Magic economics

When your car is malfunctioning and you take it to a mechanic, you hope that they’ll diagnose the problem and give you some repair suggestions and costings. You don’t expect them to discourse lengthily on the wider transport system or on government priorities vis-à-vis roads and other infrastructure. It’s not their job.

I’d like to suggest that economists should likewise be seen as the mechanics of the political economy. I’m interested in their opinions on the pros and cons of different policy instruments for achieving desired political and social goals, using the technical skills developed in their discipline. I’m not interested in their opinions about what political and social goals are desirable – matters on which I don’t consider them to have more legitimate authority than anyone else.

I mention this in the context of a tweet from Branko Milanovic, an expert on the economics of global inequality (whose work was previously discussed on Small Farm Future here), in which he attempted to ridicule the ‘doughnut economics’ thinking of heterodox economist Kate Raworth, and by implication the wider tradition of alternative, degrowth-oriented economics.

Milanovic tweeted “Here is a list of some things that Doughnut economists could advocate if they seriously believed that the planet is in danger and that world GDP must not increase and yet abject global poverty must be reduced

Reduce work week to 2 days

Increase highest marginal tax rates to 80%

Double indirect taxes on all polluting goods

Triple the price of oil

Double subsidies to all renewable sources of energy

Sell (very expensive) meat only two days a week

Ban cheap airplane companies and double the price of air flights

Introduce a £1000 tax for all travel by car & airplanes outside the UK

Introduce UBI of say £200 per person per week

Define the goal of halving GDP and real incomes by 50% in 10 years

He added: “Then they should create a movement that would try, through political action, to implement these measures and find out how much support they get from rich countries’ populations.”

Well now, I’ve already documented my own issues with Raworth’s economics, but writing as someone who does seriously believe that human wellbeing (if not ‘the planet’) is in danger, that it’s probably not a great idea for world GDP to increase, and that abject poverty must be reduced, those suggestions all make a lot of sense to me. However, I’m not a fully paid up member of the economics tribe, so I’d be interested to hear the analyses of Milanovic and other economists concerning the detailed implications of these policy measures, which I’m sure could help sharpen the debate over how to improve equity, wellbeing and sustainability. I’m not, however, much interested in the fact that Professor Milanovic considers these measures absurd.

I’d like to reformulate Milanovic’s approach along the lines suggested by Raworth of being ‘agnostic’ about economic growth. So let’s take the last of his suggestions. Instead of defining the goal of halving GDP and real incomes by 50% in 10 years, I’d like to define the goal of halving (or, better, quartering) greenhouse gas emissions in 10 years, while reducing economic inequality to a global Gini value of, say, 30 over the same period. I’m happy for this to be done with any high-tech whizz-bangery Professor Milanovic cares to choose, so long as we hit our 10-year targets – though to my mind this implies it would have to be technologies that are available to roll out at scale right now, so vague talk about the future possibilities of thorium or fusion reactors, or emerging CCS technologies and suchlike won’t cut it. If it can be done while increasing GDP, then great. I struggle to see how that would be possible, but I’m open to suggestions from economists toiling down in the garage of the global political economy as to how they might pull it off. I’m not, however, open to suggestions from economists that the goals I’m proposing are inappropriate, since the grounds of these goals are not economic and therefore fall outside their disciplinary ambit.

Economists do like to weigh in on normative issues of this kind nonetheless – and here is where, for me, they cease being potentially useful mechanics and start to become priests, magicians or quacks. Still, the nature of the dogma, the magic or the quackery is interesting for what it reveals about contemporary ideology, so let us probe it a little further.

The first level of magical thinking is the one purveyed in Milanovic’s afterthought: people won’t vote for ‘degrowth’ policies, or at least people in rich countries whose votes count most for the way the world works won’t vote for them – so the idea is dismissed as absurd. However, if we make the uncontroversial assumption that human wellbeing really is seriously threatened by the existing structure of the global economy, then where is the absurdity? Not with the degrowth, but with the politics. Much as I acknowledge that the unenlightened short-term self-interest of a rich minority of the world’s population does create genuine obstacles for implementing a more sustainable political economy, the real force of Milanovic’s point here is surely a push to rethink the politics. I plan to write some more on this soon, but I’m unimpressed by the notion that current voter support is some kind of litmus test for policy plausibility. The fact that contemporary politicians are still playing petty power games and trying to buy off voters with absurd, undeliverable promises is an indictment of our current political maturity and an index of the difficult path ahead. It’s not an argument against degrowth.

Various other levels of magical thinking were amply demonstrated by respondents to Milanovic’s tweet on the thread linked above. One is the basically ecomodernist notion that economic growth and prosperity are necessary in order to create the surplus needed to invest in environment-saving technologies – in the words of the Tweeter ‘Econartist’, “Invest in renewable and nuclear tech big time, decommission coal, electrify the transport system, explore the myriad of proposed geoengineering solutions – anyone who tells you this can’t be done or that it’s too expensive is a charlatan”. Well, call me a charlatan but the problem here is that there’s no compelling evidence that ongoing global economic growth funds reduced emissions or other environmental positives…though doubtless we’ll soon be seeing projections on the imminent downturn of the environmental Kuznets ‘wave’. You get the sense that there may just be a stray vowel somewhere near the start of ‘Econartist’s’ Twitter handle.

Another strand of magic invoked by Econartist is the notion that exogenous environmental constraint on human action is some kind of Malthusian fallacy. Malthus-as-bogeyman is widely invoked nowadays – usually to purvey the tautological argument that since Malthus posited exogenous (or even just actual) environmental constraint on human action, and since as-we-all-know Malthus was wrong (and had nasty politics to boot), then clearly any argument that invokes environmental constraint on human action is Malthusian, and therefore wrong.

Luckily I find that in my day job as a grower it’s possible for me to say things like “The weather’s been poor this year – I expect we’ll get a lower crop yield” without being dismissed by my fellow growers for my Malthusianism. But when you’re far away from directly experienced environmental constraint – like on Twitter, for example, or in the average university – it’s easy to invoke Malthus-as-bogeyman and/or the magic of human ingenuity to banish the danger of the natural world intruding on one’s anthropocentric reveries. This debate from a while back here on Small Farm Future convinced me that if we want to insist on invoking Malthus-as-bogeyman then we need a carefully circumscribed definition of Malthusianism. Following Andrew in that debate, I’d suggest that it should be the notion that the uncontrollable passions of the lower orders result in an excess of population over available resources. To extend an anti-Malthusianism further than that strays into the kind of magical thinking that assumes a priori that human ingenuity inevitably banishes all non-human constraint. It clearly doesn’t…and furthermore it fortunately doesn’t need to (which is why I find Tom X Hart’s recent tweet to me that “the left is anti-nature” a depressing sign of the needless techno-mythologism into which too much of the left has sunk).

Finally, the issue that the growth folks never seem to confront is where it ends – and this is where the numbers themselves start to get magical. In 1967 global GDP was 16.1 trillion at constant 2010 US$, and in 2017 it was 80.08 trillion. Current average global economic growth averages about 2.3% per annum, which is pretty much the minimum necessary to avoid recession in the existing capitalist world economy. Projecting that forward over the next 50 years suggests a global GDP in 2067 of about 255 trillion, a global economy about 16 times the size of the 1967 one (the data are here). Where’s all that economic activity going to come from? In view of the lack of absolute decoupling between economic growth and environmental degradation, what environmental effects would that kind of economy have? No wonder the growth thinkers are getting so enthralled by space travel – more magic.

