Monday, September 1, 2014

Lump of Labor Day Special: Advanced (Elementary) Concepts in Mathematics

"…if there be but a certain proportion of work to be done; and that the same be already done by the not-Beggars; then to employ the Beggars about it, will but transfer the want from one hand to another…" – John Graunt, 1662.
In a previous post, Graunt Work, I discussed the theological foundations of John Graunt's Natural and Political Observations made upon the Bills of Mortality and hinted at the unacknowledged survival of assumptions of divine providence in expectations of a harmonious social order. This post is concerned with the distinction between the "certain proportion of work" assumed by Graunt (or possibly inserted by Petty) in his discussion of employing beggars and the "fixed amount of work" assumption, alleged by economists to be a widespread fallacy.

Proportion and number are two distinct concepts in mathematics. The distinction is fundamental to mathematical reasoning. The title of Fra Luca Pacioli's classic Summa de Arithmetica, Geometrica, Proportioni et Proportionalita suggests the importance of the concept of proportion.

"One of Graunt's prevailing concerns," Philip Kreager has argued, "was to show that the body politic was integrated in the divine order in virtue of the numerical symmetry, intrinsic proportionality, and correspondences which could be found in its constituent parts." The word "proportion" appears 40 times in Graunt's text, where it consistently refers to the relation of one part to another or of a part to a whole -- not to simple quantities or amounts. "Quantity" occurs only once in the book and "amount" not at all. Quantities and amounts are indicated in Graunt's text by the word "number."

There has been some conjecture regarding the extent of William Petty's contribution to Graunt's book. In his 1939 introduction, Walter Willcox suggested passages may be ascribed to Petty:
"...wherever conjectures, whether numerical or not, are made but no evidence offered in support of them… Furthermore, numerical statements which apply to matters of popular or political interest, but are of no importance for science, are supposed to be his." 
Using Willcox's criteria, the passage about employing beggars is arguably Petty's. Petty shared with Graunt the idea of a unique and profound significance to proportionality. Petty was educated as a physician and had been an anatomy instructor at Oxford. In his preface to The Political Anatomy of Ireland, Petty wrote:
"Sir Francis Bacon, in his Advancement of Learning, hath made a judicious Parallel in many particulars, between the Body Natural, and Body Politick, and between the Arts of preserving both in Health and Strength: And it is as reasonable, that as Anatomy is the best foundation of one, so also of the other; and that to practice upon the Politick, without knowing the Symmetry, Fabrick, and Proportion of it, is as casual as the practice of Old-women and Empyricks."
So if proportion has such a conspicuous significance, how does it get confused with quantity? For example, after citing Graunt on the "proportion of work to be done," historian Peter Buck went on to state that "Graunt presupposes that there is only a fixed amount of work to be done…" apparently oblivious to the crucial distinction between a certain proportion and a fixed amount.

One might suppose that economics has inherited a special concern for proportion from Graunt and Petty, the pioneers of political arithmetic. Unemployment and interest rates; productivity and price indices; efficiency, equality and inequality; elasticity of demand and of substitution are all proportional. Even the intersection of supply and demand is a proportion (an equality). So where does the attributed assumption of a "fixed amount of work" fit in with all this proportionality?
"There is, say they, a certain quantity of labour to be performed. This used to be performed by hands, without machines, or with very little help from them. But if now machines perform a larger share than before, suppose one fourth part, so many hands as are necessary to work that fourth part, will be thrown out of work, or suffer in their wages. The principle itself is false. There is not a precise limited quantity of labour, beyond which there is no demand." – Dorning Rasbotham, 1780. 
"In accordance with this theory it is held that there is a certain fixed amount of work to be done, and that it is best in the interests of the workmen that each shall take care not to do too much work, in order that thus the Lump of Labour may be spread out thin over the whole body of work-people." – David F. Schloss, 1891. 
"Economists have historically rejected the concerns of the Luddites as an example of the 'lump of labor' fallacy, the supposition that an increase in labor productivity inevitably reduces employment because there is only a finite amount of work to do." – David H. Autor, 2014.
Characteristic of the hundreds of denunciations of the supposed lump-of-labor fallacy (Sandwichman has amassed over 500 examples) is a obstinate refusal to substantiate allegations of such a belief with documentary evidence. "We don't have to show you any stinking badges!" Oddly enough, the denunciations also omit reference to particular authorities on the fallacy claim, settling for allusions to a nebulous view held by unnamed "economists" -- the above Autor quote is typical. Moreover, various arguments offered as "proof" of the fallacy of the assumption of a fixed amount of work evaporate with the simple substitution of a "certain proportion" for the conventional "fixed amount."

