"America's Economic Myth" Transcript

Guest: Dr. Betty Sue Flowers

(Listen to the audio on the episode page.)

Betty Teng: Welcome to Mind of State, a podcast for both political junkies and armchair shrinks. I’m psychoanalyst and trauma therapist Betty Teng.


Jonathan Kopp: And I’m communications strategist and political hack Jonathan Kopp. Join us as we welcome experts in politics and psychology to consider this: the state of our nation through the state of our minds and the mind of our state. Hi, Betty.


Betty Teng: Hi, Jonathan.


Jonathan Kopp: How are you doing today?


Betty Teng: I’m doing OK. You know, it’s a tough time these days of course.


Jonathan Kopp: Yeah, I feel like I feel like everything needs to be introduced with the caveat of all things considered.


Betty Teng: Yes. All things considered.


Jonathan Kopp: Doing great all things considered.


Betty Teng: Yeah. I think the new phrase is, how’s your pandemic going.


Jonathan Kopp: I guess it’s good for us to be able to laugh – it’s either laugh or cry these days.


Betty Teng: Totally.


Jonathan Kopp: And I guess it gets down to what is the story we tell ourselves?


Betty Teng: One thing that is really preoccupying my patients is this dilemma between: do I work or do I stay home and stay safe? How safe is it? How unsafe is it?


Jonathan Kopp: Right. And we’re seeing this tension play down in the political sphere as well. The politicians and the candidates are forcing this unnatural dichotomy between health and wealth.


Betty Teng: And it’s creating stress because no one really knows what the appropriate way to think about this is.


Jonathan Kopp: It’s really a microcosm of the debate that’s been going on for years, in my mind, shaped by the stories that people are telling us and how we interpret the data. And here to help us unpack this is Betty Sue Flowers. Betty Sue is the former director of the Johnson Presidential Library and a professor emeritus at UT Austin. She’s also a poet, editor, and business consultant with publications and other credits ranging from poetry therapy to human rights and the PBS series in collaboration with Bill Moyers called Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth. Betty Sue, welcome to Mind of State.


Betty Sue Flowers: Thank you, Jonathan.


Betty Teng: Betty Sue, we brought you on to talk about myth and you write compellingly about the myths that we swim in within the United States. You talk about the hero myth. You talk about the religious myth, the Democratic myth, and the economic myth, which is the title of our show today. Can you first describe how you define a myth and its function? And, you know, how a myth might function in a society or in a poli-political system?


Betty Sue Flowers: Myths or stories we live by. They give us meaning. And in a culture, a large story of reality is always operating. And I came across this idea of an economic myth when I watched newscasters on television and I was an English professor at the University of Texas. And they were always turning to the economists to explain what was going on. And I thought, why the economists? My colleagues and I are experts in stories. Why are the economists telling the stories of reality? Why are they the ones who are telling us what’s going on in the world? And it struck me that Joseph Campbell was right when he said you could always tell the values of a society by their tallest buildings. In medieval times it used to be churches, cathedrals. In the times of princes, it was castles. And now it’s bank and office buildings. So I thought, oh, we’re in an economic myth. That’s our story of reality.


Jonathan Kopp: So, Betty, so let me ask you to clarify for our listeners. When you talk about an economic myth, you know, I used to think about myths as being untruths, but myths, the way you’ve described them, exist in our reality. So is a myth a story, or is it real? Where does it live in that space?


Betty Sue Flowers: I don’t make a claim about whether the story is true or not true. It’s just a big story. So I call even the scientific myth, which I tend to see as true because of the process by which they come to their stories, or at least true for the time being, I call that myth, too, because it’s a large story of reality and we’re very lucky in this country that we were formed under a democratic or scientific myth. The myth of the Enlightenment. That’s why we got the great constitution we got. That’s why we got the idea of come let us reason together in our polity, in our community. But unfortunately, we’re not in that myth anymore. We’re in an economic myth.


Betty Teng: And so what is it to be in an economic myth? What is this story that we tell ourselves or the ways the economists tell the story about us?