I suspect the main reason we’ve become so enamoured of economic growth is that it’s the only way of addressing the growing scandal of global inequality without fundamental political change. It doesn’t address global inequality very well, since most of the additional income created by economic growth goes to the already well off (for example, as Milanovic documents in his book Global Inequality, 44% of the increase in income between 1988 and 2008 went to the richest 5% of people). This inequality is systemic, as recognised long ago by ecological economics pioneer Herman Daly in his Steady-State Economics:

“We are addicted to growth because we are addicted to large inequalities in income and wealth. What about the poor? Let them eat growth! Better yet, let them feed on the hope of eating growth in the future! We have been growing for some time, and we still have poverty. It should be obvious that what grows is the reinvested surplus, and the benefits of growth go to the owners of the surplus who are not poor” (pp.103-4)

But the neat thing about the ideology of growth is that it’s easily deployed to dismiss the ‘elitism’ of its alternatives, along the lines that while most growth-induced income increases indeed go to the already well-off, nobody can conscionably oppose the small gains that go to the poor. So, for example, there were about 118 million fewer people earning less than $1.90 per day in 2013 than in 2012 – who can oppose that trend, even if the very rich were rewarded disproportionately more?

Certainly, this is a line that Milanovic spins, as here:

“One can hardly overestimate [the importance of economic growth] in poorer countries as a means of making the lives of ordinary people better. The disparagement of growth that surfaces from time to time comes mostly from rich people in rich countries who believe they can dispense with more economic growth. But these people are either deluding themselves or are hypocritical.” (Global Inequality, p.232)

…a point Milanovic proceeds to substantiate with several fairly specious arguments, including references to the secessionist and isolationist waves convulsing the politics of the west. Here, his arguments have already been overtaken by events, since – if we assume that people voted on the basis of rational calculation – support for the likes of Trump and Brexit must have involved a preference for political autonomy over economic increase.

But, more importantly, with such arguments Milanovic and the cadres of growth-promoters stray from the domain of their economic expertise into wider realms of political opinion where they have no firmer technical grounding for their views than anyone else. So I return to my original challenge. I’d like to see a world with a minimal drawdown of fossil fuels and other polluting and unsustainable resources, and much reduced inequalities in wealth and income. How to achieve that politically poses tricky questions that economists have no particular expertise to answer. How to achieve it economically is an arena where they can doubtless contribute. Milanovic’s list above strikes me, speaking as a non-expert, as a pretty good suite of economic policies for starting down the road to sustainability and equity. What I’d really like to see from him and other economists is in-depth analysis of the various pros and cons of each policy for delivering the world I and many other critics of economic-growth-at-all-costs would like to see. His thorough derision of all those policies holds no particular interest for me over that of any other online opinion-monger, with which the market is currently quite saturated, and the price therefore low.

50 thoughts on “Magic economics

  1. I’m not, however, much interested in the fact that Professor Milanovic considers these measures absurd.

    Oh but dear Sir, it appears you are very much interested. So much so in fact that you might still be searching for your foil if Milanovic hadn’t offered to be the windmill for you to tilt upon.

    I agree that folks with a well deserved reputation in one discipline might respect the boundaries – such as your mechanic metaphor (a nice one BTW) – and I have this running displeasure with Neil deGrasse Tyson waxing on about GMO crops for the very same reason. But if the matter is something of cross disciplinary interest, something say like a potential future for all mankind, then where is the harm in someone offering an opinion? My sense is it isn’t so much that you would prohibit Milanovic his opportunity to share his opinion… but that you might prefer he not be such a stuffed shirt about it. And I can get there from here.

    But this is a more trivial issue than what I would really like to offer for the grist mill… And this is just an off the cuff notion, but I wonder whether ALL the concerns expressed above (by Milanovic, Raworth, and yourself) need to be adopted as policy goals? I’m on board with shrinking levels of inequality, with increasing global Gini coefficients, with reducing fossil carbon use, ameliorating deleterious situations (particularly ones we have only ourselves to blame for). But do all these ‘wants’ necessarily demand that GDP be fractioned? I’m not so impatient as to demand all the needed technology to accomplish such be sitting upon a shelf as these letters are typed. Sure, the sooner the better. But we didn’t come to be here overnight, getting better will require healing. Healing takes time (and a first diagnosis that there is something amiss). By hauling out his list Milanovic seems to me to have built a windmill on the horizon. As your humble and loyal servant, may I imitate Sancho Panza for you and ready your lance??

    • Oops, have conflated the Gini coefficient with a happiness metric… should have said “decreasing global Gini coefficient”… my apologies.

  2. The fact that contemporary politicians are still playing petty power games and trying to buy off voters with absurd, undeliverable promises is an indictment of our current political maturity and an index of the difficult path ahead. It’s not an argument against degrowth.

    Not at all, but in the current political climate no one needs to argue against degrowth; the necessity of growth is assumed by virtually everyone. In that circumstance economists get to opine on political issues because they are the acknowledged diviners of what produces growth.

    I agree that economists have no more special expertise in the primary goals of society than anyone else and probably far less than sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists, but since economic growth is almost universally assumed to be one of those primary goals, economists are handed the job of social referee on a silver platter.

    You speculate on the political reasons why growth is seen to be important, but I think you are missing something; population growth is intrinsic to every form of life, including humans. Population growth requires more of everything that humans require, no matter how low the requirement threshold. Every species grows and places ‘economic’ demands on their environment until that environment can no longer support growth. For living beings, growth is so ‘natural’ we may even say that it is imperative.

    I think it will be very hard to make the case against growth stick. It has been made over and over again at least since Malthus and here we are, still growing. I agree with you that the policies Milanovic scoffs at are perfectly sensible for those who want growth to reverse (me included), but I think the history of the past few centuries shows that it will be environmental limitations that will cause the end of growth (absent nuclear war) and that voluntary degrowth is politically, perhaps even humanly, impossible.

    So if Milanovic’s skepticism of the possibility of voluntary degrowth is warranted, and I think it is, all we can do is prepare for the day when growth ends and then reverses involuntarily, chaotically and miserably from environmental limits. What kind of preparation can individuals and communities make for that day? A lot of different things will be needed, but small farms are at the top of the list.

  3. Joe, “For living beings, growth is so ‘natural’ we may even say that it is imperative.” I’m not sure one can equate population (i.e. biological) growth with economic growth. I don’t think growth of a population is a natural imperative, it’s an outcome of highly successful reproduction, which is a natural imperative. There are species that are able to maintain a relatively stable population size without significantly increasing their population. For example, there are perennial plants that reproduce slowly and don’t overgrow the garden.. There are others that are highly invasive and their population increases rapidly.
    Human population growth seems to be more of the invasive type of species. So perhaps that is why it seems that biological growth is our natural state. If human population continues to enlarge, then the amount of resources needed must also increase. So in this sense one could argue that growth is necessary as long as our population is increasing.
    Chris, I think it would be helpful if more economists could differentiate growth that is beneficial for society vs growth that is not. What are the goods and services that make up our GDP? It seems to me that the movement of GDP up, down, or same is less important than what we are consuming and how it affects our life. The obese smoker who suffers a heart attack and crashes his car while driving to see his divorce attorney is contributing very positively to GDP. Money is circulating! The young mother who stays at home to raise her children (no money spent on daycare), feeds them home cooked meals (no money spent on restaurants) from food grown in her garden (less money spent in grocery stores) is contributing negatively (is reducing expenditures) to GDP. If her children grow up very healthy they will not contribute as much to GDP because they will not need to seek medical care. So the cycle can perpetuate itself into degrowth of the economy.
    Everyday I refill a water bottle from home and carry it with me. I have had this bottle for more than 10 years. I am not contributing much to GDP. I would contribute more to GDP if I bought bottled water . If more people did this it would eventually cause a reduction in the sale of bottled water and at some point factories would close and jobs lost. So, what is the long-term effect on society of not spending as much money? It seems to me this is the only way to reduce energy use and GHG emissions. Will our current economic system collapse? If more labor is needed to make or grow the things we need I would argue that there will be plenty of jobs!
    Perhaps the reason economists cling so stubbornly to the idea that economic growth is imperative is because what our economy really can’t do without is interest on debt. It’s going to be difficult to unwind all the debt in our system.

