Bing Blog

Yes, Virginia, there IS a silver lining

Earth Seen From Apollo 17

There are those who see the glass as half empty, and most of them write for financial magazines and newspapers and, I think, get kind of a charge out of scaring people and bumming them out. Maybe they want company.

Others see the glass as half full, and they mostly work for banks or brokerages trying to sell you stocks. Market down? Time to buy more!

Finally, there are the cosmic philosophers who see no glass at all. Who knows. They may be right.

But there are very few who at this point see a big, frosty glass virtually brimming over with delicious nectar. Such people are to be treasured for, in my opinion, they perceive a deeper truth that always lies just beyond sight.

It is often difficult to see the good in any situation, because it is the bad that rises up most insistently to accost us, offend us, frighten us. It's difficult to see how lucky we are to be on the planet, breathing fresh air and tasting sunshine, when your company has lost 25% percent of its value in the last three months due to some stupidhead on Wall Street who issued sub-prime loans to untrustworthy mendicants.

How hard it is to see the seeds of prosperity, peace and happiness in our current miasma of loss, defalcation and disappointment.

Yet that is what I just enjoyed in the most recent issue of The Economist. The piece in question is called Somewhere over the rainbow, and it outlines, with this magazines customary verve, plain speaking and cheeky insight, the reasons why we all should be optimistic about the road that lies ahead.

I like that. In general, you know, I believe that optimism, even when it is based on bad information, false assumptions or simple goofy hope, is better than pessimism. The words "self-fulfilling prophesy" come to mind. Good vibes produce things of value. Bad vibes don't. So I appreciate the former, particularly in times like these, when they seem, well, counter-intuitive.

Read the article. Reasons for optimism cited by this comfortingly stodgy publication, include:

  • The number of people in the worst kind of poverty actually decreased between 1999 and 2004, reduced by 135 million individuals during that time;
  • The population explosion has eased;
  • Developing economies are growing faster than the established ones, suggesting the growing viability of the global marketplace;
  • In fact, the global rate of economic growth has been sustained and strong just about everywhere, including South Asia and Africa, with smaller economies leading the pack;
  • There has actually been a decline since the 1990s in worldwide deaths as a result of war and genocide. There's still far too much, but the trend is in the right direction;
  • All these factors and many more may be harbingers of an impending era of global growth, stronger economies that in turn produce an incentive for peace, and puppies in the spring.

Well, maybe not that last. But sort of. This explosion of goodness seems to be contingent on the continued globalisation of the planet, leading to greater cooperation among nations and less poverty and desperation in general.

This theme is mildly evocative of Davos, which this year brought us a bunch of mega-capitalists talking like backstage talent at Woodstock. There was something cute but kind of creepy about that whole thing. Is the spread of international corporate and state-sponsored capitalism too high a price to pay?

The magazine concludes, "The World Social Forum, a gathering of self-proclaimed progressives who want to turn back trade, growth and globalisation has adopted as its slogan the motto 'Another world is possible'. In reality, another and better world is painfully and fitfully coming into being."

Imagine, as John said. It's easy if you try. Should we try?

25 Comments Add Comment

The glass is neither half empty, nor half full. It is complete full, half with liquid and half with whatever gasses are present in the atmosphere...

It is cliche at best to even quote such a thing, as almost every answer you hear misses the obviousness of the fundamental error of the question...

Whatever happened to hope for the best and prepare for the worst? I think that's the best approach for maintaining sanity and balance (mine anyway). Sometimes pleasantly surprised, sometimes wishing you had sharp objects available.

And by the way, numbers can be manipulated to say anything the issuer likes. Consider the source, who benefits and why, to help wade thru the BS and figure out how to position YOURSELF and yours.

I don't really understand your point, Jessica. I think what the Economist was trying to say was that there's a lot of strength in the world and good reason for optimism. The interesting thing is that it all hinges, in their opinion, on globalization. I think a lot of people would disagree with that. I'm not totally sure what I think, except I do like to read about peace and prosperity breaking out all over.

I suppose I was just trying to bring it all home to self - self preservation. I think you said it all best in your blog title.

I think the key is balance. There are some aspects of globalization that are beneficial to all mankind and some that are completely out of whack and need to be reigned in (or balance out, however you choose to look at it).

Maybe the lyrics of another song are fitting..."to everything, turn, turn, turn..."

Hey, kudos to you for trying to see a silver lining...even if you did compare it with Santa :)

The tendency to only hear the "half-empty" point of view stems from the "man bites dog" mentality of news providers. How many people are going to watch the news or buy the NY Times if the lead story or headline is about how good the world is? Besides, if the news outlets reported on how good things are, how could they accomplish their not-so-secret agenda to convince the public that George Bush has screwed up the entire world and only the far-left journalism majors know how to fix it?

Anyway, its a rare pleasure to see some credible content that points out whats right with the world and the direction that its going in rather than the continual doom and gloom we're normally subjected to. Thanks for the blog.