Of course a "certain proportion of work" is also vague. It might refer to a proportion of work to population, to industrial output, to resource consumption or to virtually anything else. Nevertheless, the alternatives of an "infinite amount of work to do" or of demand for labor that automatically adjusts to changes in the supply of labor are even less tenable.

One might also suppose that the increasing reliance of economics on mathematical modeling would make economists sensitive to the not-so-subtle distinction between quantity and proportion. Such a supposition would be premature, however. Liping Ma's study of math teachers' understanding of math fundamentals in China and the United States, reviewed by Roger Howe, found that:
"…successful completion of college coursework is not evidence of thorough understanding of elementary mathematics. Most university mathematicians see much of advanced mathematics as a deepening and broadening, a refinement and clarification, an extension and fulfillment of elementary mathematics. However, it seems that it is possible to take and pass advanced courses without understanding how they illuminate more elementary material, particularly if one’s understanding of that material is superficial."
So much for rigor. In addition, it's not a sure thing that understanding of math guarantees an unbiased use of it. Kahan et al. found that "more numerate subjects would use their quantitative reasoning capacity selectively to conform their interpretation of the data to the result most consistent with their political outlooks."

In a reply to comments from four economists on his General Theory of Employment, Keynes doubted that "many modern economists really accept Say's Law that supply creates its own demand. But they have not been aware that they were tacitly assuming it." Similarly, although economists may not have expressly believed, "that every individual spends the whole of his income either on consumption or on buying, directly or indirectly, newly produced capital goods," nevertheless, they tacitly assumed it. "They have discarded these older ideas without becoming aware of the consequences."

Keynes was wrong. Economists didn't "discard" the older ideas, they renounced the form in which they were expressed and devised new bottles in which to store the coveted old wine.

The tacit assumptions that Keynes highlighted are assumptions of inherent proportionality (the divinely ordained harmonious social order). Say's Law can be restated as: demand increases in proportion to an increase in supply. The tacit assumption about spending is that an increase in income will result in proportional increases, respectively, in consumption and investment.

One of the inevitable consequences of these tacit assumptions is that the proportion of work to be done must also be a constant. In other words, the alleged lump of labor, which in its distorted "fixed amount of work" formula is refuted by Say's Law is, in its original form of a "certain proportion of work," a corollary to Say's Law!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Economists: Lawyers? Shysters? Touts?

