David M. Russell

Fool’s gold

In Commentary on June 28, 2009 at 1:51 am

How did we get suckered by the notion that we could all suddenly become wealthy? I mean, what a fool’s dream! How much history do we have to choose from to know that most people don’t end up rich – only the very select few make it really big, financially. We have thousands of years of previous experience to quite clearly point out that real wealth is the province of the very few. Yet, we fell headlong for the biggest sucker punch in the history of humankind: we came to truly believe that we would be the first generation to achieve real and meaningful wealth for more than half the population. What were we thinking? How did we become so arrogant? How could we have been so stupid as to believe that we could overturn thousands of years of bitter-sweet experience that has one unchangeable lesson: only the very few amass real wealth?

Honestly, you have to shake your head in sad acknowledgement that we must rank as THE most naïve generation in history. We truly thought anyone one of us could make it really BIG. Sure, there were a lot of scumbags peddling false hope through a bewildering variety of suspect scams. But that’s been the case through all history. What has never happened before is that so many of the general populace actually got sucked-in. So many of us thought the stock market was simple and straightforward. We were so stupid we didn’t even kick the tyres. Fair dinkum, the clever dicks saw us coming and we just laid down, thought of England and surrendered our virginity. In any realistic assessment it would be called rape. But we were so arrogant and egotistical that we actually invited them to do unto us. We dropped our undies, bent over backwards and offered everything sacred we possessed.

Historians will debate for generations to come how we could have been so stupid. Did we really think stock prices would continue to rise FOREVER? Did we really think that the destruction of value could yield profits for the many? You may well ask: what is he suggesting? Let me be frank: we were stupid. We fell – hook, line and sinker – for smartarses who told us they could borrow vast sums of money to purchase companies and then make massive amounts of profit by smashing that company into little pieces and selling-off the splinters for way more than the original ‘vase’ was worth. Yeah, right! Come on. That’s what we were doing. And it wasn’t just a few of us. This was a whole world gone crazy. Mum and dad investors who had never in their lives bought a share were ‘leveraging’ their entire life savings and asset base to go into hock to a level that defied sensible assessment to reap returns that were – by any measure – simply too good to be true.

When did we – and our generation is the only one in history to have been so across-the-board stupid – consign to the waste bin, the notion that if it’s too good to be true, it’s a dud? Honestly, adages have a place in our language and our culture because they are little snippets of truth that get passed from one generation to the next to save our children from getting hurt. But we baby Boomers knew better than any of our forebears – hundreds of generations of them. We blithely said they were shmucks: they didn’t know what day it was. Our view was that there was easy money to be made and we’d be fools not to help ourselves. Well, isn’t there a lesson in that, eh?

There is no such thing as easy money. Well, not without pain of some sort, at any rate. And that’s the point: in every previous generation in history, wealth has been the province of the selected few. Indeed, it’s actually an oxymoron to suggest that wealth can ever be accumulated by the masses. Yes, society as a whole can improve its living standard through the course of one or more generations. That’s sustainable. But the notion that all of us – or even most or just many of us – can achieve massive improvement in our comparative level of asset wealth, is a fool’s notion. It is simply not possible, Yet, we believed it as an article of faith. And, today, we are paying the price. Sadly, many will forfeit their lives in the crucifying realisation that they have been stupid. It matters not if they have been duped by unscrupulous swindlers. It matters not if they have been unfairly dealt with. It matters not if their intentions were as pure as the drive snow. They clutched at the straw that was too good to be true – and then many of them bet their houses on it. The consequences were disastrous.

Yes, we can play the blame game. There is a need to brutally and realistically assess the games that were played by the clever dicks that cost so many, so much. We need to determine how this madness came to pas and put in place regulatory mechanisms that prevent similar outrages for the foreseeable future. But let’s not delude ourselves: the blame doesn’t sit with the few: it belongs to the many. We all got greedy. We all got suckered. We all thought there was easy money to be had. Worse, is that many of us knew – deep in our hearts – that it was too good to be true. But we thought that if everyone else was getting in for their slice, we’d be stupid not to get some for ourselves. Like every teenage virgin who has sacrificed her greatest asset only to end up pregnant, we were all sluts. Is that too harsh? Don’t for a moment think I am placing responsibility on the female. No way! This whole shambles was a brutally male-driven, egotistical rape of sound societal values. Men should hang their heads in shame. It was not ‘The Women of Wall Street’ who seduced us. It was pathetically, self-obsessed, arrogant, lustful and greedy male bastards who conned us. They wanted their way with us and they had it.

And, do you know the worst thing? Most of those who created this sham market of illusory riches for all got out early and kept fortunes in safe harbours while those who were fairly or, indeed, even entirely innocent, are left to pay the price. That is where it is tempting to indulge in real anger. In many ways it would not be misdirected. Yet, it would be pointless. The inescapable fact is – and, until we learn this lesson, we can make no valid progress – the fault lies with us. We saw something that was too good to be true and we rushed in headlong. We couldn’t want to get ourselves pregnant. Well, now we pay the price. There is a baby to be raised and it is the opportunity we bequeath to subsequent generations. Do we leave things in a massive, horrible mess? Do we wash our hands of responsibility for rectification simply because so many of us have been so hurt? No, we must salve our consciences and the only viable way of doing that is to clean up the mess.

We must meaningfully acknowledge that greed got the best of us. We must put in place measures to prevent future abuses of the type that became so commonplace through the 80s, 90s and 00s. We must restore sanity to capitalism. The fundamental lesson that must be learned is that freedom can only thrive within a mantle of discipline. Wantonness will lay waste to it every time. The fool’s dream is that freedom is strong. It is not. It is the most elusive, will-of-the-wisp concept we can ever conceive. It exists – not as a right – but as a truly rare and fragile gift. We have a responsibility – yes, each and every one of our generation – to nurture this precious creature and restore it to a state of ruddy good health so that it can be bestowed upon our successors in a way that leaves a legacy of life able to sustain future development.

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