Contextless Void

It should be a very quiet week for US traders.

The data docket is nearly empty and Fed officials are in the pre-meeting communications moratorium, leaving only the price action. Lines on screens, moving up, down and sideways in a contextless void.

This is a good time to remind readers that none of this is real. The money and the nations that issue it, securities and the corporations which issue them, every bit of it fiction, a web of intricate fairy tales created by humans in the service of organizing ourselves in endeavors and enterprises such that life is longer and ostensibly more bearable. We pretend it works, and in many ways it does, but it often backfires and in the final analysis, honest people are compelled to admit that the whole thing might’ve been a mostly pointless, tragic endeavor.

Consider the pitfalls of progress. For most of human history, securing adequate calories was the most important daily task, and success was far from assured. Calories used to be preciously scarce. When you found them, you needed to consume as many as possible because there was no guarantee you’d find enough the next day or the day after that. Eventually, we figured out how to cultivate crops and that was good, except that it chained us to the land and made life slavishly mundane. In modernity, calories are cheap and unlimited, or at least in the developed world. But we’re still hardwired for the days of scarcity. So we eat ourselves to death. Literally.

The same is true of approval, praise, plaudits and recognition. Right up until the dawn of the social media age, praise was relatively scarce, and when you received it, it was usually genuine, in recognition of some meaningful accomplishment or act. Now, thanks to like buttons on Facebook, Twitter and so on, plaudits are cheap and unlimited. So we overdose on them, checking our phones every few minutes, delighted if one or two or 20 or 200 more people similarly lost in their screens clicked the heart icon next to something trivial we posted online. That’s killing us in too many ways to enumerate, some of them figurative others literal.

For all the progress we’ve made, particularly over the last century and a half, there’s a decent case that we were better off hunter-gatherers, and that every subsequent innovation, including and especially the invention of language and writing (the Pandora’s box that allowed our species to conquer the Earth), increased our collective misery by adding layer upon layer of superfluous complexity.

If you think that’s ridiculous, I’d challenge you to consider the very plausible assertion that a prosperous hunter-gatherer (so, a hunter-gatherer able to source sufficient food and water) was infinitely happier for the short time he or she was alive than the average person living in modernity, when many humans are condemned to eight decades of pointlessness, at least five of which are typically spent pursuing various forms of escapism (from drugs to religion to careers) all in order to cope with the reality of that pointlessness.

Modern humans are, in a word, crazy. This week, for example, market participants of various sorts will dress up in matching uniforms and show up at skyscrapers where they’ll sit at desks and analyze lines oscillating on monitors. The lines represent how many pieces of ornate paper (or digital entries representing ornate paper) other people are willing to pay for various sorts of securities, including ownership stakes in imaginary entities that have no basis whatsoever in objective reality. Where people are allowed to work from home, the situation is even more absurd. An analyst might put on one part of his or her uniform (the top part) and take a few video calls, during which he or she will discuss developments related to the same oscillating screen lines with other people who, depending on whether they’re in the office, might also be wearing only the top part of the uniform. And so on.

If you could explain this — and also how it came to this — to a hunter-gatherer, he or she would surely laugh uncontrollably. Thousands of years of human development, including two hundred years of mind-boggling technological progress, including countless monumental medical innovations, and this is what we have to show for it? A bifurcated world where a quarter of a billion people live in extreme poverty and tens of millions live far more precarious lives than any hunter-gatherer thanks to senseless wars, while the rest of humanity aspires to “affluence,” defined as six- or seven-figure salaries “earned” by facilitating and perpetuating all the various myths and fairly tales that help us pretend we’re not what we are: A cosmic accident unwilling to concede the meaninglessness of our own existence, or the reality of humans as aimless wanderers of a floating rock orbiting a dying star. The harder we try to transcend that reality, the more conflicted, confused and miserable we generally are.

That most inconvenient of inconvenient truths has been obscured since the late 19th century by the pace of technological innovation, which allowed us to escape the Malthusian trap for the first time in human history. Do note: Prior to 1900 (give or take a few decades), humans were generally no better off than they were a century previous. At various intervals, the combination of Malthusian dynamics, war and political degradation meant that humans were far worse off than they were in ancient Greece, for example. The 20th century changed that and notwithstanding two wars which demonstrated our species’ capacity for self-annihilation, advances in technology and modern medicine gave us the illusion of progress.

