Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Myths And Empathy

There is a new book out called Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. It was recently reviewed in the Wall Street Journal. See Try a Little Tenderness. The excerpt that caught my eye was the following:

"Each [religious] tradition offers myths to teach us kindness and empathy. It doesn't matter much what myths one embraces, because, "at their best, all religious, philosophical, and ethical traditions are based on the principle of compassion.""
The review is critical of the book and I probably share the concerns of the reviewer. But economics comes in with discussions of how people behave in capitalism.

The neureconomist Paul Zak studies what goes on in our brains and how that is related to empathy. He ties this to Adam Smith's theories on sympathy. I have posted some items about this at my "Dangerous Economist" blog. See

Adam Smith vs. Ace Ventura (it has links to some good articles on neuroeconomics)

New Biography Of Adam Smith

Adam Smith vs. Muhammad Yunus

Adam Smith vs. Bart Simpson

Science Proves That Adam Smith Was Right Over 200 Years Ago (sort of)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Battle For Christmas Shows The Connection Between Economics And Mythology

Stephen Nissenbaum wrote a book called The Battle for Christmas. Here is what I said about in my paper "The Intersection of Economic Signals and Mythic Symbols"(Presented at the annual meetings of The Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics in July 1997, Montreal).(This paper will be published in 2007 in "Revista de Economia Institucional," a Spanish language journal in Columbia published by Universidad Externado de Colombia) (this will also be published in 2010 in Language and Politics Edited by John Joseph, published by Routledge):

"The intersection of signals and symbols is not confined to current events. Santa Claus, the symbol of giving at Christmas, is also an economic signal.3 In colonial America, Christmas was a rowdy, if not violent holiday. Members of the lower class would go "wassailing" and demand food and drink from the rich. Religious leaders tried to get citizens to attend church on Christmas, but failed. In fact, "[the] 'misrule' of Christmas mobs had become so widespread that it threatened civic life" (Woodward, 71). What made Christmas into the peaceful holiday of giving that we know today were the stories of "traditional" Dutch family Christmas gatherings by Washington Irving and others and the popularizing of the Santa Claus symbol in Clement Moore's poem, "A Visit From St. Nicholas." This non-threatening symbol was acceptable to all classes. His pipe was short, like those of the working class. Soon Christmas evolved, with the help of newspaper editorials, into a home and children centered holiday. This, of course, meant buying gifts, bringing in the economic side of Santa. His image soon became used in stores and advertisements. "In the benign figure of Santa Claus, the commercialization of Christmas was hidden behind the most tender of parental emotions" (Ibid). Although he symbolizes giving, any store or ad or commercial using Santa was clearly trying to signal to parents that they should shop here or buy this toy because it was one their children would like."

Here are the descriptions at Amazon of the book:

"This scholarly analysis of our modern celebration of Christmas pulls together a thoroughly convincing case for the widely accepted notion that it is a 19th-century creation, indeed a deliberate reformation and taming of a holiday with wilder pagan origins. Christmas was set at December 25 in the fourth century, not for any biblical link with Christ's birth, but because the church hoped to annex and Christianize the existing midwinter pagan feast. This latter was based on the seasonal agricultural plenty, with the year's food supply newly in store, and nothing to do in the fields. It was a time of drinking and debauchery from the Roman Saturnalia to the English Mummers. The Victorians hijacked the holiday, and Victorian writers helped turn it into a feast of safe domesticity and a cacophonous chime of retail cash registers. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title."


