Monday, July 6, 2015

Awfulizing And Fear

Are things all that bad, or is fear just taking hold of us?

The news today isn't very good, it seems.  Wars going on around the world, acts of terrorism, businesses failing, currencies in the decline, corruption in government, assassinations, crime in the streets, riots, a younger generation that seems not to care about the values of its elders.   Where will this all end?

That indeed would be the question one would ask in 1968.   Indeed, that was a bad year, with Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King both being assassinated, riots at the Democratic convention, a war in Vietnam, and so on.

Or take 1973.  The Arab oil embargo doubled the price of gas overnight.  Inflation started to skyrocket.  We went off the gold standard.   And a small investigation called "Watergate" was expanding rapidly.

Perhaps 1979 is a good example.  Even and odd gas days.  10% inflation, 14% mortgages, hostages in Iran.

Pick a year - any year.   Chances are, if you read the news of that era, you could convince yourself that world was going to end, any day now.

And I am just picking some years at random here.   There have been terrorist acts, hijackings, political scandals, wars, crime, financial meltdowns, and whatnot, since the day I was born.

One of two things is going on here.   First, you could argue that world conditions have gotten worse over the last few decades and this is the new normal.   Second, you could make a better argument that bad things are always happening somewhere at any given time and since we live in the present, we tend to think our situation is particularly bad.   I would go with the second proposition.

Consider years or decades which were considered "the good old days" when things were going relatively well.   The "Gay 90's" (1890's that is) were anything but gay for a lot of people, as economic panics and recessions took place.   At the end of that era, the President (McKinley) was assassinated by an anarchist.  Scary times, no?

Or take the "roaring 20's" which were certainly better the previous decade and World War I, right?  But then again, we had prohibition, gang violence, and of course, the decade ended with a stock market crash.

The "Fabulous Fifties?"   Ask someone who had to fight in Korea - the "forgotten war."  Or the civil unrest and racial violence accompanying desegregation - troops being called out to let a little girl go to class in Little Rock, Arkansas.   Hardly a time of peace and harmony, right?  And while the economy boomed, it crashed back to earth in 1958.

The 1960's?  Well in addition to all the problems alluded to earlier, we also had the Cuban Missile Crises where everyone was convinced that World War III was about to start.  That is scary stuff.  And let's not forget the Kennedy Assassination.

How about "Morning in America" in the 1980's?  The economy recovered and the market boomed.  But then it crashed again, and "Reganomics" quickly turned into "VooDoo Economics" in short order.  A small war in Grenada, a scandal involving Iran-Contra, and of course bloody civil war in Latin America.  The real estate market crashed at the end of the decade as well.

Well, what about the Clinton era?  The longest stretch of prosperity since World War II - right?   Except that a lot of people did lose their jobs and never worked again.  The tech sector crashed, at least once.   And let's not forget the partisan bickering and impeachment proceedings against the President.

The 2000's?  The "Bush Era?"  Well, we had 9/11 two wars which have not been completed yet today, one invading the wrong country.   We ran up the national debt in an orgy of spending, and convinced ourselves that our houses were made of gold.   Oh, and the $5 a gallon gas and the collapse of the economy - again at the end of the decade.

The point is, the "ain't everything awful" crowd can always point to current events and tell you that the end times are nigh, democracy (or capitalism) is "broken", that the economic system is on the brink of collapse, and so forth.  You will never be wrong predicting gloom and doom, as every economic situation can be classified as "dire" in one way or another.

Today, we worry about the collapse of the eurozone and whether Greece will default on its debts.   We worry about Russia and Putin, and whether he will start a war over the Ukraine.   We are paranoid that ISIS will take over the world and blow up our shopping malls or radicalize our children.   We worry that Donald Trump might actually be elected President.
The reality is, of course, that things are not all that bad.   Yes, if you are holding Greek debt, you may lose some money.    The reality is, of course, that what this means is that your bonds may go down in value, but likely they will not evaporate entirely.   And unless you put 100% of your portfolio in to Greek bonds, this likely means you may take a hit to your investments, but will hardly end up broke.

Will they exit the eurozone?  Does it matter?   Will Greece survive one way or the other?   Likely the answer is "yes" to that last question.   The Greeks won't sit by and let their country revert to stone-age levels.  People have a vested interest in their own future, if nothing else.

Will Putin try to invade Eastern Europe?  It seems implausible, as it looks as though Russia is about to go bankrupt - a second time.   As for the Ukraine, I would give a shit if the government there was something other than a kelptocracy.

