Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Co-Centric Principle

Inasmuch as I propose to call the type of economic theory into which my own ideas fall "Co-Centric Economics," I suppose it would be circumspect to begin by discussing, as best I can, the way I am using the term "co-centric." This use of "co-centric" in relation to economics is a genuinely new usage, as best I know. The term is used in geometry to mean something more or less like "concentric," and it pops up occasionally in articles and blogs (sometimes, it would seem, as an erroneous spelling of concentric, sometimes not). So it's not a new term, though I actually coined it myself quite a few years ago. I was looking for a term that means "sharing a mutual center" but in a looser way than my understanding of "concentric."

I have come to use it relation to economics in a very broad way, actually, and thus it somehow gravitated to its present use as a label for the whole body of work.

As will "trickle in" in coming posts, I have organized my general ideas on economics in accordance with the so-called six perfections (paramitas) of mahayana Buddhism. The last and perhaps most important of these is the paramita of prajna , which for the sake of this work will be translated simply as "wisdom." (Other valid translations for prajna are in use, including "knowledge," "superior knowledge," and "discernment.") Although the English term wisdom does not fully express what is meant by prajna in the Buddhist tradition, it probably comes closest in a general sense.

The six perfections in their spiritual context are meant to be guide for someone who has developed the enlightened attitude known as bodhicitta. Bodhicitta is a very special form of compassion. Indeed it could be considered the supreme form of compassion that we can develop as ordinary beings, since it means aspiring to achieve perfect enlightenment such that one can help all beings reach that same enlightenment.

The compassion that one tries to develop in mahayana Buddhism is concerned both with the ultimate enlightenment of beings, and with their wellbeing in worldly life. Therefore the idea of Buddhist economics is entirely relevant, and a mahayana Buddhist economics would be an economics of compassion. That indeed is the title of my upcoming book: The Economics of Compassion.

In the presentation of the six paramitas, wisdom is last, and it's said that for all of the other five to really be paramitas, they need to be imbued with this last paramita, prajna. The implication of this is that if we are to find an economics of compassion that goes beyond mere good intentions or even sentimentality, it helps to have wisdom. A simple way to describe wisdom is that it is correctly seeing "the way things are." And clearly wisdom is necessary for compassion to be truly effective.

The term co-centric is an interesting way to describe "the way things are" in economic terms. It points to a whole array of meanings, from the tangible to the highly abstract. For example, as human beings, we are co-centric with our natural world. Individuals are co-centric with social systems. Social systems themselves display a high degree of co-centricity. The symbolic economy of money and price is co-centric with the tangible economy of "stuff." The term is related in meaning to "interdependent," integral," and "inclusive." It relates to the simultaneous co-existence of parts and wholes, and of systems and their components. In more abstract terms, co-centrism can point to the yin/yang principle of Chinese philosophy, or to the notion that the linguistic meaning we give to things exists within the context of a language system, and with our own cultural experience. It can point to the unity of opposites, or more specifically to the notion that opposites exist in a larger system context.

In terms of the discipline of economics, it has long been pointed out by the pioneers of "alternative economics" (i.e. E. F. Schumacher, Hazel Hendersen, and Herman Daly) that economics as a profession has tended to isolate itself from other disciplines, and even from human values altogether. Hence Schumacher's famous subtitle ". . . economics as if people mattered." Therefore co-centric economics means economics that exists in proper context with other disciplines, and with the needs of humanity.

One way to talk about this inclusiveness that somehow eluded economics as it got more and more specialized and abstract is to think of it in terms of "co-centricity of scope." Though it is more difficult to create abstract theories (especially neat mathematical ones) if you include everything and exclude nothing, the unfortunate fact is that you really DO have to include everything. And the fact that mainstream economics has tended to exclude tiny little factors like social justice, the environment, or other messy qualitative factors makes it at best a crippled discipline capable only of the most incomplete of answers.

