Monday, February 09, 2009

William Irwin Thompson - On Economics, January 29, 2009

More wisdom from William Irwin Thompson, writing at Wild River Review. In this article he expands his notion of the noetic economy. He notes here the rigidity of worldviews that prevent Republicans form examining or accepting any economic stimulus that is not a tax cut. He suspects that within two years, Obama will be forced to recognize the idea of a noetic economy, "a polycentric system of government, corporations, NGOs, not-for-profits, and individuals."

Thinking Otherwise

By William Irwin Thompson

"We Irish think otherwise." Bishop Berkeley

On Economics, January 29, 2009

Economics is not a set of algorithms for describing the workings of the market. It is a way of thought. It is not a science--dismal or jolly--but a cultural way of thought that itself develops through a process of cultural evolution in which humans try to make sense of the world.

In the words of my colleague in the Lindisfarne Fellowship, the economist Brian Arthur of the Santa Fe Institute, economics itself is "path dependent," in that how it develops--which chreod it selects in the temporal process of evolution--creates a whole tree of branches that affects how it will shape culture in the process of trying to make sense of the world. Western Civilization started behaving capitalistically even before the Medicis and the fifteenth-century Italian Renaissance in Florence. The foundational thinker that Republicans now canonize in their hagiographies of the sanctity of private greed for the common good, Adam Smith, published his major text in 1776, almost three centuries after capitalism had emerged.

Because economics itself is "path-dependent"--just in the same way an industry is path-dependent in its choice of Sony Blu-ray over Toshiba HDTV, or VHS over Betamax--economics cannot easily change its mind. Nor, for that matter, can physics easily change its mind. Max Planck said of his colleagues in physics, when he created quantum mechanics, that scientists never change their minds; they simply die out and are replaced by younger scientists for whom the new paradigm is neither frightening nor threatening. Even a genius like Einstein could not change his mind about quantum mechanics and its vision of a universe in which chance created freedom from rigid lawful systems and thus allowed for the emergence of novelty and complexity. Einstein remained a devoutly religious thinker for whom God was another serious if greater cosmic thinker who did not shoot craps with the universe.

So it is not surprising that the Republicans voted en masse against legislation that had more spending than tax cuts, because how could they change their minds concerning their deeply held beliefs about the values of the free market? This is the only way they know how to think, speak, and make sense of the world. Economics is their religion and it supports their suburban vision of community as well as their personal assets and investments in life. Small wonder when John Boehner calls for tax cuts and less government control--even in the face of a cascade of business closures and employee layoffs. The world could collapse before Republicans would change their minds because such a change itself would be the collapse of the world, as they know it. And so they dream on, praying with Rush Limbaugh that Obama will fail, that Americans will come to their senses and return to them.

Obama is a centrist and not a radical, so he will try to find a piecemeal form of tinkering with the system to re-establish prosperity. But based upon my way of making sense of the world as a cultural historian, I am willing to bet that the process of cultural evolution will become so vast in the dimensions of the cascade we are in, that he will have to change his world view, probably sometime after the first year or two of his presidency. At that time, Obama's intelligence should allow him to see that we cannot fix capitalism with either socialism or communism, because these are both linear systems of the command and control of a complex dynamical system. His "Aha!" moment should allow him to see that like the time of the Italian Renaissance, we are in the middle of a shift--in our case, a shift from a capitalist to a noetic economy. Such shifts are often characterized by catastrophe bifurcations.

Giving money to the executives whose behavior and thinking created our crisis, or cutting taxes to stimulate investment in the hope of lowering unemployment, or trusting in the good sense of businessmen to lead us again into bull markets, will only exacerbate the catastrophe we are in through a system of positive feedback.

A noetic economy is an ecosystem and not a market, and it calls for ecological and not economic thinking. Investment in solar collectors will do no good if you don't have sunshine. Government is the sunshine of a noetic ecosystem; it is not a command and control socialist system in which the state owns or directs everything in a monocrop mentality. It is, however, the overlighting agency that energizes and inspires the re-allocation of resources through new programs in re-educating the unemployed working class through community colleges, transferring the emphasis from freeways to trains, suburbs to small cities, and dividends to wealthy stockholders to dividends to government-monitored citizen mutual funds. The profits should not go to the Thains or Madoffs of the world but to the citizens whose taxes are being used for the investments in education, infrastructure, and public health.

Such a polycentric system of government, corporations, NGOs, not-for-profits, and individuals is not the monocentric system of government and apparatchiks that we know from Russia or Romania. It is not post-war England or contemporary Canada. It is the United States now, or, perhaps, in one to two years, depending on how smart or stupid we are.

Cultural Historian William Irwin Thompson writes regularly for Wild River Review.


goethean said...

What is the practical diffrence between an ecosystem and a market.?

WH said...

My guess is that a market is based on speculation, but an ecosystem is based on the reality at hand, not on some idea of abstract valuation.

But I'm not sure. I think that Thompson is still fleshing out this series of ideas in his postings at Wild River Review.


Paul said...

See the Editorial of the New York Times for Friday, Feb. 13, "After the Stimulus". President Obama's centrist, reasonable pursuit of bipartisanship stands to sink the recovery. "The new president should stop courting Republicans who have shown no interest in compromise or real economic fixes. The budget resoultion is immune from filibustering. If every Republican wants to vote against it, Mr Obama should leave them to expalin that decision to voters who are in danger of losing their jobs or their houses or both."

Robert said...

Hagiographies! Don't you just love the way this guy uses words... And, the dryer point concerning the temporal directions one may or may not be able to discern, in this case w/r to physics, combined, form a notional value of paradigmatic proportion. I wish, for the sake of argument, there were those fluent enough in the language or discourse of such a debate, or two sides of it such as the alternate point of view that nothing at all has changed where I might sit Chomsky, there might be electric sparks flying in contemporaries found in the arena that we find ourselves in at the moment, however much we might be taken for lions in the Roman Coleseum of the day.