Declines, Crashes, and Seeing in Time

My history and policy students have been spending some time discussing the manner in which we “see in time”–the connections we make between past, present and future.  These connections become all the more important when they are part of decision-making processes in the policy universe; indeed, that’s why Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May titled their classic work on policy and history Thinking in Time.  Of course, while they’re largely hopeful that “a little thought can help,” we see plenty of examples of decision-makers adrift, largely unable or unwilling to stop critical events from leading to catastrophic outcomes.  This week’s discussions of the eurozone crisis include this account from the BBC, which begins:

“Fear is coursing through the corridors of Brussels. It has been there for some time, usually unspoken or understated. It is now in the open. It is the fear of losing control of events. It is the realisation that most ideas have been tried and still the eurozone crisis deepens.”

In class, I mentioned that it put me in mind of Liaquat Ahamed’s recent Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World (Penguin, 2009), which examines the four central bankers whose decision-making set the stage for the financial collapse of 1929, and then compounded the initial financial crisis into what would become the Great Depression.  It’s a compelling read, though students of history and policy may also wish to view his discussion of the book (with a much closer eye to comparisons with the present financial crisis) from the Aspen Ideas Festival:

The Bankers Who Broke the World

Crashes remind historians that policy-making sometimes becomes, at least in the short-term, unmoored from the predictable bases of ideology, institutional practice, and the like.  As Ahamed himself writes, “Nothing brings home the fragility of the banking system or the potency of a financial crisis more vividly than writing about these issues from the eye of the storm.  Watching the world’s central bankers and finance officials grappling with the current situation–trying one thing after another to restore confidence, throwing everything they can at the problem, coping daily with unexpected and startling shifts in market sentiment–reinforces the lesson that there is no magic bullet or simply formula for dealing with financial panics.  In trying to calm anxious investors and soothe skittish markets, central bankers are called upon to wrestle with some of the most elemental and unpredictable forces of mass psychology.  It is the skill that they display in navigating these storms through uncharted waters that ultimately makes or breaks their reputation.”
All of which brings us, currently, in our class to another product of troubled times–the declinism genre.  Adam Gopnik’s recent review in The New Yorker (“Decline, Fall, Rinse, Repeat”) covers several new entries into a field given shape back in 1918 with Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West.  Gopnik’s not particularly a fan of the genre.  Where Ahamed shows us the elemental and unpredictable, and the great difficulty of seeing forward (much less using the past to see in that direction), Gopnik’s declinists are pretty darn sure of what they’re seeing.  Here’s one (Thomas Friedman), also from the Aspen Ideas Festival.
He’s probably right to question the clarity of that vision.  How on earth do we “know” a society is in decline?  As Gopnik writes, “the coming catastrophe is always coming, and never quite getting here, so the first job the new declinist book has to do is explain why the previous declinist books were wrong…What’s more, since the intellectual predecessors of the declinist are all declinists, too, he has to grapple with the tricky point of insisting that the previous era was actually a peak rather than a valley that the previous declinists thought they were looking at.”  In the end, Gopnik doesn’t think we can do it, and attacks the whole idea of “using” the past to predict the present in this way: “One of the painful things that smart people learned in the last century is that the future cannot be an object of faith, and only the credulous can see clear auguries in the patterns of the past.  We read history not to find predictive patterns but for the same reason that we listen to oldies stations on Sirius radio as we drive back roads on holiday: the old songs matter.  Many of them were better than the new songs.  That we might not learn anything from them, aside from the obvious truth that what worked for then worked for then and what works for now works for now, doesn’t alter out taste for old music.  The long look back is part of the long ride home.  We all believe in yesterday.”  All of which could almnost certainly be subject to a more searching analysis than I’ve got time for here, but will form the basis of some ongoing discussions with students.  Is History 101 just an oldies station, with all the general irrevelance that implies?
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