Monday, January 7, 2019

Teddy Bears' Picnic

Donald Winnicott develops the concept of transitional objects in a fairly short, remarkably lucid, engaging and, in my view, extremely important paper titled "Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena." There is no reason not to read it and thus there is no reason for me to go into a pedantic rehash of Winnicott's argument.

In a nutshell, Winnicott is dealing specifically with the objects -- such as a soft toy or a piece of blanket -- that infants adopt as a substitute for the illusion that the maternal care they receive is something they have created themselves. Although, in health, the original object will be abandoned as the child matures, the potential space occupied by the transitional object is perpetually refilled in the manipulation of toys in imaginative play and eventually in the cultural creativity of adults. A little reflection will reveal that we live surrounded by our transitional objects -- things that we have significant relationships with.

Illusion -- and disillusionment -- plays a central role in Winnicott's analysis. For Winnicott, illusion isn't mere error but is the cornerstone of creative engagement with the external world. The dark side of illusion, though, is that illusions can also serve as defense mechanisms to repress anxieties rather than face the threats that generate those anxieties. Illusions are thus both paradoxical and ambiguous.

"The Growth Illusion: How Economic Growth Enriched the Few, Impoverished the Many and Endangered the Planet" is the title of a 1992  book by Richard Douthwaite. The "illusion" in the title doesn't allude to Winnicott's analysis of the transitional object but maybe it should.

One of the distinguishing features of economic growth is that it never means what critics think it means. Critics of growth invariably misunderstand growth. This is inevitable because economic growth always means something other than what it has been defined to mean. Critics of economic growth "mistake an output variable for an instrument," they don't realize that "economic measurements incorporate quality... and not just quantity" etc., etc.

Actually the misconception of economic growth by its critics is more fundamental than that. Critics do not understand that economic growth always means something else. It always refers to something that is undefined and ultimately undefinable. Economic growth is an illusion in the Winnicottian sense. More concretely, it is an illusion that substitutes for an illusion that substitutes for an illusion (and so on ad infinitum). It's teddy bears all the way down!

Admittedly this game can be played both ways. "Degrowth doesn't mean what you think it means," said every advocate of degrowth ever. But who is listening? The "growth cult" -- hat tip to Maurice Stans, Director of the Bureau of the Budget, 1959 -- has the upper hand.

In a fascinating article, Manuel Rivera investigated the extent to which critiques of, and alternatives to growth fail to translate from academic and popular topicality to parliamentary political discourse.
Our first finding is as trivial as it is striking. While the committee of enquiry [on ‘Growth, Well-being, and Quality of Life’], despite its enormous tensions and ultimate inability to produce substantial consensus, had agreed on economic growth never being an end itself, but only a means toward other political ends, the analyzed documents state the opposite: Out of 1095 phrases that establish a growth related purpose or hierarchical purpose-agency ratio, 92% do so by evoking growth as an end in itself.
In other words, pay no attention what we say 92% of the time, "it's only a means to an end and not an end in itself." The historical perspective that Rivera brings to the analysis, especially from Matthias Schmelzer's historical analysis of the growth paradigm, suggests an unspoken and unmentionable 'political unconscious' to that dogma of growth as an end in itself. At the historical moment when the growth paradigm became hegemonic, economic growth was promoted particularly as a bulwark against political pressure for income redistribution:
What was banished was of course not redistribution per se (which continued to operate) but the unresisted debate about redistribution, which would lead to social unrest. The formula was (and is): The more economic growth is possible, the less redistribution is needed.
It is tempting to conclude, as Rivera does, that a way to re-activate a democratic discourse about growth, its discontents and its alternatives, would be to focus on redistribution. I'm not sure it is that simple. The debate about redistribution was displaced half a century ago by the "transitional object" of growth. The world we inhabit now is quite different politically, socially and environmentally. I would nominate reparation, rather than redistribution, as what the world needs now.

No, I don't know exactly what "reparation" means in the context of global climate change. But at least I know what it doesn't mean, which is more than conventional economists can say about their desiccated concept of economic growth.

