Tag Archives: faith

In Lightning Memory: A Philosophical Dictionary à la Baroncelli

The following definitions combine insightful personal memories and personally memorable insights that I recall from, and associate with, Flavio Baroncelli (1944–2007) qua eloquent and witty teacher, brilliant and ingenious writer, fast and sharp conversationalist, generous and kind human being, and committed promoter of the teacher- and student exchange programmes linking together Iceland, my adoptive country, and the University of Genoa, my alma mater. Not all of them must be taken literally or too seriously; besides, I would not agree with some of them myself! All of them are, however, sincere tokens of gratitude, friendship and love to a truly remarkable individual, who enjoyed entertaining and shocking his audiences, but above all liked making them think, debate, and think some more. Furthermore, these definitions are a creative and inevitably poor attempt at exemplifying for the Anglophone public the sort of pithy and humorous style that, inter alia, made Baroncelli famous in Italy in his day.

 

Actuality

Another word for potentiality.

 

Addiction

A disease mistaken for moral failure.

 

Adulation

Causing pleasure by sly words, even when the listener knows that they are lies. Philosophers, in their stately parlance, would call it a perlocutionary speech act.

 

Advertising

The daily demonstration of how little control we have over our own will.

 

Agnosticism

A polite way for educated people to be open-minded pluralists in theory but narrow-minded atheists in practice.

 

Analysis (of concepts)

The bizarre tendency to turn ambiguous profundity into unambiguous superficiality.

 

Analytic (philosophy)

A typically modern attempt at making self-conscious philosophers sound like respectable scientists.

 

Banking

The best way to acquire power in a capitalist society, especially if one wishes to destroy it.

 

Beauty (physical)

One of the most important life-defining characteristics that a person can have the good luck to possess and that philosophers keep stating not to matter.

 

Bedroom

A seemingly private place where both neighbours and State authorities seem often eager to enter.

 

Brotherhood

The least understood yet most important principle of the French Revolution: without a modicum of genuinely felt compassion among fellow citizens, both liberty and equality will get used to ruin someone else’s life.

 

Censorship

A dangerous and stupid way not to listen to dangerous and stupid claims.

 

Chickens

When rasping hopelessly and continuously on a hard road surface, they exemplify instinctual behaviour as opposed to deliberate.

 

Cigarettes

Powerful, sweet, devious killers.

 

Clarity

The curse of any philosopher who may wish to come across as deep, original and worthy of enduring attention.

 

Coherence (aka consistency)

The unhealthy obsession with getting rid of all the instances of personal diversity, creativity, capriciousness and experimentalism that make individual life interesting and collective life possible.

 

Communism

The 20th-century political scarecrow that, for the duration of about one generation, made the de iure liberal countries of the world be actually a little more liberal than their de facto oligarchic past and present flag out.

 

Compassion

The most important virtue cultivated by Christianity.

 

Complaining

Generally loathed by the very same people who have most reason to complain—an instance of slave morality.

 

Continental (philosophy)

A not-so-modern attempt at making self-important philosophers sound like profound mystics.

 

Courage

Someone else’s form of madness.

 

Culture

The folklore of the rich.

 

Daydreaming

Coping with far-too-real nightmares.

 

Defecation

Its training in infancy reveals how people prefer freedom to be qualified and circumscribed.

 

Discipline (and Punish)

The most important book by Michel Foucault, who taught us that the more societies publicly incense liberty and call themselves “liberal”, the less freedom common people truly enjoy in order to do as they please.

 

Dogs

The ideal sort of loyal, selfless, hard-working and simple-mindedly grateful employees that employers would like to have.

 

Economics (contemporary)

A branch of mathematics mistaken for empirical science.

 

Economics (modern)

A branch of philosophy mistaken for empirical science.

 

Emancipation

The possibility for all people to be as bad and as silly as the rich and powerful minorities frequently are.

 

Euphemism

See “Get lost!” below.

 

Evolution

It is only after Darwin that people understood what the heck Lucretius and Telesio were talking about.

 

Exceptions (making)

The first step towards tolerance and pluralism.

 

Faith

An option generally available only to a person who stops doubting.

