Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Father Ted and Economics Speaking Notes

See below speaking notes for the "Father Ted talk" I gave in Kilkenny last November as part of the Kilkenomics festival. Provided just for fun as some people had been asking for them. These were guide notes I was using - the session itself was very interactive and took place at 11pm on a Saturday night in a gig venue. My favourite heckle was "Xenophon was first" shouted by one audience member as I was talking about the Scottish Enlightenment. At another stage a customer of the adjacent pub wandered in, thinking he was entering the gents, then once he had gotten over the shock shouted at me to "play something by Oasis". In general, it was a very fun experience with a very upbeat audience.

The Economics of Father Ted 

Hello everyone. I see I have sold out tonight's event. I asked the organizers and they said I was one of the first to sell out. I asked them to clarify whether I was one of the first or THE first. They told me I was the second to sell out after Varoufakis. Well no problem there. If you love him so much, I am sure we could just chase after him and ask him to give the talk. Professor Varoufakis the perfect Professor with his motorbike and his jacket. Maybe I shouldn't do this talk at all. Maybe we should just spend the next hour gazing lovingly at his photo.

There were some economists who doubted I could sell out Kilkenny. Well I think the smile has very much been wiped off the face of a certain Dr Stephen Kinsella. ("Oh God I hope he doesn't spend the next hour boasting about himself and settling scores").

Seriously though folks there are real crossovers between economics and Father Ted. Not widely known but Linehan and Matthews based Father Jack on the well known Irish economist Colm McCarthy.

I have always dreamt of giving a Ted talk. In my dream, my talk is so inspiring that I finish it, without a hint of irony and managing to pull it off completely, with a full-throated rendition of all seven verses of the Greatest Love of All.

I always felt drawn to comedies as a way of understanding the world. While I like Star Trek, it always left me with a sense of distance from the competent and emotionally intelligent people exploring the universe. Red Dwarf, in which a sexually-frustrated man-cat often shouted and kicked dysfunctional machinery always felt a bit more real. Elon Musk's ambition to populate Mars sounds great in one way but you get the sense from the way we are going that they would ruin it in a couple of years with a property bubble and then some idiot would set up an anti-immigration party for "real Martians". I think no matter how advanced our technology becomes, we will always need a capacity for a sense of humor, certainly given how we manage our economies.

So why Father Ted and economics? I think some TV shows are so iconic that they have clearly tapped into deep features of a culture. Others have written about, for example, economic themes in the Wire and there are several college courses on the Wire and on Yes Minister. While Ted is not about economic and political themes primarily, the context of Ted arising at the nadir of Irish catholicism and the universality of the characters and the jokes makes it possible to use aspects of the programme to illustrate many important economic themes.

Firstly, what is Economics? Prior to Economics, we had Political Economy. Political Economy has a number of roots but one of the main ones is the Scottish Enlightenment. The Scottish Enlightment is basically similar to Dougal's questioning of the validity of religion. Thinkers like Smith and Hume began to say "Come on, Ted. Sure it's no more peculiar than all that stuff we learned in the seminary, you know, Heaven and Hell and everlasting life and all that type of thing. You're not meant to take it seriously, Ted!", and to question the primacy of religion in social thought. They sought to develop a "science of man" to anchor how to govern countries. From this, political economy began to develop. It is hard to say Adam Smith invented Economics but he was definitely the last person to invent it. I once saw a t-shirt that said "Economics, confusing people since 1776", 1776 being the year Smith published his wealth of nations. Most people would see this as the birth of Political Economy.

But throughout the 1800s, a lot of thinkers became impatient with the idea that political economy would not be as scientific as other disciplines. Basically, they wanted to take the political out and develop a science based on mathematics and data. Suggested names for this new science included Plutology, Chrematistics, Catallactics, but thankully around the 1880s, they settled for the name Economics and it is at this stage that the first great Economics textbooks start emerging. These guys were confident that they had developed a science, it was a mathematical science that studied how consumers, producers, workers, investors, entrepreneurs etc., interacted rationally together in market systems. Over the next century, it would grow into a body of mathematical theory and empirical data to test all these relationships. However, it left a lot of stuff out, and Father Ted is a good framework for thinking about this:

Feck, Arse, Drink: Rationality and Motivations 

The first thing I would say is that the assumption that people are selfish and look after their own or their family's interests first and foremost is one of the biggest questions in Economics. In Ted, we see varying degrees of this. First, there is the sort of Freudian id selfishness of Father Jack. Sitting on a couch summoning pornographic images to his mind, shouting insults at people, and demanding psychoactive substances, Father Jack is basically the personification of the emerging digital economy. As economists we have a reasonably good handle on that type of consumer. Tibor Skitovsky's great book "The Joyless Economy" warns about how the progression of convenient consumer goods could lead to outcomes where our lives became dull, how we might all become essentially cyborg Father Jacks without counterveiling tendencies to push us to challenge ourselves in different ways. Ted also displays a self-indulgence that is pretty easy to model from an economic perspective but he adds things like concern for status and bitterness that had to be added into economic models over the 20th century. Also, we see in Father Ted the importance of norms of behaviour in people'e lives. "I'll pay for this Mrs Doyle" and the subsequent fight illustrates what economists came to call impure altruism - there is a vast amount of human economic behaviour that fits into that mold.

