Thursday, December 27, 2012

Money Wisdom #60

"EVERYONE, except an economist, knows what 'money' means, and even an economist can describe it in the course of a chapter or so, but it is impossible to define..."

A Hingston Quiggin A Survey of Primitive Money 1963 p.1

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Money Wisdom #59

"Money originated as a symbol of man's soul."

William H Desmonde Magic. Myth and Money (1962) p.25

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Rolling Jubilee

The latest plan from the folks is

In simple terms, the plan is to raise money through donation, use it to buy up distressed debt, and then cancel that debt. There's a Telegraph piece on it here. The launch party is on 15th November (this coming Thursday) so you'll hear plenty about it, if you've not already.

Obviously, this sort of thing fascinates me.

When I read about the plan for the Rolling Jubilee though, something immediately popped into my head. My searches haven't exactly been exhaustive, but so far I've not found anyone else raising this question. And it seems like an obvious one:
If demand for distressed debt rises, against a relatively fixed supply, so does price. Paying more for debt means that competing firms will have to work harder to realise the same value from any distressed debt package. In this case "work harder" means causing more distress to debtors. Isn't this project self-defeating?
Now, of course if Rolling Jubilee were to buy up all the distressed debt, then everything will be fine. Debtors will be forgiven. Creditors will have got their asking price. Those donating to the campaign will be able to feel they'd achieved their goal. But that's not really the case, is it? Rolling Jubilee aren't seriously thinking they can buy up all the distressed debt are they? (There are obvious price implication to this, too)

The other end of the scale is that Rolling Jubilee buy up such a small amount of debt that it has virtually no impact on price. But that doesn't seem like it's aim to me. They seem to want to make a real difference. Unless, they believe that it's the symbolism of what they're doing that is most important. But that seems somewhat deceitful to the folks that donate money.

So I'm a little confused. If anyone has an answer I'd be pleased to hear it.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Money Wisdom #58

"Psychoanalytical theory suggests that... money is a symbol of an unconscious infantile desire to attain a union in absolute dependency upon father and mother. At the same time, however, money also symbolises the ambivalence of the child towards its parents. The desire to possess the mother and to destroy the father rival seems to be indicated in the ruthless, compulsive quest for money exhibited by many people."

William H Desmonde Magic. Myth and Money (1962) p.5

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Money Wisdom #57

"Our investigation of the origin of money maybe conceived as an exploration of the repressed love, hatred and fear in our culture, our objective being to understand these forces and to utilize this knowledge for the betterment of man."

William H Desmonde Magic. Myth and Money (1962) p.154

Friday, November 2, 2012

Money Wisdom #56

"Values provide the only basis for fully intelligible comprehension of culture because the actual organisation of all cultures is primarily in terms of their values. This becomes apparent as soon as one attempts to present the picture of a culture without reference to its values. The account becomes a meaningless assemblage of items having one relationship to one another only through coexistence in locality and moment - an assemblage that might as profitably be arranged alphabetically as in any other order; a mere laundry list"

Clyde Kluckhohn writing about Anthropology quoted in Robert Pirsig Lila 2006 (1991) p.62-63

A ramble on Thomas Crump's Boundaries

As I excitedly announced on twitter I had a short paper from Thomas Crump arrive the other day. Its called "Money and number: the Trojan Horse of Language". In it he argues that 'the words used to denote numbers in an indigenous language will change in response to increased interaction with a dominant culture' and that the agent effecting change is Money.

The closing sentences of the paper say;
"The indigenous populations were able to encapsulate the ritual of the church, adapt its calendar to their own traditional ceremonial cycle and its popular theology to their own world view, and isolate the practice of religion from the mainstream of Spanish, or at the present time, world catholicism. The integrity of the local languages was hardly threatened. But the Peso succeeded where the cross failed. For it is of the nature of money to dissolve boundaries and it is difficult to conceal the uniformity of monetary institutions under the diversity of language." [emphasis is my own]
The paper was published prior to Crump's seminal 'The Phenomenon of Money' which I've still not fully read (its £70 odd if anyone fancies buying it for me!)

What struck me was the bit about dissolving boundaries. Usually in Anthropology this sort of idea about Money's destructive side is framed as 'Money being corrosive of social bonds'. The debate about it goes back a long way. Academics build careers on it.

Boundaries, though. That set me thinking. Boundaries are rather different to bonds.

I'd come to something of an impasse over the whole 'money is corrosive' debate, anyway. There's evidence on both sides and I think the side you choose depends for the most part on your political philosophy. Plus it's not exactly a provable hypothesis is it?

But 'boundaries' is a different way to think about the problem. I can sense some echo of Derrida in the line of thought I'm going to give you here.

Firstly let's get into this word 'Boundaries'. There's the obvious geographical sense of the word. But that's not quite enough to give any meaning to Crump's idea. What he's really saying is that a boundary is a static set of habits* that differentiate one population from another; the habits of the Spanish from the habits indigenous South American Indians. It's this difference of habit that is the 'real' boundary, not the line drawn on a map. In Crump's view Money is the most potent catalyst of change. And it's a catalyst that is never fully absorbed into the static set of habits. Whereas other foreign habits can be successfully co-opted within the indigenous population, Money's dynamic capacity for change - it's power to bring 'uniformity' to the indigenous monetary institutions - is inexhaustible. And that word 'uniformity' (Crump's word) is loaded. It says that Spanish Money is the attractor, pulling older less evolved indigenous economic systems towards it.

Secondly, I want to get into the scale of the idea of Boundaries. There's something about dissolution of boundaries that references the infinite. Whereas social bonds describe a finite set of relations within a population, social boundaries describe something different. The dissolution of a social bond does not inherently imply the creation of some new social bond. The dissolution of a social boundary however, does imply the creation of some new social boundary. Or in other words, a set of habits changed by the catalyst of Money, immediately becomes a new set of habits.

The destruction of a boundary is the creation of a boundary.

And there's the echo of Derrida. A paradox in a sentence.

Hopefully my pre-amble will give persuade you that I've not created the paradox as a ruse. I've just tried to reflect Money's nature like it really is; complex and conflicting. In Money and the Early Greek Mind Richard Seaford (my review) describes some of the features of Money - its impersonal/personal nature, its unlimitedness, the paradox of its concrete abstractedness, and its simultaneous sameness and distinctiveness. Money can be both creator and destroyer as easily as I can fall off a log.

Now, please take a step with me towards some speculative science that I think has some connection to all these weird contradictory behaviours that people observe in Money. I'll just give you the quote you make up your own mind.

Here is what Rupert Sheldrake says about how habits are organised:

(This isn't the best book from which to quote Sheldake [Dogs that know when their owners are coming home p.260] - unfortunately at the time of writing I've lent 'Presence of the Past' and 'The Science Delusion' to my daughter)

Morphic fields are regions in space-time, located within and around systems they organise. They work probabilistically. They restrict, or impose order on the inherent indeterminism of the systems under their influence. They embrace and connect together the various parts of the system they are organising..... A social field organises and coordinates the behaviour of individuals within the social group...
Morphic fields guide the systems under their influence towards characteristic goals or end points.
...once a new field.. has come into being, then through repetition this field becomes stronger. The same pattern becomes more likely to happen again. The more often patterns are repeated, the more probable they become; the fields contain a kind of cumulative memory and become increasingly habitual. Fields evolve in time and form the basis of habits. From this point of view nature is essentially habitual. Even the so-called 'laws of nature' may be more like habits. 
Ten years or so ago, I did write to Sheldrake with some vague idea about Money as a Morphic Field and Price as Morphic Resonance. He was kind enough to get back to me, but he said he didn't see it. I'm not sure I still think about Money in the same way now - not exactly.

But I still have the feeling that there's something in Sheldrake's ideas that relates to Money. It may have something to do with this idea of Money 'dissolving boundaries'. Sheldrake uses the word (coined by the biologist CH Waddington) 'chreodes' to describe the 'canalised pathways of change'- in other words the boundaries of probabilities.

Oh I did say, I'd just give you the quote. Sorry. Let's leave it there, then. It's a long way to ramble in a little blog post, just because Crump decided to talk about boundaries instead of bonds.

In the spirit of confusion, here's some Yes lyrics as a reward for you perseverance and dedication to duty.

Coins and Crosses never know
Their fruitless worth
Cords are broken, locked
Inside the Mother Earth.

(Jon Anderson, 1972)

Monday, October 29, 2012

A ramble on Derrida and Money Burning

Last night I watched this documentary on Jacques Derrida the French/Algerian Philosopher who died in 2004.