"Basically, a lot of economists use the tools of science to accomplish literary-- or lawyerly -- goals." -- Noah Smith, Economics Isn't Science or Literature
If that's the case, what's "the law"? What are the standards of evidence? I've been thinking a lot recently about the extensive reliance on "hearsay" in economics -- that is to say the flippant attitude of economists toward sources -- and about the preponderance of alibi stories (again with scant regard for proving the alibi). Unlike the legal profession, there is no formal professional code of ethics for economists. So, where do we draw the line between "lawyer" and "shyster"?
"...'shyster' lawyers -- a set of turkey-buzzards whose touch is pollution and whose breath is pestilence" -- "The Tombs," New York in Slices (1849)
"In England, although we have not the term 'shyster,' we have the animal thereby designated, and he is said to be particularly rife at the Old Bailey. A shyster is a tout, and touting may be practised either by a barrister, or by his clerk, or by his post or future clients… But in New York the shyster ventures upon proceedings from which the English tout would shrink. He makes his way into the prisons, and informs the prisoners committed for trial that he has great influence, and in some cases 'he goes so far as to say that he controls, aye, even owns the court and district attorney.'" -- The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art (1871)
"The complaint one makes against that anti-social jargon, which so easily passes for economic science, is that it is in ludicrous opposition to the common observation of facts. Political economy professes to be a science based on observation. But the bitter pedantry which often usurps that name usually assumes its facts, after it has rounded off dogmas to suit its clients. In practice this magazine of untruth escapes detection for two reasons. One is that the facts relating to labour are invariably seen through the spectacles of capital.... The second reason which obscures the truth about industry is, that the facts about capital are almost never honestly disclosed." -- Frederic Harrison, Fortnightly Review (1872)
Lest we forget:
"In addition to business and government, Mr. Ferguson aims his critique at academia, suggesting that the discipline of economics and more than a few prominent economists were corrupted by consulting fees, seats on boards of directors and membership in the masters of the universe club. 
"When he challenges some of these professors, in particular those who held positions of responsibility in the White House or in the Federal Reserve, they are reduced to stammering obfuscation — Markets are complicated! Who could have predicted? I don’t see any conflict of interest — and occasionally provoked to testiness."  -- A. O. Scott, New York Times review of "Inside Job" (2010).

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Graunt Work

"To understand the idea of inherent quantitative regularity which informs Graunt's text, and how he was able to devise a method which demonstrates this regularity in vital phenomena, it has been necessary to consider his synthesis of four period concepts: the method of observation prescribed by Bacon's natural history; the method of keeping accompts, with its several proportional checks and informal attitude to population totals; a mercantile system of natural and intrinsic balances, embracing people and trade; and a general model of society as a set of correspondences uniting man, God and nature." -- Philip Kreager, "New Light on Graunt," Population Studies 42, 1988, pp. 129-140.
What Graunt accomplished with his essay is astonishing. Kreager did a magnificent job of reconstructing the foundations of Graunt's method, rather than anachronistically identifying "aspects of Graunt's essay which anticipate later demographic measures and statistical inferences." But there is another story yet to be told -- of the unconscious survivals in subsequent political economy and economics of Graunt's innovative synthesis of natural history, bookkeeping and theology.

The clue here is that there is indeed at least one conspicuous survival, that it is unconscious and that it is significant resides in the incessant reiteration and unanimous misattribution of the highlighted phrase:
"…if there be but a certain proportion of work to be done; and that the same be already done by the not-Beggars; then to employ the Beggars about it, will but transfer the want from one hand to another…" -- John Graunt, Natural and political observations mentioned in a following index, and made upon the bills of mortality (1662).
So it turns out that the supposition of a fixed amount of work to be done* originates in the "ur-text" of political economy rather than in the half-baked ruminations of fearful Luddites and clueless trade unionists. What are the implications?

William Petty's pioneering estimate of national income relied crucially on his friend Graunt's calculations of population. These were essentially the "number, weight or measure" upon which Petty based his analysis. Alfred Chalk, in "Natural law and the rise of economic individualism in England," (1951) implied a causal link between Newton's Principia and Petty's Political Arithmetick:
"It was not mere chance that Petty chose to call one of his important works Political Arithmetick
"From the point of view of the development of economic theory, the emergence of a scientific philosophy of determinism was possibly the most significant fact of the seventeenth century. The great creative minds in mathematics, biology, physics, etc., gradually came to view the world as an intricate machine in which each part played a role that was rigidly predetermined by inexorable laws. Newton's Principia, published in 1687, provided the basis for a mechanistic outlook which would encompass the universe. In such a climate of opinion, social scientists began to search for a body of laws which would reveal a harmonious social order similar to that which physical scientists had discovered in their researches."
Except Newton's Principia was published in 1687. Graunt's Natural and political observations, on which Petty relied for his empirical information had been published 25 years earlier. The anachronism of seeking out "anticipations" of later thought in earlier texts obscures and misrepresents actual contributions, motives and methods. This leads, it would appear, to endemic confusion about the status and significance of economic "laws," related to the ambiguity of natural law doctrine and laws of nature. (It may be noted that John Locke delivered his Oxford lectures, subsequently published as Essays on the Law of Naturein 1664. Locke owned a copy of Graunt's Observations. According to Ashcraft, "The influence of Graunt is particularly reflected in Locke's recording in his journals the weekly or monthly mortality rates for various cities while he was living on the continent.")