"Christmas in America hasn't always been the benevolent, family-centered holiday we idealize. The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony so feared the day's association with pagan winter solstice revels, replete with public drunkenness, licentiousness and violence, that they banned Christmas celebrations. In this ever-surprising work, Nissenbaum (Sex, Diet, and Debility in Jacksonian America), a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, conducts a vivid historical tour of the holiday's social evolution. Nissenbaum maintains that not until the 1820s in New York City, among the mercantile Episcopalian Knickerbockers, was Christmas as we know it celebrated. Before Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore ("A Visit from St. Nicholas") popularized the genteel version, he explains, the holiday was more of a raucous festival and included demands for tribute from the wealthy by roaming bands of lower-class extortionists. Peppering his insights with analysis of period literature, art and journalism, Nissenbaum constructs his theory. Taming Christmas, he contends, was a way to contain the chaos of social dislocation in a developing consumer-capitalist culture. Later, under the influence of Unitarian writers, the Christmas season became a living object lesson in familial stability and charity, centering on the ideals of bourgeois childhood. From colonial New England, through 18th- and 19th-century New York's and Philadelphia's urban Yuletide contributions, to Christmas traditions in the antebellum South, Nissenbaum's excursion is fascinating, and will startle even those who thought they knew all there was to know about Christmas. Illustrations."

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

How Mythology Might Inform Socioeconomics

In the early 1990s, I belonged to the Society for the Advancement of Socioeconomics (SASE). One issue they took up was how an individual tried to seek their own happines or maximize their own utility in the context of trying to be part of a group or larger community. I came across something in the book The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers that I thought might be a solution to this socioeconomic conflict. That book is based on the TV series in which Moyers interviewed Campbell. Here is the exchange:

Campbell: My general formula is "Follow your bliss." Find where it is, and don't be afraid to follow it.

Moyers: Is it my work or my life?

Campbell: If the work you're doing is the work that you choose to do because you are enjoying it, that's it. But if you think, "Oh, no! I couldn't do that!" that's the dragon locking you in. "No, no, I couldn't be a writer," or "No, no, I couldn't do what So-and-so is doing."

Moyers: In this sense, unlike heroes such as Prometheus or Jesus, we're not going on our journey to save the world but to save ourselves.

Campbell: But in doing that, you save the world.

Reading this lead me to write a paper called "Mythology, Joseph Campbell, and the Socioeconomic Conflict." It was published in the Journal of Socio-Economics in 1994. Here is the abstract:

This article shows that the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell indicates a solution to what might be called the socio-economic conflict: the conflict between self-interest and the individual's need to be part of a community of shared values. That solution is to "follow your bliss" or the wisdom of your own heart rather than the dictates of some impersonal social system. This rule brings an individual the greatest possible happiness while at the same time it revitalizes his or her community of heroes following their bliss whose values are that of personal creativity and integrity. Campbell's own scholarship exemplified the ideals of socio-economics since he considered himself a generalist who read widely in many fields looking for and finding a transcendent message.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Myth of Authenticity Or The Story Behind Products

See a BusinessWeek article called The Myth of Authenticity. Here is a brief description of it:

"What do brands like Häagen Dazs, Baileys Original Irish Cream, Bombay Sapphire and Kerrygold all have in common? Each stretches the myth behind the brand to promote heritage and authenticity."

Some other exerpts are below. We use myths to find meaning in life. Since much of our activity in life is economic, it should not be surprising that myths would crop up there. It seems that people will pay extra if a product has a good story or myth behind it. That is a pretty amazing link between economics and mythology: myths are profitable.

"Working the link between place of origin and product quality is the oldest trick in the brand book. It milks our thirst for mythology and plays mercilessly on our superstitious hope that special places have the power to revitalise and transform."


[some]"...brands that mingle fact and fiction in an imaginative fusion of make-believe and authenticity."


"Baileys Original Irish Cream is a classic example of a brand that climbs high on the back of a provenance blending fact with fiction. Launched in 1974, Baileys is the world's top selling liqueur brand. In each and every country, the idea that sells Baileys is its Irishness. "It's hugely important," says Baileys' external affairs director Peter O'Connor. "We could produce Baileys more cheaply in New Zealand or Australia, but whenever we've researched the idea consumers say 'over my dead body.' " But is Baileys Irish?