This is by no means just a matter of academic interest. We have come to a time in history when economic matters are coming to the forefront and affect the very survival of our species. It is critically important that the discipline of economics rise to the challenge and the urgency of our times. Therefore economics needs a comprehensive or universal scope of attention: it needs to be co-centric. And this is the only way to create a truly successful economics, one that will address the human condition and indeed offer the most helpful answers and solutions. From that point of view, using the term "alternative economics" to describe an economics that is concerned with the environment and human justice is a bit stupid and insulting.

It should be noted here that co-centric economics is not a term I'm using exclusively for my own ideas, but rather for any economics that fits the characteristics of co-centricity. In practical terms, any economics that is sincerely concerned with social justice, environmental balance, and truly useful theory could be considered co-centric. As such it would include most of the "alternative" economic theoretical work done in the last 50 or so years. From that point of view, co-centric economics is the body of work into which I would wish my own to fall, without particularly trying to co-opt anyone else's work, or for that matter branding them with my own label.

It seems that I am working my way backwards through the six perfections, and to conclude this brief introduction to the section on wisdom, I will mention that co-centricity is actually one of two parts included under "economic wisdom." The other part is post-materialism. In some sense, post-materialism is a refutation of the way things seem to be, or what seems to be important, whereas co-centricity is a description of how things actually are, and what IS really important.

I probably should have started with post-materialism, but I'll discuss that in the next post.


JimK said...

The "economics of stuff" is getting close to an engineering optimization problem. There are two challenges at that level. First, it is often difficult to model whatever system with enough accuracy. One can manage this a bit with probabilities, but really to determine an accurate probability distribution problem for some quantity is actually harder that just to determine a single value.

This sort of Hydra effect - chop off the head of the monster, and seven more heads spring up - I think that is a classic mark of emptiness, what prajna paramita recognizes. Every way we try to patch up the holes in whatever conceptual system we're working with, we end up with a more complicated system that has even more holes!

The game with any science is not to create some ultimate system that is impervious to all criticism. Theories are tools to help us solve problems. The wise way to work with tools is to maintain a set of good tools, to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the tools, and to be able to select the right tool for the job one faces. It's understanding the limits of one's tools that enables one to use them wisely, not any kind of dogmatic faith in their infinite power.

Engineering optimization is a core tool of economics - really, it's micro-economics. It's valuable to push its limits, to see how far it can go. In the direction of modeling uncertainties, probabilistic analysis is one direction. Another is robust design. See, for example,

The other side of optimization is the optimization criterion. Somehow it is not so easy to rank possible futures in any strict order. Books versus food, that's how the puzzle presents itself in my own life! But anyway, there is a whole disciple of "multiple criteria optimization", founded by Pareto I think. That's another interest angle to explore.

The other side of economics I think of as algorithmic: how can we collectively explore the solution space and somehow mutually coordinate our behavior to manifest some pattern that is as near optimal as possible, especially given all the uncertain and changing constraints?

JimK said...

Another idea that might fit in with your "co-centric" thinking...

Economics is about decision making. The first question must be: who is deciding about what? Every idea about the causal structure of the world is based on some division of the world into an acting subject and a passive object. The acting subject might be the entirety of humanity, or a government, or a political party, or a corporation, or a professional society of scientists, or a family, or an individual person. The range of options for action open to an acting subject depends strongly on what particular acting subject one is talking about.

It's a useful way to understand the emptiness of self, I think - to see that the way we divide the world up into acting subject and passive object, there are a range of such ways available, and they're all valid perspectives.

Sometimes one might want to build a chain of cause and effect. For example, with global warming, it's really all of humanity that is the crucial actor. How can all of humanity change its collective mind to act in a different way? That is a nice puzzle! Maybe some professional society can play a crucial role, like maybe the society of power engineers that design electrical generating plants. So maybe I as an individual can figure out a way to influence that society, then the society can influence humanity, then humanity can change the way we're influencing the global environment.

So it's always important with any decision to understand who is the actor and what is their range of possible actions. Then one can analyze a situation from a variety of such perspectives, to see how they interrelate & which of them give better insights etc.