Friday, September 28, 2012

“Why Solar Panels Don’t Grow on Trees: Technological Utopianism and the Uneasy Relation between Ecomarxism and Ecological Economics”

Abstract of paper by Alf Hornborg for the panel, “Life in a zero-sum world: capitalism, socio-ecological crisis and alternatives” 17th World Congress of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, Manchester U.K. August 5 -10, 2013:
Ever since the Industrial Revolution saved Britain from ecological crisis in the early nineteenth century, visions of miraculous new technologies have alleviated Euro-American anxieties about the impending doom of the fossil-fuelled capitalism that it inaugurated. Although Malthus’s worries about land shortages were transcended by world-historical events as well as by Ricardo’s and Marx’s different versions of technological optimism, they were soon reincarnated in Jevons’s warnings about the depletion of coal. Today economists generally dismiss the pessimism not only of Malthus and Jevons, but also of current concerns over peak oil, by expressing faith in human ingenuity. To retrospectively ridicule pessimists by referring to technological progress that they did not anticipate has become an established pattern of mainstream thought. Almost regardless of ideological persuasion, the seemingly self-evident concept of “technological progress” inherited from early industrialism has been resorted to as an article of faith serving to dispel the specter of truncated growth. The increasingly acknowledged threats of peak oil and global warming are thus generally countered with visions of a future civilization based on solar power. In this paper I discuss this technological scenario as a utopia that raises serious doubts about mainstream understandings of what “technology” really is, and what it means to say that something is “technologically” feasible. The technological utopianism professed, for instance, by ecomarxists raises difficult but fundamental analytical questions about the relation between thermodynamics and theories of economic value.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

To See Machines as Machinations

The following passage, from the conclusion to Alf Hornborg's "Animism, fetishism, and objectivism as strategies for knowing (or not knowing) the world," may not be the easiest thing for readers to grasp. The insight that it conveys, though, is worth whatever effort it may take to grasp it.
For a number of years now, I have been struggling with the intuition that there is something mysterious about technology. Something that strangely seems to escape us, both as social scientists and as citizens. On one hand, modern technology seems quite obviously to be a strategy for capacitating an affluent minority of the world’s population through an asymmetrical exchange — an expanding net appropriation — of resources from the rest of the world. On the other hand, technology tends to be represented as a politically innocent and intrinsically productive union of human inventiveness and the ‘pure’ material essence of Nature — indeed as a gift of the wealthier, ‘developed’ nations to the rest of humanity. How are these two contradictory images of technology able to coexist, without the former contaminating the latter? The answer, Latour would undoubtedly say, lies again in that rigid categorical distinction between Nature and Society, between the world of ‘pure’ objects and the world of human relations. Once classified as object, technology is automatically immune to political critique. For how could ‘pure’ objects be conceived as sources of malign agency? If the behaviour of the early nineteenth century Luddites today strikes us as odd, it is because they were not yet quite modern. Today we supposedly know better than to direct our political frustrations at machines. The efficacy of technology, we hold, comes from ‘objective properties intrinsic to the nature of things’. Like economic rationality and scientific truth, says Latour, technological efficiency ‘forever escapes the tyranny of social interest’.
But if these modernist convictions were indeed to collapse, as Latour predicts, and we should realize the extent to which our technologies are in fact politically constituted, our machines would cease to be ‘pure’ objects and conceivably be accredited with a malicious agency far surpassing that of any pre-modern fetishes. For to expose the agency of these cornucopian ‘productive forces’ as a transmutation and deflection of the agency of other humans would be to render morally suspect that which modernity had couched in the deceptive neutrality of the merely technical. And in seeing, for the first time, the machines as they really are — as machinations — perhaps the animist within us would stir again, and we would ask ourselves: What manner of creatures are these things, part mineral, part mind, that serve the few to enslave the many, while fouling the land, the water, and the air?

They Should Be Ashamed

Why do economists insist on perpetually inventing ingenious false problems at the same time as they studiously ignore real ones?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

"How not to go about understanding peasant societies..." (or any society for that matter)

In his study of anthropology journal citations, "Anthropology Journals: What They Cite and What Cites Them," published in Current Anthropology in 1984, Eugene Garfield of the Institute for Scientific Information ranked George Foster's "Peasant Society and the Image of Limited Good" (1965) as the second most cited article -- with 207 citations between 1966 and 1982 (see "Table 6"). As Garfield explained, "this paper discusses the cognitive orientation of peasants. It explains how their social premises and assumptions may prevent rapid economic development in peasant societies." The period from 1966 to 1982 was no doubt the paper's heyday but the latest Social Sciences Citation Index count for it is 370 citations, albeit presumably not all in anthropology core journals.

