Posts Tagged ‘language’

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In a recent article, Dan Falk [ht: ja] identifies a fundamental problem in contemporary physics:

many physicists working today have been led astray by mathematics — seduced by equations that might be “beautiful” or “elegant” but which lack obvious connection to the real world.

What struck me is that, if you changed physics and physicists to economics and economists, you’d get the exact same article. And the same set of problems.

Economists—especially mainstream economists but, truth be told, not a few heterodox economists—are obsessed with mathematics and formal modeling as the only correct methods for achieving capital-t truth. Mathematical modeling for them represents the best, most scientific way of producing, disseminating, and determining the veracity of economic knowledge—because it is logical, concise, precise, and elegant.* In that sense, mathematics represents what can only described as a utopia for the practice of modern economics.**

Mathematical utopianism in economics is based on elevating mathematics to the status of a special code or language. It is considered both a neutral language and, at the same time, a language uniquely capable of capturing the essence of reality. Thus, economists see mathematics as having both an underprivileged and overprivileged status vis-à-vis other languages.

Let me explain. On one hand, mathematics is understood to be a neutral medium into which all statements of each theory, and the statements of all theories, can be translated without modifying them. Mathematics, in this view, is devoid of content. It is neutral with respect to the various theories where it is applied. Partial and general equilibrium, game theory, and mathematical programming are concepts that serve to communicate the content of a theory without changing that content. Similarly, mathematical operations on the mathematized objects of analysis are considered to be purely formal. Thus, as a result of the conceptual neutrality of the methods and procedures of mathematical formalization, the objects of analysis are said to be unaffected by their mathematical manipulation. On the other hand, mathematics is considered to be uniquely capable of interpreting theory in its ability to separate the rational kernel from the intuitional (vague, imprecise) husk, the essential from the inessential. It becomes the unique standard of logic, consistency, and proof. Once intuitions are formed, mathematical models can be constructed that prove (or not) the logical consistency of the theory. Other languages are considered incapable of doing this because the operations of mathematics have an essential truth value that other languages do not possess. Mathematical statements, for example, are considered to be based on the necessity of arriving at conclusions as a result of following universal mathematical rules.

It is in these two senses that mathematics is considered to be a special language or code. It is more important than other languages in that it is uniquely capable of generating truth statements. It is also less important in that it is conceived to have no impact on what is being thought and communicated.

The notion of mathematics as a special code is linked, in turn, to the twin pillars of traditional epistemology, empiricism and rationalism. The oversight of mathematics implied by its underprivileged status is informed by an empiricist conception of knowledge: mathematics is considered to be a universal instrument of representation. It is used as a tool to express the statements of a discourse that already, always has an essential grasp on the real. It is the universal language in and through which the objects (and the statements about those objects) of different economic and social theories can all be expressed. In other words, the role of mathematics is to express the various “intuitive” statements of the theorist in a neutral language such that they can be measured against reality. The underprivileged position of mathematics that is linked to an empiricist epistemology contrasts sharply with the overprivileged status of mathematics. This overprivileged conception of mathematics is associated with a rationalist theory of knowledge wherein the subject-object dichotomy is reversed. Here the subject becomes the active participant in discovering knowledge by operating on the theoretical model of reality. In this sense, the logical structure of theory—not the purported correspondence of theory to the facts—becomes the privileged or absolute standard of the process of theorizing. Reality, in turn, is said to correspond to the rational order of thought. The laws that govern reality are deduced from the singular set of mathematical models in and through which the essence of reality can be grasped.***

The conception of mathematics as a mere language contains, however, the seeds of its own destruction. The notion of language as a simple medium through which ideas are communicated has long been challenged—since language is both constitutive of, and constituted by, the process of theorizing. The use of mathematics in economics thus may be reconceptualized as a discursive condition of theories, which constrains and limits, and is partly determined by, those theories. Mathematical concepts—such as the equilibrium position associated with the solution to a set of simultaneous equations, the exogenous status of the rules of a game, or the definition of a series of overlapping value functions to optimize an overall goal—partly determine the notions of relation and causality among the theoretical objects designated by the theories in which the means of mathematical formalization are utilized. They are not the neutral conceptual tools to which the propositions of different theories can be reduced. Similarly, the rationalist idea of abstraction, of simplification, also leads to a fundamental problem. It implies that there is a noise that ultimately escapes the “fictional” mathematical model. It implies an empirical distance between the model and its domain of interpretation, the empirical concrete. And that distance is conceived to be part of the empirical concrete itself. There is a part of reality that necessarily escapes the model. Thus, rationalist deductions from the model cannot produce the truth of the real because something is always “missing.”

