By Philip Pilkington. Journalist, writer, economic anti-moralist and aficionado of political theatre
So horrible a fact can hardly pleaded for favour:
Therefore go you, Equity, examine more diligently
The manner of this outrageous robbery:
And as the same by examination shall appear,
Due justice may be done in presence here
– Liberality and Prodigality, a popular morality play from 1567
The morality play was a popular theatrical form throughout the Tudor period. In 15th and 16th century Europe people would crowd around small stages where the actors would play at being the personifications of moral attributes. So, for example, one actor would play the part of Virtue – who is speaking in the above quotation – and this actor would then embody all the characteristics we associate with such a moral position. Virtue then hunts out characters such as Prodigality, who is causing trouble in the region by robbing and murdering other ‘good’ characters – in this case, Tenacity.
The idea behind the morality play was that it would impart wisdom to those who watched it. The common people – thought somewhat stupid by the writers – could then follow the simple moral messages purported by the playwright. It was hoped, for example, that if onlookers could see Virtue winning out on the stage against Prodigality, the citizenry would then act more virtuously and be less prodigious and greedy.
Viewed in retrospect, this sort of entertainment appears rather crude. It is seriously doubtful that the moral messages taught in the plays actually changed the behaviour of the onlookers. Virtuous behaviour probably does not follow from watching a virtuous hero battling a prodigious glutton onstage. Nevertheless, morality plays were an important facet of late medieval life.
Today, the US media have invented a new type of morality play; it’s called Fox News. On Fox News we see many of the same simplistic moral messages being disseminated to the population at large. Talking heads – who, unlike normal news-broadcasters, play a definitive role in the narrative – battle it out against each other, all the while imparting their presumed wisdom to the populace.
I’ll be honest. Viewed from abroad Fox News appears primitive and strange – a product of a world I am almost wholly unfamiliar with. However, it never worried me as much as it seemed to worry others. Like the tabloid press in my own country, it appeared to me to be a silly distraction given to people to spice up their everyday live and reinforce their collective opinions. In short, Fox News appeared to me to be giving the audience what they wanted; not facts, but drama and moral reassurance.
Recently I came across a roundtable discussion with some of the US’s leading proponents of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). In the discussion they talk about how the US economy might pull itself out of the rut it is in. Warren Mosler points out that this can be done from either a conservative ideological position – by cutting the payroll tax – or from a more liberal ideological position – by increasing government spending. Soon the discussion turned to why policymakers refuse to listen to such suggestions. And that’s where things get really interesting.
Mosler believes that most economists in key positions – such as Fed chairman Ben Bernanke – understand why unbalancing the budget is necessary and yet they continue to go in front of congressional hearings calling for deficit reduction. Mosler is quite clear that this behaviour is nothing short of deranged. He attributes it to political pressure. If Bernanke were to call for higher deficits he would by wantonly attacked by elected officials for being irresponsible. He might not even keep his job.
But this is strange, almost topsy-turvy. It is as if the politicians are telling the economists what they can and cannot think. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?
Then Mike Norman – a regular guest on various TV shows, including on Fox News – made an even more interesting comment (starting at around 20.30). He tells a story about how he once had David Walker – former Comptroller General and member of the deficit terrorist lobby over at the Peterson Foundation – on his show. While talking with him, Norman got Walker to admit that insolvency is not an issue for US government debt –Walker and his chums, of course, have been pushing the ‘bankruptcy’ argument hard so this was something of a shock to Norman. You can hear Walker quite clearly admit that there’s no solvency issue in this audio clip.
Walker, of course, continued to push the ‘insolvency’ line after his discussion with Norman.
Then Norman ran into Walker again while waiting to appear on Fox News. Walker said that he remembered the conversation and continued to think that there was no real solvency issue for the US. When they finished up their conversation Walker strolled out onto the set and started saying once more how the US was facing bankruptcy. How bizarre.
Norman quite correctly refers to this as a sort of ‘subversion’. It must be the case that, to a certain extent at least, the deficit terrorists are straight up lying. But perhaps it’s better to see them as actors in a giant morality play that the media are putting on for the general population.
