A synthesis of work done over my undergrad, and a generator of future thought: project maplesync
ABSTRACT: Exploring price systems as emergently designed information technology: a heuristic approach for externalities with climate change applications
What are the mechanisms that form prices? How well do these prices track perceived value? What interventions might we initiate to help improve how pricing mechanisms track perceived value? By thinking of price systems as information technologies, we can approach them in a systems engineering framework.
This research adapts an existing tool for assessing communications and signalling in systems engineering for use in economics. I created a heuristic matrix and framework for analyzing pricing bias and precision. Heuristically, we can detect bias in pricing through an analysis of what is not included and precision through an assessment of the “fine-tuning” of an economy.
Ideal pricing systems are unbiased and precise. The central insight is that price can reflect bias even in the absence of thinking there is a correct or incorrect price. Through a “via negativa” approach, prices can better represent the world and social and environmental pricing externalities.
Conference Paper (shorter paper)
Full thesis: Exploring Prices as an Information Technology
INTEG 420 / 421 Final Report/ Geoffrey Evamy Hill / Supervisor: Dr. Patricia Marino / December 2014
- This Project in Relation to the Discipline of Economics
- Informational approach to understanding prices
- Price systems as Social Technologies
- Feminist Epistemologies: a guide for improving social technologies
- Synthesis: Bias and Precision Heuristic
- Future Studies & Projects
- Works Cited
I have spent the last ten months thinking about price systems. The questions of interest were about the mechanisms that form prices, how well these prices track perceived value, and the interventions that might help to improve how these pricing mechanisms track perceived value. My main purpose has been to attempt to understand how we might deal, as a society, with impending threats of climate change. The fundamental assumption is that the low cost of hydrocarbon based fuel sources significantly contributes to this issue, and prices must be adjusted in a way that allows for human society to carry forward while taking better account of nature.
The questions I have asked need to be answered for functional purposes. I believe that our societal feedback and information systems need to take in deep consideration of the earth. My research has led me to conclude that the answers to these questions are a long way off. There is no sign of a complete objective understanding of the mechanisms of markets. We must therefore operate under of conditions of uncertainty to avoid crises that underpriced oil can lead us too. We must still engineer a system that is effectively a black box to us.
By taking a far-reaching interdisciplinary approach, I have made progress in understanding some of the aspects of these problems by looking at prices as an information system. The project has introduced me to a wide-ranging topic that could be the subject of a lifetime of research. This report is synthesis of an introductory reading on the topic.
After working with diverse readings and ideas, this project became about developing a way to look at the problem of price formation going forward. I have though of a heuristic that I hope will be useful to others and myself in understanding societal mechanisms of information and perception as manifested in the price system. I have attempted to synthesize important areas of my research in able to come to a mental framework that would help in more directed further conceptualizing.
In this report I explore relevant aspects of my research and propose the basis of a heuristic for further inquiry into price systems. In the end, this project has been more of a jumping off point for further questions. I believe I have synthesized a valuable framework by which to do this.
The report is broken into eight sections. First, I contextualize this transdisciplinary exploration of prices in relation to the discipline of economics, as the project did not use conventional methods or ideas. I then explore the approach of an informational approach to prices. Following this, I discuss how price systems might be considered social technology – a type of information system for society. I then use feminist epistemologies analogically to generate ideas how they may be improved as information systems. This results in the initial proposal of a heuristic for exploring the functioning of price systems. I recommend further studies and reflect on the process of this project. The report is written in an accessible tone and manner, with the intent that it provides a rough guide for the experience of approaching this topic.
This Project in Relation to the Discipline of Economics
“Value is a process of valuing”
-John R. Commons, Legal Foundations of Capitalism
“Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
—Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)
This project has pulled together ideas from a milieu of areas around the discipline of economics. Those two quotes capture what I feel has been the theme of this project. From reading Robinson’s Economic Philosophy, Foster’s “Why is Economics not a Complex Systems Science?”, and Schumpeter’s “Science and Ideology”, I have come to see economics as ideological. This is in the sense that all sciences are ideological, that social perspective influences how data is collected and how theories are formed. As Schumpeter states, “perception of a set of related phenomena is a pre-scientific act”(Schumpeter 350), and economics is not exempt. The positive and the normative are often intertwined. Economics is not the definitive study of the phenomenon of economies, it is value-laden in its approach. This must be taken into account when analyzing the topic, and when reflecting on my own approach.
I think that Commons captures the procedurality of it: value is generated through processes. This processes are not exogenous, they are not gifted to us by a calculator in the sky. Because it is dependent on processes, it is highly subjective and temporally contingent. Value never stays constant, but it does inform price. Wilde’s quote demonstrates to me that the price generation is a product of a system separate from value. It is a system conceivable to human minds, we can track the prices and know them in lists but we cannot know their values. The mechanisms that bridge the two are interesting. Value perhaps is psychological, a product of dynamic minds, and price is a product of socio technical structures created by and governing those minds. Each system on its own is extremely complex, and the the feedback interrelationships necessarily are hard to track.
The surprise and failure of economic models shows the problems with economics in its current state are perhaps intractable. Joseph Stiglitz, winner of the 2001 Nobel Memorial prize in economics, seems to think that a paradigm shift is necessary:
Too many have invested too much in the wrong models. Like the Ptolemaic attempts to preserve earth-centric views of the universe, there will be heroic efforts to add complexities and refinements to the standard paradigm. The resulting models will be an improvement and policies based on them may do better, but they too are likely to fail. Nothing less than a paradigm shift will do. (Financial Times, 19 AUG 10)
All this is to say, this is a project that seeks to find a cursory survey of alternatives for a particular problem in the study of economies. The approach is transdisciplinary and generally avoids disciplinary economics sources for this reason. The bottom line is that there is an opportunity to take new inspiration and look at the problem in unconventional way.
