Gandalf, GZA and Granovetter

Artist: Eric Geusz

I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history — true or feigned — with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.

J.R.R. Tolkien

I threw down my enemy, and he fell from the high place and broke the mountainside where he smote it in his ruin. Then darkness took me, and I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell. Naked I was sent back — for a brief time, until my task is done. And naked I lay upon the mountaintop…I was alone, forgotten, without escape upon the hard horn of the world. There I lay staring upward, while the stars wheeled over, and each day was as long as a life-age of the earth.

— J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (1954), Speech by Gandalf

Gandalf is totally not Jesus, guys. Except for the fact that literally every aspect of their story arcs is identical, they have nothing in common. But understanding applicability vs. allegory is powerful.

Anytime people read my tweets, they hear it in autotune.

T-Pain

Me too, Mr. Pain. Me too.

Criminal subliminal minded rappers find it

Hard to define it, when narrow is the gate

For fat tapes and, then, played out and out of date

Then I construct my thoughts on site to renovate

And from that point, the God made a statement

Draftin’ tracements, replacements in basements

Materials in sheet-rock, to sound proof the beatbox

— GZA, “Living in the World Today”, Liquid Swords (1995)

There’s no shortage of ways to autotune our thoughts and behavior as citizens and investors. Scripts, symbols, tribalism. Some come from our own minds and some from external sources. Some we force on others. But we always, always have a choice. Do we allow others to write our scripts? Do we allow ourselves to be someone else’s agent? Or do we stake out our roles as citizens, as principals? Narrow is the gate, friends, and if you can’t construct your thoughts on site, to renovate, and soundproof the beatbox — you’ll always be someone else’s tool.

I’ve had a string of good luck lately. Or, at least, I’ve experienced a number of things that could have been much, much worse, which works out to the same thing, I think.

When I published Before and After the Storm, I was writing it from my home in Houston. I thought we would come through completely unscathed, and for the most part we did. My car flooded, but auto insurance is a lot better at covering losses like that than home insurance, and there wasn’t anything personal about what got destroyed. The things you learn in a disaster. I feel very fortunate.

Hurricane Harvey made landfall on my 10th anniversary. My wife and I met (re-met, actually) at a beach party on Surfside Beach, not terribly far from where landfall took place, and had originally planned to rent a house there to celebrate. Not in the cards this year, obviously. So we decided to celebrate that (and a nondescript birthday of my own) with a weekend away from our lovely two-boys-two-and-under with some close friends. In Vegas. That weekend.

But again, I feel fortunate. We stayed further north on the Strip. None of that keeps the mind from imagining the direst scenarios, though. What if we’d made our evening plans down there on Sunday instead of Saturday, when we walked the south end? What if we hadn’t called it an early evening on Sunday and instead decided to wander around (like you do when you’re in Vegas)? What if Willie, Robert Earl Keen or Ray Wylie Hubbard had been playing the festival (in which case I definitely would have been there)? There’s a note or two to be written about how this kind of thinking affects us as investors. The psychology of narrow misses, or at least of seeing tragedy at arm’s length.

But that’s not where my mind went. Instead, in the aftermath of the mass shooting in Las Vegas, I found myself, like many others, wondering what this vicious moron could have been thinking. A seemingly normal guy with no real motive, no obvious animus. Some compulsive behaviors, it would seem, but no more than a million other men and women. No clear ideological intent. No obvious prior evidence of sociopathy, psychopathy or really any other -pathy except for maybe antipathy. Other than the senselessness that pervades all such tragedies, the most striking observation following the attack has probably been that acts of terror, crimes and murders are being committed by people who look a lot more normal. Who may, in fact, be a lot more normal.

It’s something Malcolm Gladwell has spoken about, and which he wrote about in his 2015 piece in The New Yorker, Thresholds of Violence, and in various lighter ways in The Tipping Point. Like recently minted and well-deserving Nobel laureate Dick Thaler, Gladwell’s musings sometimes dip into the sort of paternalistic pop-science/pop-policy recommendations that grate on me a bit. But he’s onto something here. His notion is that the early mass shooters and murderers were the truly insane, those willing to independently plan, pursue and carry out a vile act. In so doing, they created a script, a pattern for others. Each successive event adds to our cultural story, and makes the script more accessible, more familiar to individuals at the margin of social norms. This lowers the threshold for another to carry out a similar attack. And so the next person who carries it out seems less clearly troubled, less self-evidently motivated by ideology. More normal.

The idea builds on the work of Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter, who was among the first to describe this phenomenon through a range of examples. Whether it is deciding to join a riot, to eat at a Chinese-food restaurant, to buy a new kind of quintuple-levered vol-selling ETF, or any number of other everyday decisions, we judge certain aspects of our social engagement based on the quantities of others who have made similar choices. The more people join the riot, and the more those people look like us, the more likely we are to join. In other words, it’s Sheep Logic. Like that most sociopathic of animals, we make decisions in our own interest that incorporate the behavior and our observations of others not out of empathy or concern for the other, but because of their information value. This is how sociopathic behavior becomes commonplace among people who are, well, normal.

Thankfully, for most of us, this sheep-like tendency toward sociopathy doesn’t manifest itself in anything quite so horrific. But if you think that threshold effect-driven symbol devotion isn’t tearing us apart, you haven’t been paying attention. It hasn’t exactly been subtle, y’all.

Some of the symbols and stylistic tropes that force heterogeneous populations into homogenous groups are pretty obvious. Like, Gandalf-as-a-humble-leader-who-dies-sacrificially-to-save-his-followers-by-battling-a-demon[1]-on-his-descent-into-hell-after-which-he-is-resurrected-in-white-for-a-time-to-teach-and-lead-before-he-ascends-into-another-plane-to-escape-Middle-Earth-for-the-realm-of-the-angels obvious. Others less so. If you can get published in a journal for identifying the subtextual racist undertones in Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Lattes, just imagine how many different symbolic interpretations there are for something like, say, Citizen Kane’s Rosebud. Symbols, and the reverence we attach to particularly tortured interpretations of them, are the reason why English departments are still producing academic papers and why Dan Brown gets to live in a house in New Hampshire with hidden doors and secret passages.

Fascinatingly, J.R.R. Tolkien actually very famously detested allegory, the most common kind of literary symbolism. He was not particularly fond of his close friend C.S. Lewis’s world of Narnia for this reason, thinking it far too allegorical, and with one too many electric streetlamps. Whether or not he always practiced what he preached, however, Tolkien’s point remains an important one for our public discourse, where symbols — semiotics — have become the center of gravity for almost every civic conflict and debate. Most symbols we encounter are powerful shorthands, and their meaning differs based on our unique and shared experiences. The song you remember from your first dance at the high school prom was the soundtrack to someone else’s personal tragedy, and the writer of the song had nothing of the sort in mind. And that’s okay. In Tolkien’s terminology, these symbols are applicable, but neither universal nor determined by any one person for another.

In Before and After the Storm and Always Go to the Funeral, Ben and I wrote about those who seek to divide us and drive us from a cooperative game into a competitive game. You won’t be surprised to see us write that this is often achieved through the construction of narratives, loaded for bear with symbols. But with these symbols, you don’t get to decide what they mean for yourself like a favorite song. No, that decision is made for you. In Tolkien’s words, these symbols represent the purposed domination of the author. They seek to strip us of sovereignty over our own intent. They force us to choose sides. This is among the most powerful forms of narrative construction.

Ben and I have also written and talked a lot about what we think it means to be a Citizen. Above all, it means always being a principal. It means treating others as principals. Those who would rule over us to serve their own ends would make us agents. They would make us nodes in a blockchain, repeating the anonymous reports of someone else’s philosophical transactions. The Citizen rejects this impulse at every pass, in his political, personal, professional and, yes, even his financial life.

Charlottesville, Continued

Both Ben and I wrote about the issue of Confederate statues, because part of this story has applicability for us, as it does for so many Americans. For me, it is applicable for two reasons. When he was 16, my third great-grandfather volunteered for what would later become the 34th Tennessee Infantry Regiment. In the first day of the Battle of Chickamauga, his gun exploded in his face at Brock’s Field. It was an injury that impacted the rest of his life, which was short. The 11th of 12 children, he was maimed in battle but continued to fight. He married, had children and died penniless in his early 40s. His wife and children were forced to leave for Texas, where they became cotton tenant farmers. They got by. Within two generations they prospered.

Don’t cry too much for grandpa Jim. There’s a Part II. His family — my family — also owned slaves. In 1860, my fourth great-grandfather, a Methodist minister, felt he had the right to say that he owned 20 human beings. The youngest was a four-month-old boy. The oldest was a 52-year-old woman. Among them was a 30-year-old man named Jim, just like my third great-grandfather. He married a woman named Clara from the next farm, and they had a son named George. The picture to the right is of George with his wife Winnie in the late 19th century.

So what do the symbols of the Confederacy mean to me? Shame, mostly. Shame in what my family did, what they were a part of. That they weren’t on the right side of justice. That they could preach a Christian Gospel and think to own a person with a soul. Some pride, too. Pride in a young boy who was brave, who volunteered and fought for his neighbors, and was maimed as a simple infantryman. Who, I hope, stood tall when the German expatriates from Indiana raised by Johann August Ernst von Willich[2] rained down artillery and rifle fire on them and the rest of General George Maney’s brigade. Sam Watkins, a soldier in another unit in the division, wrote about it in his marvelous memoir, “Company Aytch”:

We held our position for two hours and ten minutes in the midst of a deadly and galling fire, being enfiladed and almost surrounded when General Forrest galloped up and said, ‘Colonel Field, look out you are almost surrounded; you had better fall back.’ The order was given to retreat. I ran through a solid line of blue coats. As I fell back, they were upon the right of us, they were upon the left of us, they were in front of us, they were in the rear of us…the balls whistled around our ears like the escape valves of ten thousand engines. The woods seemed to be blazing…one solid sheet of leaden hail was falling around me. I heard General Preston Smith’s brigade open. It seemed to be platoons of artillery. The earth jarred and trembled like an earthquake. Deadly missiles were flying in every direction. It was the very incarnation of death itself. I could almost hear the shriek of the death angel passing over the scene.
Sam Watkins

For me, the conflicted realities of race and patriotism — shame and pride — don’t stop there. They are a running theme in my family, as they are with so many others. Almost 52 years ago to the day, on October 22, 1965, my Uncle Jimmy was walking through the jungle near Phú Cường with a small squad of men from the 173rd Airborne Brigade, when a grenade rolled into their midst. Without a moment’s thought, a young man from Chicago and Mississippi grabbed the grenade, threw it under his body and saved the lives of four men that were walking with him. My Uncle Jimmy was one of them.

