The Narrative

What is Brexit but a clash of stories, or narratives. In the first, UK is a part of a collaborative European Union that arose out of the ashes of the World Wars to establish an island of peace and commerce that is a beacon to the rest of the world. In the second, UK frees itself from the tyranny of an overseeing and threatening superstate, and goes forth free again to trade on its own terms with the world, as in some mythical past times.

These two stories are so completely incompatible that the country is now riven. We are in the midst of a narrative war. Of course, we always are. The conventional left-right prism in politics is a characterisation of two stories – we are all in it together, or we are self driving and independent individuals that owe nothing to anyone.

These thoughts were provoked by Tim Jackson’s review of Robert J. Shiller’s book Narrative Economics: How Stories Go Viral and Drive Major Economic Events – well worth reading (the review, that is). I quote from Tim’s review:

“Stories are more powerful than statistics… The irrationality inherent in financial exuberance (and despair) defies the neat territory of numbers and demands a deeper excursion into the decidedly unruly world of narratives”

Tim goes on to quote economic historian Deidre McCloskey in 1990:

“Economists are tellers of stories and makers of poems”

As in economics, so in politics and other areas of human affairs. Our world is really a world of meaning and story, not a world of atoms and molecules, as materialists would have us believe.

In recent years social media have clearly increased the ability for the stories accepted by large sections of a population to be manipulated by unknown actors, and beneficiary politicians appear reluctant to do anything about it. The battle of narratives is the battle of our times.

Tim’s conclusion:

“We must all choose carefully which stories we live by.”

 

‘Everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile’

I just discovered Tim Jackson’s excellent website and blog, particularly this item with the above title. (Thank you, daughter.) Tim seems like the sort of economics thinker that we need so much, questioning the conventional wisdom that is not working, and pointing the way forward.

In the post he reminds us of Robert Kennedy and particularly his thoughts on the usefulness of GDP as a measure for the health of an economy.

The GDP ‘measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country… It measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.’

Robert F Kennedy, Kansas 18 March 1968

You can hear the Kennedy speech in greater length on the video included in the above blog item.

Tim goes on to identify a number of modern initiatives that give hope that the professionals in this area are really eventually going to move on from the obsession with GDP, which is stopping us from addressing many of today’s problems (I will not bore you by listing them all again). When will the politicians and media follow suit, one wonders? The obsession with GDP and ‘growth’ is still evidently pervasive in UK ‘mainstream’ discourse.

Of course, this is just one example of the modern business and political approach of managing by metrics, which gives the illusion of control, without actually addressing the real issues that need to be managed. Metrics can be useful, so long as you are aware of their limitations, and so long as they do not become the dominant factor in what you are managing.

As Tim reminds us, Robert Kennedy was assassinated a few months after his Kansas speech, while mounting his run for the US presidency. I well remember the devastating effect that event had on young people in the UK, including myself. Robert Kennedy seemed a beacon of hope in difficult times. How different history might have been…

Picture shows Robert Kennedy addressing a crowd in 1963, by Leffler, Warren K., via Wikimedia Commons