    • Jody,

      I said that population growth necessitated economic growth because even if everyone is living at the bare minimum of subsistence, adding more people will add to the amount of food and other goods required for the growing population. No matter how frugally people live, if there are enough of them they can overtax the environmental resources they depend on to live. Of course, if people also become more affluent, the rate of economic growth will increase faster and so will the burden on the environment.

      I do agree with you that GDP is a very imperfect measure of prosperity. Something like infrastructure maintenance contributes to GDP, but it doesn’t really add anything to the stock of capital assets, it just keeps them from disintegrating. The same goes with health care; it just helps keep our bodies from disintegrating; the money we spend on health care can’t increase our health beyond the point where nothing is wrong with us. And as you point out, GDP also neglects to count the unpaid services within the household economy, services which happen to be a large part of what makes life enjoyable.

      I think most economists would admit to these imperfections, but would reply that if trend GDP is increasing, so is prosperity, even if the ratio is not one to one. It would also be very difficult to have reduced GDP and not have reduced prosperity, unless population is declining even faster (as in the case of Japan, where GDP growth is stagnant, but GDP per capita is rising due to declining population).

      So, for any given population, GDP decline will mean that at least some people are losing prosperity. It’s going to be pretty hard to convince people to willingly become poorer, especially when the sacrifices are not shared equally.

      As Chris would immediately point out, that’s a political problem that just might have a political solution. It might, but I’ll wait to see it before I believe it. In the meantime, I’ll watch for signs that growth is hitting natural limits, because that’s when all hell will break loose.

      • Joe,
        I was trying to point out that population does not necessarily need to increase.
        You write that “It’s going to be pretty hard to convince people to willingly become poorer, especially when the sacrifices are not shared equally.” What if we replace the word “poorer” with healthier? What if our life actually improved as a result of consuming less?
        I think the King of Bhutan’s idea of Gross National Happiness (GNH) has a lot of merit. Rather than just counting the amount of products and services they evaluate their economy on the basis of social well being.
        The GNH Index includes nine domains:
        Psychological wellbeing
        Time use
        Cultural diversity and resilience
        Good governance
        Community vitality
        Ecological diversity and resilience
        Living standards

        There has been quite a bit of research looking at the validity of this index. At the very least it attempts to actually find out if people think they are happy in life. If our political policies would look at economic activity and judge it based on standards such as these people might be more willing to make necessary changes not because they make us “poorer” but instead because they make us happier.

        • In my experience it is possible to be perfectly happy and be relatively poor. When my wife and I were in the Peace Corps, we lived in a village wherein everyone, including us, was very content with their low level of affluence.

          There was plenty of food, little in the way of disease, and since it was in the tropics, not much was needed in the way of clothing and space heating. Unfortunately, population was expanding rapidly even though much of the food calories were supplied by imported rice. Even then, in the 70’s, the population was well above levels that could be sustained from local resources.

          Bhutan is an example of a more sustainable, but still relatively happy society. Unfortunately, it is being ‘corrupted’ by exposure to ‘development’ projects funded by well meaning rich countries and turning toward market farming from subsistence farming.

          I also agree that there are many examples of human population not increasing. Japan is an example, both in the present and back in the Tokugawa shogunate period. I admit that there is such a thing as a demographic transition (present day Japan, as in my prior comment) and ways to keep population stable in non-industrial societies (infanticide, late marriage), but one can’t help but be struck by the actual history of world population growth. Just look at any chart of human population numbers for the last few hundred years. Whatever the reason for the very steep rise in population, it’s terrifyingly persistent.

          Population increase and economic growth has already lasted long enough that human population is well into overshoot and the economic growth has been so great that the human economy now exceeds what I would consider to be a reasonable burden on the environment.

          There may be a way to reverse all of that impact with grace and dignity, return human existence to the happy level of subsistence found in Bhutan, and keep environmental damage to minimal levels, but that we will find such a strategy would be a very long-odds wager.

          • I agree with much of what you write Joe. But I think there is a mindset change that needs to happen if we want to endorse simple living. We need to stop thinking of poverty as a measure of money. Poverty (or being poor) has as much to do with our attitudes as the amount of resources we can access.

            I lived near what the government defines as the poverty line until I was 40 years old. But I have never thought of myself as poor.
            I recall a conversation with someone who was a successful professional and financially very comfortable. I offered to sew the seam in one of his leather driving gloves. His first comment was “You can do that?” and his second comment was “It must be really hard to be so poor.”
            I patiently explained to him that yes I am able to do small clothing repairs and that it would be a shame to throw away such a nice pair of gloves. I told him that just because I prefer to repair clothes rather than replace them does not mean I am poor.
            It’s true that every person has basic needs for food, shelter, clothing, education, etc. But once our basic needs are meet more getting more rarely makes us happier.
            Kudos on the stint in the Peace Corp.

  4. Thanks for the comments. Brief responses:

    Clem: fair point, indeed I’m interested in Milanovic’s uninterest in these policies, though largely for the ideological blinkers he unwittingly reveals and not for the reasons I’d guess he’d suppose. I think Raworth is right to talk about ‘GDP agnosticism’, which it sounds like you endorse. It’s better to get into the policy detail and its implications than obsess over the consequences for business-as-usual, which was kind of my point. Don Quixote isn’t my preferred role model, but I suspect my efforts may approximate to his more closely than I like to imagine.

    Joe: I accept there are historic links between population growth and economic growth in certain times and places, but I’m not sure they’re so apposite right now. Calculating per capita economic activity from the figures for 1967 and 2017 I gave above gives us $4,600 in 1967 and $10,800 in 2017 – a crude measure, but I’d argue that it’s suggestive of what we’re really seeing, namely a systemic logic of growth (essentially interest on debt, as Jody rightly suggests) which is increasingly divorced from either population increase or useful human development. I agree with you that voluntary degrowth is unlikely, largely because it disproportionately threatens the interests of those with the most power in the contemporary political economy, and will most likely occur from exogenous pushes – but I think the social dysfunctions of the growth economy are increasingly apparent, and this may prompt systemic social change. Though I agree with you that degrowth would cause a loss of prosperity (or happiness, in Jody’s terms) for some, it may well create greater all-round prosperity/happiness, because as several of the offerings here hint, the link between economic growth and prosperity/happiness is increasingly sundered. I’d probably agree with you that the human economy exceeds a reasonable burden on the environment – but ‘reasonable’ is somewhat in the eye of the beholder and as a light dark-green or dark light-green by inclination, my main focus really is on what’s just and sustainable for humanity, rather than taking on the burden of judging what’s right for the biosphere as a whole.

    Jody – yes, much to agree with there. Things like the happiness index and parallel ideas in ecological economics are good developments – the real problem, though, is finding the political leverage to place health, happiness or human development at the centre of the political economy, which is hard to do in an interest-on-debt economy deeply invested in equating economic increase with human wellbeing, and with powerful minorities disproportionately benefiting therefrom.

    • Chris,
      “…the real problem, though, is finding the political leverage to place health, happiness or human development at the centre of the political economy…”
      Yes, that is certainly the real problem! Watching the political divide widen in my country and around the world it is easy to think that politics is not longer effective for solving our problems. If we are going to “place health, happiness or human development at the center of the political economy” I think we must first do so in our own homes and then when possible work to affect our community.