The proposition that markets are constructed and can be optimized (suggesting they are non optimal) is not controversial to standard economics. Market design is a topic increasingly in the purview of economics. This is a definition of the area from a Stanford Course syllabus:
Economists increasingly are involved not just in studying but in designing practical market mechanisms. These include auctions to sell diamonds, timber, electricity, procurement contracts and radio spectrum; matching algorithms to assign students to schools, or candidates to jobs; as well as marketplaces and mechanisms to sell internet advertising, trade financial securities, or reward innovation. The field of market design studies how to construct rules for allocating resources or to structure successful marketplaces. It draws on the tools of game theory and mechanism design to identify why certain market rules or institutions succeed and why others fail. (Levin, 2014)
We have a number of strong ideas about how prices are and are not formed. There are a plurality of competing ideas and theories, with no unified approach. An informational approach to thinking about them seems to be a useful paradigm. It is necessary to consider how markets are human constructions existing in the natural world. We should consider the participation of them in knowledge-based terms.
Informational approach to understanding prices
I first started this project with the desire to understand prices as derived from value. Intuitively, prices are seen to have some relation to value. But what does value mean? Can there be such thing as a true price?
In her 1962 book Economic Philosophy, Joan Robinson explores the history of value as an idea in economics as conceived of over the centuries. She makes the distinction between “value of use” and “value of exchange”. The classic example of the interaction of these two ideas is how water has a very low “value of exchange” and yet a very high “value of use”, where diamonds are the opposite. It is noted that value is not price, but value seems to explain, “how prices come to be what they are.” (Robinson, 29)
Value is a problematic concept. Robinson claims that Adam Smith’s conception of value as “the time that it ‘usually costs’ that governs exchange” was “derived … from moral preconceptions… how it ought to have been.” (32). For Marx, value is “the labour-time required to produce a commodity”(38) which she claims, and thinks Marx would agree, is not accurate. It all leads to a question of whether it is “value that determines prices or prices that determine values?” (47). She claims that all of these definitions emerge from core ideology they are built atop of, the ancient ideal of a just-price. It all means that value is ‘metaphysical’ concept with “no operational content” (47) to be used outside of the internal logic of the models proposed by these thinkers.
So, understanding prices in relation to an objective conception of value is not particularly useful. We could think more relatively, perhaps that agents’ perceptions of value is the mechanism in price formation. Perceived value could be thought of as all the potential ways a mind or minds could evaluate something in the world. Prices might not be formed from first principles of value, but by the actions of people subjectively experiencing the world and interacting with each other. Instead of true value, we are talking about how individuals evaluate. This adds a cognitive dimension to prices. What are the actual costs, risks, emotions and uncertainty? How do people appraise the world around them and convert these appraisals into prices?
This process would surely be affected by imperfect information, biases, and cognitive limitations. People do not take account of their whole world in terms of discrete prices, nor do the have an encyclopedic knowledge of what their own preferences are (Kahneman, 267). Even if they did, would prices aggregate up from individual minds and interactions? Are prices information about the integration of individual assessments? This seems unlikely. I found that this route was really no better than thinking of prices in terms of true value. An attempt to peg prices to one deriving mechanism becomes endlessly complex even if it was foundationally legitimate. Value is a quagmire.
In his 1945 paper “The use of knowledge in society”, Friedrich Hayek claims that a free-market system is superior to a planned economy in how it determines price. Hayek argues that an individual or small committee cannot gather enough relevant knowledge about all aspects of an economy in order to understand how to set appropriate prices. He says that a market system allows agents to interactively communicate information that essentially leads to an appropriate price. This, he argues, matches supply to demand and results in fewer shortages or surpluses and highlights the fundamental flaw in the logic of a planned economy. Essentially, he sees knowledge of an economic reality highly fragmented and competition through local markets as a method of integrating it. The price system is an essential part of the functioning of markets. This perspective pulls back to a much broader conception of prices.
This view places importance on what the price system accomplishes, instead of forwarding a viewpoint of what information particular is integrated into prices. Hayek views prices as a kind of arbitrary numerical economic calculus that helps in coordination of economic activities. The price system, situated in the market, it is a way of pulling together information and knowledge from across society in order to accomplish the fulfillment of material needs. He marvels at the existence of such a mechanism that is unconsciously controlled.
“The most significant fact about this system is the economy of knowledge with which it operates, or how little the individual participants need to know in order to be able to take the right action. In abbreviated form, by a kind of symbol, only the most essential information is passed on and passed on only to those concerned. It is more than a metaphor to describe the price system as a kind of machinery for registering change, or a system of telecommunications which enables individual producers to watch merely the movement of a few pointers, as an engineer might watch the hands of a few dials, in order to adjust their activities to changes of which they may never know more than is reflected in the price movement. Of course, these adjustments are probably never “perfect” in the sense in which the economist conceives of them in his equilibrium analysis.” (Hayek, 7)
Fundamentally, this is an argument around the computation of an economic calculus of prices. Hayek argues that to be the most effective as a coordinating activity, prices must be the product of a distributed computation. There have been many attempts to counter this idea. In a 1993 critique of Hayek, Allin Cottrell and W. Paul Cockshot argue that it is not in fact impossible for a centralised office or computer to gather and make use of a great deal of information. They introduce many computational ideas to what is also known as the Economic Calculation Problem in how either a centralised or market system might come to a price. The introduction of information theory to this complex interaction helps us to understand an aggregation of information or perceptions of value as a computational operation.
