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Necessary inventions …

from Lars Syll

pointless-inventions1

The quasi-peaceable gentleman of leisure, then, not only consumes of the staff of life beyond the minimum required for subsistence and physical efficiency, but his consumption also undergoes a specialisation as regards the quality of the goods consumed. He consumes freely and of the best, in food, drink, narcotics, shelter, services, ornaments, apparel, weapons and accoutrements, amusements, amulets, and idols or divinities.

Thorstein Veblen

  1. Yoshinori Shiozawa
    September 10, 2019 at 10:58 pm

    A citation from the famous chapter on Conspicuous Consumption of Thorstein Veblen’s Economics of Leisure Class (1899)?

    Challenges to a new theory of consumption (including cinspicuous consumption) exist. See for example

    Richard Nelson and Davide Consoli (2010) An Evolutionary Theory of Household Consumption Behavior. Journal of Evolutionary Economics 20(5): 665–687.
    https://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/20197/1/MPRA_paper_20197.pdf

  2. Rob
    September 12, 2019 at 9:23 am

    Even such purely academic theories as interpretations of human nature have profound practical consequences if disseminated widely enough. If we impress upon people that science has discovered that human beings are motivated only by the desire for material advantage, they will tend to live up to this expectation, and we shall have undermined their readiness to moved by impersonal ideals. By propagating the opposite view we might succeed in producing a larger number of idealists, but also help cynical exploiters to find easy victims. This specific issue, incidentally, is of immense actual importance, because it seems that the moral disorientation and fanatic nihilism which afflict modern youth have been stimulated by the popular brands of sociology and psychology [and economics] with their bias for overlooking the more inspiring achievements and focusing on the dismal average or even the subnormal. When, fraudulently basking in the glory of the exact sciences, the psychologists [, theoretical economists, etc.,] refuse to study anything but the most mechanical forms of behavior — often so mechanical that even rats have no chance to show their higher faculties– and then present their mostly trivial findings as the true picture of the human mind, they prompt people to regard themselves and others as automata, devoid of responsibility or worth, which can hardly remain without effect upon the tenor of social life. (Andreski 1973, 33-34, in Social Sciences as Sorcery)

  3. Ken Zimmerman
    September 12, 2019 at 1:04 pm

    Yoshinori, the paper you cite to begins with and stays on the wrong track. Its abstract says, “Evolutionary economics badly needs a behavioral theory of household consumption behavior…” Okay, far as it goes. But then the abstract states, “…but to date only limited progress has been made on that front. Partly because Schumpeter’s own writings were focused there, and partly because this has been the focus of most of the more recent empirical work on technological change, modern evolutionary economists have focused on the “supply side.” Simple question. Do these “evolutionary economists” believe that the folks who do all this consumption create beliefs about why they do it? If yes, then aren’t these “theor[ies] of consumption behavior” the theories for which they’re searching?” If yes, then shouldn’t they be researching them? If no, why? Are the theories of evolutionary economists superior in some way, more informative, more closely tied to empirical events? I think not. Once again the hubris of the economist raises up and strikes down the theories of those who perform the consumption. This is precisely how not to reveal the objects of the economists’ study. But, then again these may not actually be the economists’ objects of study. Perhaps that honor goes to the writings of other economists.

    • Craig
      September 12, 2019 at 6:27 pm

      Economics doesn’t need another data point “insight” it needs an entirely new philosophy, a philosophy which alters the entire pattern of economics in beneficial ways for every agent individual and commercial and makes the system flow with the abundant fluidity that the current data point rich pattern fails to accomplish.

    • Yoshinori Shiozawa
      September 12, 2019 at 6:35 pm

      Ken Zimmerman,
      If you are dissatisfied, you are free to build a better theory. I want to read it.

      Are you thinking that criticizing other people’s opinion can replace the fact that you cannot propose such a theory? If you stay on the right track, what do you produce instead of people who are on the wrong track.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        September 13, 2019 at 12:29 am

        Yoshinori, I’m not satisfied or dissatisfied. It’s not my job to be either. Neither is it my job to invent theories to explain what people already explain. My job as an anthropologist is to reveal and describe the theories people invent to explain the behaviors (actions) they invent. In other words, the objects of my study do all the work. They invent it all. It’s my job to invent and perform ways to reveal all this work and write it up so others can understand it, also.

      • Yoshinori Shiozawa
        September 13, 2019 at 11:48 am

        Perhaps Ken is proclaiming that he is a bystander for ever. Even though he claims he “reveal[s] and describe[s] the theories they [theorists ] invent”, he is also declaring that he does not understand theory making because he can only comment after a theory is invented. A beautiful philosophy of an owl that flies over the shrine of Minerva!

