Political Myth Busting

The objective of this Political Myth Busting series is to demolish some of the facile and often completely counter-factual myths that get used over and again.

If you follow politics at all, or you've ever picked up a tabloid newspaper, you'll be familiar with some of the most egregious examples such as the "Labour caused the financial crisis" lie, "the unemployed are all lazy scroungers" narrative, the "private is always more efficient than public" fallacy and the ludicrous "trickle down" theory of economics.

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  If you're not in a hurry, please take a few minutes 
to read the following explanation of what the 
"Political Myth Busting" series is all about.
The problem is that (often absurdly inaccurate) political fallacies are far more pervasive than most people think. The reason that they are so pervasive is that they are usually based in the form of simplistic justification narratives. In brief, the use of the justification narrative technique is a propaganda methodology  based on the concept that simple narrative structures (stories) are much more effective tools for spreading ideas than reams of statistics and rigorous analysis. In essence it is the idea that it doesn't matter how weak your own evidence is, or how brilliant your opponents' facts and analysis are, you'll win the debate in the mind of "the man on the street" as long as you're the better story-teller.

The use uf simplistic justification narratives to sell the right-wing neoliberal ideology relies upon the fact that the vast majority of people in the United Kingdom are functional illiterates in economic terms. There are many reasons for this, the main one being that basic economics is just not taught at all in the vast majority of state schools. Since 93% of British kids attend state schools, the vast majority of kids end up leaving school and entering the work environment as functional economic illiterates. (I'll leave it to you to form your own opinion about whether this failure to provide a basic economic education to the vast majority of people is a deliberate ploy by the establishment or not).

 I really don't want to come across as mean, smug or superior when I describe the majority of people as economic illiterates, but it happens to be true. I always thought of myself as very intelligent and well informed, but it wasn't until I began actively studying economics in my late 20s that I realised that I'd been living with an distorted ad-hoc understanding of economic issues, despite being an intelligent university graduate with a high IQ, I too had been suffering from basic economic illiteracy.

Now most people don't like to think of themselves as ignorant or illiterate (I certainly wouldn't have easily accepted the accusation when I was in my mid-20s) and this is where right-wing justification narratives come in. If a person that knows very little about the actual structure of the economy is presented with a simple and concise narrative that seems to explain a particular economic trend, they are likely to accept it at face value. People don't want to feel that they are ignorant or economically illiterate and these right-wing narratives give them a nice simple framework in which they can create the illusion that they actually understand the economy.

The reality is that most people just don't understand the economy properly because most people don't even understand some of the really fundamental ideas, without which economic literacy is impossible. Without knowing the answer to the majority of the following questions, obtaining a nuanced and reasonably accurate understanding of the modern post-credit crunch economy would be absolutely impossible.
  • What is a fiat currency?
  • How is money created?
  • What is the difference between a debt and a deficit?
  • What is the difference between fiscal and monetary policy?
  • What are capital controls?
  • What is a transfer pricing strategy?
  • What does fiscal multiplication mean?
  • What is a derivative? 
  • What is a "naked" trade?
  • What is Quantitative Easing
I can tell you now that significantly less than 5% of the UK population could give adequate answers to four of the preceding questions, let alone all ten of them. However without understanding at least the majority of these concepts the individual is never going to have a reasonable accurate or nuanced understanding of fundamentally important issues like what actually caused of the 2007-08 neoliberal economic meltdown, who is winning "the race to the bottom", the size and structure of the financial sector "shadow economy", consolodated depreciation or taxation asymmetry.

The problem of course is that "the economy" is important to a lot of people. Polls and surveys show that "the economy" comes out as the number one priority when the public are asked about which area of public policy is most important to them. That the majority of people demonstrably don't understand the economic basics, yet they feel that good management of the economy is the most vital function of government tells us that people have the capacity to fill in the gaps in their knowledge to create a framework by which they grasp complex economic issues. The right-wing justification narrative is designed to fill in these gaps in the public consciousness with the right kind of stories to make people support economic ideas that go against their own best interests. Within a limited frame of understanding these justification narratives for extremist right-wing economic policies make sense, however the greater the level of economic literacy the individual attains, the less likely they are to be taken in by simplistic and misleading right-wing propaganda stories.

Now consider that the right-wing press have been peddling these simplistic economic myths for decades, over and over and over again. These myths have become so well established that they are taken at face value, not only by traditionally conservative thinkers, but relied upon as fact by supposedly left-wing politicians of the Labour party and printed, without a hint of critical analysis, in supposedly left-wing publications like the Guardian newspaper.

