Little League

Little League

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.


11 thoughts on “Little League

  1. I lived in Houston Texas for 13 years. Prior to the recent deep freeze, we also had another freeze where snowman were made and stuck around for a week. My point is that this weather pattern was wholly predictable based upon past. Texas regulators just simply chose to ignore it at the behest of companies that were going to profit from it. I also used to work for the largest power developer, provisions needed to keep power running or well known and much cheaper done at this time you build the plant.

    Diesel generators are quite common in the wealthier subdivisions due to hurricanes. And that power can be generated at much lower costs than the power company was selling it for. So the wealthy were maybe inconvenienced having to fill their diesel tank a couple of times. After almost convenience stores also have diesel generators to weather hurricanes. It was the poor and the middle class that paid the bills.

    So in my view this situation was one that was set up to screw the people of Texas and enrich the already wealthy.

  2. If Covid had been more lethal with a 50% kill rate…….if Yellowstone takes a ling overdue burp……If the old sun goes on a week long rampage, a massive Carrington event……If, such a existential word….

  3. As I approach my 70th lap around the sun, hardly a day goes by without a grateful nod to the knowledge that I won’t see the fulminant extent of what’s to come for humanity. Lately though, I’m not so smug. The Atlantic current (Gulfstream) is stalling while ice shelves continue to slip. The tipping point we thought might someday happen is happening. We are Wile E. Coyote who, having chased Roadrunner off a cliff, is about to look down and notice his/our immediate future.

  4. The issue is a “prepper” mindset is just another delusion to somehow accept the premise everything needs real attention before society breaks but still imagine it isn’t your problem because you will be ok with all your “preps”. You won’t be. Civilizations do not collapse neatly in on themselves like a planned demolition. The only real prepping is doing the hard work to correct broken systems in society. If we do not make it out as a civilization then whoever survives is likely to be just a random assortment of very lucky and yet unlucky people.

    Nothing is so broken we cannot address it but almost everything is so broken it will severely reduce the odds we survive any crisis and the makes the overall projection grim indeed.

  5. That was lovely work, sir. The unreality about prepping for a real doomsday is just silly. No one can last more than a year in some bunker and then they’ve all got to come out and find no energy source, save a few trees, no food source, no phone service, and of course, no money or investments. Doomsday is doomsday, not a kid’s game for yuppies. The results of a Carrington event will be unrecoverable. No power means no way to replace the stuff that got wiped out either. Nothing will work and the best thing to be will be one of the remaining indigenous people in parts of Africa and South America. By the way, I had my generator installed three months ago, after waiting seven months for one to become available. Natural gas, not diesel.

    My over/under is 2100. I’m under.

  6. Civilizations do not collapse; they fade away. The elite top of the pyramid crumbles quickly, once the masses who have been organized to support elite wealth and privilege realize they can opt out. They don’t “vanish” into thin air; they just go back to their villages. It’s the elites who vanish.

    1. I’m not so sure, we’ve never had anything resembling this kind of complex civilization where realistically even individual villages are incapable of raising enough food to feed themselves. Will villages in rural Africa, China and South America survive it? Sure. Will any US villages… seems far less likely.

  7. I recall some Norman Rockwell moments in the 1950s but it’s been Pieter Bruegel the Elder time ever since. And most recently, it’s been MC Escher meets Vincent van Gogh as I ease out of the tech world and try to grasp some understanding of economics and politics. The verse “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools,” keeps ringing in my ears.

  8. Good post. In general, I agree with all the comments about prepping. Having said that . . .

    In my personal strategic plan for life, one of my pillars is to be able to maintain an independent lifestyle (thank you, Charlie Munger). One part of that is something I call “consequence management” (this goes back to my military days). Short of a nuclear war or something along those lines, there are a few things that could really affect my life and lifestyle, and that I might be able to mitigate in some way with some prior thought and planning. So I keep an eye on those things. I don’t “prep” for them, but going back to the Harley Bassman post of May 2020—”Where is the folder?”—I maintain and update plans for them. And it’s actually the updating that matters, for as Dwight Eisenhower said, plans are worthless, but planning is indispensable.

    One thing I do that might be construed as “prepping” is keep a week’s supply of food, water, etc., on hand, along with some cash and a few other things. These are not meant to save me in the case of societal collapse; rather, they are there to buy enough time to assess the situation in some sort of large-scale emergency and make a plan. This strikes me as being just as prudent as keeping an emergency fire ladder on hand if you live above the ground floor of a multi-story building.

  9. I’m one of those sane, modern “preppers” to a certain extent. I live where there are no power lines, no telephone lines, no cell phone towers within reach. I have solar panels and wind mills to provide electricity, a well that provides water, an aerobic septic system, TV and Internet Satellite, and grow a little bit of stuff in a small garden.

    I do, however, make a trip to Sams and grocery stores “in town” every three months or so, loading up a trailer to bring back all of the “stuff”.

    Every six months or so someone might even knock on our front door and we are so happy to see another human being.

    I can guarantee anyone who reads this that I won’t be sitting up on my roof with a weapon, nor sleeping with one eye open all the time to prevent someone from coming here to “swipe my grub,” though in the end… it may be our undoing.

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