Sunday, October 11, 2009

Clockwork World fades away...

Time from Andrew Curtis on Vimeo.

In several discussions lately, I have noted with surprise the barely contained emotions on all sides of today's political and economic events.  On one hand, I have friends who see the exploding deficit as an immediate threat, even though there are few immediate consequences.  Then there are those who have immediate problems like un- and underemployment whose anxiety is equally, if not more intense.

In essence, we have those who see some catastrophic doom approaching and those who think it has arrived. What these two camps have in common, I think, is deep misunderstanding of how our economy and culture work (or fail) together.

It seemed to be much more straightforward before, and perhaps it was. The world was understandable, like the clocks.  While we couldn't build one, we could see how the gears meshed and even intuitively grasp what made the hands go around. We also thought we understood government and economics in the same way: nice straight supply-and-demand curves, for example.

But as behavioral economists are revealing, groups of people act differently and often counter-intuitively from the individual writ large.  And even individuals can make some pretty "un-clockwork" decisions. In sum, our comfortable analog has been made obsolete. And the economic community is writhing in considerable self-doubt, as long-held axioms seem to be useless.

Much of the emotion is tied perhaps to the conviction this has occurred because of the actions of bad people.  If we could just find them, expose them, or even remove them, we can restore a logical and comforting world.  We're looking for the Clock-Killers, in essence.  This is also easier than trying to build a better Clock.

We may never recover that reassuring (if illusory) sense of mastery over our world, I'm afraid. For Americans, we have finally been matched by wildly unfamiliar social and economic forces we cannot ignore or bend to our will, such as the rise of countries with outlooks vastly different and frankly puzzling. What the inscrutable Chinese do now throws sand in the gears of our clocks.

Worst of all, despite our best efforts and dazzling military supremacy, we can't dominate opponents who baffle us with their seemingly illogical strategies. Like British soldiers during the Revolution we are faced with an enemy who doesn't seem to know the rules.  Forcing our Clock on others is not as possible as it once was.

Our Clock-model worked because we all believed in it - not because it was the best or even only way.  Other world systems now compete for precedence, and some seem to have advantages in some ways. The Chinese stimulus seems to have more effective, for example. It is understandable the possibility of having to modify our framework for understanding the world is sufficient to provoke strong emotional responses.

We may never resolve these issues, if history is any guide.  More likely, we will outlive them, as new generations arise who have been exposed to different ideas and had time to build different Clocks to help them impose a sense of order on an otherwise bewildering world.  Bluntly put, most of us struggling today will not have the time or ambition to re-align our Clock with Real Time.

Add in a slow recovery from a massive economic setback, the arguably romanticized memories of better times or a lifetime of personal financial erosion, and continuing evolution of global economics through technology and interconnection, and you have many facing a long future filled with a sense of loss and resentment.

The apparent friction and badly-disguised class warfare in the US today could become standard fare for some time, but all the while those who can will be adapting to it. Those of us who cannot are in a sense "doomed" - not so much to an unknowable "non-Clock" world, but to the personal purgatory of our grief over the changes we did not choose and cannot embrace.

The anger management challenge is two-fold. First to move past the omnipresent fears of those whose world has collapsed through loss of employment, home or savings.  The second is to address the outrage of those who have suffered far less, but feel efforts to help the first group will cause them loss in the future.  Even as more of us transfer from the latter to the former, unless both see some reason to expect improvement personally and nationally, our ability to effect corrective action will be sluggish.

Despite our worst efforts, I think we can see signs of traditional and novel forces at work to right our ship. The decline of the dollar, while laden with significant costs, at least is helping to rebalance trade. The harsh atmosphere of public debate has placed a new premium on courtesy and restraint in action. Indeed subtlety to avoid confrontation and patience to accept slower results could become valuable business skills.

In fact, I think a perverse kind of "going Galt" could be underway, as weary folks simply withdraw from as much public interaction as possible, concentrating on home and family and community.  Rather than withholding gigantic talents like Rand's heroes, today's dropouts are hoarding their attention and concern. What shouting back cannot seem to accomplish, ignoring may mitigate. The result could be we are witnessing the peak of angry citizenship.

Our theories of How the World Works need not be accurate to allow successful lives. The knowledge that is truly necessary is How We Work. Then the Clock can be powered by any system to help us tell time.

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