Rod Dreher

shaking_18x23.jpgI sometimes wonder why people live in either Los Angeles or San Francisco. Not that they aren’t lovely places (San Francisco much more so than L.A., but I like both), but surely the knowledge that a massive earthquake could strike anyday, and do catastrophic damage, ought to weigh heavily on their minds. Scientists say there’s a 99 percent chance of a major earthquake hitting California in the next 20 to 30 years. And yet, people remain. Hey, I’m not complaining! I’m just pointing out that to justify that decision one has to either ignore or downplay the near-certainty of a catastrophe.
Similarly, it cannot be denied that the US faces a catastrophic debt problem in the next 20 to 30 years, having to do with its entitlement obligations — and this was before the economic crash. (See former US comptroller Dave Walker’s chilling “60 Minutes” segment for more). We know this is going to happen. It’s in the actuarial tables, and in the numbers. And yet, all of us act like it might not happen. Why?
In both cases, you have individuals and populations faced with the virtual certainty of a relatively imminent catastrophe, but not acting to avert it because to do so would exact what they reckon is too great a cost (e.g., leaving a good life in California, paying higher taxes for less services in the entire US).
Here’s an interesting twist on the problem of prediction and paralysis, courtesy of Swarthmore professor Tim Burke, who is trying to think about the troubling future of higher education. He says that the decline of the newspaper and magazine industry is highly relevant to what academia faces. Excerpt:

Would it have made any difference if print journalists in 1995 had sat down for an industry-wide summit, accurately forecast what online media would look like in 2010, understood the implications for their own business model, and had tried to plan accordingly? What could they have done that they did not do?
This question takes on even sharper edges when you consider what exactly did the most damage to the business model of print journalism: not the movement of content to online venues, but the movement of advertising (classified ads in particular when it comes to newspapers). Then muddy the waters even more and ask how much of what has happened is about a shift in generational attitudes, reading practices, and conceptions of information.
If a perfectly accurate forecast of every major development between 1995 and 2010 had been delivered to that summit, there are some actions which might have shifted the future onto a more favorable track. But some of those would have required that the people sitting around the table then sacrifice their own involvement in print journalism in favor of other writers, editors and executives with different skills and perspectives, since one of the shortcomings of print journalism has been the reliance of many print journalists on closed-shop, old-media conceptions of what makes for good and bad content. Generally there are not many takers when you ask people to save the long-term future of their industry by sacrificing their own immediate future, even if twenty years down the road they’ll be unemployed anyway. Maybe some professionals in the industry could have made the leap to a new paradigm, if they were absolutely convinced that it was coming.

What’s the old saw? Never ask a man to see something when his livelihood depends on his not seeing it? I think Burke is dead-on here. Print journalists, of which I was one until very recently, spend a lot of time these days agonizing over their future, and doing woulda-shoulda-coulda analysis of the past 15 to 20 years. I think Burke hits on an important truth about human psychology: even if it can be demonstrated to a high degree of certainty that a catastrophe is coming, it is very, very difficult to get people to act on that information if acting would be too disruptive to their sense of normality. I know lots of people working in newsrooms now who have lost their faith in the long-term viability of print journalism, but who keep soldiering on, hoping something will turn up, in part because they love what they do, and in part because the prospect of radical change is too disruptive. It seems irrational, and it is irrational … but it’s very human. If a journalist from 2010 had come to me at my newsroom desk in 1995 and given me a detailed picture of the dismal state of newspapering 15 years from the present moment, and I believed that this time traveler was telling me the truth, would I have found another line of work? No way. I would have rationalized that maybe it won’t happen, or maybe the time traveler is wrong, or maybe if it does happen, it won’t hurt me, or maybe I’ll have time to get out before the whole thing crashes.
The point is, I very much doubt I would have done anything different than what I did. You probably wouldn’t have done either. It’s human nature.
Burke again:

So suppose some equally on-target warnings were dropped in front of academics today? That our revenue sources would change or dry up, that our status in the wider society would transform or diminish, that the way we worked or thought was out of touch in some novel way that would have novel consequences? What would we do? What could we do?


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