In Praise Of Group Thinking

“Those who, standing their ground and closing ranks together endure the onset at close quarters and fight in the front, they lose fewer men. They also protect the army behind them. Once they flinch, the spirit of the whole army falls apart. And no man could count over and tell all the number of evils, all that can come to a man, once he gives way to disgrace.”


From “The Western Way of War”

The Greeks fought often. In two out of three summers the property owners, called hoplites, would be called out to do battle.

These were not professional soldiers – but farmers, artisans, philosophers and traders. Nor were they just young men of draft age. Men were expected to fight until they were 60 years old. Of course, with so much warfare, many did not survive to retirement age.

The fighting was not high-tech. In today’s battles, soldiers may never even see the enemy. Bombs are dropped, missiles launched, cannons fired – at targets well over the horizon. And whole wars are fought for reasons that are even more remote.

But the Greeks formed up their phalanxes and marched straight at the enemy. Spears were used to jab. They were scarcely ever thrown. The idea was to press against the enemy…strike him down…march over him…and break up his formation.

In this, as in so many things, the Greeks were extremely successful.

“If crowd-thinking is so bad,” you might want to ask me, “how come people do it?” Here is the answer.

The progress of man has been made by extending the division of labor. Instead of doing everything for myself – I can now go to the store and buy my bread, clothes, fuel and everything else I need to live – and make my own very small, very specialized contribution to the commonweal of humankind in these daily letters.

As the division of labor extends, more and more people do more and more specialized tasks.

I know what you’re thinking – not another essay on the division of labor! But please hang on…I am just warming up what could be an interesting point.

The division of labor requires trust and cooperation. I have no way of forcing the baker to bake bread or the roughneck to bring oil up out of the ground. Still, I can be reasonably confident that the bread will be better and cheaper than if I made it myself…and that the diesel fuel I put in my car’s tank will be serviceable.

Progress, then, is a function of greater cooperation.

But force has played a big role in human affairs too. When material welfare, and even survival, depended on controlling good hunting ground…or good farming ground…a group of people could benefit enormously from using force. If they could expel or exterminate a rival tribe – they might flourish.

The Greek city-states were tribal. Each tribe – had its regional differences. They made war on each other…and came together to fight the Persians and others.

Throughout the ancient world, the Greeks were feared. They had no special technological or numerical edge. Their big advantage was the one thing I have been ranting against: group-thinking.

When the call to arms was sent out, the hoplites, young and old, notable and common, friends and relatives, grabbed their armor and formed up. They stood shoulder- to-shoulder, row upon row. Their polished helmets gleamed in the sun. The front row of soldiers held their spears straight ahead. The back rows held them straight up.

There was no skirmishing. No surprise. No tactics, other than the steady closing with the enemy until, toe to toe, they battled it out. The key to victory was solidarity.

Their enemies feared them. Because they knew they would not give way. The Spartans, especially, had a reputation for being willing to die where they stood rather than run.

“It was a sight at once awesome and terrifying,” Plutarch described the slow, dreadful advance “as the Spartans marched in step to the pipe, leaving no gap in their line of battle and with no confusion in their hearts, but calmly and cheerfully advancing into danger.”

Greek generals were usually on the front lines. When an army was beaten, its generals were almost without exception killed in the fighting.

Alcibiades, telling the story of Socrates’ combat, comments: “Indeed, in war the enemy will not dare to press home their attack against men such as this; instead, they go after the ones who are fleeing away in complete disorder.”

From the generals to the newest recruit, all the soldiers suffered the same fate. If they fought together and stuck together, their enemies might break and run. But if any one of them failed to do his duty…the whole formation was likely to disintegrate. Then… Tyrtaios:

“For once a man reverses and runs in the terror of battle, he offers his back, a tempting mark to spear from behind, and it is a shameful sight when a dead man lies in the dust there, driven through from behind by the stroke of an enemy spear.”

Group cohesion was paramount. The whole phalanx had to think and act as one. Defecting was dangerous and shameful.

More to come…

Bill Bonner

Paris, France September 25, 2000

*** Clinton must have felt the pain of ordinary American voters. He decided that it was time to release the strategic oil reserves – the supplies stocked to protect the nation in time of war – so that people can drive their SUVs without paying Friday’s market price for oil.

