Are these guys correct, and is the worst of the recession behind us?
I certainly don’t know—but neither does anyone else. It would, however, be a wonderful thing to have the answer, because we are being asked to act in drastic ways to forestall a cataclysmic event that may or may not occur without such intervention. And, unfortunately, since the proposed cures could be worse than the disease, it would be awfully good to know that the diagnosis is correct before we start the treatment.
But isn’t this always the way? For example, it’s the situation with global warming (or climate change, or whatever is the proper term de jour). The state of our analytic and predictive powers is poor, but the voices of doom cry out for immediate and sometimes drastic remedies.
It also was what faced the Bush administration in the buildup to the Iraq war—that is, unless you think the evil CheneyBushHitler manufactured everything for their/his own nefarious purposes. There was evidence that pointed in the direction of a situation that could easily go on to become a conflagration if not nipped in the bud. And yet the nipping process was painful, uncertain, and potentially dangerous in and of itself, as we have seen.
But we must always make decisions based on incomplete information, both in our lives and in politics —and even in areas of science that seem far more straightforward than climate change or economics. For example, at the end of WWII, when it came time to test the atomic weaponry developed by the Manhattan Project, there was still some uncertainty about the outcome. Despite the fact that physics is one of the more rigorous and predictable sciences, and although the men who designed the bomb were exceptionally brilliant, there remained some question about what would actually happen when an attempt was made to detonate one:
The observers [of the first atomic test] set up betting pools on the results of the test. Predictions ranged from zero (a complete dud) to 18 kilotons of TNT (predicted by physicist I. I. Rabi, who won the bet, to destruction of the state of New Mexico, to ignition of the atmosphere and incineration of the entire planet. This last result had been calculated to be almost impossible, although for a while it caused some of the scientists some anxiety.
I bet it did.
We all must live with the anxiety of not knowing the consequences of our actions, or what the alternatives would have wrought. Those of you who read this blog regularly know that one of my favorite authors, expatriate Czech author Milan Kundera, has written quite a bit about this topic—and I’ve quoted him quite a bit, too. But his words seem so apropos that I’m going to quote him again (the following is from his masterpiece The Unbearable Lightness of Being):
Several days later, [Tomas] was struck by another thought, which I record here as an addendum to the preceding chapter: Somewhere out in space there was a planet where all people would be born again. They would be fully aware of the the life they had spent on earth and of all the experience they had amassed here.
And perhaps there was still another planet, where we would all be born a third time with the experience of our first two lives,
And perhaps there were yet more and more planets, where mankind would be born one degree (one life) more mature.
That was Tomas’s version of eternal return.
Of course we are here on earth (planet number one, the planet of inexperience) can only fabricate vague fantasies of what will happen to man on those other planets. Will he be wiser? Is maturity within man’s power? Can he attain it through repitition?
Only from the perspective of such a utopia is it possible to use the concepts of pessimism and optimism with full justification: an optimist is someone who thinks that on planet number five the history of mankind will be less bloody. A pessimist is one who thinks otherwise.
….There is only one history of the Czechs. One day it will come to an end, as surely as Tomas’s life, never to be repeated.
In 1618, the Czech estates took courage and vented their ire on the emperor reigning in Vienna by pitching two of his high officials out of a window in the Prague Castle. Their defiance led to the Thirty Years War, which in turn led to the almost complete destruction of the Czech nation. Should the Czechs have shown more caution than courage? The answer may seem simple; it is not.
Three hundred and twenty years later, after the Munich Conference of 1938, the entire world decided to sacrifice the Czech’s country to Hitler. Should the Czechs have tried to stand up to a power eight times their size? In countrast to 1618, they opted for caution. Their capitulation led to the Second World War, which in turn led to the forfeit of their nation’s freedom for many decades or even centuries. What should they have done?
If Czech history could be repeated, we should of course find it desirable to check the other possibility each time and compare the results. Without such an experiment, all considerations of this kind remain a game of hypotheses…
The history of the Czechs will not be repeated, nor will the history of all of Europe. The history of the Czechs and of Europe are a pair of sketches from the pen of mankind’s fateful inexperience.
Does humanity grow in experience, and therefore wisdom? Perhaps. I’m not at all sure, however—or, to extend Kundera’s thought, I’m not at all certain that the history of planet number five would go any better than that of planet number one (or to use another example, does “Groundhog Day” trump “Peggy Sue Got Married?”)
No matter how much history and knowledge we amass, we are still going forward into an unknown future, in which situations that appear to resemble each other (such as, for example, the present economic crisis and the Great Depression of the 30s) have so many differences that to try to apply the lessons learned from the errors of the first to the facts of the second is not necessarily going to lead to a better result. We also labor under the difficulty that, even if those lessons might be applicable and we would like to apply them, public opinion and/or politics may at times make it impossible to do so.
The only solution is to attempt to study history and/or science, find the course of action that seems most suitable to address the new situation, and do our best, remaining philosophical about the prospects of success. Another caveat might be to use the least drastic measures possible. But unfortunately, sometimes drastic situations require drastic interventions.