I find this a strong starting point of conceptualizing price systems. It does not come close to explaining exactly how these systems work, but provides a functional conception of what the system accomplishes and the general idea that it is a process engaged in by people. It provides a functional platform for discussion about price systems that seems to be broadly more productive than conceptions of value in the past.
There are a number of things not explicitly considered by Hayek that must be added. The primary considerations are: the geographic and temporal situation of markets, the differential power of market participants, as well as the construction of currencies and institutions as prerequisites to markets.
Prices and markets exist within the context of exchange; this is situated in time and space. Geographer Brian J. L. Berry envisages a three-stage sequence of exchange systems in his book Geography of Market Centers and Retail Distribution. The first is socially administered exchange driven by redistribution and reciprocity. The second is barter exchange together with simple money-based exchange common in occasional markets and less economically complex areas. The third is permanent market-centre hierarchies depending on production specialization and deep interdependence between places. In terms of the computational metaphor, this fact could be conceived as a change from the idea that a whole society is a single market information-super-processor, as it is in a Hayekian approach, to the idea that markets are situated computational structures. Prices are generated from the interaction of humans with markets. Markets are more like automata, situated evolutionary “software” structures instead of background processors (Mirowski, 225). Markomata are “a specialized piece of software, which both calculates and acts upon inputs, comprised of an integrated set of algorithms.” (Mirowski, 226) The purpose of these human constructions is to facilitate allocation and coordination, just as social technologies facilitate social structures (Beinhocker, 262). These computational exchange mechanisms generate prices, a signaling system for allocation and coordination. This is a way of conceiving markets as situated information processors.
We must also consider that markets do not operate in perfect competition, so there will be inequalities transmission of price information. Monopolies and oligopolies occur when there are few large suppliers in a market. Monopsony or oligopsony refers to when there are few large buyers. These market participants are able to set prices because of their supplying or buying power (Chang, 39), and would therefore show that the knowledge in markets would not be representative of the whole. Unequal market power would refute any claim that markets are perfect information processors.
The Hayekian approach presupposes currency and legal institutions. For markets to work as described, their genesis cannot be taken for granted. We must understand how governments create currency and how the value of currency is supported by human confidence (Chang, 22). It must also be considered how contracts and property rights are enforced to allow for market functioning (Marshall, 190). We must consider these imperfections to use the informational metaphor.
The conception of price systems as information systems and prices as their products has helped me conceive of functional ways to improve their processes with regard to the environment. To do this, we must further explore prices as information.
Information is what is conveyed or represented by a particular arrangement or sequence of things. (Beavers, 2) Signals are a form of information that carry a message. When transmitted to a receiver, signals direct material, energy and informational flows in the world. (Beinhocker, 71) They drive the actions and beliefs of people. Signals are incredibly powerful.
Signals are all around us – even in the natural world. Think of the flower’s colour as a signal to attract pollinating insects or how the crow calls to indicate predators. (Kennedy, 3) Billions of years of co-evolution have led to sophisticated types of bio-signaling. Of course, humans use signals for our socio-economic systems. We might think of votes in a democracy as a signal or prices in a market economy. Prices direct material, energy, and informational flows in the world because prices have profound meaning to many humans in many cultures. (Graeber, 14) But what kind of information does a price convey? Economics has seen prices as information about the balance of supply and demand. Jane Jacobs summarizes this in her book the nature of economies.
“Adam Smith… identified prices of the goods and rates of wages as feedback information… He analyzed how prices automatically corrected maladjustments between supply and demand. It was not… by merely influencing distribution of supplies… but by actually bringing imbalances into better balance by triggering changes in production” (Jacobs)
Prices are information about exchange and transaction in a market. It is information about the quantitative state of affairs, as processed by humans and expressed in language. The information is about imbalance in supply and demand in order to trigger corrective responses. Price systems are the information system that regulates the physical, energy and other informational flows in an economy. (Beinhocker, 154) This falls in line with the Hayekian conception. The idea has been further explored in economics today.
“Markets are brilliant devices for sorting through vast amounts of information from large numbers of people and coming up with an aggregate view of what that information means…. However, the theory assumes that markets only use their great forecasting power on information related to a stock’s fundamentals, while in the real world, traders… Dynamic outlook puts the market in an infinite loop of forming expectations of peoples forming expectations of people forming expectations” (Beinhocker, 399)
That is the ideal functioning, but prices can of course be false. Taxes and tax policies can systematically favour types of investment and production while discouraging others. (Jacobs) Speculative bubbles falsify prices through contagions of what John Maynards Keynes called animal spirits, or wishful thinking (William, 14). Prices are set by monopolies or oligopolies, or often very inflexible.
Prices as numbers have no intrinsic meaning. They are instruments we use to allocate resources and coordinate our activities. They are a social construction. Prices allow us to cooperate each other in increasingly complex and systematic ways. We can use the signals to assess whether to start an entrepreneurial venture, to coordinate resources for the creation of a space program, or to stock our kitchens. By observing prices relative to each other, currency, and our own monetary resources, we can conduct streamlined exchange.
