The Ostrich Syndrome: a New Chronic Cowardice in America, Part 1

From A Dirge for Zero-Sum Game:

Go ahead and hate your neighbor,
Go ahead and cheat your friend;
Do it in the name of Heaven,
You can justify it in the end
There won’t be any trumpets blowin’
Come the Judgment Day
On the bloody mornin’ after
Twelve more Losers died today.

 

by Donald Croft Brickner

 

Such a huge topic we’re going to attempt to tackle today, alas.

Ultimately, the logical conclusions to follow (it’s a philosophical inquiry, truly!) should provide some insights into whether or not Americans (if not most industrialized populations around the world) are beyond reacting to daily news and specific personal events with "mere" fear and trepidation these days due, of course, to living during these (historic) unsettling and unsettled times.

These are unsettled and unsettling times nowadays — right? So, it’s only reasonable to deduce, then — oh, we’ll have such fun now taking on these philosophical pursuits! — that something (or some people, or both) are responsible for today’s widespread unsettled (i.e., crushingly uncomfortable) feelings.

Correctamundo?

For many, I know, our initial foray into this logically-rendered topic, with its series of if-then propositions, is resulting in a fiery, yes.

We’re all behaving very reasonably now.

Never mind astutely.

* * * * *

Oh, what — a lot of you reading this aren’t buying into what’s just been stated, above? Too much is being made of global difficulties, you say? — like economies collapsing, too much debt (just about everywhere), abnormal weather events/global warming, needing to come up with a solution for creating new jobs, finding affordable medical care, prescriptions, housing, transportation and gasoline, etc., avoiding still-failing Euro "concerns" from wafting over here from across the pond; and, you know — so on, and so forth?

Well, a counter-argument is going to follow strongly suggesting that those who think these problems are overblown (never mind countless others not mentioned here) are, yes: in a State of Denial.

As I hope you’ll come to see, that conclusion is not inspired by, or about finger-pointing.

No "us" versus "them," per se, drives this locomotive.

* * * * *

Still, it doesn’t end there: not only are most of us scared, tired to the state of exhaustion, often alone and ignored, flat broke/fighting off homelessness — as well as: pessimistic, cynical and way-angry … and afraid of dying alone and unloved (!!) — but the majority of us are also behaving with "cultural cowardice" in reaction to all of the above.

Yes: Cowardice, as in cowardly.

While we’ll label that "cultural cowardice" by coining a new phrase, mentioned here for the first time, anywhere, The Ostrich Syndrome (yay!) — which, although it’s a deeply nuanced state of affairs to find ourselves diagnosed with (and it’s brand new historically, too — it really is!), it’s not as bad as it sounds. It’s not.

And it does sound bad, I know. It makes us sound like we have no courage, which simply isn’t true. We have it in droves … only these days — as The Ostrich Syndrome implies — we’re hiding from it.

And not very effectively, either, because our consensus fannies are dangerously exposed to all of these unsolved, if not overwhelming problems glaring at us from all around us. It seems like too much!

"Exposed" is the operative word here. For by simply lifting up our heads, taking another look around at our (insipid, you say?) neighbors, we can face a new fresh breezeful of Truth — which is not something we can simply vote on, by the way. Real truth never is. It demands that courage be invoked … as opposed to not.

Neither political party, for instance — or any church or religion, or even any major university — has got it all right — while the rest of us are just plain wrong. That’s simply rampant, run-amok Hubris.

Whose days, you should also know, are numbered.

* * * * *

Nevertheless, whenever any people or nation (not just Americans) encounter something so profound as we have hanging over our heads right here in the U.S., we’re entitled to a little bit of screwing-things-up-worse — which, yes, okay, we’ve done some. Maybe a lot.

But please believe me when I tell you this: the recognition that we’ve screwed things up is going to prove itself to be no big whoop — ultimately. We’re imperfect people. And that’s not our fault. Is it?

We are, most of us, going to make it through the days ahead a little shaken, but not stirred. (Once our Hubris has had its fill of taking it on the chin, and a new Humility takes its place, the "stirring" that will engage us will be in our spirits — or whatever you’d care to call our souls, which ARE real. Our positivistic scientists are idiots.)

Making it through merely shaken is a good thing, of course. It is.

