Category Archives: Economics

Chimeras and Holy Grails

Because the great controversies of the past often reach into modern science, many current arguments cannot be fully understood unless one understands their history.

ERNST MAYR 1982, 1, in McCloskey, Deirdre Nansen; Ziliak, Steve. The Cult of Statistical Significance (Economics, Cognition, And Society)

Too large a proportion of recent ‘mathematical’ economics are mere concoctions, as imprecise as the initial assumptions they rest on, which allow the author to lose sight of the complexities and interdependencies of the real world in a maze or pretentious and unhelpful symbols.

John Maynard Keynes

One of its central tenets is that the “real” nature of the social world imposes restrictions on individuals’ knowledge. (Marqués 2016, 2)

(….) If theoretical practice in economics is going to have authentic epistemic relevance, it is necessary to shift the attention from standard models developed within the current bookish tradition to the solution of those concrete problems which result from open ended, intervenible and conflictive economic processes, dominated by radical uncertainty. (Marqués 2016, 3)

A processes oriented economics would have to provide a different kind of theoretical practice adequate for examining sequences of feasible economic events (i.e., the main developments that those processes could plausibly adopt). This kind of practice offers points of intervention to those skills, qualifications, common sense and political abilities that are needed to manage these processes. (Marqués 2016, 3)

Science and economics

Let me advance a brief comment about the relation between science and economics. This book does not take an irrational or anti-scientific stance. On the contrary, in the domain of natural phenomena modern science has shown extraordinary successful results. But the same cannot be said when social processes are at stake, and I have tried to offer some of the reasons (ultimately, ontological) for this failure. So, I do not share the idea of those authors who think that economics can be scientific (as much as natural sciences), and that such an economic theory, once found, would solve those economic problems that the best theoretical tradition assigned to economics a long time ago (growth, employment and development with fairness and equality). (Marqués 2016, 5)

Particularly, I think that the dream of having a successful theory of expectation formation is largely a chimera, and indeed I dismiss the necessity of having such a theory. Neither governmental authorities nor any other economic actor may count on being able in a sure (scientific) way to intervene and make people entertain “correct” expectations. But as we try to show in this book economic actors (including the state) do not need a scientific theory able to guarantee their goals in order to intervene systematically upon the economy. Instead they can apply feasible sequences as well as direct (practical) knowledge and skills to cope with the situation and push the process in the desired direction. (Marqués 2016, 5)

It is also important to examine the relation between science and economics from another perspective. Theoretical physics has been successfully applied to a wide range of circumstances of our world. This could be done thanks to the development of associated technologies (different kinds of engineering founded on physical theory). Some may think that nowadays economics is at a pre-technological stage (like physics was sometime ago), and that what is needed is more time (and more knowledge, mainly mathematical knowledge) to develop a sort of economic engineering. Popper was confident in the benefits of fragmentary social engineering. The call to elaborate an alternative economics oriented to solve practical problems of our world could be interpreted this way. (Marqués 2016, 6)

Our analysis of deliberate mechanisms like Prospect Theory and Decision Making Models gives testimony of the kind of practical results that can be obtained by this road. But I suspect that in reference to more traditional economic problems like those mentioned at the beginning of this section, a similar expectation is unfounded and doomed to failure. As far as economic phenomena result from open ended processes as we have described them there is no possibility of shaping and controlling them by means of social engineering similar to what happens in the case of natural sciences. The specific domains where neither uncertainty nor conflicts between lobbyists that defend different and opposite interests exist. These technologies are designed for “leading” in a scientific way the economic processes. And I suspect that it is not possible to hope that we may count on similar tools in the near future. (Marqués 2016, 6)

Gustavo Marqués (2016) A Philosophical Framework for Rethinking Theoretical Economics and Philosophy of Economics

DETERMINISM AND FREE WILL IN ECONOMICS

Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom invovles responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.

— Sigmund Freud

Most of the really fundamental debates in economics today are very old debates indeed. But economists—and not just the economists of the post-war period—have been scrupulous in avoiding many of them. Other social sciences do not suffer the same defect, and one wonders why this might be the case in economics. The key philosophical difference between the view of economics put forward by the marginalists and the one championed in this book is that the former believe that all human action is pre-determined while the author of the present book believes in a large amount of freedom in human affair. (Pilkington 2016, 341)

(….) Economists today instinctively sign on to a sort of vulgar Newtonian view of the world. That is, they instinctively think in terms of a space in which a variety of forces play themselves out—often, in the case of the marginalists, at a given instant in time. But this sort of philosophy was long dead in the humanities at the time Keynes was writing. Rather, the philosophies of Moore and Keynes start from the seat of consciousness. We do not start from the vulgar assumption that reality ‘is’ in some sense a space with deterministic forces playing themselves out. This schema, thought construction or model is fully recognized in Keynes to be something cooked up by consciousness. (Pilkington 2016, 345)

This, I think, accounts for why many economists find Keynes’ writings so obscure. It also accounts for why those with training in philosophy or psychology will find them far more accessible than those with training in mainstream economics, physics or engineering. Keynes’ works are written from the point-of-view of the reasoning subject. This is the natural starting point for Keynes. Consciousness comes first; models and metaphors are adopted later. This is why in Keynes’ work we are from time to time put in the shoes of the investor trying to make decisions about the future. In mainstream economics, agents making investment and consumption decisions are reduced to little objects that reason in a pre-determined manner. In Keynes, by contrast, economic agents making investment and consumption decisions are full subjects endowed with a consciousness that is identically structured to the one that we ourselves possess. Thus in order to understand the choices made by these agents, we do not simply reduce them to little puppets that behave how we assume them to behave but rather we must try to get ‘inside their heads’. (Pilkington 2016, 345)

ECONOMIC MODELING: A PSYCHOLOGISTIC EXPLAINATION

Can anything be imagined so ridiculous, that this miserable and wretched creature, who is not so much as master of himself, but subject to the injuries of all things, should call himself master and emperor of the world, of which he has not power to know the least part, much less to command the whole?

