Home > Uncategorized > The semantics of mathematical equilibrium theory

The semantics of mathematical equilibrium theory

from Michael Hudson

            If mathematics is deemed to be the new language of economics, it is a language with a thought structure whose semantics, syntax and vocabulary shape its user’s perceptions. There are many ways in which to think, and many forms in which mathematical ideas may be expressed. Equilibrium theory, for example, may specify the conditions in which an economy’s public and private-sector debts may be paid. But what happens when not all these debts can be paid? Formulating economic problems in the language of linear programming has the advantage of enabling one to reason in terms of linear inequality, e.g., to think of the economy’s debt overhead as being greater than, equal to, or less than its capacity to pay.

An array of mathematical modes of expression thus is available to the economist. Equilibrium-based entropy theory views the economy as a thermodynamic system characterized by what systems analysts call negative feedback. Chaos theories are able to cope with the phenomena of increasing returns and compound interest, which are best analyzed in terms of positive feedback and intersecting trends. Points of intersection imply that something has to give and the solution must come politically from outside the economic system as such.

What determines which kind of mathematical language will be used? At first glance it may seem that if much of today’s mathematical economics has become irrelevant, it is because of a fairly innocent reason: it has become a kind of art for art’s sake, prone to self-indulgent game theory. But almost every economic game serves to support an economic policy.             Broadly speaking, policies fall into two categories: laissez faire or interventionist public regulation. Each set of advocates has its own preferred mode of mathematical treatment, choosing the approach that best bolsters their own conclusions. In this respect one can say that mathematics has become part of the public relations apparatus of policy-makers.

The mathematics of socialism, public regulation and protectionism view the institutional environment as a variable rather than as a given. Active state policy is justified to cope with the inherent instability and economic polarization associated with unregulated trade and financial markets. By contrast, opponents of regulation select a type of equilibrium mathematics that take the institutional environment for granted and exclude chronic instability systems from the definition of economic science, on the ground that they do not have a singular mathematical solution. Only marginal problems are held to be amenable to scientific treatment, not quandaries or other situations calling for major state intervention.

Marginalist mathematics imply that economic problems may be solved merely by small shifts in a rather narrow set of variables. This approach uses the mathematics of entropy and general equilibrium theory to foster the impression, for instance, that any economy can pay almost all its debts, simply by diverting more income from debtors to creditors. This is depicted as being possible without limit. Insolvency appears as an anomaly, not as an inevitability as in exponential growth models.

Looking over the countries in which such theorizing has been applied, one cannot help seeing that the first concern is one of political philosophy, namely, to demonstrate that the economy does not require public regulation to intervene from outside the economic system. This monetarist theory has guided Russian economic reform (and its quick bankruptcy) under Yeltsin and his oligarchy, as well as Chile’s privatization (and early bankruptcy) under Gen. Pinochet, and the austerity programs (and subsequent bankruptcies and national resource selloffs) imposed by the IMF on third world debtor countries. Yet the reason for such failures is not reflected in the models. Empirically speaking, monetarist theory has become part of the economic problem, not part of the solution.

Michael Hudson, “The use and abuse of mathematical economics”, real-world economics review, issue no. 55, 17 December 2010, pp. 2-22,

  1. Jerry Lobdill
    February 12, 2018 at 1:47 am

    In fiat money systems the issuer of the currency is not constrained like a household or business. The issuer never has to borrow to spend, and it can never go bankrupt. In the US fiat money system the Constitutional issuer has ceded its issuing power to the Federal Reserve and borrows every dollar it spends. This is a case where unnecessary monetary policy has hamstrung the government and enriched the bankers.

  2. February 12, 2018 at 2:52 am

    I am unclear about the brief mention of entropy as a mathematics for trade models. Are some economies labeled hot and others cold so that entropy mathematics is used in the model?

    This idea is so almost funny it makes me think I might have a clue.

    • February 12, 2018 at 9:16 am

      Entropy enters into Shannon’s analysis of information capacity in the presence of noise. What is laughable is the statisticians still thinking the meaning emerges from the noise energy rather than the messages being communicated.

    • Frank Salter
      February 13, 2018 at 8:24 am

      Entropy is a thermodynamic concept extended to other fields which demonstrate similar relationships.

      As it is relates to reversible and irreversible changes in thermodynamic states, it is bound into the second law of thermodynamics. Carnot’s theorem defines the maximum efficiency of heat engines, our sources of motive power.

      Its use in economic analysis may improve some thinking but association with equilibrium analysis appears to be an oxymoron — equilibrium implies no change, entropy implies change.

      • February 13, 2018 at 2:36 pm

        No, Frank, it is a mathematical concept used both in theormodynamics and in information theory.

