Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Twilight of Belief

"Reality is what doesn't go away when you stop believing in it."- Philip Dick, A Scanner Darkly

"Your reality check is in the mail." - James Howard Kunstler, The Long Emergency

Back in my salad days as a rookie stockbroker, many moons ago, our in-house training consisted, not of analytical tools, product instruction, or prudent money management, but of induction into the Cult of Belief.

Cultivating a Positive Mindset was the focus of most of our sales meetings, which were conducted twice daily, with major meetings scheduled weekly, and division confabs taking place monthly. At these events, the speaker, who would be one of the firm's top producers, or sometimes the CEO or one of his top guns, would strive to imprint us with the notion that you can create the reality you want simply through "visualization" of the outcome that you desired- "Attitude is Altitude!"- and that fabulous success was assured if only you would internalize the necessary beliefs. These meetings were reinforced by more or less compulsory attendance at outrageously expensive seminars (at your own expense, of course) conducted by such stars of the motivation industry as Brian Tracy or Tony Robbins.

In my office, our Branch Office Manager directed us to write down and provide illustrations of our "goals", which were, of course, inevitably of the material sort- a $900K house, say, or a new Mercedes, or other high-priced material goodies. You were- get this- supposed to either draw little pictures of your "goals",or cut them out of magazines, and paste them in a scrapbook, which you would be requested to display at weekly sales meetings, while stating what actions you were taking to bring about the desired results. The idea was that merely by believing that you "deserved" lavish material rewards, that such would accrue to you merely by the rote repetition of the motions.. making the calls, making the closes, and by believing that it would all work......just exactly like the Cargo Cults of the South Pacific,where an American cargo plane made an emergency landing during WW2 and distributed tons of fabulous booty- liquor, prime steaks, luxury clothing, and anything else on board- to the natives, who are doubtless still building bamboo models of the plane and lining a runway with bamboo mockups of runway flashers in the belief that merely by visualizing, that they can score themselves another few tons of manna from heaven.

This is the mentality that informs most Americans of whatever socio-economic rank, level of education, cultural bias, or region, as the collapse of our financial system, and economy, progresses and we roll into the age of permanent energy depletion. Our financial and political leaders and their servant talking heads on shows like CNBC babble about how the unravelling of the tower of fake money is merely a crisis of "confidence" and how prevailing "sentiment" is keeping citizens out of the stores, and that if we can just crank up the fake money press again and harness "alternative energy" to keep 200 million cars and trucks running, that we can party like it's still 2003 and you could make a living on your house appreciation, just by living in the place, and that we can continue to rack up debt and heat our 4,000 sq. ft. crapboxes 78 miles from the city while scrapping the remains of our industrial capacity and fighting ever-widening wars for the remains of the planet's fossil fuels. We can do all this, they say, if only we believe, if only we have "confidence", because, don't you know, the United States is an exceptional country that is especially blessed by Jesus and is bringing "democracy" to the dark corners of the globe, and anyway there'd be "plenty" of oil if only all those enviro-fascist liberals would allow offshore drilling, and there are multitudes of brilliant people out there who will surely find a way to run all our tech when the oil really does start getting short.

"You've heard of mental depression; this is a mental recession." Really, Mr. Graham? I guess that 165,000 job lost per month, reduced hours and pay for those remaining, and trillions of dollars of private and public debt that we don't have the wherewithal to repay and probably never will, are just all in our heads, and so are the maxed out credit cards and stagnating pay that has dropped 1%, on average, since 1999. I suppose that all we have to do is believe that our situations are at least cool, if not improving, and that we have money to spend, and. presto, we will have jobs and money and be able to go back to running up credit bills to "support the economy" and to tapping all that idle "wealth" trapped in our houses.

"You'll do something, Mr. Reardon- ." There exists the blind faith of the more educated middle-class in the ability of our technocrats to just "do something" to "solve" the problem of dwindling resources, and in the doubtful talents possessed by the utterly lame, clueless, and brazenly lying policy makers who created the financial bubble to begin with, to deliver us from the consequences of 10 years of piling on one layer after another of debt in the service of fake "wealth creation"-a belief far less justified than that of Ayn Rand's "wetnurse" character, who at least vested his faith in someone of proven brains and ability. "There are a lot of brilliant people working on these things. They're sure to come up with something, " my mother says in an attempt to reassure me, and I don't doubt that. However, I'm pretty doubtful that they can achieve results that will come close to satisfying the expectations of a population nurtured in feelings of entitlement to the satisfaction of every whim, and in the belief that there are no limits and that you can conjure things into existance despite known limitations merely by believing in them.

Earth to Americans: You are engaging in Magical Thinking, and you are functioning on the mental level of a six-year-old, and you are getting bitch-slapped by reality. The money is gone and the oil is going and we have no way to make a living in this country beyond making lattes and running financial scams and the businesses connected with them. We can't recover all the money that was lost in the past six years just by shifting it to the tax payers and we aren't going to recreate the ease and prosperity of 1965 by tossing more money at obsolete industries. And all the motivational seminars and Positive Thinking and chanting of mantras and Prayer Breakfasts in the world aren't going to help us make the transition from the quagmire of the present to a productive, sustainable society driven by the production of real products in industries that will be relevant in a vastly different world than the one we've been living in for the past 60 years.

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