History Isn't Very Instructive

With plenty of disruption across economic and political systems thanks to populism and its totalitarian supporters in the former Soviet Union, people who once thought we had democracy in the bag are feeling lost. More often than not, they will retreat into a fog of "well, if you look across history . . ." and then make relatively feeble comparisons from schoolbook historical glosses to today's predicaments.

These aren't very instructive. We know and have a lot more now than we did even 20 years ago, must less 200 years ago. We know germ theory, have vaccination, air travel, high-speed worldwide communications, satellites, radar, sonar, lidar, and microwave ovens (even, reportedly, some that take pictures as part of a deep state surveillance program). Historical lessons as far as motivations and human foibles may be instructive, but the context is completely different. We don't have polio and small pox. We don't have double-digit infant mortality.

Our problems and challenges are new and different, so our solutions have to be new and different. We are actually more tolerant of one another at a human level than we are politically or economically, studies have shown. Over the past 20 years, we've become more tolerant of interracial relationships, gay marriage, gays in the military, and people with mental or physical handicaps. We're much more chill about how we live our lives individually than we were in 1990.

Yet, we are more judgmental about political views or economic ability. The political intolerance seems to emanate from a media space that drives divisiveness and alienation. The economic Darwinism is more puzzling -- it's as if the feeling of social isolation and alienation has made people more miserly and protective, less generous and considerate, because they feel like they're on thin ice within a society that appears more willing to marginalize its own citizens.

These are new times, with few historical precedents. People are still alive who were born before commercial aviation was commonplace, much less taken for granted. There are people who still remember the polio epidemics. We've changed perhaps too quickly to realize that a new game requires a new playbook. Oddly, what the US electorate advanced is a team reading from a playbook that is truly historical, making them ahistorical -- they are living outside of history as we know it and as it has happened. We need to wake up to what today is, and move forward from here.

The Bear and the Fox -- A Modern Parable

Once upon a time, there was a small, old fox who fancied himself young and big. This may have been because his elder fox protected him from the harder lessons of the forest, or because the younger fox was given a big den and easy food at a young age. Nobody knows for certain. But the small, old fox grew up both spoiled and insecure, but also foolish and vain.

There was also a wise old bear in the forest, one who had once roamed the territories fearlessly, but who lately had become a relic of his old self. The wise old bear in the forest knew about the small, old fox and his vanity and insecurity. He kept this knowledge to himself, for the wise old bear knew many things about the forest, the most important of which was that you never knew when knowing something might matter.

The wise old bear was not the relic he seemed. Recently, something had stirred in the old bones, and he was once again marking his territory and venturing out. But, over the years, the forest had changed, and he could not make it his own unless he changed it back to be more like the forest of old.

Then, one year, the small, old fox entered a race to see who was the swiftest animal in the forest. The fox had tried running the race before, but the other animals had always been faster or bigger than the fox. But this year, sensing a weaker field, many small animals wanted to run, and there was only one big animal scheduled to run the race. The fox sensed it might be his year after all.

The big animal was different -- a female, rare in this race -- and another fox, but an arctic fox, which made her all the more different. She was tough, but austere. While younger than the small, old fox, the arctic fox seemed older somehow. The forest creatures were used to the small, old fox, but the arctic fox seemed aloof and remote. They thought she could win for she had run many races and always won, but the prospect didn't fill them with the same enthusiasm as the current champion's two wins had in the past. They looked at the arctic fox with detachment.

The day of the race came. The small, old fox quickly outpaced the small animals, who were easily kicked aside or scared away with a growl from the sharp-toothed and vain old fox.

The arctic fox took an early lead, and it was a big one. She seemed destined to win.

But then, the old bear started to work his tricks. He didn't like the arctic fox. She had embarrassed him in years past, and also she scared him because she was truly smart and wily, while the small, old fox was vain and easily fooled. The old bear knew which fox he wanted to win the race.

Before the race, the bear had enlisted the help of other forest creatures, and even creatures from outside the forest, to thrown sticks and stones at the arctic fox as the finish line approached. Why there were so many sticks and stones littered along the racecourse was never a question that entered their mind. They didn't know the bear had asked his friend, the ermine, to distribute them beforehand. The bear provided them, the ermine set them along the course.

