The Curse Of Cassandra

Would you rather be comforted or told the truth?

Listener: 2 May, 2009.

Keywords: History of Ideas, Methodology & Philosophy;  Macroeconomics & Money; Political Economy & History;

April 26 is the centenary of the birth of the great 20th-century newspaper columnist William Connor, who wrote under the byline Cassandra. The allusion is to a princess of Troy whose gift of foresight was wasted because nobody took her forecasts seriously, including her warning about the Trojan Horse.

I have long wondered why. It seems likely she thought more deeply than those who stick with conventional wisdom.

Why would the Greek army leave a huge wooden horse behind, knowing the Trojans would treat it as a trophy? The triumphant Trojans, thinking the Greeks had abandoned the siege, ignored such questions – what would a mere girl know? – and brought the trap inside the city walls; the rest is history.

Today, “the curse of Cassandra” applies to valid warnings or concerns that are dismissed or disbelieved.

Because Troy was sacked, we don’t know what the conventional wisdom was after Cassandra was proved correct. But you can be sure the failure to see what suddenly seemed obvious would have been glossed over, and the starting point would have been that the conventional wisdom now must be right. That Cassandra had been right in the past would be given no weight in evaluating her subsequent prophecies.

A lot of people are right but for the wrong reasons. Many predicted the economic bubble of the past decade would burst, but most had no coherent explanation.

There were some thoughtful economists, such as Robert Shiller, who coined the phrase “irrational exuberance” after a lot of careful research on the history of booms and busts. Others were Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz and George Akerlof, who has just published Animal Spirits with Shiller.

Robert Wade, a New Zealander holding a chair in economics at the London School of Economics, got into a debate with Times journalist Anatole Kaletsky, who now admits he got things terribly wrong, blaming his mistakes on the economists who misled him. He should have listened to Wade and the other critics, instead of ignoring them.

As John Maynard Keynes observed, “Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for the reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.” Perhaps that’s why the New Zealand media stick to their friends, no matter how often these friends have been proven wrong in the past.

After all, they might get it right one day, mightn’t they? Is this what the media’s audiences want?
Another laziness is to promote the views of someone who has no expertise in economics but has succeeded in some other area. I await the interview of a New Zealander who wins the world tiddlywinks championship. Every platitudinous comment on the state of the world economy will be faithfully reported. After all, this person has mana; his or her regurgitating of conventional wisdom – often badly – comforts us, even when it is patently wrong.

As a rule, journalists will not fess up to the part they played in misleading you – so let’s give Kaletsky credit for doing so. Nor will they go to the Cassandras they ignored in the past, seemingly assuming a good record of prediction is no indication of a better forecasting ability.

The purpose of the media seems to be to entertain and comfort rather than to inform and provide guidance about the future. And as in Kaletsky’s case, how would journalists know who was competent? They tend to follow the conventional wisdom, reinforcing it by publishing it.

The smarter ones know they are ignorant, and ignore the difficult topics. That must be why so many current affairs programmes are failing to address the economic issues facing the nation. Better to focus on trivia. The business pages are often little better.

In the 1930s, Connor’s Daily Mirror column persisted in warning that fascism was a threat to the world, when the conventional wisdom was to look for an accommodation. He broke off the column during the war to join the army, restarting it after the war with: “As I was saying before I was interrupted, it is a powerful hard thing to please all of the people all of the time.” Cassandras don’t even try to do this. Instead, they try to get it right.