Citing Heckscher, Chalk claimed that "In mercantilist literature the law of nature was simply divested of almost all its religious, and even ethical, overtones." Kreager, however, presented a very different and more compelling argument:
The 'mix' in Graunt’s mixed mathematics owed, as has been said, to his application of an apparently humdrum practical art, bookkeeping. But beneath his 'shop-Arithmetic' lay a more fundamental and familiar set of associations: number, reckoning and death as the idiom of the Last Judgement. Graunt's simple similitude was that each death represents a subtraction from the living, an entry in God's or nature's 'accompts'. And just as death displaces a person or soul to some specific immortal 'population', so each christening incorporates a new person or soul into a mortal one. Graunt's chosen point of entry into this old theme was Bacon's Natural History of Life and Death. Bacon had argued that men should observe nature in order to discern possible reflections of God's laws; whilst such knowledge was bound to be a pale record of these laws, it nonetheless offered possible guidance on improving individual and collective life. Such a phrasing inevitably suggested that longevity was a kind of measure of man's success in this attempt.... Graunt, expressly taking up Bacon's inquiry, likewise adopted Classical images of the symmetry of divine, natural and political order.
It is a far cry from, say, the law of gravity to a "harmonious social order." But not quite so far if one assumes, a priori, the "symmetry of divine, natural and political order." Furthermore, the technology of double-entry bookkeeping superimposed a merchant's perspective on the social order, one implemented, according to Aho, largely to provide evidence for an alibi against suspicions of usury and unscrupulous business practices.

* I am aware of one instance of similar phrasing that occurs between Graunt's "certain proportion of work to be done" in 1662 and Dorning Rasbotham's "certain quantity of labour to be performed" in 1780: the definition of the verb, "task" in Dyche and Pardon's New General English Dictionary (1735) is "to appoint a person a certain quantity of work to be done in a certain time." Update: the distinction between Graunt's "certain proportion" and Rasbotham's "certain quantity" is an important one on which I will have more to say later.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Autor's Alibi and the Lump of Jackson Hole

According to M. I. T. economics professor David Autor, in a paper presented yesterday at Jackson Hole:
"Economists have historically rejected the concerns of the Luddites as an example of the 'lump of labor' fallacy, the supposition that an increase in labor productivity inevitably reduces employment because there is only a finite amount of work to do."
Autor's paper, "Polanyi’s Paradox and the Shape of Employment Growth," was also featured in articles in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

Professor Autor made a slight amendment to the textbook explanation of the lump of labor. Instead of a "fixed amount of work to be done," he referred to the fallacy of supposing "there is only a finite amount of work to do." Hypothetically, there may be an "infinite" amount of work to do in the universe in an eternity. But there is most certainly a finite amount of human labor that can be performed during any given period of time and only a fraction of that can be paid employment.

Aside from the grandiose delusion of an infinite amount of work to do, the bland boilerplate Autor recited is certified nonsense-on-stilts. The textbook version of the lump of labor is a sardonic restatement of the old wages-fund doctrine of classical political economic. Alfred Marshall used the phrase "fixed Work-fund" to emphasize the equivalence. The fallacy of a fixed amount of work is customarily refuted by the adage "technology creates more jobs than it destroys," a 20th century version of the "supply creates its own demand" interpretation of Say's Law. Finally, Say's Law is predicated on the truth of the wages-fund doctrine. Summing up, then, A = not A: Liar's Paradox.


