I’ve linked to news about the economic crisis pretty steadily, but I haven’t expressed much of an opinion about where things are headed, how we ought to respond to it, or even why we ended up here in the first place. (At least I think I haven’t, and I’m too lazy to review postings from the last couple of years to make sure that is true.)
There are several reasons that I’ve held my peace, among them:
I certainly knew that the current situation was possible, but I had no idea whether it was likely. In fact, I’ve often been surprised at how quickly various trends took a turn for the worse.
I never have been and plan never to be in a position to influence the course of events outside my very small community. If the president asked for my advice, I would only suggest that he spend some time alone thinking through the assumptions he is operating on.
Since my model society is 1800 America adjusted to reclaim some of the benefits that were accidently left behind in 1400 England, I am not particularly interested in tweaking 21st century American society so as to get it back on track.
(In fact, I think that even to dispute with modern society about whether it could benefit from re-adopting various traditional elements is to grant modern society a legitimacy it doesn’t deserve. I pray for the peace of Babylon only because I want my captivity to be a peaceful one, not because I want Babylon to thrive.)
Most important, though, when industrial society was ascendant (i.e. until a few months ago) and life was relatively stable, there was to survey the landscape, reflect on it, and offer some opinions before the ground shifted beneath one’s feet. Now I see things every day that I know are significant but have yet to find a way to integrate into my understanding of how things work. And, even better, I see people behave in ways I never expected and can’t yet explain.
Things have apparently gotten so weird that our worldview is no longer able to deflect the inconvenient data that stands at odds with our assumptions. This is not a time to draw conclusions. This is a time to sit and watch, to gather up facts that reek of significance without yet trying to determine what makes them so.
This is why, for example, that I recommend you not try to figure out what I’m thinking based on the articles and essays I link in my sidebar or highlight in a post. I am not thinking anything. I am deliberately trying not to think anything. I am mostly filing these things away, and in the increasingly rare stretches of quiet I look at them and poke at them and think about how they might fit together. I don’t expect to reach conclusions anytime soon.
In that spirit, here are a few things I noticed lately which I don’t know how to process. I began watching this bloggingheads dialog; I almost didn’t watch it at all, but they promised to begin with some observations about the economy. Those observations turned out to be quite honest and quite personal, since they involved the ongoing death throes of print journalism, which is how both the men make their living.
The first came when Bob Wright asked Tim Noah how the current crisis was affecting him personally, specifically the crashing stock market. Noah said that it had destroyed his plan for paying for his children’s college education, and Wright immediately responded that he was in the same pickle. What struck me as they discussed this was that they had the air of men for whom a fundamental assumption had just crumbled, and they were well aware of it.
It is quite possible for your life to have gone off the tracks without you even knowing it, much less understanding it. But I think these guys know, and they are struggling to understand. Since sending kids to college is much more real and pressing to a baby boomer than a distant retirement, I wonder if the sudden inability to pay for it will be an important factor in waking folks up to the new reality.
The other thing in the conversation that struck me was Noah’s account of a conversation with Virginia Postrel. She said that, because the printed news industry is coincidentally crumbling at the same time as the economic troubles are unfolding, it makes as much sense to listen to journalists crying doom about the economy as it would have to listen to steelworkers in 1982 talk about the Carter recession—meaning that journalists are likely to let their own unique troubles influence their view of the economic future in general.
Now, Postrel is very much a champion of modern industrial society, and so her comment has to be taken with a grain of salt. But I do think it’s a good point, and it explains something that has puzzled me over the past few months, which is: how come journalists seem to be seeing things so clearly for once, at leat from my own point of view?
Finally, in her latest column Peggy Noonan tries to put her finger on something I’ve been wondering about as well, a sense that we are all waiting for … something.
It is six months since Lehman fell and the crash (or the great recession, or the collapse—it’s time it got its name) began. An aspect of the story given less attention than it is due, perhaps because it doesn’t lend itself to statistics, is the psychic woe beneath the economic blow. There are two parts to this. One is that we have arrived at the first fatigue. The heart-pumping drama of last September is gone, replaced by the drip-drip-drip of pink slips, foreclosures and closed stores. We are tired. It doesn’t feel like 1929, but 1930. People are in a kind of suspended alarm, waiting for the future to unspool and not expecting it to unspool happily.
Two, the economy isn’t the only reason for our unease. There’s more to it. People sense something slipping away, a world receding, not only an economic one but a world of old structures, old ways and assumptions. People don’t talk about this much because it’s too big, but I suspect more than a few see themselves, deep down, as "the designated mourner," from the title of the Wallace Shawn play.
The key here, I think, is six months. The 9/11 attack was a shock, but it didn’t take anywhere near six months before the shock was replaced by plenty of brave, naive talk about how it had brought us together as a nation. No such talk has come forth about how we are going to respond to this either as a nation or individuals, no “we’re all in this together” or “we need to throw the bums out” or anything of the sort. There are plenty of candidates for things to unite around, but none has caught fire.
I asked a friend, a perceptive writer, if he is seeing what I’m seeing. Yes, he said, there is "a pervasive sense of anxiety, as though everyone feels they’re on thin ice." He wonders if it’s "maybe a sense that we’ve had it too easy in the years since 9/11 and that the bad guys are about to appear on the horizon." An attorney in a Park Avenue firm said, "Things look like they have changed and may not come back." He contrasted the feeling now on the streets with 2001. "Things are subdued. . . . Nine-eleven was brutal and graphic. Yet because there was real death and loss of life folks could grieve and then move on." But today, "the dread is chronic. . . . Tom Wolfe’s Masters of the Universe were supposed to be invincible. The pillars of media were supposed to be there forever. The lawyers were supposed to feed through thick and thin. Not anymore." He quoted Ecclesiastes: "The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth." We are worried, he said, "about a way of life, about the loss of upward trajectory." [emphasis
A psychiatrist elaborates on the new lack of confidence in those in charge.
But he also detected a political dimension to his patients’ anguish. He felt that many see our leaders as "selfish and dishonest," that "our institutions have been revealed as incompetent and undependable." People feel "unled, overwhelmed," the situation "seemingly unsalvageable." The net result? He thinks what he is seeing, within and without his practice, is a "psychological pandemic of fear" as to the future of things—of our country, and even of mankind.
So perhaps people are beginning to ask themselves a question that would naturally occur to a staunch agrarian: what made us think it was a good idea to hand so much power and authority over to fallible, ordinary men? Unfortunately, part of the answer is: there is no way to create a centralized, globalized, complex, thoroughly modern society without handing someone the power.