In one of the several commentaries following Garfield's analysis, Peter Hinton pointed out that Garfield's admirable restraint in interpreting the data "leaves open -- as it must -- the question of the meaning of citation patterns and sounds a timely warning that frequent citation does not necessarily indicate 'dominance' or influence. Foster's paper, one of the most cited pieces in Garfield's analysis, is a case in point. It is ironic that this paper, in which Foster develops the idea of 'limited good' to account for alleged peasant reluctance to accept new ideas, is frequently cited as an example of how not to go about understanding peasant societies." Here is how Foster explained his model:
By "Image of Limited Good" I mean that broad areas of peasant behavior are patterned in such fashion as to suggest that peasants view their social, economic, and natural universes -- their total environment -- as one in which all of the desired things in life such as land, wealth, health, friendship and love, manliness and honor, respect and status, power and influence, security and safety, exist in finite quantity and are always in short supply, as far as the peasant is concerned. Not only do these and all other "good things" exist in finite and limited quantities, but in addition there is no way directly within peasant power to increase the available quantities. It is as if the obvious fact of land shortage in a densely populated area applied to all other desired things: not enough to go around. "Good," like land, is seen as inherent in nature, there to be divided and redivided, if necessary, but not to be augmented.
In short, Foster's paper adopts the lump-of-labor fallacy claim and extends it to non-economic spheres of life. Actually, I would rate Foster's explanation of his image of limited good as more scholarly than any explanation of the lump-of-labor fallacy I have encountered. It is more conscientiously qualified and observational data are presented as supporting evidence. Nevertheless, as Hinton's commentary suggested, the model has been controversial, to say the least. In a 1975 article offering an alternative explanation for Foster's field observations, James R. Gregory summarized the critical reaction to Foster's article to that date. I have previously posted Gregory's summary in "Trickster Makes This Lump". As I mentioned there, I can find absolutely no evidence of disciplinary 'cross-pollination' where economists recognize the image as their own fallacy claim or anthropologists note the fallacy claim as the image's progenitor.

Two solitudes. What does this total silence say about the compartmentalization of thought in academia over the last 47 years? What does the lively controversy in anthropology suggest about the teeth-gritting conformism and groupthink in economics? What does it say about the 'cognitive orientation' of economists? And who the fuck cares other than the unemployed 'peasants' that the economist-lords dismiss with a pseudo-mathematical shrug?

Saturday, September 22, 2012

5000 Jobs, Liberty and the Bottom Line 5000

The Sandwichman's SCRIBD manuscript of Jobs, Liberty and the Bottom Line is just two reads shy of the 5000 mark. The last major rewrite was in February 2011 and a lot has happened in Sandwichland since then, including the resurrection of Dorning Rasbotham; further thoughts on technology, credit and the Jevons Paradox; the inside-outing of externality and, last-but-not-least, the unveiling of the Image of Limited Good. Sandwichman has also received some valuable critical comments on the current draft.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Trickster Makes This Lump

So I'm reading Lewis Hyde's delightful Trickster Makes This World and there, on page 131, he starts talking about George Foster's theory of the "Image of Limited Good" in which "peasant behavior can be understood by assuming that peasants believe there is a fixed quantity of wealth in the community and therefore that if someone in the group suddenly becomes richer it must be because someone else... has become poorer." Or, as economists call it, the friggin' lump-of-labor fallacy!

It turns out that there is quite a lot of substantive discussion of the Foster's theory in the anthropological literature, a good deal of it rather critical. I quote a passage below from one of the critics, James R. Gregory, that sums up the "extent and tenor" of the debate. Remarkably Google and journal database searches turn up no discussions that mention both the "Image of Limited Good" and the lump-of- labor fallacy:
Even the briefest check of one's own personal library reveals how widely Foster's formulation has been accepted, at least tentatively. The concept is included, in the form of either the original article or a discussion of it, in various anthologies (e.g., Potter, Diaz, and Foster 1967, Mangin 1970, Cohen 1971, Jennings and Hoebel 1972). It is applied in recent monographic case studies (e.g., Aceves 1971, Nelson 1971). A discussion of it is included in several widely ing and Keesing 1971, Hoebel 1972). The validity of the idea has apparently been accepted by at least one prominent economic anthropologist (Salisbury 1968a). Kearney (1969) claims to have found support for Foster's argument by discovering an exception to it. And Freeman (1973:745) identifies "the assessment of such notions as 'the image of limited good' " as one of the analytic concerns which have been important to researchers in studying rural European social organization.

