Monday, September 11, 2017

The Post-Consequence World

Hurricane Harvey was a record-breaker, the rainiest hurricane ever, and now Irma is another, one of the largest hurricanes ever and the most persistent ever recorded in its class. Despite this, the weather deniers have been out trying to debunk both weather events. During the weekend, a right-wing extremist radio host told his audience Hurricane Irma was a fake, before deciding he had better evacuate. Then one of the prominent voices of the killer faction of the Republican Party posted false reports claiming that the storm had not reached the Miami metropolitan area. When Harvey was in the Gulf of Mexico, a larger chorus of voices tried to explain why the storm would be a non-event by the time it reached the shoreline. The common threads here are a disdain for science and its quality of careful observation, and a lack of concern for accountability.

The disdain for science comes with obvious perils, but it hard to make the same claim about accountability. Those who operate under the theory that they can say anything at all regardless of facts or consequences have amply proved that they are able to continue to operate in that fashion for years, simply because the core of American culture no longer quite believes in the idea of consequences.

Consequences do in fact exist, though, and economically, one would expect that believing in consequences would eventually provide a distinct competitive advantage. If there are two parties and one considers consequences while the other acts as if consequences do not exist, you would expect the former to bury the latter eventually. The huge example is the Soviet Union, which collapsed economically in the end mainly because ordinary industrial work and matters of national policy were addressed as if there were no underlying reality to either. Now, though, Russia is on a path to repeat this failure, and the disbelief in consequences has become a global trend affecting countries from Argentina to Bulgaria and businesses from retailers to software companies.

How can this be? There are problems in getting good information, of course, and there are lags, often lasting many years, between an action and a definitive outcome. In between, effects are subject to interpretation, like the smoker who sees the medical image of masses in a blackened lung and says, “That isn’t really cancer.” Making this pattern more likely, we have all been conned. We see someone proceeding with strong confidence and say, “Well, they must know something,” even though from everything we know they are doing exactly the wrong things. We collectively face more time pressure and distractions than ever. It’s no wonder if accountability slips through our fingers.

The lack of belief in consequences now extends to the most reputable business journalism. A business that recently leaked sensitive information about more than half of Americans, most of them not its customers, now faces liabilities that are ten times the total value of the business. Reputable analysts bemoan the errors and deceit but still conclude that nothing will happen to the company or its officers.

If we cannot expect the world to return quickly to a belief in consequences, we must at least be alert to the effects of living in a post-consequence world. We regularly face large amounts of propaganda and other persistent false information. Institutions that seem permanent will vanish with little or no warning. People will present patterns of behavior that would be perilous to imitate. We must expect these things to happen.

One of the defenses against the illusions of a post-consequence world is a sense of proportion. Simply understanding the relative sizes of things can point us toward the possibilities ahead. If we hear that the largest city in Texas got a year’s worth of rain in three days, we should be able to think, “That’s big.” Unfortunately, proportion is not an innate human skill, but requires practice.

Proportion helps us spot where things are out of balance in a big way. In a world were most people aren’t looking for consequences, those are the first places to look.