (virtually) universal enlightenment. To Rousseau’s simple and rustic man of virtue, uncorrupted by luxury, there was opposed a busy, industrious scene; a prospect of flower sellers and laundresses, schoolchildren and booksellers and cart drivers. If the times are still corrupt, for d’Alembert, it is because “enlightenment, there, is too unequally diffused; because it is crowded and concentrated in too small a number of minds.” “Our existence is poor, contentious, unquiet,” for Diderot; “we have passions and needs.” But to reason is nonetheless the condition and the nature of all individuals. The promise of commerce and industry, knowledge and refinement, Hume wrote in response to Rousseau, is that the “minds of men” are roused and “put into a fermentation.” “They flock into cities; love to receive and communicate knowledge”; they resist despotism and have conversations with women; “both sexes meet in an easy and sociable manner.”

The discovery of individual and local judgments—of the universal disposition of enlightenment—was itself a discovery of “nature.” The division of painting into the depiction of history and the depiction of genre, or generic subjects, of flowers, fruit, animals, the “scenes of common and domestic life,” was unnatural, Diderot wrote in one of his essays on painting, in 1765. The domestic subjects of Chardin and Greuze, as much as the heroes of historical scenes, are “beings who live, feel, and think.” The philosopher of enlightenment, like Greuze in Diderot’s description, is “endlessly an observer, in the streets, in the churches, in the markets, in the theaters, Séguier, … to abolish regulations would be to “abandon the certainty of the present for an uncertain future.”

“Every manufacturer, every artisan, every worker will regard himself as an isolated being, dependent on himself alone, and free to wander in all the discrepancies of an often disordered imagination; all subordination will be destroyed.” he wrote; “they are connected to society only by their pains, and in all this immense space which is called the future, never see more than tomorrow.” Necker was unconvinced, in these circumstances, of the advantages of “an increase in enlightenment”; while landowners were interested in the right to property, and merchants in the right to liberty, the interest of the people was in no more than humanity.It is not “alms” that they want, but good laws.

Until Turgot’s economic reforms, Condorcet wrote, “no one had yet deigned to treat the people as a society of reasonable beings.” There was a transformation in “the spirit of those who are governed and those who govern.” Individuals became “more industrious, more enterprising, more inventive.” At the same time, public discontent was more bitter, people seemed more uncomfortable and more disquieted, and the “hatred against all old institutions” continued to grow.

The other great spectacle—or Tocqueville’s “first” French revolution of the 1760s and 1770s—was idiosyncratically French. It was a transformation in the rules and the habits of administrative life. The opposition between cold and warm thought was a commonplace of the popular philosophical opinion of the mid-eighteenth century.….two principal varieties of cold philosophy. There was the coldness of calculation of interest: the “corpselike souls”But there was also the coldness of duty.

The perfume of enlightenment, in Hegel’s description, is doubly cold. It divides itself into two unpleasant forms of consciousness, a “discrete, absolute hard rigidity and self-willed atomism” and a “simple, inflexible cold universality.” On the one hand, that is to say, enlightenment leads to the cold “utility” of bourgeois society, [this is important. Warm normal thought vs two versions of cold – abstract universalism and mechanical atomism. ]and

…in which the objective of individuals is the exchange of “money for butter and eggs,” and “these persons as such have in their consciousness and as their aim not the absolute unity, but their own petty selves and particular interests.” On the other hand, it leads to the Terror of the French Revolution: in Hegel’s words, “the coldest and meanest of all deaths, with no more significance than cutting off a head of cabbage.”

[The reaction continues:]

The Wealth of Nations, Bonald [French conservative political philosopher and minister] wrote, was destructive of the entire “moral wealth” of society. It too was a source of desolation. War, plague, and famine cannot destroy the force of public society, Bonald said in his observations on Smith, but “a book is enough to overturn it.” The effect of political economy is to distract the state from the “morality of society,” which cannot be maintained without the “continual action of governments. The administration of things has thus led them to lose sight of the direction of men. The projectors, or entrepreneurs of new ventures, are men of “imagination” and “passion” more than of “sober reason and experience,” entranced by the “golden dreams” of mining, empire, and capital investment.”

