Economic Storytelling

story telling

Last time, we heard Nobel Prize winner Robert Shiller promote the use of narratives in economic policy-making, on the theory that it would produce more humane outcomes than mathematical modeling — for example, reversing trends such as soaring economic inequality, loss of upward mobility, stagnant purchasing power,  and declining cultural wellbeing.

Narratives are up to the challenge, proponents say, because:

  1. Humans are natural storytellers.

 “Our storytelling ability, a uniquely human trait, has been with us nearly as long as we’ve been able to speak. Whether it evolved for a particular purpose or was simply an outgrowth of our explosion in cognitive development, story is an inextricable part of our DNA.”

The Power Of Story, Aeon Magazine (Jan. 12, 2015)

  1. There’s nothing like a good story to make you rethink your life.

“The careers of many great novelists and filmmakers are built on the assumption, conscious or not, that stories can motivate us to re-evaluate the world and our place in it.

 “New research is lending texture and credence to what generations of storytellers have known in their bones – that books, poems, movies, and real-life stories can affect the way we think and even, by extension, the way we act.

“Across time and across cultures, stories have proved their worth not just as works of art or entertaining asides, but as agents of personal transformation.”

The Power Of Story

  1. Narratives supply a welcome sense of meaning:

“Each of us has a story we tell about our own life, a way of structuring the past and fitting events into a coherent narrative. Real life is chaotic; life narratives give it meaning and structure.”

Silicon Phoenix:  A Gifted Child, An Adventure, A Dark Time, And Then … A Pivot? How Silicon Valley Rewrote America’s Redemption Narrative, Aeon Magazine (May 2, 2016)

  1. Stories are catchy: brain scans show that listeners’ and readers’ brains mirror the storyteller’s — another reason why they make good change agents.

“fMRI data [shows] that emotion-driven responses to stories… [starts] in the brain stem, which governs basic physical functions, such as digestion and heartbeat. So when we read about a character facing a heart-wrenching situation, it’s perfectly natural for our own hearts to pound.

“Just when the speaker’s brain lit up in the area of the insula – a region that governs empathy and moral sensibilities – the listeners’ insulae lit up, too. Listeners and speakers also showed parallel activation of the temporoparietal junction, which helps us imagine other people’s thoughts and emotions. In certain essential ways, then, stories help our brains map that of the storyteller.”

Silicon Phoenix

  1. American capitalism already has an established story genre — the “redemption narrative” — that it can rely upon to good effect.

“For Americans, the redemption narrative is one of the most common and compelling life stories. In the arc of this life story, adversity is not meaningless suffering to be avoided or endured; it is transformative, a necessary step along the road to personal growth and fulfilment.

“For the past 15 years, Daniel McAdams, professor of psychology at Northwestern University in Illinois, has explored this story and its five life stages: (1) an early life sense of being somehow different or special, along with (2) a strong feeling of moral steadfastness and determination, ultimately (3) tested by terrible ordeals that are (4) redeemed by a transformation into positive experiences and (5) zeal to improve society.

“This sequence doesn’t necessarily reflect the actual events of the storyteller’s life, of course. It’s about how people interpret what happened – their spin, what they emphasise in the telling and what they discard.”

Silicon Phoenix

  1. Redemption narratives make good citizens, and never mind if there’s some ego involved:

“In his most recent study, the outcome of years of intensive interviews with 157 adults, McAdams has found that those who adopt [redemption narratives] tend to be generative – that is, to be a certain kind of big-hearted, responsible, constructive adult.

“Generative people are deeply concerned about the future; they’re serious mentors, teachers and parents; they might be involved in public service. They think about their legacy, and want to fix the world’s problems.

“But generative people aren’t necessarily mild-mannered do-gooders. Believing that you have a mandate to fix social problems – and that you have the moral authority and the ability to do so – also requires a sense of self-importance, even a touch of arrogance.”

Silicon Phoenix

  1. Stories are good for the American capitalist ideal.

“From a more sociological perspective, the American self-creation myth is, inherently, a capitalist one…. The sociologist Paul du Gay [believed that most people] craft outward-looking ‘enterprising selves’ by which they set out to acquire cultural capital in order to move upwards in the world, gain access to certain social circles, certain jobs, and so on. We decorate ourselves and cultivate interests that reflect our social aspirations. In this way, the self becomes the ultimate capitalist machine.”

Silicon Phoenix:

But of course, not everyone shares these rosy opinions of narrative economics, or of the current practice of American capitalism. We’ll hear from the naysayers next time.

