Shutting Off the Stock Market

Close your eyes and try to imagine a world without stock tickers.  What if companies were still required to report their financial information and people allowed to buy and sell stocks, but the publication of up-to-the-second stock prices, index levels and analysis was restricted to once a year?

Ignoring job losses in the financial sector, considerably shorter newscasts and blank newspaper pages stemming from such a drastic move, in the aftermath of the “flash crash” of 2009 and the ongoing turbulence and instability of global markets, this thought experiment elicits interesting observations about the state of our capital markets and its implications for global future economic growth.

Shutting down stock markets is not advisable, nor is the point that an ideal world would not have up-to-the-minute stock updates or 24-hour business television.  Rather, the fundamental question is whether our society’s uniquely obsessive focus on short-term fluctuations of the market is encouraging short-term decision making and fostering a pervasive and damaging negativity that in turn results in a self-fulfilling economic prophecy.

As technology creates new opportunities to process information and the amount of available information increases, hyper-sensitivity and volatility are fast becoming the new norms of the stock market.  The rise of program trading in particular, which uses technical indicators and analysis of quantitative data to make buy and sell decisions, threatens to further speed up the already frenetic pace.

Certainly, new technologies and enhanced access to information have the potential to generate tremendous sums of money and democratize access to market information.  But the real question remains whether or not facilitating “trading for the sake of trading” generates real lasting wealth for the economy taken as a whole.

In order to answer this question, it is important to consider why capital markets exist in the first place.  Fundamentally, the capital markets serve as a link between users of capital (companies) and owners of capital (investors).  Advanced economies benefit from a large, vibrant and efficient capital marketplace because it provides companies with the capital required to grow and create wealth, which in turn increases gross domestic product, increases productivity and raises living standards.  Capital markets are the living, beating heart of a thriving democratic-capitalist system.

Permitting and fostering unnecessary volatility in the market has both damaging short-term consequences for investors and creates long-term impediments to economic growth.  If the capital markets are permitted to become the functional equivalent of a high-stakes casino, investors (institutional and retail alike) will refuse to take such risks.

The implications of this trend are stark: less money invested in the capital markets means less capital for start-up ventures and established companies alike, which in turn limits their ability to make desperately needed productivity gains, create jobs and generate wealth for stakeholders.

Should volatility, irrationality and complexity become the hallmarks of the public market, the net result will be a steady flow of investors out of the public marketplace and into the relative stability of private ownership.  Since private companies earn their profits without the bother and expense of being a public company and the pressure of a fluctuating stock price, the incentives for going public will become less attractive – especially if the markets for private capital investments grow as more investors seek more stable investment returns.  Indeed, the recent trend for many accredited investors towards alternative investment classes demonstrates that this might already be already happening.

If the value of a public capital marketplace is lost, as a consequence, all of the potential future economic value of private companies that choose to stay private rather than risk the cost and uncertainties of going public will be lost for all.  The stakes are high.

If history is any guide, the trend for advanced economies will continue towards ever-increasing complexity.  Given troubling harbingers such as the “flash crash” of 2009, businesses, regulators and politicians need to engage in a serious debate about whether the growing complexities taking hold in the capital markets in the name of short-term financial gain for some will ultimately detract from the market’s ability to facilitate long-term economic growth for all.

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The Social Media Paradox

I’ve always found the recent debates over the role and impact of social media in our modern society fascinating.

On the one hand, it is readily apparent that the impact of social media and the explosion in the popularity of the YouTubes, Facebooks and Twitters of the universe have dramatically and seemingly forever altered the global media landscape, leaving the so-called “legacy media” (defined as print newspapers, magazines and network television) scrambling to hold on the remnants of a once highly lucrative business model and grasping blindly in the dark for a solution.

Problem is, once the genie comes out of the bottle, you rarely get to put it back again.  Quite simply, social media isn’t going to go away.  How social media becomes integrated into the whole of society, however, raises a whole host of questions, including but not limited to how to effectively monetize social media, grapple with ongoing massive breaches of intellectual property and copyright laws and ensuring that social media doesn’t create a “race to the bottom” with respect to quality journalism and literary content.

These issues are battles for another day.  What interests me most for our current purposes is what I’ve loosely referred to as the paradox of social media: that the increasing means and tools of communications and connectivity appears to be coinciding with decreasing levels of actual political, social and community involvement and engagement.

