Saturday, July 05, 2008

Armageddon or a Bump?

Having predicted ten of the last three recessions, my reputation for being a curmudgeon who is ready to predict disaster is entrenched. Yet on impending doom at the present time, color me agnostic.

In the face of those who call agnosticism a cowardly position, I rise to assert that in most cases it is the only sane position.

After all, do we have proof that God does not exist? Is there any certainty that, as happened in 1993-94, economic gloom will not begin to be replaced by the largest boom and fiscal surplus in history?

In the midst of a bearish stock market, l see reason to take the longer, mid-range view that everything will not collapse. High gas prices provide a needed incentive to curb and replace consumption of fossil fuels. Inflation is part of the set of pressures that will lead to restoring the purchasing power of working people. The Iraq quagmire may yet spare us more dangerous adventurism.

Silver linings aside, change will likely involve discomfort, shock and surprise -- it always has. Yet to insist dogmatically on atheism or on the end of civilization as we know it makes no sense.

Let's be clear about the sources of current anxiety.

A fair amount of doomsaying comes from my very large and noisy generation, the Boomers. It is not uncommon for people reaching retirement and the eventual end of life to have an apres moi le deluge (let disaster follow after me) attitude. My life is ending, such a view proclaims, so the world must be.

Another bit comes from the young, who have never seen a similar historical juncture. As Mark Twain put it, "History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme." The Devil knows more because he is old, says a Spanish saying, than because he is the Devil. So if you've seen this before, as I have, this moment is not so unique.

Yet another source of belief that society as we know it is at an end comes from some who would like to see, at a minimum, profound change, in the present social, political, economic order, or a combination of the three. One need not be an extremist to believe that a good, all-sweeping socioeconomic twister would give us a chance to make a clean start on the road to whatever utopia one favors.

In my experience, however, worsening conditions do not create "revolutionary conditions," or an alternative equivalent, but merely misery.
  • In the U.S. 1980s, Ronald Reagan broke the back of unions, presided over double-digit unemployment, cut aid to pregnant women and children, created a whole generation of homeless and spawned an economy in which working people could be forced to accept declining wages and benefits while profits soared. In 2000, far from rebelling, the populace meekly submitted to massive electoral fraud by Reagan's heir, George W. Bush.

  • In the South American 1970s, a variety of military governments under the doctrine of "national security" coined by one Cesar Augusto Pinochet, used the pretext of leftist-inspired agitation or turmoil to torture, murder and banish hundreds of thousands throughout the continent. In the 1990s, freed from the military boot, various electorates brought to office presidential administrations that privatized even parks and introduced beggar-thy-neighbor social policies under the aegis of Milton Friedman.

  • In Eastern Europe there is a wry joke to describe a similar historic parabola in that region: What is worse than Communism? Post-Communism.
In brief, give me thoughtful, complex, measured, surgical action that makes for ripples of lasting change that spread benefits across a broad base.

Give me hope. Give me patience. I am tired of saviors and quick fixes.
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