Economy Such Complex, Culture Much Simple

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” — H.L. Mencken

In a recent blog post, Paul Krugman argues that economists and policy makers have deliberately mystified the current economic situation for political reasons and that the solution to our current woes is actually very simple: we need more government spending to boost demand. He plays off the above Mencken epigram, saying “For every simple problem there is an answer that is murky, complex, and wrong.”

It is interesting to compare the kind of economic fear mongering discussed by Krugman with the role of culture in Ebola fear mongering. In a recent interview with medical anthropologist Theresa MacPhail she criticizes that “horrible and racist Newsweek” cover story on Ebola for the way it blames the spread of the disease on African “culture.”

Burial practices, wild meat consumption, and local reactions to quarantine and isolation have all been described as “cultural” problems that promote the spread of Ebola. As an anthropologist, I think that journalists should be careful when they use “culture” as a rationale. Culture is not an explanation. It’s something that needs further examination. Culture should not be a cudgel used to blame the victims of Ebola for their own suffering.

What struck me about these two discussions is the fact that, when seen side-by-side in this way, they highlight how willingly journalists (and the public) accept the economy as something which is complex and difficult to understand, but treat culture as a kind of self-evident set of practices and beliefs which, once identified, need no further explanation. As such, public intellectuals in economics (like Krugman) spend a lot of time trying to convince the public that economic problems are easily understandable, while a lot of the work we do as public anthropologists goes into trying to make complex what people believe they already intuitively understand.

Thinking about this led me to make some further disparate observations on complexity and public anthropology/economics which I gave up trying to work into a coherent narrative and instead present to you here in this handy list form:

  1. While both the mathematical tools used by economists and the theoretical tools used by anthropologists appear as a foreign language to the untrained eye, there is a certain willingness to accept the necessity of translating human behavior into math while there is a strong negative reaction to the use of anthropological jargon.

  2. Economic fear mongering can also take the form of simplistic economic truisms, such as the false analogy between national debt and household debt. But there is a difference between arguing that something is counter-intuitive and arguing that it is complex. I think Krugman does a good job of showing that the truism is wrong without resorting to a complexity argument.

  3. Often the complexity that anthropologists want to talk about involves the impact of political-economic factors upon culture. This means that we are often arguing against our own particular claim to expertise (insofar as people see anthropologists as experts on “culture”). I think that one reason for Jared Diamond’s success is that (as Rex so eloquently discusses in his article in The Appendix) this is not a handicap for him since he isn’t really interested in “culture” in the first place.