This young man, who would have no doubt endured the same racism that many black Americans knew in 1965, loved his country and his fellow man, and literally jumped on a grenade for my family. For it, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Johnson, and became the first black man to receive the honor during the Vietnam War. If you’re still hung up on statues and memorials, the next time you’re in Chicago, walk just north of the Navy Pier to Milton Lee Olive Park.

The picture below shows Olive’s parents receiving his posthumous medal, my Uncle Jimmy standing at attention between Olive’s father and President Johnson.

I think it’s fair to say these issues have a lot of applicability for me.

But my experience still matters a whole hell of a lot less than the experience of just about any black person in America on this topic. Do I get psychic value from knowing a relative acted bravely on the field of battle? Yes. Would I be comforted to know my country respects the tactical military brilliance of Robert E. Lee, that it was mature enough to consider that in full context of his flaws? Yes. Do I think there are strong, justifiable reasons to be extraordinarily hesitant and deliberate about anything that looks like the destruction of art, of historical records? Yes. Do any of those things measure up to how these symbols are applicable to a black man or woman in America? NO. God, it’s hard for me to fathom that they can even be represented on the same scale.

But that is the nature of civic discourse: for us to collectively weigh matters of importance, or to allow each individual the freedom to do so for himself. That is what a society which values Tolkien’s applicability does. That is what a Citizen does. It doesn’t require us to conclude that all such perspectives are equally true, or even that each person’s opinion is equally valuable. Far from it. Don’t mistake this for the postmodern view that those without personal experience don’t get a seat at the table for the discussion. Much to the contrary, the enlightenment principles of free discourse require us to allow all the arguments to be heard. On matters of social import, to be weighed. And in all cases, to be represented faithfully.

But rather than engage in true Citizenship, in the path of enlightenment, we chose another path. We chose the path of allegory, of symbols assigned to us and to others as agents and not as principals. Those bent toward purposed domination of those with conservative political leanings imposed one particular allegory: ‘statues of confederate leaders represent the spirit, culture and history of the southern United States’. An attack on the statues is therefore an attack on the spirit of culture of a huge portion of the population. The enemy are the politically correct run amok, people who wish to erase history and replace it with a sanitized version! With a lie! If you do not stand for this now, they’re going to tear down all our statues, all of our history.

The manipulating spirit of the far left in this case found a far easier target (Godwin’s Law made manifest proved too sore a temptation). Once a platoon or two of sociopathic, dunderheaded, socially awkward, spoiled white guys with an inclination toward violence rolled out the old “Blood and Soil” song and dance number, the allegory basically wrote itself: Defense of the statues IS defense of white supremacy. Defending America against Tiki-torch wielding apfelstrudelführers, as Kevin Williamson brilliantly put it, must be our aim at any cost. If we must pretend that the Occupy Wall Street trust fund kids who swapped their hipster tents for Antifa masks are our heroic vanguard, a modern form of troops storming Normandy, so be it. If we don’t, we are basically enabling the rise of Hitler!

The magic of the technique is this: for those to whom the symbol has personal applicability, the allegory that replaces it is nearly impossible to resist. If you have some affinity for the south (which is no crime at all, folks), or if you believe that history is worthy of protection with integrity, these are defensible points of view to have. If you’re especially sensitive to both active and passive forms of racism, you’re in very good (if sadly incomplete) company. But under the control of those who would make us agents, allegory uses these affinities and applicabilities as a Trojan Horse, entering as defensible, admirable points of view and pouring out into the streets of Troy as straw men to focus our rage on any who might assault them. Our defense of the south evolves into a perspective that sees attacks on monuments of the Confederacy as a broad attack on us and our culture. Our righteous anger at racists transitions into frothing rage at any who happen to share a point of view on what from our history is worthy of remembering. Those who had never stopped in contemplation — whether out of pride or shame or anger — before a monument in their lives now saw it as some existential thing that reflected the ill will of our fellow Citizens acting as principals.

But it didn’t. They — we — had already been made into agents.

Enter the Anthems

Our next test (you know, the anthem thing?) didn’t go much better.

The flag and the anthem are among the clearest examples of varying applicability, because flags are literally designed to function as symbols and representations of the state or a ruling party. To many uniformed men and women and to their families and friends, it is a binding tie, a symbol of sacrifice and service. To the patriotic, it can be (varyingly) an emblem of affinity for culture, for opportunities provided, for values shared in connection with the nation. To others, it is a reminder that they feel like second-class citizens in some way. A sharp allusion to the hypocrisy they see, that a country could emphasize freedom and equality, and yet deny both to some for so long. All these are feelings formed by experiences, some anecdotal and narrow in import, and some broad and worthy of extrapolation. They are formed by thoughtful conclusions, some rightfully constructed and some hopelessly flawed. They are not equal. But they are the views of Citizens and principals.

When Colin Kaepernick began his protest of the anthems, most of us didn’t notice, since we were sitting at home on our couches, distracted by beer, friends and smartphones. Say what you will about a young man who decries oppression wearing a t-shirt celebrating one of the 20th century’s great oppressors, who bemoans a lack of mutual respect wearing socks that stylized policemen as pigs wearing hats. But he was clearly acting as a principal, a man responding to what these symbols meant to him based on his judgments and his experiences, right or wrong.

Fueled by competitive game-driven rhetoric from the president, the right’s response took us away from the path of the Citizen. The personally applicable meaning of the symbol immediately became a monolith, an immutable national standard. To sit during the anthem wasn’t what the person doing it said it was, it was a symbol of disrespect toward the military, the police, the nation, our values, our Constitution. It was a sign of hatred of the country, and if he didn’t like living here, why doesn’t he just move? There is no intrinsic, no fundamental reason why this action in context of this symbol should have that meaning, except that we all agreed that it did. Instead of treating those protesting as principals — which doesn’t mean agreeing, but does require from a Citizen some attempt at understanding — we made them agents. We assigned them views and intents they never themselves conceived. In so doing, we made ourselves agents as well.

True to form, the American left took the bait. I don’t know if we’re really all going to laugh about this in a decade or two, but the attempts at symbol construction here are frighteningly absurd. In response to the shenanigans above, we got proclamations about acceptable forms that the protest symbol must take. Because the Dallas Cowboys knelt together before the anthem and not during it, it was bullshit. Craven and useless. Anyone who stands for the anthem stands for white supremacy! Richard Sherman informed us that if we didn’t condemn the president’s rhetoric, we were complicit. This is increasingly the shape that our debates take. Why are you angrier about this issue than that issue? Why did you tweet/post/talk more about this one issue than this other issue that I think is more important? How dare you not observe the forms that reflect the right-sounding thoughts in the manner I prefer? Did you use the proper skin tone in your emoji-laden message?

You could call all of this a more rigorous way of describing political correctness, and you’d be pretty near the truth. The left remains, I think, the most pernicious source of this scourge to an enlightened society. The Foucaltian language of privilege and oppression, while it may at times be an accurate reflection of the realities of inequality, bias and circumstance that we must assault as a society, can never be the language of the Citizen, because it inherently rejects the idea that certain people can be principals. It says that a person born in privilege is always an agent of his bias, and that he may not have the sovereignty of a principal in various arbitrarily chosen political issues. Yet for all that, under President Trump it has instead been the right that has been the proximate cause of allegory and political correctness, I think. As Ben has pointed out, this is how this political environment is trying to break us.

Agents and Markets

So what is a Citizen to do? And what of the Citizen in markets?

In markets, it should be a reminder that strong enough narratives make agents of us all. You need only to look at VIX-based instrument markets to observe just how willing we are to forgo our views as principals to join in a group-based thinking. In Part I of my recent note, The Myth of Market In-Itself, I introduced some of the ways in which behavior influences markets, but it is in Part II that I will dive more into the archetypes and languages in which principals become agents.

It should also be a reminder to those of us with clients that it is important to listen to what they are telling us. About their desires, their intents, their motivations. The robo-adviser, style-box generation is happy to slot us into a category and tell us who we are. Even outside of this, the investment industry has constructed entire business models out of gaming characteristics to suit investor archetypes and the superficial things that are likely to attract them to buy. As an industry, we don’t treat our clients like principals, and it’s a problem.

But whether or not we are in markets, the refrain you will hear from us is to resist being drawn into the competitive game. Resist being drawn to allegory. Resist being made into an agent, and reject doing so to others.

[1] OK, a Balrog of Morgoth, which is technically among the Maiar kin to Sauron that aligned themselves with Melkor when he rebelled against the Valar that Eru had sent to shepherd their collective vision for the world. So not really a demon, but “wings of shadow, wreathed in flame?” Imma call it a demon. Don’t @ me, Stephen Colbert.
[2] This is a really fascinating man. A Prussian noble who renounced his titles and became confidante and eventual competitor to Karl Marx, Willich counted Friedrich Engels as his aide-de-camp during the socialist revolutions of 1848-1849. He ultimately found Marx to be too conservative, and challenged him to a duel that Marx rejected. Willich then left for America, where he recruited and led a division of men from Indiana and Ohio, mostly German expatriates. They were among the most decorated units in the Union Army.

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Mailbag! Fall 2017 Edition

Back by popular demand, it’s the Epsilon Theory Mailbag!

Always Go To the Funeral” and “The Arborist

Another rifle shot to the crux of the matter.

I would like to think that I, as a loyal reader of The Epsilon Theory, am onto many of the manipulations that you describe. But as I was reading this letter, I realized that I had fallen – lock, stock and barrel – for the powerful manipulation that you describe in connection with the removal of confederate statues. I, like you, really don’t have much psychological or emotional investment in the statues themselves (although I do think they serve as a constant visual reminder of our conflicted history – a good thing, in my opinion). But I am quite psychologically and emotionally invested in the maintenance of civility and order.

