The Inflation and Deflation Stories of Our Lifetime (and No, They’re Not the Ones You Think!)
By Tom ENGELHARDT
Let me start 2023 with a glance back at a December news moment that caught my eye. To do so, however, I have to offer a bit of explanation.
First, the obvious: I’m an old guy and, though I spend significant parts of any day scrolling through endless websites covering aspects of our ever-changing world, I have a subscription — yes, it’s still possible! — to the New York Times. That’s the paper New York Times. For those of you too young to know, once long ago, in an era when TVs were still black and white and the Internet, at best, a figment of some sci-fi novelist’s imagination, all papers and magazines were printed and sold on actual paper. Hence, of course, the graphically descriptive and definitional name “newspaper.”
In 2023, for those of you of a certain age, that may sound like something from the neolithic era. Still, so it was. And for me, when it comes to the Times — call it nostalgia, if you will — I remain in the age of the newspaper (though, often enough, I also visit its website). Every morning when I get up, it’s there on the mat in front of my door. So, I pick it up and, in my own fashion, face the day just past thanks to a set of front-page headline stories.
On the morning of Wednesday, December 14th, I glanced at the headlines atop the page and saw: “Inflation Slows, Leading to Hope of ‘Soft Landing’” and “Fraud at FTX Started Early, Charges Claim.” At mid-page was: “A Blast of 192 Lasers Achieves a Breakthrough in Nuclear Fusion”; and at page bottom, “Beijing’s Streets Empty as Covid and Fear Surge”; “McCarthy Fights to Clear Path to Speaker’s Seat”; and “With Indiana Jones Era Over, Museums Assess Looted Art.”
Each was a perfectly reasonable story to focus attention on, while the nuclear fusion one actually offered some modest hope of a new way to switch off fossil fuels (even if in a future almost too distant to imagine). That, then, was the shorthand version of the previous day I faced that morning on this ever-stranger planet of ours. Those were the stories the editors of the Times wanted at least the ancient among us to notice, the ones that mattered most as they saw it.
And I reacted accordingly, focusing on them briefly as I wolfed down my breakfast.
Crashes Then and Now
It wasn’t until that night, as I lay on the couch and began leafing through the inside pages of the first section of the Times that, at the bottom of page 12, I noticed a piece, reported by Raymond Zhong, headlined: “In a Rapidly Warming Arctic, Rain Where It Used to Snow, In Scientists’ Annual Assessment, Signs of Climate Change Include Storms Traveling Northward.”
And no, that obviously wasn’t a headline intended to blow me or any other reader away, storms heading northward or not. Admittedly, above it was a dramatic enough photo of what looked like a mountain of ice and snow with the subhead: “A September heatwave in Greenland caused the most severe melting of the island’s ice sheet for that time of year in more than four decades of satellite monitoring.” And as with that caption, here was the weird thing: more or less every other line of that story might, with a little interpretive rewriting, have become a blazing front-page headline focusing us on a planet that’s only expected to get ever hotter in 2023 and beyond, given that — and this should shock any of us — the last eight years have been the warmest on record.
Try just this random line from Zhong’s piece, for instance: “Over the past four decades, the region has warmed at four times the global average rate, not two or three times as had often been reported, scientists in Finland said this year. Some parts of the Arctic are warming at up to seven times the global rate, they said.” Sure, to make it onto the front page, it would have needed a headline that embodied some sentiment like: “It’s raining, it’s pouring, the Arctic is snoring” or a screaming handle about heat soaring in the coldest place on the planet, right?
So, let’s sum it up this way: Yes, the slowing of inflation was the page-one story of that day and certainly mattered to Americans, fearful of how a possible recession might level their lives. And headlined story two was, in a sense, the very opposite — a deflationary tale of how, at his now-collapsed crypto-currency exchange, FTX, Sam Bankman-Fried had already emptied the savings of striking numbers of his customers.
Still, if you stop to think about it, there, on page 12, was what could be considered the most crucial inflationary and deflationary story of our time, maybe of all time. I know, I know, the focus of Zhong’s piece was an assumedly wonky Arctic Report Card that’s been produced by scientists for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration since 2006. And you could feel that wonkiness in the piece itself.
Still, while inflation — or even the Fed’s attempts to reduce it by eternally upping interest rates — could lead to an economic disaster that would damage the lives of so many Americans, nothing (short of nuclear war) could damage our lives the way climate change is likely to. Honestly, barring some future surprise, shouldn’t it qualify daily as the headline story of our lifetime, potentially of any lifetime? After all, whether in the melting, rainy Arctic or just about anywhere else, what we’re watching is the potential destruction of the only world humanity has ever known.
And when it comes to global warming, we’re not talking about a possible future crash from which, as in the Great Depression of 1929 or the Great Recession of 2009, we can recover in a limited number of years. We’re talking about the potential for a forever crash, the Greatest Depression of all time that lurks all too obviously in our future and is already beginning to clobber us.
My point being: the news isn’t just a matter of what’s reported, but of how and where it shows up, of what’s emphasized and what isn’t. This, to my mind, is especially true with the subject that should, in fact, grip us all daily: that worst version of inflation ever. And yes, the temperature on this planet is indeed rising precipitously thanks to the continuing use and abuse of fossil fuels and the release of staggering quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And that, in the end, is likely to cause harm of an unimaginable sort, the kind that newspapers simply aren’t used to covering.
In an all-too-literal sense, that is, we’re creating a hell on Earth. And yet, despite the efforts of figures like the remarkable Greta Thunberg or Bill McKibben or the Sunrise Movement and other groups that have focused tellingly on climate change — despite the increasingly immediate extreme weather it’s been producing from Pakistan to China, South Sudan to Chile, Europe to the United States — global warming remains a largely off-the-front-page phenomenon.
