Home > Uncategorized > Three analytical questions that do not arise in standard neoclassical economics

Three analytical questions that do not arise in standard neoclassical economics

from Herman Daly and RWER issue #90

Regarding quantification ecological economists distinguish growth from development. Growth is increase in size by assimilation or accretion of matter – it is quantitative. Development is qualitative improvement in design, priorities, or purpose. Growth is easier to measure than development, but development is more important for the future. Sustainable development, so-called, is qualitative improvement without quantitative growth in scale beyond ecosystem capacities for waste absorption and resource regeneration. By accepting ecological limits, we force the path of progress away from quantitative growth and on to qualitative development. Some argue that because economics deals with growth in value (GDP), it does not really encounter physical limits. While it is true that value cannot be expressed in simple physical units, it is also true that value of production is measured in units of “dollar’s worth”, not dollars, and a dollar’s worth of anything is a physical quantity, namely that quantity that can be purchased for one dollar. Aggregating many diverse “dollar’s worth” quantities into GDP does not erase the physical dimensions. The eagerness to defend “growthism” gives rise to many lame arguments.

The key to understanding ecological economics is its pre-analytic vision of the economy as an open subsystem of a larger ecosystem that is finite, non-growing, and materially closed (though open with respect to solar energy). This immediately suggests three analytical questions that do not arise in standard neoclassical economics:

  1. How large is the economic subsystem relative to the containing ecosystem?
  2. How large can it be?
  3. How large should it be?

These lead to the further question:

4. Is there an optimal scale beyond which physical growth in the economic subsystem begins to reduce total welfare by diminishing the sources of ecological services faster than it increases the sources of production services?  read more

  1. ghholtham
    January 29, 2020 at 3:28 pm

    We need to identify those elements in economic activity that put strain on the containing ecosystem in order to answer the second question. It is those elements that determine the sustainable size of the economic subsystem. The maximum size in terms of vectors of the strain variables is probably compatible with lots of different sizes in terms of dollar values. A dollar’s worth of anything is not necessarily a physical quantity – you can pay for information or to hear someone sing. And, more to the point, we don’t know that relative dollar values correlate with ecological damage. It is the ecological cost of each commodity or commodity type, not its market price, that is needed in order to identify the envelope of sustainable economies.

    Take a simple example. We can guesstimate the amount of CO2 that can economy can emit while being sustainable. We cannot say what the dollar value of the economy is that emits that amount of CO2 because there is more than one potential set of economic arrangements with zero or permissible levels of CO2 emission. The debate will be more fruitful, I think, if we specify a set of physical limits for things like agricultural land area, greenhouse gas emissions, volume or weight of non-biodegradable waste etc or anything else that threatens the ecosystem. Then we can insist that economies respect those limits. (How we do that politically I don’t know). If we do that, whether the dollar value of the economy is going up, down or sideways can take care of itself. We are dealing with physical systems and this time, anyway, Frank Salter’s point makes sense: respect the physical quantities and ensure that value maximisation is constrained by them.

    One tool in achieving this (though not one that will be enough on its own) is to tax activities according to how much they strain the ecosystem.

  2. January 30, 2020 at 12:50 pm

    In the full paper (at pp.145-6) Herman says “Also, I am surprised by many degrowthists’ apparent unwillingness to consider population as a part of the scale issue”.

    Well, they are part of the population, dependent on others in our economy for their livelihood and at risk from top-down solutions like Malthusian laissez-faire politics, nuclear warfare, the Holocaust we are currently remembering and uncontrolled plagues. (So good for the Chinese! Capitalism grew from sheep-farming English small-holdings depopulated by the Black Death).

    Herman still sees the answer in politics: “I personally wish that they would advocate some specific policies around which we might cohere, or lend their support to steady-state policies”. But what understanding of control is going to inform such policies? Culling our population by selling contraceptives has left Britain ageing and having to import workers to earn its keep. Neither politicians nor the economists who inform them seem to have any idea about modern forms of control and the aims and information feedback necessary to exercise it locally. (This despite trade being regulated by price feedback and investment by unemployment feedback). Without a technical understanding of PID control in automatic pilots the appropriate policies are not obvious, and we haven’t yet cohered around half-baked opinions.

    The whole discussion is significant, but in this para Herman really captures the problem:

    “Degrowth has its origins more in social activism than in the history of economic thought, and
    is impatient with theory and specific policy. As some degrowthists put it, degrowth is a “missile
    word” aimed at blowing up conventional discussion and creating a vocabulary for new ideas. I
    can see the logic of their approach, and maybe they were understandably impatient with the slowness of steady-state economics to gain adherents, but they have not always done so and I believe their reason for not doing so is the fact that at current scale the economy is too large to be maintained as a steady state. It is well beyond optimum or even sustainable scale. However, this was recognized from the beginning in steady-state economics – the optimal scale is smaller than the present scale, so an initial period of negative growth is called for. But, before we can degrow we must stop growing. Furthermore, degrowth as a policy norm is at least as unsustainable as growth (it too cannot last forever). Indeed, even the steady-state economy cannot last forever, but it can provide longevity with sufficiency to a much greater extent than either growth or degrowth. Also, I am surprised by many degrowthists’ apparent unwillingness to consider population as a part of the scale issue”.

    • January 31, 2020 at 11:50 am

      Apologies for this wretched site messing my formatting by not stripping invisible new lines in copied material. Anyway, rereading the RWER paper, I was delighted to find its conclusion returning to this issue in terms I entirely agree with.

