What are costs, actually? (Another P3 comment...)

Another comment at P3, responding to MT.

Me: "Economics is the study of how people react to cost changes." Hmm, you're right - I need to be more careful with nomenclature myself. I'm sure some of the heterodox econs would say the term is 'essentially contested'. Thinking about it, though, I think my def still works: economics concerns itself with the costs and benefits involved in human choices. I don't see that Marshall's questions contradict that: everything from how we structure institutions, what sectors should be state-owned, the ethics of wealth distribution - is all covered.

"presuming you mean 'cost' in the colloquial sense of money". No, absolutely not. The magic washing machine is a pretty perfect example: what are the costs/benefits of how we use our time? How does technology and societal structure alter that? Rosling very cleverly illustrates precisely this point by pulling books out of the washing machine: it's a machine that produces women's education as well as clean clothes. I see no problem in thinking about time this way while also thinking about how time is socially constructed (see this classic E.P.Thompson article, PDF) and how economic definitions themselves may alter us.

The transition from a mostly agricultural society to what we have today can be thought of in the same way. Two things have happened simultaneously: agri technology has improved, meaning waaay less people can produce massively more (put aside for now 'but it's all just eating fossil fuels'...) The rest of the economy has grown in a feedback process: enabling both increased agri output and freeing up people's time to work elsewhere. As a result, we've also seen a massive morphology change as food processing has moved out of the household/community and into today's sophisticated global industrial networks. A key part of that is how people value their time: we could all be growing food in community gardens and cooking it at home. We have the time to do that. Mostly, we don't. Why not? We prefer to work in paid jobs and access relatively cheaper food, as well as a set of other things we like. Computers, electricity, transport, beer, time to sit and stare at the wall...

Again, there's a whig history danger here: it was meant to be thus, and is natural and good (while forgetting small matters like kicking people off their land when sheep became more profitable, much as we're doing now because car-food is more profitable than people-food [my blog] in many places). But there's also a lot of value in thinking about these changes through the prism of how we value the costs and benefits of our time.

I've found myself looking at my own 'revealed preference' and changing my views. I used to be a lot more fervent about local food growing, until I realised what my shopping habits were telling me: I actually prefer to earn a living in academia and spend time I'd be putting into agriculture on other things, like commenting at P3. If other people feel differently, fine. But I don't think the existence of supermarkets is necessarily a sign of collective moral failure. I also reserve the right to a) reflect on that and change in the future but b) not to have anyone else actually force me to change, unless I've taken part in a democratic process to enforce it ->

Cos maybe supermarket are evil, and individually we're too vulnerable. Marshall lists this in his questions: "what are the proper relations of individual and collective action in a stage of civilization such as ours? How far ought voluntary association in its various forms, old and new, to be left to supply collective action for those purposes for which such action has special advantages?" In the case of supermarkets - and some other market structures - perhaps we should not trust the emergent result of all our collective value-judgements. Instead, maybe we need to get together and decide a set of constraining rules: those we agree are needed, but that we recognise individual actions will tend to corrode over time. That would be democracy. It's also why people who claim that money represents the zenith of democracy [me again] are talking nonsense. If individually we are incapable of making the right carbon choices, collectively we can decide to restrict our choice set.