 

Folklore

The culture of the poor.

 

Geese

Birds that can be confused with swans, especially in Iceland.

 

Geometry

An exact formal science that can be used rhetorically as a persuasive labelling method for inexact metaphysical reasonings.

 

Get (lost!)

Uttered in a timely fashion, it can save a person the trouble of having to answer a difficult question.

 

Greek

If ancient, it is an excellent way to display one’s own erudition.

 

Health

The true source of happiness, yet regularly forgotten until missing.

 

Hegel (Georg Friedrich)

A typical German philosopher, he wrote several tomes to demonstrate that nothing stays the same.

 

History (of ideas)

A way to find out why we think the way we think.

 

Homologation

The equalising social process deplored by anthropologists whereby identifying the poor, the outcast, the loathed, the derided and the downtrodden becomes a little less easy.

 

Hume (David)

An uncharacteristically prodigal Scotsman, he noticed that the only way to be sure that all matches in the box do work is to light them all up.

 

Ideology

A set of loosely interconnected concepts, some of which may be even mutually contradictory, that allow people to feel justified in their claims and actions, or at least to project an air of justification for them.

 

Illness

The demonstration of the bodily basis of the mind.

 

Indifference

The least acknowledged yet most important virtue in a pluralist society: by caring little about what other people believe or do, mutual tolerance can be the norm.

 

Insight (aka Intuition)

Prejudice we like.

 

Institutions

The remarkable social invention whereby to preserve the memory of past errors and make the inexorably ignorant new generations less likely to repeat them.

 

Jokes

A valuable means of instruction that can reach even those who do not wish to be instructed.

 

Kant (Immanuel)

A typical German philosopher, he wrote two tomes to undo an earlier one.

 

Knowledge

That which philosophers seek and analyse most, and yet have the least of.

 

Language

The precious and inevitable source of all misunderstandings.

 

Lashes (by whip)

As long as someone else gets more than yourself, most slaves will not rebel against slavery.

 

Latin

Another good way to show one’s own erudition.

 

Liberalism

The political wisdom teaching that State authority should be used only to protect a person from her worst enemy: her neighbours.

 

Life

A rather bothersome business, but also the only one in town.

 

Lust

An open motive among men; less so among women. Gender equality’s lewd horizon.

 

Magic

Another way to understand religion.

 

Marx (Karl)

A typical German philosopher, he wrote several tomes to demonstrate that, normally, if the employer gains, the employee loses out—and vice versa.

 

Mixed (marriage)

The easiest and fastest way to explain why a marriage did not last. No such option is available for divorces between people of the same ethnic origin, the explanation of which may then take years of keen psychological scrutiny.

 

Montaigne (Michel de)

His essays became so famous and commonplace that later philosophers forgot to mention the source of the ideas they discussed and, eventually, Montaigne himself. There can be such a thing as too much fame.

 

More (Thomas)

Great wisdom expressed with clarity.

 

Nietzsche (Friedrich)

An atypical German philosopher, he wrote aphorisms to acknowledge a major yet neglected motive of human thought and action: resentment.

 

Nothingness

The likeliest outcome of a person’s life, which we spend trying not to think about it.

 

Order

In practice, the supreme official principle of social life.

 

Originality

The future outcome of the present ignorance about the past.

 

Pain (and Pleasure)

The fabric of our inner tapestry.

 

Philosophy

When good, it is the playful use of our imagination and of our reason in order to break apart, toy with and recombine concepts, beliefs and habits of thought, in order to make better sense of them. When bad, it is the skillful use of our imagination and of our reason in order to do the same and be even more confused in the end.

 

Poetry

An artificial reminder of life’s beauty.

 

Political (correctness)

The ungainly social process whereby the less respected members of a community can have a chance to be paid a little more respect.

 

Pornography

A widespread yet uncomfortable signpost of liberal freedom.

 

Potentiality

Another word for actuality.

 

Poverty

A person’s attribute that, if conspicuous, makes other significant attributes deplorable or intolerable to the surrounding individuals: age, race, religious affiliation, ignorance, ugliness, etc.

 

Prejudice

Insights we dislike.

 

Pride

A vice leading frequently to virtuous behaviour.

