Public calculation is highly characteristic of the Thorowgoodian bourgeois world, such as the political arithmeticians of the seventeenth century, first in Holland and then in England and then in France. The theory of probability might be thought to develop from an aristocratic concern for games of chance, but the concern becomes plebian, too, and anyway the theory is immediately applied to thoroughly bourgeois projects such as life insurance.
The Dutch led. The first person in Europe to suggest that accounting could be applied to the affairs of an entire nation, as though the nation were a business firm, appears to have been the inventor of the decimal point and was with a Chinese the discoverer of equal temperament in musical scales, the Dutch mathematician and statesman Simon Stevin(us) (1548-1620), who among other bourgeois schemes persuaded the City of Amsterdam and the King of Sweden to adopt double-entry bookkeeping. 311 ***Find out more about Stevinus; read his book in Dutch As late as 1673 Sir William Temple, astonished, was observing of the Dutch that “the order in casting up [that is, accounting for] their expenses, is so great and general, that no man offers at [that is, attempts] any undertaking which he is not prepared for, and [is not] master of his design before he begins; so as I have neither observed nor heard of any building public or private that has not been finished in the time designed for it.” 312
The English were then not slow to adopt such rationality, or at least to claim it. ***Pepys again, and naval accounts. When in 1688 the stadholder William invaded England to stop a Catholic and pro-French king from surrounding the Netherlands, and to affirm the right of his wife Mary to the throne, the job was done with Dutch bourgeois efficiency, and stunned the world. Sir William Petty announced his method of political arithmetic in 1690: “The method I take to do this is not yet very usual. For instead of using only comparative and superlative words and intellectual arguments I have taken the course (as a specimen of the political arithmetic I have long aimed at) to express myself in terms of number, weight, or measure; to use only arguments of sense.” 313 It was a manifesto for a bourgeois age.
The coming of bourgeois statistics changed the rhetoric of politics. By 1713, as the economic historian John Nye explains in his recent history of British-French commercial relations, the British makers of drink had long benefited from the prohibition of imports of French wine into Britain. Britain and France had lately concluded their long and bloody quarrel over the Spanish succession. A bill in Parliament proposed therefore to drop the wartime preferences for Spanish and Portuguese as against the usual French wines. Unsurprisingly the existing importers of Spanish and Portuguese wines — there were of course no legal importers of French ones to speak up for the profits of that trade — objected strenuously. A frantic river of pamphlets spilled out a rhetoric of accounting and quantities. It was the first time, Nye notes, following G. N. Clark, “that the newly collected statistics on British trade entered the political debate in a substantial way,” serving “as a basis for the mercantilists’ published statements of economic doctrine.” Note the date: in now Dutch-imitating England, 1713 was the first time that policy depended on numbers, this a century after the first such debate in Holland. ***True?
The wine trades with Portugal, wrote one defender of the status quo, “have as constantly increased every year as we have increased the demand for their wines, by which means the navigation and seamen of this kingdom have been greatly encouraged.” If French wines are allowed back into Britain the navigation and seamen will be ruined, because “small ships and an easy charge of men can fetch wines from France.” And so “the greatest part of those ships must lie and rot, or come home dead freighted,” resulting in a rise in freight rates on British exports, to the detriment of the country’s treasure by foreign trade. Another British pamphleteer reckoned that “the advantage to the French nation by having such a vent for their wines” was very great. “The French king . . . would give a million of money to procure” it. 314 Another that
Such bourgeois, quantitative reasoning was in Britain rare a century before, though I repeat among the Dutch it was already commonplace in 1613. “Constantly increased.” “The greatest part of those ships.” “A million of money.” “One third less duty.” In June of 1713 the bill to relax the duties on French wine was rejected, but not for the numerical reasoning on rational grounds. The quantitative arguments on both sides were nonsensical. The social accounting used was mistaken, sometimes positively wacko. But an official rhetoric of quantitative prudence ruled. 316
As any teacher of economics does, I try to teach my undergraduate students to think prudently like the Dutch of the Golden Age. In a recent course I assigned the students to calculate the costs and benefits of the automobiles that three-quarters of them operated. I suspected that American college students work many hours in non-studying jobs, skimping their educations, to pay for cars and pizzas — though come to think of it, so do their parents. My suspicion was of course confirmed. Shame on them.