Lovely Horses: Winner's Curses and Profitable Losses 

The second thing that Ted contributes to our understanding of the economy is the sense of how ridiculous things can be in real world markets. While the received wisdom is that markets are all about competing and winning, in actuality incentives can make losing a more efficient strategy. My favourite example is My Lovely Horse. It is our natural assumption to think that people must be trying to win when they are competing, whether it is a company going for a tender, or a team competing for a trophy. But there are so many "Lovely Horse" situations in modern economies. If you remember the plot, Ted and Dougal develop a song about a horse and enter it into the competition to decide who represents Ireland in the Eurovision. RTE, having hosted the competition several times before and finally realising how costly it is to do so, rig the competition so that Ted and Dougal win, in the hope that they basically get trounced in the final and they dont have to worry about it again. The producer of the show on the night produces a classic Father Ted moment as we see how cynical he has become of life in general having to operate in such a corrupt environment only to catch a glimpse of his humanity being restored as he watches his colleague and lover Jon Kenny emerge on to the stage to preside over the farce - "What a showman!!". We see situations like this constantly. The amount of corruption related to gambling in sport is now so endemic that it is likely we will start witnessing an increasing amount of matches where both sides, without knowing it, have agreed with a separate betting syndicate to lose and have to grind each other, in fear of having their knees broken, into a soulless stalemate like participants in a particularly bleak Beckett play. In many countries, people can write off corporate losses against their personal taxes which is allegedly why Trump's companies consistently made losses yet he is still so wealthy. Financial analysts talk about "unicorns", which are basically untested start-ups that aquire very high initial valuations. I like to think also about "lovely horses", projects intentionally doomed to fail because the incentives make it good for someone to have them fail.

The Behavioural Economics of Spiderbabys

Ted also contains many funny examples of what happens in everyday consumer life. There are Spider-Babys all round us. When Dougal gets excited about the coming to town of the carnival, it is the spider-baby that jumps out most to him. Upon questioning from Ted, we learn that the "spiderbaby" has both the body of a spider and the head of a spider and has nothing in common with being a baby other than they have put it in a pram. Many financial products are basically spider-babys with exotic names that mask the fact that they are basically bank accounts or bundles of loans. Furthermore markets are very confusing anyway - we are bewildered by complexity both inherent and contrived and we look for ways of cutting through this complexity. Herbert Simon, who won the Nobel in Economics and did so many other things in psychology and artificial intelligence, said that humans were boundedly rational - they develop  simplifying strategies to navigate life. When Tom emerges from the post office following the sound of a gun shot and an ensuing alarm, his desire to get moving as quickly as possible makes Ted wonder whether "he is up to his old tricks again". Instead Tom assures Ted that "its my money father, I just didn't want to fill out all de forms". An extreme example, but the development of behavioural economics and the various Nobel prizes that have been handed out in that area revolve exactly around this question, how do we cope with such complexity.

Champagne Cardinals and Piketty's Capital 

An image from Father Ted that sticks with me is the sight of a bunch of cardinals sitting in a jacuzzi drinking champagne as models covort around them. This image takes on more life in the 1 per cent movement. Corporate pay and culture at the top level has come into increasing focus over recent years, including Piketty's work Capital. Large concentrations of wealth, coupled with inheritance in the context of declining family sizes, and the fact there is not much evidence that senior figures add value in relation to the size of these payments, all get us thinking that maybe capitalism is just a bit like that - if you work in a large company in the equivalent of their Craggy Island branch, perhaps the bosses really are sitting in a jacuzzi somewhere laughing and drinking champagne, ready to put out the odd fire when needed. And it is a lot worse if you are a woman. Ted took place in a context of discrimination against women that we can only hope later generations will think of as like something from another age. Images of an exhausted Mrs Doyle heading up to the roof to mend the slates on a windy day or the winner of lovely girls competition getting the prize of buying Ted dinner are funny but partly because they resonate - as humorous as the images are you could easily give examples from the real Ireland at the time that were just as bad.

Fintan Stack and Restoring the Political Economy Tradition 

One thing that Father Ted also teaches us is that maybe we went wrong in taking out the politics of power and violence. Looking at the last financial crisis, there are few better ways to get a sense of what happened than summoning to your mind an image of a slightly oily and malevolent Brendan Grace cleaning his ear with a car key and uttering the immortal words "I took your car and I drove it into a big wall and if you don't like it tough, I've had my fun and that's all that matters". As I said before, economics became good at modelling various features of human beings. Whereas many models leave out complexity, entire literatures emerged to explain how people cope with this. The standard model doesn't take into account social norms, and adherence to cultural beliefs etc., but again whole literatures have emerged to plug this gap. Where we have struggled more is with the possibility that people are not just selfish but can also be actively malevolent and destructive and not respecting of the property rights systems that are the backbone of the scientific economics. Most generations in history across all countries encounter a Fintan Stack moment, where somebody bigger, stronger, badder, and with a greater capacity for violence simply takes their stuff and tells them to screw themselves. For my generation in Ireland that was the financial crisis. We were certainly used to "money resting in accounts" moments, lovely horses, and cardinals - in many ways what makes Father Ted funny is it draws deep from the rich well of low-level corruption and hypocrisy that marked out much of the Ireland we grew up in. But what makes Fintan Stack stand out is he is completely above norms and niceties. He doesn't even try to dress it up in any way - he is playing the jungle music not asking for permission to play it and if he wants to smash your car he will. When we saw people who had gambled into the crazy property market of pre-crisis Ireland demanding protection of their full investment, what we see is not just "Cardinals" level champagne-swilling frivolity, it is Fintan Stack level malevolence. I think it shocked a lot of us and it gets us to think about how you protect a system of democracy, law, and society based on rules and conventions grounded in human decency from such characters.

I Believe the Children are our Future 

 Given this is my Ted talk, I would like to end with something inspiring. I think if we can continue this work together, then it just might be possible one day for the most disadvantaged children on the planet to navigate space cheaply and safely...Well that's what I would have like to end with but  more seriously a comedy as brilliantly written and performed as Father Ted enters into the culture because it is drawing from a mass of forces that we all recognise when we see them. I genuinely think connecting that type of thinking with the economic way of thinking is worthwhile.

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