The Moment of Impending Crisis

“I’ve begun to suspect that our delusions tend strongly to return us to the same moment in time,” said the Academic.

“When would that be?” asked the Stoic.

“The moment of impending crisis. Whenever there isn’t a plausible crisis, delusion makes up the difference. This author basically gets it right, except whenever he writes ‘comfort,’ we should substitute the more accurate word ‘panic.’ And yet—a fine solid take just the same.” The Academic read:

[M]ost folks derive far too much spiritual comfort from living withing a familiar, fixed worldview that has calcified around them over time. In order to satisfy and cultivate this comfort, these people actively avoid any news, opinion, facts or studies to the contrary. Far too many people have been conditioned to derive a sick sort of pleasure from seeing themselves as wounded victims. Regardless of the root cause, this sort of sociological persecution complex all too often leads these spiritual masochists to seek out fear-peddling outlets like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck because they provide an easy channel of self-validating anxiety.

Are the New Black Panthers going to come to Podunk, USA and harass my virginal 18-year-old daughter? Of course they are.

“There’s more,” said the Academic. “People seem to think terrorism is very likely. And that it’s on the increase. By the numbers, neither one is true. The same can be said of divorce. It’s less likely than people think, and it too is in decline. Violent crime peaked in the early 90s. Divorce? The early 80s. But the worries live on, seemingly forever.”

“Perhaps it’s best to err on the side of caution,” said the Stoic. “From a public policy perspective.”

“Policy be damned,” said the Capitalist. “It’s not about policy at all. It’s about signaling. If people don’t have the data readily at hand, they’re going to err on the side of severity. That way, they signal that they’re concerned. They sure as hell won’t say ‘I don’t know,’ even if that’s what a more honest person would do. Honesty be damned, too; a concerned citizen is a good citizen.”

“If you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention,” said the Cynic. “But even if you are outraged, the odds don’t look too good. Perhaps we’ve been insufficiently Bayesian hereabouts.”

“In any case,” said the Capitalist, “It would just be mortifying to signal unconcern. People would drop dead of embarrassment if they underestimated the amount of crime.”

“Tempting though your theory is,” said the Academic, “I don’t think mere embarrassment is the source of the problem. If people really were afraid of embarrassment, they wouldn’t commit howlers like these, made by college econ students. On average, they declared that our economy is propped up by little more than welfare, price controls, and minimum wage laws. Meanwhile, many of them pegged average corporate profit margins at 60%. On every count, the numbers are way, way off.

“As Dorothy Parker once said, this isn’t just plain terrible. It’s fancy terrible. It’s terrible with raisins in it. Here’s why. First, I think we can all agree that, on the level of signaling, these students’ numbers are meant to signal concern at a story of inequality. The rich have too much, and it comes to them too easily. The poor — who are very many in number — depend on the government, which has to help them. A lot more. Or they will die. That’s what they’re using their numbers to signal. Agreed?”

The council nodded.

“However, that’s not remotely the story these numbers tell. What they really say is that we live in a land of endless plenty—for everyone! The difference is pretty stunning, too. If profit margins were really around 60%, then the owner of a cornershop could look forward to retiring as a quadrillionaire. The big mystery would not be how Bill Gates got so rich, but why he’s so damned poor. Assuming even modest reinvestment, capital gains and corporate income taxes could pay off the national debt in the second year or so. After that, we could set up a dole that would leave everyone farting through silk, even if we all worked only a few days per lifetime.

“No doubt this scenario is offered as one of panic, but if I could push a button and make it happen, I would. And then I’d retire to a chateau. Made of platinum ingots. On Alpha Centauri.”

“By contrast, my crowing about a 4% annual profit looks downright reasonable,” said the Capitalist. “So how do people get so crazy? Have they no shame at all?”

“It’s television,” said the Malthusian. “Have you ever seen the TV news? The typical TV news program has a level of subtlety and nuance that would appall in an episode of Dora the Explorer. And, shall we say, Dora is somewhat perkier. If you don’t watch TV—at least once or twice a year—you can’t hope to understand why people think the way they do. Watch TV more often than that, though, and you’ll risk winding up like them.”

“Panic gets eyes on the screen,” said the Cynic. “There’s no denying it. But which came first, the desire to be panicked, or the opportunists of panic?”