Homo Economicus [5]: Ethics and Economics

homo economicus

This Harvard Crimson op-ed argues that that economic policy-making doesn’t embrace the full human story because what’s missing in free market self-interested capitalism is due regard for “normative ethics” :

“Economists distinguish between ‘positive’ and ‘normative’ judgments. Positive judgments are testable and predicated on objective facts. Normative judgments weigh those facts according to subjective personal values.

“Although Enlightenment-era economics was normative and philosophical, contemporary economics is a precise and quantitative science that seeks to determine what happens in the world under a particular set of assumptions. Policymakers, political philosophers, and ordinary citizens can then evaluate those occurrences according to their own normative judgments and determine whether they find them desirable.

“Responsible economic scholarship requires assigning positive and normative judgments separate roles in the policymaking process. They do not simply trade off; they have entirely different jobs.”

 “[Economists] are often characterized as robots completely devoid of ethics, chasing professional ambitions that are as sterile and soulless as they are. Authors, including in these pages, have written that human ethics are incompatible with good economic policy. This line of argument claims that our economic logic should be free from our personal values, and we must prevent our moral judgments from “getting in the way” of objective decisions…  this logic is flawed… It is not the strength of one’s feelings that matters, but rather that they fulfill their proper role in the decision making process.”

The article urges policy-makers to give equal time to both positive and normative judgments. This commentator agrees, but admits that normative  concerns — the province of behavioral economics — can be messy:

“[In economics], the beauty of a mathematical model may have little to do with the complexity of local institutions and other bottlenecks to getting prices to work or markets to clear without externalities.  Behavioral economics is far messier than standard models of rationality.”

Yale economics professor and Nobel Prize winner Robert Shiller advocates for “narrative economics” — a practice driven by the human love of storytelling  — to bring a human touch to the profession. “Not everyone is equally proficient at understanding narratives,” he says, “and economists are among the worst at appreciating them.” He thinks economists need to fix that.

“Twenty-five years ago, Chicago Booth’s Dick Thaler and I set up a series of workshops at the National Bureau of Economic Research on what we called “behavioral economics.” Behavioral economics was economics with an input from the psychology department. Every department has its own tool kit for approaching research; we were very much influenced by psychology. Maybe a little sociology, maybe a little anthropology, but nevertheless all social-science fields. I’m starting now, with my more recent work, to think that we have to look at the humanities as well.

“There is something difficult to formalize about human beings, but something that we nonetheless have to understand, and I think one way to do that is with an approach that I’m calling “narrative economics”: taking economics and adding the study of the narratives that people transmit.

“The human brain is built around narratives. We call ourselves Homo sapiens, but that may be something of a misnomer…. The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould said we should be called Homo narrator. Your mind is really built for narratives.”

Economics And The Human Instinct For Storytelling, Robert Shiller, Chicage Booth Review (May 8, 2017)

As usual, Silicon Valley is ahead of the game, having already embraced the power of story as its own cultural norm:

“In Silicon Valley these days, you haven’t really succeeded until you’ve failed, or at least come very close. Failing – or nearly failing – has become a badge of pride. It’s also a story to be told, a yarn to be unspooled.

“The stories tend to unfold the same way, with the same turning points and the same language: first, a brilliant idea and a plan to conquer the world. Next, hardships that test the mettle of the entrepreneur. Finally, the downfall – usually, because the money runs out. But following that is a coda or epilogue that restores optimism. In this denouement, the founder says that great things have or will come of the tribulations: deeper understanding, new resolve, a better grip on what matters.

“Unconsciously, entrepreneurs have adopted one of the most powerful stories in our culture: the life narrative of adversity and redemption.”

Silicon Phoenix:  A Gifted Child, An Adventure, A Dark Time, And Then … A Pivot? How Silicon Valley Rewrote America’s Redemption Narrative, Aeon Magazine (May 2, 2016)

More on economic narratives coming up.

For more on ethics and economics, see Ethics and Economics (The Library of Economics and Liberty), The Economics of Ethics and the Ethics of Economics:  Values, Markets and the State (2010), and Ethics in Economics: An Introduction to Moral Frameworks (2015).

Silicon Valley: Problem or Solution?

problem solution

 ‘There is no more neutrality in the world.
You either have to be part of the solution,
 or you’re going to be part of the problem.’

