Archive for September, 2015

Economics as Informatics

September 10, 2015

The dismal science, aka economics, remains one of the great ponzi schemes of all times.  Let me remind you what a ponzi scheme is: cigar chewing salesman gets you to buy snake oil with the promise of major returns. In order to make good on his promise to you, he finds two other dupes to invest in snake oil and he uses those investments to pay you off, and then goes looking for four other suckers to invest in the first three. The best ponzi scheme is one where the head snake oil vendor lets the investors in on the secret and tells them that the only way they can recoup their investment is by getting others to take on the risk. 

Isn’t that how economics works. Lets see:

  1. IMF/World Bank gets Manmohan Singh to sign off on neoliberal policies
  2. FM/PM recruits chief ministers
  3. Chief ministers recruit businessman
  4. Businessmen sell dreams to the aam aadmi.
  5. Aam aadmi takes the fall for all the above 

The only way economics succeeds is by getting the next generation of dupes to buy into the latest theory of how the world should be run by a shadowy cabal. In other words:

Pointy heads in the service of fat wallets

Be that as it may, it looks like a new group of pointy heads is on the march, as data and software begin to eat into economics. Surprise surprise, Silicon Valley economics is gaining ground over Kennedy School economics. 


Metaphorical Power

September 4, 2015

Freud is never mentioned in my intellectual community; of course, his ideas about repression and unconscious desires have been transformed into universal metaphors, but he’s no longer an influence in the circles I frequent. Part of the problem is that he and his followers thought of themselves as scientists and the science turned out to be less than satisfactory. Even the name, psychoanalysis, tells us that the bearded doctor was marketing an analytical tool. Unfortunately, tools become obsolete rather quickly and we have mostly forgotten Freud’s toolkit. That’s a pity, because I think Freud pioneered a modern approach to meaning making, of understanding one’s world that wasn’t tied (overtly, anyway) to a religious tradition. After all, we are semantic creatures and we need to make sense of the world, not just analyze it. 

To a large extent, the psychoanalytic worldview has been replaced by a cognitive one, which in turn is being replaced by a neuroscientific worldview. The first cognitive revolution started in the fifties with Chomsky using ideas from formal grammar to model natural language syntax. From that revolution came the idea that:

  1. The mind is a computer
  2. The mind is isolated

The first cognitive revolution remains the dominant model of the mind; for example, Steven Pinker, in his “How the Mind Works” declares that the mind is a computer. Increasingly we see scientists replace mind by brain, so that:

  1. The brain is a computer
  2. The brain is isolated

That these assumptions are flawed is an understatement; I think they are not even wrong. The second cognitive revolution, which is still struggling to get underway, questions both assumptions at many levels, but it still struggles with a tacit focus on individual, isolated minds rather than fully fleshed people.  This post begins an exploration of cognitive synthesis, of how we can make meaning of the human world within a cognitive framework. 

A couple of decades ago, George Lakoff and his collaborators initiated a major shift in linguistics when they started paying attention to non-literal uses of language such as metaphors. Out of that was born conceptual metaphor theory, which claims that thinking is mostly metaphorical, i.e., the direct opposite of the logical, computational mind of the first cognitive revolution. In the Lakoffian world, we understand bravery as a form of lion-heartedness. Fair enough, but I never understood why one chooses to call someone lion-hearted instead of calling them bear-hearted. What prompts the actual use of the metaphor and it’s success in conveying meaning? Where does it’s power come from? 

One obvious answer: metaphorical power reflects real power

I have been thinking about the infiltration of capitalism in all human affairs. Once upon a time, we were artists. Now, there’s a creative class. Activists became social entrepreneurs. These are metaphorical shifts that reflect the power of capital to shape our language and the way we understand the world. At some point, metaphor turns into fact, as social change turns into and we start testing the effectiveness of social policies using double blind randomized field trials. 

I am getting ahead of myself; let me get back to metaphors. Capital when used as  a suffix is a metaphor generator, with social capital and natural capital being two widespread use cases. Take a look at the graph below, from a google Ngram search for “natural capital” and “social capital”:


The two terms have almost no provenance until about 1989 or so, when they take off rapidly. Not surprising at all, considering that the Berlin wall has come down, the Soviet Union is collapsing and as Fukuyama famously said, “we are at the end of history.” That might well be true, but the end of history looks awfully like the beginning of a new lexicon. One graph does not a theory make, but it does point towards an interesting line of research. I bet you anything that hard power (money) influences soft power (metaphor) that in turn get’s institutionalized (via marketing) into hard power.