Saturday, February 28, 2009

Irrational Despondency

There has lately been a disturbing surge in Pessimism Porn in Ireland. I was discussing this recently with Landon Thomas Jr for an article he has written in today's New York Times. People are mesmerised by the seemingly endless stream of bad news, scandals and shocking developments. Worse, it is becoming addictive: newspapers are full of advice on how to slash your spending, even when you don't have to (and even if it results in newspaper advertising falling, duh). In America, gun sales have gone through the roof as everyone hunkers down and waits for Mad Max to meet Dawn of the Dead.

Sometimes the bad news, like pornography, is hard to ignore. But beware the warning signs of porn addiction:

1. Time - looking at porn is taking up more time and more time. It is no longer just a means to an end.

2. Cost - looking at porn is beginning to cost you because you are neglecting other areas of life (for example, you're not doing your job properly or your relationships are deteriorating.)

3. Objectification - after a porn session you're looking at everyone in a sexual, porn-filtered way. (In the Friends episode The One With The Free Porn, Chandler realises [sic] he and Joey have to turn off their free porn channel when he goes to the bank and is surprised the teller doesn't ask him to 'do it with her in the vault.' Funny but it reflects the truth.)

4. Desensitisation - in some cases, people find themselves looking at harder and harder porn, even at material which conflcits [sic] with their personal values.

5. Acceptance of the message - wanting to take what you have seen in the fantasy of porn into the reality of your life. (For example, wanting to suggest it to your partner or wanting to join a club or chat room could well be warning signs.)

Now, to turn this around, the signs that someone has a problem with pessimism porn are:

  1. Spending a lot of time reading and talking about the bad economic news.
  2. Focusing on bad economic news is interfering with other parts of life.
  3. Surprise that others aren’t quite as obsessed with the bad economic situation as they “should be”.
  4. Worse economic news is rush.
  5. Acting on the bad economic news when there isn’t need to.
Where are the Catholic Hierarchy with their condemnations when you need them? Right now in Ireland we are experiencing what Keyne's aptly described as the Paradox of Thrift. People are fearful about the future and their jobs: so they cut back on spending, thereby leading to reduced consumer spending which ultimately causes their employer to make them redundant ... We are victims of irrational despondency - just as crazy as the irrational exuberance that got us into this mess in the first place.

Remember one thing: the future doesn't exist - it is a (mostly emotional) mental construct. So be careful what you build. And don't forget that we never reach the future: the end is nigh is one of those threats that keeps receding over the horizon.

I'm with Will Wilkinson - let's lose the austerity chic:
I doubt people really think it’s better to leave yourself and everyone else worse off. My diagnosis is that most people either don’t get the idea of periodic downturns and recoveries and so tend to suspect with each serious recession that this time everything may go to shit permanently (which is true, it might, but what are the odds?) and to infer that prudence demands hoarding.
We need to be positively prudent: those without debt (47% of all Irish adults in a recent survey by my company) have money to spend and there are great bargains to be had in shops, retaurants, hotels, theatres and car showrooms. They should buy what they need and can afford - without going into debt obviously. Those in debt need to pay down their debts: sorry - there's nothing else you can do really (and don't do what Americans did after 9-11 and go shopping at the behest of their President: he meant 'go borrowing' - and we know how that ended).

Nevertheless, by being positively prudent we can avoid turning a recession into a depression: even if the former doesn't provide quite the same prurient appeal as the latter.


  1. speaking of pessimism porn this site is my current porn site. I am a safe as houses government professional so I think I'll delete it from my list of favourites.

  2. Great post. No line on the horizon as U2 would put it. A good U2 album, success at rugby and soccer might serve to convince us that we still have what it takes to be world class. I know, not a very rigorous economic theory, but I couldn't help myself.


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