Reducing to Numbers

This post is a little on the short side. I was excited about next week’s posts (just finished next Tuesday’s post), and hopefully I’m still excited about them when they’re posted. This Thursday, I’m posting a semi-autobiographical post about abductive reasoning that sets the stage a bit. After next week, after two pretty sizable posts, I might rethink my blog and whether I want to switch to shorter, more sporadic posts now that I’m becoming satisfied with how I’ve grounded my outlook a little (and it only took about 15,000 words to reach that level of security!) I might move to one post per week, and my posts might shift from vague generalities to things I’m currently working on.

This post is partially adapted from old notes on two books: Policy Paradox by Deborah Stone and Debt: The First 5000 Years by David Graeber.


In my previous post, I argued that markets existed in some capacity as long as humans have, but that Markets as a philosophical object, a mature and manipulable thing, is much much newer (only centuries old). Being able to talk about “The Market” in the abstract, and use names and numbers to describe it and its actions as though it has agency all on its own, changes our behaviors regarding it. In the TIMN story, The Market concept rose out of necessity, to give a name to a solution to a problem with institutional form.

Likewise, the concept of zero was invented (or maybe discovered, if you’re into that) out of necessity, independently at several different points in history. There was a “base level” symbol in ancient Egyptian construction that may not be zero per se. Mesopotamians created a sort of placeholder for zero in large numbers, although they never used it alone or even at the end of numbers (you had to discern 16 from 160 by context). Zero as a complete concept and as a symbol likely first developed in India.

Naming and numbering often creates the first semblance of control over a thing. Counting is often a political act. Numbers are frequently rhetorical devices. When you count, you make value judgments about categorizing (what to include/exclude). When counting or measuring humans, counting creates political communities out of the counted.

There are other social consequences of counting: Counting and recording anything implicitly creates norms (ex. What is acceptable, what is comparatively too high/low). They can make the intangible into divisible, malleable structures (think about negotiations, compromises, and legal considerations, and the often arbitrary-seeming nature of what is taken and given). Numbers are often pragmatically ambiguous and interpretable: they do not really speak for themselves.

“The more any quantitative social indicator (or even some qualitative indicator) is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” –Campbell’s Law

Numbers and figures are often curated to construct narratives. They are often employed to simplify complex situations. The mere use of counting may bolster the ethos of the number-wielder by creating a sense of absolutism and objectivity. To measure a thing is to exercise a level of control.

When you quantify a debt with financial precision – and especially when you invest paying it off with profound moral gravity, making it a fundamental moral imperative – you take what was a human relationship of mutual imbrication and co-implication into a financial one based on a kind of moral dominance, and thereby subject the indebted party to the mechanisms of financial debt collection instead of the precepts of human morality.

When money can be used as an atomic unit for even moral concerns, then it can be used to take the irreducibly complex and ambiguous nature of social life and turn it into simple figures that can be manipulated easily. Coercion is easier to authorize in the name of the moral imperative of adjusting figures to their desired state, without regard to the situation the numbers represent. When precise numbers ‘simplify’ fuzzy social realities, and when those numbers are ascribed by Whoever is Counting with gravitas, the language of debt constrains the debtor and grants Whoever is Counting with control in a relationship of dominance . Violence met on the debtor is in fact the debtor’s own fault in this logic, making the justification of violence for the lender much easier.

Debt is a concept that precedes the idea of global markets, and its conflation between monetary and deeply personal/moral concerns is especially suspect in David Graeber’s book Debt: The First 5000 Years.

After all, it is in the very nature of a question like “What do I owe my parents?” that there is not and can never be a final, numerically answer. It is a question that we re-visit and re-negotiate every minute we are with them; obligation and love form an endless Möbius strip, through which our complex interdependence on each other makes the idea of paying off that debt – and of thereby severing the relationship – a sort of bitter joke. Precisely because it is a non-monetary “debt,” its function is to be an unpayable and unbreakable bond, one whose dividends never end and one that could and will never default.

The question “What do I owe my parents?” may use the language of debt, and suggest something to be counted, but this question is not meant to be answered with a number. It’s an evolving idea, a cognitive metaphor that is constantly evaluated in loose, narrative terms. There is no point at which an exact, counted debt is expected to be paid off, because if the relationship can be literally reduced to a number this way, at the moment of repayment the relationship is technically terminated.