Yeah, Tom, the news outlets focus on the bad news. As one reporter from the Wall Street Journal once told me, "We don't cover planes that take off and land safely." I think that says it all. Still, something else is at work, too. I think people in general like bad news and freakouts better than the good stuff. The most comments I ever received on this site were for a blog I wrote last year saying that the world was coming to an end. Immediate response. Millions of opinions. You see hundreds of people lining up to comment on the fact that I think there's reason for hope? I don't. There's a reason why the Saw movies do so well. People like to be scared. And if you don't scare them? Ho hum.

I'm a bit uneasy about the idea that globalisation is the key to goodness. Globalisation seems to be a euphenism for homogenization, or worse, colonization. Are the U.S. or western multinational corporations, in their quest for more and more markets, making the world look just like the U.S.? I shudder to think that eventually the only place I can go to buy toilet paper or groceries anywhere in the world will be at a Wal-Mart, whether that be in Texas, Mexico, Taiwan or Timbuktu because all of the other mom and pop stores have been driven out of business as they have in suburban America. And really, how many more McDonald's or KFC's does the world need? And further, by encouraging globalisation, are we setting up ourselves later down the road for more trouble? I harken back to my freshman year in undergrad when I took my first poli sci class. It's there where the professor lectured on the fact that most of the world's wars were caused by a sense of nationalism felt by a disenfranchised minority (remember the riots in France?). Certainly, globalisation has its upside as the article espouses. But I think there is also a dark underbelly which is rarely brought to light.

Writers must be very intuitive to convey certain desired perceptions. Perceptions are as diverse and variable as there people in the world. People can be bitter, complacent, apathetic, ambitious, lazy, angry, hostile, overzealous, competitive, anti competitive, etc.. Bottom line, there winners and losers--glass is half full or half empty. Somewhere over the rainbow who knows what?

The great thing about globalization is that corporations are largely apolitical.

I was reminded of this recently when I read that a couple of years ago, a country we went to war with some time ago... Viet Nam... celebrated a major milestone with its communist government. A holiday was declared and families went to watch a huge parade. One of the floats in the parade was AT&T.

I don't know how much this story has to do with your post, Bing, but I agree with you wholeheartedly.

We have many people whose job it is to be pessimistic. If you are an attorney, lobbyist, or advocate of any type (and that covers just about anything, from business to environment interests), you frame the state of your cause in the worst possible way, to elicit sympathy, tax breaks, donations, and so on. Just as no journalist covers planes that land safely, no one pays attention to interest groups that say things are hunky-dory.

A very good point Bing! It's the "art imitating life or life imitating art" conundrum. As complicit as the news media is in only reporting doom and gloom, they are only meeting our collective demand by fulfilling our voyeuristic desire to see other people suffering.

To T in Jacksonville - though the nostalgia of mom and pop stores is nice to talk about, as the human race busily works on adding yet another billion folks to the planet's population that must be provided for by the planet's limited capacity, it will continue to be necessary to find the most efficient way to produce and distribute the goods we need and want. The mom and pops go out of business because people make the rational choice to buy from the most efficient provider at the lowest cost. As to how many more McDonalds and KFCs the planet needs, when they open yet another McDonalds and nobody comes, then we have enough. I agree with your poli-sci professor. War can be prevented by allowing for the free flow of people and goods on an equal human-rights basis globally. Efforts to restrict that flow and equality inevitably result in civil unrest and/or war.

Tom, sure. sure. Efficiency, efficiency. Yes. It is nice to get the lowest prices "Always" (to quote Wal-Mart's slogan). And yes, rational market participants in an efficient market choose efficiency (I took Econ too in undergrad!). My point is whether total efficency is really what we want our end goal to be? Do we ALL want to shop in the same stores and eat in the same restaurants because it's the most efficient? I, personally, don't think that would be a good thing. Call me crazy, but I'd sacrifice some efficiency for some diversity. There are certain intangibles to buying my pizza from the local pizza joint instead of Pizza Hut and buying my plumbing supplies from the local plumbing shop rather than Home Depot (besides at the local plumbing shop I can actually find someone to give me some good advice). Sure his prices are just a little higher, but at least I'm not driving back and forth 3 times to Home Depot because I bought the wrong part.

T - That is quite true and as a rational consumer, you should certainly factor the intangibles into your buying decisions. You'll recall from your ECON class that the word for that is Utility which is a real thing with value. Unfortunately, what usually happens to the local plumbing supply store is that people tend to go in to get advice on product selection and then shop price on major purchases which puts the local store out of business. If you utilize the experts, then you should buy from them or else they'll be working in the wrong department at the Home Depot.

I would say that the biggest difference in whether you are an optimist or a pessimist right now is a question of time frame. In the short term there are a lot of problems and the next few years could be a bit rough... however, we are in the early stages of a period of unprecedented globalization that will raise the quality of life for more people around the world in a shorter period of time than has ever happened before, or so I believe. Though the benefits will be primarily for those in developing economies as they have the farthest to climb.

No one can make you feel anything (empty, full, scared etc.) without your permission.

"Some people say the glass is half empty. Others say the glass is half full. I say it's too big."

