April 10, 2009

Expectation value

With the worsening of the status quo comes the lowering of standards.

One of the first kernels of social theory ever fed to me was the theory of rising expectations. When you give a fish a bite, he’ll soon expect the worm; pull up the bait and you’ll have one very unhappy fish. Forgive the feeding metaphor and substitute “society” or “student body” for fish, and you’ll get the gist of the idea: The more people get, the more they expect to get. It might be a little cut-and-dried, but the theory seems tasteful at times, particularly when we cling to a notion of “progress” as the shape of time, counting the decades by tracing our fingers along the upward arching curve of human achievement, measured in technological innovation, economic growth, life expectancy, or the increasing imminence of proletarian revolution. But it’s a little less intelligible when things seem to be swinging downward like Tarzan, King of the Jungle, plummeting from the upper canopy on a collision course with the hard shell of a tree. It would be interesting to ask, when fortunes are in decline, if people’s expectations decline, too. In other words, is there a neat inverse for the theory of rising expectations that we could brand “the theory of declining expectations”? Perhaps the evidence should suit the nature of the case, so let’s take Obama’s handling of the economy as a primary example. Though critics have snickered and jeered from the lectern to the blogosphere, most ordinary Americans have indicated in polls and surveys that they will give the president plenty of time and space to butter up the banks and create new jobs, an expression of sentiment the likes of which cannot be easily recalled in a country not customarily associated with the forbearance of its citizens. So as things get worse, expectations for Obama’s custodianship seem to be dropping like consumer confidence, a fact that must be driving Republicans mad. If the theory of declining expectations is true, then perhaps we’re on the cusp of an even deeper change, so long as savvy social engineers can take the reins of opportunity. Now may be the time for environmentalists to convert the intractable American public from its destructive splendor to assume a more restrained lifestyle, forever lowering the intensity of our nation’s glow as a beacon of supercharged consumption.On the other hand, we might predict a more insidious scenario, an Orwellian nightmare, where the elites reduce our present satisfactions and future expectations by eroding our memories of what we once had. Picture the president raising up a pocket watch and hypnotizing us into deep delusions of contentment with each pendulum swing, delivering in figment what he cannot give us in form and substance. So, following Orwell, we might have to complement our theory by suggesting the importance of collective memory and the facility of manipulating human habituation. Really folks, it’s easy enough to cause us to forget that things get worse when we’re so enamored of the illusion of progress and so obedient to narratives of betterment. I remember when you could purchase an airline ticket and receive a seat assignment and all that went along with it, but now you have to pay for the seat, and the once-complimentary headphones, and even the salted peanuts. The trick, as Orwell pointed out, is that once we get complacent, we start to forget, and then new precedents are set. So, as I came back recently from the sun-soaked beaches of Florida to this city’s icy welcome, I soon discovered that—without any warning—the Crerar USITE had been moved, while its printers, upon which I have long depended, had been whisked away like Dorothy and Toto, vanished! Where once I could obtain prints for $.07 per page, I now face a steep increase to $.10 per page at the clammy hands of the library. When I asked the USITE attendant where the printing was, she pretended as if it had never existed, as if my insistent memory was a pathological symptom. So I asked myself, was the Harper USITE also a product of my mania?My friends and fellows in the unfortunate disciplines that prefer to bombard their students with loose chapters and journal articles rather than bound texts will probably rail against this new development, but after a time, the memory will likely vanish from our mind, until some heroic gesture is made to turn the tide of history or some foolish deed is done to tempt us with the taste of betterment, when time our expectations will rise again.

Marshall Knudson is a third-year in the College majoring in anthropology.