So, what’s the alternative? As I see it, there is a double movement that involves both the rejection of mathematics as the discovery of an extra-mathematical reality and the critique of the notion that mathematics merely expresses the form in which otherwise nonmathematical theories are communicated. Thus, for example, it is possible (using, e.g., the insights of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Edmund Husserl) to argue that mathematics is a historical, social invention, not a form of discovery of an independent reality; it is not discovered “out there,” but invented and reinvented over time based on rules that are handed by mathematicians and the actual users of mathematics (such as economists). By the same token, we can see mathematics as introducing both new concepts and new forms of reasoning into other domains, such as economics and for that matter physics (which is exactly what Gaston Bachelard has argued).

This double movement has various effects. It means that there are no grounds for considering mathematics to be a privileged language with respect to other, nonmathematical languages. There is, for example, no logical necessity inherent in the use of the mathematical language. The theorist makes choices about the kinds of mathematics that are used, about the steps from one mathematical argument to another, and whether or not any mathematics will be used at all. Different uses (or not) of mathematics and different kinds of mathematics will have determinate effects on the discourse in question. Discourses change as they are mathematized—they are changed, not in the direction of becoming more (or less) scientific, but by transforming the way the objects of the discourse are constructed, and the way statements are made about those objects.

Ultimately, this deconstruction of mathematics as a special code leads to a rejection of the conception of mathematics as a special language of representation. The status of mathematics is both more representational and less representational than allowed by the discourse of representation. More, in the sense that mathematics has effects on the very structure of the mathematized theory; mathematics is not neutral. Less, to the extent that the use of mathematics does not guarantee the scientificity of the theory in question; it is merely one discursive strategy among others.

One alternative approach to making sense of the use of mathematics in economic theory is to consider mathematics not in terms of representation, but as a form of “illustration.” For economists, mathematical concepts and models can be understood as metaphors or heuristic devices that illustrate part of the contradictory movement of economic and social processes. These concepts and models can be used, where appropriate, to consider in artificial isolation one or another moment in the course of the constant movement and change in the economy and society. Mathematics may be used, then, to illustrate the statements of economic theory but, like all metaphors (in economics as in literature and other areas of social thought), it outlives its usefulness and then has to be dismantled.

As I see it, this conception of mathematical models as illustrative metaphors does not constitute a flat rejection of their use in economic theory. Rather, it accords to mathematical concepts and models a discursive status different from the one that is attributed to them in the work of mathematical economists. It accepts the possibility—but not the necessity—of using mathematical propositions as metaphors that are borrowed from outside of economic theory and transformed to teach and develop some of the concepts and statements of one or another economic theory.

Deconstructing the status of mathematics as a special code has the advantage of transforming both the way economics is done within any particular theory and the way the debate between different economic theories itself is conducted. It undermines the Truth-effect associated with mathematical utopianism and focuses attention, instead, on the conditions and consequences of different ways of thinking about the economy.

That debate—about the effects of different languages on economics, and the effects of different economic theories on the wider society—has its own utopian moment: transforming economics into a space not of blind obedience to mathematical protocols, but of real theoretical and political choices.

 


*From time to time, there have been a few admonishments from among economists themselves. Oskar Morgenstern (e.g., in his essay “Limits to the Uses of Mathematics in Economics,” published in 1963) and, more forcefully, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen (especially in his 1971 Entropy Law and the Economic Process), Philip Mirowski (e.g., in More Heat Than Light, in 1989), and Paul Romer have indicated some of the problems associated with the wholesale mathematization of economics. However, even their limited criticisms have been ignored for the most part by economists.