  3. Craig
    February 12, 2018 at 5:28 am

    With the new paradigm and policies of Direct and Reciprocal Monetary Gifting the problem of the continual build up of both government and private debt is resolved by inverting the inherent scarcity ratio of total individual incomes to total costs and so prices. This ratio enforces the systemic necessity to continually borrow in order to prevent recession or worse. Inverting and transforming the ratio to an abundance of individual incomes to costs/prices with a lifelong universal dividend and preventing inflation with a 50% discount/rebate at the point of retail sale where price inflation is terminally expressed and a few aligned regulations to markets…..implements the new paradigm. It’s elegant, simple and insightful…just like every other paradigm change has been when people look at it and actually see it.


  4. February 12, 2018 at 6:34 am

    Garrett Connelly has a good point of doubt.

    Michael Hudson’s description

    “Equilibrium-based entropy theory views the economy as a thermodynamic system characterized by what systems analysts call negative feedback.”

    does not seem to make sense very much. At least it requires more detailed explanations. If a thermodynamic system is in equilibrium, normally there is no entropy flow into or out of the system.

    Hudson also wrote:

    “Marginalist mathematics imply that economic problems may be solved merely by small shifts in a rather narrow set of variables. This approach uses the mathematics of entropy and general equilibrium theory to foster the impression, for instance, that … .”

    It is possible that some silly neoclassical economists talked about entropy in their general equilibrium system but most of more intelligent economists would like to avoid such a careless remark. Hudson’s statements do not seem very careful.

    I have no intention to defend the notion/image of equilibrium (general equilibrium in particular). Economics (both mainstream and heterodox) depended for too long time on the system image of equilibrium. It is necessary now that economics gets a new systems theoretic image how economy works. One possible candidate is the notion of dissipative structure. Please see my comment February 10, 2018 at 4:16 am
    Economath — a device designed to fool the feebleminded

    • February 12, 2018 at 4:15 pm

      Yoshinori, your first comment is acute; I offered a “more detailed explanation” above. To spell that out more directly, Shannon developed his information theory in order to show how to correct errors with negative feedback; he also pointed out that the formula for maximum information capacity he had come up with was the same as that for thermodynamic entropy. What that means in practice is that if you examine an internet signal without knowing how to decode it, you will find it indistinguishable from thermal noise. I don’t think Hudson was being careless here: I think that like almost everyone else, he had neither read Shannon nor been enabled to understood what he was saying.

      On the second point, I think you are missing the point, that one can have not only the static equilibrium you envisage, but dynamic equilibrium (like a ship – with our help – staying on course, or our maintaining a steady speed in a car); or an equilibrium between forces, these trying to accelerate or decelerate us, perhaps in directions which push us off course. Equilibria, in short, of position, speed and acceleration.

      The book I have just obtained, Ken Boulding’s “Economics as a Science”, is very interesting indeed on this at the very start of the book: pp. 4-6.

      • February 13, 2018 at 12:08 pm


        thank you for reminding me of dynamic equilibrium. Is there any economic system which is comparable to dynamic equilibrium?

      • February 13, 2018 at 3:22 pm

        My argument is that the existing system is [not comparable but] an example of [aiming for] dynamic equilibrium. However, one only sees that by interpreting it correctly. The current fairy-tale is of “market forces” and “sticky prices”, but the reality is that we steer distribution by reacting to price information, and one has to do this for some time before one can see if one is significantly off-course, and likewise to realise that avoiding approaching problems is not only likely to take you off course but may even cause you to lose your bearings. These levels of control take (and have taken) time to emerge. I have been saying since reading Keynes in 1969 that the economy is a control system analogous to the simple electronic control systems I worked with in 1960, which required enough standing error to drive the system (much like some economists still think we need a reserve army of the unemployed). I saw Keynes as taking the next step (before the theory was developed during World War II), recognising mass unemployment as the system being off-course, and proposing an efficient way of correcting it with infrastructure development and maintenance (which of course the simple-minded price theorists have seen as “growth”: simply speeding up the system and – with our funny money – generating inflation). Eventually I realised that manufacturers change products etc to avoid the problem of markets saturating, which right now is happening so often that we are getting lost.

        Half a century on, I’m still trying tp explain that to economists, who still seem to know nothing of electric circuits, never mind information theory and PID control systems.

      • February 13, 2018 at 3:46 pm


        Information became an important subject-matter in economics too. For example, Stiglitz and Akerlof inaugurated information economics. It has a certain impact for the economics including both mainstream and heterodox. However, something important seems to be lacking. It might be the information theory, but it is quite difficult. I tried to learn it in my student days but failed. We need good popularizers. You can be one. You once send me a prospectus with many chapters. Are you writing a book?

      • February 13, 2018 at 5:33 pm

        There is a difference between an ‘economics’ of money making by monopolising access to information, and an economics, the sustainable working of which is facilitated by the existence and adequacy of indexical and corrective information channels.

        The information theory isn’t that difficult if you look at what what Shannon starting from and the point of his conclusion – the possibility of correcting errors by imaginative use of “redundant” information CAPACITY. One needs to try and satisfy oneself that the mathematics is sound, but once that has been done, in practice the derivation hardly matters.

        In understanding his theory of the emergence of different types of meaning as increasing information shows more and more possibilities to be unlikely, it did help me to hear that, alongside Turing, he had been working on code breaking during the war. In a sense this theory is not the message but the key which unlocks it.

