Sunday, November 01, 2009

Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen

I find Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen an intriguing economist. He discovered the non-substitution theorem and, apparently, the Hawkins-Simon condition.

Georgescu-Roegen developed a critique of neoclassical production functions. He argued that it applied to Leontief input-output theory too. This critique relies on distinctions among fund, flow, stock, and service. Funds are unchanged in the production process, while flows are altered. A stock is a productive input that can be used to generate flows at any rate, while a fund can generate services up to some maximum rate. In Sraffa's approach, land, I guess, is modeled as a fund. In artisan production, funds are idle most of the time, while a factory keeps their funds in use by having many laborers work slightly out of parallel. Georgescu-Roegen argued that production functions should be replaced with functionals, in which the arguments show the use of factors as functions of time.

Georgescu-Roegen accused other economists, such as Robert Solow, of ignoring the increased entropy that production causes. Usable mineral resources are finite. Georgescu-Roegen formulated what he called the fourth law of thermodynamics, which says that available matter decreases. Waste products become scattered and unusable.

He also made a distinction between what he called arithmomorphic and dialectic concepts. Arithmomorphic concepts are suitable for mathematical reasoning. Dialetic concepts are distinct but overlapping, and they are suitable for qualitative reasoning, as appropriate for a good understanding of economic development.

Georgescu-Roegen's analysis included a system of energy accounting, without accepting an energy theory of value. As forerunners, he mentions, for example, Frederick Soddy. (Soddy, apparently a Nobel laureate for discovering the existence of isotopes, called his economic philosophy ergosophy.)

Georgescu-Roegen's policy conclusions focused on converting socities to ones in which their economies were sustainable, with a concomitant smaller population in what are now considered advanced countries.

I don't think I've done justice to the subtlety and insightfulness of Georgescu-Roegen's contributions to economics with these scattered observations.

  • Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen (1986) "Man and Production", in Foundations of Economics: Structures of Inquiry and Economic Theory (Ed. by M. Baranzini and R. Scazzieri) Basil Blackwell
  • John Gowdy and Susan Mesner (1998) "The Evolution of Georgescu-Roegen's Bioeconomics" Review of Social Economy, V. 56, N. 2 (Summer)
  • Eberhard K. Seifert (1994) "Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas", in The Elgar Companion to Institutional and Evolutionary Economics (Ed. by G. M. Hodgson, W. J. Samuels, and M. R. Tool), Edward Elgar


BruceMcF said...

I would argue that the substance of Georgescu-Roegen's critique of Leontiev I-O models applies to the interpretation of I-O models as constant linear physical production functions with constant prices.

If instead Leontiev I-O models are viewed as snapshots of cash flows from a self-reproducing General System, we would expect such a system to be maintaining a homeostasis, and in that context the Leontiev I-O models are a first-order approximation in which proportional cash flows are in a steady state.

Robert Vienneau said...

Bruce, I've been out of town and unable to respond sooner. I always assume that you at least have a good point.