— Michel de Montaigne

Throughout this book, we have been rather harsh on economists. We have accused them of engaging in all sorts of silly behaviour, of constructing irrelevant theories and of being a key force darkening the doorway of knowledge and spreading ideology. But so far we have not really sought out motivation. Are we to assume that most economists working today are nefarious crooks and scoundrels? I should think not. Most economists working today are well-meaning people who genuinely want to make the world a better place. They are men and women who truly believe that they are constructing useful knowledge that will help humanity progress as a species in the future. That they typically make the world a worse place and cloud the judgments of people is not altogether their fault. (Pilkington 2016, 353)

What is it then that drives these people to Bedlam and back? This is something that the present writer has thought about quite a lot. I have come to this conclusion: these men and women are chasing after a Holy Grail, one that has been sought since time immemorial. At first it was sought in the sphere of religion, but after this it was sought in the field of philosophy and, finally, science. Today the sphere in which this Holy Grail is most aggressively sought is in the field of economics. What then characterises this Holy Grail? Well, it is the Holy Grail of perfect knowledge. It is the drive that exists in many intellectually minded men and women to find a sort of perfection, a total and pristine knowledge that would make them, in a very real sense, omnipotent or, at least, omniscient. This Holy Grail was first formulated in the modern age by the French mathematician and astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace: (Pilkington 2016, 353-354)

We ought then to regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its anterior state and the cause of the one which is to follow. Given for one instant an intelligence which could comprehend all the forces by which nature is animated and the respective situation of the beings who compose it — an intelligence sufficiently vast to submit this data to analysis — it would embrace in the same formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the lightest atom; for it, nothing would be uncertain and the future, as the past, would be present in its eyes. (Laplace 1902, p. 4)

For some rather odd reason, this thought experiment has become known as ‘Laplace’s Demon’ today. In fact, readers of older philosophers will recognise that this is identical to how many philosophers conceived of an image of God. For many writers, God is an omniscient being that has total knowledge of all causes and effects and has a sort of ‘single formula’ in His immediate consciousness that explains everything across time and space. He is, in this conception, outside of time and space and thus merely observes everything happening at once in the form of this timeless, perfect formula. (Pilkington 2016, 354)

When economists try to build totalizing models, they are doing something similar. They are trying to figure out all the mechanisms — the causes and effects — that pertain in the economy at all times, and then they are trying to reduce these to a single model. 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)

The psychological roots of this tendency are inherently narcissistic. By that, I do not mean that economists are all pathologically narcissistic. No, psychologists have long recognised that all of us have narcissistic tendencies buried within our minds. Somewhere buried within our minds, we all have an image of perfection that haunts us…. On occasion, such a narcissistic image can become an obsession and do serious psychological and physical damage to a person [and society]…. There is no such thing as true perfection just as there is no such thing as a unified theory of how the economy works that will be valid across time and space. These are fantasies and illusions that, if we do not understand them to be illusions, can lead us down wayward paths. (Pilkington 2016, 354-355)

We have argued throughout the book that economics today is predominantly ideology. But just as certain forms of religious discourses were the key ideologies of the past, economics too activates these deep psychological structures within its practitioners to ensure that they remain stuck on the treadmill, chasing ghosts rather than engaging with the real world. Certain religious discourses offered its adherents a sort of union with God if they studied sacred texts hard enough. This kept these conduits of ideology away from the real world and ensured that they engaged in largely useless activity in their fruitless search for omniscience by connecting with God. Economics today does something similar in that it encourages its adherents to build models that are supposed to be true across time and space. The adherents are then encouraged to test these models against data using highly problematic econometric techniques, after which the whole discipline starts to ruminate if they stop yielding accurate results. (Pilkington 2016, 355)

The result is a stagnant discipline. Every few years, economic theory will go into crisis as some real world event calls into question the predominant models. Economists will then go back and reconstruct the doctrines in light of recent events only to have them fall apart once more when something changes in the economic world. It is a bit like watching an unfortunate though well-meaning man build and rebuild his house along an earthquake fault line always insisting that this time the house will survive. Or a cult devotee that continuously says that the end of the world is coming on a given date only to push this date back every time the end of the world does not arrive. (Pilkington 2016, 355-356)

It is in the tendency to model itself — which has deep psychological roots — that leads economics down this dead end and makes it a sort of clown science. If economists would just drop the silly image of timeless truths and recognise that in economics we deal with contingent historical events, we would all be better off. But his cannot happen unless the economics profession as a whole reorients its narcissistic image away from trying to search out Holy Grails and towards trying to manage as best they can in a highly complex and changing world. If this were ever achieved the manner in which argument and debate take place within the discipline would completely and utterly change. This would be wonderful but it would also mean that economics would have to stop being an ideology. This would, in turn, mean that economists would have to stop projecting the image that they hold crystal balls and can see the future. That might not only be a blow to their egos but it might, in a strong sense, also diminish the standing that they hold as ideologues in the political and social arena. Whether economics can ever exist as a non-ideology is an open question. Personally, I believe that it can. But, given I do not pretend to have a crystal ball, only posterity can pass absolute judgement on the matter. (Pilkington 2016, 356)

Telos and Economics

In the organic complex of habits and thought which make up the substance of an individual’s conscious life, the economic interest does not lie isolated and distinct from all other interests.
— Thorstein Veblen

Economics is essentially a moral “science,” and not a natural science. That is to say, it employs introspection and judgment of value.  
— John Maynard Keynes, letter to Roy Harrod in 1938

Consciousness cannot be computable.
— Roger Penrose

It is the “end” that lends “means” its importance, not vice versa … There cannot be any doubt that there is a causal relationship between the importance of the end, and that of the means.
— Eugen Von Böhm-Bawerk

As a matter selective necessity, man is an agent. He is, in his own apprehension, a centre of unfolding, impulsive activity — “teleological” activity. He is an agent seeking in every act the accomplishment of some concrete, objective, impersonal end….
— Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, Chapter I

[Humans are seeking subjective and personal ends; Veblen followed the spirit of the age in not recognizing this and his adoption of classical Darwinian bias to impersonal mechanism and depersonalization of social explanations. Social science was to be modeled after physics and impersonal mechanistic classical Darwinian ideas which were also seeking to model themselves after physics.]

