The Point of Stories

Featured image is A Neapolitan Story Teller, by Pierre Bonirote.

Francis: What do you think the point of a story is?

Paco: The point?

Francis: You know, their function. Their purpose. Why do we tell them?

Paco: There are many reasons, I imagine.

Francis: I think the most important one is illustrated by “The Zebra Storyteller“. We tell stories to supplement for experience, so that we can be prepared for things that haven’t happened to us personally but can be imagined to happen.

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The Road Goes Ever Backward

Sometimes while I’m driving the two older boys from our home north of Buffalo to their hockey games in the Southtowns, tootling along the I-90, my mind will wander from the task at hand to some of the work I find myself doing. Certain tasks grind away in my consciousness, nearly to the point of making the whole works come to a stop.

At that point, to clear the gears, so to speak, I’ll jam on the brakes, bringing the truck to a complete stop so that I can look them in the eyes without putting any of us in danger.

“Listen to me, boys,” I’ll say. No, that’s not what I say. What is it? Oh yes, “Listen to me, my sons,” I’ll say. “For the love of all things good and right, please forgive me and your mother for whatever we might be doing wrong to you, whatever we might be doing to hurt you or bring you harm. I swear to you, on all that’s holy, on all that’s pure, that we’re just doing the best we can.”

When I know I have their full attention (which I scientifically ascertain by the quotient of fear in their eyes), I continue, “Promise me you won’t leave me and your mother alone when we’re old. Please promise me you won’t do that.”

The older one is the one who usually speaks, “Okay, Dad.”

When I hear him renew his promise, I put the truck back in gear, and we continue our journey into the mundane, usually before any traffic enforcement officer can be summoned.

The lady with the picture: remember her? The picture has moved from the living room into her bedroom. She had her 91st birthday recently. Her body gave her the gift of stopping the bleeding from the gut into her stool, so she’s feeling pretty zippy. “I got some bad news,” she said at one point. “It seems I’m always getting bad news lately.”

“What’s that?” I said.

“I found out that my son is dead.”

She hasn’t seen or heard from her son in decades. This is her only child.

She continued, “I knew he was out of state somewhere, but they never told me where he was exactly. I don’t know when he died or where he died when he died. I don’t know what year he died. I don’t know what he died of, and they never even told me when I had a new grandchild.”

“How did you find out he was dead?”

“Some girl put it in the computer.”

One tries to learn instead of judging. And when one judges, one avoids judging the person; dear God, let me not judge. The story didn’t stop. So I listened.

“When I was a little girl, we lived on a farm. One day, she saw a small garden snake in the kitchen. She hates snakes, so before my father had even come in from the field, she had the house packed and we moved to another house that day.”

The center of the story of this old lady has departed from her and moved to her mother.

Hers may be atypical, but the margins are being pushed inward.

Interrogation, Dialectic, and Storytelling

Millais_Boyhood_of_Raleigh
The Boyhood of Raleigh by John Everett Millais

As far as I can tell, “deconstruction” is a word that simply means “academic trolling,” at least when it is performed by the man who coined it—Jacques Derrida.

This can clearly be seen in his deconstruction of speech act theorist J. L. Austin, which Jonathan Culler provides an account of in On Deconstruction.

Austin was arguing, against his predecessors, that language is not simply about making descriptive statements. He pointed out that fitting language into that straightjacket meant treating as exceptional what in fact was characteristic of huge amounts of discourse. As an alternative, he proposed the idea of language as including both constative statements, those which are true or false, and performative statements, those which have some consequence within the social reality in which they are stated. The canonical case of the latter would be the making of a promise.

Continue reading “Interrogation, Dialectic, and Storytelling”

Ancient Egyptian Storytelling

Some instruction emerges when moderns approach ancient literature. We’ve known for quite some time that the ancients memorialized significant cultural experiences in many media, and with respect to literature, both in narrative form and in poetry form.

