Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Review: Don't Buy It, by Anat Shenker-Osorio

"How did this come to happen?" writes Ms. Shenker-Osorio, "How did we come to accept that how well we're doing depends entirely on how well it's doing? How did we forget that the economy is nothing more or less than what we make and consume, nothing outside of us?"

It's the sort of thing that can't be said enough. "The economy" is a description of human social activity. It's not something that exists independently of the human sphere, and people don't live to serve it. It is complex, but it is not emergent, not sentient, and even less so is it some supernatural consciousness that must be entertained or appeased lest the world be subject to its Olympian funks or avenging wrath. I find this really troubling in a study that also styles itself as a science, and when economists resort to ad hoc bullshitting and Delphic babble every time the shit gets anywhere near fanward, it triggers my pathological radar something fierce.  Even though it's only a knowing approximation, I'd prefer economics to be presented as something of a process model (with a vast quantity of inputs and parameters and so on, described by all manner of dynamic states), but instead we get simplistic metaphors dished out so smugly or grudgingly from the authorities that I suspect them to their very core.  Because I've got to give it the author here: the prevailing metaphors suck.

As a discussion of what's wrong with the language of macroeconomics, I think that Shenker-Osorio is providing a valuable service with this short, snarky book, and I'd go on that some of the remedies are greatly appreciated and taken to heart.  Proceeding from the obvious premise that the economy is a social institution, then it follows that it is the result of human decisions at various levels of scale, which can be identified.  It's not a matter of physical law, and considering it accurately as a mechanism for classifying and distributing human effort and reward, then there's surely more than way to sort it out, and it's naive to imagine that our way is the global optimum, or that we came to it by forces of pure thermodynamics.  (Hell, if we did, we wouldn't take on such utterly retarded assumptions as perpetual growth.)  The market doesn't make the decision to enrich stockholders and fuck over workers; people do.  The economy doesn't demand that poor people go without decent housing or medical services; people granted such authority choose to distribute those things or not.  There's a reason that high-visibility economic spokesmen obscure the agency of certain individuals and groups--it's because they're getting paid by them.  The pervasive use of the passive voice is used to hide exactly that, and it's probably the book's most salient point.

I do keep in mind that the author is a "message consultant" of some kind, and if human behavior is more subject to the semiotics than the physical world is, I still don't want to get carried away here.  It's good to call out how bad the discussion really is, but I think that metaphors only hold so much power.  Are we really better talking about the economy as a vehicle (that has a driver, that can go off course, that needs maintenance) than we are talking about it as a body (that can get sick through no fault of anyone)?  To an extent, but I think it's also clear that most of the concepts have passed well out of the realm of colorful evocation into the dull world of cliche.  Yes, our language does affect our perception of things--mostly to limit it--but the nature of reality also tends to undo language, doesn't it?  Talking about the economy, we're really dealing with a bunch of blunt and inapproprate conversation tools, but I think that most people who work with them, often with Friedman-esque levels of free-associative carelessness, intend and understand something other than what the words are really saying.

This sort of things shows up in some of her etymology arguments too (what is it with these social science types?), and as with cliches, I don't think people deal so deeply in the concepts that once informed the words they currently use.  And unfortunately this thinking gives some tools to throw her reasoning back at her.  Shenker-Osario sees a fundamental rivalry here between Republicans and Progressives.  (It's the sort of thing that's suitable for a long blog post, but hell, I think this sort of false dichotomy dilutes her arguement a lot, which is a damn shame, because it's pretty sharp otherwise.)  That she goes with "Progressive" in 2012 is a telling construction in itself.  It accepts the mantle of the movement from last century, which I myself see as a politically sanitized manifestation of the radical arguments that had been fomenting among the American working people for some years before.  It's used today because people like herself--wrongly, I think--have abandoned "liberal," but Progressivism carries its own highly compromised and somewhat authoritarian history.   Oddly, I'd put that word in a similar camp as American "reform," which started as a sort of in-the-system filtered-down radicalism too, and has since been diluted further.  I don't think it was fair, really, to give the word origin of that one such a beat-down: for one thing, I'd say that in terms of core meanings, reforming--forming again--implies taking something apart and reassembling it, not just giving it a nice sand and polish, and political reform, even if it's become completely meaningless at this late date, did have some pressure behind it in the 19th century, when it sure as shit wasn't part of the conservative lingo.

