Meme watch

While I’m dubious about the validity of the Dawkins analogy between memes and genes, there’s no doubt that we need some sort of word for a minimal unit of argument that is subject to reproduction and selection, and meme seems to have become that word.

One I’ve noticed in particular among supporters of the Howard government is exemplified by Michael Baume in today’s Fin (subscription required). He writes that the Howard government has halved youth unemployment, then immediately follows up with the small print “since the Keating era peak in 1992”. If seen similar comparisons regarding interest rates and, I think even occasionally on inflation. In all these cases, the majority of the improvements occurred before Labor lost office.

In political terms, this is a straightforward case of claiming your opponents’ accomplishments as your own. Underlying this is the fact, which I’ve pointed out that, in economic terms, the Howard government is essentially a continuation of those of Hawke and Keating, with a gradual (and not continuous) slowdown in the pace of microeconomic reform.

As it’s normally used, this argument is clearly dishonest. There might be circumstances in which it could be used honestly, particularly in relation to policy instruments under direct government control. For example, if the government controlled interest rates, it might say that “we have kept interest rates low, and will always do so. By contrast, Labor allowed them to rise to 17 per cent”. But in terms of targets like unemployment, the natural base point for comparisons is 1996, not 1992, and the government’s performance looks most unimpressive.

9 thoughts on “Meme watch

  1. Is it honest to suggest that the federal government controls unemployment rates?

    How much control does Canberra actually have and what are the costs of exercising it? How much is due to factors outside the government’s control?

    Maybe the right counterfactual is the UE rate we would have had it if the current government had been in power in ’92 and if that government had was in power now.

  2. er.. sorry… what I meant to say was:

    Maybe the right counterfactual question to ask is what UE rate would we have had in ’92 if the current government had been in power then and what rate would we have now if the Keating government we’d had then was in power today.

  3. Economics of interest rates and NAIRU aside, here’s three interesting RIP articles in which Midgley cans memetics, Dawkins splutters in indignation, and Midgley tears it apart.

    In Defense of Selfish Genes
    Selfish Genes and Social Darwinism

  4. Of course its dishonest – but its par for the course among politicans. There’s a reason people detest them, y’know.

    But as I’ve said before, this govt’s one really big achievement is avoiding a macroeconomic stuff up for seven years, which in a volatile economy like Australia’s is no mean feat. Of course growth, etc was naturally stronger in the earlier years of recovery than in the mature phase.

    Call it luck if you like, but as Jack Strocchi says the longer Little Johnny stays in office the luckier he seems to get.

  5. I don’t have an informed position on memes. Maybe the concept will turn out not to have much explanatory power. But it is certainly a fascinating phenomenon, worthy of a name, that certain notions and concepts have an uncanny ability to perpetuate themselves across generations despite having no intrinsic merit. Religious beliefs are the best example.

    But here’s a trivial one that startled me recently. My six-year-old son asked me out of the blue if I knew what a Chinese burn is. I did, of course, although the idea has not entered my head since about 1969. Can anyone imagine a more arbitrary, useless and ridiculous concept than that of the Chinese burn? Yet it has survived intact, efficiently reproduced by six-year-olds for at least thirty-five years, and now I’m wondering how long before that.

  6. Yes religious belief is a standard example of a successful meme, one I think Dawkins himself suggested. You’re being a bit hard on religion in terms of intrinsic merit though James, even though you probably mean your remark in strictly scientific, rather than in psycho-social, terms where I personally have seen it save lives (not mine, and none of this sheds any light on my personal relationship to religion). Another example of a meme I have seen quoted by those who should know was the baseball cap worn backwards. So fashions are memes, and the successful memes/fashions are of course those that persist.

    I have deduced, though I may be wrong, that stereotypes and cliches also are memes, some more successful (persistent) than others. One of my working hypotheses is that the way of life of many people is, wherever possible, to substitute cliches and stereotypes for the effort of informing themselves and applying contemplation and original analysis. While memes can provide time-saving, efficient shortcuts sometimes, my anecdotal observations suggest that, excessively applied, this is an impoverishing habit.

    One of the modern exponents of the meme idea is Dr Susan Blackmore. I add the disclaimer that I haven’t read her book, ‘The meme machine’, or the web page to which the link takes you. Blackmore has also written insightfully on the phenomenon of the near-death experience [Blackmore,S.J. (1996) “Near Death Experiences” (Invited Editorial review) Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 89, 73-76. I have read this one].

  7. Speaking as a film writer, the fascination of larger memes like religion is the clinginess of the damn things. They go deeper than cliche.

    We would say, for instance, in the development of stone age religion, that the notion of sacrifice and resurrection is probably a very large meme. Using the term is a way of talking about the complex layers of addictiveness in the notion. It satisfies a question about death; it answers a deep desire; it provides a form of control over nature; it is constituted as a story.

    In some ways a good meme is actually not advertised. It propagates because it is necessary and keeps an integrity which is an internal logic and a satisfactory addition to reality.

    A baseball cap is not really a meme on this level. Its an artificial, advertised thing, no more than a way of identifying an impoverished self with some larger unit. It is extremely forced – we as Australians only succumbed to the damn things after a generation of exposure to American television.

    Basically, a true meme is always a metaphor.

    This is too much of a sketch. I don’t want to abandon fashion as a mimetic space – to use the genetic metaphor again, it is as if memes are bits of more or less extensive code which can be meaningful, or just junk, like so much DNA (or so we think at the moment.)

    It is wonderfully confusing. What are the mimetics of Kath and Kim? What about that instaform of Japanese prepubescent Victorian Goth?

    Go too far and we do two contradictory things at once – we hunt for something teasingly profound, and we stretch the idea until it becomes meaningless..

    Is it meaningful to suggest that we are watching the death of a meme in public life – the idea that politicians are honest? One reason I think that may be possible is that so many of our changes in public life can be ascribed to the slow creep of spinmeisters, who are dealing in memes and not facts or truths. Politics has become the satisfaction of mass desire – but the notion of desire is utterly contingent on what the economy and political environment offers.

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