22 comments:

Clipping Path Service said...

I really like and appreciate your post.Thanks Again. Keep writing.

Sandwichman said...

Gosh, thanks, "Clipping Path Service," I bet you say that to all the blogs...

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

Well, as one who argued on the other thread about growth vs degrowth and climate that it is indeed important how it gets measured, let me note that indeed there are more serious alternatives to variations on the usual money derived measures that underly such standard measures as GDP and income.

One of these is happiness or life satisfaction. There are now many surveys and studies on this for nearly all nations, with lots od detail and time trends and so on. These can be and have been criticized, with the most reliable numbers coming from looking at individual people over time and probably the least reliable those involving cross-national comparisons where all sorts of cultural factors can seriously complicate matters, although much of the public commentary on these involes exactly such comparisons. Looking at a nation as a whole over time is in between those two.

Another is to look at basic data on such measurable things as life expectancy, infant mortality, educational levels, and so forth, also taking into account distributions of these variables, not just averages or medians.

Unsurprisingly, both of these tend to be correlated with real per capita income and GDP, especially median levels, but this correlation is far from perfect, with some low income places doing well on both of these alternatives while having low incomes, such as Kerala in India and Costa Rica, with the latter currently competing with Denmark for being reportedly happiest nation in the world.

Sandwichman said...

I was thinking more along the lines of atonement than of measurement.

Barkley Rosser said...

Well, teddy bears were named for Teddy Roosevelt...

Peter Dorman said...

Since I'm directly critiqued in this post, I suppose I ought to reply.

1. Economic growth as measured by GDP is not an illusion. Our army of data collectors does its job reasonably well. GDP growth is often interpreted in an illusionary way.

2. For me, economics has nothing whatsoever to say about value in the sense of "what is good and worth striving for". My training as an economist gave me no insight into this, and I don't think it was abnormally defective in that respect. People who study health become more knowledgeable in the health aspect of value; people who study psychology learn about the psychological aspect of value; the study of education can illuminate that aspect; and nutrition and literature and philosophy and on and on. GDP is not a measure of value in any of those senses, just the total amount of production traded for money. Period.

3. There is a general correlation between GDP and *some* of the substantive types of value, like nutrition and health. This is because higher GDP usually means having more resources (being able to produce more), and those resources are often put to valuable use. But not always, and they are also put to destructive use.

4. We desperately need to change what and how we produce. Climate change is the most urgent signal for this, but there are many others.

5. I absolutely agree that reversing the consequences of centuries of colonial and other forms of extreme exploitation should be high on the agenda. That's central to what I advocate regarding climate policy, for instance. I'm not comfortable with the word reparations due to its legal baggage, but the gross injustices of the past are still with us, and we should take actions that offset them.

6. What I don't like about discourse analysis is that it displaces critique. Rather than saying, you say X, but here is why X is wrong/mistaken/misinterpreted, the discourse critic says you say X, but the concepts you work with and some aspects of the ideas you espouse originated with people in the past and are shared by some people in the present who had/have motives and prejudices that we should now all deem unacceptable. Well, maybe, but if there's an argument there, there should be a way to translate it into a specific claim that X is wrong/mistaken/misinterpreted. Otherwise it is a retreat disguised as an attack: I have no way to directly rebut what you're saying, but I have a much more powerful approach, to link you to other things that other people have said that I can rebut. It's a retreat to the extent it reflects the inability of the critic to actually critique X. This bothers me because I think a lot of the X's one finds in economics is vulnerable to direct critique.

So: am I attached to the teddy bear of economic growth? Am I captured by a discourse that's intrinsically unable to comprehend itself and its time-, place-, culture-, and class-boundedness? Fine, but you haven't made that argument until you can use it to take a specific claim I'm making and show why it's wrong or incoherent.

Peter Dorman said...

Oops, make that are vulnerable in the next to last paragraph. I wouldn't bother about it except that I went to the effort to italicize it.

Sandwichman said...

