A Day For Fallacy

When I think of April Fool’s Day I have to revert back to the 1990’s. On April 1,1996, Taco Bell thought way, way outside the bun by announcing it had just acquired the Liberty Bell. The fast food chain intended to rename it the Taco Liberty Bell, franchising a not-insignificant piece of American history. Though the company “assured” everyone it would remain on display outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia, more than a little outrage was expressed.

Topping that (pun intended), in my opinion, was Burger King’s introduction of the left handed Whopper on April Fool’s 1998. As far as marketing creativity, that was a stroke of pure genius on the curiosity factor alone.

It is beyond impossible to distill these miniature slices of commerce into some kind of centralized organ, as free market decentralization produced living standards and a level of wealth that far exceeds the imaginations of only a few generations ago – and all of it born of a billion fathers and mothers. Of course I willingly concede that the current vision of central planning ends at the edge of finance, but it cannot simply be dismissed as something altogether different. The Federal Reserve may only target an interest rate (and now several), but that is every bit as corrupting free market processes as telling Burger King and Taco Bell (and other businesses residing outside fast food) how to market their products.

On April Fool’s day in 1976, BBC Radio 2 aired an interview with respected and renowned British astronomer Patrick Moore. It would have been a worthy program regardless, but given the date Mr. Moore told listeners that a planetary alignment of Pluto and Jupiter, due at 9:47 that morning, would unleash powerful gravitational forces that would stretch all the way to Earth. If everyone jumped at exactly 9:47am, they would experience a “once in a lifetime” reduction of the Earth’s gravitation effects, feeling as if they were “floating.”

Sure enough, at 9:48am on April 1, 1976, the BBC’s office was overwhelmed with “hundreds of calls” that purported to observe exactly this effect. If only the internet and smartphone video technology had been around then.

Not all hoaxes require it, but more often than not there is a logical fallacy at their core, an exploitable breach in the otherwise calm modern psyche. The “appeal to authority” is a fact of modern living due partly to the extreme achievement of labor specialization. In the resounding success of free market capitalism, we can observe that people can achieve high levels of specialization, and thus obtain a very high degree of specific knowledge of subjects in which we ourselves have very little experience. That creates a powerful incentive to believe in such proclamations solely based on who issues them.

Yet for every one of these appeals to authority, there should be harbored more than a little skepticism grounded firmly in common sense. In 1976, for example, there were far more people aware of the “joke” simply because it failed the common sense standard than were duped. There are biases and agendas to consider, as well as basic competence. Not all such “authority” is derived from merit, a particularly relevant skepticism in our highly credentialed world as it exists today.

The takeover of interest rate markets, thus the basic foundation of all markets, i.e., risk, was a very long and slow process itself born out of a million failures. We know of those that have endured history, such as the Great Depression and Great Inflation, but the erosion of freedom in markets was still a willful direction. Part a child of technology, part wealth-driven apathy, the idea was nurtured that the economic system could be operated like a sewer system or computer system. Worse, it simply became accepted that it should be operated as such. Those propositions were locked into place by this very outward appearance of authority, particularly since its practitioners are never wrong, or at least cannot be proved as such.

Despite Ben Franklin’s ancient yet timeless warning, people willingly hand over any kind of liberty asked of them in exchange for slick promises of security that wouldn’t normally pass the smell test. Modern orthodox economics has essentially pledged a financialized version, where a great deal of economic liberty (more than you think in casual review) has been ceded in the expectation of an end to the meddlesome business cycle. Or at the very least a shallower and less destructive version. In the rush toward the new “science” of monetarism, the question of whether recessions themselves are beneficial to longer run prosperity was simply left as a victim of circumstance and politics – who was going to argue in favor of recession?

To that end, we are left to believe in the technocratic version of computer models balanced against all manner and measures of observation. This is 2014, the fourth consecutive attempt at “this is the year” recovery story. By any objective measure, we are witness to the worst recovery in history where the economy has yet, seven years on, to regain the previous peak in employment. To underwhelm so consistently yet maintain the ruse so tightly is, in its own right, very impressive.

I’d much rather eat my left handed Whopper in Philly at the Taco Liberty Bell.


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