        We must doubt his ability to advance his anthropology, because it is itself a theory making.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        September 13, 2019 at 12:52 pm

        Yoshinori, Anthropologists are humans, so they do sometimes “theorize” about alternatives for the cultures and societies they observe. But they work hard not to impose these on their descriptions of these cultures and societies. This is born more out of experience than any grand theory of human rights and wrongs. For the first 100 years of its existence Anthropology did some terrible things all summed in the term “ethnocentrism.” Anthropology invented racial grouping, and that had some very bad results. Anthropology also invented the developmental scale upon which nations are ranked, even today. Did you think underdeveloped and 3rd world were accidental phrases? And probably early Anthropology’s greatest mistake is invention of the “noble savage,” leading to the deaths of thousands of indigenous peoples. After these events, anthropology, particularly in America took as its role to show all cultures, in all their splendor and differences as fully, completely, and accurately as it could. Historians have a similar mandate, but look back to reveal past cultures and societies. As to the Owl of the shrine of Minerva, unless my college Greek teacher was wrong, the Owl of Minerva stands for the wisdom of philosophy, of Athena. Anthropology is a “theory” in the same way as all cultures and all societies are theories, made up by humans to give them a foundation for their lives.

      • Yoshinori Shiozawa
        September 13, 2019 at 7:15 pm

        Ken you must be right in your reflections on anthropology. Anthropology committed many mistakes. Economics, too. To redress it needs a new theory building.

        To cite a simple example, the term “underdeveloped” has been replace by the term “developing”. Although I do not think this a great development of economics, this example may serve as a good example. Only accusing the term “underdeveloped” alone brings no progress. You have to propose a new (more neutral or more correctly descriptive) term such as “developing”. In the same guise, when mainstream economics is fundamentally wrong, it is necessary to propose a new economics, even if the latter may not be superior one in all aspects.

        I am accusing Lars Syll’s way of argument (not himself or his person), because he is always accusing the mainstream but he has no will to construct or to suggest an alternative. The fact that he has no will to build or create an alternative himself is not wrong. If he thinks he is not well adapted to do so, it is a good judgement. Even in that case, he has many other modes of argument. The simplest way is to introduce or show efforts or results of other economists who are trying to produce an alternative.

        What Lars Syll is actually doing is to dispel all hopeful young students from economics (or social science, if you like) and is helping the realm of mainstream economics to continue longer.

        N.B. I referred to the Owl of Minerva only to suggest that we should not be satisfied only to speak hindsight. Even if we have no power to predict something precisely, we should try to seek foresight.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        September 14, 2019 at 11:40 am

        Yoshinori, Anthropological studies are over 400 years old, although anthropology as a distinct discipline wasn’t created till the middle of the 18th century. It would be more surprising if during that long history, anthropologists had not committed errors, traveled down wrong paths. As to terminology, I don’t believe developing is any improvement over underdeveloped, since both force societies to be ranked on a scale over which the societies had no control. Economists, considering the relatively young age of their discipline have made a great many more mistakes than anthropologists up to the current day. The survival of Sapiens is the only measure for the cultures humans create, as it is for biological evolution. Cultures either aid that survival or harm it. The current economics discipline harms more that aids. People like Lars attempt to identify the scope of that harm. As for proposals to repair or halt this harm, I’ve made several. Including using the Nordic economies to redesign the discipline, redesigning the discipline by using socialist assumptions as its foundation, and re-creating economics as a historically focused discipline occupied primarily with historical studies. Others have offered game theory, evolutionary theory, and pragmatism as potential reform sources for economics. I take it you don’t favor any of these. My only concern with hopeful young students of economics is that there are any of them remaining.

  4. Gerald Holtham
    September 12, 2019 at 5:14 pm

    Economists have justly been accused – some of them anyway – of “physics envy”, resulting in an effort to derive explanations of all economic behaviour from a few axioms of consistent choice. This tendency is not universal among economists and most of those who practice it are aware of its limitations. Many contributors to this blog however seem to suffer from “economics envy” . This gives rise to a complex whereby they concentrate on the limitations of the discipline and ignore occasions where it has proved useful or focus on its most egregious errors and attribute them to all economists all the time. There are many targets within economics worthy of a battering so focus on them. Inflating all criticism into an an attempted indictment of all economists and all economics is just silly. It lets the worst travesties off the hook and turns off everyone else.