      The community where I live contains two cities separated by a river. One city contains most of the industrial activity, and the other has a major university. One city has a Republican mayor, the other a Democrat. One city tends to vote more liberal. The other more conservative. Yet, we are effectively one large community and for the most part our current governments work well together. Each week the mayors give a radio talk show where people can call and ask questions. It’s been very interesting listening to their answers. They both seem to be well informed and for the most part I think they agree on larger issues of sustainability and environmental protection.
      Unfortunately this isn’t the case in many other cites across our country. The US once prided itself on being a Democracy where the people were the body politic. Yet only about 30% of our citizens vote in national elections. Now I’m afraid we are seeing a rise in authoritarianism as a result of Republican support for President Trump. If we are to address needed changes in our consumption patterns we have to become better informed and better at communicating. First we have to talk with each other, listen to each other, and find common ground.
      Unfortunately this may be a long shot in the US. The middle ground is becoming harder to find as groups of people get sucked into their preferred echo chamber on social media, often manipulated by groups that want to sow discord. We have an President who sees the world through the lens of Fox News, which promotes a great deal of inaccurate, “alternate” facts. And as of the last poll I heard 80% of Republicans support this man.

      It has been recognized by social scientists that our country is suffering from anti-intellectualism. Several decades ago researchers recognized that our educational system was undergoing grade deflation. Those who graduate from our education system are less well educated than in previous decades. Too many people distrust liberal experts and this distrust is even now being applied to conservative experts. Anyone who speaks in articulate sentences with an educated voice is deemed as suspect. Hard to see this as leading to good solutions!

      Some days it’s far too easy to agree with Joe that “There may be a way to reverse all of that impact with grace and dignity, return human existence to the happy level of subsistence found in Bhutan, and keep environmental damage to minimal levels, but that we will find such a strategy would be a very long-odds wager.” God grant us serenity!

  5. “it’s easy to invoke… the magic of human ingenuity to banish the danger of the natural world intruding on one’s anthropocentric reveries.”

    You put your finger on it with ‘anthropocentric reveries’ (as in ‘trances’). I think this type of disconnect, a luxury in a way, is at the root of the major challenges facing humanity.

  6. Much to agree with here (as ever), and I like the exposure of Milanovic’s thinking as ‘magical’ – it’s great to reclaim that word from the language of right-wing criticism. My own criticism (and I really do need something to criticize after all this time) concerns the framing, and has some sympathy with Clem’s first point.

    I don’t think that Milanovic necessarily ‘should’ restrict his comments to an economic sphere. You could argue that his prominence gives him a platform that he subsequently misuses by straying into politics, but I think the best answer to that is reasoned rebuttal and the exposure of his ideological assumptions, which you do nicely here.

    I wouldn’t classify his intervention as that of a priest or a quack, but simply as that of someone who is wrong. One of the greatest illusions performed by economists is to convince the rest of us that there is an independent economic sphere with its own rules, separate from politics, and that its management is the job of technocrats, guided by economists of course.

    Given the reality, that the economy is fundamentally political, I would argue that Milanovic is actually intervening in a sphere in which his own position is very much assured. The analogy here might be with mechanics weighing in on industrial strategy and advocating the building of more cars and the expansion of the motorway network. They are part of the system that maintains the heavy use of cars, rely on it for their social reproduction, and have opinions that should be listened to. The argument then needs to be made that such expansion would be detrimental to other factors, most obviously the climate.

    All these arguments are necessary, and need to be highlighted in the public sphere. But I don’t think it’s productive to constrain certain voices by trying to confine them to boxes defined by a rigid idea of socio-economic role. The counter-argument to Milanovic’s points stands on its own reason. He’s wrong because he’s wrong, not because he’s an economist speaking out of turn!

    • Agreed. I’m not trying to suggest that Milanovic or other economists should not express their political opinions – only that their political opinions carry no more weight than mine or anybody else’s. The problem is the conflation of economic expertise with political wisdom. So, for example, when somebody like Susan Sarandon expresses her views on matters of global politics I might lament that her celebrity gains her a wide platform to express her views, but at least it’s pretty clear to everyone that the views she’s expressing are simply her views, which are unconnected with her reputation as a fine actor. Whereas when somebody like Milanovic ridicules the idea of inflating the price of oil, subsidising renewables or introducing UBI it would be easy for the casual observer to think that these views are well grounded in his expertise as an economist. To over-simplify somewhat, I’m interested in what economists have to say on microeconomic questions – for example, there are doubtless all sorts of practical questions and difficulties about implementing UBI that economists are better placed to highlight than I am – whereas to my mind macroeconomics is largely a matter of politics, which orthodox economics essentially mystifies as technical, ‘scientific’ or empirical knowledge. In this sense I do think that the role of economists nowadays is akin to a priesthood – inhabiting roles close to centralised political power, they buttress and justify it by recourse to arcane and putatively transcendent knowledge that’s supportive of the status quo as the natural order of things, and scornful of heterodoxy. That’s essentially what I think Milanovic does in his tweet (also like priesthoods, economists are terrible at prediction…)

      There’s an enormous body of writing that thoroughly undermines the pretensions of orthodox economic theory to ‘scientific’ or objective status: philosophers (Karl Marx), psychologists (Daniel Kahneman), sociologists (Andre Gorz), mathematicians (David Orrell), anthropologists (David Graeber)…even economists themselves (Herman Daly) to name a few. And yet here we are… Priestcraft is immune to empirical refutation.

      • A very complicated economy makes it difficult for an average person to understand its complications, much less become an authority on the details of its function. There are also many subsets of the economy that most people leave to authorized experts to manage: medicine, aircraft operations, auto mechanics, plant genetics, etc. As non-experts in just about everything, we need people who have spent their entire life becoming expert in one field so that we can trust their judgement even a little. We need priests.

        Even in the sphere of politics, most people have no idea whether a particular regulation would be more effective than another for solving a problem, or even whether the putative problem deserves regulation at all. So most people rely on their perception of their own circumstances in judging political expertise. If they think things are getting better for them, they re-elect the people in power. If they think things are getting worse, they throw the bums out and try another group of priests.

        That’s why economies and political regimes have so much inertia. Virtually everyone is preoccupied with their daily routines and the basics of everyday life. They only become a force for change when things start going wrong.

        Unfortunately, even when things go wrong it is very difficult to sort out the best solution from among the many proposals from multitudes of experts. So most big decisions are effectively left to trial and error. It’s a hell of a way to run a civilization, but I guess it’s the best we can do. I sincerely doubt that it’s good enough to save us, but I’m no expert. Maybe everything will work out fine. After all, America’s becoming great again, isn’t it?

        • I agree, except to say that a technical expert is not a priest – the truth claims are different, in the latter case a generalised and more or less unfalsifiable narrative about the nature of life, in the former case a specific and falsifiable solution to a problem. An economist might act as a technical expert in adducing empirically the consequences of tripling a renewable energy subsidy – but if they were to argue that such a subsidy was wrong because it interferes with the free market, then I think they’re in priest mode. Likewise, a plant breeder working on a new transgenic crop variety will have to deal with numerous practical questions of crop development, but starts getting priestly when they say ‘transgenic crops are good for society’. Of course, the distinction isn’t hard and fast. I agree that we do need priests – we need narratives, rich stories that make sense of who we are. But I think we need to attend carefully to who the priests are serving, and where the holes are in their stories…and if we mix our priests up with technicians that’s harder to do.

          • Arthur C Clarke noted that, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” As science and technology have become more and complex, civilization has become more and more magical.

            I admit that most people know that their cell phones and their cars are not really magic, but they might as well be, considering how little knowledge most people have about how they work. When technology ‘priests’ mumble about the inner workings of those kinds of things, including the fine points of economic growth theory, it’s hard to know where the “holes are in their stories”.

