romanian literary monthly

~Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen: “Against some current”

Distinguished Professor Emeritus
Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen
Vanderbilt University, D.A.S.A. Honorary Member

To try to ascertain whether I have ever moved against an objective current is not smooth sailing, for it inevitably entangles me in what, in line wim my epistemology, I prefer to call the sociology of scientists. This term correctly describes the discipline now known as sociology of science, as Karl Mannheim called it first; for sociology necessarily refers to living individuals: humans, chimpanzees,, bees, horses. It would be nonsensical to speak of the sociology of books or of differential calculus. As the unorthodox sociologist Florian Znanieki argued, we can speak only of the role of people in acquiring and spreading knowledge. It is by reori­enting Mannheim’s view that Robert K. Merton set the „sociology of science“ on a better track. There is, in particular, Merton’s magnificent studies of the Matthew effect, of the multiple discoveries, or of plagiarism, topics germane to what scientists do rather than to what science is.

We may not all be aware of the most striking illustration of the Mat­thew effect; „E pur si muove“ is ordinarily attributed to Galileo, akhough those words were the last ones uttered by Giordano Bruno on the burning stake! To descend to common people, my theorem of substitutability of Leontief s static system is usually not connected with my name but with Samuelson’s, although Samuelson himself has always acknowledged my priority. (Maybe, Samuelson can be modest.) In die economic literature we also encounter a veiled plagiarism when an author lists only very recent works, two or three years old, avoiding any reference to Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Vilfrcdo Pareto, John R. Hicks, or others just as great The aim is to place oneself within the tidal wave of pseudo-innovators. Newton thought this practice to be an academic crime of which he ac­cused Galileo for failing to mention Kepler. When I receive one elegant flyer after another about future large congresses organized by energetists who have never referred to my contributions, I always ask, „Why do they send these fliers to me?“

I should list now some of my strange ideas that have a connection witii

At Question of my running against a current. For a start, I thoroughly deny that money is an economic factotum. By itself, it creates impediments for the customary international aid consisting only of money. More often than not, such aid has filled the pockets of the privileged with still more money and has developed the industry of luxury goods instead of

If I finally realized that I was running against one current or another, it was not from any crossing of intellectual swords with my fellow econ­omists, who have systematically shunned such an encounter, but from their personal attitudes toward me. I was a darling of the mathematical economists as long as I kept contributing pieces on mathematical eco­nomics. Several things radically changed their mood, especially that of the econometricians.

First, there was my contention that marginal pricing is the worst policy for an agrarian overpopulated economy. Soon after returning to the United States, I informally presented that idea at an after-dinner chat at the University of Chicago. How well I remember that there were abso­lutely no questions at the end! Those good friends wanted to spare me the embarrassment of being exposed as a neoclassical ignoramus. My position in the profession worsened irreparably when, owing to the grace of George B. Richardson, my agrarian paper appeared as a leading item, in Oxford Economic Papers (1960), not only for having thus touched the sacrosanct neoclassical dogma, but especially for pointing out that the much lauded proof by Kenneth Arrow and Gerard Debreu of the existence of a solution to the Walrasian system was irrelevant in practice because it was based on a fantastic premise; that every individual already had an income sufficient for life. My disclosure was hardly mentioned by subsequent writers, et pour cause. Yet it must have succeeded in sotto voce to alert others to the danger of breaking intellectual bread with Georgescu-Roegen. „When quite recently I proposed collaboration on a significant agricultural project to a colleague, he turned me down ex­plaining that he could not renege on his neoclassical testament

Second were another series of irritating blunders. In Analytical Eco­nomics (1966) I stated that not all things can be made with the aid of numbers. And in a paper read at the meeting in honor of Corrado Gini (also in 1966), I dared to expose the ineptitude of predicting economic futures by econometric models. That was like signing my death sentence as a fellow of the Econometric Society (to which I had been elected in 1950 when election to fellowship was extremely selective). It was after expressing those unfashionable ideas that I received identical treatment from two coeditors of Econometrica, E. Malinvaud and J. Drize. Each sent me a paper critical of one of my articles. In their letters, both stated categorically that they had decided to publish those papers and that I might, if I so wished, write a small reply (which I did). To my great surprise, both later sent me new versions with notes saying that, after seeing my reply, my critics had modified their initial versions. From Malinvaud I received even a third version together with a pronouncement that I had no proper right to a reply since my critic’s paper was not much needed wage goods. This wrong is aggravated by the fact that the wanting people usually are toilers of the soil, using either inadequate methods or inappropriate tools. We could train industrial workers by bringing them in successive groups to a huge-teaching workshop, but we could not do the same with people occupied in husbandry. Northeast Brazil is the strongest case in point. With this idea in mind, after a 1965 meeting on subsistence farming I declared to a Honululu newspaper that the best way to help the undeveloped countries was to send not gushers of money, not a peace corps, but a peace army. Would sending a peace army instead of one fully armed be an inept idea?

