Why I Love Scott Sumner

I love his long post on my paper. But much more than that, I love that he’s willing to write a post denying scientific realism by way of arguing for abolishing the concept of price inflation.

That said, I wish Scott would give up in his Rortyian antirealism, which is false. It may also help to point out that, however entertaining and stimulating Rorty is to read (I am a fan in this regard), he is among the worst possible guides to questions about realism, truth, and knowledge.  As an alternative pragmatism, I would recommend Susan Haack’s. I’d espcially recommend to Scott chapter nine of her Evidence and Inquiry, “Vulgar Pragmatism: An Unedifying Prospect,” which gives it to Rorty good and hard. I’d also recommend Michael Devitt’s Realism and Truth or his review essay on “Scientific Realism” from the Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Philosophy, embedded below.

That said, I think Scott is largely right that the usefulness of a deflator is a function of what you want to use it for. But it’s wrong to say there’s no fact of the matter about the average rate of price inflation, though it may be true that is not a very useful fact. I think the fact of “neurodiversity,” as Tyler Cowen calls it in his delightful book, pushes us toward the conclusion that each person faces her own personal rate of inflation. Perhaps increasingly so. One implication is that a single rate calculated on price changes in a single “typical” consumption bundle isn’t very informative. This necessarily overlooks the very real distributive consequences of new products or quality improvements which affects some people immensely while affecting others not at all. (For a stark intuition-priming case, think of the value to Alf of a new medical innovation that saves his life but was unavailable a month prior at any pirce. Now think of the value of the same innovation to Betty who suddenly dies when a safe lands on her head.) There are CPI-(U-RS, etc.) “real wages” and then there are really real wages, which rise fastest for people who get the most out of new products and quality improvements, or from new innovations in retail that push down prices (Wal-Mart) or that reduce the costs of matching buyers and sellers in secondary markets (Craiglist’s or Ebay). Calculating the average change in really real wages for a group of individuals may be intractable in principle or (as I suspect) it may be a mere technological problem. In any case, the more diverse the preferences and consumption patterns of the group one is averaging over, the less meaningful the application of a single deflator.

I’d like to see more interest in exploring personal inflation rates and individual level changes in really, real wages. It seems to me that a combination of credit and debit cards records together with consumption-focused experience sampling ought to be able to make a good start.

Michael Devitt. Scientific Realism

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16 thoughts on “Why I Love Scott Sumner

  1. Yeah, I love Sumner too. He's one of the most honest, direct and respectful bloggers I've seen. If you ask him a question or post a comment, he will (from what I've seen) respond to it in detail.I would also like to say “straightfoward and direct” but some of the subject matter he deals with is just pretty damn complex to start with, and I'd be lying if I said I understood all of it, even after his explanations.

  2. Thanks Will, I agree that if inflation existed, we would each have different inflation rates, but I don't think I even have a well-defined individual inflation rate. It's been a while since I studied this, but if you want to avoid the Paasche/Lasperyres quandry don't you need to bring in utility? And what exactly is utility? I suppose if you had a base year prices and income, inflation would be defined as the percentage increase in income you'd need today, to be indifferent between your earlier income and prices, and the current income and price vector. But now add a social context. Suppose everyone's real wage is rising, and people like to “keep up with the Jones.” Is it permissible to add a social context to the question of how much income you need to maintain a stable utility? If so, then inflation becomes meaningless; real wage increases in the aggregate would be impossible. You might say, “OK let's get rid of vague concepts like utility and just look at how much more we pay for stuff.” But then the idea of a single well-defined inflation rate breaks down, even for individuals. We're back to the Paasche/Laspeyres problem. Maybe I didn't make that argument very clear, but I've never heard anyone refute it. I hope to read more anti-Rorty stuff. But I did read a book that had a debate between Rorty and Pascal Engels, and Rorty won easily. Every time Engels raised an argument I thought “that's a really good point.” And each time Rorty blew him away like he'd heard the argument 100 time before. Don't be so sure I'd be moved away from pragmatism. When people have given a lot of thought to God, free will, and objective TRUTH, and decided than none of the three exist, it is not as easy to dissuade a person as you might imagine. But I think that I live my life the same way as I would if free will and objective truth did exist. Rorty's only real point was that much of academic epistomology is a waste of time, the search for the Holy Grail of how to show something is true. We are already doing the best we can, without the help of epistomologists.

