Friday, April 3, 2009

The Counter-Narrative

by the Sandwichman

The problem with 'critique', as Emery Roe pointed out, is that in practice critique serves to intensify uncertainty because it doesn't offer a clear alternative. Thus critique may inadvertently increase pressure to hold onto familiar scenarios, no matter how discredited they may be. A counter-narrative conceives of a rival hypothesis and policy options.

The case I have been essaying in a pair of recent posts -- Not Working is Another Subject and Is Economic Man Parsimonious? -- is that the working time literature constitutes a counter-narrative to the standard 'story' that dominates economics. That standard story is not an analysis per se, a methodology or even a set of assumptions. It is more like a disposition -- an arrangement of scenic, character and action elements that renders the subsequent argument familiar and believable. The framing narrative determines whether a specific argument will seem reasonable or not. Thus it functions as effectively to exclude non-conforming arguments as to certify respectable ones.

The construct of Economic Man has been defended on grounds of 'simplicity' (or parsimony), even though it is only superficially simple. It has been critiqued to death... but to little avail. HESCI, or Persona parsimoniae, is at least as parsimonious as Economic Man.

Economic Man has a complete set of preferences and chooses rationally the most efficient means to maximize utility. Persona parsimoniae has two different kinds of preferences -- organic needs and aspirations for social distinction. The means for satisfying those desires are limited absolutely, not just transiently, by physical laws and/or social institutions. And utility is mostly a function of habit [and emulation] rather than calculation.

There you have it. The counter-narrative. Did the earth move for you? Or are you asking, "is that all there is?" Just in case it's the latter, I continue...

The characteristics I have just now ascribed to Persona parsimoniae are neither deductive nor arbitrary. They were transmitted culturally in a discourse tradition. That is to say they were told and retold from generation to generation. That doesn't make them 'true' any more than the telling and retelling of the features of Economic Man validates the truth of the latter's features. It does, however, suggest that they are both comprehensible and believable, at least to some audiences.

There are important corollaries to the main features of Persona p. that are specific to the issue of working time. For example, better rested workers are able to be more productive and also both wiser and more expansive in their consumption behaviors. That observation might suggest that Economic Man is more like a sub-species of Persona parsimoniae whose hours of labor have already optimized. Or to put it more panoramically, Economic Man is that lucky duck for whom the basic economic problem of subsistence is "no problem".

The narrative paths taken by Economic Man and Persona parsimoniae, respectively, differ in interesting ways. Each can be represented by a circular flow diagram relating the elements of accumulation/investment, production, income/consumption and leisure/disposable time. The standard story assigns priority to accumulation and investment, which enhances productivity leading to increased incomes and the potential choice of leisure. The counter-narrative posits leisure as the foundation for increased income and consumption, which thus drives productivity gains and, consequently, accumulation and investment.

Each path incorporates its own version of a digression from the circuit. In the standard story, leisure represents a sort of exit from the economic circuit. In the counter-narrative, accumulation beyond some natural limit leads to superfluity: waste, a crisis of over-production or the destruction of value through war or the proliferation of luxury consumption for parasitic functionaries and the idle rich.


Robert D Feinman said...

Clever posting, but I take issue with your new framing.

The way I see it is that we have had a succession of natural philosophers who all take as their starting point a single characteristic of human nature and build from there.

Man is selfish or self-centered or altruistic, rational or irrational, capable of managing his own affairs or needing to be led by a wise ruler, capable of being reformed or not, etc.

Each premise leads to a school of thought: Plato, Rousseau, Locke, Burke, Marx, Rand, Freud, etc.

The fallacy in all of these is that people are not all of anything, they are a bit of all of them. A perfect, if extreme, example can be seen with some of those who managed the Nazi concentration camps who were unbelievable brutal to their captives while being kind and generous to their friends and families.

The one premise which is demonstrably wrong, but always leads to the worst abuses of a Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot or the like, is that one can change human nature and breed a new type of Man. Call it the Lysenko school of social policy.