But for many (I dare say most) citizens living in developed countries, true fulfillment seems unattainable. The hunter-gatherer was effortlessly present, a state of mind which is today so elusive that purported gurus can extract huge sums from the world’s billionaires who, having reached the pinnacle of “success” as we define it, are apparently so unfulfilled that they’ll gladly part with vast amounts of money in exchange for an outside chance at obtaining the kind of mindfulness that came naturally to a hunter-gatherer watching a sunset.

Now, go lay out your uniforms for Monday, and get excited about ISM services, the sole notable data release out of the US economy. If that’s not enough to make life worth living this week, don’t worry: Policy decisions from the Bank of Canada and the RBA are on deck too, as is May trade data out of China.


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20 thoughts on “Contextless Void

  1. Damn, this was a really good one. I come from a family that has been characterized by long life. My maternal great-grandfather was born in 1847 and was a message runner in the Civil War. His son, my grandfather, was born in 1889, in a log cabin in east-central Indiana where he lived for a time with 10 brothers and sisters. The cabin was a box with no rooms, no water, no indoor sanitary facilities and a pounded earth floor. He was working full time as a hod carrier by the turn of the 20th Century. He taught himself everything he needed to know to become prosperous enough to support his family of a wife (over 75 years) and three daughters. He started a successful business in the late 1930s and was responsible for a number of minor advancements in the lighting industry. He lived to over 100 and everyone else in the family made it to 90+. In spite of humble beginnings our family qualified for DAR membership for all the ladies, and there have been a lot of them. It occurs to me thinking about this and both sides of my family, we were mostly hunter-gathers ourselves. People who “get by,” as they say aren’t much different than stone-age hunter gatherers. Even in the 21st Century, a huge proportion of us are still just getting by. Near where I live there is a fair-sized town that bore us a President, Harry S Truman. In that town 90% of school children qualify for full school lunches. Without help these folks don’t get enough to eat. Back in the Depression my mother, as a child, was really proud that even though they were mostly getting by, they had a big white X on the fence post behind their house, awarded by travelers because we would give anyone who needed it, a hot meal. When she told me that I was moved. The biggest recipient of my charitable giving is the local KC food bank, that delivers nearly 50 mil pounds of food to the needy in our area. Too many must still get by.

    My mother was an interesting, thoughtful person and a constant reader of serious work. One day when I was commenting on something I had read she said, “You know there are only 100 stories.” I’ve let my head mess with that idea for 65 years. Your posts do a lot to discuss two of those critical stories, the one about money and the one about the nature of investments. Both of these, in turn, are about the nature of gods Neil Gaiman explains in American Gods. In some ways the question of objective reality itself is perhaps the main story.

    Incidentally, at 78 the feeling of being “done” is becoming difficult to deal with.

    1. both grandfathers and father were butchers…all made it clear to me that their work was for education support so that I would go on and progress beyond that hunter gatherer immigrant family developmental process…in my current managing and attending to my and family’s “wealth,” I seek to honor those who preceded me, while providing context and an example for those who succeed me…appreciate your comment(s), Mr. Lucky…

    1. That’s not the correct takeaway, unfortunately. I wish it were. Better the world was fine and me not, but it seems like it’s the other way around. As far as I can tell, everyone else needs a hug. H isn’t the guy driving himself crazy on social media over culture wars issues. H isn’t the guy spending millions of dollars of life coaches and meditation experts. And H isn’t the guy (or gal) in the suburbs zombified on Xanax. That’s everybody else. H is fine. 🙂

    1. The illustration at the top reminded me of the Otis Redding song, Siting by the Dock on the Bay….Monterey Music Festival if I recall circa 1969…….

