Don't Underestimate the Objects of Our Thanks

The following was originally published at Dad-o-matic.

As we approach this holiday season, it seems we have little to be thankful about. Still topping the news are stories of death and dire.

These are just some of the stories I pulled out of the “top stories” at Google News last week.
Meanwhile, the financial markets continue to ride a roller coaster. We aren’t officially in a recession yet, but analysts are predicting one with such certainty that everyone accepts it as a fait accompli. President-elect Obama in a radio address claimed “we are facing an economic crisis of historic proportions,” and he proposed massive, long-term federal hiring, spending, and hand-outs to compensate for the flailing economy.

Some analysts have even predicted another great depression, and they could very well be right. We are experiencing an economic adjustment, in which efforts that we have been expending poorly we must now shift to expend more wisely. Economists know that this kind of adjustment is good for the economy, because we will end up with a better, stronger economy for having gone through it. (What does not kill you makes you stronger.) But such an adjustment also means unemployment, as people in old jobs must transition to new ones. And unemployment tends to freak people out. And that means the government is likely to intervene, and probably poorly. And what would have been a short-lived—though painful—economic readjustment could indeed turn into the next great depression.

It’s scary.

Under these conditions, finding something to be thankful for may feel like an impossible mission.

What’s Important Is Perspective

At this point, you probably think I’m about to launch into a speech about how material things don’t really matter and how family and other loved ones are what makes life important. Well, I’m not.

You see, also amongst the top news stories at Google were stories about people lining up to buy the new Blackberry, and about all the fans queued up to see the movie Twilight, which turned out to be a blockbuster. Statistics show that airplanes are still the safest way to travel, despite the TSA, and the risk of an American being killed by a terrorist still ranks up there with the risk of being hit by lightning. (Seriously.) Despite the freak suicides and the politicians hiring hookers, we are still safer from violent crime than at any time since the War on Drugs started. Meanwhile, I’m booked up with work for at least the next two months, and I’m turning away potential clients, giving them the option of letting me pencil them in after a couple months. Some recession, eh? I thought I would have a little time off, a slow time, time I could spend writing my next book full-time. No such luck.

Okay, so maybe we’re not in a full-blown depression yet, and maybe the recession hasn’t hit me yet, but some people have indeed lost their jobs. My father works in the financial-services industry. He recently reported from his company, where dozens of employees were laid off, including some of his friends. That hits close to home.

But in a recent poll, Americans were asked what they would do if they had to tighten their financial belts. They said, they might not go out to eat as often, but they absolutely would not give up their Internet connections!

OK. Let’s get some perspective, here. During the Great Depression, nobody had an Internet connection. Even the roaring ’20’s happened decades before Al Gore invented the Internet.

How good do we have it? How bad would things really have to get before we see–in real terms–another “Great Depression”?

This past Sunday, the family and I stopped off at the grocery store, on the way home from church, just to pick up something quick for lunch. More than $75 later, we came out with fixin’s for a humongous salad, chips and pretzels, 2 different kinds of soup, 2 different lunch meats, 4 different cheeses, 4 giant chocolate bars (because they were on sale), 2 boxes of cereal (but that wasn’t for lunch). Meanwhile, there was still a little leftover chicken in the fridge, which I had roasted last Friday (and served with mashed potatoes, stuffing, veggies, and a bottle of shiraz rosé).

This is cutting back?

Frankly, our biggest problem is that we’re spoiled and fat. If we really had to cut back, it would mean not getting to snack between meals, surviving on Ramen noodles instead of choosing what kind of soup we wanted, eating all of the leftovers before opening a new can of anything, and praying that we never make it “down to the last jar of peanut butter,” as my dad puts it. But even when he and Mom were first married, were starting a new family, and were struggling to make ends meet, they never got down to the last jar of peanut butter. Literally, they had a jar of peanut butter they held in reserve. They never had to open it, because income always came in, or food was always available, or a friend would always come through with a little kindness.

Discounting the Positive, Over-dramatizing the Negative

Bryan Caplan opened my eyes. I’ve long been a fan of his, as much as any layman can ever be a fan of a research economist. But he actually produced evidence that people “pessimistically believe the economy is going from bad to worse.” This is actually only one of the 4 biases he laid it out in his book, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies.

Even leading optimists grant that pessimistic bias has grown worse in the modern era… How can high levels of pessimism coexist with constantly rising standards of living? Though pessimism has abated since World War I, the gap between objective conditions and subjective perceptions is arguably greater than ever. (pp. 46-47)

We tend to look back at the past with nostalgia. We tend to downplay our own good fortune, because it feels normal. We tend to over-dramatize fear and pessimism.

The reality is that things would have to get so much worse than they are now before we even approach the average quality of living during the Great Depression. The gap is so great, I doubt we could get there, no matter how bad the economy gets.

Be Thankful

So this Thanksgiving, I’m not going to whitewash over the truth. I’m not going to be thankful just for family and friends, because that’s not all we have to be thankful for. I’m also going to be thankful that we live in the most wealthy and prosperous age in human history. And because of that, we have the transportation to visit loved ones. And even if we can’t visit them, we can send them our Thanksgiving wishes on Facebook. And we have more good food and more choices today than ever before, and available more cheaply than ever before. You wanna talk about a feast? The pilgrims ain’t got nothin’ on us! We are truly blessed.


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