The problem these days is that many of these assumptions are not even recognized as such by the holders of various dogmas. Those, for example, who think that people are weak and need to be led always consider themselves as those best suited to do the leading.

This leads to monsters like Cheney and Rumsfeld who lack any sort of introspection and cannot be reasoned with.

In the economic sphere there are the useful idiots who believe the rational economic man framing and the super wealthy who pay for the think tanks and propaganda to further this ideology while secretly working behind the scenes for their own selfish purposes which completely contradict the philosophy they claim to espouse.

The bastions of capitalism are the ones asking for special tax concessions, subsidies and buying politicians, all the while promoting the virtues of the "free market".

So when you hear someone say that humans are guided by a single characteristic, follow the money.

media said...

i'm not convinced that the circular diagrams connecting income and leisure really are different, but maybe i'm confused. the flows maybe go both ways. the attempt to define differents kinds of capital may simply be another way to force people to 'follow the money' or else it could be a useful unification at times. (rather than capital, one could also just call it nature or human nature, to see if the semantics change the syntax.)

Sandwichman said...


I think you overlooked something I stated in my post: "...doesn't make them 'true' any more than the telling and retelling of the features of Economic Man validates the truth of the latter's features..."

The purpose of a counter-narrative is to enable alternatives, not to impose a new hegemony. The position you appear to be taking, that any and all premises are inherently exclusive and absolutist, takes us in the direction of... what? Absolute zero? To reject ALL premises regarding 'human nature' is, in practice, actually to reject only the alternatives and to leave intact the dominant premise. Which is what I was saying (after Roe) about the problem with 'critique' -- it only increases uncertainty.

Robert D Feinman said...

I think you are reading too deeply into my comment.

What I object to is the all-encompassing type of philosophical framework. These have been the most influential over the past several centuries. If you can get your idee fixe into a sound bite you can become a philosopher of note.

It is the oversimplification that I object to, not just about human nature, but social mechanisms in general. Look at all the mischief done by the Laffer curve or "trickle-down" theory.

This also spills over into economic modeling where simplifying assumptions may be understood by those doing the original work, but get conveniently ignored when the conclusions support some particular political objective.

My favorite has to do with something as basic as supply and demand. It works, except one has to introduce an infinitely malleable variable of elasticity. A variable fudge factor means that the underlying equation is essentially useless for making practical policy decisions. The best one can do is try something and assume that if you try it again later the results will be similar.

Look at the history of tobacco tax vs rate of consumption as an example.

Sandwichman said...


I agree entirely with your concern about oversimplification. That's part of my objection to Economic Man. But there is more than oversimplification involved. There is also a spurious claim to simplicity, a concealment of not-so-simple assumptions behind the facade of simplification.

As I've said, "only a simplification can oppose a simplification." However, the simplification I propose reveals, rather than conceals, layers of complexity. The three characteristics I've outlined are distilled from a table of sixty features, not all of them unique and not all of them harmonious with the three I've selected.

Think of the features I've outlined -- two distinct kinds of wants, ultimate physical and social limits to production and 'pursuit of happiness' by way of habit -- as a musical chord. That chord doesn't exhaust the scale. What I've done so far is introduce a theme. What I intend to do is to develop variations on that theme.

The point of the exercise, though, is to bring to the surface a diverse body of economic thought, which has been actively suppressed by precisely the sort of oversimplification you object to, Robert. Economic textbooks have flatly denied the very existence of a coherent case for shorter working time and to take its place have concocted a straw man "fallacy" that has no resemblance to the actual arguments advanced by advocates of work time reduction.

Why such a suppression? Because the arguments therein expose the soft underbelly of what you have so aptly named "the Lysenko school of social policy."

Sandwichman said...


I'll post the flow diagrams as soon as I can draw 'em. Your observation that the flows perhaps go both ways suggests a useful way to look at and even integrate the two diagrams into a single one.

One could say that sometimes the flow goes from disposable time to higher income to improved productivity to accumulation and sometimes it goes from investment to productivity to consumption and back to accumulation and investment with a possible sequestering of some portion of consumption as leisure.