Friday, November 27, 2009

Pondering Panacea: "Who Farted?!!"

A perennial puzzle for advocates of work time reduction is the angry rejoinder that one is promoting a "panacea". The knee-jerk indictment flies off the pigeonhole shelf so fast and furious one has to duck to avoid being clobbered by ricocheting chunks of boilerplate. Elinor Ostrom et al. offer an explanation. "In the governance of human-environment interactions, a panacea refers to recommendations that a single governance-system blueprint (e.g., government ownership, privatization, community property) should be applied to all environmental problems...."
Advocates of panaceas make two false assumptions: (i) all problems, whether they are different challenges within a single resource system or across a diverse set of resources, are similar enough to be represented by a small class of formal models; and (ii) the set of preferences, the possible roles of information, and individual perceptions and reactions are assumed to be the same as those in developed Western market economies.
"As proponents of collaborative approaches to resource management," Conley and Moote were, "unnerved by the ways in which these processes have been portrayed as a cure-all." Now, who is most likely to portray collaborative approaches as a cure-all? The culprits are those who insist the loudest that the only solution is privatization... government regulation... or government ownership or spending.

Look again at those two false assumptions of the panacea peddlers: small class of formal models; preferences and reactions typified by market economy. The clue here is that the purveyors of the most stereotyped blueprint solutions have adopted the cry of "panacea!" as their first defence against any threatening non-orthodoxy. The model for that behavior is that of the flatulent school-boy who preemptively demands "who farted?!" as a strategy for asserting his innocence by alleging someone else's guilt. The corresponding conclusion can only be "he who smelled it, dealt it."


Martin Langeland said...

So, the Grover Norquistians offer a panacea when they scream for privatization and tax cuts?
Another example of projection, I guess, when they hurl their boilerplate at you, Walker.

Barkley Rosser said...


What is with this talk of "anrgry rejoinder" and "knee-jerk indictment"? How do you know those using the word "panacea" are "angry." Is this why you deleted my comment below when I used the term?

I note that at one point or another shortening work hours has been suggested here to not only help with unemployment problems during recessions, something many of us agree with, to also involve helping with general unhappiness, income inequality, and, what triggered my now-deleted comment, reducing damage to the environment.
Maybe that is not "solving everything," but it is solving a lot of things.

Let me note at a minimum that there may be contradictions here. So, to the extent that the increase in employment exactly offsets the reduction in working hours, there will be no "reduced activity," which Anonymous claims will lead to the improved environmental outcomes.

Oh, and for the record, I am not at all angry when I have used the term, although apparently its use makes you angry, not is my reaction "knee-jerk," but fairly carefully considered. Indeed, we have debated several of these aspects that have been claimed by you, and I remind that the evidence is far from solid that shorter working hours necessarily lead to either more happiness or increased income equality, much less an improved environment.

Walker said...


What makes you think I'm talking about you? I've just completed a 55,000 word manuscript about 25% of which concerns rejoinders -- angry, combative, derisory, condescending or just plain muddled. I didn't mention you or a single thing you said in the whole draft. I deleted your earlier post not because I thought you were angry but because it contained nothing other than the gratuitous slur. At least in the above post you present reasons for your views.

Here is why MY position on shorter working time is not a panacea. A panacea is a supposed cure or remedy for something. In my view, shorter work time is the end in itself. "Wealth is disposable time -- and nothing more." Peace is not a cure for war; health is not a cure for sickness. Peace and health are the states where there is an absence of war or sickness. I am talking here essentially about the difference between instrumental rationality and ethics or values. Truth telling is another ethical position. If I say that it is better to tell the truth that doesn't mean I think truth telling is a panacea. Nevertheless, in the long run, I would argue that peace, good health and truth telling will result in better employment, happiness, income equality and environment.

When you say "the evidence is far from solid" you are talking about a particular kind of statistical test of an instrumental relationship. I've gone over and over the difficulties of performing that kind of statistical test on this question given the complexity and interaction of the variables. And you know something, Barkley? That is precisely the issue that Elinor Ostrom stresses over and over again in her work. That is why I cited her arguments on panaceas and the simplified variables and "clear models" associated with them.

Leaving aside for a moment the solidity or otherwise of the evidence in favor of shorter working time, are you suggesting, then, that there is solid empirical evidence that economic growth -- beyond a certain moderate standard and regardless of distributional outcomes -- enhances personal and environmental wellbeing?

Brenda Rosser said...

I observe that there seems to be a dichotomy of results from a drop in working hours here in Tasmania.

Unpaid work either increases dramatically or a stupor of boredom encases individuals and computer games and suchlike become essential for 'survival'.

I own a rental property and attempt to make this house available to disadvantaged families. From this experience it has become possible to observe a consistent pattern. Many people have lost a sense of self-sufficiency. Knowledge and skills related to gardening is spare. 'Outdoor' work is regarded as alien. There is a notable lack of a sense of impending planetary and societal challenge on the horizon; life as boringly normal as ever goes on and on.

Brenda Rosser said...

Tom said: "Here is why MY position on shorter working time is not a panacea. A panacea is a supposed cure or remedy for something. In my view, shorter work time is the end in itself. "Wealth is disposable time -- and nothing more." Peace is not a cure for war; health is not a cure for sickness. Peace and health are the states where there is an absence of war or sickness."

It's an interesting viewpoint. "Wealth is disposable time"?? I would have thought that the economic growth paradigm was the best display of societies treating time as 'disposable'.

Brenda Rosser said...

By the way, the inactive individuals that I see are obviously 'less happy'.

I agree that in the long run things 'change'. But a positive change is never guaranteed.

In the long run we're all dead.

Anonymous said...


always open to notions
as u are

how about an hours cap and trade

i could explicate but i think u grasp the gist

i can see say every soul with a starting quota of job hours
per period
so many must be worked directly
the rest can be sold
if you want to exceed the cap
you buy hours

SSI numbers real timed to payrolls could audit track this fairly easily

us mcjob slob type low wagers doubtless would get paid to workless

Walker said...


Another potentially useful policy option down the drain. Here's the secret:

1. it isn't about unemployment, environment, happiness, bubbles, equality or economic theory. It is about increasing the government revenue stream (or revenue potential). Period.

2. Notwithstanding whatever it is neo-classical economists might say about subjective marginal utility and opportunity costs, the Guv operates strictly on the LTV.

3 = 1 + 2. Increasing the revenue stream, as thus defined, REQUIRES that total hours worked increase RELENTLESSLY. Forget about use values, environmental impacts, stability, markets, economic theory, etc., etc., etc. It's about taxes and fuck you and the horse you rode in on if you don't like it.