Only, as stated in the first paragraph to this essay, The Ostrich Syndrome is kind of difficult to grasp in its entirety, never mind explain. And personal responsibility is clearly a major issue. For that reason, then, what follows will be (a now somewhat condensed, I hope) "Part 1" of a two-part treatise.

And this Part 1 will focus on some curious economic and political background that’s evolved into being largely unique to this decade.

* * * * *

Most of us, even those in (understandable) denial, realize we’re a country full of really angry people these days.

But just because so many of us are screaming and shouting at our perceived foes, both figuratively and literally, justifiably or not — and ready to go be-bop-fisticuffs (with those ding-dongs in the other political party), doesn’t mean we’re facing our increasing problems with courage. Quite the reverse. Our yelling is mostly misguided blame-making, and an unwillingness to judge ourselves honestly and truthfully first, that’s lead to our feisty, now-three-years’-chronic cowardice.

Each time we don’t say what our hearts humbly know to be true, to ourselves first (followed by others — maybe), we’re being cowardly.

"Cowardice" is defined by Dictionary.com as "lack of courage to face danger, difficulty, opposition, pain, etc."

Duh.

Luckily, it doesn’t end there. There’s a lot more going on in this highly complex situation that’s led us to end up buried under these unique — and I mean, unique — circumstances.

* * * * *

Let’s start with a brief discussion about the capitalistic system I grew up under during the 1950s and 1960s — and the mirror-opposite, major change-of-emphasis capitalistic system that’s entrenched itself today in its place.

This isn’t about capitalism vs. socialism. It’s humane capitalism vs. inhumane capitalism. It’s also like a prediction-come-true from some Twilight Zone episode.

When I was a young man, no one — and I mean, no one: around my community, in newspapers, or on TV — discussed stock markets. They long-since had left a foul taste in everone’s mouths.

My parents’ generation left the stock markets for fools who’d not yet learned their lessons about life, and what really matters.

The stock markets existed, to be sure — but due to that generation having grown up as young adults during The Great Depression of the 1930s, and knowing the horrors that were faced by the majority of Americans for close to a decade personally, very few folks cared one iota about what did or didn’t take place on Wall Street — which was still occupied then by actual New Yorkers or New Jerseyers.

* * * * *

One added note, as well: credit cards had yet to be introduced into the public’s consciousness during that time. We did lay-aways instead if we wanted a product we couldn’t completely afford but didn’t need right away.

Which — and it’s only in passing — raises another mostly rhetorical question: is there some reason we need what we want right away?

(A few of my Christmas toys, like my Fanner 50 caps pistol and its spectacular all-leather tan holster, were acquired by my parents through lay-aways, a series of acquisition-delayed payments one made commonly in department stores — which preceded malls as America’s preferred one-stop shopping locations back then.)

 * * * * *

And now: on to the obscure sub-topic here of Zero-Sum Game, an amoral economic theory taught in our graduate schools — and it’s arguably the concept most responsible for our 2012 callousness:

By way of explanation only — in professor Dr. Lawrence Harris’ 1993 Abstract from his easily obtained May 1993 Working Paper published on the Internet, "The Winners and Losers of the Zero-Sum Game: The Origins of Trading Profits, Price Efficiency and Market Liquidity," he states the nature of "market" capitalism, the kind that’s  practiced today — and that differs so-o significantly from the type of human being-friendly capitalism I grew up with.

Put simply, the primary implication here is unavoidable: once upon a time, in American capitalism, people mattered. People had value simply because, like the rest of us, they were people (!). Back then there was no rule anywhere that required people to have utility in order to have value. Human value was inate, our Constitution said.

This is where a new philosophy and World View stealthfully enter:

So, now, thanks in large part to the tunnel-vision pursuit of profits first, above all, above everything else (as it’s since evolved), people not only don’t matter, a substantial percentage are expected to be Losers!!! Suddenly, what becomes of them doesn’t matter one bit!

Not one stinking teensy little bit! (Die, you Loser!) It’s in our culture, now, in everything from cheering for blood in hockey games or in video games: the sole pursuit of any value now is Winning, period — whatever that actually means. Losing is not okay now, even though it’s impossible to avoid.

Which makes the Wall Street World View preposterous.

For in the space of less than three generations, the silently most popular (thus believable) goal is to Win … the only way to be happy!

* * * * *

To understand how all of this ludicrous awfulness came to pass so easily and quietly, we need to grasp zero-sum game.

