As I See It: Waiting on Hope
January 11, 2010 Victor Rozek
It’s the time of year when we reset the clock. No matter our failings and excesses of the prior year, January 1st brings with it a hopeful cleansing. Optimism abounds. This year I’m going to _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ (fill in the blank): exercise more, lose weight, read the classics, write the great American novel, take tango lessons, run a marathon. Everything is possible again. Like Charlie Brown preparing to kick the Lucy-held football, we approach even the longest odds with great confidence. At least until March.
Hope appears to be a uniquely human attribute, (although when my cat anticipates being fed, she sure looks hopeful to me). It has the power to lighten the heavy load and make bearable what would otherwise be unendurable. But hope requires patience. Even Fluffy (no, not her real name) has to exhibit some degree of forbearance, because the essence of hope is waiting.
It’s a safe bet that everyone is waiting for something; but not everybody is happy about it. Generally speaking, optimists are people willing to wait, and pessimists are people who got tired of waiting. Just how long someone is able to hold on before cynicism sets in is a measure of their hope–as evidenced by some of the world’s enduring hopefuls: children waiting for Christmas morning; Cubs fans waiting for a World Series; New Orleans waiting for reconstruction; Microsoft users waiting for a hack-proof operating system; the world waiting for world peace; Christians waiting for the second coming, and Jews waiting for the first. So far, it’s only worked out well for the kids, but the rest are still waiting, believing the object of their hope will one day materialize. (Except perhaps New Orleans; by now even the dizziest of optimists must know they’re pretty much on their own.)
But that’s the nature of hope. It transcends logic. Hope is happy waiting. Believing that better outcomes are possible and just around the corner. And the two, great, recurring seasons of hope in American life are presidential elections and January 1st.
We hopefuls got pretty well hosed by the Hope-a-Dope election. But January is here and hope once again blooms like the first skunk cabbage.
The IT community, like much of America, is waiting for economic recovery and the jobs that are supposed to attend it. But whether we’re heading for an economic spring or a working-class winter, depends on how rose-colored your lenses are, because the evidence is decidedly mixed.
The optimists admit that some of the economic numbers are terrible, but not all. And, they point out, even the bad numbers are not as bad as they were last year. In other words, they see a hopeful trend. For the second straight month, they argue, the economy is pumping out service sector jobs; 58,000 of them, to be exact. The pessimists point out that service sector jobs usually pay minimum wage and that after Christmas, all those service providers will no longer be needed and the jobs will disappear. Humbug.
Yeah, we knew you’d say that, respond the optimists, but the economy also created 86,000 business and professional services jobs in November. So there.
So what, counter the pessimists, it would take creating 300,000 new jobs per months for five years to achieve anything resembling full employment. Besides, in spite of the gains, the economy still shed a net 11,000 jobs in November.
That’s the good news, counter the optimists, it’s the smallest drop since late 2007. And although nearly a half-million people applied for first-time unemployment, the unemployment line was 28 percent shorter than it was this past spring. And if you’re still not convinced, since last March when one of your fellow pessimist wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled Obama’s Radicalism Is Killing the Dow, the stock market has gone up 57 percent. How wrong can you guys be? You gotta admit that’s impressive.
Yeah, we’d be more impressed if we had any faith in the stock market, say the pessimists. How stupid do you have to be to trust those manipulative Wall Street frauds anyway?
Well, you can trust the numbers that show the stimulus is working, reply the hopefuls. The economy, which was shrinking at a 6.4 percent annual rate, expanded by 2.8 percent in the third quarter. And the toxic asset loans, which you pessimists claimed was giving taxpayer money away, are actually being repaid. Bank of America, Citigroup, and Wells Fargo returned nearly $100 billion to the Treasury–with interest.
Yeah, they paid it back by charging you outrageous interest on your credit cards, rejoin the pessimists. Besides, small business job creation depends on bank loans, and even though the Big Banks are reporting record profits, loans are down 17 percent from last year. And as for the so-called growing economy, 71 percent of U.S. workers hold jobs for which there is decreasing demand, increasing supply, or both. So, for whose benefit is the economy growing?
We’ll let one of your own answer that question, say the hopefuls. James Grant, a Wall Street guru long known for his woeful pessimism, recently wrote a piece called On the Coming Shortage of Labor. He argued that in transitional periods, when entire professions and economic sectors are vanishing, “we usually underestimate the capacity of market economies to reinvent the nature of work.” But history assures us it will be reinvented. Who, for example, could have foreseen the impact of the Internet on the economy?
And so it goes. Yin and Yang. Each argument spawning its opposite. Hope contained in the despair; caution an enduring part of hope.
The late British economist Arthur Pigou said: “The error of optimism dies in the crisis, but in dying it gives birth to an error of pessimism.” In the long term, economic reality is always fluid, continuously shifting between bright and bleak, moved, in part, by the weight of our collective optimism. As with many issues, sanity lies in the center. As Francis Bacon noted: “Hope is a good breakfast, but a bad supper.” People willing to wait indefinitely are delusional; people devoid of hope are easily defeated.
One thing is unarguable: Hopeful people tend to do more to create the outcomes they want, while pessimists complain more about the outcomes they get. When optimism is tethered to intelligence, it becomes a powerful force. And since young people tend to be naturally more optimistic, and IT professionals tend to be both young and intelligent, the prospects have to be encouraging.
Right now, to borrow a phrase from that immortal Sufi economist Rumi, the economy–indeed the country itself–is like “a rare bird with one wing made of fear and one of hope” In the end, which wing dominates will depend on which we chose to exercise.
Ultimately, hope and fear and their manifestations, optimism and pessimism, are not that far apart. The optimist thinks that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist is afraid that he’s right. But whether you see the donut or the hole, may your waiting end in 2010.