But something is going on here besides mere paradox or glib foolishness. Autor is not alone in his rote recitals of the archaic fallacy myth. The fraternity of economists will, I'm sure, nod inattentively to Autor's lumpish refrain without raising an objection to either its logical contradiction or its irrelevance.

The fallacy claim is not part of an analysis. It is an alibi. Capital -- or "the competitive market system" -- is in the dock.

Where to begin? Or, rather, elsewhere to begin. In criminal law, an alibi is a defense based on the claim that the defendant was in some other place when the crime was committed and therefore physically could not have done it. Alibi is Latin for elsewhere. In common usage, alibi has come to signify any kind of excuse, often with the connotation of being a lame one.

The distinctive feature of an alibi story is that it revolves around an absence. What actually occurs at the other place is insignificant. What matters is the crime. The only significance of the alibi story is that it renders the action of committing the crime impossible for the accused.

Economics makes extensive use of alibi narratives. Private property entails the right to exclude others from access to and to alienate, or dispose of, the things owned. Alienate shares the Latin root alius with alibi. Unemployment highlights the displacement of workers from the usual condition of being employed. The enclosures of the commons in pre-industrial Britain excluded commoners from their former, collectively-cultivated fields, making those fields into an elsewhere for them. In "The Political Economy of the Sign," Jean Baudrillard identified "the strategic logic of the commodity" to be the treatment of use value as "a satellite of and an alibi for" exchange value.

The crown jewel of economic alibi, though, is equilibrium, the supposed tendency (or disposition) of demand and supply to move toward balance, guided by changes in price. Autor invoked this presumed inclination toward equilibrium as "theory" when he observed in his conclusion that "the long-run effects of these developments should in theory be positive..." In his conclusion, Autor confused static and dynamic analysis. Equilibrium, John Maurice Clark explained (87 years ago):
"...is an abstraction based on observation of the relative stability of economic values, and of oscillations whose behavior suggests a normal level toward which the economic forces of gravity exert their pull. The key to dynamics is a different problem: that of processes which do not visibly tend to any complete and definable static equilibrium." -- J. M. Clark, "The Relation Between Statics and Dynamics"
So Autor's "in theory" may best be understood as a colloquialism, rather than an allusion to actual economic theory, in the same way that alibi may refer loosely to any lame excuse rather than to the technical legal defense of being somewhere else. In his essay on static and dynamic economic analyses, Clark also raised the issue of the paradoxical character of reason,
"when it takes the form of 'rationalizing' or evolving ostensible motives for actions, where the real motive is one which civilized standards deem less respectable, or one which might even have to be suppressed unless it could be successfully disguised."
In his critique of "The Theory of Compensation as regards the Workpeople Displaced by Machinery," Marx satirized the disingenuous rationalizing of the "bourgeois economist" who "implicitly declares his  [Luddite] opponent to be stupid enough to contend against, not the capitalistic employment of machinery, but machinery itself." Marx's satire shanghaied the Dickens villain from Oliver Twist, Bill Sikes, and scripted for him an imaginary plea to the jury:
"Gentlemen of the jury, no doubt the throat of this commercial traveler has been cut. But that is not my fault; it is the fault of the knife! Must we, for such a temporary inconvenience, abolish the use of the knife? Only consider! Where would agriculture and trade be without the knife? Is it not as beneficial in surgery as it is in anatomy? And in addition a willing help at the festive table? If you abolish the knife -- you hurl us back into the depths of barbarism."
"Alibi Ike" is a short story by Ring Lardner, first published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1915. Ike is a baseball player. "His right name was Frank X. Farrell, and I guess the X stood for "Excuse me." Because he never pulled a play, good or bad, on or off the field, without apologizin' for it." Ike's habit of making up excuses for everything leads him inexorably into incriminating self-contradiction and ultimately into romantic troubles when he can't resist the urge to disown his true feelings during a conversation with his teammates.

