Learn Everything You Need to Know About the Economy from a 'South Park' Episode
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Editor's Note: In her new book Don't Buy It: The Trouble With Talking Nonsense About the Economy, communications specialist Anat Shenker-Osorio makes a compelling case for why progressives have to find a better way of talking about the economy if we ever hope to set things right. In a presidential election where voters' preferences often hinge on language, telling the right story with the right words is as important as getting citizens to the polls. Below is an excerpt from the preface of this handy guide that can help make policy discussions -- not to mention dinner table conversations -- a lot more clear and effective.
Thou shalt have no other gods before me. -- Exodus 20:13
Many of us are daily left wondering how to make sense of the contradictions we personally experience and hear about the economy. The news tells us the recession ended in 2009, but unemployment has proven stubbornly stable. Pundits contend we’ve seen the end of the housing bubble, but home prices in most places won’t budge and foreclosures continue. Our growth rate has registered positive since the summer of 2009, but poverty levels are also on the rise. What’s going on, what will happen next, and how do we even begin to make sense of the economy?
I’m here to save you some boring. There’s no need to actually read long economic treatises, sit through lectures, or decipher expensive textbooks; you don’t even have to bother scrutinizing the graphs on the Wall Street Journal business page to learn what’s going on right now with the U.S. economy. It’s simpler than you think: all you need to know about the economy you can get from cartoons—a single show, in fact.
In their magnum opus, “Margaritaville,” season 13, episode 3, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have done us a service, revealing over the course of 22 animated minutes what it might otherwise take several semesters at a decent business school to learn. The episode opens in the small Colorado town of South Park, which is wracked by a sudden and serious economic decline. After a period of collective soul-searching, the locals hit upon the obvious cause of rampant unemployment and plummeting stock values: the Economy is pissed.
The citizens cower upon realizing the truth—the Economy is an angry and vengeful god. Because South Parkers have paid insufficient homage to it, the Economy visits ruination and recession upon them. A character lectures a crowd of rapt listeners, “There are those who will say the Economy has forsaken us. Nay! You have forsaken the Economy. And now you know the Economy’s wrath.”
The solution in South Park, as will be familiar to modern-day Greeks and low-income Americans, is sacrifice. The cartoon version of this goes full throttle: Bible-inspired acts of piety and prostration ensue. Citizens turn their sheets into togas and cease to buy or sell things altogether in an attempt to show deference before the Economy.
“Sacrifice” is not an arbitrary or accidental word choice. It’s become a hallowed term in our national lexicon, the preferred prescription for achieving propitious economic results. Minus the dead animals and altars, politicians, pundits, and peddlers of conventional wisdom have asked us to sacrifice over and over again. In 2010, Washington Post columnist David Broder wrote that “everyone and every institution will have to contribute—no, genuinely, sacrifice—if we are to repair the damage to our economic health.” GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney admonished, “My plan for America requires real leadership—and it calls for sacrifice. It does not require a leader to promise bigger and bigger benefits and something for nothing. It requires a leader to call for sacrifice.”