in the spring of 2012, Bill Bonner, founder of Agora Inc., took a break from his daily column in The Daily Reckoning, and, like hundreds of thousands of others, I went through withdrawals. Fortunately, I had a copy of his wonderful book, Mobs, Messiahs and Markets, to devour as I awaited his return.
This is a book, written with co-authored contributions from Lila Rajiva, that lifts the fog spread by governments and mainstream media so that we can all see reality for what it is. It covers in great detail the transformative decade from the late ’90s to the late 2000s, and therefore chronicles everything crucial to understanding the world as it is today: the digital revolution, the rise of the police state, the move from boom to bust, the end of American economic supremacy, the expansion of imperial violence.
Several points stand out here about Bonner the man, who (to my mind) doesn’t get the vast credit he deserves as one of the most articulate and insightful public intellectuals of our time. He is neither political agitator nor walled-off professor, but his writing tells you more about politics, economics, culture and trends than you are likely to find in any rally or classroom. He has his eye on the issues that matter, and a value system (he loves liberty and loathes despotism) that shatters political conventions.
As for his influence as a thinker, a whole generation or two of investors, intellectuals, journalists and citizens of the world have been raised on Bonner’s writings. They are compelling not because they are ideologically driven or splashy, but because they are independent-minded and infused with vast knowledge of history and philosophy and take a perspective that disregards the opinion cartel. That is to say, they are eye-opening and provide a completely different look at the world.
As a stylist, he is legendary. I would put his writings on public affairs in the same class with other famed stylists like Frédéric Bastiat, Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken and Joseph Sobran. There is a curse that comes with that status. It means that hardly anyone has the competence to write about their work, because the attempt can’t come anywhere close to matching the virtuosity of the subject’s own prose.
To put it plainly, writing about Bonner is intimidating because reading Bonner is always a better use of time. I feel that same sense just writing about this book. Nothing I can say will be as clear, precise and downright interesting as what Bonner himself writes.
So just to give you a quick idea, here is a passage on fake news during wartime throughout the Iraq conflict:
Fake news is not news at all. It’s old news. Storyboarding does to the news what waterboarding does to prisoners — it persuades it to say what you want to hear. Hoodwinking the enemy on a classical battlefield — which follows its own rules of engagement — is one thing. Bamboozling civilians in modern total warfare is rather different. And swindling the crowed cheering at home is something else altogether.
By that standard, American chariot wheels have not just hit the ground. They have gone through it and are burrowing down into Hades. Storyboarding was directed not at the population in Iraq, which is supposed to be a born-again democracy now, anyway. It was aimed at the population back home in America. Journalists who faked news stories were firing on this pathetic home crowd, making it impossible for the lumps to get even the tiniest scrap of real information about the war, even though they were being asked to give up their children for it. They thought they were volunteering to fight for the republic; they didn’t know they were signing up for the Aztec child sacrifice.
My friends, that is not just great thinking; that is brilliant writing. Consumers of Bonner’s prose marvel day after day, ever since 1978 and especially since he went online in 1996, at his capacity to offer prose and analytics on an ongoing basis. Most of us struggle to write anything this good in a year; for Bonner, it is a daily thing.
Here is another sample of his writing and thinking, and this passage concerns the outrageous CEO salaries during the credit-drunk boom times of 2005:
Top business leaders have become like sports heroes but without the talent. You need not have any real knowledge of the business you are getting into, or, as Bernie Ebbers demonstrated, any real knowledge about business of any sort. What will get you a job as a leader in the corporate world is the same thing that will get you a woman in the mating game — outsize confidence.
Human life — apart from the obvious physical aspects — is largely about what scientists call “impression management.” A man with a good line of talk and a confident air about him gets almost anything he wants, and that includes the CEO job at a major U.S corporation… Then you may worry — what if the company doesn’t do well? Well, what if? Again, recent history shows us that you can fail miserably in Corporate America and still leave with a lot of money.
On equality as proclaimed by the Founding Fathers:
When Americans celebrate the birth of their nation, it bothers no one that the founders’ most-important insights are palpably untrue. People are born different. It is only before the law that they are equal, and then only if they have enough money for a good lawyer.
Here is how that insight pertains to investing:
What of the so-called level playing field of the investment markets? A fellow has been told that he has as much chance to make money from his investments as Warren Buffett and George Soros. In the abstract, it sounds as though it might be true. But if he drove his car based on abstract principles, he’d soon be dead. For investing as well as driving, it’s the precise details that matter.
I’m toying with a theory why some of the best books of our time — this one among them — are written by people with an eye to investment opportunities and strategies. How is it that this commercial beat manages to unearth such spectacular insight, whereas thousands of dreary academic tomes languish and have no impact on the world at all?
My theory is that this is because real-time commerce is the most overlooked force in the universe. Commerce even provides the test of the long-run merit of ideas: Ideas rooted in truth instantiate themselves in institutions and become part of history. Therefore, following the commercial thread through time means following meritorious ideas and the real ways in which people use them to live their lives. Yet because economic ignorance is so pervasive, especially in journalism and academia, few are in a position to follow this thread. They end up daydreaming about untruths for a living.
This sets up an interesting irony. A writer like Bill Bonner, and the same can be said of Lila Rajiva, can track and explain our world in a way that few tenured professors can or ever will. Of Mob, Messiahs and Markets, the famed investor Marc Faber says it “is such an excellent book that if I had to name just one book investors should read, this is the one I would select.”
I would actually go further to point out that its insights pertain not only to investment, but to the whole of life and, therefore, should be read by everyone who wants to see the world with new clarity.