Thursday, December 1, 2011

Does the modern world make us feel like powerless creatures in the coils of an invisible monster?

‘What most alarms us in our contemporary world, what unsettles and scares us, is the extent to which the forces that shape our lives are no longer personal – they know nothing of us; and to the extent that we know nothing of them – cannot put a face on them, cannot find in them anything we recognize as human – we cannot deal with them. We feel like small, powerless creatures in the coils of an invisible monster, vast but insubstantial, that cannot be grasped or wrestled with.’ 
That quote seems to me to sum up the main point that David Malouf was making in: ‘The Happy Life; The Search for Contentment in the Modern World’, Quarterly Essay, March 2011.

In the paragraphs preceding the quoted passage, the author argues that it is possible for humans to be happy even in the most miserable conditions if they perceive their world as having human dimensions. He explains that a world with human dimensions is one that humans can recognize and encompass. In his words:
‘We start always from the body, and relate everything back to it. In a way that goes back to our most primitive beginnings, we use it to establish direction – where we are facing, where we might move to; to gauge distance – how far off an object is and how far we have got along the way towards it; to determine how each thing we are observing stands in relation to our own being – its size in relation to ours, how light or heavy it is when we try to lift it or weigh it on our palm; how much it occupies of the space we share; how it smells and tastes, how it feels to the touch or when we roll it between finger and thumb’.

I feel in awe of people who manage to maintain tranquillity in the most miserable conditions. It is probably correct to say that such people do experience the sources of human misery as having human dimensions – they feel uncertainty, discomfort, pain, fear and anger just like the rest of us – but they are not overwhelmed by such feelings. The fact that they have normal human feelings doesn’t mean, however, that they necessarily see major sources of human misery – extreme climatic events, for example – as having human dimensions.

Irrespective of their capacity to maintain tranquillity in the face of misfortune, our ancestors saw God (or the gods) as the most likely explanation for extreme climatic events – and just about everything else they experienced. Malouf acknowledges this, but he suggests that when we were in the hands of the gods we had stories that made these distant beings human and brought them close. Of the gods, he writes:
‘They watched over us and were concerned, though in moments of wilfulness or boredom they might also torment us as “wanton boys” do flies. We had our ways of obtaining their help as intermediaries. We could deal with them’.

By contrast:
‘The Economy is impersonal. It lacks manageable dimensions. We have discovered no mythology to account for its moods. Our only source of information about it, the Media and their swarm of commentators, bring us “reports”, but these do not help: a possible breakdown in the system, a new crisis, the descent on Greece or Ireland or Portugal, like Jove’s eagle, of the IMF. We are kept in a state of permanent low level anxiety broken only by outbreaks of alarm’.

I admire David Malouf’s writing style, but I have a couple of problems with this line of reasoning. First, personal gods left good people bewildered as to why bad things were happening to them. Remember the biblical story of Job, the virtuous man who suffered from ‘acts of God’. Job was not a happy chappy – he cursed the day he was born. My reading of the story is that Job tried to deal with God, but that didn’t work. Job found tranquillity only after he accepted that God was not a person that he could deal with. He had to learn to accept that some factors affecting his life were beyond his capacity to understand and influence.

Second, many people seem to have difficulty in accepting that economic forces are impersonal. Economic crises, in particular, are often viewed in very personal terms – for example, in terms of the excessive greed of human agents, such as Wall Street bankers, or even in terms of conspiracies involving bankers and politicians. Modern conspiracy theories have their demons (and super-heroes) in much the same way as ancient religions had their personal gods.

One of the features of the modern world is that the role of the personal gods has tended to be displaced impersonal scientific explanations of the forces that shape our lives. Do these scientific explanations leave people feeling unsettled? I don’t think so. Psychological evidence discussed by Timothy Wilson (in his book ‘Redirect’, discussed recently on this blog) indicates that people who are affected by negative events tend to feel worse when they are uncertain about the nature of those events and why they occurred.  Reducing uncertainty about negative events is a good way to bounce back from those events.

It seems to me that it is the uncertainty associated with recent economic crises that has made them particularly unsettling. With the onset of the global financial crisis there was a great deal of public discussion among economists about the inadequacy of existing scientific explanations of what was happening. When leading economists admit that they can’t understand an economic crisis, other people have good reason to feel unsettled. Over the last couple of years, however, there has been growing support among economists for the idea that (unconventional) monetary policy can be influential in shaping expectations about the growth of aggregate demand, even when interest rates are very low. This provides grounds for optimism that the world will be able to avoid a major economic downturn over the next few years. (At the same time, as I suggested in a post a few weeks ago, there are still some grounds for concern that the European Central Bank will maintain deflationary policies that will exacerbate the financial crisis in Europe and impact adversely on the world economy.)

More robust scientific explanations of economic crises could be expected to help the people who have adversely affected to adjust to their misfortune, but would they not still feel like small, powerless creatures in the coils of an invisible monster? Quite possibly.  Yet, a better understanding of the economic forces involved may give them reason to hope for better outcomes in future. A surfer who is dumped by a wave might feel like a powerless creature in the coils of a monster, even if he has some understanding of wave mechanics. But his understanding of why he was dumped might give him reason to hope that in future he is more likely to experience the exhilaration of riding the wave.


Lorraine said...

Your offers of explanations and insights come across as pacifiers, at least if the tone of the explanation is, 'yes Virginia, economics is a force of nature which cannot be negotiated with. Right wing snarks often quip 'fighting the laws of economics is like fighting the law of gravity,' but the law of gravity at least can be negotiated with, hence the science of aviation. If you're serious about heling me get over my enraged determination to give the Invisible Hand the bionic handshake, your key communication objective should be less about acceptance and more about demystification. That's what did in all those gods and goddesses, after all. Uncloak the Invisible Hand, rendering it a Visible Hand. I wouldn't be too quick to dismiss this as impossible.

Winton Bates said...

Hi Lorraine
The message that I was intending to convey was that demystification of factors affecting economic outcomes might help people to come to terms with economic misfortune and even give them hope that they might be able to feel more in control of their lives in future.
The problem is that we have good reason to feel uneasy about the future of the world economy at the moment - not least because the ECB might drive Europe into a deep recession.
In this instance I am not trying to persuade you that the free market (i.e. free banking) would resolve the problem. (I think it might, but I can understand why anyone who is anywhere near the levers of power would not contemplate it at the moment.) The priority, as I see it, is to get central banks to act sensibly by signalling that they intend to use the policy instruments at their disposal to promote steady growth in aggregate demand and to actually pursue that objective in bond markets etc.

If unease about economic forces was primarily about the effects of globalization, for example, then I would be arguing that attempts to promote better public understanding of the market forces involved should have high priority. However, I am not sure how far it is possible to go in demystifying the market without destroying it. For example, it seems to me that people who want to know in great detail where the new jobs will come from to replace those lost as a result of import competition must be asking for a centrally planned economy which is held in a stationary state. There is no way that new technologies or changes in consumer tastes influencing future patterns of employment could be predicted with much confidence.