So prices are one of many ways we understand the world in order to make decisions and plan across time and space. Prices clearly have some informational value, but the exact information conveyed is uncertain. We can think about price systems as a social technology passed down to us from time immemorial. We have used the technology in different ways since Babylonian times, but the underlying signaling mechanics remain the same (Graeber, 57). All we know is that they are made by us, or the mathematical formulas that derive them are made by us.
We could think of two broad ways prices are formed: directly and indirectly. Prices are formed directly by an evaluation made by an individual or group appraising an object numerically. Prices are formed indirectly as a result of systemic processes that are set up by people. For instance, a house can be given a number price by a real estate agent appraising it. A price can be issued systemically by a computer program or accounting process that assesses the locations of thousands of houses and appraises it thereby. This computer program or accounting process is a system – still created by humans. We cannot retroactively understand prices by looking at their formation through mechanisms or their perceived components. We should not attempt to find meaning of prices by conceiving of them as of integration or aggregation. Pricing mechanisms are intuitive.
Take a video game console for instance, an XBOX 360. On the production side of price agreement, we could imagine that Microsoft has an extremely sophisticated pricing department that takes into account the price of all the component parts of the system, incorporates some measure of risk, it fits in with an existing pricing ecosystem to some extent, discounts based on a forecasting of future games sales, and adds in room for profit and transport. We can be pretty sure that it is some combination of that, more or less, but we cannot know exactly what combination it is. We cannot know how the component prices, like the transport price or the price of the plastic, that were purportedly integrated by a pricing mechanism were formed either. Things get even messier when one looks at the determination of resale value. Perhaps we could say that the lower price it would fetch is a result of a cognitive bias towards newness, or an asymmetrical evaluation of a dent in its exterior. It is certainly not an assessment of the wear of the internal hardware. This argument goes the same from assessment from the buying side. Price formation is exceedingly complicated and exceedingly local to its context. Pricing is a numerical form of evaluation that is done through tacit knowledge.
We should not look to a calculus of pricing to understand their dynamics. Prices certainly emerge out of market and exchange settings and seem to lend themselves to mathematical understanding. They should instead be assessed in a rhetorical sense – as a relative system of signs. Prices do account for things in the world, but not in an aggregation sense. The accounting is in a symbolic sense in the context of a culture’s larger symbolic systems. Numerical prices are inherently arbitrary. Prices do not have any meaning by themselves, only in the context of the rhetorical “language” of price. Their meaning can be understood relative to each other. That a house is priced at $1 only means something when you know that a car is priced at $0.15. And that typically only means something to people when they personally know (and remember the feeling) that their wage for hard labour is only $0.0001 an hour.
It is more productive instead to take the via negativa approach to understanding the information of prices: what do prices not consider. This is inspired from Nassim Taleb’s 2012 book AntiFragile, where he posits the theological approach of the via negativa as a negative method to understand a thing by understanding what it is not. When applied to prices, my favorite example is the price of oil. The price might take into account: the supply of oil (however that might be aggregated?), the demand for oil (perhaps peoples moods?), the structural costs of getting the stuff out of the ground and moving it, vacation season, the hurricane season in the USA, the forecasts for Christmas Toy Sales and a miraculous assessment of anything else that might factor in. It might also be driven by only one thing: the rate of ice cream sales. The thing is that we just don’t know. And it is really hard to know. But we can be pretty sure what is not factored in to the price of oil: the long term impacts of climate change, the pollution in cities, lost time because of traffic congestion, and a host of other things that economists typically call externalities. We know they are not considered because the low price of oil continues to direct people to use more of it to cause these harms.
Price systems are kind of like an Ouija board. They are typically flexible. They seem to magically float to the right price. But take away the people and they don’t exist at all. Change the people and the result changes. Play multiple trials of the Ouija board with the same people and see different results. Read the kids story about scary vampires and see how the results are different then when you read them a story about friendly bears. Change the letters on the board. The structure of the price system and its participants matter deeply. A price system is a human way of understanding the world for purposes of allocation and coordination. Prices are product of human interaction and are carried by human processes, and can have endogenous results. Price systems are situated in human cultures and technologies.
“Money and Trade are products of the state, as is the market itself. A market is a place, either actual or conceptual, where people meet to exchange goods and service for prices set by bargaining. But of course, for there to be prices, there needs to be money, and for there to be money, there needs to be a state, or a bank, which, in turn, depends on the existence of the state.” (Marshall, 180)
If price systems exist to serve an instrumental purpose and are made by humans, then we can change them to better serve us. I will argue that the type of changes required for price systems are different than interventions of the past. But first, I will situate price systems as a social technology. This will allow us to further interventions for how they operate.
Price systems as Social Technologies
Understanding of this complex phenomenon to know what kind of information, only that it provides a certain function for economic life. We can think of the price system as a social technology. While I prefer the term “organizational technology”, I am using social technology as it comes from an excellent paper by Richard Nelson on the topic.
Our definition of technologies is often restricted to the material: the hammers and nails. But what enables hammers and nails to be made, and why are they made? To answer this question, we have to look at the processes of socio-cultural systems that produce object and tools. I have thought of these coordinating processes as social technologies: models that use conceptual symbolic representation to guide human action in order make change in the material world.
