Politics Thinking

In praise of overblown promises

Some balloons

If you’re like me, you can’t stand adverts whose promises outstrip their products, sales people whose pitch doesn’t withstand the gentlest prod with a few sharp questions, or politicians who promise the earth but leave the planet when the time comes to deliver.

However, for better or for worse, we wouldn’t be where we are today were it not for overblown promises. The nature of reality, or whether it indeed exists, is beyond the scope of this article. But it’s fair to say that the primary objection from pedants who take blowhards to task is that overblown promises simply don’t reflect reality.

But is this always a bad thing? And is the expectation of a neat overlap between reality and our dreams for the future itself inflated? I would argue: yes, it is.

The good

Let’s start by looking on the bright side. In cultural, political and economic terms, a tendency to exaggerate comforts us, gets us through bad times and helps move us forward.

Money – a case in point

A glaringly obvious example is money. There is a good explanation of this phenomenon in Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, discussing the history of the human race. Our optimism for the future is a rather recent development: only since the 1500s can money lending be described as a bet on the future. Banks lend more than they actually own – they can lend around ten times as much money as they have in assets. Now you know this, are you going to withdraw all your money and convert it to gold? No, because you trust that everyone else is ignorant, stupid or optimistic enough to believe the promise. The promise that tomorrow, the debtors that your money is being lent to will, on average, pay back more than is lost in defaults. If confidence in the markets wanes, our economic system has a big problem: people might realise they don’t stand a chance of getting their money back unless they withdraw it now, so there is a run on the banks.

So assuming enough people believe that everyone else believes that the economy will continue growing (or at least that the state will step in an emergency), no-one needs to rush to the cashpoint. The overblown promise – the barefaced lie – that there is enough for everyone only becomes a problem if people stop believing it.

National identity

I’ve been reading The English by Jeremy Paxman over the past week or so. Of course, it would be easy to fact-check everything Paxman writes, accuse him of sweeping statements and point out that many supposed characteristics also apply to other nations. But little by little, as if by a thousand brush strokes, a picture of a people emerges. It’s not perfect, it doesn’t apply to everyone, but at least it helps understand those around one and oneself. It was published in 1998, but reading his book now, I would say it largely stands the test of time and no-one could say the developments leading up to Brexit were unexpected.

The point is: a positive self-image is a comfort blanket, helps people look on the bright side, gets them through their day and gives them a common basis for social and economic activity even if some of it may be rather spurious. It also, I would argue, makes it more fun to compare oneself to others when going abroad. Or even distance oneself from certain aspects of one’s national image.

It’s certainly cheerier than the dreary reality, whatever that is. Just don’t take it too seriously, and see it as an enabler rather than a straitjacket. Maybe it’s a good idea to have a spring clean every now and then and remove the clutter that isn’t helpful in modern terms.

Something to aspire to

Yes we can! They say “fake it until you make it” and on a personal level, like those sales people, thinking positively about the future can help you gather experiences. At the least you can look back on them as lessons learned, and more often than not surprise yourself with what you’re capable of. By all means stay realistic but at least try. As I said, I’m always quite wary of overbearing sales representatives, but sometimes you just have to try something out, even if you’re not sure it’s the absolute best product or whether you are entirely certain you need it.

The bad

Having said all that, at what point does the overblown promise depart so materially from reality that it should never have been made in the first place? Well we’ll come to that later. But seen as I’m structuring this article along the lines of “the good, the bad and the ugly” if I’m going to keep my promise I’ll have to save some for “the ugly”.

Sorry if it’s a little bit of a disappointment, but this section is just here to say that you win some and you lose some. This is disappointment. It’s not nice, it’s frustrating, and it should happen as little as possible. But everyone has their error ratio, whatever they do, and while keeping it as low as possible is a nice idea, perhaps it’s better to have tried than not to have bothered in the first place. There’s loads of this kind of stuff all over Twitter and the rest of the internet – you know what I’m getting at.

The ugly

There are situations where an overblown promise is simply undeliverable, mendacious and misleading. In the age of “fake news”, it’s tempting to put every overblown promise in this category. I’d say fake news is about the past though – usually demonstrably misleading – whereas overblown promises are relating to the future. And whereas the past can be agreed on, to some degree, the future is anyone’s guess.

Money is again a case in point: although the financial system is founded on a very big overblown promise as outlined above, it can go too far. The 2008 financial crisis was triggered by loans not being backed up by sufficient securities, i.e. a major discrepancy between what people told banks they could repay (or probably vice versa: overzealous bank representatives foisted loans on people without the assets to back them up). This led to a crisis in confidence and a shrink in the world economy. Interestingly, the measures to avert such crises in the future included current rules on minimum level of assets banks need to have depending on how risky their lending is. In other words, a limit to how overblown their promises can be or on how far fantasy can depart from reality.

Finally, we come to the topic of Brexit. You could say Brexit is about a competition between two overblown promises. The European Union, protector of peace and prosperity unlike anything the continent has seen for centuries (Thirty Years’ War, Napoleonic Wars, World War I, World War II, Cold War). Of course you can poke at it with alternative narratives that suggest peace is actually provided by NATO and the Euro has led to ridiculous levels of youth unemployment in Spain and introducing a single currency without accompanying political mechanisms is a boneheaded idea. But if you believe in Europe, keep the overblown promise alive, and just hold on in there, then you’re in favour of sticking with it and pushing for change. And change is happening – not on a revolutionary scale, but there have recently been reports of agreements between Germany and France on unifying unemployment benefits, a way of transferring money from beneficiaries of the Euro to countries less fortunate.

On the other hand, you’ve got the overblown promise of Brexit. Ah, yes. I’m not exactly impartial on this one. People already know which side my bread is buttered on. I prefer the European overblown promise over the Brexiteers’, and I would venture that theirs is an ugly and misleading overblown promise. It is born of an extrapolation of the more unsavoury characteristics Paxman describes in the English (and it is mostly the English) – exceptionalism, arrogance, lack of interest in how the world perceives them, and bloody-mindedness. Despite the mud-slinging at the Remain camp, accusing it of promulgating “project fear”, the Leavers are those who have a fear of the future and want to turn the clock back to when Britain traded with the whole of the world and a gentleman could easily do business with like-minded partners who spoke English and rolled out the red carpet.

Unfortunately, this was not how things were even then. The British empire controlled large swathes of the world by conquest, not consent. Luckily for most former colonies, Britain wouldn’t now have the power to impose its will on them the way it did for centuries. Unluckily for Britain, its reception abroad will in reality not be anything like what the overblown promises the Brexiters made to the populace suggests.

To compare the situation to the monetary example above: it’s as if, until now, Britain has profited from its image as a former world power that can punch above its weight on the world stage. Within the EU, it never had to put that to the test. The credit in terms of power it made from its image, and generally being seen as a positive force in Europe, a force for common sense, was paying off nicely.

However, for some reason the British think that it’s backed up by facts, and think they can take their gold and divvy it up amongst themselves. Call this project fear if you like, but they will be disappointed to find that the harsh reality is perhaps 10% as good as what they thought – and they will be fighting over that for years to come.

So next time you feel offended by someone’s overblown promise: maybe they’re the realist and not you. Or maybe you are arguing over competing overblown promises.


Originally from Birmingham, UK. Studied Law at Exeter and Saarbrücken from 2001 - 2005. Moved to Hamburg in 2010.