Two Kinds of World Improvers
The Daily Reckoning – Weekend Edition
Can you really improve the world by telling it what to do? Or does it have to follow its own course to its own destination in its own good time?
We saw the two approaches to world improvement standing almost side by side one weekend in early 2005. The one on the silver screen wore a Nazi uniform. The other, in rural Normandy, wore the simple frock of a priest.
"I have devoted my entire life to making the world a better place," said Adolf Hitler, or words to that effect.
"But, mein F¨uhrer," explained one of his generals, "Berlin is nearly surrounded. We have no more ammunition. We must try to negotiate."
"You, too? I am surrounded by incompetents and traitors," came the reply. "We can never surrender. I’d rather put a bullet into my head. We have done all we could, so far. We must go all the way-to the end, if that is what is coming."
"But, mein F¨uhrer, think of the suffering of the German people."
"You want me to have compassion? My work was too important to let compassion or any personal motives interfere. So, don’t expect me to be compassionate now. And besides, the German people deserve to die, too; they let me down. They aren’t worthy of the great new world we were offering them."
It was on a Friday evening that we went to see the new German film, Downfall. It was everything that Alexander the Great was not. While Alexander was made to look absurd and laughable, AdolfHitler looked very real-and pathetic. In Downfall, we see the Thousand-Year Reich coming to an end 990 years ahead of schedule. We see mature, battle-hardened generals who cannot bring themselves to disobey. There will be hell to pay, but they soldier on anyway. Many blow their brains out rather than try to come up with Plan B.
The Sunday after we saw Downfall, we went to the little church in Normandy. We introduced ourselves and the priest apologized for the small turnout and the humble circumstances. Looking around at the handful of the gray-haired faithful, it appeared that death was not only inevitable but imminent. There was hardly a person under the age of 70.
Later, in his sermon, the priest commented on Christ’s beatitudes. "We Christians are urged to be a ‘light unto the world.’ But what does that mean? Does it mean we have to change the government?
Or that we have to change the way people worship or the way they act? No, it means we have to change ourselves."
This type of world improver hardly even dares to think about improving the world. He is much more modest. The best he can do is to make small private gestures in his own world.
"We are called to be a ‘light unto the world,’" continued the priest, "by lighting up our own little world. By visiting the sick. By welcoming strangers and newcomers to the community. By caring for the poor. By comforting those who suffer from sickness of the body or the spirit. We light up the world simply by being the decent people that Christ showed us how to be: by showing compassion, in other words . . . and by loving our neighbors as ourselves."
But, in the autumn of 2005 Americans had come to believe not in being a light, but in packing heat. They believed in something they thought more dependable than traditions or gods-themselves. The whole nation seemed to have become a giant O. J.
Simpson jury, unable to imagine that its homeland boys could be doing anything but good. Pictures were exhibited on national television, clearly showing a U.S. marine gunning down a wounded prisoner. "This one’s faking he’s dead," said the marine. Then, after a clatter of gunfire, "He’s dead now." A poll taken the next day revealed that the crowd back home was fully behind its troops-three out of four people thought the Iraqi had it coming.
Americans believe themselves to be good people. How this special state of grace was accorded to them they do not know. How they might remain in such grace they do not ask. But they are sure they will get into heaven, even if they have to climb a pile of dead Iraqis to get there. Americans know they are good because their enemies are bad people. Can good people do bad things? Can bad people do good things? The questions are rarely raised and more rarely answered; one might as well ask a parrot to decline an irregular Latin verb. The few who take up the question at all quickly shut down their frontal lobes to avoid overheating and refer the matter back to more primitive parts of the brain for judgment.
The Daily Reckoning
P.S. The rest of this excerpt of our new book, Mobs, Messiahs and Markets can be found below…
— The Daily Reckoning Book of the Week —
Mobs, Messiahs and Markets: Surviving the Public Spectacle in Finance and Politics
by Bill Bonner and Lila Rajiva
Bestselling author Bill Bonner has long been a maverick observer of the financial and political world, sharpening his sardonic wit, in particular, on the vagaries of the investing public. Market booms and busts, tulip manias and dotcom bubbles, venture capitalists and vulture funds, he lets you know, are best explained not by dry statistics and obscure theories but by the metaphors and analogies of literature.
