When the Penny Lands Tails-Up

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If a heads-up penny is good luck, tossing a penny heads up 99 times in a row would be very much against the odds – good luck indeed! And what are the odds that the 100th penny would be tails? 50%. Board a plane and the odds you will crash are miniscule: after a million heads-up (crashless) flights, the odds remain millions to one against an accident. Yet these two are not the same: pennies land by chance; but planes land safely by vigilant maintenance, skilled training and modern technologies. The question I wish to pose here is: how do economies land?

History instructs us that booms and busts have for centuries been part of the cyclical nature of capitalism. These expansions and contractions were rather rhythmic until the twentieth century – a twenty year boom might be followed by a ten year bust, or vice versa, sort of like that penny (though I am here very much simplifying). The so-called “laws” of economics did not change, but modern technology and monetary policy, coupled with global expansion, have come together in America to enable a prolonged economic boom since the Great Depression.

Doubtless many suffered greatly during the Great Recession of 2007-8, but much of that shock was absorbed by quantitative easing and adroit regulatory maneuvering: it was nothing like the Great Depression, or many other great economic downturns of history. Few people are alive today who were more than children during America’s Great Depression. This is dangerous, for the collective memory of that experience has dimmed, and most people today do not understand how severely trying the Great Depression was for the nation, or imagine that such a thing could happen again. (“Those who forget the past are destined to repeat it”). Or, like the ancient Jews before the Babylonian invasion, people believe “No harm will come to us, we will never see sword or famine.” (Jer. 5:12).

Let us compare times. In 1929, America was a creditor nation of 100 million people, 90% of whom were agrarian and did most work manually or with horses; Vermonters grew nearly all of their own food. In 2018, debt-ridden America has swelled to 320 million largely urban and suburban people who are dependent on government and fossil fuels (the Census Bureau estimated in 2016 that 81% of Americans live on just 3% of our land). Vermonters grow almost none of their own food (though they fertilize the ground with excess milk after polluting the ecosystem to produce it).

We have enabled this extended period of relative abundance and growth in America by debt, beginning especially in the 1980’s – in fact, we have still not repaid the deficit incurred in the S&L crisis. With such unprecedented leverage, we Americans have managed to kick the can of successive economic crises down the road, but we cannot go on this way indefinitely.

We have also managed to defer our economic reckoning through technological innovation and ever more efficient (if wasteful) exploitation of natural resources. Yet, these too have their cost, and accumulate toxins and waste like a national debt, while depleting natural wealth and human health. More cans kicked down our children’s road. Writer Wendell Berry called this an “apocalypse of technology” and warned that we must choose a more thoughtful path to avoid this dystopian end: “We face an apocalypse of our own making – a man-made cosmic terror….[U]ntil ours, no generation ever had to face the possibility that its extinction at birth might have been a benefit to the world.” (“A Secular Pilgrimage,” 1970).

Historian John Lukacs issues similar dire warnings in his later works, whose titles reveal their message: “The End of the Twentieth Century and the End of the Modern Age,” “Last Rites,” and “At the End of an Age.” He also warned us in an earlier work (also in 1970):”The Passing of the Modern Age.” He posits that history will look back at the folly of the “Industrial Age,” during which mankind rapaciously devoured the majority of the planet’s rarest resources, and fouled most of the remainder. Charles Dickens viewed industrialization as the enemy of humanity. Christopher Lasch, George Orwell, and many others (including C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, both of whom were skeptical of technology because of its capacity for abuse) have uttered similar warnings against can-kicking, but here we are in this perfect storm anyway.

The number of potential disruptions to our society’s delicate dependency on technology and fossil fuels (in lieu of hard work and mules) has been compounded by the very “advances” that we have come to trust – cyber attacks are a uniquely modern threat, but then so are antibiotic resistant superbugs, EMPs, nuclear warheads, biological warfare agents, genetic engineering, just-in-time inventories, long distance transport, and mono cropping. All of these create new risks and exacerbate existing ones.

America faces aggravated race relations, profound cultural division, and a looming constitutional crisis, yet a recent “Young Writer’s Project” topic was “What Would You Do If You Had No Cell Phone For 24 Hours?” (the winning answer: miss the chance to help someone in sorrow). The Vermont values of self-reliance, perseverance and frugality which were universal in 1929 have been largely abandoned – along with most of our heirloom vegetable varieties, and that priceless body of collective knowledge which faded with our small farms and the communities they nurtured.

We must regain our neglected traditions, tend our fertile land to produce our own food, and keep our powder dry (in whatever size magazines we wish). We live in a time when most people, urbanized and forgetful, have placed trust in government and technology instead of soil and self. They act like people who construct a theater with no fire exits, or planes with no life preservers or parachutes, due to their optimism that there will never be a fire or malfunction. Because the penny has been heads-up lucky 99 times in a row, they presume number 100 will be heads also, and they have (literally) bet the farm on it. The problem arises when, inevitably, that penny lands tails up.

Originally published in July 2018.