Sunday, October 24, 2021

The Madness of Crowds

This is not an insurrection, just a market adjustment - according to one reader.

I wrote before about the book The Madness of Crowds which, many years ago, a reader recommended to me. I started this blog after the real estate bubble burst in 2008, this nearly 20 years to the day after the previous (but smaller) bubble of 1989 - a bubble some said never happened, in 2006 or so.

Another reader wrote to say that bubbles never happen - just "market adjustments" - and there is no "evidence" that the tulip bubble ever occurred. I mean, other than all those people writing about it, and who knows? They could all by lying, right? And about the South Sea bubble, and the railroad bubble, and the various gold and silver bubbles as well. People believe what they want to believe and most people want to believe what is convenient to them, personally.

Convenient belief, however, never ends well. Whether it is singing the company song at an MLM meeting in a hockey stadium, or investing your life savings based on what some anonymous "stonk" predictor said on a website forum, it often ends in tears - in fact, it always does.

But those are mere economic situations - transactions where someone uses a victim's beliefs against them, or at least their willingness to believe.  Unscrupulous folks take advantage of others by cheating them out of money.  Of course, those doing the cheating may rationalize their theft as merely "doing business" - after all, how can they be responsible if someone they recruited to an MLM scheme doesn't recruit ten more "distributors" of their own?

People live delusional lives - we all do, sad to say.  That is why the mantra of this blog has been "Act Rationally in an Irrational World" - at least for the last few years.  It seems to me, after writing for more than a decade, that irrational behavior and belief is the norm with mankind and that logical thinking is in short supply.

This pandemic has illustrated exactly how irrational people can be. Even people in professions - medical professions - hold irrational beliefs.  A small but surprising percentage of "medical professionals" don't believe in medicine, it seems.  And sadly, every year, another nurse or medical professional is convicted of actually murdering patients by intentionally administering the wrong drugs, or in one recent case, injecting air into patients' veins.

No, I don't view doctors as Gods - if I ever did.  Maybe my early experience with the medical industry is to blame.  Or even more recent experience.  Or consider all the doctors who run "pill mills" (even here in my home town!) or prescribe fatal drugs for celebrities. This is not to say I hate doctors or think they are all Quacks - only that they are human beings like the rest of us, prone to frailty.  I recounted before about a doctor I had who believed fervently in veganism.  I am not against veganism, but to him it was like a religion - which is troubling when someone is working in a field of science.

But it ain't just doctors.  We have airline pilots losing their minds mid-flight (as if it wasn't already bad enough that the passengers are behaving poorly) and a small but surprising percentage who don't believe in vaccination.  You would think that someone versed in technology would be logical, but then again, pilots are not Engineers.  "Kick the tires and light the fires and let's go!" - that's the mantra of the airplane pilot.  They don't worry about whether the thrust bearing on the Number 2 engine has sufficient lubrication, or whether the mechanic left a wrench in the engine housing.   That's the sort of shit that worries me, and as one friend who is a commercial pilot told me, "I'm glad you don't fly with me!"

So irrational thinking plagues us all, at one time or another.  At some point in all of our lives, we do stupid things.  We date the wrong people - or worse yet, marry them.  We blow money on stupid ego-boosting things like cars or motorcycles or look-at-me houses.  We borrow money to go on vacation.  Or worst of all - and most people do it - we let credit card balances creep up over time until "one day" we "suddenly" have a credit card crises.  Most everyone does one or more of these things in life - I think I have done most all of them.  I have yet to sign up for an MLM scheme or buy a timeshare.  But the day is young.

But lately, maybe it just seems people are more irrational, or maybe I am just noticing it more.  Sure, we didn't have an "insurrection" back in the 1960's or 1970's.  But we did have rioting - people burning down entire neighborhoods, largely due to the same issues we are confronting today. And back then, we had unreconstructed racists and bigots just as we do today.   Back then we had SDS people bombing buildings and killing people - including the police.  Some of them later became lawyers at white-shoe law firms or law professors - stranger things have happened.

So maybe there are two explanations. First, maybe people have always been crazy and today it is just easier to spot crazy due to the Internet.  Second, maybe this is a cyclical deal - every 30-40 years or so, the world loses its mind and everyone starts going berserk.