The “right,” or the opponents of revolution, were the defenders of the state. The state guarantees property. [Note the reversal of the modern, where right equals free market and limited state.] For Burke, “the provision and distribution of the public wealth” were essential for the “prosperity and improvement of nations.” A society which destroys the fabric of its state would soon be disconnected into the dust and powder of individuality.” [So here, major conservative, arguing for the state and its role in preventing inequality] It is the poor, above all, who would suffer most, for the state “nourishes the public hope. The poorest man finds his own importance and dignity in it.” The “truly public” state should be looked on “with pious awe and trembling solicitude.”

But the fiscal state is itself an object of reverence. “The revenue of the state is the state . . . from hence not only magnanimity, and liberality, and beneficence, and fortitude, and providence, and the tutelary protection of all good arts, derive their food, and the growth of their organs.”

Coleridge described Napoleon as a follower of the Économistes, committed to the view that government should “preserve the freedom of all . . . Whatever a government does more of this, comes of evil: and its best employment is the repeal of laws and regulations, not the establishment of them.”

Condorcet described the ideal of economic relations, in 1775, as a setting in which “the avarice of buyers and the avidity of sellers counterbalance each other, without anyone interfering.” …..intimidated as they often are by an “overgrown standing army” of interested monopolists.

The philosophers and the economists were telling a great lie, in the view of their critics, when they said that they were concerned with the dispositions, or the spirit, of millions of men and women. They were in truth concerned with no more than their own dispositions, and their own schemes. They wanted a people who would obey their own, tutelary authority. They were a sect, and they pretended to be the theorists of a new world .

Quesnay and Letrosne and Mercier, of wishing to reconstruct the spirit of individuals to fit their own “model” of “essential order,” or their own “imaginary society.” De Tocqueville on Turgot… He would never, he wrote, refer to “the laws of order”; his own principle was of “the rights of humanity,” Hume described the Économistes, in 1769, as “the set of men the most chimerical and most arrogant that now exist,” Smith said of Quesnay and his “sect” that their “exact regimen of perfect liberty and perfect justice” disregards the diversity of individual lives.

Condorcet said that the “generality of their [the economists] maxims, the inflexibility of their principles,” was such that they seemed “to forget the interests of political freedom for those of freedom of commerce.” To impose the ideas and the sentiments of the legislator in a system of public education, Condorcet wrote, is “a true tyranny.”

“Man is generally considered by statesmen and projectors as the materials of a sort of political mechanics,” Smith wrote in a manuscript of 1755, quoted by Dugald Stewart; his own preference, rather, was for no more than “fair play.”There is a psychological laissez-faire, that is to say, which is the complement to laissez-faire in commerce. There is a freedom of the soul, which is the complement to economic freedom.

Lamennais wrote, under the influence of a modern philosophy, a “monstrous chaos of incoherent ideas,” which “imagines that one can do everything with money”…. history of economic thought has been written by professionals within the discipline itself, “impelled to search the past for the seeds, the antecedents, of the present.” “those who consider the blood of the people as nothing in comparison with the revenue of the prince,

The last edition of Theory of Moral Sentiments, published shortly before his death, where he says, of the “man of system,” that “he seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that . . . in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own.”

But see where we got to on the long road chosen..John Stuart Mill’s words of 1836) as the science of man considered “solely as a being who desires to possess wealth . . . It makes entire abstraction of every other human passion or motive.”

Stewart explained in 1810 that he was hinting, in this comment, at the contemporary tendency to confound “speculative doctrines of Political Economy, with those discussions concerning the first principles of Government which happened unfortunately at that time to agitate the public mind.”

Smith’s caution, Stuart continue, ..…The tendency to suppress Economics in the context of politics. Smith, he says, was concerned only with those “speculations . . . which have no tendency to unhinge established institutions, or to inflame the passions of the multitude.” His objective was that of “enlightening the policy of actual legislators.” He was abundantly aware of the dangers of “rash application of political theories.”

ER ends the chapter with

But the book is also about the present. For the disputes with which I will be concerned are in an odd and disconcerting sense the disputes of our own present times. They are disputes which have continued in one form or another—over laissez-faire and the state, over respect and disrespect for established institutions, over reason and faith.

Two roads diverged, economics, politics and society took one, but that road ends in a trashed earth and insecure population. Perhaps the other path is worth reconsidering?. Perhaps.


