Thursday, 25 October 2012

Hilary Putnam on Amartya Sen's Economics

Hilary Putnam thinks logic exists independently of metaphysics- i.e. talk of possible or impossible worlds- as the form of coherent thought. He also thinks Ethics can do without ontology- though Lebenswelts can be  partially ordered only according to purely ontological criteria. This permits him, in his book 'the collapse of the fact/value dichotomy', to abolish the distinction between Values as ends-in themselves and purely  instrumental Epistemic values- e.g. a Physicist thinking he's on the right track because his equation is elegant, or a Chemist who feels  he's onto something because his theory is more parsimonious, or a Mathematician whose confidence in a conjecture arises out of its 'beauty'- even though no Physicist will stick with an equation, no matter how elegant, which doesn't fit the facts; nor will any Chemist stick with a parsimonious theory which leads to his lab blowing up; or any Mathematician stick with a beautiful conjecture which has been proved wrong.
Elegance can be an end in itself- the dandy may persist in wearing a garment unsuitable for the weather though he perish of influenza- Parsimony can be an end in itself- the Miser might starve to death so as to increase his pile of gold coins- Beauty can be an end in itself- I wear a paper bag over my head while crossing the road because...urm... well, my g.f. makes me wear one in bed and I mean a chap likes to look his best...
I suppose one could argue that all values are instrumental. There is some other Value lurking behind them or else some blind Schopenhauerian Will. But, some values are ontologically dysphoric- their instrumentality lies in granting their holder a vantage point from which to devalue and denigrate this world and everything that goes on in it. But this is not Putnam's own belief. For him Values aren't ontologically dysphoric at least not those he holds to be truly valuable. Perhaps his book is a defense against the unconscious realization that the reverse is the case.

Is this why Putnam now abolishes the distinction between instrumental or heuristic 'values' and absolute values? Or has his long life really led him to the conclusion that everybody just synchronically rapping in a coherent way in is a good thing and like mebbe results in Ethics developing super-powers, coz it gets bit by a radio active spider,  and then it like takes over Economics and things  just becomes so much nicer and I needn't get up three times a night to pee and though we can't rule out that we'd all know what to think about abortion and capital punishment and so on,  that still would be swell because we could have a gentleman's agreement not to talk about it in plain terms- at least, y'know, not pas devant les domestiques.

Thus, Putnam's role in Philosophy is now to say only incoherent things like 'Economics is  a 'policy' Science'- i.e. Economists are Scientists of a particular sort whom Govts. and NGO's ought to consult before deciding what to do or even what to want to do.
Are there any circumstances when this could be called a cogent or coherent point of view?
No, unless we adopt a linguistic conventionalism whereby 'Economist' is defined as the guy whom at any moment is most helpful in getting a Govt. or NGO to do something everybody later agrees was the best thing. Thus, in Kipling's story 'Todd's Amendment', Economist means the 5 year old boy whose providential remarks enable the Govt. to make the right decision. The senior Civil Servants holding appointments as Economic Advisers, however, can't be called Economists because what they are saying is not helpful and is in fact counter-productive.

I suppose, in a one period Economy- a momentary kshanikavada Universe- one can coarse grain one's definitions as much as one likes so as to retain the appearance of logical coherence.
This is what Putnam does to collapse the 'is' /'ought' dichotomy and praise up to the Skies, Amartya Sen's brand of Economics.

This raises the question- is Amartya Sen, Putnam's paradigm of a 'good' Economist, a guy Govts. or NGO's should consult before deciding what to do? The answer, for India, is- Fuck, No! He has never given a good Policy prescription, advanced a viable hypothesis, or made a sustainable forecast. Instead, he's muddied the waters and stalemated the reform process in a manner which most harms precisely those he would have us believe are closest to his heart.
Putnam may argue that Sen is still a good Economist because he tells Govts about what sorts of things they should want to do- stuff like making life better for everybody including the poor, the disabled, women and so on. But can't anyone do that? In fact, what would be a hundred times more effective than Sen gassing on  would be a You Tube video of a poor disabled woman actually saying 'hey guys, my life is real crappy right now, but guess what, if you do x and stop doing y then I can do z and the Social benefit of z outweighs the cost of x minus y and what's more it will have a demonstration effect and so the dynamic benefits are even greater. So, guys, get off your arses and do x and stop doing y already. '
Clearly the experience of the last decade and a half is that listening to Sen-tentious shite hasn't been good for the clients of Govts or NGOs as opposed to 'Moral Entrepreneurs' & Academic or Bureaucratic Careerists. Paying attention to Sen is a waste of resources. It crowds out genuine research. Sent-tentious nonsense about Famines being about democracy rather than crop failure increased African vulnerability and reduced funding for Norman Borlaug type Green Revolution programs there. He's now telling Indians to ban private tuition- the one thing preventing India lapsing back into mass illiteracy.
Even if Sen didn't always say the stupidest possible thing under the circumstances, even if all he did was say 'hey guys, be nice to the poor' he'd still not be a good Economist in Putnam's sense.
This is because Economics itself tells us that employing an Economist to tell you stuff like - care about the disadvantaged why don't you. Stop being such an almighty dick!- is throwing money out of the window. Plenty of people will do it for free if you will also permit them to slap you silly while doing so.

