Monday, September 10, 2018

Can MEMEnomics help us to predict social change?

MEMEnomics is the title of a book by Said Dawlabani, a cultural economist. The book, published in 2013, is an application of the psycho-social model of human development pioneered by Clare Graves and Don Beck. MEMEnomics has been praised by several prominent people, including Deepak Chopra and Bruce Lipton, but I have yet to see any praise by prominent economists. The author does not claim that his book is part of the economics mainstream.

Said Dawlabani suggests that MEMEnomics represents the coming together of two fields: memetics – the study of the replication, spread and evolution of memes - and economics. Just as genes carry the codes that define human characteristics, memes carry the codes that define cultural characteristics. The book is focused on value-system memes - the varying preferences and priorities that humans have in their lives depending on their level of development. The way human values may change with levels of human development was discussed in a recent post on this blog.

The author defines MEMEnomics as “the study of the long-term effects of economic policy on culture as seen through the prism of value systems”. Much of the book is devoted to attempting to explore the cultural implications of changes in economic policy in the United States. The author recognizes the desirability of ensuring that his model can explain history before it is used to attempt to predict the future.

There are three memenomic cycles identified in the book:

·         a “fiefdoms of power” cycle, peaking around 1900, in which American industrialists played a dominant role - large-scale exploitation, fraud and corruption came to identify the values of that era;

·         a “patriotic prosperity” cycle, peaking around 1950, characterized by economic expansion and government intervention – Keynesian macro-policies and social polices – and ending in stagflation;

·         and an “only money matters” cycle, peaking around 1980, characterized by monetarism and deregulation of the economy, and leading to the financial crisis of 2008.

I am not sure the author succeeds in demonstrating that changes in economic policies have led to cultural change. The cycles identified seem to me to be caricatures of beliefs held by powerful elites rather than accurate descriptions of deep-seated changes in values held by ordinary citizens. Nevertheless, it might be reasonable to argue that the cycles represent changes in ideologies of opinion leaders that have been reflected superficially in voting preferences and priorities of the American public.

The author suggests that we are standing on the cusp of a fourth cycle, “the democratization of information cycle”, in which technological advances are allowing social networks to play a pivotal role in affecting social change. That view has merit in my view, but I think this technology-driven change is better viewed as an exogenous factor rather than a new ideology emerging from the down-side of “only money matters”. At this stage it seems that, in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, social networks have aided the return of economic nationalism rather than a policy environment placing higher priority on human development and living in harmony with nature.

As discussed in previous posts (here and here) there does seem to be scope for technological advances to have profound impacts on human values and the way we organise ourselves relative to each other over the next few decades. However, since some of those innovations threaten the scope of government, it seems unlikely that government policy will play a top-down role encouraging them to happen. Policy change seems more likely to occur in response to the demands of ordinary citizens for governments to get out of the way, so citizens can make effective use of new technology.

I enjoyed reading the final chapter of the book discussing the concept of a sustainable corporation. Inspirational examples are provided of corporation leaders setting out to define how the core values of their organisations can enable them to simultaneously pursue profits and a higher purpose. Unfortunately, some of the shining examples of 2013 do not all shine so brightly today.  Said Dawlabani has written an interesting article recently on the reasons why that has happened.
 Entrepreneurs who are selling new sets of values to investors, staff and customers will always encounter naysayers. In the face of this negativism some of these pioneers will succeed, many will not.

One of the messages I get from MEMEnomics is that individual entrepreneurs are likely to play a crucial leadership role in facilitating transition from a subsistence value system limited to expressions of selfish interests, to a value system that understands the interconnectedness of all life on the planet.

It strikes me that for economics to shed light on the role of the entrepreneur in this process it needs to recognize that the value created by entrepreneurs is likely to have a large non-pecuniary component in future. In pursuit of personal values some innovative entrepreneurs are offering investors the opportunity to feel that their funds are being used for the betterment of humanity and/or the environment, as well as generating financial returns. Similarly, they are offering employees the opportunity to feel they are engaged in a meaningful venture rather than just an income earning activity, and are also offering consumers opportunities to feel good about their purchases.

The economic model that seems most relevant in this context is 'identity economics' - as discussed in a book of that name by George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton. The key idea is that people gain satisfaction when their actions conform to the norms and ideals of their identity. In a tribal society, identity economics is like identity politics – people adopt the norms and ideals of the tribe to which they belong. In a cosmopolitan society the relevant norms and ideals are those of the market economy, incorporating a large measure of respect for the rights of others and social trust. Over the next few decades, hopefully the relevant norms and ideals will incorporate greater concern for the well-being of all humans and other living creatures.

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