Sometimes it seems as if we are living in times of cataclysm, beset by unpredictable events that shatter ordered lives. All that’s lacking are plagues of locusts, boils and frogs, and they may not be far behind. Hurricanes line up and blow away the hopes and dreams of hundreds of thousands.
Very few of us perish at the hands of terrorists, foreign and domestic, but the random nature of their acts— Charleston, Charlottesville, San Bernardino, Boston — make us feel in constant peril. Not to mention, states led by fools and fanatics armed with weapons of mass destruction.
And then there’s economic calamity. The past cycles of boom and bust were bad enough. My great-great grandfather Adam Trish married just in time to see the bank Panic of 1837 postpone his plans to buy a farm for a decade.
My grandmother Williams was only two when her life was plunged into years of poverty by the Depression of 1892, the worst in American history, until 1929 surpassed it. Widespread unemployment and hardship scarred the industrial heartland, and she remembered for the rest of her long life the ragged men of Coxey’s Army begging for food and water at her door on their march to Washington seeking relief in 1894.
My grandfather Charles Monroe died in 1931, leaving his widow insolvent. My father, then in his second year of college, had to drop out to try to earn enough to support himself and his mother during a Great Depression that would continue for almost ten more years. In our own time, my adult children’s economic lives have been stunted by the lingering effects of the Great Recession of 2008.
We tend to regard all these horrors as if they were acts of God, beyond mortal control. Your roof blows away, your savings blow away, you are blown away. Individually, we may be powerless in the face of terror, weather, or downturns, but acts of man are implicated in them all.
The bombers and shooters and plotters can be detected with well-funded vigilance and they can be deprived of easy access to explosives and weapons if the society decides to act. In the case of weather, rushing to the rescue and imploring the kindly to contribute may be admirable, but the time to avert the worst if before the fact, not after.
The perils of climate change are increasingly apparent and not a fiction, but we refuse to pay for an ounce of prevention — seawalls, transitioning to clean energy, sane zoning, bans on building (or rebuilding) in endangered flood plains or denying insurance to people taking obvious risks. Yet if nothing is done, the cost going forward will be trillions of pounds for belated cures.
Booms and busts are not acts pf god. They are almost always the result of irrational actors enabled by lax regulation, and insane risk taking that enriches the casino — bankers, brokers and other lenders — and ruins not just gamblers but innocent bystanders whose jobs, pensions, and homes are sacrificed on the later of laissez faire.
We know the dismal history of predatory capitalism, unchecked by adequate government oversight, that led to 1929 and 2008, to a Savings and Loan debacle here, a dot-com bubble there, everywhere defaults, currency collapses, Enrons and Madoffs. Yet the victims do not have the power to enact protections that would save them, while the lobbyists for the malefactors write the laws that guarantee that the next rip-off will occur.
And often the acts of men that cause immense suffering are as much acts of omission as of commission. The watchdogs who are supposed to catch crimes before they happen are asleep, or are obeying rules that give them more incentive to go easy than to crack down. So, credit rating agencies certified incredibly risky instruments AAA before 2008 proved the paper they’d approved was trash.
Just now, we have all learned that hackers have stolen the mortgage and credit card borrowing histories, place and date of birth and social security numbers for essentially every adult in the country from Equifax. Yet it is one of three companies whose business is to keep this sensitive data safe and secure.
For performing this service, Equifax surely makes a nice profit, but just as surely the profit was enhanced by not spending enough to ensure that our information was safe from cyber-criminals. And as if to demonstrate Equifax shouldn’t have been trusted, before alerting the rest of us to the breach that may impoverish us, the executives of the company hastened to enrich themselves by trading on this insider information.
The Silicon Valley wizards to whom we now entrust our safety, privacy and physical and economic well-being are also culpable. They have grown fat addicting billions to the ease, speed, convenience and economy of life online. But they have not protected us. We are all now vulnerable to dangers we don’t understand and are unable to guard against.
We now find ourselves in an under-policed, anarchic Wild West of cyberbullying, hacking, scams, misinformation and criminality, a dark web where terrorists are recruited, fraud is endemic, banks are broken into, identities are stolen and an American election is perverted.
These are not acts of god or even the devil but of men. and until we put cops on the beat of these virtual-reality streets, and arm them with weapons adequate to the task, we will never be safe. And since a capitalist economy and a democratic society depend on trust, the whole edifice can collapse when nothing and no one can be relied on. Then no one is safe from the disorder that may come.