  3. Well then, in the spirit of pragmatic inquiry, maybe the whole question of inequality, what it is, and how much is too much is beside the point? Should we instead just consider the trade-offs in policy positions on their own merits, case-by-case? Forget about Gini coefficients and income vs. consumption, and just concentrate on less abstract issues, like “poverty, lack of economic opportunity, and systemic injustice”? Even if you convince everybody that inequality in the abstract doesn't matter it's still the case that we face choices about our economic arrangements. Questions about how we run programs like Social Security and Pell grants don't go away. You're still left with the basic trade-offs: is it a good idea to greatly improve the lives of people burdened by poverty, lack of opportunity, or injustice by taking some cash from people whose welfare isn't sensitive to small changes in income, or do we point to a paper from Cato and say never mind because shut up that's why? If Will's 100% right, what difference does it make? We still have to decide whether Pell grants are going to be $5,000, $4,000, or $0.

  4. “But I think that I live my life the same way as I would if free will and objective truth did exist. “You may well, but you must see that your opinions on, say, inflation become a lot less convincing to us general readers when (as I think you must as a Rortian pragmatist) you admit in advance that they are not 'true' but merely what you think you can 'get away with'.

  5. The implication of your last paragraph seems to be that you would also still do economics the same way if you believed free will and objective truth existed. Perhaps epistemologists aren't the only ones wasting their time?

  6. One should keep in mind that Rortian pragmatism doesn't deny the existence of objective reality, it *merely* denies that humans can represent it, and perhaps that they have access to it.We humans strive and strive to make what we want to be “true” representations of reality by making scratches on paper (or the electronic equivalent) and guttural noises, as if such things bear a real relationship to what we try to represent. They do not; any objective observer (i.e. not rooting ex ante for the possibility of human-expressed “truth”) can see that clearly. What does the cat yowl “about,” and moreover is the yowl “true”? What of the carryings-on of chimps? We forget that we are apes.

  7. I basically agree with MichaelDrew up to a point, but I'm nagged by the notion that, while we can't form some perfect representation , but surely the relationship with our language and objective reality isn't completely arbitrary. If I say “look out for that car!” doesn't it require, in order for that sentence to be true, that there, in some sense, exist something independent of us that somehow corresponds to the word “car”? But as I read Rorty, all he's really saying is that there is no point of view from which we'll be able to firmly establish such a connection, or which words correspond with the Truth.

  8. Are TRUTH, “truth”, and Truth meant to be the same thing as truth, or something different?

  9. I would just like to say (and I guess I can't rule out the possibility that I'm just poorly educated) that I have always found Rorty to be an extremely useful guide through issues of “realism, truth, and knowledge.” I'm not very convinced by the embedded paper that I should think differently, and I would just like to know more specifically what you hold against his arguments. Surely there must be more than the vulgar claim that he doesn't believe in truth, and therefore no-one has any reason to believe anything.

  10. No one (serious) denies there are real things with all the important characteristics of the things we experience as cars. The question is of how much actual “truth” lies in the pigmentation arrangement and/or air compression sequence denoted “car” (or the attendant sounds). Rorty simply says that whatever truth exists in those patterns exists only by virtue of the fact that they are useful to us in communicating the idea of “car.” Note also that our idea(s) of “car” (momentarily imagining that it can be separated from the linguistic representation in our mind thereof) is not itself a “truthful” representation of actual cars — inasmuch as such things are brain sub-states, dependent on individually varying organs and processes of perception, located inside human skulls, not on asphalt.

  11. I'm basically on board with that. I think Rorty is incorrectly depicted as rejecting any notion of truth, when it seems like he's just rejecting the possibility of an authoritative account of truth beyond the pragmatic one. My provisional stance is this: I'd like to keep open the possibility of future discoveries in something like epistemology. I think Rorty (from what I've read of him), takes too strong a stance. If you think about how much our knowledge has developed over the last 2000 years (even by Rorty's standards, I think), seemingly at an exponential rate, I'd kinda like to say: “Well, from where we stand this line of inquiry seems fruitless, but we could easily have paradigm-shifting discoveries that make us see things very differently.” I think about the pre-Socratic debate about the nature of the universe. We might say that Democritus was, in some sense, right about something, or at least more right than his competitors. But, given the tools of that time, could the debate have been definitively resolved? (Though it seems like atomic theory is now seen as little more than a useful abstraction)

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