In theory, these new developments in social media should have a democratizing effect.  In other words, as these new technologies become available, usually for free, greater numbers of people from different parts of the globe ought to be able to share and express ideas.  Under this model, actual and perceived connectivity should flourish.  Certainly, advocates of social media argue that this is the case.

Unfortunately, the alleged connectivity appears to be highly superficial.  Despite greater access to social media, which correspondingly should increase the amount of linkages and connectivity between people, ironically enough the result seems to be even greater sense of personal isolation.  While social media connects people, it simultaneously provides people with an excuse not to engage in the real world.  I’m not a Luddite, nor am I suggesting that we need to get back to a world where every communication needs to be face-to-face – far from it.  But when dating sessions are being offered where individuals stand around in the same bar and Twitter to potential mates rather than actually, say, talk to one’s potential future mate, dare I say that we might have too gone too far?

Additionally, as I’ve previously argued in this space, the increase in the prevalence of social media “groups,” while adding to one’s public image and generating the perception that one is actively engaged and involved, does not accord with the downward trend of actual involvement in the political or community spheres.  While there have been exceptions to this trend, such as during Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, where the internet was used to great effect in marshalling “grassroots” support, it is important to note that not only has that level of support was not only unsustainable in the long run, it did not transition in or result in markedly higher levels of so-called traditional political involvement once the glamour of the campaign was finished.  Instead, in a rather perverse and unanticipated outcome, the Obama camp may have created an atmosphere of disappointment when the soaring message of “Hope and Change,” so readily transmitted and expressed on a Twitter page or Facebook profile, was replaced with the significantly less-satisfying day-to-day political bickering.

Truth be told, I think it’s an important question to ask whether or not people who join interest groups rooted primarily in a social media context would actually have joined a similar group in the real world.  If the answer to this question is no, undoubtedly a critical question that necessarily must be solved in the near future is how to bridge this gap.  Social media is undeniably a useful tool for connecting people, but empirical and experiential evidence suggests that it is only useful up until a certain point, after which the more “traditional” forms of communication (i.e. actually talking and meeting with people) necessarily must take over.

At the end of the day, from time immemorial, human beings through both necessity and choice have been social creatures.  Continued engagement is not only beneficial, but healthy too.  Given the tremendous challenges currently facing the world today, some good old fashioned face-time might be a useful step in the right direction.

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The Everyday Olympian – In Praise of Self-Restraint and Self-Denial:

The Olympics have been over now for almost two weeks now.  The excitement of competition is mostly passed.  TV schedules have mostly returned to their normally scheduled drudgery, and those of us who tuned for the whole two weeks have mostly gotten back to life as usual.

While the games may be over and soon to be forgotten, by and large, from popular consciousness, I think that the Olympics serves as an important reminder of the type of characteristics and traits that Western society could use a lot more of, namely, self-restraint and self-denial.

Now, before you think this is going to be a depressing pessimistic rant, know that on the whole, I’m not some crotchety old man who thinks society is screwed and that we’re all going to hell in a hand basket.  Quite the contrary.  While I’ll be the first to tell you that we’ve got some major challenges to face up to across a whole spectrum of issues, I firmly believe that overcoming challenges is the foundation of human success.

So what does this have to do with the Olympics?

When training for an Olympic event, athletes are required to put a tremendous amount of time and effort into their respective sports.  They have to practice and sacrifice (financially, physically and otherwise) for their dreams.  The challenges they face are not only physical, but mental too, and our Olympic athletes, from the strongest podium contenders to the lowliest, barely-qualified competitors, are testaments to dedication.  Olympic athletes work hard chasing their dreams, even if years of training means a last place finish.

In Canada, there has been a great deal of hand-wringing and self-criticism over the “Own the Podium” (“OTP”) Program.  This funding program was set up in part by the Canadian Olympic Committee in order to provide special funding to high-performance Olympic athletes in order to help push them over the top and seek Olympic victory.  Hell, OTP even set as a goal that Canada could win the most medals at the Olympics.  Now, as it turns out, Canada didn’t win the most medals; it did, however, win the most gold medals at a Winter Olympics ever, both by any country and a host country.

