Global Agenda: Whether pigs have wings

There are always people who are not only convinced that they have wings, but are intent on and adept at persuading other people that they do, too.

"The time has come," the Walrus said, "To talk of many things... And why the sea is boiling hot And whether pigs have wings." - Alice Through the Looking Glass We are staying with the Walrus, and certainly staying with Alice Through the Looking Glass, which is undoubtedly the text for our times - as the increasing use of it being made by commentators across the world indicates. The slow summer period provides the ideal backdrop to continue to talk of many things, and the existential question of whether pigs have wings has got to be near the top of the list. An old Wall Street adage says that "bulls make money and bears make money, but pigs get slaughtered." That means that the market, and the economy as a whole, offers many opportunities for making money when things are good, and also more-limited opportunities for making money when things are bad. But people who act like greedy pigs and think they can have it good all the time end up being eliminated. What's true for individual people is also true for groups and for entire sectors. Real-estate agents and mortgage brokers in countries like the US, UK, Spain and Ireland have provided a graphic recent example of a mass slaughter of pigs. But what about the clients of those agents and brokers, i.e. the general house-buying public? Have they not also been slaughtered? Was their behavior also not piggish? The answer is that when talking about behavioral phenomena involving masses of people, scale and intensity are critical factors to take into account. Many people were involved in the property mania - far more than in the mania of the previous decade - so that its scale was indeed massive. But only a small percentage were intensively committed, and the difference between involvement and commitment is a critical one. The concepts are best defined with reference to a dish of ham and eggs, where we find the pig fully committed, while the chicken is merely involved. Thus in the context of the real-estate mania, vast numbers of people were involved and hence suffered, to a greater or lesser extent. But only a small fraction of these hordes were so committed to the housing market - whether professionally, financially or emotionally - as to end up being wiped out. And the reason they were destroyed is not merely because they were piggish; after all, most pigs tend to keep their snouts in the swill but close to the ground, which experience teaches them is fairly safe. It's only when they try to do the impossible, when they become convinced that they have wings and can fly, that total disaster becomes inevitable. Nevertheless, there are always people who are not only convinced that they have wings, but are intent on and adept at persuading other people that they do, too. And there are always surprisingly large numbers of people willing to be so persuaded. Here I speak not of the past, even the recent past of two, three and four years ago. We are now fully cognizant of the fact that that period was a golden age for winged piggies, before they crashed en masse. Rather, I refer to the present. Although only a few months have passed since we witnessed vast herds of pigs being slaughtered, there is a renewed boom around the world in two activities: fitting wings to pigs and teaching them to fly. The cover story for this activity is that the skies are now safe for such activities, and the weather conditions couldn't be more propitious. Leaders of government and sober central bankers implicitly encourage the renewal of mass piggery, while avoiding any suggestion that flight could be dangerous to pigs' well-being. Despite ample evidence that the world economy fell off a cliff just the other month, the 2009 edition of "Flying for Dummy Pigs" claims that it can just pick itself up and climb straight back to where it was - indeed, it is already doing so, so let's get airborne pronto. Why people behave in this way is open to debate. But that they are doing so is not; the evidence screams at you via adverts on the Internet, TV and radio and even buses (or did you think it's normal for people to be offered tempting opportunities to become speculators in foreign exchange or commodities?). That it will end very badly is also not in doubt. Unless, of course, you actually believe that pigs have wings.