Saturday, August 25, 2012

Intrinsic Value

I'm most of the way through John Lanchester's 'Whoops!' It's a nice easy read after Messrs Shell and Seaford. I wish I could write like Lanchester. I get the impression that he just sat down and knocked out this book in a week's worth of wet afternoons. It's so easy to read. He makes the complex, simple. He's lucid and funny. He doesn't over-explain or preach.

I'm sure its not as easy as all that for him really. Part of the art of the craft is to make it look easy I guess.

Anyway, aside from telling you that I'm a fan of Lanchester (I wrote a little post about his talk on Marx) I just wanted to pick him up on something. "Intrinsic Value".

It's been in the last four books I've read. So Lanchester is in good company - with Shell, Seaford and Kaye.

But what the hell does intrinsic value really mean? Does it mean that if the rest of the universe disappeared, this thing - that has intrinsic value - would still be worth something? How is that possible?

I've put up a couple of Money wisdom quotes that seem to book-end this silly idea of instrinsic value. On the one side you have Nietzsche who claims that nature is always valueless and on the other you have Mark from the MOQ forum who points out that valuation is the same whether you're a monkey choosing a banana, or a river choosing which way to flow

The only way I can make any sense out of 'value' is to think of it like Pirsig's Quality. As something undefinable. So talking about intrinsic value, or exchange value, or any other type of value is just pointless. It serves only to confuse us. It doesn't elucidate, it obscures.

Here's Pirsig on his moment of realisation (as Phraedrus) about Quality/Value.

Sarah had said to Phraedrus 'I hope you are teaching quality to your students'.

Soon the thought interrupted him again. Quality? There was something irritating, even angering about that question? He thought about it, and then thought about it some more, and then looked out of the window, and then thought about it some more. Quality? 
Four hours later he still sat there with his feet on the window ledge and stared out into what had become a dark sky. The phone rang, and it was his wife calling to find out what had happened. He told her he would be home soon, but then forgot about this and everything else. It wasn't until three o'clock in the morning that he wearily confessed to himself that he didn't have a clue what Quality was, picked up his briefcase and headed home. 
Robert Pirsig Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance ([1974], 1999) p.183

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A Few Words on Money, Language & Thought by Marc Shell

What to say about this book?

It's tricky. First up some background and practical details. I had three must-read money books for the first six months of this year (it's August so I've overrun), namely Money and the early Greek Mind by Richard Seaford, Economy and Nature in the C14th by Joel Kaye and this one, Money, Language & Thought by Marc Shell. If there is a central theme to all of these books its the relationship between Money and Thought. A pretty big subject.

Shell's book is the earliest of them. He wrote it in 1982. His wiki page is here and his Havard uni page is here. I guess he'd have been in his early to mid thirties when he wrote it. Not that it's of great significance. It's just one of the things I sensed about the book was that it was written by someone with something to prove. I maybe projecting my own feelings onto the text, but Shell seems really believe in the significance of his project and has decided to use - and show - the full breadth of his knowledge and depth of his understanding as means to convince the reader.

Well, I was already a convert. So the complexities of Shell's expression - he uses the cumbersome word ventriloquistly several times - served to slow me down. In fact, this combined with the London Olympics, work and general life, meant that I completed it over the course of two months. It's not that long (under 200 pages), so I think I did the book a disservice by dipping in and out of it rather than reading it in a few sessions. There is also the fact that I haven't read all the texts he examines in the book. The chapter on Faust - which I've read most recently - was more enjoyable and meaningful for me than the one on The Gold Bug (by Poe) which I don't know at all (although I have since downloaded it!).

All of this is really a way of saying that I don't think it's entirely Marc Shell's fault that I wasn't gripped by his book, all the time. I did have moments. There's some great stuff on the tales of the Holy Grail. My head was buzzing with that. I can't do it justice here, but think about the Holy Grail being a source of plenitude - a blank cheque as Shell puts it. My own mind was fired up by the connection I saw between the Grail and Pirsigian Quality - the source of all things.

I did have the same problem with Shell as I had with Kaye and Seaford. There are points of despair for me. This notion of 'intrinsic value' when talking about coins. Sentence two; "The exchange value of the earliest coins derived wholly from the material substance of the ingots....." Kaye and Seaford say very similar things early in their texts. This is fundamentally wrong. One day, I'll find a way of explaining why.

