Handel wrote “See, the Conquering Hero Comes!” for his oratorio Judas Maccabaeus, created to commemorate the Duke of Cumberland’s stomping out of the Jacobite rebellion at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.
Two hundred years later, hay fever stricken non-hero Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith rode a myth of his own heroism, fabricated by well-intentioned friends, to a public moment of truth in the 1944 film Hail the Conquering Hero. But that was Hollywood, and everybody was happy in the end as Woodrow lived out the popular “redemption” narrative that Silicon Valley loves, as we’ve seen previously. As for the Jacobites, their story became a cautionary tale — a more sobering narrative genre.
These two conquering hero stories illustrate why non-narrative economists think we’re better off leaving stories at the water cooler: narratives contain too much subjectivity, interpretation, cognitive bias, self-deception, and wishful thinking to be trusted, and therefore add nothing to economic policy-making, which is all those things already. You can talk “normative” all you like, but narrative policy will end up being a matter of power, not plot.
Plus, narratives can have unexpected outcomes. This article chronicles the pendulum swings that have characterized political/economic narratives for the past century, and warns that popular narratives of economic doom can have catastrophic consequences because they’re forged in simplistic thinking to the exclusion of more complex analysis:
“[Catastrophe narrative favor] the politics of the strong man glaring down the nation-doubters… It’s globalism or ‘nation first’, jobs or climate, friend or foe.
“The alternative is not to be wistful about flat-world narratives that find solace in technical panaceas and market fundamentalisms; the last thing we need is a return to the comforts of lean-in fairy tales that rely on facile responses to a complicated world.
“Nowadays, the chorus of catastrophe presents differences as intractable and incompatible, the choice between them zero-sum.
“We need to recover our command over complex storytelling, to think of tensions instead of incompatibilities, to allow choices and alternatives, mixtures and ambiguities, instability and learning, to counter the false certainties of the abyss.”
Why We Need To Be Wary Of Narratives Of Economic Catastrophe, Aeon Magazine (Jan. 22, 2019)
I.e., if we’re going to have economic narratives at all, they need to be complex, not simplistic, and take into account the full range of “positive” and “normative” ethical judgments, as well as both mathematical modeling and fundamental human behavior. Anything short of that promotes polarized thinking, which is not only the standard of the day, but might be inescapable as long as the human brain is in charge. Coach, consultant, and author Karl Albrecht wrote the following in Psychology Today iun 2010 — before discourse disappeared entirely from American public life:
“Recent research suggests that our brains may be pre-wired for dichotomized thinking. That’s a fancy name for thinking and perceiving in terms of two – and only two – opposing possibilities.
“These research findings might help explain how and why the public discourse of our culture has become so polarized and rancorous, and how we might be able to replace it with a more intelligent conversation.
“The popular vocabulary routinely signals this dichotomizing mental habit: ‘Are you with us, or against us?’ ‘If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.’’
Albrecht goes on to say that “imagination, creativity, and innovation all thrive in the ‘twilight zone,’ not at the poles of opinion,” and offers these seven antidotes to the plague of silo-building:
- Have fewer opinions.
- Keep your opinions and conclusions on probation.
- Let go of the need to be certain about everything.
- Seek the “third hand”- and any other “hands” you can discover.
- Modify your language.Replace the word “but” with “and” as often as you can, even if it sounds weird at first.
- Remind yourself every day that your “truth” is not the same as any other person’s truth.
- Avoid head-butting contests with opinionated people.
Good advice no doubt, but storytelling or not, these days capitalists and capitalism are the conquering heroes making their grand entrances. In fact, they’re so powerful that they’re eclipsing the historic “nation-state” in size and influence.
We’ll look at that next time.