“Sidney Alexander & I are really the only ones who showed the basic logical contradictions caused by positivism having penetrated economics in the middle of the 20th Century”

Subroto Roy hears from Mr Scott Peterson,

“Dear Professor Roy, I have been reading your book *Philosophy of Economics* and happened to stumble on the following paper:’Public Finance Texts Cannot Justify Government Taxation’ Walter E. Block (Loyola University New Orleans, Joseph A. Butt, S.J. College of Business) has posted Public Finance Texts Cannot Justify Government Taxation: A Critique on SSRN. Here is the abstract: ‘In virtually all economic sub-disciplines, practitioners of the dismal science are exceedingly desirous of avoiding normative concerns, at least in principle. These are seen, and rightly so, as extremely treacherous. Being only human, they do sometimes stray off the path of positive analysis; but when they fall off the wagon in this manner, if at all, it is done relatively cautiously, and infrequently. There is one blatant exception to this general rule, however, and that is the field of public finance. Here, in sharp contrast to the usual practice, not only is normative economics embraced, it is done so with alacrity, and without apology. That is, most textbooks on the subject start off with one or several chapters which attempt to justify taxation on moral, efficiency, and other grounds. This occurs in no other field.’

When I read this I immediately thought of your discussion of the normative vs positive approaches in economics. Perhaps the exception economists make regarding public finance is that most economists’ paychecks come from the public sector.


Scott Peterson

Dear Mr Peterson, Yes indeed. Thanks for the observation. Sidney Alexander and I are really the only ones who showed the basic logical contradictions caused by positivism having penetrated economics in the middle of the 20th Century. Are you at Facebook? Feel free to join me. Cordial regards, Suby Roy

“….Meanwhile, my main work within economic theory, the “Principia Economica” manuscript, was being read by the University of Chicago Press’s five or six anonymous referees. One of them pointed out my argument had been anticipated years earlier in the work of MIT’s Sidney Stuart Alexander. I had no idea of this and was surprised; of course I knew Professor Alexander’s work in balance of payments theory but not in this field. I went to visit Professor Alexander in Boston…. Professor Alexander was extremely gracious, and immediately declared with great generosity that it was clear to him my arguments in “Principia Economica” had been developed entirely independently of his work. He had come at the problem from an American philosophical tradition of Dewey, I had done so from a British tradition of Wittgenstein. (CS Peirce was probably the bridge between the two.) He and I had arrived at some similar conclusions but we had done so completely independently.”

Professor Alexander, contemporary of PA Samuelson, tutor of RM Solow and many others, deserves far greater attention, and I will do what I can towards that.  He introduced me briefly to his MIT colleague Lester Thurow and I sent an email some time ago to Professor Thurow suggesting MIT should try to remember him better.

Furthermore…. (12 August 2013)… as Karl Georg Zinn observed in his perspicacious review:

“Either all of positive economics is attacked with just as much scepticism as anything in normative economics, or we accept one and reject the other when instead there are reasons to think they share the same ultimate grounds and must be accepted or rejected together”(p.47).


American Voices: A Brief Popular History of the United States in 20 You-Tube Music Videos

Someone once wondered if you can play chess without the Queen;  I wonder,  can a poem be written without words?

Certainly no country other than the United States might have its modern history sought to be told of  in a  medley such as this.


A Quick Comparison Between the September 11 2001 NYC-Washington attacks and the November 26-28 2008 Mumbai Massacres (An Application of the Case-by-Case Philosophical Technique of Wittgenstein, Wisdom and Bambrough)

A Quick Comparison Between the September 11 2001 NYC-Washington attacks and the November 26-28 2008 Mumbai Massacres (An Application of the Case-by-Case Philosophical  Technique of Wittgenstein, Wisdom and Bambrough)


Subroto Roy

In my book Philosophy of Economics (Routledge, 1989) and in my August 24  2004 public lecture  in England  “Science,  Religion, Art and the Necessity of Freedom”, both available elsewhere here, I described the “case-by-case” philosophical technique recommended by Ludwig Wittgenstein, John Wisdom and Renford Bambrough.  (Bambrough had also shown a common root in the work of the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce.)   Herewith an application of the technique to a contemporary problem that shows the “family resemblance” between two modern terrorist attacks, the September 11 2001 attack on New York and Washington and the Mumbai massacres last week.