Another thing for me is that I have some trouble getting on with Literary Theory. If I could be sure no Literary Theorists are listening, my complaint would be that they always seem to circle around meaning; prodding and poking it. What I want them to do is stand in the middle of it, and shout, Look ! It's Here ! Of course, I could say the same thing about Anthropology, Philosophy and many other 'ologies'. Literary Theory though, seems more adept than any other methodology at this dance around meaning.

Then again, Literary Theory - with Marc Shell as a forerunner - has lead to a movement dubbed 'New Economic Criticism'. Dierdre McCloskey, whose article I linked to in my previous post, is also part of this movement. Any advance from the head-against-a-brick-wall debates of economics is very welcome. And really needed. So the fault with Literary Criticism may just be my own aversion to nuance. I must have been a Yorkshireman in a past life.

Look. Read this book. But do yourself a favour and brush up on the texts Shell discusses first. Put some work in and you'll be rewarded. I'm not sure when I'm going to do it, but once I've read the Gold Bug, caught the Merchant of Venice again, and read something on the Mythology of the Holy Grail, I'll come back to this little book and appreciate it's value anew. I'll also do an amazon-postable review of it.

I feel less alone in my weird views about Money having read these three books. It's nice.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

What was the Industrial Revolution?

"In 1709 Abraham Derby smelted iron in a blast furnace, using coke. And so began the Industrial Revolution. Out of Abraham's Shropshire furnace flowed molten metal. Out of his genius flowed the mills, looms, engines, weapons, railways, ships, cities, conflicts and prosperity that built the world we live in."

Danny Boyle Olympics 2012 Opening Ceremony Programme

Danny Boyle's words capture the most commonly held view about the industrial revolution. Economic historians refer to this as the 'wave of gadgets' view. And despite all the complex models, regression analyses, and difficult-to-comprehend language layered on by academia, this view - the idea that technology is growth - sits at the heart of our understanding of the economic changes that Danny Boyle so dramatically represented in the Olympics opening ceremony.

It's an explanation that's never satisfied me.

Someone invents a new technology, it spreads, all our lives are changed. That's it really. That's our explanation for the difference between then and now; between mammoth hunting cavemen and apple mac tweeting hipsters.

Questions about the spread of technologies through trade and about the conditions that encourage innovation and invention have fed generations of economic thought. And they continue to this day to feed the families of any economist able to befuddle us into believing their particular answer. Allied to the economist's sophistry are two things. One is our commonly held belief that science is the father of technology. And the other is our inherent ambivalence. This expresses itself as a morality which finds value either in freedom, or in equality. Individualism versus collectivism is the dynamic dualism at the heart of democratic political economy.

We are gripped by this powerful paradigm because it draws strength from our conflicting moral experience providing answers so full and sufficient, so able to satisfy both sides, that rightness is transformed into righteousness. Escape requires the de-construction of the trinity of science, technology and economics and their reformation into a trinity of questions; What is money? What is growth? What is value?

That would be a revolution so profound as to make the agricultural, industrial and digital appear as they truly are; as markers on a continuum of human understanding. Art has a way of allowing us to glimpse such a possibility. The naive narrative of Boyle's ceremony reveals our limitations; smoke-belching chimneys penetrating verdant pastures, the fertility of growth flowing from one man's genius. Individual seeds nurtured into form by collective desire.

Our circumstance is one of sexual animal and we try to create a history from within this pulsing, pumping, stiffening body. Hence, all revolutions are sexual. They reflect the quality of our relationships. We reap, we sow. We create, we destroy. We own, we owe. Our point of perception chisels our experience from a rock of possibilities.

What was the Industrial Revolution? It was a period of change, in our relationship with money, our understanding of growth, and our connection to value. As was the Agricultural Revolution, and as is the Digital Revolution.

Each Revolution is an expression, an identification, of the limitation of our ability to understand our experience. The truly new is never fully knowable.

As analogy, one could view experience as water filling a cup. The amount of water in the cup denotes the sum total of experience. However, the shape of the water (confined to the cup) is due to "forces which lie outside of experience”.

Mark Metaphysics of Quality Forum (DQ and SQ interrelationship Thread 14/08/2012)

Further Reading:
Dierdre McCloskey 1066 and Wave of Gadgets in Penelope Gouk, ed., Wellsprings of Achievement: Cultural and Economic Dynamics in Early Modern England and Japan (Variorum, 1995).