The manipulators have done a great job causing me to transfer my investment in civility and order onto these physical statues, thereby putting me in the uncomfortable position of defending something I don’t care that much about to prevent others (who represent things I abhor) from “winning.” But in the process, I now find myself siding with another group that also represents these same things that I abhor. This cognitive dissonance is the source of the increasing anger and frustration that many heretofore stable members of our society are now feeling and, unfortunately, beginning to express outwardly.

While I understand your point about “going to the funeral” of the “Cooperation Game” era of political discourse, I hope that is not a joint funeral with the “civility and order” era of society. I am afraid that might just be the case. I am especially worried about this because those (like the state) who, in the past, acted as a damper on disunion, incivility and disorder now seem to be the drivers.

Thanks again for putting a mirror up for those of us who strive every day to be a bit better (and smarter).

Jeff

It’s so easy to get pulled into these constructed, false “conflicts” … we are truly hard-wired to respond to this stuff. I am constantly catching myself falling into this trap, and I write these notes as a self-help mechanism as much as anything.

I suppose that you read about the vandalism and subsequent removal of the Robert E. Lee statue at Duke Chapel. I am just wondering how long it will take for someone to vandalize the beautiful marble carving of Lee at Lee Chapel on the campus of Washington and Lee in Lexington, VA.

A week ago, somebody wrote to the local paper that the Confederate memorial in Elmwood Cemetery near uptown Charlotte should be removed. Only history buffs and PC activists even know that it exists – few people ever go to the cemetery, because it is just about full. (Charlotte native Randolph Scott is probably the most famous occupant, BTW.)

My father was Southern through and through, gentle, loved and respected. He named me after two of his uncles, who were named after famous Southern leaders. But he never bothered to tell me about his grandfather, who was wounded in Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg and surrendered with Lee at Appomattox Courthouse, or his other grandfather who was killed at Gettysburg. And even more regrettable, he never told us a lot about his experiences in WWII.

All the best. I’ll sign my entire name, just this time.

Houston Lee VanHoy

On the other hand …

Ben – as someone who lived in Charlottesville for a number of years, your logic was peculiarly fraught and tortured this week…intentional or not, your note misses a salient point of last weeks armed riot – yes there is no other word for it – in Charlottesville.

What it was at its core was an intimidating show of force replete with openly carried loaded automatic weapons and rifles let alone pistols/revolvers. This is indisputable and the only question is why? It’s at least about promoting the myth that Confederates were not traitors, and deserve an honored place in our public square. I’m sorry if it makes anyone sad to realize their great grandfathers were traitors and racist, but there can be no justice until there is truth.

It’s not a matter of rolling back history, it’s a matter of presenting history accurately, and Lee and his ilk were prima facie traitors in every sense of the word to the United States and DIRECTLY responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths. So why is Lee so exulted, and by extension, the Confederacy? It’s because the demonstrators want to perpetuate and glorify the Rebellions myth, and deny that it was all about preserving and promoting slavery – that’s a narrative that can be safely and properly consigned to museums at best, and have no place in our public square, esp. in federal places and local places where the local city/town wants them removed.

These people don’t need any explanation or sympathy from someone as bright as you. If these statues are so trivial and unimportant to the South sense of self, why not just consign them to museums. Fascism precedes Antifa, i.e. it is axiomatic that there is no Antifa without fascism first. Fascism is not a response to Antifa – thats illogical. Anyone with real pride would actively move in this direction to dispel misgivings that the South has not risen above treason, racism and white supremacy. Should be a no brainer…do you see any statues to Benedict Arnold in the South?

If a right leaning local population wanted to someday rename Malcolm X Blvd, and militant armed blacks showed up shouting “death to whitey”, we can have a dialogue of equivalency in this regard. Until then you are way off and justifiably at jeopardy being labeled as enabling of Nazis and white supremacists. Hopefully this was a rare “own goal” and not intentional.

It’s really not all that hard or complicated, and it only contaminates our politics when people make excuses for fascism and racism.

– JD

Aaaaand, there it is: I am “justifiably at jeopardy of being labeled as enabling Nazis and white supremacists” because I did not write a strong enough denunciation of Confederate statues. “Hopefully” this was not an intentional support of Nazis and white supremacists on my part.

I’m reading an amazing book right now, “The Three-Body Problem” by Cixin Liu, translated from the original Chinese by Ken Liu. It’s science fiction, winning the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2015, and like all great science fiction it’s actually just great fiction, period. Great fiction forces us to see the world differently, and “The Three-Body Problem” — which starts off in 1967 China — has opened my eyes to an understanding of what the Cultural Revolution really was. I won’t spoil it any more than that, except to say that JD would have thrived within the Cultural Revolution.

I have been reminded this week of you saying (I think it was you) that real danger exists when we move from viewing each other as good people with different opinions, to viewing the people on the other side as evil!

If you are a rational person who believes that historic monuments in the South serve a purpose (I remember a family vacation to Stone Mountain where I learned all about the civil war), now you are on the side of the Nazi’s – the damn Nazi’s my Grandfather (whom I am named after) died fighting!!! It seems we are being put into a box where you must choose a side … I believe both the President and fiat news are engaged in a war of propaganda … dangerous times indeed.

LP

We are ALL being played. Including JD.

“and by the way you’re bonkers if you think the Russians altered the 2016 election by one iota.”

Interesting take. Can you explain to me why they – the Russians – would invest so much time and money on something that has absolutely no impact? Also, why do advertising firms exist and why is propaganda a thing?

Jason

No impact? Russian chicanery had a HUGE impact on us, by sowing mistrust and apprehension about our electoral process, even though it had ZERO impact on the outcome. Best money the Russians ever spent.

The circumstances that create competition games can be overcome. As someone attached to the Nixon Administration, the fact that the core of the Republican Party in the House and Senate in the end refused to play those games (Goldwater, Rhoades [sic] and Scott being the emissaries that told him he had to leave) and Gerry Ford kept it from getting out of hand. It is difficult to see that dynamic in the current context. With the demographic Great Sort and the computer “optimization” of gerrymandering, and with apologies to W. B. Yeats, there is precious little center left to do the holding.

– Al

Yeats is getting quite the work-out in reader letters of late, for good reason.

If the centre doesn’t hold, are discussions of Fed Policy ironic, comic or merely prosaic?

Naked Capitalism shut down their already Moderated comments today. Like many places in society, people are losing their minds and civility is breaking down.

Less recognized is that we are beset by fairly organized manipulation and disinfo.

As an exasperated friend put it, “don’t people realize as a nation we are being trolled and all sides are falling for it?”

Parts of the media/gov/corps are doing the dog whistles while the rank and file of the same madly bark and bite.

Yeats poem “The Second Coming” is almost a cliche at this point. 🙁

– Ron

There’s still a center, but it’s doing what the center always does in times like this … we wall ourselves away inside our own individual gardens. We don’t engage. We don’t answer the phone. Ask anyone on the sell-side how their business has been over the past six months.

To loosely quote a line from Jerry Maguire, you had me at funeral attendance. I’ve often pondered what it is that brings those who attend a funeral so close together and I think it’s because we see ourselves in that box in the not too distant future and would like to have someone there to mourn with and console our loved ones also. I too remember who has attended the funerals and wakes unfortunately associated with the family and friends I’ve lost and the kinship that lingers long after the sad day. The way you tied that together with your investment thesis further in the piece though was brilliant and struck a chord with me right to my soul. I have too often in the past let trades linger far longer than they should and it’s just recently I’ve learned to adapt a similar strategy that you described so well.

I also agree with your assessment of the political landscape we’re facing. I was truly hoping for an awakening with Trump’s election, but instead we’ve not only extended the vast divide which began in the Obama years, but have actually increased it to the point I refuse to listen to the radio news, read the WSJ or pay attention to anything except what’s playing on the Classical Rock station on XM. I guess it’s the “head in the sand” theory I’m abiding by, but I believe I’m taking a similar approach to the one described in your approach to a trade. Everything I’ve thought about politics and politicians has led me to realize we’ve all made a very bad trade these past 20 years and the sooner we bury it and go to a new investment the better. I just hope we’re all around to see it!

– John

What John calls “head in the sand” behavior is what I call “walled garden” behavior. It is the natural human response to a world being ripped apart by the centripetal spin of constant competitive games.

Has the change in politics from the cooperation game to the competition game occurred at other times in history? If so, how long did it typically last and was there a major turning point during that process that marked that it was coming to an end?

Alex

This is an area where history rhymes, not repeats. Generally speaking, the only thing that gets a group out of a Competition game is an overwhelming external threat, like a war or natural disaster. The earliest recorded example of this would be the formation of the Delian League after the battle of Plataea in 479 BC, where the Greek city-states put an institutional structure around their alliance against Persia. This famously ends up becoming just a veneer for the Athenian empire, which some might say is the likely future for more recent Delian League structures like NATO. Pretty much any institutionalized post-WWII regime (Bretton Woods, the United Nations, etc.) is an example of Coordination game promotion. My favorite take on this is Alan Moore’s Watchmen comic book series. Or you could watch the movie.

I think the below article might highlight how we can get back to the co-operative game. I had thought that Hillary should have chosen Kasich as a running mate (I am party agnostic – historically voted both parties) – while I can never prove it, but I think that ticket would have “won” going away and would have been healthy for the nation.

http://www.cnn.com/2017/08/25/politics/kasich-hickenlooper-2020-unity-ticket/index.html

David

Seeing a lot of these cross-party and centrist match-ups of late, most of which feature Kasich. I dunno … the problem with professional politicians is that they’re professional politicians. The thought of leaving the cozy confines of the Party behind is just overwhelming. And the problem with non-professional politicians is that they’re billionaires, with all the disastrous ego-driven consequences that brings. What we need is a grassroots movement that’s both above and below party politics.

I think the political side of the competition game was firmed up with the Obamacare bill. No Democrat dared vote against; no Republican dared vote for. I see that as the official “us vs them” game which legitimized identity politics and ushered in Mr. Trump, who is both coach and cheerleader for his team in the competition game.

Miles

In a lot of your writing, especially about Trump, you make it sound as if Trump is the one who broke us, who made the game go from cooperation to competition. In late 2015, early 2016 I reached the conclusion that the current monetary and trade system was unsustainable. And that was because the world has been functioning with a set of growth models that do not seem to deliver anymore (I would call them broken). Trump and Brexit happened later, I believe as symptoms.