*** Wim Duisenberg and the other graybeards at the European Central Bank must have felt someone’s pain too. Maybe their own. They’re tired of people making fun of the zero, I mean the euro. So, they got together with Larry Summers of the U.S. and bought euros to drive up the price.

*** There were, as you will recall, 4 things plaguing the U.S. stock market last week – the 4 E’s…energy, earnings, the economy and the euro. Urged by people like Ms. Wu in South Korea, the bureaucrats and demagogues decided to “do something” about 2 out of 4 of them.

*** So, the fix was in on Friday. The euro popped back up to 90 cents, briefly, before re-descending towards 88 cents. The Dollar Index fell to 113. And oil fell after Clinton’s announcement and was trading at $31.44 at 6AM this morning.

*** Lower oil prices and a higher euro provide a gap in the cloud cover over Wall Street. The sun can shine. “Wall Street Expected to Rise this Week,” declares today’s Reuters headline. Maybe. But there are still the other 2 E’s – earnings and the economy.

*** Earnings could be helped by a stronger euro. But there are big risks. ECB intervention might not work. “When Europeans speak, people should listen,” said the French finance minister. Europeans have been reluctant to intervene on behalf of the euro. If the intervention fails to stop the euro’s decline – Wim Dusenberg and the euro itself will lose even more credibility. People will stop listening all together.

*** On the other hand, the bigger risk is that intervention will succeed in turning the euro around. The euro has an inherent structural weakness. It is the Esperanto Currency, backed by neither hard assets nor a single country.

*** The U.S. dollar, on the other hand, has been the biggest sensation in the currency world since the roman denarius. It is backed by the world’s only remaining super-power. But like so many things in the U.S. financial markets – the dollar has over-reached itself.

*** According to the IMF foreign investors already hold about $6.5 trillion in US assets – 7% of the US stock market, 31.5% of US treasury debt, 18.5% of US corporate debt and an additional $650 billion in cash. With a current account deficit approaching $450 billion – it takes $450 billion of inflow just to keep the dollar FLAT. Kevin Klombies: “…a VERY sharp rally in the euro has the potential to clear $.96 … and extend all the way up to $1.05.”

*** The Dow was flat last week. So was the Nasdaq, after a 25-point fall on Friday.

*** Gold rose $1.60 on Friday. The Dollar Index fell to 113.

*** Maybe this will be a good week for stocks. Analysts think so. But analysts are always bullish. Whether they sell investments directly or not, Wall Street congenitally favors stocks and bonds just as the media favors politics. Out of a recent sample of 28,000 recommendations made by analysts, 36.5% were “strong buys.” 37,5% were “buys.” 25.3% were “holds.” And only 0.6% were sells.

*** “The tendency to be overwhelmingly bullish has turned into an epidemic,” said one observer. It was obvious that the lower euro and higher oil prices would hurt multi- national corporate earnings. But until Gillett, Alcoa, Goodyear and others announced their earnings results, scarcely a single analyst noticed.

*** But now that the world’s monetary and political leaders have decided to “do something” we can stop worrying. Uh…well…maybe.

*** This week, 20 companies will launch IPOs, which will take this year’s IPO total beyond 1999’s record of $68.7 billion. Tech Corp, a recent IPO, rose 189% after hitting the markets. So hopes are high.

*** “Americans are spending an additional $115 billion, nearly 1 percent of GDP, on energy this year,” says the NY Times “… more than half of [that money] is going abroad to pay for imported oil, shrinking spending at home and… acting as a drag on the economy.” Still the article goes on to report there are “structural reasons” the rising energy costs will not bring on a recession as it did in ’73, ’79, and ’90. Among them? “… computer technology plays a bigger role in the economy, shrinking the role of oil and natural gas.”

*** From a NY Times editorial on Jonathan Lebed, the 15- year old boy from Jersey sued by the SEC for stock manipulation: “The teenager’s coming of age occurred in a period of stock market mania, when hyping stocks was de rigueur and when ridicule was showered on those who pointed out the warts on a company’s operations… Jonathan is simply too young to remember the days when investor disbelief was not in a state of permanent suspension.”

*** There was record low turnout in French elections this weekend. All over the world, people are turning away from politics. More below.

*** Not much to report from Ouzilly. It was a beautiful weekend. “A season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” as Keats put it. A friend of my mother’s is visiting. The two women served in the WACs in WWII and spend their days walking around slowly and reminiscing.