Overweening Generalist

Friday, July 15, 2011

Potshots at Economics: Take Five (and then I'll give Ec a break for awhile)

O! Economics' storied past! Let's start from the Man of God, Reverend Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) - one of the "great" political economists - saying in the late 18th/early 19th century that, if you're not independently wealthy and can't get a job on the current market, you need to starve or go to worker's prison, or get the hell out of the country; it was simply a "natural law." Famine and Disease are GOOD...because they check the population, weed out the weak, and make sure the food supply is there for the decent people. It seems like an odd interpretation of The Gospels to me, but I'm like Montaigne: "Que sais-je?" (trans: "What do I know?")

I need to be more fair to Malthus - and pretty much every economist of the 19th century - because they didn't think it was your fault you were a loser and made the mistake of not being born into wealth or at least the petty bourgeoisie - it was simply a natural law, like, say, Newton's law of gravity.

And enough nuclear weapons to blow the planet to dust many times over? That, if I know my 19th century economists, was a natural law, too. Like Halley's Comet comes around every 76 years. If you think about it, they're pretty much the same thing. The invention of the telephone and laser beam were like slavery and genocide. All of the 19th century economist's "natural laws" and the examples I gave have the same thing in common: they all occurred in Nature. There must be some "law" that accounts for it; we can't help any of those things, can we? Those old-time economists were no dummies, no sir! If you tried to complain that some action or occurrence was "unnatural" they would just laugh! Err...right?  (I hate to say it, but I bet if you looked into it yourself, "sodomy" might fall outside the realm of the Natural.) I mean, if it occurs in Nature, it must be Natural, eh? And as Aristotle and God said, all these things are subject to Laws. Because if there were no Laws governing Everything, well, then it would just be everyone wearing black t-shirts and listening to punk rock, or some of the more unruly Bach sonatas. And breaking windows. And throwing bombs that look like tiny bowling balls with fuses on them. That's what anarchists do! I think we can all agree we'd rather have a Civil Society, one where you get thirty years for trying to sell an ounce of pot to an undercover cop in Texas. That's what God and/or The Invisible Hand wants!

Can't you see the Beauty in it all? The harmony of the spheres!

(Aristotle is reputed to be a heavy smoker of ganja, so please don't ask me to explain it all. I will admit that these things are more complex than I sometimes make them out to be. There are limits to even MY knowledge. But we do know Aristotle [384-322 BCE] would frown upon anarchy. Aristotle lived before the MRI machine, so he thought the brain was an organ to cool the blood, which I don't hold against him, great Generalist that he was. He also thought slavery was "natural" and that women lacked a certain something that men had, so they shouldn't be allowed to vote, which explains why Tea Baggers are buying up old copies of his Politics like they're the last of the grits at Waffle House. But I digress...)

Anyway, it's nice to have something so gol-derned unpleasant such as dire poverty subject to the wonderful laws of Nature; we get to wash our hands of the unpleasant stuff, enjoy the fruits of the cool stuff, and make it to the All U Can Eat Steak night at the buffet before closing time.
Things evolved towards some measure of nuanced understanding of humanity when David Ricardo (1772-1823, but keep in mind that he died on 9/11 of 1823), the brilliant Scottish economist, argued that, if you tell the poor they have any rights beyond what they can win in the market, it's only hurting them. And we ought not hurt the poor. Explain to them calmly: I know it may sound somewhat harsh and lacking in sentiment, but you don't have even a right to live (I'm not making this stuff up folks!) if you interfere with the profound workings of the wonderful Market, with its ineffably magical Invisible Hand. Efficiency and growth are what we're after; you should've picked your parents more wisely. My point is: just communicate to the poor why they're fucked; it's the human thing to do. What are we? Animals? I think not...
Think about it: Marx (Karl, not Groucho: dates: 1818-1883) had, in the what? 45 million pages he wrote? Marx had hardly anything to say that was specific about a future non-capitalistic society; he spends almost his entire life having the audacity to critique the thinking of Malthus and Ricardo and other intellectuals. And Marx is the guy wearing the Black Hat in our history? (Well, Unistat's history...) That's all I heard as a kid: Karl Marx (which equals "Russian people") gonna hide under yo bed; git yo momma!