The crowd saw the sticks and stones being thrown, and soon began to think that the only reason sticks and stones would be thrown at the arctic fox was if the arctic fox had done something wrong. They didn't know what, but just having the sticks and stones thrown was evidence enough for some. They, too, began to boo and harass the arctic fox.

The small, old fox was gaining as the arctic fox was pelted with the sticks and stones -- the bruises, the tripping, the distraction all slowed her down.

Bolstered, the small, old fox spoke to the crowd, but his words were so strange and his breathing so labored that they began to worry about his mind and heart. He slowed down, out of breath, and the arctic fox sped ahead.

Then, a very strange thing happened -- one of current champion's coterie, who swore to have no effect on the race, began to jeer the arctic fox, as well. He even found some sticks and stones nearby and threw them at the arctic fox. This caught the attention of the crowd, for this animal was viewed as a friend of the current champion. Again, the mere fact that he threw sticks and stones made the crowd wonder about why so many animals were against the arctic fox.

The arctic fox had slowed by this time to enjoy the final yards to the finish line while avoiding the last sticks and stones, but she stumbled upon hearing the jeers from the champion's compatriot. By this time, the small, old fox, rallied by the betrayal coming from the champion's camp, found one more burst of speed, and appeared to win the race. Yet, in one more oddity, the arctic fox was shown later to be the fastest, but the small, old fox won on points awarded by the judges of the race.

In the heat of battle, everyone had forgotten about the wise old bear, who was now far away from the spectacle and having a hearty laugh. His ploy had worked, and now the champion was a small, old fox who was easily fooled and only concerned with his image. The wise old bear immediately sent a flattering message to the small, old fox, while plotting his next moves. He would have to be careful now. But, being wise, he was prepared.

The wise, old bear did not trust just flattery and foolishness to keep the small, old fox in line. He knew it would take more. So, while everyone had been throwing sticks and stones at the arctic fox, the wise old bear had been saving up some sticks and stones of his own, the kind that would scare the small, old fox the most. They were ones taken from around the big fox den the elder fox had left for his offspring, and they held secrets and special meaning the small, old fox would fear.

And so, when the small, old fox was awarded the champion's medal, the wise old bear knew that the medal being slipped around the neck of the small, old fox was really his medal. He had won the race, and the championship was his victory.

The Irony of Gold

Investing in gold is stated by some as a "safe haven" approach in dire economic times, as gold supposedly retains its value in bad times, and perhaps gains value while other financial instruments decline.

However, there is an irony to this idea of "the value of gold" which often escapes proponents of this investment strategy.

To understand this irony, you first have to understand that gold itself only has value because we believe it does. It is a commodity, within a commodity marketplace. Therefore, it has value because I believe you believe it does, which is what makes value-based trading possible. If you didn't believe gold had value, you wouldn't want it. Only because we agree does gold have value.

We often express this value in terms of a local currency. In the US, this means expressing the price of gold in US dollars. The thinking is that gold will be worth more US dollars in bad times. This makes gold a counter-currency -- if the US dollar loses value, gold gains value relative to the dollar. You can get more dollars for each ounce of gold in bad times.

Because the value of gold is expressed in dollars, which themselves have value for the same reason -- because you and I agree they do. If one of us stops believing this, the dollar becomes valueless to our exchange. 

Therefore, your faith in gold is based on your faith in the US dollar. If the US dollar loses its value entirely, gold is worth very little, if anything. Or its value will be stated in entirely alien terms. It's only in a very limited set of circumstances that gold is a good investment -- as a way of hedgingagainst the US dollar or whatever local currency you have. 

Aluminum used to be the most prized metal on the planet. Napoleon's most cherished eating utensils were made of aluminum, and preserved for us at state dinners of the highest order. But when our abilities to mine and refine aluminum made this metal commonplace, its value dropped precipitously. It is now so cheap that we wrap leftovers in it. Like gold, its value is based on scarcity, and measured by a fiat currency.

The valuations of both gold and dollars are based on a shared belief. They interact, but neither is any more "real" than the other. As a metal, gold has some nice properties, but it's of limited utility. This is why separating currencies from a gold standard and into fiat currencies has worked so well. There was no inherent dependency. The relationship was imaginary, and the separation only shows how fanciful our belief in the value of gold was. 

The irony of gold is that its value is imaginary value is measured relative to another thing of imaginary value. But as long as we agree, we're all set.