So far as the ingredients go, Baileys is what it says: Irish. The production site is Irish, the farms supplying the milk are Irish; the cows, ”all 40,000 of them,” are Irish. But the Celtic motifs on the label surely hint at a more ancient past than Baileys can legitimately lay claim to in its thirty-plus years of business. Then there is the brand's identity: a flowing handwritten signature, R.A. Bailey, underlined with a flourish, as if to scupper any doubts about the author's existence. There is also the name itself -- incredibly Irish, without being clichéd. But, as Olins reveals in his book, Baileys is an impostor. Its identity is a sham, a colorful invention cooked up by a multinational drinks group, in a London office overlooking the Bailey hotel. And the signature? "There's no Mr or Mrs Bailey," admits O'Connor. "We wanted a name that was Irish, but not "show" Irish. The R.A. Bailey was a way of putting a name behind the factory, a way of getting across that the product comes from Ireland."

So how did a cheapskate identity theft give birth to a branding triumph? O'Connor puts it down to the drink's taste and wholesome ingredients. "The product has a lot of authenticity." But Baileys' success isn't just down to taste. Like many brands that conquer the world, "R.A. Bailey" is self-made, dreamed up to fill a gap in the market, in this case for a spirit that would appeal to younger consumers, particularly women. Inventing a product category gave Baileys the freedom to create the image it wanted, without reference to established rivals. "Positioning a brand as a modern classic is a tricky thing to pull off," says Peter Matthews, managing director of brand experience consultancy Nucleus. "When it works, it's usually when the category didn't exist before, where there are no benchmarks that the entrant can be measured against.""

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

John Bogle Has A New Book That Discusses Entrepreneurship And Heroes

Here is the Amazon link:

Don't Count on It!: Reflections on Investment Illusions, Capitalism, "Mutual" Funds, Indexing, Entrepreneurship, Idealism, and Heroes.

Here is the description:

"A collection of essays based on speeches delivered to professional groups and college students in recent years, in Don't Count on It is organized around eight themes

Illusion versus reality in investing
Indexing to market returns
Failures of capitalism
The flawed structure of the mutual fund industry
The spirit of entrepreneurship
What is enough in business, and in life
Advice to America's future leaders
The unforgettable characters who have shaped his career

Widely acclaimed for his role as the conscience of the mutual fund industry and a relentless advocate for individual investors, in Don't Count on It, Bogle continues to inspire, while pushing the mutual fund industry to measure up to their promise."

The Foreword is by well-known economist Alan S. Blinder. Joseph Campbell even gets mentioned in the book.

Click here to read a review from The Denver Post

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Some Other Bloggers On Entrepreneurs And Heroes

Matthew Alberto has a blog about social entrepreneurs. He recently wrote a post where he used Joseph Campbell's book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The post was called The Heroic Adventure of the Social Entrepreneur?

Publisher Clint Greenleaf wrote a post called Authors as Entrepreneurs and Heroes.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Entrepreneurs And Heroes

The first paper I wrote that linked mythology and economics was called "The Creative-Destroyers: Are Entrepreneurs Mythological Heroes?".

The stimulus for my research came when reading a discussion of how entrepreneurs discover opportunities for economic profit by economist Israel Kirzner. This was part of the required reading for a seminar I attended in 1989 put on by the classically liberal Institute for Humane Studies. Economic profit implies making an above average rate of return in your business. Since everyone wants to do so, finding the new business or technology that allows this is not easy. But Kirzner said that discovering these opportunities came from something like “leading a life of purposeful action.” That is not the kind of thing I heard in my Ph. D. training in economics, but it did remind me of what the mythologist Joseph Campbell, and author of The Hero With a Thousand Faces, advised people to do: follow your bliss or do what really excites you, what makes you feel like you are achieving some kind of personal destiny. What could be more purposeful than that?

A shorter, non-academic version of the paper, titled “The Calling” of the Entrepreneur was published in The New Leaders: The Business Bulletin for Transformative Leadership, (November/December 1992.) Below is an abstract of the academic paper:

"The psychology of entrepreneurship can be better understood by comparing it to the hero's adventure (as well as the trickster's) In mythology because myths are often seen as symbolic representations of the psyche. The hero and the entrepreneur are found to be similar in their respective adventures, a three part sequence of separation from the community, initiation into new creative powers and a return to the community with a boon for his fellow citizens. Both are creative, curious, energetic risk takers who are guided by mentors. Entrepreneurship can be seen as a manifestation of a universal human psychological condition, the desire for individual creativity."