The tone of this book is arch, critical, and reasonable funny, which I think is entirely appropriate for poking holes in sanctimony and obfuscation, which is the main thing here anyway, and which, as mentioned, is as long overdue as it is enjoyable.  So call it recommended reading.  I'd have liked it better if it didn't also come off as a manual for Team Progressive to hold its own discourse, using another set of cheapo metaphors which better reflect their agenda.  Since she hasn't lost sight of what the economy actually is, maybe it would just be better to reduce the unconsidered use of such facile language altogether.


David Marlow said...

"Oh boy, I tell you what. That crazy stock market seems to have a mind of its own sometimes!"

Did you see Margin Call? I liked it, thought it did a reasonable job of suggesting that the collapse of the economy wasn't this external attack by alien space zombies but, rather, could have been an internal attack by human earth zombies, in really nice shoes. And, well, kind of remorseless and in so much denial that they were pouting about the quality of the silk used for their parachutes -- not enough gold woven into the seams.

Keifus said...

Yeah, it might not be the worst idea to change up my reading material. I might grow a little happier. I couldn't really resist something that heckled in the needed places though.

I didn't see Margin Call, but here's hoping with NetFlix. [Good enough segue here: I got Junior, who's currently 15, catching up on the first half of Freaks and Geeks right now, and we plan to watch the rest of the episodes together. It's turning into one of those parent/child things where we talk about the issues we saw on the teevee. I didn't think that ever actually happened in real life.]

David Marlow said...

[I have a lot of valuable memories of my dad. Some of those valuable memories are of watching TV with him and mom. A lot of the shows weren't very good, as you already know. But some of them were pretty good.

It's just a hunch, but I suspect she'll have a lot of valuable memories of you, and that some of them will be of watching TV with you, and one will be of watching one of the most creative, unique, hilarious, and poignant TV shows of all time. (Gravy: the show just happens to have been too edgy for many people to have watched -- good thing it's timeless.)

For the record, you're still alive while she's having these memories. E.g., perhaps she's in her first year of college. (Brown, perhaps?)]

Inkberrow said...

I'd say conservative versus progressive still has saliency, but it's necessary to divest oneself of the historical, er, "baggage". It's at heart a rival view of human nature, with the nature and auspices of institutions and public policy flowing predictably therefrom. Is the Idea of Progress a metaphor?

Conservatives (original sin on the religious side; psychological egoism on the secular) posit humans as unremittingly and permanently cruel, exploitative, and domineering; progressives imagine all humans as a function of the same socio-biological imperatives, with peace and harmony possible if all can be placed into fair distriution and balance.

In terms of modern economic sensibilities, I think the cutting edge of this battle is the increasing prevalence of so-called "sustainability" metrics, which for us conservatives means investing the old rough and tumble utility calculus with (unsustainable!) green 'n preen and social justice components.

Keifus said...

I'm glad you show up from time to time, Inkberrow.

Well, the idea of progress isn't a metaphor, but it does come in with some pretty heavy associative qualities. If we limit the author's argument to "choose the right metaphor," then I guess it stays, but should we expand it to "the words we use matter" then I think throwing "Progressive" around is encouraging us to accept another prepackaged set of them, more than the ones she's making an argument for. If that makes sense.

I'll be honest, I don't like that part at all: labeling a conflict as conservative vs. progressive is too damn confining to me! There's got to be better ways of thinking about this by now than adaptations of 18th or 19th century philosophy. There are certainly more ways.

I don't know how sustainability can be left out of any honestly useful economic forecasting by this point. "Conservation" means something a little more inviolable in the physical world.

David: Hey it's one of the advantages of having kids younger than I intended. If I'm not around to talk about this stuff in a couple years, then something will have gone horribly wrong.

Anonymous said...

Another for my "to read" list - thanks K!