THE BIG SATISFICE

Posted in Rants on January 15th, 2015 by Ed

I can't seem to travel without incident. The concept of purchasing a plane ticket, having the plane depart at the scheduled time, connecting to a different but equally punctual flight, and then arriving when scheduled simply does not exist in my world (And flying from a podunk airport, neither does the concept of a direct flight). I will spare you the details but an itinerary claiming to get me to New Orleans at 3 PM on Wednesday ended with me crawling into my room just short of midnight.

After a full day of exasperation and three different flights out of Atlanta to New Orleans either missed or too full to accommodate me, the folks at – oh, I don't want to use the name of a real airline here so let's just make up a name for the worst goddamn airline you could imagine, something like "Delta" – finally crammed me onto the last plane of the day. Having already been delayed nearly six hours, during which they didn't so much as offer us a bottle of water, I was supposed to be happy about this.

Having complained (predictably and loudly) about the experience on the internet, several of my friends texted me when I finally got my ass on an airplane to express something to the effect of, "Finally, some good news!" The idea that I was going to be taken to my destination rather than having to sleep on an airport floor and be taken there tomorrow was certainly welcome news. But is it good? How is it good that I got dicked around all day until the airline finally agreed to do what I paid them to do?

Now I know what my friends meant and clearly I was reading too much into the choice of words. Here they are talking to a person with debilitating depression who tends to spiral when bad things start happening; of course they are going to direct me toward the most positive way to look at the situation. But I spent the next hour or so (thankfully airborne) thinking about that. When people say "good news" in this context it is only true in the sense that the news wasn't even worse. It's not "good" per se. What they meant was, "Isn't it great that the airline didn't screw you even more than they already have?"

Yes, it is. But that isn't what "good" is.

It occurred to me just how much of this kind of satisficing we are bombarded with these days, especially since the Great Recession began in 2008. "Good" is now defined as "better than the worst things could possibly be." Your boss works you like a dog and pays you terribly? It could be worse! You could have no job at all! Be happy about having a job! Don't want to vote for a pathetic excuse for a Democrat? Well the GOP is even worse! You paid for something and got shafted? Well be glad XYZ didn't happen, that's even worse! You know, because as long as things could conceivably be even worse they are now, by definition, good. Or what passes for good.

It's like we've thrown up our hands collectively and admitted that we have given up on the idea of having anything that's actually Good in this society and now we simply pick the best of whatever shit options are available and call that Good. Good no longer means Good; it means Better Than. It means you could have it worse.

Obviously I am loopy from making an 12 hour trip out of a 4 hour one, but when I thought (too much) about it I realized just how pervasive this kind of thinking is. In my own life and throughout our culture. We've sort of accepted that everything will be at least kind of shitty because, frankly, we've ruined most of the things that used to be great about this country far beyond any hope of repair. So we are constantly encouraged with this overarching take-what-you-can-get mentality in the hope that people are dumb enough not to notice that nothing is actually any good anymore. A good candidate is one who is less repugnant than his opponent. A good school is one that is dysfunctional rather than really dysfunctional or physically dangerous. Good customer service is waiting on hold for 45 minutes to have your problem kinda sorta dealt with rather than being completely ignored. A good job is not having no job.

Herbert Simon called this kind of behavior "satisficing", the tendency not to hold out for the absolute best but instead to set a bar and take the first option that is over it. It's not inherently a depressing mentality, at least not until you realize how far you have to lower the bar before anything can clear it.