Saturday, April 18, 2009

Peggy Noonan Sees the Bright Side of Financial Ruin

Nobody ever mistook me for Nostradamus. Most days my crystal ball is fogged over, so I usually refrain from predicting the future.

Besides, a real prophet must have access to God's mind. Prophecy can only be true if God knows everything in advance and the prophet knows God's mind. But if God knows it all in advance, what place is there for free will?

If you make no claim to prophetic powers, you can still offer an hypothesis about the future.

When you predict tomorrow's weather, you are offering a testable hypothesis. Tomorrow will prove or disprove it.

When you predict the state of the climate in 2109 you have in Nostradamusland. Please do not insult us by saying that you know to a certainty what the climate will be like in 2109, or that your vision counts as a scientific fact.

If you imagine that a calculation can predict the future, repeat after me, three times: Thomas Malthus, Thomas Malthus, Thomas Malthus.

And didn't Nassim Taleb teach us that major events in the future are black swans. Meaning that the real future is the one thing that no has ever imagined.

Readers of this blog know that I have not always refrained from crystal ball gazing. Being sufficiently aware to know that clairvoyance involves an unusually large quantity of wishful thinking, I still soldier on.

We all do, and we all should do it. The way we see the future and the way we try to influence the future is crucial to the way we conduct our lives. It is better to plan for the future than to be constantly gazing into the past.

Fearlessly, I have joined the party of those who predict that our financial crisis will produce a new set of business values. People will work harder, be more polite, show more decorum, dress more professionally, and even return phone calls.

Were they all to come to pass, this would be a good thing. The world would be a better place. The hard part is knowing the chaos that might befall us before this new age dawns.

In today's Wall Street Journal Peggy Noonan gazes into her crystal ball and offers some of her visions of our new world. Link here.

It takes gumption to do this, so let's give her some credit. Right or wrong, she set us to gazing.

Noonan does not just have a vision; she has a concept. She is prophesying, or washing for, a simpler, more authentic life, a life without most of the material appurtenances of modern life.

She seems to see us all becoming survivalists, living on a farm, awakened at down by the crowing of the roosters, and running out to tend the sheep and goats.

She calls this authenticity.

But would we really feel better if we turned back the clock to a time before the Industrial Revolution? Would life be more authentic if we jettisoned indoor plumbing and started building more outhouses? Would we be happier if we replaced central heating with pot-bellied stoves?

However down-to-earth Noonan's nitty-gritty vision is, it is wildly impractical. Without the efficiencies of modern agriculture and food distribution systems, many people would starve to death.

As for Noonan's other predictions, I sympathize with her wish that we see fewer faces frozen by Botox. Human communication would make a great leap forward if we went back to the time when people did not consider wrinkles to be an alien invader that had to be eradicated at all cost. I for one miss the time when faces were allowed to express emotion.

On the other hand it is not a crime to want to look good. It might be better to moderate our passion for extreme make-overs than to return to a distant past where a hardscrabble life caused people to look far older than their years.

I do not, however, see any real virtue to Noonan's vision of fewer and fewer people going to the gym. It is fine for people to take more walks in the park, but exercise is far better for your health, in more ways than one.

Besides, exercise is work; a walk in the park is leisure. If we do not value work, we are never going to work our way out of the crisis.

If some people aspire to a buffed look, fine. If that gets them to improve their health, I see no reason to use prophecy to try to induce them out of it.

The biggest problem with prophets is that people who gaze too long into their crystal ball often fail to observe what is going on around them.

It would be nice to think that the financial crisis might thrust us into the rough-hewn and authentic world that Noonan sees coming.

I fear that it will do just the opposite. Massive unemployment and a materially diminished lifestyle might also unleash demons.

The pitchforks that till the land can also be used as weapons. You might see it as authentic, but it is probably not what you had in mind when you were gazing through your rose-colored glasses.

Anyway, if Noonan is right and Americans are going to give up the fight to produce a thriving market economy, my prophecy-based advice is: start learning Chinese!

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