For a while there, the consensus was that poetry held the more reliable account of history, usually because the story was told more concisely with a few details of the event highlighted. It was reasoned in many dissertations that the narrative forms were expansions and interpretations, the victor creating the world, so to speak, with a version of history friendly to the contemporary regime.

Those dissertations sort-of wore out the subject, so some clever student turned the thing on its head (especially with the discovery of the Annals of Thutmosis III, which has been found to be a reliable description of certain significant cultural experiences in comparison to other extant artifacts and literature), declaring that whenever a prose narrative account and a poetic account are treating the same historical phenomenon, the prose account is the primary source and the poetic account is the secondary celebration.

Well, that was twenty years ago. Where are we now? The question reveals a modernistic bias that if we can somehow determine a primary source of the past, via artifact and/or literary account, we can also determine what really happened, and by having confidence in what really happened, we can get a better grip on our present reality. You know, the truth, objectively speaking.

Someone clever responds to this by saying, “If we really want to be sure about what really happened, we must build a time machine and transport ourselves to the place and time about which we are curious.” Indeed. Indeed not.

Even if you were literally present at these historically significant experiences, you’re still creating the history in your mind and projecting it forward onto a medium of some sort for the sake of posterity. That you think something is significant is significant in itself. Riding the DeLorean back to the future, that you think what they thought to be significant to be significant multiplies significances fractally. And the cat chases its tail.

A better model, I hereby posit, is that the different languages have a symbiotic relationship to each other. The narrative, for example, is a working out of the experience, trying to set order and emphasis, “topic, focus, and foreground” and how they shift and move. Poetry (and also minstrel music, a.k.a. pop music) develops focus further, attempting to reach a different realm, a further realm, of the person engaging the culturally significant experience. Scientific language is doing something entirely different: measuring, perhaps, testing and calibrating; I don’t know. Economic language likewise.

Each is a grappling with the others to invent a history for the sake of participating in it with a sense of safety, perhaps, or freedom, or progress, or something like that–the key is the participation, not the knowing. The knowing is secondary, and presumes an authority over the experience.

How many other languages attempt to realize what really happened?

Who Will Speak For Us?

Storytelling is central to the human experience. It sets us apart from other animals to almost the same degree as language itself.

As stories are generated and retold, we develop a kind of grammar. These days, we call the units of that grammar tropes. I have a trope in mind that I wanted to begin with, but for once TV tropes appears to have failed me. There’s one that’s in the ballpark of what I’m going for, but not exactly there. But I’m betting you’ll find this familiar.

Imagine a father who has very particular expectations for their son. Beyond expectations, he have been excited by the prospect of his son taking over the family business, or becoming a doctor or lawyer, or starting a family, ever since he was born. The father has invested an enormous amount of emotional energy into this vision. The son wants to go to college, or wants to be an actor, or doesn’t want to have kids, or is gay. When he confronts his father about it, it is a tremendous blow. His father is completely devastated to lose this story of his son’s life that he had held onto so tightly. But the father pulls himself together, and gives his blessing, even if it isn’t needed. Even if the son is still dependent on the father materially, the father respects his son’s autonomy too much to try and strong-arm him into the path he wanted.

The son goes on to pursue his chosen path, and the father never once gives him grief about it again. But he also never entirely recovers from the disappointment. Perhaps it is only a lingering sadness, perhaps it becomes a more acute depression as the years go on. But he genuinely cares about and respects his son, and never makes him feel as though this depression is his son’s fault. Perhaps he skillfully conceals it; perhaps the son lives in a distant city so the visits are few enough that not much skill is required. But he takes pride in the life that his son has, even if he still can’t help letting the glimmering dream of what could have been weigh on him.

A Story of a Different Kind

Now, let’s tell that again in the language of economics.

The father had strong preferences when it came to how his son was to live. His son’s life choices thus constituted an externality on him, positive or negative. When given the opportunity to attempt to credibly threaten to impose costs should his son deviate from his preferred path, the father revealed through his action that he more highly valued his preference for being respectful than his preference for the specific life plan he had in mind for his son. This choice entailed certain costs but it gave him the most value out of his available options, as it must have if he made the choice voluntarily.