      • February 13, 2018 at 8:10 pm

        Reading Hudson again, this theory is true of only of monetary flows considered as energising, though the political conclusion here is still important:

        “Equilibrium-based entropy theory views the economy as a thermodynamic system characterized by what systems analysts call negative feedback. Chaos theories are able to cope with the phenomena of increasing returns and compound interest, which are best analyzed in terms of positive feedback and intersecting trends. Points of intersection imply that something has to give and the solution must come politically from outside the economic system as such”.

        What is missing is the dynamics of the energy changes. What is fed back is information encoded as changes of power, and the negative feedback works only so long as the changes embodied in the power signal (which may be of mains or microwave frequenciess rather than battery power) are much slower than the time taken to make the correction. If the response takes longer than that, it turns the signal into positive feedback and causes instability. Now in the real economy a vast number of different and intermittent activities on different timescales are intermingled, and it is possible for the slow changes to be controlled by negative feedback but for the fast ones to become unstable. Something similar occurred when long distance telegraphy was first tried, and the solution (as Hudson suggests) came from outside the then theory: “chokes” had to be introduced to slow down the higher frequencies so they arrived at the same time as the slower ones.

        In effect, one can say that the art of economics consists in arranging for the right things to happen at the right times; i.e. it is not so much about what it is doing as about synchronising our activities so they don’t clash. Which as I’ve suggested involves time sharing and being prepared to wait.

  5. Hardy Hanappi
    February 12, 2018 at 8:28 am

    Mathematics is a rather old language used in economics, dating at least back to Walras, Jevons and Menger (1874) in their attempt to purge the adjective ‘political’ in classical political economy. The analytical techniques had been taken over from old mechanical physics (starting with Newton and Leibniz), which were almost indistinguishable from the physical content they were describing. Of course, the use of this apparatus for living systems (general disequilibrium systems embedded in the lower level systems of theoretical physics) always served political goals too, and not just the personal career opportunities of single researchers being well educated in math (e.g. the electrical engineer Tom Sargent). But since 100 years theoretical physics and formalization techniques have moved on, while mathematical economists stagnated. Neither the formal apparatus of quantum mechanics (today the basis of our knowledge in physics) nor the possibilities of algorithmic language (informatics) have been adequately recognized by mainstream mathematical economists. In fact, the mathematics used in the leading journals of economics is antiquated and useless, overdue since John von Neumann’s famous statement 74 years ago that ‘economics will need thousands of years to be up to date’. Its only use consists in diverting scholars away from studying topics and formalization techniques relevant for todays’ political economy.
    This ‘pointing at the wrong tree to bark at’ comes in two varietes – as the Michael Hudson correctly observes: One stream, GET, simply digs deeper in inadequate formal grounds adding a misconceived notion of ‘expectation formation’ – with the ever same economic policy short-cut that political institutions don’t matter since they were assumed (in their theory) not to exist. The other stream (founding father Lord Keynes) re-introduced the notion of ‘the state’ to be at help for a more relevant economic theory in times of heavy crisis of capitalism (1930, 2009). Interventions of this kind to save capitalism were of limited success. What actually ‘saved’ capitalism in the late 30-ties was the authoritarian return of the strong state policed by fascist regimes! Coercive intervention pure, public employment as soldiers. We currently are on the verge to a repetition of this historical desaster, this time as a farce (Trump, Putin, Xi Jinpeng). But an extremely dangerous farce for the species.
    Progressive political economists have to overhawl their entire toolbox of methods (fortunately, data and communication possibilities are abundant) to come up with a renewed political economy analysis quickly. A feable Keynesian revival and repeated criticism of neoclassical follies are insufficient, even counterproductive since they eat up intellectual forces. At best, they could serve to induce young students to turn away from standard economics and to start to study their subject of investigation, i.e. political economy, and the modern tools to do so.

  6. Frank Salter
    February 13, 2018 at 8:43 am

    Possibly it would be better to distinguish the major distinctions of pure and applied mathematics.

    Pure mathematics exists to examine logical determination from axioms — it stands on its own.

    Applied mathematics provides methods of analysis to solve problems.

    If the two were not, as they so frequently are, conflated, improved and valid economic discourse would be possible. Neoclassical papers so often prove theorems, apparently to add “corroborative detail”, to justify some model the authors imagine. They then provide no justification as to why their model is appropriate in the real world, other that a curve can be fitted — along with any other arbitrary equation.

    It is the misapplication of mathematics, not mathematics itself, which is the problem

    • Rob Reno
      February 16, 2018 at 7:15 pm

      Thank you Frank, I think your point is valid. Appreciate your measured input.