      Jamie: “This brings us to a final point. … not as a retrospective thought experiment regarding how we got to where we are, more as a how can we get to where we need to go … For example, a reasonable question to ask in the context of ecological economics and the steady state is what forms of ownership are least likely to encourage subversion of our collective interest in a steady-state at an appropriate scale; which type is most likely to provide the
      required information to make the whole work and which type is most likely to act in the spirit of
      the system rather than based on other mechanisms?

      Herman: “As you say, this is a fundamental question, and was well stated by Edmund Burke … Without objective value, what controlling power on will and appetite (preferences) can there be? Only external police power, or the Malthusian positive constraints of nature’s coercion. In C. S. Lewis’s words, “A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.” This sounds extreme, but is logic itself. … But where does our knowledge of objective value come from? I would say from religious insight, specifically in the West from the Judeo-Christian tradition”.

      What Herman perhaps doesn’t notice is that this dogmatically values humans and their helping each other (e.g. my “giving way at cross-roads”) rather than the things they they want to own. Lewis, incidentally, learned his logic from G K Chesterton: for me the human prelude to time sharing in digital computers and use of redundancy in C E Shannon (my own technical answer to Jamie’s “how can we get to where we need to go”).

  3. Ken Zimmerman
    February 12, 2020 at 2:26 pm

    I argue that the ancient Greeks gave this same lesson, more simply and with more gut-level impact, in the story of the Golden Touch. Or, as businesspersons of the 19th century would title it, “The Midas touch.”

    The wish

    Midas was a king of great fortune who ruled the country of Phrygia, in Asia Minor. He had everything a king could wish for. He lived in luxury in a great castle. He shared his life of abundance with his beautiful daughter. Even though he was very rich, Midas thought that his greatest happiness was provided by gold. His avarice was such that he used to spend his days counting his golden coins! Occasionally he used to cover his body with gold objects, as if he wanted to bathe in them. Money was his obsession.

    One day, Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry, passed through the kingdom of Midas. One of his companions, a satyr named Silenus, was delayed along the way. Silenus became tired and decided to take a nap in the famous rose gardens surrounding the palace of king Midas. There, he was found by the king, who recognized him instantly and invited him to spend a few days at his palace. After that, Midas took him to Dionysus. The god of celebration, very grateful to Midas for his kindness, promised Midas to satisfy any wish of him. Midas thought for a while and then he said: I hope that everything I touch becomes gold. Dionysus warned the king to think well about his wish, but Midas was obsessed. Dionysus could do nothing else and promised the king that from the following day everything he touched would turn into gold.

    The curse

    The next day, Midas, woke up eager to see if his wish would become true. He extended his arm touching a small table that immediately turned into gold. Midas jumped with happiness! He then touched a chair, the carpet, the door, his bathtub, a table and so he kept on running in his madness all over his palace until he was exhausted and happy at the same time! He sat at the table to have breakfast and took a rose between his hands to smell its fragrance. When he touched it, the rose became gold. I will have to absorb the fragrance without touching the roses, I suppose, he thought in disappointment.

    Without even thinking, he ate a grape, but it also turned into gold! The same happened with a slice of bread and a glass of water. Suddenly, he started to sense fear. Tears filled his eyes and that moment; his beloved daughter entered the room. When Midas hugged her, she turned into a golden statue! Dispirited and fearful, he raised his arms and prayed to Dionysus to take this curse from him.

    The atonement

    The god heard Midas and felt sorry for him. He told Midas to go to the river Pactolus and wash his hands. Midas did so: he ran to the river and was astonished to see gold flowing from his hands. The ancient Greeks said they had found gold on the banks of the river Pactolus. When he returned home, everything Midas had touched had become normal again.

    Midas hugged his daughter in happiness and decided to share his great fortune with his people. From then on, Midas became a better person, generous and grateful for all goods of his life. His people led a prosperous life and when he died, they all mourned for their beloved king.

    Or, even more simply: it’s not possible to eat food, or drink water, or embrace loved ones that are gold. Or to breathe the golden air or swim in the golden river.

    • Craig
      February 12, 2020 at 7:28 pm

      Ah, the deeper insights that wisdom can impart.

      • Craig
        February 12, 2020 at 7:30 pm

        …in any scientific or social scientific discipline.

  4. ghholtham
    February 12, 2020 at 2:49 pm

    Ken, Dave, please read my first post and tell me if you think it’s wrong. If I am right degrow is a vague term that is not operational. The money-size of the economy is not the right metric. That said I share your hunch that respecting the physical limits is inconsistent with much more population growth

    • Ken Zimmerman
      February 13, 2020 at 12:37 pm

      Another “story” that may help us gain perspective. This one from The Epic of Gilgamesh (2600 BCE, in today’s Iraq).

      A parting gift.
      Before Gilgamesh and Urshanabi left, Utnapishtim’s wife, who was also immortal convinced her husband to give Gilgamesh a present. He told the king that if he wanted youth, a flower at the bottom of the lake could provide it. Hungry for this gift, Gilgamesh tied stone weights to his feet, dived into the lake and retrieved the plant. Cutting the weights free, he resurfaced, found Urshanabi, and told him that he would test the plant on the oldest person in Uruk before using it on himself. On his way home, however, Gilgamesh stopped to bathe in a spring. Just at that moment, a snake stole the flower from his grasp, shed its skin, and was young again. Heartbroken, Gilgamesh realized that youth, like immortality, had escaped him. Now, he was fated to age and die. The king’s story ended as it had begun, with Gilgamesh walking the walls of his city, surveying his domain. Although Gilgamesh could not become immortal, he had become a good king, who could describe not just the limits of his city, but the limits of human endeavor. His acceptance of mortality and of his own humanity left a lasting impression on the people of Uruk, who passed his story down through the generations.