So, everyone: give up 53 cents out of every tax dollar you pay so we can give it to high-tech companies so they can figure out a way to make a better bomb. (And then, with the R&D you funded, they eventually sell you a Hi-Def TV that evolved from the research. And that's...capitalism?)

(Oh, and your money also paid all soldiers in 130 counties in which the US had military bases, funded the Pentagon, numerous wars, funded Saddam Hussein against Iran, taught the Afghan mujahideen - many who later morphed into al-Qaeda - how to fight off the damned Russkies, kept Noriega on the payroll as he administered his narco-state, the CIA, DIA, NSA...an entire alphabet soup of upper-middle-class people needed socialism so we can keep capitalism as our "way of life" and keep out "communism." It makes sense, if you think about it. If you think about it while the cold grip of adrenalized terror marks you every moment on Earth, that is.)

And people bought it. Literally. You can do a lot with fear, turns out. Hell, just look at your TV today.

Anyway, back to David Ricardo's (no relation to Lucille Ball except they're both a real laff-riot!) ideas and how they played out in the 19th century in industrializing nations: if you were an economist you HAD to believe that stuff. Thankfully, things have changed.

For example, in 1986 an economist named Rajani Kannepalli Kanth at the University of Utah wrote a book very critical of the social conditions that the non-rich lived under during Ricardan economics. The book is titled Political Economy and Laissez-Faire: Economy and Ideology in the Ricardan Era

And then, Kanth was chased out of the University of Utah. You can be outraged at this, in the late 1980s, but you know what I call it? Progress. And it was about effing time...

Well, that's about all for my first round of Potshots at Economics, folks! If you didn't like these stories, I'm afraid I have more upcoming. No one forced you to read this Overweening Dude's blog!


Sue Howard said...

This "natural" stuff - a different kind of "metaphysical knowledge" than the kind you mentioned a few entries back (ie the kind which produces wealth)?

Loba said...

....not to mention the ideas promoted by early researchers who tried to define and quantify constructs of "intelligence", aimed at eliminating "subnormals" who were a drain on the economy of Unistat (love that term). Runaways, spendthrifts, liars, thieves, and chronic masturbators (chronic in Victorian times might mean weekly, monthly...who knows) these were some of the "deviants" considered by Lewis Terman to be retarded. Institutionalization or sterilization was the suggested solution to rid society of this weak gene pool, thus improve the economy and general progress of Unistat society. Poor old Binet was developing assessment tools in France with the hope that appropriate education would be provided to all children, but Terman and others used the tool to exclude "defectives". Binet was horrified. Some of this thinking is unfortunately still with us. I'll side with the deviant defectives any day... way more fun.

michael said...

@Sue Howard: In my current state of muddle and confusion, yes: I see the "natural law" as a class warfare idea that can be used to explain any injustice, and my methodenstreit was heavily influenced by Robert Anton Wilson. Anyone who has read his book Natural Law will see how heavily indebted to him I am there.

The metaphysical laws of nature idea I lifted - in my own way, of course - from Buckminster Fuller. To cut it short, he meant that an equation like F=Ma was "metaphysical." Discovery of the language of math that actually made for fantastically accurate predictions in the "real world" that could be applied to the physical sciences and - especially - technology - seems to have, in effect, catapulted our species out of any sort of "normal" history.

The new neuroscience that shows that everything we think has a substrate neurobiologically that is itself subject to physical analysis - neurons and neural circuitry are elecro-chemical events - makes my use of the word "metaphysical" more metaphorical every day, admittedly.