  7. February 14, 2018 at 1:15 pm

    In his book, “Mathematics for the Million” Lancelot Hogben points out that mathematics is trapped in history. “The most brilliant intellect is a prisoner within its own social inheritance.” So, in discussing any part of mathematics we must ask one question, “what purposes is mathematics obligated to, what interests does it serve?” In this discussion it seems that mathematics is treated as a neutral language used by economists to study and explain economic actions and arrangements. But per Hogben, that’s not possible. But also embedded in the discussion is the contention that mathematics serves the purposes of the economy, whatever those are. If that’s the case, then obviously it’s paramount to identify those purposes. My question to each of you is then, this, what are the purposes of economics and the economy?

    • February 14, 2018 at 3:45 pm

      How much of this comment is Hogben and how much Ken, one wonders? I’ve got Hogben’s famous trilogy and formed the impression he was a socialist imprisoned in his own [Marxist?] view of history. Nevertheless he sounds a great guy. From Wikipedia

      “He had acquired socialist convictions, changing the name of [Cambridge] university’s Fabian Society to Socialist Society and went on to become an active member of the Independent Labour Party.” [Note the INDEPENDENT, suggesting a radical rather than a camp follower].


      “”I like Scandinavians, skiing, swimming and socialists who realize it is our business to promote social progress by peaceful methods. I dislike football, economists, eugenicists, Fascists, Stalinists, and Scottish conservatives. I think that sex is necessary and bankers are not”. [YES! if perhaps – as a lifelong Manchester City supporter – I dislike just now not the football so much as its crazy economics and violence-permitting referees].

      It doesn’t follow that mathematics is not neutral. It is the uses to which it can be put which have purpose and are not neutral. As a language its ‘words’ are open to abuse just as the word ‘marriage’ was for nefarious perposes applied to mutual commitments between persons of the same sex which were perfectly adequately and unambiguously diistinguished as civil partnerships. Sure the word ‘mathematics’ can be applied to Newton’s calculus, but the reality is that it is a portmanteau word, denoting something like a toolbox in which there are many different types of tools: not all simply different but some using others as components. Ken may live in a ‘flat earth society’ where all fruit is just fruit and not citrous fruit or oranges, limes and lemons, but I’m imprisoned in a different history full of different types of things and algorithmic structures repeatedly using components and sub-components ultimately talking to physical processors and memories.

      As for the purpose[s] of the economy, they were there before humanity invented economics: the biological urgue to feed the kinds, and the predatory urge to feed them at someone else’s expense. Logically the predators in our economy are cannibals, but mentally they have degenerated to become Thomas More’s “sheep eating men”.

      • February 15, 2018 at 7:22 am

        Dave, the quote is from page 16 of the eBook. Don’t know page number in paper book. But the general message of the quote runs through the book. Socialist, communist, whatever, Hogben seems to have his perspectives straight when he recognizes the historicality of mathematics. Nothing invented by humans is neutral. Humans always build things based on their own interests and where those lead. You say, “Ken may live in a ‘flat earth society’ where all fruit is just fruit and not citrous fruit or oranges, limes and lemons, but I’m imprisoned in a different history full of different types of things and algorithmic structures repeatedly using components and sub-components ultimately talking to physical processors and memories.” But it seems, David it is you who is imprisoned in a world where mathematics is neutral but can be misused. Mathematics can be misused and it’s never neutral. Both are the case, not one or the other.

        Interesting picture of the economy’s purposes. It does a disservice to Sapiens’ imagination.

      • February 15, 2018 at 9:02 am

        I was, of course, trying to be humorous. The serious point I was trying to make was that neither mathematics nor brains are as simple as the words referring to them. They are good so far as they go, but can become problematic when the situation requires them to go further, the failure mode depending on which bit is inadequate. I’ve been reading Boulding’s “Economics as a Science”, where on “as Mathematics” he says the advantage of the mathematical language is that it is virtually unambiguous, then illustrates it with the algebraic representtion of a square, which IS ambiguous! He says “as Hume pointed out long ago, there is no way of comparing an image with the corresponding reality”, though in fact Hume distinguished dim memory from vivid perception, which does just that: the eye focussing on the appearances of what is there to be seen much as a daisy turns its own head towards the sun, adjusting its own position by absorbing energy as strain in internal molecular bonds. I don’t blame Hume for being wrong 250 years ago, and I’ve had 50 years longer than Boulding to think about these things, but the mistakes do matter. “Sheep eating men” does a disservice not to Sapiens as a whole, but that portion of it which, like a sheep, uses the emotion-sensory motor-imaging parts of its brain and not the imaginative-sensory motor-logical parts. I had in mind the 1% subconsciously progrommed in Social Darwinism who because they are rich, see themselves as supermen rather than mere mortals. That lead however has been followed by “white” men despising those of colour, and the abominations not just of gated compounds but of the slave trade, apatheid and the Ku Klux Clan. Unthinking sheep, the lot of them, when they are not Faustian wolves in sheep’s clothing.

