Inflation

I.

I once saw a martial arts contest judged by three Shaolin monks. The monks scored entrants on their technique, using a scale of one to ten.

No scale of one to ten is ever one to ten, because judges don’t like to give out ones, and these monks weren’t giving out tens. So it was something like 6 to 9 that day, and sixes grew rarer as the hours crawled along. Partway through the contest, the monks started adding decimal places to the scores (they were just writing with markers on cards). By the end of what was, to be fair, an interminable program, the scores were all, and I mean, all, nine point something, generally between 9.6 and 9.9. This means if you wanted to compare contestants from the beginning of the event to contestants from the end (which, because of the way it was set up, you wouldn’t), the fairest way would be to take the latter’s scores, subtract nine and multiply by ten.

What had happened here? For some reason, gradually through the course of one long Sunday, scores had inflated. It happened relatively quickly, and it happened apparently without anyone planning it out.

(Probably I should mention that it was not the case the beginners went at the start of the day, and experts at the end or something like that. Whatever caused the inflation, it wasn’t just people getting better.)

I think about that day a lot, even though, or perhaps because, I don’t understand it. Had these monks never judged a similar performance before? Did they know each other? Somehow monk-based social pressure I’m obviously not privy to caused rapid grade inflation. If I had had to guess, I would have said that Shaolin monks above all people would have been immune to this kind of pressure, but nope, they were the ones doing it.

This is not a unique phenomenon — there’s a reason we even have the term grade inflation — but I don’t think it usually happens in six or seven hours.

II.

I’m not an economist, and I’m not claiming I understand inflation. I get it, I get it: no one likes inflation, but it is somehow necessary for the economy.

Recently I read Elias Canetti’s theory that the notorious German hyperinflation of the 1920s made the Holocaust possible; not in the usually cited collapse-of-the-Weimar-economy way, bit rather by inuring the German people to the concept of enormous numbers. Killing millions of people doesn’t sound like so many if billions of deutschmarks  will buy a loaf of bread.

This sounds far fetched to me but I mention it because economists seem to have a tendency to pooh pooh complaints about inflation, as though inflation had no unintended consequences. “You don’t like inflation? I guess you don’t like having a modern economy and would rather live in a mud hut and die of dysentery” is not literally, but is essentially, what one economist said to me when I suggested that there may be larger problems caused by the fact that no one ever really knows how much money is worth or how much staples “should” cost. Maybe that economist’s smug little face would be less smug if he thought his precious inflation had caused the holocaust.

Anyway, I’m about to blame Trump on inflation.

III.

Not Weimar-style inflation, Shaolin-style inflation.

You may have noticed that all your friends have turned into psychotic hate machines, and the only thing that prevents you and them from screaming insults at one another is that you’re all in the same demographic. I’m talking about your friends on social media of course.

If you haven’t noticed this UNFRIEND ME NOW!

You may have noticed (if you are American) that your presidential campaign had been hijacked by a psychotic hate machine, and that in response “the other half” of the country spends its time spewing psychotic hate back at it. If you say that some of this hate, one side’s hate, is not psychotic but is justified — well, I agree with you, and we are in the same demographic, and what is up with that spray on tan am I right? But perhaps, as you read your nth post flattering your preconceptions and saying: “Anyone who votes for that candidate is literally subhuman,” you may wonder about the amount of hate you are consuming on a daily basis.

(If you are not American then mutatis mutandis Brexit or something else from your chosen country.)

This level of hate had always been available to you, if you were a Bircher or a Maoist or read their literature. But, like flat earth theories and the pictures of girls stomping on mice, it used to be somewhat difficult to find. Now it’s everywhere, such that people I think of as being rational or civil think nothing of saying, “Agree with me or we cannot be friends and also you are evil [and should die (optional)]” about topic after topic. Like a Bircher. Like a Maoist.