            What’s even more scary than being at the mercy of experts, is not having any experts at all. The ability to communicate pure nonsense quickly and easily to millions of people is rapidly eroding the standing of all kinds of authority, not only about scientific and technical matters, but even about the factual nature of events. The time is coming soon when Poe’s admonition will need to be revised to, “Believe nothing you hear and believe nothing that you see.”

          • Why do I feel as though I’m being called out?
            Likewise, a plant breeder working on a new transgenic crop variety will have to deal with numerous practical questions of crop development, but starts getting priestly when they say ‘transgenic crops are good for society’.

            If such a plant breeder where to suggest transgenic crops are NOT good for society, she might likewise be accused of tiptoeing into a priestly realm. But more likely her employer will have a few words to share with her on the matter.

            These last few remarks in regard to technical expertise, and how far along on a road to priestliness one might wander before being labeled hew at my heart. I’m quite sympathetic to much of Joe’s argument that we rely heavily on priests – to the extent that we need them.

            I think I see Chris’ distinction that once one wanders beyond the demonstrable truth of empiricism they risk going too far. But what of where one stands on a particular issue before coming to judge a technician’s ponderings?? If I am already close to a position proffered by technician A, I suppose I’m less likely to label her a priestess than if I were in the opposite camp.

            In the 1st comment in the thread I pointed to Neil deGrasse Tyson waxing on about GMO crops – and I offer this again as an example of what I’m trying to assert here. Neil is a very accomplished Astrophysicist. He is a scientist; and on those two issues I have no quarrel. He is not a plant breeder. When he goes on about GMO crops he might well avail himself of demonstrable facts and within such a circumscribed discussion he should be heard just as any concerned citizen should be. When, however, he takes off into waters deeper than he knows and demonstrates a lack of appreciation for the body of knowledge… then I imagine him being ‘priestly’ (as we are using the term in this conversation). But what would another plant breeder think? If our second breeder is similarly inclined about the future (similar to Neil’s view) – even without data to hand – then is this person going to label Neil as treading into a priestly position? I doubt it.

            We all have our biases. Once anyone embarks on a quest to predict the future there are sure to be potholes in the road. Truth claims can only serve up to the present place on the journey. Yes, some predictions are much more likely than others… but they are still predictions.

            Andrew above mentioned ‘framing’. I think he’s onto something there. How we set up our arguments is important. Being fair and unbiased is very difficult. But it is still worth the effort.

            Coming back around to Chris’ last point:

            Of course, the distinction isn’t hard and fast. I agree that we do need priests – we need narratives, rich stories that make sense of who we are. But I think we need to attend carefully to who the priests are serving, and where the holes are in their stories…and if we mix our priests up with technicians that’s harder to do.

            Attending carefully seems fine advice in most situations. No quibble from me there. But on the matter of mixing up priests and technicians – I think one’s vantage point is going to lean heavily on the matter. And this is indeed a very political outcome.

          • “An economist might act as a technical expert in adducing empirically the consequences of tripling a renewable energy subsidy – but if they were to argue that such a subsidy was wrong because it interferes with the free market, then I think they’re in priest mode.”

            Here the ‘priest mode’ seems to be little more than expressing an opinion. But if that opinion is somehow given extra weight due to perceived authority, then a sin against science has been committed, according to Carl Sagan:

            “One of the great commandments of science is, ‘Mistrust arguments from authority.’ … Too many such arguments have proved too painfully wrong. Authorities must prove their contentions like everybody else.”

            And of course it’s even worse to cite a non-authority as an authority. (Hmm, am I breaking the commandment by citing Carl Sagan?)

            But it seems that commandments are increasingly ignored these days, with ‘leaders’ regularly lying to the electorate, and opinions of others (authorities or not) given more weight if they happen to coincide with ours. “Authorities must prove their contentions like everybody else” seems almost quaint, unfortunately.

  7. Hello Chris
    Branko Milanovic is wrong about no nations electorate voting for degrowth. The UK voted for it in 2010 and 2015, though it was called Austerity not degrowth, The idea was that by shrinking the incomes of half the population (those on benefits, public employees, and by fiddling the inflation figures to reduce wage increases) the other, richer half of the population could increase their incomes. On the face of it a zero sum game, and looking at the stagnant UK economy over those years that is so. To sum up electorates will vote for degrowth and long as somebody else gets the degrowth!

    And Yes I got a dose of that degrowth.
    And Yes where can I vote for the doughnut policies!

  8. The (un)funny thing is that most of those very unpopular proposals will be visited upon us in the the not too distant, and we’ll accept them as long as each such imposition is presented as the inexorable workings of the free market )as meets planetary resource limits.)
    But to consciously choose such privations of our own free will for the greater and long-term good of humanity and the biosphere is politically impossible. Such strange creatures we are!

  9. It’s true that our world faces many problems that urgently need to be addressed and most of these problems require expertise to solve. But while we are waiting for the experts to agree time is wasting. And if we waste too much time arguing over perceived solutions, the problems are intensifying and creating new problems. So what might be a good approach?
    What makes a proposed solution beneficial vs detrimental? In many respects the size of the project plays a role. I believe that small-scale efforts based on local conditions, cultures, and economies will have a greater chance of being beneficial than overly large efforts. While it’s true that some efforts/projects may by necessity be fairly large (such as installing or upgrading water and sewage systems), the beauty of small (such as solar energy systems) is that they can be implemented fairly quickly and the results will become apparent early.

    Once a small project can demonstrate benefit it is easier to garner public support and can be widely adopted. Large efforts/projects require long lead times, massive capital investment and buy-in (i.e. political and social support). In large government funded projects the logic of “we’ve spent too much to turn back now” prevents us from changing our direction even when it’s obvious they are detrimental. Or the large projects are continued because those vested in seeing it succeed do no want to admit failure. Then there are the proverbial “pork barrel projects” where one often small party benefits at the expense of everyone else.

    If we are to make necessary changes in society that will make communities more resilient we need to start small and try any idea that seems possible. We need to encourage people to do something as opposed to doing nothing, believing that experts will find solutions or politicians will ever agree.

    • If we are to make necessary changes in society that will make communities more resilient we need to start small and try any idea that seems possible.

      But what changes? The kinds of things one reads about at Resilience (urban community gardens, farmers markets, co-operative craft businesses) seem more like window dressing, although community gardens do expose people to the food/soil nexus. And remember that even small projects, like the solar systems you mention, can depend on a modern industrial economy for the manufacture of essential components.

      Reduce, reuse, recycle is a good start, and my childhood home of Portland, Oregon is great at it, but now that China has raised their standards for recycled plastic and cardboard, a lot of recycled materials may be headed for the landfill. You’re right that we need to do as much as possible to adapt ourselves to more sustainable living, but the most effective adaptations require systemic change that go to the core of industrial dependency. Recycling just won’t do it.

      For example, our biggest problem is that we rely on exosomatic energy supplies for virtually every aspect of our lives. We could start by reducing consumption of gasoline and other fossil fuels by using very high fuel taxes and rebating the money to everyone or spending it on non-fossil energy supplies.

      This would be a very effective systemic strategy, it has been proposed many times and it has even been put before the electorate in Washington State, but never been tried out in the US. At least Europe has the high tax part. As a result their energy intensity is half that of North America. Big programs and universal regulations can be very effective, but only if they are implemented. I share your frustration about getting started somehow, with something, but I struggle to see what kind of individual or local initiatives will really make much of a difference.

      I live in a rural community in the tropics. Everyone has a garden, fruit or nut trees and livestock, even if they don’t have a commercial farm or ranch. No one needs heat or even air conditioning. There is plenty of food being produced on nearby ranches and commercial farms. The only things left standing in the way of a sustainable economy are the big systemic things, electricity, water, transportation and communication. It would be very difficult to persuade people to forgo their county water and put in a catchment system or disconnect from the electric grid and go solar, but hardest of all would be to give up cars and trucks.