But it seemed only fair for the professor herself to take the test. It turned out that of all the owners of automobiles in the class the indignant professor was the most irrational. My beloved seven-year old Toyota Avalon was costing me $4000 a year more than the same services would cost to get in other ways where I live in downtown Chicago. Taxis stream by my front door on South Dearborn Street day and night. On the other side of the accounts a parking place off-street was $160 a month and the city’s meter maids on-street were cruelly efficient and parking the car free on a side street had resulted in three smashed windows in so many months. So I sold the car. And likewise, probably, should you. I suggest you do the calculation, and certainly do it for that third car that sits outside your house to be used if ever once a week.
But a rhetoric of calculation since the seventeenth century does not mean that Europeans actually were rational. Many social scientists following Max Weber have mistakenly supposed they were, that a new skill with numbers and with accounts meant that Europeans even outside the counting houses had discovered true rationality. “Instrumental rationality” is said to characterize the modern world. No it doesn’t. It characterized the rhetoric of the modern world, but did not always make the Europeans actually more sensible than their ancestors, or their imperial victims. The Europeans discovered how to talk rationality, which they then applied with enthusiasm to counting the weight of bird seeds one could fit into a Negroid skull and the number of Jews and Gypsies one could murder in an afternoon. The numbers and calculation and accounts appeal to a rhetoric of rationality — terms of number, weight, or measure; only arguments of sense. But they do not guarantee its substance.
The numbers, for one thing, have to be good, or good enough for the purpose. So does the accounting framework in which they are calculated. So does the evaluative job they are supposed to do. So does the ethical purpose of the whole.
These are heavy, heavy requirements, and any quantitative scientist knows that most people, including other scientists, commonly get them wrong. They are major points of dispute and improvement in science. For example, the technique of “statistical significance” used in certain quantitative fields such as medicine and economics — though not much at all in physics or geology or chemistry — turns out on inspection to be comically mistaken. Hundreds of thousands of earnest researchers into cancer treatments and minimum wages have persuaded themselves that they are doing a properly bourgeois calculation when in fact the calculation is largely irrelevant to what they want to know. Like businesspeople who lose profits, yet pride themselves, when they allocate fixed costs to various branches of their business, the medical and social scientists who use so-called t or p or R “tests” are doing more than fooling themselves. They are killing people and ruining economies. The suspicion that “you can prove anything with statistics” is primitive, and is precisely wrong. But in field after field of the intellect, from politicized census-taking to double blind experiments sponsored by Merck, the primitive gibe turns out to be approximately correct, at the 5% level of significance. 317
That numbers have proliferated in the Bourgeois Era does not, as Max Weber and many others have believed, indicate that modern life is actually more “rational” than the life of ancient Greece or Shakespearean England. It sometimes is, but it quite often is not, and in numerous cases in which numbers are mentioned it surely is not. Tour guides observe that American men want to know how tall every tower is, how many bricks there are in every notable wall, how many died here, how many lived. They can then go home and report the numbers knowingly to their buddies at the coffee shop. Samuel Johnson was in 1775 typical of his age and his gender in reporting the size of everything he encountered in his tour of the West of Scotland. He used as a measuring device his walking stick (which he finally lost on the Isle of Mull). By the 1850s the conservative critics of innovation, such as Charles Dickens, were becoming very cross indeed about statistics, introducing such counting characters as “Thomas Gradgrind, sir — peremptorily Thomas — Thomas Gradgrind. With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic.”
