Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Personal Resilience, Institutional Brittleness, and the Marketing of Powerlessness

Is the Mainstream Media exaggerating the woes of the nation? In Are People Smarter than Media Pundits? Yes; Something Is Deeply Amiss (June 16, 2008), I lambasted Gregg Easterbrook's Wall Street Journal article which blamed the media for creating a false divide between Americans' personal satisfactions and their gloomy assessment of the nation's direction.
Rather than the media being overly negative, I suggested that the citizenry was seeing through the phony-cheerleading whitewash presented by the MSM.

For as I detailed in Dude, We Are So Doomed (June 11, 2008), there are strong historical precedents for the citizenry's anxieties: four long-wave cycles are converging in the near future, and this does not bode well for the happy-happy cheerleaders' view.

In other words: the problems are real, and the MSM's belated coverage has been largely superficial in the sense that it is focused on today, tomorrow and perhaps this summer: short-term thinking at its worst.

My interpretation of this public/private schizophrenia is: as individuals, we grasp the resilience and positives in our own lives, even as we awaken to the frightening brittleness and fragility of global supply chains and our faltering institutions.

I have addressed this structural fragility before: Brittleness (January 29, 2007) and Brittleness and Risk, or, Hedge Funds As Rats (January 31, 2007).

"Connecting the dots" is precisely where the MSM fails most decisively. So what if there's $700 trillion in over-the-counter risky derivatives? OK, so they might blow up the global financial system--so what does that actually mean? We understand it's a concern, and we might feel anxious about it, but the consequences are always left unaddressed or vague in the MSM accounts.

Your pension fund blows up and your pension checks stop arriving. Now there's a consequence many would notice. Is it just sloppy journalism that the potential consequences of these systemic financial risks are fluffed over in the MSM , or is something more insidious at work? To further the discussion, here are three thought-provoking reader responses.

First up is Nellie D., who writes powerfully on personal and family resilience:

"I think it no understatement that all kinds of rhythms and cycles are converging in such a way as to force most of us to a vastly different way of life post haste. However, I find myself cringing at the word doom. More than cringing. Actually, angry.
The reason I became angry is because, for the few brief moments it took to read the post, I felt hopeless. I despise being hopeless, as it smacks of self-pity and blindness. A spirit of self-pity and blindness doesn't begin to put us in a place to deal positively and effectively with all the coming change.
While paying attention to the macrocosm of your article, I felt a very strong pull to the memories of my personal experience macrocosm, which, when compared to the system, is a microcosm. Immediately, my spirit rebounded. You see, I, and so many others like me, who have found themselves totally broke in the middle of a divorce while raising children and working at formally educating themselves while their newly freed mates declare bankruptcy and live high (at least comparatively) while immediately seeking a new mate have found themselves in similar wholesale storms of epic, catastrophic, life-changing proportion. And not only have we survived the destruction of the old world, we have thrived as we've built the new one.

From the devolution of the world as I knew it, I built a new world not based on frills and appearances, but on honesty, brutal when necessary, and a determination to live entirely within my physical, emotional, psychological, and financial means as I understood them.
So, I suppose I wouldn't write, as you did, "Dude, we are so doomed," but instead, "Ma'am, we have a chance to begin again, and this time, do it well." I, for one, am wholly optimistic about the place we as a nation may put ourselves as a result of new opportunities to rebuild. We can do this."

I then asked if financial prudence was a factor in her success. Her response:

"Yes, financial responsibility and prudence were key to my rebuilding. My sons were also wonderful to me during this time. I told them I didn't have many financial resources (unlike their father), but promised I would share whatever I had with them, and that over time, our lives in relation to money would improve significantly. They did! My sons are grown and on their own now. They know how to manage, and how not to whine about what they don't have, and appreciate staying within their means. I live on far less than I earn, and love it.

A further comment on what excites me about coming days--a possible full recovery of our sense of resourcefulness as individuals and as a nation. While some may argue that we've benefited from buying cheap goods, highly priced from overseas, I say no, we've lost by going cheap.

We can make our own clothes, linens, and rugs, and garden for ourselves. We can cook and clean for ourselves. I think we would do well to once again reacquaint ourselves with the reality of the true and worthy labor making a garment requires, and if we know what labor is truly involved, we won't feel the need for closets full of them. In my opinion, fiscal education on a national level starts with these simple things.

If we get a handle on the lesson at that level of consumption, never again to we tend to mis-value or dismiss the value of another's labor, no matter how humble it seems. In addition, we could once again gain a real perspective on those earning exorbitant salaries whose work adds no true thought or production, and quit worshiping that as an ideal.

