In Praise of Phoniness

No, I have nothing new to add. But repetitiveness has its benefits. Old wine in a new bottle is pretty appealing. It helps gain a new perspective.

This post is dedicated to artificiality, phony and its various allied forms. I thought there was no better way to illustrate the concept than by using the concept itself to good effect. I’m at my phony best in this post. If on reaching the end you think this post sounded intelligent, I have achieved my objective. If on the other hand, you think it is a bunch of gobbledegook, I would have still achieved my objective. I believe truth and phony can coexist harmoniously.

I think I do a pretty decent job of sounding intelligent most times by spewing ununderstandable jargon. But I’m trying to connect with the lay reader. I really am. A jargon-less post is the price to pay. I think any post without jargon is phony…

The smartest thing to do when trying to project an aura of smartness is to seek refuge in the words of some great savant from a bygone era. I hope to utilize this to good effect. So the contents of this post are not entirely mine. I am going to have Bertrand Russell (he’s pretty famous you know) for company. The effect of something eloquently articulated by a common man pales in comparison to the effect the same thing has when uttered by an eminent personality from a previous century. Phony was always in…and its safe to assume that it always will be in the times to come. Veiled hypocrisy has come to be a cherished virtue whereas naked honesty is a despicable vice. There are many instances around us that could serve as examples but economic policy and investing will do. For now.

An ingratiating manner, suave appearance, a global Tier 1 school stamp and with some luck, a good English vocabulary is all that’s needed to set oneself up in both. Ah, yes, the ability to sound intelligent figures pretty high up on that list too.

Economic policy first: So you have the savant Paul Krugman arguing eloquently against austerity programs, the inflation myth and what not; while scores of others argue the opposite. Both sides do a remarkably good job of collecting historical evidence and liberal doses of theory to strengthen their respective cases. Both sides also frequently (and obsessively) refer to savants from bygone eras for further effect. . History is interesting. It allows a human being to choose a convenient section of the past, magnify it, and lo! Point proved! I told you so, eh! (Sorry, I can’t seem to remember any savant to credit this line with…)

No one seems to acknowledge that there are enough cases for and against most things in life. This is especially true in the spheres of economic policy and investing. No one really knows what might happen two years down the line if spending were to be cut today. Or if spending was stepped up today. No one really knows if platinum will go up in the next month, or down. No one really knows how much BP will end up shelling out for spilt oil. No one really knows if Lithuania’s policies will help it limp out of the crisis sooner than profligate Greece. No one really knows if there will be Armageddon in 2012. Oh, wait, the last bit sounds like fantasy, doesn’t it? Sure does, based as it is on a Mayan myth. The other examples are based on the sound premise of phony reason.

Honestly, I have no problems with not knowing. I can live perfectly happily without knowing (ok, Richard Feynman said that. +1 to my phoniness.). It is the pretense of knowledge that tickles me. Feigning knowledge is worse than being truly ignorant. I wonder why it is so difficult for people to say the golden words, ‘I don’t know.

Turn next to investing (sorry, punting would be a more appropriate word to use most times): Shorter the time frame, greater is the demand placed on phoniness. Hope and reason often get intermingled so finely that it becomes impossible to distinguish between the two. Worse, the former is often mistaken for the latter. It sounds repulsively naive and is an epic fail to say, ‘I bought such-n-such because it has not budged even as others levitated.’ Coolness quotient = 0. Its cooler to say, ‘Such-n-such is a Tier 2 player in the industry. Operations are second rung to the industry leaders and while I don’t really know what they really do, I know someone who knows someone who is an industry expert. I don’t really know what the expert feels about this company. But I’m sure it doesn’t really matter. I looked at a chart of the past three months and I noticed that such-n-such has massively underperformed industry peers. Surely this is a sign of mispricing. Speculators have run amuck and the Street’s missing something terribly. We oughta buy.’

Phony cacophony everywhere.

Finally, enter Bertrand Russell. Here’s an excerpt from an essay Russell penned on 9 September, 1931:

Mankind is divided into two classes: those who, being artificial, praise nature, and those who, being natural, praise art. The praise of nature, in which our age abounds, is not itself natural; it is a reaction against too much artificiality. As a reaction, it has its uses; as a theory of life, it won’t do…

…The gospel of work teaches men that what matters is the resulting product, not the style displayed during its production. We build houses without beauty in which we eat meals that merely nourish, and beget children without love whom we subject to an education that destroys spontaneity and grace. Where there is delight in the process, there will be style, and the activity of production will itself have aesthetic quality. But when men assimilate themselves to machines and value only the consequences of their work, not the work itself, style disappears, to be replaced by something which to the mechanised man appears more natural, though in fact it is only more brutal.

Unfortunately, we have come to value only the consequences of our work, the work itself is largely meaningless. How can it be, when work itself is a cacophony of phony?


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