Derrida first popped into my conciousness in some correspondence I had with Bill Martin over a book he wrote called Music of Yes: Structure and Vision in Progressive Rock (it's a good book by the way - if you love Yes, like I do). We discussed Yes Music and the impact it had on the way we thought about the world. Bill is a philosophy professor and an expert on Derrida. Alongside Blake, Marx and others, Bill called upon Derrida to help analyse Yes Music.

So anyway, Derrida was now lodged firmly in the back of my mind by being associated with my favourite music. Around the same time (2000/2001) I was a fairly regular contributor to an internet discussion group called Orgdyne. It's an experience I'll write about at some point but briefly it was a kind of free-form group psychodynamic experiment - well, at first anyway. Like many such things it was exciting for a while but often descended into arguments about this and that. Plus with so many psychoanalysts in the group there was no shortage of people telling others why they were saying what they were saying. That was bit like trying to put out a fire by pouring petrol on it.

Inevitably Derrida - alongside Lacan, Foucault etc - was mentioned in the discussion. Being somewhat carried away with it all I did try to get Bill involved with the group. Someone had referred to Derrida's work as 'undiluted swill' and I thought he might want to come back at that. Bill wisely declined, and our correspondence fizzled out after that.

Anyway, unrelated to Orgdyne I'd contacted Professor Manfred Kets de Vries. He's a professor at INSEAD the French management school, an expert in group psychodynamics and wrote (with Danny Miller) one of the early books on the psychodynamics of the firm - The Neurotic Organisation. I'd sent him a speculative email of my early work on Money. He was kind enough to take a look at it and get back to me. Those interested in the psychodynamics of groups were few in number back then, so I guess that worked in my favour. Basically I'd created a model of a firm as a mind using Freud's architecture. I then speculated that Money was like a force or energy that moved through this architecture. His criticism was basically that my work was structuralist, and he and most within the psychodynamic community were now Post-Structuralists. (I don't think I explained my conception of Money very well, but let's not worry about that for now). I later learned that Professor Kets de Vries was also in fact a member of Orgdyne - albeit it a silent one. And in fact these day he works with the consulting group that Anil - the founder of the Orgdyne - built off the back of the Orgdyne experiment. (The consulting group is also called Orgdyne)

If you know about this sort of thing, you'll have got the link back to Derrida already. Derrida is generally thought of as one of the leaders the Post-Structuralist movement.

I was (and still am) stuck between a rock and a hard place. Economics was never going to take my ideas about money seriously - that was a complete non starter. The hope that I might be able to explore my ideas in a psychodynamic framework - which had been a slim one anyway -  was also blocked. I was all about Freud's basic mind architecture and the life and death instincts; a very simple model. Group psychodynamics on the other hand, wasn't; it had a heuristic approach backed up by complex post-structuralist type arguments.

So not to put too fine a point on it, whenever I heard Derrida's name mentioned I sighed. I did attempt to get to grips with what Derrida (and Lacan) were saying but found them confusing. I also picked up Foucault, and put him down again. My intellectual heroes basically spoke with a Germanic accent. The strange brew of Freud, Jung, and Hayek were my guys in those days and all those clever French blokes just did my head in.

And if Derrida hadn't been enough of a thorn in my side then, a few years later my wife's exposure to him (and Foucault) whilst doing her MA in Gender Studies and our subsequent 'discussions' - I use the term as loosely as possible - sealed the deal. I really didn't like the guy. Deconstruction, my arse. The meaning of the meaning of the meaning. If you want a taste of Derrida's prose try this from the film - don't ask me what he's on about.


The film has changed my view. I enjoyed it. And I tip my hat to Derrida. There is no reason why philosophy has to be in books. In fact, I think its a fair to say that if Philosophy is only in books, and those books are only in the auspices of university departments, Philosophy is to all intents and purposes, dead. Thankfully this isn't the case.

The film attempts to de-construct itself. There's a scene where Derrida is shown watching a scene where Derrida is shown watching himself being interviewed in a kind of infinite televisual loop. He also talks a lot about the context of the making of the film within the film. There's a wiki about it here

A couple of things Derrida said really got me thinking.  This is him during a tour of South Africa talking about forgiveness. He says that pure forgiveness is impossible. To truly forgive, one must forgive the unforgivable - which is impossible. This reminded me of David Graeber's book on Debt and Rospabe's Primitive Money theory in particular. There's a quick summary here but the important point is that;

" can be seen, in human economies, as first and foremost the acknowledgement of the existence of a debt that cannot be paid” (Graeber 2011 p.136).

So I wondered what Derrida would make of money burning. In my ritual I've certainly began to think about it as an act of forgiveness - in fact, I've presented it as the ultimate act of forgiveness because nothing comes back to the forgiver. The forgiveness causes only loss in the forgiver. 

I've been told that my money burning is selfish. It's my little project, so all this stuff I say about it is really about me and my ego - I want to write about it, challenge people etc. That may be true. However, it doesn't really get to the philosophical point. 

Suppose I was alone on a desert Island with no hope of rescue. I continue with my money burning ritual. Would that make it pure forgiveness? There would be no possibility of any gain from me destroying currency. But then again the currency would have no meaning. So we're really back to Derrida and his much misunderstood 'there is nothing outside the text' (meaning that there is nothing outside context). This seems particularly pertinent when applied to currency.

Another point that Derrida makes a little later in the film is about the who and the what. So in the context of money burning the question becomes are we forgiving the Bank of England itself (the who)? Or are we forgiving the Bank of England for something it has done (the what)? That's an interesting point. My view has been that in burning currency I am forgiving the promise the Bank of England have made. I realise that's a bit odd. To forgive a promise. It kind of sits right in the middle between the who and the what. The little mantra I say when I burn is in fact 'Release all', rather than 'Forgive all' (It references a Yes song)

The video I made last year touched (or perhaps stamped) on some of these issues:

What really endeared me to Derrida though came near the end of the film. As I've explained, he had a lot to do to win me over. The points he scored for making me think about forgiveness and the who and the what hadn't quite tipped the balance. There was too much rock star stuff; all the walking along with camera crew, entourage in tow, the academic groupies. That just proves he's famous, he's desired, not that what he says is of value. And I've spent enough time doing press with rock stars in my last job to know that maintaining a moderate size ego in the face of adoration is a tricky thing to do. At points I expected Derrida to stride straight in to the lecture hall, grab the microphone and shout 'Well alright!' Neil Kinnock style. Fortunately he doesn't.

The balance tipped in Derrida's favour when he sat down next to a pile of books and said in reply to the question "If you were to watch a documentary about a Philosopher what would you want to see in it?" that he'd want to see their sex lives. Last week on this blog's 'About Page' I wrote;

"I have some vague idea about understanding one's sexuality as being a key to self-realisation...... [sex's] mysteries are not revealed through reflection alone. I think the same is true of Money."

So I can't help myself, I like Derrida now. Sorry, Friedrich.

That doesn't mean I'm going to read his books though. Even today, I've tried to read the wiki page on Derrida before writing this piece and couldn't get through it. 

I'm happy to consider that documentary as his masterwork. After all it was released on 23rd October (2002). If you've been paying attention you'll know that's a special day for me.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Money Wisdom #55

"Numbers are words. This may seem trite, but the full significance of the fact is lost as much to linguists on the one side, as it is to mathematicians on the other."

Thomas Crump Money and Number :The Trojan Horse of Language (1978)

Friday, October 26, 2012

Money Wisdom #54

Who will provide the grand design?
What is yours and what is mine?
'Cause there is no more new frontier
We have got to make it here

We satisfy our endless needs
And justify our bloody deeds,
In the name of destiny 
And the name of God

Don Henley, Glen Fry The Last Resort (1976)

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Money Wisdom #53

"What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and; anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions- they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins."

Friedrich Nietzsche On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense 1873

Monday, October 8, 2012

Money Wisdom #52

"Money is human value expressed in figures; it is the mark of our slavery, the indelible brand of our servitude. Money is the congealed blood sweat of the miserable wretches who bring to market their inalienable property, their most personal capacity, their life-activity itself, to barter it..."

Moses Hess The Essence of Money (1845)

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Sticking up for Skidelsky (in a rambling kind of way)

I've been blog lite for a month or two. I thought I'd kick start what will hopefully be a busy few months of writing with a little miscellaneous/money post.

I've been struggling to write an 'About' page for this blog for a while. 2/3rds of the way there now. I think that's been the block to my writing.

Anyway, I've just read Oh no, not happiness again! on Diane Coyle's The Enlightened Economist's blog (my favourite economics blog). I read it when she first published it, but just came back to view the comments.

It's about what good old Robert Skidelsky says in his review of Adair Turner's new book. The links are all in the piece if you fancy reading it, but basically its about the correlations (or lack of) between GDP & happiness. I saw another piece asking us to stop calling Skidelsky (& Turner) economists. I can't find it now but, you get the jist; proper economists hate Skidelsky. So of course, I like him.