The lesson that two alibis are not better than one is also illustrated by an anecdote in the American Bar Association Journal from March 1951:
"As court and council gathered in the robing room after an acquittal... the judge said to the successful lawyer, 'That was the most convincing alibi that I have ever had proved before me.' 
"'Thank you, sir', replied the lawyer, 'it is particularly gratifying to hear you say that. I value your judgment most highly and I am pleased to find that in this case it coincides with mine. I chose that alibi as the best of three that the defendant had.'"
What makes an alibi believable has, apparently, only recently come to be a focus of systematic research. The proliferation of discrepant alibi stories is one indicator that something may not be quite right. Other factors include, coherence, consistency, the presence or absence of physical evidence or witness testimony and the ease or difficulty of fabricating such evidence. In a future post, I hope to discuss some of the recent literature on alibi evaluation and consider its relevance to economic discourse.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Common Pools and Wage Funds -- A Reply to Simon Wren-Lewis

Simon Wren-Lewis raises an extremely important issue regarding Inequality and the common pool problem: "there is a clear connection between the rise in incomes at the very top and lower real wages for everyone else."

Wren-Lewis explains the common-pool problem as being "about how the impact of just one fisherman extracting more fish on the amount of fish in the lake is small, but if there are lots of fishermen doing the same we have a problem." This needs a bit more explanation. The problem has to do with the difficulty of excluding fishermen (or limiting the catch of any particular fisherman) and with the limitation on the amount of fish in the lake. The essential reference on this is Elinor Ostrom's discussion of common-pool resources.

Two caveats: difficult does not mean impossible and limited doesn't mean non-renewable or fixed in quantity.

When it comes to income, it is easy to get lost in a money illusion. Yes, incomes are measured and paid in money amounts. But what they provide are rights of access to material things -- goods and services, "the power of purchasing; a certain command over all the labour, or over all the produce of labour, which is then in the market" (Smith).

Nominally, the amount of income can increase without limit. But in real terms, increases in income are constrained by the amount of goods and services available in the market. That last qualification, the amount of goods and services available in the market, has led to a prodigious amount of confusion in economic thought. The classical wages-fund doctrine assumed that the amount of wage goods available at any given time was fixed. Accordingly, if one group of workers formed a union to enforce a wage increase, their gain would be at the expense of other workers.

The amount of goods and services in the market at any given time is not fixed. But the key to the confusion is not the stipulated quantity but the imaginary temporal dimension of a "given time." Zeno's paradox of the arrow involves the same logical conundrum of dividing time into points.

In 1869, W. T. Thornton argued persuasively that the wages-fund doctrine was erroneous and John Stuart Mill concurred and "recanted" the wages-fund doctrine. Exactly what Mill recanted may be in dispute but that is beside the point -- the classical doctrine was consigned to the dustbin of history of political economy. Or so we are told...

By virtue of one of the most miraculous metamorphoses imaginable, the old wages-fund doctrine, used by polemicists as a club against unions demanding higher wages was transformed into the theory of the lump-of-labor, allegedly assumed by trade unionists, whose fallacy was used by economists as a club against unions demanding higher wages. "Heads I win" seamlessly became "tails you lose."

But, getting back to Wren-Lewis, isn't his contention that higher executive pay "has to come from somewhere [that is, from the other 99%]" a reversion to the wages-fund -- or lump of labor -- doctrine/fallacy? No, it isn't. But this requires more explanation. There are not one, but two illusions at work here. One is the money illusion. The other is the point-in-time illusion. Combined, these two illusions constitute a powerful temptation to cognitive dissonance.

To dispel those two illusions, let's first go back to Adam Smith's definition of wealth: "a certain command over all the labour, or over all the produce of labour, which is then in the market." 'Labor' appears to refer to a definite quantity and 'then' appears to refer to a definite point in time. Labor is not, however, a discrete distinction and a "point" in time is strictly conceptual. The amount of work to be done at any point in time is not only "not fixed" it is also not "an amount."