 

Quality

Often confused with quantity.

 

Quantity

Often confused with quality.

 

Questions

The best instrument available to reveal how ignorant we are, no matter the number of university degrees we may have.

 

Race

A historically popular but unnecessary notion which justifies people being nasty to one another. In its absence, freckles or bad pronunciation can serve the same purpose.

 

Radicalism

The art of making outlandish ideas sound plausible, thus duly impressing unsuspecting young minds and potential sexual partners.

 

Reason

The perplexing faculty to take apart whatever solid conclusion we had reached before.

 

Rhetoric

The unjustly neglected study of how language shapes people’s life under all circumstances.

 

Righteousness

The most dangerous virtue cultivated by Christianity.

 

Scepticism

Unwise over-intelligent overthinking—it is by far too delightful an endeavour for most philosophers to resist the temptation of indulging in it despite their own better judgment.

 

Sparrows

A natural reminder of life’s beauty.

 

Spinoza (Baruch)

Great wisdom could be expressed with more clarity.

 

Stratification

Having someone below you is usually more important than having someone above—another instance of slave morality.

 

Stupidity

The regularly underplayed yet visibly increased outcome of greater freedom in human societies.

 

Swans

Birds that can be confused with geese, especially in Iceland.

 

Syllogism

A structured way of thinking and talking that allows the person using it to come across as astoundingly intelligent and thereby force another to shut up, even if the latter may actually be right.

 

Tolerance

The socially crucial ability to endure people we dislike.

 

Toleration

The perplexing notion whereby tolerance is not enough in society, for we must also like the people that we dislike.

 

Torture

The most efficient way to get bad information from innocent weaklings and no information at all from guilty brutes.

 

Transubstantiation

To modern eyes, an old form of cannibalism.

 

Ugliness (physical)

One of the most important life-defining characteristics that a person can have the ill luck to possess and that philosophers keep stating not to matter.

 

Unpleasantness

That from which all great ideologies wish to free us once and for all, but which all great historians tell us we must accept for any human endeavour to have a chance to work at all.

 

Urination

See defecation.

 

Violence

Whether threatened or applied, it is in practice the supreme unofficial principle of social life.

 

Voltaire

The best example of how being a master of style condemns a man to being remembered as a minor thinker.

 

Wealth

A person’s attribute that, if conspicuous, makes other significant attributes invisible to the surrounding individuals: age, race, religious affiliation, ignorance, ugliness, etc.

 

Will

We like thinking of it as free, despite all contrary evidence.

 

Wittgenstein (Ludwig)

A Continental philosopher mistaken for an analytical one.

 

Xanadu

One of the many words for the imaginary place of endless joy that all cultures have concocted and that only some silly philosophers would state not to want to go to.

 

Youth

The time of peak performance in a person’s life, the rest of which is spent trying to make use of ridiculous concepts that can help that person to enjoy some respect and self-respect: the wisdom of old age, the charm of grey hair, the value of experience, etc.

 

Zionist

Often confused with “Jewish” and “Israeli”, it can be combined with them in the following matrix:

Jewish, Israeli and Zionist

Non-Jewish, Israeli and Zionist

Jewish, Non-Israeli and Zionist

Jewish, Israeli and Non-Zionist

Non-Jewish, Non-Israeli and Zionist

Jewish, Non-Israeli and Non-Zionist

Non-Jewish, Israeli and Non-Zionist

Non-Jewish, Non-Israeli and Non-Zionist

Jonathan Schlefer, The Assumptions Economists Make (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012)

 

Indeed, a culture of superficial self-examination is laid bare in Jonathan Schlefer’s monograph The Assumptions Economists Make. Moreover, he provides evidenced accounts of confirmation bias, forgetfulness, denial, indifference and outright ignorance permeating mainstream economic theory and practice. So extensive and consistent is this across both centuries and organisations that it suggests some form of institutionalised mass delusion. Neither a critic of, nor an apologist for capitalism, Schlefer is really an old fashioned seeker of truth and knowledge. He is more interested in how economists think, than in the ‘causes’ of the crisis. In this sense, he is taking a step back to look at how theoretical arguments are made in economics, and how the discipline functions as a crucible for truth. Schlefer is a political scientist who ‘took several graduate-level courses in economics at MIT and Harvard, multivariate calculus and all’. In this way, the Harvard Business School research associate offers us the penetration of an outsider, who is nonetheless both informed and connected.

