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.""