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Keynes and the Abstract Truth

October 5, 2009

(Probably the best part of this article is the title though I’m not sure anyone else will get the reference. If you get to the end of this meandering rant I salute you! Published in Canta 5/10/09)

“If there’s anyone here in marketing or advertising, kill yourself.” While I can’t condone all of the implications of these immortal words from the very mortal Bill Hicks, the sentiment behind them is a noble one indeed. Marketing infects everything, with its main purpose being to make us spend money on things we wouldn’t have thought to buy. Even worse, the insidious techniques of marketing now dominate politics and policy-making, turning public debate and office into a mockery.

The evil nature of marketing should be clear: its purpose is to lie to us to make us spend money. Perhaps in some select cases an ad will alert us to A Fantastic New Product that we actually want, but a typical ad is focused solely on making the product look cool. Because the law prevents outright factual misrepresentation most ads lie to our emotions (Sky TV is cool because we have that ad with the “floor storage system”!) or make vague claims that are impressive but meaningless (“50% more bounce!”). When choosing between “no-frills” or regular brands it seems obvious that the cheaper product will be worse, but the only thing telling us this is marketing. In the end the only way to actually decide which is better is to try both: you can’t trust marketing, so it becomes nothing more than a fancy labeling system.

Marketing has also turned politics into a battle of perceptions, slogans and symbols. Prosecuting parents who assault their children is the work of a “nanny state” but Crusher Collins’s authoritarian crackdowns on boy racers are “tough on crime”. The passing of Green MP Sue Bradford’s so-called “Anti-smacking” member’s bill with the support of both National and Labour was bad for Labour and good for National. Obama’s election took enormous amounts of advertising, marketing and sloganeering, as well as extremely well-produced visual themes, typefaces, websites, and on and on. In an ideal world none of this rubbish would make any difference: the candidate who would be the best for the position would win. In practice we would never elect a Prime Minister who made terrible ads. The unspoken ‘truth’ is that any candidate without a dedicated brand and marketing image is not fit for office.

Further proof that political candidates are chosen on image and habit rather than substance comes from the fact that John Key and Kevin Rudd both convincingly won elections using similar campaigns against long term incumbents despite being (at least in theory) from opposite ends of the political spectrum. I’d have thought that the soundness of a party’s policies was much more important than some nebulous need for change such as is constantly evoked by UCSA candidates. We might imagine that the case for something as fundamental as tax rates would be rather clear-cut, yet there never seems to be any agreement. If only there was a discipline dedicated to studying the economy that could provide solid answers to such questions in the style of, say, engineering. “What should the tax rate be?” should have a simple answer just like “What size should the girders be?” shouldn’t it?

Sadly, economics is not such a discipline. There is no consensus between major political parties on fundamental economic questions. One explanation could be that political parties just don’t know anything about the real truths of economics. However, this ignores the fact that economics itself is deeply divided. The infamous neoliberal Chicago School of Economics has received swags of Nobel prizes, but most of these academics strongly disagreed with the idea (put forth by other Nobel prize-winning economists) of government stimulus packages to help fix the financial crisis, and many denied that there was a bubble brewing when other economists predicted it.

Having such enormous disagreements between the best people in the field is ridiculous. Yet many economists seem completely convinced of the rightness of their model. Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, said last year that there were flaws in his anti-regulation free-market ideology, but sadly waited until his policies were implicated in a financial collapse before he admitted it. And now that the doctrines of perfect markets and utopian non-regulated financial systems have been discredited there is no established consensus to fall back on. Nobel prize winner and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has written that Keynesian models of recessions and interventionist government spending at least provide some explanation of the causes of the financial crisis. Indeed, these policies served the world well from the end of World War II until falling out of favour in the 70s and 80s with the rise of the new free market school. But it is also clear that Keynesian theories are far from perfect. Perhaps it is just the nature of the field that the most important concerning running the economies of entire countries are the most difficult to answer.

This is why marketing in politics has become so important. If appropriate economic policies were all decided by a sound theory, political parties would be able to cooperate more effectively. But as it stands most democracies have two opposed major parties with their own characteristic mixtures of economic policies and social policies. In the absence of any objective truths, all that’s left is image and branding. Small groups or individuals cannot compete with the giant marketing arms of the major parties no matter how good their ideas are. This entrenches the big parties as inflexible blocs which must stick to their ‘principles’ (ie. marketing slogans) rather than considering each policy solely on its merits and be accused of ‘flip-flopping’. Neither side really interacts with each other: once their election policies are fixed there is no negotiation. ‘Debates’ are undecideable as a matter of course, and their ‘winners’ are usually the ones that sound the best or looked snazziest rather than the ones with good ideas. Making the other party look worse than your own is far more effective than trying to convince people of the rightness of your policies.

Now that people are used to these undecidable arguments it is easy for a party to portray even a straightforward issue as politically controversial, recasting knowledgeable experts as political opponents. This has recently resulted in things that should be fairly boring detail work, like the Auckland supercity bill, becoming a poorly-funded public transport vehicle for political horn-tooting. Similarly greenhouse gas emission regulations are totally bogged down in worries about ‘competitiveness’ and fear-mongering about tax increases, despite nearly everyone agreeing on the need for some serious reductions. But because experts are too boring and unexciting they are consistently treated as just one part of policy making, generally overshadowed by the needs of the parties to keep themselves looking good. There’s no way to make policy talk more exciting than modern marketing and advertising, so our democracy has become more of a fashion show than a serious deliberative system.

If you are in marketing, don’t kill yourself, we want you to suffer too.

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