Just as with Zeno's arrow, no labor is performed in a "point in time." Labor can only be performed over a duration, be it an hour, a day, a week, a year or a lifetime. Furthermore, the amount of labor performed by one person during any interval of time is variable. It is not infinitely variable but it is flexible within certain definite limits. The expression labor-power indicates this characteristic of labor as potentially equivalent to a given quantity of production.

So, we can now amend Smith's definition as follows: income represents command over a portion of the labor-power in the market during a given extension of time. This definition could be further refined but the point that I want to get to is that it is the labor-power that constitutes the common-pool resource. The amount of goods and services that corresponds to this amount of labor-power is not fixed -- but neither is it "infinitely" variable.

The extent to which real GDP may vary depends on people's capacity to work, on their motivation and on their opportunities for employment, all of which may be affected by the distribution of income. In other words, great inequalities of income may well diminish the common pool of goods and services -- and ultimately of labor-power itself -- from which incomes are derived.

That is, executive pay may be taking a bigger slice of a pie that is smaller than it would be if executives weren't taking such a big slice of it. Or to put it bluntly, they may be being richly rewarded for a negative contribution to social production that results from their excessive incomes!

There is much more that can said (and has been said) about both the implications and the background of the analysis of labor-power as a common-pool resource. I will pause for now to see how the conversation unfolds.

Elsewhere and Nowhere: Alibi and Utopia

Such is the strategic logic of the commodity which makes [use value] a satellite of and an alibi for [exchange value]. -- Jean Baudrillard, The Political Economy of the Sign.

As court and council gathered in the robing room after an acquittal... the judge said to the successful lawyer, "That was the most convincing alibi that I have ever had proved before me." 
"Thank you, sir", replied the lawyer. "it is particularly gratifying to hear you say that. I value your judgment most highly and I am pleased to find that in this case it coincides with mine. I chose that alibi as the best of three that the defendant had." -- "No Alibi," ABA Journal, March 1951.

...alongside the eighteenth-century emergence of the realistic, but fictional, narrative form later called the novel, the word alibi also entered into ordinary English discourse. Technically the legal plea of 'elsewhere,' culturally speaking, an alibi indicated the mounting of a realistic story narrated in a law court. (This initial, specific sense of alibi as a story told in court contrasts with its use since the beginning of the twentieth century, when it began also to refer to a story that keeps one out of court or to any form of excuse tale.) -- Jonathan Grossman, The Art of Alibi: English Law Courts and the Novel.

If the elasticity of substitution is not constant, what is crucial is what happens to the elasticity asymptotically as resource input goes to zero. In these cases the produced input is sufficiently substitutable for the natural resource that the decrease in supply of the natural resource can be compensated for by an increased supply of capital. Of the two cases, the Cobb-Douglas case is clearly the most interesting for there natural resources are essential in the sense that some input of the natural resource is required for production (the isoquants never do hit the axes). But a small input of natural resource can be compensated for by a sufficiently large input of capital, and whether that is feasible for the economy depends simply on the relative shares of the two. -- Joseph Stiglitz, "Neoclassical Analysis of Resource Economics." 

"...this is not the only force driving men to thievery. There is another that, as I see it, applies more specially to you Englishmen." 
"What is that?" said the Cardinal. 
"Your sheep", I said, "that commonly are so meek and eat so little; now, as I hear, they have become so greedy and fierce that they devour human beings themselves. They devastate and depopulate fields, houses and towns. For in whatever parts of the land sheep yield the finest and thus the most expensive wool, there the nobility and gentry, yes, and even a good many abbots -- holy men -- are not content with the old rents that the land yielded to their predecessors. Living in idleness and luxury without doing society any good no longer satisfies them; they have to do positive harm." -- Sir Thomas More, Utopia, Book 1.

