Robert Shiller on narrative economics

Listening to Robert Shiller’s online lectures, I’ve often half-written him an email in my head on some point. I distract myself and have to rewind. If you go to the “Drafts” folder in my brain, a third of them are to Robert Shiller.

Essentially, I wanted to tell him something about the humanities. I’m not sure what. Maybe just that the humanities exists. Professor Shiller can be quite perplexing. On the one hand, he’s a hugely influential figure in behavioral economics, and behavioral economics is the field with a great track record in confronting the more brutal absurdities of mainstream economics. On the other hand Shiller still is, frustratingly, very much an economist.  Although behavioral economics may ameliorate some of the features of scientistic finance and economics which humanities scholars tend to find so frustrating, it never goes nearly far enough.

So I’m happy to see this article from him!

Behavioral economics was economics with an input from the psychology department. Every department has its own tool kit for approaching research; we were very much influenced by psychology. Maybe a little sociology, maybe a little anthropology, but nevertheless all social-science fields.

I’m starting now, with my more recent work, to think that we have to look at the humanities as well. There is something difficult to formalize about human beings, but something that we nonetheless have to understand, and I think one way to do that is with an approach that I’m calling “narrative economics”: taking economics and adding the study of the narratives that people transmit.

If Shiller is serious about narrative economics, he may want to give poststructuralism a whirl, and see if he can shake the set of intellectual habits that make “human instinct for storytelling” seem like an appropriate way of introducing an endeavor of this kind.

But it’s another step in the right direction …

See also: Shiller’s ‘Narrative Economics’ paper (2017).

 

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Excerpt: Ellen Meiksins Wood, Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism

In one form or another and in varying degrees, Marxists have generally adopted modes of analysis which, explicitly or implicitly, treat the economic ‘base’ and the legal, political, and ideological ‘superstructures’ that ‘reflect’ or ‘correspond’ to it as qualitatively different, more or less enclosed and ‘regionally’ separated sphere.

This is most obviously true of orthodox base-superstructure theories. It is also true of their variants which speak of economic, political and ideological ‘factors,’ ‘levels’ or ‘instances’, no matter how insistent they may be about the interaction of factors or instances, or about the remoteness of the ‘last instance’ in which the economic sphere finally determines the rest. If anything, these formulations merely reinforce the spatial separation of spheres.

Other schools of Marxism have maintained the abstraction and enclosure of spheres in other ways – for example, by abstracting the economy or the circuit of capital in order to construct a technically sophisticated alternative to bourgeois economics, meeting it on its own ground (and going significantly further than Marx himself in this respect, without grounding the economic abstractions in historical and sociological analysis as he did). The social relations in which this economic mechanism is embedded – which indeed constitute it – are treated as somehow external. At best, a spatially separate political power may intervene in the economy, but the economy itself is evacuated of social content and depoliticized. In these respects, Marxist theory has perpetuated the very ideological practices that Marx was attacking, those practices that confirmed to the bourgeoisie the naturalness and eternity of capitalist production relations.

Bourgeois political economy, according to Marx, universalizes capitalist relations of production by analysing production in abstraction from its specific social determinations. Marx’s approach differs from theirs in his insistence that a productive system is made up of its specific social determinations – specific social relations, modes of property and domination, legal and political forms. This does not mean simply that the economic ‘base’ is reflected in and maintained by certain ‘superstructural’ institutions, but that the productive base itself exists in the shape of social, juridical and political forms […]

Some Magic Money Trees from Literature

  • The gold and silver trees in C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew (1955).
  • Clifford D. Simak, ‘The Money Tree’ (1958).
  • Leaf currency on primordial Earth in Douglas Adams’s The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980).
  • The money tree in Nalo Hopkinson’s ‘Money Tree’ (1997).
  • Leaf currency on the planet Rain in Adam Roberts’s Stone (2002).

You can read more about leafy and other organic currencies at Economic Science Fiction and Fantasy.

The not-for-profit organisation Positive Money have used the recent chatter about magic money trees as a teachable moment. Money does grow on branches: bank branches. More here.

Money is that Money does

F.A. Walker’s maxim that “money is what money does” is frequently cited within the fairly scanty literature that orthodox economics devotes to the nature of money. (Although in some respects, of course, orthodox economics is all about money).

Walker’s quotation usually comes into play to help join the dots between the question, “What is money?” and an answer enumerating the three or four major functions of money (as a medium of exchange; as a unit of account; as a store of value; sometimes as a standard of deferred payment). Some critics (e.g. Geoffrey Ingham) complain that the functional “definition” actually fails to specify money: saying what money does doesn’t really tell us what it is, and furthermore, doesn’t money do a few other important things that are mysteriously left out of the canonical three or four functions of money?

When Walker’s quotation is invoked, the implication is often that we should be open-minded in definitional matters. Otherwise we risk being blindsided by the dynamism and adaptability of money. If something doesn’t strike us as money, but one day starts acting as a medium of exchange, a unit of account, and a store of value, then we had better sit up and start taking it seriously as money. (A piece of advice that seems all the more pertinent with the rise of cryptocurrency and other forms of digital value). The precision yet flexibility we get from the concentric, increasingly permissive stipulative measures of the money supply (M0, M1, et al.) support the same attitude. It is fascinating, therefore, to see Walker’s words in their original context.