I don’t think Trump broke us. The world broke in 2008 and for 8 years we tried to cope and then balance sheets decided we needed a change and that was Brexit and that was Trump. Now, I do agree that he is different. He is a very good persuader (con-man?) and he comes with different ideas than what we have been told over the last 30 years or so.

Trump is an actor with individual responsibility, but he is also a product of a system which stopped working. And the game became competitive before him (see the Eurozone negotiations, see the increasing trade disputes during Obama).

Hillary was the great pretender, the magical thinking priest. “We are one happy family, let’s hold hands and wish for the best” kind of thing. And I think that is why she lost. People thought they would get more of the pretense. Yes, it means stability, but is [it] also means not recognizing that the game had already changed. I believe many (especially lower income) households realized that “cooperation” had become an equivalent to “stuck”, because there was no more tide to lift all boats.

Nicolae 

It’s a fair point, that Trump is symptom rather than cause, and it’s the central point that my partner Rusty Guinn was making in his companion piece, “Before and After the Storm” (or as I like to call it, “Make America Good Again”).

http://www.digg.com/video/tree-ladder-whoops

Jeremy 

Thanks for sharing today. On the subject of going to the funeral and given your praise for Kevin O’Leary, knowing your appreciation for the cinema, you may recall Danny DeVito in Other People’s Money.

Steve

An indisputable classic.

I’ve been interested in bonsai for many years and got into it a bit more seriously a few years ago (except with tropical plants) as part of my pre-retirement planning. I’m actually more partial to the original Chinese form Penjing which is a bit more disorderly (contrarian?) and metaphorically anti CB style. (It also means that whatever look I end up with can’t really be a mistake either!)

“By and large, it seems that Japanese artists have a strong tendency to impose order on their creations, whereas Chinese artists appear willing to embrace a measure of chaos.

“Clearly, they are less concerned with rules and the pursuit of perfection. Does it mean that there are no rules in penjing at all? Absolutely not.

“Conversations with penjing artists reveal that they are less interested in displays of technical virtuosity and ideal form. Instead, they seek to capture and convey sentiment and mood in their work.

“Their goal is to reveal an inner beauty, an essence inherent in nature.” Read more: http://www.bonsaimary.com/Chinese-Bonsai.html

We’ll see if a computer algorithm can do that.

Brian

Even if this isn’t true (Japanese bonsai artists impose order while Chinese bonsai artists embrace an element of chaos), it sounds so smart and I want to believe it so badly that I am treating it as true. Much like most of our political discourse today.

Makes me think of a saying my mom learned from an Indian furniture dealer at the Dallas World Trade Center – “Show your face.” Wedding? Birth? Anniversary? Funeral? “Show your face.” This phrase has compelled me to put on many suits I did not want to wear and to take many trips to the hospital when I did not want to go. But there is always some joy to be found by doing so.

And I loved the part about the animals. Makes me think of an old Proverb I have taken to heart – “The righteous man cares for the needs of his animal, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel.” This one definitely gets me out of bed on nights when I realize no one fed the dogs.

Regarding the life cycle of animals. I have long held that as a society we lose something when people, especially kids, think food comes from the grocery store. I.e., when there is no dirt involved with plants and no blood involved with meat. Even at their young ages, I have made sure my kids have had plenty of both under their fingernails. They may end up favoring country clubs to being in the country, but they will at least forever own by experience the baseline understanding of the cycle of life.

John

I haven’t been able to bring myself to raise animals for their meat. I blame it on the kids, but actually it’s me.

An infestation of Oriental Bittersweet, privet or kudzu cannot withstand the focused attention of a herd of goats who will first attack the leafy greens and then the tender bark of the vines seeking the crucial inner bark which they will pursue all the way to the root. It is then the responsibility of the goatherd to move the goats before they begin to damage the desired grove, fortunately they barbeque up pretty good and I make an acceptable sauce…

Joe

But goats are so damn cute. And they’re good. In the moral sense, not the taste sense, although I suppose that, too. I’m so conflicted!

How can I, or any regular run of the mill person, practically and pragmatically get involved to help “design an operating system that can compete and win against the billionaires’ operating system when the reboot happens”? I am asking with deference and humbleness…I am asking because I see what you see…I am asking because we (Americans or humanity in general…more along the lines of being an American) are better than this. We are better than racial tension, Trump, Clinton, debt, in fighting, political nonsense, billionaires’ controlling, etc., etc., etc. (the etc’s could have gone on for a while). I am asking because words without action are like intentions and hell (the road to hell is paved with the very best of intention).

Daniel

I’ve been wrestling with your question (What do we DO?) for a couple of years now, and I’ve come to the conclusion that political action on a national scale (third party formation, marches, etc.) isn’t the way to go. Instead, it’s hyperlocal political participation (city councils, school boards, that sort of thing) plus a national blockchain-based technology initiative to record video news so that it’s searchable, discoverable, and unalterable. Sounds boring, but I think it’s a transformative movement that we can ALL participate in. I’ll be writing a lot more about this in the weeks and months to come.

I read a lot of financial newsletters. I have been associated with financial services for 35+ years. I have been to several goat-ropings, rodeos and state fairs, too. So, I speak with a modicum of knowledge.

I read this recent “Always Go to the Funeral” article. I hate to admit it, but in review, while it was entertaining, I gleaned no useful action tactics from the theme; though I must admit, it was well-written, as far as verbs & nouns are considered and with obvious learning from Shakespeare literature.

I am still waiting for some, ANY, direction from one of your articles. DO you expect to deliver an actual OPINION, with an action plan, soon?

Steve

Short answer: No.

Long answer:

  1. For regulatory purposes this note is considered to be “general market commentary” and not “marketing material”. The day I start writing about buying XYZ stock or ABC fund, everything I write has to go through a much more laborious and time-consuming compliance process, and I wouldn’t be able to publish to the broad audience that I want to speak to.
  2. I trust that my readers are smart enough to read a statement like “I think that inflation and interest rates are headed up, and will be moving up for a long time, with all the caveat emptor implications that brings for investors” and figure out for themselves what that means for an “action plan” for their portfolio.
  3. I’m a portfolio manager of a hedge fund and co-portfolio manager of a ‘40-Act mutual fund, one of which reports its positions publicly on a quarterly basis (HF) and one on a monthly basis (MF). It would be … highly problematic … for me to write about “actionable ideas” in ET when I’m already acting on them in an undisclosed way within these portfolios.
  4. Even if none of the above constraints existed, I still wouldn’t write about buying XYZ stock or ABC fund. The world has enough touts financial newsletters as it is. There is bigger game afoot!

“Small-l liberal virtues” are philosophically opposed to “really old school notions like feudal bonds of personal obligation and trust.” The two cannot coexist.

The community supports both social and economic inequality (that’s the feudalism of which you speak). It will, either gently or not-so-gently, repress the upstart individual.

For his part, the liberal individual supports, as you note, free markets and free elections. But these are precisely the things that undermine the feudal organization’s bonds.

You are struggling to resolve the conflict that has perplexed us since the dawn of history. There is no known social organization that can capture the best of both small-l liberalism and the best of the bound community. The two have philosophies, bodies of knowledge that ultimately conflict.

John

To your point, I’m not looking to establish some sort of communitarian/liberal combo society, because I think you’re right about the incommensurability of how one defines justice and the good life within these two world views (Michael Sandel was on my dissertation committee). But I do think that there’s a sense of interpersonal obligation away from the State that’s front and center in, say, feudalism and theocracies and other admittedly illiberal societies, that is an extremely healthy corrective for the bastardization of liberalism that we live in today. Liberalism frowns on notions of personal obligation outside of contracts or self-interest, and you have to go to fairly extreme Rawlsian contortions to incorporate them. I’d like to incorporate more directly this communitarian gene of interpersonal obligation — a graft, to continue with the arborist metaphor — to create a liberalism that can stand up better to the Statist onslaught. Does that make sense? It’s a long putt, for sure, but worth the effort.

Horsepower

Cosmic JD tractor déjà vu. The exact same tractor is parked in my hay barn, along with cool attachments that make it so versatile. Brush hog (on my second one, destroyed the first one through sheer stupidity) rotary tiller (don’t try and plant wildflower plots without it) and the piece de resistance here in the snow belt, the snow blower with the six foot wide box. Heaven is a snow storm and 3 foot drifts on a long driveway. The farmer next door who taught me to run it scared the crap out of me by starting my tractor lesson off with “Up hill, down hill, never side hill. This thing will kill you” Then proceeded to list off all the people that had been killed on rollovers around us. So there are probably old farmers, and there are bold farmers, but there are no old, bold farmers. Kind of like PM’s huh? My first year with it I ran it out of fuel while using the bucket to clear the driveway (pre snow blower era, the dark days) at 5 in the morning in sub zero wind chills. Found out quick you have to bleed diesel lines when you run out of fuel, unlike a gas engine with its fuel pump. Neighbors got a big kick out of that epic fail. Why would anyone want a Porsche when you could have a JD? Thanks for being one of the really insightful commentators out there, there is hope for this business after all I guess. And if not, I’ve got some more wildflower plots to put in. Thanks for your work.

Mitch

Exactly like PMs. There are no old and bold portfolio managers.

I’m at the state fair in WI watching horse pulling right now. You’re right about that collar, this is incredible.

Adam

Changed the course of Western civilization.

As I was born in 1957, putting me in the largest birth year cohort of the generation. I can say from experience that low interest rates have caused me to save more not spend more. The whole Fed program of low rates since 1999, when Greenspan panicked about Y2K, has screwed savers and retirees (if they have any sense of risk). If interest rates were higher (and they manage to sidestep massive losses from the adjustment – e.g. at 1.9% inflation, in the old days the 10-year would be around 6%) maybe they would spend more and increase overall demand in the economy?

Jim

YES.

But there IS a way back. And, no, not an individual, but a connection between the physical world and the intangible world of investing. We actually had it for quite some time and it seemed to work as a means of preserving a means of measuring the success of prosperity.

It is gold.

How much should the balance sheets of the world contract? By maintaining the balance between the demand for money and its supply. Or by keeping the price of gold stable; adding to supply when its price dips below a target or vice versa if its price should rise above.

Of course the VALUE of gold doesn’t change – you can’t manipulate it which is the source of its beauty (indeed its supply vastly outstrips any slight demand for it) – central banks actions simply increase or decrease the value of money relative to a stable unit of account.