      So where I live, we will just keep on going until fuel prices go through the roof or fuel goes away and everyone has to go back to horse and wagon (we do have plenty of horses too). It would be a very hard transition, but not horribly fatal. But how would the Greater Lafayette area cope? How about LA or New York or London? What kind of things can be done in any urban area that would compensate for the loss of electricity, or trucks or even phone service?

      • Well put, and indeed, what kind of things can be done, especially when most people seem to be under some spell or another?

        I think that at this point, we (personally and collectively) can still try to mitigate the inevitable disruptions. Policies of an enlightened government could surely make the most difference.

        On Milanovic’s list, one of his ‘suggestions’ is:
        “Introduce UBI of say £200 per person per week.”

        Along those same lines, how about:
        Introduce UBElectricity of say ?? per person per week…
        Introduce UBGasoline of say ?? per person per week…
        Introduce UBWater of say ?? per person per week…

        …and significantly increase taxes on consumption beyond the UBAllowances, to make the prices closer to both the actual costs and the actual values received. The tax proceeds could fund more resilient alternatives, as well as conservation and adaptation efforts.

        Whenever I go on camping trips without electricity, plumbing, or telephone service, I gain insights about the implications of these disruptions and the process of learning how to adapt. There’s a learning curve to ‘doing without’, and the sooner we all start learning, the better.

      • They often get overlooked but Refuse and Repurpose bear thinking about too, as in refuse that plastic drinking straw in the restaurant even though doing so will make your daughter weep, or repurpose that stray strand of thatch into a drinking straw, even though this may also end in tears.
        The European court has recently decided to treat genetically modified and genetically altered crops in the same manner by banning them. A panel of priests determining the future for many experts’ labours, both sides muddling through?
        Milanovic has some very good ideas, it’s a pity he sabotages them.

        • The European court has recently decided to treat genetically modified and genetically altered crops in the same manner by banning them.

          Do you know of a link to share where “genetically altered” was the deemed the equivalent of genetically modified for the purposes of the European court? I can’t be sure, but am thinking the verbiage might have been “genetically edited” or gene editing (as per the TALENs or Crisper technologies). I might qualify as a priest in the realm of plant genetics and would like to see what the devil they are up to in Europe. [religious ref to the underworld seemed appropriate – but then there is also the aphorism that the devil is in the details… is it getting hot in here?]

          • I’ve found the following BBC story on the recent European Court of Justice (ECJ) conflating genetic transformation with gene editing as GMO technologies:

            As mentioned above, this is a story about gene editing, which has a very specific meaning with regard to the technology of how DNA is modified. The BBC piece in the link is a decent place to start, but there are (to my mind) many weaknesses in the arguments on both sides. Hyperbole from all sides I’m afraid.

            From my vantage point there is one strand of thinking worth holding onto when considering the technologies discussed here – and that is the technologies themselves are not culpable for the eventual products designed by man. Think of fire as a possible example. It can cause immense destruction when it runs wild; but under control it can provide comfort, cook our food, keep predators at bay, light the night, and many other positive things.

            For anyone interested in the newish technologies of gene editing like TALENS and the Crisper series of technologies, I can dig up some backgrounders available on the web. There have already been many lawsuits over who holds the proper patents (esp. for the Crisper techs) so there is quite a bit of capitalist “investment” already. Some very deep pockets imagine this is a serious play for the future. Someone in the BBC story above suggested the EVJ verdict will kill these technologies… to which I’m afraid the ECJ has no such power.

          • Sorry for the delay again Clem, I don’t have a smart phone and the SFF site has stopped emailing me the updates of the conversation. The story was on last Friday’s BBC Radio 4 Farming Today programme (at 9.47):

            The presenter discusses gene editing but also used the wording genetically altered, perhaps to dumb the story down a little when introducing the distinction to listeners at such an early hour (5.45am in the UK). I went with the dumber version as I was unsure how many people would recognise the distinction between GMO and the grey area of gene-editing. I remember asking you, in fact, to clarify the difference regarding a Rothampstead GM story heard on the same radio programme about a year ago. Thanks for the BBC link. I rather like the sound of molecular scissors – magic indeed!

      • Joe,
        “But what changes?” Any change you deem helpful. Will your choices be beneficial? Only you will be able to answer that.

        When the lights go out do you just sit in the dark or do you do what you can to deal with the situation? Isn’t that what most people will do when faced with any challenge or disaster? People will deal with what comes in the best way they can. Some people carry a tool box in their car. Some people don’t. We are probably all ill-prepared for what our future is likely to hold. No matter what we think we are doing we are not likely to be able to predict what will happen or when. But life still goes on.

        I believe that a person’s ability to secure food and water is very important for their survival. And learning to grow food, cook from scratch, and share meals is also one of my life’s great pleasures. Will a garden save the world? Will a dinner party with friends heal all the wounds in the world? No. But I don’t anyone who thinks it would. I don’t think there is any one thing that any one person does that is going to save or destroy the world. We simply aren’t that important. I think every small thing we do to change our life makes us better off than we were, simply because we continue to exert effort. It’s when we give up that we have no chance at all.

  10. A few comments on priests…

    ‘…inhabiting roles close to centralised political power, they buttress and justify it by recourse to arcane and putatively transcendent knowledge that’s supportive of the status quo as the natural order of things, and scornful of heterodoxy.’

    Presumably these are full-on Temple priests, the kind Jesus would really have a problem with. That’s fine, but the point is that we’re not meant to approve of these people.

    I’m more interested in the ‘arcane and putatively transcendent knowledge’. Elsewhere you contrast it with ‘technical, scientific, empirical knowledge’, which is ‘falsifiable’. The notion that political commentary strays from the latter to the former recognises that claims to political insight can’t be falsified, because it relies on human behaviour, which can’t be tested or predicted very well. But does that mean that all such claims are putatively transcendent, and that given our secular refusal to countenance any privileged sources of such knowledge, one opinion is as good as another?

    My issue here is that any claim to political authority opens one to accusations of priestliness. Furthermore, I think one should be able to make such claims by appealing to experience and insight and be taken seriously, if not unquestioningly.

    Returning to Milanovic, when he redicules strategies that ‘doughnut economists’ might propose, he does indeed draw on his expertise as an economist, even if he does so to promote his ‘free’ market. By all means dispute any claims he makes to ‘scientific’ authority, but I think we have to accept he has insight due to his role as an economist. I think you provide a good critique of his insight, but if I wanted to chase neoliberal paradise I’d no doubt agree with him, and his scorn would be ‘correct’ in that sense.

    The reason this matters is that I want to see you promote insights drawn from your role as a neo-peasant, whether or not you can present them as falsifiable truth claims. Indeed, I think you already do, and that’s what politics is all about. Accusations of priestliness might cut both ways, but all that really does is apply a derogatory label to ‘the other side’ even though both are arguing on the plain of informed insight and belief about what’s right. If it helps, I expect I’d always be on you side!

    • Telling the the difference between the ‘arcane and putatively transcendent knowledge’ of the priest and the ‘technical, scientific, empirical knowledge’ of the secular student of nature can be very difficult for most people. You’re right that the difference between the two is that scientific assertions are falsifiable, almost entirely due to scientific knowledge being based on predictive success (or not), but one would often need to be an expert in statistics to tell the difference between the predictive success of the priest (based on intuition and chance) and the predictive success of the scientist (based on a partial understanding of how the world works).

      I think that’s why everyone tends to believe in the authority of direct experience. I did “x” and it worked; I did “y” and it didn’t. I’m content now, so the leadership is competent; I’m suffering so the leadership are charlatans.