When Walker wrote “money is that money does,” what kind of money did he have in mind?

Walker

Walker is arguing for an extremely narrow definition of money by modern standards, distinguishing it from bills of exchange and checks. He would perhaps not think of it as narrow himself, since he was still tacitly tussling with theorists who thought fiat paper money was not really money. Walker is also explicitly leaving out bank deposits, which nowadays are usually held to constitute the bulk of the middling-to-narrower measures of the money supply. For Walker, bank deposits do not perform the function of money, but “save the use” of money.

Walker is not rigidly dogmatic: he recognizes that treasury notes may be more money-like or less, depending on whether they actually circulate (which he suggests, on the next page, in turn depends on whether they are issued in big or small denominations, and whether or not they are interest-bearing). And bank-notes, “from the ill repute of the issuers, might conceivably become of such slow, difficult and limited currency, as to fall out of the category of money” (p.401).

But Walker is certainly not saying, “I can’t offer you hard-and-fast rules for what is or isn’t money; money is whatever fulfills the functions of money.” What he’s actually saying is something more like, “if it discharges debts and purchases things just like money, don’t be hasty! We shouldn’t really say it’s fulfilling the functions of money unless it actually is money.”

So what actually is money? The phrase “from hand to hand” is key for Walker, and he does not count the “mutual cancellation of vast bodies of indebtedness” as something passing from hand to hand (nope, not even invisible ones). Money must not only discharge debts and purchase things, it must circulate. 

This might be pushing it a little, but you might even interpret him to be saying the very opposite of what he is supposed to have said. It is not that money is intricate and multifarious and adaptable and difficult to identify with confidence, whereas the functions of money are abstract and easy-to-identify things, so that anything we find fulfilling those functions has every right to be called money. Rather, it is the functioning of money that is a bit tricky to identify — Condy Raguet and Amasa Walker seem to have got it wrong — whereas there is at least some money that is very easy to identify: the coins that everyone knows and uses. To determine if some borderline phenomenon is actually functioning as a medium of exchange or merely ‘saving the use’ of a medium of exchange, we compare it with what we already know is money. (Of course, this isn’t mere morphological fetishism: coins that came in huge denominations, and were interest-bearing, just like treasury bills with those features, would presumably be less valid as money for Walker).

Excerpt: David Beer, The Social Power of Algorithms

Full article here.

The notion of the ‘algorithm’ is now taking on its own force, as a kind of evocative shorthand for the power and potential of calculative systems that can think more quickly, more comprehensively and more accurately than humans. As well as understanding the integration of algorithms, we need to understand the way that this term is incorporated into organisational, institutional and everyday understandings. The discourse surrounding algorithms may then provide a focal point for analysing broader political rationalities and modes of governance. In this stream of work, the interest might not be in understanding the social powers of the technical systems, but in understanding how the notion of the algorithm itself has a kind of social power. The algorithm is now a cultural presence, perhaps even an iconic cultural presence, not just because of what they can do but also because of what the notion of the algorithm is used to project. This means that the algorithm can be part of the deployment of power, not just in terms of its function but also in terms of how it is understood as a phenomenon. Algorithmic decisions are depicted as neutral decisions, algorithmic decisions are understood to be efficient decisions, algorithmic decisions are presented as objective and trustworthy decisions, and so on. We certainly need to gain a greater view of the inside of the algorithmic systems in which we live, but we also need to develop an analysis of the cultural prominence of the notion of the algorithm, what this stands for, what it does and what it might reveal.

Excerpt: David Beer, The Social Power of Algorithms

Full article here.

In a tentative mode, I would like to suggest that the term or notion of the algorithm should also be considered when attempting to understand the social power of algorithms. In some ways this power can potentially be detached from its technical and material form whilst still capturing something of the exteriority. As such, we would need to understand algorithms within their discursive practices and framings. The notion of the algorithm is evoked to influence and convince, to suggest things and to envision a certain approach, governmentality and way of ordering. Plus, the term is also part of wider rationalities and ways of thinking. Together then, this requires us to explore and illustrate the power of this term whilst also potentially using it as a focal point for opening up or revealing these wider rationalities. The notion of the algorithm is part of a wider vocabulary, a vocabulary that we might see deployed to promote a certain rationality, a rationality based upon the virtues of calculation, competition, efficiency, objectivity and the need to be strategic. As such, the notion of the algorithm can be powerful in shaping decisions, influencing behaviour and ushering in certain approaches and ideals. The algorithm’s power may then not just be in the code, but in that way that it becomes part of a discursive understanding of desirability and efficiency in which the mention of algorithms is part of ‘a code of normalization’ [Foucault, M. (2004). Society must be defended: Lectures at the collège de France, 1975–76. London: Penguin., p. 38]. The notion of the algorithm is part of the social power we should be exploring. The term algorithm carries something of this authority. Algorithms are, largely, trusted for their precision and objectivity. A certain rationality may well then be built into this perception of the algorithm. The discourse surrounding the algorithm might well reveal something of the wider political dynamics of which they are a part.