You are lost in the world of interest rates. Interest rates are NOT the price of money; they are the price of credit. If you can make the leap, the rest is easy.

You can have stable money and volatile (freely market based) interest rates OR unstable money and stable interest rates, but you can’t have both.

All the best. And, yes, we should build a statue to the man (woman?) who invested hydraulics – a genius to be sure; but also the creator of some fairly dangerous equipment.

Charles

I’ve been promising Charles a Mailbag note for a while.

From my perspective, Uncle Sam, Japan, and the Euro Block (and probably others, certainly China) are hopelessly indebted with no natural way of escaping their debt tsunamis.

Thus I think it likely that each such country or block’s central bank will buy and forgive ALL or essentially all such debt in “exchange” for a new regime of fiscal realism and a corresponding new currency such as the “New Dollar”.

I wonder what your thoughts are of the likelihood of this, and what would be the best positioning for individual financial survival?

Gary

If things get bad enough, I don’t think this is a crazy scenario at all. Google “trillion dollar coin” if you want to see how close we’ve gotten already. This is Jubilee, and the survival scenario is pretty simple — be a debtor in a developed country participating in the Jubilee. Even a creditor can do okay, because you’re going to get unbelievable political power out of this. Just don’t get caught outside the Jubilee zone.

Your comment suggests that Uber is actually able to make transportation a breeze, but this service doesn’t happen to increase overall economic productivity in line with consumer appreciation of its service. This is wrong. If you look at the actual economics of Uber’s business model and the economics of urban taxi service, you will quickly see that Uber’ isn’t just “relatively unproductive”, its productivity impact is powerfully negative. Uber is substantially less efficient than the traditional taxi companies it has been driving out of business, and has absolutely no hope of achieving profits or shareholder returns unless it achieves Amazon/Facebook like levels of artificial market power. Companies like Amazon and Facebook can reduce productivity and overall economic welfare once they achieve the levels of artificial market power they now enjoy, but in order to achieve that power they actually developed highly productive operating models and introduced totally new products offering huge new consumer benefits. Uber’s business model was always designed to skip the hard “figure out how to provide services vastly more efficiently than existing providers” part of the equation, and have been using $13 billion in VC cash to achieve industry dominance by subsidizing the huge losses needed to drive existing providers bankrupt. Capital Markets—by explicit design—have been reallocating capital from more productive to less productive uses. If successful, a handful of billionaires would become even more wealthy, but overall economic welfare and the productivity of urban transport would be significantly reduced.

Hubert

I drive for/use Uber because:

  1. My college degree is worthless.
  2. I can’t get a “real” job.
  3. I’m in debt.
  4. I can’t afford a simple house and car in the suburbs.
  5. I’m what you might call “poor” in old-school terms.
  6. All of the above.

anonymous

Heard.

The movement you speak of in the last paragraph… is that demand created by Adam Smith’s unseen hands? What will drive it? As you know from previous communications I think that the low productivity growth is partially driven by the unmeasured deflation inherent in your first explanation of measuring productivity all wrong. We measure productivity in terms of growth of output dollars per man hour. But in a deflationary environment we can grow output in units while the dollar value of that output declines (we have exchanged notes on that before). But I think the same phenomenon is responsible for the low wage growth to boot. So many commentators are puzzled by the fact that, given all the stimulus we have injected into the economy, why we have seen no inflation? My reaction is, given the tech revolution going on, we are in a sharply deflationary environment so the fact that prices haven’t gone down, shows the stimulus HAS brought inflation. But that inflation merely has brought price declines to zero. I.e. if we start with, say, 6% deflation but prices are flat, it means the easy money has generated 6% inflation that offsets. I also think that population demographics have a lot to be explored further. If our population is getting older and birthrates are insufficient to replace, we start trending down in the number of people. That has to have a depressive effect on GNP. But look at Japan, they have stably sustained such an environment for decades. So it strikes me that the relevant measure may not be aggregate GNP but GNP per capita. I.e. you can sustain negative GNP growth as long as it declines at a lower rate than the underlying population such that GNP/head (wellbeing?) is actually growing.

All of this is well and good, but given the explosion in worldwide debt it is still dangerous. The best way to fix that problem is inflate our way out of it. And for that we need real absolute growth. You suggest that that will come from your Maker Movement. But I am wandering what will spark that movement into being?

Jacob

A small group of thoughtful, committed citizens. It’s the only thing that ever has.

Is it also possible that productivity has collapsed because of the burden of over-extended government regulation in a post-GFC world?

Take financial services for example. Let’s say headcount has stayed constant. The make-up has changed materially. We have fired 4 traders and/or analysts and hired 1 programmer and 3 compliance offices.

Buy and sell side alike. With SarBox, Dodd-Frank, Volcker Rule, MiFid II, Basel III, short-sale restriction etc. the massive growth in headcount has been on compliance officers and paralegals and not every programmer is replacing the former traders or analysts but some are coding to prepare reports sent to regulators, exchanges or investors. This is the high of a productivity free fall.

I can’t speak to other industries as directly, however, I imagine directionally the pattern is similar.

Rich

I used to pooh-pooh the whole regulatory burden thing as more of an excuse than a reason. But I was wrong. The struggle is real.

Good stuff as always, but your analysis of the buybacks misses one key point – buybacks are a return of capital and you do not know (cannot know, actually) how that capital is being used. So on a superficial level you can say capital is not being reinvested, but in fact it very well may be – in fact, probably, since most shares are held institutionally, and the cash received would stay in a portfolio and be reinvested elsewhere.

The desirability of buybacks is debated perpetually, but I fall on the side of favoring them. If management really does not see a good real use for the capital, I would prefer it be reinvested elsewhere, rather than wasted internally on inferior return projects. I think this is healthier for the economy too.

As an aside, I think the “lack of productivity” issue is a measurement problem. There are a hundred little things that technology enables nowadays that we take for granted, and would be productivity killers if we lost them – but I don’t see how we can measure it. For instance, try calling an airline to book a ticket rather than using Expedia. You will waste a half hour on a 5 minute task. Or ordering anything on Amazon, versus driving to 20 stores looking for it. Or count the number of emails and texts you send in a day, and consider the time that would be required to make the same communications by phone call. Start looking for these instances in your daily life and you will quickly realize the productivity gains that we are making, without realizing or measuring it. “Things produced” may not show it, but time saved certainly would!

Gary

Reinvestment in public markets never gets to the real economy. Never. I know we’re all taught that S = I, but not all I is created equal.

Trust me, I get the power of stock buybacks, and I’ve had this use-of-cash conversation with management in hundreds of 1-on-1s. That’s literally hundreds. But the inferior return of investments in plant and equipment in a ZIRP world is exactly my point!

As for the “time savings” argument … hang on a second, I gotta check my Twitter account and see if I’ve topped 10k followers yet … that’s big, you know?

As always, great piece. I would add one more explanation to the “low productivity” problem. Whereas in decades past, employees would spend minutes a day on break or at the water cooler, they are now spending hours at their desks on social media, yet employers still report them working 40 hours per week. The reality is that many of these employees are actually working for 35, 30, or even fewer hours per week. What this does is increase the denominator and make it look like productivity per hour is low. The reality is that we should be measuring actual hours worked rather than hours in the office.

This is not just a theory, as there is abundant anecdotal evidence. I am 45 and spend approximately 0 hours on social media, but have asked millennials about it and they confirm my suspicions. They even talk about being criticized for not “liking” comments and photos fast enough. How can you “like” something that quickly if you wait until you get home that night?

Surprisingly, I have read very few articles about this explanation presumably because well-known economists are 50+ and use social media about as often as I do…

Sean

I think this is a big reason why our “time savings” from technological process conveniences (Google, Amazon, etc.) never translate into production or productivity. We amuse … hang on … YES, I’ve topped 10k followers! … seriously, go see @epsilontheory … finally! … ourselves to death.

Really enjoyed your expansion on why productivity hasn’t risen as much as one would suspect from technology. I think it may be due to the “Slacker Effect”.

I have noticed that many young people nowadays graduate from college and don’t really want a “real job”. Even though they are well educated and smart, they prefer to do something pretty mundane and low pressure. Often they provide some kind of personal service in an area they are interested in such as personal training, dog walking, or personal assistant/nanny. Of course there isn’t a whole lot of productivity gains possible in those fields and it doesn’t leverage their education and abilities very much.

It does dovetail nicely with inequality, since there is a good sized population of extremely rich individuals who desire a lot of personal services.

Basically, we have developed a small producer population that is enormously well compensated, leads very high pressure lives, and is serviced by the rest of society.

So in that way the changes we have seen with economic inequality and low productivity gains are politically stable and actually desired by much of the population. Probably destined to continue, notwithstanding hand wringing by economic bloggers.

Keith

Now read this …

Maybe I’m missing the point of “Horsepower”, but if you are advocating for making and buying stuff over seeking out experiences, whether as a provider or a consumer, or both, I think you are completely off base. Marx was all wrong about economics and politics, but, oddly for an academic, he showed some insight on actual life when he inveighed against soul-destroying alienation. And it seems to me that what’s important about your tractor (to you – not me, and not the economy in general) is not the making of it (which would best done by robots), or the buying of it (which decreases your freedom of action in life by decreasing your stock of money), but the experience of using it, whether or not you ever turn a notional “profit” on what you do with it, or contribute to the GDP. The value of stuff to humans lies in the positive experiences they derive from it, and as your Emily Dickinson quotation avers all we need to make a prairie is reverie.

As even high level “white collar” jobs are overtaken by AI-driven automation (yours, financial analyst – my former job, software developer) it can beneficially force us to rethink our lives, devolve economically (scaling back both our getting and spending), and focus more on what’s truly most valuable to us – the pursuit of just the right mix of personal experiences.

John

Yes, I agree.

I agree that you’ve missed the point of “Horsepower”, you’ve missed the point of Marx, and you’ve missed the point of Emily Dickinson. There’s a whole Jamie Lee Curtis riff on this in one of my favorite John Cleese movies, A Fish Called Wanda, but I’ll save that for another day.

The part that struck a chord with me was the marketing of an experience based economy over stuff.