      Gilgamesh lost youth and immortality, but he gained a broader, more inclusive perspective. He saw that our first concern is not endless expansion, even to immortality, but rather finding sensible limits for ourselves and our species. Not just environmentally, but also emotionally, for wealth, for war and peace, and the expanse of one’s everyday life. With only a few exceptions, there is little consideration on such limits on the planet today. ghholtham, you seem to express the same notions, just more analytically.

      • Robert Locke
        February 14, 2020 at 8:05 pm

        Meta is right, in comments about the anatomy of revolution a distinction is made between elites who realize that their hold on power depends on their retaining the support of the “people<" when, if, that evaporates, elites have played a losing game.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        February 15, 2020 at 1:09 pm

        It’s my view there is a big difference between elites who want to retain the support of non-elites and those who actively recognize the essential contributions of non-elites. Contributions for which often elites take credit. This may be only a means to placate the non-elites. In my view, however no genuinely just society can exist until this slander of non-elites is ended in all respects.

      • Meta Capitalism
        February 15, 2020 at 11:55 pm

        It’s my view there is a big difference between elites who want to retain the support of non-elites and those who actively recognize the essential contributions of non-elites. Contributions for which often elites take credit. This may be only a means to placate the non-elites. (Ken Zimmerman, Elites and Non-elites, RWER, 2/15/2020)

        When I study current work of Gate’s Foundation, for example when Bill Gates talks toilets, I assume a reasonable person would think he fits the definition of an elite who is investing great sums (including supporting local entrepreneurs) in the invention of a new kind of toilet to meet a real and present need for clearly non-elites, the poor working class.
        I personally don’t think Bill is bothering himself in helping to solve a real-and-present problem facing non-elites in their daily lives simply to “placate the non-elites.” That, I think, is a reflection of something else the cause and source of which rests within you. We don’t see eye-to-eye and I cannot follow you down the rabbit whole of blind stereotypes.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        February 16, 2020 at 2:53 pm

        Meta, I can’t agree with you here. I suppose there are exceptions, but most people pursue wealth because it’s an important goal in the culture of which they are a part. Those who fail in this pursuit must, of necessity turn out differently from those who succeed. And those results shape the other goals, expectations, friendships, government loyalties, etc. of the winners and the losers. At some point wealth becomes embedded into the self-identity of the winners. At that point they are no longer able to, paraphrasing G.H.W. Bush understand or feel empathy with the lifestyles, ambitions, problems, or fears of the “not rich.” In “The Condition of the Working Class in England,” Fredrick Engels tries to shine a light on the events of the industrial revolution (part of the ‘idea of progress’) in Britain. Engels based his account on the borrowed notion of a more primitive, but more contented, past where cottagers had enjoyed a material condition ‘far better than that of their successors’. For Engels, the working-class losses extended beyond the material. He conceived the industrial revolution as a rapid, large-scale social transformation, involving the change from one way of life to another and placing new strains on the human condition. And in this scheme the workers’ losses were cultural as much as financial, entailing the disappearance of stable family and community relationships, of homes in the clean rural environment, and of health and contentment. Engels’ pictures are too idyllic, in my view. But he got the main point correct. Since the Ancient Greeks invented the notion that there are elites and non-elites. And that the latter are the formers’ inferior, non-elites have lost out in most cultural constructions. That includes wealth, status, prestige, political power, etc. So, my point is about individual identities of the rich and super-rich, but only in the context of 4000 years of cultural struggles that today define those individual identities. Andrew Yang cannot escape this history. Any more than you or I can.

      • Robert Locke
        February 16, 2020 at 4:32 pm

        “ncient Greeks invented the notion that there are elites and non-elites”.

        Lynn White Jr. told us in his lectures that the Christian message which would replace the Greek is that the meek would inherit the earth, that everybody is equal in the eyes of God, and that the cult of the virgin Mary gave women a respected and honored position in the world.

        The Christian ethic is universalisalistic socially. So much for those Greeks.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        February 17, 2020 at 12:32 pm

        Robert, remember the lyrics in “Jesus Christ, Superstar.”


        I must be mad thinking I’ll be remembered.
        Yes, I must be out of my head.
        Look at your blank faces. My name will mean nothing
        Ten minutes after I’m dead.
        One of you denies me.
        One of you betrays me.


        No! Who would?! Impossible!


        Peter will deny me in just a few hours.
        Three times will deny me,
        And that’s not all I see.
        One of you here dining,
        One of my twelve chosen
        Will leave to betray me.

        It took longer than ten minutes to subvert Jesus’ message. About 30 years actually. At the end of that period secular and religious powers had mostly reversed Jesus’ message. In this sense, the ancient Greeks won out after all.

      • Meta Capitalism
        February 16, 2020 at 8:51 pm

        We are not going to agree on much Ken, it seems. I see you thinking in stereotypes much of the time so broad that reality fads away into the background and then disappears. You mind is set on your story and that’s it. Bit to simplistic for my thinking.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        February 17, 2020 at 12:08 pm

        Meta, stereotype is a word with some negative feelings associated with it. No need for that. Stereotypes in the form of races, genders, rich person, poor person, successful, failure, etc, is how people make their way in life. Consider other terms, instead. Consider role, form, type, category, class, etc. In ‘Mind, Self, and Society,” George Herbert Mead concludes the following. Mead traces the process by which biological considerations forced psychology through the stages of associationism, parallelism, functionalism, and behaviorism. While Mead’s own position is behavioristic, it is a social behaviorism and not an individualistic and subcutaneous one; he did not find an answer in any of the stages or schools of psychology
        as to how mind—full-fledged, reflective, creative, responsible, self-conscious mind—appeared within the natural history of conduct. Another factor had to be brought into the account: society. Although Mead’s examination of the links between mind and society are rudimentary, Mead shows us nonetheless that mind is rooted in society. And anthropologists and others show us that society is rooted in culture. Culture is the source of the roles, classes, forms, etc. which structure society and the mind. These don’t fade reality. They are reality. They change when culture changes. But I don’t believe you’re on a route to cultural change? Are you?

