Archive for » August, 2012 «

REDUCING THE HARM FROM ‘ECONOMICS’

 

 

Economics is no different to astrology and psychoanalysis. Each of these, defined by its shared jargon alone, is presumed by many to provide superior insight into the root causes of, and good remedies for, our ills. And any two experts in any of these disciplines can be trusted to provide completely different predictions and prescriptions for a given set of circumstances – should we manage somehow to prevent them hiding behind opaque and ambiguous language.

In common with several other professions, these three too do more harm than good. But the harm caused by economists is of a higher order altogether from what their potential competitors, including politicians, achieve. Most of it results from the widely held assumption that they are more perceptive than us on what is good for us ‘economically’. We then let them take over and do things inimical to our interests in the silly belief that they know more than we do.

The underlying problem is easy to spot: it is either that economics has no special insight to offer us or that there isn’t a single economist around who knows economics.

I had once the opinion that the main problem was stupidity or incompetence among the economists we generally hear. I am not sure any more, having checked and discovered that those economists I know are no more intellectually impaired than I am. True, they do say one thing quoting someone or some theory and then something quite contradictory a few minutes later quoting another source and do not notice the inconsistency. But this I think arises from the nature of the discipline and not from weakness of the disciples.

A veneer of respectability and substance is provided economics because it states in concrete numbers things to do with commerce and money. The use of not-very-complex mathematics, with figures related to a particular subject, is still only mathematics. We may like to call it econometrics if we must. Econometrics provides more precise description, not insight or useful theory. Economics takes cover under econometrics and passes off as a separate body of practically useful theory. In reality, it is no more than a pool of internally inconsistent mumbo-jumbo from which the anointed are allowed to scoop up selectively, according to need.

We must call this bluff. If not, the breed will continue to put on their airs and impress policymakers who then go along merrily – killing us slowly in the (implanted) belief they are doing us good.  There is no evidence anywhere that economists know better than the rest of us what economic policy is good for a country. But there is plenty of evidence that they don’t. We have to wrest power back from the pretenders.

 

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Olympic lightning

 

Identifying

The Olympic Games leave behind a glow of satisfaction at how high the human spirit can make the flesh reach. Imagine the speeds that the Usain Bolt of cheetahs would achieve, had it been given the vision of becoming a legend – taking on the challenges of faster, further, stronger and maybe sharper and subtler.  (We need lightning chess too at the Olympics.)

That we can draw satisfaction from a human achievement despite our country not winning a single medal also says something of the event. And, in the same period, a man-made craft breaks a distance record – getting down to work on the surface of a planet way beyond the moon, our former furthest. Once again we can all share in the joy of this miracle. All human achievements could call forth shared celebration,  if only we managed to address one simple underlying habit:  that of assigning precedence to the parochial over the universal.

 

Getting better

We must learn to put, as far as possible, the interests of the larger collective above those of the sub-set. To be of this ethnic, caste, sexual orientation or political group must be felt less important than enlightened national interest, for instance. To feel part of a given nation should rank below allegiance to humankind as a whole. So should belonging to a particular skin colour, corporation, religion or global club. Exceptions should not easily be justified. (Difficulties in overthrowing these narrow identifications arise where the religious or political movement into which we have been indoctrinated have made us feel that proper humanity consists only of the like minded and all heretics are sub-human.)

When Usain Bolt celebrates his greased streak in unique style, the rest of humanity should be able to identify with him and together be elevated in spirit. So too when we get a sophisticated vehicle running on another planet many months away. The man running on our planet does not need to display a sign of belonging to a preferred narrow group to allow the vast majority of us to seize and savour the triumphant moment. For we consider him, and us, fully-fledged members of the larger human family.  Those who identify more strongly with a specific nationality, skin colour or religion would feel alienated when he inimitably celebrates.

 

Putting lightning in its place

In the absence of the over-arching universal identity, the Usain Bolts of this world don’t draw unadulterated admiration or approval. Nor would this man have been criticized for going over the top in celebrating victory had he belonged to the more powerful segment of the world.  But he doesn’t.  His nationality does not evoke power or awe. He does not cross himself before or after the race (like some on sports fields ostentatiously do before every performance) nor look gratefully heavenwards or kiss the earth to demonstrate a particular allegiance. Even as we consistently call him Bolt (for pun value too, no doubt) and never Usain (edited out as consistently as Barak Obama’s embarrassing middle name) some of us cannot still bring ourselves to feel completely at one with him.

The poor soul called Jacques Rogge, President of the International Olympic Committee, was upset at the Usain gestures. He quietly rapped Usain’s knuckles. I don’t know this Rogge and only saw the statement quoted. My guess is that Mr Rogge feels first a Westerner (namely, American, European, Canadian, Australian or New Zealander) or Christian or white skinned and only second a human being. It is such orders of priority in self-identification that need to be reversed. The human thing must come above the others.

 

Faster, stronger, richer

A new kind of narrowed identity, with as much potential for harm as the traditional ones, has been consolidated. Having replaced the aristocratic or feudal higher versus lower class identity, a  new economic caste system now holds sway. It’s slightly different from political, religious or corporate identity in that membership is tiered. One can always be included in one or other level, with or without consent. Rank is assigned on quantum of earnings or wealth, most easily displayed by the amount of money-to-spare. Richer is now added to the list of faster, further, stronger.

Credentials are shown by belonging to the right clubs, buying the most expensive brands, knowing the taste of wines and the price of rare things and indulging in out-of-the-ordinary pursuits. Can I boast the world’s biggest carbon footprint?

Space tours have been priced ridiculously low at $200,000 for a full  five minutes of weightlessness. Environmental hero Richard Branson has let down the truly well-heeled by pricing his tours within access of the pretenders too. A few million or a billion a run would have earned him the same profits for fewer trips. But less flights would not help Branson become the champion carbon footprinter. It’s worth letting down the 0.1% by making the farce available to almost 5%, since numerous space runs help Branson become the undisputed carbon emission Olympian.

 

Power to indulge

More important than rankings in the wealth championship is the feeling of real weightlessness, to the point of being able to kick the globe around. ‘See, I can afford to dispose of a few million species to indulge a passing whim. Seven billion people, even if they find it in themselves to work together for sheer survival, cannot stop the few of us. And they cannot, even if they win over the leaders of all the world’s political parties, churches, mosques, temples and other religious establishments. (None of them has so far shown even the slightest inclination to object to the sport anyway.)  So, let the game begin.

When we add richer or bigger to faster, stronger and further we have a philosophy of life – for all these appear somehow to indicate better: better than my fellow man. Bigger income, even if too large to be of any consequence, is better. It denotes higher status in the medals ranking. The Olympics do us the disservice of submerging the celebration of cooperation. And brands of economics in vogue continue the mission, with great passion.

Together, they undermine today’s orphan, morality.

 

 

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