but you’re special

The last couple of notes here have been talking about various things that come to mind following the recent State of the Union speech. That whole bit of episodic theater raises all kinds of issues, mostly about how the president, the fellow members of his political party, and the consistently recalcitrant, corrupt, and often idiotic members of the “opposition party” all manage to dance around avoiding dealing rationally and honestly with just about anything.

Part of the increasingly empty and useless annual ritual this has become includes the expected bit of theater of the president making proclamations about how we’re the Greatest Nation on Earth, in all sorts of different ways, or simply a blanket declaration of general greatness, to be followed by the spectacle of the people in the House chamber standing up to do the obligatory standing ovation of enthusiastic applause while wearing their little plastic faux-flag lapel pins showing their faux patriotism.

I’ve been watching the US stock market now and then, not that I’m constantly following all that as some people do. When I glanced at it yesterday (February 11, 2014), I noticed that at some point in the afternoon’s festivities the magic number of the Dow Jones Industrial Average (again, the “metric” that has become less and less related to any actual industry) had peeked over the 16000 threshold again. That crazy game rolls on and on, with the same continuing phantasms and people caught in the swirl fixated on the notion that the stock market essentially is “the economy”. That, of course, is a fixture of so much political song and dance routines, including President Obama’s vacuous chatter about “recovery”, and if the Republican party crowd controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress, you would hear the same noises from them about how wonderfully the economy was “recovering” thanks to them and their economic policies. All that kind of noise does is reinforce the inescapable observation among reality-based humans that the political creatures of both the Republican party and Democratic party are given to chronic behavior of talking out your ass.

I’ve seen an item pop up in a few different places online, all referring to the same thing, which is a graph lining up a stretch of historical data from the New York Stock Exchange and the magic number DJIA, from a period around 1928-1929, alongside DJIA numbers over the past couple of years or so up to the present. It seems to freak people out, and it doesn’t take much of a careful study of the thing to understand why.

I think there is a lot to the thought that says, history doesn’t repeat, but sometimes it rhymes, and that might be a thought to bear in mind here.

It also doesn’t really require a hell of a lot of detailed study of economics and history to understand something about the gigantic stock market crash of October 1929 that kicked off the period we call The Great Depression.

The decade of the Roaring Twenties turned into the great stock market crash and Great Depression, the twenties saw an increasing snowball effect charge into the stock market as people thought that pouring money into the stock market and churning through the transactions was making a permanent fountain of wealth for all involved… and then it didn’t, as the whole house of cards imploded. But, it’s different this time, right?

One thing that is different this time is the whole phenomenon of the Federal Reserve bank and its “Quantitative Easing” program that is apparently treated as a semi-permanent fixture, now on the round labeled “QE3”. As far as I can tell,, what people have been cheering as some sort of stock market boom time is largely due to this flow of imaginary new money being loaned into existence by the Federal Reserve bank (which, remember, is a private bank entity with pseudo-government dressing), at virtually zero-percent interest, which is then feed for more and more market casino games for the players inside the Wall Street world. It’s artificially pumping things up, and given what we seem to have as I described above, in people and assorted entities looking for “growth”, or at least a passable pretense of “growth”, the bubble builds.

That wasn’t happening in 1929, and obviously there’s the big hanging question now about what happens next, and into the future, swirling around the “QE” pipe of perpetual new money (that’s really debt to the Federal Reserve), and whether that will even slow down, or “taper” as the lingo has it, and… then what?

I have to wonder if it will take some sort of major reality check “market adjustment”, as the lingo goes, some train wreck of the massive shared delusion the stock market has become, to shock people awake. Even then, though, it’s a tad disturbing to ponder how many people might react very badly to some sort of major reality shock, and go apeshit, thinking that somehow, some way, they have been done wrong by reality imposing itself and things seeking some sort of balance in accordance with reality. Circumstances like that, as proven by history, can provide fertile ground for all kinds of ugliness, opening opportunities for various con-men and lunatics, selling all kinds of madness.

This is especially dangerous if a nation finds itself in the grip of, let’s say, a profound national attitude problem.

Dmitry Orlov is an interesting character, and one of the noteworthy things about him is his unique perspective. Orlov is a Russian American, and that is a very literal label. He’s Russian, born in what was then the USSR, and has had a life that found him growing up in the former Soviet Union, then moving to the USA, and over the course of his lifetime so far, spent time both living in the United States and going back to Russia (which, of course, became a much different proposition around a generation ago). Part of what has drawn the attention of a fair number of people to Orlov is his observation, and subsequent writing, about the collapse of the former Soviet Union. His experience of the former USSR, the current Russian Federation, and the USA, combined, back and forth over a long period with many changes, giving him a fairly unique perspective.

