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Beware the simple narrative

We humans are fond of simple narratives, aren’t we? We take comfort in reductionist scenarios, arguments cut from spare cloth, in assertions that are uncluttered, easy to understand, that resonate with our beliefs and our fears.

Simple narratives provide a balm but, at the same time, are often a barrier to progress, becoming the very things that keep us from improving our lot.

We are in the thick of the political season, and simple narratives take center stage. Unfortunately, simple narratives seldom reflect complex realities. All too often these narratives fly in the face of the realities they claim to illuminate, and little of value is accomplished because of them.

Take a few narratives du jour as examples.

There is the discourse concerning the burden of taxation: we are taxed too much, we get nothing for it, return our money. The self-indulgent spiel exists despite the fact that many, if not the majority of narrators are late middle-age or older – dependant on taxation to support the programs they fear losing – programs like Social Security, veterans benefits and Medicare. The narrative often boils down to: Give me mine, don’t give anything to anyone else.

Look at complaints about “Big Government.” Yes, we should be concerned about the size of government – most particularly about the mind-numbing spending taking place for too long now. But, the simple answer? Cut back government, when Big Government’s primary function is cutting checks for the above-mentioned aging population and funding defense? Really? Is it that easy?

Then there is the narrative that identifies “patriotism” with a single ideological position, that defines as “unpatriotic” anything one disagrees with. Is it a productive form of political discourse considering the polarization it creates? No.

How about the clamor over illegal immigration: “Illegal immigration is overwhelming us, Americans are losing jobs to illegal immigrants; we’re doing little to secure our borders.” The solution: pass new, extreme laws to deal with the problem.

How do you justify this gut-churning narrative and its proposed solutions when: More has been done in the last eight to nine years to toughen the borders than was ever done before, with more success as time goes on; when the all-time high in illegal immigration came approximately 30 years ago; when property crime and violent crime statistics in certain border states (Arizona, anyone) is on the decline; when many economists assert the presence of immigrant workers actually serves to increase the average wages of ordinary American workers due the increase in the consumer base. Could it be the narrative rests on fear: immigrants will contribute significantly to U.S. population growth because the “traditional” American birth rate is dropping and will move into the workforce in greater numbers as “traditional” U.S. citizens retire? Is it really a fear of democracy? The issue is complex, the facts are many and often confusing. There is no simple answer.

Do simple narratives attach themselves to local politics? Read our Letters to the Editor section and answer that question. Simple narratives often rule the day. Yet, local problems are also complex.

With a local primary, and local, state and national general elections coming up, (including a number of state initiatives), and the chance tax increases might be put on the ballot, we need to be on guard for simple narratives and the politicians who pander to them. Voters need to pierce the tempting veneer of these narratives, demand facts, and ask would-be representatives to state their positions in light of the facts.

The self-indulgent and ill-informed comfort of simple narratives will not solve our problems.

Karl Isberg