Monday, October 24, 2005

Eyes of the World

"Wake up to find out that you are the eyes of the world" begins the chorus to a Grateful Dead song I find particularly thought provoking. It must be heady stuff to go from being a garage band playing local bars to being in front of a crowd of 20,000 fans all singing the words to a song you wrote. Different people, however, respond differently to the experience, consider, for instance, the different choices of the Beatles songwriting duo, Lennon and McCartney. Of somewhat lesser iconic status but with similar, albeit diminished, influence are TV's talking heads and the myriad journalists of the main stream media. In sum, these people are, for many, the eyes and ears of the world, those who must see and hear the tree fall in the metaphoric forest in order that the lesser mortals might know it made a sound. It is heady stuff, if you can see it, but many can't or won't. I know, I didn't see it.

I've been on financial TV quite often, mainly out in Asia during the mid to late 90s. To me at the time, TV was a means by which I might increase my firm's revenues, and by virtue thereof, line my pockets further. The idea of "doing a Howard Beale" (stop reading the script on TV and say, in effect, this news is bullsh*t) a la the film Network never occurred to me, to my everlasting regret, even though I had seen the film. I'm not arguing the world would be a better place if I had. I don't believe that. However, at least I could look back knowing that when given a chance to rock the boat I didn't go with the flow.

Why didn't it occur to me to rock the boat? I was too busy making money, which was my primary object, to which other considerations were subordinate. Further, I was, it seems to me now, extremely naive about the ways of man. I can remember disregarding news of strange dealing in the THB forward market before the Asian Crisis exploded into public view because, if memory serves, "Central Bank officials couldn't be that stupid." Oops, my bad.

These thoughts have been floating around my head lately while contemplating the actions of Judy Miller of the NYTimes and just today the views of Caroline Baum of Bloomberg news. In a sense, Judy Miller is just now entering a frame of mind in which Caroline Baum may eventually find herself, the realization that you got something terribly wrong which was terribly important. Ms. Miller is fighting this realization tooth and nail however.

For those unfamiliar with Ms. Miller's reporting, she was the main advocate in the NYTimes for the view that Saddam possessed WMDs and wanted to possess nuclear weapons. I won't speculate as to the assumptions which led her to the, now widely seen as incorrect, view but that she got it very wrong is clear. In a recent published article she tries to hide her error among the crowd: WMD -- I got it totally wrong... The analysts, the experts and the journalists who covered them-- we were all wrong, a "explanation" which, when coming from my 4 year old, elicits from me, "if lots of people were to run off a cliff, would you follow? In a recent email which came to be published she asks, What did I do wrong? in the context of her relations with her bosses. If I was her editor I would respond, "you mean besides using and abusing the reputation of the NYTimes to mislead millions of people about the basis for a war which has killed at least 10s of thousands." Keeping the tenacity of Ms. Miller's self-righteousness in the face of evidence which to this outsider looks quite damning, in mind, let's turn our attention to the views of Ms. Baum.

Over the past few years, Ms. Baum has ridiculed the notion that there might be some collaboration between government and financial interests aimed at maintaining certain prices in the financial markets. Today she tells us why: The reason the notion of a global cabal is so preposterous is that the paper trail would be too long. Too many people would have specific knowledge of the PPT's operations. Some concrete proof would have surfaced by now. Luxuriate for a moment in the irony of her statement in the context of Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation....amazing isn't it.

Let's see now, so Ms. Baum would have us believe that if some cabal cut down a tree in the forest everyone would know it because there would be "concrete proof." I assume "concrete proof" means objectively indisputable evidence in the public square. Yet recalling Ms. Miller's current lack of contrition, and previous ability to cast aside the views of most of the weapons inspectors themselves, one woman's concrete proof might be another woman's preposterous notion.

The words of Bertrand Russell, the whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are so sure of themselves while wiser people are so full of doubts, keep coming to mind as I think about the eyes of the world. I'm not arguing that I know there is a PPT, but given my read of history, my agreement with the view that people, including me, can very easily blind themselves to the obvious, and my experience working in the belly of the beast itself, Chase Manhattan Bank, I would never ridicule the notion and do entertain it as a plausible explanation. I've been the fool enough to have learned that only fools speak definitively about things they don't know. I've also come to the view that I have to "wake up to find out that I am my eyes of the world", waiting for "concrete proof" just makes me another lemming. As William James wrote, our faith is faith in some one else's faith, and in the greatest matters this is often the case. I would hate to be one of those people upon whose faith, in part, lives or fortunes were lost.

In the event Ms. Baum proves as wrong about the absence of PPT as Ms. Miller was about the presence of WMD those relishing their schadenfreude might be tempted to sing a few lines from Otis Redding's Sitting of the Dock of the Bay, watching the tide roll away (exposing those naked swimmers). Oh, one other thing, can someone please forward this NYTimes article to Ms. Baum, Mystery at Refco, How could such a huge debt stay hidden?