As a calculating modern person, even an economist, before I sold my Toyota I first went on a big shopping expedition, as my mother prudently advised, and stocked up with $1500-worth of Barilla Thin Spaghetti and Manischewitz Thin Tea Matzos and other supposedly non-perishable necessities. As an aid to such prudence I worked out little tables of equivalences, like the builder’s ready reference book: If you use ½ a carton of Quaker Instant Oats a week, and want two-years’ worth, that’s . . . let’s see, ½ x 52 x 2 = 52 boxes. Calculation embodies a modern sort of prudence, even when it is as here slightly mad. Three years after the shopping spree I still had by actual count, 11 cans of Pillar Rock Pink Salmon, but couldn’t find the sell-by date on them. Thus calculative rationality. Auden wrote in 1940: “The measurable taking charge/ Of him who measures, set at large/ By his own actions, useful facts/ Become the user of his acts.”318
In the stock market the so-called “chartists” or “technical analysts” promise to predict on the basis of elaborate calculations that have been shown repeatedly to predict no better than astrology. Yet moderns rely on them, and news programs report them. They are demonstrably absurd. “The average of 20 analysts’ estimates,” it was soberly reported in the Chicago Tribune newspaper of August 4, 2008 (Business, p. 3, “BlackBerry Shooting to Score”) indicated that [the maker of BlackBerry] “In Motions’ stock will rise to more than $170 within a year.” The stock sold on the day Bloomberg News issued the story at $120.15 a share, and so the wise, number-driven analysts were in effect predicting that an investor who bought In Motion today would earn for taking the free advice of the analysts [($170 - $120.15) / $120.15] = 1.415, or 41.5 percent in a year. Good work if you can get it. But if this were true what would be the price today have to be? It would have to already be close to $170, or else one could earn, absurdly, 41.5 percent when investments elsewhere are earning 5 to 10 percent per year. Likewise, if the “analysts” (one wonders why they are analysts if they possess such knowledge of the future: why aren’t they billionaires instead?) predict that house prices in Chicago will rise at 41.5 percent in the next year, then the prices must have already so increased, leaving no such extraordinary gain. If a $20 bill lies on the sidewalk it will not lie for long. 319 The modern “rationality” of consulting “analysts” is not rational at all, though impressively quantitative.
By now the bourgeois world claims to be ruled by little else than quantity. Dickens was arguing about and against the spirit of the age. In Chapter XV of Hard Times Louisa’s father is trying to persuade her to marry Mr. Bounderby by the mere batty citation of facts, only facts:
Counting can surely be a nitwit’s, or the Devil’s, tool. Among the more unnerving exhibits in the extermination camp at Auschwitz are the books laid out for inspection in which Hitler’s willing executioners kept neat records on every person whom they murdered.
The formal and mathematical theory of statistics was largely invented in the 1880s by eugenicists, those clever racists at the origin of so much in the social sciences. It was perfected in the twentieth century by agronomists–yes, unfashionable agronomists, at unfashionable places like the Rothamsted agricultural experiment station in England or at Iowa State University. The newly mathematized statistics then became a cult in wannabe sciences. During the 1920s, when sociology was a young science, quantification was a way of claiming status, as it became also in economics, fresh from putting aside its old name of political economy, and in psychology, fresh from a separation from philosophy. In the 1920s and 1930s even the social anthropologists, those men and women of the fanciful, fantastic, or (I am using synonymous terms) sentimental, counted coconuts.
And the economists, oh, the economists, how they counted, from the seventeenth century on, and still count. Take up any copy of The American Economic Review to hand (surely you subscribe?) and open it at random. To perhaps Joel Waldfogel, “The Deadweight Loss of Christmas” (no kidding: December 1993). On p. 1331 you will find the following Table 1:
|Average Amounts Paid and Values of Gifts:|
|Survey 1||Survey 2|
|Amount paid ($)||438.2||508.9|
|Percentage ratio of average value to average price paid||71.5||90.8|
|Number of recipients||86||58|
Waldfogel is arguing that since a gift is not chosen by the recipient it is not worth what the giver spent, which leads to a loss compared with merely sending cash. National income would be higher if we just gave money at Christmas. (Who could not love such a loony science of Prudence? It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic.)
Economists are selected for their great love of numbers. The joke is “I’m an economist because I didn’t have enough personality to become an accountant.” A statistical argument is always honored in the Department of Economics. Many non-economists on the contrary fear numbers, dislike them, dishonor them, are confused and irritated by them, to the point of parody:
PATIENT: So, I’m thinking of ending.
THERAPIST: Ending what?
THERAPIST: Why? I think we’re making progress.
PATIENT: I don’t know. It is been twenty years and . . . .
THERAPIST: Let’s not get caught up in “numbers.” 320
But some important questions can only be answered with “numbers,” which the modern world has acknowledged, without always practicing it with sense or sensibility. Twenty years is a long time in ordinary human terms to do pointless therapy. Likewise, your age number is not the only important fact about you, and is certainly nothing like your Full Meaning (“You are, we will say in round numbers, twenty years of age; Mr. Bounderby is, we will say in round numbers, fifty”). But it is a number helpful for some purposes — ordinary conversation, for one thing; medical examination for another; yes, even marriage. It is humanly useful to know that you grew up in the 1950s and came of age in the liberating 1960s: age 59 on September 11, 2001 (happy birthday). Temperature is not the only measure of a good day. Wind, sunshine, human events, and human-assigned significance matter. That this is the month and this the happy morn of Christ’s nativity has meaning beyond 30 degrees F. But it is worth knowing, because humanly relevant, that the temperature on the blessed day was not -459.67 degrees F or 212 degrees F.
