When Optimism Becomes a Form of Self-Delusion
Have we entered into a consensual hallucination with the markets?
Our nation’s superpower is optimism. We invest in crazy ideas and believe anybody can be anything. We fund more startups, buy more lottery tickets, and reinvent ourselves more often than any nation. The belief that our best days are ahead of us results in an appetite for risk. We inherited this from people willing to leave everything behind, get on a ship, and build a new life in a strange land. Things would be better — they were optimists.
A sense of resolve, confidence, and optimism has led us out of every crisis in the 20th century. Wars end, and countries rally around a sense of rebuilding and a unified vision. Economic crises can be beaten back by consumer confidence: “Honey, let’s book a cruise and finance a Hyundai.”
America is an upward cycle, pulling the future forward. Optimism is our DNA, our superpower, our national identity.
With Covid-19, optimism is also our Achilles heel, and it may have disastrous results. People feel it’s time to get back to our regular lives. However, and I can prove this, Covid-19 doesn’t care about our emotions. We’ve entered into a consensual hallucination with the markets and our leaders that getting back to regular life is something we can make happen on our terms.
Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the bold, declarative statements from university presidents and chancellors that their campuses will be reopening in the fall. Brown University president Christina Paxson says reopening campuses in the fall should be “a national priority.” “Colleges and universities must be able to safely handle the possibility of infection on campus while maintaining the continuity of their core academic functions.”
At my home campus, NYU, Provost Katherine Fleming wrote last week: “We’re planning to reconvene in person, with great care, in the fall (subject to government health directives).”
Bold, optimistic statements, American even. They are also performative and reflect a consensual hallucination between university leadership and their finance departments. The hallucination is a function of a disturbing reality: A $50,000 “experience” tuition is a comorbidity during Covid-19. Universities with cost structures dependent on foreign students and luxury brand margins face…