Economics, Environment, Development and Fashion

February 22nd, 2007 by MrLuxuryFashionGuru

As I was saying to Professor L. after class, I think it is impossible to comprehensively capture “real” economic costs and benefits related to either environmental change (whether degradation, use or exploitation) or to development projects and development, broadly conceived.  I don’t even think the approximations have any claim to robustness, especially when tested against the yardstick of usefully guiding action or policy choices**.

Firstly there’s the idea that economic values are only relational and defined against a fast-moving dynamic (not necessarily an equilibrium) that varies across time (snapshot, cumulative, absolute sum, discounted, cycles), space and frame of reference (level of economic aggregation, particular individuals).  And that’s just the easy stuff–say sale price of a plot of land, commodity prices, wages or insurance premiums–and by “easy” I mean “already set by available markets” (even if completely arbitrarily–economists are well aware of the fuzziness around calculating GDP and the “stickiness” of prices and wages).  Then you move on to the ever more clearly philosophical and subjective measures: value of a life (life years, DALYs, healthcare costs, lost productivity, social networks), non-use values, “shadow prices”, impact of culture, identity, human security/suffering, and the cracks in the universalist appeal of economic benefit/cost analysis widen, and widen irreparably in my mind.  And then of course economic value is fundamentally about exchange and perceived equivalence.  But you can never really hope to exchange experiences or make ephemera equivalent to other ephemera in a meaningful way – I have zero desire to be part of a forest dwelling tribe, nor do these forest dwellers presumably desire to attend fashion shows and watch Ugly Betty.

* Fortunately, as the easy response to what Professor L. thought might be the difficult consequence of my critique of economics (“Then what are we left with to guide action or make decisions?”), I think the trick then lies in playing the existing language/philosophical/ideology game (shades of Wittgenstein) and perhaps shifting the rules to favor whatever outcome you prefer.  In the end, the same feature that I highlight as the key flaw in economic thinking–the reliance on “exchange” and “exchangability” (or substitution, equivalence etc.)–is also the marker of its dominance.  As the dominant ideology (notwithstanding Barthes’ insistence that ideology must necessarily/definitionally be dominant), “economics” is a broadly shared set of values (or “myths” in the language of Barthes, ie both sign and signified sensu de Saussure) that has permeated not just everyday life (“It’s the economy, stupid”; “Greed is good”; “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend”), but more importantly the ruling classes.  So you work within the boundaries of these existing constructions (or just beyond that) to get what you want (or desire, in the reified sense).

** Further, my critique of economics is not really that it cannot accurately model human choices; in fact as a constructivist I think the relationship is primarily and increasingly reversed – the generalized “mythological” ideology of economics creates a paradigm where people are conditioned to “naturally” act as homo economicus, akin to Orwell’s “Newspeak” if you like.  Rather, my critique is directed towards the trifold illusions of empiricist accuracy, universality (applicable to answering just about any practical question) and neutrality (objective, moral-neutral, non-ideological/political) that are figured (figuré)or gestured at by “economics”.  I suppose most of this is structurally defined, and thus will endure as long as the edifice of economics dominates thinking, discourse and (most of all) intuition.

At the end of the day, my sense is that the world is currently ruled by economists (and businessmen, yes generally men), which corresponds directly and naturally with the primacy of economics as an (invisible, hidden, unknown, disguised, ignored) ideology.  Lest we should forget, the world has been ruled previously by priests and philosophers, generals and artists, scientists and patrons of the arts, dandies and hippies…. each period marked by its own prevailing zeitgeist.

It is telling that a 1960s roundatable discussion and defense (not to mention analysis) of fashion among Roland Barthes, Henri LeFebvre and Jean Duvignaud was richly informed by concepts and issues from literature, history, sociology, technology, morality and linguistics, whereas the various defenses of fashion in the popular film The Devil Wears Prada (2006) reduce essentially to the economic value of an industry measured in “billions of dollars and thousands of jobs”, with brief and empty supporting allusions towards “art” and of the high-quality, yet almost-incidental editorial content (not to be confused with editorial fashion spreads) in fashion magazines.

Ok, enough soapbox for now.  Time to post, and then see if I think I should password protect it or move it offline/elsewhere.

PS: There, I managed to cover all my academic focii at a single go (ESPP/Economics, and French).

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