When asked to list technologies, people might list things like smart-phones, televisions, and moon rockets. They might go on to list tools such as hammers, flint arrowheads or wheels. This list might eventually lead to the mother of all technologies: fire. Of course, fire is something naturally occurring. The innovation is about controlling it or starting it oneself, and in that way is it a synthetic technology. Artificial fire is not a static thing, but a process that transforms, in its simplest form, organic material into heat. Fire is a system that has been harnessed by humans. Since primitive times, we have experimented with the principles of that simple process to produce other material tools: from building smart-phones to fueling moon rockets. Through the systems lens, fire becomes a foundational material process upon which other processes are built. Material technologies are processes that are embedded in larger systems situated in the physical world. These technologies only come into being because of human processes to make them so. Think of the collection of firewood to start a fire, the network of tools required to make a wooden wheels, and the workflow design of a factory building rockets. These are coordination activities, either actively or passively enacted, that make these material technologies.
Social technologies, like material technologies, are processes embedded in larger systems situated in the physical world. One could imagine a time-lapse video of a large structure, perhaps a skyscraper or cathedral, being built. What we see is the physical growth of a material thing, a piece of technology. Other technologies (steel, screwdrivers, welders, trucks) are employed to build the technology. But what are the rules that govern the movements and actions of the tiny, blurry people caught in the different frames of the video? What coordinates the interface of culture and technology? Social technologies, tools that govern behaviour and work flow to specific ends, are the means of coordination.
In nature, laws of the universe, of gravitation and entropy, set the fundamental constraints of social technologies. These laws are the platform that evolutionary rules that guide the termites to build up their intricate mounds from instinct. We are not unlike the termite in the physical and biological rules that govern us aside from one thing: the evolutionary peculiarities of socialization, culture and language that allows for a more rapid ability of humans to adapt. It creates a conceptual domain of ideas and in turn bears out physical objects and changes to the material world. Unlike the termite, the network of objects we produce is dynamic and has grown in complexity and diversity. We build on instinct, on ideas not only of our own but also of others across space and time. Social technologies produce objects. They are borne out of larger socio-cultural system and in turn influence them. Social technologies operate on a simple principle of transforming inputs into particular outputs through adaptive mechanisms, and there is a tendency to increase the total throughput of the system.
How can such a thing occur? Social technologies succeed at making physical change in the world through coordinating people in the symbolic realm. To create a successful social technology is to “assure the regulation of signs and the integration of the group: it is simultaneously a morality (a system of ideological values) and a system of communication, a structure of exchange.” (Baudrillard 46). This makes the action primarily rhetorical, an act of influence and persuasion of thoughts in the conceptual realm. Metaphor is the fuel, representation of the world in abstraction that creates the means that motivate people towards a variety of ends. We might look at Friedrich Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense” for inspiration in this regard. To Nietzsche, language is a magnificent architecture. Our language and understanding is a web of metaphors that perhaps builds on a horizontal platform of corresponding to reality, and then builds on itself vertically to higher levels of abstraction. Nietzsche looks at the conceptual structure of language as, “a mighty architectural genius … an infinitely complicated conceptual cathedral on foundations that move like flowing water” (Nietzsche 251) to illustrate the horizontal and vertical complexities of a language. This massive metaphor is the complex human cultural creation that “substitutes for a bio-functional and bio-economic system of commodities and products (the biological level of needs and subsistence)… designed to assure a certain type of communication.” (Baudrillard 47) Large parts of it have risen and fallen, and surely one day it will all be gone, but social technologies are set within this constantly changing structure.
These social technologies establish paths of action. In terms of the consumption, it is that “[networks of objects] constitute object paths, which establish inertial constraints on the consumer who will proceed logically from one object to the next” (Baudrillard 31) where individuals are guided by the internal logic of the system. This corresponds with recent synthesis work done in cognitive science by Andy Clark of University of Edinburgh in identifying the purpose of the brain. It is seen to be that brains are “essentially prediction machines. They are bundles of cells that support perception and action by constantly attempting to match incoming sensory inputs with top-down expectations or predictions” (Clark 1) that optimize in order to survive and operate harmoniously in the world. Over time we have developed the power to manipulate the world, and therefore “we structure our worlds and actions so that most of our sensory predictions come true.” (Clark 62) It makes sense that there is a constant attempt to harmonize the logic of the systems. This fits with Baudrillard in the “…continual forward flight and unlimited renewal of needs…. irreconcilable with a rationalist theory claiming that a satisfied need produces a state of equilibrium an resolution of tensions – we can advance the following sociological hypothesis: if we acknowledge that a need is not a need for a particular object as much as it is a “need” for difference (the desire for social meaning), only then will we understand the satisfaction can never be fulfilled, and consequently that there can never be a definition of needs.” (Baudrillard 45) Outcomes can never be predicted, but we can be assured that there will be a never-ending optimization to an ever-changing end-point through a desire for difference towards harmony of prediction. Nothing is new; the systems we create are dependent on “material and socio-cultural scaffolding [that] induce substantial path-dependence as we confront new problems using pre-existing material tools and inherited social structures.” (Clark 80) Social technologies create new path dependencies upon old path dependencies. The growth of structures in material and socio-cultural space creates further rigidity to the larger bounds of the system. Perhaps the core of optimization lies in a cognitive disposition for harmonious prediction within a complex world that we attempt to make sense of with metaphor but will never fully understand.