“I couldn’t say,” said the Epicurean. “But it obscures some real problems. While you all mocked the econ students and dreamed of castles in space, I was just thinking—economic equality really has suffered lately, and even actual free-market economists are worried. The ‘panic’ response seems to be to tax the very wealthiest more, but this doesn’t fix the underlying problem at all. On the contrary, it makes the government marginally more dependent on a loophole that we all agree ought to be closed. This makes actually closing the thing, or even trying to find it, harder. It entrenches the problem rather than solving it.”

“But what is the problem?” asked the Malthusian.

“Professor Cowen has his theories,” answered the Epicurean. “They may well be right, but I don’t know. Macro was never my strong suit. To be honest, I’m not even sure I believe in it. Particularly not when other explanations abound.”

“You’re sounding panicked,” said the Capitalist.

“Perhaps I am,” said the Epicurean. “But at least it’s an interesting panic. Isn’t it?”

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65 thoughts on “The Moment of Impending Crisis

  1. Hi Jason. Thanks for the shout out (i.e., This author basically gets it right). I can’t say that I’ve ever been referenced in an online faux greek dialogue before ;-).

    I’m sticking to my characterization of what wingnuts derive from the perpetual persecution cycle as “comfort”. From my own experience, it really does seem as if they derive a sick sort of comfort and pleasure from reconciling their insecurity in the modern world to a narrative in which they and their white christian culture are under constant assault from the forces of liberalism, secularism, atheism and everything else rational and scary. I know it’s weird to call it comfort and I certainly feel weird positing that they do in fact get their comfort from such a twisted source.

    Again, glad to get a shout out on a blog that I (and my fellow authors over at Library Grape) love so much. Great post!

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    • Considering that the blog post links to an article showing that people’s experience is useless where it isn’t flat damn wrong, it’s rich to see you citing your “own experience” regarding the psychology and motivations of people you don’t know and haven’t met personally.

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  2. A lot of people also want to feel like they’re living in history-altering times and will build their worldview in such a way as to put them in the vanguard. Folks like Glenn Reynolds, who really did push the ball forward in the blogging game, sees like-minded folks as an “army of Davids,” a supposedly decentralized group that he just happens to be the leader of, or at least the chronicler of. I’ve been reading blogs since 2001, and new media triumphalism, mostly from the right, has been an annoying tic pretty much throughout.

    Now we have tea partiers, who are just as thirsty to live in a history-altering turning points. That’s why they ape revolutionary era language and clothing.

    Of course, hyperbole is easier to write than nuance. Everyone seems to agree that the system has failed and the only thing that will save it is (federalism, localism, positive rights, militias, spending cuts, tax increases, the gold standard, whatever…).

    Go to a country where the institutions are really broken and tell me again how hard it is to speak your mind or to get a permit to put up a fence.

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  3. That was epic Jason, and this line:

    No doubt this scenario is offered as one of panic, but if I could push a button and make it happen, I would. And then I’d retire to a chateau. Made of platinum ingots. On Alpha Centauri.

    deserves to go down in the annals of blogging greatness.

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  4. Don’t sweat the small stuff until it turns into big stuff, because it usually doesn’t.

    I don’t understand the gratuitous slag at Limbaugh and Beck. Well, actually I do, as it’s de rigeur, but it’s the left that’s saying the sky is falling. Unlike L&B, who think this is a great country and not a crappy one, and simply would prefer that the progressives’ “progress” doesn’t ruin it.

    Good point about the TV news, esp the local variety. I do watch by accident a few times a year, and it’s no wonder that we do live in a constant state of near-panic.

    As for when we’re not panicked, I suppose it’s because so many things that could go wrong someday but never do. Whatever calm we have left, I’m not sure it’s “delusion,” which implies that we’re not worrying about things we should be worrying about. I think we do plenty of worrying, all the worry you can eat.

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    • “Don’t sweat the small stuff until it turns into big stuff, because it usually doesn’t.”

      Amen. Agree with everything, except for the minor tweak that if you’re hawking gold because everything is so bad it’s about to collapse into Mad Max-land, you might just think the sky is falling a little bit.

