Wednesday, January 1, 2020

The Power Of Crisis

     If everything’s a crisis, where’s the crisis? -- Arthur Herzog

     Think about that word: crisis. Think about the times in your own life when you became persuaded that you were facing a crisis. What sort of emotions and motivational predispositions went along with that sense? “The wheels are coming off, lives are at stake, there’s no time to lose, we’ve got to act now!” Right? Pretty serious stuff, eh what?

     Activists’ promotion of a crisis is aimed at inducing exactly those reactions in their targets. Of course, there are requirements for the successful promotion of a crisis. In recent years very few candidate-crises have been promoted by persons or agencies that could meet those requirements objectively. Nevertheless, crisis-shouting has so much power that there will always be some persons – some innately gullible; others avid for a feeling of importance or significance; still others merely desirous of a little excitement – who will respond affirmatively to the cries.

     Crisis-shouting is a major weapon in the arsenal of the power-seeker. Why else would we have been bombarded with propaganda about world-hunger “crises,” environmental “crises,” homelessness “crises,” energy “crises,” inequality “crises,” global-warming “crises?” Those and many other supposed problems were all to be addressed with big-government solutions. The consistency among the activists’ demands is impossible to overlook.

     As it happens, there’s a new book on the subject:

     Why does government keep growing? Drawing on Mancur Olson’s Rise and Decline of Nations and Robert Higgs’ Crisis and Leviathan, we show how the negativity effect is exploited by journalists, politicians, academics, lobbyists and activists — the merchants of bad, as we call these doomsayers — to scare people into adopting policies that benefit politicians, bureaucrats and special interests while hurting everyone else. Whether you’re absorbing today’s bad news or contemplating the future of humanity, we suggest starting with three assumptions:
  • The world will always seem to be in crisis.
  • The crisis is never as bad it sounds.
  • The solution could easily make things worse.

     And it will be my first physical-volume purchase of this Year of Our Lord 2020.

     The true crisis – i.e., a state of affairs wherein a great many lives really are at stake, and immediate action is imperative if they’re to be saved – is self-announcing. Its characteristics tend to indicate the nature of an effective, life-preserving response. Therefore, neither the crisis nor the proper solution has any need for promotion or promoters. But that’s insufficient to meet the needs of those who yearn for power, or to feel important.

     In this regard a look back at world conditions two years ago is instructive:

     Consider the U.S. just three decades ago. Our annual homicide rate was 8.5 per 100,000. Eleven percent of us fell below the poverty line (as measured by consumption). And we spewed 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide and 34.5 million tons of particulate matter into the atmosphere.

     Fast forward to the most recent numbers available today. The homicide rate is 5.3 (a blip up from 4.4 in 2014). Three percent of us fall below the consumption poverty line. And we emit four million tons of sulfur dioxide and 20.6 million tons of particulates, despite generating more wealth and driving more miles.

     Globally, the 30-year scorecard also favors the present. In 1988, 23 wars raged, killing people at a rate of 3.4 per 100,000; today it’s 12 wars killing 1.2 per 100,000. The number of nuclear weapons has fallen from 60,780 to 10,325. In 1988, the world had just 45 democracies, embracing two billion people; today it has 103, embracing 4.1 billion. That year saw 46 oil spills; 2016, just five. And 37% of the population lived in extreme poverty, barely able to feed themselves, compared with 9.6% today. True, 2016 was a bad year for terrorism in Western Europe, with 238 deaths. But 1988 was even worse, with 440.

     The headway made around the turn of the millennium is not a fluke. It’s a continuation of a process set in motion by the Enlightenment in the late 18th century that has brought improvements in every measure of human flourishing.

     Things are so good, and getting better so relentlessly, that the crisis-shouters are tearing their hair out. They’re in urgent need of a crisis, and there aren’t any handy! How on Earth are they to grab for more power over us, or elevate their tawdry little existences to some degree of existential significance? Something has to go wrong, and at once!

     It makes me so sad that I’ve been walking around laughing uncontrollably.

     All right: yes, there is one crisis to be addressed with dispatch. It affects virtually every English speaking human being. Its prevalence is such that virtually every day I’m tempted to hurl a book across my living room with a scream that “Adverbs never killed anyone!”

     It’s the “on a XXX basis” crisis.

     You’ve surely read or heard this particular verbal fad in recent days. “On a regular basis.” “On a daily basis.” “On a constant basis.” Great God in heaven, people! Use the BLEEP!ing adverb without encrusting it that way: “Regularly.” “Constantly.” “Daily.” It won’t hurt you; indeed, the improvement in the concision of your spoken or written English will be to your benefit. “Forcible writing is concise.” (Will Strunk of The Elements of Style) “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” (George Orwell) Save your syllables and your breath for when you really need them – and as I’ve been feeling an ever stronger desire to strangle someone for saying “on a daily basis” or something analogous, that need might not be far off.

     Once that crisis has been successfully dealt with, I’m certain that Utopia will be on the horizon.

     Happy New Year!


Linda Fox said...

I had the opposite problem when I was in school - I was TOO concise. A teacher, seeing that I didn't understand, told me to write my essays as though I was communicating to a rather dull 10 year-old. Explain in some detail, in other words.

I hadn't done it because I thought that the information I was leaving out was known by everyone, and that it would be silly to include it.

Brian E. said...

As those into politics often say: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”