THE BIG EXPLANATION
I heard some fellow on TV the other day insisting rather energetically that the poor performance of the American economy in recent years was mostly the consequence of our weak dollar. He’d marshaled his facts, offered historical corroboration and dismissed all evidence to the contrary. Who knows whether he had a case or not, but what impressed me was his conviction that he had unearthed the “cause” and that unless you accepted his thesis you were either certifiably naïve or terminally deluded.
That got me thinking about how often we’re presented with the one cause, the single exclusive explanation that supposedly cuts through the causal clutter to get at the core of the truth. Such an approach has its attractions, especially when dealing with complicated issues. Take a forceful spokesman and listen to him submit his incontrovertible facts and you can, we’re told, only reach his self-evident truth.
Discussion about the economy often features such unshakeable certainties. America’s economic pre-eminence is almost entirely the result of our free enterprise system we are informed. Low taxes are the essential key to economic growth. Government regulation is largely accountable for our recent poor economic performance. The policies of Fannie May and Fannie Mac are what brought on the collapse of the housing market. Each “explanation” has it true believers who, armed with “facts”, proclaim their “truth” and dismiss the assertions of others (which often enough also rely on one root cause.)
Hippies were held principally responsible for the cultural transformation of the 1960s. For decades Communists were accused of being behind all unwarranted criticisms of the United States. Even before that, unions were viewed as a sinister force undermining American institutions. In recent years some have viewed immigrants in much the same way. For a long time historians have trumpeted the decisive role of the frontier in shaping American character. Labor has long insisted it was the workingman who built America. Capitalist entrepreneurs, on the other hand, argued it all resulted from their heroic efforts.
Thus it will always be as individuals attempt to settle long-standing arguments and explain what often seems elusive, complicated and endlessly controversial. Such power, what exhilaration must come to those who are certain they’ve gotten to the bottom of it. Science can sometimes provide simple and elegant explanations as when a particular microorganism is revealed to be the cause of a specific disease or when evolution explains the process of change here on earth. Much as we’d welcome such clarity about human affairs, we are destined to be disappointed. Far too many dynamic variables are at play here, and far too much subjectivity is at work to distort our vision. So, beware the single explanation, folks, especially when they are shrill and reflexively dismissive of other perspectives. But the multi-causal adherents may not be entirely trustworthy either. Their nuances and multi-layered analyses may simply be a smokescreen, evidence of confusion and a reluctance to commit. Ideally each side must be prepared to engage with the other, set aside polarized politics, put their cards on the table and allow disinterested observers to determine who has the more persuasive explanation. One can dream.