In last night’s anxiety dream, I was suddenly tending bar at an unfamiliar restaurant, a wine bar with a sprawling, open floor plan of tables and a sleek, steel and glass bar. It wasn’t busy, but nonetheless I fumbled around trying to locate even the most basic items, like ice, an order pad and lime wedges. My apron lacked pockets—it was, in fact, an Amish-looking calico thing out of keeping with the clean aesthetic of the joint. As the dream wore on, the place got steadily busier, so that the 15 minutes it was taking me to find a gin called Target Red (never heard of it, took a while to figure out it was a gin) multiplied exponentially into a hopeless, 2 hour wait for even the simplest glass of house wine. I woke up, as one does, upon point of death: a waiter had just put in an order for a Bubblegum Glider.
What on earth goes into a Bubblegum Glider? Only your butt, it turns out. There is no such drink, but in an anxiety dream, no-win situations are the point. As a veteran of these recurring things—in addition to tending bar at a surprising variety of unfamiliar restaurants, I have also been pushed onto a Met-sized stage in an 18th-century ballgown to find myself in an unfamiliar opera, and I have chased down lost wallets, tickets or luggage in the world’s most bewildering airport or train station minutes before final boarding—I can claim intimacy with and proud obsessiveness about uncertainty.
At least, that’s what I call it, to be performing a task in a climate of unpredictability, without the tools and knowledge to do it properly, or at all. The word “uncertainty” has gotten a lot of circulation lately, not always in sentences I understand. I am especially suspicious when the sentences come out of the mouths of right-wing political operatives, like Karl Rove and his buddies at the superpac, American Crossroads: “Former President Bill Clinton and now even Warren Buffett don’t agree with Obama’s policies, which are adding uncertainty and instability to the economy and making it worse.” Really? Last time I looked, it was big banks and a real estate bubble, both private sector activities, that caused our economic uncertainty.
I also marvel when overpaid CEOs conjure its specter. Why has “uncertainty” become the lament of the 1%, who would seem better equipped to handle it than your average bartender? What do they mean by this word?
The Oxford English Dictionary gives us this first definition: “The quality of being uncertain in respect of duration, continuance, occurrence, etc.; liability to chance or accident.”
The idea here is that uncertainty is an absence where measurable or knowable data should be. My anxiety dreams have this quality: in a bar where I’d worked before or an opera in which I’d been cast and rehearsed, I’d be fine. Instead, I know I’m in trouble the moment the dream starts, and the evidence only mounts as it goes on. Uncertainty is itself a kind of data, in that you can tell what’s not there. The OED offers up a wonderful early usage (1382) in this sense from Wycliff’s translation of the Bible, in which Timothy urges us not “to hope in vncerteynte of richessis, but in quyk God.” He’s arguing that blind faith is a surer bet than making money.
But CEOs and Karl Rove don’t mean to suggest that they ought to turn away from riches if they want to avoid uncertainty. Here’s one contemporary usage, from a guy whose business you’d think would profit from it:
“There are so many uncertainties,” said Jeffrey Joerres, CEO of Manpower, the Milwaukee-based provider of temporary workers. “If these uncertainties keep stacking up and none get resolved, we’ll see a hiring pause rather than the current slowdown.”
Stacks of uncertainty (instead of dollar bills?) prompted Joerres to give himself a raise, from $6,950,000.00 (not enough!) for working all of last year to $10,450,000.00, for working this. That a $3.5 million pay raise only moved him from #199 to #163 in Forbes’ ranking of CEO compensation gives you some idea of his fellow CEOs’ compensations. His free-floating “uncertainties,” devoid of any clarifying prepositional phrase, fits with a 1691 use of the word in the Andros Tracts, “a collection of pamphlets and official papers issued between the overthrow of the Andros Government and the establishment of the second Charter of Massachusetts (1688–1701),” foreshadowing Mitt Romney’s case for his candidacy: “Most of the Persons in our Government understand little or nothing of Trade, and so they leave it always at uncertainties.”
Now we’re getting somewhere, though not without resistance from skeptics, as in the 1653 citation right before the anti-Government one: “We love to toyl for uncertainties, and in this are worse then [sic] children.” That suggests Trade might not be as Almighty as it Thinks Itself.
Economists use the word “uncertainty” in a particular sense, to mean “a business risk which cannot be measured and whose outcome cannot be predicted or insured against.” This usage arose in the 20th century, with F. H. Knight, in his 1921 book Risk, Uncertainty and Profit. He argued that “A measurable uncertainty, or ‘risk’ proper, as we shall use the term, is so far different from an unmeasurable one that it is not in effect an uncertainty at all. We shall accordingly restrict the term ‘uncertainty’ to cases of the non-quantitative type. It is this ‘true’ uncertainty‥which forms the basis of a valid theory of profit.” Until Knight rode in, I thought risk, whether proper or not, involved facing the unpredictable, but in Knight’s thinking, risk is “not in effect an uncertainty at all.” No, risk is safe, because you can insure against it. It’s uncertainty that’s risky.
Thus CEOs, who frequently argue that they should be handsomely compensated for taking risks, try to stick to the sure bets for making money, like giving themselves pay raises. They want nothing to do with unpredictable outcomes, the stuff that supposedly creates jobs, the stuff that capitalism supposedly rewards, as in the next citation in the OED, from another economist in 1929: “The assumption of uncertainty is therefore a disutility and must be rewarded.” If taking risks means doing nothing that isn’t insured against failure, and the “assumption of uncertainty” is anathema to our corporate executives, why their ten million dollar price tag? Why reward caution, hardly what “job creators” tout as their own virtue? Caution is supposed to be what Ordinary Joes have when they put up with Ordinary Salaries.
CEOs these days “toyl for uncertainties,” but what makes them make them “worse then children” is their complaining, amid stacks of executive pay, about how tough it is out there. Since children can’t drink in wine bars, let’s leave dealing with uncertainty to the grown ups, like President Obama. His salary is $400,000. Where’s his reward for “the assumption of uncertainty”?