Think about this for a moment. The media seek to get ratings – that’s their bottom line. Editors will always run stories that are more sensational, especially if these tap into a vein of common anxiety or passion. I know this from experience. So, the media love headlines about possible government bankruptcy and the like. This especially so during periods of economic strife, when people love to hear that they are not alone in their financial sufferings. Nothing boosts the ego quite like thinking that your own bankruptcy overlaps with the bankruptcy of the country as a whole. It absolves people’s guilt and reassures them that the suffering is collective.
Politicians and economic commentators play into this by acting out various roles. They’re not simply lying – indeed, to an extent they seem to believe in the part they play, even though they know that what they are saying is misleading. But to step outside of the play – to pull a Brechtian manoeuvre and bring the audience in on the truth – would make them appear crazy; nothing, after all, appears quite so crazy as when someone starts telling too much truth. So the commentators and politicians get caught up in a slipstream of misleading nonsense – all the while furthering their careers.
I looked around YouTube for some clips of Mike Norman appearing on various television shows, so that I could see how deeply the media themselves were involved in this strange staging. And, oh boy! are they deeply involved.
Consider this clip of Norman appearing on Fox News having a discussion with Neil Cavuto. Once again we see that topsy-turvy phenomenon whereby the presenter, who is not an economist, telling the economist what is right.
“This is strange,” I thought. “But perhaps it is unique to Fox News.” So I looked around for another clip and found a discussion with Norman on Russia Today. Once again, the same thing happens. The presenter – who comes across as irate and unpleasant – belittles Norman and essentially claims to know more about economics than him. The Fox format, it would seem, has been imported to other channels which have come to realise that they can get more ratings by appealing to the passions and morals of the viewer.
It’s the morality play format updated for the 21st century and the new language of morality is economics. Like morality everyone has their own ‘opinion’ on what is or is not the ‘right’ thing to do. You don’t just see this on American TV; you get it on the internet and in real life too. It’s as if economics is somehow subjective and everyone has their own idea about how the economy works. Not having some sort of vague idea about how the economy works essentially bars you from entering into discussion about the important issues of the day. But once you have an idea – no matter how airy and vague – not only can you discuss these issues, but you can have an ‘opinion’ on them.
In this there is no ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ opinion, it’s more so that what you think is either ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; in the moral sense of those terms. Politicians and commentators then take on a certain moral stance – usually one in favour of austerity and balanced budgets (‘belt tightening’ to rehash the moral term) – and hit the television circuit. The person with the most intriguing narrative then gets the most votes or viewers. Fire and brimstone narratives are particularly attractive as they’re easy to sell in hard times to a population that wants some sort of theological justification for their plight.
To ask if these commentators and politicians believe what they’re saying is to pose a tricky question. As Norman’s anecdote about Walker highlights that at least some people know that what they’re saying is not strictly true. But that doesn’t mean they don’t believe in it – that is, if we take the term ‘belief’ to mean something akin to ‘faith’. What the politician is saying may be factually inaccurate, but they may have full ‘faith’ in it. So we cannot simply chalk these people up as liars.
Media commentators are even trickier. At some level they must know that they have a very limited grasp of economics. But as we’ve argued above, economics is not to be seen as something like physics, where you either know what you’re talking about or you don’t. It’s seen in a far more subjective light – but one in which one’s opinion, even though subjective, is still ‘true’. In this economics is almost identical to moral judgement.
In Norman’s discussion on Fox News, his interlocutor Cavuto ends the conversation by spelling out his ‘beliefs’. He tells Norman that he ‘believes’ if the government stepped out of the way the private sector would flourish. This is clearly a belief in the religious or moral sense of the term. Cavuto doesn’t ‘believe’ this because he has studied it; no, he ‘believes’ it because it fits with his moral view of the world. He doesn’t ‘believe’ in these ideas in the same way he believes in gravity – that is, as an objective fact – he ‘believes’ in them in the same way he might ‘believe’ in the Holy Ghost or in the immorality of soft-drug use.
This is how the characters that act out our contemporary morality play constitute themselves. They are both the writers and the actors of this play and like their predecessors they do ‘believe’ in the morals that they are trying to convey. They think that if everyone listened to them and followed their example the world would be a better place – because it would come to closely resemble the ‘ideal’ they have in their heads.