On the negative side of the ledger, Foster's article prompted a number of critical reactions. For example, Kennedy (1966:1212) argued that the assumptions of Fos- ter's model are untenable and that "interpretations deriving from it are therefore erroneous"; and Kaplan and Saler (1966:202) charged that "Foster involves himself in questionable logical procedures of a sort that commonly becloud many anthropological attempts at scientific explanation." Specifically, Kennedy (p. 1212) suggested that the proposition that peasants view economic "goods" as being limited "seems to be simply a restatement of an economic truism," that people "are always confronted with the problem of allocation of scarce means to alternative ends," and that in "scarcity economies, whether they be peasant, primitive, or urban slum, we would expect the limitations to be great- er.. . ." Kaplan and Saler (p. 204) wondered whether peas- ants really view "limited good" as an ontological attribute of the universe (as in Foster's model) or simply "view their access to wealth and land as limited vis-a-vis other groups . . .?" The proposition that peasants view "good" as being nonexpandable was also challenged. Kennedy (p. 1218) pointed out that most peasants are under influences origin- ating outside the community-from city-based family members; from returning migrant laborers; and from "resident officials, teachers, doctors, foreign storekeepers, and landlord classes within the community"-which "pro- vide peasants with . . . tangible evidence that 'Good' is expandable, even if, as in all societies, it is limited." Further questions were raised concerning the proposition that peasants view the gain of some as being at the expense of others. Kennedy (p. 1213) suggested that where such a view is reported in the ethnographic literature "it is usually based upon real histories of people depriving others of land or other property." And Kaplan and Saler (p. 203) asked: "Are we to believe that peasants seriously entertain the notion that one's good health . . . must necessarily be at the expense of someone else's poor health?" There was also strong reaction to Foster's adoption-for analytic purposes-of the contrary-to-fact assumption that peasant communities are closed systems. Both Kennedy and Piker Vol. 16 No. I March 1975) (1966) pointed to Foster's own definition of a peasantry as a partly or wholly open system "with regard to [its] relationship with the larger society and its government and especially with the nearest market towns or urban centers within it" (Kennedy 1966:1218); peasant communities are "immersed in larger socio-cultural systems, and they to some extent exchange people, ideas, and resources with urban subsystems" (Piker 1966:1206). Further, Kaplan and Saler (pp. 203-4) questioned Foster's claim that his model will go farther in explaining behavior when applied to peasant society than it will when applied to any other type of society, when he himself suggests that "limited good" behavior may not be any more characteristic of peasant than of nonpeasant societies. And Bennett (1966:210) suggested that Foster's emphasis should perhaps be re- versed: "It is not that 'limited good' behavior defines the peasant type, but that people in underdeveloped countries exhibit this kind of behavior because they are exploited, or confront objective situations which bring it forth." Finally, the critics were particularly skeptical when Foster extended his "limited good" concept beyond the economic sphere. Kennedy (p. 1218) felt that his argument, already inadequate to explain facts in the economic sphere, became even more strained when applied to noneconomic aspects of peasant life. And Kaplan and Saler (p. 203) asked: "What would unlimited quantities of honor, manliness, love, health, etc., mean anyway?" This account does not exhaust the critical reaction, but is sufficient to indicate its extent and tenor.

Why Is The Pew Charitable Trust "Economic Mobility Project" Climbing on the "Lump-of-Labor Fallacy" Pension Hoax Bandwagon?

Dear Pew Experts,

I became aware of an "issue brief" on baby boomer retirement and youth employment published by the Economic Mobility Project that is framed around a purported refutation of the so-called lump-of-labor theory. For your information, I have published several research papers on this fallacy claim and am appalled that a reputable organization like the Pew Charitable Trust would be promoting a semi-feudal ideological slur that originated in the 18th century.

The authors of the paper featured in the policy brief, "When Baby Boomers Delay Retirement, Do Younger Workers Suffer?", Alicia Munnell and April Wu, claim that "opponents of free trade, technological advance and immigration often use the lump of labor argument to make people fearful about losing their jobs." There are three things wrong with that statement. First, if such "opponents" "often use" the argument where are their citations of these "opponents" using the argument? Second, they characterize trade and technology in blatantly ideological terms that mask the special interests that benefit from particular trade and technology policies. Not all trade agreements are "free" nor are all uses of technology "advances." Third, they imply that people would not be fearful about losing their jobs were it not for these nefarious "opponents."

Their "empirical" work is essentially pointless. If they cannot identify and cite anyone making the lump-of-labor claim, what is the point of refuting an argument that is merely imputed to some unidentified "opponents". Furthermore, the empirical results don't reveal anything more substantial than an "association" between elderly employment and youth employment, which could in all likelihood simply reflect the effects on the two variables of some third factor or factors. In other words, the "empirical" findings are window dressing for an essentially ideological argument about supposed "opponents" of free trade, immigration, technological advance -- or in this case raising the eligibility age for old age pensions.