As millennial living in Sydney Australia, I have seen many of my friends adopt that experience oriented mindset which encompasses – going to clubs and raves, extravagant holidays and buying food at work. Which equates to zero savings and even going into debt whilst still living with the parents when they all have well-paying jobs.

As a poker player, I interpret this behaviour as going on tilt. An indirect wave of the white flag over prospects of home ownership (prices are crazy) and a lack of trust in the social contract. You are completely right in seeing this as a distraction but calling it “experience economy” ennobles and empowers this irresponsibility. As a society, you can have another generation with the same bad financial habits of the previous.

I see real danger in this trend and the stakes are underestimated. Because if too many liabilities are places into the future, it means too many liabilities are placed on the government and most social upheavals are the result of such economic problems. This will increase the intensity of identity politics and fans the fires of resentment of the have-nots. I am a small L Liberal because as a child, I heard stories of the Cultural Revolution from my dad. Once a significant portion of the population is poor, you really see the dark side of human nature come out, there will no longer be any small L liberals. My grandfather was a farmer’s son who became a surgeon who donates most of his pay to the relatives who are still struggling farmers. As an individual, he should have been a poster child of the rags to riches story. In the identity politics of the Cultural Revolution, he was categorized as the elite and social parasite and rallies were held to berate him and his cohort. If capitalism is perceived as failing, the stakes are enormous to human liberty and rule of law.

Shaun

Well said, Shaun. Well said. I’ll stake you any day.

Before and After the Storm

I often think that the big divide in this country is between Rural and Urban.

Currently, I see amazement among (I suspect) Urban writers re the Volunteerism in Houston. But it doesn’t take a large-area emergency for this to happen. Fully 1/3 of our National Population is served by Fire Cos. that are Volunteer. I suspect the numbers are similar for EMT’s. In Rural America, it’s a daily occurrence.

Ron

YES.

Rusty’s piece is superb. I love the Durant book that he recommends. He fails to mention that it’s only about 100 pages. There’s no excuse for people to *not* buy it and read it. I have a first edition on my office bookshelf. My *only* quibble with the book is that they understand the broad sweep of history, but get things wrong about the decade in which it’s published. They perceive the civil rights movement as a minor passing thing, rather than a seminal change in racial attitudes. And – get this – they dismiss Warhol as ridiculous non-art that will be forgotten in no time! I think the book should be required reading for all University history majors … except the chapter on current events (i.e., the 1960s).

FWIW, I’d say the same thing about “Devil Take the Hindmost,” published in June 2000, which is a fantastic book about bubbles and crashes, but didn’t treat the tech bubble with anywhere near the wisdom or depth of previous cycles. In other words, historians should stick to history, not current events that haven’t yet revealed their historical role or import.

Rob Arnott

I’ve got The Story of Civilization set in my office … they were my father’s, and the pages are all marked up with his underlining and notes. It’s my best connection to him, gone 20 years now.

The inclusion of ARC on your list of “vetted” charities makes me think that it is not a very good list.

Al

Yes the American Red Cross was vetted, yes we’ve read the Pro Publica report (and others), and yes this is the subject of a vigorous internal debate at Salient. I respect your negative experience with the ARC, although I’ve had a very different experience and am convinced by the commitment of the volunteers and paid professionals I know there.

Ultimately it was my decision to include the American Red Cross on the list of recommended charities, and I stand by that decision.

Last summer we had the opportunity to drive through Houston and the whole area en route to a vacation cruise. We noticed two things:

  1. the area is massively overpopulated; and
  2. it’s low.

As we traveled toward the gulf, we noticed it seems the entire region is only two feet or so above sea level. We thought how lucky the people in these areas have been. A tsunami from an earthquake or volcano will literally wipe out vast areas and millions of people – living where they ought not to live.
Or a real genuine large hurricane with 175 -200+ mph winds with a 15 – 20 storm surge going onshore.

Instead, at this time mild mannered Harvey came but with lots of rain!

We noticed the TV videos of the flood areas and they appeared to be connected to rivers. Indeed, it was obvious that the worst areas, maybe all areas, were floodplains. 100% certain to be engulfed in water. With more than 100,000 homes ruined, it suggests the scope of the destructive policies.
Then we learn that the Houston, specifically, area has little if any development zoning controls.
Likewise, Katrina in New Orleans flooded places where no development should have ever been done.
Increasing population in our already overpopulated country implies greater calamities around the corner.
Seems you are missing the point.

Trying to make the world feel sorry for bad things that happen to people and will happen because of destructive policies is not helpful. To be certain, those people we see are living a very sad situation.
But the situation was caused by developers and their government subsidiaries. Incredibly, they prey on entire populations.

Totally avoidable.

Dell from Minneapolis

My first instinct to this letter was to respond with anger. I mean, I was going to tear Dell from Minneapolis a new orifice. Really let my freak flag fly, you know? And I still can’t help myself completely. It’s just too enticing, what with the whole “en route to a vacation cruise” set up. But then I read this below, from a Team Elite Ministry of Truth platform called Project Syndicate.

Hurricane Harvey has left in its wake upended lives and enormous property damage, estimated by some at $150-180 billion. But the rains that inundated the Texas coast for the better part of a week, and the hurricane that is about to hit South Florida, also raise deep questions about the United States’ economic system and politics.

It is ironic, of course, that an event so related to climate change would occur in a state that is home to so many climate-change deniers – and where the economy depends so heavily on the fossil fuels that drive global warming. Of course, no particular climate event can be directly related to the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But scientists have long predicted that such increases would boost not only average temperatures, but also weather variability – and especially the occurrence of extreme events such as Hurricane Harvey. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded several years ago, “There is evidence that some extremes have changed as a result of anthropogenic influences, including increases in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.” Astrophysicist Adam Frank succinctly explained: “greater warmth means more moisture in the air which means stronger precipitation.”

To be sure, Houston and Texas could not have done much by themselves about the increase in greenhouse gases, though they could have taken a more active role in pushing for strong climate policies. But local and state authorities could have done a far better job preparing for such events, which hit the area with some frequency.

In responding to the hurricane – and in funding some of the repair – everyone turns to government, just as they did in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis. Again, it is ironic that this is now occurring in a part of the country where government and collective action are so frequently rebuked. It was no less ironic when the titans of US banking, having preached the neoliberal gospel of downsizing government and eliminating regulations that proscribed some of their most dangerous and anti-social activities, turned to government in their moment of need.

There is an obvious lesson to be learned from such episodes: markets on their own are incapable of providing the protection that societies need. When markets fail, as they often do, collective action becomes imperative.

And, as with financial crises, there is a need for preventive collective action to mitigate the impact of climate change. That means ensuring that buildings and infrastructure are constructed to withstand extreme events, and are not located in areas that are most vulnerable to severe damage. It also means protecting environmental systems, particularly wetlands, which can play an important role in absorbing the impact of storms. It means eliminating the risk that a natural disaster could lead to the discharge of dangerous chemicals, as happened in Houston. And it means having in place adequate response plans, including for evacuation.

Effective government investments and strong regulations are needed to ensure each of these outcomes, regardless of the prevailing political culture in Texas and elsewhere. Without adequate regulations, individuals and firms have no incentive to take adequate precautions, because they know that much of the cost of extreme events will be borne by others. Without adequate public planning and regulation, including of the environment, flooding will be worse. Without disaster planning and adequate funding, any city can be caught in the dilemma in which Houston found itself: if it does not order an evacuation, many will die; but if it does order an evacuation, people will die in the ensuing chaos, and snarled traffic will prevent people from getting out.

America and the world are paying a high price for devotion to the extreme anti-government ideology embraced by President Donald Trump and his Republican Party. The world is paying, because cumulative US greenhouse-gas emissions are greater than those from any other country; even today, the US is one of the world’s leaders in per capita greenhouse-gas emissions. But America is paying a high price as well: other countries, even poor developing countries, like Haiti and Ecuador, seem to have learned (often at great expense and only after some huge calamities) how to manage natural disasters better.

After the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the shutdown of much of New York City by Sandy in 2012, the devastation wrought on Texas by Harvey, and now the prospect of Irma pummeling Florida, the US can and should do better. It has the resources and skills to analyze these complex events and their consequences, and to formulate and implement regulations and investment programs that mitigate the adverse effects on lives and property.

What America doesn’t have is a coherent view of government by those on the right, who, working with special interests that benefit from their extreme policies, continue to speak out of both sides of their mouth. Before a crisis, they resist regulations and oppose government investment and planning; afterwards, they demand – and receive – billions of dollars to compensate them for their losses, even those that could easily have been prevented.

One can only hope that America, and other countries, will not need more natural persuasion before taking to heart the lessons of Hurricane Harvey.

Joseph

This is not from Dell from Minneapolis, driving through Houston on his way to a cruise and making some off-the-cuff and ignorant comments. This is Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Prize winner. This is Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist of the World Bank. This is Joseph Stiglitz, former chair of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors. This is Joseph Stiglitz, former chair of the U.N. Commission on Reforms of the International Monetary and Financial System. Dell from Minneapolis is not one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. Joseph Stiglitz is.

Now I’m not going to get into a blow-by-blow response to this Stiglitz piece, although like Dell from Minneapolis’s masterwork, there are some flowers here that I can’t help but pluck (“America and the world are paying a high price for devotion to the extreme anti-government ideology embraced by President Donald Trump and his Republican Party.” If only we had had a president for the past eight years who considered climate change to be our #1 national security concern. Just imagine how much better off we would be today.).

But I’ll say this. The smiley-face authoritarianism that oozes from this article, the not understanding and the not wanting to understand the facts of Houston and Harvey, the global system that awards Stiglitz — an intelligent man who knows better — its highest accolades and sweetest rewards for his betrayals of truth-seeking, the sheer mendacity of the effort … this is our enemy. It’s my enemy, anyway. And combating it will be a life well lived.

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Before and After the Storm or: Make America Good Again


Thanks for being part of the Epsilon Theory community. One of the other communities that matters to us is Brazoria County, a rural county south of Houston that is experiencing heavy floods in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. The United Way of Brazoria County is a charity focused on recovery for this heavily impacted region.


Mr. Advocate, the rotten tree-trunk, until the very moment when the storm-blast breaks it in two, has all the appearance of might it ever had. The storm-blast whistles through the branches of the Empire even now. Listen with the ears of psychohistory, and you will hear the creaking.
— Isaac Asimov, Foundation (1951)

Do you hear the creaking?