Many of the things we wish to know come in quantitative form. It matters — not absolutely, in God’s eyes, but for particular human purposes — how much it will rain tomorrow and how much it rained yesterday. For sound practical and spiritual reasons we wish sometimes to know How Much. How many slaves were driven from Africa? Perhaps 29 million (the population of Britain at the height of the slave trade was about 8 million, to give one relevant scale), more than half going east, not west, across the Sahara or the Indian Ocean, not the Atlantic. How has Cuba fared under Communism? Income per head in Cuba has fallen by a third since 1959, while in the Dominican Republic, Chile, Mexico, Brazil, and indeed in Latin America and the Caribbean generally it has more than doubled. Over one million Cubans left the country. How big is immigration to the United States now? Smaller in proportion to population than it was in 1910. And on and on and on.
(You can see from the examples that no claim is being made here that numbers are by nature peculiarly “objective,” whatever that pop-philosophical term might exactly mean, or “non-political,” or “scientific.” Numbers are rhetoric, which is to say humanly persuasive. In the three cases I am trying to persuade you, for example, to not take the Atlantic slave trade as the whole story, to dislike what Fidel did to Cuba, to welcome immigration. We agree in a particular persuasive culture to assign meaning to this or that number, and then can be persuaded to this or that view of the matter, sometimes by the number, sometimes by the very prestige of numbering in our culture, sometimes in irritated reaction to the prestige. Pebbles lie around, as the late Richard Rorty put it; facts of the matter do not. It is our human decision to count or weigh or mix the pebbles in constituting the pebbly facts.)
So counting is not in itself a sin of modern life. It is an expression rather of the high modern prestige of the characteristically bourgeois virtue of prudence. Counting is only a sin, as other pieces of prudence are, too, when practiced without the other virtues in attendance — as admittedly it often is. In any case bourgeois Europe showed its love of profit and loss in its love of numbers, and by invented the statistical chart, and the decadal census of population, and by 1930 all the imposing if often silly rhetoric of t tests and R-squares. In few cases were the numbers relevant to instrumental rationality. Napoleon was until 1812 a genius of calculation in war, but the generals at Verdun and the Somme, deeply educated in military statistics, chose not stand on his rational shoulders. Élan was supposed in 1916 to overcome barbed wire and machine guns (“Courage! On les aura!” ). 321 Bureaucracies in railroading and steel making and insurance collected masses of numbers. But most of the numbers were beside the point in deciding to expand, contract, build, or close.
What the modern fascination with charts, graphs, figures, and calculations does show, in other words, is that moderns admire prudence. It does not show that they practice it. Supposing mistakenly that admiring calculation is the same thing as practicing rationality might be called the Weber Error. Body counts in Vietnam did not show that American policy there was in fact prudent. What changed from Shakespeare’s time to Dickens’ time was the rhetoric of quantification, and the social prestige of people like merchants and engineers and economists who specialized in it. The change in quantification announced the modern world, the change in prestige made it .
[back] art. "Stevinus," Encyl. Brit., eleventh ed., 1910-11 Find out more about Stevinus
[back] Temple, IV, p. 87.
[back] Nye 2006, a page or two after last Get pages to correspond with published book
[back] Nye 2006, next page.
[back] Nye 2006, p. [get cite from final volume], "the Portugal trade furnishes us with some dying Commodities" Spelling and punctuation modernized.
[back] If you are highly educated in such methods, and therefore find my claims crazy, or hard to believe, or simply stupid, you need to stop and read and think. "My" claims have been made by a long series of statistical theorists from the very inventor of the phrase "statistical significance" down to the present. See Ziliak and McCloskey 2008; McCloskey and Ziliak 2007.
[back] Auden, "New Year Letter January 1, 1940," Part Three, p. 185.
[back] The full case is made is McCloskey 1990.
[back] Kenny 2008, p. 36.
[back] Though Engen (2006) makes a plausible case that in World War I the "cold-steel" doctrine of bayonet charges was a reasonable way to inspirit men to rush fiercely across a fire-swept no-man's land, rather than pointlessly to stop and aim and shoot.