An Economics With Verbs, Not Just Nouns

W. Brian Arthur re-opens some old questions about the discipline of economics and the role of mathematics with fresh language is "Economics in Nouns and Verbs" (April 5, 2021, preprint at arXiv).

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Here's a flavor of his argument:

I will argue that economics, as expressed via algebraic mathematics, deals only in nouns—quantifiable nouns—and does not deal with verbs (actions), and that this has deep consequences for what we see in the economy and how we theorize about it. ...

Let me begin by pointing out that economics deals with prices, quantities produced, consumption, rates of interest, rates of exchange, rates of inflation, unemployment levels, trade surpluses, GDP, financial assets, Gini coefficients. These are all nouns. In fact, they are all quantifiable nouns—amounts of things, levels of things, rates of things. Economics as it is formally expressed is about amounts and levels and rates, and little else. Thisstatement seems simple, trite almost, but it is only obvious when you pause to notice it. Nouns are the water economics swims.

Of course in the real economy there are actions. Investors, producers, banks, and consumers act and interact incessantly. They trade, explore, forecast, buy, sell, ponder, adapt, invent, bring new products into being, start companies. And these of course are actions—verbs. Parts of economics—economic history, or business reporting—do deal with actions. But in formal discourse about the economy, in the theory we learn and the models we create and the statistics we report, we deal not with verbs but with nouns. If companies are indeed started, economic models reflect this as the number of companies started. If people invest, models reflect this as the amount of investment. If central banks intervene, they reflect this by the quantity of intervention. Formal economics is about nouns and reduces all activities to nouns.

You could say that is its mode of understanding, its vocabulary of expression. Perhaps this is just a curiosity and doesn’t matter. And maybe it’s necessary that to be a science economics needs to deal with quantifiable objects—nouns. But other sciences heavily use verbs and actions. In biology DNA replicates itself, corrects copying errors in its strands, splits apart, and transfers information to RNA to express genes. These are verbs, all. Biology—modern molecular biology, genomics, and proteomics—is based squarely on actions. Indeed biology would be hard to imagine without actions—events triggering events, events inhibiting events. ... 
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