Thursday, September 02, 2010

The Economic Narrative

Paul Krugman's blog courtesy of Eschaton:

It’s not about “I told you so”, or at least not mainly. It’s about the economic narrative, which will matter long after the current players are off the scene.

The way the right wants to tell the story — and, I’m afraid, the way it will play in November — is that the Obama team went all out for Keynesian policies, and they failed. So back to supply-side economics!

The point, of course, is that that is not at all what happened. A straight Keynesian analysis implied the need for a much bigger program, more oriented toward spending, than the administration proposed. And people like me said that at the time — we’re not talking about hindsight.


This is something liberals don't get. They like to argue the issues, believing that straightforward and honest point-by-point analysis can persuade pretty much everybody to take their side. Meanwhile, conservatives tell stories aimed at making the heart swell and the soul soar. Conservatives get it. They instinctively know that human beings understand reality in terms of narrative. So they tell stories that bring a lot of people into their camp, that inspire people who are already on their side, and that make it easier to push around people who aren't.

And no, this isn't some pet theory of mine. It's absolutely true. Psychologist Jerome Brunner wrote the groundbreaking essay on the topic back in the early 90s, and research has greatly expanded since then. We literally construct reality inside our heads in terms of narrative. The right is eons ahead of the left when it comes to capitalizing on this idea.

Consider the mythologizing of right-wing hero Ronald Reagan. He won the Cold War by massively increasing defense spending and with sabre rattling out the wazoo, calling the Soviets an "evil empire." The Reds couldn't take it, so the mighty communist nation fell apart. And that's pretty much the dominant storyline these days. Except that it didn't really happen that way. Reagan did, indeed, up military expenditures into the stratosphere, and he did talk trash about the Russians ad nauseam, which played really well for politics at home, but the reality is that the USSR fell apart because, you know, totalitarian socialism doesn't work. The Soviet Union collapsed under its own weight, which it could no longer bear in a hyper-capitalist world. Indeed, the Chinese quietly observed this, and very quickly began to transform their economy into one that resembles ours much more than the Soviets'. Nonetheless, the story here in the USA is that the great Reagan scared the Reds into oblivion.

The left has no compelling counter-narrative, so the Reagan myth rules. And this story has great benefits for conservatives. We "learn" that the GOP is much more serious than the Dems about threats to our nation, that they are men of action, that if you want to be protected you should vote Republican, yadda yadda yadda. Much support for Republicans during the Bush era was based on the Great Gipper narrative, and all the Democrats could offer in response was whiny John Kerry pathetically "reporting for duty."

Krugman is right to worry about the narrative of the Great Recession. The left has no story to tell, only dry arguments. The right has no arguments, at least none worth actually considering, but that doesn't matter because they do have great stories.

And a ripping yarn beats an intellectual treatise any day of the week. We may be in big trouble. Again.