Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Anatomy of Confidence

In a column in today’s NYT, columnist Gail Collins suggests that our leaders have finally discovered whom to blame for the lousy economy. It is the people—and their negative attitude. She cites Ben Bernanke saying that households are “exceptionally cautious,” IMF’s Christine Lagarde speaking of “a crisis in confidence,” and President Obama urging us to “shake off all the naysaying and the anxiety and the handwringing.”

All right—but Collins is actually over-reaching. In effect Bernanke is right. We are cautious. So is Lagarde; this is a crisis in confidence. The excerpt from the President’s speech is more of an interpretation, or a kind of characterization—but not of what people say. He is objecting to the media’s chatter-scribble instead. It would indeed be almost good news if the problem really was just attitude. But it is more than that. Bernanke’s characterization is the mildest. Lagarde’s is accurate. Confidence. That is the problem.

Confidence arises from two factors. One is an individual’s conviction of his or her own powers, knowledge, and capacities. The second comes from looking out at the environment. In the very best of times, a crisis of confidence would certainly erupt if we all woke up one fine morning and discovered one of our limbs paralyzed, one of our eyes gone blind, and our brain unable to produce three coherent sentences in sequence. That would be the failure of the first factor. But that’s never the case. Most of us wake up each morning fully functional and our capacities in place. Crises of confidence arise because the environment—the over against—has become unreliable.

Children are most frightened, indeed terrified, indeed go into hiding when their parent suddenly start acting crazy. And it need not be that bad. They just need to fight viciously and disagree about most things—and all the children hear, even through walls, is shouting, harsh thumping sounds, and the sound of breaking glass. Confidence is shaken when Dad packs his bags and leaves the house—or Mom does not come home from work but, when she does, late at night—seen through a cracked door from a dark bedroom—she is drunk and in the company of a grinning man they’ve never seen before.

Confidence fades when the house the couple agonized so long to buy, fearing the huge increase in expenses over rent, suddenly loses 40 percent of its value—but they still owe that lost 40 percent as part of a 30-year mortgage. Confidence ebbs when a colleague is clearing out her desk—and it seems that talk of layoffs is true after all—and your husband’s already home, having lost his, and you might be next.

To tell the people to e-mail, fax, telephone their Congressman, might be like telling the children to e-mail, fax, tweet, and face-book-comment Dad after he leaves the house to shack up with Floozy-Woo at work. Getting a fifty-dollar check from Grandma at such times does not restore the child’s lost confidence. The model train, at such times, is forgotten. The fifty bucks is nice—but last night, going to the toilet, you saw Mom at the kitchen table, all alone, and she was just shaking, shaking, shaking with sobs.

Naysaying, anxiety, handwringing? A negative attitude? Fixed with a little get-up-and-go, American competitiveness, the can-do spirit? If it was just attitude, folks, that would be nice. That would be fixable. But a real crisis of confidence is about as easy to fix, over-night, as the second layoff in a two-income household or the shatter of a family which, in effect, destroys, and not just for the child, the whole settled order of the world.

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