Wednesday, July 20, 2011

...drowning in supermemes

By kay.e.strong

As if memes alone were not enough evidence of a dearth in mental diversity, they’ve morphed to supermemes!  Thank Dawkins (The Selfish Gene, 1976) for alerting us to the seamy world of memes.  In case you missed the book, memes like genes propagate through the medium of human culture spreading like a virus from brain to brain.  The strongest memes survive to compete another day.  Cheney’s infamous declaration (2002) that “deficits don’t matter” is a classic example of an economic meme.  As the “deficits don’t matter” meme propagated, the CBO projected 10-year $5.6 trillion budget surplus ebbed away, while Congress voted seven times to raise the debt ceiling, in effect, doubling the national debt during the Bush administration, ultimately, leaving a $1.2 trillion budget deficit for 2009.  As should be evident, a bad meme like a bad gene can be costly but, perhaps, less so than an out-of-control supermeme.

A supermeme is a collection of memes that grows so prevalent it quashes all competing beliefs and thought.  Mash together—deficits that do matter + raising taxes lead to fewer jobs + reducing taxes improves the economy by boosting spending + the only way to balance the budget is to cut spending—just don’t touch the military budget—and what do you get? A perfect recipe for national debt disaster! 

The appearance of supermemes is symptomatic of a much deeper problem—the complexification of life itself.  One truism attributed to John Muir states: "Tug on anything at all and you'll find it connected to everything else in the universe." We are part of this highly interconnected universe as are our problems. Without clearly defined beginnings or ends solutions remain elusive. Most of us--legislators included have not been trained in systems analysis.  We grapple with problems the old way, piecemeal, quietly praying that no one will take notice of our incompetence.  Like a virus grown resistant to an antibiotic, today's band aid solutions create tomorrow's supercharged problems.  Is there a way out?  Yes, but it requires we stop doing what we have always done.

Until we're all up to speed on systems analysis, let's battle the supermemes with a full out frontal assault.  Let's stop saying “no” to every proposed solution and start aggregating a set of all possible solutions.  Let's acknowledge that blame lies within the system not at the feet of an individual.  And get on with it. Let's adhere to the Greenspan principle:  “Gentlemen (and women), you are each entitled to your opinion, but are not each entitle to your own facts.” Let's raise our eyes above our own shoelaces long enough to strike up a genuine conversation with neighbors on the other side of the fence.  Let's exorcise the efficiency argument from our mental tool kit.  Everything in life should not be measured with the economic yardstick.  It stands to reason that the more complex our problems, the more we should embrace inefficiency.  Our best shot at resolving complex problems comes not from converging on the solution but rather from throwing everything we've got at it in hopes that something works.
Time for real change—and not that red versus blue stuff...the clock ticks toward August 2nd!

Kay Strong, Ph.D., Southern Illinois University, M.T., University of Houston, M.A., Ohio University; Associate Professor at Baldwin-Wallace College; Areas of expertise: international economics, contemporary social-economic issues, complexity and futures-based perspectives in economics. E-mail:


  1. Perhaps it would be wise to ask journalists not to ask the false either-or-choice questions just because they don't have time to explore options.

    Or perhaps it would be wise for all of us to just ignore journalists who do ask such simplistic questions.

    And besides exploring options requires us to listen to each other.

    Great article.

  2. Thanks, Gary!

  3. Memes are amoral, Dawkins' metaphor notwithstanding. Dr. Susan Blackmore (The Meme Machine, 1999) is a really interesting thinker on the subject.
    (See also


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This blog lives under the auspices of the Department of Economics whose mission has been to hold high the lantern beaming an "economic way of thinking" onto the world. Selfishness, rationality and equilibrium have been central to the teaching of an economic way of thinking rooted in the Renaissance. And, in this regard, the department has faithfully stayed the course. The intent of this blog, thinking out loud..., however, is to entertain exchanges which may challenge the centrality of economics as we teach it.