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    • You’re really saying that Beck and Limbaugh don’t believe the sky is falling? What, all those crying jags about how the country he loves is gone or dying and all that grainy footage of frogmarching brownshirts interspersed with digitally aged clips of Soros & Co. aren’t sky is falling material?

      Who, exactly, are the ones stockpiling gold, guns and “survival seeds”?

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    • Don’t sweat the small stuff until it turns into big stuff, because it usually doesn’t.

      Gross overgeneralization objection. The time to start planning to address the big stuff is when it’s small stuff. Small stuff can be the canary in the coal mine, if you’re smart enough to tease out the signal. What’s wrong with a few poor people defaulting on their mortgages because they can’t get the re-fi they wanted? oops. This coal is cheaper than that coal; who cares if it’s high in sulfur? oops. Employer-based health insurance works fine; the individual market is tiny. oops. Who cares about a little traffic, our community is growing. oops.

      and on and on. Every single major public welfare problem was preceded by warning signs that were ignored or misread.

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      • I agree in theory, Francis, but less in practice. My industry is one that needs – NEEDS – regulation, and a bunch of it, for a variety of reasons. But that being said, whenever statutes or administrative rules are passed to protect against problems on the horizon, the always seem to work poorly, and sometimes even accelerate/create the problem they were hoping to avoid. My experience is that people in committees (and I count the voting populace in this category) are very myopic when planning against potential future calamity, and rarely escape being bitten by the law of unintended consequences.

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      • Francis., we forget all the doomsaying that never comes to pass. It’s a human thing, just like when we say “I had a feeling that would happen” when something happens, forgetting the majority of times we “had a feeling” but nothing happened.

        What do they say about Krugman, that he predicted 7 out of the last 2 recessions? We can often identify the seeds of possible disaster, and when one happens, we can always pull somebody out of the cupboard who says, I told you so.

        But the seeds of potential disaster [let’s say Clinton’s incursion into the Balkans] often don’t flower, and good thing for us.

        This is not to blithely dismiss prudence, but if we sweat everything that could possibly go wrong, we shall surely go nuts. And some of us have. ;-)

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        • Absolutely true. I did say “can be”, though. (and note, if the govt takes action to head off a recession after being warned, then years later you can look at the record and point out how wrong he was. Dr. K is wrong only if the govt doesn’t act and we get no recession anyway. Most people don’t bother with that level of analysis [MM]and I’m not competent to do it.)

          In the best of all possible worlds, we’d assign competent incorruptible people to sweat the small stuff, so the rest of us don’t have to and we avoid big disasters. On this planet, now and again people (bureaucrats and legislators) don’t do their jobs and things go wrong in a big way.

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          • “In the best of all possible worlds, we’d assign competent incorruptible people to sweat the small stuff…”

            Plato agrees:

            “Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest from their evils – no, nor the human race, as I believe – and then only will this our State have a possibility of life and behold the light of day.”

            “As if,” said the Stoic.

            “Hyuh, right,” said the Cynic.

            The Academic was unavailable for comment, but is to believed to be contemplating a book about it.

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    • “I don’t understand the gratuitous slag at Limbaugh and Beck. Well, actually I do, as it’s de rigeur, but it’s the left that’s saying the sky is falling.”

      Yeah no shit. That isn’t Beck or Limbaugh, it’s more like Nancy Grace who for me at least is a nasty piece of work but pretty much apolitical nonetheless.

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  5. Awesome post Jason.

    How many people will jump on me if I point out that the Pragmatist wasn’t in this meeting, because he had shit to get done?

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  6. Pingback: “No doubt this scenario is offered as one of panic…” « Blunt Object

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  8. If [corporate] profit margins were really around 60%, then the owner of a cornershop could look forward to retiring as a quadrillionaire.

    Some sleight of hand there, unless the corner store gets to be Goldman Sachs or Oracle simply by filing incorporation papers.

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  9. Jason, I see what you mean about people tending towards the delusion of impending crisis. It’s a serious problem, and I for one, hope to god that someone will do something about it!

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  10. “Are the New Black Panthers going to come to Podunk, USA and harass my virginal 18-year-old daughter? Of course they are.”

    We can at least hope that the original poster at Library Grape was exaggerating for comic effect. But Jason, apparently believes it straight up. Say it ain’t so.

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