Professor Harris, Ph.D., CFA, through July of this year, is the Fred V. Keenan Chair in Finance and Professor of Finance and Business Economics in the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

Here is the introduction to Harris’ paper:

"Trading is a zero-sum game when measured relative to underlying fundamental values. No trader can profit without another trader losing. People trade because they obtain external benefits from trading. These benefits include expected returns from holding securities, risk reduction from holding correlated assets and gambling entertainment. (Italics mine–DCB)

"Three groups of stylized characteristic traders are examined. Winning traders trade for profit. Utilitarian traders trade because their external benefits of trading are greater than their losses. Futile traders expect to profit but for a variety of reasons their expectation are not realized.

"Winning traders make prices efficient and provide most liquidity. Utilitarian and futile traders effectively underwrite the winning traders’ efforts."(Italics again mine.)

Are you getting this so far? How about those "futile traders," huh? Just so much fodder, no doubt, for The Borg.

* * * * *

"Zero-sum game," a simple mathematical construct related to economic "game theory" (!!) and applied to the world’s stock markets, is defined by American Heritage Science Dictionary as:

"A game in which the sum of the winnings by all the players is zero. In a zero-sum game, a gain by one player must be matched by a loss by another player. Poker is a zero-sum game if the house does not take a cut as a charge for playing."

In cultural terms, it’s further defined by Dictionary.com as:

"A game in which the winnings of some players must equal the losses of the others. Zero-sum games are mentioned in a political context when it is believed that resources are limited, and every decision will produce both winners and losers. In such situations, political decisions will be made on the basis of trade-offs between competing interests." (italics mine–DCB)

* * * * *

As an added note: Harris’  Abstract, quoted above, is not intended to serve as a reflection of all stock marketers’ foundational views — although: the win-lose essence of it, as stated above, reflects the consensus foundation for Wall Street-styled capitalism, and is central to every graduating MBA student in the U.S., if not the world!

And the "added bonus" is this: none of these individuals or leaders on Wall Street or anywhere in the U.S. government even once told anybody else in America, years ago, about the system they’d altered to make themselves "Winners." They took advantage of the greed of America’s baby boomers, too, to get them to jump back into the previously loathed stock markets.

Gimme, gimme, gimme.

The children of those who suffered through The Great Depression thus selfishly wanted anything and everything — and they wanted it Now.

Just like most of our young people commonly desire today.

But no one ever explained to them that if you "lost," you might end up, you know — flat broke and/or homeless.

Or, nowadays in particular, maybe even ultimately … dead.

Or, at least, dying. If you lack utility, you lack value. No profit in that!

Our "Winners" kind of/sort of kept that tidbit of news to themselves.

* * * * *

Be very clear about this: Wall Street, and everything related to it, is a stacked-deck casino. It’s leaders have assured themselves of winning (by all kinds of corrupt and illegal means, rarely prosecuted), which also means — due to their zero-sum game (that they alone stealthfully  injected into our real world economy), it’s all now: They Win — and You Don’t.

Suckers. You Loser, you. And, you know what?: you get to breathe air because We Winners allow you to.

* * * * *

There are, thus, two economies in America and the world: one, a complete fabrication based upon nothing but computer digits they now solely control (and long ago saw to it that they did!) — that’s for the Winners — and then there’s the actual world economy, the one that 99 percent of the world’s population are left with, that’s devoid of hope, money and any chance of reversal.

What are the Dow Jones’ numbers these days? Pretty good? Naw — they’re great. They’re so good that the lavish salaries — many traders alone make a great deal more money each year than our sitting president! — are passed around like dust bunnies.

These fools live like those pasty-faced gluttonous monarchs of yore. Some goal, ‘ey what? Some adolescent World View, too!

… Get it?!

* * * * *

The good news they don’t know is this: their days are numbered, too — I’ve bet my life on it.

The entire globe is headed, unswervingly now, to some form of bankruptcy, whether it’s legally acknowledged or otherwise.

How will it all manifest? At the moment, I have no idea. I only know that its smoke-cleared final impact will be both sweet and sour.

In Part 2, we’ll focus the balance of our attention on today’s American culture, and how it impacts our institutions — and how they, too, have all contributed, in their fashion, to our having come down with a bad case of Cowardice.

 

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