Peter,

Teddy bears are real, too. The illusion is precisely in the qualities attributed to the object, for example to year-to-year comparisons of GDP. "Growth" is an analogy, as Simon Kuznets explained. A bad one. Aside from illusory interpretations, can you imagine anyone being interested in a number that aggregates the market value added of goods and services exchanged during a year or quarter? Why would they be?

I don't agree that discourse analysis "displaces" critique. Discourse analysis assembles evidence. It does the same thing as the GDP does. Is your objection that the interpretation of that evidence is illusory? In that case, I would have to agree. I do not use illusion as a pejorative, nor did Winnicott. I use it to indicate its transitional status between fantasy and the real, external world. I am arguing that illusion can be creative but it can also be an obstacle to creativity.

It seems to me that all genuine critique is autobiographical. I don't want to exempt my analysis from the consequences of my analysis. There is all too much disavowal going on and that disavowal is intimately connected with fetishism, as Freud argued. Rivera's "trivial" finding that 92% of parliamentary statements AFFIRMED precisely that which the inquiry participants DISAVOWED is, in my estimation about as direct a critique as one can make. The evidence literally "speaks for itself"!

Yes, the injustices of the past are still with us. If we continue on our present course they will pale beside the injustices that will occur in the future as the consequence of actions or inactions we take now. In this case, I think we can DIScount our chickens before they don't hatch. I am using the term reparation in its psychoanalytic context. It has to do with taking responsibility and attempting to mend that which has been damaged. I am happy to use the terms mending, mourning and taking responsibility.

Peter Dorman said...

Discourse analysis is fine as long as it is an aid to substantive critique and not a substitute for it. For instance, to put the shoe on another foot, suppose a psychoanalyst makes a specific claim about an individual or group, that they are enacting a pattern held over from childhood and not superseded in the course of maturation. I could evaluate that claim concretely, for instance by gathering evidence about the prevalence of that pattern, or about observable indicators that would correlate with the presence or absence of the pattern that are or are not present in the case under consideration. That's what I mean by a concrete critique. But, Freud being Freud, I could also do a discourse analysis, going into the origins and evolution of psychoanalytic concepts, speculations on the motivations for adopting them or the nature of the experience of seeing the world through them. My argument is that sort of analysis, as a response to the specific claim by the psychoanalyst, is incomplete unless it supports a concrete critique of that particular claim. Which of course it might, but only if that further step is taken.

Discourse critique is sort of like dowsing. If it leads you to water, great, but you still have to dig at the spot your stick is pointing to.

Sandwichman said...

Dig we must!

I view psychoanalytic theory as inherently speculative. In Winnicott's case, the speculation is derived from observations of 60,000 cases over the course of a career. Obviously many of those observations had to have been superficial and others in depth. But, again, the comparison to statistical analysis -- a lot of the observations are self-reports on questions that may be subject to interpretation.

"Discourse critique is sort of like dowsing." Fine, political economy is sort of like theodicy.

Actually, not "sort of like" but a secularization of a theological paradigm that was originally profane. What theology did for oeconomica was to universalize it. So the progression was from the household to God's household to "The Economy." I could cite Giorgio Agamben and Joseph Vogl on this if you find the assertion less than persuasive.

In fairness, I think you could say that virtually any discourse, any critique, any discipline is "sort of like dowsing." It's also sort of NOT like dowsing.

Peter Dorman said...

OK, let me be very blunt. I've made a number of claims on EconoSpeak about economic growth and degrowth. I might be right or wrong or some combination of the two. If you can identify a particular claim and provide evidence or reasoning that contradicts it or limits its applicability, please do.

I made things easy by numbering my claims in a previous comment. You could also excerpt a quote from anything I've posted here or elsewhere and explain why I am factually or logically in error. I truly have an open mind about such things, since I've been wrong in the past and have had to change my mind. I'm not impressed by disagreement, much less disparagement, unaccompanied by evidence and/or reasoning.

If you choose not to do this, I will take it as equivalent to "I don't actually have an argument."

Sandwichman said...

Peter,

I will address specifically the numbered claims.