But like the playwrights of the Tudor era, this faith is misplaced. People only queue up to see the action, to affirm their own moral conceptions of the world and to enjoy it vicariously. It’s all just entertainment after all and, even though it deals with a very serious topic, it is not to be taken wholly seriously.
Any actor that walks on stage with a story that contradicts the moral certainties of the viewer is instantly viewed as a clown. After all, he cannot be taken seriously – so offensive is what he is saying to our collective sense of what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’. He is like the court jester in Shakespeare or the contemporary comedian; what he is saying may be strictly and objectively true, but because it disturbs the ‘order of things’ it is to be viewed as a sort of clownish lunacy, not to be taken seriously.
But I can already hear someone piping up at the back. “Aha!” he’ll shout at me. “You’re doing the same thing as the economists. After all, you’re just spouting out more morals. Economics is no science and you, like the other economists, are claiming that it is. You sir, are just one more preacher among many.”
I sympathise. Economic is not nor ever will be a science like physics. However, what I am claiming is not simply to be the bearer of better morals – I am not trying to play the part of Virtue. The fact is that there are some things that are just simply true in economics. One of these is the necessity in a modern economy for budgets to go into deficit during periods of high-unemployment and low-growth. This is a fact. It is a fact like if I were to point out to a policymaker that, in order for him to step up police activity and arrests he will need to make more room for the arrested convicts in the prison system. The latter claim doesn’t need to be ‘science’ to be factually accurate – it just is. While morals may be relative in our post-Nietzschean world, facts are not.
My key point here is that the media and politicians – the players in our moral spectacle – ignore these facts as if they were somehow relative and open to opinion, while they are not. I think Mosler is right when he says that Benanke is aware of this and other truths but does not say so because to do so would be politically unfeasible. I also think that, after his discussion with Norman, David Walker did indeed come to understand that there was no risk of insolvency for the US. But because he was more interested in playing his role (as Prudence?) than telling the truth he acted as if it were not.
Once again to emphasise Mosler’s other point. A bigger budget deficit can be facilitated through the conservative measure of cutting taxes or the liberal measure of increasing spending, so this is not really an ideological issue (remember, Bush II increased the deficit massively to facilitate tax-cuts). The austerity line then, is not ideological nor should it be seen to be. It is, as I’ve been arguing, all an act. Like the actors in a morality play, the people taking part in it think that it is ‘moral’ to tighten our belts and so they insist upon it. They explain this ‘morality’ in pseudo-economic language, of course – they talk incoherently about ‘sustainability’ and ‘saving’ – but if you put a dog in a dress, it’s still a dog, and this is still morality no matter what garb it wears.
So what has created this vacuum into which the crazies have rushed? It seems to be due to a crisis of confidence in the economists themselves. Economists since the Reagan-era unwisely stepped into the limelight where they were treated as masters of the universe. Greenspan, of course, was the most visible manifestation of this. When the whole thing came crashing down no one really trusted them anymore. People began to realise that the economists’ theories were full of holes – so they just went out and created their own by cobbling together outlandish rubbish by integrating what they’d learnt in undergraduate class with their own moral sentiments and beliefs. Every man becomes his own economic theorist.
This is proving disastrous. Economists in the last thirty years have been turning their discipline into a pseudo-science, but even that was preferable to this anarchy. Even the crappy economists that universities have been turning out over the past thirty years had some standard of rigor – well most of them did, anyway – and they all recognise certain simple truths. When people start cobbling together their own theories – alloying morals and metaphysics, opinions and theology – the whole thing falls apart. Memes pass from one person to another and a collective hysteria takes hold, while rational voices are drowned out in a sea of shouting and perniciousness. All the world, to use the words of a great poet, becomes a stage.
This is what accounts for the curious situation we face today. The solutions are all on the table, they’ve even been tested before and yet we are impotent to step forward and pick them up. All we can do is watch this unusual spectacle play out – paralysed – and experience the very real implications that follow from it. Economics as morals – politics as theatre; apocalypse as a self-fulfilling prophecy.