      • Meta Capitalism
        February 16, 2020 at 11:05 pm

        [T]he Christian message which would replace the Greek is that the meek would inherit the earth, that everybody is equal in the eyes of God, and that the cult of the virgin Mary gave women a respected and honored position in the world. ~ Robert Locke
        It may well seem to you that the gospel of Jesus did not include all that is high and holy in the Christian gospel as we know it. All those magnificent, transcendent, Christian beliefs seem absent from the original gospel of Jesus — his “gospel” may seem minimal by comparison with the gospel! Missing from his gospel are not only where he came from (“conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary”), but also what he came to do. Where, after all, is “the saving work of Christ”: dying for out sins, rising on the third day, appearing to the apostles resurrected from the dead? These are, after all, the gospel about Jesus, which you, understandably enough, believe and cherish. But if you really are committed to Jesus, then you should be committed to the gospel of Jesus, which is what I have written this book to try to help you see and understand: the “good news” Jesus offered people during his public ministry. (Robinson 2005: 225)

        — Robinson, James M. The Gospel of Jesus: In Search of the Original Good News. New York: HarperCollins; 2005; p. 225. See Laughing Buddha.
        In Buddhist economics, people are interdependent with one another and with Nature, so each person’s well-being is measured by how well everyone and the environment are functioning with the goal of minimizing suffering for people and the planet. Everyone is assumed to have the right to a comfortable life with access to basic nutrition, health care, education, and the assurance of safety and human rights. A country’s well-being is measured by the aggregation of the well-being of all residents and the health of the ecosystem.

        — Claire Brown (2017, 2), in Buddhist Economics: An Enlightened Approach to the Dismal Science

        The Golden Rule is universal. Some version of it can be found in every culture’s religious and philosophical literature. But no religion is unalloyed good; every tradition has its Omphalos. Even Darwinism can become a world-view–a religion. So to economics has for some become a secular religion of endless material progress through better science. Ironically, the roots of the early leaders who founded the field of economics in America came from the Social Gospel movement. They sought to professionalize their social activism by going to Europe and learning the “science” and returning to the US and founding economic associations and educational programs within universities. They evolved from one mixed bag of motivations to another. And what eventually became of the American version was hardly a carbon copy of their mentors in Europe, which was more a loss or constriction than progress.

        The medieval Roman Catholic priesthood conducted its religious preaching and other discussions in Latin, a language no more understandable to ordinary people then are than the mathematical and statistical formulations of economists today. Latin served as a universal language that had the great practical advantage of allowing easy communication within a priestly class transcending national boundaries across Europe. Yet that was not the full story. The use of Latin also separated the priesthood from the ordinary people, one of a number of devices through which the Roman Catholic Church maintained such a separation in the medieval era. It all served to convey an aura of majesty and religious authority—as does the Supreme Court in the United States, still sitting in priestly robes. In employing an arcane language of mathematics and statistics, Samuelson and fellow economists today seek a similar authority in society.

        — Economics as Religion: From Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond by Robert H. Nelson

        The authority of the dismal science is collapsing. At least the monolithic belief that economists, mainstream, orthodox, or otherwise, have _real_ scientific answers is no longer accepted uncritically. That is a good thing in my view. The chaff can now be separated from the wheat.

      • Meta Capitalism
        February 18, 2020 at 12:09 am

        It’s my view there is a big difference between elites who want to retain the support of non-elites and those who actively recognize the essential contributions of non-elites. Contributions for which often elites take credit. This may be only a means to placate the non-elites. In my view, however no genuinely just society can exist until this slander of non-elites is ended in all respects. ~ Ken Presuming (aka Stereotypical Mental Concrete) the Motives of the Rich
        [S]tereotype is a word with some negative feelings associated with it. No need for that. ~ Ken Avoiding the Obvious
        The paradox of believing your own bullshit parallels the paradox of self-deception. If a deceiver by definition knows that the belief he induces is false, it’s hard to see how he can convince himself that the selfsame belief is true (Hardcastle et. al. 2006, 10) …. In his book Self Deception Unmasked (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), Alfred Mele argues that self deception should not be understood on the model of interpersonal deception. In interpersonal deception, the deceiver does not believe the claim that he hopes his victim will accept as true. If self deception were to fit the interpersonal model, then the self-deceived person would have to play both roles, both affirming and denying the same belief. Mele takes this consequence to show that the interpersonal model fails. For self deception happens quite frequently, and belief in outright logical contradictions rarely seems involved. (Kimbrough, Scott. On Letting It Slide. In Bullshit and Philosophy (editors Hardcastle, Gary L. and Reisch, George A.). Chicago: Open Court; 2006; p. 10.)

