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It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

Well, actually I've got some kind of minor plague in the snurfle-and-sore-throat variety, but that's neither here nor there.

The sky appears to be falling on Wall Street, and yet...I am calm.

This is no credit to my mastery of Zen, nor, I hope, does it reflect my failure to understand the situation. Actually, I think it's neural hardwiring.

I was reading this book a few weeks ago called "The Science of Fear" which was about how we get scared of things. Basically, there's a little trigger in our brains, from way back in the flint-knives-and-bearskins-days, that determines how scared we should be. It operates by example--how easy is it to think of an example of this happening?

"How likely is it that I will be eaten by a crocodile if I drink at this watering hole?"

"Dude, the crocodile got Ugg last week."  Example leaps quickly to mind, ergo it must be dangerous.

"How likely is it that I will be brutalized by this anteater if I attempt to hit it with a rock?"

"Well...um...uh... Ugg used to say that his great-grandfather got savaged by a hyena dressed as an anteater, but he was never right in the head, even before the crocodile got him." Example does not leap quickly to mind, ergo it's probably not very dangerous.

(It's a fascinating book, by the way, in that it claims that this mechanism is what's making us crazy, because the media is constantly bombarding us with examples regardless of likelihood, so that we have no actual idea of what's really risky or not--when doing our unconscious risk assessment, we remember the serial killer on the nightly news, no matter how statistically insignificant it REALLY is. This is the sort of thing that keeps us from letting kids play outside because there are evil strangers in the bushes, when in fact evil strangers are vanishingly rare, and they're in far more danger from people they know and childhood obesity from staying inside all the time.)


To get back to my original point, the sky is falling, the financial markets are going down like an off-color analogy...and I am not capable of being particularly alarmed about it.

Is this whole economic crash and bailout a big deal? Yup. Probably. But when my hindbrain does its little risk assessment trick, it can think of no example of a thing like that actually affecting me. The Great Depression, to my brain, is a historical note, a set of photos of soup kitchens, not a guy getting eaten by a crocodile in front of me. I can't make myself believe that this is a genuine risk. 

It's not that I don't want to--I think this probably is a serious situation. For all I know, I'll be in a soup kitchen line this time next year. But the hindbrain doesn't believe it. You ask me how likely it is that your apartment will be broken into and your printer stolen, and my hindbrain screams like a kicked seal, with the end result that I lock every door in the house, despite living in bloody Pittsboro* and have seriously considered padlocking Mr. Printy II to the wall. But how likely is it that we will be plunged into catacylismic economic depression? Hindbrain can't grasp that. Neurobiology fails me. It's not real to me.

I believe in cats and beagles, in leftover pizza for lunch and a pencil sharpener that screams like the unquiet damned, in black tea and repainting My Little Ponies so they look like tapirs, in birdfeeders and duck decoys and webcomics and blogs and a lot of fairly unlikely things. But I don't really believe in Wall Street. I'm sure it's there, I'm sure it's important, I just don't really believe in it. It is a vague nebulous thing that exists somewhere in New York as far as I'm concerned. $700 billion might as well be sixty quadrillion-jillion--they're not REAL numbers that I understand. (I don't know if economists can understand these numbers either, or if they're like astronomers using scientific notation--the math says that's what it is, and nobody worries too much about the inability of the human mind to REALLY comprehend a number like that.) 

So. Just keep on keepin' on, I guess. If the sky is falling, so be it. My worrying about it won't do a damn thing to help the situation, my congressmen are well-informed of how the constituency feels about the matter, I certainly can't avert it single-handedly. You can tell me to panic, and I will nod and say that yes, this is a terrible failing on my part that I am not panicking, but still, there it is. Hindbrain simply isn't able to freak out about it.**

And the art still needs to get made.

*Crime rate .0001%, and that was when Leroy's chicken went on a bender and held up the 7-11 for corn money.

**Feel free to text me while I am in the soup kitchen line and say "See, I told you so."

I imagine the hindbrain reaction may also not be kicking in because, as a starving artist, you may not have much invested (not that I know your investments, I'm making a generalization here)

I know my hindbrain cannot conceive of loosing $150K on wall street in part because as a 26 year old with no long term savings I had ~$450 in my mutual fund and that wouldn't have paid for snow tires this winter even if it was still available.

Now, my hindbrain is constantly worrying at the "we all loose our jobs and stand in the soup kitchen line" fear but then I have unemployed friends to compare myself to.

Oh, heavens, I haven't got a cent in the stock market, no. I'm speaking more of general economic downturn--I've got nothing to lose in terms of actual investments.

I think panic is overrated. I also have a hard time being afraid. Things seem stable now, have always been stable, why shouldn't they be in the future? So you're not alone. And anyway, panicing doesn't help anyone. Except, possibly, evil polititians.

As I also have no money invested, the only thing that really seriously concerns me is a run on the banks, but I don't think that will happen because everyone is SO dependent on checking accounts these days.