      • February 16, 2018 at 6:30 am

        Sorry Dave, missed the humor. But just a few thoughts. First, neither mathematics nor brains are the words. They are the lived experience, both current and historical. The words can be changed, but the experience is ongoing. Second, mathematics is certainly ambiguous. For example, how is it determined that a proof has been shown, a truth used correctly, when we count four of anything, how do we figure out the four are all the same thing? An even simpler example – when is zero really zero? Hume’s example is just wrong. When we compare a statue to a photo of the statue we’re comparing two social constructs. Which one is real? Both and neither. Social constructs are all that humans have. We’re not in touch with realty in any ontological sense. But agree with you on Social Darwinism. It’s hopefully an evolutionary dead end. But since evolution is a non-linear process, Social Darwinism may be around for a while.

      • February 16, 2018 at 10:16 am

        Glad to see we agree on Social Darwinism, Ken, but it matters that you are still making the epistemic fallacy and missing the ontology that Tony Lawson et al have been on about. I think the main difference between us may be between your static and my dynamic (hence incidentally more flexible) way of thinking. Take for example your statement “Social Constructs are that humans have”. I can agree with this, but how did we get what we have?

        The answer I gave in my previous response was to the effect that we can be touched by the appearances of reality, and we can adapt ourselves to this. Which takes us back to Bacon’s ethical scientific methodology: taking things to bits to see how they work inside “for the glory of God and the relief of Man’s estate”); Descartes’ attempt to take the brain to bits culminating in his despised Ghost in the Machine; Locke’s Tabula Rasa; Bishop Berkeley’s “God [Holy Ghost] activating the machine”; and Hume’s social construct version of scientific methodology and [long before today’s nature-nurture debate] reduction of a grateful “God the Creator-focussed” ethics to a socially [representative democracy] constructed morality. Christ’s position was that with the ethic of mutal love, one will go along with local moral prohibitions anyway, even if the God-given Ten Commandments turn out to be “fatherly advice” in the context of the Old Testament. The ethic doesn’t however follow from the morality.

        So, as I see it, you are still following the example of a Doubting Thomas, who didn’t believe what he had not yet seen. As a scientist I’ve worked out the consequences of taking the view that energy exists (rather than a non-existing brain distorting our view of a non-existent space), and made sense of what I have been taught in terms of matter being energy localised by circulation (hence the possibility of extracting nuclear energy). It turns out that the motion of energy spreads sidewise as well as going forward – so it has side as well as obvious effects – and that in the brain, the side effect of such reaction is to focus senses as well as to do things. That is ultimately the difference between Hume and myself. He argues that all we have is what we have seen, whereas my Critical Realist ontology concludes that what IS – what exists – is not what it looks like, it is what it DOES. (Or at a deeper level, its internal process: how it does it, as in a steam engine rather than a diesel).

        I hope you can see that this is a reasonable position, and at least respect it. When the objective is changing understanding by paradigm change it is extremely unhelpful wasting time by arguing at cross purposes. Where I’ve been finding your sharings particularly “respectable” has been in their much more direct awareness of American conditions.

      • February 16, 2018 at 1:27 pm

        Dave, please allow me to close out this discussion, since we don’t seem to be going anywhere, with a repeat of my basics. Like many current historians I believe in two basics from which humans build their ways of life (“real worlds”). 1) interactions 2) performances. Humans interact with humans and nonhumans. In these interactions human must perform, must take actions. From these two elements all human culture (religion, science, speech, law, government, mathematics, literature, etc.) is constructed. In one of his articles, Yuval Harari (Israeli historian) describes these constructions in video game terminology. “What is a religion if not a big virtual reality game played by millions of people together? Religions such as Islam and Christianity invent imaginary laws, such as “don’t eat pork”, “repeat the same prayers a set number of times each day”, “don’t have sex with somebody from your own gender” and so forth. These laws exist only in the human imagination. No natural law requires the repetition of magical formulas, and no natural law forbids homosexuality or eating pork. Muslims and Christians go through life trying to gain points in their favorite virtual reality game. If you pray every day, you get points. If you forget to pray, you lose points. If by the end of your life you gain enough points, then after you die you go to the next level of the game (aka heaven).” Harari goes on, “Consumerism too is a virtual reality game. You gain points by acquiring new cars, buying expensive brands and taking vacations abroad, and if you have more points than everybody else, you tell yourself you won the game.” “In all cases, the meaning we ascribe to what we see is generated by our own minds. It is not really ‘out there.’ To the best of our scientific knowledge, human life has no meaning. The meaning of life is always a fictional story created by us humans.” Harari ends the article with this, “But what about truth? What about reality? Do we really want to live in a world in which billions of people are immersed in fantasies, pursuing make believe goals and obeying imaginary laws? Well, like it or not, that’s the world we have been living in for thousands of years already.” For a long time, religion and science were given a pass in constructionism. That’s no longer the case for religion, and only partially so for science. I consider both to be made-up make believe. This approach allows exceptional insights into the history and impacts of events and human actions. For which my clients pay me. A definite up-side for me. And I feel no regret or sense of pain from this. After all, there is no justice in history except what humans create.

      • February 16, 2018 at 10:24 am

        My apologies for the word “all” missing from my quotation of Ken in my first paragraph here. I am quite sure this was not my fault. The most likely explanation – because the internet breakss messages up into small packages for transmission – is that one of the packages got lost en route.