Has rather a different feel to it, doesn’t it?

At my request, Mark Lutter offered a few critical comments on Deirdre McCloskey’s latest paper. I’m not going to get into the comments on economic growth; for one thing, I’m not all that qualified to. For another, McCloskey hasn’t really made her positive case there yet. But I want to address his last three points, especially the last one:

McCloskey is arguing that economics should embrace speech, stories, shame, and the Sacred. I agree. Economists should also take culture more seriously, take beliefs and morality more seriously, and rely less on complex mathematics. However, economists can do all that just fine within the existing framework.

Related is his sixth point that “she argues that things like identity and morality cannot be captured by neo-classical economics, but gives little reason as to why.” I would say that “cannot” is probably the wrong word. You can capture anything within any framework, if you desire to—but beyond a certain point it often means assuming the can opener.

What McCloskey means when she makes statements about “the immense literature on ethics since 2000 BCE” or “the exact and gigantic literature about ideas, rhetoric, ideology, ceremonies, metaphors, stories, and the like since the Greeks or the Talmudists or the Sanskrit grammarians” she is advocating learning from the humanities. She is saying that there has been a conversation about human nature and culture and ideas for thousands of years, and economists would do well to familiarize themselves with it. If they’re going to dismiss it, they ought to dismiss it from a place of knowledge rather than because it is the path of least resistance.

I think the central point of debate here is what should be integrated into what. Should the sacred be integrated into “the existing framework” in economics, or should the existing framework be integrated into something bigger, older, and richer? I think you know my answer, and McCloskey’s.

The story I started out with is based on insights drawn from a storytelling tradition that I have been immersed in since practically before I spoke my first word. You tell me: do you want to reduce that story to the version that can be accommodated by the existing framework in economics? Or do you want to use the insights of economics without giving up on what is at work in the older tradition?

The Conversation of Social Science

“Cross-discipline” is a phrase used to describe the collaboration across the traditional boundaries between academic schools, but usually still within social science. It’s the talk among economists, sociologists, and psychologists, to name a few prominent fields that come to mind.

It’s this conversation that I thought of when I read Mark’s seventh point:

Seventh, and this applies to McCloskey more broadly than just this paper, what basis does she have for abandoning central economic assumptions. For ideas to matter either preferences are not constant (what she seems to be arguing given her jabs at de gustibus) or rational expectations is false. You cannot have all constant preferences, rational expectations, and ideas mattering. Given the importance of constant preferences and rational expectations the burden of proof is on McCloskey to change methodological assumptions. This burden of proof is especially difficult to reach in complex problems, and she fails to meet it.

Setting to the side whether McCloskey provided enough evidence, it seems odd to say that the burden is on those who are challenging assumptions just because those assumptions are important. Especially since constant preferences is one of the most notorious assumptions of economics outside of the field. To quote Daniel Kahneman:

To a psychologist, it is self-evident that people are neither fully rational nor completely selfish , and that their tastes are anything but stable. Our two disciplines seemed to be studying different species, which the behavioral economist Richard Thaler later dubbed Econs and Humans.

Kahneman and Thaler are one side of a big conversation that started in the 70s between psychologists and economists, the impact of which is still being felt in the latter field today. Psychologists like Kahneman can point to experimental evidence indicating that people’s preferences are not stable.

Economists, especially the institutional and Austrian variety, argue that taking people outside of institutional and cultural contexts into the highly specific environment of (usually) a college lab can only yield limited insights. Moreover, they point out how microeconomics makes the best predictions in specific domains, most concretely in auctions or in finance. And those predictions rest on the assumption of stable preferences, among others.

The categorical nature of the debate as I have witnessed it can grow tiring. Personally, I am persuaded by the “of course preferences aren’t stable” line of argument; I find it hard to believe that the changes I’ve witnessed in people in my own life are merely anecdotal. On the other hand, preferences must be stable to some degree; while not completely unchanging, nothing would get done if they were just constantly cycling.