In recent years, students (such as the members of the International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics) have been at the forefront of questioning the fetishism of mathematical methods in economics:

It is clear that maths and statistics are crucial to our discipline. But all too often students learn to master quantitative methods without ever discussing if and why they should be used, the choice of assumptions and the applicability of results. Also, there are important aspects of economics which cannot be understood using exclusively quantitative methods: sound economic inquiry requires that quantitative methods are complemented by methods used by other social sciences. For instance, the understanding of institutions and culture could be greatly enhanced if qualitative analysis was given more attention in economics curricula. Nevertheless, most economics students never take a single class in qualitative methods.

Their pleas, too, have been mostly greeted with indifference or contempt by economists.

**As I see it, the current fad of relying on randomized experiments and big data does not really undo the longstanding utopian claims associated with mathematical modeling, since the formal models are still there in the background, orienting the issues (including the choice of data sets) taken up in the new experimental and data-heavy approach to economics. Then, in addition, there is the problem that others—such as John P. A. Ionnidis et al. (unfortunately behind a paywall)—have discovered: most economists use data sets that are much too small relative to the size of the effects they report. This means that a sizable fraction of the findings reported by economists are simply the result of publication bias—the tendency of academic journals to report accidental results that only appear to be statistically significant.

***Economists often move back and forth between the two otherwise diametrically opposed conceptions of mathematics because they represent two sides of the same epistemological coin: although each reverses the order of proof of the other, both empiricism and rationalism presume the same fundamental terms and some form of correspondence between them. In this sense, they are variant forms of an “essentialist” conception of the process of theorizing. Both of them invoke an absolute epistemological standard to guarantee the (singular, unique) scientificity of the production of economic knowledge.

ubi-colombo

Fred Block and Frances Fox Piven make a convincing case, from the Left, for a universal basic income.

In particular, they demonstrate an understanding that wage work has become one of the most elemental pillars of our civic religion,” past relief efforts (going back to Poor Laws) were mostly punitive, and employers will likely resist any attempt to undermine the so-called work ethic.

Not everyone will be on board to sever the age-old ties between poverty relief and tough demands on the poor. The basic-income approach will be resisted by employer interests because it violates that venerable principle, and will make workers more powerful over time by reducing their dependence on any one employer. A generous basic-income policy could, in other words, transform class relations.

There are however other obstacles, particularly problems of political language, that need to be overcome in any attempt to expand the “entitlement society” (a term that itself needs to be recaptured from the Right) through a universal basic income.

As I wrote back in 2012 (at the early stages of the previous presidential campaign), there are at least two issues we need to confront:

First, we need to contest the meaning of dependence. In particular, why is selling one’s ability to work for a wage or salary any less a form of dependence than receiving some form of government assistance? It certainly is a different kind of dependence—on employers rather than on one’s fellow citizens—and probably a form of dependence that is more arbitrary and capricious—since employers have the freedom to hire people when and where they want, while government assistance is governed by clear rules.

Second,. . .corporations have been successful in shifting the financing of government assistance programs from their surpluses to workers’ incomes. But the solution to the pressure on current workers’ standard of living is not to cut government programs but to change how they’re financed.

The campaign for a universal basic income will only be successful when we effectively contest the meaning of dependence (such that wage-labor is no longer viewed as a sign of independence) and change the way government programs are financed (such that the social surplus, not workers’ wages, can be utilized to satisfy social needs.)

Ultimately, then, a universal basic income points toward a new realm of freedom, including freedom from the need to work for the benefit of someone else and from the need to hand over a growing portion of one’s already-low individual income to finance a program that benefits society as a whole.

1960-2012-b

Haley Sweetland Edwards is right:

It’s true that wealthier Americans tend to vote for Republicans and that the less well-off tend to vote for Democrats. And it’s true that, in theory, such a demographic breakdown would be good for Dems. After all, in raw numbers, there are more—many, many times more—working-class Americans than there are folks at the top of the income pyramid.

Part of the problem, as Andrew J. Cherlin argues (and I noted back in 2011) is that the working-class has mostly disappeared from our political language. There’s lots of talk about the struggling middle-class—from both Democrats and Republicans—but no mention, let alone serious discussion, of the working-class.