Betty Sue Flowers: Well, the economists are the high priests of the culture. So we’re told when the GDP rises that we’re doing very well. And you can look around and see the homeless. You can see the enormous inequality and something inside you can say, yeah, you know, we’re not really doing that well, because I guess you could say the supreme value of the economic myth is growth. That’s the value. And I think there’s a larger value that we may, if we’re lucky, grow into or emerge into another myth, which I call the ecological myth, which is a myth of health. And growth is part of health. Growth is, you could say, a subset of health. But it’s not the supreme value. And so we’re in this amazing transition point, I would say a liminal period, between a myth of growth and an emerging myth of health in which growth is just a part. But we don’t have the metrics yet to believe that myth.


Jonathan Kopp: So even even when you refer to the economic myth, it sounds like it can have multiple manifestations or sub-myths. You mentioned that GDP, for example, but it seems that currently, at least our current president likes to point to the stock market. Is there a gap between the stock market myth and the rest of the economic myth?


Betty Sue Flowers: No, I would say the stock market is a metric of GDP. It’s used to look at the gross domestic product, which is comprised of certain things that we consume. So if you get a divorce and you have an operation the same year, you’ve contributed more to the GDP than if you grew cucumbers and sold them on the corner.


Betty Teng: And I’m interested, Betty Sue, in what you just said about the liminal space we’re in right now where we are moving from a story of growth that drives us, which is about producing things, making things, selling them and a story of health, which is more about well-being and being truly. And so when we’re sitting in the middle of a pandemic where health is very much at the center of our minds and it’s stymieing our economy. And so there’s this big debate right now. Do we favor the economy over lives or lives over the economy, health versus wealth? So can you say something about this liminal time and where we might view we’re ending up? It seems very volatile right now.


Betty Sue Flowers: It does. And for me, someone who’s been thinking about this economic myth for 25 years, it’s just an amazing time because I never imagined that we would have such a stark choice between valuing one over the other, because I think the economy is part of health, that wealth is part of health, but that health takes priority if we really are going to evolve into a better civilization for all people. I think we should choose health first and the economy will follow. If we choose the economy first, suffering will be unevenly distributed.


Jonathan Kopp: So I wonder, is it a choice between health and wealth? I recall your collaborator, Bill Moyers, did an interview with Bill Gates probably about 20 years ago. And Bill Gates said at the time that this choice between health and wealth is a false choice, because if we invest in health, health begets wealth. And so how did we find ourselves in this binary space where we believe that one is a tradeoff to the other?


Betty Sue Flowers: Because we have such a narrow view of what the American dream is. I think in this country we think it means to pursue property and it’s really to pursue happiness. And happiness is a byproduct of a lot of things, including serving your community, but above a certain minimal wealth standard, wealth doesn’t produce any more happiness. So I think Bill Gates is exactly right. This choice between health and, I think he was talking really about physical health and not health in the sense of wholeness, but even so, this choice is kind of a false one. One of the things the economic myth should show us, our having the economy as our highest value, is that we’re all interconnected. The economic myth is the first truly global myth we’ve had because it depends on numbers and images, not on language. So we don’t have barriers to having this be a global myth. And what this pandemic has shown us, not just in health terms, but in economic terms, is that we’re truly all interconnected. We always have been. But now we see it. We see it.


Betty Teng: Betty Sue, can you say more about the images and the numbers that bind us globally over language? Can you make that distinction? How does that reflect our globalization?


Betty Sue Flowers: Well, the global economy is one in which multinationals don’t really have a national home. For the most part they operate everywhere and they are the true institutions of this myth. And I can understand your numbers. You can understand mine. My dollar is as good as your dollar. There are advantages to the economic myth. It is radically leveling in that regard. So it’s leveling. It shows us our interconnectedness. There are ways we could really wake up if we saw what it exposes to us and we saw how we’re all interconnected globally. And then if we moved onto a new value system in which we were willing to sacrifice some of our individual wealth for the health of the whole.


Jonathan Kopp: So the economic myth being global; how does it transcend across political systems? I would imagine that the economic myth would manifest itself quite differently in a capitalist system versus a socialist or or communist or other political system, or does it transcend the political?


Betty Sue Flowers: Well at the moment, as a global system, just the free flow of capital transcends, or insofar as it does flow freely, it transcends individual political arrangements. But I think some societies have emphasized well-being over sheer economics, which is one reason they’re more willing to share the wealth amongst the people of their countries and not just among those who happen to be lucky enough to make it. I say lucky enough because there is a great deal of luck as well as skill and will involved in making money.