But what’s wrong with setting a high standard?  Ask any self-help expert worth their salt and they’ll tell you that goal-setting and failing are all part and parcel of striving for success.

The problem as I see (and maybe one of the reasons that the Olympics, in a weird way, are so popular) is that the contrast between the traits and characteristics required to be an Olympic champion and those that dominate in our everyday Western lives is staggering.

Where Olympic athletes live in a universe of hard work, sacrifice and delayed gratification, for the most part Western society thrives in a culture of immediate gratification.  These aspects of our collective personality are not just personal or cultural traits.  Their influence and impact spills over into the political realm as well: politicians who seem unconcerned about the future of the environment, or coming to terms with massive financial debts – delaying action is just another form of immediate gratification, and quite the opposite of the Olympian ideal.

The current financial crisis is a prime example of the immediate, short-term thinking: people buying mortgages at rates they won’t be able to sustain in the future, or buying products on debt they cannot afford.

In years past, people who did not have the money to purchase a big screen TV simply lived without one.  In the ethic of the modern day and age, the things that were once viewed as luxuries that could be dispensed with have transformed into ‘rights,’ and a system to ensure that you can purchase these items (on credit, which you may never well repay) was developed to go along with it.

The solution to this isn’t revolutionary.  We simply need to get back to a simpler frame of mind, one where people take responsibility for their own problems, live within their own means, and work hard for what matters in their lives.

So here’s my challenge: be an everyday Olympian.  Try to be the gold-medalist of being nice to the people around you.  Own the Podium of eating healthy and exercising.  Be the champion of living a financially prudent life.

While the Olympics only happens every four years, the dedication, tenacity and spirit that drives our athletes shouldn’t have to wait that long.

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The Debt Delusion

Picture this scenario: you’ve maxed out your credit card, missed a few payments, and collection agencies are calling every day.  You phone up your credit card company and say, “hey, don’t worry, I’m just going to get another credit card to pay you off, and it’ll all be fine.”

What do you think a credit card company would say to that proposition?  What would a financial planner or debt counsellor think?  Do you think someone else would give you a credit card?

As ridiculous as the above example sounds, this is basically what most industrialized countries in the world now are passing off as fiscal management.  In a sign that politicians the world over now seem completely and utterly unable to tell their constituents the true cost of the entitlements and services they have become accustomed to, industrialized nations have slipped into a vicious debt cycle.  And it’s not getting any better.

That isn’t to say that debt, whether incurred by an individual, business or a government, is a bad thing per se.  Debt is useful, and the leverage it provides, when used responsibly and with full recognition of the fact that one day it must be paid back (with interest), is a fundamental element of any capitalist economic system.  But as any economist or financial analyst will tell you, debt has the effect of creating magnifications and distortions in the way that a company (or economy) reacts to fluctuations.  When people, businesses and governments take debt and debt markets for granted and act recklessly, it is a recipe for disaster.  When governments encourage people and businesses to incur debts and then incur bigger ones for themselves, you get what we have now.

Debt catches up to you, eventually.  The present example of Greece illustrates the point perfectly.  Here we have a country that chose, willingly, to spend amounts on government expenditures far exceeding their actual revenues and intakes (i.e. taxes).  You don’t have to be a Wharton economist to know that this isn’t exactly sustainable.  Nevertheless, in style with the “live for today, to hell with tomorrow” attitude of most governments over the past decade, Greece lived the good life.  But you can’t run from your debts.

Now that the shit has hit the proverbial fan, Greece is real trouble.  And it’s not just that they’re in debt way over their heads with absolutely no credible plan to get out of it.  Now it has come out that the Greek government hired Goldman Sachs to develop an intricate swap arrangement in order to shield the true amount of debt they were incurring in order to comply with the debt requirements set out by the European Union.

The key question for debate is this: should Greece be bailed out, either by the EU, Germany, France or some form of international organization, such as the IMF?

The problem is, should the Greeks be bailed out, what is to say that the other members of the so-called PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece & Spain) nations of Europe, whose deficit and debts-to-GDP ratios are just as scary if not more scary than those of Greece?

This discussion raises the larger question of moral hazard.  Moral hazard is defined as a situation that arises where an individual or government fails to heed the consequences or responsibilities of its consequences because it knows it will be saved regardless of what it does, creating a self-perpetuating tendency by all similarly situated parties to act less carefully than they otherwise would have.  If somebody bails out the Greeks, what is the incentive for everyone else to get their fiscal house in order?  And who will bail out the “big guns” should something else bad happen?  There isn’t a right answer to this question.

