The death of economics? The death of salmon “maximum sustainable yield”?

In recent travels to a used book store,  I picked up a book on economics alongside some old reports on salmon from the 1930s. (And, yes, this did illicit some groans from certain family members…)

The Death of Economics

The Death of Economics” was written by British thinker and economist Paul Ormerod in the mid 1990s. It became a pretty good seller. He’s written two other books on similar topics. His website suggests that his research interests are:

Networks – How people, firms, things are connected to each other, and how different ways in which they are connected have different implications.

Complex Systems – How the properties of systems as a whole emerge from the interactions of their component parts. These are systems in which the whole is more than the sum of the parts.

‘Rule of thumb’ – decision makers in economics. How we can understand many social and economic questions better if we relax the traditional assumption that decision makers attempt to find the ‘best’ decision. Instead, they appear to use simple rules of thumb to arrive at ‘fairly good’ decisions.

Those three research interests are rather fitting to our relationship with wild salmon. If we approached discussions and research on wild salmon with those three categories in the forefront, we might just improve the relationship.

See… the tools of “salmon management” really aren’t that far off from the tools of economics. For example, does the term “maximum sustainable yield” (MSY) really sound like an equation developed by ecologists or systems theorists or quantum physicists exploring complex systems?

No… not really.

MSY is a single species, largely single-factor, narrow-minded, simple system equation for maximizing profits.

Well… and… the history of the salmon fishery on the BC coast demonstrates time and time again that we have utterly failed at “maximizing profits” from the ‘resource’. An over-capitalized, over-subsidized, fishing fleet coupled with dysfunctional equations and models and political interference and political lobbying by high-powered special interest groups has led us down the road we currently find ourselves lost on (e.g. another multi-million dollar judicial inquiry: Cohen Commission — as one example, the fifth in 20 years…).

And in the meantime… where is the $$ and focus on the actual places where salmon live… I think it’s called “habitat”?

_ _ _ _ _

Omerod in his book:

Many people feel instinctively uncomfortable when mathematics is applied to the analysis of human activities [or salmon, or nature in general]. The description of behavior in symbols and equations seems in some rather disagreeable way to undermine the concept of free will…

… the temptation to use mathematics is irresistible for economists. It appears to convey the appropriate air of scientific authority and precision to economists’ musings. More subtly, its use hides the implications of many of the assumptions which are made routinely in professional work.

Despite these important qualifications and reservations, mathematics — if properly used — can be of great value in political economy. Like language, it is simply a tool to assist the process of thought.

Seen in its proper role, as servant, not master maths is an invention which can increase enormously the productivity of thinking [think of George Orwell’s thoughts that words are our servants, not our master]. In our everyday lives we are familiar with the myriad inventions which enhance productivity, whether at home or at work. The washing machine enables more washing to be done more efficiently in much less time that if it were done by hand. The word processor allows more documents to be produced more quickly than if they were written out by hand.

Similarly, maths can vastly increase the power and effectiveness of thought. Complex problems, which would take many pages of words to describe, can be stated more succinctly, and their implications analyzed more clearly, by the use of mathematics than by the use of words. And there are many problems which are quite beyond the power of words to analyze. In the same way that one would use words and not maths to write poetry, maths and not words is helpful in deciding how to send a rocket to the moon.

… But it was not the use of maths by itself which led economics to its present erroneous path; rather, it was a result of seeking to raise economics to the status of the physical sciences that the pioneers of the new economics in the late 19th century adopted the then dominant view of the harder sciences, which saw the world as a smoothly functioning machine. As it happens, this particular picture of the world led to the use of certain kinds of mathematical tools and approaches rather than others. But at least initially the economics drove the maths, rather than the other way round.

Much the same issue remains in “natural resource management”… the world is a smoothly functioning machine in the eyes of ‘resource managers’, which continues to lead us to mathematical tools and computer models which drive our relationships with things and critters like wild salmon.

Yet… a classic conundrum remains — how does the machine-mentality of math and computer modeling dominant in “salmon management” compare with the simple emotional, spiritual, and cultural connection (indigenous and settler alike) to wild salmon and the streams they inhabit?

How do government ministries and bureaucrats quantify the salmon connection throughout the range of Pacific salmon across the Pacific Rim?

Not that quantifying it is what really needs to happen… however what would be the purpose of a giant budget-sucking Ministry if we simply looked after wild salmon for the simple fact of keeping them in our lives and in our backyards because of a deep spiritual and cultural connection?

What if coastal communities and interior communities alike suggested: “you know… actually… we prefer salmon in our streams as opposed to salmon fishing boats at our docks.” (at least until population recover coast-wide to numbers that can support food fisheries).

Or: “you know… actually… we prefer wild salmon in our streams as opposed to the twinning of that freeway… let’s put that money into habitat work instead, which still means jobs and economy…”

But then that would just be idealistic nonsense, wouldn’t it?

Or… is this just a classic boom and bust cycle that has haunted human civilizations for quite some time. If you read much of the older mainstream material on salmon over the last… say 70 – 100 years… the absolute main focus is on economic values.

How many cases of salmon were canned this year?

What was the ex-vessel value? How many jobs?

In behind all the economic discussion are warnings of overfishing, habitat destruction, caution, precaution, tragedy of the commons warnings, and the like… but those all play second fiddle to the lead soloist: Economics.

Is it possible that the death of economics will come in the salmon discussion?

Near the end of his book, Ormerod states:

Behavior of the system in aggregate cannot be deduced by simply summing up the behavior of its individual component parts.


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