Our political language has served to ignore the working-class status of most so-called middle-class Americans and, as a result, to confine the working-class (understood as workers without a college education), when it is mentioned at all, to a relatively small segment of the population. In other words, the working-class has come to be defined as the working-poor and the middle-class as something else.

As I see it, we’ll get a more accurate representation of our economic and political landscape if we redefine what we mean by the working-class. The fact is, what others understand to be working-class and middle-class actually have a lot in common. They may have different levels of education (high school, a year or two of college, and a four-year college degree), different color collars (blue, pink, and white), and work in different sectors (manufacturing and services, private and public) but they’re all pretty much in the same boat: they are forced to sell their ability to work to someone else in order to make enough money to support themselves and their families. That’s a very large part of the population. It basically excludes two relatively small groups: the capitalists at the top (who get the profits) and managers and supervisors (who manage the labor of others and get a cut of the profits).

If we follow the class analysis conducted by Edward N. Wolff and Ajit Zacharias [pdf], then we’re talking about 80 percent of the U.S. population who are members of the working-class.*

Unfortunately, the World Top-incomes Database doesn’t break things out in quite that way. However, if we use the average incomes of the bottom 90 percent as a proxy for the working-class, we can see (from the chart above) what has happened since 1960: the average real incomes (in 2012 dollars) of the bottom 90 percent have barely changed (from $25,014.76 in 1960 to $30,438.59 in 2012), while average real incomes of the top 1 percent (from $275,281.29 to $1,021,760.82) and top 0.1 percent (from $690,610.30 to $4,660,987.83) have soared. In percentage terms, the real incomes of the working-class only increased by 21.7 percent while those of the top 1 percent rose by 271 percent and those of the top 0.1 percent by 575 percent.

1945-2012

Now, as we know, the real incomes of the American working-class did rise during the immediate postwar period—almost doubling from 1945 to 1973. But then, even as productivity continued to climb, and, with a lag of about a decade, incomes at the very top started a dramatic rise, working-class real incomes have actually fallen. The result? Working-class incomes today (or, more accurately, in 2012) are 13 percent lower than they were in 1973.

As I see it, “there are more—many, many times more—working-class Americans than there are folks at the top of the income pyramid.” There are also more—many, many times more—working-class Americans than our political language currently allows.

And all those working-class Americans created the conditions for the dramatic rise of the small group at the top of the income pyramid during the decades leading up to the crash of 2007-08—and they’ve fallen further and further behind during the so-called recovery.

That’s the real condition of the working-class in the United States in 2015.

 

*According to their calculations, in 2000, about 2 percent of American households were classified as “capitalist” and 18.8 percent as “manager” or “supervisor.”

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Special mention

Keystone Jobs 01

Treviso

Since we’re on the topic of the supposed superiority of economists, I thought I would provide a link to one of my first published articles, “The Merchant of Venice, or Marxism in the Mathematical Mode” [pdf], which appeared in the journal Rethinking Marxism.*

My basic argument is that, while mathematics has been granted the status of a special code in economic discourse (including in Marxian theory)—thus demonstrating the superiority of economists who use that special code—it is actually a set of metaphors that can be useful and harmful in turn. In other words, the use of mathematics “does not guarantee the scientificity of the theory in question; it is merely one discursive strategy among others.”

There are two interesting stories associated with this article. First, it was used against my case for tenure, by a member of the committee who (from what I have been told) was simply incensed that I would attempt to deconstruct the use of mathematics as a special language for doing economics. (Fortunately, it didn’t work and I was in fact granted tenure.)

Second, I disappointed not a few literary scholars who came to one of my seminars on the article expecting a discussion of Shakespeare’s play. The joke is that the title refers to the Treviso Arithmetic, which was written by an anonymous author in 1478 in Treviso, a commercial town annexed to the Venetian Republic in 1339, and is considered to be the first book on mathematics ever published in the West.

The problem that begins in the middle of the left-hand page of the illustration above is the following:

Two merchants, Sebastiano and Jacomo, enter into partnership. Sebastiano put in 350 ducats on the first day of January, 1472; Jacomo put in 500 ducats, 14 grossi on the first day of July, 1472. On the first day of January, 1474 they find that they have gained 622 ducats. Required is the share of each.

