On Monday morning, while penning yet another update on China’s anti-monopoly crackdown, I initially inserted a quote from a popular commentator who writes about monopolies. Then I removed it.
The omission spoke to something I grapple with every day in the course of writing for public consumption: How important is it that the people who inform public opinion actually live up to the persona they cultivate and the ideals they espouse, both implicitly and explicitly?
One of the central tenets of my life is that, generally speaking, you can’t trust anyone, nor can you take very many people seriously. I don’t mean that in a paranoid way. Often, the problem isn’t that people are wittingly “bad” (with the scare quotes to denote that I’m not a fan of normative language), it’s that they’re accidentally disingenuous, hypocritical by necessity or unwitting accomplices in the perpetuation of the absurd.
For the vast majority of people in advanced economies, it’s impossible to avoid being disingenuous or hypocritical.
For example, the quote mentioned here at the outset (the one I started to include in one of my own articles before deciding against it) came from a Substack post. As noted, the author is a reasonably well-known commentator on monopolies. Again and again, readers refer me to his work and an analyst whose dailies I’m fond of likes to quote him.
Try as I might, though, I can’t bring myself to take this person seriously. Why? Well, he leverages Twitter to promote himself, published his book through Simon & Schuster, sells that book on Amazon and has a rather large footprint on Google. That’s a lot of monopolies!
Even writing on Substack represents a concession of sorts. After all, is Substack not engaged in an attempt to monopolize blogging? If you’re interested to know what kind of reception you’re likely to get if you proposition me or otherwise venture a cold call, see the entertaining screengrab (below).
To quote Denzel Washington’s wildly idealized depiction of Frank Lucas, “Nobody owns me, though. Because I own my company. And my company sells a product that’s better than the competition at a price that’s lower than the competition.”
Now that I think about it, Frank Lucas probably isn’t the best way to make the point. After all, he had one of the most famous monopolies in modern American history.
Anyway, it’s mostly impossible for regular people to avoid hypocrisy. The gentleman I mentioned above could scarcely be expected to eschew interactions with all of the monopolies he leverages. He feels like his message is important, and as such, he wants to expose himself (don’t laugh) to the maximum number of people. What good is a great message if nobody receives it?
Relatedly, it’s unfair to point out the eyebrow-raising juxtaposition between a Progressive who once attempted to identify with America’s downtrodden masses by saying she doesn’t have $40,000 laying around, and social media images depicting a fabulous lifestyle, complete with chauffeured trips to conferences in a Mercedes S-Class worth at least $120,000. (It’s safe to say there isn’t a single S-Class owner on planet Earth who doesn’t have $40,000 in the bank.)
Finally (and although I can’t go into specifics, this is among the most poignant real-world examples I’ve ever come across personally), what are we to say about an independent media company whose founder and majority owner built his reputation on “red-pilling” the masses, when in fact, the entire business model is built on the dissemination of patent falsehoods, misinformation and, in some cases, outright lies?
There’s no greater irony — no more glaring example of hypocrisy — than a Morpheus figure whose “red pill” immerses the public in a fictional world of his own construction.
Over sushi, dumplings and too much alcohol in Manhattan, I once asked that person what his site’s actual mission was. Naively, I expected to hear some idealistic manifesto. Like the one posted on the site. Instead, he offered this: “My goal is to make my employees rich.”
The implication was twofold. First, he was already rich. Second, the entire premise of his media company (which still exists, by the way, all these years later) was a total fabrication. He had no interest in being “the genuine article,” despite the fact that his entire reputation was built on the idea that only he was capable of delivering the unvarnished truth about capital markets and, eventually, geopolitics, to the public.
A quick Google search is all you need to turn up at least one instance of our best-selling monopoly author mentioning our fake Morpheus in a tweet. Go figure, right? It’s not a conspiracy. It’s a testament to the fact that people credited with penning the definitive take on issues as important as monopolies in America are apparently incapable of identifying misinformation and propaganda when they see it.
Can we blame any of the people mentioned above for what I’ve suggested are personal shortcomings? Maybe. But probably not. It’s exceedingly difficult to be the genuine article. It’s even harder when what you’re trying to be is an advocate for some ostensibly noble cause, but your advocacy ends up enriching you. Don’t forget, Bernie Sanders is a millionaire.
I’d argue that this matters now more than ever. As one reporter once proudly told me, while boasting about a story she wrote on America’s misinformation epidemic, “it says a lot about where people get their news.”
The vexing quandary for the masses is that the best information often comes from people you’ve never heard of. People who, for one reason or another, have dedicated themselves to a kind of severe asceticism. Sometimes, that’s because they’ve discovered, to their dismay, that popularity, and especially mass appeal, are incompatible with authenticity. Other times, they’ve just decided that most people are so stupid as to be a lost cause, and that the ones who aren’t will find good information, even it’s buried on an obscure island somewhere.