In the age of unexpectedly

Posted: October 22, 2012

Frank Wilson

is a retired Inquirer books editor who blogs at "Books, Inq. - the Epilogue"

There is a distinct possibility that we are nearing the end of an age, an age most people are probably not even aware they have been living in:

The Age of Unexpectedly.

Never heard of it, right? Ah, but therein lies its beauty, the surpassing subtlety of it, as you shall see.

It is, of course, as with all historical periods, difficult to pinpoint exactly when it began. Perhaps the earliest sign was a Reuters story dated May 19, 2009, which reported that "new U.S. housing starts and permits unexpectedly fell to record lows in April . . . denting hopes that stability in the housing market was imminent."

It also took its time becoming manifest. The next sign was more than a month later, on June 30, 2009, when Reuters reported that "U.S. consumer confidence took an unexpectedly steep slide in June . . . suggesting the 18-month-long recession had yet to loosen its grip on the economy."

The Associated Press did its turn as well in 2009, reporting that "sales of new U.S. homes unexpectedly tumbled in September," that "the Consumer Confidence Index . . . sank unexpectedly to 47.7 in October," and that "the number of newly laid off workers filing claims for unemployment benefits unexpectedly rose" during the second week of December.

Glenn Reynolds, the University of Tennessee law professor who runs the blog Instapundit, was among the first to take note of the emerging trend. By October 2009, he was starting to put the term unexpected within quotation marks, and in December, when linking to an article reporting that new jobless claims had risen "unexpectedly," he commented that "it's always 'unexpected' with these people."

The following year, things really started to pick up. On Jan. 8, 2010, it was reported that the month before, "U.S. employers unexpectedly cut 85,000" jobs. On Jan. 21, Reynolds posted another link to a similar story announcing that "jobless claims [rose] 'unexpectedly' - again!" He noted that "every time it happens, it's 'unexpected.' Maybe it's time to adjust the expectations."

From that point on, unexpectedly became a feature at Instapundit. Between January and April 2010, new-home sales, consumer credit, and GDP growth all dropped - unexpectedly. In 2011, the surprises continued unabated: Consumer confidence fell "surprisingly" in January, then did so unexpectedly in May and June. In fact, in June, Reynolds linked to a compilation of more than 50 economic news headlines featuring the word unexpectedly.

Nor did things get any better this year. In January, it was reported that new-home sales the previous month had dropped unexpectedly, as they did again in February.

But you get the idea.

The question raised by all of this is pretty obvious: Why would things that were happening over and over again, month after month, continue being regarded as unexpected? Economics may be known as "the dismal science," but science of some sort it is thought to be and as such presumably has a certain predictive capacity. This ever-lengthening chain of unmet expectations, however, makes it seem about as reliable as augury.

Sometimes, a connection was drawn between hope and expectation, as in the aforementioned Reuters story about how the increased number of people filing for unemployment benefits in 2009 "dampened hopes about how quickly the labor market" might improve that year. But then, in April of the same year, "new U.S. housing starts and permits unexpectedly fell to record lows," and this was said - surprise, surprise - to have dented "hopes that stability in the housing market was imminent."

There is, of course, no connection between hope and expectation. You may hope to win the lottery, but to expect to win it because you hope to is quite simply to delude yourself.

Nevertheless, there may have been a sign that this well-nigh miraculous period of inexpectancy may be drawing to a close, as all epochs must. Appropriately, the possible portent may have been something unexpected. That would be President Obama's disappointing turn in the first of this year's presidential debates. The incumbent was so lackluster he might just as well not have shown up at all and had himself represented instead by the empty chair Clint Eastwood addressed during his improvised speech at the Republican National Convention.

(Speaking of Eastwood, the blogger Neo-Neocon wondered recently if the actor is clairvoyant, noting that during his speech he had also described Vice President Biden as "a kind of grin with a body behind it.")

The president performed better in the second debate than he had in the first, and Mitt Romney not as well as he had. But the president's reversal of fortune during the first debate made it thinkable that he might actually lose the election. And should that happen, you may rest assured that the Age of Unexpectedly will come to an end. Good economic news, should it happen after the change of guard in January, will likely be taken for granted. And as for the bad news - well, what would you expect if there's a Republican in the White House?

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