Now it may be Putnam believes that non Sen-tentious Economists are all very evil and bad and they trip or push the good Economists down in the playground and steal their lunch money and then when the good Economists try to complain they just accuse them of not having properly understood David Hume or Kant or some other dead Racist which makes the good Economists burst into tears and go running home to their Mommies.
If this is what Putnam believes, then his book makes perfect sense. Since good Economists- with the notable exception of Sen and some other guy who was Putnam's best pal at School- are really stupid and don't know from John Dewey and get cowed by the attacks of the bad Economists, which is why the bad Economists are running things and telling Govts. to be really corrupt and to implement really stupid policies. Thus Putnam has written a little book- or had it distilled out of some of his lectures- which will help good Economists to fight back and turn the tables on the bad Economists by getting off snappy comebacks  like- '1950 called. It wants back its 'analytic-synthetic dichotomy' which Quine totally ass-raped in 1951.' at which point the bad Economists  all get like real red in the face and start to sweat through their Brooks Bros. suits and then next thing you know they are blurting out in these like real tight little voices- 'Quine molested me! He touched me on my no no place behind the book stacks when I went to borrow a copy of Ayn Rand or Rice or whatever and he smelt just like my Grandmother and and and why are you being so mean to me? My other car is a Prius.'

Of course this is not what Putnam actually thinks but he's just going to go ahead and say it anyway because he believes by doing so he will be able to breathe new life into Classical Economics- i.e. strident feuilletonism or dyspeptic armchair polemics providing a mask for hypocritical rent-seeking within a game of elite musical chairs.
Putnam isn't an Economist so we mustn't blame him too much. The question is- what theory or theories within Economics itself are relevant to it as a 'Policy Science'? If Putnam addresses these theories in his book then it is worth reading. If he doesn't but just goes after dead-in-the-water Research Programs then his book isn't worth reading.
Obviously different people will have different notions of which theories are alive and which are dead. But, off the top of my head, my guess is everybody would agree that for real Economics, useful stuff, people can agree about 'facts' and have grounds to be suspicious of 'value-judgments' for reasons roughly similar to what I outline below.
1) Economics is a Science which only has a subject matter when preference diversity isn't too great or too small. It may be that Socio-Biology of some sort can tell us when Economics will have a subject matter but, assuming the fitness landscape is unpredictable then it can't tell us why and when genotypal canalisation type choke-points on phenotypal plasticisty will arise. Still, once preference diversity is within the 'Economic' range  , everybody studying it is going to good-faith agree that there are some canonical, or Schelling type, 'fact' demarcators which are the solution to the co-ordination problem. In other words, if a situation is one where Economics has a subject matter, then Economists can good faith agree on what are facts. If they can't, then the field probably isn't Economic at all and other disciplines (except Philosophy because it isn't a discipline) can explain why.
2) Values aren't necessarily subjective- they could be strategic or they could arise by 'preference falsification' or as being in joint supply with 'availability cascades'. In any case, if Values or meta-preferences themselves have Utility then there is going to be
 a) a drive to 100% preference diversity since everybody has an interest in valuing what he himself has or will have
b) some sort of Girardian mimetic desire type dynamic which constrains the bargaining problem re. Values to the neighborhood of a strange attractor such that 'the more things change, the more they remain the same'
In other words, Values are unknown and unknowable. We can show that Evolution might endow us with Rationality re. Choice of Technique, Bargaining, Optimization etc, because Engineering beats intuition in certain fields, but we can't show that Evolution would have given us a faculty for telling us what is really valuable or how to rank states of the World given an unknown future. If the future is going to be really hairy, maybe Thrift is the supreme Value Economists need to inculcate. On the other hand, if the Future is going to be fabulously wonderful, Thrift is the enemy. So long as there is no God constraining Evolution, not only would the Evolutionary Stable Strategy be for Value diversity but agents are going to be doing 180 degree Value reversals pretty often. If unpredictable changes in Values are what generate the 'mixed' (i.e. stochastic) aspect of the E.S.S, then another way of doing the same thing as Value pi-jaw is to say 'Let's randomly reward a certain percentage of crimes and punish a certain percentage of good deeds because that's a mixed strategy which can't be simply dominated so, actually, lets not even bother to do that but just let the current system of hack journalists and publicity hound D.As and corrupt Judges and bat-shit crazy celebrities and senile Professors talking shite, continue to muck things up such that a certain percentage of crimes are rewarded and good deeds punished the way it's always been.'

