Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Get that negativity out of here

In my continuing catching up with things I missed during and immediately after I was on vacation last month, I came across a post from Kathy G. pointing to a New York Times op-ed by Barbara Ehrenreich. Ehrenreich is one of the few reporters who has spent any time looking at the downside of our supposed boom times, most famously in her books Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch. Her willingness to immerse herself in the struggles of those about whom she writes, instead of pontificating from her brownstone, should be an inspiration to any reporter who really wants to understand what's going on with "real" America.

The article, titled The Power of Negative Thinking, has some excellent thoughts about the hidden cause of the financial crisis (and, in my opinion, many of our underlying problems as well). Greed is cited as the prime mover behind our meltdown, but Ehrenreich also expounds on "the delusional optimism of mainstream, all-American, positive thinking." Oprah, modern pastors, and self-help books have all contributed to the idea that:
[T]o firmly believe that you will get what you want, not only because it will make you feel better to do so, but because “visualizing” something — ardently and with concentration — actually makes it happen.
This nutty positive thinking, Laws-of-Attraction sort of "philosophy" has invaded even those areas that one might think would be relentlessly rational:
[I]n the last two decades it has put down deep roots in the corporate world as well. Everyone knows that you won’t get a job paying more than $15 an hour unless you’re a “positive person,” and no one becomes a chief executive by issuing warnings of possible disaster.
My personal experience: I was working in what was once one of the pre-eminent research institutions in the world when it was swept with Covey fever. Suddenly, managers with patents and published papers were trucking out to an airport conference room to get their golden eggs as they learned "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People." And they brought the tapes back, and all of us got to spend hours with the sleep-inducing voice of Dr. Covey as he gave us the secrets to success.

The Seven Habits are actually a pretty minor introduction to world of positive thinking, since it does advocate some personal effort at self-improvement. However, just like Myers-Briggs, there is a tendency to classify and coerce in order to get people to conform to an ideal that actually runs counter to the idea of "diversity" that was so much a part of that company. (I pretty much lost interest in Dr. Covey when I heard that "First things first" was third on the list; that incongruity kind of tore it for me, not unlike my unhappy revelation that no one really knew where Cain went.) Back to Ehrenreich...

She goes on to point out that the now-ruined finance industry bought into this thinking as thoroughly as anyone:
With the rise in executive compensation, bosses could have almost anything they wanted, just by expressing the desire. No one was psychologically prepared for hard times when they hit, because, according to the tenets of positive thinking, even to think of trouble is to bring it on.
Of course, our history was not made by the dreamers; our settlers were hard-headed realists, even pessimists ("a grim Calvinism"). Ehrenreich doesn't mention it, but a reading of the Constitution will tell you that our Founders, for all their new nation stuff, were very well aware of the accretional tendencies of people; that's what all that checks and balances stuff is about, a cool reading of the true souls of men.

She concludes:
When it comes to how we think, “negative” is not the only alternative to “positive.” As the case histories of depressives show, consistent pessimism can be just as baseless and deluded as its opposite. The alternative to both is realism — seeing the risks, having the courage to bear bad news and being prepared for famine as well as plenty. We ought to give it a try.
This all seems pretty obvious to me, but that may be more the result of innate temperament than any particularly thought-out world view. However, few people can go through a job interview process and miss the inherent truth of the proposition Ehrenreich offers. Rose-colored glasses are in, reality not so much.

I have written before about the hollowness of the exurb idea, exurbs being those far-away suburbs that are supportable only so long as gas prices remain low and house prices are made affordable. Yorkville is one such, a farm-based town about 50 miles west of Chicago that has no public transportation, no real industry, no big commercial enterprises. I've been to Yorkville a couple of times, and it's a fine old town on the river, but it's far away from pretty much everything.

And yet, a town that in 2000 had a few over 6,000 residents, projected that it would be at 50,000 by 2010. Keep in mind, there's no real easy way to get to Chicago, and very little infrastructure that would support 50,000. But everyone wants their ordained half-acre, and "if you build it, they will come."

Except now, they aren't coming. Yorkville now hopes it will get to 19,000 by 2010, but the unfinished subdivisions and schools may even prevent that forecast from coming true (as chronicled in a recent Chicago Tribune article). I won't rehash the points the article makes, but there was a telling quote at the end:
"No one would have expected to see what's happening now," said Lynn Dubajic of the Yorkville Economic Development Corp. "You try to move forward."
Of course, that's idiotic. Plenty of people (including the writer of this blog) foresaw exactly this, that the kind of foolish expansion would be insupportable. For Yorkville to become a city of 50,000 would have taken a remarkable confluence of events, most of which were unlikely.

But no one gets hired by the Yorkville Economic Development Corp who says, "We should have a fallback situation in case the housing market collapses or the price of oil goes up or we can't attract large employers or...." So Lynn, who has undoubtedly churned out numerous positive-thinking position papers is nonplussed at events that were quite likely. And the people who relied on those rosy forecasts end up losing money on their homes; just another bunch of victims of foolishly positive attitudes.

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