It doesn't matter that these simplistic naratives are economically incoherent, the majority of the population don't have the training to carefully deconstruct these right-wing stories from an economic perspective. It's like the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels said:
"if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it"
And these justification narratives, which are used in order to justify the implementation of ideologically driven neoliberal pseudo-economic policies, have been repeated so often that they have actually worked their way into "common sense". If you pick them apart, so many of these right-wing narratives are based on scant evidence, or even rely on complete reversals of reality. However, the fact that they are widely held to be self-evident by so many people makes them appear as if they are "common sense".

One of the biggest problems in confronting these right-wing myths is that people actually become fond of their simplistic narratives. They are fond of them because they allow them to maintain the illusion that they are not fundamentally ignorant about economics. It is easy to understand how someone prefers to stick with the simple narrative that makes sense to them, rather than accept the counter-claim which is often complex and awfully difficult for them to even understand, because, economics, just like the economy itself, is in reality an awfully complex subject.

Another factor that allows the persistence of fallacious economic reasoning is the human tendency towards confirmation bias. In short, this is the perfectly natural tendency to favour  arguments with which we agree and reject out-of-hand those with which we disagree. The human tendency to cherry-pick evidence and ignore or dismiss inconvenient data is one of the main reason that the fallacious reasoning and discreditied beliefs that underpin so many right-wing economic strategies persist on for decades and decades.

The objective of the Political Myth Busting series is to, using relatively simple language, demolish some of these ludicrous right-wing myths that have wormed their way into the "common sense" worldview of so many millions of people.

1.  The Mensch fallacy
2.  The "evil state" and "virtuous private" sector false duality
3.  The "Golden Hammer" of neoliberalism
4.  The "political spectrum shift" fallacy
5.  The fallacy of Nordic Apples and Anglo-American Oranges
6.  The "inefficient state" fallacy
7.  The "maxed out national credit card" fallacy
8.  The "blame the victim" fallacy
9.  The fallacy of diminished importance
10. The "sentient concept" fallacy
11. The "unpatriotic left" fallacy
12. Osborne's "market conficence" fallacy
13. The "no cuts" fallacy
14. The "waaaah...you're censoring me" fallacy
15. The "Making Work Pay" fallacy
16. The Iain Duncan Smith fallacy
17. The personification technique  
18. The "All in this Together" fallacy 
19. The I don't understand you - so you must be stupid" fallacy
20. The "New Labour are a left-wing party" myth  
21. The "Water Cannons Would Have Resolved The August 2011 riots" fallacy 
22. The "UKIP are an alternative" delusion
23. The "always cleaning up Labour's messes" narrative
24. "The SNP are Tartan Tories" smear campaign
25. The conservative fantasy of natural economic justice
26. The "There's No Money Left" argument
27. The Tory "economic recovery" mantra
28. The spending cuts vs tax increases false dichotomy
29. The delusion that the modern economy is a capitalist one
30. Comparing national economies with simple family budgets 
31. The fiction of NHS inefficiency
32. The "bankrupt Britain" lie
33. The "Northern Powerhouse" myth 
34. The "fracking = lower energy bills" myth
35. The "no difference between left and right" confusion


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Anonymous said...

"In brief, the use of the justification narrative technique is a propaganda methodology based on the concept that simple narrative structures (stories) are much more effective tools for spreading ideas than reams of statistics and rigorous analysis. In essence it is the idea that it doesn't matter how weak your own evidence is, or how brilliant your opponents' facts and analysis are, you'll win the debate in the mind of "the man on the street" as long as you're the better story-teller."

So that's why the "gas chamber" hoax is still alive and kicking.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed your book I downloaded it off iTunes. I have been following you on Facebook for a while and didn't think to link the name on the cover to your blog. Very enjoyable read and very well written arguably your finest work.

Thomas G Clark said...

The book on itunes is not an official one. The money from it doesn't go to me or this website.

All of the information in the book is available for free on this website.

If you see some value in my work, then all that I ask is that you make a donation via the PayPal donations box on this page (but only if you can afford to - I wouldn't want anyone doing without necessities in order to give me a tip).

All the best

Tom (AAV)

Barrie Singleton said...

People who liked Political Myth Busting might also like Spoil Party Games.

elspethc said...

Simple narrative structures are efficient at the spreading of false messages. But, stories about real people are one of the ways that truth can be brought to light. What is the essential difference between a true story and a simple narrative structure? Is it the intention of the narrator, or his ignorance?

Dan Filson said...