I don’t. It’s not that I don’t see what’s going on in America or that I’m not pained by an increasingly bi-polar distribution of political, social and ethical views. After all, the belief in narrative-driven politics and narrative-driven markets isn’t a belief in their virtue, only their existence. I also don’t know how we get out of this cycle, but I believe that we will. This is not a Seldon Crisis, and Trump is not the Mule.

That Nature smiles at the union of freedom and equality in our utopias. For freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails the other dies. Leave men free, and their natural inequalities will multiply almost geometrically, as in England and America in the nineteenth century under laissez-faire. To check the growth of inequality, liberty must be sacrificed, as in Russia after 1917. Even when repressed, inequality grows; only the man who is below the average in economic ability desires equality; those who are conscious of superior ability desire freedom, and in the end superior ability has its way.
— Will and Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History, 1968

Cersei Lannister: You should have taken the realm for yourself. Jaime told me about the day King’s Landing fell. He was sitting in the Iron Throne and you made him give it up. All you needed to do was climb the steps yourself. Such a sad mistake.
Ned Stark: I’ve made many mistakes in my life, but that wasn’t one of them.
Cersei: Oh, but it was. When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.
Game of Thrones, Season 1, Episode 7

Perhaps the cause of our contemporary pessimism is our tendency to view history as a turbulent stream of conflicts — between individuals in economic life, between groups in politics, between creeds in religion, between states in war…but if we turn from that Mississippi of strife, hot with hate and dark with blood, to look upon the banks of the stream, we find quieter but more inspiring scenes: women rearing children, men building homes, peasants drawing food from the soil, artisans making the conveniences of life, statesmen sometimes organizing peace instead of war, teachers forming savages into citizens, musicians taming our hearts with harmony and rhythm, scientists patiently accumulating knowledge, philosophers groping for truth, saints suggesting the wisdom of love. History has been too often a picture of the bloody stream. The history of civilization is a record of what happened on the banks.
— Will Durant

  Unidentified man/hero/Texan

Reporter:  You guys going to jump in and help out?
Unidentified Man:  Yes, sir.
Reporter:  Where you coming from?
Unidentified Man:  Texas City.
Reporter:  What…what are you going to do?
Unidentified Man:  I’m going to try to go save some lives.

“Val”, said Father, “we don’t expect you to understand this, but some of the things that make Peter…difficult…are the very things that might also make him great someday.”
“What about me?” asked Valentine. “As long as you’re telling fortunes.”
“Oh, Val,” said Father. “All you have to do is live your life, and everyone around you will be happier.”
“No greatness, then.”
“Val,” said Mother. “goodness trumps greatness any day.”
“Not in the history books,” said Valentine.
“Then the wrong people are writing history, aren’t they?” said Father.
Orson Scott Card, Ender in Exile, (2008)

Damn right, they are.

It’s hard to stay focused on a lot of things in the face of human tragedy. Including markets.

I’m writing this on Tuesday, August 29 from my home office in Memorial, a village on the west side of Houston. We’ve gotten more than 30 inches of rain through this morning, we can still do our jobs, and we’re doing fine. The people to the west of us in Katy aren’t. Waters from rains upstream have led to overflowing reservoirs that will be released over time, keeping flood waters high. People to the east of us aren’t, either. Many of Houston’s most populated areas are under water. We have colleagues that have been evacuated from houses they evacuated to, and clients and friends who haven’t been able to leave their second floors for a week.

My little hometown in Brazoria, Texas, some 60 miles to the south, is about to have the screws put to it next. It sits between two rivers. One is a stream called the San Bernard River. The other is a Big, Nasty River called the Brazos. It puts nine times as much water through it as the Rio Grande. Come later this week when this piece is published, it will be putting through 45-60 times as much water — at my hometown maybe some 70-80,000 cubic feet per second. If extrapolations from this NWS projection are to be believed, it could be more like 120-140,000 cubic feet per second. As you can see from the missing right axis, it is both literally and figuratively an unfathomable amount of water — an Olympic-sized swimming pool flowing every 3 seconds through a channel where it usually takes two minutes.

We tend to think big thoughts when big things like this happen, and there’s been a lot of that going on. For me, those thoughts have turned local, but I know a great many people outside of the Greater Houston area are focused on other things that are going on: Charlottesville, the Trump presidency, Berkeley, Eclipses, Nazis. It’s a lot to take, and Ben has accurately predicted and is now observing how some of these issues are manifesting themselves in Competitive Games that force us all into positions where we must either fight or lose. He was absolutely right that the aftermath of the Trump presidency would break us, that it would destroy any chance at productive political, social — hell, even investment dialogue. Was the event that broke us irrevocable? How do we get out of this Competitive Game? Can we?

These questions form the central context for one of the greatest works of science fiction ever written: Foundation, by Isaac Asimov. Spoilers follow, but frankly if you haven’t read it, you should stop reading this note and read it instead. It’s better. The story of Foundation is the story of a massive multi-planetary civilization and the development of a robust, flexible system for understanding and modeling the sociopolitical trends of its very large societies: psychohistory. The main champion of this system, a generational genius named Hari Seldon, identifies the inevitable fall of the prevailing government and its devastating aftermath. While the collapse is unavoidable, he determines, not all subsequent outcomes are equivalent. He devises a plan to plant seeds of the civilization that would survive in two corners of the galaxy, predicting that the evolution of those societies over future generations would lead to the maximum possible peace and stability. The system of psychohistory hinges on the behaviors of very large groups of humans and the simplifying assumption that no individual could possibly have the influence or power to break these models.

There are two kinks in Hari Seldon’s system. The first is the idea that Foundation — but really, any civilization — will reach inflection points from time to time where one set of actions will break the path back to peace and harmony, and one set of actions will maintain it. These events require active intervention outside of the normal behaviors that those in power would otherwise pursue. These are Seldon Crises. The second kink is different in that it is unpredictable, or at least was unpredicted. It is the existence of a single individual who does reach the level of power — in this case through the development of abilities to influence the emotions and judgments of those he encounters — to change the inevitability of Seldon’s map of history. The Mule, as he is called, nearly breaks the Seldon model, until those who rediscovered psychohistory rebuild the models and determine the appropriate strategy to ensure that the Foundation civilization gets back on its long-cycle path back toward peace and stability.

This is fiction and there is nothing in political science , economics or sociology that approaches psychohistory’s fictional robust stochastic framework for predicting the ebbs and flows of history. But there is truth here. The long cycles of history do have repeating features, which have never been better described in a non-fictional sense than by Will and Ariel Durant. Despite already having recommended one book, I think very few books are truly “must-reads.” Still, every human should own and read The Lessons of History as well. Among many other lessons, the Durants present a framework in which the path of history swings between liberty and freedom on the one hand, and equality through social control on the other. That control may extend from a government, from the seat of a priest, spiritualist or imam, from a military strongman or warlord, or from a particularly influential social structure.

In the days and weeks since Charlottesville, I think that a lot of people are starting to see President Trump’s election as a sort of Seldon Crisis. The language people used — the language *I* used when I left the GOP to be a #NeverTrumper — was the language of statistical distributions. “Sure, Hillary Clinton has a lower mean, but Trump has a fat left tail” was the particular phrase I used to sound smart and inoffensive to friends and family who either supported or opposed him. In a lot of ways, this is the language of a Seldon Crisis, because it begins to characterize the threats to society posed by an event or person as existential. I don’t know exactly how to communicate to you that existential language is now our lingua franca, but do I really need to?

Source: Google 2017

A lot of people see the president as The Mule now, too, I think, by which they imply that Trump was both unpredictable and capable of disproportionately large influence on the direction of society relative to what we would have expected from the ordinary ebbs and flows of history. Of course, the Voxsplainer types would be happy to provide you with their latest patronizing explanation for why and how Trump was elected. They’ll also follow it up with a series of snide sub-tweets to give themselves ironic cover. But the many on the left who cannot understand his election or his continued support often have difficulty fathoming that his base did not form as the result of Mule-style manipulation of some sort of another. It’s a backhanded compliment for a big slice of humanity: they couldn’t possibly be this stupid. Of course, it’s also condescending as hell.

The truth is even more condescending. Trump is not a Seldon Crisis. Trump is not the Mule. Sorry. The rotation between equality and liberty continues unabated, peacefully or otherwise, over the centuries. And it’s all happening again. Except it is different this time. It is happening faster. Much faster. Not because of the existence of a Mule character like, say, Hitler, whose individual influence thwarts the ability of the psychohistorians like Hari Seldon or Will Durant to predict paths. And it’s not because of Trump, as much as many want to paint him with that brush.

It’s because of the internet.

Taxonomy of Tribalism

“All politics is local.”
— Tip O’Neill, Jr.

It wasn’t that long ago that Speaker O’Neill was right in saying that politics was local. Politics and civics were largely formed in a household, shaped by a local community and then influenced by a largely regional experience. Most people shared party affiliations with their parents, and if they shed them, it was a ritualistic shedding of those affiliations in favor of another held by a similar group — think Woodstock or Haight-Ashbury. Diversity of belief was protected by general isolation from other groups. You knew what the politics and civics of a small town in Oklahoma with one Baptist church would be. You knew what politics a union town in Ohio with a steel mill would adopt. The meeting at the community center in a poor district of a big city held few secrets. Our towns, our families, our communities were our echo chambers.

I come to bury this notion, not to praise it!

These structures fostered social stability, which was often a boon to those communities. People had structures for emotional and material support, people who would be there to keep an eye on their home when they traveled. People who would stop by with food after a funeral (which they always went to). People who provided accountability and comfort and resources to empower productive risk-taking. They show themselves in the wake of tragedies like Hurricane Harvey in huge quantity because — and I genuinely believe this — people are generally good. But as much as I sobbed like a baby watching the good-ol-boys of the Cajun Navy roll in from New Orleans, Lafayette and Baton Rouge, I’m not naïve, Kay. I know this won’t last forever. In a few weeks, maybe a couple months, we’ll be back to business as usual. A lot of people (these are not the generally good people I was talking about earlier, in case you were wondering) have already jumped the gun, trying to decide which political stance they want to justify through use of the disaster. If history is any guide, the rest of us will follow.