Obviously I think we have always been engaged in (to use Coleridge’s phrase) “the motive-hunting of motiveless malignity”; or, to put a kinder face on it, we have always been looking for ways to exercise power over our neighbors. But it’s clear that America, at least, has gotten meaner and angrier and more hateful about it. The unprecedented hate the swelled up around GWB hardly prepared us for the unprecedented hate that swelled up around Obama, which could not have possibly prepared anyone for the possibility of a race-baiting date rapist running for president. It’s probably inflammatory for me to call that coked-up huckster a race-baiting date rapist, but if you don’t like it UNFRIEND ME NOW! THIS IS HOW POLITICS WORKS THESE DAYS! YOU ARE ALL TERRIBLE PEOPLE UNLESS YOU AGREE WITH ME ALWAYS FOR REAL THIS TIME!

I’m taking it on faith that you observed the change. I assume, if someone asked you what happened, you’d say that suddenly everyone who disagreed with you was a nazi-loving scumbag, and you had no choice but to fight back with righteous wrath “just to keep from being thrown to the wolves.”

Let me suggest that this explanation, the “it’s because of something they did” explanation, in always implausible. Let me suggest instead that the answer is the rise of social media. And of course Shaolin inflation.

IV.

Here’s how it worked in the old days. You were going to vote for Carter. Your moron friend wanted to vote for Ford. Probably when you got together at a discotheque or a key party you argued about this difference of opinion; the argument may have gotten heated. Then you went off to buy a mood ring and you met another Ford supporter! So you started again and you argued again.

The keywords are you started again.

Social media never lets you start again. Every argument you pose sits in twitter forever, every meme you share is one wayback machine ride away (not literally, as of 2011, but you get what I mean).

More importantly, your argument gets added to everyone else’s arguments. All you Carter boosters are now engaged in one long joint production, tag teaming in to zing Ford. “It was my understanding there would be no math,” says the animated gif you keep tumbling. And if your friends want to share a better gif, they need to up the ante.

This is of course in part a problem of demographic signaling, where you have to outdo the anchor posed by your friends just to prove you belong. If you want to show the world you are more progressive, or patriotic, than Johnny, then you’d better take Johnny’s last post and kick it up a notch for yours.But in part it’s pure Shaolin inflation; the inevitable result of a conversation that has gone on too long, twenty-four hours a day, day in and day out, tag teaming to keep the filibuster going.

The end result is the same: Some kind of social pressure leads you to post “x is bad” one day and “x is evil” the next day and “I literally cannot fathom how any decent human being could x” shortly after. The anger inflates and the hate inflates.

The anger inflates and the hate inflates. Yoda could tell us what comes next, if we weren’t already living it.

 

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6 comments

  1. There is a fair amount I disagree with here.

    -There are some economists that don’t like inflation and even the ones that do might like a rate somewhere between 1-3% and would of course also be opposed to hyperinflation you mention in Weimer Germany and in your allegory. In fact, I don’t think economic inflation has much in common with increasing contentiousness you’re complaining of (one is a planned occurrence, the other happens organically as a result of controversial memes/statements getting more attention than non-controversial ones).

    – Even if there were no inflation (that is, no deliberate attempt to increase the supply of money relative to the supply of goods), people still wouldn’t know how much money was worth or how much staples ‘should’ cost because the supply of goods itself would increase or decrease. Prices aren’t set in stone, they are a function of supply and demand and that obviously changes over time.

    – I hardly agree that ‘the unprecedented hate the swelled up around GWB hardly prepared us for the unprecedented hate that swelled up around Obama.’ As far as I can tell, there was more hatred for Bush than for Obama. Now I spent part of the Bush presidency in college in NYC and the rest in a foreign nation, and spent all of Obama’s presidency in NYC, so obviously my surroundings have been filled with leftists and that may affect my view, but people really hated Bush. He was very often compared to Hitler or a monkey (I personally find it hilarious how comparing the president to a monkey immediately went from a brave act to beyond the pale once Obama was elected.) Celebrities openly wished for him to be assassinated (and there was even a film made about what it what be like if he were assassinated, although I haven’t seen it and can’t comment on if was just a fantasy for liberals or if it had more to it). Bush caught flak for things like the Senate not ratifying the Kyoto Protocols, even though ratifying it had broad bipartisan opposition and wasn’t actually the job of the president.