So far my contention is that Putnam is wrong about Economics. Still, some Economists may be trying to emigrate to Philosophy-land coz they have laxer drug laws there or else to escape alimony payments or something similar. So the question arises, is Putnam right about Philosophy? The short answer is no. He is making the assumption that Pyrrhonism isn't already everybody's default position from which they are momentarily seduced by ephemeral Faustian pacts. Worse, he refuses to see that 'Values' are what we are all most inclined to be skeptical about. If I tell you I suffer from hemorrhoids you are likely to believe me. If I tell you that my experience of hemorrhoids has led me to have a change of heart, I've now quit the Tea Party and support Gay Marriage coz why should the homos have it easy? You may still believe me. What you won't believe is that I've suddenly seen the light and stopped being a nasty little homophobe because 'Suffering is Redemptive' or any such pi-jaw.
Putnam stretches the word 'Values' to breaking point and then some.Maybe this would be okay if he weren't sticking with notions like 'logic is coherence' and 'partial ordering is possible' because new vistas upon the nature and implications of universal ontological dysphoria would be opened up.
One reason to think that logic isn't the 'form of coherent thought' is that imperative statements, though having logical form, gain visceral force by being incoherent- 'be sure to post the check to the Insurance company before Friday' is weaker than 'burn down the house. That will save you the trouble and inconvenience of posting the check by Friday. Go on, what are you waiting for?' This seems incoherent and violates transitivity because it says burning your own house down is better than living with an uninsured house, but it is effective which is why Moms use this strategy all the time.
Indeed, it may be- a subject for a future post- genuine Value Judgments, at least of a sort that give rise to a lexical ordering of preferences, always have this logical form. Rawls stipulates for a 'threshold of prosperity' and Nozick for a catastrophic event loophole for their lexical orderings such that they are lexical only in name. The question raised by the Prophet Amos- do two people walk together except they are agreed?- i.e. does some pre-established harmony obtain such that strategy and tactics are always univocal- can be answered in the affirmative only alongside 'Shall there be Evil in the City and the Lord has not done it?'

The other problem with Putnam's analysis is the notion that people currently believe 'facts' actually exist in such a manner that a Fact/ Value dichotomy can be usefully erased. But, the truth is, we don't believe there are any genuinely factual statements, just stuff that's as factual as we can get given our instruments and understanding and so on. So ' the facts' are just a pragmatics which evolves in one type of game. Do 'Values' arise in exactly the same type of game? Suppose I have a theory of Ethics which says real Value-judgments don't change when the facts change. Suppose, further, that I feel a sense of quiet virtue because I am deliberately failing my exams so as not to become complicit in the frauds of the Power Elite. Consider what happens when  I suddenly learn that the Power Elite only recruit candidates who deliberately fail the Exams by the widest margin- indeed, all the smart kids knew this and adjusted their answers accordingly but the Power Elite were smarter yet- in other words the reason that I'm a failure is not because I was too good for the system but that I was too stupid. Still, I feel my Virtue stands. The important thing is I wasn't tempted by power. I might even say that it is to my credit that, though stupider than other people, prompted by Virtue alone, I nevertheless succeeded where they failed.
In other words, if one says 'Value-judgments are what don't change when the facts change' then one can  also say, fine, in this case, we have a different sort of game than the one about facts. But, is it a game without ontology? I'd say- no. In the case mentioned above, I realize that all stupid people as a class have a sort of virtue similar to mine precisely because the Power Elite don't want to co-opt them. Those stupid people who clamor to be co-opted and try to pass their exams might even be said to be more virtuous than myself because they have an unconscious Faith in their own worthlessness which is certainly better than my own neurotic doubts about my essential idiocy.
I stand upon the threshold of becoming a Tolstoy or a Gandhi- if not a Christ.
But, Putnam has nothing to say about this sort of ontologically inflationary Value-judgement.  Putnam focuses on Sen's 1967 paper on Prescriptivism which shows that, for most types of Utilitarianism, Facts are relevant to value judgments. However, instead of a supervenience relationship of some sort, Putnam thinks this means that facts and values are hopelessly entangled. We can't decompose or 'factorize' them.
But why should this be so? Is it because Putnam wants an Ethics without Ontology but doesn't want to break with 'Classical' Utilitarian Consequentialism?
Before addressing that question, let's see whether decomposing facts from values is really so very difficult.
Let's say we're playing poker. Two different games are going on simultaneously. One is about the cards that have been dealt. The other is about reading 'tells' or strategically simulating such signals. In this case, we could go through a video of the game and construct two totally different narratives- one about probability which has to do only with the cards, and another which has nothing to do with probability but has to do with reading facial expressions and deducing psychological motivations. Is there any reason not to believe 'Facts' and 'Values' aren't similarly decomposable in any actual Economic policy debate? Couldn't we run back the Video of it and perform just such a decomposition? True it would be difficult. We'd have to look at a whole classes of similar videos before we got a sense of what we were actually discussing. We'd also need models, simulations- videos shot on possible worlds, or aesthetically important impossible worlds- and so on before we had finally got an idea about what our different claims actually amount to. From then on there is no reason why the game should not be decomposable with 'Values' turning into Ontological propositions about possible worlds and 'Facts' referring to stuff that can be measured or which has a measurable proxy.