Betty Teng: Betty Sue, what you’re talking about in terms of the economic myth in the transcendence across borders – here in the United States, there’s this idea we’re isolated, we’re ever more isolated from the rest of the world. And how is this idea that, you know, the tariffs being enacted and visas being pulled back, this sense that we want to sort of retreat from the world, even though the reality is the world is ever more interconnected… so is this something that is a part of another myth driving the United States? Or I mean, I’m thinking about possibly the hero myth of this rugged individualism that, you know, we cannot work together or this individual versus the collective and how that sort of interacts with the economic myth?


Betty Sue Flowers: Well, the hero myth is a wonderful myth to have for sports events, but it doesn’t really work when it comes to nations because of the complexity of things. I mean, if I’m in a boxing match with you, it’s not that complex, even if we’re both highly skilled. But the global economy is so complex that if I slap a tariff on soybeans in China, it has effects on a family in Iowa. So, we’re so interconnected in ways we can’t even see that the unintended consequences of throwing tariffs around, they are multiplied in a highly interconnected world. You might have been able to do that in the 18th century – although I think Adam Smith would have argued there that it, too, constrains good growth, the growth you would want – But in the 21st century, that’s really a step backwards in evolution. I think my mother used to say, don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.


Betty Teng: And yet there seems to be this story that is operating on one side of the political spectrum where it is about sort of a sense that there’s a winning and a losing. And you write about the winning and the losing that does emerge out of, I believe, the economic myth, even though the hero myth mixes with that. So I wanted to ask, why is that winning and losing so compelling and am I accurate in sort of assigning that to a bit of what we’re dealing with here in the United States on one side of the political aisle?


Betty Sue Flowers: I think you’re very accurate, because if you see a nation as a kind of hero and you see yourself in a struggle, you’re really living out the only myth the media can tell stories in. And I say this as someone who taught literature, the medium of the hero myth is stories. So if you’re doing a newscast, you’re going to have a good guy and a bad guy or who’s up or who’s down. The very form of a news story is ‘story’. But the form of economics is not a story. It’s more like a painting. It’s more like an interconnected, woven tapestry. So if you are captured by the media as a leader, you will want to tell a hero story about yourself or your country. It’s all very well as a form of storytelling, but not at all helpful as a way of creating policy. So the hero myth is great for entertainment, but life is more, much more complex than that if you’re trying to help families and if you’re involved in politics.


Jonathan Kopp: There’s the question of which myth predominates, right? Economic myth or hero myth. But are we in the midst of a struggle to even determine the terms by which we apply the economic myth? We have capitalism in deregulated markets being argued on one side. We have a call for more of a democratic socialist approach from far left of the Democratic Party. And it seems like while both of those are about economics, they manifest themselves quite differently. But they both seem to put a priority on still economic myth.


Betty Sue Flowers: I think the emerging myth, which I call the ecological myth, has a value that overarches individual national economies and even the global economy, and that is the health of the earth as a whole. So if you judged every action your country took about whether the policies actually helped the seventh generation or actually helped our grandchildren, if you judged every policy on those grounds, you might not make some of the same decisions that you would make if you’re thinking in the short term, the GDP for this year, the statistics for this year. So I think that all the arguments about what form our economic system should take are very relevant. But the overarching value is what drives the myth of reality of any given time or place. And the value of the economic myth is growth and the value of the ecological myth is the wider health of peoples nations. And, of course, the Earth.


Jonathan Kopp: So where is the Green New Deal, the sort of manifestation of the merging of the economic myth from the ecological myth?


Betty Sue Flowers: I think it partakes of the value of the ecological myth. Yes, it inserts some of that value into an economic program. So from that perspective, you could say it’s looking into the future. And I think it’s no accident that a lot of young people are attracted by that because they’re the ones who will be living into our future, either under a myth that allows them to thrive or one that um that looks forward to the death of the planet I guess if you’re going to be apocalyptic.