Mind you, the extremes of national (if not global) weather are regularly reported, often with remarkable enthusiasm, just largely without the necessary context. For instance, I watch the NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt and one thing you can say about his show is that it loves extreme — and extremely bad — weather. In news terms, severe storm conditions sweeping across this country, often for days at a time, are pure attention-getters and, as a result, often that show’s lead story, night after night after night.
Such storms are presented as both weather reports and remarkable dramas — tornadoes/floods/snow and ice/the hottest or coldest weather — as they spread damage of all sorts across the United States. On occasion, Holt or his surrogates will, in passing, mention climate change or, on rarer occasions, even have a separate piece on the phenomenon. But at best, it’s the equivalent of a passing footnote. And yet, sadly enough, the fossil-fuelized overheating of our world and its effect via weather events causing increasing damage, including ever fiercer fires, the melting of ever more glaciers and ice sheets, ever more devastating droughts, or the record flooding of countries simply doesn’t register in the way it should — not in a way that might make some difference in how we think about and deal with this planet of ours.
Yes, if climate change, or perhaps I mean climate anxiety, is already part of your worldview (as, for instance, it evidently is with Gen Z) and you’re searching for news about it, you’ll always find some. Let me give you one recent example. If you go online and Google “coal use, 2022,” you’ll get numerous stories. For instance, on December 16th, based on an announcement by the International Energy Agency, CNN reported that (thank you, Vladimir Putin!) demand for coal, the dirtiest and most polluting of the fossil fuels, rose by about 1.2%, or eight billion metric tons, last year. That’s a record — and coal use may stay at that level for several years to come, which, in climate-change terms, simply couldn’t be worse news for this planet.
And yet, honestly, did you even notice that story? Until I mentioned it, did you know that coal use soared again last year? Was it the lead on the TV news you watch or at your crucial mainstream news website? I doubt it. It passed as if in the night, as did stories on the staggering profits of the fossil-fuel industry in 2022 — on, that is, how companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron continue to make unprecedented fortunes off the future devastation of our planet. In inflation terms, that coal report couldn’t have been a more nightmarish tale and yet the inflated use of coal and the inflated profits that go with it really don’t qualify as “front page” news, even if they help ensure that we humans will burn ourselves off this planet.
After all, despite remarkable advances in the development of green-energy sources, as the New Yorker‘s environmental journalist Elizabeth Kolbert wrote last November: “At the time of the Rio summit [in 1992], fossil fuels provided roughly 80% of the world’s primary energy. Thirty years later, fossil fuels still provide roughly 80% of the world’s primary energy. In the meantime, total global energy use has increased by almost two-thirds.”
Under the circumstances, you would think that some screaming headlines were in order, wouldn’t you?
Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that such a reporting phenomenon is restricted to climate change. Take, for example, the funding of the U.S. military. After all, nothing really beats it in importance, when it comes to spending your tax dollar. We’re talking about a 2023 Pentagon budget of $858 billion, or just over half — yes, more than half! — of the full government budget for that year. By perhaps 2027, if not sooner, it’s expected to reach a trillion dollars.
And mind you, that’s not even — not by any means! — the full national security payout. When you include the budgets for the various intelligence agencies, the Department of Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, and the like, you end up at $1.4 trillion or more. And last year, congressional Republicans and Democrats, who agree on so little, typically upped the military budget by $45 billion more than the Biden administration even requested. Imagine that for a moment and the sort of headlines it should have generated.
I mean, more than half of your tax dollars are going into a military that, since World War II, has essentially won nothing of significance, though to this moment it’s never stopped fighting in distant lands. (Just recently, for instance, American planes were conducting airstrikes in Somalia and U.S. troops were still battling in Syria.)
And again, though you might think screaming headlines were in order, this was basically stuff that, with rare exceptions, the mainstream media was reporting but not making the slightest fuss over. For that, you had to turn to edgy websites like TomDispatch or Robert Reich’s or William Astore’s Substacks.
Yes, such stormy news exists, but the question, as 2023 begins, is: Where is it? Why aren’t such stories eternally screaming headlines in the mainstream?
Replacing the Gods
Looking back on the history of humanity, of us, something regularly jumps out (at me at least). In this era, we’ve figured out two quite different ways to act in a fashion that once was left to the gods, something that you would think might be eternally headline-making material; we’ve discovered, that is, how to potentially destroy ourselves and end life as we know it on this planet in double time.
The first way is, of course, via nuclear weapons, the one kind of disaster that could actually cut short climate change by potentially creating a planetary “nuclear winter” that might starve billions of us. As has been true for decades, the “great” — and who knows why they’re still called that — powers are capable of functionally blowing this planet to hell and back, as are some lesser powers like India and Pakistan. And not faintly satisfied with that, in the coming decades, our country is planning to invest a couple of trillion more of your taxpayer dollars in “modernizing” the American nuclear arsenal. Only the other week, in fact, with staggering hoopla, the U.S. military rolled out an all-new nuclear weapon, a B-21 stealth bomber, as if on a Hollywood set.
And yes, all of this has, in some fashion, been reported and, when Vladimir Putin implied that he might use such weaponry in the Ukraine war, even crept toward the top of the news. Still, neither nuking the planet, nor overheating it beyond compare gets anything like the attention it deserves.
Ending the world as we’ve known it, whether in a matter of weeks or in slow motion over countless decades should, it seems to me, evoke the screaming headlines of our times. And I can’t help eternally wondering not where the reporting on such subjects is but where those headlines are when it comes to potentially the greatest versions of both depression and inflation ever.