 Because Putnam thinks Ethics without Ontology is possible, and because he endorses Sen's mania for partial ordering- he has no real answer to this objection. His invocation of 'thick concepts' only defines the antechamber to Economics' arena. Thick concepts are like the pre-fight Press Conference where each contender makes a statement mixing descriptive elements with intentional elements- 'I'm in the best shape of my life and I'm damned if I'll go down to a little pussy like him'- stuff like this may determine the outcome of the actual fight- but Economics is not about the fight. Its what what happens when the post-fight analysis starts. There everything is separated out. There can still be strategic differences of opinion- but in the long run, after everybody has retired, there's either a consensus about the facts or a factual question  has been referred on to some other discipline- Biology, Psychology, Game theory  or whatever.
Okay, if we break completely with Consequentialism of any sort, Utilitarian or otherwise, then we might  still have 'entangled statements'- but they would be Ontological in nature- and refer to an ordering of possible or impossible Worlds- and thus not at all part of the sort of 'ethical Econ' Putnam wants which would enable us to get an ought from an is without recourse to Ontology. This is important because every fuckwit can do the other thing- vide my cri de coeur in the Eighties- 'You must pay my air-fare to Calcutta coz my punching Mother Theresa in the face is that supremely Christ- like Act which will cause the Universe to turn into a Golden Syrup which appears exactly like whatever it takes the place of.'

Putnam's chapter on Sen, the Economist, is the weakest thing in his book. He believes Sen said something important about Famine. Sen said something horribly foolish and mischievous about Famine and then defended himself by unfair and stupid means. As for the 'missing millions'- when did Sen raise his voice against abortion? Infanticide was already illegal. Legalizing abortion, essentially as a population control method, with the postivie encouragement of sex selective feticide, went against all preexisting Values, Human or Religious. Yet abortion was supposed to be a very wonderful and good thing- 'pro-Wimmin' donchaknow- so Sen did nothing about this genocide which, unlike the Bengal famine, occurred on his watch.

Putnam misses the point that people pretend to have 'Values' they don't actually have. Even if there was some window of Momus into the heart and Values were known exactly, still unless Evolution had given us a mechanism for acting rationally on the basis of one's Values, then they remain a dead-letter. But anything which can be used to predict our actual behavior is covered by the notion of Revealed Preference already. What Putnam is objecting to is the convention of arbitrarily constraining this to tractable Mathematical shapes. But Sen, as a professional Academic has been pushing nothing else these last fifty years. How does this make him one of the good guys all of a sudden?
Putnam thinks there was something sinister in Lionel Robbins getting rid of interpersonal comparisons of Utility. But what else was he supposed to do? Hitler  had plenty of followers who gave very good reasons why Jews and Blacks and Chinese and Slavs get negative utility from breathing and why, if they weren't too stupid to do 'inter-personal Utility maximization', they'd all have killed themselves or offered themselves as slaves to the Master Race. Similarly, Stalin worshipers were saying the Capitalist Class is yearning to be liquidated. It takes no genuine pleasure in its luxuries. The Capitalist actually wants to be re-educated in the Gulag. He's just too neurotic to do it himself. He's like a drug addict. He can't help himself.