I am attaching two papers two papers for your information. One of them is a conference paper that deals with the ethical issues of circulated a bogus claim like the lump-of-labor fallacy hoax. The second is a 2007 article on the lump of labor fallacy claim from the Review of Social Economy. I have recently become aware of a parallel claim in Anthropology made by George Foster in the 1960s. He called it the "Image of Limited Good". Unlike the prevailing groupthink in Economics, Anthropologists offered a host of quite substantial objections to Foster's formulation, in spite of the fact that his account of the Image of Limited Good was much better documented than the lump-of-labor fallacy claim has ever been.

I close with the question that forms the subject heading for this email: why is the Pew Charitable Trust "Economic Mobility Project" Climbing on the lump-of-labor fallacy hoax bandwagon?


Tom Walker

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Moral Clarity

"We may well hope that our actions carry no moral ambiguity, but pretending that is the case when it isn't does not lead to greater clarity about right and wrong; it more likely leads to unconscious cruelty masked by inflated righteousness." -- Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World.


Saturday, September 8, 2012

Robert J. Gordon is STILL a Buffoon!

"By definition, whenever hours per capita decline, then output per capita must grow more slowly than productivity." -- Robert J. Gordon, "Is U.S. Economic Growth Over? Faltering Innovation Confronts the Six Headwinds."

At the Globe and Mail Report on Business, Ian McGugan discusses Gordon's NBER Working Paper in "A heretic's view of the growth dogma." The Sandwichman responds:
Dear Mr. McGugan,

I was very interested to read your column today about Robert Gordon's NBER Working Paper, "Is U.S. Economic Growth Over?" and downloaded Professor Gordon's paper from the NBER site. Although I would agree with Professor Gordon that the expectations -- based on past experience -- of future growth may be questionable, I must note a critical flaw in his analysis. On page 16 of the paper, Gordon states, "By definition, whenever hours per capita decline, then output per capita must grow more slowly than productivity." The problem with this "definition" is that it is a tautology that conceals the distinction between two potential feedback loops in the ratio between hours per capita and productivity.

Arithmetically, total hours is both the numerator in "hours per capita" and the denominator in "productivity." Output is the numerator in both "productivity" and "output per hour" and thus can be factored out by multiplying both sides of the equation by the reciprocal of output (1/output). So, yes, by definition output per capita MUST grow more slowly than productivity. So what? This is a tautology that obscures more than it explains. By such ultra-Malthusian logic, any increase in productivity, given a stable or growing population, must be a "bad thing" because the increase in output per capita will always be slower!

What Professor Gordon overlooks is that reductions in the hours of work per person can lead to gains in total output when current work-time arrangements are not optimal. Those work-time arrangements can include overwork of some people combined with unemployment and underemployment of others. Such disparities are not well captured in such indicators as "hours per capita", which are averages based on dividing one aggregate by another. Even so, even if large reductions in hours per capita led to massive increases in output per capita, the tautology expressed by Gordon would still be trivially "true". That is, it would be arithmetically correct but irrelevant and misleading for all practical purposes.

A similar confusion between arithmetical results and practical outcomes leads Gordon to prescribe immigration as the panacea to the growth dilemma he purports to uncover. And what could be more logical than a purely arithmetical solution to a purely arithmetical problem? Professor Gordon overlooks the possibility that the number of immigrants that could be productively absorbed by a given economy might be constrained by such other factors as fixed capital investment (including infrastructure), natural resources and social and cultural factors. Treating immigration as "numbers" that can be increased or decreased at will like turning on a water tap is an exercise in academic wool gathering.

Traditionally, economists, including Professor Gordon, have routinely dismissed proposals for work-time reduction as being based on a "lump-of-labor" assumption that allegedly presumes an arithmetical solution to unemployment without considering the practical constraints. They make the perennial claim even where no such fallacious assumption can be demonstrated. It is therefore a delicious irony to see Professor Gordon himself plucking both his "problem" and his "solutions" out of the arid arithmetical void. To be blunt, Professor Gordon here commits precisely the "lump-of-labor fallacy" that he elsewhere glibly (and unjustifiably) accuses others of!


Tom Walker

P.S.: In answer to Gordon's question, would I rather have an Ipad or a flush toilet, I would much rather have a flush toilet with the capability of disposing of the "heretical orthodoxy" of pedantic scribblers like Professor Robert J. Gordon.

UPDATE: I should perhaps have mentioned that Gordon also raises some valid points about "headwinds" inhibiting growth in his paper. The problem is that he deflects any serious discussion of those valid issues with his cornball digression on what he terms the "demographic turnaround," which Gordon frames as both "the most inevitable" but also the challenge most amenable to countermeasures, i.e., boosting immigration.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Sandwichman Goes to School

The Sandwichman is teaching Labour and the Environment (LBST 311) at Simon Fraser University this fall. Here is my LBST 311 blog.