Now, in Mobs, Messiahs, and Markets, Bonner and freelance journalist Lila Rajiva use literary economics to offer broader insights into mass behavior and its devastating effects on society. Why is it, they ask, that perfectly sane and responsible individuals can get together, and by some bizarre alchemy turn into an irrational mob? What makes them trust charlatans and demagogues who manipulate their worst instincts? Why do they abandon good sense, good behavior and good taste when an empty slogan is waved in front of them. Why is the road to hell paved with so many sterling intentions? Why is there a fool on every corner and a knave in every public office?
To order your copy, see here:
THIS WEEK in THE DAILY RECKONING: Out basking in the final days of summer and miss an issue of your favorite online, contrarian publication? Never fear – we never get outside and are pasty white just so we can catalogue the week in the DR for you, below…
08/24/07 – How Strong is Central Bank Epoxy?
by Bill Bonner "While others desire a speedy recovery on Wall Street, we’re rather hoping for a long, dreadful illness…punctuated by periodic reports that the patient has died."
08/23/07 – Blinded by the Divine Light of Capitalism
by Bill Bonner "Our guess is that they are not thinking at all…but reacting to such a long, long run of good news; they can no longer imagine that anything bad could ever happen. That’s how this new Theology of Capitalism works."
08/22/07 – Living in an Investor’s Paradise
by Bill Bonner "An investor’s Valhalla…a speculator’s Elysium…a debtor’s Eden…right here on planet earth. Gone is the nasty business cycle. Banished are bear markets. Forbidden are credit crunches, bank failures and rising unemployment."
08/21/07 – Bailing Out the American Debt Business
by Bill Bonner "There was a time when the business of America was business… Now the business of America is debt. Americans buy things they don’t need with money they don’t have. Financing debt… is our most important industry."
08/20/07 – The Currency Cavalry Rides Again
by Bill Bonner "On Friday, the Bernanke Fed looked a lot like the old Greenspan Fed…riding out to rescue speculators like the cavalry to the aid of desperate pioneers. The trumpet sounded…the rifles fired…and the savages were beaten back."
FLOTSAM AND JETSAM:
Two Kinds of World Improvers (cont’d)
By Bill Bonner
On instinct and intuition alone the matter is resolved. This is a Public Spectacle, after all. The war in Iraq is a team sport; the hometown crowd will stand and do the wave right to the bitter end. There is no place for ambiguity, subtlety, or irony. Or arri`erepens ´ees. On his own, you see, a man might be haunted by killing. He might see a murderer each time he looked into the mirror. He might feel guilt and the need to punish himself. Maybe he would begin to stutter, stand barefoot in the snow, or step in front of a bus.
On his own he might do all these things, but not in a mass. In a mass, men feel no guilt, no shame. The blood of a hundred thousand innocents might drip from their hands as from a leaky faucet, but the mass of Americans lined up in favor of war against Iraq asks no questions and feels neither guilt nor shame. It sees no need to apologize and senses no danger of retribution, neither from man nor from God himself. Such is always the nature of a public spectacle; the crowd can no more fear for its soul than a pebble can yearn for the beach.
"Fifty million people in Afghanistan and Iraq have been liberated from tyranny, and our homeland has been made more secure," said George Bush in his year-end message in 2003. "Our tax cuts returned money to people who earned it. They have put it to work in our economy, which is growing again and beginning to generate new jobs, but we won’t rest until everybody who wants to work can find a stable, productive job."
Thus, Americans at the beginning of anno Domini 2007 were a fat, happy, and contented race-in revolt against fate. They had come to believe that things that couldn’t be true even in one instance could be true forever. Indeed, their self-contentment had reached such clinical levels that it caught the eye of clinicians.