 

Economists, he says, form simplified assumptions which they use as the foundations for imaginary worlds. These ‘models’ are used to draw practical lessons: the bedrock of policy. Schlefer intends to explain to us their various structures such that we can more fully understand key disputes in economic theory. Since he does this without mathematics, he is surely translating for a non-economist audience. Instead of equations and graphs, Schlefer describes each model using simplistic metaphors and analogies. It is nonetheless complex material that requires work, so this is unlikely to appeal to the majority of the general public.

 

Schlefer focuses on each model through the lens of its assumptions, so he renders its structure objectively, in its advocates’ own terms. Set in their historic social, political, economic and theoretical contexts, their assumptions also indicate how theorists interpret their world. Schlefer uncovers the mode in which they build from this in order to draw conclusions and make policy. He thus critiques the plausibility of their assumptions, their methods of reasoning and the validity of their conclusions. A largely chronological succession of economic models is scrutinised in this way throughout chapters three to fourteen. However, they do not form a comprehensive history of economic theory. Rather Schlefer deconstructs only a selection. Through these he traces the ancestral line of economic thought leading to those current models most pertinent to the crisis. Schlefer thus shines a light not only on individual theorists’ thinking, but also on distinctive styles of reasoning across time. He peppers this chronology with copious references to economic policy and education.

 

Before commencing his central work, he frames it thematically with two quite explosive opening chapters. An almost always unstated assumption he says, indispensable for dominant mainstream theory and free market policies, is that Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ is an authentic mechanism which, if left alone to function, inevitably leads markets to an optimal equilibrium. For some three decades now, Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium (DSGE) models have dominated academic, commercial and government circles throughout the West; notably among central banks, which still use them. This is despite the fact that their ‘invisible hand’ foundation has been proven to be not a mechanism, but a mere metaphor. It was generally concluded in the 1970s, Schlefer says, that ‘no mechanism can be shown to lead decentralized markets to equilibrium’. His opening chapter takes us through a century of failed attempts to model the ‘invisible hand’, examining in depth the canonical 1954 Arrow-Debreu model and its dozen preposterous assumptions, on its own terms. How is it possible, Schlefer asks, that a ‘supposedly scientific theory’ can be ‘founded on pure faith’ in a discredited metaphor?

 

His second chapter turns to education, arguing that while the history of economic thought has ‘all but vanished from graduate programs’, the most successful economics textbooks seem little more than ideological propaganda. He shows them consistently excluding facts, contradictions and complications. Those textbooks which do discuss such inconveniences are ignored or, in one shameful episode, withdrawn by university departments following financial pressure from ideologically motivated external donors. Schlefer also shows how textbooks and courses blur the distinction between two-dimensional abstract models and reality. Some students, he says, ‘feel cheated, as if they were watching a magician put on a stage show, the workings for which are hidden out of sight. Others like the stage show better than the messy everyday world’.

 

As Schlefer works through the models, reality’s ‘messiness’ seems to provoke two styles of theorising. It is acknowledged by classical theorists through Keynes to the structuralists and ecologists: economy is bound up with society and technology. This seems to connect with the emerging interest in complexity theory, briefly covered in the final chapter. Conversely, for the early economist-politicians, neo-classical theorists and monetarists, messiness is avoided: economy is an isolated object. Their exclusion of fuzzy interdependencies underpins today’s DSGE models. These assume that economies are autonomous objects, thwarted from reaching their mythological equilibrium by ‘external’ shocks.

