Whimpers and Bangs

June 22, 2011

It has been a while, Dear Readers, and I apologize for the lapse in correspondence.  The past few weeks (really, months) have been pretty hectic.  Perhaps this has been a blessing in disguise, as I haven’t yet had a chance to succumb to the temptation to opine on the many reasons the World (as usual) is Ending. 

I have difficulty recalling any significant stretch of time where there haven’t been at least two or three imminent threats to civilization as we know it.  Right now, of course, we have the potential collapse of Europe, the potential descent of the Middle East into chaos (and not proximately because of Israel/Palestine this time!), and the potential nuclear meltdown of Japan, to name the first three catastrophes that come to mind.  This time last year, I think, the list would have been something like: fiscal oblivion in America, global warming, and loose nuclear bombs.  Thinking back through my lifetime in broad strokes, we had: the collapse of the global financial system, global food shortages, an inevitable and mutually destructive clash of civilizations with the Communists (i.e., China), Avian Flu, SARS, WMD and Islamist terrorism, the Asian and Russian financial crises, Ebola, the S&L crisis, AIDS, and of course another inevitable and mutually destructive clash of civilizations with the Communists (i.e., Russia)…

At some point there was talk of a giant asteroid destroying the planet.  Also, we’re probably going to run out of fish, farmland, and water in the next couple of decades.  If I spent more than fifteen minutes thinking about this, I could probably re-write “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”

My list of world-ending crises presumably reflects the sorts of issues on which I spend the majority of my intellectual energy: finance, geopolitics, health.  I’m sure there are others who worry about disasters on other fronts — for example, the erosion of the Traditional Family Unit and hence Civilization with all these gay people trying to get married willy-nilly, or the wholesale destruction of Human Dignity that might come from permitting informed end-of-life decisions for those who may want an alternative to becoming an exceptionally dignified (and collectively-subsidized) vegetable.

Perhaps I’ve become a bit jaded by the repeated failure of the World to End despite what seem to be humanity’s best efforts to push it there.  I’m reminded of the sport of ‘policy’ debate in high school, which when practiced poorly tended always to reduce to the question of whether the affirmative or negative position were more likely to lead to global nuclear holocaust.  Should the Federal government adopt a stimulus program?  Maybe so, because failure to stimulate the economy could lead to its collapse, which could lead to a resurgence of populist and nativist anger against those who are perceived to have stolen the American dream, which could lead to war with China as the world’s most prominent low-cost exporter, which could lead to global nuclear holocaust.  On the other hand, maybe not, because it could lead to unsustainable Federal spending, which could lead to a default on US Treasuries, which could lead to war with China as the largest holder of Treasuries, which could lead to global nuclear holocaust.  With so many policy decisions being made every day, it’s truly marvelous that civilization persists.

But I do remember how scary it looked from the front lines during the summer of 2008, when it seemed like one financial institution after another was destined to collapse.  It is easy to criticize in hindsight, as many pundits, politicians, litigators, and journalists have chosen to do.  We shouldn’t forget, though, that one reason the World hasn’t Ended just yet is that enough people throughout history seem consistently to make good-enough decisions under exceptional uncertainty.