    • Yoshinori Shiozawa
      September 12, 2019 at 6:50 pm

      Gerald Holtham,

      Indeed, “physics envy” is a mirror image of “economics envy”. Wholesale criticism of economics may be a reflection of the fact that they have once tried to occupy a decent place in economics and have failed or have been refused. Although I do not believe too much psychoanalysis, we can understand behavior and reactions of many contributors to this blog in its framework.

    • Ken Zimmerman
      September 13, 2019 at 12:16 am

      Gerald, as physicists have begun to figure out, a non-empirical axiomatic approach has never worked even for physics. Makes it even more unlikely it would work for economics. Most economists have not yet recognized the limitations (extreme) of this approach. As to “economics envy” by contributors here, I concur, in part. Mainstream economics has too many limitations, has screwed up too many times, and has created too much chaos and harm that these really can’t be ignored. I do indict this economics and, as I’ve suggest earlier it should be shut now entirely. Its dangers are just too great to keep it around.

  5. ghholtham
    September 16, 2019 at 1:31 pm

    What is the “it” you want to close down? All systematic study of commercial actions and their consequences in society? Whose interests would that serve? All economics departments in all universities or only some? I think you should control your irritation and pick more specific targets.

    A non-empirical approach is to be deplored but starting with axioms has proved useful in some branches of science for some problems. That’s why it has lasted so long. It has proved useful in some microeconomic contexts. For example the British government extracted much larger payments when auctioning radio frequencies by using game theory that assumed the tendering companies were rational profit maximisers. The assumption was literally false but near enough in context to be useful. In macroeconomics the axiomatic approach is a total failure. But I’ve known that for about forty years and I’m not the only one.

  6. September 19, 2019 at 5:31 pm

    Gerald, as the word ‘economics’ was intended to refer to household management, it might be a good idea to stop pretending it refers to workshop (classical) or [pawn]shop (neoclassical) management and go back to how the human race had best go about feeding and educating its kids. “Systematic study of commercial actions and their consequences in society”, yes, but in their context of human life, not Ken’s diverse and by now largely malignant societies.

    Ken says: “As for proposals to repair or halt this harm, I’ve made” – no, referred to – “several. Including using the Nordic economies to redesign the discipline, redesigning the discipline by using socialist assumptions as its foundation, and re-creating economics as a historically focused discipline occupied primarily with historical studies. Others have offered game theory, evolutionary theory, and pragmatism as potential reform sources for economics”.

    I quote this to throw in an understanding of “socialist assumptions” I didn’t have words for but found in Harro Maas’s “Mechanical Reasoning: William Stanley Jevons and the Making of Modern Economics (p.7):

    “Wicksteed’s crushing criticism of Bernard Shaw’s complacent discussion of Jevon’s utility theory made the Fabians decide to base their theory of value on Jevons’ theory of value instead of Marx’s, and to combine Jevons’ theory of value with Ricardo’s theory of rent”.

    Now you may understand why I have never supported the British Labour Party, though until the appearance of the Green Party I have felt this has left me politically unrepresented.

    As for myself, I’m not envious of physicists, because my experience working in physics led me to realise it had thrown the baby out with the bathwater when it chose to believe the energy of the universe to be derived from [in Ken’s metaphysics] imaginary eternal matter rather than invisible primal energy. I’m not a Newton seeing an apple fall, but having refocused on the physics of linguistic communication, perhaps half a dozen gestalts over sixty years have enabled me to see familiar patterns in practice transformed into uncomplicated general principles that resolve the disconnects between a Big Bang, quantum theory and gravitational mechanics, explaining the evolution of control from the expansion of energy to the PID form of cybernetics accounting for all four of Newton’s laws of motion. This seems only to have been recognised around 1968 but in retrospect is discernible in Keynes’ General Theory.

    So, I suppose in economic terms I’m trying to contribute as an evolutionary theorist, but a Keynesian macro rather than a Darwinian micro one. Genetics are the achievement of an older era. Of the beginning, the analogy of God’s desire for Fatherhood is more humanly encouraging than a mechanical theory of Creation or leaving the Big Bang unexplained. For me, humanity is a form of life which, having evolved language, has become free to anticipate and realistically imagine events and consequences in times beyond its sensory horizon. That is a freedom which we need to develop and use if we are to make the “necessary inventions” this post is calling for, to renew the face of our Earth before the Owl of Minerva has flown. [Well said, Yoshinori].

