Comments and observations on social and political trends and events.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Narratives, the two stories of capitalism and the three languages of politics

My friend Robert Bidinotto has been writing about the importance of narratives in our lives and in politics. His general discussion is here: While his application to politics can be found here:

Recently I came across Jonathan Haidt's writing on the two stories of capitalism. (He is working on a book on the subject.) In one capitalism oppresses people; this story fuels the narrative of the left. You can hear it in the language of liberals like Elizabeth Warren. It might not be stated so boldly but if you listen closely the message is there: that capitalism thrives by exploiting people and that government liberates us from the handcuffs of inequality foisted upon us by the rich.

The other story, favored by the right, proclaims that capitalism liberates people and that government oppresses by burdening us with rules and regulations. This story resounds especially strong within the libertarian and Tea Party.

I believe there is a third story in line with Arnold Kling's three languages of politics in which some claim capitalism civilizes us and saves us from barbarism. For examples listen to more traditional conservatives such as Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh.

I figure that Haidt would argue that ultimately this story boils down to liberation: capitalism saves us from tribalism and primitivism. Nonetheless, here is Haidt’s explanation of the two stories. I’ve provided several links after these quotes that explain Haidt’s ideas in more detail.
There has long been a thoroughly negative story about commerce, going back to biblical times, in which businessmen, traders, and money lenders are bloodsuckers who extort wealth from workers and customers without contributing anything of value. When mercantile capitalism came along in the 16th century, and even more so when industrial capitalism conquered the globe in the 19th century, the negative story began to animate left-leaning parties and revolutionaries in many countries—with history-shaping consequences for the 20th century. This is story #1: Capitalism is exploitation. It is a curse, a virus, a disaster for the poor and the planet. This story is still told today, as we saw in the Occupy Wall Street movement.

But capitalism has also had its passionate defenders, most notably Adam Smith in the 18th century, who explained how capitalism achieves the magic of value creation (as in his famous example of a pin factory). The rising wealth, longevity, and living standards of the 19th and 20th centuries—even for the poor and working class—led to the formation of a thoroughly positive story about capitalism, told by economists such as Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman. This is story #2: Capitalism is liberation. Free market capitalism is Prometheus, giving fire and freedom to the human race. In this story, it is left-leaning ideologies (socialism, Marxism, and the affection for big government) that continually attack human progress, disconnecting whole nations from the market and dragging them down into poverty for decades—until they see the light, as China and India did a few decades ago.


I mentioned Arnold Kling earlier. There is a lot of overlap between Haidt’s work and Kling’s three languages of politics. Kling argues that the language of the left centers on the oppressed versus oppressors axis. Conservatives argue along the lines of civilization versus barbarism. Libertarians see things in terms of liberty versus coercion. All three groups then will craft different narratives, each with their own favored axis and language.

How does this apply to us? I believe knowing about narratives and the kinds of languages can ultimately help us better communicate our ideas with those who disagree with us.

Jon Stewart: The Archetypical Post-Modern Comedian/Pundit

Jon Stewart’s announcement that he is leaving the The Daily Show after 15 years has received lots of attention. I’ve watched his shows once in a while and find him somewhat amusing. Because of the occasional outages of my cable provider (who shall remain unnamed) my wife and I decided to watch some of his shows for amusement. While I do find him entertaining I also find him aggravating, not so much because of his blatant political agenda but his method. Yet when challenged by critics (yes, he has some) as he was on Chris Wallace’s show Stewart conveniently hides behind the excuse of “Hey, I’m a comedian not a newscaster!” However, just as his show is a fake newscast of sorts so is his defense. For a detailed analysis of one his shows see this article by Kyle Smith, NY Post. (I’ve extracted some noncontiguous comments.)

Though Stewart has often claimed he does a “fake news show,” “The Daily Show” isn’t that. It’s a real news show punctuated with puns, jokes, asides and the occasional moment of staged sanctimony.

Stewart is a journalist: an irresponsible and unprofessional one.

Most other journalists aren’t allowed to swear or to slam powerful figures (lest they be denied chances to interview them in future). Their editors make them tone down their opinions and cloak them behind weasel words like “critics say.” Journalists have to dress up in neutrality drag every day, and it’s a bore.

Yet Stewart uses his funnyman status as a license to dispense with even the most minimal journalistic standards. Get both sides of the story?
Hey, I’m just a comedian, man. Try to be responsible about what the real issues are? Dude, that’s too heavy, we just want to set up the next d- -k joke.

Lest I be accused of picking just an example from the right here is one from the left by Jamelle Bouie, a staff writer for Slate.

For liberals in particular, the idea that government is only hypocrisy and dysfunction is self-defeating and nihilistic.

The natural response to all of this is a version of Stewart’s protest—He’s just a comedian—and a refrain from The Dark Knight: Why so serious? The answer is easy: He’s influential. And for a generation of young liberals, his chief influence has been to make outrage, cynicism, and condescension the language of the left. As a comedian and talk show host, Jon Stewart has been pretty funny. But as a pundit and player in our politics, he’s been a problem.

In a similar vein Bill Maher uses similar ploys although Maher doesn’t try to hide its agenda or hide behind the veil of “I’m only a comedian.” Like Stewart, Maher picks an easy target on the right, finds an inconsistency in what a Republican or conservative politician says in one venue then finds a case where they contradict themselves later. That’s fine. What bothers me more is that find both of them to be intellectually sloppy, lazy or dishonest.

In one show during Maher’s ending monologue/diatribe he labors to prove that the prosperity the middle class enjoyed during the 1950s was due to – are you ready? – socialism! He trots out the GI Bill in which veterans received various benefits like paid college tuition as a primary example. He should check the definition of socialism which is “a political and economic theory of social organization that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.” Naturally the adoring audience rewarded Maher with hoots and raucous applause. They miss the fact that his “argument” (such that it is) relies on the misuse of terminology.

Was this an accident? I don’t think so. Maher is a bright guy so I find it hard to believe he doesn’t know what socialism means and that his example would be more accurately be considered some kind of welfarism. I think his mission, like Stewart’s, is to influence those in his main demographic group: 18 – 34 year olds.

Getting back to Stewart in one of his shows he cites a Republican who bemoans the regulations businesses have to bear. Stewart digs out a case where this politician is asked if Starbucks employees should be required by law to wash their hands after going to the bathroom. He says (if I recall correctly) that it should be optional and better handled by the free market. Well, this is fresh fodder for Stewart to show how stupid free market advocates are. To be fair, in another segment he takes on the measles outbreak and quotes a liberal Californian who justifies why she didn’t get her kids vaccinated. Of course, he then trots out NJ governor Chris Christie who says the decision should be the parents’. I won’t get into the argument whether mandatory vaccinations is a valid function of government. What Stewart ignores is the overall effect of regulations on businesses and the economy. By implication and his use of the hand-washing example Stewart leads his viewers to believe that ALL regulations are justified and anyone who thinks otherwise is stupid. He doesn’t come right out and say it. He doesn’t have to.

I read a paper recently that shows that the number of Federal regulations have increased by seven-fold since 1950 and tries to quantify the drag these regulations have had on the economy. I also read an interview recently of someone who works for one of the large financial investment companies on the beneficial effects the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act had on their business. Why? Because smaller institutions or potential start ups don’t have the resources to comply with the new rules and regulations imposed by the act. It has helped this large investment company fend off competition. I wonder what Stewart and Maher think of that? Something I’m sure they supported actually helping a big business thrive. That is the ultimate joke on them and us, isn’t it?