Sunday, March 15, 2015

So...Why Are People Sheep?

Each of us has the urge to be an individual and also a follower.  It is part of our nature.

In a previous posting, I noted that the real problem with con artists and other rip-offs is not the people perpetrating the frauds, but the vast number of people willing to engage with these folks without any critical thought skills.

We criticize payday loan places as being a rip-off of the poor.  But the poor willingly go to these places and borrow money and destroy their lives, financially. So long as they are willing to be sheep, you can't stop people from going to places like this.

If you outlawed Payday Loan shops, the poor would just go right back to loan sharks.  Make something illegal, you just drive it underground.  The problem isn't the con artists, but the conned.  So long as people engage in weak thinking and the something-for-nothing mentality, they will continue to be mowed down like corn and slaughtered like sheep.

So why are people like this?

Well, we all are.  There is a part of all of our personalities to be part of the herd.   There is also a separate part to be the rugged individualist.   That second part is a lot weaker.   Most of us crave the herd, the safety in numbers, the acceptance by the masses.   Security, insular, like a warm woolen blanket.

Why is this?   Simply put, it is part of our evolution.   If we were not sheep-like in some way or another, we would not band together to form families, tribes, villages, cities, states, countries - and armies.   We need, as part of our survival tool kit, the ability to be subservient, to go with the flow, and to do what everyone else does.   The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want....

However, if everyone was a sheep, the herd would also die.   Our human civilization needs - requires - that we also have this "rugged individualist" type personality within us, and some of us to be more individual than herd-like.   We need leaders to look up to and to tell us what to do.   We also need the lone wolves, who break away from the pack, and find better grazing over the next hill.   Without either, we are doomed.

So, most kids, by Junior High, are pretty much conformist. They all wear the same clothes as their social group, the same hair styles, and the same tattoos and piercings.  "What are you looking at?" they cry, "I'm just being an individual" and they are - like everyone else. What they are really craving is acceptance from a peer group and thus they become highly conformist.  They all wear the same ski hats in the summer.

Real individuals - people who just don't give a damn about what other people think, are, of course, very rare.   And there is a thin line here between people who want to rise above the herd, to be leaders, and those who just want to get the hell away from all the other sheep, the bleating, and the smell of sheep shit.  And maybe that is why our leaders often fall from grace - they are outsiders posing as the ultimate insiders.   They are not really like us, they are not one of us, they are not part of the herd - but pretend to be so, to gain our confidence.   You really don't want to sit down and "have a beer" with a Presidential candidate.   You have nothing in common with them!   Sheep never run for office or run large corporations or take any position of power and control - or not for very long.

Should we all be sheep?   Or should we try to break away from the herd?   The sad reality is, probably we have little choice in this matter.   You either are a sheep or you are not.   You either do your own thing, or you are constantly watching your neighbors for proper normative cues as to what to do. 

But perhaps that is a bit overly pessimistic.   Perhaps we can be sheep when we want to, and then disengage our sheep-like behavior when it harms us.   When we follow the herd off the cliff, it does us no good.   Tithing to a prosperity theology, or signing up for "miles" or "rewards" credit cards because it was advertised on TeeVee is not good for your personal finances.   Listening to the shouting guy on TeeVee is just being a sheep - listening to another sheep bleat at full volume.

Buying the latest trendy stocks, or gold, or bitcoins, or whatever IPO they try to sell us, is sheep-like behavior.   The stuff they sell you on the television isn't "inside information" but stuff all the other sheep know.

As I have noted before, it is safer at the center of the herd, but the grass is also all trampled down there - and pooped upon.   There is safety - but no real opportunity.   At the leading edge of the herd, the grass is fresh and poop-free.  At the trailing edge, it is all eaten and just poop.  The secret is to work toward the edges, without choosing the poop edge and thinking you are ahead of the pack.   Sadly, in a lot of "financial" blogs I see out there, people are wolfing down sheep poop and trying to tell us it tastes yummy.   

Unplugging from the media is a sure first step to take - and the hardest for most people.  "What do you mean, no television!  I'll miss all my shows!"  But the television turns people into sheep - 4.6 hours a day.   When you watch a lot of TeeVee, you become passive and you start to think like everyone else - and start to surrender your individuality for group-think.

Suddenly, really bad financial ideas sound like good ones, because, well, "everyone else is doing it, so it can't be that bad!"   And before long, you are commiserating that "I'll just work until I'm 70!" or "Well, I'm living paycheck to paycheck!" - as if financial irresponsibility were some badge of honor.

We can't save the sheep from the slaughter.   We try.  There are a few lone wolves out there, who try to get legislation passed to limit how much sheep can shear themselves.   The FTC tries, to be sure, but they can't save everyone.   People like Elizabeth Warren try hard to protect consumer sheep from their own folly.  But they are outmaneuvered at every turn by folks on the right who cry, "freedom of choice!"

And it is sad that so many people sign up for payday loans and rent-to-own furniture.   And many middle-class readers will read this and say, "Well, those sheep in the ghetto certainly do that!"  But they fail to see that their own behavior is sheep-like.  They constantly refinance their homes to pay off credit card debt - a cycle as toxic as the payday loan.   But they can't be sheep, right?  After all, they have a six-figure salary and everyone on the street is a "Serial Refinancer" - right?  Nothing sheep-like in that.

I find that the more I try to think for myself and challenge the underlying premise of society and economic propositions, the better off I usually am.   This is not always an easy thing to do.   But it is far easier for some than for others.    If you are on the outside of a society, looking in, it is a lot easier to see the folly of your fellow sheep.

But the ones at the center of the herd, I guess they never see it from that perspective.