Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A Ramble on Value & Growth

I've been thinking about Quality & Value lately. Inevitable when you're reading Pirsig (ZenMM & Lila - I'm currently a few chapters into Lila). Today when selecting music to play whilst doing domestic duties I came across this:

Now, it's not bad. Obviously accomplished musicians, good voices etc. And the blonde lady is very attractive. But there seems a vast difference in Quality when you compare it to this.

There's nothing that really lends itself to objective measurement about why one is higher Quality than the other. It could be about an authentic connection to the song? Whatever, it's all subjective. And yet there it is. A feeling for me, at least, of a tangible difference in Quality. And weirdly, it's not even really in what you hear or see, it's just there in the moment. I could watch Candice Night all day long, and it wouldn't really matter if Ian Gillan had hit bum notes, the Deep Purple video would still be of much higher Quality. I'd even hazard a guess that everyone in the Blackmore's Night video would agree with this. Even Richie Blackmore, himself.


I've mentioned in a previous post the connection I perceive between Pirsig's conception of Quality (or Value, if you prefer - Pirsig says they're the same thing) and my conception of Money. I wonder what the relationship is between the difference in Quality of these two videos and the increase in Value that we associate with economic growth - not in mundane sense (as in which one sold more t-shirts or recordings) but more in a metaphysical sense; what is the relationship between Quality in music and Growth.

I nearly considered this issue before in my dissertation (here's a revised more reader friendly version of it). But I chickened out that time - there's only the very slightest reference to it. Let me try to make the idea more explicit, now.

People get used to using and seeing the term Economic Growth - they see it as a pretty solid thing. A proxy for a change in our general sense of well being. Of course, it's not solid at all. GDP - the most common measure for economic growth - has been referred to as an empty abstraction by the Austrians. And those on the other side of the fence aren't too keen on it either. I remember TFP (Total Factor Productivity) being a popular alternative measure of growth when I was studying. But there's also HDI (Human Development Index), ISEW (Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare), and even GNH (Gross National Happiness). All of these try to measure something to do with the change in the Quality of our life.

It's important to remember that the measures aren't it. They're not actually the thing. They're a way of getting a handle on the thing. I thought music might provide a glimpse of the thing itself. A whisper of the truth that underlies this improving Quality that we experience as economic growth.

In my mind a new musical genre is an increase in Value - or more precisely, it is an expansion of our experience of Value. Recognising genres helped to put those changes in Value in a time frame which allowed me to look at what was happening in the market for music when a particular genre was born.

Of course, the harder you look for music genres the more of them appear. And consequently it becomes harder and harder to see their Value. The growth that seems so clear when you look at the development of Rock n Roll from its Folk and Blues roots is much harder to see in the development of Grindcore from Industrial Metal and Hardcore Punk. Although granted, proponents of Grindcore may argue otherwise.

I don't think I was successful in trying to expose the relationship of new genres to economic growth. Nevertheless, I still think it's there. I can still feel it. I still think I can sense it in the difference between two performances of the same song (as above). But I couldn't tell a believable story about it. I couldn't find a way round the problem of subjectivity vs objectivity. I've since discovered, of course, that Pirsig has a lot of interesting stuff to say about this.

So, this thing - this economic growth, money thing, quality, value whatever you want to call it - has been on my mind for a long while. And I do tend to see it wherever I look.


I took the dog for a walk after I'd watched the music videos. It was a beautiful day. Sunny with a warm summer breeze. I stood on the top of a hill, on one side of a valley and looked down across a field of wheat. Still green. I could see it shimmer in the sun as the wind skipped across it. I watched waves ripple through the field as the wind blew down along the valley. It looked and sounded like the sea. Wheat needs wind. Too much can flatten it and in the commercial production of wheat wind is viewed as a bad thing. But without it wheat wouldn't exist. Nor would we, of course.

I imagined each sheaf of wheat as a person - in fact, as an economic agent - being tossed to and fro by the winds of economic change, striving to grow in the face of uncertainty. It seemed like a good analogy and I wondered how 'economist-wheat-sheaves' would explain it.

