How to Think About the Economy
umair haque

How to Think About the Economy, Step 1: Beware the Polyphemus Fallacy

Starting now, my new life’s mission is to breed the phrase The Polyphemus Fallacy into the public consciousness. It must go viral. Everyone must know what it is and how to avoid it.

My art teacher, of all people, enlightened me to this thoughtkill over a decade ago. I suppose he fancied himself a grammarian. “Daily is a basis,” he would say, triumphantly, as if he’d mined a mother lode of grammatical gold. Well, one day he offered my class an assignment to read an essay called The Polyphemus Fallacy. To this day, I have no idea what the essay had to do with art—but it had plenty to do with just about everything else. If I were to guess, I’d say that about 83% of people who are wrong on the internet openly commit the The Polyphemus Fallacy with neither shame nor remorse. I’m pretty sure they don’t see themselves doing it, but they should start, and I should see to it that they do.

The crux of the biscuit is this: “Be always mindful of what our founder used to call the Polyphemus Fallacy. It appears when, by an unconsidered choice of words, exclusively human powers or attributes are implied where none can exist. The name comes, of course, from the sad story of Polyphemus, blinded, as he thought, by No-Man. When he called upon the other Cyclopes to avenge his hurt, what else could they do but remind him that he who is injured by no one can hardly expect redress? … Consider all of your words. Many of them name deeds or states that are possible only to human beings. When you use them, attach them to persons. Give names and addresses wherever possible. When you assert that there should be more love in the world, or more peace, all you do is praise yourself as virtuous, in favor of good and against evil. Be specific. To whom, exactly, is your admonition directed? … Who talks about everybody talks about nobody, and remarkably much to his own convenience. Who has humanity in mind has not a single living human being in mind, and his talk is cheap. Still, we pay a lot for it.”

So I spotted an essay on my twitter feed called “How to Think About the Economy”, as tweeted by some strangers called ‘@Medium’. Honestly, I didn’t even know who that was, or how I came to be following them, but they sure know how to push my buttons.

Readers of the Internets pay a lot for essays like “How to Think About the Economy”. The cost is misdirected attention, that is, time wasted pursuing chimeras that might have shown themselves not to exist as expected, if at all, had their conjurers took care to describe them more thoughtfully. Maybe this author has found a real and vicious one. Maybe he hasn't. It’s hard for me to tell when he hides agents like Easter eggs, under passively voiced stones, or camouflaged in ambiguous pronouns. Consider this example:

The economy’s not recovering. It’s broken. It will not recover. Until wages rise. CEOs makes 300 times what workers do. “Bankers” made 10 times what CEOs do. “Hedge fund managers” make 10 times what “bankers” do. See the problem? The people that are paid the most contribute the least to a working economy. The people that are paid the most damage prosperity the worst. … That backwards relationship won’t change until wages rise.

Well, shucks. Who’s doing the paying, here? Who pays these people? Is this someone I can contact, or negotiate with, or do some muckraking journalism on? Is it someone I need to fit for a cement overcoat? Let’s figure that out.

How do wages rise, anyway? Do they waft into the heavens, like the specters of crucified prophets? The author is certainly correct, that the CEOs of the universe won’t billow out their wage offers sua sponte. But why not? Do shoppers not willingly offer extra pay for extra value? Believe it or not, they do. Could the prevailing wage have anything to do with any other people besides the offerors, such as, perhaps, the offerees on the other end of the bargain, who have accepted the wages offered? If so, where do these other people fit in the “serious institutional reform” that the author later non-proposes?

Why examine anyone else’s behavior when cloaking it behind an anthropomorphized wage that rises and falls under its own volition—or solely at the whim of the scapegoated villain—would better fit the author’s narrative? “Until wages rise,” indeed.

The author continues:

Imagine if we paid serial killers a hundred times more than surgeons. What do you think would happen to “the economy”? … “The economy” would soon resemble a place where people earned huge sums for slashing and burning everyone; and no one really had much of a reason or a way or a motive…to stop them. Think that’s fucked up? That is the economy as it’s been built, genius.

Do I understand the analogy correctly that although “we” have paid bankers and CEOs huge sums to economically slash and burn “everyone”, “no one”, presumably including “we”, has either a reason, or a way, or a motive, to stop the rampaging bankers and CEOs whom “we” pay to rampage? Do I have that about right?

Do I further understand correctly that the reason “we” don’t simply stop paying the rampaging bankers and CEOs out of our own pockets—for the alleged sole service of economically slashing and burning us—is that further unnamed agents “built” the economy so to prevent us from withdrawing our monetary support? Well, who in tarnation built that? Do we have any leads on these shoddy contractors? Do we have any suspects? Are the suspects also “we”, by any chance?

The author concludes:

You see, the problem with pure faith, unpolluted by reason, is this. Letting our idols down becomes the greatest crime of all. And so we do not ask. Is it our idols that are letting us down?

Whose idols? His idols? My idols? Does he know what my idols are? Would he care to identify said idols, as a matter of confirmation, and how, exactly, those idols go about letting, or not letting, anything? Who lets? Granted, as a work of literary art, it’s sufficiently vague to stir the imagination. As a political economic policy proposal, however, it falls short of helpfulness.

I understand that the author is frustrated, and he is frustrated for plenty good reason. But on my end, as an interpreter of his written ideas, his frustration seems a muddle. What’s going on here? If the author is in a question-asking mood, then he might start with these:

  1. Who pays whom, and how, and why?
  2. Who raises what, and how, and why?
  3. Who builds what, and how, and why?
  4. Who lets whom do what, and how, and why?
  5. Who are ‘we’?
  6. Whose is ‘ours’?

The answers might not be as the author expects. If the answers he finds support his just cause, then I, too, might join it—but no sooner.

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