      I also think that is why we feel we can believe other people who tell stories from the authority of their own experience, especially if they have no reason to lie. For example, I would certainly accept the veracity of a SFF post on the proper way to plant potatoes in Wessex and I think Chris would believe me when I tell him the best way to remove unwanted guava saplings from pastures.

      But since the causes of the major problems facing our complex industrial civilization are unsuited to direct experience, really important life changing decisions need to be made based on knowledge that can only come from priestly/scientific authorities. If there is any authority that confirms our present direct experience, we find it difficult to take radical action based on another authority’s projections to the contrary.

      That’s why nothing serious will be done about climate change, resource depletion, over-population, economic inequality, or any number of other world-wide problems until lots of people are having the direct experience of suffering from their effects. Of course, by then it will be far too late to do anything meaningful even if everyone could agree on the cause of their suffering. That’s why I find it easy to be a doomer.

      • Joe,
        “That’s why nothing serious will be done about climate change, resource depletion, over-population, economic inequality…”

        Perhaps the reason these issues have become intractable is because they have become dilemmas, situations in which difficult choices must be made between equally undesirable alternatives. Problems have solutions. Dilemmas have consequences.

        • Have heard the ‘Dilemmas have consequences’ trope before. And of late it is common to hear folks mention that ‘elections have consequences’. Thus by the Transitive law, dilemmas have elections (or perhaps more accurate – elections have dilemmas)?

          But consequences are not always negative – though in the above usages it is generally assumed the consequences are undesirable. Here’s a thought, borrowing from the same algebra as the transitive law: what say we group our dilemmas together in pairs to multiply them? The product of two negatives is a positive. When the maths are in your favor life is better.

          • Clem,
            Here’s another trope. “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

            I often think that Western mindset has led to the belief that we can solve or fix any problem. We simply need to involve science or technology. In reality there are many situations, problems or challenges that don’t fall to easy solutions, and often the choice of options can be unpalatable. But avoiding making a decision rarely helps such situations resolve themselves in ways we find satisfying. Which sometimes leads to another trope “Better to do something than nothing!”

            All actions have consequences (or reactions if your a speaking as a physicist). Negative or positive are relative terms (if your speaking as a Buddhist). Can we live with the consequences might be a more realistic assessment (if your speaking as a moralist).

          • Careful there, Clem.
            I was starting to believe that I could trust your grasp of logic, but if I substitute some terms and place them into your transitive formula above, I get:

            Dogs have tails.
            Airplanes have tails.
            -Ergo dogs have airplanes.
            -Or airplanes have dogs.

          • Absolutely Eric! Our dog needs an airplane toy. Her ratty little rope toy is too chewed up! And imagine an airplane headed for a convention of the seeing impaired – chock full of service dogs.

            But yes, you’ve outed me. Elections having dilemmas was just too sweet to pass over. There is a special election coming up in a neighboring Congressional district here. The advertising war in progress can’t be contained within the boundaries of the district, so we feel the pain as well. I’m half tempted to get a lawn sign for my favorite of the two… even though I can’t participate in the electoral festivities.

            And to the aphorism offered by Jody – that two wrongs don’t make a right. Tis true – but two Wrights make an airplane. One wonders whether the brothers had a dog. I’m betting they did. 🙂

      • Thanks Joe, I think you’re right about the different scales at which the different claims to knowledge are likely to work. In particular, falsifiable knowledge requires comparatively controlled contexts on a necessarily small scale.

        Your comments on the importance of direct experience also sound depressingly plausible, though, as you might have guessed from our previous discussions, I’m more optimistic about the possibility of large-scale life-changing decisions – although I certainly don’t have my evidence to base that hope on!

  11. I want to chime in on the discussions of priests and experts and claims to truth. The years of my life I worked as a scientist made me an expert on a narrow topic; the chemistry, mineralogy, and hydration behavior of coal combustion by-products. If you’re interested you can find one publication here. Eventually I came realize that most successful scientists are experts on relatively narrow topics, and I decided to move in a new direction. Part of the world’s problems are caused by scientific advancement which has broadened, but scientists themselves have become increasingly narrower in focus and territorial. Global issues such as climate change and economic inequality require really big picture systems thinking.

    In some ways, economic inequality breeds another form of specialization. The super rich seldom can relate to the problems of poverty because their life experience is too different. As wealth accumulates over generations it becomes easier for the wealthy to think it’s natural to have so much wealth. And the disparity in wealth exacerbates social ills because they get overlooked by governments as money increasingly takes control of politics. As with many big problems they are self-reinforcing making them ever more intractable.

    Technological advancement has also developed a predictable pattern. Look back through history and where major new technology was being adopted one can see a tendency in early adopters to overestimate the benefits and underestimate the drawbacks. Most seldom believe the problems will manifest. Computer and communication technology are a good example. The technology has advanced rapidly within the last 40 to 50 years, and it continues to accelerate. Even when the experts in these fields express caution about the direction of future development (AI for example) no one seems able to stop, slow down or change its direction. As with any system that grows large enough self-emergent properties develop.

    Perhaps our global civilization is simply an emergent behavior of the rapidly growth in human population that has taken place over the last century. Perhaps our global civilization is continuing to develop new emergent behaviors that we can’t control and we can’t explain. And as will most unexplained phenomenon we can just as easily call it “magic.”

    Chris wrote “the truth claims [of priests] are different, in the latter case a generalised and more or less unfalsifiable narrative about the nature of life, in the former case a specific and falsifiable solution to a problem.” True or false? Isn’t this the nature of most of life’s big questions?. What is reality of truth and how does one discover it? I have spent most of my life exploring mysticism and the practice of meditation, both of which are abundant in “arcane and putatively transcendent knowledge.” I have found it to be a richly rewarding experience; however, I can also testify that it is a field filled with what appear to be unfalsifiable narratives about the nature of life. I have also found the practice of meditation to be very reproducible. Eastern traditions have raised it to an art not unlike Western traditions have done with science. Meditation is scientific in that it involves disciplined, careful study and reflection that leads one to very specific states of awareness.

    Cognitive science is now exploring Buddhist mindfulness meditation practices and clarifying terminology that may help eliminate “unfalsifiable narrative”. The validity of ones meditative experiences have thus far only been provable to others who have experienced the same mental states. So perhaps East and West will play a role in discerning “truth” that is acceptable to a wider audience.

    As a scientist I spent years becoming educated in my discipline. I spent years in the lab conducting careful study. If experiments (or experiences) can be repeated it lends validity to our experience. We then believe we have uncovered “truth”. Human bias is unavoidable, which is another way of saying knowledge is only partial. So is knowledge the same as truth? Or is life really a series of explorations that bring us greater knowledge lead to experiences of truth? Perhaps in reality belief, knowledge, and truth form a continuum that stretches from priest to expert wherein some of life’s experiences are proven and accepted to be true, while others continue to avoid elucidation. The validity of our search relies to a great degree on the honest effort and reflection we apply.

  12. I’ve been offline over the weekend. Thanks for keeping the conversation going – one of those gratifyingly labour-saving blogging occasions when y’all have thought the issue through more deeply than me, thus saving me time.

    I won’t respond to every point, but here’s a few further thoughts for what they’re worth.

    I don’t want to push the priest-technician metaphor too far, but I think there’s some mileage in it. As I plan to describe in further detail in my next post, religious preceptors divide roughly between what Andrew calls temple priests and schismatic renouncers. Temple priests often have the upper hand and are also often liked well enough – especially when the ‘temple’ is a local, little tradition sort of affair. Many religions are started by schismatic renouncers, and end up serving state power (Jesus against the temple priests cf. later on, when the temple priests serving Jesus also served temporal power). I think it’s hard to underestimate the importance of schism and routinisation in human history.