[ Now you may say that biological growth is very different from economic growth (or the increase in Value that I tried to explore through music genres). But I'm not so sure. Wheat grows in relation to its DNA, the resources of our planet, and *something else*. Its tempting to believe that science explains everything completely. But it doesn't. Even for something as simple as Wheat there are many mysteries. Depending on what you believe, that *something else* can be God's plan, a morphic field, or some other explanation for the unexplained. For me, that *something else* - the unexplained bit - has to do with Money, Value, or Quality - a type of resonance to which we and wheat seem connected (I'll admit, that does sound close to both the morphic and the godhead explanations). ]

Let me leave that there. So, the economist-wheat-sheaves.

When I look down from my privileged position on the hill, it's immediately apparent that economist-wheat-sheaves are subjective. They're are right down there amongst the rest of the wheat.

There'd still be a whole bunch of wheat that regarded the wind as divine. Not the economist-wheat-sheaves of course. The only belief common to them is that they're sheaves of science. The Wind is divine ! Pah ! Wind is made of Air. Therefore it is our actions upon the Air to which we must look to explain Wind. The origins of how the first Wind was invented are a bit of a mystery. But great wheat-sheaf-economists of the past had looked hard at this question, and decided it wasn't important.

Things had moved on. Theories had been worked out. Positions established.

The Austrian-Economist-Wheat-Sheaves (AEWS) see each sheaf bowing and bending according to its own will and in response to the actions of the sheaves around it. The air is neutral; wind is a result of the millions of tiny movements by individual sheaves. Hence wind is a resource limited by the bending and bowing, the whims and desires, of individual sheaves. Too much wind is just an indication that the sheaves should stiffen up, stop all this reckless movement before they fall over completely. It's unfortunate that some do fall flat but for air to be in equilibrium, actions must have consequences.

Modern-Monetary-Wheat-Sheaf-Theorists (MMWST) also see the wind as created by the movement of the sheaves themselves. They call it endogenous wind creation. But they wouldn't regard the air as neutral. If wind is created by the movement of the sheaves, then the air must be too. It's actually a lack of wind that causes sheaves to fall over. If the wind blows from the south they'd say, what we need to do is encourage more wind to blow from the north. To do this we must create more air. And air is really just still wind. So we can avoid sheaves being flattened by coordinating the efforts of all sheaves to make counter-veiling winds.

The Austrians would mock the Monetarists. They'd ask by what right do they seek to curb the liberty of each sheaf to bend and bow as it pleases. Coordination, they'd claim is just another word for slavery. The wind is theirs, individually. It was created by them individually and each individual is in the best position to know how to move. The Monetarists would call the Austrians cruel for ignoring the plight of those sheaves flattened by the wind. They'd say that the prospects for the field as a whole would be better served by the community of sheaves helping the individuals to bend and bow in the right way - to benefit all. The Austrians would be aghast. How do you know what is the right and what is the wrong way to move? they'd ask. If sheaves make mistakes in the way they move the wind punishes them. Its natural, they'd claim. Of course the Monetarists wouldn't see it like that at all. The 'natural' thing to do would be to help a neighbour in trouble.

In the middle of course would be the pragmatists. The Neo-Classical-Wheat-Sheaves (NCWS). Having identified AEWS and the MMWST as the outliers in the sheaves' dualist experience of the world, the NCWS would win over opinion with an appeal to monism and moderation. Forget the purity of thought of the outliers, they'd say, the world in which we wheat sheaves grow is not perfect. What we need is an explanation of events that is resilient enough to reassure us, yet flexible enough to adapt to circumstance. And so they'd say 'probably' and 'it's likely that' and 'on balance' and they'd get lots of letters after their names. One or two would be awarded the Nabisco international 'Prize in Economic Sciences'. The highest honour accorded to any wheat-sheaf-economist. The general populous of sheaves would hear their reasonable tone, be impressed with their credentials, and generally be too busy swaying and frowing in the wind to worry too much about the theories of the economist-wheat-sheaves. So the outliers would be dismissed by most of the wheat sheaves. Only when a storm hits would they think about the wind again, for a moment. Then when a still day came once more, they would just bask in the sunshine and grow.

