Like Candide, go and tend your garden (but share the produce)

The popular press is seizing upon greed and stupidity as causes of the ongoing economic ripoff, and that’s true as far as it goes, but there’s a larger context. Here’s part of a European take on it:

The malady of infinite aspiration
In the first of two issues of Esprit devoted to the economic crisis, editor Olivier Mongin argues that market crashes are less the fault of ignorant or irrational traders and more the result of a broader historical trend in politics, philosophy, and aesthetics. Since the nineteenth century, value is no longer a property of each object or idea, but determined by the price it will fetch on the market.

Enter the herd mentality: traders who expect the market to move in a certain direction buy and sell accordingly, and so cause the change they have predicted. Politics and the media are plagued by the same self-destructive introspection. Without stable values, politicians and journalists try to anticipate what the public wants, and attempt to buy into a rising trend. As public discussion converges on these predicted beliefs, it propagates them through society – prophecies that self-fulfil.

One current consensus, notes André Orléan, is that the financial sector needs more regulation. Look deeper, though, and ideological differences remain. The dominant perspective sees markets as sound in principle, merely distorted by concealed risks. Regulate to increase transparency, and markets will get back on track. This view is opposed by those who note that bubbles and crashes appear in the most transparent markets. Markets are too volatile, this group holds, and would best be helped by keeping them connected to the economy of the real world. These fundamentally different approaches deserve to be publicly considered, argues Orléan, and not relegated to technical discussions between economists.

This is from the Eurozine Review, which presents summaries in English from European publications.

The analysis in the third paragraph echoes that of Nassim Nicholas Taleb in a book I’m reading, Fooled by Randomness: the hidden role of chance in the markets and in life. Taleb is a mathematically trained and philosophically inclined trader in the US markets; it seems as though his early life, as a Lebanese Christian whose family lost everything suddenly during the decades-long civil war there, helped him realize the power of chance events and the fragility of human fortunes. He emphasizes not only the role of chance but also the need to consider not just the odds of an investment, but its potential downside. Such consideration precludes participation in bubbles such as the sale of mortgages and credit debt, packaged and presented as safe investments.

Our American attitude has always been one of denying chance; we exalt the individual’s ability to prevail and the concepts of unlimited positive progress. We now find ourselves in a situation where many negative trends/possibilities are beginning to affect us–ones which we have denied, ignored, deferred action and study upon, for more decades than the Lebanese civil war lasted.

If the popular reports from neuroscience and behavioral studies are to be believed, humans have built-in tendencies that make us unfit for facing the complexities we now live with. We embrace short-term gains and ignore long-term risks, we do not judge the magnitude of risks accurately (e.g. we worry about dying on an airliner but drive with blithe blindness to the odds of injury or death on the road), we have short attention spans, and when something conflicts with our established ideas we ignore it or make up reasons why it doesn’t apply (cognitive dissonance behavior). And so on, the list is long.

At this point the rhythm of writing demands that I suggest some positive courses of action in mitigation of what I’ve described, but if you’ve read this far you probably know as well as I do the sort of changes, individual and systemic, that need to be made. When things get bad enough, perhaps some of them will happen in sufficient frequency to help. Until then, we must be frugal, provident, and compassionate in our own lives, and work at extending those principles more widely whenever there’s an opportunity.

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