Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Got Graphene?

(note: first half revised, July 13)

Imported from "New Scientist" magazine, http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn21758-let-commerce-not-just-inspiration-drive-innovation.html , by John Fisher:

Why is it that some academic researchers and state funding bodies still regard commercialisation as a dirty word? We have all come across such people: happy to promote the myth that inspiration alone should be the driving force behind scientific labour.
     The economic doctrine which has been aggressively forced on us is that the market works automatically to supply society's needs. All we need to do is not meddle. Do you remember that stuff? Just leave the market alone, they used to say. But if that were true, Mr. Fisher would not have needed to write his piece, because the old market would have been purring right along, resolving all mankind's problems. Basically that was a view that was taken seriously. But it is not true; it was a propaganda program. All that yammering on about the "free market" should be called what it is, trash. It's not true, dammit. It's not any explanation at all and that is why professor Fisher needs to discuss his new problem. He indicates that a problem exists in channeling innovation to the economy, which is to say intervening in the economy. Here, intervention is to go towards what he calls "commercial uses." Commercialization does not mean non-intervention in this quotation. Fisher wants "commercialization." Also, he clearly wants to intervene, presumably politically. 
     What he does not want to talk about is the standard economic theory of leaving markets to do their wonders. The standard ideas, as I have implied, are not actually that good. But certain people liked it, and certain other forces allowed it to be promoted. It was allowed to steadily ride up to top of class and dominate the world (in fact, it was the capitalist world that was interested).  These wrong ideas slowly came to dominate and now we have arrived at the present. The ideas weren't any good, they just had nutcases advocating for them. They just insisted and insisted and insisted, and as long as capitalism remained strong, nobody cared. Now we see it does not work, even Mr. Fisher is talking about something entirely different. When an idea is that bad it cannot stay afloat; no one can keep it afloat, although it may kill everybody, when it fails. And still the ideas are not challenged. In that world of ideas in economics the gainfully-employed economists do not really challenge the world they live in. They live to serve that world, not to challenge its truisms. But the ideas do not work. Now everybody just turns their back and walks away.
     Today there are "challenges" in Mr. Fisher's terminology. This is in the "Science and Society" section of "New Scientist." He speaks of a need for "innovation." He means "commercial" innovation or public intervention in commerce. Specifically, Mr. Fisher wants to bring certain products like graphene into their appropriate commercial applications and the means does not seem to be in place. Getting back to the old free market theories, now, they said it simply would happen. The normal would be that the "free market" would be there. And they did not suggest that there were exceptions to what was "normal." Can we begin to get an idea of how bad that theory was? A true supporter of this doctrine or theory, or whatever it is, would have to say here that free market economics, or the "market" -- or maybe the "dynamic" of it all (quote marks just make the word zing yet more) -- or "competition" -- or self-interest -- or what is called "the" or "a" "marketplace" - all scrumptuous words, no doubt -- is adequate. It should bring all products to all who need them. Actually, rhetoric never delivered product number one.
     We can get more insight into the old theories if we understand that this old idea is really a statement about what life is. Economic activity always sprouts up as a function of life. It is a life function. Economics is the function of society. They are describing how life works. That is the idea. This is a general idea which says that persons express themselves in various ways. That has merit. Persons do express themselves, they are human, they are social beings. So the old "free market" theory is a faux-theory about society. That's also why the word "dynamic" works so well.
     The idea that commercial activity is a necessary part of life is the idea that commercial activity arises in parallel to, as an analogue of, or companion to life itself, per se. Thus, humanity, or human activity per se, is the unfettered free market. Does that idea of how persons live in society really make sense? Not any more. It's time is over. This idea will continue to make less and less sense, although no one, except the present visionary economist, will specifically recount its history. I know that some persons even still believe it. I am pretty sure that what is a social theory disguised as individualism, remains, for some, because I get some group like that. They are still promoting that stuff way past the time the smart have ceased to believe. But even as the majority don't believe it, still no one tries to actively get rid of the it ---- we just silently turn away.
     Let's say there are still a few protagonists. They arrive at Fisher's website to comment. Such a party would tell of tampering, intervention, or — I think I like this one — fettering. If only you would stop that stuff! And then everything will be better. Darn~! Also, it will be more dynamic, which, again, means alive, human, social, free, individual, competitive...all social thought. All these things just take care of themselves. That old free market theory is just remarkable, in the way it says that all will take care of itself... there is also some implication that it will take off by itself. Speedy growth — speedy growth through free markets. I know there is a gas station called "Speedy." Hey, it's a good gas station, and a food theory. Give me "ethyl." But now, I suspect, the good old days of free market theory are over and common sense has caught up to itself and we won't see this kind of argument anymore. We'll see that persons are no longer making "the argument-formerly-known-as-free market." Truly put, the old argument did "fetter" us. Sad. And I was just getting to like that word.
     Again, the reasons for the survival and even flourishing of the idea of an unfettered, free market economy seem political. Involved here are persons who want to have power. The conservatives, the powerful, certain politicians — they were good with those ideas. Who could blame them? As long as they capitalistic economy was strong, they felt they could use those ideas. This is just how ideas get selected. Social forces existed who wanted and desired those ideas. The ideas were necessary. They wanted to paint economics in a certain way. Those ideas were part of the plan.
     They were also ideas stated in grammatical English. It makes sense that companies wanted to block economic interventions to some extent. Their motives are hard to explain, and probably not worth the time. I do not think their motivation was sincere, they just had power and wanted to keep it. They were far from objective. Again, we need to say that their real motivations in pushing for these theories of "free markets need less government intervention" were "political." Now, the time is here for that old, outdated economic theory that they have stuck us with to be rejected.
     Otherwise, it will be harder to change things in those commercial spaces Fisher operates in. So, to do that, you need to get rid of the wrong idea of commerce. But, apparently, that is very hard for us; ideas do not really work that way. They work more the way McCloskey says they do. Milton Friedman was wrong. That is all there is to it, in a sense. Wrong is wrong. Isn't it? That those ideas are wrong, however, is just too simple -- too damn simple. You cannot put a fact that simple across, I am afraid. It is difficult to work in such a propagandized space. (I sound a little post-modern here. Don't I? Do I?)