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I have to thank Washington Mutual for failing on a night when I was at a pub playing music. Not because it really hit me and I felt some deep need to drown my sorrows, but because it meant that one of the guitar players spontaneously rewrote the chorus of "The Night That Paddy Murphy Died" to be about WaMu. Spontaneous song making!

"we just wanted to choose a really large number"

(forbes link, with treasury spokesperson quote)

Apparently our government economists don't understand these numbers either. This almost made my hindbrain panic, but it was already convinced of made-up ridiculous numbers throughout the entire War on Terrah.

Don't worry, Jeffrey Rowland is on the case!

Yeah, right there with you.
I think part of it is that it still hasn't kicked in how this is affecting me directly--I don't own property, so the foreclosure crisis didn't touch me, I don't have a bank, I have a credit union...and I don't really have investments. Well, I do, through work. But it's not exactly a whole lot.

Granted, I've been laid off, so the economy has affected me...but the lay off package was nice, giving me time to job hunt while still getting paid, so...still not panicking.

We do own property, so we don't have to worry.

If the bank owned any of it, that might be another matter: it's the poor buggers with negative equity I pity. (In this country, we don't have the right to walk away from a mortgage.)

So so very true! Now to print this out so that everyone can understand me :)

OK, now we need to hear the story about Leroy's Chicken.

Not to turn too political for a moment, but consider this bit of panic: Less than 3,000 people died in the terrorist attacks on 11-Sep-01. In that same year, more people died from speed-related accidents in California alone. (That just happens to be the first state for which I could find statistics.) Which do you think more people were concerned about as a danger in November 2001?

I'll save the comments about people happy to take advantage of that panic for my own journal.

(This is not to belittle the attacks or those deaths in any way, I'm just using it as a good exampe of mass panic over something that was a relatively statistical anomally.)

No, as it happens, I agree. Horrible as it was, I suspect the constant media barrage radically increased the hindbrain's belief in the danger of terrorist attacks vs. car accidents, which hardly ever make the news.

I'm with you on this one. Partly because I see no crocodiles and partly because I've been broke, homeless,and unemployed a couple of times now -- once in a foreign country even! I've always managed to deal, find shelter, work, food, money, etc. and I still believe in my own ability to cope.

So do tell the story of Leroy's Chicken, or at least paint his portrait!

And your reaction is exactly right. If more people on Wall St had the same reaction, there wouldn't be a problem. It is precisely because the crocodile got Lehmann last week, and everybody is worried about being the next that nobody will go down to the water^Wmoneyhole. Instead, they are all standing around telling each other how thirsty they are and trying to by Perrier at a million bucks a pop.

This has virtually nothing to do with the real world, in which people make food, houses and art. It might screw up your savings, but it shouldn't screw up your work - unless the politicians blow it, as they did in the Depression.

This has virtually nothing to do with the real world, in which people make food, houses and art.

Not really true. I guess I know more middle-aged, middle-income people than many commenting here, but I know someone who was turned down for a mortgage who probably wouldn't have been before the public problems, and probably more of my friends have homes with a mortgage than own their own homes or just rent. Many people in America live on credit, and more have large debts, situations that can be made worse either by financial institutions closing or by things done to help the economy. And then on the other side, yes, a lot of my friends & I do have investments, which is generally a good thing because we're often not so far from retirement and work freelance, so no regular retirement plan.

The rich will do OK, and the poor will do no worse, but I worry about the middle. Which includes me.

Edited at 2008-09-27 02:23 am (UTC)

Remember Elian Gonzalez? The little Cuban kid who caused all that media hoopla a couple of years ago. Despite the events having absolutely nothing to do with finance, money, the stock market, or anything like that, friends of mine who worked in the industry at the time reported that the market bobbled when the media showed the pictures of the federal agents kicking down the door of the house he was in. The market's a large group of people, and people (as Agent K once said) are panicky, stupid, frightened animals. It's persons that are smart. If we keep our heads, and tell the fearmongering media to take a hike, the economy will stay stable (or more stable than it might be). That's my opinion; if I'm wrong, save me a bowl of soup.

*Crime rate .0001%, and that was when Leroy's chicken went on a bender and held up the 7-11 for corn money.
Well, at least he still has chicken...

See, this is probably why I'm quietly doing the ohshit!ohshit!ohshit! thing...

I'm an amateur archaeologist on the side, I've seen the results of what happens when civilisations experience an 'oopsie' event... which varies between not-good to terminal.

I've got prior experience to work with, possibly probably more so than certain politicians even.
Trust me.
Now would be a good time to worry. Because if they do miss the narrow window to fix all this, we are all going to be Wa-aa-ay too busy later to worry!

[oh yeah...and I second the motion to hear more about Leroy's chicken!]

Honest question: Which civilization? I don't recall any in my archaeological/anthropology studies that collapsed from something like this, then again I couldn't study every society to ever exist.

"Art still needs to made"...damn straight! And you keep drawing your little heart and fingers out, because "art" (music, writing, etc.) is what keeps up "hope". And thank you for the book recommendation.

hope is underrated, I second this

And people wonder why all the Jews didn't just flee Germany when Hitler took the power.

They just wouldn't believe things could get that bad.