Betty Teng: And Betty Sue, what you’re talking about is a factor of time, like you’re saying short term versus long term in the ways in which we assess what we value over time, growth vs. the health of the planet. And there is also, it seems, a generational shift that is being reflected in our politics, in our thinking. And yet there seems to be a portion of our country very involved in the hero myth. You know, the good guys and the bad guys and the and even gun control has something to do with that. And it also seems that one side isn’t really listening to the other. That when you’re looking at good versus evil or good guys versus bad guys in that drama, in that conflict and in an ecological myth we are all in this together. We’ve got to row in the same direction. The conflict and the drama is not as central. And so I wonder in this moment of crisis, really, how that might help or how that might cause people to retreat into their corners of myth?


Betty Sue Flowers: Well, I think in this country, we have a tendency to misunderstand the hero myth, its origins in Greek mythology and Greek stories, and even in our sports events like the Olympics, the hero myth is really about excellence and two people fighting to see who is the excellent one. And in that domain, you want your opponent to be as good as possible so that it brings out the best in you. And when Achilles and Hector fight each other, they’re both heroes, but we tend to overlay the religious myth on top of the hero myth. So we don’t just have two heroes fighting each other. We have a good guy and a bad guy.


Jonathan Kopp: Good and evil.


Betty Sue Flowers: Good and evil.


Betty Teng: I see.


Betty Sue Flowers: And that belongs to the religious myth. So when you mix the two up, you don’t have competition as – except as I say in sports, where that hero myth is still pure – if you mix that up, then you have this religious dominance of the fight instead of well, we were founded in a democratic myth where you argued to find truth the way scientists or philosophers do. You don’t declare one side good and one side evil the way religious wars have been fought. So we’ve got our myths all confused in this country. We don’t see what we’re doing. And I don’t think it helps either our politics or our economic structures to be so confused about the stories of reality and value that we tell each other.


Jonathan Kopp: If the hero myth you can date back to the ancient Greeks, where does the economic myth come in? Is it with capitalism or does it pre-date capitalism?


Betty Sue Flowers: No, I think it arises out of the scientific myth, the Enlightenment myth, because it really is a uh myth without values, if you know what I mean. It knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, as it’s been often said of capitalism. So it arises out of a lack of religious hierarchy, the economic myth. It would never have been countenanced in medieval times, say, when we were in the religious myth in the West and there were standards of good and evil and right and wrong. We all still pay at least lip service to the religious myth and each in our own way. But it isn’t what runs our country. So I think that the economic myth has come out of the same 18th century ground that produced science and the kind of philosophy that enshrined the goddess of Reason and Chartres Cathedral after the French Revolution. It comes out of that, and every movement in history has good effects and bad effects. And we live in such a mixed story um in the economic myth. It has really many good things as well as bad things. But we have to expand that myth if we’re going to go forward and have a life that humans can live on this planet.


Jonathan Kopp: Well, before we look forward, I I want to keep talking a little bit about the past, because you’re grounding us in the Enlightenment period. And it reminds me of some of your writings about the American dream and the founding of the country. And I was struck by something that you wrote, which was that our pursuit of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness derives from an original notion, which was life, liberty, and the pursuit of property. And I wondered if we, did we get it wrong? Is property a proxy for happiness? And how have those two things come together?


Betty Sue Flowers: I think we sometimes mistake property as our our uh what we have a right to pursue. But happiness and property are not the same thing. And I I think John Stuart Mill had it right when he said that happiness is a byproduct of something else, of pursuing your dreams or your, the health of the community. Even pursuing wealth can produce happiness, but it’s usually the pursuit that produces happiness and not not the wealth. The wealth produces or can produce security. But happiness comes from other places.


Betty Teng: This is something that causes me to think Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a way that we look at what basic human requirements are. And he puts it into a pyramid and at the very bottom is shelter, food, and a means to um clothing, very basic needs. And when I did refugee work, those were the things we had to attend to before we could attend to finding a person a job because they had to be not hungry. They had to have clothes and have a secure place to live. And so it seems like property or a stable place is a bit of the pursuit of happiness, like that there’s a happiness founded upon this stability. When did that become like a seemingly kind of fixed idea that happiness was property? I mean, if you look at a car commercial and any kind of commercial in primetime television, it’s all happiness is a thing. You know, you buy the thing and you get happiness and that’s hedonism, right. But what you’re speaking of is the pursuit as eudaimonic pleasure, meaning that it’s the process and not the end. When did we get stuck in the end? So can you speak to a little bit of how these myths, as you say, have become sort of twisted up?