I have a soft spot for Skidelsky - he got a mention in this post about Hayek (2/3 of the way down) - because he's one of the only people I've ever heard try to draw out the connections between Keynes and Freud. And to regard them as important. So despite me not agreeing with the good Lord, I'll stick up for him in a fight. That's how I roll.

There's one more thread to this little ramble, before I get to the point. I stumbled across this - Value Judgements in Economics. I'm not a fan of this site - too much economic jargon - but can't seem to stop myself coming back to it.

So anyway, there I am amongst all this econo-babble. And then Diane Coyle says "Growth doesn’t mean more handbags and bigger cars, it means innovation"

Now bear in mind that this LSE-educated money burning pervert - i.e. me - spent last night carry water in plastic bottles up several flights of stairs to some of the richest people in the world (in SW1X). We've had mains water for a few hundred years. We have water filters. And yet economic innovation seems to says that somehow utility is maximised by putting water in a bottle, sending it to Hatfield, driving it from Hatfield to London, and then having some underpaid and over-educated Burk - i.e. me -  haul it up 4 or 5 flights of stairs to a toff's kitchen.

You can perhaps see that my recent personal experience doesn't support the idea that growth = innovation.

Maybe I'm just unlucky. Or bitter? Or maybe the economic idea of what Growth is, is wrong. I did this A Ramble on Growth and Value post on it a while back (it been surprisingly popular). So I guess in terms of our questioning of the link between the human condition and GDP, Skidelsky and I are in the same camp.

'Economic Growth' is one of those terms - like Value or Quality - that can be described but not defined. Of course, you can define them if you want, but any Economist worth their salt will baulk at saying Economic Growth is such and such. Because the simple truth is we don't know.

This GDP thing that's accessible to measurement isn't Growth itself. Just like a price isn't Value itself. It looks like there's some relationship between the two things, but no-one has figured out what it is yet.

So leave Skidelsky alone. Like his hero Keynes, he makes moral arguments. He thinks what's good is right, rather than what's right is good. (That's my shorthand for the metaphysics of Keynes/Hayek debate)

We'd do well to remember the limits of our understanding. And to remain open to alternative explanations of the links between the human condition and economic growth.

(NB That's defending Skidelsky with an argument that sounds very Hayekian)

(NBB I'm super happy to say that I mentioned ZenMM to @Sam Bowman in relation to our conceptions of Value and he downloaded it straight away. There is hope for economics' understanding growth & value, yet)

Friday, September 28, 2012

Money wisdom #51

"No one has ever seen a thought or image inside someone else's brain, or inside his or her own. When we look around us, the images of the things we see are outside us, not in our heads. Our experiences of our bodies are in our bodies. The feelings in my fingers are in my fingers, not in my head. Direct experience offers no support for the extraordinary claim that experiences are inside brains. Direct experience is not irrelevant to the nature of conciousness: it is conciousness."

Rupert Sheldrake The Science Delusion (2012) p.214

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Money Wisdom #50

"The poet Wolfgang von Goethe... envisaged two great driving forces in nature: polarity and intensification. Polarity was associated with the material dimension, as 'a state of constant attraction and repulsion', and intensification gave a spiritual dimension, which was one of 'a state of ever-striving ascent', a kind of evolutionary imperative. On the principle that there could be no matter without mind and no mind without matter, 'matter is also capable of undergoing intensification, and spirit cannot be denied its attraction and repulsion."

Rupert Sheldrake The Science Delusion (2012) p.118

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Intrinsic Value

I'm most of the way through John Lanchester's 'Whoops!' It's a nice easy read after Messrs Shell and Seaford. I wish I could write like Lanchester. I get the impression that he just sat down and knocked out this book in a week's worth of wet afternoons. It's so easy to read. He makes the complex, simple. He's lucid and funny. He doesn't over-explain or preach.

I'm sure its not as easy as all that for him really. Part of the art of the craft is to make it look easy I guess.

Anyway, aside from telling you that I'm a fan of Lanchester (I wrote a little post about his talk on Marx) I just wanted to pick him up on something. "Intrinsic Value".

It's been in the last four books I've read. So Lanchester is in good company - with Shell, Seaford and Kaye.

But what the hell does intrinsic value really mean? Does it mean that if the rest of the universe disappeared, this thing - that has intrinsic value - would still be worth something? How is that possible?

I've put up a couple of Money wisdom quotes that seem to book-end this silly idea of instrinsic value. On the one side you have Nietzsche who claims that nature is always valueless and on the other you have Mark from the MOQ forum who points out that valuation is the same whether you're a monkey choosing a banana, or a river choosing which way to flow

The only way I can make any sense out of 'value' is to think of it like Pirsig's Quality. As something undefinable. So talking about intrinsic value, or exchange value, or any other type of value is just pointless. It serves only to confuse us. It doesn't elucidate, it obscures.

Here's Pirsig on his moment of realisation (as Phraedrus) about Quality/Value.

Sarah had said to Phraedrus 'I hope you are teaching quality to your students'.

Soon the thought interrupted him again. Quality? There was something irritating, even angering about that question? He thought about it, and then thought about it some more, and then looked out of the window, and then thought about it some more. Quality? 
Four hours later he still sat there with his feet on the window ledge and stared out into what had become a dark sky. The phone rang, and it was his wife calling to find out what had happened. He told her he would be home soon, but then forgot about this and everything else. It wasn't until three o'clock in the morning that he wearily confessed to himself that he didn't have a clue what Quality was, picked up his briefcase and headed home. 
Robert Pirsig Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance ([1974], 1999) p.183

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A Few Words on Money, Language & Thought by Marc Shell

What to say about this book?

It's tricky. First up some background and practical details. I had three must-read money books for the first six months of this year (it's August so I've overrun), namely Money and the early Greek Mind by Richard Seaford, Economy and Nature in the C14th by Joel Kaye and this one, Money, Language & Thought by Marc Shell. If there is a central theme to all of these books its the relationship between Money and Thought. A pretty big subject.

Shell's book is the earliest of them. He wrote it in 1982. His wiki page is here and his Havard uni page is here. I guess he'd have been in his early to mid thirties when he wrote it. Not that it's of great significance. It's just one of the things I sensed about the book was that it was written by someone with something to prove. I maybe projecting my own feelings onto the text, but Shell seems really believe in the significance of his project and has decided to use - and show - the full breadth of his knowledge and depth of his understanding as means to convince the reader.

Well, I was already a convert. So the complexities of Shell's expression - he uses the cumbersome word ventriloquistly several times - served to slow me down. In fact, this combined with the London Olympics, work and general life, meant that I completed it over the course of two months. It's not that long (under 200 pages), so I think I did the book a disservice by dipping in and out of it rather than reading it in a few sessions. There is also the fact that I haven't read all the texts he examines in the book. The chapter on Faust - which I've read most recently - was more enjoyable and meaningful for me than the one on The Gold Bug (by Poe) which I don't know at all (although I have since downloaded it!).

All of this is really a way of saying that I don't think it's entirely Marc Shell's fault that I wasn't gripped by his book, all the time. I did have moments. There's some great stuff on the tales of the Holy Grail. My head was buzzing with that. I can't do it justice here, but think about the Holy Grail being a source of plenitude - a blank cheque as Shell puts it. My own mind was fired up by the connection I saw between the Grail and Pirsigian Quality - the source of all things.

I did have the same problem with Shell as I had with Kaye and Seaford. There are points of despair for me. This notion of 'intrinsic value' when talking about coins. Sentence two; "The exchange value of the earliest coins derived wholly from the material substance of the ingots....." Kaye and Seaford say very similar things early in their texts. This is fundamentally wrong. One day, I'll find a way of explaining why.

Another thing for me is that I have some trouble getting on with Literary Theory. If I could be sure no Literary Theorists are listening, my complaint would be that they always seem to circle around meaning; prodding and poking it. What I want them to do is stand in the middle of it, and shout, Look ! It's Here ! Of course, I could say the same thing about Anthropology, Philosophy and many other 'ologies'. Literary Theory though, seems more adept than any other methodology at this dance around meaning.

Then again, Literary Theory - with Marc Shell as a forerunner - has lead to a movement dubbed 'New Economic Criticism'. Dierdre McCloskey, whose article I linked to in my previous post, is also part of this movement. Any advance from the head-against-a-brick-wall debates of economics is very welcome. And really needed. So the fault with Literary Criticism may just be my own aversion to nuance. I must have been a Yorkshireman in a past life.

