As a kid growing up on the Gulf Coast the annual hurricane watch was a terrifying treat. We were supposed to want the big storms to miss us, but we were disappointed when they did. The old-timers told us stories about Carla that were meant to be frightening, but everybody’s quiet desire was to see one up close.
Even as an adult that thrill never quite faded. The excitement of once again seeing an eye wall somehow drowns out the miserable memory of four or five days cleaning up debris in blazing heat with no air conditioning.
We are beginning to understand that human “rationality” is a far more complex idea than we once thought. As a core in Congress threaten to blow up 150 years of American commercial dominance to make a point, it’s worth taking a closer look at the ways our personal emotional interests sometimes trump good sense.
First it’s important to understand how little pleasure we derive from happy circumstances. How often do you wake up in the morning and feel a thrill from the fact that you aren’t nauseous? Do you ever get a rush of pleasure from the realization that none of your bones are broken? Our brains only receive the dopamine rush they crave from exceptional circumstances. Any good thing, prolonged over time, ceases to excite us. That helps explain why a spoiled child is so miserable.
We have to consciously train ourselves to appreciate steady good fortune. It’s not bred in. The benefits of being a wealthy, powerful society go unnoticed unless they are interrupted. The fact that freedom, sound policy, and relative peace have bred developments in technology that have made us all effectively rich over the past fifty years counts absolutely nothing to our happiness tomorrow morning. We are willing to toss it all in the can for the thrill of a storm.
But what about the harm that would result? We have little ability to appropriately weigh harm that would be collectively shared, or is abstract. Think about me as a kid looking at a potential hurricane.
I knew I had a very low risk of personal harm. I got to stay up late and sleep on mattresses in the hallway. School was out the day before and for God only knows how long after. I didn’t have to write any checks or contribute any meaningful work to the cleanup. And the misery of life after the storm? Memory fades. The billions of dollars in losses and physical risks some would face? Too abstract to register. A hurricane was an exciting party.
Psychologists call this “rational irrationality.” It can be individually “rational” to engage in collectively destructive behavior if the pleasure we derive outweighs the pain of questioning cherished assumptions or the effort of serious thought. The collective damage that results is too abstract to appreciate while the excitement of a potential cataclysm is hard to resist.
And since our politics has mostly devolved into entertainment it’s tough to get reasonable, technical leadership. Barring a tangible threat like that posed by the Soviets, there is little to impose sound reasoning beyond having a mature political culture – something we don’t seem to possess anymore. Competent people who perhaps make solid decisions in their personal lives are insisting on insanity from their public officials. They are getting it.
You can see this kind of thinking in the arguments over the TARP. Its most heated opponents seldom talk about how we should have structured it differently. They don’t point to the Swedish or Icelandic models for dealing with a banking collapse. They don’t argue for changes in regulation that would prevent those institutions from holding capitalism hostage.
They are angry that something was done and they want to make sure nothing can ever be done to stop such a collapse again. In effect, they wanted to watch something burn and they are determined to get their wish.
If they don’t see a catastrophe result from this deficit ceiling standoff they are going to get it somewhere else and they are going to punish anyone who dares to participate in a solution. And if the country as a whole finally grows up and denies them political power, they are going to make something exciting happen through other means.
That’s why they are unwilling to negotiate, unwilling to accept historic compromises that would accomplish what conservatives have dreamed of for decades, unwilling to settle for anything but collapse. A rational approach would take this fight to the budget process starting in the fall. That’s where Congress makes its decisions about what the country is going to collect, spend, and borrow for a coming year. The consequences of an impasse would be a temporary government shutdown, not a default and a shock of uncertain magnitude to the global financial system.
And of course, this same Congress approved last spring the spending that made this hike in the debt ceiling necessary. Basically, they wrote checks that they now refuse to honor and they don’t want to cope with the frustrating challenge of building a sensible budget through the normal process. Where’s the storm in that?
The experience of watching a lunatic political block demonstrate how little they care about the country’s survival might sober us up. A psychological disposition toward entertainment is not necessarily a destiny. We can do better in our public choices just like most of us do in our private lives. Jonah Lehrer in his book How We Decide suggests a mature approach, “Embrace uncertainty. Hard problems rarely have easy solutions.” But everything we’ve seen so far suggests that the future belongs more to the Bachmanns and Kuciniches, not to the sober technocrats like Romney on either side.
Ambiguity is no fun.
It is possible to have a sensible political culture, but only if we decide to get our entertainment elsewhere. In the meantime, might as well board up the windows and hoard batteries. Whether it’s the debt ceiling or something else, looks like a storm coming.