ISIS will fizzle and die - it is just a matter of when.  And the simple reason for this is that ISIS has declared war not just on the West, but on half the Arab world as well.   Once again, we will sit on the sidelines and watch Arab kill Arab - supplying just enough arms to each side to let the slaughter continue, while we pump the peninsula dry of oil.  That may sound crass, but that has been the strategy of the West for almost a century, if not longer.   See, for example, the Iran-Iraq war. 

What about North Korea?  What about it?  We've been worrying about the regimes there since the 1950's, and really not much has changed over time.   I suspect that reunification of the two Koreas will happen someday, maybe soon, and far more quickly than we imagine.   Recall that right before the Soviet Union utterly collapsed, we all thought it was a potent adversary.   It turns out to have been a hollow shell, instead.

Will global warming kill us all off and flood Miami, New York, and LA?   Probably not in the near future.   Much of what you read in the press about rising sea levels is not really based on real science.  Even the government's own websites claim that water levels will rise only inches - over a century or more.  Yet a lot of people take it for granted that most of Florida will be underwater in just a few years (which may be an intentional disinformation campaign - when Florida fails to sink, the deniers can say, "See, I told you it was all a hoax!").

But issues with pollution and climate change are nothing new.  In the 1960's, we dumped toxic chemicals directly into rivers.  Fish died - rivers actually caught fire. People toss their garbage by the side of the road.   Smokestacks belched pollution in places like Pittsburgh, PA, where you couldn't even see the city, most days.   And smog from automobiles made the air in LA unsafe to breathe.

You may remember in the 1980's the "Ozone Hole" problem - one rarely talked about today.   It isn't talked about because we stopped using Chlorofluorocarbons, and the hole has started to mend itself - which some people today are now saying is a problem!   The Ozone Hole problem illustrates a couple of things.  First, when countries get together and apply themselves to developing new technologies, great and amazing things can happen.   The Ozone Hole problem was largely fixed - or will be fixed by 2080, according to some sources.  We don't give ourselves enough credit for that.   We can manage our environment if there is political will.

The second thing to note was the doom-and-gloom predictions didn't come true.   Some claimed that even if we phased out the offending refrigerants, the hole would never patch, and the UV rays would give us all cancer, cause a greenhouse effect, and overheat the planet.  Today, as I noted above, now they are saying that fixing the hole may accelerate global warming!

We have made huge strides in pollution controls for cars.  Smog still exists in LA, but it isn't as bad as it was in the 1960's - and far better than it would be today, if nothing had been done to improve emissions for automobiles.   The improvements are not trivial, either - more than a 10:1 decrease in emissions since those "good old days" - and ironically, cars today are better, safer, more reliable, faster, handle better, and have tons more horsepower.  These are the good old days.

Trash by the side of the road is a rare sight today.  Pittsburgh is no longer enveloped in smoke.   We have improved our environment, or at least decelerated the degradation.   Positive change is possible.

And this is not to trivialize carbon emissions or global warming - which like the ozone hole, are real things (and many on the Right denied the existence of the ozone hole at the time as well!).  It is only to say that it may be possible to fix these things - and many people are taking action in that regard, including China.  If China can do it, so can we.  Great things may be possible.

And if you think about it, a lot of the strife and unrest that we see in the world is a result of positive change colliding with older traditional views.   It is like the birth of a baby - a wonderful event, even if accompanied by pain, blood, and violence.     If you connect the dots in the history of our species, it has been a continuous upward climb through the ages.   Sure, there were some setbacks - the dark ages, the 1,000 year Reich.   But enlightenment always seems to win out in the end, simply because people prefer freedom to slavery, free thought to rote learning, wealth to poverty, pleasure to pain.

Things today are not significantly better or worse than conditions a decade, 20 years ago, 30 years ago, or at any point in time of the history of the planet - for the most part.   Granted, there are obviously times far worse than today, such as World War II, or 9/11.   But even during those dark days, life still went on.   On the other hand, it is much harder to point to a period of time where things were better than they are today - at least not for long.

So why do we think everything is going to hell in a handbasket?   Simply stated, it is the nature of "the News" - which most Americans watch obsessively.   Bad news sells.  No one tunes in to hear how wonderful things are.   And it is human nature to Awfulize - talk about how bad things have gotten.  No one will bend your ear for an hour about how great things are, except perhaps me.

So cheer up.  Don't panic.   Things aren't all that bad.  We've been through far worse in the past, and it was "business as usual" the whole way.   The pessimistic view of life serves to accomplish little, and can be crippling as well.