 

*A scholar overseas, without access to the journal, asked me to send him a copy of the article. That’s the reason I now have a pdf file of the article on hand.

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I had never heard of the Rashi Fein, who died last week, until today. Apparently, he developed ideas for Medicare legislation in the 1960s and criticized the nation’s inability to create a federal single-payer system for healthcare.

He was also a critic of the language of commodities (in a piece that appeared in 1982 in The New England Journal of Medicine):

A new language is infecting the culture of American medicine. It is the language of the marketplace, of the tradesman, and of the cost accountant. It is a language that depersonalizes both patients and physicians and describes medical care as just another commodity. It is a language that is dangerous. . .

In speaking the new language, doctors have adopted the attitudes and methodology of economics — a narrow economics that emphasizes efficiency more than equity. Everything is to be evaluated in terms of benefit-cost relations, and cynicism has become apparent in the discussion. . .

In no small measure, physician-administrators speak the language that they speak because they reflect the world in which they live and the system in which they function. If society wants them to use different words, it must create conditions that encourage them to do so. . .

A decent medical-care system that helps all the people cannot be built without the language of equity and care. If this language is permitted to die and is completely replaced by the language of efficiency and cost control, all of us — including physicians — will lose something precious.

I cannot guarantee that we will structure the system in a way that will emphasize compassion and human values. I do believe, however, that these values cannot be nurtured in a cultural soil in which patients are described as teaching material, a medical practice is described as a business, delivering medical care is described as producing a product, and human interactions are increasingly described in terms of financial transactions.

brilliant-economists

Benjamin Wallace-Wells [ht: sm] argues that the broad interest in Thomas Piketty’s book (along with the attention to Nate Silver’s data) is a sign that we’re now speaking the language of economics.

What is up isn’t a mystery. It makes perfect sense to be seeking economic explanations in the years just after the economy has imploded, and while the presidency is preoccupied with trying to fix it. I suspect there’s something else contributing, too — a desire for an objective, numerate authority when elites and their subjective authority are so broadly distrusted.

I suspect that’s true, which is one of the reasons I’ve tried to convince my colleagues that what we should be teaching is critical economic literacy—an ability to understand how economic theories work, and how dependent the conclusions economists arrive at are on the assumptions and concepts of the different economic theories they use.

Wallace-Wells appears to be concerned that economics language is squeezing out other languages and ways of viewing the world. My concern is a bit different: it’s that the hegemony of one economic language serves to marginalize other economic languages. Because that’s the point: there is not a single language of economics, but rather multiple languages. And when the language of mainstream economics is predominant, the ways of looking at and intervening to change the world are confined to a small box. Inequality, for example, becomes narrowly understood in terms of the incomes received by individuals and varying percentiles of the population, while proposals to solve the problem of inequality focus on ways individuals at the bottom can improve their chances and/or how some of the income can be redistributed from the top toward the bottom. But the basic economic structure is never in question—either in terms of how it continues to generate such grotesque levels of inequality or how it might be changed to effect more equal outcomes.

And that’s because the language of mainstream economics has come to dominate our discussions of inequality and much else. So, if Wallace-Wells is right and “the work of one department, economics, is always on the front pages,” then at least let’s make it clear that economists—both academic and everyday—speak in multiple languages. And learning to speak in languages other than that of mainstream economics may just allow us to break through the “curious kind of hesitancy and conditionality on the rest of intellectual culture.”

Update

And, I almost forgot: Yahya M. Madra and Fikret Adaman have published a very useful piece in the current issue of Antipode (behind paywall) in which they argue the economization of the social in the language of neoliberal economic theory (in its different Austrian, Chicago, and post-Walrasian versions) lead to its depoliticization—by cultivating individual “opportunism” as the only sound basis for policy. In my view, what Madra and Adaman demonstrate is that the mainstream language of economics (even when, and perhaps precisely because, it admits of variations in how that language is deployed) reduces the scope for both understanding and doing something about the economic problems that plague us today.