One of Orlov’s recent notes in his regular Tuesday blog raised the topic of the phrase and idea of “American Exceptionalism”. The ironic thing about this phrase “American Exceptionalism” that seems to escape the notice of Americans throwing that around is that it came from comments by Soviet Union megalomaniac and general evil rat bastard Joe Stalin.

For a start, as Orlov explains, there’s a slight language and semantics issue. What Stalin apparently meant, with some loss in translation, was a bit different from what got turned into “American Exceptionalism” and what some Americans like to think about that phrase.

If you want to generalize about the country, among the general positive national characteristics of Americans, I would argue, is a kind of realistic, practical, pragmatic nature, not petrified in centuries old dogma and stagnation, an attitude of being able to look at things clearly, as they are, see a problem or a need, and say “hang on, this is wrong, let’s fix this!”, and then get on with fixing it. People wrapping themselves in ideas about American Exceptionalism, among other things, is destructive, and completely contrary to those positives.

Yes, there is a real problem with people having the notion of American Exceptionalism banging around their heads, the paradox that never seems to occur to the people so fond of that phrase and the idea, is that it effectively destroys any of what might very rightly regarded as what about Americans and the nation in general is slightly unique and positive.

A recent online note from Charles Hugh Smith about certainty and complex systems relates to all this, and I quote from there:

We are built to cling very stubbornly to certainty once we reach a conclusion, because ambiguity and having to constantly change our assessments of inputs and causality are big drains on our energy and mental capabilities. It’s “cheaper” in terms of energy and anxiety to just stick with the story we grew up with or the one we chose after a bit of looking at what our mates think/believe/claim is true.

Certainty has another advantage: it’s more persuasive than hedged hesitancy. Leadership tends to fall to those without hesitation, the bold ones with the powerful rhetoric of certainty, confidence and optimism. We don’t want the narrative muddled with hedges–maybe “them” are not necessarily evil, dangerous enemies, etc.–and so we shout down, ridicule or ignore those who are circumspect about how systems will respond in the future.

Politicians have of course mastered the art of distilling narratives to the desired state of certainty, confidence and optimism, and in repeating the story often enough that mere repetition lends it credence.

I still remember what was otherwise an insignificant idle conversation with a guy I was working with for a while several years ago, that only stuck in my memory because of one item. Somewhere in that, talking about our shared country of the United States of America, he made the declaration “we’re number one!“. When I asked the natural question, the kind that is asked too infrequently when people make broad statements of hyperbole and rhetoric, “number one in what?“, his reply was “everything!“.

I don’t remember much else from that conversation, as I said, as there was little really worth remembering. One thing about it I do remember, which was that the man I was talking with was working there for the moment, but was in the Army Reserves, and he was preparing to leave and go do a tour of active duty as a soldier in Iraq. That was at a time when it had already been about two years after the day when then-President George W. Bush had stood, wearing a flight suit on the flight deck of a US Navy aircraft carrier, to give a proud speech to a cheering crowd with a backdrop of a huge banner saying “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED”. We all remember that one, I assume, with the mission being the matter of the Iraq invasion.

This chat I had, then, was sometime around 2005, a couple of years after Bush had launched a military attack and invasion on a nation on the other side of the planet that hadn’t attacked us, posed no realistic threat to the United States, or anyone else, really, quickly overran the Iraqi military and scattered the government, and “won” the war following the much publicized “Shock and Awe” campaign to show how mighty we were.

That’s an important topic all its own, directly relevant to the subject at hand, but right now, let’s set that aside, other than as a bit of background context for the statement of the man involved saying “we’re number one… in everything!”.

There’s a term that comes to mind in thinking about things like I’m thinking about today, and the phrase is “delusions of grandeur“. Words like narcissism and hubris come to mind as well. It really should not need any explanation, especially of the fact that this is not a good thing.

A thoughtless pronouncement “we’re number one!… in everything!” should be a warning, a sign of an attitude that’s probably a quick route to not being number one in anything good, and getting a firm grasp on the title of being number one in things that are not good at all. The potentially tragic irony in this kind of thing, that should be so obvious, is that carrying around that kind of notion only serves to avoid recognizing anything wrong, any kind of problem, and setting to work at correcting and improving things. Worse than that, it can act as a driving force to make people, make an entire nation, take paths and do things that are bad mistakes, with far reaching repercussions.

When you hear somebody in a prominent position opening their mouth and babbling about “American Exceptionalism” and how this means we’re the greatest thing going, the Good Guys who can do no wrong, watch them carefully. They’re not just useless in solving any problems. You can figure they’re probably causing some, or at least getting ready.


ClubOrlov: “American” Exceptionalism

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