13 November 2015

Facts and Furious: The Allure of the Apocalypse and Post Recession Angst

At fivethirtyeight, Ben Casselman asks what may prove this election's most important question: The Economy is Better - Why Don't Voters Believe It?

He starts with Cyndi Diercks, a 54 year old small business owner who is the leader of a local tea party group, is a multimillionaire whose business is thriving and yet angry and convinced that the federal government is making up the numbers that suggest that the Great Recession is over.

I have seen this reaction more than once on Facebook. I post a simple fact about job creation and it inspires as much vitriol as if I'd said something racist or critical of Christians. I don't even post opinion about these facts - just lay them out there like a Rorschach test. At this point, I'm curious to see what it inspires next. (I saw a quip from some comedian the other day: Who is this Rorschach and why does he keep drawing pictures of my parents fighting?)

For instance, initial unemployment claims are the lowest they've been in 40 years (save for one week in 2000).

All indications are that this economy is getting better and yet a substantial number of people remain convinced that it is not. The ability to thread the needle between the reality of the economy and the perception of the economy might determine who wins the next election. At least within the GOP primary, it doesn't seem possible to over-state the magnitude of the catastrophe that is this current recovery but even the Democrats have to be careful not to sound too pleased with economic progress.

There are so many reasons this might be so.

  • 24-7 news and the internet magnifies every injustice, outrage and bit of bad news. Even if it is imagined.
  • The Great Recession left us in a hole that has taken years to climb out of. We've mostly repaired the economy but it still has visible damage. This from the White House
    • U.S. households saw their net worth decline by more in 2008-2009 than they had in the first year of the Great Depression.  The U.S. economy lost $13 trillion in wealth, 19 percent of total wealth – about five times the percentage reduction in wealth experienced at the onset of the Great Depression.  Employment in the United States declined by 4 percent from 2008 to 2009, the same rate as from 1929 to 1930.  Fears that we were heading into a global depression were not hyperbole: all available data suggested that this was the trajectory we were on. 
      • You don't recover quickly or unscathed from something of that magnitude.
  • Also, it simply isn't expedient to admit that things are better. For the right to admit that things are better is to confess that their dire warnings about Obama's policies were wrong. For the left to admit that things are better is to confess that their dire warnings about Congress's polices and intransigence were wrong.

Or maybe it has to do with the lure of the apocalypse. The brilliant Dictionary of Obscure Sorrow has proposed a new word: Lachesism they define as the longing for the clarify of disaster.

If indeed these are the worst of times, life has a certainty clarity. Catastrophe gives us license, purpose, and the sort of nobility that the magic of boring compound interest does not. Progress is rarely made in one fell swoop. Instead, it accumulates slowly over time, making our lives 2%, 5%, 7% better every year in ways that are imperceptible any given day but are undeniable and profound over the course of a lifetime. Progress is boring in the moment. The apocalypse, by contrast, makes for great drama. Also, if things are catastrophic, what is to lose? We don't have to be careful or thoughtful. We just have to do something. Anything. And in an apocalypse, there are no experts: every opinion about the unprecedented is of equal weight, which seems the epitome of democratic thought.

Why no acknowledgement of progress? Perhaps it is because the narrative of decline is so much more captivating, and has been since medieval times when folks were convinced that life had only grown worse - was destined to grow worse - since Adam and Eve were chased out of the Garden. Catastrophe drives ratings, rallies the base, and makes the individual feel big. Take that away from people with your cold facts and risk their fury.

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