Cities grow in particular places and over certain periods in history, forests grow somewhere and when they are cut down this happens one day at a time and, even in the age of the internet and global trading, most markets still have locations and goods take time to be delivered - from China or elsewhere. Like the movement of the planets, the changing weather, animals hunting and plants growing, economic activity happens in space and time – it can't do otherwise.
Natural Laws?Given the absolute centrality of space and time for all things economic you might be forgiven for thinking that they would be important components in modern economic 'science'. They are not. In neoclassical economics, which retains a vise-like grip on both academia and policy making and provides the intellectual support for the ideology of neoliberalism, space and time are almost totally absent. Why is this? Why does it matter for people and the planet? And are there more useful alternatives?
In the 18th and 19th centuries all economists were political economists - Adam Smith, David Ricardo, J S Mill, David Hume and Karl Marx. Even while they were constructing simplified models of the 'invisible hand' and international trade, they were profoundly aware of the negative consequences an unfettered capitalist system can and does have for great swathes of humanity and for the environment.
But economics wanted to be more scientific and ultimately that means more mathematical. Casting around to find a suitable mathematics in the physical sciences, the first neoclassical economists (Leon Walras and W S Jevons for example) adopted the best they could find: Newtonian classical mechanics. Though perhaps natural, this choice has been of crucial importance to how economics has developed since. Even as most other sciences have moved beyond a narrow mechanical view of the world, economics has stuck with it.
Square Pegs, Round HolesMany things in the physical world can be explained and predicted using classical mechanics: how far a bullet will travel or how planets move around the sun in an elliptical orbit. It still lies at the heart of much useful technology.
Billiard balls remain still, in "equilibrium", until the player uses his cue and applies a force to a ball. The ball moves, bumps into other balls (and indeed into the edge of the table) before eventually everything settles down again in a new equilibrium. If you can specify exactly the starting positions, the masses of the balls, the forces applied and the properties of the materials then you can predict not only where everything will end up but also the routes the balls will take and how long it will all take – so space and time are not only explicitly included but also absolutely fundamental.
What neoclassical economics did was take this model and replace mass and distance with price and quantity.
A market is in equilibrium if it "clears", this means that the quantity people want to buy at a given price equals how much people want to sell. This applies whether the market is for labour, for goods or anything else. Everything is stable until there is an impulse or shock. This is the equivalent to the cue hitting a billiard ball. These impulses might be changes in consumer tastes and preferences, suppliers using a new technology or a change in the price of labour or raw materials. Suddenly it looks as though the market might not clear and unemployment or stock shortages might appear. Of course in mechanical physics such "out-of-equilibria" are normal, the billiard balls are all moving through space and time till they settle down again in new positions.
Making the models workBut to make their models tractable the early neoclassical economists had to completely strip down classical mechanics and drop any concept of space and time. Where exactly is the market operating? Implicitly the answer is that it takes place at a point, but not a real geographic point, rather an abstract point. In this sense economic transactions happen on a pinhead that is both everywhere and nowhere.
It's the same with time. In neoclassical economics if it takes time to move from one equilibrium to another, this would mean that markets may not clear, trading could take place at "false prices" and they might never settle down again. Initially this problem was overcome by the introduction of what later became known as a Walrasian auctioneer. This purely fictive being, analogous to Maxwell's Demon in physics, "groped" his way to a solution by repeatedly calling out prices, checking the resultant demands and supplies until prices that will clear the market are found – only then can trading take place.
Coupled with the later introduction of "rational expectations" - in which actors have perfect foresight and complete information - this enabled economics to ignore space and time. In a Pollyannaish way, following any disturbance or shock, the economy jumps instantly from one equilibrium to another - going through nowhere on the way – in a type of economic Quantum Leap.
For Part 2 read here >>