From up here on the hill though, you can see that they're all wrong. You can see how the wind flows over and through the wheat. And that although each sheaf does move like its neighbours, the wind is really what moves them all. It's a force they cannot control. It's not of their making. Rather, it has made them.


I go back to those wheat fields often. In a few weeks I'll be there and I'll no longer be able to see even the tip of the dog's tail wagging as she chases the birds who hover above the fields. The wheat will have grown tall and turned to gold. 

I was reading something the other day that suggested that surplus wheat was our first real commodity. That it was instrumental in our creation of the idea of debt and credit - and so, of course in the birth of money. I'm not convinced of that, myself. I think that's a bit like thinking that we make the wind, and that air is just still wind.

Pirsig's way of expressing 'science fact' is illuminating. This is how I think he'd express the 'facts' about wind using his Metaphysics of Quality:
The air in a high pressure area values movement towards a low pressure area.
Anyway this has been a long and random ramble through Value and Growth. I was intending to take a look at uncertainty along the way and then stop off at morality. Remembering of course that economics itself was born as a 'Moral Science'. But I've gone far enough already. Morality is a tricky one anyway.

Sweet child in time, you'll see the line.
The line that's drawn between good and bad.
Blackmore, Gillan, Glover, Lord, Paice Child in Time (1970)

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Money Wisdom #38

"In the Metaphysics of Quality 'causation' is a metaphysical term that can be replaced by 'value'. To say that 'A causes B' or to say that 'B values the precondition A' is to say the same thing. The difference is one of words only. Instead of saying 'A magnet causes iron filings to move towards it', you can say 'Iron filings value movement towards a magnet'. Scientifically speaking neither statement is more true than the other."

Robert Pirsig Lila 2006 (1991) p.112

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Money Wisdom #37

"A coin, like a human being, is the material embodiment of an invisible essence (value, the soul) present also in other coins or human beings. And just as the individual unitary human soul may seem self enclosed, separate from the social process by which it is in fact formed, so the coin may seem to enclose within itself the unitary invisible value that in fact depends entirely on circulation."

Richard Seaford Money and the Early Greek Mind 2004 p.298

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Money Wisdom #36

"Monetisation is the centralisation of social power in a single, abstract, impersonal entity."

Richard Seaford Money and the Early Greek Mind 2004 p.293

Monday, May 21, 2012

Money Wisdom #35

"Money (especially as coinage) tends to promote an indefinite network of indiscriminate exchange that transcends the defined personal relationships to be found within in the family, within various social groupings, or within networks of gift-giving and barter. Whereas the Homeric gift is invested with the personality of its heroic donor, the only kind of person that money resembles is the prostitute. For Shakespeare it is 'the common whore of mankind'. The prostitute, like money, is impersonally promiscuous, transcending the restricted sexual relations required for the reproduction of the household."

Richard Seaford Money and the Early Greek Mind 2004 p.156

Money Wisdom #34

"Whence the presocratic inversion of reality? The idea of abstract unitary reality underlying the appearence of multiplicity derives in part from the fundamentality of unitary abstract value to all else. But unitary abstract value is, despite its fundamentality, in a sense unreal, real by convention only. The cosmological inversion of reality reflects the paradox that monetary value is both fundamental and in a sense unreal....... The presocratic cosmos is, in its various forms, a projection of human institutions (especially money) onto the cosmos..."

Richard Seaford Money and the Early Greek Mind 2004 p.284

Friday, May 18, 2012

Money Wisdom #33

"Thought is not a path to reality. It sets obstacles in that path because when you use thought to try to approach something that is prior to thought your thinking does not carry you towards that something. It carries you away from it. To define something is to subordinate it to a tangle of intellectual relationships. And when you do that you destroy real understanding."