We are not even close to the first generation to face wholesale global economic change and world terror at the same time. :-) The one thing I'm certain of is, as a nation, we absolutely can make the changes we need to, and thrive while were doing it. At heart we're decent, hardworking, and strong people. Now we will have a chance to test our mettle all together. "

What really strikes me about Nellie's account is how difficult it is to transfer the individual optimism and confidence she describes so well into institutional change.
We desperately need to make our cities and towns more walkable and bicycle-friendly, both to boost small retailers and to improve our health and provide an alternative to getting in a car to run every errand. So what's stopping us? Institutional inertia as embodied in zoning codes and painfully inert procedures, and well-funded opposition from "special interests," i.e. all those who are profiting from maintaining the status quo.

Healthcare costs are rising by 10% per year ( Study: Health costs to rise nearly 10 percent), but what can we do about it? The forces arrayed against any change except minor tweaking (a.k.a. rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic) are numerous, well-funded and desperate to maintain a dysfunctional, failing system from which they profit.

I could list many other examples but I'm already tired of typing. The institutional resistance to productive, needed transformation is beyond any individual's efforts, and hence our personal optimism and our public despair.

Next, Rand C. offers this commentary on the propaganda/marketing machine which dominates the MSM and New Media alike:

"My thought, maybe people are seeing their lives as much shorter than they though it would be. People these days act as though life is short. So morals, past history, and a conscience are all out the window, indulgence is the day.

We can thank the media for constantly reminding us how short our life can be with the bombardment of people dying due to numerous factors: starvation, natural disasters, disease, and health related, etc. I wondering if others seem to see that the over all influence of the media is to make feel like we are missing out and that life it short so we just become selfish and indulge. Screw what the results are, live for today attitude seems to be the trend. Who can blame people with all that's going on and the grim outlook? Just my view, maybe...."

I believe Rand has pinpointed a key component in our sense of powerlessness: the infiltration of "marketing" into the warp and weave of all media. The marketing mindset purposefully nurtures a sense of "missing out" by glorifying ideals which are profoundly unrealistic (hey, don't you want to be Ralph Lauren and have an estate and a yacht and play polo? No? What are you, sick or something?)

The marketing paradigm's aims are pernicious: a state of confusion/distraction punctured by sharp spikes of indulgence and deprivation.

As a corollary, the marketing model of media works to degrade the consumer's sense of priorities, and to compress time from the "meaningful long" to the "desperate short." By setting up wildly unrealistic ideals, below which yawn a dark pit of worthlessness, marketing breeds a zeitgeist of insecurity, doubt, anxiety and deprivation--the perfect setup for the soul-balm of a sale.
Since the media exists more and more as a means of transmitting ads and marketing disguised as "content," then why would the media spend much time on cycles and issues which would undermine its own livelihood, i.e. marketing and advertising?

Finally, frequent contributor Harun I. provides a concise account of the challenges the media glosses over in its pell-mell rush to entertain us with the latest crisis/fad/train wreck:

"Time for endless and mindless diversion was over yesterday. Radical out-of-the-box thinking is needed because the grim reality is that even if an energy source comparable to oil is found, six billion (and growing) cannot be sustained. Human population growth has not been linear and neither is resource depletion. Whether we manage things down or descend into chaos is anyone's guess. It may not happen in my lifetime but it will certainly be engaging while hardly entertaining.
It is unlikely that, without oil, human population growth to its current extent would have been possible.
Heads of state need to stop bickering, dismiss plundering as an option, publicly acknowledge the problem and introduce and implement solutions.
The current "tomato" crisis is just another warning about the fragility of the food chain.
Even if technology does deliver salvation from energy doom the challenge of resource depletion persists -- how are we going to feed and hydrate all these people?

People understand it academically but can't accept, at the most fundamental level of their being, the fact that their country's current trajectory is toward bankruptcy even though there is precedent that is readily accessible in history books.

Nor can they imagine a plague (pandemic) that wipes out one half or even three quarters of the worlds population even though the plague halved European population twice."

Well said, Harun. As for those history books--I cannot recommend these often enough:
The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History (by David Hackett Fischer) describes the cyclical crises of the 14th, 16th, 17th and 20th centuries with an eerie prescience re: today's headline crises (the book was written in 1996).

As for generational change, The Fourth Turning (by William Strauss and Neil Howe) lays out a structure of cyclical historical change which is, if not persuasive, then certainly thought-provoking.

You might also enjoy scanning my short list of other "Essential Books" in Books and Films.
As an alternative to purchasing the books: perhaps your local public library has copies on its shelves.

Readers Journal updates: check them out!

Readers Journal commentaries week of June 20, 2008 Electric vehicles, long-wave cycles pointing to World War III, bikeways to L.A., Chinese goods and competition, something amiss and more.
We Will All be Better Off with Falling House Prices (Paul Tolnai, June 18, 2008)
Triage in the Upcoming War for (Energy) Independence (Paul Tolnai, June 9, 2008)
Compressed Natural Gas (CNG): A Peak-Oil "Bridge Fuel" (Matt Gaspar, June 15, 2008)

Thank you, Cudick A. ($50), for your extremely generous third donation to this site. I am greatly honored by your on-going support and readership. All contributors are listed below in acknowledgement of my gratitude.

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