Entrepreneurship is only getting more important these days. The president's economic advisors even think so. To read about this, go to A Vision for Innovation, Growth, and Quality Jobs by Lawrence H. Summers, head of the National Economic Counsel (he was the head at the time of writing that last year). Also, here is an exerpt from a Wall Street Journal article, The End of Management: Corporate bureaucracy is becoming obsolete. Why managers should act like venture capitalists.

"The new model will have to instill in workers the kind of drive and creativity and innovative spirit more commonly found among entrepreneurs. It will have to push power and decision-making down the organization as much as possible, rather than leave it concentrated at the top."

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Myth Of The Ring Of Gyges And Insider Trading By Congressional Staffers

See What Conflict of Interest? How Power Blinds Us to Our Flaws from The Wall Street Journal. As the article says "...prohibitions on insider trading generally don't apply to Congress." And they only have to report their trades once a year. They can make trades based on information most people don't have. Here are some exerpts from the article:

""Power makes people feel both psychologically invincible and psychologically invisible," adds Adam Galinsky, a professor of organizational behavior at Northwestern University's business school.

Power, explains Prof. Galinsky, focuses people on their own internal goals—blinding them, in the process, to how others may view them. In Plato's "Republic," Socrates invokes the myth of the ring of Gyges, which conferred upon its wearer the power of being invisible to others. If we wear such a ring at will, Socrates says, "No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked."

Being in a position of power also may make people feel that they can do no wrong. In recent experiments, Dana Carney, a psychologist at Columbia University's business school, has found that acquiring power makes people more comfortable committing acts they might otherwise be reluctant to commit, like lying or cheating. As people rise to a position of power, she has shown, their bodies generate more testosterone, a hormone associated with aggression and risk-taking, and less cortisol, a chemical that the body generates in response to stress.

"Having power changes you physiologically, reducing your body's internal feedback that tells you which actions are good or bad," says Prof. Carney. "Power temporarily intoxicates you.""

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Being Able To Tell Stories May Help The Economy

I saw this in an article in The Chronicle Of Higher Education. See The Creative Campus: Time for a 'C' Change by Elizabeth Long Lingo and Steven J. Tepper. Here is the exerpt that I found interesting:

"Can administrators afford, amid the pressing demands on their funds, to reorganize their colleges around creativity? Can they afford not to?

First, there is a growing consensus that America's economy will be increasingly based on creativity, or what the writer Daniel H. Pink calls "high touch" and "high concept" skills. Many existing high-tech and white-collar jobs—basic computer programming, accounting, data­­base management, routine scientific work—may be exported abroad in the coming years. To stay competitive, America will need to draw on its ability to tell stories, create visually compelling messages and designs, come up with new ways to organize and synthesize information, and invent programs and businesses to solve complicated social problems or tap emerging markets. Business leaders are demanding those skills. A recent IBM poll of global CEO's ranked creativity as the most important factor for future success. And while there will always be jobs in service industries, many of the highest-paying jobs will be in the creative sector."

This reminded me of a story in the Chronicle from earlier in the year about the famous biologist E. O. Wilson, who had just written his first novel. Why did he write the novel? "He says it came to him as an insight about effective science communication that "people want a story, and you get a much larger audience when you tell a story, and the best way to tell a story is with fiction, a novel." But it was challenging for the life-long scientist to tell one." (See the May 30, 2010 issue, "For E.O. Wilson, a Lifetime of Science Feeds Into Fiction"-you probably need a subscription to read it online)

So stories help the economy and even scientists recognize that people want a story. Maybe evolution somehow shaped us that way.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Mario Vargas Llosa, Nobel Prize Winner In Literature, Says Stories And Fiction Are Critically Important For Promoting Liberty And Fighting Prejudice

Myths are stories. So I enjoyed reading Emily Parker's article in the Wall Street Journal about Vargas Llosa. See Vargas Llosa and the Value of Literature: His work is a rebuttal to those who believe that fiction exists on the periphery of history and politics. He also has opinions on economics. Here are some excerpts from the article:

"In a New Republic essay in 2001, Mr. Vargas Llosa argued for granting literature "an important place in the life of nations." He wrote, "Without it, the critical mind, which is the real engine of historical change and the best protector of liberty, would suffer an irreparable loss.""

