When Myths Fail Us

Introduction

This web site was developed to demonstrate how the old right-left, Republican-Democrat, liberal-conservative distinctions themselves need to be challenged. The divides between parties and candidates, as well as between citizens — real as they might be — fail to address  most of the most pressing issues facing America and world today. Indeed, they share the belief that there is only one path forward, a path marked by the widest use of markets as possible, by treating everyone as an autonomous individual and entrepreneur, by reducing the role of government through budget cuts and outsourcing, by expanding the number of choices each of us have to make, by building stronger military and police presence and by focusing on economic growth while merely paying lip service to growing inequalities.

Over the course of my career I have been privileged to engage in teaching and research in several large universities in the United States and Europe. I have also spent a considerable amount of time working in various nations in West Africa as well as in India and China among other places, mostly on development projects sponsored by a wide range of agencies. In so doing, I have seen too many projects designed with all good intentions come to naught.  This has sensitized me to go beyond the usual tool kit that we Americans use and to ask tough questions about our most fundamental beliefs. (For more information about me, click here.) I may not have found the answers to the many problems facing us, but I believe that I have found some new ways of thinking and acting about them.

Hence, some of those of you who hear me out will doubtless be disturbed. I will challenge these nearly sacred beliefs about how the world is put together. This is not to say that I will always be correct. Doubtless, I, too, will make mistakes. I will probably miss some of the myths to which we are in thrall. I will probably leave some important issues out of my analysis. But my intent here is not to be ‘right‘ on all points. It is to open doors such that an ongoing debate on our central myths can take place.  Please!!! Hear me out, and then let’s start a debate on new, innovative approaches to action that will produce a society that provides ‘liberty and justice for all.’

To begin down that path, let’s consider what myths are all about.

Myths are essential to every society

What are myths all about? Myths tell us how to live, what to do, when to act and when not to. Myths are stories that we tell ourselves, our children, our friends and even our enemies. They are performed, enacted, by each of us as we go through our daily lives. As they are enacted, they are both reinforced and transformed. For example, in American Society it is usually considered appropriate to acknowledge the presence of friends and relatives by saying hello, hi, or some other phrase as well as by shaking hands, exchanging hugs and kisses and the like. Travel outside the US reveals that such enactments vary from society to society.

Performances become much more serious when we ask how well a doctor performed surgery, how well a teacher performed her or his job, even how well Johnny set the table. In each of these cases there are serious consequences for inadequate performances. A doctor might be sued for malpractice. An inadequate teacher might be the subject of a telephone call or letter to the principal. Johnny might be sent to his room.

Every society that has ever existed has had its myths. Of course, many of the myths pursued by the ancient Egyptians are no longer believed or practiced by anyone. Ra, the Egyptian sun god, gets no prayers today and has no influence on human behavior. No one gets to be Pharaoh anymore. In short, even as myths guide members of societies, over time some myths are abandoned. They are no longer pursued, performed, enacted. The truths that they proclaimed have simply disappeared. Others have replaced them.

Myths are images of a possible (and usually desired) future

Since myths are guides to behavior, they are nearly always future-oriented. They tell us what to do when confronted by particular situations. They tell us how to dress ‘appropriately’ for various occasions. They tell us how to behave when going to visit the doctor, when going to a concert, even when walking down a busy street.  They also tell us that we can expect to get paid on payday. They even tell us what neighborhoods to frequent and which to avoid.

But myths can also lead us astray. One such myth is that markets are always the best and fairest distributive systems. Markets, we are told in introductory textbooks, always produce the best outcome. The problem with this claim is that it only works in the textbook. It is a convenient myth but one that often leads us astray. As many economists will now admit, markets must be designed. Who can trade in the market, under what conditions, for what products or services are things that must be decided. And, the way that the market is designed will have a huge effect on the outcome of market action. For example, the many farmers who produce commodities such as wheat, corn or beef sell what they produce to a small group of grain traders (e.g., Cargill) or a small group of meat processors (e.g., Tyson). The very structure of the market ensures that most of the time farmers will get the short end of the stick. This is the result of the way in which the market is designed — and the design of grain and meat markets does not follow the textbook model of supply and demand that we have all been taught to believe.

Consider as well the case of public schools. It has been well-established that many public schools are failing to provide adequate education for our children. Several approaches have been taken to resolve this problem. On the one hand, the use of standardized tests to measure student performance (and indirectly to measure teacher performance) have become commonplace. On the other hand, charter schools have been introduced, ostensibly giving parents a choice among schools. Both are based on the myth that competitions are always desirable and that competition will cause the weak schools to close and the best ones to do well.

But results have been mixed at best. Parents are now complaining about the time spent in preparing for standardized tests. Teachers and school administrators find themselves pressured into teaching to the test, ignoring those subjects not subject to testing. And, students from weak schools are arguably learning less as a result of the mandatory testing. Similarly, evidence suggests that charter schools do no better than public schools on average. Some charter and public schools do quite well, while others are dismal failures. Most are somewhere in the middle. None of this takes into account the fact that success in school is a function of parental support, an adequate diet, a stable family environment, and adequate supplies, equipment, texts and school buildings as well as good teachers. It also builds a considerable bureaucracy to administer the tests and license charter schools. In short, competition alone is an inadequate solution to the problem of failing schools.

Similarly, around the nation prisons have been privatized in the belief that the private sector could provide prison services better than the government. Yet, this has required the development of a new government bureaucracy to oversee the private prisons. It has resulted in prisoners being served spoiled food. And, it has resulted in the creation of a well-funded lobby that demands more money for private prisons — a lobby financed by the prison companies themselves.

Finally, consider the case of mobile telephone and cable companies. The major players in these fields are now national in scope and they are making quite fabulous profits. Every time that you pay your telephone or cable bill you become aware of that. Moreover, if you are like me, you have essentially no choice among cable companies. And, even if you do have a choice, you are handed a non-negotiable contract that you must sign if you wish the service. In most instances, this contract signs away your right to sue for damages, to participate in a class action suit against the company in the case of overcharges and forces you to engage in arbitration should a dispute arise — arbitration that is usually biased toward the company. With respect to your cable, you are required to subscribe to a bundle of channels, most of which you will never watch. We get about 200 channels and watch at most four or five. More recently, cable companies have tried (so far unsuccessfully) to allow them to slow internet service to sites that have not paid them a fee and to speed it up for those who do. All this is proposed to avoid what is called ‘net neutrality,’ the principle that all internet traffic should travel at the same speed.

We have tolerated this because many of us believe that government regulation is by definition a bad thing, to be avoided in every instance. Yet, the lack of regulation by government, simply allows the companies to do the regulating. Every time you use your mobile phone, cable television or internet service you are abiding by rules set by the company and you are paying a tax — not to the government but to the cable companies.

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