Cautious optimists or realistic pessimists?
According to New Zealand Reserve Bank Governor Alan Bollard, the economic downturn is deeper and longer than he had earlier expected “but the bottom is just a few months away”. (The Press, 13 March).
The world’s economy is much more of a basket case than 3 months ago when the Governor made his previous Official Cash Rate cut, accompanied by an even more optimistic prognosis. With only one financial lever to pull- and one that is designed to cope with rampant inflation not financial and economic melt down and deflation he has to adopt a note of cautious optimism in public.
Some take an even more positive, if self-interested, stance. Kendle Langston, MD of a home building company, says that we are bombarded with depressingly bad news on a daily basis but there was a lot happening that is positive, with interest rates going down and the availability of builders. With a true Bob the Builder can-do attitude he says “It’s a good time to build”.
Are Pollyannas starting to outnumber Jeremiahs? Or are both simply an expression of our usually secret schizophrenia made more visible in shaky times?
2009 Will Be a Year of Panic was not a headline in the daily press but of one of two thought-provoking articles in the January edition of Seed Magazine by Bruce Sterling and his alter-ego, Bruno Argento. Bruce, a realistic pessimist living in Austin, Texas, is impressed by people’s behaviour during massive panics. “They rarely believe or admit that they are panicked. Instead they assure one another that at last the wool has been lifted from their eyes….”
As 2009 opened, American financial institutions were deep in massive, irrational panic. That’s bad, he says, but it gets worse. “Many other respected institutions have rational underpinnings at least as frail as derivatives or bundled real-estate loans. Like finance, these institutions are social constructions. They are games of confidence, underpinned by people’s solemn willingness to believe, to conform, to contribute. So why not panic over them, too?”
But if we really want something to really worry about, he says, how about considering some of the real crises confronting us such as the changing climate and the state of national currencies. Let us be really worried by the antics of those business and political leaders who “Go from the gut—all tactics, no strategy—making up the state of the world as you go along! Stampede wildly from one panic crisis to the next.”
Downunder we have looked askance at the wholesale dispensing of industrial strength Viagra to corporate near corpses in the Northern Hemisphere. The view from deep in the heart of Texas is not reassuring. “2009 will be a squalid year, a planetary hostage situation surpassing any mere financial crisis, where the invisible hand of the market, a good servant turned a homicidal master, periodically wanders through a miserable set of hand-tied, blindfolded, feebly struggling institutions, corporations, bureaucracies, professions, and academies, and briskly blows one’s brains out for no sane reason.”
We can do better than this says Bruce.
Bruno Argento agrees. Bruce’s “twin brother who lives in Turin” is an urbane cautious optimist. For him, America is a harshly competitive, highly individualistic society. In Italy things will also be more precarious, not just for those wearing blue collars but for many of the formerly wealthy. But there is already more solidarity, not of the Polish ship-yard variety, but a community feeling of benevolence to those who have lost their jobs or their businesses.
This fellow feeling brings with it the opportunity to see eye to eye on major global economic issues such as currency flows and the ageing population. “Once we recognize precarity as an existential threat for all, we will find the means to deal with it… Shorter work weeks give us the chance to rejoin civil society, to re-establish trust with neighbours turned strangers…”
He thinks the year ahead, the second in the true 21st century, is best approached as a learning opportunity. Once we stop shaking all over and scolding Americans, we will recognize the tremendous potential this new century offers. “The sun still shines, the grass still grows, we are still human. If we stopped pretending to be puppets of an invisible hand, we … might see that life is sweet.”
No doubt all of us from time to time manifest the range of emotions expressed in this delightful and insightful duologue. Where on the attitude scale shall we choose to make our own default setting of pessimism or optimism?
One thing is for sure. It won’t be all over by Christmas.