So my question is: to what degree are preferences stable. Or more methodologically significant: what degree of stability is required to explain the empirical phenomena that line up with economic theory? I’m sure there’s a literature on this, but I confess to not having read it. Perhaps Mark or a reader can point me in the right direction.

More Human Than H(u) = α + βM + γA + δN + ε

But the most important disagreement is right there in Mark’s sixth point:

A simple explanation of identity and morality is they serve to signal in group status. People want to trade with people who have a shared set of expectations about what constitutes fair trade. More importantly, they want to live with people with a shared understanding of permissible violence. Because the most convincing person is one who believes what they are saying, identity and morality are a central part of humanity.

This is the exact sort of thinking that McCloskey is going after.

A relevant passage from her paper:

I get the price theory: price and property, the variables of prudence, price, profit, the Profane as I have called them, move people. But the point here is that they are also moved by the S variables of speech, stories, shame, the Sacred, and by the use of the monopoly of violence by the state, the legal rules of the game and the dance in the courts of law, the L variables. Most behavior, B, is explained by P and S and L, together:

B = α + βP + γS + δL + ε

Signaling, avoiding violence, setting terms of trade; these are P variables or possible P and L variables. McCloskey doesn’t deny them. But if Mark thinks he’s “embracing” S variables “within the existing framework”, he’s wrong. He’s simply reduced them to P (and possibly also L) variables.

This can perhaps be understood by reference to an earlier Sweet Talk conversation on the subject of honor and honoring. Sam, ever the economist, pointed out that honorable behavior is often socially desirable. As a result, we confer honors upon people who have proven themselves to be honorable; we give them medals in public, we announce their names on a list, sometimes we even erect monuments. This serves to subsidize the positive externalities to honorable behavior.

I agreed, but quickly added that there is such a thing as honor. Honor is not simply about producing social value—not that Sam every claimed as much, mind you! No, honor is about doing the right thing, even if you are not honored for it, even if it results in a material or emotional loss. And the conversation, reaching back before the Greek tragedians and up to the present from thinkers such as Rosalind Hursthouse, is full of people arguing that you should do the right thing even when it is in some way spiritually or morally deforming. If the only options in front of you are all terrible ones, you still must do what a good person ought to do, given those options.

Rather than whether or not S variables can be integrated into economics, the real debate is whether they exist at all. McCloskey’s claim, which I believe, is that attempts to translate S variables the way Mark did is the same as writing them off entirely for P variables. In an otherwise marvelous paper, Vlad Tarko errs in seeming to think that McCloskey herself makes a symmetrical mistake by assuming that there are only S variables, or that they are the only ones that matter. In fact, The Bourgeois Virtues is simply about making the case that there are S variables at all, in the face of a discipline that effectively rejects it.

Tarko takes an approach that I think McCloskey would approve of, speaking of “incentive-invariant” ideas and culture. It reminded me of this section of her paper:

The equation is not wishy-washy or unprincipled or unscientific. The S and L variables are the conditions under which the P variables work, and the P variables modify the effects of the S and L variables. Of course. For example, the conservative argument that laws serve as education would connect L causally to S, by a separate equation. Or again, when the price the Hudson Bay Company offered Indians in Canada for beaver pelts was high enough, the beaver population was depleted, in line with P-logic. But S-logic was crucial, too, making the P-logic relevant. As Ann Carlos and Frank Lewis explain, “Indian custom regarding the right to hunt for food and other aspects of their `Good Samaritan’ principle mitigated against the emergence of strong trespass laws and property rights in fur-bearing animals; conflict in the areas around the Hudson Bay hinterland contributed to an environment that was not conducive to secure tenure, and attitudes towards generosity and even a belief in reincarnation may have played a role” in running against better P-logic rules that would have preserved the beaver stock.

What this is all getting at is that there are true, internal goods as well as external ones. Commitment to particular internal goods both face external constraints, and have implications for the shape of some of those constraints. S variables influence P variables and are influenced by them in turn.