    One of the unusual things about science is that it’s put schismatic renouncers in the driving seat of knowledge. But tendencies towards routinisation remain powerful, both within disciplinary boundaries (as in the old wisecrack about judging the eminence of a scientist by the length of time s/he holds up progress in their discipline) and in the appropriation of science to wider social ends – both in terms of putting actual technical work in service of the state, and in the general adulation directed towards science as a kind of contemporary secular religion (ie. the ideology of scientism which invests much ecomodernist-type science fandom).

    Where this is leading for me is (1) in answer to Clem, yes a plant breeder who claimed that transgenic crops weren’t good for society would be tiptoeing into a priestly realm, but that particular intervention is much less likely to happen than the contrary, for reasons that are amenable to critical analysis, and (2) in answer to Andrew, I think orthodox economics is the case par excellence where a lack of renunciative/critical thinking smuggles in an implicit normativity or authority – and this has had a deeply corrosive effect on our political economy more widely in rendering ‘mainstream’ political or economic positions seem apparently non-ideological. Karl Marx brilliantly revealed some of the ideological conjuring tricks involved in orthodox economic thought – the irony being that his own thought was then rapidly turned into another priestly edifice. The problem I have with orthodox economic thought is that not only does it slip from the model of reality to the reality of the model, it pretty much enacts the slippage, and it’s this latter move that makes me especially distrustful of interventions like Milanovic’s.

    But as others above pointed out, the priestly metaphor risks creating too bald a distinction between empirical/predictive knowledge and mere opinion, in which any opinion is considered to be as good as any other. I’m not sure I want to delve too deeply into the philosophical issues here, but I’d agree that that’s going too far. I’m reasonably respectful of arguments from experience, insight, the structuring of knowledge, tradition and so on – as long as I remain able to dissent from anybody’s claims to personal authority on the basis of these goods.

    Thanks Philip for your thoughts on Brexit etc. as a degrowth vote. Many of us have our suspicions that it was largely a self-deluding ‘have our cake and eat it’ vote, but since many Brexiteers vociferously repudiate being patronised with that view, I’m happy to present it henceforth as a degrowth vote.

    And thanks everyone else for your thought-provoking comments and links.

    • If you haven’t come across it already, Chris, you might find this piece in The New Yorker to be of interest:

      Can Economists and Humanists Ever be Friends?

      It’s a thoughtful critique of economists’ tendency to “intellectual overextension” and the dangers that follow from reducing “complex, diverse behavior to simple rules.” I suspect that the author, novelist and journalist John Lanchester, would endorse your point about models, reality, and slippage in orthodox economic thought.

    • Hi Chris,

      Could you point me at some links or titles etc behind this; “Karl Marx brilliantly revealed some of the ideological conjuring tricks involved in orthodox economic thought”

      I have very little time for much of conventional belief based Hayekian or similar economics and tend to avoid arguments on these topics much as I tend to avoid other belief based discussions with fervent (febrile?) supporters of topics like climate change denial and doomer and gloomerism. But it’s handy to have rebuttals along the lines you mentioned in your backpocket. Other readers may also be interested.



    • Thanks for the comment back Chris.
      I have a sneaky feeling that a lot people voted leave because they wanted LESS free trade not more. The old industrial regions have seen a big loss of wealth for ordinary people during the free trade era, along side what’s left of the agrarian population in rural regions. There is a logic there but I doubt it will work in reverse i.e. less trade more industrial jobs. I suspect this was only a minor factor, those areas that had the highest leave vote were also hardest hit by austerity.

      Regards Philip

  13. A bit off the present topic… but I just stumbled upon this story from a couple years ago where Nessie Reid spent the better part of a week in downtown Bristol with a pair of Guernsey cows. Noticing that Bristol is not too far down the path from Frome, I have to wonder if you made a visit. And even if you didn’t, what your thoughts on the particular effort might be.

    For anyone curious there is a 17 minute video of the event here:

    • Along the lines of that film (“…As industrialised agriculture is one of the largest contributors to climate change, we have to ask, and urgently: How do we feed the planet without it costing the earth? Can we still eat meat and drink dairy, and live sustainably?”), this blog post from today has some relevance:

      “Peter and his family have learned how to do what might seem impossible: In a place with only 85 frost-free days per year, and seven months of vegetative dormancy, their many domesticated animals (dozens of sheep, plus goats, cows, horses and donkeys) thrive on a strictly home-grown diet consisting of only hay (along with what’s foraged from the pasture). The ‘secret’ is revealed below…”

  14. Thanks for the further comments, and sorry for my inattentive moderating – too many things to juggle right now.

    Clem – apologies, but the joys of off-grid living being what they are, my internet access is currently unequal to the task of watching the video. I’m interested in anyone else’s comments on it.

    Ernie – thanks for the Lanchester article. It’s a nice piece – I also enjoyed his book “Whoops!” on the financial crisis.

    David – some references for critiques of mainstream economics.

    Marx’s critique of orthodox economic theory is scattered throughout his oeuvre – principally in Capital (Vol.1), and also ‘Theories of Surplus Value’. But the basic idea is captured in this excerpt from ‘The Poverty of Philosophy’:

    “Economists express the relations of bourgeois production, the division of labour, credit, money, etc. as fixed immutable, eternal categories…. Economists explain how production takes place in the above mentioned relations, but what they do not explain is how these relations themselves are produced, that is the historical movement that gave them birth . . . these categories are as little eternal as the relations they express. They are historical and transitory products.”

    which I’ve copied from this handy article:

    As the author rightly notes, although Marx was critical of the likes of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, he was more sympathetic to them – with good reason I think – than to the neoclassical orthodoxy that was being worked out by economists during his lifetime and now forms the basis of mainstream contemporary economics.

    Other things I’ve (mostly) read that fill in aspects of a critique of orthodox economics culled from a quick look at my bookshelves:

    David Orrell ‘Economyths’ (a mathematician’s recent take on the dubious mathematical logic of economic theory)

    E.K. Hunt ‘History of Economic Thought’ (a voluminous and swingeing critique of the entire edifice of economic theory)

    Ha-Joon Chang ’23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism’ (a very readable amble through the way the present global economy works and its enormous divergence from the idealisations of economic theory)

    Guy Standing ‘The Corruption of Capitalism’
    Giovanni Arrighi ‘Adam Smith in Beijing’
    Costas Lapavistas ‘Profiting Without Producing’
    Andrew Sayer ‘Why We Can’t Afford The Rich’

    All critiques of contemporary financial capitalism.

    David Graeber ‘Debt: The First 5,000 Years’
    Marshall Sahlins ‘Stone Age Economics’
    Christopher Lasch ‘The True and Only Heaven’

    Anthropological/cultural critiques that put orthodox economic thinking into wider cultural context.

    David Harvey ‘The Enigma of Capital’

    A sophisticated but quite readable contemporary Marxist critique of global capitalism.

    Kate Raworth ‘Doughnut Economics’

    As recently reviewed critically here – but it’s readable and good in many respects.

    Giorgos Kallis ‘Degrowth’
    Herman Daly ‘Steady State Economics’

    Critiques and alternatives emerging from the ecological economics movement.

    And on Hayek, I thought this article was very good:

    There’s also Steve Keen’s ‘Debunking Economics’ that I haven’t read but would be interested in comments from anyone who has.

    For a quick and relatively readable reading programme, I’d read Chang, Orrell, the neoliberalism article, Harvey, Raworth, Kallis and possibly Lanchester’s ‘Whoops!’

    I hope that’s helpful.

    • Chris – if you’d not heard about the milking parlour thing from ’16 in Bristol, and wish to pass on the video, then check out this site:

      She has worked with the Oxford Real Farming Conference and some other issues in the SW of the UK.

      Oh – and thanks for the reading list to David. Have seen you discuss some of those titles here, but there are several others on the list that I’ve not seen yet.

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