Telelogical explanations of action have been largely extruded from the natural sciences, even if we take account of the doctrine of “vitalism” which proved to be the most stubborn and chameleon-like of adversaries. After all, it is no longer a subject of credible speculation to attribute goal-seeking or purpose to bodies (individual or collective) that are considered to lack consciousness. (Roth 2008, 5)

However, such explanations of behavior and their resultant consequences are of crucial relevance in the behavioral sciences and in the forming of judgments in the daily business of life—where the values, preferences, motivational beliefs, and purposes of people and their institutions are of vital operational interest. To circumvent them—or to seek to “rise above” [or below] them (via exalted supra-deterministic forces) … or what is equivalent in practice, to treat them as just “being there” in the form of “given” items on a “menu” of commodities or “unexplained factor endowments” without ontogeny—is to create a self-neutering cordon sanitaire between the entire subject and the real world which is dependent on its historical trajectory. (Roth 2008, 5)

Norman L. Roth (2008) Telos and Technos: The Teleology of Economic Activity and the Origins of Markets

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

Stories about Taoism taken out of historical context*, speculations about abiogenesis unrooted in fact** (Geoff 2019); parables about Umwelt (an organism’s ‘world-view’) reduced to a “social insect” with a ganglion for a brain as human proxies devoid of personality and real human behavior (Shiozawa 2019); facile ex cathedra assertions that human minds capable of contemplating “means” and “ends” and  looking before leaping, let alone reflecting on moral and ethical choices — values — are really nothing more than mere Turing Machines and therefore mathematically modellable with genetic computational algorithms (Shiozawa 2019); claims the entire world economy can be modeled after a fitness climbing tick aka “social insects” because human beings behave like them 99% of the time  (Shiozawa 2019) have little to do with understanding “basic economic ideas or of the history of economic thought.” (Norman L. Roth on RWER) Shiozawa claims he has now provided the micro-foundations of an entire world’s macro-economics in his “if-then” algorithmic computations by simply reducing all human behavior to the level of a tick. Evolution is the New Central Dogma of economics according to his theory.

What some of these stories have in common is the desire to impose upon human economic behavior a simplifying story meant to enable mathematical tractability so encompassing it can be called a world-view.  Mirowski’s history of economics “More Heat than Light” eloquently tells the history of the “eternal folly of imitating other more ‘truth-seeking’ {usually physical} sciences, by simply imposing them on economics” and the “farcical ‘physics envy’ & slavish imitation of mid-19th century thermodynamics … [n]ot to mention mathematically trained Irving Fisher’s slavish mimicry of Boyle’s Law of gases, to derive his ‘Quantity theory of Money’.” (Norman L. Roth on RWER)

There are far more proximate causes than the big bang we can study to gain a fuller picture of economics, many of which are amenable to reasonable mathematical modeling within sensible limits. We can learn a lot from behavioral economics and its use of experiments within certain limits; human beings are after all to one degree or another habitual creatures. We can even learn something from our evolving understanding of evolutionary theory if we are careful to distinguish the difference between claims of mechanism vs. metaphor. We learn, for example, that many human behavioral traits are shared with animals; cooperation is as much a part of evolution and life as competition and that too much of the later can be actually self-destructive. But there are also important differences that can not be overlooked or ignored or explained away with scientism’s hand-waving and just-so stories.

* Historical context counts; Taoism (along with Confucianism) was a religion and moral philosophy (metaphysical theory of the universe) that was more about maintaining harmony between heaven and earth, which translated into social context meant harmony between the ruling upper class and the ruled lower-classes aimed at maintaining social harmony and civil and political stability. The real interesting aspect of Taoism was its moral precepts that were meant to guide social and economic behavior so-as to maintain social harmony. The ethical precepts have more relevance to economics than some recent Western reinterpretation of what it means to modern science. The idea that the ruler’s behavior must accord to a moral code of conduct embodied in the Way provided a basis upon which the mandate of heaven could be either considered in operation (i.e., they ruled fairly, justly, and upheld moral standards)  or not in operation (i.e., they ruled unjustly, unethically, and for selfish gain and not for the benevolence of the people). These considerations were the ancient Chinese method of determining if the ruler needed to be removed or remain in place; at least that was the theory.

Chemical self organisation, life

Self-organisation has been observed in chemical systems as well (Prigogine, 1980), and exploration of this has revealed an intriguing path that may lead to life (Kauffman, 1993).

(….) One of the great puzzles about life is that a living cell is an assembly of very special molecules in very particular relationships. Given that much of the universe seems to degenerate into randomness, it seems impossibly unlikely that the components necessary for rudimentary life would ever come together. Catalytic cycles provide a mechanism for generating a particular small group of chemicals, rather than a random soup.

(….) Living organisms are made of carbon molecules of many different kinds. We have known for a long time that carbon was capable of very complicated chemistry and that this must have something to do with the existence of life. Only in the past few decades, however, has growing knowledge of catalytic cycles led to the realisation that they might lead to an accumulation of ever-more complicated carbon chemistry that might ultimately become a living cell. This would involve not just one level of self-organisation and emergence, but probably many levels, each level giving rise to new kinds of emergent behaviour. It is thus possible to conceive how something with the vast complexity of a living cell might have originated from inanimate materials through many levels of self organisation (Kauffman, 1993).

In any case, regardless of how life began, the modern understanding of biochemistry makes it clear that living organisms are vastly sophisticated examples of complex self-organising systems.

Geoff Davies () Society, Nature: An introduction to the new systems-based, life-friendly economics

** Interestingly enough abiogenesis is not part of Neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory and it is careless history and misleading story-telling to imply it is. If such speculation could become fact then it would finally be possible to reduce biology to physics, but at this point in time the only way we know how to successfully accomplish that is murder. One doesn’t need to tell highly speculative and misleading stories about abiogenesis to recognize the complexity and emergent nature of human individual and social interactions. Abiogenesis is no more relevant in understanding economics than is the big bang. The real irony is that the lessons from quantum physicsi.e., fundamental physics cannot exclude ‘the observer’are more applicable to economics than either the big bang or abiogenesis. Such speculation is more akin to Shiozawa’s effort to reduce human economics to econophysics by reducing complex human mind and behavior to the level of brainless “social insect” and then modeling bio-mechanical stimulus-response behavior with genetic algorithms. Shiozawa correctly calls out the mainstream economic assumption of a Homo economicus with unlimited information and “farsightedness in time” as “conspicuous,” but it is as equally conspicuous to assume humans know nothing more than than a brainless insect. Unfortunately for Shiozawa human beings transcend mere stimulus-response behavior far more than 1% of the time. Slow and fast are not the full story of human thinking. The invention of financial instruments of mass destruction transcend the thinking capacity of ants and ticks, even dogs, no matter how “social” some think they are. The fatal flaw of Yoshinori Shiozawa’s new Central Dogma—Microfoundations of Evolutionary Economics—is succinctly stated in Stanislav Andreski’s quote above.