A Yale University assistant professor of psychiatry, Bandy Xenobia Lee, appeared before the World Economic Forum in Davos in early 2004 and read aloud the standard medical description of narcissistic personality disorder. The narcissist, he explained:
- Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without the commensurate achievements).
- Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance.
- Requires excessive admiration.
- Has a sense of entitlement (i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations).
- Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.
It was time, noted Dr. Lee, to apply these diagnostic criteria not just to people, but to nations.
The point was not lost on the audience at Davos. It was obvious to the world that in economics, Americans’ delusions of grandeur were threatening to ruin them. And in politics, it was worse; Americans were risking their very souls with murderous wars.
In 2004, when Dr. Lee made his statement, few nations could have afforded to live in the style to which Americans had become accustomed-not even Americans themselves. Their paper money-unbacked by anything more than the eager promises of the world’s biggest debtor-was destined to go bad; all paper money always does. Their economy was doomed to slow down-debtors cannot increase spending forever. Their stocks were bound for a fall, victims of an excess of enthusiasm and a shortage of capital investment.
Their bonds were living on borrowed time, too-for it was nothing more than a matter of amazement that foreign leaders should continue to buy bonds with 5 percent yields when the currency in which they were denominated was losing 20 percent of its value in a single year.
Yet, Americans had little doubt that they had liberated the desert tribes of Mesopotamia from "Tyranny," rather than imposed a new tyranny of their own. They managed to support-and applaud-the biggest growth in government spending, debt, and bureaucracy since Franklin Roosevelt, and applaud it, of all things, in the name of liberty.
After all, they told themselves, we are in a postmodern age, complete with the Internet, online trading, J-Lo, and Howard Stern. We no longer need to believe in gods or devils. We believe in psychologists and chronic fatigue syndrome. If the price of AOL discounts earnings to the year 2200, it must be right. The price is always right; the market is always perfectly rational; there is no room for human emotion, nor for folly, wishful thinking, chicanery, tomfoolery, or a severe case of seasonal affective disorder.
Success has transformed a modest people whose greatest virtue was once minding their own business into a vainglorious race, who mind everyone’s business but their own. They cannot save a dime themselves, but now they offer to save the entire planet. There was a time when they admired the English for their literature . . . the Germans for their organization . . . the French for their intellect and style . . . and the Japanese for their industrial discipline. Now they turn their heads to the heavens and see only their own reflection in the clouds. They revere themselves with double the adoration and thrice the fidelity. Old Europe is a museum, they complain. It is rigid, cowardly, and gummed up with social welfare regulation.
And Japan? The so-called miracle economy has been stuck in an on-again, off-again recession for more than 16 years, they gibe, because the Japanese lack the guts to restructure their economy along American lines.
This disdain is not based in logic or reason, of course. Few attitudes are. Or as they say on Wall Street-"Markets make opinions." That is to say, when stocks have been rising for a long while, investors have opinions about why the bull market will last forever. If stocks are falling, their feelings lead them to believe prices will continue to fall for all eternity.
But, of all attitudes, none is so irrationally conceived and so inveterately held as people’s good opinions of themselves. And Americans’ opinions of themselves are no exception. Since they have created their success themselves, surely they must be in charge of it, too, they think.
Discounted is the hard work of their fathers and grandfathers who went ahead of them. Dismissed are the virtues of thrift, sound money, limited government, and collective modesty. Flipping with boredom through the back pages of their history, Americans pay no attention to the dead. And the future . . . the unborn? It is as if they think the book has no sequel . . . as if it were the last opus ever . . . the final word, the Omega Civilization.
We can almost hear the gods snickering.
One day, historians will look back at our era and marvel at how George Bush and Tony Blair determined to convert the Iraqis to democracy. To our descendants, it will look like a mad caprice; a quaint, religious gesture; an act of remarkable faith or delusion, like missionaries showing the heathen the correct posture for copulation.
Editor’s Note: The above essay was taken from Bill Bonner and Lila Rajiva’s latest book, Mobs, Messiahs and Markets. The book is currently #4 on Amazon.com’s bestseller list…purchase your copy now and help push it to #1!