Tuesday, October 28

Are the media being drama queens?

About a week ago, Tim opened a piece of mail and announced that our MyPoints card has increased our limit.


It didn't even occur to me until a couple days later how extraordinary that is. In this economy, my credit cards aren't cutting my limits. Quite the opposite. And they're not trying to sneak in higher interest rates through some back door channel -- although one card notified us that the rate is going up at the end of the year.


Yet all I read about (and hear about other people reading about) are woeful lamentations of countless Americans being turned out of their homes. Stocks plummeting. Card companies slashing limits and raising rates.


So what's a gal to think?


I think that perhaps we're all buying into the media coverage unquestioningly. It seems like no one is trying to quantify just what effect it's having -- and on which sectors of the population. Certainly, there are some major changes going on, as Wal-Mart's sales numbers have indicated. .


But instead of focusing on the question "How bad is it?" perhaps we should be asking "How many Americans will actually be affected? And for how long?"


Because the fact is that there are small rays of hope out there. They're just not getting much coverage. For example, gas is down under $3. But suddenly gas prices aren't the big story.


Yes, that's not enough to compensate for the hard times ahead. But, guess what? We already had the good times.


Like the spoiled children we are, Americans had their dessert first, and now we're aghast (and petulant) that we have to eat our vegetables. A fair number are even trying to get out of it, because the sugary desserts gave them tummy aches.


I'm not trying to minimize the suffering that will happen. I'm not trying to say it's all lollipops and rainbows. Things are bleak. Times will be tough.


But, listening to most news sources, you'd think we're looking at at least a half-decade of strife and uncertainty.


So I was honestly quite startled to find out that the actual prediction is about 18 months: until June '09.


Sure, it could last longer. Maybe it will. But for years and years of market highs and financial self-indulgence I think we can all weather a year and a half of tough times.


I'm not trying to bash the media overly. Editors and publishers go with what sells. And right now, what sells is doom and gloom.


That's because of our own attention spans. Most of us wouldn't click through on a story if the summary were: "Mildly distressing times ahead, but not for too long and not as bad as the Great Depression." But "1 in 6 homeowners 'Under Water'" will really get your attention.


The other big problem is that journalists, like doctors of a critically ill patient, have to prepare us for the worst-case scenario. Better to be too pessimistic than too optimistic. Because if you do better than expected, it can be called a miracle and the doctor's skill. But if you do worse, the family can have emotional pain and suffering -- and a good lawyer.


So the media tell us just how excruciating it's going to be. Stories fill us with details of average credit card debt, rises in defaults, and all that grim information.


So what does it all mean? It means things do suck in the short-term. And, much more importantly for our collective psyches, the future is highly uncertain. That means it's easy to get panicky.


But the upshot is that things may not be as horrifying as news coverage would have you believe.


Banks are being taken care of (mostly by other banks, which I don't love, but it sure beats having whole lending institutions call it quits). There's no Dust Bowl. And people who are in danger of being foreclosed on may be getting government help or settlements from places like Countrywide, whether or not we believe they deserve it.


In other words, while tough times lie ahead, our society isn't going to fall into an everlasting pit of despair. Can we all just remember that? Especially when the angst starts piling up?

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1 Comments:

Blogger Shevy said...

You said 18 months, until June 2009. I'm hearing more along the lines of 18 months starting from now. Frankly, at this point I don't know what to believe.

A lot of our foundations are wobbling right now and that's bad. It's like this 18 year old kid I saw the other night on Canada's Worst Driver.

He has problems driving straight and when he notices he's drifting off toward the left he turns the wheel sharply to the right. Now he's heading to the right, so he jerks the wheel to the left. And so on, back and forth, bouncing back and forth in the lane. As long as he stays in the lane it just looks bizarre. But his movements are very uncontrolled. What happens if he overcorrects so strongly that he bounces right out of his lane into somebody else?

I feel the banks, the credit card companies and the stock market are wobbling in much the same way and worry about what happens if they bounce out of their lane!

After all, the Depression occurred in stages, with one set of dominos falling and then a pause before the next set went. There wasn't 25% unemployment right after the Crash. It kept increasing as time went on.

So, if things gradually calm down, we'll be okay and it will be like the OPEC oil embargo, or the Savings & Loan crisis or Y2K. If things don't calm down and the wobbles keep increasing, then we're going to see something more like the Great Depression.

I think there's a fine line for the media to walk, between making sure that we're aware of not only what's happening right now but also what's likely to happen in the very short term AND the risk of panicking people into making the bad moves that will exacerbate that wobble. The media's natural tendency is to do the latter. It makes for "better" news. Or at least more news.

October 30, 2008 at 12:16 AM

 

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