A Requiem for Notions

Notions have their place, we need to put them back in their place.


As humanity wrestles with the greatest challenge it has faced since the Second World War, there is a widespread feeling that our ideas on how to organise and run our societies leave a lot to be desired.


Lots of ink is being spilt and blogs being published about how the Covid-19 pandemic is exposing the flaws in many of our ideologies and narratives about how the world works or should work.


I’d like to pick out a few choice notions, real stinkers, that are being made a mockery of by this virus. Then I want to try to show how notions themselves, no matter which notions they are, are a poor system to use, whether it is managing our own personal or household lives, our businesses, or right on up to managing entire states or economies.


I am using the term ‘Notion’ as an umbrella term for ideologies, theories, concepts, narratives, ideas, or even just catchy sayings and one-liners. For those with more interest; thought-terminating-clichés are a great thing to read up on. All of the above things especially deserve to be called notions when the real world, experienceable evidence backing them up is either minimal or non-existent but yet the notion persists. 


The Notions of Tight-Arse, Strict-Father Morality Capitalism


Huge portions of the economy are completely devastated by this pandemic. It has dealt a knockout blow to any industries that serve people during playtime such as hospitality and entertainment. People in these sectors literally cannot work. This fact still doesn’t seem to release Iain Duncan Smith from the notion that supporting these people will be a disincentive to work. Many people feel supporting people from the tax-pot will disincentivise work. But imagine thinking this so hard that you still think it when we’re discussing how to help people who literally cannot work because of a global emergency. Does Iain Duncan Smith have this notion or does the notion have him? Not only is this notion blinding him to the answer but it’s also deafening him to what the question is.


The Universal Basic Income/Helicopter Money issue is right at the fore of the debate on how to soften the massive blow caused by the suspension of so much business. After the financial crisis of 2008, the UK, the US, and the EU printed and injected trillions (Quantitive Easing) into their economies to keep them from seizing up (think of it like oiling an engine). But that printed money was given to banks to lend out to punters at interest. 


Why would workers who have been laid off have the confidence to borrow money at interest when they aren’t earning?


For this reason, the very real possibility of ‘Helicopter Money’ is being discussed – printing money and just depositing it into citizen’s bank accounts. 


It sounds crazy, but is it any crazier than giving the banks free money on which they can charge interest for themselves, despite it being given to them by the taxpayer in the first place?


Giving the printed money to citizens will circulate that money throughout the economy far more quickly since it is far more likely to be spent than if it is given to banks to loan out. And since one person’s spending is another’s income; this approach will give far more lift to the economy. The only obstacles are the severe types wagging their fingers and claiming that  “you can’t just give free money to people”. Interestingly, those same people tend to have no problem giving that free money to banks.  Worse, they seem to be comfortable with banks charging interest on the loans to the very people who gave them that free money in the first place. What exactly are we thinking?


Do we want to have a technical discussion about what works or are we too attached to our moral notions about hard work and hating the poor or the lazy to even discuss the question with clarity?


German culture has long been very taken with the notion of frugal responsibility. They suffered some of the worst hyperinflation ever seen in the 1930s and that trauma is clearly still ingrained. No-one sensible would say frugality doesn’t have its place. But their loyalty to this notion after the 2008 crash caused the EU to start its quantitative easing programme far later than the US and the UK meaning our recovery was slower than theirs. Being frugal can be more expensive is some scenarios. Is it good to be frugal when it comes to feeding a goose that lays golden eggs?


Tragically, the Finance Minister of the German province of Hesse seems to have taken his own life in the last couple of days. The saddest part of this is that his decision seems to have been driven by despair over the economic blow caused by this pandemic, coupled with the frugal notion that you can’t just inject printed money into an economy to overcome a crisis. The fact that it’s been done plenty of times doesn’t seem to be able to dislodge this notion for many.

A fiscal conservative (or German) is likely to howl about the dangers of inflation when you inject too much cash into an overheating economy. Here again is another blinding and deafening notion. When an economy is overheating this is indeed the case. The opposite is true in a deflationary, depressed economy. Imagine a doctor so terrified of hypertension that they gave patients with dangerously low blood pressure medication to lower it further. The observation is being trumped by the notion.