An escapist fiction, Book 2 allows the negotiator of wool contracts an alibi for being "elsewhere" just as it affords England the luxury of being purified as myth. As Richard Marius points out in his biography of More, there was a distinct need for the writer of Utopia to have available just such an alibi, so much are the circumstances of Utopia's composition at odds with its idealistic pretensions:
It has usually gone unnoticed that More's embassy on which he began writing Utopia was intended to increase commerce, especially in wool, and that while he penned these immortal lines, he was working hard to add to the wealth of those classes in English society whom Raphael castigates for their heartless greed.
At this stage in the composition of Utopia, the hedging off of the island from historical contingencies reflects More's own personal situation. -- John Freeman, "Discourse in More's Utopia: Alibi/Pretext/Postscript"

Another offender of this class [of overworked words] is "alibi." Alibi is a legal term, meaning a plea on the part of the accused that he was somewhere else when the alleged act was committed.. I imagine that somebody came out of a court house one day after hearing this term used, and since it was new to him, and he fancied the sound of it, he began making use of it himself in a pedantic sort of way whenever opportunity offered. Finally his friends and admirers took it up, and now eight people out of ten think it quite the thing to do, when denying any sort of innocent accusation, to say, "I can prove an alibi." But a mere denial is not an alibi. -- M. V. P. Yeaman, "Speech Degeneracy."

In a legal context to be elsewhere necessitates the supporting details and corroboration provided by a narrative account of being elsewhere. Here—reversing the clichĂ©—it is deeds without words that are empty. Alibi is thus especially well suited for narrative, for there is always a story or relevant sequence of events that depicts being elsewhere. 
…narrative alibis draw on the special significance of an absence. Beyond the legal context, an alibi is thus something we can give whenever we are called to account for ourselves. When we speak of whether someone "has" an alibi or not, we implicitly allude to the importance that having a story, being able to tell the story of oneself, holds for modern identity (even if it is the possession of a kind of absence). 
An alibi is an unusual form of narrative precisely because it is generated by absence, and thus alibi is a small, well-defined instance of the philosophical concept of negativity. Though a negative concept, an alibi does real work; it functions in a system of legally binding processes and confers a status upon those who employ it rhetorically. An alibi is a speech act rendering the real act, the crime, impossible, at least for the accused. The narrative opposite of a confession, it exculpates rather than implicates. An alibi is an account of not being there. So, an alibi is a kind of anticonfessional narrative. -- Justin Weir, Leo Tolstoy and the Alibi of Narrative.

Anatomically homologous to the two largest bones found in the human finger, the pastern was famously mis-defined by Samuel Johnson in his dictionary as "the knee of a horse". When a lady asked Johnson how he came to do so, he gave the much-quoted reply: "Ignorance, madam, pure ignorance." -- Wikipedia, "Pastern."

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Thornton Hatches a "Who?"

William Thomas Thornton's essay, "On Labour, its Wrongful Claims and Rightful Dues; its Actual Present and Possible Future," was the occasion for John Stuart Mill's famous recantation of the wages-fund doctrine. In the course of his discussion, Thornton inadvertently invoked the very doctrine that he was debunking, a discrepancy noted by a reviewer in July 1869 The Edinburgh Review:
As he had attacked the doctrine of supply and demand in reference to price, Mr. Thornton assails, with even greater impetuosity, that monstrous figment, as he regards it, of the economists, the wages fund. The book is written, on the whole, in a good humoured spirit; but if ever an irritation of temper is betrayed, it is when the writer is brought into contact with this bĂȘte noire of his social philosophy. That the rate of wages is governed, as Adam Smith and his followers have conceived, by the proportion between the capital disposable for the payment of labour and the number of the recipients of that capital, is a notion that Mr. Thornton scouts with contempt, and he consigns the chimerical 'wages-fund' to the lowest limbo of unrealities. Yet, while attacking the name, we find him occasionally, under the pressure of facts, using language which virtually admits the thing, as when he says, 'that at any given time the whole quantity of work to be done is a fixed quantity, and the uttermost which employers can afford to pay for having it done is a fixed amount'; and in other places his language recognises the inevitable fact that employment must be limited by the amount of capital which at the time being sets it in motion, that amount being the thing to which Smith, McCulloch, Fawcett, and other writers have assigned the offensive name.