Look. Read this book. But do yourself a favour and brush up on the texts Shell discusses first. Put some work in and you'll be rewarded. I'm not sure when I'm going to do it, but once I've read the Gold Bug, caught the Merchant of Venice again, and read something on the Mythology of the Holy Grail, I'll come back to this little book and appreciate it's value anew. I'll also do an amazon-postable review of it.

I feel less alone in my weird views about Money having read these three books. It's nice.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

What was the Industrial Revolution?

"In 1709 Abraham Derby smelted iron in a blast furnace, using coke. And so began the Industrial Revolution. Out of Abraham's Shropshire furnace flowed molten metal. Out of his genius flowed the mills, looms, engines, weapons, railways, ships, cities, conflicts and prosperity that built the world we live in."

Danny Boyle Olympics 2012 Opening Ceremony Programme

Danny Boyle's words capture the most commonly held view about the industrial revolution. Economic historians refer to this as the 'wave of gadgets' view. And despite all the complex models, regression analyses, and difficult-to-comprehend language layered on by academia, this view - the idea that technology is growth - sits at the heart of our understanding of the economic changes that Danny Boyle so dramatically represented in the Olympics opening ceremony.

It's an explanation that's never satisfied me.

Someone invents a new technology, it spreads, all our lives are changed. That's it really. That's our explanation for the difference between then and now; between mammoth hunting cavemen and apple mac tweeting hipsters.

Questions about the spread of technologies through trade and about the conditions that encourage innovation and invention have fed generations of economic thought. And they continue to this day to feed the families of any economist able to befuddle us into believing their particular answer. Allied to the economist's sophistry are two things. One is our commonly held belief that science is the father of technology. And the other is our inherent ambivalence. This expresses itself as a morality which finds value either in freedom, or in equality. Individualism versus collectivism is the dynamic dualism at the heart of democratic political economy.

We are gripped by this powerful paradigm because it draws strength from our conflicting moral experience providing answers so full and sufficient, so able to satisfy both sides, that rightness is transformed into righteousness. Escape requires the de-construction of the trinity of science, technology and economics and their reformation into a trinity of questions; What is money? What is growth? What is value?

That would be a revolution so profound as to make the agricultural, industrial and digital appear as they truly are; as markers on a continuum of human understanding. Art has a way of allowing us to glimpse such a possibility. The naive narrative of Boyle's ceremony reveals our limitations; smoke-belching chimneys penetrating verdant pastures, the fertility of growth flowing from one man's genius. Individual seeds nurtured into form by collective desire.

Our circumstance is one of sexual animal and we try to create a history from within this pulsing, pumping, stiffening body. Hence, all revolutions are sexual. They reflect the quality of our relationships. We reap, we sow. We create, we destroy. We own, we owe. Our point of perception chisels our experience from a rock of possibilities.

What was the Industrial Revolution? It was a period of change, in our relationship with money, our understanding of growth, and our connection to value. As was the Agricultural Revolution, and as is the Digital Revolution.

Each Revolution is an expression, an identification, of the limitation of our ability to understand our experience. The truly new is never fully knowable.

As analogy, one could view experience as water filling a cup. The amount of water in the cup denotes the sum total of experience. However, the shape of the water (confined to the cup) is due to "forces which lie outside of experience”.

Mark Metaphysics of Quality Forum (DQ and SQ interrelationship Thread 14/08/2012)

Further Reading:
Dierdre McCloskey 1066 and Wave of Gadgets in Penelope Gouk, ed., Wellsprings of Achievement: Cultural and Economic Dynamics in Early Modern England and Japan (Variorum, 1995).

Friday, July 27, 2012

Money Wisdom #49

"... the thinking which fails to account for or even to encounter its own internalization of economic form remains insensitive to a sting that goads thought into becoming philosophy and, perhaps, into surpassing it."

Marc Shell Money Language and Thought 1982 p.155

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Money Wisdom #48

"The remarkable tension in Germany between the development of thought and that of material production... ...helps to explain German philosophers' fascination with the relationship between money and ontology and it elucidates the influence of the economists James Steuart and Adam Smith on Kant and Hegel. Monetary theory ties together symbol and commodity, as well as universal and particular, in a knotty conception of the relationship between thought and matter."

Marc Shell Money Language and Thought 1982 p.151

Money Wisdom #47

"Thinking in money generates money - that is the secret of the world economy"

Oswald Spengler The Decline of the West 1918 (trans C.A. Atkinson 1926 2:492)
quoted in Marc Shell Money Language and Thought 1982 p123 footnotes 

Friday, July 20, 2012

Money Wisdom #46

An Honest Description Of Myself With A Glass Of Whiskey At An Airport, Let Us Say, In Minneapolis

My ears catch less and less of conversations, and my eyes have weakened, though they are still insatiable.

I see their legs in miniskirts, slacks, wavy fabrics.

Peep at each one separately, at their buttocks and thighs, lulled by the imaginings of porn.

Old lecher, it's time for you to the grave, not to the games and amusements of youth.

But I do as I have always done: compose scenes of this earth under orders from the erotic imagination.

It's not that I desire these creatures precisely; I desire everything, and they are like a sign of ecstatic union.

It's not my fault that we are made so, half from disinterested con- templation, half from appetite.

If I should accede one day to Heaven, it must be there as it is here, except that I will be rid of my dull senses and my heavy bones.

Changed into pure seeing, I will absorb, as before, the proportions of human bodies, the color of irises, a Paris street in June at dawn, all of it incomprehensible, incomprehensible the multitude of visible things.

Czelsaw Milosz

Monday, July 16, 2012

Money Wisdom #45

"If you don't think that a monkey knows a good banana from a bad banana, then you are in complete denial. Yes, our system of valuation may be more complex, but it is still the same thing.... our valuation is no different from a river choosing a path down to the ocean. It is all basically the same thing."

Mark Metaphysics of Quality Forum (Descriptions of Quality Thread 10/07/2012)

Monday, July 9, 2012

Money Wisdom #44

"Let us not measure our sorrow by their worth, for then it will have no end."

Michael Bloomberg (Mayor of New York City) 10th Anniversary Speech for 9/11 (11/09/2011)

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Money Wisdom #43

"The entire economic debate of C20th in 140 characters. Keynes said what's good, is right. Hayek said what's right, is good. We can't decide."
Jonathan Harris* Tweet 220654419728007169 (5/7/2012)

*You could justifiably claim that putting my own tweets in Money Wisdom is arrogance beyond belief. I have little defence other than (a) I was proud of this one (b) it really is exactly 140 characters which I took as a good omen (c) it's true (d) I wrote out straight, no machinations (e) this is the first tweet I've included in Money Wisdom and its nice to have a first (f) I'm the editor. Problem? Start your own Blog. x

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Insane Prices, Crazy Money - Part One


A while ago, as I was driving, something came on the radio that grabbed my attention.

A self-obsessed musician being interviewed by a sycophantic journalist forced me to hit the re-tune button in annoyance. I picked up a commercial radio station. I usually avoid them because of the adverts. But I left it on, preferring soporific music to inane conversation. Of course, very soon the calm cab of my van was disrupted by a shouting salesman. "It's summer madness here. And we'd have to be mad to offer these insane prices".

I should say, it's not actually adverts per se that I don't like. I have fondness for overly-enthusiastic infomercials and the silliness of shopping channels. I'm just not keen on radio adverts. I think it has to do with the intimacy of the medium. But this advert set me thinking. In fact, it set off a train of thought that's lasted several weeks. I want to elucidate that train of thought in a few posts.

Insane Prices

There's something uniquely powerful about saying a price is insane. It's a strong marketing message. I had a search around Youtube to find a good example for you. This is the sort of thing I mean. A classic from the masters of hyperbolic adverts, the Americans. Look out for the Lord Sugar hand gestures. They must be a prerequisite for selling electrical goods.

You'd think with my love of Money & Freud, the siren call of price, value and insanity would have drawn me to the Insane Price adverts long ago. But without my recent reading of Pirsig's ZenMM and Lila I think I would have remained deaf to them.

So what are these Insane Price ads actually saying? And what do they mean?

Firstly, they refer to their prices as insane, just like Crazy Eddie* above. But of course, a price can't be sane or insane itself. It's a number not a mind. What they actually mean is that their offer of goods at these prices is the action of an insane mind.

Secondly, and following on from the first point, the idea of value is implicit. We have to compare the price of the goods to the value of the goods to be able make a judgement about the sanity or insanity of the person offering the prices. Insane Price adverts imply that if the value of the goods exceeds the price, then the seller is insane**.