        It would not be hard at all Ken to produce a rather large and lengthy list of all the stereotypes you have posted on this forum, but that is a waste I think, since any thoughtful person can see right through them. Your stereotypes at times boarder on a gunslinger’s slander cowboy (as you described yourself).
        Humanities problems are not going to be solved by demonizing and slandering the rich. Better to deal with case examples on specific context so we can address individual cases and actual systemic injustice and deal with them appropriately. And many of those who are rich agree with such an approach and themselves are pointing out these abuses of wealth.
        Those who are both rich and exploiting their fellows through the power of wealth should be exposed and brought to justice. But that can be done without demonizing the rich.
        Jesus blessed the poor because they were usually sincere and pious; he condemned the rich because they were usually wanton and irreligious. He would equally condemn the irreligious pauper and commend the consecrated and worshipful man of wealth.
        Great wealth can have a corrosive effect on one’s motives; what one loves is where one’s heart finds its home. We can and must bring wealth under the control of democratic processes. In America this was done before during The Progressive Era despite its own excesses.
        Democratic Socialism is the best example to date I have seen in dealing with wealth, inequality, and issues of justice, fairness, and their relationship to capitalism, democracy, and their further evolution on this messed up world we live on.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        March 6, 2020 at 1:05 pm

        Before replying let me lay out what I consider to be stereotyping.

        Stereotypes are clusters of overly simplified social and cultural characteristics conjoined into a single, imagined identity or schematic theory used to label a social group and assess members’ character, attitudes, and behaviors. They offer comfortable, convenient filters to make sense of complexity and are inherent in the act of social categorization and perception. Based on beliefs, knowledge, and expectations, they often have moral and judgmental overtones, which are often seen as offensive, or at least lacking depth. Group stereotypes are seldom grounded in holistic descriptions of heterogeneous cultures or social groups but are centered on some prominent observed cultural behavior or visual cue. This cue is then interpreted using the frame of reference and zeitgeist of the stereotyper. Intragroup and intergroup differences are often ignored or minimized with routine simplification. Sometimes these judgmental snapshots stem from distortions or misunderstandings about a behavior or attributes seen in an initial cross-cultural or cross-group encounter. This may lead then to a series of cursory assessments—often based on gender, race, age, ethnicity, culture, or “strangeness.” Once established, a stereotype’s summarizing becomes difficult to unseat and is often used to justify subsequent actions toward the stereotyped group, a fact that has been apparent in colonizing situations, group conflicts, business dealings, or justifications of the status quo. People use stereotypes to rationalize asymmetrical power situations, validate prejudice, or in extreme cases to justify hostility, oppression, violence, war, genocide, or religious fanaticism.

        Based on this description you resort to stereotypes much more so than do I. I.E. you assume the motives of the wealthy are benign. After all, why would Bill Gates be investing great sums (including supporting local entrepreneurs) in the invention of a new kind of toilet to meet a real and present need for clearly non-elites, the poor working class? Except, Gates has to my knowledge never turned his back on the pursuit of great amounts of profit. Toilets may be his next ‘DOS.’ Yes, I admit I employ stereotypes. All humans do. It’s the starting point for all humans in any conversation, among individuals or among cultures. We can only begin from where we are. Later, perhaps more specific, detailed, and complete understandings may, may develop. Or, even shared or common cultures or subcultures. But we never begin here.

        As for the elites, who are they? They are those who have for over 8,000 years defined themselves as “upper class,” “noble,” and “persons of quality” who are by their reckoning superior in social, political, and economic power to those whom they exclude from those categories. But their self-designations also carry an implication of moral superiority that would on hundreds of occasions strike a discordant note in the history of cultures and peoples. They can be at least partially identified, and their social position identified by such terms as the dominant class, the ruling class, the privileged orders, the elite, and so forth. One is either a member or not. One can leave or lose membership, but so long as a member, one is trapped within the culture if one wishes to remain a member.

        I listen to what elites of every sort say and read what they write. You are correct that some have no intent to hurt the “many.” Some may even want to help the “many” in some ways. But none that I can identify want to create a society in which they and the “many” are equal in terms of the things that make elites elite. And just like Bill Gates, who will never acknowledge he stole the inventions that made him one of the world’s richest persons no member of the wealth elite will ever acknowledge, in credit or money the many unknown people who created what made them rich.

        If you’ve read Giorgos Kallis, none of what I’ve just written should come as a surprise to you.

    • Meta Capitalism
      February 13, 2020 at 12:51 pm

      I thought of you when I read this quote from “Degrowth (The Economy: Key Ideas)” by Giorgos Kallis –

      “Planet earth is our lifeboat. And yet earth is becoming a planet of the shipwrecked.1 Those with power loot the earth and seas, leaving the looted to drown without lifeboats. Islands of preposterous wealth are created in the midst of rising seas of destitution, golf courses in a planet of slums. Extreme poverty and inequality, climate and ecosystem disasters, the erosion of politics and democracy – we are heading towards a bleak future. As French political scientist Paul Ariès puts it: “degrowth or barbarianism”? Either we find a way to stop those who are plundering earth and share the limited planet that we have, or we will enter a new Dark Age of humanity.”

      Start reading this book for free: http://a.co/1wt2Kbi

      I have not read it yet.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        February 13, 2020 at 2:01 pm

        Meta, people now believe, with a life or death grip what they’ve been told since the 1950s. The good life in America is possible only with growth. But not just growth, endless growth. That mythology is ingrained in America. It will be difficult to turn Americans away from it. Even if it means the destruction of Sapiens. And that’s the beauty of the mythology for the 14,000 – 15,000 super rich that control the globe today. At least this is what these super rich believe. The rest of humans may die off or become chronically corrupt and sick, but there will always be places on the earth where the super rich can find refuge. Obviously, the super rich have not thought this through. A lesson they will learn the “hard way” if growth isn’t curtailed.

