Normalcy Bias: Reflections on a Western Epidemic by Don Quijones

According to scientific research, people caught up in disasters such as earthquakes or plane crashes tend to fall into three broad ategories: About 1 in 10 remain calm and act quickly and efficiently; around 15 percent completely panic, making it more difficult for others around them to react appropriately and in a timely manner; while the overwhelming majority of people do surprisingly little. Stunned and confused, they are simply unable to react to events. The reason for this is that they are suffering from what the experts call “normalcy bias.”

Normalcy bias refers to a mental state people enter when facing a disaster. It causes people to underestimate both the possibility of a disaster occurring and its possible effects. When suffering from normalcy bias, people tend to interpret warnings in the most optimistic way possible, seizing on any ambiguities to infer a less serious situation.

Since the global financial disaster of 2008-09 a pandemic of normalcy bias has descended on all corners of the Western world. In Europe, the majority of people still cling to the belief that the deep-seated problems affecting the region’s economy are by and large cyclical in nature and can, and eventually will, be resolved — despite the fact that most of the people and institutions charged with lifting the region out of crisis are the very same people and institutions that helped to trigger it in the first place. Not only that, but they are also using the exact same toolkit of policies — increased leverage in the banking sector, debt monetisation and historically low-interest rates — that helped pave the way to our current malaise.

Put simply, there’s been no change whatsoever at the top or in the policy realm. As such, there is virtually no hope of things ever getting better — at least not for the dwindling ranks of Europe’s middle classes, who, one way or another, will be made to pay for the folly, excess and greed of the continent’s financial and political elite.

In the wake of the Cyprus debacle, the Troika has been dropping increasingly blatant hints that the next round of banks that collapse will not be bailed out by taxpayers — since there’s no longer enough money left in the public kitty to do so — but will instead be bailed in, meaning that depositors’ savings will be used to make the banks whole or at least pay off their most important creditors (i.e. other banks and hedge funds). Even so, most savers barely flinch.

You see, there is a collective delusion in Europe that financial collapses are the preserve of exotic, far-flung countries such as Argentina or Zimbabwe, where corruption and economic mismanagement are considered to be rife. Surely financial collapse would be unthinkable in a stable, developed region like Europe. It hasn’t happened before — or at least not since the immediate post-war era — so how could it possibly happen now?

To a certain extent one can understand the appeal of this logic. After all, most people prefer to inhabit a world which chimes with their own belief system and which they hope to be able to count on to remain stable and secure for their long-term future.
However, the reality is that unforeseen and unprecedented events happen to people all the time, and preparing for the unlikely is a basic rule of survival, whether at the individual or collective level. However, to prepare for tomorrow one must first understand the realities of today — and most people just don’t seem interested.

Uncomfortably Numb
In Spain, one of the countries worst hit by the European sovereign debt crisis, people are already beginning to exhibit signs of chronic “crisis fatigue.” Feeling betrayed and disoriented, they are left with nowhere to turn but to inaction. Rather than continue reading, hearing or talking about the worsening economic conditions around them or the endless of political scandals, more and more people are turning their attention to other more personal or mundane matters.

Put simply, they have grown tired of reality. However, the denial of reality, while perhaps temporarily comforting, serves no constructive purpose other than to numb the senses and send a clear message to the country’s mendacious politicians and captains of industry that they are free to continue the looting of what remains of the nation’s wealth.

But this epidemic of normalcy bias is not limited to European shores. In fact, it is arguably even more of a problem on the other side of the Atlantic, where Americans face the very clear and present danger posed by an increasingly authoritarian government.
There is now incontrovertible evidence that the Federal government is vastly expanding its power base. Through the passage of ever more draconian legislation, the increasing militarisation of the police and security forces, the development of an ever more intrusive “turn-key” surveillance state and the expansion of the president’s executive powers, the U.S. government is fast shutting the door on over two centuries of representative democracy.
Yet despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, most Americans, especially those of a progressive or “liberal” bent, continue to deny the possibility that a tyrannical government could one day arise in the United States. This obviously serves no one’s interests but those of the aspitational tryants in government, allowing them to continue their power grab under the very noses of the American people they’re supposed to serve.
Whether we like it or not, our democratic system, which is meant to challenge the status quo, has been corrupted to serve the status quo. And soon, far sooner than most of us realise, even the thin veneer of democracy we currently enjoy will be ripped away, to be replaced by a despotic technocratic rule.

As happened in Argentina’s collapse of 2001-02, it won’t be until the West’s middle classes lose pretty much everything they once held dear, including their wealth and freedom, that they will begin to react.

Unfortunately, by then it will almost certainly be too late!

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