There can be other ubiquitous marketing messages in Insane Price adverts. There's the strong call to action. The emphasis on the uniqueness of the opportunity. And maybe others besides. But there is also a vital message without which Insane Price adverts just wouldn't work. A subtext that's built into the fabric of the format itself. It says simply 'We're kidding'. Taken literally, Insane Price adverts ask us to take advantage of someone who's insane. That's of course morally abhorrent. But because the message is relayed through the medium of paid advertising we know not to take it at face value. It's a neat little trick that makes us complicit with the advertiser. In Crazy Eddie's advert this subtext is amplified through a comical mania which reassures us that Eddie's not really mad, he just gives great discounts.

What I want to know is what happens if we do take Insane Price adverts at face value?

Let's start by putting the message of Insane Price adverts into a formal statement to give ourselves something to work with; The Insane Price Axioms. This will throw up all kinds of questions, but let's trust in Crazy Eddie for the moment and stay true to his message. What the adverts claim is that the offer of a good or service for a price that is lower than the value of that good or service is insane. Therefore the offer of a good or service for a price that is equal to, or greater than, the value of the good or service is sane. In other words;

Value being greater than price is logically equivalent to insanity.
V > P :⇔ ✘

Value being less than or equal to price is logically equivalent to sanity.
V ≤ P :⇔ ✔

There's something personal I have invested in this inquiry. The mismatch between price and value and the relationship of that mismatch to insanity is something that my annual money burning touches on. Burning a £20 note - your own £20 note! - brings a certain clarity to your understanding of price and value. At least, that's the way I see it.

Others think I'm mad. In fact, the wilful destruction of one's property is seen as a sign of insanity. I get away without a straight jacket simply because of the magnitude of my burning. Set against my earnings, £20 is just not significant enough to cause real concern. It's interesting though, and a bit scary, to realise that it is only the quantity of currency that stands between my freedom and my being certified.

In the Metaphysics of Quality (MOQ) - as I understand it - insanity is about valuing intellectual patterns that are generally rejected. Thinking about insanity like this makes it clear that our judgement is a social one. There's no litmus test for your sanity. There maybe some unfortunate biological or neurological event underlying your condition, or there may not. It's not the chemical imbalance that puts you in a straight jacket, it's declaring yourself Jesus Christ incarnate or burning your own money.

Pirsig puts it like this:
"No scientific instrument can be produced in court to show who is insane and who is sane. There's nothing about insanity that conforms to any scientific law of the universe. The scientific laws of the universe were invented by sanity. There's no way by which sanity, using the instruments of its own creation, can measure that which is outside of itself and its creations. Insanity isn't an 'object' of observation. It's an alteration of observation itself. There's no such thing as a 'disease' of patterns of intellect. There's only heresy. And that's what insanity really is." (Lila p.356)
Of course those who deal with mental health patients may find these ideas about insanity just so much philosophical hot air. That's fair enough. My brother is a psychiatrist, my wife a care manager on a dementia ward. Demanding and challenging work. I'm aware that the practical realities of insanity need a social response. But I also remember how upset my wife was to witness the administration of Electroconvulsive therapy as a student nurse. I know it's serious. There are good people doing bad things to mad people, and there are mad people doing bad things to good people.

I'm not suggesting that we use Crazy Eddie's Insane Price Axioms to create a methodology of psychiatric assessment. It's more the other way round. I want to see if the Insane Price Axioms can reveal something about price and value. That in turn might help me with something that's been bugging me since I was a child; what is Money?

I hope you'll put your white jacket on and join me for the next few posts.

When I was a child
I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye

I turned to look but it was gone
I cannot put my finger on it now
The child is grown
The dream is gone
I... Have become comfortably numb

Roger Waters, Dave Gilmore Comfortably Numb (1979)

* The guy in the advert is not really crazy, or Eddie. He's an actor called Jerry Carroll. The real Crazy Eddie - as in the proprietor of the Crazy Eddie Stores - was Eddie Antar. He was convicted of fraud in 1997, fined $150 million, and has creditors seeking to recover a further $1 billion from him and his family. The originator of the Insane Price adverts (on TV) is regarded as Madman Eddie Muntz (short video bio, wiki). I expect though that Insane Prices stretch as far back a commerce itself.

** Conversely, and as we'll come to later, talking about Crazy Money is usually a phrase used by a buyer rather than a seller which implies that the price asked for the goods, greatly exceeds their value.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Writing, Radio & Rows

A quick catch up post.

Crazy Money
If you follow my tweets you'll know I've become absorbed into a post called 'Crazy Money'. It started out as a quirky little idea that I hoped would allow me to explore a couple of things about Money. Two weeks and 8K words later and I'm still not near finishing. I also had it in mind to try and make it vaguely readable. Unlike my 'ramble' posts - like this one - that just get typed and published.

So, still not seeing any light at the end of the tunnel, I've decided to split the post up. Part one to a computer screen near you shortly. I just hope (a) I can keep on track with it, and (b) when and if a light does appear it's not an oncoming train. The problem with writing about money is its a very big subject. Every time you have something definite to say about it, you think, and then you find that the exact opposite is also true. Read Simmel, or Seaford and you'll see what I mean.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
This week has of course been significant because of the first dramatisation of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance broadcast on BBC Radio4. Really, if you've not listened to it, please stop reading my nonsense and head over here. It disappears this coming Saturday 30th June 2012, so you haven't got long. I know nothing about radio dramatisations, I just know that some of my favourite passages are featured. And I think the dramatisation manages to communicate the idea of Quality as the source of all things very well. (Of course it does so by reading Pirsig's words, but choosing which words to read and how to read them is an art in itself)

Hopefully, I can be more successful at showing how my conception of Money, and the MOQ fit together in my Crazy Money series.

Krugman, Coyle and Portes
Little spats like this need an immediate response. So I'm a bit late in the day. But if you missed it basically it was a discussion around the relative success of Micro Vs Macro Economics. Diane Coyle's post here, Jonathan Portes response here, Krugman weighs in here.

As far as I'm concerned there's not much to choose between micro and macro. The kindest thing I can say about micro is that it's consistent. The kindest thing I can say about macro is that tries hard. Neither of them goes anywhere near THE question (if you've not been paying attention THE question is 'What is Money?'). I think the macro debates are more easily sustained because of their political dimension. Usually they go like this:

The more populist ones say:
"Spend/Save* (delete as appropriate) to grow".

The more hardcore ones say:
"Keynes/Hayek* (delete as appropriate) said this, then, and meant A."
Someone disagrees. "Keynes/Hayek said something else, at a later time, and meant B."
Then they call each other stupid.

I don't read any micro stuff, but I guess they're debates would go like this:
"Your maths is wrong.
Oh, sorry."

It's not often you see a row between micro and macro. Diane Coyle was brave to have a go at the Emperors of economics. The last word in the row went to the Galactic Emperor himself, The Krugman who (blessed are we who hear his words) told us "these have been glory days for standard macroeconomics, which has done amazingly well under crisis conditions". I have it on good authority that he had no clothes on when he said it.

Monday, June 11, 2012

A Few Words on Lila by Robert Pirsig


[ If you haven't read Lila, or ZenMM, then don't bother with this post. Really. Just go read ZenMM, then Lila. I don't want to spoil your enjoyment of Lila. And while its only a small spoiler, it refers to something right at the end of the book. This will effect the build of tension for you. ]

There's a review here that sums up well the criticisms I have of Lila the novel. But as the reviewer points out, what we have here with Lila and ZenMM is not just two (hugely successful) novels, we have a philosophy.

To be clear on this, we don't have philosophology - the analysis of philosophy. We have the real thing. A new explanation of reality.

How to relate to this?

Well, you can do as the reviewer (Russ Allberry) does in the link above. You can coherently and cogently criticise Pirsig's arguments. You can conclude - as Russ does - that the Metaphysics of Quality (MOQ) is thought provoking rather than enlightening. Doing so seems entirely reasonable. And it feels safe.

But this isn't how I relate to Pirsig's philosophy. What I know about it is this. That when I look back, these two books create a dividing line in my life. That may sound overly dramatic. I don't want to give you the impression that reading them guarantees some sort of epiphany. But for me, Pirsig's MOQ is a big brother to my own thoughts about Money. My thoughts aren't reasonable or safe. They are, in the words of my LSE Philosophy Professor, 'plainly crazy'. Well, Mr Professor, my big brother has something to say about that.

So I feel emboldened and invigorated. I have much more to read about the MOQ, of course. And I wouldn't like those who have read Lila to think that I agree with everything Pirsig says. I viewed his application of MOQ to culture primarily as a way of furthering the explanation of MOQ itself, rather than a hard, fast and final explanation of our entire history - if indeed, there can ever be such a thing.

There is so much good stuff. So many connections and so much harmony. I could talk about MOQ's relation to the Theory of Formative Causation (Morphic Field Theory). Or how it seems to chime with Freud's story of civilisation. But I'll limit myself to one small thing in this post. Its going to take a little setting up. There's a scene very near the end that really brings to the fore the resonances I perceive between Pirsig's MOQ and my Money. It's going to take a little setting up.

