When Truth Died and Greed Won

An uneasy silence has fallen upon the land in the wake of the US election. The unexpected has happened (again!) after those lazy, non-voting Brits screwed it up on the other side of the pond four months earlier. Following the gnashing of teeth and the spewing of sour grapes among the young and disconnected, accompanied by a mild rebound of a stock market running on irrational fear and greed, and after some populist after-shocks in Italy and France, the world is nervously waiting to see whether it has been visited upon by a demagogue, a messiah or a con-man, and whether the economy is due for a course correction after two generations of globalization.

What gave rise to these developments? The first thing that comes to mind is that somewhere along the way truth died and greed won. Truth has been steadily devalued over the last thirty-five years to the point where it has ceased to be our moral currency. Greed has won out, greed that doesn’t reside only in the hated 1% but is a disease that has infected even the lowly garbage collector who believes that he will one day become a millionaire. The new climate is one where might is right, where the slick message scores over the honest gaff, where the ruling elite is corrupt and popularly perceived to be sorely in need of punishment, where the cowboy who rides in from the outside and shoots up the town is returning to cult-hero status, where positioning has transplanted admission, and where achievement is measured in celebrity status and money.

Truth has been dying for some time now, since the early ’80’s, when liberal democracy was trumped by Thatcher-Reagan neo-liberalism, and “make money at any cost” became the global operating mantra. Matters came to a head during this last US election. Both parties and both candidates contributed to truth’s final death-blow. Both candidates campaigned as upholders of the truth and yet were exposed as liars, several times, and nobody cared because truth was dead. False news channels kept mushrooming everywhere, announcing contradictory polls and dishing out well-concealed personal dirt on the candidates. Russian spy-games of the James Bond era entered the fray, adding a cinematic touch. After awhile, truth-telling had to be set aside, for no one knew what the truth was any more, and the choice boiled down to: “If this system is so screwed up, I need a change, any change, at any cost.” Enter the President-Elect, the man of the honest gaff, the dealmaker, the admitter to locker room talk that elites normally try to keep concealed, the holder-to-task of corrupt media and corporations; yet he is also a moneyed celebrity, and we wonder whether his image as the maverick cowboy bent on cleaning up Dodge is mere artful positioning? We shall see, for we have chosen him in desperation now that truth is dead and greed has won.

So what will the post-truth era look like? I see media companies being less belligerent and more co-operative for their own sakes, given that their financial positions are now weaker; thus their integrity and relevance will diminish further—journalistic sycophancy will be on the rise. If fringe media replace them, then they too will have to ensure that their message is not subverted in order to gain corporate funding or political patronage. I see more “deals” taking place behind the scenes; the existing, visible ones will be left to wither on the vine. Social Media will become the dominant advertising platform, and the dissemination of filtered news will be governed by an algorithm. The real truth will become even harder to find on the internet, even though the Net will also be the place where you will find sincere nuggets by those caring to bare all, risking censure. When “leaks” about the establishment take place (and there will be more of those!) the noise will be so deafening on social media and on the street that people will tune out, for emotion would have crowded out judgment providing impetus to the new ruling elite to carry on unfazed. Elite? I thought that was an obsolete word? Didn’t we vote in an elite-bashing cowboy? Nonsense. We just replaced one elite with an unproven one comprised of several novice gunslingers.

But all is not lost. In this post-truth era, I see an increasingly vigilant role for citizens who are concerned with the public conscience, who are essentially the public conscience, who are committed to uncovering the truth, and who are willing to stand out from the crowd by distilling the issues down to their essence so that even the unwashed get the message. This is not the time to retreat into a cave and wait out the next four years. Much would be lost if the new steamroller is left do its work unchecked over this period. This is the time to channel the steamroller to do as much good as it can while its propulsion lasts. A populist leader needs the cheers of the crowd; boos will make him unhappy and force him to rethink his strategy. And we need to boo and cheer in equal measure when appropriate so that he gets the message, even if it has to be limited to tweets in the Twitterverse where he spends a lot of his time.

Thus, as the new administration girds up its loins and heads off into unchartered waters in the new year, I hope that Americans and the rest of the sane world will be alongside, encouraging when warranted, opposing when necessary, holding to task when promises fizzle into thin air, and most of all, becoming engaged like never before in the flawed but crash-tested political process that keeps western democracies from slipping back into the abyss, an abyss that looms closer now that truth is dead and greed has won.

Caught between Fear and Greed

It seems that fear and greed have taken firm hold of the world. Aided by instant communications that keep us up•to•the minute on everyone else’s fear and greed, we are able to spread this contagion everywhere. In good times, we want more: greed (or in stock market parlance “buy, buy, buy, borrow and buy some more”), in bad times we want to hang on to what we have: fear (or in stock market lingo, “sell, sell, sell, bail me out and sell more”). The Herd mentality takes over. I thought that bulls moved in droves and bears in litters but their owners seem to move in herds.