      • February 16, 2018 at 1:50 pm

        I am not prepared to close this discussion by allowing you to talk out my contribution. (What do you politicians call it: filibustering)? All you needed to say was that you are not prepared to agree with me that your “interactions” implies some form of energy which interacts, nor that actions have consequences that can be characterised and warned against.

        I haven’t liked your attitude before, but here your arrogance disgusts me.

      • February 16, 2018 at 7:12 pm

        Dave, I was merely attempting to be polite. You know Southern gentleman and all that. I seem to be more offensive to you with each passing day. But if you wish to continue our conversation, I’m certainly okay with that. Also, as you have several times explained where you’re coming from, I wanted to return that candor.

  8. February 14, 2018 at 3:19 pm

    Lancelot Hogben’s Mathematics for the Million is a great book. It became a book read by millions of people just as its title expresses. It is an symbolic work which represents a high tide of Marxist thought of natural sciences. The first edition of Hogben’s book was published in 1937. 1930’s were a decade of externalist age. It is not surprising that Hogben expressed this kind of remarks. Other big names are J. B. S. Haldane, one of founders of population genetics and John Desmond Bernal, the pioneer of X-ray crystallography.

    I personally respect them, but I doubt if their externalist view of sciences and mathematics were plausible one.

  9. Rob Reno
    February 15, 2018 at 11:31 pm

    In her call for economists to pay attention to the metaphors and narrative structures that comprise economic argument not less than they do the intellectual output of the humanities, McCloskey (1998A, 1990, and 1994) has clearly identified and criticized the tendency in modernist economics to fetishize so-called scientific ways of constructing discourse. Her criticism focuses primarily on the related points that scientific, in any field, and without question in economics, relies on standard recognizable literary and discursive forms of persuasion and that the preference for what passes for science should not be grounded in the presumption that economists do something called theory that somehow is not a function of the forms of rhetoric and literary construction. (Ruccio et. al. 2003, 253-254)

    As noted above historically the externalist-internalist bipolar rhetoric (EIBR) dates to the 1930s going back to Bukharin and Hessen in the Soviet Union and were used as an instrument of rhetoric and political propaganda; more about dismissing truth from other domains of knowledge than about shedding light upon some specific domain. Slava Gerovitch (1996) in Perestroika of the History of Technology and Science in the USSR: Changes in the Discourse provides a history of EIBR that sheds light on the usage of these terms. Further insights are found in Ernest B. Hook (2002) in Prematurity in Scientific Discovery. John Henry (2008) in The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science notes “In fact, neither position seems to have been properly established as valid or viable.” Gerovitch and Hook are in agreement; there is a middle way, which both Gerovitch and Henry note; i.e., Gerovitch’s contextual history and Henry’s new eclectics. The Soviet history is illuminating as well as Hook’s analysis.

    • February 17, 2018 at 8:35 am

      A very apposite comment, Rob. I personally am coming from a dynamic perspective in which the external and internal take the form of accidents of thought being given purpose in technology and the working out and failings of the technology clarifying the thoughts.

      Chesterton in “Orthodoxy” sees the Christian solution as not a compromise between these, not as a balance, but as “the still crash of two impetutous emotions”. His disciple, Dorothy L Sayers, one of the first lady graduates from Oxford, a lady as formidable as McClosky in her own period, saw it as a balance between centripetal and centrifugal forces, Harriet’s female and Peter’s male perspective, which needs to be maintained: hence this sonnet from “Gaudy Night ” about a spinning top (perhaps inspired by a line from Chesterton: “Round the speckled sky where our small spinning planet like a top is twirled …”):

      “Here then at home, by no more storms distrest,
      Folding laborious hands we sit, wings furled;
      Here in close perfume lies the rose leaf curled,
      Here the sun stands and knows not east nor west,
      Here no tide runs; we have come, last and best,
      From the wide zone in dizzying circles hurled
      Sleeps on its Axis, to the heart of rest.

      Lay on thy whips, O Love, that we upright
      Poised on the perilous point, in no lax bed
      May sleep, as tensions in the verberant core
      Of music sleeps; for if thou spare to smite,
      Staggering, we stoop; stooping, fall dumb and dead,
      And, dying so, sleep our sweet sleep no more”.

      • February 17, 2018 at 9:14 am


        “Here no tide runs; we have come, last and best,
        From the wide zone in dizzying circles hurled
        To that still centre where the spinning world
        Sleeps on its axis, to the heart of rest”.

  10. Jerry Lobdill
    February 16, 2018 at 9:48 pm

    I am not an economist. I am a retired applied physicist. But since 1964 I have been interested in macroeconomics and have studied it intensely as an avocation.

    I am a bit uncomfortable when the term entropy is used in connection with economics. Entropy in physics (where the term originated) is the tendency over time for an ordered system to become thoroughly disordered.