It is important to recognize that the economic and political problem of debt has a tremendous social element; indeed, one could argue that society has to a large extent driven this crisis.  Simply put, to paraphrase Marie Antoinette, people want to have their cake and eat it too.  Completely unaware of the tremendous fiscal costs of their entitlements and governments, people, particularly North Americans, obsessively complain about their high level of taxation while simultaneously complaining about the poor quality of government services (these arguments must seem foreign to the Nordic countries of Europe, who have both higher standards of living and much higher marginal tax rates that more accurately reflect the cost of the services provided).

Governments have for the last 20 years compounded this problem and helped to shield their constituents from the true costs of their government’s activities.  When the debt markets are easily accessible, this is the politically perfect solution: the people get immediate gratification, politicians keep their jobs without having to make difficult choices or bargains, and the problem gets deferred to some point way off in the future.

Problem is for us, the point has seemingly arrived.

In many respects, debt is like an addiction for people, businesses and government because it provides the easy fix, the instant gratification, and best of all, defers consequences.  Problem is, ask anyone who has ever tried to grapple with an addiction, whether it be smoking, drugs, obesity, what have you – changing one’s habits can take a lifetime.  And it’s not easy.

All in all, I have little doubts that the defining crisis that the up and coming generation (of which I am a part) will be the ability to come to terms with the tremendous overleveraging of the global economy that has occurred over the course of the last 10 to 20 years.  Imagining, developing and implementing a strategy of sustainable and responsible economic growth is going to be a tremendously difficult proposition.  Deleveraging is not going to be an easy process (just ask Japan if you’re curious) and it’s going to take a long time before we see sustained private-sector driven growth based on solid economic fundamentals.

But it sure as hell looks like a better alternative than continuing on with the present course.

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The Quarter-Life Crisis and Other Generational Cop-Outs

Feeling down about your lack of job prospects?  Can’t decide which of your handful of on-again off-again boyfriends/girlfriends you’re currently sleeping with you actually want a real relationship with?  Have a sense that “everyone is, somehow, doing better than you?”

If you have any of the above symptoms, not to fear, you’re not suffering from the H1N1 virus.

No, you’re suffering from a far, far worse fate: the quarter-life crisis.

In case you haven’t heard, the “quarter-life crisis” is all the rage.  I first heard it used by a lacklustre acquaintance of mine; subsequently I did more research and stumbled upon an entire body of work devoted to explaining and exploring this phenomenon, including the New York Times bestseller Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties.  Around this time I read an article entitled “Welcome to your Quarterlife Crisis,” an explanatory manifesto.  Throughout this whole process, I got progressively more incredulous.

For me as a twenty-five year old, this whole notion of a ‘quarter-life crisis’ twenty-five year old has all of the characteristics of an elaborately manufactured cop-out.   I simply refuse to accept that the defining generational trait of young adults of my vintage is that we’re aimless, shifty louses who can’t make decisions.  Blaming the parenting decisions and the relative luxury of our generation’s upbringing for one’s own ability to make decisions about one’s own life doesn’t cut it in my view.  After a certain point in life, blaming your upbringing (especially when those circumstances were, relatively speaking, some of the most comfortable in modern history) for the course of one’s life is unseemly.

Nevertheless, according to the ‘quarter-life crisis’ characterization my generation has been effectively reduced to a snivelling, overeducated, whining group of windbags with zero sense of their own purpose or direction.  Although I felt fine this morning, according to this worldview, I am apparently smack dab in the middle of an existential crisis.

What bothers me the most is the fact that the whole “quarter-life crisis” diagnosis seems to exist in the popular narrative primarily as a means to make it socially acceptable to act and feel that it’s alright to blame some externality for the fact that despite what teachers and society told you growing up, you’re not particularly special, smart or important.

I don’t deny that there are tremendous challenges in one’s early twenties, and that facing up to the particular challenges of one’s life bring about feelings.  The years between 20 and 30 are probably some of the most formative in life, and it’s an important time to figure out what quintessentially drives and defines us.  But does this merit a diagnosis?  Isn’t that just life?  Is it no longer possible to have feelings or face challenges without creating a disorder to justify wallowing in it?