Eldridge Cleaver

The high tech high rollers build the robots, code the algorithms, and wire up the machine intelligence that threaten jobs. If they’re the problem, what’s their the solution?

Elon Musk:  Universal basic income is “going to be necessary” because “there will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better,”

Richard Branson:  “A lot of exciting new innovations are going to be created, which will generate a lot of opportunities and a lot of wealth, but there is a real danger it could also reduce the amount of jobs. Basic income is going to be all the more important. If a lot more wealth is created by AI, the least that the country should be able to do is that a lot of that wealth that is created by AI goes back into making sure that everybody has a safety net.”

Mark Zuckerberg:  “The greatest successes come from having the freedom to fail. Now it’s our time to define a new social contract for our generation. We should explore ideas like universal basic income to give everyone a cushion to try new things.”

Sam Altman:  “Eliminating poverty is such a moral imperative and something that I believe in so strongly. There’s so much research about how bad poverty is. There’s so much research about the emotional and physical toll that it takes on people.” (Altman’s company Y Combinator is conducting its own UBI experiment in Oakland.)

Ideas like this get labelled “progressive,” meaning “ahead of their time, which in turn means “over my dead body.” We saw a few posts back that Pres. Johnson’s visionary Triple Revolution Report and National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress ended up in the dustbin of history. Another technology/jobs initiative had already landed there two decades earlier:

“In 1949, at the request of the New York Times, Norbert Wiener, an internationally renowned mathematician at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote an article describing his vision for future computers and automation. Wiener had been a child prodigy who entered college at age eleven and completed his PhD when he was seventeen; he went on to establish the field of cybernetics and made substantial contributions in applied mathematics and to the foundations of computer science, robotics, and computer-controlled automation.

“In his article — written just three years after the first true general purpose electronic computer was built at the University of Pennsylvania — Wiener argued that ‘if we can do anything in a clear and intelligible way, we can do it by machine’ and warned that this could ultimately lead to ‘an industrial revolution of unmitigated cruelty” powered by machines capable of ‘reducing the economic value of the routine factory employee to a point at which he is not worth hiring at any price.’”

Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, Martin Ford.

Wiener’s article was never published, and was only recently (in 2012) discovered in MIT’s archives. Outspoken technology commentator Douglas Rushkoff hopes UBI meets a similar end. In a recent Medium piece, he called UBI “Silicon Valley’s Latest Scam.”[1] His main critique? UBI doesn’t go far enough:

“They will basically tell you that a Universal Basic Income is a great idea and more effective than any other method of combating technological unemployment, the death of the Middle Class and the automation of the future of work.

“They don’t propose a solution to wealth inequality, they only show a way to prevent all out mass social unrest and chaos, something that would inconvenience the state and elite.

“The bottom 60% of the economy, well what do you suppose is in store for us with the rise of robots, machine learning and automation …?

“California might get a lot of sunshine and easy access to VC, but they aren’t blessed with a lot of common sense. They don’t know the pain of rural America, much less the underclass or warped narrative primed by Facebook algorithms or the new media that’s dehumanized by advertising agents and propaganda hackers.

“What if receiving a basic income is actually humiliating and is our money for opioids and alcohol, and not for hope that we can again join a labor force that’s decreasing while robots and AI do the jobs we once did?

“The problem lies in the fact that there won’t be a whole lot of “new jobs” for the blue and white collar workers to adapt to once they sink and become part of the permanent unemployed via technological unemployment.

“With housing rising in major urban centers, more folk living paycheck-to-paycheck, rising debt to income ratios and less discretionary spending, combined with many other factors, the idea of a UBI (about the same as a meagre pension) saving us, sounds pretty insulting and absurd to a lot of people.

“Since when did capitalism care about the down trodden and the poor? If we are to believe that automation and robots really will steal our jobs in unprecedented numbers, we should call Basic Income for what it is, a way to curtail social unrest and a post-work ‘peasant uprising.’

“Getting [UBI] just for being alive isn’t a privilege, it’s a death sentence. We are already seeing the toll of the death of the middle class on the opioid epidemic, on the rise of suicide, alcoholism and early death all due to in part of the stress of a declining quality of life since the great recession of 2008.”

If UBI doesn’t go far enough, then what does? Mark Zuckerberg used the phrase “new social contract” in his quote above. More on that coming up.

[1] UBI advocacy group BIEN (Basic Income Earth Network) reported Rushkoff’s opinions in a recent newsletter, and described his alternative:  Universal Basic Assets.