Robert Pirsig Lila 2006 (1991) p.68

Note: this quote's relationship to Money may not be immediately apparent. It has to do with the very strong relationship between Money & abstract thought that recent posts and quotes have explored.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Money Wisdom #32

"...with the invention of coinage, there is disparity between the material value and the conventional value of the coins; what is perceptible is worth less than the actual (conventional) value of the coin, and this implies something radically new - the paradox of an imperceptible embodiment of value. In other words the coin embodies ideal value, mysterious, powerful and imperceptible.

(Bold highlighting is my own - Jon )
Richard Seaford Money and the Early Greek Mind 2004 p.254

Note: I believe that Value does not exist without Mind (see the earlier quote from Nietzsche), but I think this phrase - 'the paradox of an imperceptible embodiment of value' - accords both with Seaford's reasoning and a Nietzscherian view of Value.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Few Notes on L Randall Wray's New Paper

I came across L Randall Wray's new paper "Introduction to an Alternative History of Money" on Lord Keynes' blog.

Whether or not I agree with, or find some enlightenment, in my reading I am always very happy to see writing on the origin of money appear. Unsurprisingly Wray knocks a few more bricks out of the ruin that is the 'barter myth'. Thankfully though he doesn't just waste energy grinding that particular origin story into dust, but bravely attempts to build a new heaven, with new bricks. Unfortunately, I think that the new heaven he builds will not lead to a new earth.

Here's why.

1. The paper fails to place money within psychological context. He talks about 'existential uncertainty' but this is not really a meaty enough ingredient with which to create a truly palatable story about the nature of money.

2. Leading on from above, he fails to get to grips with the significance of 'property'. He describes it as a pre-requisite to the development as money as a unit of account, but doesn't really get into how or why the idea of property entered human conciousness at an individual or group level.

3. His assertion that money is endogenous may serve the purpose of exposing the silliness of seeing money as exclusively exogenous and neutral thus emphasising the need to discuss current economic modelling. However, it doesn't really explain the nature of money. In each of our relationships with money we experience it as exogenous and endogenous - as personal and impersonal. Creating a story that leads to the conclusion that money is wholly endogenous means it is likely that your story is wrong.

Wray claims that with the paper he seeks 'to offer a vision of the nature of money, banks and the monetary system' [his emphasis]. This is a noble and worthy thing. I think at the moment though his vision is too bounded by past economic stories and economics itself. Invariably the best books I've read about money have been either general histories, or cross-disciplinary. I understand that for academics a cross-disciplinary approach is just asking for trouble. And Wray should be commended for giving anthropological explanations and evidence good weight in his story. It is however, not enough. Money touches all things. Its nature will need a broad understanding.

Finally, - and this is no way directed at Wray himself and there is no evidence of this in the paper - the creation of a new heaven, and in its image a new earth, is troublesome for me. Not because of the striving to a new understanding of money, but because of the political exigency it can engender. I am wary. The stakes in understanding money are the highest and most immediate imaginable. If a theory of money's origins became accepted as scientific fact - or just generally accepted as true - that would have huge policy implications.

I have the feeling that there is a morality underlying (what I'll describe here as) the MMT project* - a feeling that social justice is being negated in economic policy as a direct result of misunderstandings about the nature of money. And that if the nature of money can be understood economic policy could be better effected to eliminate poverty. Which makes it all the more important to *really* understand money. And to answer that question 'What is Money?'.  To answer it honestly we need to be vigilant to the danger of political exigency creating a new earth based on an illusion of what we want heaven to be.

*there is also of course the same morality underlying the libertarian project.

