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