The traditional agrarian way of life has been largely washed away by the tide of the Great Enrichment in the countries where it has advanced the furthest. But the Amish have largely preserved it in their communities. They have done this in part through a commitment to shared values; S variables. They also have a very unique way of governing their communities, and are highly committed to enforcement through practices such as shunning; L variables. They have also had to buy up farmland in order to maintain their way of life; as that strategy has been exhausted they’ve had to allow a larger and larger fraction to work off the farm and even open businesses; P variables.

McCloskey’s equation is, of course, just a useful metaphor. As David Weinberger paraphrased:

As Umberto Eco says, there are many ways to carve a cow but none of them include a segment that features a snout connectd to the tail.

McCloskey’s three variables are a useful way of carving the cow, as is “the existing framework” in economics. But none should stand on their own, and (to stretch this metaphor a bit further than its usefulness) all end up discarding large segments of the original animal.

The best approach to understanding the human animal is to take in the whole conversation, not just economics and not just social science. For McCloskey as well as Michael Oakeshott, the voice of poetry, one of the oldest voices, deserves a place. Personally, I stand with them.

Previous Posts in Thread

It’s Better to Regret Something You Have Done Than to Regret Something You Haven’t Done

I recall a February of rain. On the first of the month, the first drops fell. It didn’t let up until March. I idled the whole time warmed by electric heat, entertained by flickering images cast on phosphorous and glass. A full month of rain, and I spent it dry and warm. I used to be annoyed at February. Now it terrifies me.

After the Collapse, after the missiles flew, after the countless billions of lives gently winked out in a brief atomic holler, after the miserable few left over finished their terminal crawl though the radioactive wreckage, it was the ancient tooth and fang of the wild—the gnashing of winter—that hewed to the merciless cull. I’ve been lucky enough to count myself among the fortunate few to escape an icy death at the side of the overgrown highways of this once-mighty nation.

Anyone likely to read this will already know The One Crazy Trick To Surviving The Merciless Embrace Of Unforgiving February, but I’ll share anyway, since I want to relate a tale. The trick is fellowship. There’s a biological imperative to gathering food and fuel to last out the howling winds and piling snow, so unless you’ve lost your elementary animal instincts, you’ve already stocked up for Persephone’s sojourn. The choice then is to spend it alone or with others. I’ve done both, and my new null hypothesis is that loneliness and isolation will kill you just as dead as ice and wind. It might take a little longer, but dead is dead, and better to end it quick than to have to contend with the long yawn of the void at the center of all things first.

So it was that I found myself among a small huddle of pilgrims this shortest of months, braced against the insistent gale, feeding our hearth out of smutty, unseasoned stock. Below the smoke and the gathering creosote we swapped stories of mankind’s broken faith and of how clear-eyed rationalism took hold. One story lingered with me more than the others. Its teller was a wisp of a girl, no more than fifteen, though a life in the bracken heaped years on her thin shoulders that I can’t help believe wouldn’t have set on her in a suburban home, going to high school, gossiping about boys, using telephones. She told an old tale. I’ll let her speak.

Once upon a time, in a kingdom far far away, a princess pricked her finger on an enchanted spindle and the whole castle fell into a deep sleep. The evil sorceress had put a thousand-year curse on the land. Thorns covered the fertile lands and a vicious dragon with jet-black scales and fiery breath so hot it could melt stone guarded the keep.

I held my tongue. As everyone knows, black dragons have acid as their primary breath weapon. Of the chief chromatic dragons, only the reds have fire breath. Still, I know when to interrupt a tale, and this wasn’t the time.

So for hundreds of years, countless princes born of neighboring kingdoms would don their armor, strap a broadsword to their hips, mount their steeds, and ride out to slash through the thorns, slay the fell beast, and rescue the princess from her slumber. One after the other fell dead, slain by the magical thorns that always seemed to go for the eyes first, or burned up in a dragon belch, or sunk in the swamp. For literally HUNDREDS of years this went on, and no prince was ever even able to get past the barbecue.

