The Moment of Impending Crisis

For Throwback Thursday, a lightly revised dialogue from 2011.

“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,” said the Academic. “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. But 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. It peaked in the early 80s. Violent crime peaked in the early 90s. But the worries about increase live on, seemingly forever.”

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

“It’s not about policy at all,” said the Capitalist. “It’s about signaling. If people don’t have the data readily at hand, they’re going to err on the side of things getting worse. That way they signal that they’re concerned, and everyone thinks them a serious person.”

“Let’s not forget ignorance,” said the Cynic. “Because most people are aware, I think, that they don’t know as much as they let on. So they play a game, and here are the payoffs to overestimating any bad thing at all: If they’re wrong, it’s good news, and if they’re right – hey, wow, they’re right!

“They sure as hell won’t say ‘I don’t know,’” said the Academic. “Even if that’s what a more honest person would do. Failing that, a good citizen is a concerned 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.”

“In any case,” said the Capitalist, “I agree that it would 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%.”

“Sixty percent!” replied the Capitalist. “That sounds like it has to be a scam.”

The Academic continued. “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 about 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,” said the Academic, “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! If profit margins really were 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,” said the Capitalist, “my crowing about a 4% annual profit looks downright reasonable. 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. At least 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 that just makes the government marginally more dependent on the continued existence of a problem that I thought we wanted to solve.”

“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?”