I'm not sure that, even if the vast majority are - as you state - economically illiterate, it necessarily follows that they cannot cope with a macroeconomic argument put to them clearly.

I recall not so many years ago talking to a woman on her doorstep whilst I was canvassing (supposedly you aren't meant to get into debates like this when canvassing) and I explained by a cut in VAT would stimulate the economy not because people would buy a new cooker because it was 2.5/117.5 cheaper but because overall they would marginally have more discretionary spending power in their pockets with immediate effect and, those who were poorer in particular, would tend to spend rather than save this extra resource (cue propensity to save statistics), the bulk of it going locally. This extra demand would stimulate the economy (demand-led growth) and reduce unemployment or slow the trend towards it etc. She had no problem grasping the economics of it. We didn't get into Ricardian equivalence or displacement theory etc., not surprisingly.

But it led me to think that how we grossly underestimate the native wit of our population. Too much political literature - on all sides - patronises its readership by not giving either the (sometimes complex) truth or the arguments. The public, as a consequence, don't rate those in politics too highly either - and that's before we get into MP expenses etc.

Ian Fantom said...

What, nothing on 9/11?

Anonymous said...

Hi aav, can you write an article debunking the myth that the rich will leave britain if we introduce regulations/nationalisations/higher taxes. People constantly bring this up in debates and, with my limited economic knowledge, I find it difficult to debunk. Thanks

jay said...

What about companies who plead that higher wages ( marginally higher of course) will cost jobs as they will be unaffordable and send the business into the red.
A market economy is just that - if you can't afford the market price don't have it. Surely the wages of workers at the correct level for the job is just the same. If a business cannot afford the going rate then it is not a viable business but one that needs to be subsidised by its workers in order to turn a profit. The ultimate result of a true market economy would be the company fails. It's tough but that's the market. Can you imagine going into a shop and saying that you know the price is perfectly valid and reasonable one but you are a bit short so cannot pay that price so will have to pay less. That would work wouldn't it? Pleading poverty to pay below a reasonable rate does not wash. Perhaps jobs would go in the short term but if there is a demand for whatever is being offered then someone else will step in. The same sob story was pleaded when child labour was stopped but hey, we managed somehow didn't we?


Lee Dalton Kear said...


Just found and am enjoying your work.
Is there any chance, or do you know of anywhere, where your ten questions on economics are explained in words an averagely intelligent human being could understand? If not I will take up the challenge of working through them one at a time.

I speak as an economically illiterate, politically astute, independent thinker of leftist persuasions.

Anonymous said...

It's a pity this site's a purely left-wing one. All anti-right.
How about some balance.

Haravikk said...

@Anonymous: This is the balance; the right-wing are essentially peddling lies as fact to our faces, so their claims are the ones most in need of a reality check. If they stop doing that and start telling the truth about their motives and goals then this blog can be free to focus on lies told by other parties instead.

@Dan Filson: I'm not sure it's so much that the British public can't understand, but rather that most just don't. Yes most people can have these things explained to them, but who is doing it? Who is able to reach them with the facts and make a convincing enough case that can overturn the simplistic fallacy that they've already been told?

The point of the propaganda is that it makes some kind of sense to people, so they accept it, at which point you need to introduce evidence and detailed explanation to clarify. But doing so is difficult and time consuming once one story has been established. It doesn't help that many media outlets don't give very good explanations (or rely too much on gimmicky graphics) or even just simply peddle the same fallacy themselves, intentionally or not.

Haravikk said...

Apologies for the double post, but I can't figure out how to edit comments on the older (non Disqus) comment system. I just wanted to highlight for those reading this series now (like me) that there is a petition to make economics mandatory in schools, which is something I believe is very much needed (and a case this series is making very well):


It's a little unfocused but the gist is there; what we need is a solid foundation of economic theory, and arguably philosophy would be useful too, specifically the argumentative aspect of it (fallacies, ontologies, cyclical arguments etc.). The actual maths and philosophic history could remain in separate classes for the more advanced level, but these kinds of basics would help a lot with people's understanding of the real political issues; modern studies as taught when I was at high school did very little to prepare me to vote intelligently, the only thing I even remember that was useful was about tied aid.

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Unknown said...

The SNP are a racists party.

Anonymous said...

Just exactly what is independent about your work. Is it that you do it off your own back? I certainly think you are attempting to mislead people into thinking that you are politically independent which you clearly are not.

Anonymous said...

Would love you to write a piece about the child maintenance service!

Adam Bray said...
This comment has been removed by the author.