Betty Sue Flowers: Well, I think it’s human nature to try to find solutions to problems. It’s one of the good things that we all have. And if the car commercial comes on and says, you know, get this particular car and you’ll be happier, we try it out. We try it out. And I think that commercialism and consumerism uses that notion of the gap between where we are and where we might be, the better place we might be. So until you stop and realize that the commercialism feeds on this basic aspect of human beings that has allowed us to evolve in the way that we have, it feeds on a strength that it turns into a weakness. So until we’re free of that, I think we’ll be caught in that trap. This is a crisis time for many reasons. But one of them is that because we like to solve problems, we like to have control uh and we like to have it now. The pandemic is just flummoxing. We can’t make it go away just by snapping our fingers in spite of what some of our leaders would like to think. We can’t make it go away by pretending it’s not here. Um it makes us come face to face with the fact that as human beings, we don’t control the very ground of our lives. We control a lot, but we don’t control how we come into this world, what gender we are, where we’re born. There’s so much we don’t control. So how do we come to terms with that? And philosophers and religious leaders of all times have tried to answer those questions and um through will alone we can’t manage.


Betty Teng: And so what you’re saying is that crises kind of expose what’s working and what hasn’t been working. And as you said, there’s not just the pandemic. There is an economic crisis. There is a referendum on racial injustice. Um there is this climate change crisis. And so obviously, it’s a challenge to the way we are. These answers that we affix to, this mastery, as we might call it psychologically. We see we are a mastery culture. Um and so how do we use myth to tell a new story about ourselves?


Betty Sue Flowers: If we step back a minute and think about the stories of our own lives, you know, we’re always in a story about reality. And we also are shaped by the story of the future that we tell. But when you think about it, the story we tell about the future is always and only a fiction. It’s a fiction by definition. And we can build a better fiction. It’s the job of a leader to create a story of the future that’s compelling. Moses, you know, I see a promised land. Or Martin Luther King, um I have a dream. The leader tells a story of the future that enables people to move forward and to deal with their lives with hope and efficacy. So the stories we tell about the future shape the present. And I don’t think we’ve been imaginative enough about our story creation of the future. And this pandemic wakes us up to the possibility of telling a better story about our relationship to each other and to the Earth.


Jonathan Kopp: If the story of the future is a fiction and the American dream is a fiction, there’s an aspirational element to all of these things, right. And whether it’s calling for hope and change or it’s calling to make America great again, these are both trying to, the most reductionist uh form of of promise of an optimistic future. The politician is always going to strive for optimism, right. They’re going to try to sell a winning ticket. Trump is telling voters that if Biden is elected, that we’re going to have chaos and mayhem and riots. And so can the myth be uh selling a better future? Or can it be selling the avoidance of doom?


Betty Sue Flowers: Either. And we’ve seen examples of both. We’ve seen uh Winston Churchill calling on the will of the people um and laying it out for them, saying, you know, blood, sweat. He wasn’t making it easier. We’ve seen Franklin Roosevelt. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. And then there are those leaders who rule by fear and who say be very afraid, and I alone can protect you or I alone can fix it. So there are two ways to move people Through love and hope or through fear. And both of them are effective. That’s the thing. Both of them are effective. It behooves us to know what string is being jerked in our own psyches and to respond with a little agency on our part to the stories we’re being told about what reality is. Is the future going to be terrible unless we go with this leader or that? Or if we don’t have fear, can we actually build something and build it better than it’s ever been? I mean that that’s the choice being offered to Americans in this particular election, I think.


Jonathan Kopp: So when the story doesn’t match up with what we see, right. When the politician is saying, don’t believe your lying eyes. Trust me, right. Then there’s a dissonance. We hear one thing and we see another. And how do we process the conflict between the reality that we’re experiencing and the myth that we’re being sold?


Betty Sue Flowers: Well, I think both stories are always consonant, but they’re consonant with different things. They relate to different things. So someone who says things are terrible and they’re going to get worse unless. That’s consonant with your fear. If you’re living in fear of change or fear of what’s happening or fear of the images you see on television, um that is reality. So both candidates are telling stories that match people’s vision of reality. It just depends on what reality you’re in tune with. And um they’re both very powerful realities. The fear inside or the, ah, what you see as facts on the ground outside.