    Now for Obama, I’m sure there are people in the midwest and south who hate him. I’m sure there exists right wing websites and talk radio that are full of hatred and unfair attacks against him. However I expect they are as invisible to you as they are to me. Where is the unprecedented hatred that you are seeing? It certainly doesn’t exist in the mainstream media like it did for Bush (Could you imagine the NYT publishing something like http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/02/05/sometimes-a-president-is-just-a-president/?_r=0 about GWB?), I don’t think you can find a lot of vitriolic attacks towards Obama unless you are seeking it out.

    I’m also not sure things are getting more contentious. Every election people complain about worsening attack ads, forgetting that in 1828, people said Jackson was a murderer married to a bigamist and that JQ Adams was a pimp for the Czar of Russia.

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    1. I’m not really married to the idea that inflation and inflation are similar, but they’re clearly homonyms and I wanted to work in the Cannetti theory.

      For a while I thought GWB was our most hated president but now I suspect that this is because of the bubble I live in. I think I’ve heard more calls for Obama’s assassination than Bush’s, despite having an extremely partisan demographic. (I may have also heard more calls for Thatcher’s assassination, but those were all in songs.) On the other hand, pro Obama rhetoric is far more messianic ( that term is neither metaphor nor hyperbole, alas) than I wager Bush’s ever was, however red the state. The presidents are getting more polarizing. Inflated polarization.

      Meanwhile people who hate Clinton II or Trump are so much more vehement…certainly I’ve never hated any candidate as much as I hate Trump snd although I think that’s on him I am always suspicious of such reasoning.

      I’m also suspicoous ( =dismissive) of other people’s memories but mine tells me that everyone — my feeds, the media, customers — are angrier and more hate fueled than ever. Not literally “ever” — what do I know of the nation’s wrath at FDR let alone Jackson let alone Torquemada or something? But I knew Reagan haters and I knew Bush haters and not like this.

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      1. I too have never hated a candidate as much as I hate Trump, but this is not a symptom of more contention these days, but because he is moving the republicans away from William F Buckley and towards Jean Marie Le Pen and that would get my goat any time. Hillary Clinton has long been hated by many people. In the 90s, people were accusing her of murdering Vince Foster (plus all the things she was actually guilty of). It isn’t clear to me she’s less popular now than she was then.

        Where have you been hearing calls to assassinate Obama? (not a rhetorical question) I haven’t heard many (any?) and I am way more likely to be friends with people who would say things like that than you are. Who is calling for him to be assassinated?

        Since we’ve mentioned how contemptible Trump is, I’ll close by noting that he seems like the perfect false flag candidate for the democrats. He largely pushes what has been historically thought of as left wing policies (to the extent that he pushes any policies) while being labelled a republican and behaving like the ugliest caricature of a rightest possible.

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    2. There was a time when a combination of alarmist leftists pointing out misbehaving “tree dwellers” ( =”right wingers”) and my attempts to educate myself outside of my comfort zone kept coming up with images of Obama dummies being lynched. I guess the next time I see one of these, I’ll tell you?; I say this because tweets and memes are always really hard for me to find again when I realize days later that I want to write about them. Except for the ones from Trump’s butler, I can find those easy. http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2016/05/donald-trump-butler-obama-lynching

      I still hear about Vince Foster, except now it’s from Jill Stein supporters. (JK, it’s from Trump boosters, but that’s less funny.)

      Also, I was posting from a phone (like a big boy!) before so in addition to doubtless being riddled with errors my previous reply left out what I wanted to say about prices and what things “should” cost. Because obviously you’re right, and prices are determined by the market, inflation or none. But I believe it is the case that in practice there are a large number of items whose demand and supply are relatively constant, such as Twinkies or coffee; a sufficient number of these items lets you frame an idea of prices that more or less matches your grandparents’, even though TVs have gotten cheaper and houses have gotten more expensive than they were “in the old days.” Certainly, at the very least, our intuition of what products cost at different times in the past would be closer without inflation than with, even if imperfect.

      How great a virtue that would be is, of course, debatable.

