Saturday, June 8, 2019

These are the good times, people

The world's financial commentators reliably inform us that periods of market activity can be divided up into bull markets, where stock prices are generally rising, and bear markets, where they are generally falling.

Of course, the problem with these terms is that a linguistic sleight of hand hides a considerable uncertainty. When we say prices are going down, present tense, we are of course describing a current movement, akin to a derivative in mathematics. But prices are not like an automobile that has an actual velocity and momentum ("momentum" in stock prices being nothing of the sort). Each change is discrete. So what we can measure is that they went down. What we'd like to know is that they will go down. The difference, of course, is the difference between knowing yesterday's winning lottery numbers and tomorrow's winning lottery numbers.

And yet, even in the case of hindsight, there seems to be an odd asymmetry.

When markets are crashing, like they were in 2008, people are fairly quick to label the event as disaster. In other words, negative returns seems to be taken as portending further negative returns.

But oddly, when markets are rising, it seems to my anecdotal observation that it takes a very long period before people are willing to describe it as a bull market. You read about how big the returns were in the 1980's, or the mid 1990's, and assume that everyone must have been partying the whole time. Not necessarily. It turns out, we've been living through an astonishing period of high stock returns for over a decade. Did it feel like that to you each day? It sure didn't to me. Yet it's true.

That's right, the famous financial crisis is that medium sized dip about one third of the way through the picture. The rest is a collossal bull market that you didn't hear much about for most of its history if you just read the front page of the New York Times each day.

Puts a little bit of a different perspective on the matter, no?

Financial markets seem to indicate the Solon perspective that no man should be called happy until he dies. Nothing is a bull market until it is finished.

And while I think financial markets are the somewhat extreme example of this, I think something similar applies in politics.

A recurring theme in recent dissident right twitter commentary is that we live in clown world. The modern west, and America in particular, seems increasingly focused on going full steam ahead with the most absurd aspects of cultural marxism.

Increasingly aggressive propaganda aims to demonize straight white men as the cause of everything wrong in the world. The most pressing civil rights issue in America these days seems to be trans rights. Whatever you think of them, it is striking what a tiny fraction of the population they actually affect. If you're a conservative, the heartening thing about Drag Queen Story Hour is that there just doesn't seem to be a large enough supply of drag queens interested in it to make it anything more than a fringe cultural phenomenon, rather than something coming soon to a library near you.

The clown world critique gets right that the modern west is increasingly absurd. But there are many types of absurd. It is hard to think of a more morbidly absurd, pointlessly gruesome spectacle than the trenches of WWI. And yet you wouldn't be tempted to describe it as clown world. It's just too horrifying for ironic humour to seem appropriate, even as a cynical defense mechanism (though Joseph Heller did a good job of credibly portraying this attitude about WW2 in Catch-22).

No, what clown world also requires is an obsession with trivialities. The correct representation of women and minorities in pop culture. Ginned up internet outrage mobs because some white teenager smirked at a Native American banging a drum in his face. Whether we should pay reparations to black Americans because their ancestors were slaves.

These are the problems you create for yourself when you don't have any real problems to worry about. Like, for instance, the threat that the Russians might nuke you at any moment. Or that terrorists have just murdered thousands of people and destroyed two buildings in New York City. Or even that you're in the midst of the largest financial crisis in eighty years. They are, in other words, not existential threats to the very existence of our society, or terrifying possibilities that might destroy your life, safety or livelihood at any moment. They are the societal equivalent of first world problems.

Reader, I am old enough to vaguely remember when slavery reparations were last a thing. It was the 1990s, an era of similarly aimless cultural drifting, as America struggled to find a purpose after the end of the Cold War. The most pressing social problem was the grim farce of the OJ Simpson trial. The 90's were a decade characterised best by the show Seinfeld, which I loved, a show which billed itself as a show about nothing. This was, of course, misdirection, as the show was an extremely sharp commentary about the ambiguities that occur when societal expectations of manners and behaviour are unclear, or have broken down. And yet, it's extremely hard to imagine Seinfeld working well in a post-September 11th world, when things suddenly became serious. It's not for nothing that Billy Domineau's spec script of the Seinfeld September 11th episode was a huge hit, inasmuch as it insisted on the same irreverence about a topic that is still considered very serious in America. But it's also no coincidence that the spec script was only written in 2016, a time when the events of September 11th were sufficiently far in the past, and no new similarly large and shocking events had been forthcoming, such that people could laugh about this stuff, even in a "can you believe people are making light of this?" kind of way.