Since this historical [Miller-Urey] experiment, the field has veritably exploded. In the last three decades, the origin of life has been the subject of dozens of books, scores of essays, thousands of articles, relating an enormous amount of experimental and theoretical work. Periodicals devoted exclusively to the subject have been founded. Textbooks dedicate whole chapters to it. The reason for this upsurge of interest is simple. As I have attempted to show …, we have come to know enough about life to draw the basic blueprint according to which all extant living organisms are constructed. Scientists faced with the blueprint (or, rather, with their own version of the blueprint, because they tend to see life through different glasses, depending on their fields of specialization) find the problem of how the plan materialized almost inescapable. This turned out to be my case as well. (de Duve 1991: 110)

But I must add a warning. If not considered totally outlandish any more, the field still remains largely confined to speculation. When it comes to events that happened several billion years ago, hard data are scarce and, perforce, are supplemented by reasoning and imagination, if not blind faith. Yet, life did start somewhere, sometime, somehow. Trying to reconstruct the events that led to its birth holds almost irresistible fascination, especially now that we have available so much new knowledge on the nature of life and so many new tools for digging into the past and approaching the problem. (de Duve 1991: 110)

The tale is told in simple historical style, without any of the probability weightings, plausibility assessments, and other precautionary periphrases that it requires.[2] These will come in due course. According to my reconstruction, emerging life went through four main successive stagesor “worlds,” to use a popular expression: the primeval prebiotic world, the thioester world, the RNA world, and the DNA world. This version of the script differs from the current favorite mainly by the insertion of a thioester world. I consider this insertion essential because I cannot accept the view of an RNA world arising through purely random chemistry. (de Duve 1991: 112-113)

[2] The readers’ attention is called to this point, lest they be misled by the apparently dogmatic style of the script. All statements should be read as conditional and hypothetical. (112)

I have quoted Monod’s declaration “The Universe was not pregnant with life,” to which he added “nor the biosphere with man.” I have made it clear that I disagree with his first statement. Life belongs to the very fabric of the universe. Were it not an obligatory manifestation of the combinatorial properties of matter, it could not possibly have arisen naturally. By ascribing to chance an event of such unimaginable complexity and improbabilityremember Hoyle’s allegory of the Boeing 747 emerging from a junk yardMonod does, in fact, invoke a miracle. Much as he would have refused this description, he sides with the creationists. (de Duve 1991: 217)

Christian de Duve (Nobel Laureate) Blueprint for a Cell: The Nature and Origin of Life. Neil Patterson Publishers. 1991.

[T]here are a couple of important things that evolution is not, misleading claims by creationists [and materialists] notwithstanding. For example, evolution is not a theory of the origin of life, for the simple reason that evolution deals with changes in living organisms induced by a combination of random (mutation) and nonrandom (natural selection) forces. By definition, before life originated there were not mutations, and therefore there was no variation; hence, natural selection could not possibly have acted. This means that the origin of life is a (rather tough) problem for physics and chemistry to deal with, but not a proper area of inquiry for evolutionary biology. (Pigliucci 2002: 76)

(….) Evolution is also most definitely not a theory of the origin of the universe. As interesting as this question is, it is rather the realm of physics and cosmology. Mutation and natural selection, the mechanisms of evolution, do not have anything to do with stars and galaxies. It is true that some people, even astronomers, refer to the “evolution” of the universe, but this is meant in the general sense of change through time, not the technical sense of the Darwinian theory….. The origin of the universe, like the origin of life, is of course a perfectly valid scientific question, even though it is outside the realm of evolutionary biology. (Pigliucci 2002: 77)

(….) Is the fact that evolutionary theory can explain neither the origin of life nor the formation of the universe a “failure” of Darwinian evolution? Of course not. To apply evolutionary biology to those problems is like mixing apples and oranges, or like trying to understand a basketball play by applying the rules of baseball. Creationists [and materialists] often do this, but their doing so betrays either a fundamental misunderstanding of science or a good dose of intellectual dishonesty—neither of which should be condoned. (Pigliucci 2002: 78)

(….) [Creationists often claim “It’s a debate about origins.”] This is … a recurring fallacy in debates on creation-evolution…. Briefly, the problem is that creationists do not make a distinction between different origins debates. For them the origin of the universe, the origin of life, and the origin of species are all one and the same. (Pigliucci 2002: 175)

Of course, they are not. Evolutionary biology deals only with the origin of species, and even that is only a relatively minor part of what interests evolutionary biologists. Darwinian theories have absolutely nothing to say about either the origin of life or the origin of the universe—the first one being a problem for biochemistry and biophysics, the second a problem for physics and cosmology. Again, therefore, this fallacy reflects a deep misunderstanding of the nature of science, one that scientists themselves need to correct [or not perpetuate themselves] on every possible occasion. (Pigliucci 2002: 175)

Massimo Pigliucci (2002) Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism, and the Nature of Science

ORIGIN OF LIFE

Whether the proponents of hell or heaven theories finally convince their rivals of the most plausible scenario of the origin of the first replicating structures, it is clear that the origin of life is not a simple issue. One problem is the definition of life itself. From the ancient Greeks up through the early nineteenth century, people from European cultures believed that living things possessed an élan vital, or vital spirit—a quality that sets them apart from dead things and nonliving things such as minerals or water. Organic molecules, in fact, were thought to differ from other molecules because of the presence of this spirit. This view was gradually abandoned in science when more detailed study of the structure and functioning of living things repeatedly failed to discover any evidence for such an élan vital, and when it was realized that organic molecules could be synthesized from inorganic chemicals. Vitalistic ways of thinking persist in some East Asian philosophies, such as the concept of chi, but they have been abandoned in Western science for lack of evidence and because they do not lead to a better understanding of nature. (Scott 2009: 25-26)

How, then, can we define life? According to one commonly used scientific definition, if something is living, it is able to acquire and use energy, and to reproduce. The simplest living things today are primitive bacteria, enclosed by a membrane and not containing very many moving parts. But they can take in and use energy, and they can reproduce by division. Even this definition is fuzzy, though: what about viruses? Viruses, microscopic entities dwarfed by tiny bacteria, are hardly more than hereditary material in a packet—a protein shell. Are they alive? Well, they reproduce. They sort of use energy, in the sense that they take over a cell’s machinery to duplicate their own hereditary material. But they can also form crystals, which no living thing can do, so biologists are divided over whether viruses are living or not. They tend to be treated as a separate special category. (Scott 2009: 26)

(….) The origin of life is a complex but active research area with many interesting avenues being investigation, though there is not yet consensus among researchers on the sequence of events that led to living things. But at some point in Earth’s early history, perhaps as early as 3.8 billion years ago but definitely by 3.5 billion years ago, life in the form of simple single-celled organisms appeared. Once life evolved, biological evolution became possible. (Scott 2009: 26-27)

This is a point worth elaborating on. Although some people confuse the origin of life itself with evolution, the two are conceptually separate. Biological evolution is defined as decent of living things from ancestors from which they differ. Evolution kicks in after there is something, like a replicating structure, to evolve. So the origin of life preceded evolution, and is conceptually distinct from it. Regardless of how the first replicating molecule appeared, we see in the subsequent historical record the gradual appearance of more complex living things, and many variations on the many themes of life. Predictably, we know much more about evolution than about the origin of life. (Scott 2009: 27)

