Thursday, October 23, 2014

At the Root of the New Normal

To speak of “the new normal” is, you might say, the new normal. The phrase signals something negative. The speaker is comparing current conditions with a much happier one—a time of growth in every category, even such negative categories as debt. People piled on debt because they were confident that growth, progress, advancement, promotions, and good fortune would magically create the necessary funds to pay it back. And debt for some meant sales for others. More and more sales. Higher and higher profits.

The new normal signals disappointment. It’s as if, watching a pot, waiting for it to boil, we looked under it to see if the blue flame was on; and it was. So why, for Heaven’s sake, doesn’t it start to boil? Something is wrong. Is it the water, the pot, or the fire? The Laws of Progress no longer seem to hold. A fundamental change has set it. It’s the new normal.

If the gas flame is the cause of water boiling, what is the analogous driver of the economy. For the longest time—essentially since the end of World War II—economic dynamism was a given. It was the way things were: dynamic. Yes, the occasional “correction” explained why sometimes we had brief recessions, but the phenomenon, the old normal, was really Progress. The way things ought to be. So what was the source of that dynamism.

Confidence. And the root of the New Normal is—the lack of it.

Confidence is two parts faith and one part observation. It is a feeling. It also feeds on itself. It was first shaken on 9/11/2001. On that day a fundamental feeling of American invulnerability was put in question. The excessive reaction to it—proportional in size to the unrealistic faith in our superiority—has spawned a series of mismanaged wars. Meanwhile the Money Culture ignored it and produced growing inequality, the fraudulent Mortgage Bubble, and then the Great Recession. And since then, no matter what happens, it is interpreted as yet more proof that something’s wrong—so that we are now behaving irrationally about the ebola plague in part of Africa.

When for far too long a period a vast, rich society like ours has come to forget that real life is dangerous and ever demanding of vigilance, especially in good times—and that our faith should be in Something beyond our own genius—the “corrective” of our delusion will also take a while to manifest. The New Normal is an early sign of that correction. But confidence will only return when we forget about the Old Abnormal—infinite growth and progress—and turn our eyes to the Heavens. That will steady us again. And the waves of hysteria, which now characterize social life, will then gradually diminish.

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