    It has been good here to see Fullbrook’s “Market-value” being advertised, and Mr Doyle echoing G K Chesterton [in ‘Orthodoxy’] echoing “the high and powerful words of Mr Belloc”:

    “Do not, I beseech you, be troubled by the increase of powers already in dissolution. You have mistaken the hour of the night: it is already morning”.

    • Ken Zimmerman
      September 20, 2019 at 3:35 pm

      Dave, do I understand you correctly that’s you’d prefer some sort of religious based economic arrangements? Just asking. If so, what would those assumptions look like?

      • September 20, 2019 at 11:21 pm

        Ken, you are making a category mistake when you suggest religion is about “arrangements”. It is about being grateful and therefore willing to commit oneself to perhaps inconvenient service.

        If one concludes that there is a Father-like God, then “it is right and fitting always and everywhere to give him thanks and praise”. Whether or not there is a God, arrangements like our credit card accounts (showing what we owe others for) are more likely to foster gratitude to each other and hence commitment to work, than debit card bank accounts (telling us what we have already paid for, how much we have left to spend or lose to theft, rents or taxes, whether or not already earned or accumulated by free-riding; fraudulently, for what they show as our credit is the bank’s imaginary claim on other people’s debt).

      • Ken Zimmerman
        September 21, 2019 at 1:13 pm

        Dave, since humans make-up the categories, which am I abusing?

        Skipping over the “God” statements, I have a question. Why are,

        “arrangements like our credit card accounts (showing what we owe others for) are more likely to foster gratitude to each other and hence commitment to work, than debit card bank accounts (telling us what we have already paid for, how much we have left to spend or lose to theft, rents or taxes, whether or not already earned or accumulated by free-riding; fraudulently, for what they show as our credit is the bank’s imaginary claim on other people’s debt).”

        How do these relate to personal, corporate, and government debt today?

        Thanks.

  7. September 22, 2019 at 9:17 am

    Ken, humans RECOGNISE the categories, i.e. independent differences at a fundamental level. What they make up are words for them. Your abuse is as usual twisting the words. I referred respectfully to a mistake. As you asked about religion, it was disrespectful of you to ‘skip’ over my explanation of the concept and its relevance to economics, whether or not there is a Father God to apply it to.

    Your questions about ‘today’ are irrelevant to a conceptual discussion of ‘tomorrow’ apart from raising the question of what would be involved in getting from the one approach to the other. My answer to that is, in physical terms, “not a lot”. It is more a question of how we are to interpret what we already have (e.g. money and surpluses) and do (e.g. give credit and share surpluses rather than indebt others and accumulate what we don’t need). Figuratively, it amounts at a personal level to being paid at the beginning of the week and owing your employer work, instead of you having to work and his owing you credit for it. Investments in Business and Government give credit for provision of future services, which can be written off as those services are actually provided.

    The difficulty is not in the concepts. It lies in spoiled and abused children who, having got more than or at least enough, are frightened of losing it and take any suggestion of change as a personal affront. Hence free-riders resenting hard-working foreigners, the defence of the indefensible by undermining those who defend good sense, and famously the “not invented here” syndrome. What answer is there to that largely subconscious fear apart from reassurance and offering ways out of difficulties? But that gets caught up in the vicious circle of ingratitude spawning yet more abuse. It seems gratitude can only be born of desperation, when the time for the helping hand has come.

    • Craig
      September 22, 2019 at 6:41 pm

      Dave,
      We do appear to have similar spiritual/philosophical approaches although mine I think is more naturalistic. Personally I have no problem with a more traditionally spiritual approach so long as the major thrust and personal modus operandi of the novitiate is the contemplation of grace as in love in individual action/systemic policy.

      When you use terms like PID I do not understand.

      And when you say: It is more a question of how we are to interpret what we already have (e.g. money and surpluses) and do (e.g. give credit and share surpluses rather than indebt others and accumulate what we don’t need). Figuratively, it amounts at a personal level to being paid at the beginning of the week and owing your employer work, instead of you having to work and his owing you credit for it. Investments in Business and Government give credit for provision of future services, which can be written off as those services are actually provided.”…it appears you have accepted the DSGE/”no free lunch” libertarian viewpoint on macro-economics…instead of the inherently cost inflationary and hence monetarily scarce reality of high tech capital intensive macro economics.

      I don’t worry about abundance making us jaded both because “as a man thinketh so is he” and creating an everyday infrastructure of grace as in gifting will help everyone better self actualize that new cultural and personal pattern…..especially when you additionally proactively provide institutions and strongly suggest that everyone contemplate the various aspects of grace in all areas of life as I do in my book.