I’d like to mention one last economic notion that is being brutally debunked by this pandemic. Maximisation or Optimisation is the idea that leaving resources unused is wasteful. On paper, an economics or accountancy student can make the argument that it’s more efficient when the very last bit of toothpaste is being squeezed out of every asset. Meanwhile, in real life, the World Health Organisation has been warning of the need to have “minimum core health capacities” in place to deal with future respiratory pandemics since 2005 – two years after the SARS outbreak.  All the money that’s ever been saved by not having excess capacity built into our health systems to cope with pandemics will be cancelled out many times over now that the pandemic has arrived. Most budgetary decisions are made in accordance with accountancy principles. Under these principles, investing in capacity over and above what seems necessary is wasteful. Accountancy thinking has its place but this point shows that it also has its limits. 


Notions are a Flawed Operating System


Unfortunately, too much discussion in politics, economics, business, and public policy is based on competing notions. Some may advocate for notion X and others advocate for notion Y.


There is far less debate about the ‘notion’ part as there is about the X vs. Y part.


Imagine for a second that the mind had two main tools: Perception and Cognition. Of course, both are functioning at any given time, but during some activities, it can be argued at it is more appropriate to be ‘perception-led’ and during others, it could be more appropriate to be ‘cognition-led’. 


A hunter-gatherer on the lookout for berries or a deer will want to be as perceptive as possible. The same could be said for professional tennis players. The pioneer of cognitive psychology, Daniel Kahneman, has published work demonstrating that cognition can actually impair perception – when you’re thinking too hard, it diminishes your ability to see, hear, or notice things. We probably didn’t need scientists to tell us this.


Many notions came about as heuristics — shortcuts or rules-of-thumb — that can substitute for cognition. Many of them had and still have a very good reason for existing. Stories can be a handy way to help our children avoid hurting or killing themselves before they are mentally developed enough to understand dangers for themselves. 


But where notions can become very dangerous is when they substitute for perception. It is at this point that we have a capacity for delusion. We can start being owned by our ideas instead of having them. And intelligence and education, far from giving us immunity, is more often than not something that makes us more susceptible as we are more adept at constructing justifications for discarding the things we perceive because they don’t confirm the things we already think.


One of the biggest examples of a notion that uses us more than we use it is money. Originally invented as a way to put a value score against goods or services (one cow might be worth 80 chickens or 170 blacksmith hours); we have gone beyond that and begun processing and consuming real-life resources in order to assign a monetary value to them. Instead of turning money into stuff, we now turn stuff into money. Unchecked, this could be akin to a runaway Frankenstein monster since we cannot wear, eat, or burn money. We are so used to thinking what we think that we struggle to see that the money is only supposed to be a representation of the value of the things we can buy with it.


The UK and USA’s response to the Coronavirus outbreak came about 10 days too late and they are paying dearly for this delay. There was more than enough information to go on but because a pandemic is not something most of us have experience of, disruption of this proportion seems to have fallen outside of what their policymakers thought notionally possible.


All of this boils down to the ability of notions to close not only our minds, but fatally, our eyes and ears too. This is why notions can slow us down when responding to a crisis. They make us believe that what we think is more important than what we are experiencing.  


They can even produce a dangerous effect I call a ‘Fail-Sure Mechanism’. The opposite of a fail-safe mechanism, a fail-sure mechanism causes us to reject sensory data that contradicts a notion that we are held captive by even if we are on a collision course. This means that we can lock the steering wheel on that collision course out of loyalty to the notion. Think of it as confirmation bias on steroids. I believe the administrations in London and Washington have experienced fail-sure mechanisms this past fortnight. They didn’t want this pandemic to be as bad as it is, and despite visible evidence that it was, they chose not to see what they could see.   


Maybe we harbour faith that there is some all-encompassing magic formula, idea, or notion that, as long as we blindly and deafly stick to it, will guide us through life. Maybe we feel safer having a formula to believe in and work to. But the problem is that a notion is quite a static thing and life is a very fluid thing. Eventually, it is a mathematical certainty that there will be a mismatch between the scenario we are in and whatever notion it is that we hold dear. I would suggest that the only all-encompassing notion is that no notion is appropriate in every situation and that there is no substitute for keeping your eyes and ears open.


I’ll throw in one last hilarious point to illustrate the power that notions have to blind, deafen, and stupify us. The healing waters at Lourdes were closed due to coronavirus. This is one of the most meta things that has ever gone through my mind. They closed the miraculous healing waters for fear that the virus is floating around in it. When all this is over; will they go back to the notion that it’s healing water despite conceding that the virus has the ability to live in it?


Notions have their place. They help us visualise what might be, but often at the expense of what is. They have their box. A box into which they must quickly get the fuck back into. An operating system based predominantly on notions is obsolete. If this pandemic doesn’t make us see that, nothing will.

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