“To believe is very dull. To doubt is intensely engrossing. To be on the alert is to live; to be lulled into security is to die.”
This quote by Oscar Wilde is the purpose of this newsletter: an honest inquiry into the nature of what is, a rigorous intellectual effort to sift through the barrage of information, disinformation, and misinformation available; to distinguish the credible from the propaganda, the reality from the rant. Am I the only one who has noticed that anyone with the temerity to ask any question of political, economic, or financial significance in polite society these days risks being immediately overwhelmed with passionate polemics about this ideology or that political dogma? Names and labels are immediately brought up which were not mentioned in the question, and the entire conversation is promptly hijacked and redirected to the vilification of opposing beliefs, groups, and parties.
It is the view of this writer that the intense human need for belief, for certainty, and for ultimate truth is probably the original sin, for once armed with such belief, we close the door of our minds to new and possibly contradictory information. For intellectually honest persons to admit to contradictions would require a re-examination of cherished premises, and an admission that their current perception of reality may be incomplete or (gasp) misguided. Therefore this newsletter is not an advocate of any group; not the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, the Tea Party, the Occupy Wall St. party, or any other party. Nor am I an anarchist, survivalist, or conspiracy theorist. I have no “position” to defend other than the inviolability of individual human rights. As stated in the American Declaration of Independence, these rights are inalienable, meaning that they can only be taken from us by force, whether that is at the point of a gun, or voted away by some group with the backing of the State, which enjoys the monopoly on the use of the guns. The individual is the smallest minority in the world, and rarely does anyone rise up in his/her defense. It seems the individual is only valued as one member of the herd. It is the herd, the collective, the group which is championed, and it seems the only rights that matter much anymore are group rights, and civil discourse has deteriorated into group warfare.
We are human animals, and we have survived by herding together into packs either defined by ethnic origin or religious and ideological associations. As adults we are no different than we were as small children, determined not to commit ourselves to an answer without surveying the level of support we will enjoy if we expose our opinion. Political correctness is socially enforced conformity. We see this conformity everywhere, from our college classrooms to our churches to our political parties, and even, or especially, among our media. The newsroom has ceased to be about news, but only a coveted tool with which to bombard the public with sound bytes of advocacy. And our politicians have no beliefs until a survey or their financial sponsors tell them what their followers want them to believe. Actually, what the politicians believe in private isn’t all that relevant, as long as they publicly espouse whatever will gain them access to the levers of power. Facts and accurate information are rarely sought after in honest inquiry or the pursuit of truth. These are only the masks we wear to disguise confirmation bias, status and power seeking.
Several years ago I was invited to a friend’s house for a party, and in due course became involved in a conversation with another guest who shared that he was a stockbroker by profession. Being a financial writer, I welcomed this opportunity to get his learned feedback on some recent financial events. I asked a question, and for the next ten or fifteen minutes listened to his erudite discourse. It was only later that I realized that I did not understand one single thing he said. It dawned on me that this person’s response was not intended to educate, but to impress, motivated by vanity or an ingrained professional habit of selling by intimidation. (He knows so much more than we do, things that we could not possibly understand, that the best we could do is put our financial future in his competent hands.) Nothing is more indicative of such motivations than the intentional abuse of statistics and graphs to achieve desired ends. We are all presumably sophisticated enough by now to approach all such “evidence” with caution.
I became interested in financial literacy when I realized that few were really interested in informing or educating the public, but only leading them to certain conclusions and actions that empowered those controlling the flow of information. In reading the financial papers and magazines, I realized that society was divided between those few who “know” and the vast majority who will be told “what they need to know” by the talking faces. I read the Economist for years before I admitted to myself how much of their financial language I still didn’t understand. When I asked friends and colleagues questions, many of them with advanced degrees, much to my surprise I learned they didn’t know the answers either. It made me wonder how much of such “communication” is to convey understanding and how much is the use of specialized jargon to impress, confuse, or worse, to obfuscate or conceal real intentions. Knowledge, after all, is power. And power is the name of the game. The world has changed. Human nature has not.
To my layman’s eye, much of economics has about as much validity as Tarot Card reading. I went to such a fortune teller once, and I noticed the questions she asked me during our “interview” and how cleverly she fed my own information back to me. She confirmed my original bias. I thought she was brilliant. One of these days I expect the Chairman of the Federal Reserve to show up with a red bandanna around his head, and a gold hoop in one ear. Is he not doing the same thing, feeding back to us (and his bosses) what we all want to hear, that we can have what we want without the money to pay for it? We can masturbate our minds as long as we want in this hall of mirrors, but reality still awaits us on the other side of the Exit sign. It’s not a good sign when our leaders insist on staying inside the Fun House, explaining their actions with impressive circumlocutions. Which means we haven’t got a clue what they just said.
The desired goal of much communication is not fostering independence of spirit and action, but obedience and conformity. It is easier to control and move the herd than it is to control independent and well informed minds. If the explanations given to us by the Federal Reserve, the Treasury, the bankers and investment counselors seem vague, complicated, dubious, or contradictory, how and when do we know if this is intentional or not? Since they are the experts, who are we to challenge them? (It is precisely when we feel this way that we should challenge established wisdom.)