 

Schlefer’s fastidious dismantling of each model’s nuts and bolts locates errors in reasoning across the board. However, most of many implausible assumptions, tautologies and examples of circular logic are shown to be among neo-classical models and their descendants. Despite their claims to scientific veracity, Schlefer exposes an unbroken history of convenient invention. Repeatedly, he shows exemplifies how DSGE models are constructed on an historical pedigree of unexplained workings, misrepresentation, obscurantism, bogus or bizarre claims, arbitrary labels, unexplained magical forces, misleading arguments, false conclusions and illegitimate revisions. Proofs against their invented mechanisms are routinely forgotten or ignored, which Schlefer often finds ‘strange’, ‘weird’ or ‘mind-boggling’. Such practices culminate with the ‘shoehorning’ of Keynesianism into neo-classical models to form a basis for DSGE modelling. This assimilation is largely prompted by rational expectations thinking and constructed on the idea that ‘aggregated’ macroeconomic models can truly represent their microeconomic siblings. Schlefer tears it apart.

 

Teeming with jargon and frequently contested, misappropriated or distorted meanings, a non-economist can soon become lost. This demands exceptionally clear writing and here Schlefer could do better. His historical accounts and anecdotal examples are breezy, but his technical material requires intense concentration. This is not helped when model evaluations are interwoven with complex discussions on policy. Separating them would aid clarity. The exclusion of mathematics does make this wonderfully accessible, but Schlefer’s excellent metaphorical descriptions of models might be easier to absorb with just a few simple, non-mathematical illustrations. In-text cross-referencing would help us to link together the dense tangle of concepts. This also needs clear signposting: chapter headings and sub-headings could avoid poetic summation and simply state the subject matter. There is an excellent 670 entry index, but a glossary or even additional index of differently used meanings would be practically useful. In short, this deserves to be a textbook. We are listening, but please slow down and spell this out more carefully.

 

Because what Schlefer says is surely important: the DSGE models, which require ‘incredible’ assumptions and still determine our economic fate, did not predict the crisis precisely because they cannot admit the possibility of a crisis. Moreover, models which did predict it were ignored (and remain so), the ‘Great Moderation’ was and is a myth (it ignores several crashes), and the past thirty years of mainstream academic research was useless when the crisis struck. All this exposes an academic field which is not fit for purpose. Schlefer’s economics is a rogue discipline of mythology and pure faith; a crucible not for truth, but for ideology masquerading as science. He calls for a tighter scientific approach and recommends four simple criteria for making good assumptions including, astonishingly, stating them. As if to confirm Schlefer’s point, mainstream media reviews of this book omit any mention of these issues, as though he never wrote about them. Perhaps Schlefer’s thinking can only be developed outside of economics.

 

References

 

Colander, D., Föllmer, H., Haas, A., Goldberg, M., Juselius, K., Kirman, A., . . . Sloth, B. (2009, February). The Financial Crisis and the Systemic Failure of Academic Economics. Retrieved February 22, 2013, from Kiel Institute for the World Economy: http://www.ifw-members.ifw-kiel.de/publications/the-financial-crisis-and-the-systemic-failure-of-academic-economics/KWP_1489_ColanderetalFinancial%20Crisis.pdf

ECB. (2012, December). Eurosystem Staff Macroeconomic Projections For The Euro Area. Retrieved February 26, 2013, from European Central Bank: http://www.ecb.int/pub/pdf/other/eurosystemstaffprojections201212en.pdf

Rogoff, K. (2013, February 11). Don’t blame the Federal Reserve for not predicting the financial crisis. Retrieved February 22, 2013, from The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2013/feb/11/federal-reserve-blame-financial-crisis

University of Pennsylvania. (2009, May 13). Why Economists Failed to Predict the Financial Crisis. Retrieved February 22, 2013, from Knowledge@Wharton>: http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article.cfm?articleid=2234

 


[1] See for example: Colander, et al., (2009); Rogoff, (2013); and University of Pennsylvania, (2009). Schlefer points out that in fact it was forecast, just not by the mainstream; see main text further down.

[2] For example, the European Central Bank and its national Central Bank affiliates continue to produce macroeconomic projections for the Euro Area using procedures and techniques that were set out in 2001. An ECB report of December 2012 states that: “The Eurosystem staff macroeconomic projections are produced jointly by experts from the ECB and the euro area NCBs. …More information on the procedures and techniques used is given in ‘A guide to Eurosystem staff macroeconomic projection exercises’, ECB, June 2001, which is available on the ECB’s website” (ECB, 2012).