When the UN General Assembly met in Stockholm in 1972 to consider the problems of the environment, I participated in the meeting of the Dai-Dong Association, the sole organization acknowledged by the UN. As Tom Artin tells in his Earth Talk, a delectable report about the general. events of that occasion, I offered several motions that immediately upset the other members. One motion was that all natural resources should be worldized. My aim was to preclude increasing scarcity from accentuating the extant international inequalities and from eventually fomenting wars. In an interview with the New York Times (December 1979), I insisted that, if the use of resources is still to be at the whim of the market, missiles will fly for the possession of the last drop of oiL What recently took place in Kuwait was, fortunately, only a rehearsal, but a rehearsal in full dress. My second tabled motion was to abrogate all passports for international travel. It was another bioeconomic idea to aid the people of undeveloped countries by allowing them to move freely where there is a much greater opportunity for the use of their hands, instead of resorting to the conventional, but extremely difficult operation of bring­ing capital equipment into their native countries. These ideas certainly were Utopian, but I would plead guilty and with pride to that incrimi­nation. There is hardly any social or economic practice of which we are proud now that was not a distasteful, though fully sensible, utopia once. Yet I did not feel that by the foregoing thoughts I was running against a current; there was no current opposing me. I just made my interlocutors conscious of their latent opinions, which happened to oppose mine.

In my earliest contributions I even ran with the current, which was then to expand the legitimate use of mathematics in economics, a program in which I have never ceased to believe and for which my exemplar is Sir John Hicks. My opposition is to the abuses of mathematics, although they have not caused the greatest harm. The greatest harm could come from the prevalent orientation that allowed as a leading item in the American Economic Review a paper about rats (which compelled me to resign from the American Economic Association).

aimed at my own work. After I pointed out that even in that relatively small third version my name appeared not less than twenty-two times, the strange tug of war had to end with the publication of my last reply, but, probably a unique case in the scientific literature, with an additional replique by that critic (1963). I am completely correct, I think, in believing that those two.coeditors decided to publish the first critical versions because they thought that (without much care) they represented irrefut­able blows to my scholarly reputation. But the greatest message of os-tradzation on the part of my fellow econometricians came on the occasion of my Richard T. Ely Lecture entitled the „Theory of Production“ (1969). The Fellows of the Econometric Society scheduled their annual meeting at exactly the same hour as my lecture, a machination that I dissected as a prelude to the lecture. This is just one symptom of the modern sociology of scientists.

Third, my idea that has irritated not only the immense new crop of energetists, but especially most of the economists, was made known at a Distinguished Lecture at the University of Alabama (1970). It was then that I raised my voice against the neoclassical dogmatic belief that the free mechanism of prices is the only way to ensure rational distribution of resources among all generations. One pjllar of that belief was (and still is) that the interests of future generations are taken care of by the fact that we care for our children, our children for their children, and so forth and so on. Our economic interests have been taken care of (so it seems) by this algorithmic sequence from the time of, say, Julius Caesar – nay, much earlier. Yet none of those propounders thought of asking whether the relation „take care of is transitive.

I firmly believe in the philosophical idea that our understanding in any domain (including, yes, mathematics) needs both dialectical and arith-momorphic concepts. I cannot even get near the irascible reductionism – everything can be reduced to numbers – that especially dominates the thought of this century. Naturally, I cannot see in a computer anything other than a device to calculate with numbers (please, mark mosc words well) much, much quicker than our brain. About the time I was writing The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, a big din was being made about a computer that calculated 1 million decimals of it in eight hours. As I was writing the present essay, another computer printed out 1 billion decimalsl Besides greater speed, nothing has fundamentally changed. In both cases, I believe, the computers used Leibniz’s infinite series for ir/4. And as I said in my volume, if Leibniz had had to calculate by paper and pencil just 1 million decimals, it would have taken him thirty thou­sand years. How much ink, how much paper, how many quills? Now I wonder whether even the presupposed life of the universe would have sufficed Leibniz for calculating 1 billion decimals. But I am certain that the discovery of any new important theorem, GodePs, for example, will remain the appanage of the human brain.

Today, „artificial intelligence“ is a name so dressed up as to make us easy believers in the fantasy. In my 1971 volume, in considering the claim of that marvelous brain of A. M. Turing, that one day we will no longer be able to determine whether an interlocutor hidden by a screen is a human or a computer, with the proper apology I said that reading Tur­ing’s paper convinced me that it may have been written by a computer, that Turing only signed it I recently sent the same punch to the editor of Scientific American in connection with an overenthusiastic article by a staff member. They naturally did not publish it: apparently, the press is free but only for those who own it.

I also content that the impossibility of relating every function of the brain to some digital or chemical phenomenon is salient proof that we cannot do everything with numbers. The extraordinary experiment by the famous brain surgeon W. Penfield pinpoints the mystery. When Pen-field told a patient under brain surgery not to raise his arm if Penfield touched his brain with an electrode, the patient just used the other arm to keep the impulsed one down. Surprised, Penfield then asked what electrode caused the second arm to move. We still wait for a nonfantasized answer.

My epistemological addiction is the reason I am against arithmomor-phia. I have only words of protest for the typical assertion of a physicist that it is not necessary to explain phenomena before dealing with them mathematically. If one starts only with mathematics, one is likely, as I said, to be trapped inside it. A superb illustration is the theorem of some mathematical economists that the market tends to an equilibrium even if the traders are more numerous than the continuum power. Being trapped, they could not even dream of asking what actual space could have room for so many actual traders.

This has been the story about my claim that I have indeed run against a current, why and how. Other scholars and philosophers have also run against a current To my knowledge they are Isaiah Berlin, Paul Fcyer-abend, and Gunnar MyrdaL By comparing their conditions with mine, after long years I have concluded that, for the results of one’s struggle, the place from which one runs against a current matters enormously.


N. R. In American and European economics, Georgescu-Roegen is known for his original theories, many of them contradicting established myths. His sys­tem of thought has stirred published reactions from many colleagues of whom some have received the Nobel Prize. The article above is an excerpt from THE LIFE PHILOSOPHIES OF EMINENT ECONOMISTS, Michael Szen-berg, ed. (Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 128-159).

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