All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.
- Candide (1759), Voltaire
I'll start this with a pair of possible near-future scenarios for your consideration.
Greece is going to default, and this is not "priced in" because the ripple effects of such an event can never be contained. Rising gas prices are going to crater global growth. And no matter how far headline unemployment falls (mostly as a result of non-participation among older workers), wage stagnation, if not depression, is going to continue to weigh down the US economy.
The markets, and world economies, are already hedged for a Greek default. And it will have minimal, if any, impact in the US because our exposure is limited. Rising gas prices won't stall the US's nascent recovery because "this time it's different." It's not as it was in years before. But we can't offer any more specifics than that. And unemployment falling is clear proof it's Morning in America again. No need to look beyond the headline number. Analyzing nuanced data like wage stagnation only confuses the story of Our Victory: The President said it'd be below 8.0%, and it is!
Which scenario is more likely than the other (overwhelmingly so)?
If you said "A," you probably think it's a no brainer. How could anyone conclude otherwise? And you probably think most everybody else agrees with you.
In that latter assumption, you're wrong.
Look around the subway car you're on, around the train in which you're sitting, at the passengers in the vehicles around you on the freeway, or the line of people ahead of you in Starbucks. Eighty percent of them don't understand what's going on in Greece, let alone hold an opinion about how it will end, or how that ending will impact them. Ten percent don't think anything happening so far away, or in such a small country, could ever directly affect their lives. Five percent think the markets, in their infinite wisdom, will handle a Greek implosion in stride. The final lonely five percent have connected the dominoes and reached the conclusion that whatever planning has been undertaken, a Greek collapse is going to set off a chain of unknowable, but dire events. They understand that there is no restructuring that can save the country, that all plans offered are of the just-buy-time-and-pray-for-an- intervening-miracle variety, and that nothing defaults - in an "orderly" fashion or not - on $400 billion in debt without creating a black hole. They know Greece will hurt them, and they worry about it.
Regarding oil, fifty percent understand that rising gas prices are going to clobber the US's tenuous "recovery." They know this because they feel it directly, talk about it with their neighbors, and grasp the simple, unassailable reality: Sucking such a mass amount of otherwise discretionary income out of the economy will cause it to stall. Another fifty percent, however, have been watching the News, hearing talking heads compare 2008 to 2012... as if this were a comparison of some predictive significance. They've absorbed financial pundits saying things like, "We're much better off than we were then. We have rising employment, and credit is more easily available. We can handle $5.00 gas." And they hear some other pundits say, "Five dollar gas is a good sign. This shows a rise in demand, which is proof we're at the beginning of a growth phase!" This fifty percent is suspicious of the math, because the argument rising prices of essentials in a period of persistent wage stagnation could ever be a positive trend rings absurd. But they want to believe things are on the mend, so they give the cheerleaders on TV some credence. Surely, a man from Wall Street, talking to a camera, basing at least some of his predictions on information from official government sources, must understand something they don't.
Regarding falling unemployment, thirty percent understand the real measure to watch is wages. They realize that merely putting bodies on payrolls is inadequate, particularly in a slump where most of the rehiring has involved workers cycling from higher to lower pay jobs. The other seventy percent see it differently. They view it exactly the way the financial reporters in the big media outlets see it. They see two digits with a period between them as the sole relevant data point. This makes the impossibly complex appear simple, digestible - a trend line no man could mistake. "Look! The number has gone up for three months! Break out the champagne!" "Oh, no! It's gone down for three months. Someone call for a priest!"
It's not nuclear physics: Scenario "A" is the Near Certain Outcome, Scenario "B" the Desired Outcome. Similarly uncomplicated is the axiom, We Very Rarely Get What We Want. Given these realities, why do we recoil from the candor of those who tell us "A" is probable, and cling to the tortured narratives of those who say "B" is our future?
Paul Krugman would tell us, because we live in a post-truth world. That we're lied to every day by the elites in finance and politics, and that the liars lie so often they start believing their lies, which makes them lie more, and that even the ones who don't believe their own lies will continue to lie because, well, they have no choice. There's no other way to protect the status quo. Effectively, we live in the Matrix.
Behavioralists would tell us it's because man has to have hope, and almost all of us need to believe some form of Plato's "Noble Lie" for the human race to thrive. That if man were to observe absolute candor, he would run with absolute logic, which would tell him he had to maximize his time here without regard of cost to others, and that this would create a wrecked planet of individualizing nihilists. (A bit like Wall Street and Washington.) These anthropologists would assert man needs to work within fictions to keep his mind from focusing on the arbitrariness of life and ultimate futility of most of his efforts.
There's some heft to these observations. Certainly, our politicians have abused the "Big Lie" to the extent it now seems shocking for one of them to offer facts. But this is hardly a new thing. Jimmy Carter told the truth in his famous "Malaise Speech" back in 1979, and he was beaten like a gong for it. Eisenhower offered warnings about the "military industrial complex," a source of monstrous fiscal waste, death, and destruction, in 1961 - to a deaf audience. And mere rejection of well reasoned warnings doesn't explain our current romance with rosy narratives. Nor does any instinctual need to believe to tomorrow will be better. Hoping things will get better and recognizing they aren't right now and won't be for some time are not mutually exclusive mindsets.