— Eugenie C. Scott (2009) Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction

Phishing for Phools

Mainstream economics takes the particular features of capitalism a very recent form of economic organisation in human history as if they were universal, timeless and rational. It treats market exchange as if it’s the essential feature of economic behaviour and relegates production or work a necessity of all provisioning to an afterthought. It also focuses primarily on the relationship between people and goods (what determines how many oranges we buy?) and pays little attention to the relationships between people that this presupposes. It values mathematical models based on if-pigs-could-fly assumptions more than it values empirical research; so it pays little attention to real economies, having little to say about money and debt, for example! Predictably, the dismal science failed to predict the crisis. When the UK’s Queen Elizabeth asked why no one saw the crisis coming, the economists’ embarrassment was palpable. (Sayer 2015, 23-24)

Andrew Sayer (2015) Why We Can’t Afford the Rich

[M]any of our problems come from the nature of the economic system itself. If business people behave in the purely selfish and self-serving way that economic theory assumes, our free-market system tends to spawn manipulation and deception. The problem is not that there are a lot of evil people. Most people play by the rules and are just trying to make a good living. But, inevitably, the competitive pressures for businessmen to practice deception and manipulation in free markets lead us to buy, and to pay too much for, products that we do not need; to work at jobs that give us little sense of purpose; and to wonder why our lives have gone amiss. (…) The economic system is filled with trickery and everyone needs to know about it.” (Akerlof & Shiller, 2015, viii)

[F]ree markets do not just deliver this cornucopia that people want. They also create an economic equilibrium that is highly suitable for economic enterprises that manipulate or distort our judgment, using business practices that are analogous to biological cancers that make their home in the normal equilibrium of the human body. (Akerlof and Shiller 2015, x)

George A. Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller (2015) Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation & Deception

Many of the quotes above are from economists, experts in their field, some Nobel Prize-winning economists. One thing is clear; the Great Recession shook the very foundations of economics to its core. Only the blind leading the blind can pretend today that something isn’t amiss within the field of economics. The quotations above only represent a small sampling of the discontent rising to the surface within the field of economics today. There is actually a revolt underway in the younger generation of economic graduate students who lived through the Great Recession and the near melt down of the world’s economy yet witnessed their teachers being confounded by the Queen’s question. And if we value our children’s and our grandchildren’s economic future we can no longer afford to simply leave economics to the expertsthe Econocracy—for as these young graduate students tell us, we do so at our own peril. Amartya Sen in his essay Rational Fools: A Critique of the Behavioral Foundations of Economic Theory takes us on an intellectual journey back in time to the thoughts and reflections of one of the founders of the field of economics:

In his Mathematical Psychics, published in 1881, Edgeworth asserted that ‘the first principle of Economics is that every agent is actuated only by self-interest’. This view has been a persistent one in economic models, and the nature of economic theory seem to have been much influenced by this basic premise…. I should mention that Edgeworth himself was quite aware that this so-called first principle of Economics was not a particularly realistic one. Indeed, he felt that ‘the concrete nineteenth century man is for the most part an impure egoist, a mixed utilitarian’. This raises the interesting question as to why Edgeworth spent so much of his time and talent in developing a line of inquiry the first principle of which he believed to be false. The issue is not why abstractions should be employed in pursuing economic questionsthe nature of inquiry makes this inevitablebut why would one choose an assumption which he himself believed not merely inaccurate in detail but fundamentally mistaken? (Sen 1982, 84-85)

Amartya Sen (1982) Rational Fools

Imaginary Empty Balls

The answer, therefore, which the seventeenth century gave to the ancient question … “What is the world made of?” was that the world is a succession of instantaneous configurations of matter — or material, if you wish to include stuff more subtle than ordinary matter…. Thus the configurations determined there own changes, so that the circle of scientific thought was completely closed. This is the famous mechanistic theory of nature, which has reigned supreme ever since the seventeenth century. It is the orthodox creed of physical science…. There is an error; but it is merely the accidental error of mistaking the abstract for the concrete. It is an example of what I will call the ‘Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness.’ This fallacy is the occasion of great confusion in philosophy. (Whitehead 1967: 50-51)

(….) This conception of the universe is surely framed in terms of high abstractions, and the paradox only arises because we have mistaken our abstractions for concrete realities…. The seventeenth century had finally produced a scheme of scientific thought framed by mathematics, for the use of mathematics. The great characteristic of the mathematical mind is its capacity for dealing with abstractions; and for eliciting from them clear-cut demonstrative trains of reasoning, entirely satisfactory so long as it is those abstractions which you want to think about. The enormous success of the scientific abstractions, yielding on the one hand matter with its simple location in space and time, on the other hand mind, perceiving, suffering, reasoning, but not interfering, has foisted onto philosophy the task of accepting them as the most concrete rendering of fact. (Whitehead 1967: 54-55)

Thereby, modern philosophy has been ruined. It has oscillated in a complex manner between three extremes. These are the dualists, who accept matter and mind as on an equal basis, and the two varieties of monists, those who put mind inside matter, and those who put matter inside mind. But this juggling with abstractions can never overcome the inherent confusion introduced by the ascription of misplaced concreteness to the scientific scheme of the seventeenth century. (Whitehead 1967: 55)

Alfred North Whitehead in Science and the Modern World

In the UK, for example, 97 percent of money is created by commercial banks and its character takes the form of debt-based, interest-bearing loans. As for its intended use? In the 10 years running up to the 2008 financial crash, over 75 percent of those loans were granted for buying stocks or houses—so fuelling the house-price bubble—while a mere 13 percent went to small businesses engaged in productive enterprise.47 When such debt increases, a growing share of a nation’s income is siphoned off as payments to those with interest-earning investments and as profit for the banking sector, leaving less income available for spending on products and services made by people working in the productive economy. ‘Just as landlords were the archetypal rentiers of their agricultural societies,’ writes economist Michael Hudson, ‘so investors, financiers and bankers are in the largest rentier sector of today’s financialized economies.’ (Raworth 2017, 155)

Once the current design of money is spelled out this way—its creation, its character and its use—it becomes clear that there are many options for redesigning it, involving the state and the commons along with the market. What’s more, many different kinds of money can coexist, with the potential to turn a monetary monoculture into a financial ecosystem. (Raworth 2017, 155)