If Charlottesville and Berkeley are a reminder of anything, however, it’s that our community echo chambers were often vile, too. When a community jointly agreed that racism was acceptable, that a socialist revolution was imminent, that communists were under every bed, or that southerners were all provincial rubes, the forces compelling change in those views were few. Oh, sure, some bold ones would stand up from within the community to speak truth to power. These were virtuous men and women, those who accelerated the necessary conversations. People moved, television and radio and newspapers still communicated narratives, and thoughts still flowed through the country. But slowly. And slowly but surely change took place in gradual, predictable ways. For centuries, it was a conservative America, not in the modern issue-based political sense but in the more traditional Buckleyan sense of standing athwart history yelling, “Stop!” It wasn’t slow because of some strong political force, but because the force required to change the inertia of a geographically massive country with relatively low population density was not there. Politics instead followed the patterns of linguistic dialects, where isolation and proximity drove deviations in diction, syntax and grammar, and where the things that caused interaction like trade, diplomacy, television, culture and politics, led to their convergence.

Both virtue and vileness notwithstanding, everyone was generally still playing a Collaborative Game. Not because of any special virtue of the parties involved, but because there were so many pockets of difference in experience that any kind of engagement required identifying commonalities and finding compromise. Of course there was conflict. But these were (figuratively) isolated populations coming together to discuss radically different world views, which generally required explanation, empathy and patience. Going Competitive meant true isolation, because the other side didn’t have to play our game, not really. Politics were local. In the same way that people coming together who speak different languages had to find a means of communication to proceed to rubrics and translations, there was a natural need for collaboration — and the occasional threat of conflict bred out of mistranslation! But after any negotiation, there was a home to return to. The Competitive Game didn’t work, because people had the option to leave that game and join another. You couldn’t force people to play in your game and lose, because they could take their ball to their community and go home.

The internet broke that.

It didn’t happen immediately, in part because of the pace of adoption of the technology itself, but more because the forms that constant, broad communication would take took some time to settle on. The message board begat the chat room begat the personal webpage begat the blog begat closed social media networks begat open social media networks. That was the singularity. The open social media network — Twitter and, increasingly, Facebook — replaced the community. Even for those who weren’t active participants in the networks themselves, a critical mass of other of society’s structures became connected to it, its language and its norms. The media, corporate executives, politicians — even sports leagues — cannot escape the influence of the norms promoted by these networks.

You could argue that churches, community groups, neighbors, extended families, political action groups, and other causes still act as anchors for cultural values, but for the most part, you’d be wrong. The average child may spend 6-8 hours a day on social media. The average adult spends two. How many hours does the average American spend in Church/Temple/Mosque? Reading his Bible/Torah/Koran? Outside of a natural disaster, how often does he really talk to his neighbors? Add to this the network effect of other media that are inextricable from the ways in which news is consumed, evaluated and parsed, and it becomes clear that there is no community to run to. Choose your box, because the game has changed, and you can’t leave the table.

So what’s the big deal? The big deal is that this has driven much more rapid propagation, acceptance and incorporation of new ideas. In the same way that a meme is already the subject of meta-jokes about cynical responses to the original meme by the time that half the country is just seeing it, dizzying new social values emerge almost daily. It took 396 years for America to decide that it probably doesn’t make sense to criminalize being born as a gay person. It took 12 years after that for America to recognize that the world isn’t going to come crashing down around us if we recognize that gay people who love each other ought to be able to get married. It took 2 years after that for social media to decide that there are 183 shades of human sexuality, and read the sticky post on the top of the forum for the acceptable terms to use for each of them, because the old terms you used yesterday are now hateful. The world is moving very, very quickly.

The social liberal looks at this state of affairs and says, “Hell yes!” Maybe we overshoot sometimes, but that overshooting is overstated. If moving quickly and pissing people off along the way is the cost of taking away the safe places for bigots, racist and sexists, and starting the process of taking away oppressive systems put in place by rich white men, then it’s worth it. Look, I hear you. A lot of good people think this way.

The social conservative looks at this and is puzzled. We’ve transitioned from a society that cared what you did, to a society that cared what you said, to a society that cared what you thought, he says. I’m kind to my family, to my friends, and to strangers. I really do try to improve myself, and I know I’m not perfect. I really do care about what happens to people, and I’ll drive 300 miles with my pick-up truck, a boat and some hip waders, and I’ll work myself to exhaustion for a week for people I don’t know and will never see again. But I also have values and beliefs I grew up with, and they’re values that have worked for hundreds of years. I’m not ready to throw them away on a whim. I hear you, too. A lot of good people think this way.

Good or not, neither of these people can take his ball and go home anymore, because there is no home. If they would be a part of the process of making social, cultural and political decisions at all, they must play, whether it is a Collaborative Game or a Competitive Game. The steering wheel has been ripped away from them, but to make the game of chicken complete, someone must point the cars at each other and set the stakes. Those who would marshal these forces find an easy tool to achieve this, whether intentionally or subconsciously: convince people they’re part of a tribe, and tell them they’re under attack.

What I’m talking about here isn’t just applying names to things we or others attach ourselves to. It isn’t just saying that “You’re a democrat so you’ll think this” or “You’re a black/white/Hispanic man, so this must be your view on this topic.” No, what we are talking about is the scorched earth tactic that treats every defining issue as an existential one. It’s us or them. You win or you die.

This dynamic isn’t out of character with the path of history, some aberration caused by an unduly influential Mule. It is an emergent property of a society undergoing too-rapid change.

Manufactured Existential Crises

The forces that seek to manipulate the political right do so through the creation of wholly imaginary ideals that are assumed to be in need of defending. Since they are imaginary, to conjure threats against them is purely a matter of narrative creation of the sort that has graced these pages for years. Consider the white race or white culture. It is a myth — it doesn’t exist. Racially, admixture analysis finds a tremendous amount of diversity within Europe. Mediterranean populations often have more in common with those of the Levant than with Northern Europe. Modern and ancient DNA archetypes found within Scandinavia, Ireland and the Balkans are extraordinarily different. I belong to a Y-DNA sub-clade called A738, a relatively recent off-shoot of M-222 that includes a narrow set of names: Guinn, Egan, Keegan, Morgan, Goggins, Larkin. And I am more likely to share a direct male line ancestor with a man from N’Djamena than a man from Nuremberg or Nizhny Novgorod. The below is the spread today of the R1b haplogroup, which is even further up the chain.

The Lost Cause vision of the Confederacy is a myth. I say this as someone who will defend almost any cemetery installation celebrating the simple bravery and honor of the individual soldier, and as someone who thinks Robert E. Lee was sufficiently brilliant as a tactician to merit historical remembrance. But anyone who says the largely disposable plaques and generic statues churned out by a generic factory to celebrate the “spirit of the Confederate Cause” are those kinds of monuments to history is defending an imaginary construct. It is vapor, but useful vapor to those who would divide us. It’s forced us into a world where people who don’t know Paul Johnson from Paul Blart have become self-appointed defenders of history, and where people who learned about the Federalist Papers in a Broadway musical are deeply concerned about celebrating treason. Please.

The forces motivating and influencing the political left in America have cultivated an even more perfect, self-reinforcing tool for division, I think. The post-modern sensibilities of the movement are utterly Foucauldian. In a rather clever sleight-of-hand from the intent-, conviction- and character-driven views that drove the Civil Rights movement, the manipulators of the American left now fully embrace the language of the Panopticon. By presenting society as citizens operating within a controlled and monitored system, the left can argue at any juncture that those who oppose their arguments are simply agents of an oppressive system. Can’t find data to support your statement? Can’t develop a logical path to support your conclusions? You need only say that your opponent argues from a place of privilege or status within an oppressive system, and the argument is over. This kind of language that automatically asserts the pervasive existence of oppression as an argument-ender, whether it exists or not, is just another way to promote the constant existential crisis.

If after reading one of the prior three paragraphs we think to ourselves, “Yes, but ____ is a fake existential crisis. Mine is real, and here’s why,” then we have to consider whether we’re part of the problem. All of these things, and the politicians we elect to promote our narrow view of them, are natural patterns in the swing of the pendulum toward equality-motivated control.

So what do we do?

It is time now for us to rise from sleep.
— Benedict of Nursia

What does the path of history tell us? What does the aftermath of one of America’s greatest natural disasters and human tragedies tell us? What can we do to survive and escape a Competitive Game that doesn’t allow us to pull away from the table? If you’re reading this, you’re probably in the investment industry, or at least have an interest in financial markets. If you’re in the investment industry or in the financial markets, you like to win. So you’re not going to like my answer.

We play. And we lose.

The story of history, I think, is that the only way to defuse a Competitive Game is to win by eliminating your competition, or to choose to play a Collaborative strategy even when you know it is sub-optimal.

There is a time for war, and that is usually our instinct. But there is a time for sacrifice, too. In 529 A.D., Benedict of Nursia chose sacrifice. At a time where the Competitive Game had so gone off the rails that Rome fell into ruin, Benedict and his adherents isolated themselves from society and devoted themselves to service, industry and memory. The result of their efforts was isolation, poverty and celibacy. It was also the preservation and creation of much that was and is good about European culture and society. They preserved and practiced techniques for making foods and wines. They preserved writing, language, literature and histories. Agricultural methods and metallurgy. They were the Foundation during the collapse of the Empire.

What about us? What can we do?

We can start by laying down our right to take offense. We can be unfailingly committed not only to the principles of freedom of speech, but to the value of free expression and exchange of ideas. In other words, by not pursuing the counterproductive, obstructive aims of the worst cartoon the otherwise brilliant Randall Munroe ever made. We can be vulnerable, we can let our opponents assign us identities and titles we would never adopt for ourselves without complaint. We can believe the best about people, even if we know it may cause us harm. We can give up our right to be right.

This is true in our businesses and lives as investors as well, because most of you know as well as I do that the cynicism that pervades politics has invaded our world as well. So what can we do? We can be unfailingly honest with our clients, our families. We can hold loosely to the things we think about markets and our portfolios by focusing on a narrow group of things that matter. We can engage with our clients and build portfolios that will allow them to focus on the things that happen on the banks, and not in the bloody river. We can do all in our power to destroy the agency issues and career risk dynamics that influence decisions and cause harm to the people who put their trust in us. We can gas up the boat and try to save some lives.

In short, we can choose goodness over greatness. It only works if we do it together.

Join us!

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