Indeed, to me the Current Year feels a lot like the 1990s. Even the crypocurrency boom of 2017 reminded me a lot of the internet boom in 1998. Neither could have taken place in an environment of 10% unemployment like in 2009. And yet, at the time, the 1990s problems felt like real problems. There seems to be something in human nature that laments boredom above everything else, and will raise small problems to the level of large problems if none really exist. In 1999, there were large violent protests in Seattle about... the World Trade Organization. Just think about that. Can you imagine getting in a brawl with the cops today about trade policy?

Because the thing that makes the Current Year even more unnoticed as a pretty good era is the fact that, unlike the Cold War, the end of the previous era was never really announced. On the current trajectory, unless the other shoe drops and there's another major terrorist strike on America, historians of the future will probably view the matter as being that Al Qaeda only really had one big hit in them, before law enforcement and the CIA figured out they needed to throw gigantic resources at infiltrating and destroying them. After that, all that was left was "lone wolf" small scale attacks that, while tragic and attention-grabbing at the time, eventually faded into the background. Once upon a time, I remember wondering seriously about whether moving to New York might mean you'd die in a smuggled nuke attack. I don't get the feeling people worry about this much any more.

This doesn't mean that America doesn't have problems. Far from it. The late stage US empire can't have enough children to sustain itself, and is both aging and replacing itself with third world immigrants. Meanwhile, the increasing rhetorical hostility to white Americans may yet be seen as the precursor to actual rising violence, much like in South Africa. For now, the main effect seems to be the white death, as lower class whites in flyover country kill themselves with opioids, alcohol and suicide.

But these are the grinding, endemic problems of a society that seems to be in decline. They may be very important, but like anything ongoing, they don't seem to present the impression that if they are not solved immediately (as in, this week or this month) then we are forever doomed. The Cuban missile crisis is an urgent problem. Opioids are merely a very serious problem. Societies, like Hemingway quipped about individuals, go bankrupt in two ways - gradually, then suddenly. At the moment, we seem to be in the "gradually" phase. For people who start out with a lot of money, parts of the "gradually" phase are likely to be quite a bit of fun. In many ways, this is exactly the problem. The "suddenly" phase, however, is never fun.

The bad news, therefore, is that we really are living in clown world.

The other news, which I can't tell whether is good or bad, is the following: when serious and immediate problems strike again, as they inevitably will, you will actually miss clown world.


  1. A timely message to keep a wider perspective on these things.

    This reminds me of Vox Day admonishing those on the (actual) right from descending into nihilism, apathy or despair. We too easily take the symptoms of descent as signs of the end itself. And even if we do suffer an end of sorts, a cataclysm in the biblical sense, whose to say what golden age may follow? Maybe this is little solace to those individuals who must live through said cataclysm, but if anything characterizes the 'right' in my view, its that we give precedence to that which is higher than ourselves.

    As for the financial crisis, I would actually like your perspective on the big picture. (I have never been inclined nor I suspect able, to understand economics). Most of the people I do trust on the matter, however, seem to be of the opinion that the 'fix' (QE, bailouts etc), was a band-aid on a cancer that we should have painfully excised at the time, for when it crashes again it will be catastrophic. Would you say the global economy is also in its 'gradually' phase?

  2. Edit: PS. As frustrating as it is that these ideas can take such tenacious hold on our psyche, the beauty of those graphs is that it highlights the ephemeral nature of these things; that they have no or little bearing on actual reality, and that they can disappear from a culture a quickly as they arose.

  3. Nice article as well as whole site.Thanks.