Imagine, for starters, if central banks were to take back the power to create money and then issue it to commercial banks, while simultaneously requiring them to hold 100 percent reserves for the loans that they make—meaning that every loan would be backed by someone else’s savings, or the bank’s own capital. It would certainly separate the role of providing money from the role of providing credit, so helping to prevent the build-up of debt-fuelled credit bubbles that burst with such deep social costs. That idea may sound outlandish, but it is neither a new nor a fringe suggestion. First proposed during the 1930s Great Depression by influential economists of the day such as Irving Fisher and Milton Friedman, it gained renewed support after the 2008 crash, gaining the backing of mainstream financial experts at the International Monetary Fund and Martin Wolf of the UK’s Financial Times. (Raworth 2017, 155-156)

Kate Raworth in Doughnut Economics

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The dematerialization of the value concept boded ill for the tangible world of stable time and concrete motion (Kern 1983). Again, the writer Jorge Luis Borges (1962, p. 159) captured the mood of the metaphor: (Mirowski 1989, 134. Kindle Location 2875-2877)

I reflected there is nothing less material than money, since any coin whatsoever (let us say a coin worth twenty centavos) is, strictly speaking, a repertory of possible futures. Money is abstract, I repeated; money is the future tense. It can be an evening in the suburbs, or music by Brahms; it can be maps, or chess, or coffee; it can be the words of Epictetus teaching us to despise gold; it is a Proteus more versatile than the one on the isle of Pharos. It is unforeseeable time, Bergsonian time . . . (Mirowski 1989, 134-135. Kindle Location 2877-2881)

It was not solely in art that the reconceptualization of value gripped the imagination. Because the energy concept depended upon the value metaphor in part for its credibility, physics was prodded to reinterpret the meaning of its conservation principles. In an earlier, simpler era Clerk Maxwell could say that conservation principles gave the physical molecules “the stamp of the manufactured article” (Barrow and Tipler 1986, p. 88), but as manufacture gave way to finance, seeing conservation principles in nature gave way to seeing them more as contingencies, imposed by our accountants in order to keep confusion at bay. Nowhere is this more evident than in the popular writings of the physicist Arthur Eddington, the Stephen Jay Gould of early twentieth century physics: (Mirowski 1989, 135. Kindle Location 2881-2887)

The famous laws of conservation and energy . . . are mathematical identities. Violation of them is unthinkable. Perhaps I can best indicate their nature by an analogy. An aged college Bursar once dwelt secluded in his rooms devoting himself entirely to accounts. He realised the intellectual and other activities of the college only as they presented themselves in the bills. He vaguely conjectured an objective reality at the back of it all some sort of parallel to the real college though he could only picture it in terms of the pounds, shillings and pence which made up what he would call “the commonsense college of everyday experience.” The method of account-keeping had become inveterate habit handed down from generations of hermit-like bursars; he accepted the form of the accounts as being part of the nature of things. But he was of a scientific turn and he wanted to learn more about the college. One day in looking over the books he discovered a remarkable law. For every item on the credit side an equal item appeared somewhere else on the debit side. “Ha!” said the Bursar, “I have discovered one of the great laws controlling the college. It is a perfect and exact law of the real world. Credit must be called plus and debit minus; and so we have the law of conservation of £. s. d. This is the true way to find out things, and there is no limit to what may ultimately be discovered by this scientific method . . .” (Mirowski 1989, 135. Kindle Location 2887-2898)

I have no quarrel with the Bursar for believing that scientific investigation of the accounts is a road to exact (though necessarily partial) knowledge of the reality behind them . . . But I would point out to him that a discovery of the overlapping of the different aspects in which the realities of the college present themselves in the world of accounts, is not a discovery of the laws controlling the college; that he has not even begun to find the controlling laws. The college may totter but the Bursar’s accounts still balance . . . (Mirowski 1989, 135-136. Kindle Location 2898-2902)

Perhaps a better way of expressing this selective influence of the mind on the laws of Nature is to say that values are created by the mind [Eddington 1930, pp. 237–8, 243]. (Mirowski 1989, 136. Kindle Location 2903-2904)

Once physicists had become inured to entertaining the idea that value is not natural, then it was a foregone conclusion that the stable Laplacean dreamworld of a fixed and conserved energy and a single super-variational principle was doomed. Again, Eddington stated it better than I could hope to: (Mirowski 1989, 136. Kindle Location 2904-2907)

[Classical determinism] was the gold standard in the vaults; [statistical laws were] the paper currency actually used. But everyone still adhered to the traditional view that paper currency needs to be backed by gold. As physics progressed the occasions when the gold was actually produced became career until they ceased altogether. Then it occurred to some of us to question whether there still was a hoard of gold in the vaults or whether its existence was a mythical tradition. The dramatic ending of the story would be that the vaults were opened and found to be empty. The actual ending is not quite so simple. It turns out that the key has been lost, and no one can say for certain whether there is any gold in the vaults or not. But I think it is clear that, with either termination, present-day physics is off the gold standard [Eddington 1935, p. 81]. (Mirowski 1989, 136. Kindle Location 2907-2913)

The denaturalization of value presaged the dissolution of the energy concept into a mere set of accounts, which, like national currencies, were not convertable at any naturally fixed rates of exchange. Quantum mechanical energy was not exactly the same thing as relativistic energy or thermodynamic energy. Yet this did not mean that physics had regressed to a state of fragmented autarkies. Trade was still conducted between nations; mathematical structure could bridge subdisciplines of physics. It was just that everyone was coming to acknowledge that money was provisional, and that symmetries expressed by conservatiori principles were contingent upon the purposes of the theory in which they were embedded. (Mirowski 1989, 136. Kindle Location 2913-2918)

Increasingly, this contingent status was expressed by recourse to economic metaphors. The variability of metrics of space-time in general relativity were compared to the habit of describing inflation in such torturous language as: “The pound is now only worth seven and sixpence” (Eddington 1930, p. 26). The fundamentally stochastic character of the energy quantum was said to allow nuclear particles to “borrow” sufficient energy so that they could “tunnel” their way out of the nucleus. And, inevitably, if we live with a banking system wherein money is created by means of loans granted on the basis of near-zero fractional reserves, then this process of borrowing energy could cascade, building upon itself until the entire universe is conceptualized as a “free lunch.” The nineteenth century would have recoiled in horror from this idea, they who believed that banks merely ratified the underlying real transactions with their loans. (Mirowski 1989, 136-137. Kindle Location 2918-2925)