Thanks for the very astute question, Sue!

michael said...

@the Lovely Loba:

>Runaways, spendthrifts, liars, thieves, and chronic masturbators<

I know! If I lived back then I would've just pled guilty to "all of the above."

I wish more Unistatians knew the history you wrote about above. But then I think of my grandpa, who, when he heard one of my brothers or me say "I wish" in a sentence, would immediately interrupt us with, "Wish in one hand and shit in the other, and see which one fills up first."

Loba said...

This stuff is on my mind as I just wrote an article on intelligence for Vicky's website, Decoded Science (in the edit stages). It's fascinating the way intelligent people come to incredibly stupid and short-sighted conclusions if their power (financial, authority, physical) is threatened. Greed and ego-centricity apparently supercedes common sense and dominates board rooms and parliament/congress. I have hope that evolution will include movement toward greater equality and tolerance and that the earth will survive this process. Always the idealist.

michael said...

Loba: what do you think of Howard Gardner's theory of Multiple Intelligences? I think it's fascinating in many ways, and it also buttresses some earlier dissenters (I think you'd be one), that our predominant Western view of "intelligence" is far too skewed toward left-grain linear thinking. Those things are valuable, but there's an assumption that musical intel, empathic/emotional intel, kinesthetic intel, etc: are all just "arts and crafts." The tests to rise in academia are all heavily skewed towards one type of intelligence, and I think it stems from the historically dominant Ruling Class idea of a "spectatorial view" on knowledge. Since Plato, anyone who actually did things with their hands or bodies were "lesser;" the ones who didn't have to work, who could just sit and read and discuss were more in touch with the Eternal Realm of Ideas. "True Being." A guy like John Dewey turned exposed this and turned it on its head in his 1920 book Reconstruction in Philosophy: people who do things REALLY DO KNOW STUFF that is important.

The late great - one of my faves - academic philosopher Richard Rorty, heavily influenced by Dewey, says that philosophers have had a Platonic Complex for 2500 years, and they still do not have a worked-out/everyone-can-agree-upon idea of most of the ideas in Plato's dialogues...because knowledge probably doesn't work that way. The philosophers always wanted to tell all the other disciplines what to think/how to think. Rorty saw this role as one that needed to change, and I like his ideas a lot.

michael said...

Sorry about my typos: the little box that pops up when I want to comment is so small often I can barely catch what I've written!

Loba said...

The multiple intelligences idea is lovely and some great teachers I've seen in action promote that idea with little signs around the classroom - "soccer smart", "math smart", "friend smart" etc. etc. The definition of intelligence changes depending on what we can measure, to some degree. Some believe it is specific to a type of thinking (abstract reasoning, etc.) Apparently the thalamus scans the entire brain, memory, experiences, individual beliefs about it all.... 40 times per second while processing incoming stimuli and determining which network to put the information in. It's amazing it works at all, and no wonder there is such incredible individuality among us humanoids.

ARW23 said...

Finally a relief in your "Take Five"! After reading your four "Potshots at Economics" I started to get worried. in my view, you were getting to serious on this Sirius subject. (Subject itself can be so frustrating within today's everyday existential context and make someone explode with anger.) So, thank you for injecting a nice dose of humor in your 'take five'. I found it entertaining. We need to laffffffffffffff............
It's natural?

michael said...

Oddly enough, though I occur in nature, and therefore my humor would seem to act as a subset of that, I have been informed by Authority that any laughter that emanates from me is an Unnatural Act, and I am subject to waterboarding for talking about Economics in such a blase fashion.

I feel like Kafka; it's not clear to me why my writing or sense of humor qualifies as "unnatural" but I have been informed They are coming for me. I'll have to answer a battery of Qs down at headquarters. If you don't see me blogging - in my "style" - in the next 48 hrs, you can bet I'm off to some extraordinary rendition in, say Pakistan.

In the name of Security and Freedom, of course.

Of course!