     We have to ask why that happened, why that economic theory existed in that way. We need to ask about truth, not just say "it's rhetoric."
     What is the truth? If not "unfettered" markets and so forth? For starters, intervention is OK. It wasn't ever bad. That's all. Just say that. It is not wrong in principle (sorry, Milton). But we scarcely know how to do it, nor do we know what interventions should be made. We do not have any ideas, even. We are not even talking about them or getting down to deciding what those interventions need to be. So, it is not like these political forces have had no effect. They disturb our ability to reason things out. We need to ask, what does the economy really need? And this is what we need to discover, since our thinking is occluded. There is a lot of work to do, then. (Hey! Jobs!)
     Fisher wants to know how do we deliver the benefits of a thing like graphene in a similar manner as the market was able, in the nineties, to deliver the glories of the semi-conductor. Fisher tells us that "without further investment directed towards appropriate goals it [graphene as a commercial product] will remain hot air." Whatever the "market" is, "it" is not going to do that automatically any more. What, then? Human intelligence has to do it. We have to actually think. With the economic conditioning, with our ideological conditioning, the idea comes to the ear as a novelty.
     The model that needs to be changed is more than the switch from inspiration to "challenge," Fisher;s way of putting it, in his own sort of jargon or his code words. Changes are needed in the standard - and political - model of what an economy is. In the first place. That's a little more in  the line of big-picture thinking. A change in ideas is needed. The old ideas have to be, Um---deconstructed, I don't know, something like that. The old ideas were never any good anyway, they just held in place by the "order of things," for various political-type reasons. Now they seem to be getting in the way, though, which is a natural outcome, for I would suspect that is what bad ideas do.
     Society needs to determine (see above quote) "appropriate goals." That is the import of what he is saying. He is trying to influence other persons in society. Just how does "appropriate" action happen? There are these two possibilities, as we have been discussing: it may be that the story as told by the old "free market" windbags is true. Is that ole "magic of the market" stuff actually correct or not? Im gettin' tard o' twiddlin' me thumbs here. Is there really something out there called "the market" that "magically" (yes, they really did use that word) determines how resources, possibilities and innovation are put into play? All the time? Or should persons determine that by intervening? Some of the time?
     These are the two basic choices, letting the market do its thing, and intervening, and they are distinct. These are distinct theoretical approaches. What both approaches are trying to explain, however, is the same, and this is the matter of how society provisions goods, or how it distributes what these economist-types love calling "resources." I am not totally certain why it is always "resources." Maybe somebody can help me. We can just call it the "goods and services" that have to get to persons. This really is the problem. There are items that have to get produced and have to get distributed to persons. Even if we did not have all of these  technologically advanced products, we would still have the question of how to get them (or even whether to get them) to the people out there in the world, how much to whom, and so forth. What I think articles like Fisher's show is that we are beginning to intuitively understand (that's the best way anyhow, I suspect) that the old free market paradigm is repugnant to the mind. And it's wrong. There never were such economic systems at all.
     There are, in fact, many interventions that could be employed and that have been employed. There always has been intervention, very effective interventions, as many economists will admit. Fisher calls for "properly directed investment."  The question is: how do you do that?
     While the dominant strains of economic thought opine that that should just happen automatically ----- as the function - somehow - of "the markets," this may not be true. Their pernicious ideology states that it "should" happen through, or because of, "markets" ----- but it is high time to understand that there must be some other way to do it. There is no "market" out there that will automatically cause any final, positive outcome for humanity, for us.
     What Fisher seems to understand is that new approaches need to be tried. This means by society. He is in favor of social interventions. Economic theory always has to be social theory, since it has to deal with a whole group of persons who produce and consume. Some persons try to disguise the inherently social nature of economics, in favor of theories of individualism. But this is all, in any case, ideology. Fisher thinks it is just a matter of innovation or challenge vs. pure research. In fact we need to intervene more broadly and comprehensively. There are many ways to do that, but we need to at least start thinking a little more clearly.


  1. Look at the first sentence of the quotation that starts the discussion. After the question clause at the begining of the sentence, it is a sentence with basically two clauses, separated by the verb phrase "still regards." On one side is a multiple (something AND something). On the remaining side of the sentence is a singular. Commercialization. "Commercialization" indicates the business world of course. Just as the business world is not something that operates automatically, without need for anything else like governance, thinking, or regulation, we can also say it is not (like the sentence) a mere singular. It is connected, like Dave Brooks has been saying; it is connected in Popper's "cloud" way. A fashion or a trend is, for example, connected to everything else. Business is connected to life. Not a radical idea, is it?

  2. In short, my interpretation of the quote by Fisher is that in order for "commercialization" to operate one would need to structure capitalism. Intervene in ---- same thing.
    Thus it is the case that there is a gulf between Fisher and traditional do-not-interfere-in-markets schools. The later constitute a school, they were dominant theorists just a short while back, and the dominant thinkers of the society were always called upon to give us their wisdom, when we wanted to know about capitalism. All credentionals (s.i.c. I love it!) in order. Considering Fisher's perspective, it actually indicates, aside from all rhetoric or pejorative, that commercialization is ENHANCED by "outside interference in markets." He does not call it "intervention." He just thinks of it as common sense. He says only "commercialization," but "intervention" is packed right in there.