I see a different cause for our current embrace of delusion: Misplaced faith in willpower. A majority of Americans seem to think that if you just believe in something hard enough, it will happen, or what is happening will be made into what you wish were happening. Never mind the hard work or tough choices that have to be employed to get there. Will it a thing to occur enough and it will.
This is nuts. But it's hardly shocking. Most of 20th Century American history shows a society disregarding facts in favor of narratives, stories, and myths.
Look at our most popular fixation, evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity. Science has debunked Creationism from so many different angles the divine side of the debate cannot even be joined, let alone credibly argued, by anyone considering himself sane. And yet, sixty million or so people still believe the Earth is 5000 years old, and the Bible inerrant proof. "Facts? Piffle. Things are as I wish to believe they are."
Consider our second most popular obsession (at least since the dawn of the Internet): Conspiracy theories. Obama is still a secret Muslim to at least one seventh of the country. 9/11 was an inside job to millions. A star chamber of elites meeting in Davos, or the Bilderberger retreat, or the UN, secretly plans a New World Order. "I am not responsible for my unrealized ambition. A confederacy of powerful, dark forces is working against me!"
Examine our favorite form of public discourse on issues: Infotainment programming where talking heads, biased toward one of the two parties, offer opinion dressed as news, and engage in rhetorical sleight of hand to feed lumpenvoters reinforcement of extreme views any rational individual would immediately discount as farce. "The President's a Socialist!" "It was all Fannie and Freddie's fault!" "It was all Wall Street's fault!" "It's all the Koch Brothers' doing!"*
I don't know the exact symptoms of a society tipping into idiocracy. But I'm willing to wager one filled with citizens who make reality their enemy doesn't have a bright future ahead. I'm willing to bet every chip on the proposition a population saturated with voices proudly rejecting science, and logic, and refusing to hear competing views is racing off a cliff. And dragging the rest of us over with them.
Delusion cures no crises. Never has, never will. Crises are only effectively addressed by assessing, coldly, clinically, the data regarding the problems at hand, and crafting a solution. This process requires candor. It demands we be honest about what is actually going on around us, rather than embracing the narratives of media outlets reporting it in a fashion that makes us comfortable, and railing against the outliers who offer unvarnished facts. It requires us to stop reading the opinion pages and start reading the actual hard news... educating ourselves on the matters at issue, and rigorously analyzing the information we receive. It demands we be skeptics, rather than "on message" foot soldiers, or happily placated supplicants.
The notion things will get better soon if we just "believe" they will, or have faith they will because that's what appears to have happened in the past, is lunacy. The only literal "Triumph of the Will" in history was a Leni Reifenstahl film (about a movement that didn't turn out so well). Reality is not individual perception, and it does not bend to the mere desire it be otherwise.** We know this. We understand this. It takes no measure of genius to grasp the baseline truth that if you walk outside this morning and it's raining, no matter how much you avoid looking at the rain, or how much you insist it's not, it's still going to be raining. That statistics are bit easier to manipulate than weather doesn't render this analogy inapt. The man who sees all around him an economy in stall mode, sustained on a life support of liquidity injections, yet chooses to believe a pundit who says "The recovery is robust!" based on cherry-picked metrics is no less a fool than the one who stands outside, drenched, insisting it isn't raining.
If you've read this far, you understand the importance of the point being made. You've seen the suppression of discomforting data in business reporting. You've seen the biggest benefactors of the status quo and the politicians they own push the fiction "It's all on the mend," "It's just a business cycle," or "It's not structural." You've seen the bias against candor - the armies of mouthpieces maligning skeptics as doomsayers. You've seen the crowd crush anyone who even dares to suggest things might not follow the official consensus narrative.*** This is Groupthink. This is delusion. This is the mob refusing to acknowledge the elephant in the corner under the assumption removing him from the debate might somehow remove him from the room.
This needs to stop.
In candor there's power - a message to those around us that we're interested in facts, and logic. That we're attempting to keep ourselves above emotion, above the persuasions conning those who want see a reality that suits them. It signals we're serious people attempting to work with what's there rather than arguments, opinions, and stories. And most importantly, it tells others we're open to opposing views. We can be compromised with where necessary because, unlike the willingly deluded, our aim is pragmatic - to use all relevant facts at hand, even the ones we don't like, rather than focus on those we do and pretend those we don't are immaterial.
We all know where to find candor. We know those who speak with it. We know the media sources that offer it. We recognize it when we're listening to someone spin, market, or advocate a position and feel the urge to snap "Wait a minute. What you're saying is disingenuous. The actual facts are..." welling up in our throats. It's time we stop guarding ourselves. Time we let those corrections out. Time we turn off the bought and paid for pundits, seek out the merchants of actual reality in our media (mainstream and otherwise) and circulate their reports. Talk facts. Tell people what we actually see going on, even if it's impolite. And tell them to tell someone else. Give candor the echo it needs - the echo millions of us desperately need to hear.
* The view anything was the combined fault of all of us is, of course, marginalized to the darkest wilderness of the discussion. We all know that one's true, but if we accept such a position, who is there to lash out against? Everything must be a fight, and blame must be accorded to one side alone, you understand. ^
** It does, however, bend to smart, industrious effort, and making tough choices. ^
*** See: The hysterical response to Meredith Whitney's municipal bond default projections. ^