Now we are heading into the double•dip recession that everyone dreaded. But this is more than that roller coaster. Henceforth, there is going to be a rapid dipping and bobbing that will come with every byte on the news ticker now that we have got everyone psyched for flight. Need a “sell” reaction? Just drop some bad news from the Street, fact or fiction. Need a “buy”? Publish an optimistic financial outlook, fact or fiction. It is as if someone with the right read on people’s panic buttons could become the next Public Enemy #1; and you don’t have to kill anyone to get there, just drop those poison news snippets like droplets from the Chinese water torture machine and watch everyone squirm.

My financial advisers recently advised me to sell or “de•risk”. I replied, “Man, life itself is a risk. A guy wakes up in the morning, coughing, and finds blood in his phlegm and is told that he has lung cancer – what can you de•risk here? A woman crosses the road, is hit by a car, and is history – de•risk?” I told my financial advisor to not waste his time on me. I have other, better, things to do than waste my time following the herd.

What my investment strategy boils down to is this: do I find the world still a good place to be in, is the majority of its enterprises honest and therefore would I want to remain invested in this world? And my answer today is “Yes,” the world is still a good place, despite a bunch of panic ridden people in positions of influence running around like chickens with their proverbial dicks (or was it necks) cut off. They would be better off taking a deep breath and asking themselves some deep questions:
a) Why do you have to keep continuously growing exponentially, and then punish yourself when you don’t?
b) How can you expect to live off other people’s money (e.g. bailouts and borrowings)?
c) Can you gear your lifestyle to be a net producer than a consumer? If we all did that the world will be left with more when we leave it than when we came into it.
d) Why does winning at all costs for oneself matter more than winning for mankind? This question is especially aimed at those deadlocked politicians who cannot see the bigger picture and are out to pummel each other like punch drunk opponents in an Ultimate Fighting Championship final
e) If value is inflated, it will to be taken out. If value is depressed it will rise to its true worth. This will happen whether markets panic or not, through a rapid process or gradually. Let buyers decide. Your excitement only clouds this decision making – so shut up and step aside, or go on holiday if you cannot take the pressure.

So having said my piece, I returned to my day job, grateful that I still had one.

War and Peace – the eternal cycle

I wrote a Christmas story about the Magi a few years ago, which was published this year, and in which I portrayed these three men (before they attained wisdom) fighting a perennial war among themselves somewhere in ancient Persia, until, exhausted with the effort, they see a star in the west (east, for us) and chase after it, hoping that it would bring them peace.

Since that magical star reputedly appeared eons ago, and despite our three wise guys’ desire never to fight again, there have been other wars, and there will be more wars, until the world itself boils over.

So why do we fight? Is war a congenital human condition, the outcome of our struggle for competitive advantage? The result of greed? Do protracted periods of peace, lead us to a sense of lack, a desire for more, and thus to war? Conversely, do periods of war eventually cause us to wear out and say, “That’s it!” and seek a bit of peace? Is there a constant need for a high and a corresponding low to give us form and definition?

Sometimes we fight wars in our misguided belief that we can thereby bring about peace. Some enlightened nations believe that they “know”; that theirs is the better way. This holier•than•thou approach has led to sticky situations in the last decade alone: Iraq and Afghanistan are notable examples, where no clear victor has been declared and the mess is still to be sorted out. And let’s not talk about Vietnam. Wasn’t it just under a hundred years ago when we put young men in smelly trenches to get their brains blown up in exchange for gaining a couple of feet of land at a time; land gained one day and lost the next in a counterattack when more brains were blown up? And if that was not enough, we were back at it just twenty years later, taking it up a few notches even, and leaving over 60 million dead in WWII. Was that enlightenment?

It seems to me that war and peace is a process of evolution towards the vision of enlightenment. We seem fated to go through cycles of war and peace, with occasional time•outs for stocktaking and reflection, when the real learning occurs. War and peace both contribute in an iterative way, leaving markers etched into our collective psyche that eventually may lead us—if visions can ever be realized—to the state of enlightenment: our one thousand years of peace as foretold in the good books of many religions. Nirvana. There are no shortcuts to this process for any nation it appears, and you can’t impose peace from above either; it has to come from within, just as the desire for war does. Perhaps Afghanistan and Iraq will get there, but on their own time•table, not ours.

But why only a thousand years of peace at the end of this bloody trail? Why not more, why not everlasting peace? Could it be because that during these thousand years we would have become fat and lazy, have taken peace for granted, and become restless and anxious to bash up our neighbours again in order to feel good? Will the thousand years have been just a pause before the re•commencement of another cycle of war and peace?

Wise Men, Magi, Three Kings, whatever you call yourselves, what did you learn from your trials? I have too many questions and am not interested in frankincense, myrrh and gold. What real gifts, in the way of answers, can you offer us this Christmas?