The Wretched Ratchet

By: Bernd Wechner
© September 1, 1998

The Wretched Ratchet

The Wretched Ratchet

Author: Bernd Wechner
Published on: September 1, 1998

I was hitching from Geneva to Basel to see an old friend recently, when I ran into the most remarkable woman. The wife of one of Switzerland's ambassadors in Africa, a sculptress, and an ex-hitch-hiker. She was visiting her university-aged children in Geneva ...

She used to hitchhike a lot when she was younger and had picked up hitchhikers long after, until one day living in South America, when she was almost raped by a hitcher she picked up. She got away on foot, abandoning her car and belongings. Lucky in some ways, having escaped, and later recovering the car (less valuables) she was, needless to say, shaken very deeply by the whole experience. The sort of thing that leaves you shaking with shock, restless at night and generally cut to the (emotional) bone. Her trust in hitch-hikers understandably suffered a lot and she didn't pick up hitch-hikers any more. In fact, her husband forbade it.

Some time later, she started picking them up again (I was one of them) but to understand why, it might pay to turn to an article I'd read only days before in the International Herald Tribune. William Safire writes a column on Language and he was talking about the verb ratchet.

A Ratchet (Wretched) Interlude

In 1948 James Duesenberry described the ratchet effect, describing the way we spend money. William Doyle describes the effect as follows:

    It's easier for a household to adapt its expenditures to an increase in income than to a decrease in income. When income increases, consumption spending increases; but when income falls, consumers who have come to view their standard of living as "normal" are very reluctant to decrease their consumption spending.

This theory grabbed my attention. It describes so elegantly what I see as the spiralling growth sickness that afflicts our economies and societies. The neverending talk of economic growth rates, and of rising incomes and standards of living. Our ceasless desire to equate the quality of our lives with the quantity of our consumption.

Beating the Ratchet

Without using the word, Rick Steves described this Ratchet in his well known alternate travel guide Europe Through the Back Door. He argued there that when most people he knew started work after school, they immediately adapted their consumption levels to what they could afford. They bought a new car, better furniture, a house and so on ... He on the other hand travelled the world and they all ask "man, how can you afford all this travel" with a glimmer of envy in their eyes ...

The experiences he gained travelling were worth much more to him than the new sofa or flashy car. So it was, that Rick had beat the ratchet! The others couldn't imagine living without their material comforts; Steve never knew anything else, having never climbed the ladder.

I read Rick's words before my first trip, and without knowing it followed suit. I still live like the student I was, and I've worked two of the last seven years ... travelling the world in between. I beat the Ratchet!

Fear and the Ratchet

So what has this got to do with my amazing lady? Well, why did she start picking up hitch-hikers again? Because she saw the ratchet effect too, that's why!

Rick Steves was talking about money, as were Doyle and Duesenberry, but she was talking about fear. You see you can collect fear, just like you collect money. And in much the same way, for each coin of fear you collect, it's much harder to do without. Our fears ratchet up and up.

What? You don't believe me? Read Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death? : How Pessimism, Paranoia, and a Misguided Media Are Leading Us Toward Disaster by H. Aaron Cohl and see what you think.

Well, my lady sure saw it. She saw the imbalance: One bad experience, a thousand missed good experiences because she shied away from the risk of another bad one! In reality, the risk of bad experience hadn't changed one way or the other, some might even argue for the not so scientific Law of Averages and imagine the risk had dropped! Poor fools they, of course.

In fact, her assesment of the risks was if anything, more balanced and accurate before the introduction of a huge (if understandable) emotional bias than after. So why change that assesment?

Our emotions compel us to weight direct personal experience more heavily than remote experiences. As a result many people in her position conclude from an attempted rape the likes of which she experienced, that strangers are too risky, and quit them. But the reality is, this one datum, this one extra event, isn't at all a good indicator of risk, it's a much better disturber of both emotions and reasons. If anything it tends to distort our perception of the real risks at hand, and blind us to simple facts.

Which is not to say hitching is safe. It's not. But whatever you think of it, one bad experience isn't a very relevant datum, no matter how bad! Believe it or not.

I cherish the words of Gerard Mahoney, when he wrote of hitching, "not as safe as hiding under the bed all day, but safer than living in a city."

If for every bad experience, we suffer not only the bad experience itself, but sacrifice another thousand good ones as well, who's winning? The Ratchet, that's who, it winds us up in a never ending spiral of worrying about what's around the corner ...

But you can beat it, don't buy it. Use this wretched Ratchet, don't let it use you. Collect the highs of life ... and don't come down again ...

Direct from the Horse's Mouth

I loved this lady. She was busy telling me things I cherished hearing. Things that only sound hollow coming from a person like me, who's never been raped or almost-raped, let alone almost-murdered. Things that only carry weight when they come from the victim themselves. Alas, you're only hearing them from me and will have to settle for my account of it ... my feeble account of the charm that was conjured over me while hitching to Basel that day ...

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