      • September 23, 2019 at 10:24 am

        Craig, the implication of your philosophy being more “naturalistic” is surely that it is less human?

        The acronym PID stands for the mathematical terms Proportional, Integral and Differential, which if you are not familiar with the differential calculus you can hardly be blamed for not understanding. There is however a subtlety in that numbers can represent directions as well as quantities, as in the direction of a hand on a clock which counts the hours. Fairly obviously, this is the normal form in the mathematics of circuits and circulation; it is highly significant in synchronising multiple processes happening on related timescales like the rotation of the second, minute, hour and day hands on a clock. In this form integration moves the hand forward through a right angle, differentiation moves it back, both together leave its direction unchanged, and two of either leave it pointing in the opposite direction.

        Because this is so unlikely to be familiar I have repeatedly used the term PID, hoping to make it so and tempt curious readers to look it up. However, I’ve also repeatedly explained how its concepts work out in the real world context of navigation, which is all about travelling in the intended direction. The captain, off-line, sets the intended course; the steersman corrects momentary errors in direction by adjustments Proportional to the size of the error; the second officer periodically adjusts the course to compensate for the Integral of positional errors due to tides, winds etc accumulated over time, and the look-out may signal a need for a Different course to avoid approaching danger (c.f. an investor moving funds out of a failing business); which however takes one off the intended course. If that happens to be providing for the needs of mankind, it will require a Keynesian Integral (more maintenance, precisely not more money making) to correct it.

      • September 23, 2019 at 11:05 am

        And no, I haven’t “accepted the DSGE/”no free lunch” libertarian viewpoint on macro-economics…instead of the inherently cost inflationary and hence monetarily scarce reality of high tech capital intensive macro economics”.

        PID, as a little thought about the navigational example I have given will clearly show, is not a “macro” viewpoint but a “logic” one, i.e. a logic of processes rather than words. As such it applies to all and even (as a concept) to none. The logic of navigation applies just as much to sailing a dinghy as steering a ship of state.

        Your “DSGE/no free lunch” quibbles are interesting enough to be worth responding to. Yes, the errors the navigator is correcting may for theoretical purposes be thought of as random (though in practice they are only so on a macro weather scale). And in the long term there is no free lunch. If one doesn’t correct errors due to avoidance action one will lose one’s bearings and run out of food or fuel before arriving at one’s destination.

        In practical terms my position is much nearer Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful” (derivative from Ruskin’s “Unto This Last” and “Crown of Wild Olive” and Chesterton’s “Outline of Sanity”) than to Smith’s “money making by mass production”. I would add the need for local PID feedbacks to make possible and therefore reasonable the voluntary control of population. The concern is the making of men, not (in both senses) making the most of them.

  8. Ken Zimmerman
    September 22, 2019 at 1:46 pm

    Dave, first today and tomorrow are interconnected, just as the two are with the past. I’m still struggling to understand what point you’re trying to make with “your” distinction between paid before work or given credit for work you’ll perform in the future. But I’m not too worried about it.

    It’s my experience that “free-riders” resent anyone who is not a free-riders. It’s also my experience that it’s conservatives who are often, not always frightened of losing what they have (power, money, prestige) and take any suggestion of change as a personal attack. This new breed of conservatives are “individualists” who neither recognize community nor would accept support from it if they did. But they will steal from everyone. They equal rights thieves. Strike first, take before others do, is their motto, if they had a motto. This may change with the fear of death or retribution, but I don’t much else can change it.

    • September 23, 2019 at 9:23 am

      Ken, of course today and tomorrow are connected. The issue is whether they are (or in another sense can be) different. I was not trying to “make” a point with that difference between payment before and after. I was trying to illustrate, if you like, the difference between personal ethics and enforced morality, in which the issue and justice of personal responsibility needs to be made obvious by the practice, as in the difference between credit card and debit card accounts. Incidentally, your inverted thinking has exchanged before and after in the expression of your quibble: I argued for credit BEFORE work as against payment FOR it.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        September 23, 2019 at 12:40 pm

        Thanks for the clarifications, Dave. As to past, present, and future, they’re different depending on which society is considering them. Humans are socialized into the society into which they are born. That includes moral and ethical codes of conduct. Those can be corrupted by botched socialization (we get serial killers) and modified by changes in the society or by changes in a person’s experiences. Those changes are limited, however by the need for each member of a society for a sense of identity, which is based in one’s society. In other words, one can rebel or offer alternatives only up to the point tolerated by the other members of the society. My apology for misrepresenting your payment before and after view.

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