Perhaps. Some like to blame the Internet and "social media" which I think is merely an amplifier of all of this nonsense, but not the cause of it.  Back in the day, we did have a set of societal norms - as evil as some of them were - but norms we all agreed upon.   Yes, women were basically property, and blacks and other minorities had no rights.  Gay men were murdered and the police rarely bothered to investigate.  Those were the "norms" we all lived with, reinforced by the television and the newspapers.  There were few media outlets, so there were few avenues for people with dissenting views to voice their concerns.

Today?  We are chasing the tail.  Facebook makes money from "engagement" and they can cater to smaller and smaller groups of like-minded people. And often, this "engagement" means encouraging people to go off the deep-end.  The conspiracy theorist is their best customer!  He will spend hours online trying to "decode" Qanon, while the rest of us have jobs to do and real lives to lead.

But of course, this raises the question, who is advertising on these radical sites?   Many a mainstream corporation has been shocked to see their cheerful ads appearing as sidebars on a holocaust denial web page.   People rightfully have tried to shame companies into cutting off advertising dollars to odious venues and odious personalities.  Some call this "censorship" but I think in the long run, advertisers will realize that end-times preppers aren't interested - nor can they afford - a $100,000 pickup truck or the latest fashions from 21 Forever or whatever.  Sure, you can sell them guns and survival food and camouflage pants, but that's about it.

It is like the fad of "country" television shows in the mid-1960's.  The ratings for Green Acres and Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction and so on and so forth were great.  But then the advertisers realized that the audience for such shows didn't have any money and the whole thing came crashing down.   Nielsen numbers are one thing, but in advertising, you want more than just ratings - you want paying customers!

So it is possible - possible - that the "Facebook Problem" will correct itself - as corporations realize that marketing your latest gadget next to "Stop the Steal!" pages isn't a cost-effective use of their advertising dollars.  But of course, this is of little consolation to those stuck in the middle in the meantime.  It would be like going back in time to 1940 and telling people waiting in line at the gas chamber that within five years, the camps would be liberated and Hitler would be dead - so don't worry!   Cold comfort that "eventually" people will come to their senses.

The current situation has one thing in common with other periods of disruption in world history - people are throwing away (or trying to throw away) a good thing because they have been convinced that things are worse than they really are.   Back in the 1960's, many a young person (including my siblings) were ready to move to Canada or blow up a math building, to protest a war that they had little chance of ever fighting in.  College students got deferments from the draft, and even if drafted, chances are they would be sent to Officer Candidate School or given some more technical stateside job.  It happened to my Dad in World War II - as a "college kid" he sat out most of the war, being sent by the Army to.... college.  Meanwhile, high school grads like Mark's Dad, were bundled into a B-17.

But speaking of that war, one of the ironies of Nazism is that the German economy was well on the road to recovery when the Nazis took power.  The worst of the great depression and the privations of the Versailles Treaty were behind them, but the Nazis convinced the general public that order needed to be restored.  And they did this by street-fighting with Communists, much as "Proud Boys" and other right-wing groups go at it with "Antifarts" in street brawls and even murders - both sides being egged on by people who want to see things go to pot.

Or take the Russian revolution - the peasants and serfs overthrowing a tyrannical Czar, right?  In reality, more of a revolt of the middle-class than the rural peasants.  But that isn't a story that sells well for thinly written history books.   The idea that revolutions are caused by deep privation is a better story - going back to our own revolution.  What was the big beef again?  People starving in the streets?  Oh, right, a tax on tea.

That is the real concern - that we will throw away a perfectly good country and a perfectly good government, on the premise that we are somehow "oppressed" in the richest and most-free country in the world.  No one is starving in the streets - indeed our biggest health problem is the opposite of malnourishment; obesity.  The people attending these protests are all driving there in their cars, documenting their malfeasance with $1000 iPhones, which they pay $75 a month to use.  And the real nutters all have thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars worth of firearms - firearms that would be illegal to own in 99% of the world.  Yet we are so oppressed!

But all that being said, tamping down this kind of madness is like trying to extinguish one of these mega-forest-fires which are part of our new norm.  You can drown out one "hot spot" and another will flare up.  The only thing that really puts a stop to it, is running out of fuel.

But by that point, most of the forest is gone.

Cheerful thoughts for a sunny Sunday!