Common Cents (or lack thereof) for September 14, 2018

September 14, 2018, by John Norris

Some years ago, before smartphones and the ubiquity of social media, I wrote a pretty thorough complaint to the corporate headquarters of a large national restaurant chain. In it, I gave a detailed description of my impression of three separate units, and included: the time of my visits, the locations, the respective store numbers, my real name, an email address, and my telephone number. A representative of the company, not the franchisee, called me about a week later.

When I expressed my surprise over his reaching out to me, the fellow said the vast majority of the complaints the company receives are anonymous and usually somewhat vulgar. Professional and detailed ones with valid contact information? Those they took/take seriously because they are, in his words, extremely rare.

After a roughly 15-minute conversation, I ended with something along these lines: “IF you ‘secret shop’ the stores, specifically the one on X and the one at Y, completely unannounced AND don’t find any merit to my complaints, I will buy you a bottle of your favorite wine.” Interestingly enough, both units closed for remodeling very soon thereafter.

Make no bones about it: opinions sometimes matter. Not so long ago, it took a little effort to have an opinion. As a result, ‘we,’ as a society, didn’t have quite as many, at least not for widespread consumption. These days? Well, you can create social media accounts using whatever false identity you want. Heck, you don’t really even have to have an identity. Go ahead and call yourself ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ and spout off at the mouth about anything and everything. Feeling bored? Let your BrahamZombie avatar have an offensive opinion on some sensitive topic, and just watch the sparks fly.

The best part? It doesn’t have to be true. You don’t have to back your arguments with a shred of evidence or facts because, drum roll please, they aren’t really yours! Go ahead! Hide safely behind your false front, your soul’s Potemkin Village…your Potemkin Ego, if you will. As an aside, I just coined that (or believe I did), and I really like it. If people take issue with you, fade back into the ether from whence Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious cometh.

Um-dittle-ittl-um-dittle-I / Um-dittle-ittl-um-dittle-I

I write this because I can’t think of a time in my life when the headlines and the reality seem so at odds. I mean, I read and analyze a lot of data, and the data suggests we should be feeling pretty swell about things. We should be riding on the crest of a wave of good feelings, but it seems we aren’t. That is unless we keep things very superficial between us.

In my opinion, our instantaneous access to information and ability to have an opinion on everything has lessened the quality of all of it. It has enabled, or should I say emboldened, u, to talk past one another due to the sheer brilliance of our ignorance. As an economy, we are doing just fine. As a society, we seem to be consuming ourselves from within.

To be sure, you could argue my comments here today are the very height of hypocrisy, if not outright sanctimony. I will grant you that contention. However, I will also point out I am not hiding behind an avatar or a Potemkin Ego, and folks know where to find me.

This week, I heard a fascinating luncheon presentation about how our nation’s enemies are ‘attacking’ us from within using our technology and our, importantly, freedoms against us. The guy making the comments is the ‘Deputy Commandant and Professor of Strategy and Security Studies at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS), Air University (AU), Maxwell Air Force Base (AFB), Alabama.’ He is also an expert on most things Russian in nature, and has travelled extensively in Eastern Europe and other former USSR countries. I will put it bluntly, while he is fascinated with the Russian culture, he is incredibly leery of Russian.

This is what was in our club’s weekly newsletter about his speech:

 

“I maintain that our existing (and dysfunctional) political/media culture is facilitating Russia’s “influence campaign” against us, requiring very little effort on their part now. At least at the level of our national “elites,” we’re not behaving as though we think our democracy and its institutions are under a Kremlin-directed information/influence assault.  In the meantime, tensions between the West and Russia in the Baltic region are rising ever higher. Will Russia, watching events in this country through our own open media, perceive weakness or a lack of resolve on the part of a deeply divided America (and a drifting European community) and be tempted to take another military gamble, this time against a small NATO partner? As I mentioned previously, I was in the Baltic region with my Air War College class just this past spring and I think most Americans are under-informed about what’s going on there.”

 

While I am not a conspiracy theorist by nature, some of his remarks made a lot of sense. Why wouldn’t an enemy power use our First Amendment freedoms against us? Now that the technology is there for it to do so? Why wouldn’t a Kremlin-backed stooge troll the American information superhighway? Post spurious comments on message boards and alter existing stories, only to retweet and forward them? After all, retweeting information is almost the same as laundering money. You do it enough times and, voila, it becomes fact…or fact enough for a journalist/reporter on a deadline having to generate enough clicks, likes, and shares to keep their jobs. Shoot, it is incredibly easy to alter an article, drop it into a pdf format, and send on its merry way through the social media outlet of your choice.

Trust me, you don’t need to be a computer programmer or whiz to do so. Seriously. Again, why wouldn’t an enemy power use our First Amendment freedoms against us by fanning the flames of our discontent? To create discord among us and our erstwhile allies? To use our media, both public and private, as a source of indirect propaganda? After all, it is free to the highest bidder.

Consider Strategy #33 in the ancient Chinese essay of The 36 Strategies, and its English interpretation…which I found verbatim in a number of different sources. Oh, forwarding and retweeting happens in academia too!!!

 

Let the enemy’s spy sow discord in the enemy camp.

Undermine your enemy’s ability to fight by allowing enemy’s spy to remain within your ranks, while you feed false information causing enemy discord with his friends, allies, advisors, family, commanders, soldiers, and population. Preoccupied settling internal disputes, your enemy’s ability to attack or defend is compromised and your control of him is increased.

 

What IF our enemies’ goal is NOT to preoccupy us in order to attack, but to do so in order to diminish our resolve to thwart their expansionary policies? There is no country which can threaten our territorial sovereignty, period. However, what if that isn’t the issue? What if Moscow wants to distract us from, say, Latvia? Moldova? The Transdniestria? Estonia? The parts of the Ukraine it wants? Kazakhstan? Hmm? A recreation of the old Russian or Soviet Empires?

What better way of getting the US out of the way than having us at one another’s throats? Again, hmm.

Okay…okay…this is a bit of a departure for today, and has precious little to do with the markets, at least concretely. Still, there is that little voice in the back of my head asking: “what in the world is going on here? We are in financial clover right now, and you would think it was something considerably less pleasant from the way we yell past each other. Is it the President? Is it the media? Is it ourselves? Is it the Russians? Is it, sigh, just a sign of how successful we have become as a country? Where we have the luxury of berating one another?”

In in the end, opinions can sometimes matter, and I have been free with mine this afternoon. However, where the rubber meets the road, you know, the US economic data continues to be strong and the sun continues to rise in the East. Now, that is fact and not opinion.