It’s been an amazing few weeks around the world. The expensive laptop I am writing on was just banned from certain airlines because it bursts into flames unexpectedly. Earlier this month, a truck exploded in the Channel Tunnel near France, no one knows why, costing billions in repairs and delays. The Large Hadron Collider, which took fourteen years and $8 billion to construct underground in Europe, in the hope of unlocking esoteric secrets of the universe, had to be shut down. Shorts in a thirty-ton transformer, gas leaks, and failures of other simple technologies knocked it out soon after it was fired up – hard to believe given the brainy international design crew. But it was not entirely a bad thing since some feared it would produce tiny black holes that could swallow the whole earth.
And then there is the money crisis in America, which seems to be whipping up wider cosmic hysteria than do black holes: Eat the universe, but spare my 401k! I’d rather believe the frenzy is more a byproduct of election politics than of sheer possessiveness, but I’m not sure. Economics, it’s often said, is not rocket science – not even serious engineering like undersea tunnels and particle accelerators. Highly regulated economies such as France’s and relatively free ones like our own rarely go thermonuclear, so to speak. They mostly plod on. Markets go up and down, a recession here, once in a great while a depression there. Even 9/11 – which knocked about $7 trillion out of the U.S. markets – was a relative blip on the radar. And that despite the dot com bubble that burst just before it, at the end of the Clinton years. No one can know everything that’s happening at any given moment or what contingencies lurk. An economist once explained the whole drama of the discipline to me: economists always tell you that doing X will produce Y, all other things being equal. But of course, they never are.
I don’t know whether we came close to a financial black hole or are taking the right steps to prevent it. Much depends in such situations, of course, on what people think is happening. We’ll know soon enough whether the key figures who have a fairly solid grip on economic fundamentals think we’re under reasonable control. But even as I write those words, I am reminded of how unreasonable, even delusional, our sense of being in control often is. In that context, feeling that things – even some quite big things – are out of control offers valuable lessons.
In the 1960s, it always brought me up short when someone declared he was finally “taking charge of his own life.” This usually meant leaving a stable, honorable existence for temporarily hip lifestyle drift, which became apparent, rather sooner than later. My mother and father, and the good school sisters, had earlier tried to drill into me that you need to develop great virtue (which you weren’t at all doing, by the way) just to have a chance of surviving the world’s knocks. When I was a little older, this view seemed more convincing when I discovered it fully developed in figures like Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Augustine, Boethius, Dante, and even Machiavelli. If you had told any of them that it would be an unexpected, mind-freezing outrage if a market declined 18 percent in a year or the financial system seemed shaky, I’m afraid they would have looked upon you as too dumb to pity.
No one likes losing money, myself included. But we all now seem to believe that we are perpetually entitled to have more, though we know not only that markets fluctuate, but that people go off the rails; whole economic sectors disappear; illness, death, bad fortune strike us and everyone around us, despite all technological and social advances. Worse, we believe perpetually more is simply better. The old philosophers, or even Sinatra, could tell you Luck is a Lady, but fickle. The pagans among them did not know Divine Providence, but could see pretty clearly what happens. The Christians sought divine reasons why the good suffer and the wicked prosper. Their best guess: God uses fortune and misfortune to wake us up to the simple fact that we’re not Him, we’re not much in control, and nothing in this life is permanent. To judge from what God lets happen, it’s a lesson we constantly need to relearn.
We have had an amazing string of good luck in America, starting with our nation’s founding. Millions of people have been born or come here and enjoyed freedoms and prosperity rare in the entire history of our race. Most people would probably prefer to be a free citizen of America today than to be the king of France or England 300 years ago. I do not think the pessimists – who seem quite gleeful at the prospect of America’s decline – are right. Whatever happens, this is not a nation that will easily resign itself to fate. There is too much of that older living hardscrabble virtue amongst us — now mixed with a lot of something less sturdy. Still, I expect the time may not be far off when we look back on the 2008 financial crunch with the same indifference as we do the gas lines of the 1970s.
It’s good to be shaken – hard – periodically and reminded that everything that’s truly precious is also always precarious. The thought that everything can one day perish in an instant should not lead to mere fear and resignation, but to calm resolve to preserve and to appreciate – for as long as is given us.