Similarity:  In both, a gang of motivated youthful terrorists acted as a team against multiple targets; their willingness to accept  suicide while indulging in mass-murder may have, bizarrely enough, brought a sense of adventure and meaning to otherwise empty lives.

Difference: In the 9/11 attacks, Mohammad Atta seemed to have been a single predominant leader while each of the others also had complex active roles requiring decisions, like piloting and navigating hijacked jumbo-jets.  In the Mumbai massacres, the training and leadership apparently came from outside the team before and even during the operation  – almost as if the team were acting like brainwashed robots under long-distance control.

Similarity:  Both attacks required a long prior period of training and planning.

Difference: The 9/11 attacks did not require commando-training imparted by military-style trainers; the Mumbai massacres did.

Difference: In the 9/11 attacks, the actual weapons used initially were primitive, like box-cutters; in the Mumbai massacres, assault rifles and grenades were used along with sophisticated telecommunications equipment.

Difference: In 9/11, the initial targets, the hijacked aircraft, were themselves made into weapons against the ultimate targets, namely the buildings, in a way not seen before.  In the Mumbai massacres, mass-shooting of terrorized civilians was hardly something original; besides theatres of war, the Baader-Meinhof gang and the Japanese Red Army used these in the 1970s as terrorist techniques (e.g. at Rome Airport  Lod Airport; Postscript January 26 2009: I make this correction after reading and commenting on the RAND study which unfortunately  did not have the courtesy of acknowledging my December 6 2008 analysis) plus there were, more recently, the Columbine and Virginia Tech massacres.

Similarity: In both cases, Hollywood and other movie scripts could have inspired the initial ideas of techniques to be  used.

Similarity: In both cases, the weapons used were appropriate to the anticipated state of defence: nothing more than box-cutters could be expected to get by normal airport security; assault rifles etc could come in by the unguarded sea and attack soft targets in Mumbai.  (Incidentally, even this elementary example of strategic thinking  in a practical situation may be beyond the analytical capacity contained in the tons of waste paper produced at American and other modern university Economics departments under the rubric of  “game theory”.)

Similarity: In both cases, a high-level of widespread fear was induced for several days or more within a targeted nation-state by a small number of people.

Similarity: No ransom-like demands were made by the terrorists in either case.

Similarity: Had the single terrorist not been captured alive in the Mumbai massacres, there would have been little trace left by the attackers.

Difference: The 9/11 attackers knew definitely they were on suicide-missions; the Mumbai attackers may not have done and may have imagined an escape route.

American Democracy


Does America need a Prime Minister and a longer-lived Legislature?


Subroto Roy

First published in The Sunday Statesman

Editorial Page Special Article Nov 5 2006

The politics of the United States in the last few decades has become so opaque, it is hard to see what goes on, beyond the banal superficialities. Competitive commercial television, an American institutional invention, is hardly the most suitable keeper of any nation’s historical and political heritage, nor a source of accurate collective political memory, and without political memory it is not possible to understand the present or anticipate the future. Yet most modern Americans are compelled by circumstances to comprehend the national or state-level politics of their enormous variegated land of 300 million people only through the very coarse filter provided by commercial television.

Television obviously demands passivity, dissipating a viewer’s ability to reason about or reflect on any information being offered. A newspaper report “Plane crash kills 120” in a front-page column, causes the information to be absorbed in context along with the rest of the day’s news. If the radio says “An aeroplane crashed today, and all 120 passengers aboard are feared dead”, the same event is felt through the invisible newsreader’s voice, the listener being left to imagine the awfulness of what happened. But for TV to report the same event requires pompous self-conscious studio-anchors, helicopters at the scene, interviews with weeping relatives, and instant analyses of the crash’s causes, all under a banner of “Breaking News”. The average viewer is left not so much sympathising with the victims as feeling enervated and anxious about air-travel and the world in general — besides being left ignorant of the rest of the day’s happenings.

In reaching mass-audiences with advertisements of commercial products, TV quickly obtained the general surrender of radio in American homes, though radio still controls what modern Americans hear in the time they spend in their automobiles (and they spend a larger fraction there than any other people). Newspapers signalled their abject surrender to TV by “dumbing down” their front-pages with large photographs as pathetic reminders of yesterday’s TV events, or headlines that sound racy, sensational, glamorous or with-it. Given the transient nature of all news and expense of printing it on newsprint, actually reading newspapers (as opposed to looking at advertising supplements) has become in the age of TV a minor middle class indulgence, although the editorial pages of a handful of “national” newspapers remains the last refuge of serious political discussion in the USA and elsewhere.

