Secondhand Knowledge

There is no quality more fleeting than modernity and nothing staler than an analysis of a past crisis that was written at the time it was happening. The problem with our present economic crisis is that it has been going on since 2007 (or is it 2006 or 2008, one tends to gets a little muddled in one’s chronology), so that it has become less a crisis than a way of life.

No doubt at some point in this crisis national income per head declined by 5 percent from its peak, but before that it must have risen 5 percent to its peak; and since we did not experience life as intolerably impoverished or miserable before it rose to its peak, why should we have done so when it fell from its peak? If our national income per head in five years’ time is 10 percent higher than it is now, we shall not look back on our lives as we live them now and say, “We must have been miserable without that extra ten percent.”

The answer, I suppose, is the same as we give to the person who tries to convince us that death is not to be feared because we shall only return to the oblivion from which we emerged—that having lived changes everything. So it is with economic growth: Having experienced it, it changes everything. Not to be richer is now to be impoverished; therefore, I conclude, it is best not to think about these things.

Unfortunately, it is difficult not to think about them, so deeply ingrained is the habit of informing oneself, however sketchily, about what is going on in the world. Christine Lagarde has never, as far as I know, said anything interesting, but one reads what she says all the same (the IMF would make the apocalypse seem dull). Good news in the media cheers and bad news depresses, but of course the latter always prevails because it is more dramatic and therefore more interesting. A thousand operations that go without incident are less interesting than one performed by a drunken surgeon who amputated the wrong leg or cut out the wrong kidney.

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