Magazine | April 2, 2012, Issue

Desperate but Not Serious

‘In Berlin the situation is serious but not desperate; in Vienna, the situation is desperate but not serious.” This quip was heard around Central Europe in the closing days of both world wars, but certainly predates 1918. Political scientist Paul Gottfried, my go-to guy on matters Mitteleuropäisch, thinks it originated with one of the late-Habsburg Hungarian statesmen — Andrássy or Tisza. The point of the quip is to show the different outlooks of Prussians and Austrians: the first soldiering on to the end in dogged hope, the second in fatalistic acknowledgment that while the curtain may indeed be about to fall, there is no point forgoing life’s normal pleasures in the interim.

“Desperate but not serious” seems apt for the fiscal situation of the Western world. Everything I read seems to tell me that things are dire, if not terminal, at all political levels: nations, regions, states, cities. Here’s a headline from the New York Times, February 27: “To Pay New York Pension Fund, Cities Borrow from It First.”

There is a pension system for state employees, you see. Cities, towns, counties, and particular employers like the New York Public Library have to make annual contributions to the system. Alas, they are all broke. To meet their obligations to the pension fund, they have to borrow . . . from the pension fund. The analogy that comes to mind is of a human being in the last stages of starvation, when the body begins to consume its own tissue for nourishment.

Over on the other coast, I see that California’s money troubles are going from bad to desperate. Says the Sacramento Bee: “The courts and the Obama administration are stalling, perhaps permanently, many of the spending cuts that the 2011–12 budget had assumed.” Oh, dear. But how about this year’s budget? “A Legislature controlled by Brown’s fellow Democrats is refusing to jump-start more health and welfare reductions in his 2012–13 budget.” So that: “Already, then, Brown’s budget scheme is billions of dollars short of closing the state’s chronic operating deficit.” And then: “The situation got a lot worse Monday . . .” Spare me.

Across the pond in Euroland, a state of permanent crisis seems to have taken over. At the time of writing, the poor old Greeks have secured another bailout package from their fellow Europeans, on condition they can persuade their private creditors to take 50 cents on the dollar. The analysts say they will so persuade, thus surviving to pass on into some new phase of the slow-motion apocalypse. Friends who understand these things tell me that Greece is small potatoes, and that Italy is the one I should worry about. I need more to worry about?

And yet, this is all old stuff. I seem to have been reading these crisis stories for years, even before the 2008 market crash. Somehow we forge ahead: making a living, drawing a pension, distracting ourselves with sport, gossip, TV, and gadgets. The sky has a way of not falling. Things are desperate, but not serious.

#page#Unless, that is, you are a “prepper.” This is the subculture recently unearthed by the news media, of citizens who stockpile food, guns, and medicine in anticipation of societal catastrophe. It might be more accurate to say “recently renamed,” as survivalist movements of this sort have been around forever, certainly in the U.S. They overlap to some degree with Second Coming enthusiasts like the 19th-century Millerites, who believed that Jesus Christ would return to earth on October 22, 1844. (His failure to show up was a major event in itself, known to historians, understandably enough, as the Great Disappointment.)

However, this report I’m reading about the preppers (Reuters, January 21) quotes attorney Michael T. Snider, who writes a blog titled “The Economic Collapse” from his home in — where else? — northern Idaho, telling us that “modern preppers are much different from the survivalists of the old days. You could be living next door to a prepper and never even know it.” I should think it’s the last thing your prepper neighbor would want you to know. Imagine 200 feral, starving suburbanites possessed of the knowledge that Joe and Sally in the corner house have food, water, and guns. The guns would be a deterrent, but desperation and sheer arithmetic would win at last.

As quirky loners, in fact, the preppers have the survival business all wrong. Loners don’t do well in conditions of utter lawlessness. There might be room for one Grizzly Adams in the mountains, or ten, but with 320 million desperate citizens let loose on the landscape, you will be needing the mutual support and resources of a tribe. Forget that hut in the mountains: If you really think the porridge is going to hit the propeller, go settle in some small, fairly remote town whose inhabitants know and trust one another. Make friends with them; make yourself useful; join the church. When things, as the British say, “go pear-shaped,” you’ll have a better chance at survival than any prepper.

It is most probable, in any case, that these visions of total collapse belong to the realm of abnormal psychology rather than serious prediction. Certainly such things have happened in the past: Think of the chaos and population plunges at the end of a dynastic cycle in China, or the lapse into anarchy when the Roman legions left Britain. None of these maps well into the modern world, though, certainly not into a nation as free and self-sufficient as the U.S. Economic collapse has in fact occurred in big modern nations, most recently Argentina. Things were bad, but stayed way above the Mad Max level.

So far as it makes any sense to guess about these things, the U.S. that finds new equilibrium after this current ride down the fiscal rapids will be poorer and shabbier for many, the same for some, better for a few. There will be fewer cops and more neighborhoods — even whole towns — to which no sensible person goes; justice will be speedier and more approximate. Health care will be harder to get, and conditional — in Britain, which often leads in these things, smokers and the obese are already being denied surgery. We’ll adjust somehow, passing from our current Viennese state of denial to a proper Prussian stoicism: serious, but not desperate. Spiritually at least, it will be an improvement.

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