- George Carlin

So, Tom, it seems from your responses that you would be all for a homogenous world where everyone shops and eats at the same places if at the end of the day that's the most efficient thing to do. Does that kind of world sound good to you? Just wondering.

The current globalisation and low-price mega-retailers exist on the premise that energy is next-to free (particularly oil). When energy starts becoming priced to the reality of limited supply, we will have no choice but to operate with more local economies. As an idea of how expensive oil ought to be, consider what we'd pay "per gallon" if we were making our fuel from gold, as we dug it out of the ground; and use of the gold-based fuel destroyed the gold. Oil is a limited natural resource just like gold.

Still think shipping gadgets from China will be possible when the price of oil meets the reality of its limited supply?

It is true that the people in developing economies will benefit most on a percentage basis due to globalization because they are building on a base of abject poverty. However, up until now, Americans have benefitted as well thru ever-increasing living standards as we are able to buy the goods produced by these developing economies at lower prices than we would otherwise.

What we in the USA need to be careful about though is that the increased prosperity of those deserving folks continues to result in increased prosperity for us as well, and doesn't become a zero-sum transfer of wealth (ie - raising their standard of living by lowering ours). We are already beginning to feel the consequences of the past 2 decades of living beyond our means by running massive trade and government budget deficits, and becoming a debtor nation with the developing economies, such as China, as our creditors. The weakening dollar is a sign that the party is about over. As foreign holders of US dollars run out of real assets to repatriate those dollars with and become overexposed to US debt, they're going to find it harder to continue to loan us our standard of living. We have to find a way to let the global manufacturers of goods we consume repatriate their dollars by buying US-made goods in return before they wise up to the foolishness of selling their goods in exchange for paper that can be defaulted on by the stroke of a presidential pen. A weak dollar does help make our goods more competitive in the global market. However, it also means we'll have to pay more for those cheap Chinese goods we've been buying at the Walmart for so long. I'm sure our friend Stan can attest to how much more his nightly scotch and cigar cost in London than they did a few years ago due to the falling dollar.

Alan Greenspan wrote in his book that the age of low inflation is coming to an end. It was driven by the emergence of cheap labor and manufacturing in China and India that is now becoming less cheap due to more-developed markets there and the weakening dollar. We all benefitted from the emergence of those manufacturing economies by consuming the goods produced by that labor and putting US manufacturers who couldn't compete out of business. Now, its time to pay the piper with higher inflation and tighter credit markets.

The main thing we should be looking for in our next president is his or her plans to develop our export economy and eliminate trade deficits so that we don't collapse under the weight of our own over-consumption. If we don't succeed in doing that, we are in real danger of becoming a third-rate basketcase economy ourselves.

As long as there is something in the glass, keep drinking.

T - I don't think I said that a completely homogeneous world is what I want. I do think that in general, the world is heading in the direction of consuming the most-efficiently produced commodities because it must whether I want it or not. However, as is always the case, those with wealth who value differentiation of certain commodities, like dinner at a nice local italian restaurant with a romantic atmosphere, will be enabled by their wealth to purchase that differentiation. The huddled masses are going to be eating at Pizza Hut though. Also, even at the nice local restaurant, chances are, you'll be eating spaghetti with noodles made in Brazil, tomato sauce made in Mexico, meatballs made in Australia served on a plate made in China and cooked on a stove made in India.

Tom, you absolutely ROCK.

When the only jobs left in the US are going to be in health sciences (definitely) or health insurance (maybe), per a 2006 Business Week article, you can search for the article, globalization will be a moot point.

I just put my credit card debt on the desk of Elaine Chao, whose job title is still United States Labor Secretary, on the desk of Elizabeth Dole (R-NC), who is up for re-election this year, and strongly requested Elizabeth Dole send the the Trade Adjustment Authority (TAA) because it will absolutely not help my spouse, who was a software test engineer. My next plan...does not include paying 40K in credit card debt when I have a picture of Citigroup issuing credit cards in China.

I want to thank you guys for your thoughts on this. I think it's a question whose developing answer will determine what the future looks like. My own opinion is that the future will be modular, more ugly... and better for most people, if you assume that people like perfectly done French Fries and clothes that make them look good for a reasonable price.

I think it's fruitless to fight the inexorable march of whatever is coming next. I won't even call it progress, because that seems chauvanistic in some way.

Here's my view: There seems to be an inexorable pull towards a world where ethnic and national designations are a thing of the past, where every economy is reliant on many others that are in turn reliant on theirs. Corporations will be nations, each with its own ethics, style and military/security arm. There will be no races as we know them now. There will also be less poverty, fewer wars, lots of strip malls everywhere. And just outside the edge of that global culture, that One World, thousands of smaller, independant communities will thrive, each with its own warp and weft, that do business, converse, but do not join the meta-system.

So I guess in the end I would be more interested in the world shaped by continued, thoughtful, responsible globalization. If there is such a thing.

Well put, Bing. I have to agree with you. I don't think there's really anything we can do about the eventuality of globalization. And yes, there are benefits to it: less poverty, less conflict, etc. Something will be lost as well, though: diversity, selection, pretty landscapes and architecture. But, maybe at the end of the day, it will be worth it.