The simple and ironical fact is that you cannot get from pure numbers to anything that truly "counts." If you want human values, if you want qualitative distinctions, then your theoretical constructs must retain those values and distinctions every step of the way. The minute you allow them to collapse into number alone, you have no way to get back from there to the qualitative world. Not, at least, without being perfectly arbitrary, for numbers are inherently indifferent to their infinite range of possible application.
More concretely: It is fine to say that your profit from the sale of apples is $1000, and your profit from the sale of oranges is $1000. But if apples are not the same as oranges, neither are profits from apples the same as profits from oranges or profits from cocaine the same as profits from penicillin. Yet everything in the distinction is lost as soon as you say, "Total profit = $2000" and proceed to crank that figure into still other calculations, heedless of the concrete realities the real world from which the numbers arose.
We need to do such figure-cranking. But we don't need to forget the various significances from which the figures were abstracted, or pretend that a science based on such abstractions can tell us about the most important aspects of our economic choices.
Clearly, any economists who felt obliged to look at the real world would have to reckon with the qualities of things, and therefore would be unable to remain wholly within the neat abstractions that lend so much elegance to their theoretical habitations. There's the rub for a discipline whose self-image depends much more on mathematical rigor and scientific respectability than on the understanding of reality.
But it is not only the theoreticians who invoke a number magic whereby the maximization of particular numbers is thought to guarantee, somehow, the realization of qualitative values. Every time you and I invest our money solely for maximum return we invoke the same magic. If we invested in a specific enterprise because we believed it was doing something important for society if that importance was what mattered to us first of all then we would not automatically move our investments around simply on the basis of financial return. Nor would we invest in vehicles that prevented us from choosing which companies received our support.
Perhaps you will object, "But money isn't empty number. It represents human ingenuity and skill and hard work, with all their positive values." Exactly my point. That, at least, is how we ought to view money. But when we invest with a view to numerical maximization alone, we are blotting out those values. They cease to matter. Whether the skill resulting in our profits was skill in serving a particular human need or skill in undermining the welfare of others is now lost from view. We have reduced money which has fairly been described as a kind of condensation of the human spirit to nothingness, however precisely measured.
We would not tolerate this sort of nothingness in other domains. For example:
If the chief of your local police department were to announce today that "activity" on the city streets had increased by 15 percent, people would not be impressed. . . . They would demand specifics. Exactly what increased? Tree planting or burglaries? Volunteerism or muggings? Car wrecks or neighborly acts of kindness? (Cobb, Halstead, and Rowe 1995, p. 64)
But when the chiefs of our economy report that economic activity is headed up, we quiz them no further. Instead we call our brokers.
Try to scan your radio dial without stumbling across a financial-advice program; but how often do you find such a program whose focus is the health of society rather than maximization of return? Or listen to the discussion of your company's 401K plan around the water cooler. Or just look at the kind of mania that periodically erupts in the stock markets and currency exchanges.
The message in all this is that the human being has become invisible. The market, instead of becoming the place where we conduct our business, has evicted us, allowing us only to pull the mechanism's various levers in hope of triggering a jackpot.
As with all gambling, there are those who are better and worse at it, but it remains a risky business. Harvard researchers examined the conventional view that trading on the (then) $2-trillion-per-day currency exchanges improved market efficiency and dampened volatility. Their conclusion?
The big currency players trade on "noise" rather than economic fundamentals. As a result, they tend to boost market volatility rather than dampen it and often lose money in the process. ( Business Week 1998b).
Speaking of those same currency exchanges, U.S. News & World Report once suggested that they "may be the ultimate free market, a totally unregulated financial system operating twenty-four hours a day with an apparent madness balanced by fundamental economic and strategic methodologies" (1997).
But surely the ultimate free market is the market in which free human beings operate. And free human beings are those capable of exercising responsibility, of choosing their own future, of placing their own qualitative, value-laden imprint upon the world. They do not simply stick coins in slots based on the likelihood of a jackpot.
Almost everyone complains at one time or another about the perverse way numbers can run away with us, and about the one-sided concern for bottom lines. (For one of the best characterizations of the way economic abstractions distort the world, see the chapters on the "Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness" in Daly and Cobb 1994.) That's why the persistence of number mysticism the belief that certain kinds of numbers are inherently bearers of good is so significant. The mysticism seems to grab us in a deep place, and to all appearances we are, despite our complaints, nearly helpless in its grip.
But, at the same time, we value our freedom. May we value it enough to realize that how we exercise it actually matters!