Now, on the off chance I’m terribly mistaken, and my generation is afflicted with this terrible disease, I offer the following prescriptive medicine: Guess what?!  There is no grand narrative or logic to life!  Surprise!  In the real world, there are no participant ribbons and not everyone gets what they want.  Thomas Hobbes was right when he said that “the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  Now get over it and live your life.

Given the terrible state of the world, particularly those 99% of other people on the planet who aren’t fortunate enough to have the luxury of spending their 20s and 30s feeling sorry for themselves and actually have to live with real adversity and tragedy (and generally, I would point out, don’t bitch about it), it’s really sad that the most fortunate and privileged generation who grew up in a time without major wars or adversity or other generational challenges in a collective sense, can’t even manage to get out of bed in the morning or narrow their list of sex partners down to a number less than the number of fingers on their hand.

I sure hope that the quarter-life crisis is just a terrible stereotype with a catchy name…I hope.

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Fiddling ‘round the Fire: The Social Nature of Political Paralysis

Here’s a depressing exercise for you.  Get a blank piece of paper.  On it, write down all of the major crises and problems currently besetting the U.S.  (and the world at large).  Your list might look something like mine:

-          Massive U.S. deficit and debt
-          Rampant structural unemployment/underemployment
-          Spiralling health-care costs
-          Energy challenges (oil, natural gas and other fossil fuel depletion)
-          Climate change
-          Crumbling infrastructure
-          Education reforms

Pretty depressing list.  What’s worse, the problems on the list aren’t discrete – instead, most of them are systemic and structural problems that will take many years to fix and require wholesale social and cultural changes.

However, the real challenge is that for all of the problems we’ve created, we seem to be running short on solutions for them.

Well, maybe not so fast.

The problem is not that we do not have solutions for these issues – rather, a lot of people would argue that there are several solutions and possibilities for all of the above problems.

No, the fundamental problem is that the current political system is increasingly unable to implement any change to the status quo.  Through a toxic mix of partisanship, naked corporate self-interest and endemic short-term thinking, the political problem solving process is in crisis like no at no other time before.

Given the current political climate, one begins to wonder whether or not many of the “classic” pieces of legislation in the United States (the New Deal, Medicare, Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Reaganomics, etc , etc) could have even been passed under the current circumstances.  Hell, one wonders whether the politicians associated with the above legislation could even have been elected to office given the intense scrutiny of the 24-hour news cycle.

Troublingly, these observations are not limited solely to the United States.  Indeed, Canada, the U.K and the EU are all grappling with the same fundamental problems, albeit in slightly different contexts and with varying degrees of danger and concern for the global economy.

These questions raise the broader issue of whether or not human societies, in general, are able to deal with complex problems.

This issue of whether or not human societies are equipped to deal with the ever-growing complexities of the modern era is a fascinating topic.  As a starting point, if one believes that society is capable of solving these problems, one must also believe, necessarily, that humans will act in their rational best interests.

Problematically, there is increasing evidence, though anecdotal, that this is far from the case.  As the BBC recently pointed out in a newly published study of the United States, people tend to most violently oppose those measures that would provide them with the most benefit.

So if the public is not able to rationally support policies that would work in their best interests, inevitably there will be a disconnect between what people think should be done and what politicians or those in charge should be doing.  Of course, this isn’t really revolutionary thinking here – as many people will tell you, the best politicians are oftentimes the ones who get elected to do one thing and then do something completely different.  The best politicians are the ones who can survive long enough to demonstrate that their policies were right after all – if enough time passes, then the public may well support them again.

The point is simply that sometimes politicians have to just make the hard decisions that are best for the country and then hope to hell that their changes bear fruit.

Unfortunately, this is incredibly hard to do in U.S. politics, where there is an election cycle every two-years.  With politicians generally acting in their own self-interest (i.e. keeping their jobs), there is no incentive to make the hard decisions.  So they don’t get made.  Couple this with a 24-hour news cycle that has in essence created a permanent election atmosphere, and you have a recipe for complete political stagnation.

Given these issues, it’s actually not surprising that some people have lamented on the inability of the United States’ political system to do anything to the point where they seem to want a dictatorship, such as in China, where the Communist Party leadership seems to be able to make changes at will (these thinkers apparently gloss over the brutality of the regime, but no matter).