"First, it ought to be clear that economic measurements incorporate quality—value—and not just quantity."

There are two assertions here. The first is that increased value doesn't require increased throughput. The second is that historically growth in qualitative value has risen relative to quantitative.

The argument against the first assertion is that the increases in qualitative value are predicated on increasing surpluses in agriculture and extraction. That is to say that although the monetary value may well be registered at the "top of the food chain," so to speak, physical quantities continue to increase at the bottom. Historically, the increase in resource productivity has always been accompanied by an increase, not a decrease, of resource extraction and consumption. If what you are saying is that "in the future things will be different" it is up to you to explain why.

The claim about a growing proportion of qualitative value relative to quantitative also needs to be qualified by attention to exactly what the bulk of those qualitative values have been. Not yoga instruction and massage therapy but FINANCIAL SERVICES. In the Manic Style post, I cite Duncan Foley's mention of Slavoj Žižek's argument that the intellectual property regime and financialization "obscure the origin of the resulting enormous incomes... and mystify the factors behind the increasing inequality in the distribution of these revenue." From the perspective of that analysis, the growing qualitative proportion of exchange value has a corollary: increasing income inequality. This is not to say that "growing quality = growing inequality" is written in stone. It is to say that if you are going to use historical trends as a beacon, you'd better be prepared to look at the shadow as well as the light.

"Second, the arithmetic of solving the carbon problem by “degrowthing” our economy doesn’t work."

The error here is that you assume that reducing GDP is proposed as a solution -- THE solution -- by "degrowthers." This is simply false. The actual proposals are no different from things you would support, such as investing in transition to renewable energy, changing food consumption habits etc. Where the "degrowth" comes in is to argue that these changes can't or won't happen as long as enlarging GDP remains a priority. You may agree or disagree with that last analysis but it is simply false to claim that degrowthers say that simply lowering GDP will solve environmental problems.

"Third, how are we supposed to engineer degrowth?"

That is not so much an argument as a question that conceals an implicit argument. The implicit argument is that there are no policy options consistent with de-growing, aside from austerity. In "Managing Without Growth," Peter Victor proposed reduction of working time as a way of stabilizing employment and reducing poverty in a condition where the economy was not growing. The same argument (with input from PV) was elaborated in "Prosperity Without Growth," the report of the U.K.'s Sustainable Development Commission. Juliet Schor and co-authors have also elaborated this position, as have I. Your "criticism" of this policy instrument would appear to be "this is so impractical I won't even mention it."

Over to you, Peter.

Sandwichman said...

I should point out that my purpose in posting was to illuminate a predicament and not particularly to criticize Peter Dorman's qualms about degrowth. I have OTHER qualms about degrowth, namely that it continues to foster the illusion of some kind of technocratic solution in the face of overwhelming evidence that the "responsible authorities" have not and WILL NOT accept responsibility.

Peter Dorman said...

This is a test to see if I should repost my previous comment. (It will also boost EconoSpeak's metrics, yes?)

Peter Dorman said...

Aha! I am exceed the Royal Blog Post Character Limit. I will divide my response in two.

Here goes. S-man in italics.

I will address specifically the numbered claims.

"First, it ought to be clear that economic measurements incorporate quality—value—and not just quantity."

There are two assertions here. The first is that increased value doesn't require increased throughput.


No, I’m not asserting that at all. I made no assertion about the relationship between quality and throughput. Obviously some increases in quality require more throughput and some don’t. It’s possible for throughput to go up while quality goes down or for both to go in the same direction. A great deal depends on how we as a society regulate natural resources. I do like to point to examples of throughput-decreasing quality improvement to suggest what is possible if we redirect economic growth.

The second is that historically growth in qualitative value has risen relative to quantitative.

I’ve never asserted that either.

The argument against the first assertion is that the increases in qualitative value are predicated on increasing surpluses in agriculture and extraction. That is to say that although the monetary value may well be registered at the "top of the food chain," so to speak, physical quantities continue to increase at the bottom. Historically, the increase in resource productivity has always been accompanied by an increase, not a decrease, of resource extraction and consumption. If what you are saying is that "in the future things will be different" it is up to you to explain why.