      • Meta Capitalism
        February 13, 2020 at 2:24 pm

        Most people Ken don’t even think that deeply to say they believe in “endless growth.” For who, really, is “most people”?
        I think it is even more simplistic than that. Sadly, most people don’t think beyond their daily struggles to just survive, and think little about growth. Rather they think in terms of stereotypes pumped into their living rooms and car radios by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, a hate radio shock jocky that just got awarded the highest civilian honor America can award. Kind of like giving Joseph Goebbels the Pulitzer Prize for journalism.

        But one remaining hope is left; that there is enough common decency left in America that despite every effort Trump to undermine a fair and free election the American people repudiate what he stands for.

        Otherwise it is over for American democracy and all this debate about econometric methods is little more than debating how many angels can dance naked on the head of a pin.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        February 14, 2020 at 1:24 pm

        Meta, the idea of progress began to change western cultural configurations in the 19th, perhaps as early as the 18th century. Generally, historians trace its origins to either modern democratic philosophers, or classical economists, or both. Europeans of the Middle Ages followed a different guiding star. The idea of a life beyond the grave was in control, and the great things of this life were conducted with reference to the next. This is the province generally of religions. “…the animating and controlling idea of western civilisation. For the earthly Progress of humanity is the general test to which social aims and theories are submitted as a matter of course. The phrase CIVILISATION AND PROGRESS has become stereotyped, and illustrates how we have come to judge a civilisation good or bad according as it is or is not progressive.”(The Idea of Progress, by J. B. Bury) Integrated into modern western life, few even notice they live their lives by it. Over the years progress came to include economic betterment. That the economic future of myself, my family, and my children will be better than their past. Or, in terms of any political campaign in the west: salaries will rise (a trouble Trump is facing now); in terms of income and wealth tomorrow will be better than today; economic inequality is declining. These things are progressive and to be civilized everyone must have them. So long as fair and free elections remain progressive, people will feel offended when they are denied to them. That’s the battle that’s blazing right now between Trump supporters and opponents. Will the US remain progressive? But beyond this battle, the next is even more important. The reconciliation of progressivism with ecological limits.

        As to the super rich, I, like the old west gunfighter assume they are all my enemy, until they prove otherwise. Which they can do, in my view only by giving up their status as super rich. Which is limiting their wealth, in all forms to $50 million.

      • Meta Capitalism
        February 14, 2020 at 11:18 pm

        Ask me if the US will remain progressive after 2020 election :-)

      • Ken Zimmerman
        February 15, 2020 at 1:34 pm

        Meta, people create cultural configurations. All of which eventually collapse. Maybe this is the end times for the “idea of progress.” If it is the questions all revolve around what will be created to replace it. In that work, all of us must take part. We must not give up the opportunity.

      • Meta Capitalism
        February 16, 2020 at 3:16 am

        Agreed. We must not give up.

      • Craig
        February 13, 2020 at 4:21 pm

        So what the hell are you, Ken and myself doing debating data points here instead of making videos about the problem and trying to organize a mass movement that shows how we could make the green consumer revolution possible for everyone and simultaneously fiscally enable the mega projects necessary to deal with climate change?

        Again to paraphrase the political consultant James Carville: “It’s the monetary and financial paradigm, stupid!”

      • Meta Capitalism
        February 13, 2020 at 11:36 pm

        I really don’t think all those who are “super rich” think alike. Does Andrew Yang think like the Koch Brothers? When Warren Buffett famously made his statement about class warfare I don’t think he was thinking like Donald Trump (of course that is being generous to Donald)? Even rich people have unique and important differences I think.
        I see a certain scapegoating and demonizing in such stereotypes that I is refuted by experiential counterfactual cases. Even rich people’s viewpoint and characters evolve, I think.

      • Meta Capitalism
        February 16, 2020 at 12:09 am

        Generally, historians trace its origins to either modern democratic philosophers, or classical economists, or both. ~ Ken Zimmerman

        Two books do a wonderful job of showing the many faceted and oft-times, as viewed with hindsight from our current perspective, flawed views of what “progressive” meant to those who were pioneers and leaders in what we now call The Progressive Era. One was Thomas C. Leonard’s “Illiberal Reformers”:

        The supreme economic question, John Bates Clark wrote in 1912, was: Is labor getting its due? Politically charged and analytically daunting, the “labor question” encompassed the most compelling economic issues of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. (Leonard, Thomas C.. Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era (p. 77). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.)

        The other was Daniel Walker’s “Making the American Self”:

        Once upon a time Americans spoke very freely about the importance of constructing oneself properly. They encouraged people, especially the young, to “self-improvement” and “self-culture,” to “make something of themselves.” As examples for imitation, they pointed to individuals they called “self-made men.” Today the language for speaking about the self has changed enormously, and it is not even clear to us what was meant by the old-fashioned terminology. (Howe, Daniel Walker. Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (p. 1). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.)