To understand how the world really works requires knowledge of history. There are two things a person needs to know about history. 1) History is never boring. There are only boring history teachers. 2) History is written by the victors, because real history is the natural enemy of the State. The State benefits from the shortage of accurate information, and the State always seeks to control the flow of information. Much of what children are taught in every nation is heavily influenced by what the State apparatus wants them to learn. We frequently call this public, or State-sponsored education. History is where we have been, which means history is how we got to where we are. History holds many secrets, which is why most interested parties are obsessed with requiring more acceptable versions of it.
The internet of course is changing everything. Access to information, so far, has been harder to control. The internet does not have the appointed gatekeepers to information as do the mainstream media outlets. The internet is changing the face of education, and the sacrosanctness of our universities where we fashion the thinking of our thinkers is being eroded by non-traditional sources of learning. Students have increased exposure not merely to what a tenured faculty member would have them believe, but to more unfiltered global perspectives and experiences. The income gap in the future is going to be between those few with independent minds and the ability to think critically, and those who choose to follow. With massive grade inflation in the public school system, a four-year college degree today is often the equivalent of a high school diploma only a few years ago. In the better schools, very little is being taught to actually help the graduates survive in an economic sense, and perhaps the best assets the students have purchased with their parents’ money are the social connections they develop with their classmates. Some of those classmates will end up in positions of power, and proximity to power often translates into wealth and privilege.
Government is changing because of the internet. The bargain between any government and its citizens is changing, as it becomes more difficult or even impossible to identify one’s enemies, or to stop them at the borders. Economics and world trade are changing, and money circulates the globe at the touch of a button, and corporations become bigger and more powerful than nation states. Financial instruments of trade are created faster than regulatory environments can identify them, and systemic complications threaten to bring the whole system down.
When the body politic is fragmenting and pulling in different directions, when each group is trying to outshout every other group, when everything is for sale, and the wealth of the nation and the future of its taxpayers are up for sale to the highest bidder, who do you want to believe? And if you wish to cling to a group for security, which group do you want to trust your financial future with? What happens to your future when your group is outspent by a better funded one? Which dogma feels safest to you right now? What does it tell you when a politician raises almost a billion dollars to buy an office that pays $400,000 per year?
There are those who fail at communication because they have a poorly developed ability to put their thoughts in order, to define what they believe, or enunciate the supporting arguments of what they believe. These are the folks who have not arrived at their beliefs through rigorous and honest evaluation of facts and evidence, but who most likely absorbed their beliefs from their culture at large, meaning the media, family, church, schooling, college professors, friends, work associates, and other influential people. Any critical analysis they do is mostly criticism of opposing viewpoints, and their analysis is nothing more than a search for information that confirms their existing prejudices. In today’s information society, to even have a position is to imply that the end of all progress has been attained.
Take for example, the most amazing bias in favor of government intervention in the economic affairs of consumers. Usually this is framed in David-and-Goliath terms, i.e. that we as individual (David) consumers are not capable of managing our transactions without the government to protect us from the Goliath of global enterprise. The bias I refer to here, and take exception to, is the belief that government workers are somehow immune to the same selfish striving, the same or similar ulterior motives as anyone, anywhere else in society. Somehow, by labeling commerce as profit-motivated (admittedly self-motivated), we are granting government an enormous benefit of the doubt. For more information on this, go to https://www.financialliteracysource.com/money/why-the-federal-reserve-exists/#more-231.
Now if government is populated by the same Homo sapiens as free markets, how is it that only government workers are sin- and greed- free? Again, history comes to our rescue. Throughout the millennia of human existence, it has always been government, with its attendant monopoly on the use of force that has enslaved humanity. The primary concern of the intellectual founders of this country was to protect the future generations from the grasping, insatiable, and inevitably expanding reach of their own government. The limitation of powers enshrined in the Constitution was to protect us from voting ourselves into slavery. Democracy by itself provides no such protection. Nine foxes and a hen voting on what to have for dinner doesn’t bode well for the hen.
We live in a brand new, technology-driven world, a world the founding fathers could not even conceive. They lived in an agrarian society, which evolved into an industrial society, and we are now in a post-industrial, information society. Governments can no longer protect their citizens with any degree of certainty, neither economically or militarily. The enemy is no longer other nation states, but ideologies that motivate and empower fanatics of every stripe to attain their goals with weapons of mass destruction. MAD, or mutually assured destruction policies have been rendered obsolete. Likewise, financial and political decisions from Wall St. to Greece to Southeast Asia threaten to derail the financial stability of the rest of the world. The inability of our existing government structures to provide the basic security that is implicit to the bargain with their citizens can in time undermine their legitimacy, a weakness that will be exploited whenever possible by their enemies, both within and without.
The world has never been a more dangerous place; and our future as a species is by no means assured. This is not fear-mongering or apocalyptic scare tactics: I have no doubt the people at the hubs of power who know far more than you or I about what goes on behind the closed doors of government and foreign policy would not disagree.
Now more than ever, Oscar Wilde’s probably offhand remark applies in a very literal sense: “To be on the alert is to live; to be lulled into security is to die.”
I am not pretending to be an expert here. I am 62 years old at this writing, and I have lived a very varied, but always “examined” life. I welcome your comments and open debate, and so would my other readers. This re-launch of this website is intended to be your forum, not my pulpit. Tell us what you have heard, know, researched, read, or wondered about–in the Comments section below.
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