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  • November 7, 2022
  • Chuck Osborne

The Parable of Our Time

Once upon a time, there was an empire ruled by a very vain emperor. The emperor took immense pride in his wardrobe. One day, two con men came to the kingdom and decided to take advantage of the emperor’s vanity. They told him they were weavers and that they could weave the finest cloth every made. It was so fine that only the most sophisticated of people could see it….Have you heard this one before? 

“The Emperor’s New Clothes” is a folktale recorded by Hans Christian Andersen. Of course, like most of his tales, this was a story that had been told long before Andersen committed it to writing in 1837. The emperor sends his most educated advisers to inspect the work of the weavers, and one after the other lies about seeing the cloth that wasn’t there because they were so afraid of being exposed for being unsophisticated. Finally, the emperor himself was shocked to not be able to see the clothes. He carried the lie so far as to parade in front of his subjects wearing nothing at all. It took a young girl who knew nothing of sophistication to finally tell the truth: The emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes. 

© volkanakmese

This folktale is the parable of our time. Stories like this were taught to children not only to entertain, but also to teach lessons. The lesson – which is as old as time – is that people who think of themselves as sophisticated can believe some ridiculous things. In fact, the truth is usually simple, and the simplest explanation is usually the truth. This is why children are sometimes wiser than the adults. 

I first thought of the connection of this story to our current age about three years ago. My daughter was in third grade and the Atlanta school system conducted a childhood safety seminar. The goal was to empower the children to report any form of abuse that they may experience. They started with a question: Are you a boy, girl, or other? The third graders laughed and shouted, “There is no other.” The emperor is naked. 

When I first thought about writing this blog, I came up with this tagline: One must be incredibly intelligent to believe something so stupid. I thought I was being original, but I guess I was really the one being stupid, as I found lots of similar quotes. Gorge Orwell put it this way, “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.” 

Orwell wasn’t being original either. Supposedly Cicero said, “There has never been any so outrageous and insane balderdash which some philosopher had not represented as an absolute truth.” That goes back approximately 2000 years. Turns out really intelligent people have been believing really stupid stuff for a long time. 

The list of things in this category today is too numerous to count. Like the con men in our parable, the believers of these various ideas simply say, “…if you don’t believe, then you lack sophistication.” In my world, one such stupidity is Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). It states that the government can (and should) spend whatever amount it wants because they print the money. They can do so without harming the economy or causing inflation. 

This theory has been adopted by several politicians who were instrumental in creating the spending spree that triggered the inflation we see today. One can see the attraction; they want to spend and spend, and now some economist says they can. In truth, people believe what they want to believe. The reason intelligent people take this to such ludicrous extremes is because they are mentally capable of twisting some stream of logic to explain away all of the inconvenient facts. 

When they can’t do so, they resort to bullying. They claim their intellectual superiority and then refuse to engage in a conversation. Those who disagree are spreading mis- or disinformation. They just aren’t sophisticated like the emperor and his advisers; they must at least be ignored, and at worst, be canceled. 

Who are these intelligent people who believe such stupid things? They are us. I have a liberal friend who does not hesitate to ridicule the “2020 Election Deniers,” but Russia colluding with Trump? Oh, that happened – in my friend’s mind. I have conservative friends who are the exact opposite. It sure is easy to see the silliness of others, yet it becomes harder when looking into a mirror. 

In this election week we are reminded of the polarization of our society. Everyone I know bemoans it, then points the other way and says, “It’s their fault.” Most wish our leaders would do something about it. The problem is, we are the leaders. The ones who claim to lead? They are actually our servants. That is how our system is designed to work. If we want the polarization to stop, then we need to be like that young girl and be willing to admit when our emperor is naked. Maybe we can move on to a better parable, like the one about removing the log in our eye before removing the spec in our brother’s. That would make for a better world, at least that is my perspective. 

Warm regards,

Chuck Osborne, CFA
Managing Director