    The term, entropy, has been successfully used in information theory. Consider an image encoded initially at 40,000 bits/inch. As the resolution is decreased the image becomes less sharp, and finally totally unrecognizable. This is entropy.

    In economics, what is the analogous process? Take the evolution of wealth distribution for example. If an economic system evolves inexorably toward a bipolar distribution is that an entropic evolution? If the wealth distribution at time t=0 is uniform and as time passes it becomes bipolar, is that entropic? No. If, no matter what the wealth distribution is at t=0, over time it evolves inexorably to a uniform distribution and always returns to that state whenever human activity moves the distribution temporarily into a non-uniform state, then it is a homeostatic system tending toward equality, and if there is no perturbation the wealth distribution is constant and is said to be in homeostatic equilibrium.

    The economic policies and regulations of an economic system determine what wealth distribution state produces homeostatic equilibrium. In the case of major western economies that wealth distribution is unipolar, 99% poor vs 1% rich as Crassus.

    • February 17, 2018 at 9:06 am

      Thank you very much for this, Jerry. I like your choice of word, “avocation”, and your illustration of entropy in the declining sharpness of an image, which is spot on, yet one that had not occurred to me. With this the point of information science and physiologically the focussing of our senses is very obviously not entropy but “negentropy”. The demonstration that it is possible is surely the logical answer to those who say we have to put up with what we’ve got.

  11. Rob Reno
    February 17, 2018 at 2:21 am

    Arguments do not always wear their true purpose on their face, nor are courts required to take them at face value. Laws against miscegenation paraded in a religious and moral dress, but the Supreme Court ultimately held that they were nothing but a device to shore up “White Supremacy.” (Nussbaum 2008: 343-344)

    Insofare as “separation of church and state” is a good idea, it is good because of the way it supports equal respect, preventing the public realm establishing a religious doctrine that denigrates or marginalizes some group of citizens…. Our [legal and juridical] tradition has sought to put religion in a place apart from government, in some ways and with some limits, not because we think that it has no importance for the conduct of our lives or the choices we make as citizens, but for a very different reason. Insofar as it is a good, defensible value, the separaction of church and state is, fundamentally about equality, about the idea that no religion will be setup as the religion of our nation, an act that immediately makes outsiders unequal. Hence separation is also about protecting religion–minority religion, whose liberties and equalities are always under pressure from the zeal of majorities. (Nussbaum 2008: 11-12)

    Today, large segments of the Christian Right openly practice a politics based upon disgust. Depicting the sexual practices of lesbians and, especially, of gay men as vile and revolting, they suggest that such practices contaminate and defile society, producing decay and degeneration…. The politics of disgust is profoundly at odds with the abstract idea of a society based on the equality of all citizens, in which all have a right to the equal protection of the laws. It says that the mere fact that you happen to make me want to vomit is reason enough for me to treat you as a social pariah, denying you some of your most basic entitlements as a citizen.

    Martha Nussbaum, From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation & Constitutional Law

    Christianity, in its many historical manifestations and theological adaptations has, like the people who that believe in it, a long history of both propagating social injustice and fostering social injustice. (<a href="http://a.co/cRrPtBi"Moon 24, 1)

    What both developing science and religion need is more searching and fearless self-criticism, a greater awareness of incompleteness in evolutionary status. The teachers of both science and religion are often altogether too self-confident and dogmatic. Science and religion can only be self-critical of their facts. The moment departure is made from the stage of facts, reason abdicates or else rapidly degenerates into a consort of false logic. While the religion of authority and dogma may present a feeling of settled security and mistaken certainty, neither the Father or Jesus requires as the price of entering the kingdom of heaven that we should force ourselves to subscribe to a belief in things which are spiritually repugnant, unholy, and untruthful. It is not required of us that our own sense of mercy, justice, and truth should be outraged by submission to an outworn system of religious, beliefs, forms and ceremonies. The religion of the spirit — living experiential truth, beauty, and goodness — leaves us forever free to follow the truth wherever the leadings of the spirit may take us. And who can judge—perhaps this spirit may have something to impart to the younger generation which other generations have refused to hear?

    It is fundamentally unlike the Golden Rule to practice, endorse, or otherwise support homophobia in all its forms.

    There is nothing at all scientific about homophobic rhetoric. It is religious bigotry grounded in ignorance which is either unware or refuses the honestly face the fact and truth that sexuality in nature is a biological phenomenon — and that includes sexual attraction. Each passing year scientists learn more about human sexuality and one of the findings of science is that sexual attraction is both grounded in biology and is not binary; rather it exists on a spectrum. One of the most salient finding emerging from the study of human sexuality is just how early children discover they basic sexual orientation, regardless of their physical sex assigned at birth. Untold pain and suffering has been inflicted upon human beings because of religious bigotry and dogma. Both science and enlightened religious scholars today know this, and are speaking out. There is a Gender Revolution going on and the younger generation just won’t settle for anything less and that is good news indeed.

    See: Weeden 2008, Leaves 2008, Rogers 2009, Nussbaum 2008, Rice 2013, Ruse 1994.