"Mr. Vargas Llosa's novels reflect his deep, personal hatred of dictatorships and his staunch belief in the value of individual liberty."

"He unsuccessfully ran for president of Peru in 1990, losing to Alberto Fujimori. During the campaign Mr. Vargas Llosa gained notoriety for his emphasis on a market economy, free trade and private property."

"As Mr. Vargas Llosa wrote in his 2001 essay about literature, "Nothing better protects a human being against the stupidity of prejudice, racism, religious or political sectarianism, and exclusivist nationalism than this truth that invariably appears in great literature: that men and women of all nations and places are essentially equal.""

I hope all this is true. It is possible that fiction could promote dictatorship and bigotry. Perhaps on balance fiction does more good than harm.

It is interesting that Adam Smith's personal collection of books did not contain any prose fiction (see sources).

Here is an example of the power of fiction. It is from Social Networking Affects Brains Like Falling in Love.

"Two researchers from Washington University in St. Louis scanned the brains of fiction readers and discovered that their test subjects created intense, graphic mental simulations of the sights, sounds, movements, and tastes they encountered in the narrative. In essence, their brains reacted as if they were actually living the events they were reading about."


Review: Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations
Author(s): Donald White
Source: Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 37, No. 4 (Oct. - Dec., 1976), pp. 715-720
Published by: University of Pennsylvania PressStable

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

What This Blog Is About

As you can see, it is about "the intersection of economics and mythology." Maybe that sounds crazy, but I have published articles that fit that description. I will probably post 1-2 entries per month. I will discuss my own research and that of others. There are a few books, too, written by others, that fit. I will post links to info on those books and probably reviews of those books as well. Any time I see something in the news or spot some new research that fits this unusual category, I will post something on it. If you want to just dive in, go to my page The Relationship Between Economics and Mythology. It has links to my articles and work by other people.

To get started, here is a link to my article The Intersection of Economic Signals and Mythic Symbols. I first presented it in 1997 in Montreal at the Society for the Advancement of Socio-economics conference. It has been published in Spanish in Revista de Economía Institucional, published by Universidad Externado de Colombia. An English version was published this year in Language and Politics: Major Themes in English Studies, 4-volume set, ed. and with a new intro. by John E. Joseph. London and New York: Routledge, 2010. The abstract to my article is below.

If you find my paper or these ideas interesting, you will like the ideas of Richard Sosis, an anthropologist at the University of Connecticut whose research is very inter-disciplinary. I first heard about him from an article a few year's ago in the New York Times magazine called Darwin’s God. I created an exerpt of the parts of his research that are similar to what I mention here. It is much shorter. Click here to read that.

Now the abstract of my article:

"Mythic symbols and economic signals represent more than what they are. Symbols represent universal ideas and themes and evoke feelings and emotions while economic signals are simple, efficient signs that stand for a more complex set of costly to learn characteristics and information. Symbols deal with the irrational and economic signals deal with the rational. Many of the signals cited in the economic literature work well because they have a symbolic element that speaks to people's emotions. By evoking emotions, a signal makes the receiver feel more confident about the truthfulness of the information it represents. The intersection of symbols and signals illustrates the relationship between the rational world of facts and irrational world of emotions and values, a relationship which needs to be explored as part of the development of the ideal type of homosocioeconomicus, the selfish yet value and community driven person."

"Contemporary therapy is almost entirely concerned, when all is surveyed, with the problems of the individual's search for myths."-Psychoanalyst Rollo May

"Signs and symbols rule the world, not rules or laws."-Confucius