Goldman Sachs and Flash Boys

I suppose this book started when I first heard the story of Sergey Aleynikov, the Russian computer programmer who had worked for Goldman Sachs and then, in the summer of 2009, after he’d quit his job, was arrested by the FBI and charged by the United States government with stealing Goldman Sachs’s computer code. I’d thought it strange, after the financial crisis, in which Goldman had played such an important role, that the only Goldman Sachs employee who had been charged with any sort of crime was the employee who had taken something from Goldman Sachs. I’d thought it even stranger that government prosecutors had argued that the Russian shouldn’t be freed on bail because the Goldman Sachs computer code, in the wrong hands, could be used to “manipulate markets in unfair ways.” (Goldman’s were the right hands? If Goldman Sachs was able to manipulate markets, could other banks do it, too?) But maybe the strangest aspect of the case was how difficult it appeared to be—for the few who attempted—to explain what the Russian had done. I don’t mean only what he had done wrong: I mean what he had done. His job. He was usually described as a “high-frequency trading programmer,” but that wasn’t an explanation. That was a term of art that, in the summer of 2009, most people, even on Wall Street, had never before heard. What was high-frequency trading? Why was the code that enabled Goldman Sachs to do it so important that, when it was discovered to have been copied by some employee, Goldman Sachs needed to call the FBI? If this code was at once so incredibly valuable and so dangerous to financial markets, how did a Russian who had worked for Goldman Sachs for a mere two years get his hands on it? (Lewis 2014, 40-53)

[I]n a room looking out at the World Trade Center site, at One Liberty Plaza … gathered a small army of shockingly well-informed people from every corner of Wall Street—big banks, the major stock exchanges, and high-frequency trading firms. Many of them had left high-paying jobs to declare war on Wall Street, which meant, among other things, attacking the very problem that the Russian computer programmer had been hired by Goldman Sachs to create. (Lewis 2014, 53-56)

(….) One moment all is well; the next, the value of the entire U.S. stock market has fallen 22.61 percent, and no one knows why. During the crash, some Wall Street brokers, to avoid the orders their customers wanted to place to sell stocks, simply declined to pick up their phones. It wasn’t the first time that Wall Street people had discredited themselves, but this time the authorities responded by changing the rules—making it easier for computers to do the jobs done by those imperfect people. The 1987 stock market crash set in motion a process—weak at first, stronger over the years—that has ended with computers entirely replacing the people. (Lewis 2014, 62-67)

Over the past decade, the financial markets have changed too rapidly for our mental picture of them to remain true to life. (Lewis 2014, 67)

(….) The U.S. stock market now trades inside black boxes, in heavily guarded buildings in New Jersey and Chicago. What goes on inside those black boxes is hard to say—the ticker tape that runs across the bottom of cable TV screens captures only the tiniest fraction of what occurs in the stock markets. The public reports of what happens inside the black boxes are fuzzy and unreliable—even an expert cannot say what exactly happens inside them, or when it happens, or why. The average investor has no hope of knowing, of course, even the little he needs to know. He logs onto his TD Ameritrade or E*Trade or Schwab account, enters a ticker symbol of some stock, and clicks an icon that says “Buy”: Then what? He may think he knows what happens after he presses the key on his computer keyboard, but, trust me, he does not. If he did, he’d think twice before he pressed it. (Lewis 2014, 72-78)

The world clings to its old mental picture of the stock market because it’s comforting; because it’s so hard to draw a picture of what has replaced it; and because the few people able to draw it for you have no [economic] interest in doing so. (Lewis 2014, 78-80)

Anti-Human Economics

Emily Northrop (2000) questions whether the fundamental cause of scarcity unlimited wants is really innate, and argues that it may be merely constructed [see Diamonds are Bullshit]. She notes that some people manage to resist consumerism and choose different lifestyles embodying simplicity, balance or connection (to the earth and to others). The fact that some are able to do this suggests unlimited wants aren’t innate. In arguing that our wants are constructed, she emphasizes the power of social norms and the power of advertising: some of society’s cleverest people and billions of dollars a year are spent creating and maintaining our wants. (Hill and Myatt 2010, 16)

Northrop also points out that the notion of unlimited wants puts all wants on an equal footing: one person’s want for a subsistence diet is no more important than a millionaire’s want for precious jewellery. This equality of wants reflects the market value system that no goods are intrinsically more worthy than others just as no preferences are more worthy than others. This is clearly a value judgement and one that many people reject. Yet economics, which unquestioningly adopts this approach, claims to be an objective social science that avoids making value judgements! (Hill and Myatt 2010, 16)

It is noteworthy that Keynes disagreed that ‘all wants have equal merit’. Rather than identify the economic problem with scarcity, he identified it with the satisfaction of what he called absolute needs: food, clothing, shelter and healthcare (Keynes 1963 [1931]: 365). This definition of the economic problem puts equity and the distribution of income front and centre. It contrasts with the textbook approach of treating equity as a political issue outside the scope of economic analysis. (Hill and Myatt 2010, 16)

Another economist who rejects the ‘innate unlimited wants’ idea is Stephen Marglin (2008). Unlike Northrop, he doesn’t blame advertising or social norms. Rather, he sees the fundamental cause to be the destruction of community ties, which creates an existential vacuum: all that’s left is stuff. Goods and services substitute for meaningful relationships with family, friends and community. His conclusion: as long as goods are a primary means of solving existential problems, we will always want more. But what or who is responsible for undermining community ties and bonds? Marglin argues that the assumptions of textbook economics, and the resulting policy recommendations of economists, undermine community…. (Hill and Myatt 2010, 16-17)

According to Marglin, the textbook focus on individuals makes the community invisible to economists’ eyes. But it is our friendships and deep connections with others which give our lives meaning. So community ties, built on mutual trust and common purpose, have a value a value that economists ignore when recommending policy.

Furthermore, Marglin argues that rational choice theory emphasized in the mainstream textbooks reduces ethical judgements and values to mere preferences. Are you working for the benefit of your community? That’s your preference. Are you cooking the books to get rich quick and devil take the hindmost? That’s your preference. Being selfish is no worse than being altruistic, they are just different preferences. (Hill and Myatt 2010, 16)

Indeed, according to mainstream textbook economics it is smart to be selfish. It not only maximizes your own material well-being, but through the invisible hand of the market it also produces the greatest good for the greatest possible number. This view influences the cultural norms of society and indirectly erodes community. This influence of economics on attitudes isn’t mere speculation. Marwell and Ames (1981) document that exposure to economics generates less cooperative, less other-regarding, behaviour. Frank et al. (1993) show that uncooperative behaviour increases the more individuals are exposed to economics. (Hill and Myatt 2010, 17-18)

(….) Marglin argues that the textbook focus on individuals is problematic. John Kenneth Galbraith went farther. He thought the textbook focus on individuals was a source of grave error and bias because in the real world the individual is not the agent that matters most. The corporation is. By having the wrong focus, economics is able to deny the importance of power and political interests. (Hill and Myatt 2010, 18)