Increasing surplus of what over what? Do you want to say, more agricultural, mining and related extractive output?

What do you mean by resource productivity? What’s in the numerator, and what’s in the denominator? Whether you’re right or wrong depends on this. Of course, I have never made any claim about the necessary relationship between quality improvement and natural resource use. I see myself as arguing against people who think there are necessary relationships between economic and ecological variables.

Peter Dorman said...

And I exceed the limits again, so I will chop the second part of my response in two pieces.

The claim about a growing proportion of qualitative value relative to quantitative also needs to be qualified by attention to exactly what the bulk of those qualitative values have been. Not yoga instruction and massage therapy but FINANCIAL SERVICES. In the Manic Style post, I cite Duncan Foley's mention of Slavoj Žižek's argument that the intellectual property regime and financialization "obscure the origin of the resulting enormous incomes... and mystify the factors behind the increasing inequality in the distribution of these revenue." From the perspective of that analysis, the growing qualitative proportion of exchange value has a corollary: increasing income inequality. This is not to say that "growing quality = growing inequality" is written in stone. It is to say that if you are going to use historical trends as a beacon, you'd better be prepared to look at the shadow as well as the light.

Again, you’re arguing against I claim I didn’t make.

"Second, the arithmetic of solving the carbon problem by “degrowthing” our economy doesn’t work."

The error here is that you assume that reducing GDP is proposed as a solution -- THE solution -- by "degrowthers." This is simply false. The actual proposals are no different from things you would support, such as investing in transition to renewable energy, changing food consumption habits etc. Where the "degrowth" comes in is to argue that these changes can't or won't happen as long as enlarging GDP remains a priority. You may agree or disagree with that last analysis but it is simply false to claim that degrowthers say that simply lowering GDP will solve environmental problems.


Well, if “degrowth” means only “permit other goals to take precedence over GDP growth”, we agree completely. But why then call it degrowth? Saying ecological survival takes precedence over GDP growth doesn’t mean GDP growth is necessarily “bad”, just that we have to put other stuff ahead of it. Or more precisely, I think GDP growth is one of many good things, but I recognize there are tradeoffs in this world, and it’s necessary to sacrifice GDP objectives to achieve climate objectives—but not more than necessary. Do you consider this to be a degrowth position?

If this isn’t clear, let’s try an analogy. Suppose you ask me to give you a ride to the airport so you can catch a 7am flight. (We don’t have mass transit for this where I live, which is a very big problem.) I love to sleep, but you’re my friend, and I value helping you above getting a full night’s sleep every night. So I agree to set my alarm clock at 4am. Does this make me a de-sleeper? Does it express any philosophy about sleep other than sometimes you need to skip some of it to help a friend? Does it mean I won’t miss those extra 2-3 hours? What is this all about?

Peter Dorman said...

Part the third.

"Third, how are we supposed to engineer degrowth?"

That is not so much an argument as a question that conceals an implicit argument. The implicit argument is that there are no policy options consistent with de-growing, aside from austerity. In "Managing Without Growth," Peter Victor proposed reduction of working time as a way of stabilizing employment and reducing poverty in a condition where the economy was not growing. The same argument (with input from PV) was elaborated in "Prosperity Without Growth," the report of the U.K.'s Sustainable Development Commission. Juliet Schor and co-authors have also elaborated this position, as have I. Your "criticism" of this policy instrument would appear to be "this is so impractical I won't even mention it."


I’m actually on record, on this blog and elsewhere, in support of reducing working time. There will be a section of my climate book on this when it finally comes out. I’d be for less work even if there were no ecological benefit to it. Unfortunately, this would buy us only a year or two toward meeting a meaningful carbon budget. Our current production system is far too unsustainable to be viable even if scaled down by 10-20%.

Also, note that one can speak of GDP growth per hour worked rather than per capita; it’s a better metric, actually. For any amount of working time I hope we’ll continue to be more productive—providing we don’t blow other, more urgent goals like preventing a climate apocalypse.