Putnam thinks Sen is one of the angels because Sen made a big deal about men in China and Kerala outliving African American Males . Yet, once prison sentencing got a lot harsher and racially discriminatory, African American Male health and longevity started to improve because those most at risk spent more time locked up- and there was a material incentive for a greedy privatized Justice/Penal System to gravitate to that outcome. In any case, once statistics were adjusted for risk-factors like diet, drug use, gang membership, as well as for reward factors like differential Societal rents to Seniority and Male status, African Americans were back ahead. Any given Chinese of Malyallee would have been better off migrating to America but no African American, ceteris paribus, would have been better off going the other way.

The crux of Putnam's argument is his contention that all 'capabilities approach criteria'- like 'self respect', 'well nourished' 'able to take part in the life of the community'- are 'entangled' terms, i.e. values and facts are hopelessly intermingled. This can't be true in the light of  Putnam's other contention- viz. that Sen on partially ordering isn't foolish- because we can always run the video back on each evaluative occasion and turn every instance of a 'value' into something we can agree about how to better measure. Suppose this weren't the case. Then, there is no partial ordering. No partial ordering means Sen has been talking worthless nonsense for the last forty years.

Putnam's chapter 'on the rationality of preferences', gives the clue to his confusion. He doesn't have a theory of why concurrency deadlock is good and necessary and something our decision making has evolved to mimic because of its inertial or buffering properties. In other words, as Computers got off the drawing board the actual engineering problem of concurrency fixed the lacunae in decision theory which Putnam has returned to so as to talk up his fellow Harvard Prof.

Economics has a good theory for why there is so much bad Economics- it's supply and demand dude. Ethics does not have a good theory why every Ethical theory counsels only the most brutish and foolish thing to do under any circumstances. Putnam is a good guy. He's done great work. Yet he has written a book which will promote Sen-tentious pi-jaw as a substitute for helping poor people. Has Ethics, as a branch of philosophy, gained anything from this book? No- unless you read it in conjunction with 'Ethics without Ontology' as a method of showing why the latter must be crap. But, doing that wouldn't be playing fair.


  1. could u give a summary of this and explain what is meant by 'Lebenswelts are only partially orderable according to purely ontological criteria'?

  2. Briefly- Putnam says facts and values are entangled with each other. 'Positive Econ' claims to only deal with facts not value-judgments. Putnam thinks this is not Philosophically tenable and that Quine showed this 60 years ago but Economists didn't get the memo.
    One way to do the sort of normative Econ Putnam wants is by using ideas from phenomenology- in particular Shutzian ideal type analysis. What this means is that one divides people into types on the basis of how they experience the world (lebenswelt means 'lived world'). If people are willing to subscribe to these 'types' and agree that they wanted to have preferences conforming to the ideal of that type (this is called meta preferences) then we can do a standard type of Econ analysis and find 'bargaining solutions'- i.e. a way to get to the 'values' Society should maximize because they have been negotiated and trade-offs have been made. However, Putnam isn't going for a Shutzian ideal type analysis- which is easily accommodated by conventional Positive Econ- but insisting on radical entanglement of facts and values which throws everything up in the air.
    I make 2 claims against Putnam
    1) you can make a video of people making decisions and play it back so as to decompose 'value type' judgments' from 'fact type judgments'.Where there is disagreement as to which is which, some other positive discipline- e.g. psychology, neurology, etc- can get to work to sort out the disagreement.
    Thus, Economics qua Economics, does not treat of radically entangled fact/value propositions.
    2) Economists and Philosophers aren't better at getting Policy Makers to focus on the poor and disadvantaged. Journalists, film-makers, poets etc do a better job. Actually a You Tube video of a poor person speaking up might be even more effective.

    Now for a bit of philosophy- I think that Putnam is assuming that 'values' arise because a partial ordering exists over Lewis-Stanaker 'closest' possible worlds. I don't think this is true. I think values are essentially ontologically dysphoric and arise from logically impossible worlds which people feel is their 'true' home. In other words, my 'values' aren't about my choices in this world but relate to a dislike for this world- a rejection of its demands upon me. In this case, 'partial ordering'- which is necessary for Econ to construct a calculus upon- goes out of the window. In this case Putnam's brand of Econ is empty or rather it is just a very boring type of poetry.