Betty Teng: What we’re seeing now, it sounds like there’s something that reminded me of something that psychoanalyst Jerome Bruner talked about his narrative need. And so the narrative needs of each group of people seems to be at play and in conflict right now, like portions of this vast country that we live in. And it’s being expressed through these multiple crises. So how do we make ourselves aware, as we want to do on this show, by bringing forth how stories act on us so that we can be more um conscious rather than unconscious? Because you talk about myth as driving us unconsciously, pretty much, like we’re being driven unconsciously by the economic myth. How do we do that besides talking about it on a podcast?


Betty Sue Flowers: Well, that’s one good way. That really is. Another good way is just to realize the plotline of the stories you’re telling about yourself. I often do have a little exercise that I do where I have people find a partner and tell the story of your life as a hero story and then tell the story of your life as a victim story and tell the story of your life as if there were a purpose to life and so on and so on. You know, the facts of your life are there, but you can put any plot into it that you want to. The victim story is the same as the hero story just with the agency reversed. And so, you know, if we knew more how to analyze the stories we’re telling to ourselves about reality and if we could listen critically with an analytical mind to the stories that are being sold to us, whether sold to us to buy things or sold to us to vote for someone. The stories that are intended to move us and tested them against the largest values we have. I would suggest one being love, inclusiveness. If we just tested these stories against the highest values we have I think we would get clues as to which are the better stories to act on.


Betty Teng: You wrote about love as being a real component of how we move the economic myth into a far more collective and interconnected myth. And can you say more about how love, you know, might move us, different from winning or losing or being right or wrong or being reasoned vs. irrational?


Betty Sue Flowers: Well, to me, love is very closely connected to truth and to beauty. And it’s the reason we have to talk about it in other terms is that it’s just an all purpose general term that we have a hard time doing anything with except mouthing it. So it quickly becomes cliche. But if I talked a little bit about beauty as one of the pathways to that triangle of beauty and truth and love. If I talked about beauty. You know, one of the things artists show us is that anything looked at long enough can be appreciated and this beautiful diversity of this world. The way that difference is wonderful and the way that you can stop and appreciate, which allows you then not to bully someone else with your way of being. I’m always amused to see grandparents show pictures of their grandchildren. You know, every little baby looks a little like Winston Churchill. And the first thing they say is, isn’t she beautiful? Isn’t she beautiful? Or, isn’t he beautiful? Because the appreciation of beauty is akin to a form of objective love. The flower you find beautiful. It’s not doing anything for you. That’s not its purpose. It just is. And it’s beautiful in its own being and diversity. I once worked in a science lab and late at night one night I was transcribing this German scientific paper for the professor I worked for and the graduate students in the lab next door were saying, oh, isn’t it beautiful? Oh, it’s so beautiful. And I thought what in the world are they talking about? And I went in and they were talking about their laboratory animals, which were cockroaches from all over the world. They had looked at these darn cockroaches so long that they made distinctions of beauty among the cockroaches. And that experience has stayed with me because I thought just look at anything long enough to appreciate its being in the world. Or as the poet said, the job of the poet is to praise all there is for being. I think we would have a different world of appreciation for difference and not this addiction to perfection that according to what we think perfection should be.


Betty Teng: I think this is a great place to end – on beauty and appreciation. And we wanted to just thank you, Betty Sue, so much for having this conversation with us. It’s been a pleasure.


Betty Sue Flowers: It’s been a pleasure for me, too. Thank you, Betty. And thank you, Jonathan.


Betty Teng: Thanks for joining us on this episode of Mind of State.


Jonathan Kopp: If you like this episode, you’ll find plenty more on Apple podcasts or anywhere else you get your podcast. You can also find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at Mind of State Pod. Our website is MindofState.com.


Betty Teng: Mind of State is produced by Alletta Cooper and Jenny Woodward. Special thanks to our co-founder, Thomas Singer. I’m Betty Teng.


Jonathan Kopp: And I’m Jonathan Kopp. Join us next time on Mind of State.