  2. A wonderfully thought provoking piece… reminds me of what a wise mentor once said to me: Adrian, life is painful when you develop an absolute grasp of the obvious -)

  3. I won’t argue with the point that there is any objective meaning to our lives. If a gamma ray burst annihilated the earth, I doubt anyone or anything would be aware that humans ever existed. Does that make our lives pointless? I don’t know. I treat my life like a story and just try to make it interesting for myself and those around me.

    As far as happiness, I don’t know if hunter-gatherers were happy or not. The only way I can pretend to relate to that lifestyle was my younger years when I was working construction jobs during the summer and making enough money to get through college without too many loans. I can say that the drive home after a hard day of physical labor with an actual physical paycheck was very gratifying, but I also knew I had a bright future ahead of me and didn’t have to worry about my body breaking down or losing fingers from decades of work like the older guys working those jobs. They do have the benefit of not being able to take their work home with them, but I’m not going to pretend that type of work would somehow make me happier.

    As an aside, there’s nothing more annoying than successful people talking about how they worked hard, physical jobs back in their younger days and how that taught them work ethic. Most of us wouldn’t last a week under those conditions anymore.

    Back to the point at hand, what makes most people happy is health, a strong social network (generally not the online kind), bettering yourself, and time outdoors, so those are the things I focus on. I don’t know why people struggle so much to understand some of those basic principles, but I guess as long as addiction is profitable, it’ll stay with us.

    Lastly, I’ll leave you all with this:
    A businessman was standing at the end of the pier in a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The businessman complimented the fisherman on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.

    The fisherman replied that it only took a little while. The businessman then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish. The fisherman said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs.

    The businessman then asked: “But what do you do with the rest of your time?”

    The fisherman said: “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my friends. I have a full and busy life”.

    The businessman scoffed. “I am a Wharton MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats. Eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually NYC where you will run your expanding enterprise.”

    The fisherman asked: “But how long will this all take?”

    To which the businessman replied: “Fifteen or twenty years”.

    “But what then?”

    The businessman laughed and said: “That’s the best part. When the time is right you would sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions”.

    “Millions? Then what?”

    The businessman said: “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your friends”.

    1. Love that story! Believe this was contemplated by Epictetus when he wrote, “Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants?”

  4. What a great read! HG at times had the discretionary capacity to take impressive pilgrimage to obtain specific high grade lithic materials from isolated sources in North America. With landmarks and the cosmos as guides under the inherent spirituality of their existence they trekked for the beautiful and durable stone to which they applied their craftsmanship. Any chert or flint material would do for tool making some better some worse, and journeys like this surely point to something much bigger in their worldview than sustenance.

  5. Whenever people talk about time travel to the past or have nostalgia for “days of yore” I always try to bring up modern medicine as miraculous.
    For thousands of years people have watched their loved ones, including child bearing women and children, die of infection and disease.
    So I will sit and do boring things for decades if that’s what allows more children to grow up in this boring world (which as you point out many on Earth sadly do not have access to medicine – so there’s that to fix…)

  6. I truly appreciate this post because it reminds me that there still are a few gems to be discovered within in a sea of mostly bad writing and also because this post challenges me to continue to think more about my own ideas about the world.

    Yes, the invention of written word did open a Pandora’s box and it is interesting to realize that almost 5,000 years after the first written words, only 1% of mankind could read and write. It took a very long time before humans reached the current tipping point, when most written words are not worth reading. I know I am not alone in recognizing the truth and the beauty of H’s words. Although it is easy for me to toss out the words, “I believe in AI”, which on one hand, I absolutely do, I also can not deny a simultaneous fear within me about a reality that H has alluded to which I hope never materializes.
    As I unwind my mother’s “estate” following her long and mostly happy life, I reflect on my own self imposed complexities, and I am reminded to continue to seek simplicity through all areas of my life, as it will free me to explore what truly interests me in the world, to read, to learn, to reflect and to enjoy the meaningful (few, by definition) relationships that I have with others.

    I do believe in the following piece of great wisdom- “the first and greatest victory is to conquer yourself; to be conquered by yourself is of all things most shameful and vile”.

    1. During those 5000 years it was the 1%, mostly rulers, government officials, and priests, who made certain the other 99% couldn’t read and write. What will happen when the 1% who understand AI refuse to share the secrets?

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