Everything Is Bullshit and Nothing Means Anything

Alarm and barely controlled Schadenfreude over stock market losses have as much bearing on reality as armies of fake Twitter followers.

Nobody knows when in a president’s term the economy becomes that’s president’s economy. There are many reasons for this. General ignorance about macroeconomics is one — and it’s certainly not my area of expertise, so no lecture from me there — and people’s tribal allegiances tend to make up the difference. The best thing going for the Republicans in early 2018 is arguably the economy, but the extent to which Donald Trump merely inherited these boom times from Barack Obama is debatable, specifically because it is virtually meaningless. The president doesn’t control the economy, and the degree to which voters credit or blame the executive branch for its success or failure is completely arbitrary. “I like the president, therefore the stock market is attributable to him, 13 months into his administration” has exactly as much basis in fact as “I don’t like the president, therefore he’s just lucking out.”

It’s not as though we can turn to experts on this matter. The “economy,” broadly construed, is an incomprehensibly enormous machine with infinite moving parts, a titanic pile of transactions with varying degrees of meaning. Pay someone $5 buck to dig a hole and $5 more to fill it up again, and you have contributed $10 to the gross domestic product. Or the Gross Imaginary Product.

But between Friday and Monday, reality intervened in these abstractions. Yesterday’s 1175-point plunge was the single biggest one-day fall in the Dow Jones Industrial Average‘s history, although at 4.6 percent nowhere near the largest in percentage terms. (That would be Black Monday in 1987, a 22-percent drop.) In all, the Dow shed 10 percent of its valuation between Jan. 29 and Feb. 5, and today was another wild day that seems to be ending in a wash. If you’re a neutral observer, this all could be taken as a correction in an overvalued market — although a painful one if your retirement dreams just took a big hit. If you’re pro-Trump, it could be a nothingburger; mop the sweat from your brow and plow ahead. If you’re anti-Trump, it could take on borderline-numerological significance.

That might be the most obscenely cherrypicked “statistic” I’ve seen in a while. But the belief that the economy’s fortunes are somehow synonymous with the Dow Jones Industrial Average’s daily ups and downs — stacked onto the belief that the president can control it — is as weird as it is unquestioned. For one, the Dow is an index of only 30 stocks, compiled to be broadly representative of corporate America. Pfizer, Disney, McDonald’s, Walmart, and GE are in there. So are dinosaurs like Caterpillar and IBM. Google and Amazon are not included. Apple was added only in 2015. Even though NPR fills a few seconds of potential dead air throughout the day with updates on the Dow, Nasdaq, and S&P 500, the composition and relative importance of the DJIA is based on something approaching mutually agreed-upon caprice.

Still, things don’t happen on that scale simply because some butterfly in the Andes beat its wings and set in motion a chain of events leading to global cataclysm. And let’s not forget that Bitcoin has lost two-thirds of its value, too. Meanwhile, Donald Trump has been relentlessly plugging the bull market as some kind of unquenchable validation of his personal greatness. (Like a mass killing when the shooter is a white guy, he’s conspicuously silent on the current reversal.) As with treating the final score of a Super Bowl as a quasi-mystical referendum on the presidency, it’s very easy to look for some deeper meaning. People have even searched for the unutterable name of the Old Testament God in the patterns of the stock market, so why not the hyper-utterable name Trump?

The reason why is that none of this actually means anything, aside from the satisfaction of having one more totem for angsty liberals to pin their rage and bewilderment. The global economy is finally shaking off the last throes of the 2008-09 recession. This is good, and liberals and Democrats and the #resistance should be very careful not to look like we’re rooting for a reversal of fortune to improve our own chances of taking the Senate and saving the universe. The strong generic polling advantage Democrats have had for months is shrinking, and you can feel the panic rise.

Good economic news is good news — except that the underpinnings of it all have become hollowed out. I’m not referring to the postindustrial hellscapes blighting Pennsylvania and Illinois, where Trump supporters are gonna stick with their guy until the bitter end no matter what. I’m referring to the epistemological void at the center of everything. The New York Times‘ revelation last week that the entire economy of likes and follows is one big mirage also demonstrated that we’re all basically rowing little boats atop a roiling ocean of distortions and deceptions, much of them perpetrated by journalists.

Juicing your Twitter clout by purchasing packets of bots from Devumi or other clearinghouses of counterfeit adoration is sad and desperate, but almost understandable. (Full disclosure: I would never.) Journalism is a weakened and debased profession, and I can grasp how people can rationalize it as “just playing the game” or whatever self-absolving sports-y metaphor they prefer. But increasingly, everything runs on hearts and stars and wow emoji and thumb’s-ups. That this economy of likes is not a) to be trusted in the slightest or b) indexed to any objective metric is more than just a commentary on our anomie as human beings. It’s basically just one big old fake world out there now (which is obvious if you’ve ever been seated at an industry dinner between two Instagram influencers who have absolutely nothing to say). And the journolists who should be reporting on the fakeness and exposing it are in fact contributing to it because they think their careers depend on it.

In essence, it’s the same phenomenon as the ascendancy of Donald Trump, and I’m not even referring to the social-media parallels. I’m talking about the total absence of accountability for one’s actions. That sounds like some inner father figure talking, but in fact, everything is bullshit and nothing matters. No one is ever held to account for their bullshit, especially Donald Trump. 

Sean Hannity can breathlessly tout the run-up in the stock market as a reflection of Donald Trump’s greatness, then pin blame for an 1100-point sell-off on Barack Obama, because he’s the zenith of unaccountable journo-tainment. Donald Trump can call Democrats “treasonous” for not standing and clapping for his little speech and his fluffers can pass that off as him being tongue-in-cheek and not the mad ramblings of a deranged autocrat. A FEMA contractor can deliver only 50,000 out of 30 million promised meals to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, then sue for $70 million because the government terminated her contract. A false tsunami alert in Florida can follow a false nuclear-attack alert in Hawaii by mere weeks, and only minor heads will roll. (Maybe.) A century after a flu pandemic, the CDC will cut its global-outbreak funding by 80 percent. And the Republicans, the “party of fiscal responsibility” passed a tax law that has caused federal borrowing to nearly double.

Some days I wake up filled with an inextinguishable feeling of defiance that Americans of good will are about to turn this ship around. Other mornings, I feel like even if Team Blue triumphs in November and again in 2020, the damage to the rule of law and to the climate is already too big to contain. Even with a major course correction, the next recession will cause a surge of Nazism nationwide, we’re too late to prevent Greenland’s ice sheets from melting, and our grim future is already written

No matter how adamant we might be in our belief that this state of affairs is simultaneously intolerable and fixable, America is still in the process of breaking things at an accelerated clip. We will never achieve some final lasting victory over the agents of destruction, and we will still have to share the country with them after this is over. But in the meantime, I can’t be the only person sputtering in impotent rage about the total lack of consequences for all this destructiveness. Nothing means anything, and pity the progressive who wants to save the world through calm conviction and analytic rigor.

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