Over to you, Peter.

Over and out.

Sandwichman said...

I have never made any claim about the necessary relationship between quality improvement and natural resource use.

Did I say "necessary"? As I read your critique, you seemed to be saying that there CAN be value added from quality improvements while resource use declines and it is this POSSIBILITY that makes environmentally sound GDP growth possible. If that is not what you are claiming, then I can't see how your first point registers as a critique of degrowth.

I’ve never asserted that either.

What I interpreted as a historical claim is this: "In fact, the standard assumption of economists and historians is that growth in value comes to dominate growth in “stuff” as economies develop over time." Again, if that is not what you are claiming, I can't see how it registers as an objection to degrowth.

Again, you’re arguing against I claim I didn’t make.

Whether you made the claim or not, the "economists and historians" you cite as assuming that "growth in value comes to dominate growth is 'stuff'" do not grapple with the growing inequality that has accompanied that growth in quality, as do Foley and Žižek.

But why then call it degrowth?

I agree with you that degrowth is a terrible name for it. There is a historical, textual rationale that posits degrowth as a "missile word" for some authors. A lot of us who are writing in a similar vein don't call it degrowth except when responding to overt or latent defenders of the growth imperative.

I’m actually on record, on this blog and elsewhere, in support of reducing working time.

Then we agree. One of the standard arguments AGAINST reducing working time has been that it would undermine economic growth. It is a stupid argument because the effect of a reduction of working time on output is indeterminate. A modest reduction of working time would most likely increase total output AND increase output relative to resource inputs. A large reduction of hours would likely decrease total output, increase output relative to resource use and increase hourly productivity. A colossal reduction of working time could decrease output and increase resource use relative to that output, etc.

It seems to me that our disagreements are primarily about what is the best way to talk about these issues rather than what substantively should be done. I tend to refrain from attacking "green new deal" proposals except when those proposals are predicated on a dismissal of skepticism about growth. As I mentioned in a previous comment, I have reservations about the technocratic illusions inherent even in the "degrowth" discourse. But it seems to me that those reservations pale alongside fossil-fueled climate denialism or centrist band-aide-ism.

Peter Dorman said...

OK, let's cut to the chase. We both agree we face demands that need to be met, even if they impinge on economic growth, above all (but not exclusively) climate change. We agree that US working hours are crazy in light of our productivity and should be brought down quickly to the level of, say, Germany, and then down some more. And that's pretty much all there is to say about GDP, other than it never was nor can be a measure of how well off people are. (It's an imperfect measure of how many resources they can devote to making themselves better off or some other, unhappy purpose dictated by our political economic order.)

We therefore part company with dogmatists who say things like "you can't have endless economic growth on a finite planet and that means economic growth is evil right now" or "there is a necessary, unchangeable relationship between economic growth and environmental impact, such that we have to keep reducing GDP until we arrive at sustainability." Obviously such people besmirch the good name of degrowth, which is just another name for saying we need strict controls on environmental destruction even if they compete with growth, and we need to strike a new balance between work effort and consumption. Good, I'm on Team S-man and you're on Team Dorman. Let's lick those nutsos.

Still, I'm curious about your reaction to my waking up at 4am analogy.

Sandwichman said...

"Still, I'm curious about your reaction to my waking up at 4am analogy."

I remember from childhood a story about children who were told they would have to wake up an hour earlier every day when school started. They were used to sleeping until 9 am. The first morning, they woke up at 8 am, got dressed had breakfast and went off to school. The second morning they woke up at 7 am, got dressed, ate breakfast, played for an hour and then went off to school. The third morning, they woke up as 6 am, had a bath, got dressed, ate breakfast played for an hour and went of to school. The fourth day, they woke up at 5 am, read a story, had a bath, got dressed, ate breakfast, played and then went off to school. The fifth day, they got up at 4 am, got dressed, ate breakfast and drove out to the airport to catch a 7 am flight.

Peter Dorman said...

That's what I thought. Speculation confirmed.

Sandwichman said...

;-)