I’m certainly not advocating that.  But it’s an interesting argument, and an old argument – hell, any 1st year university philosophy student forced into reading Plato’s Republic will tell you it’s been around for awhile.

Plato, like many today, was disillusioned with the state of politics in his day.  Among his other ideas, Plato’s ideal system of government involved appointing philosopher kings, wise-old men who would rule over the people without having to worry about popularity, ensuring their ability to make decisions with the long-term best interests of the city in mind.

If you’ve watched CSPAN or the news lately, that doesn’t sound like too bad of an idea.  But hey – I’m guessing we might have troubling deciding to do anything about that proposal, anyway.

Reaganomics

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Out with the Community Group, In with the Facebook Fan Group

It’s often said that people take the most offence to the things they see in others that best capture their own shortcomings.  I’m fully aware of that as I write this.

That said, there’s a trend, at least in North American society, that when compared with our own history, is distressing to say the least.

In times past, when people had concerns, whether they be social, political, economic, etc, the exigencies of the times required interaction.  As such, people tended, when faced with such challenges or concerns, to join together and work in common cause to solve this problem.  This formed the pattern for change not only for the mundane and unimportant but also for the supremely important (thinking here in particular of the civil rights movement as one of several examples).

What example you’d like to choose is irrelevant.  The point is that in times stretching from the Roman Republic to the post-segregation U.S. South, whenever there was something that people were concerned with, they banded together and tried, rightly or wrongly, to seek the changes that they thought were needed.

However, it seems that the advent of the internet age has thrown a wrench in this process.

At this stage, I’m sure all sorts of people are ready to brand me as backwards, behind the times, a Luddite or simply an idiot. “ Internet social media doesn’t separate people, it brings them together,” they argue.  “The internet affords and allows a voice to those who would otherwise be disenfranchised.”  “Facebook and Twitter allow a level of grassroots organizing that involves everyday people in a way never seen before.”

Yeah, maybe that’s true.  And yes, there are exceptions to this trend; hell, the Tea Party convention just last week illustrated the power of the internet age for organizing grassroots responses to emergent concerns.

But I still have my doubts, and examples such as the above appear to be the exception to the trend.

One might view this as a trend from a culture of action (I don’t like your levels of taxation King George, therefore I am going to fight to the death to kick you out of my country) to a culture of inaction (I don’t like Conservative prorogation of the Canadian Parliament so I’m going to join a Facebook group opposing it notwithstanding the fact I don’t vote in Federal elections or pay attention to politics).

All of this reminds me of courses I took on Ancient Athenian society back in school.  Why?  In Ancient Athens, a common practice at funerals of prominent members of society was to hire professional mourners.  These professional paid mourners, all women, would follow the body as it was moved to burial, ripping their hair out in the streets and beating their breasts, often mixing this ‘mourning’ with politically-activist overtones.  This became such a problem that professional mourners were eventually banned in Ancient Athens.

So, why the hell is this relevant, Steve?  I can’t help but wonder if the ‘Facebook Fan’ phenomenon is in some way similar.

After all, online services such as Facebook and Twitter provide a glossy and glib overview of one’s beliefs.  These beliefs are summarized and neatly enumerated for collective judgment and organized by category.

But isn’t claiming to have certain beliefs and then doing nothing about them in an active sense a massive integrity gap?  Saying that you’re in favour of one thing or another and then doing nothing about that other than professing to be for or against something – isn’t that what pundits get worked up about with respect to modern day politicians…all talk and no substance?  You may be a fan of something, but does that mean that you’re actually contributing in some way?

The internet age, in a weird roundabout way, has allowed people to have their cake and eat it too – demonstrate publicly their bona fides as caring, community minded involved individuals without ever having to leave their own home, let alone do something.  The risk of this trend, as I see it, is that given the anonymity of the online world and the complete lack of anyone to call people’s bluff in a meaningful sense, people will increasingly feel “good” about their stance in the world by merely declaring their position on a given issue with realizing that for 99.9% of human history, such declarations were as meaningless as the paper they were (once) written on.

I guess it all boils down to the expression “talk is cheap.”  And we sure do seem to be doing an awful lot of talking.

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