Further, textbooks assume that the state is subordinate to individuals through the ballot box. At the very least, government is assumed to be neutral, intervening to correct market failure as best it can, and to redistribute income so as to make market outcomes more equitable. (Hill and Myatt 2010, 18-19)

But this idealized world is so far removed from the real world that it is little more than a myth, or ‘perhaps even a fraud’ (John K. Galbraith 2004). The power of the largest corporations rivals that of the state; indeed, they often hijack the state’s power for their own purposes. In reality, we see the management of the consumer by corporations; and we see the subordination of the state to corporate interest. (Hill and Myatt 2010, 19)

(….) Galbraith argues that the biggest corporations have power over markets, power in the community, power over the state, and power over belief. As such, the corporation is a political instrument, different in form and degree but not in kind from the state itself. Textbook economics, in denying that power, is part of the problem. It stops us from seeing how we are governed. As such it becomes an ‘ally of those whose exercise of power depends on an acquiescent public’ (John K. Galbraith 1973a: 11). (Hill and Myatt 2010, 19-20)

Spotting the Spoof

According to this view, individuals within an economy follow simple rules of thumb to determine their course of action. However, they adapt to their environment by changing the rules they use when these prove to be less successful. They are not irrational in that they do not act against their own interests, but they have neither the information nor the calculating capacity to ‘optimise’. Indeed, they are assumed to have limited and largely local information, and they modify their behaviour to improve their situation. Individuals in complexity models are neither assumed to understand how the economy works nor to consciously look for the ‘best choice’. The main preoccupation is not whether aggregate outcomes are efficient or not but rather with how all of these different individuals interacting with each other come to coordinate their behaviour. Giving individuals in a model simple rules to follow and allowing them to change them as they interact with others means thinking of them much more like particles or social insects. Mainstream economists often object to this approach, arguing that humans have intentions and aims which cannot be found in either inanimate particles or lower forms of life.

Kirman et. al. (2018, 95) in Rethinking Economics: An Introduction to Pluralist Economics, Routledge.

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. (….) Abstrusiveness need not impair a doctrine’s aptness for inducing or fortifying certain attitudes, as it may in fact help to inspire awe and obedience by ‘blinding people with science’.

— Andreski (1973, 33-35) in Social Sciences as Sorcery. Emphasis added.

Complexity theory comes with its own problems of over-reach and tractability. Context counts; any theory taken to far stretches credulity. The art is in spotting the spoof. It is true irony to watch the pot calling the kettle black! To wit, mainstream economists questioning the validity of complexity theories use of greedy reductionism — often for the sole purpose of mathematical tractability — when applied to human beings; just because mainstream economists also have unrealistic assumptions (i.e., homo economicus) that overly simplify human behavior and capabilities doesn’t invalidate such a critique. Just because the pot calls the kettle black doesn’t mean the kettle and the pot are not black. Building models of human behavior solely on rational expectations and/or “social insects” qua fitness climbing ticks means we are either Gods or Idiots. Neither Gödel nor Turing reduced creatively thinking human beings to mere Turing machines.

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The best dialogues take place when each interlocutor speaks from her best self, without pretending to be something she is not. In their recent book Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception, Nobel Prize–winning economists George Akerlof and Robert Shiller expand the standard definition of “phishing.” In their usage, it goes beyond committing fraud on the Internet to indicate something older and more general: “getting people to do things that are in the interest of the phisherman” rather than their own. In much the same spirit, we would like to expand the meaning of another recent computer term, “spoofing,” which normally means impersonating someone else’s email name and address to deceive the recipient—a friend or family member of the person whose name is stolen—into doing something no one would do at the behest of a stranger. Spoofing in our usage also means something more general: pretending to represent one discipline or school when actually acting according to the norms of another. Like phishing, spoofing is meant to deceive, and so it is always useful to spot the spoof.

Students who take an English course under the impression they will be taught literature, and wind up being given lessons in politics that a political scientist would scoff at or in sociology that would mystify a sociologist, are being spoofed. Other forms of the humanities—or dehumanities, as we prefer to call them—spoof various scientific disciplines, from computer science to evolutionary biology and neurology. The longer the spoof deceives, the more disillusioned the student will be with what she takes to be the “humanities.” (Morson, Gary Saul. Cents and Sensibility (pp. 1-2). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.)

By the same token, when economists pretend to solve problems in ethics, culture, and social values in purely economic terms, they are spoofing other disciplines, although in this case the people most readily deceived are the economists themselves. We will examine various ways in which this happens and how, understandably enough, it earns economists a bad name among those who spot the spoof.

But many do not spot it. Gary Becker won a Nobel Prize largely for extending economics to the furthest reaches of human behavior, and the best-selling Freakonomics series popularizes this approach. What seems to many an economist to be a sincere effort to reach out to other disciplines strikes many practitioners of those fields as nothing short of imperialism, since economists expropriate topics rather than treat existing literatures and methods with the respect they deserve. Too often the economic approach to interdisciplinary work is that other fields have the questions and economics has the answers. (Morson, Gary Saul. Cents and Sensibility (pp. 2-3). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.)

As with the dehumanities, these efforts are not valueless. There is, after all, an economic aspect to many activities, including those we don’t usually think of in economic terms. People make choices about many things, and the rational choice model presumed by economists can help us understand how they do so, at least when they behave rationally—and even the worst curmudgeon acknowledges that people are sometimes rational! We have never seen anyone deliberately get into a longer line at a bank. (Morson, Gary Saul. Cents and Sensibility (p. 3). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.)

Even regarding ethics, economic models can help in one way, by indicating what is the most efficient allocation of resources. To be sure, one can question the usual economic definition of efficiency—in terms of maximizing the “economic surplus”—and one can question the establishment of goals in purely economic terms, but regardless of which goals one chooses, it pays to choose an efficient way, one that expends the least resources, to reach them. Wasting resources is never a good thing to do, because the resources wasted could have been put to some ethical purpose. The problem is that efficiency does not exhaust ethical questions, and the economic aspect of many problems is not the most important one. By pretending to solve ethical questions, economists wind up spoofing philosophers, theologians, and other ethicists. Economic rationality is indeed part of human nature, but by no means all of it.

For the rest of human nature, we need the humanities (and the humanistic social sciences). In our view, numerous aspects of life are best understood in terms of a dialogue between economics and the humanities—not the spoofs, but real economics and real humanities. (Morson, Gary Saul. Cents and Sensibility (pp. 3-4). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.)