Excerpt: Karl Polanyi, Socialist Accounting

Full article here.

A form of accounting, in which the sums were not expressible in common units, would of course not yield anything rationally intelligible. Now, a socialist economy, as we have defined it earlier in terms of its goals, in no way presumes a purely administrative economy, which unilaterally sets the prices for all goods (fixed prices), yielding figures that can be readily added. Instead, such a socialist economy also allows for these prices to arise through agreement (negotiated prices). Since we thus do not want to make any presuppositions about price formation, we must consider the theoretically most general––and, from the viewpoint of accounting, practically most unfavorable—case. We therefore assume that the economy for which we seek a quantitative overview has all types of price formation, from price formation in a market through the free play of supply and demand to administratively set prices. Whether such an assumption is theoretically valid, or even practically conceivable, remains to be seen. […]

But here begins the actual difficulty, which we wish to designate the quantitative difficulty. Fixed prices can affect negotiated prices at a minimum in two fundamentally different ways, according to whether their effect propagates “downstream,” […] meaning the same direction that the production process runs (towards the final product)—or in the opposite direction (towards the raw materials). The cost principle in accounting implies, however, that only those cost figures arising from the “downstream” effect of a fixed price may be added to one another. […] A fixed price and all the negotiated prices that arise from its “upstream” effect may be added neither to that fixed price itself nor to the negotiated prices arising from its “downstream” effect […]

Natural costs express the sacrifices that the natural process of material production requires, according to the character of the production task involved. Social costs, on the other hand, are that extra sacrifice that society’s will imposes on us via the effort both to ensure just distribution in every instance and to secure production with higher social utility. It is evident that separate quantitative recording of these cost groups (natural and social costs) is the main, practical task of socialist accounting. Without the recording of natural costs, production would have no reliable, infinitesimally precise guidelines, operating instead on intuition and approximation. We wish to point out here with particular emphasis that without the recording of social costs, the political-moral side of socialism would be no more realizable than the technical side would be without the recording of natural costs. Humanity will only be free when it understands what it must pay for its ideals. Only then will humanity come to recognize that the realization of these ideals depends exclusively on humanity itself. Then too, however, humanity will find the strength to realize its ideals.

“Sozialistische Rechnungslegung” [“Socialist Accounting”], 1922; trans. Johanna Bockman, Ariane Fischer, & David Woodruff 2016.

Excerpt: Joseph Vogl, The Specter of Capital

Although Adam Smith was responsible for coining one of the most popular slogans for describing how a market economy operates, its semantics are determined by two further aspects. On the one hand, if we follow the tangled history of the “invisible hand” metaphor, we can see how through this metaphor theological and cosmological questions were deposited in the field of social ontology. A century before Adam Smith, for instance, the metaphor referred to something secretly at work in relations between natural things, a cosmological phenomenon that, like the mechanism of a clock, hides behind the clearly visible hands and dial: “For Nature works by an Invisible Hand in all things.” […] The manus gubernatoris of Scholastic philosophy, the guiding hand of God invisibly directing all Creation, returns as an influential theological metaphor for the Providence manifest in the natural order, the oeconomia naturae. And before the “invisible hand” appeared in Wealth of Nations as a topos for the law-governed activity that turns self-interest and the striving for gain to the general good, this expression occurred in Smith himself in an entirely different yet equally significant context.

In his History of Astronomy, probably written around 1758, not only did Smith attempt an apologia for the Newtonian world system, with its laws of gravity and inertia; he also casually remarked on the inability of polytheistic religions to trace irregular events in the natural world — events in which they saw the miraculous power of the ancient gods at work — back to regularly occurring patterns. While it is only natural that “fire burns and water refreshes,” or that “heavy bodies descend and lighter substances fly upward,” extraordinary phenomena such as lightning, thunder, or storms call for explanation — and for this the ancients would in the end simply turn to Jupiter’s “invisible hand.” […] Here too the invisible hand is treated as a cosmological fact; and just as an invisible hand will later bring the unpredictable inclinations of self-seeking subjects to order, so too here an invisible hand shows how irregular natural events manifest the workings of divinely ordained laws. As a result of such supernatural intervention, earthly matters are brought into conformity with Providence, irregularities are translated into order, and diffuse forces and movements [p.26] are made to bear witness to an invisible power linking them together. All this activity by invisible hands indicates that hidden manipulations — in the most literal sense — intervene both in the natural course of events and in the dynamics of social interaction.

On the other hand, it should not be forgotten that Smith presented another version of his concept of the “invisible hand” in the first volume of his 1759 essay on moral philosophy, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. And here homo economicus is defined by more than his failure to see the whole situation, his lack of a comprehensive overview. Economic beings can only function to the extent that they are always missing something even more fundamental. […] Despite or precisely because of their “natural selfishness and rapacity,” the rich share their wealth with the poor. In Smith’s words, this means that […] “they are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distributions of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants; and thus without intending, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society and afford the means for the multiplication of the species.”

Joseph Vogl, The Specter of Capital (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015), pp.25-26.