Accessibility links

The Coen brothers' new movie A Serious Man starts with a Jewish husband and wife in a 19th century Shtetl. The wife is sure a late night visitor is one of the living dead, the husband not so. The wife stabs the strange visitor. At first he doesn't bleed, just laughs. The wife takes this as evidence that she was right. But then the visitor does bleed; but then again, he walks off laughing into the night seemingly no worse for wear. Have they done the right thing? Or have they sinned terribly? The rest of the film, mainly through the character of Larry Gopnik (a mild-mannered physics professor who teaches the uncertainty principle to his students), explores what it is to never be sure how to do the right thing.

The Coen brothers' new movie A Serious Man starts with a Jewish husband and wife in a 19th century Shtetl. The wife is sure a late night visitor is one of the living dead, the husband not so. The wife stabs the strange visitor. At first he doesn't bleed, just laughs. The wife takes this as evidence that she was right. But then the visitor does bleed; but then again, he walks off laughing into the night seemingly no worse for wear. Have they done the right thing? Or have they sinned terribly? The rest of the film, mainly through the character of Larry Gopnik (a mild-mannered physics professor who teaches the uncertainty principle to his students), explores what it is to never be sure how to do the right thing.

This got me to thinking about a letter Stuart McBurney wrote to Matthew Taylor and me recently. Stuart is working on a book that details the idea of 'ecohesion' - this is apparently the idea that our guiding thought on planning and running our lives should be based around our interdependence, both upon each other and on the planet that sustains us. Stuart argues, in a continuation of his earlier book, that economics as a discipline simply can't represent this guiding thought, because it is inherently individualistic.

In a great scene from A Serious Man Larry Gopnik is dealing with a student who wants to secure a passing grade with a bribe. The student had answered an exam question about Schroedinger's Cat by talking about the actual cat, not the mathematics which explain that we can't know whether it lives or dies. Larry says something along the lines of (if memory serves): 'I don't know about the cat, only about the math.'

This seems to me to be pertinent to attempts to reorient governance and large scale commercial and social activity around principles such as 'ecohesion', rather than the principles of economics. The problem is you cannot measure particularly well, something like interdependence. This is because holistic relationships are incredibly complex and just too nebulous. For all its faults, neo-classical economics does at least measure some things fairly accurately. There are moves afoot to measure different things like well-being (or proxies for well-being such as levels of depression, levels of pollution, educational attainments, the number of children going in to state care). But these new measurements will get nowhere near something like interdependence.

So this made me think, perhaps measured inputs, outputs and outcomes are not the way forward for innovative policy. Perhaps 'ecohesion' is better just left as a guiding thought, and this is perhaps Stuart's point: to take the thought and apply it creatively and see what emerges. As Larry Gopnik finds out, despite all the trappings of the modern world, acting without measurable certainty of success or reward will always be the human lot.

Comments

Be the first to write a comment

Please login to post a comment or reply.

Don't have an account? Click here to register.