1857. Why do economics texts not begin….

Provocation # 88

Why do no economic textbooks begin with some crucial facts about society, the kinds of things we need to understand and have serious conversations about?  Imagine if the following were the open paragraphs of economics 101. Why does so much economics fail to deal with economics?

(From Henry liu    http://www.henryckliu.com/public_html/page71.html)

“Rockefeller wrote:
The Standard Oil Co has been one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of upbuilders we ever had in this country – or in any country. All of which has inured to the benefit of the towns and cities the country over; not only in our country but the world over. And that is a very pleasant reflection now as I look back. I knew it at the time, though I realize it more keenly now. We had vision, saw the vast possibilities of the oil industry, stood at the center of it, and brought our knowledge and imagination and business experience to bear in a dozen, 20, 30 directions. There was no branch of the business in which we did not make money … Here was a force that reorganized business, and everything else followed it-all business, even the government itself, which legislated against it.
Tarbell rejected that view.

[John Rockefeller’s] importance lies not so much in the fact that he is the richest individual in the world, with the control of the property that it entails; it lies in the fact that his wealth, and the power springing from it, appeal to the most universal and powerful passion in this country – the passion for money. John D Rockefeller, measured by our national ambition, is the most successful man in the world – the man who has got the most of what men most want … Mr Rockefeller is a hypocrite. This man has for 40 years lent all the power of his great ability to perpetuating and elaborating a system of illegal and unjust discrimination by common carriers. He has done more than any other person to fasten on this country the most serious interference with free individual development which it suffers, an interference which, today, the whole country is struggling vainly to strike off, which it is doubtful will be cured, so deep-seated and so subtle is it, except by revolutionary methods. It does not pay. Our national life is on every side distinctly poorer, uglier, meaner, for the kind of influence he exercises.

Tarbell, missing the point that it was the system that made the man, went on to attack the wrong target: “I never had an animus against Standard Oil’s size and wealth, never objected to their corporate form. I was willing that they should combine and grow as big and rich as they could, but only by legitimate means. But they had never played fair, and that ruined their greatness for me.”

Tarbell was excusing the system and blamed it on the man, a common error made by American liberals. The same attitude perseveres on their reaction to the Enron, WorldCom, Citibank, AIG scandals in recent years, that it was the few apples rather than the barrel that were rotten.

Rockefeller, of course, disagreed: “It was the law of nature, the survival of the fittest, that [the small refiners] could not last against such a competitor. Undoubtedly … some of them were very bitter. But there was no band of greedy men plundering them. An able, intelligent, far-seeing organization simply outstripped men in the casual, haphazard way of doing business. That was inevitable.”

Yet the purpose of civilization is to improve on the laws of nature. The fault was in the system, not the persons who excelled in the barbaric game. These robber barons had a common vision of the need to create a centrally controlled order out of decentralized democratic chaos. Above all, they recognized clearly that in a society where wealth was denominated in money, the way to achieve great wealth was to control the nature of money. What they did was to stage what amounted to an autocratic coup d’etat on the United States’ monetary regime.


I think most agree these are crucial reflections about what happens with economy. Why is such a discussion not forthcoming? Especially in economics departments and core textbooks?

1856. More Trump

He only knows how to dominate, bully, alienate, He has no skill or interest in making friends. He treats the country like an acquisition. He might say “I bid for King and I won.”

The country was not in terrific shape by the time of the election. The job numbers were obscuring reality)and climate denial was still operating in the minds of the leadership.

But the world’s estimate of the US has changed rapidly for the worse We are now the bull in the china shop. dissolving the Atlantic Alliance and undoing Paris seem to be just impulses to show power. He has noagenda for bettering the US or the world short of running a monopoly business.

Hard to see where this goes. The Republican leadership is also unwilling to grasp contemporary problems, the Old Democratic leadership wants to win the last election, and the people are without guidance.

The diagnosis – what’s wrong – is fairly advanced and broadly shared, but people are afraid to act. I think because they “know” this ends badly and there is nothing to do.

Unrealistic. There is always something to do, if only love the people on the train. Talking through what to do as troubles are actually happening would be an advance, but very difficult.

And perhaps not talking about it is best because talking about it creates an internet of opinions whereas what might be better is local efforts that go unrecognized.