(New Heaven, New Earth is an anthropological text by Kenelm Burridge which suggest that money is the most frequent axis for millenarian movements)

Monday, May 14, 2012

Money Wisdom #31

"For Caldwell the order of Chaos, Earth, Tartarus [the lowest region of the world - Jon], Eros is psychoanalytically significant. Just as the earliest psychic state of the child is symbiotic, of 'undifferentiation, fusion with the mother', so the mythical world begins with undifferentiated oneness. And just as the infantile sense of self then develops by a separation (from the mother) which is also a loss, so in the myth the undifferentiated state is ended by the perception of the mother (Gaia) as separate; but she is only known at the price of being lost. And it on the basis of loss that desire (Eros) comes into being."

(Bold highlighting is my own - Jon )
Caldwell 1989 p.132-142
quoted in Richard Seaford Money and the Early Greek Mind 2004 p.220

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Money Wisdom #30

"A feast is made for laughter, and wine maketh merry: but money answereth all things"

Ecclesiastes 10.19 (of the early Greek period - late fourth to early third century BC)
quoted in Richard Seaford Money and the Early Greek Mind 2004 p.165

Monday, May 7, 2012

A Review of Economy & Nature in the Fourteenth Century by Joel Kaye

The subtitle of the book 'Money, Market Exchange and the Emergence of Scientific Thought' gives the reader a good idea about the thrust of Kaye's argument. The connection between money and the development of abstract thought is something in which I'm very interested, although I approached the book as a general reader not a medieval historian. And as such I found it very well written and engaging. The footnotes are extensive, reassuring the reader that this man knows his (medieval) onions. But they also serve to help the flow of Kaye's writing by allowing him to better balance detail with narrative, in the main text.

Two things really impressed me. Firstly, Kaye is not afraid to say what he thinks. Particularly towards the end of the book he describes how he sees the development of scholastic models of money and exchange lead to 'proto-science'. Too often I find academics seek to gain the reader's acceptance of their ideas via the sheer volume of data they provide. But Kaye avoids this by being brave enough to say, in relatively simple and practical terms, how he thinks this  change occurred. Secondly, Kaye does not set up boundaries of definition for his understanding of money. This helps to make the medieval scholar's thought the lens by which money is viewed, and it immunises the book from the political bias that happens when an author decides to view money as either debt or commodity.

Overall I found the book to be a brilliant intellectual examination of the phenomenon money as it impacted upon and interacted with the scholastic minds of medieval Europe. At no time did I feel that Kaye patronised his subjects and he avoids that awful phrase 'we now know'. I'm grateful that he introduced me - a non-medieval historian - to the ideas of Anneliese Maier who:
"brought attention to the creation of a new image du monde in the natural philosophy of the fourteenth century in which all phenomena and processes were conceived of as continuous magnitudes in constant expansion and contraction." 
Joel Kaye Economy & Nature in the Fourteenth Century 1998 p.201 

My amazon review is here. If you liked my review please do give it a thumbs up on amazon. Thanks.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Commodity Schmodity

I've been thinking about 'commodity' lately. Commodity Schmodity is the working title I've given to the next as-yet-unwritten part of my Owning and Owing essay.

The idea of commodity is, of course, one of the key themes your friend and mine Mr Karl Marx uses explore economic relations. I'm rapidly coming to the conclusion that I am going to have to knuckle down and finally read the original text of 'Capital' rather than just read about it. There is an excellent series of lectures available online to accompany such a venture at . I did pick up 'Capital'  about 15 years ago, but gave up less than a third of the way into volume one.

I think my reticent to read it stems in part from the fact that I already have a set of ideas about commodity myself. Basically, it goes like this. Commodity is inherently subjective. It does not describe any real feature or property of an object, but instead describes our relation to that object. It's a descriptive rather than an explanatory term which essentially refers to a psychological state rather than a material one. Which is odd, because when we say commodity in everyday life we are usually referring to something material. And, as far as I can tell at the moment, my view is also pretty much the opposite of how Marx thinks about commodities.

Simmel has some useful stuff to say about all this too. But like Marx - and as I'm finding out writing this little piece - its hard to write clearly about commodity.

