Humanity’s Constancy

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When I was all of fourteen years old, I was with a friend, being driven by his Dad somewhere, and the Dad told me, "Tim, you're too young to be a cynic." I don't remember what I said to prompt that remark, but even at fourteen, I guess I came off as – – I dunno – – a Sloper.

I was reminded of this, since I am reading – – for the first time, in spite of owning the book for decades – – Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. The book has tales of all manner of human foible, and the first chapter describes the fascinating tale of The Mississippi Scheme, which principally took place in 1720. The book itself was written nearly 180 years ago, so the English is a little archaic, but I find that charming.

In any case, even having just read the first chapter, I am stunned at how little has changed in the world of people and finance. For instance, in recounting what people did with their newfound "wealth" provided by easy credit:

New houses were built in every direction; an illusory prosperity shown across the land, and so dazzled the eyes of the whole nation, that none could see the dark cloud on the horizon announcing the storm that was too rapidly approaching…..All those pretty trifles in the way of furniture and ornament which the French excel in manufacturing were no longer the exclusive playthings of the aristocracy, but were to be found in abundance in the houses of traders and the middle classes in general.

Sooooo……..sound like Las Vegas? Stockton, California? Does it remind you of families driving around in their SUVs, stuffing them to the brim with crap from Best Buy and Costco, all made affordable with their HELOCs? It does for me. And this was from an event three-hundred years ago.

In the midst of all the easy credit, acquisition, and greed, there were a tiny handful of wiser souls that knew the folly of what was going on around them. For example:

The honest old soldier, Marshal Villars, was so vexed to see the folly which had smitten his countrymen, that he never could speak with temper on the subject. Passing one day through the Place Vendome in his carriage, the choleric gentleman was so annoyed at the infatuation of the people, that he abruptly ordered his coachman to stop, and, putting his head out of the carriage-window, harangued them for a full half an hour on their "disgusting avarice." This was not a very wise proceeding on his part. Hisses and shouts of laughter resounded from every side, and jokes without number were aimed at him.

Yes, my friends, I am Marshal Villars brought back from the dead! It can now be told. Seriously, though, the good Marshal sounds like he'd not only be a frequent presence on Slope, he'd probably also be given a five-star general rank.

The principal difference between now and then is that their own parliament was the loudest nay-sayer to the tidal wave of paper money flooding France (our own Congress, sadly, has no choice but to bow down to the Bernanke cabal and consent to trillions a year):

Thus the system continued to flourish till the commencement of the year 1720. The warnings of the Paliament, that too great a creation of paper money would, sooner or later, bring the country to bankruptcy, were disregarded. 

This chart nicely captures the mania and its aftermath:

1223-southshare

Of course, after the collapse, people were simultaneously furious and self-assuring that of course they had seen this all coming. Some were creative with their discord, offering up poems and songs lambasting the perpetrators of this fiasco; I particularly like this snippet suggesting what Mr. Law could do with the paper-money notes he had conjured up:

Many of these songs were far from decent; and one of them in particular counselled the application of all his notes to the most ignoble use to which paper can be applied.

We have seen the future, Slopers. And it has happened countless times throughout the course of human history, including in France three centuries ago. But it's different this time. Isn't it?

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