Morris: Manufactured Crises
by Leo Morris
“We’re All Going to Die!”
Imagine seeing a headline like that. Naturally you can’t ignore such a story. So, palms sweating and perhaps heart fluttering, you begin to read, dreading news of a ghastly plague sweeping the globe or a brewing nuclear war or even an unstoppable meteor the size of Texas hurtling toward Earth.
But it turns out to be just another one of those tedious essays about the meaning of existence and the inevitability of mortality, concluding with something on the silly side of profundity, like, “Our time is limited, so we must treasure every precious moment.”
Welcome to the roller coaster world of “Gotcha!” journalism, where our anxieties are manipulated into stomach-churning thrill rides of pretend disaster.
The manufactured crisis of the hour is the looming recession, ready to steal our life savings unless we immediately take it out of the bank and bury it in the darkest corner of the basement. At least that’s what the news accounts might lead us to believe, unless we read all the way through and discover that the evidence of imminent catastrophe is somewhat tenuous.
“Economists are warning,” says the first paragraph of an Associated Press story, “that a downturn in shipments of recreational vehicles from the northern Indiana county that calls itself the ‘RV capital of the world’ suggests an impending recession.”
But later in the story, we learn that, while it is predicted sales might be down about 14 percent by the end of the year, RV sales have dropped in five periods since 1981, “but only three of those periods were followed by recessions.” So, not that alarming. Furthermore, we learn that unemployment in the county has edged up from 2.8 percent a year ago to 3 percent, below both the state and national averages and nowhere near the staggering 19 percent in early 2009, when “the recession caused RV sales to crash.”
Huh? Are declining RV sales an early warning sign of recession, or does a recession cause declining RV sales? My head hurts.
The local morning newspaper kicks the doom-and-gloom up a notch with this headline on its economic-forecast story: “Recession’s Looming, so Be Prepared.” Oh, no! A “We’re All Going to Die!” must-read.
Slog all the way through the story, though, and you discover that a recession is coming because they always do, because the economy is cyclical, and we’ve been on an 11-year expansion run, and expansions “don’t usually die of old age,” according to a Purdue economist. But “this one might be the exception.” Consumer confidence, after all, is still high, which you can tell by seeing all the full restaurants on a Friday night.
And, whew, just like that, the roller coaster ride comes in for a safe landing.
It’s as if these business reporters keep hearing everybody talking about a recession coming, so they think they have to as well and, even though they can’t find the compelling evidence, they write about it anyway.
And that just adds to our “crisis is coming” mentality, and we start behaving accordingly.
You probably know what happens next. We’re so worried about a recession that we start cutting back on our spending. And since consumer spending accounts for about 70 percent of gross domestic product, our actions trigger a contraction and, bingo, we have a recession.
We change our behavior because of our anxieties and create the very thing we were anxious about, the definition of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Which, by the way, is but one category of what psychologists call the “availability heuristic.”
We like to think we are always completely rational creatures, analyzing all available evidence to weigh the pros and cons of any given situation in order to make the most logical choice.
But the reality is that we often take a mental shortcut, a decision-making “heuristic” of quick calculations based on personal experience, so-called hunches or gut instincts, the rule of thumb or an educated guess. It’s at the root of discrimination, a neutral concept that can be positive when we use it to decide, say, the kind of restaurant we might like, negative when we decide what we think of certain individuals based on the race or ethnic group they belong to.
The “availability’ heuristic is the one that causes us to make decisions based on the most recent information we have or the information we can most easily remember. Immediacy is the key. Something we just learned is fresher in our minds than something we already knew. If we can easily recall something, it must be more important than something we have to dig through memory for.
It’s why people sometimes worry about shark attacks and why they almost never worry about getting hit with by falling airplane parts, although the latter is much more likely to happen to them (you can look it up). That’s because every time there is a shark attack, the media pounce on it. It seldom makes the national news when people get hit with airplane parts.
It’s why people obsess over global warming, a phenomenon presumed to happen gradually, off in the future, but give only a passing thought to the flu, which will kill thousands of Americans this winter. Output depends on input, as the computer folks would say.
It’s why few people can tell give you a careful analysis of President Trump’s domestic policies, but many can tell you they love him or hate him, depending on whose Twitter feeds they read. Social media might just be the best enabler and magnifier of the availability heuristic ever conceived. They confirm our worst hasty judgments and enflame our most reckless passions. Clear thinking is not just shunned. It is shamed.
What to do. You can hide in the basement with your money, or venture outside in the hopes you won’t be attacked by a shark before global warming gets you.
Or just take a breath, and let it go.
After all, in the long run, you’ll be dead anyway.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.