Still Dancing

“As long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance. We’re still dancing.” These words were spoken by Citigroup CEO Charles Prince in July 2007, shortly before the start of the financial crisis. He was talking about Citi continuing to lend and lend (especially for the sake of financing leveraged buyouts) in spite of fears that reduced liquidity (coming, for example, from much lower valuations of subprime securities and other securities on Citi’s balance sheet) would leave the bank significantly exposed.

Prince would eventually be derided both for his stewardship of Citi and for his commentary on dancing, which became a summation of the financial sector’s attitudes and behavior leading up to the crisis. But as an observation of social myopia, his words seem pretty spot-on. When we start to see a future crisis looming, we usually realize, on some level, that we’ll need to adjust our day-to-day behavior to prepare for the storm, or to head it off — to trade short term gratification (making money, having fun, whatever) for long-term sustainability. The question is when. When we’re by ourselves, making decisions independently, we usually do a decent job of timing the shift. If you find out that your roof is starting to leak, you’ll probably fix it before water floods your house. But when we’re in large groups, we’re guided by the behavior of others. And if we don’t see anyone else preparing for the crisis, most of us are reluctant to be the first ones to act.

If I were a better person, I would keep Prince in mind every time I hear (almost daily, now) about irreversible climate change, the most obvious and important example of a looming crisis that we’re collectively ignoring. But apparently I am still too myopic for that. Instead, his words occurred to me yesterday as I thought about the Super Bowl. At this point, we’re all aware that football, as currently played, sometimes results in repeated concussions, brain injury, and shortened lifespans — that, when we watch a game, we might literally be watching some of the players, perhaps even the very best ones, killing themselves out there. Already, many parents are discouraging or forbidding their kids from playing. You might think that, with the game heading for what feels like a long-term crisis, perhaps starting to lose its moral acceptability, there might be less business as usual — that some of us would look to the future and stop watching.

But — the Super Bowl feels like an important shared experience. And sometimes it’s really fun. For now the music is still playing, and we’re still dancing.

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