Overreaction

It’s October 2021 and the simulation is getting weirder and weirder.

Strange how opinion journalists’ inevitable exhortation “we must do something” has become “we must do everything.” In the last 20 years, national rhetoric heated-up faster than temperatures in pre-Millennium climate change projections. In America, there was governmental overreaction to the three great calamities of the 21st century: 9/11 and the resulting War on Terror, the 2008 Financial Crisis followed by debt-fueled monetary and fiscal policies, and the overwrought public health reaction to the Covid Pandemic followed by insane fiscal outlays. Hyperbolic public discourse was valorized by the War on Terror, the loosening of monetary and fiscal constraints, and the collective public health freakout in 2020, making it safe to say that overreaction is now a respectful, legitimate means of political speech. There’s no payoff in supporting a prudential responses or putting out anything that is nuanced. Public debates are fought with blunt instruments: climate change will end the civilization in the 2030s, the Chinese are coming to conquer North America, and every election is a “Flight 93” event.

Why just react when you can overreact?

Maybe it’s the influence of just reading Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society alongside Jonathan Rauch’s The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth, but I’m seeing signs of societal decadence everywhere, a problem only exacerbated by an overly ideological politics and mass media that tends to disregard better arguments seeking a defensible consensus. Exploding national debt, a beleaguered and weak president, silly culture war debates (CRT, abortion, masking and Covid vaccine mandates), the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the perception of a more strident Chinese foreign policy–all of these are symptoms of an American (and, more broadly, Western liberal democratic) decline into naval gazing, as societies appear to weaken and devolve toward chaos. At this point any reading of a cross-section of news makes it easy to believe the worst of the worst.

But we big-brained primates fall victim to many cognitive errors. Specifically, we often make the mistake of taking current trends and simply extrapolating them, taking today and assuming it only continues tomorrow. Thus, bull markets are “a new normal” while bear markets follow an asymptote to worthless paper.

I’ve learned a few things from a career where I’ve had to create financial forecasts, extending baseline performance and impacting it with both positive strategic business initiatives and potential negative developments (new competition, falling demand, lower prices, higher input costs, etc.). The core forecast, and every scenario and sensitivity you run using it, is never exactly right and only gets further distorted every year from completing the analysis. At best, a forecast can only be directional, and when that directional forecast fails it has more to do with unforeseen developments (both good and bad) than bad assumptions or poor forward-looking analysis. This is why modeling multiple scenarios with discrete, varied impacts is useful, especially when you take those multiple scenarios (again, good and bad) and probability-weight them to create a consensus forecast. Ultimately, the judgement (and biases) of the modeler will hold sway over any forecasting exercise. Regardless of how much effort is put into modeling an organization’s future, there are embedded assumptions among the managers creating the forecast that will influence its outcome. Given the unforeseen will happen, every enterprise pays a premium for management teams that can both recognize its biases and have the competence to take reasonable steps that mitigate (or capitalize on) unforeseen circumstances.

In the most general terms, I believe most large scale private enterprises have built deep capabilities in strategic planning and contingency analysis–means of truth discovery to use Rauch’s framework. This is only possible in an organizational culture that encourages the discovery of better analysis, clearer answers. Can the same be said of other public institutions? Yes for some, but probably not enough. How do we know this? Consider the low quality of public debate in political, media, and educational institutions.

When we consider the realm of political discourse and the bad habits of overreaction, hyperbole, and outright distortion, the prudential advice of “measure twice and cut once” seems to have been supplanted by the sclerosis Douthat writes about. When it comes to predicting the future, there’s a formulaic process at play: Step 1, a study or expert opinion about a forward-looking trend is publicized. Step 2, the establishment media (following its profit motive) gets a hold of the finding and sensationalizes it (typically summarized in a dramatic headline). Step 3, the news stories spread with social media “hot takes” and commentariat pieces that involve experts, advocates, and politicos, creating a narrative (and often a counter-narrative). The process is concluded in Step 4 when a significant portion of the voting public comes to believe the narrative/counter-narrative and echos those beliefs back to the media (publicized in articles discussing the “surprising” findings of surveys). For established debates, this process goes in endless repetition. The development of narrative in Step 3 is the crucial step, where the alien cover-ups and 9/11 truthers are done away with while the “legitimate” issue is reified (or given reasons for illegitimacy in constructing counter-narrative). The problem is Step 3 rarely provides the kind of due diligence needed to truly analyze the forward-looking claim made in Step 1 (as that would take more time and be too boring for any narrative). Obviously Step 3 often involves a rush to judgment supported by elites with an interest in the narrative–take the recent allegations against Facebook as an example.

Many doomsaying topics never become widespread issues. Some eventually fizzle out as more fulsome analysis and deeper debate take place. For the problems we are all cognizant of, the longer debate go on without resolution, the worse the quality of dialogue gets. Furthermore, there’s always new kindling to add the the fire, as public debate becomes a kind of self-licking ice cream cone once demand for content is established. These debates are zero-sum games. Mitigating factors are unwelcome. It is impossible to grant ground to the “other side” without betraying your side. Heterodox opinions are unneeded and usually forced into either a “pro” or “anti” side. What used to be a liberal process of public debate has been converted into another kind of game of ideological signaling. Still, when it is agreed there is a problem that appears to be worsening and its solutions are unknown or, at best, highly complicated and involving massive trade-offs (such as climate change), the default narrative is simply to take a current trend and assume it will continue into the future unless “something is done”–understood as something that can only be done using centralized state authority. Overreaction dictates that we must never assume a solution other than a state-sponsored action that is direct and overwrought…lest we want to face doomsday. So 9/11 requires going to war because, otherwise, there will be more 9/11s, and the Financial Crisis requires massive government intervention, because, otherwise, there will be another Great Depression. Once anchored on doomsday, there is little room for debate as the door is closed on doing less–letting situations play out to see how they develop. To put it plainly, not every forecasted future crisis is an asteroid hurling towards Earth. In other words, it is easy to take current trends and turn them into a narrative that forecasts dystopia, whether it is “a population bomb” or “peak oil,” but far harder to predict developments like the green revolution and the fracking industry. The doomsday scenarios ended up being wrong because reasonable, countervailing developments were assumed away.

