October 20, 2008


The New Fear: It's not just about 9/11 (SASHA ABRAMSKY, 10/24/08, The Chronicle Review)

Even Barack Obama's presidential candidacy, built around the language of "inspiration" and "hope," framed in explicit rejection of the language of fear, in some ways grows out of this moment. During times of extreme uncertainty, phenomena that might be labeled "gyration points" emerge. Last spring, a year into the subprime debacle, but before the banking system itself had begun to visibly fail, the stock market was swinging wildly on the merest rumor. Fortunes were won and lost on the psychological tics of big traders and investors. Similarly, political loyalties throughout the past eight years have been in wild-swing mode. Majority support for President Bush and the national surveillance state in 2004, the audience ecstasies of the deliberately policy-nonspecific "Yes, we can" movement of Obama in 2008 — both are products of a national unease, a desire for a knight in shining armor to ride in and save us from the bad guys. That Bush is clearly a man of the conservative right and Obama a man of the liberal left is in some ways secondary to the fact that both emerged into prominence by preaching to the crowd their ability to radically transform a broken status quo. And voters have responded, because even more than identifying as "liberal" or "conservative," many people these days respond to a candidate's perceived ability to tackle fear.

Our current gyration point makes for fascinating politics. But it doesn't necessarily make for good policy making.

Fear of the end of cheap oil created a market stampede in the spring and summer that, indeed, ended the era of cheap oil, even while supply held remarkably steady. Yes, oil prices have since fallen, but only because of the terror of a long-lasting international depression. Fear of a housing crash at least partly helped create, and then exacerbate, the stampede away from mortgage investments — nobody, including bankers, wanted to run the risk of being the last one stuck inside a burning building. Over the summer, fear of the dollar's continuing to depreciate helped create an investment rush into commodities — pushing up the price of oil, food, and other key staples, putting further pressure on the dollar and turning what could have been a minor devaluation into a currency crisis — one that has slowed with the banking crisis, but possibly only temporarily. Fear of bad news from banks drove stock prices into their own wild gyrations, historically unprecedented in their rapidity, further reducing the ability to meaningfully value financial institutions, which in turn furthered the credit crunch. And so on.

At the public-policy level, fear of recession has taken on mantralike qualities. In the past, we assumed that boom-bust was a cyclical proc-ess. Like squirrels, government and citizenry alike would store up at least some of the surplus from the good times to tide us through the bad. We don't do that anymore — instead we've gone on a spending binge that has destroyed our reserves. Hence our panic at the thought of a slowdown in economic growth.

Today the very notion of "recession" is enough to put the Federal Reserve Board into a tizzy. Yet in rushing to lower interest rates to stave off a recession in the middle part of this year, and in then throwing hundreds of billions of dollars into hastily cobbled-together, poorly coordinated rescue packages for banks and mortgage lenders, the Fed may well ultimately have unleashed an inflationary spiral that will, in the long run, do at least as much economic damage as a corrective recession would.

As for climate change, while it's clearly a massive problem, it's also an extremely complex one. Yet suddenly, as the reality of a warming planet belatedly enters public consciousness, we've all become climate experts. Every storm, every deviation from the norm regarding daily temperatures, rainfall, wind speed, is now blamed on global warming. And so we look for quick-fix solutions. In glomming onto one such panacea, biofuels, we may actually have made the problem worse, while contributing to a massive global food crisis.

In short, we're becoming so fearful of the future — the next attack, the next economic collapse, the next environmental catastrophe — that we're undermining the present. And in so doing, we're paradoxically making it more likely that the future will be as bleak as our nightmares suggest.

So what's going on?

The books discussed here offer some interlocking explanations: Political elites stoke fear; the media further that process, as does our brain's kluge-like psychological and information-evaluation systems. But that's just part of the picture.

Over the past three or four generations, technology has transformed our lives, our experiences, and — at least as important — our expectations of a future coming at us at warp speed. We have learned how to fly, how to travel in space, how to manipulate our genetic code. We have developed the Internet and come to take for granted instant, and global, transfers of information. We have created vast electronic data storehouses, giving anybody with a computer immediate access to more information than the most-learned scholars could have gotten 20 or 30 years ago. We have engineered drugs to cure previously lethal diseases and watched human life expectancy soar. We have seen countries like India and China march into modernity, leaving behind epic famines. We have watched human wealth skyrocket and seen new inventions, like CD's, iPods, and cellphones, transform how we spend our leisure time and how we communicate at work and at play.

In the past, human beings expected their futures to pretty much imitate the past and present. The future was predictable, and since it was likely to be as stained with blood, epidemics, and famines as the past, they were in no rush to get to it.

Yet by the end of World War I, along with technology, a utopian streak of futurology entered the popular consciousness. The war was so terrible, the technologies employed so devastating, surely it was the War to End All Wars. Of course, it wasn't. But then, at the end of World War II, when the atomic bomb was unleashed, optimists again concluded that the horrific nature of the technology meant an era of peace was at hand. During the cold war, proponents of the theory of mutually assured destruction, in both the Warsaw Pact and NATO, essentially embedded such thinking into global culture.

With more than a dose of luck, MAD worked long enough to bring down the Soviet Union, and it provided a protective space within which most Americans grew culturally unaccustomed to war (or, at least, expected not to have to experience firsthand such conflicts as the wars in Korea and Vietnam); culturally expectant of the endless march of science; culturally demanding of an ever-higher quality of life and ever-longer years in which to experience the good times.

Our future promises to be sharply different from the futures afforded previous generations. In some ways, the emphasis on speed underlined in the books discussed here — the speed of communications, of realizing threats, of the pace of events — is relevant. But it's a different speeding up that seems to me most important. After centuries of technological progress, we think we can glimpse the Promised Land. We can envision a world in which cancer is merely a coldlike nuisance; in which stem-cell research banishes Alzheimer's. We are Greek deities — emotional yet near-omnipotent. Masters of the universe.

It's an intoxicating — if incoherent — vision. But the world today is far from a utopia. My guess is we have become so fearful at least in part because we fear our intoxicating future's being snatched away from us. That's a more psychologically devastating emotion than simply going through life knowing that threescore and ten meant you'd had a pretty good go-round.

Especially affected are the comfortable classes, the people who have most benefited from educational, economic, workplace, and scientific changes in the past few decades, and who have the highest expectations for how they and their children will interact with those changes. Comfortable people today don't simply fear losing what they already have; they also fear losing what they might soon have. They fear that the ugly present might sabotage a beautiful future.

How can the Brights help but despair when they see that Rationalism hasn't made a bit of difference (at least not a positive one)? And how help but resent the Stupid who told them they were deluded from the get-go?

Hard to see how convincing themselves that the Unicorn Rider is the new messiah would make them any less fearful when he inevitably face-planted.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 20, 2008 3:17 PM
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