Firstly, my Money.

It's really hard for me to define what I mean by Money. I've tried. The closest I can get to it is saying in essence 'its closer to gravity than it is to anything else' (that's what my LSE Professor thought was crazy). But let's just take a leaf out of ZenMM and - like Pirsig says of Quality - let's just say Money is undefinable. So instead, let's consider money - in other words, currency - something that seems related to, but separate from, Money. Economonoligists often use the terms interchangeability, but clearly there's a difference. Currencies are a subset of Money*.

Now I have a very broad view about what a currency can be. Generally Anthropologists and Economists set up some sort of definition around its functions. But in the real world, a currency can be anything. I've argued the same for commodity. They're both terms that refer to an aspect of our relationship to something. Whereas in everyday life we think they refer to the thing, itself. In fact, saying thing, isn't actually accurate either. Most currency exists in the abstract, as symbols. And in the form of derivatives, so do many commodities. So rather than thing, what we should say is that a currency (or commodity) refers to our relationship to value. After all, it is this value that makes the symbol a currency and the thing a commodity.  Of course, economonologists would say here that what it actually has is exchange value. (That's where I'd refer them the MOQ and say that they don't have the value, the value has them!)

Anyway, where I wanted to get to with this was to say that I believe that totems were the first currency. (That's a Freudian totem - as in a spiritual representation, usually in the form of an animal, of a group of related people). Odd as this may seem, it's not actually too outlandish (its a conclusion that arises naturally from my understanding of the origins of money [currency] to which I give exposition in my as yet unpublished Owning and Owing essay). My version maybe extreme but there are theories on the origin of money that put forward the idea that money has something to do with the ritualistic sacrifice of oxon and the spits on which meat was distributed, or tokens that were used in temples presumably in recognition of a tribute.

Where this led me to, was to consider that religious artefacts - religious relics in particular - were actually currencies. Obviously not widely circulating currencies (although they did circulate despite strict laws against their sale and purchase), but they undoubtedly acted very successfully as stores of wealth, of value. In fact, in the case of Christ's crown of thorns perhaps the most valuable single item that has ever existed in human history (Louis IX paid over about half of France's annual income for it in 1238).

I think it's our arbitrary definitions of currency - defining it around this or that particular set of functions (see here my recent review of Seaford's Money and the Early Greek Mind) - that prevent us from giving a good answer to the real question, What is Money?

Anyway, the long and the short of it is that a religious icon is a form of money. It's currency.

(Interestingly, this might suggest that the coin in your pocket is a religious icon.)


Secondly, Lila's Doll.

Phaedrus had anchored his boat in a bay. He was concerned about Lila's mental health. Events had conspired to put Lila in the cabin of his boat, hugging a doll that she'd pulled from the river. Lila's real child had died and she was treating the doll as if it was actually her baby, wrapping it in a shirt she had bought for Phaedrus. He was considering what he was going to do about this and how he could help Lila when an old friend of hers, Rigel, who he knew, arrived in his own boat and anchored alongside Phaedrus's boat. After a brief discussion Lila chose to go with Rigel, leaving Phaedrus alone. Lila left her doll on Phaedrus's boat. He wonders what to do with it.

And finally, the passage.

"He [Phaedrus] slipped the shirt over the doll's head. It came down way over the over the doll's feet like a nightshirt. That looked better. He buttoned the collar around its neck. Something about this doll was giving it all kinds of Quality the manufacturer had never built into it. Lila had overlaid a whole set of value patterns on top of it and those values were still clinging to it. It was almost like some religious idol. 

He set it on the edge of the pilot berth, and went back and sat down and stared at it for a while. It looked better with the shirt on. 

An idol, that's what this doll was. It was a genuine religious idol of an abandoned religion of one. It had all those formidable characteristics that idols always have. That's what spooked him. Once they've been ritualized and adored, these idols change in value. You can no more throw them away casually than you can throw an old church statue on a dump." (p.434) (My bold)

As I say this passage really resonated for me. For those of you that have read Lila, I would just say that I think Pirsig is wrong about it being a religion of one. Phaedrus's actions in respect of the doll would allow Lila to believe her reality was shared. It was a genuine religious idol of an abandoned religion of two (at least from Lila's perspective).

Perhaps I'm getting into this too deeply :-)

And having written this out, I'm now not too sure that I've managed to make good music out the resonances I perceive between Pirsig's MOQ and my Money. But its early days.

* The good folks over at Metacurrency don't see it this way. Although they do argue for a very broad definition of currency.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Money Wisdom #42

"What the Metaphysics of Quality adds to [William] James's pragmatism and his radical empiricism is the idea that the primary reality from which subjects and objects spring is value. By doing so it seems unite pragmatism and radical empiricism into a single fabric. Value, the primary test of truth, is also the primary empirical experience. The Metaphysics of Quality says pure experience is value. Experience which is not valued is not experienced. The two are the same. This is where value fits. Value is not at the tail end of a series of superficial scientific deductions that puts it somewhere in a mysterious undetermined location in the cortex of the brain. Value is at the very front of the empirical procession."

Robert Pirsig Lila 2006 (1991) p.395

Friday, June 8, 2012


I've been getting hot under the collar lately.

People got excited about Krugman's newsnight appearance. Fair enough. He's the Boss of economic commentators. But an economics discussion that folk were still tweeting about a week after it happened? Something is going on here. It's Krugmania.

Oh, if only politicians would listen to His wisdom. His modest ways, his stumbling speech. We trust him instinctively. He's John Peel's american cousin who got hooked on Keynes rather than the Cocteau Twins. He's a force for good against the evil of the right-wing, rent-seeking, profit obsessed, monied, warmongering, child-molesting, hamster-stamping, racist elite that conspire to make each of our lives miserable. Imagine if He was President of the World. Justice, peace and prosperity would be upon us and poverty would be history.

In case you're the one person who hasn't seen it, here's it is.

At 1:24 Jeremy makes me cringe. "I don't know why you're shaking your head." He says to Andrea Leadsom. "This is a Nobel prize winning economist!". Even John Moulton prostrates himself before the wisdom of the Krugman.

[Oh, by the way, the argument they're having is as follows. Krugman says the government should spend money to get out of recession, Moulton and Leadsom say they shouldn't.]

Anyway, I need to calm down.

And I need to say this plainly. It's not Krugman I'm annoyed with. It's You!

Have you ever seen the Life of Brian? Well, Krugman is Brian, a very naughty boy. And you lot are what propel him to the status of Messiah. Not helped of course by the twelve inch cock of a Nobel Prize that throbs in his pants. He doesn't have to get it out and slap it in our faces, he doesn't even have to allude to it. Just knowing it's there is more than enough. If you look closely enough at the video you'll see Paxman salivating at the thought of it. A man with a twelve inch cock. On My Show !

Let's forget the fact that Hayek and Friedman have got one too (a Nobel Prize that is - I'll let go of the cock metaphor now). Let's ignore the fact that they'd be saying something very different to Krugman. But please, please, let us remember Hayek's warning about the idea of a Nobel Prize in Economics*. Don't worry, no quote. Hayek's a dry old stick and doesn't deliver the snappiest of phrases. Just the title of his Prize Lecture - 'The Pretence of Knowledge'.

You can't blame Krugman for any of this. What's he to do? Refuse his Nobel Prize? Say no to the Newsnight interview because the debate won't be scientifically rigorous? He's doing his job, and doing it well. I like the cut of the man's jib. I was a bit disappointed with his response post newsnight. He claimed that his opponents in the arguments over austerity were just following a 'small government' (i.e. libertarian) agenda. I'm not saying he's right or wrong about it. There just seems little point in debating these things if you're only going to end up calling into question your opponent's motivations.

But then it's hard for Krugman. As the Blessed One, everyone wants to take a crack at him. There was a big row recently (less noticed by the mainstream media) between him and Steve Keen (who comes from a very different place to Moulton and Leadsom). Any Messiah is going to have his share of disaffected followers. If you're a wannabe messiah pitting yourself against the Blessed One is a great play. There's even an economic theory for it - it explains why the best place to set up a new shoe shop is next to an existing shoe shop. I've forgotten what its called and I don't want reminding, OK?

Of course sometimes things don't work out well for Messiahs. Especially when they claim they really are the son of God. Krugman has avoided this. In fact, when I first came across Krugman's writing as an undergraduate it was, in a sense, his humility that impressed me. He kept things simple. He wrote, as much as possible, in plain English. Said what he thought. You only have to read a few Economics blogs, a couple of newspaper articles to realise how easy most economists find it to speak in tongues. Those that don't succumb to this temptation should be cherished. Cherished, but not worshipped.