Nevertheless, you might think like many others that commodity is a powerful term that is useful in explaining economic life. Indeed, Marx uses commodity to explain the origin of money. It also forms an integral part of the Austrians' story of origin. The shorthand version of the argument underlying these opposing traditions is that alienating an object and turning it into a commodity allows for more efficient exchange, and ultimately this gives us iPhones.

So how does money fit into this picture? In one sense it would seem to be the ultimate commodity. It's the thing we're most alienated from, and that is most easily exchanged. But people can't seem to agree on it. Some say money is commodity, some say it isn't, and some say its a *special* commodity. At this point a klaxon sounds in my head.

In the book I'm reading at the moment (Seaford's Money & the Early Greek Mind) the pre-conditions of coinage are explored. A seal mark - something used since very ancient times to mark possessions, and later with writing to use as receipts, contracts & treaties - is the embodiment of the identity of its owner. A coin mark - signifying the purity of metal & value of a coin - is impersonal. When the coin is in your hands, it's your possession. The Queen can't take notes from your wallet just because they have her face on it.

So how do we get from a symbol that is the embodiment of the personal to a symbol that is the embodiment of the impersonal? Seaford and Marx suggest a process. Commoditisation, or alienation perhaps? Certainly a transition from one state to another.

And this is my problem and why my klaxon sounds.

We don't need a story of transition to explain money - because that presumes its development rather than its existence. There is no evidence that it developed - was invented - that is an assumption that we have made since the earliest times (as I have pointed out in a previous post). So it's better to work with what we know as a fact. Money exists. Is then there something that can help explain our relationship to its existence? Dr Freud? Ambivalence, perhaps? A coin has two sides, after all. We relate to money in contrary ways. In fact, as Dr Freud suggests, we can relate to anything in contrary ways.

With the concept of commodity we've tried to create something that is absolutely not about us. That has no part of us in it at all. The embodiment of alien.

And yet, there we are. In it, up to our necks. By describing something as a commodity we are declaring a particular type of relation we have to that object. The relation of 'no relation'. Which is about as meaningless and helpful as the term commodity itself. Commodity schmodity.

I'll revisit this post after I've read Marx. See what I think then. But now for me commodity is a signpost on the way to ambivalence. My suspicion is that when I do knuckle down to reading Marx will he will tell me stuff about hierarchy that will blow my mind.

Sorry for the rather rambling nature of this post. These things are tricky to fit into words.

A Very Boring Post

I tweeted this morning that this Governor's Today Programme lecture from 2nd May 2012 had only received 171 views on Youtube. At the time of writing it had managed to scrape to 208.

These are incredibly low viewing figures. The speech was broadcast (and I presume trailered on BBC Radio 4) and elements of the speech were given front page billing in this morning's Times, Independent, and Telegraph. It was even being discussed when I turned on The Wright Stuff to watch with my tea & frosties.

So, these low viewing figures are really staggering. Amazingly low.

I listened to it late last night when I saw a tweet from Robert Peston appear in my stream. It had around 70 views by that time. I can't say I was riveted by it. In fact, it was the epitome of dull. A grey man stating the bleeding obvious. The word I'd use to describe Mr King's performance is 'measured'. Just what you want from a Bank's governor.

But the speech being boring doesn't really explain why so few people have listened to it. What Mervyn King has to say about the greatest financial crises in living memory is important, surely? Not just to financial journalists, but to all of us.

The fact is, whilst it may be important, it's not interesting to us. What really is interesting, is WHY no-one is interested.

Something significant is being said here about our relationship to money and authority. Mervyn King - quite deliberately - has no hook. Nothing baits us or tugs at our heart strings. We seem to have no emotional connection to what is being said. The tone of the Governor has a soporific effect. But I don't think this is some kind of conspiracy by clever bankers to lull us into complacency. I think we are just as culpable as they are. We all want things to be like this. It stops the fear. It prevents the panic.

The nexus of authority and money that the Bank of England represents seems immune from emotional connection. It is - in a very real sense - apolitical. This all seems significant in trying to understand money.

So - to answer my own question - Why is no-one interested? Because we don't want to be, and they don't want us to be.