It is most important to note that there is no one in charge of our systems. There is no one author or programmer. They are diverse, they are localized, they are emergent. People behave according the rules set in motion by an almost infinite number of decisions and actions made many people before them, and since the beginning by the actions of the rules of the greater ecosystem, and for forever by the rules of physics and the universe. The processes have weightings that may favour some agent’s decisions over others, and the processes spur new processes. They are dynamic and bi-directional. Mapping them would be impossible. They do not spur particular outcomes, but a range of potential outcomes that in turn could be new processes. But by looking at core functions of processes instead of micro and macro results, we may have a better understanding of how to cope with the complexity.
The main constraints of social technologies worth noting are the laws of physics and the bounds of the ecological system that supports other systems. Socio-cultural system and their constituent social technologies are simplified models of reality that perform specific functions. If this simple model sets itself in an inaccurate model of the system it is embedded in, it will fail. The consumer society model treats the inputs and outputs of the system (raw resources/waste resources) as if they were from an infinite source and going in to a bottomless sink. This assumption is fine as long as the conditions don’t change, but if they do it will quickly fall apart. This is the collapse of a paradigm. The same could be said for a new advertising company setting itself up in a model of the consumer society. If its founders have an unrealistic model of the system (assumptions about supply and demand, path-dependence of clients) they are nesting themselves in, their social technology will not survive.
Price systems are inherited social technologies that produce information to help coordinate human action. It is maintained by social collaboration and rule making, but this is the result of emergent design. How might we recalibrate this social technology.
Feminist Epistemologies: a guide for improving social technologies
How might we improve the performance of the price system as an information system and social technology? This question does not advance an empirical view of how we might understand the pricing system. The original goal of this project was to advance understanding of how pricing mechanisms worked. I found through my research that this is simply too broad a topic, and that significant attempts by significant scholars have not been capable to do this. So instead, I have focused on broadening the conception of prices as another form of societal knowledge.
This conception is intended to be pluralistically accessible, with the capability of many different accounts to be interfaced in order to develop a fuller conception over the long run. What is most important is a common language for interdisciplinary understandings of how price systems work, and I believe that the approach started from Hayek is an excellent foundational metaphor.
When thinking of prices as an epistemological entity, we can apply various epistemological theories towards it. I see a useful connection between the work of feminist epistemologies and this broad conception of price systems. Helen Longino is a particular philosopher who argues for a conception of the significance of values and social interactions to scientific interactions. I see a connection between the social mechanism of science and the social mechanism of markets.
In Helen Longino’s paper Subjects, Power and Knowledge, she espouses the idea that “we are all in relations of interdependence”. This means that theories scientists produce are influenced by their values, and scientists’ values are influenced by others in their community. She describes science as an “interactive, intersubjective, interdependent community” that transforms itself and creates understanding with theories that will always be partial. These theories are generated by interactions of conflicting views of participants with many perspectives who share a common currency in the form of a set of scientific practices. Longino makes it clear that science does not have an end point, there is nothing pre-determined to be known or unlocked. The validity of a scientific theory is measured by the acceptance of that theory within the community, not by how effectively a method uncovers part of an eventually definable whole. (Longino 112-117)
There are some takeaways from feminist empiricism and Longino’s work applicable to prices as an information system. One is recognizing that any system of methods operated by humans has emergent values and biases. Humans with situated knowledge generate inquiries and theories and other humans build on them. Lack of recognition individual biases can lead to systemic bias either locally or globally in the system. The best way to recognize bias is to introduce diversity into the system; a heterogeneous group is better able to identify its internal biases than a homogenous group governed by its own assumptions. Furthermore, theory acceptance emerges out of a general community consensus, and is reflexive within the community. Finally, every theory is partial, there is no universal “truth” to be uncovered. There are some recommendations from Longino on how to improve processes of creating knowledge in science:
- “There must be publicly recognized forums for the criticism of evidence, of methods, and of assumptions and reasoning.
- The community must not merely tolerate dissent, but its beliefs and theories must change over time in response to the critical discourse-taking place within it.
- There must be publicly recognized standard by reference to which theories, hypotheses and observational practices are evaluated and by appeal to which criticism is made relevant to the goals of the inquiring community…
- Finally, communities must be characterized by equality of intellectual authority. What consensus exists must no be the result of the exercise of political or economic power of the exclusion of dissenting perspectives; it must be the result of critical dialogue in which all relevant perspectives are represented.”
If price systems were designed with the spirit of these checks in place, they would perform better. I see price systems as metaphorically similar to scientific systems in the sense that their outputs influence action and are formed by the interaction of people. As a baseline, these are guides for making the informational output more reliable. Longino’s suggestions are made in order to minimize bias in the system. Prices that lead to unfavourable actions, such as externalities related to climate change, can be considered as biased prices. Ultimately, we must hold the information of prices to a similar level of accountability.
Synthesis: Bias and Precision Heuristic
By applying ideas of information and social technologies to prices, I was able to see a connection to work in feminist epistemologies. It is clear that we have not made significant progress on developing a complete account of how prices are formed. It is also clear that price as signals have significant effect on the world. It seems that they do have an effect, but we don’t know exactly how the effect works.
We need a way to conceive of price systems simply in order to tinker with them. We need a “good enough” technique. It seems we will spend another century attempting to understand prices, and we will lose out against the social and environmental problems they create in the mean time. We need a heuristic for looking at price systems as social technologies instead of optimizations in order to solve current problems. I am most concerned with the impact artificially low oil prices have on climate change.