At the heart of all this there's a moral question. I think people fall in love with Krugman - I think there's Krugmania - because they like the answer he gives to that moral question. Some people are starving. "Then feed them", says Krugman. "We can grow more grain". What casts doubt in the mind of the farmers is that next year the harvest may fail, and their families may starve. If I were Krugman I'd be tempted to lead a quiet life, like most of the other Nobel Prize winning economists. I suspect that it's his believe in the rightness of his arguments and, even more so, in the righteousness of his answer to that moral question that drives him. But these are not exceptional characteristics.

No, as I said. The problem doesn't lie with Krugman, it lies with You. Or rather, it lies with Us. There's something in our social patterns that leads us to create the Messiahs. And usually it's around Money. Since civilisation began Money has remained an unresolvable puzzle - a paradox. So we look to prophets to guide us through it to the promised land - to the place where there is no longer distance between desire and satisfaction. But they're leading us blindly. And they'll have to take the blame when we get fed up of walking. Then we'll find a new Messiah.

" seems to be the most frequent and convenient axis on which millenarian movements turn."
Kenelm Burridge New Heaven, New Earth (1969) p.146

Can I suggest something then? Rather than Krugmania. Rather than elect Krugman as President of the World - or indeed a logical conclusion of the fetishism of the Nobel Prize would be to suggest that the Swedish Academy Of Sciences actually take over the global economy, after all they award the prizes. Rather than being propelled to walk on blindly by our belief in the possibility of economic paradise born of a technical expertise in the study of economics. Can we instead just stop a moment, and all think a little more deeply about money? After all, it seems quite important.

We could start for example by demanding that anyone who claims to be an economist tweet in 140 characters or less what they think money is (well, actually 127 characters or less once you includes the #whatismoney hashtag). It'd be lovely if other experts on Money - the ones that use it everyday (that is, all of us) - did the same. But economists particularly should be made to do it as an initiation into the Econ Tribe. Nail their colours to the mast, so to speak.

To start the ball rolling here's mine. 

"Money is to price, as gravity is to weight. #whatismoney"

I was going to go for something like, "Money is both the fundamental element and product of social reality. #whatismoney". But that's hardly plain speaking, is it? Neither would be saying that "Money is a commodity used to facilitate exchange", or "Money is a social relation expressed through exchange". I mean, tweet what you like, obviously, but I'm just trying to point out that explaining what you think money is, is no use if its meaning is buried too deeply.

Saying it simply is much more of a challenge. That would make a good Krugmantra.

One last thing. Don't start your tweet "Money is just...". If there's one thing we all know, it's that Money ain't just anything.

*The Nobel Prize in Economics was established in 1968 by the Swedish Central Bank. The other Nobel Prizes, like the one Einstein won, have been awarded since 1901.

Money Wisdom #41

"Many... philosophers... stayed out of politics, but nobody can stay out of the economy"

Richard Seaford Money and the Early Greek Mind 2004 p.184

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Money Wisdom #40

" The law of gravity, for example, is perhaps the most ruthlessly static pattern of order in the universe. So, correspondingly, there is no single living thing that does not thumb its nose at that law day in and day out. One could almost define life as the organized disobedience of the law of gravity. One could show that the degree to which an organism disobeys this law is a measure of its degree of evolution. Thus, while the simple protozoa just barely get around on their cilia, earthworms manage to control their distance and direction, birds fly into the sky, and man goes all the way to the moon."

Robert Pirsig Lila 2006 (1991) p.155

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A Review of Money and the Early Greek Mind by Richard Seaford

Seaford's language is difficult at times, in fact quite a lot of the time. He assumes his reader has a deep knowledge of Ancient Greek History - which I don't and was therefore often searching Wikipedia and the like to gain context. I also didn't like the structure of his book. And sometimes he said things that made me wonder if he's missed the point. There was a moment on page 112 when I was tempted to give up.

"As currency precious metal has advantages over iron. It is rarer and more valuable, and so can embody monetary value in pieces that are smaller and more easily concealable and portable than spits." (bold highlighting is my own)

So you may wonder why I've given it a full 5 stars? Because at its best it's brilliantly insightful; one of the most important books on the origin of money of recent times.

But first my criticisms. I can live with the first two. Both just required a bit more effort on my part. Besides, I guess the book was originally written for a readership of Greek Scholars and has garnered broader attention by being cited in writing on the origins of money (in particular Graeber's Debt - the first 5000 years). Regarding the quote; I see this as circular reasoning - isn't he just saying that a silver coin is valuable because its silver and not iron? I read the book as someone interested in Money rather than ancient Greece or the development of Philosophy, so I might be overly sensitive to this sort of thing. I was left asking if Seaford wants us to believe in a commodity theory of money - the rarity of silver? - or to believe in a social relations theory of money - the sharing of sacrifice? I'll happily dismiss both, or consider a conflation of the two, but Seaford should tell me from where he thinks money came. He does tell us at length what he thinks money is. And this leads me to the most serious criticism of this book; the structure of his argument.

Seaford defines money early in his book. Clearly he feels it is important to do so and later he criticises others who have been less rigorous in defining what they mean by money. In essence Seaford's definition is functional - money is, what money does. When he looks for examples of this money stuff  the reader is not surprised that he finds the first significant instances of it in Ancient Greece. If I defined music as having a 4/4 time signature with an accentuated backbeat, I would find music was born in 1950's America  in the form of rock n roll. In Seaford's defence he is only doing what many Anthropologists have done before. But for me his argument - that Greece is a special case because its coinage, its money, differentiates it from the Near Eastern civilisations - is undermined. Surely it would be possible to construct functionalist definitions of money to preclude or include any particular society or historical period? The discourse he cites between Polanyi & Veenhof being a case in point. In addition you have arguments - such as that presented by Joel Kaye in Economy and Nature in the Fourteenth Century - which make similar claims about the effects of monetisation, but in reference Medieval Philosophy (& proto-science) and its difference to Greek Philosophy.

Fortunately, almost inevitably, Seaford steps outside of these self imposed constraints. And then we move from a difficult book with a flawed thesis to a sublime work which offers deep insights into the nature of Money and its relationship to Mind. Just a few dozen pages after the frustration of the passage quoted above I was rewarded for my perseverance with Chapter Eight - The Features of Money. And it's here that Seaford really begins to hit his stride. The detail in the opening chapters is interesting - particularly on Laum's spits & sacrifice - but from Chapter Eight the quality of Seaford's insights into the nature of money begin to match his obvious mastery of Greek literature. He is clearly fascinated by money's metaphysical mystery - its impersonal/personal nature, its unlimitedness, the paradox of concrete abstractedness, and its simultaneous sameness and distinctiveness. It's a fascination that's infectious and it propelled me through the remainder of the book. At times I was reminded of Simmel's Philosophy of Money. There is more than a hint of psychoanalysis in Seaford examination, and I wanted more of this. His thoughts on these fuzzy ideas about money and their relation to the Greeks is what really made this book for me. (They also serve to highlight the limitations of a functionalist definition of Money)

Its a tough read - especially if you're not a Greek scholar. I've unintentionally spent more time criticising the book in this review than praising it. So I need to say this without equivocation; if you're interested in, or studying, the origins of money you must read this book. The rewards far exceed the (considerable) effort required. My wish is that Professor Seaford write a book for the general reader on Money and Midas. A freer reign on his thoughts and feelings about money combined with his knowledge and understanding of Greek mythology would make for a fascinating book on a myth that everyone knows.

This review appears on Amazon here. If you enjoyed my review please do give me a click on the YES button where it says 'Was this review helpful to you'.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Money Wisdom #39

"... It isn't Lila that has quality; it's Quality that has Lila. Nothing can have Quality. To have something is to possess it, and to possess something is to dominate it. Nothing dominates Quality. If there's domination and possession involved, it's Quality that dominates and possesses Lila. She's created by it."

Robert Pirsig Lila 2006 (1991) p.150

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A Ramble on Value & Growth

I've been thinking about Quality & Value lately. Inevitable when you're reading Pirsig (ZenMM & Lila - I'm currently a few chapters into Lila). Today when selecting music to play whilst doing domestic duties I came across this:

Now, it's not bad. Obviously accomplished musicians, good voices etc. And the blonde lady is very attractive. But there seems a vast difference in Quality when you compare it to this.

There's nothing that really lends itself to objective measurement about why one is higher Quality than the other. It could be about an authentic connection to the song? Whatever, it's all subjective. And yet there it is. A feeling for me, at least, of a tangible difference in Quality. And weirdly, it's not even really in what you hear or see, it's just there in the moment. I could watch Candice Night all day long, and it wouldn't really matter if Ian Gillan had hit bum notes, the Deep Purple video would still be of much higher Quality. I'd even hazard a guess that everyone in the Blackmore's Night video would agree with this. Even Richie Blackmore, himself.


