Wednesday, April 17, 2013

You Say You Want a Revolution

"Americans Can’t Handle the Truth" is a great, attention-grabbing headline. And a complete pander, as anyone reading the article (a book review on Davd Stockman's The Great Deformation: The Corruption of Capitalism in America) will assuredly pat themselves on the back for being one of the few, the proud - those who can handle a truth that sends their countrymen scrambling to find sand to bury their heads in. But it's inaccurate.

When Jim Clifton (CEO of Gallup) gets to the actual point, it's not, in reality, that Americans can't handle the truth - it's that they don't volunteer for pain. "I hate to say it," Mr. Clifton writes (personally, I doubt the truth of that), "but most of us would rather the president and our representatives in Congress don’t cause us any pain. [...] We elect our officials to create no discomfort for us, and they deliver." (Which raises an interesting question for me. Who does elect political representatives on a platform of making them suffer? Does Germany have a Torture Party or Japan a Sadomasochism Party?)

Clifton's policy prescriptions are fairly stereotypical conservative boilerplate, as are those of Stockman's that he recommends. But that's beside the point. What is important is that the context in which he presents them is designed to make the point that in order to get the promised future benefits, the nation must endure short-term pain. And who has ever managed a campaign on a platform of making people worse off? I understand a faith in American Exceptionalism, but when that exceptionalism calls for Americans to somehow be immune to the facet of human nature known as "loss aversion," it starts to seem a little fishy.

It makes little sense to complain about Americans acting in the same way that people the world over do - and then present an argument that plays into the very behavior that you're complaining about. In other words, don't present an argument that posits pain first, gain later and then complain that the predictable loss aversion response that results is a result of people not wanting to hear the truth.

Regardless of how people like to see themselves, support for making painful changes to our current society doesn't arise from some inner strength, or commitment to looking the truth in the face, no matter how painful it is. It arises from resignation - and, it should be said, a certain level of loss aversion - the understanding that the pain is coming, whether we like it or not, and by acting now, we can lessen the pain. Revolutions don't come about because people enjoy risking their livelihoods and/or lives for a better future that may not actually happen. Revolutions come about because the status quo is so terrible that the risk seems worth it. Many Americans are not at that point yet. Expecting them to act as though they are, and then looking down your nose at them, is not helpful.

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