Climate change is the most pressing issue facing humanity at this time and has large implications for global health. Bill McKibben’s article “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” points out that the scale of both our contribution to the problem and it’s immediate impacts pose a huge risk to humanity. The warming of the planet of even a couple degrees celsius will have serious consequences on our global environment creating a new climatological normal that involves hotter and drier climates, higher sea levels, and more severe storms. These consequences will likely have the most severe effect on the global poor living in equatorial regions, who are currently also vastly underserved by any kind of global health apparatus. Movements away from coastal areas will cause rapid densification of existing inland spaces with more pressure on societal resources and more severe storms will mean larger casualty listings.
It is of utmost importance that we attempt to prevent the effects of anthropogenic climate change from occurring in the first place through mitigation efforts and equally important that we adapt and help others adapt for the inevitability of some climate change occurring. The complexity of the problem means that there are various options for mitigation and adaptation that must be considered, but there is overarching agreement that the problem is highly time sensitive. Severe consequences of climate change will be seen within a generation if we continue emitting greenhouse gasses at the current rate. Ideally, we should focus efforts on the mitigation and potential reversal of climate change so that we don’t have to deal with the costs and complications that will arise from its impacts. It has been difficult to garner support for this preventative mitigation effort because of public disagreements over climate change and the lack of salience for its effects.
Prices are information that directs action. They direct action in ways that are problematic for human society. Namely, information directs action that causes climate change, ecological degradation, and biodiversity loss (Meadows, 15). If we are to continue using the price system, we need to find ways to mitigate these effects. I do not believe we have time to come to a rationalistic understanding of how price systems work. We need heuristics in the mean time to help us solve the pragmatic problems of the intersection of the sociotechnical human world within the global ecology. Thomas Homer-Dixon, in his Upside of Down, describes it as such:
“Our values must be compatible with the exigencies of the natural world we live in and depend on. They must implicitly recognize the laws of thermodynamics, energy’s role in our survival, the dangers of certain kinds of connectivity, and the nonlinear behavior of natural systems like the climate. The endless material growth of our economies is fundamentally inconsistent with these physical facts of life. Period. End of story. And a value system that makes endless growth the primary source of our social stability and spiritual well being will destroy us” (Homer Dixon, 305)
Heuristics are “good enough” techniques that can be used to solve problems, to learn, and to discover. They are not optimal, but are typically experienced based and meet a given set of goals. They also offer a platform for multiple disciplines to understand and work on the same problem, making collaboration easier. (Huutoniemi & Tapio, 5) Their non-optimality is incredibly useful when time is short; resources are lacking, and when the complexity is huge.
Our brains use heuristics to economize on our processing resources. We often have to make challenging, split second decisions. Is that blurry brown object in a forest a fallen tree or a bear? Instead of churning out a totally and absolutely correct answer (using up precious time and carbohydrates), we use a heuristic and instinctively run. This is decidedly non-optimal if it turns out the blurry brown object was just fallen tree. But it is a lifesaver if not. Nature is incredibly complex. Our brains are only able to take in a small percentage of the world around us. (Kahneman, 22) Evolutionarily we economize because we don’t need full knowledge or perfect information to make effective decisions to move forward.
Particularly as price systems are expressly being considered as “designable” social technologies, we can think of them in a systems engineering framework. A tool for assessing communications and signaling systems in engineering is a matrix of bias and precision. We should aspire towards pricing systems that are unbiased and precise. I use bias in the sense that Longino uses it, and precision as an associated concept used in theories of measurement. There is no perfect price, but by taking the “via negativa” approach, we can become closer to prices that better represent the world. Heuristically, we can detect bias in pricing through an analysis of what is not included. This is the via negativa, or a view through the negative (Taleb, 301). The negative can really only be detected in the extreme case of deviation. Prices are formed by many different mechanisms. These can and should be individually studied in different geographies, times and industries. The bias of these mechanisms is a function of how closely mental models of participants correspond to reality, and how much influence participants have. The precision of these mechanisms is a function of the measurement and recording tools, processes and norms of the evaluator.
Various states of bias and precision are not intrinsically good or bad, but their evaluation is entirely dependent on the intended ends. A very biased price system could favour some people, and a very precise system could fine tune economic coordination. In the case of climate change and hydrocarbon pricing, pricing is currently inaccurate because it doesn’t account for future risk and current cost but very precise as it is mediated by advanced technologies of organization that permit coordination for economy to run in a highly complex fashion.
What are features of unbiased pricing systems? Paradigmatic mental models are the broad determinants of the bias of pricing mechanisms. It matters who participates in pricing systems and how much power they might have. The cognition and representations of individual participants within an economy pricing systems is fundamental to pricing. If individuals are ignorant or are simply incapable of conceiving a value, risk, cost or uncertainty then the pricing system will not account for it.
Biased prices are a function of the worldview and relative power of those participating in markets, the institutions that uphold them and the associated pricing methods. Unbiased prices are those that reflect the valuation of the thing to the best of human’s societal knowledge. These are prices generated by mechanisms that accurately take into account the supply or demand and capture what would otherwise be significant externalities. Unbiased prices are the product of market mechanisms that take into account the different standpoints of the participants in the market. We would suspect prices to be unbiased when they are set in competitive markets with multiple players. Unbiased prices are flexible; they respond to changes in the physical world and the knowledge space. They should account for both local and global conditions – the stock of a good in one region as well as the global impact of the good on the climate. Bias in prices is the result of systemic misrepresentation of the environmental conditions by the price signals. It is the result of conceptions leaning in a particular direction for any particular reason.
