In Praise of Punctuality (… or Why I’m Not an Optimist)

We’ll, I can’t say I didn’t ask for it. When you title your book The Coming Prosperity, you can expect to be called an “optimist” at minimum–even “Dr. Boom” or the “Permabull.”

You also can’t be surprised at a bit of reflexive skepticism, as evidenced by this announcement of a talk I’m giving on April 18 at Artisphere in Arlington, VA: “With a title like that, one should expect some ‘happy talk…'”

Fine. But, just for the record, I don’t see my book as being optimistic, nor do I regard myself personally as “an optimist.” Why not?

I have a simple working definition of optimism: An optimist is someone who is chronically late.

The reason that optimists are (by definition) people who are chronically late is that optimism is the state of mis-comprehending the true, underlying statistical distribution of potential outcomes. “Let’s see, ” the optimist says to himself. “It’s 250 miles from DC to New York. My wedding ceremony in mid-town Manhattan starts at 5pm. I’m sure that I can average 50 miles per hour. That’s five hours. So I’ll leave home at noon.” Not good, right? (… and anyone who’s been a groom or bridegroom knows I’m not making this stuff up.)

Optimism can also be kind of sad. In my case, I would be an optimist if I believed that the hair on the top of my head was going to grow back. Soon. But here’s the thing: that’s not happening. To comprehend this fact is to be neither optimistic nor pessimistic. It’s simply to understand and accept reality.

Now, to be honest, given my “optimists are perpetually late” definition, my mother would say that I am an, in fact, an optimist–or a recovering optimist, at best. And I would have a hard time arguing with her on that one. So, given that I may be more vulnerable to this characterization than I’m letting on, why would I make matters worse by titling my book The Coming Prosperity?

Here’s the thing: I’m not selling optimism. I’m shorting fear.

As we all know, the market for fear is a lively one. We see people selling fear all the time. We call such people “fear-mongers,” which literally means “sellers of fear.” They do it because it works. Lots of people buy fear. The evidence abounds.

However, fear mostly generates poor decisions and conflict. I title chapter 13 of the The Coming Prosperity “Fear Itself ” because I agree with FDR: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” If that’s happy talk, then you can say you heard it from Dr. Boom.

So that’s why I titled the book the way I did. And I am far from the only person right now who sees positive trends all around. (Ref here and here, for example.) Indeed, my George Mason University colleague Tyler Cowen is featured on the cover of the May-June issue of The American Interest with a piece about an export-led American resurgence. Has the author of The Great Stagnation suddenly turned into an “optimist”?

No, Tyler is no more an optimist than I am. We’re both trying to do what we’re ostensibly paid to do: use fact-based analysis to the best of our abilities to describe, in the words of John Maynard Keynes, “the true interpretation of the trend of things.” (Ref the opening quote in The Coming Prosperity for more.)

Has the moment arrived for a message about the remarkable potential of the present moment on the global scale? I’d say, read The Coming Prosperity and decide for yourself. But you won’t be surprised to hear me, as the author, express my delight in finding that  the book’s message is arriving none too late. Indeed, it turns out to be right on time.