        I don’t think these are exhaustive, as no doubt there are many others equally deserving and equally informative.
        Progress means many things to different people. Trumpism, after all, thinks it is “progress” dismantling our democracy and replacing it with The Family–a theocracy of autocrates, plutocrates, and oligarchs.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        February 16, 2020 at 1:14 pm

        Meta, the two books you list are certainly reasonable cultural histories but clearly not ethnographies. The American Self presents a long-term overview of portions of the history of creating the American identity. Illiberal is an examination of some portions of progressivism in the United States that often are not featured in studies of American progressive history. Both interesting but neither definitive. Remember how the progressive movement in America began with the simple notion that a new central organizing idea was taking over life in the west. The “idea of progress.” The creators of this idea simply tried to convince people that life in the future for all people would be better (in terms of freedom, equality, income, wealth, security, etc.) than in the past. That the life of children would be better than that of their parents. And that this change would both replace the central ideas of the Middle Age and Antiquity and would never end. Obviously, the claims were over played, and few noticed it seems that the areas promised for change were often contradictory and some were in opposition either to democracy, long-held western morality, or both. This is not unusual in cultural changes. They do not come into existence completely produced with all uncertainties, inconsistencies, and longer-term consequences worked out fully. In fact, such difficulties are often never completely resolved. For example, if one begins with the assumption that first races exist and second that they are not equal in abilities or moral strength, then progress will involve different events and actions among the races. And the first assumption was a part of most western cultures as progressivism began its move to dominance in the west. At the same time, we must note that the issue Clark identifies would never have come up in a pre-progress society. And Walker’s references to self-improvement, etc. focuses on things that do not even exist in pre-progress societies. In these societies, one’s self is set at birth. Improvement comes only in the form of the next life. So, I hope you see how profoundly “the idea of progress” changed western society. In some ways critics of progressively called “illiberal;” and in some ways proponents of progressivism called “liberating.”

      • Meta Capitalism
        February 16, 2020 at 1:42 pm

        Life is a mixed bag. Progress is never pure unalloyed good. I don’t know whether the US is going to retrogress or painfully progress. Labels today have traded places with their original meanings. I raised my daughters to march for equality led them to be activists for same sex marriage. To me that is progress, just look at Pete? It is foolish to think cultural progress will come without pain, conflict, and setbacks. How far those setbacks will be are yet to be seen. Time will tell.

      • Meta Capitalism
        February 16, 2020 at 12:33 am

        [P]eople create cultural configurations. All of which eventually collapse. Maybe this is the end times for the “idea of progress.” ~ Ken Zimmerman

        I agree with Ken; culture is essential. The forms it takes are stable for periods and unstable in other periods and indeed the can collapse. The ideas of The Progressive Era are collapsing before our very eyes. Few Americans, let alone those in other cultures have a deep understanding of the ongoing cultural collapse in the US. When democracy dies it does so before our very eyes in small ways that few give much attention. You can model a complex system moving from one state to another but it will never tell you the real underlying causes of the cultural collapse simply because they are cultural, institutional, social, embedded in belief systems, political systems, economics systems–all part of cultural configurations.
        Robert and Ken are right and when I read non-sense that defines economics so narrowly that the only sect of the religion of economics is econometrics (as Gerald Holtham does) and the only model organism is a “social insect” or fitness climbing tick I think we are witnessing part of the problem, not part of the solution.
        Why? Because the level of thinking and planing and rigging and exploiting going on within those various systems is not that of a fitness climbing tick or a ant-hill functioning like the autonomous little machines they actually are. Humans may behave with routines but once they are sick and tired of being sick and tired of those exploitative routines the bankers and oligarchs have rigged them into they revolt. They tear down those enslaving institutions, and out of those ashes rises another.
        Will it be progressive. Well, one only needs to look to the 1930s and realize, not necessarily.

  5. February 12, 2020 at 3:39 pm

    Gerald, I agreed with what you said, but not with your omission, i.e. people. We have a good idea of how many people there are, and that there are too many, but governments still think in terms of control in terms of culling and businesses of seeking advantage in wars, abortions and interrupting fertility and flows of semen. Providing the local information infrastructure necessary for communities to agree reasonable limits and time their childbearing to achieve them is very different from China’s “one size fits all” culling of family size.

    I totally agree with what you say here: “The money-size of the economy is not the right metric”. That is why I am so appreciative of the alternative suggested by Edward Fullbrook in “Market-Value”. Even if we went over to my “credit-card” system paid off by joining in doing necessary jobs, we still need some means of comparing needs and environmental costs.

  6. Meta Capitalism
    March 6, 2020 at 2:13 pm

    plural noun: stereotypes

    1. a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.

    You are entitled to your own bullshit (stereotypes) but not your own definitions. Sophistry doesn’t replace a good dictionary. You argue like an erudite Trump.

    • Meta Capitalism
      March 6, 2020 at 11:47 pm

      Ken engages ins falsehoods when he writes:

      … you assume the motives of the wealthy are benign. ~ Ken Putting a Stereotype into Someone Else’s Mouth

      This too would be a stereotype. An oversimplified caricature of the wealthy. Ken claims to be able to assume the personal motives of the wealthy. I find this a very unintelligent claim refuted by common sense and psychology.

      There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning. (Warren Buffett, estimated ‘worth’ $44 billion, Chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, quoted in the New York Times, 26 November 2006, cited in Sayer, Andrew. Why we can’t afford the rich (p. 1). Policy Press. Kindle Edition.)

      One can object to and critique the role of the rich as a class in wealth extraction opposed to wealth creation and the standard economic arguments that support the ideology of economics without engaging in the pseudo-science of reading people’s minds and motives on an individual level as Ken is won’t to do. That is little better than a rather ignorant populist politics of envy grounded in cheap slurs used to duck the logical fallacies rife in his long diatribes. It is the arguments based upon evidence–case studies–that have the oomph in their argument for me. It is the unjust system that in general money-lobbying of the wealthy that allows the laws and institutions to be rigged to the one class can extract wealth from others that actually produce it and which allows them to dominate the legal and political processes for their own interests. It is these issues, not attacking some individual persons motives which one can rarely ever really know (e.g., Bill Gates) and making stereotypes of any one individual (people change over time) that I find cogent.
      I find it a waste of time to engage in a discussion with those who use such caricatures and stereotypes regardless of whether they are coming from the left or right so-to-speak.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        March 7, 2020 at 1:13 pm

        So, Meta. What are wealth and the wealthy in, say US culture? How do ‘people in the street refer to them?’ You know the people you walk with and past everyday.

