Monday, October 24, 2011

Yes, Culture is a Base

I will stick with Dario Fernandez-Morera’s numbering in response.

1.& 2. From my readings of cultural criticism, it is in fact culture as I have defined it which is being discussed rather than “society.” You are correct that in a sense “Culture is the new “base” because it underlies all else” while “All else is superstructure.” I do believe that is an accurate description of reality. In that sense, the move from the “relations of production” to culture is a welcome move, as it more accurately represents reality (it is historically wrong and patently absurd to assume “relations of production” are primary, while all anthropological evidence does show culture to be primary). However, I would disagree that that means that if we “Get the culture right and other things can be explained, including the economy.” The so-called superstructures all have their own emergent realities which can and need to be explained in their own terms. The task of pure economics is to understand the self-organizing emergent process known as the economy. However, as Lavoie and Chamlee-Wright try to make clear in Culture and Enterprise, cultural studies can help us understand some of the differing details. And, more, if those doing cultural studies understood economic, that would improve their work as well. Lavoie and Chamlee-Wright are interested in the two disciplines learning from each other, having the work of each inform the other.

3. It may seem obvious once pointed out, that saying “provides information for the action of entrepreneurs is simply a reformulation, and not a very ingenious one, of the obvious, pointed out by Mises and others: the entrepreneur looks for the most favorable conditions he can find that justify his actions,” but it was not obvious at the time that Lavoie and Chamlee-Wright wrote Culture and Enterprise (2000). From the point of view of understanding economic actions – from the point of view of doing science, in other words – we do need to understand all of the elements involved in entrepreneurial discovery. If those studying entrepreneurship have not taken cultural elements into consideration, their scientific understanding is not as rich as it could be. More, as L & C-W point out, the very nature of entrepreneurship is affected by culture. They give the examples of the differences among American, Chinese, and Japanese entrepreneurs, pointing out that both American and Chinese entrepreneurs are more individualistic than are Japanese entrepreneurs, and the Chinese are, in addition, more nepotistic. The Japanese would prefer to work in large companies together in a company which treats them like family, and are more likely to be entrepreneurial in that context. The Chinese prefer not to work for anyone, but would rather work for themselves and hire family. I am grossly oversimplifying their own summary of work done in this area, but it should give an idea of the importance of understanding culture to understand some of the details of business creation, which are bound to have importance in the way people relate to business and interact with and within those businesses. That affects, in turn, the kinds of patterns which will emerge in the spontaneous order of the economy. The little details contribute to our understanding of any particular economy, even as the structural framework of the economy remains essentially the same from economy to economy.

4. I do not disagree that the law of marginal utility applies regardless of culture – or of species (I agree that Mises did not realize how much overlap there is between human and many non-human species in their actions and that therefore many laws of economics can be found in non-human species). However, the law of marginal utility does not apply in trying to sell pork to devout Jews and Muslims, coffee to Mormons, beer to fundamentalist Baptists, dog meat to most Europeans and those of European descent, horse meat to most Americans, or any meat to a vegan. The reason it does not apply in these cases is due to cultural differences. You cannot ignore those cultural differences if you want to understand the economies of the cultures in question. A great example is Lake Turkana, in Kenya. Norway’s developmental agency saw a lake teaming with fish, built a fish processing plant, and saw it fail. Why? Well, it turns out (which this article still manages to miss) that the people who live near the lake think that fishing is such degrading work that they would rather stay poor than fish. To them, only the lowest of the low fish. For us, and obviously for the Norwegians, it makes perfect sense to build a fish processing plant near a lake full of fish, because we think fishing is a perfectly good occupation. However, this well-intended plant is now empty and idle precisely because cultural factors were ignored. This suggests that understanding a culture could tell us precisely where something like marginal utility will necessarily fail.

5. They also fade upon convergence to truth. I hope that’s the case here. :-)

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