One image showed five young women in bright, pastel summer attire, one wearing a pink mask, walking together through a bustling city street, looking quizzically at a line of people waiting to enter some kind of establishment which looked to be enforcing COVID protocol at the door.
Another showed an older African American man, his wedding band visible on his left hand, being pulled out of a Texas ambulance on a stretcher by a hospital worker wearing a respirator.
Still another — a generic stock photo you might find under “Wall Street” — showed four men in suits casting long, dramatic shadows as they strode up a nondescript street, one carrying his jacket over his right arm, another clutching a smartphone in his left hand.
Those visuals could be found atop articles on the economy, the epidemic and markets, on Sunday. Together, they told the story of America more than a year later. Young adults struggling to come to terms with the reality that their 20s will be slightly dystopian. A man whose state of residence is actively trying to disenfranchise him because of his skin color forced to rely on the very system which failed him time and again, only this time for life-giving oxygen amid an epidemic one political party refuses to confront. Four men with mid-six-figure salaries confident that barring some new turn into Hollywood apocalypse blockbuster hell, their place near the top of the social hierarchy is probably safe.
I’ll confess to having watched a few minutes of a CNN short film about doomsday preppers on Saturday evening. There’s a summary by Arianna LaPenne here, for those interested. The network attempted to find nominally “sane,” “modern” preppers, as distinct from the stereotype most of us conjure when we hear the word “prepper.”
One thing that struck me was the extent to which the conversation centered not so much around the pandemic, but around socioeconomic issues, including inequality and the increasingly precarious plight of everyday people. Those issues featured heavily in the network’s discussion with John Ramey, founder of “The Prepared,” a site dedicated to what it describes as “sane prepping.” “We don’t believe in fear mongering and propaganda,” the site says, in its mission statement. “It’s unlikely zombies will eat your face tomorrow but it is possible you’ll see a car accident or a natural disaster,” the site wryly notes.
Ramey talked up his experience in Silicon Valley and his government work. He cited a hodgepodge of mostly generic statistics, many of which are familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in economics. For example, he mentioned the percentage of Americans who couldn’t afford to fund a simple emergency, like replacing a major appliance, without taking on new debt.
The implication was that pervasive economic precarity could further undermine societal cohesion, just as climate change starts to manifest in outcomes that are impossible to ignore. Although CNN missed the tie-in opportunity, this year’s Texas deep-freeze was a perfect example of how misplaced faith in “the market,” incompetent politicians and failure to prepare for well-known risks associated with climatic shifts, can lead to disastrous outcomes, including power bills in excess of $16,000. Recall the infamous figure (below).
The chart shows wholesale power prices in Texas hitting the $9,000 per megawatt-hour cap on multiple occasions during the February debacle.
“People are realizing the last few stable decades have been a fluke,” Ramey told The New York Times last year. “It’s the coronavirus now, but people have been watching climate change, inequality, late-stage capitalism, post-World War II systems falling apart. Our institutions have dropped the ball.”
Regular readers know I harbor a deeply ingrained aversion to doomsday prophesying, especially as it relates to capital markets. There’s a “me-specific” story behind that aversion, but more generally, I find obsessing over capital market collapse scenarios redundant. Any real “collapse” would almost surely entail a concurrent unravelling of everyday life as we know it, which would quickly push considerations about the value of your portfolio to the bottom of the “pressing concerns” list.
Colloquially, it’s pointless to hedge a portfolio against “doomsday,” at least if you take the term any semblance of literally. Anything short of an outright collapse (and accompanying descent into whatever anarchy looks like in developed economies), would trigger a policy response akin to 2008 and 2020, in which case you have two choices: View the situation as an opportunity to accumulate financial assets at a discount, or increase cash buffers on the assumption that “aftershocks” (e.g., a wave of corporate credit events that play out on a delay) will provide a “cleaner” entry point. Either choice can be rationalized.
That said, it’s becoming more difficult, for me anyway, to escape the feeling that we’re running out of time. Every headline out of Florida (and now Texas) is a stark reminder that too many people refuse to accept the reality of our predicament. In advanced, rich nations, we (humans) are on the precipice of becoming something like gods. It’s eminently plausible that within 200 years, we’ll have solved most of the “technical” problems associated with disease and the aging process. And we’ll probably have some manner of semi-plausible “exit” strategy worked out (e.g., Mars), even if it’s limited to a small subset of the Earth’s population.
But we won’t make it 200 more years if we don’t avail ourselves of various stopgaps. Stopgaps like vaccines, which protect us from getting sick while we figure out how to unlock technology that antiquates disease. Stopgaps like social policies that prevent society from unraveling. Or spending proposals that subjugate meaningless ledger concepts (e.g., deficits) to the necessity of ensuring the literal scaffolding doesn’t collapse all around us.
In that sense, 200 years is a long time. But in another sense, it’s just the blink of an eye. And that’s what makes our situation so tragic. We only need to hold on for a few more “minutes” in a historical sense.
As Robert Heilbroner reminded us, “economic man” is a relatively new being. In Heilbroner’s classic “The Worldly Philosophers,” he described the emergence of a “pale wraith of a creature who followed his adding-machine brain wherever it led him.” That creature came onto the scene a mere ~300 years ago. Prior to that, the notion that everyday people should seek gain for its own sake was considered blasphemous. “Markets” as a unifying global concept (as a frame of reference within which to contextualize human activity) and “economics” as a practical branch of philosophical inquiry, are very new ideas.
Relatedly, the everyday life that so many conservatives portray as somehow synonymous with America was in fact just a flash in the pan — the childhood of a single generation (three, at most). I was reminded of that on Saturday afternoon when, after a brief shopping trip to the largest of the islands adjacent to mine, I stopped at what, for that tourist hub, counts as an “undisturbed” stretch of beach. I walked in the surf for a few minutes, then braved a rickety-looking bridge into what I thought were woods. Instead, the trees opened up to a paved bike path around a carefully-manicured soccer field. Beside it, a half-finished set of condos waited for Monday. Across the street was a baseball field and one of those all-in-one structures with a concession stand and bathrooms on the bottom and an upper level for scorekeepers. It was marked for demolition. The chain link fence around the field was rusty; the grass uncut in who knows how long. On the backstop, a green sign barely hung on: “Champions, 1994.”
Thirty years ago, then, kids played baseball there, and parents watched on aluminum bleachers, eating sunflower seeds. Thirty years before that, such scenes were so commonplace across the country that youth baseball was more than a game. It was a fixture of American life. A community activity emblematic of civic engagement and societal cohesion in history’s most prosperous nation. There’s now no sign of any such community on that island. In fact, there are scarcely any communities at all, and certainly none that resemble any Norman Rockwell paintings.
A lot can happen in 50 years. Entire “ways of life” viewed naively by contemporaries as somehow “natural,” can disappear into the woods, never to be seen again, like a home run ball in a Little League game.
Over 300 years, humans can change their entire conception of what it means to live, rationalizing their way to conceiving of avarice as the pinnacle of virtue, just a few generations removed from characterizing greed as the depths of sin.
Seen in that light, 200 years isn’t so long. In the context of human history, we’re just minutes away from being gods.
But each person who dies needlessly from a preventable disease (be it COVID or anything else) and each day spent bickering over the “cost” of policies designed not just to pull one country back from the brink of several overlapping crises, but to ensure our survival as a species, is evidence that we might not make it.
I won’t be joining any prepper communities. But I wouldn’t blame anyone who does.