    Some of my favorite references on the subject are:

    1. Leaves, Nigle. A Journey in Life. In When Faith Meets Reason: Religion Scholars Reflect on Their Spiritual Journeys (Ed., Charles W. Hedrick). Santa Rosa, California: Polebridge Press; 2008; p. 26.
    Rogers, Jack. Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality. Revised ed. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminister John Knox Press; 2009.
    3. Nussbaum, Martha. From Disgust to Humanity [Sexual Orientation & Constitutional Law]. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2010; p. xiv.
    4. Nussbaum, Martha.
    Liberty of Conscience [In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality]. New York: Basic Books; 2008; pp. 334-346.

    • Rob Reno
      February 17, 2018 at 3:23 am

      Editor, please change “grounded in biology and is not binary” to ” grounded in biology and is not simply binary.” And please fix the malformed html.

  12. Jerry Lobdill
    February 17, 2018 at 5:24 pm

    Thanks, Dave. Those who say we have to put up with what we’ve got are protecting the honeypot of the rentiers whether they know it or not. The emperor has no clothes. If I can see this clearly, those professional economists who don’t see it should be ashamed.

  13. Rob Reno
    February 17, 2018 at 6:48 pm

    There is nothing nefarious about same-sex marriage and equal protection under the law. To imply that someone is wicked or criminal simply because they are biologically born homosexual (or transsexual, etc.) reveals the homophobic animus of the speaker. My extended response can be found here.

    • February 17, 2018 at 8:29 pm

      This is why I have reservations about Rob understanding what is being said. My objection was to changing the meaning of words instead of honestly stating one’s position and making a case for it. Here the case for civic partnerships had already been ceded. Changing the word accepted meaning of the word ‘marriage’ and claiming a homophobic animus in those who object to the change reveals an anti-religious animus, dishonesty and illogicality in the complainants. The point in the context of economics, anyway, is that the same situation applies with calling credit wealth rather than a responsibility and other people’s monetary debts a financial asset.

      • Rob Reno
        February 17, 2018 at 8:41 pm

        Separate but equal is a sham argument masking a deeper animus. Fear, ignorance, and disgust are not good reasons to enact public policy that discriminates against minorities. The use of the term nefarious makes your intent perfectly clear.

      • Rob Reno
        February 18, 2018 at 6:30 am

        The misinformed claim that same-sex marriage changes “the accepted meaning of the word ‘marriage'” reveals a deep ignorance of the Judeo-Christian tradition:

        The Judeo-Christian tradition that supposedly undergirds … [such] beliefs does not support the idea of marriage as a changeless institution created by God in the beginning. The Old Testament patriarch Jacob had four wives. King David’s eight wives are named in the Bible, though he had many more. The book of I Kings describes the amorous King Solomon, who “loved many strange women, together with the daughter of Pharaoh, women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites.” He took seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. To be sure, these various marital structures were never same-sex, but only in that limited sense do they seem continuous with marriage as understood in the twenty-first century. In contemporary Western culture women are no longer property to be hoarded by kings or jealous tribal chiefs. Fathers do not barter their daughters to advance family fortunes. And nobody has hundreds of wives. Strangely, that historical context and the dramatic changes to marriage that Americans had adopted seemed lost on [the ignorant and uninformed], which continued to argue that gay marriage amounted to the first radical change in the history of the institution. (Randall and Giberson 2001: 134-135)

        If the truth matters, then it matters in both science and religion. Homophobia has no place in intelligent discussions of economics.

    • February 18, 2018 at 9:28 am

      Rob, it was you who raised the issue of homophobia. I was talking about the word ‘marriage’ and deceit by using euphemisms. I had been going to write to you off-line about this, but your “factual” interpretation of the biblical history leaves me little choice but to spell the issues out here. Agreed the “mores” regarding marriage have changed, but the background to that is economic.

      In days before there were national welfare systems providing financial assistance, the tradition was that if a man died, his brother would assume ressponsibility for his widow and orphans by taking them into his own household . Also, tribute to conquerors often included the young women of the losers, who again (with luck) would be taken into the household “harems” of the conquerors. In the Christian tradition, then, we have objections to masturbation (the sin of Oman) and sodomy (the sin of Sodom). If you look up the stories of Oman and Sodom, Rob, you will find in the first that Oman’s brother died, but he detested his brother’s wife so much that he spilled his seed on the ground rather than marry her [thereby accepting responsibility for her]. Likewise when the Sodomites won a war and were offered virgins in tribute, they refused and demanded the young men be sent so they could be emasculated by being raped.

      Was the sin in the action or the insult or the refusal of responsibility? Innocent and literal minded people tend not to see past the action, and sadly, to condemn what they do not understand, or to forgive too easily, thinking “there but for the grace of God go I”. As a child I saw dogs doing it, so I have always thought of these issues in terms of weakness and abnormality. I see those affected as no more to be despised and ostracised than someone who has had the misfortune to lose a limb, though conversely, revelling in, advocating and inflicting them deserve to be condemned as perversion.

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