Monday, April 19, 2010

Deconstructing "Reality"

Superstition still lives. We like to think we’re “enlightened” because we no longer believe in ghosts, goblins or things that go bump in the night. But, the truth is we’re just as superstitious as our ancestors. The only difference is that instead of sporting fangs, our monsters wear wingtips.

Alexia Eastwood does a wonderful job of deconstructing one of our more prevalent superstitions, our belief in Economic Man, or Homo Economicus. Economic man was an outgrowth of Adam Smith’s contention that “the self-interested actions of individual agents guided by the ‘invisible hand of the market’ would lead to the greater good of all society.” This, of course, assumed that people were “hyper-rational.” Right away, that concept runs into trouble when you consider the millions who have plunked down over a hundred dollars to buy a pair of Nike sneakers that might have cost five bucks to manufacture.

Eastwood contends that studies in behavioral psychology and anthropology show “that our inclination to share and cooperate is hardwired into our genetic code and may have acted as an evolutionary advantage in human societies throughout the ages.”

Of course, the myth of Homo Economicus fits capitalism like a tee. It provides a rationale for the Social Darwinism that made the late nineteenth century such a hell -hole for the working class and which has made comeback in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Under this doctrine, the poor are poor because they aren’t fit. It’s all a matter of personal choice. A person is poor just because a sperm chose to fertilize an impoverished egg. It should have known better.

Another fallout from our economic friend is that belief that numbers represent reality, that if the numbers say it’s so, it is. Eastwood quotes Karl Polanyi who stated that, “[N]o other society outside of our own has ever raised the pursuit of economic gain to the guiding principle of society or understood it as definitive of the human condition.”

In other words, Economic Man is a socially construct that has no basis in reality. It’s pure make believe, a fantasy encouraged by our oligarchs to justify their manifold predations. We are now living with the dreadful consequences of this superstition

As for the invisible hand of the market, as I’ve explained in previous posts, there is an easy way to make it visible. Place you elbow on a table with your forearm perpendicular to the table’s surface. Make a fist. Now extend you middle finger heavenward and there you have it: the invisible hand of the market.


John said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John said...

When I was working on my MBA in 1974, I got into an argument that almost got me kicked out of my managerial cost accounting class. All I did was ask the professor how a number pulled out of one's butt could be a reasonable starting point for analysis.

Case Wagenvoord said...

As far as I know, they're still puloling them out.