She meant “barbican.” A barbican is a fortified gatehouse leading into a walled city or castle. “Barbecue” is something we can still get when we hunt the pig and kill the pig and cook the pig. Again, I let it slide.

Then one day, a prince who had been groomed his whole life for the heroic task laid down his shield and broadsword. He took off his armor and unsaddled his trusty steed. When his mother and father the queen and the king asked him why he refused to don the mantle of his birth, he looked them straight in the eye and said, “Your Majesties, for hundreds of years princes from lands near and far have rushed to near certain death to claim the promise of vast riches hidden in that locked-up kingdom. How many more would you see slain? How many more of the fallen must litter that impassible road? Yes, the rewards are great: wealth untold, but the risks are final. Mother, father, if I go I will surely die. If I stay, perhaps I can help our kingdom grow more prosperous, maybe marry modestly, raise a family of my own, tend to the needs of our subjects. Instead of playing at the fantasy of hero, I can be the best I can be here and now.” His parents heard him and never again asked him to take up his arms and armor for a silly suicide mission. And the tormented kingdom encircled by thorns and guarded by a fierce dragon was never again challenged by foolhardy heroes. The castle, the thorns, and the dragon could not defeat the implacable hand of time and it all eventually crumbled to dust, ignored and forgotten.

The longer I wander in this barren land, the more seldom I hear storytellers end their tales with “happily ever after,” but in this case it would have been appropriate. The prince who hung up his arms and armor… he was us. We stopped lying to each other and it led to faith collapsing in our political institutions, yes. But we also stopped lying to ourselves. We stopped lying to ourselves about the limitations of our own abilities. It’s not that we gave up, it’s that we took the brakes off our prudence. There was a what, 75% chance of a business venture failing in the first 5 years of operation? And that’s even if you pour your whole life into it, working yourself ragged with 140 hour workweeks and no vacations the whole time. We stopped grabbing for the brass ring.

And the carousel ground to a halt.

And now we crowd around a sputtering fire telling each other dismal stories to fend off the shadows and the ennui. The entrepreneurs are fertilizer in our rotting orchards. The lies were the system, the lies we told ourselves just as much as the lies we told each other.

Previous posts in this series
The Truth Shall Set You Free
Gentle Death
Aspirational Politics

Related reading
Why People Fail to Recognize Their Own Incompetence (Dunning & al)

The Storyteller’s Obligation

In my previous post I linked to a study on how children were inspired to virtuous action by the role model of George Washington, who told his own father he cut down the cherry tree and was rewarded for honesty.

This is a useful thing to know, both as a parent and also more generally as someone who would like to inspire virtue in a broad range of people. However, it makes me think about a particular consequence of storytelling, and how aspirational stories can lead to tragedies.

Garret Jones recently stated that “There are few horrors of the last century that can’t be blamed on an excessive concern for justice.”, and I believe that’s entirely right. The 20th century’s communist revolutions that led the greatest string of tragedies the human race has yet seen were based on a story about justice and fair distribution of wealth. They told a story about how human society could pass through a socialist phase and into a communist phase where material wealth and prosperity was available to everyone and no one would enjoy power and status over another. It would be Utopia.

Of course it turned out these stories were wrong. Marx was wrong. Communism doesn’t work. The entire exercise was doomed to failure from before it started. 

This is the danger of stories. They can inspire people, but they can also lead them to folly. If we only tell people the good half of stories, or (worse) tell people stories about the way we wish the world were, we lead them astray. 

And this isn’t limited to grand tragedies like the Great Leap Forward, but also in small ways and individual lives. A young person may spend money on a degree whose prospects are not what they were told, or engage in relationships with unrealistic expectations of how love and friendship actually works. This causes heartache, lost money and effort, and also comes back to bite the storyteller as a teller of lies (however well meaning they were at the time).

Don’t do this. Only tell stories that are true. Inspire, but also be wise. Be like Shakespeare, and Homer.