The Boom in Certainty

Sinclair Lewis called it “the sedate pomposity of the commercialist”. Now it has spread to many parts of society, not always in its sedate form.

Back in our final days as architecture students in Austin, our class had a farewell gathering with a professor who had been a valued mentor to several of us. As was habitual on such occasions, the professor was discussing with us the work of various architects when the subject of a newly-constructed building came up.

“I hate that building”, one classmate said flatly.

After an awkward silence, the professor mocked: “you mean, strongly dislike?” Off guard, the offending party protested that his use of the word was innocuous then and there. The professor conceded as much but explained that it was a visceral word, the kind of word that forestalls further discussion and that hardens the speaker’s and listener’s opinions. It is difficult to walk back or to change your mind from “hate”, and easier to do so from “dislike” or even from “strongly dislike”, he argued. His advice was to leave in one’s words an open path for retreat, in essence to never burn one’s rhetorical bridges.

This led to another discussion about certainty and about people who speak with certainty. The professor said that he had a reflexive dislike for certainty and that he felt a profound distrust towards people who speak with certainty. There is very little that is certain in life, he said, even among things of which we are convinced at a given point in time. Opinions change, science changes, research advances. New discoveries change our beliefs. Knowledge doesn’t just flow or evolve gradually like a river; it shifts laterally and sometimes suddenly like an earthquake.

In the same vein, he said that he disliked the phrase “common sense” because he believed that common sense is constantly shifting. What is viewed as common sense today will appear tomorrow as nonsense or, worse, as prejudice, he argued. He saw people who speak with certainty as demagogues seeking to maximize their profit in the present, as self-festooned markers of the common sense of today that will be washed away tomorrow. Years later, I encountered the same distrust of certainty in the pages of Main Street where Sinclair Lewis decried “the sedate pomposity of the commercialist”.

Sinclair Lewis in 1914.

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Yet to us in early 2021, “sedate” sounds good. Most of us would take sedate in a heartbeat because the pomposity of the commercialist has ceased being sedate several decades ago. In earlier times, the wealthy tended to speak publicly in more measured tones, and the successful bore scars from their earlier humbling setbacks.

But not any more today. Today, we have widespread loudness and certainty. A large segment of our culture admires “straight talk” and “straight shooters” who “cut through the nonsense”. More and more, it views nuance and analysis as nothing but feckless and paralyzing casuistry. It glorifies action over thought. Worse, with social media, loudness and certainty are being deployed effectively to amplify wealth and success. Online provocateurs get more followers and more attention. As a result, we witness a public tantrum by a big or middling celebrity on a frequent basis.

Our economy too offers on average vastly greater rewards to those who are successful the easier way (and work in rent-seeking sectors) than to those who are successful the hard way (say doctors or engineers). Banking requires certainty and confidence but it does not require as complex a skillset as for example surgery. Yet the average banker is wealthier than the average surgeon. And a top banker is wealthier than a top neurosurgeon by a factor of 10x or more. It is not unusual in New York City for a middle-aged doctor to be outbid for a luxury apartment by a banker half his age.

30-year and Risk-free

We should have no objection to such people so long as corrective market mechanisms can function freely. In the old days, wealth distortions were periodically corrected by recessions during which fast money risk takers lost much more than slow money earners. Then, the overconfident youngster would sometimes wind up panic-selling his New York apartment to the same doctor at a much reduced price and renting a studio to wait out the crisis until the next wave raised his fortunes again. That was the fable of the tortoise and the hare.

But now the hare wins at first and then keeps on winning. The corrective mechanisms are now a thing of the past. Bailouts upon bailouts have all but eradicated failure for the fast money and ensured their rising prosperity ad infinitum. Any major setback would have been an existential threat in another time, but in 1994, 1998, 2001, 2008 and 2020, the market corrections were only temporary headaches alleviated and cured by Congress and/or the Federal Reserve again and again. The Greenspan put is a distant and quaint precursor of what has subsequently transpired.

Moral hazard has widespread consequences, not only in the markets but in the culture and in the conduct of men and women. The net effects are a decrease in self-restraint and an absence of moderation, in language and in actions. At the same time, there has been an increase in manufactured certainty and in burning bridges. The cost for being wrong on that certainty has been brought down to close to zero. All high-flying players have been reassured that every crisis is only a temporary setback before they are rescued and the good times return. If as a result, some people are certain of some things that are demonstrably false, it is not because they are blind or lack lucidity. It is because we have rewarded certainty over facts for a long time, and rewarded people who speak with certainty, irrespective of whether their facts are truthful.

Cool Entrepreneur to Mob Inciter

And then the pandemic came along. No matter how much certainty any of us may feel, a deadly virus will kill any of us who don’t take the right precautions to preserve ourselves. Covid-19 cannot be bullied or cajoled or impressed. It doesn’t care how poor or rich anyone is, or what they post on Twitter. The pandemic was in fact the ultimate certainty slayer. So the certainty pushers laid low for a while, if reluctantly. They tried to deny the virus, to evade its existence or minimize its importance. But in the end, they had no choice but to hunker down. The virus was looking for them as for anyone.

But now that we have vaccines and declining infection numbers, they are back again in full force as if to make up for the time they lost in confinement. However, “they” are no longer just the rich and powerful who benefited from bailouts. Social confinement has reduced contagion from the coronavirus but it has increased the contagious spread of certainty. This particular ailment now afflicts people from all walks of life, from the billionaire who cusses liberally online all the way to the little guy (as some call themselves) fighting to get his fair share.

Interestingly, some celebrities have knowingly or unwittingly assumed the role of mob inciters, egging the mass of little guys to rise up and topple the prevailing order, whatever that happens to be in their eyes. Here social media is inadvertently playing an important role in facilitating the broadcast of incendiary messages, brief and insubstantial as befits true propaganda, to tens of millions of people at once. Is this what social media has become, a place for some celebrities to incite followers?

The pomposity and certainty of the commercialist have pushed some rioters to invade the Capitol, and others to raid the stock market. They did so loudly and with certainty and they burned many bridges, allegedly in the name of a just and overdue rebellion. When their conduct is criticized, they posit this question: “if the elites cheat in order to win, why shouldn’t everyone else?” We covered this theme previously: cronyism opens the door to mass disillusionment and/or to socialism.

This madness may not end until the loud and certain at all social and income levels experience some setbacks that are not immediately backstopped by government or other action. And it may not stop for as long as some people with large followings on social media incite mass actions of any form.

President Trump was only half right in his prediction. We are not tired of winning. We are tired of some people breaking things in order to win. The rich break things through cronyism. The less rich break things through mass movements and riots. The second justify their actions by pointing to the first. In both instances, everyone loses in the long run. We need more uncertainty in order to restore risk and sanity. And to sedate the pomposity.

Photo of Sinclair Lewis by Arnold Genthe.

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