American politics filtered through commercial television has caused all issues and politicians, whether national, state and/or local, to tend to become like products and brands available to be bought and sold at the right price. Yet American television also produced a serious reaction to its own banalities by starting in the early 1980s news-reporting and analysis on “Public Television” and also on “C-Span”. “Public Television” (as opposed to commercial or cable networks) produced what came to be known as the “MacNeill-Lehrer NewsHour”, which set the benchmark for all political news and commentary in the USA and indeed across the globe to this day. C-Span took the unusual step of sending television cameras to silently record all political events, especially the seemingly least significant and most tedious of legislative committee meetings or political speeches, and then broadcasting these endlessly 24 hours a day along with very dry political analysis and comment. Both provided a little (“highbrow”) sobriety to the otherwise drunken political culture created by American commercial television. Along with a small number of newspapers like the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor and USA Today, MacNeill-Lehrer and C-Span and the odd Sunday morning news-show on commercial TV, gave America’s politically conscious classes their access to information and analysis about their own country and what was being done in its name in the wider world. At least that was so until the 2003 attack on Iraq — during which acceptance of the US military procedure of “embedded reporters” ruined America’s traditions of a free press. Since 2003, growth of political coverage on the Internet especially via “blogging” has caused more candour to penetrate American politics and to explode the dissimulations of the “mainstream media”.

Besides politics via television, the other main factor affecting the attention-deficit disorder, short time-horizon and lack of perspective and depth afflicting modern American discourse, has been the rigid time-table of a Constitution written for a long gone era. Every even-numbered year is an election year in America, and that election is held in the first week of November. Hence on 7 November 2006 America will go to the polls, as it did in November 2004 and as it will again in November 2008. Each requires the entire lower legislative house to be newly elected.

Now two years may have been a long time in the late 18th Century when the US Constitution was written, and transport and communications between the Capitol and the new States was hazardous or time-consuming. But in modern times two years are over in the blink of an eyelid. Members of the American House of Representatives must then spend their time either talking about public money and how to spend it (as only they are authorized to do), or private money and how to earn it in order to stay elected and be able to talk about how to spend the public money. Inevitably, these two activities get confused with each other. The two year term of the American lower house may well be the shortest anywhere in the world, and may deserve to be doubled at least.

The upper house elects two senior politicians from each of the 50 States (regardless of its size or importance) for a 6 year term each, with one-third of the house returning to face the electorate at each of the biennial national elections. These 100 Senators at any given time have often constituted a fine deliberative body, and, along with the executive governors of the larger States, the pool from which America’s presidents and vice-presidents get to be chosen. Yet the Senate has also often enough palpably failed in its “advice and consent” role vis-à-vis the American President — whether in the matter of America never becoming a member of the League of Nations because of Senate isolationism despite Woodrow Wilson having invented it (something the British and French found so bewildering and frustrating), or the modern Senate caving in to the jingoism unleashed by the father-son Bush Presidencies only to then say “Oops, we’ve made a mistake”.

Another fundamental institutional problem at the root of modern American politics today is the lack of separation between the Head of State and Head of Government. This not merely causes people with the wrong ambitions and abilities to want to become President (because they lust in juvenile fashion to fire cruise missiles or fly onto aircraft carriers), it also causes the business of serious governance to frequently stop getting done because of endless paralysis between the President and Legislature. Churchill perspicaciously observed: “The rigid Constitution of the United States, the gigantic scale and strength of its party machinery, the fixed terms for which public officers and representatives are chosen, invest the President with a greater measure of autocratic power than… by the Head of any great State. The vast size of the country, the diverse types, interests and environments of its enormous population, the safety-valve function of the legislatures of fifty Sovereign States, make the focussing of national public opinion difficult, and confer upon the Federal Government exceptional independence of it except at fixed election times. Few modern Governments need to concern themselves so little with the opinion of the party they have beaten at the polls; none secures to its supreme executive officer, at once the Sovereign and the Party Leader, such direct personal authority.” There is an argument to be made for the American President to become more of a constitutional figurehead representing the thoughtful will of the Union and all the 50 States, while an American Prime Minister comes to be elected by the Legislature as a more subdued, sober and competent Head of Government. It would be a healthy development for America’s domestic and international politics, and hence better for the rest of the world as well.