      I’ve got to figure out some kind of hate units so we can quantify how much people dislike HRC over time.

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      1. So I feel like if you went out of your way to find vitriolic attacks during the Obama presidency and did not do so previously, the difference is probably in what you observed, not what was out there. I would believe that people on the left publicized vitriolic attacks on Obama more than they had under the Clintons (and more than the right had under GWB) because it seems more and more that portraying your side as under attack by racist extremists is an easy way to score points.

        Your comment about most goods having a relatively constant supply and demand is correct, although I think this may be a instance where the real danger is the illusion of safety. Many goods would have a relatively constant price (and generally more or less do even factoring in inflation), the wrong lesson to take from that is that the goods have some sort of intrinsic value or price. Look at people who have made bad investments (the housing bubble is a recent example, although hardly the only one). Someone buys a house for $600K and all of a sudden it is worth $300K and they are outraged that they were cheated. But of course the cause of the drop was only all the people who wanted to pay a large amount for the house (of which they were one) changing their minds.

        Scott Sumner also makes an interesting point about inflation early on in this piece: http://www.themoneyillusion.com/?p=31723 (read the entire thing though, it is more insightful than anything I will say).

        I failed to respond to your previous comment on Obama being viewed more messianically than GWB. I strongly agree with this, but it isn’t a surprise. The strongest Bush supporters already had a messiah, Jesus; they didn’t need one in Bush. It is both alarming and hilarious the speed with which some secular people can find religious substitutes with no self awareness whatsoever.

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      2. Sorry, lack of internets and I hate typing on a phone.

        So when Obama was running, or possibly during his early tenure, a friend of mine kept saying how cruel and ugly the Republican attacks on him were. And I was like, “As if!” Because the Bush = Hitler graffiti was STILL up at the time. And I thought, as I used to when I’d read the Voice, “Liberals are paranoid loons who get upset when they don’t control every single vector of discourse.”

        Then a couple of years passed, and I met new people and became FB friends.

        Obviously the quantity of attacks on Obama I have seen will never equal the quantity of attacks on Bush, but I have to say that the tenor of the attacks was different. And these aren’t alt-right people. They’re just (or appear to be) normal (perhaps “mainstream” is too technical a word) conservatives. They would be offended if you called them racist. They think Obama is a Kenyan Muslim.

        Just some very mainstream examples: Obviously the left “invented” (I mean in recent times) the idea that if we wish really hard we can magically delegitimize the presidency. But their fantasies — that the Supreme Court was crooked, or even that the popular vote should be retconned in, were legalistic fantasies, based on procedure. The idea that Democrats would try to smuggle a Trojan Horse foreigner into the White House is, I think, much crazier.

        Or: When New Yorkers called Bush a Nazi, they meant “bad and conservative.” When Victoria Jackson called Obama a Communist, she meant, “Literally a stooge of Marx.” That’s crazier.

        Or: I’ve often compared Orson Scott Card’s fantasy of Obama taking over America to William Gibson’s fantasy of Bush taking over America. And in some ways Gibson’s was crazier. But it’s much easier to dismiss Gibson’s as rhetorical excess, while Card really lingers on every potential sin of Obama’s future regime.

        That was the mainstream stuff; when I followed a link to a “conservative” site it was worse. I guess I’m saying that I saw enough “Lynch Obama” that I would estimate it is more common, among certain demographics, than “Execute Bush” — and more lawless! I mean, most calls I say to kill Bush were “he should be put on trial for war crimes and executed.” Which is the kind of thing you CAN do to a world leader. I guess Mussolini got lynched, but you know what I mean.

        I think the big jump (in looniess/anticivility/what have you) was not between Bush and Obama — the big jumps were between early Clinton and late, impeachment Clinton, between Clinton and Bush, and between Obama and presumably Clinton. I couldn’t believe “Lock her up! Lock her up!” nor can I believe that Trump threatened to throw his political opponent in jail.

        But I do think that — trying to correct for my little bubble — rhetoric got worse and more violent between GWB and Obama. But this is admittedly an estimation.

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