Monday, April 13, 2009

"The Age of the Unthinkable" - Why Life May Not Return to Normal

Each time a cycle swings, it strikes a number of people as a permanently cataclysmic cliff (on the down swings) or a permanently exuberant plateau (on the ups). Every bubble feels, to investors, like a new paradigm, though bubbles are the flimsiest of things. The sweeping Republican victory of 2000, to elders of that party, augured decades of dominance, though it was built on mere (Oval Office) blow jobs. It's human nature to expect highs to stay high and lows to stay low, though the pendulum always swings back. In fact, its this very outlook - the inextinguishable expectation of perpetual inertia - that drives the various pendulums in the first place.

I didn't read Joshua Cooper Ramo's book "The Age of the Unthinkable", but this interview shows all the hallmarks of that sort of fallacious thinking. The troubled state of the world has obviously served as a Rorschach test for Ramo's own issues with how things have been. And while I share some of his emotional impressions, I find his arguments just that: emotional. And fuzzy.

In busts, we inevitably hear the word "unsustainable" used a lot, as a peevish "told you so!" from prim (or envious) sideline observers who'd been watching with stern disapprobation through the preceding boom. And they are, of course, right. Booms are always excessive; that's what makes booms boom. But comeuppances are equally finite. Nothing's sustainable in the long run, so the boomsters hope of keeping the party going and the stern primsters hope of keeping a tidy, austere house are both destined to be dashed by the next tidal shift.

Underlying Ramo's proposition is an indisputable truth: change lies ahead. It's hard to go wrong with such a prediction, of course, but change comes neither via cliffs nor plateaus. It's a cycle. The downs go back up and the ups go back down, though the cards always shuffle a bit. At the other end of this economic crisis will be Something Different. But things will be better eventually. And then worse again. The perpetual cycle of reversal is the one single thing that never changes.


Barry Strugatz said...

You may want to consider the theory of punctuated equilibrium, that huge changes in nature (and society) can occur in relatively short bursts of time.

Jim Leff said...

My aunt had a punctuated equilibrium once. Hurt like hell.

Anyway, the more oft-used phrase for that these days is "Black Swan"
....and, sure, they happen all the time.

My point is that human beings brushing up against cycles can't help but feel that their equilibrium's been punctuated...that what's happening is a black swan rather than ebb and flow....that ups are plateaus and downs are tarry black pits.

But my point is that the big cycle overarches all. Changes, big and small, are just part and parcel of a larger cycle.

Better to ride the wave joyously than get stuck in whatever concept you have of how it all ought to be (a recipe for pain).

Barry Strugatz said...

You might enjoy the old Chinese story of the Lost Horse:

Jim Leff said...

Good one, thanks. It's also an almost exact metaphor of my story with Chowhound (

I'll try to flashback to this story when the tale's done.

Blog Archive