What are the features of precise pricing systems? Measurement and record keeping are ways to capture value and differentiates prices, and lead ways to more complex ways of differentiating prices – they provide other ways of creating a sort of language. The technologies for measurement and quantification, physical and social, are the broad determinants of the precision of pricing mechanisms. Precision is the reproducibility and consistent internal logic of a pricing system. Prices are a form of measurement that presupposes common mental paradigms of what it is to be measured. Measurement is mediated social and physical tools such as formal weights and measures, property rights, double entry bookkeeping and corporate processes.
Generally, the types of interventions to the price system by taking an informational approach are to decrease bias and to temporarily decrease precision. The problem is that highly efficient system with precision pricing (and therefore coordination) is most susceptible to outside shocks because of the potential for bias. It seems like precision must be temporarily be given up until the bias fundamentals are reformed. Decreasing bias is by changing mental models of participants or changing the influence that specific players have in a price system. While precision of price systems is helpful for economic coordination, temporarily decreasing the precision by reducing price flexibility would make it easier for bias fundamentals to be adjusted.
As we have seen, the idea of bias and precision as an evaluation of pricing systems must by applied metaphorically and subjectively. We cannot have the same technical definitions. They are only useful heuristics if we see economics as a value-laden discipline. Bias refers to a drift of prices away from competitive market functioning and valuation based on common knowledge. Precision refers to the internal consistency of prices. Biased prices are not necessarily bad, and precise prices are not necessarily good. It requires a case-by-case exploration. We might want prices to be biased in order to serve the poorest in our society, and we might frown upon prices set by monopolists. Precise prices can lead to highly tuned market and corporate functioning; while they might give use a sense of false precision when we attempt to value a human life or a tonne of carbon.
The concept of using bias and precision as an analysis tool in looking at price systems needs to be expanded upon and validated. Looking back on my project, I see that I had the glimmer of this idea early on but did not make it the focus of my investigation. I see now that going forward with an inquiry around developing this hypothesis would help to centre the research. I think that it would be most useful as a cognitive and linguistic tool in order to provide new common language in public debates. It allows us to recognize that prices can be wrong while still recognizing the utility that might need to be preserved. Bias does not suggest an answer of an ideal price, but only indicates when they might be distorted in a harmful way.
I have thought of a mobile application that would be a platform for generating a picture of what alternative prices could look like. It would operate as a game-like rating app for prices that people see on a day-to-day basis. Users would rate prices on their bias and precision by using a target like user interface. They would be primed and unprimed with user added criticism of what is and is not included in the price of a litre of oil or milk, or an outsourced t-shirt. This application would generate a huge amount of data, peripheral to actual pricing systems, about how some segments of the populace view prices and their impacts. It would be litmus in testing responses to different arguments about price changes, and would assist in finding rhetorical ways to make price adjustments to mitigate things like climate change.
The bias and precision metaphor already implies some empirical validating studies that I have recognized. For example, if participants in a market pricing system matter, or their perceptions of the world around them matter, then changes in these would change prices. These would include periods of paradigmatic mental shifts and periods of entrance of new people into economies will cause large pricing change. Prices of certain things would have changes after US slavery ended and a new population can make decisions in a market, or when women enter workforce in larger numbers, or as children brought into economy further when advertising is directed to younger and younger age groups. Theoretically, this could be a statistical study that uses conventional time series analysis of prices.
A similar study could be done on the precision of pricing systems. The precision of prices would change as technologies, such as weigh scales, the internet, or double entry bookkeeping, evolve in economies. These technologies would allow for more intricately differentiated pricing schemes. This is also compared to inflation or moving from a shillings, pence system to a decimal pricing system. It allows for greater distinction of prices. The nature of the symbolic pricing system would have significant effect on increasing precision and decreasing bias prices. I am not certain if the historical data could be accumulated for this, but another way might be to examine the set of prices in a market after a monopoly had been broken up. Furthermore, it might be worthwhile to simply conduct surveys and dialogs with people who actually set prices. A more effective starting point for these studies would be to approach the examination of a market in particular.
In reflecting on the whole of this project, it is clear to me that my personal purpose is to generate a broader intellectual narrative about how we might tinker with or reform price systems to serve society. Robert Heilbroner was an American economist and historian of economic thought. He saw economics as “at its core… an explanation system whose purpose is to enlighten us as to the working, and therefore to the problems and prospects, of that complex social entity we call the economy.” Reading broadly on differing perspectives on how price systems worked has allow my to glimpse the extent of possibilities for understanding the topic. There are compelling arguments and counter arguments to what prices are and what they are not. Exploring the topic is about attempting to make sense of something that doesn’t make a lot of sense.
By fleshing out the perspective of prices as information and price systems as information systems, I have sketched out the basis of an alternative understanding. It stems from an initial observation that economic externalities will always exist because “value” is near infinitely dimensional. Not all of it can be captured by price systems, nor should it. Therefore, minimizing externalities is a normative and focused effort that is partaken towards some end to correct a very significant problem. When faced with pressing issues of externalization structural changes to the price systems as a social technology seem to be necessary. One change can be temporarily reducing the precision of price systems in cases of extreme externalities, and focusing on the importance of rhetoric and market participation in shaping bias.
These are all interventions that a mainstream economic analysis would not be produce. Climate change as a result of carbon emissions is a great example of one externality we need to mitigate. My framework of bias and precision could be a useful way of developing policy and grassroots tools. We should be creative in the way we conceive of these complex systems in order to make their understanding more accessible to all people and to broaden the solution space of interventions to create broader outcomes society.
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