Today's miracles and magical thinking

Posted 06.22.13

SHAWVILLE, QUEBEC | Magical thinking has been common in novels and literature for decades, maybe eons, and has been a feature of religion since religious texts were first revealed; now it has made its way across much of our culture -- certainly it's a tremendous force in politics.

It's a bit like fantasy, a bit like wishing, where self-contradictory statements, programs, and plans are taken to be accurate reflections of the way the world works. It works, if "works" is the right word, by taking wishes and hopes to be real, with or without any evidence. A little linguistic gymnastics makes these magical expressions "real" for their proponents. And in some rare cases they may actually be true -- as in religious expressions -- but these cases are indeed rare. Miracles are their commonest expression.

Politics, as practiced by certain wish-fulfillers, trades on such proposals in a big way; they are proposals which are clearly self-contradictory, yet are proposed and accepted by many people thanks to their belief, obviously, in magic.

For example, the most outrageous sample is "trickle-down economics." This is not economics; it's politics masquerading as economics.

Trickle-down proposes that if our society allows the wealthy to gain even greater wealth (usually be removing restrictions, regulations, and taxation, not by productivity increases), their millions will trickle down to the rest of us as they spend them.

Recent revelations about the size of off-shore accounts and other forms of tax-avoidance are dismissed as irrelevant by magical thinkers. At present it has been estimated that the wealthy of the world have enough wealth hidden to equal the GNP of the American and Japanese economies combined. Not much trickling out of that.

Probably today's most common expression of magical thinking is the infamous concept of "austerity." This is the magic that says if we cut spending within our economy -- less to pensioners, low income families, etc -- there will be more growth in the economy and more jobs created.

Once magical thinking has been identified, it seems to be everywhere. More examples: if ordinary working people vote for the political party(s) which favour corporate interests, working people will benefit rather than corporations. The whole notion of self-regulation is magical thinking -- if we remove all the rules, the multinational corporations will act in a way that serves the public best -- eg, that banks, for example, haven't learned that they can earn more by colluding with each other than by competing.

Tax cuts: cutting government revenues (taxes) will magically increase the government's revenues.

Increasing the cost of university education means we'll magically have a larger educated work force and need fewer immigrant workers.

A political party's calling itself "tough on crime," while cutting funding for crime abatement, means there will be less crime on the streets.

Removing price supports for farmers -- or removing joint marketing plans -- means farmers will receive better prices for their produce.

Once started, there seems no end to our magical thinking. But can we depend on miracles?


Copyright © 2013 Fred Ryan/Log Cabin Chronicles/06.13