I've mentioned in a previous post the connection I perceive between Pirsig's conception of Quality (or Value, if you prefer - Pirsig says they're the same thing) and my conception of Money. I wonder what the relationship is between the difference in Quality of these two videos and the increase in Value that we associate with economic growth - not in mundane sense (as in which one sold more t-shirts or recordings) but more in a metaphysical sense; what is the relationship between Quality in music and Growth.

I nearly considered this issue before in my dissertation (here's a revised more reader friendly version of it). But I chickened out that time - there's only the very slightest reference to it. Let me try to make the idea more explicit, now.

People get used to using and seeing the term Economic Growth - they see it as a pretty solid thing. A proxy for a change in our general sense of well being. Of course, it's not solid at all. GDP - the most common measure for economic growth - has been referred to as an empty abstraction by the Austrians. And those on the other side of the fence aren't too keen on it either. I remember TFP (Total Factor Productivity) being a popular alternative measure of growth when I was studying. But there's also HDI (Human Development Index), ISEW (Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare), and even GNH (Gross National Happiness). All of these try to measure something to do with the change in the Quality of our life.

It's important to remember that the measures aren't it. They're not actually the thing. They're a way of getting a handle on the thing. I thought music might provide a glimpse of the thing itself. A whisper of the truth that underlies this improving Quality that we experience as economic growth.

In my mind a new musical genre is an increase in Value - or more precisely, it is an expansion of our experience of Value. Recognising genres helped to put those changes in Value in a time frame which allowed me to look at what was happening in the market for music when a particular genre was born.

Of course, the harder you look for music genres the more of them appear. And consequently it becomes harder and harder to see their Value. The growth that seems so clear when you look at the development of Rock n Roll from its Folk and Blues roots is much harder to see in the development of Grindcore from Industrial Metal and Hardcore Punk. Although granted, proponents of Grindcore may argue otherwise.

I don't think I was successful in trying to expose the relationship of new genres to economic growth. Nevertheless, I still think it's there. I can still feel it. I still think I can sense it in the difference between two performances of the same song (as above). But I couldn't tell a believable story about it. I couldn't find a way round the problem of subjectivity vs objectivity. I've since discovered, of course, that Pirsig has a lot of interesting stuff to say about this.

So, this thing - this economic growth, money thing, quality, value whatever you want to call it - has been on my mind for a long while. And I do tend to see it wherever I look.


I took the dog for a walk after I'd watched the music videos. It was a beautiful day. Sunny with a warm summer breeze. I stood on the top of a hill, on one side of a valley and looked down across a field of wheat. Still green. I could see it shimmer in the sun as the wind skipped across it. I watched waves ripple through the field as the wind blew down along the valley. It looked and sounded like the sea. Wheat needs wind. Too much can flatten it and in the commercial production of wheat wind is viewed as a bad thing. But without it wheat wouldn't exist. Nor would we, of course.

I imagined each sheaf of wheat as a person - in fact, as an economic agent - being tossed to and fro by the winds of economic change, striving to grow in the face of uncertainty. It seemed like a good analogy and I wondered how 'economist-wheat-sheaves' would explain it.

[ Now you may say that biological growth is very different from economic growth (or the increase in Value that I tried to explore through music genres). But I'm not so sure. Wheat grows in relation to its DNA, the resources of our planet, and *something else*. Its tempting to believe that science explains everything completely. But it doesn't. Even for something as simple as Wheat there are many mysteries. Depending on what you believe, that *something else* can be God's plan, a morphic field, or some other explanation for the unexplained. For me, that *something else* - the unexplained bit - has to do with Money, Value, or Quality - a type of resonance to which we and wheat seem connected (I'll admit, that does sound close to both the morphic and the godhead explanations). ]

Let me leave that there. So, the economist-wheat-sheaves.

When I look down from my privileged position on the hill, it's immediately apparent that economist-wheat-sheaves are subjective. They're are right down there amongst the rest of the wheat.

There'd still be a whole bunch of wheat that regarded the wind as divine. Not the economist-wheat-sheaves of course. The only belief common to them is that they're sheaves of science. The Wind is divine ! Pah ! Wind is made of Air. Therefore it is our actions upon the Air to which we must look to explain Wind. The origins of how the first Wind was invented are a bit of a mystery. But great wheat-sheaf-economists of the past had looked hard at this question, and decided it wasn't important.

Things had moved on. Theories had been worked out. Positions established.

The Austrian-Economist-Wheat-Sheaves (AEWS) see each sheaf bowing and bending according to its own will and in response to the actions of the sheaves around it. The air is neutral; wind is a result of the millions of tiny movements by individual sheaves. Hence wind is a resource limited by the bending and bowing, the whims and desires, of individual sheaves. Too much wind is just an indication that the sheaves should stiffen up, stop all this reckless movement before they fall over completely. It's unfortunate that some do fall flat but for air to be in equilibrium, actions must have consequences.

Modern-Monetary-Wheat-Sheaf-Theorists (MMWST) also see the wind as created by the movement of the sheaves themselves. They call it endogenous wind creation. But they wouldn't regard the air as neutral. If wind is created by the movement of the sheaves, then the air must be too. It's actually a lack of wind that causes sheaves to fall over. If the wind blows from the south they'd say, what we need to do is encourage more wind to blow from the north. To do this we must create more air. And air is really just still wind. So we can avoid sheaves being flattened by coordinating the efforts of all sheaves to make counter-veiling winds.

The Austrians would mock the Monetarists. They'd ask by what right do they seek to curb the liberty of each sheaf to bend and bow as it pleases. Coordination, they'd claim is just another word for slavery. The wind is theirs, individually. It was created by them individually and each individual is in the best position to know how to move. The Monetarists would call the Austrians cruel for ignoring the plight of those sheaves flattened by the wind. They'd say that the prospects for the field as a whole would be better served by the community of sheaves helping the individuals to bend and bow in the right way - to benefit all. The Austrians would be aghast. How do you know what is the right and what is the wrong way to move? they'd ask. If sheaves make mistakes in the way they move the wind punishes them. Its natural, they'd claim. Of course the Monetarists wouldn't see it like that at all. The 'natural' thing to do would be to help a neighbour in trouble.

In the middle of course would be the pragmatists. The Neo-Classical-Wheat-Sheaves (NCWS). Having identified AEWS and the MMWST as the outliers in the sheaves' dualist experience of the world, the NCWS would win over opinion with an appeal to monism and moderation. Forget the purity of thought of the outliers, they'd say, the world in which we wheat sheaves grow is not perfect. What we need is an explanation of events that is resilient enough to reassure us, yet flexible enough to adapt to circumstance. And so they'd say 'probably' and 'it's likely that' and 'on balance' and they'd get lots of letters after their names. One or two would be awarded the Nabisco international 'Prize in Economic Sciences'. The highest honour accorded to any wheat-sheaf-economist. The general populous of sheaves would hear their reasonable tone, be impressed with their credentials, and generally be too busy swaying and frowing in the wind to worry too much about the theories of the economist-wheat-sheaves. So the outliers would be dismissed by most of the wheat sheaves. Only when a storm hits would they think about the wind again, for a moment. Then when a still day came once more, they would just bask in the sunshine and grow.

From up here on the hill though, you can see that they're all wrong. You can see how the wind flows over and through the wheat. And that although each sheaf does move like its neighbours, the wind is really what moves them all. It's a force they cannot control. It's not of their making. Rather, it has made them.


I go back to those wheat fields often. In a few weeks I'll be there and I'll no longer be able to see even the tip of the dog's tail wagging as she chases the birds who hover above the fields. The wheat will have grown tall and turned to gold. 

I was reading something the other day that suggested that surplus wheat was our first real commodity. That it was instrumental in our creation of the idea of debt and credit - and so, of course in the birth of money. I'm not convinced of that, myself. I think that's a bit like thinking that we make the wind, and that air is just still wind.

Pirsig's way of expressing 'science fact' is illuminating. This is how I think he'd express the 'facts' about wind using his Metaphysics of Quality:
The air in a high pressure area values movement towards a low pressure area.
Anyway this has been a long and random ramble through Value and Growth. I was intending to take a look at uncertainty along the way and then stop off at morality. Remembering of course that economics itself was born as a 'Moral Science'. But I've gone far enough already. Morality is a tricky one anyway.

Sweet child in time, you'll see the line.
The line that's drawn between good and bad.
Blackmore, Gillan, Glover, Lord, Paice Child in Time (1970)