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Weekend read – The trouble with words

Summary:
From Peter Radford Words are not ideas.  They are our means to capture ideas and make them tangible.  The problem is that words are a porous net that inevitably lets some accuracy slip away, but sometimes captures irrelevant detail that shines brightly in the moment and then dulls in the light of later thought. Trying to define something so a discussion can follow without ambiguity in meaning sliding in and muddying things.  Slippery isn’t it? How about this: “I sometimes wish we could take the energy expended on these antimacassar hand-me-down “rules” and apply it to working out a way to use awkwardly broad words like inclusion, equity, liberty and racism more clearly. The ever-evolving meanings of these words has a way of creating genuine misunderstandings — try defining

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from Peter Radford

Trying to define something so a discussion can follow without ambiguity in meaning sliding in and muddying things.  Slippery isn’t it?

How about this:

“I sometimes wish we could take the energy expended on these antimacassar hand-me-down “rules” and apply it to working out a way to use awkwardly broad words like inclusion, equity, liberty and racism more clearly. The ever-evolving meanings of these words has a way of creating genuine misunderstandings — try defining “neoliberalism” — to the point of actually impeding communication.”

That’s John McWhorter in the New York Times a couple of days ago.  He teaches linguistics.

Try defining “neoliberalism”?

He’s been chatting too much with his fellow academics in the economics department.  They are the last people to ask.  Neoliberalism is easy to define.  It’s just that its definition keeps offending people who want to be neoliberal without having the recent taint associated with it rub off on them.  Or, at least that’s my opinion.

And when I say neoliberal is easy to define I must remind you that it is a term used most often in discussions about the political-economy of the past forty to fifty years.

It is Reaganism.  It is Thatcherism.  It is Friedman.  It is Hayek.  It is all of the above and the various hangers-on who sought to destroy, or at least denigrate, anything social.  After all, as we have been reminded incessantly, social is one step away from tyranny.  I think “serfdom” is a word used somewhere to help us all understand the perils of social.

Academics, of course, love specificity.  They, like all technocrats, live in a world of precision bordering on the absurd.  They love argument over the finest of differences.   Whole careers can be made or destroyed by the finer parsing of something that previously had been commonplace, but imprecise.

I am being harsh.  The problem is that technocrats adore the constant division of knowledge into ever smaller nooks and crannies.  They burrow into ever smaller divides and make themselves at home by substituting depth for breadth.  Anything that doesn’t fit within their enclave is tossed overboard presumably to land in someone else’s.

And yet …

Economists are really terrible at definitions.  What, for instance is “labor”?  You might find it odd for something as central as labor — central that is to economic theory-making — could be so ill defined.

What, exactly is it?

All you have to do to understand the importance of this problem of definition is to spend some time loitering about in the abundance of literature concerning growth.

Theories of growth are central to the discipline of economics.  From the general perspective, having our technocrats come up with a good theory of growth, one that fits history and helps us navigate how to approach the future, seems to be a crucial element of the social value of economics.  It is certainly something that has exercised many of the best economists through the years.  From the earliest to the most recent ideas all sorts of reasons have been given for the explosion of activity that accumulated as growth since sometime a couple of hundred years ago.

And at the heart of most of those ideas is something called labor.

What is it?

Well, we are told, it sits alongside some other thing called “capital” as a primary factor in propelling us ever upward in our accumulation.  I wonder what economists mean by these two words.  Exactly.  They pride themselves in the elegance of their logic and mathematics.  They love expressing themselves in various formulaic combinations of quantities and so on.  But they insist on using words like labor to define those quantities.

What, exactly, is a quantity of labor?

Instead of stopping and drilling into what this might be, we are asked to glide past and watch the virtuoso manipulation of it in various theoretical discussions of growth.

It’s as if fog can be cleared by representing it in a formula.  It can get a bit tiring looking through the murkiness all the while being told that things are crystal clear.

I give Solow credit for being honest though.  Using imprecise terms will always produce unexplained or vague results.  In his case it produced a residual in his calculations that someone else called  a measure of our ignorance.  Others subsequently slapped a professional sounding name on this ignorance and called it “Total Factor Productivity” as if giving it a name made it somehow more precise.

This measure of ignorance is really simply the way in which analysis, no matter how clever it looks, can be misleading when it is rooted in imprecision.  Not that it is avoidable.  Labor will always be elusive.  It is a melange of characteristics each of which has more or less importance depending on the objective of the analysis.  Is it skill?  Technique?  Energy?  Effort?  Simply a group of people?  A workforce?  The list goes on.

It’s all of the above.  Which is why absurdities like total factor productivity exist to mask the abundance of choice in its definition.

The point being, I suppose, that economists are doomed to exist in a world lacking precision.  They seek to explain certain social activity and its outcomes by using a toolkit that hides their roots in the vagueness that all social activity begins with.  Our language.  No matter how hard we try we are stuck with words like labor that might appear to have clarity at any particular moment, but which slide into the shadows when pressed into service inside the workings of mathematical manipulation.  The technique demands accuracy that language cannot provide.

Isn’t that the reason why economists slid into mathematics in the first place?  To avoid the sloppiness of language?  And yet, in order to stay connected with their basic material they had to retain its essential vagueness.  Capital and labor.  Two horribly imprecise concepts whenever you try to pin them down.  Wonderful at a high level.  Awful at any level of detail.  Hence residuals.

Which is why I get so annoyed when critics argue that we ought not discuss neoliberalism because it lacks definition.  Nonsense.  It has as much precision as labor or capital.  If not more.  Economics exists, like it or not, deep in the world of language rather than within the purity of mathematics.  Its roots are social as much as physical.  Trying to ignore that is a mistake.  And one constant downside of existing in a social domain is that words and communication dominate, and infect, our analytical capacity.

The pretense of economics is that it has managed, somehow, to remove itself into a more precise world where its various techniques have a rigor lacking in language.  Which is a doomed enterprise.  It hasn’t.  Solow’s residual bears witness to that failure.  So while economists might expound on topics such as growth, and they might imagine they have mastered the details of its workings, they haven’t.

Their conversation continues.  In words.

Meanwhile, I think neoliberalism is a fine and mightily accurate concept.

Peter Radford
Peter Radford is publisher of The Radford Free Press, worked as an analyst for banks over fifteen years and has degrees from the London School of Economics and Harvard Business School.

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