I hate to be a both sider (or a no sider), but the hyperbole of overreaction may be best demonstrated in all of the nonsense about an American civil war. As Matt Welsh from Reason and The Fifth Column podcast said recently, get off your phone and go outside and look around–do you see civil unrest? Are people fighting everywhere? Have people picked sides? Despite everything, America sees less political violence today compared to the 1960s and 1970s. I’m 100% confident there will be no civil war in America. There may be some political violence as wingnuts clash, but it will be nothing compared to past examples of civil strife in America, much less anything comparable to recent civil wars (former Yugoslavia, Yemen, Ethiopia, Somalia, etc.).

Despite my nature, I’ve chosen to take a position of optimism with a need to be cautious. Weird things have happened in my mind the last several years. Wanting to use the shibboleths of macho team “ancap” and sophisticated team “atheist” (perhaps demonstrated in older posts on this website) has been tempered by the American conservatism I grew up with. While I think ancaps and atheists have got it right, living in that abstract realm seems best in the form of fiction, and I’ve gotten frustrated making policy arguments that go from point A to point Z, assuming away the hardest step of simply going from point A to B. Mises is great, but how do you actually pull any of this off? When I think about going from A to B, I also want to avoid the error of overreaction based on my own priors. Absent an orderly process to do away with the state, does there need to be some civilization-ending event to bring about change? If that’s the case, I vote to keep the civilization I have.

I’m optimistic that, eventually, the zeitgeist will come back to radical individualism. I think it is possible that over time successive US governments could take prudential steps that shift power back to localities and to society in general. I’m now quite convinced Taft, Harding, and Coolidge were the best US Presidents. That old 1980s northeastern moderate Republicanism seems to be coming back in me, especially as I think, reason, and argue on the margin of issues, going from A to B. I’m sure succession and acts of exit (such as seasteading) will play roles in the future, but nothing will change the road we are on until a majority of the voting public in liberal democracies decide that individuality is the most important aspect of being human, and that we can’t have powerful states that undermine liberty and treat citizens as a means to an end. I’m looking at you, China.

Despite studies to the contrary, I think the people who actually vote are getting smarter, and smart people are individualistic in their cores–even the ones that use collectivism and politics as a means to power. I think all of these years of overreaction by the state are going to cause citizens to become more conservative and more individualistic. Trumpism will fade, as its nativist populism has the feeling of latent teen rebellion finally being manifest in midlife crisis and the recognition of mortality–no, you can’t ride that jet ski forever. On the other side of the generational war, youthful flirtation with Democratic Socialism and social justice movements will be mugged by reality, and that reality will be called “deep discounts on US Treasuries.” Political discourse will continue to be distorted so long as extremists on the wings hijack the megaphones of the two major parties.

It seems like we have returned to 19th century Europe with Whigs against Liberals against Socialists. To lower the temperature and return to a more productive political process (and therefore governmental administration), it would be best if US centrist leaders from both parties reformed as a Liberal Party that denounced both right-wing nativists and leftist activists. Let Trump keep the GOP; moderates and Never Trumpers should join a rebranded Democratic Party only after it defenestrates the far left woke and Social Democrats. With extremists isolated in opposition “rump” parties, a Liberal Party would hold huge majorities and operate as a parliamentarian government–closer to the so-called Cold War consensus but, at least, capable of taking on issues like climate change, immigration, debt reduction, and entitlement reform–and maybe even a revised US grand strategy that would be more appropriate for this century (I think Trump’s hysterics and the 1/06 riot proves the US has lost its claim on superpower status).

I’ll accept the criticism for wishful thinking. After all, it may come from my Gen X programing where I’m secretly earnest and hopeful while I act cool and detached. It seems like all of those 1980s teen dramedies made an impression. I learned from the negative example of the villains–the rich kids, mean jocks, cruel popular girls–overreacting to the very existence of outsiders, nerds, and rebels. Why couldn’t those popular kids just me more accepting, more rational? Alas, in the end the villains are defeated, their overconfidence and smug cruelty leading to their undoing–being shown-up, humiliated, losing the girl, a kick in nuts, etc. It’s funny to consider the metanarratives of these movies. When you really think about it, the villains defeated in Pretty in Pink, Revenge of the Nerds, and Better Off Dead didn’t really get it that bad. And could a few of those mean popular kids actually ended up better off having learned a life lesson? I’m sure there’s fanfic posted somewhere out in the bowels of the internet telling the erotic tale of Steff and Andie running into each other as law students at Stanford (and maybe there’s something to stories like that, as Netflix’s series Cobra Kai further developed Karate Kid villain Johnny Lawrence into a fully fleshed-out human being).

I’ll just stay optimistic and see what this weird simulation brings me next month.

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