Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

ADDENDUM

One more thought about the previous post. Inevitably and unavoidably, we use a variety of statistical indices in our attempts to get a conceptual grasp on the complexity of large scale social realities. All of us are familiar with at least some of these indices: The Gross National Product, the Gross Domestic Product, the Consumer Price Index, growth rates, inflation rates, unemployment rates, birth and death rates, rates of educational attainment by race, class, sex, religion, or national origin, and so forth. Some of the indices we use are so arcane that it requires a sophisticated understanding of mathematics to translate them into an image of society: changes in the rate of growth or decline of an index [technically, the second derivative of a function]; specifications of the margin of error of an index [a concept almost always misunderstood by commentators on the passing scene].

Without these indices, we are reduced to anecdotes. If I happen to pass an unusually large number of parents pushing baby carriages, I think I am seeing an increase in the birth rate. If several people I know pass away, I think I am experiencing a surge in the death rate. The great old city reporter and social critic, Lincoln Steffans, told stories about how big city newspaper reporters, when things were slow, would create an apparent crime wave simply by reporting every robbery and murder on the police blotter.

Now, indices are attempts to synthesize changes in heterogeneous magnitudes. The Consumer Price Index, for example, is an attempt to figure out whether prices are going up or down, and if so, by how much. But there are uncountably many different goods and services being offered in the market, and at any moment, some of those prices are moving up, others down. Some goods are no longer being sold [buggy whips, VCR players, dial telephones], and others are coming on the market for the first time [IPhones, 2010 automobile models, every new book or CD or movie]. So economists create a theoretical "market basket" of goods that is meant to reflect the typical bundle of purchases of a typical household. They really have no alternative, even though the effort is necessarily doomed to failure. To see why that is, consider the following example, chosen from my own experiences. In 1970, my first wife and I bought a house in Northampton, Massachusetts when we accepted teaching positions at the University of Massachusetts. We obtained a thirty year fixed rate mortgage at 6%, and moved in. During the later 70's, the United States experienced raging inflation, according to the movement of the Consumer Price Index. But because housing costs are a major component of the market basket on which the index [CPI]is based, and because we had a fixed rate mortgage [like many others, of course], the increase in OUR CPI was substantially lower.

A great deal of ink has been spilled by economists and statisticians over the generations on this problem of index numbers, but the upshot of their efforts can be summarized quite simply: There is no solution to the problem. There is no way to construct an index that does not, in one way or another, bias the result in some substantive direction.

To put the point in a deliberately provocative but technically correct way, every index number has some ideological presupposition built into it. And this is simply a neat mathematical way of saying something of the greatest importance with respect to the problem of evaluating social states which I explored in my earlier blog: THERE IS NO NEUTRAL AND OBJECTIVE CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK FOR APPREHENDING A COMPLEX SOCIAL REALITY. EVERY CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK IS [as the French theorists like to say] GUILTY.

This implies that one cannot FIRST acquire a conceptual grasp of social reality AND THEN formulate an ideological stance with regard to it. The ideology is inevitably built into one's conceptual framework.

This, at the very deepest level, is what Marx means when he says that capitalism is mystified.

2 comments:

Ann said...

Interesting....!

Economists have also measured happiness (Richard Easterlin) and capabilities (Amartya Sen), as well as income distribution and standard of living. The utilitarians would be pleased.

But what about Marx. Is labor time any better as a measure of "value"? or unpaid labor time as a measure of exploitation (as opposed to the degree of "coercion," a term apparently preferred by C.B. MacPherson and Carole Pateman) or "cost of job loss" (Sam Bowles)?

What about your index? Now you have us really intrigued....!

Ann said...

Re: further thoughts, Marx thought that the index with the most distortion and ideological baggage was money itself, no?