        I’m an anthropologist and historian. As such, like the social psychologist George Herbert Mead, I see little basis for “personal” motives outside of socio-cultural settings. Mead notes, The very universality and impersonality of thought and reason is from the behavioristic standpoint the result of the given individual taking the attitudes of others toward himself, and of his finally crystallizing all these particular attitudes into a single attitude or standpoint which may be called that of the “generalized other.” The “generalized other” is society. It guides the lives of all the members of society, including the wealthy. I draw my conclusions from historical and ethnographic studies of my own society, the US. A society heavily focused on wealth accumulation and admiration for the wealthy. Few of the American wealthy consider giving up their wealth. Doing so would lead to them becoming less important, less favored, less elite. I do not claim these hold entirely for other societies, e.g., Europe, China. I suggest you do the same. Rather than striking out randomly at statements you oppose for one reason or another.

    • Ken Zimmerman
      March 7, 2020 at 12:43 pm

      Meta, you are as thick as a brick. And that is not a complement.

      I provided a definition common in the social sciences, including psychology and anthropology in my last posting. Apparently it was too complex for you. Merriam-Webster is not a legitimate substitute.

      First, few stereotypes are fixed. Even the most enduring change. While most are simplified, I have no idea what “over simplified” refers to.

      Finally, how do you describe yourself when others ask? Cultured, handsome, studious, creative, angry, outsider, etc. If so, then you’ve used stereotypes. Speaking with someone who shares your culture these can be understood between you. If when asked you launch into a 3 hour biography and psychological resume, soon no one will ask. Stereotypes are cultural shorthand we learn from childhood. Of course, we can change the stereotypes we use, if we even notice we’re using them. Which many people do not, generally.

      • Meta Capitalism
        March 7, 2020 at 12:46 pm

        Ken, you are full of yourself. You are a fool and I long ago stopped reading your diatribes. Arrogant arrogant and pompus are the kindest words I can think of for you :-)

      • Ken Zimmerman
        March 7, 2020 at 1:15 pm

        Thicker, thicker. I won’t go down this dead end road with you again.

      • Meta Capitalism
        March 7, 2020 at 2:43 pm

        Your carelessly mix you own religion and philosophy with your anthropological dogma while remaining willfully ignorant of what you are doing. Your world- view is your religion and it is every bit as filled with dogmatism as any fundament religionist or militant athiest who actually have much in common. Pilkington notes,


        When economists try to build totalizing models, they are doing something similar [to Newton’s Laplacean Dream]. They are trying to figure out all the mechanisms — the causes and effects — that pertain in the economy [aka entire world] at all times, and then they are trying to reduce these to a single model [yours being anthropology]. If they could ever find their Holy Grail, they would then, in the words of Laplace, have ‘the future, as the past, present in their eyes’. They are reaching for perfection. In a strange psychological sense, they are seeking to become like the old conceptions of God that many philosophers and theologians held. Again, they are not the only ones that do this. Many physicists reach for the same Holy Grail and try to generate ‘theories of everything’. But it is in economics, which is not only a far more inexact discipline but also a far more ambitious one, that this fantasy has done the most damage. (Pilkington 2016, 354)


        You totalizing world-view carelessly mixes science and scientism and it does so arrogantly. At some point it simply is not worth bothering with. Your totalizing anthropological relativism is not even good anthropology let alone science. 

  7. March 7, 2020 at 6:28 pm

    Let’s not end this on “wasting time”. Here were the original questions:

    “How large is the economic subsystem relative to the containing ecosystem?
    How large can it be?
    How large should it be?
    i.e. Is there an optimum?”

    Gerald, right back at the beginning you gave an excellent summary of the issues here, going on to agree with me about population control. What I didn’t respond to were two challenges you implied:

    “The debate will be more fruitful, I think, if we specify a set of physical limits for things like agricultural land area, greenhouse gas emissions, volume or weight of non-biodegradable waste etc or anything else that threatens the ecosystem. Then we can insist that economies respect those limits. (How we do that politically I don’t know). ”

    The specifying of physical limits bit I sort of answered in terms of Edward Fullbrook’s pricing system, from which your penal taxing of overused items follows naturally.

    On “Crooked paths” I was disappointed that you “cannot see” [the mathematical significance of] the difference between a line (e.g. a channel) and an area (e.g. a field). My proposal for the political system is “complex” in the sense of involving not only environmental evolution and human development but also property and constitutional law (which the four – NW, NE, SE and SW – regions of the earth’s surface can visually represent). Discussing “Complexity Economics” in the chaos theory sense, you say “Macroeconomics [as it is] deals with value added [i.e. money profits], not gross production, and ignores raw materials and waste”. You conclude as I do: “The macroeconomic system boundary is drawn in the wrong place”. What I see is money being a mirage, so that the monetary control system we have is superfluous, leaving the boundary of economics at the point where humans are both human and animal, exchanging biological and mineral resources for residues and endogenously circulating design, product and usage information circulating information, including affordable “credit card” limits and prices calculated Fullbrook style, with fixed prizes rather than open-ended percentage profits/bonuses for valuable service. Study the maths and you will find it necessarily works out. Conceptually, my map covers evolution and development, but the constitutional law conceptualising humanity needs to forego the mirages of corporate personality and absolute rights of ownership and inheritance, stripped from the duties (the “second dimension” or flip side) which justify them. In a credit based economy one’s property is not needed after death.

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