11 August 2008

Hope and the Alternatives

A week from day, my local elementary school will be back in session. Is it "back to school" or "the end of summer"?

Tomorrow is a primary election in Colorado, a day when we sum up our aspirations and give them form. We may have a President with Nixonian approval ratings and a Congress that neither Democrats nor Republicans love, but it all starts over in January, based upon choices we make in November.

Usually, recessions don't last long. They tend to be shorter than boom times. We may even have a sluggishly growing GNP. But, it feels far worse. Consumer confidence is at a record low and it isn't the only record making bit of bad economic news out there. Note the usually. Now and again, countries have not recessions, but depressions. The last depression in the U.S. was in the 1930s. Japan has had one far more recently, as has Russia. Are we due?

As an attorney who does pre-nuptials, estate planning and works with businesses, it is usually my job to be the pessimist, counseling my clients to prepare for what could go wrong. Entrapreneurs and couples preparing to marry are optimists. They believe that their ideas will work, despite alarmingly high rates of failures for new ventures. Lawyers are generally there to have Plan B waiting in the wrings.

Hope is not an unequivocally good thing. Expanding consumer debt and the growing foreclosure crisis are symptoms that our society has had too much hope. High divorce rates can be attributed, in part, to unrealistic expectations. Irrational hope brings people to the tables to gamble their money away. Too much hope can lead people to apply for colleges they subsequently fail in, leaving them with big non-dischargable student loans but no degree or school imparted wisdom to show for their efforts. Excess optimism keeps people from settling lawsuits and accepting plea bargains, more often than not to their detrimen, according to the New York Times.

On the other hand, hope is also necessary. You have to get on with your life knowing that you don't what will happen next. You buy houses knowing that your current job could end tomorrow. You keep running your business without any assurance that clients will keep coming in next month, as they have in the past. You have children not knowing how they will turn out or what hardships you will endure as the grow up. You marry knowing that many marriages fail. You drive and cross the street despite the fact that there are dangerous activities. Paralysis with fear can do as much harm or more as excessive optimism. It is sometimes easier to foresee in detail things that could go wrong, than it is to foresee good fortune. Solutions to mere possible problems are a step removed from the problems themselves.

In the long run, we are still in an era of progress.

Hope is not, as the aphorism says, something you can not endure without for even a moment. People endure in hopeless shells for months. But, a deep enough depression will kill you sooner or later. When asked "Got Hope?", the answer ought to be yes, even though too much can be a bad thing.

Perhaps as much as anything, hope makes a good default option, but needs to be tempered when facts to the contrary are available.

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