It's a "99%" world...
I hear and read so much at the moment along the lines of “2020 is the worst year in history.”
I think the fact that so many people feel this way is quite possibly THE biggest problem of our age – quite literally. I think it is incredibly problematic for our culture, possibly even for our continuation as a species – or for our way of life at least. I thought this subject was sufficiently important to merit an email. It is also pretty relevant to investment for what it is worth. So here goes…. Below is my attempt to present the case that the “glass” is actually as much as 99% full – and suggest that we might try our best to stop focusing on the 1% that is “empty” – given what dreadful consequences this could have for all of us if left unchecked…
A day in the life, 2020
It is 2020. As a member of the human race, this year I am highly likely to wake up in a warm bed in a warm house, no matter what the time of year is or where I live (or a cool bed in a cool house if I live somewhere uncomfortably hot). I have not been snatched away in the middle of the night by the mad jack-booted bastards of some mental extreme right-wing or left-wing political party. I have not been killed or maimed in a night raid by a tribe from further down the valley or pulled out of my bed by a local Lord to lose life and limb in one of his pointless wars.
It is statistically highly unlikely that I have even been burgled or otherwise threatened in any shape or form by another human being during the course of the night. This is in large part due to a technology called a “lock” which has only become ubiquitous and inexpensive in the last two centuries and was previously only affordable for the incredibly rich but also, more generally, because crime rates have actually been dropping precipitously for decades all over the world, contrary to what the press would have you believe. I am also more likely to be safer than most other humans in history because, with very few exceptions, I am likely to rent or own my property – and my property rights are protected by law. I take all of the above entirely for granted.
I yawn, roll over and switch on something called a “light”, powered by an entirely miraculous thing called “electricity”. Access to that light source is several hundred times cheaper and immeasurably more convenient, and easier to get hold of than any other light source from the rest of human history – when only a tiny, tiny fraction of the population could afford things like candles and had to stop pretty much whatever they were doing every single day at night fall. Stop and think about how incredibly limiting that reality was for humanity and for people’s ability to do anything at all for a huge chunk of their life.
I pick up a small device called a “smart phone” which is significantly more powerful than the computer that put a man on the moon only a few years before I was born, and sufficiently inexpensive that nearly half of the world’s population already owns one.
That device can give me access to almost any information I might think about and not far off any song, film or book ever created in a matter of seconds. I can very likely answer any question that might occur to me in under a minute. It has just helped me get a good night’s sleep and wake up on time and in line with my body’s biorhythms thanks to a sophisticated sleep “app” – one of more than two million such apps, many of which I can access for free.
If I want to, I can use my smart phone to make audio or even video calls to people on the other side of the world – also entirely for free – but it is a bit early for that now. I’ve only just woken up. As the day goes on, I will be able to use it as my calendar, diary, camera, video recorder, fitness instructor, dietician, portable music player, radio, torch, map, tour guide, watch, magazine and newspaper and a whole constellation of other things which can and will increase the ease, convenience and quality of my life in an astonishing myriad of ways. I can even run a business with it from anywhere in the world if I so desire and I’m willing to work out how. This reality is actually really good for the environment given how many other devices smart phones have displaced – however many billion fewer CDs or DVDs need to be printed for example. I am highly unlikely to spend even a minute a year reflecting on how incredible all of this is and how far we have come as a result.
I go to a bathroom where I can turn a thing called a “tap” and get clean, potable water in less than a second which won’t poison me or make me ill. In common with several billion other people on the planet, I can very likely get steaming hot water only a few seconds later. In any developed country and in many developing countries, access to this water costs a minuscule fraction of a minimum wage – and the supply is essentially unlimited. For 99% of human beings in history this unfeasibly simple activity was the focus of many hours of most of their days – with no guarantee that they would find abundant, safe water – and invariably no access to the pleasures of hot water at all. I don’t take a moment to reflect on how incredible this reality is.
In that same bathroom is a veritable cornucopia of products that increase my comfort levels and maintain my health, which I also almost certainly take entirely for granted every day. Stuff that makes me smell better. Products that remove any discomfort I might have: Tissues, eye drops, moisturiser, sun-cream, toothpaste, paracetamol and any number of other highly effective drugs, even “kitten-soft” toilet tissue. The (five) blades in the razor that I use to shave myself are made to such fine tolerances they would probably bring a master Japanese Samurai sword-smith of two centuries ago to tears. The fact that these products can be found in my home and have cost me a pretty inconsequential sum is only possible thanks to two centuries of exponential technological advancement in the oil, pharmaceutical and chemical industries and probably embeds the work of two dozen Nobel prizes. I don’t give any of that even a moment’s consideration as I blow my nose and clean my ears.
I go back to my bedroom and put on clothes which are more comfortable and of a higher quality than what an aristocrat, king or emperor would have had access to not that many generations ago and which cost me only a few hours of my labour to acquire – again - even if I am on a minimum wage. I very likely have a wide range of clothes for all seasons and for various different purposes – work, partying, sport, swimming etc – most of which didn’t exist two centuries ago. Trainers or “sneakers” have only been around for just over half a century, for example. Before that, footwear was very expensive and invariably very uncomfortable.
I head down the stairs to a kitchen where the abundance, range and quality of glassware, cutlery and crockery I have access to would astonish anyone born more than about a century ago and which, again, cost me a laughably small amount in relative terms, quite possibly thanks to a company called “Ikea” which comes from a country more than a thousand miles away from where I live.
I choose my favourite mug and brew myself a hot drink called a “coffee” – the ingredients for which have come to me from even further away and through the most astonishing infrastructure of farmers, roasters, traders, transporters and retailers (this is an amazing book on that subject by the way).
To do this I use a contraption called a “kettle” - a combination of heat-resistant plastic, metal and glass that incorporates some pretty serious technology to turn that miraculous electricity thing I mentioned earlier into hot water in moments. Fifty years ago, this was a pretty expensive piece of kit. Nowadays it is laughably cheap and can be had for the equivalent of very few hours of labour – even at minimum wage. Most people a century ago couldn’t even dream of being able to afford to have something as simple as a coffee, certainly not every day.
I open the door to a thing called a “fridge”. As top UK fund manager Nick Train has said: "In 1919 the average American had to work 1,800 hours to earn enough to buy a fridge; by 2014 it took less than 24 hours’ labour and the product would be far superior." Today it takes even fewer hours of work to secure one and the product is even better.
Inside that fridge is a selection of fresh food right under my nose that would astonish 99% of human beings ever born. Just as with my coffee, each product has come to my fridge through an astonishingly complex network of farmers, producers, shippers, regulators and retailers. The work required to have ready access to milk, eggs, bread, bacon, fresh fruit, yoghurt, honey, jam or similar a century ago doesn’t even bear thinking about – which is why only the incredibly wealthy did. “Normal” folk would only enjoy such abundance a few times a year as a particular treat – on religious festival days for example. Two generations ago my grandmother was lucky to get an orange as a special Christmas treat. Most of our earlier forebears were severely malnourished.
Going to work
If today is a workday, I will leave the house to head into the centre of town. I will walk on streets which are lit at night and where I am highly likely to be safe from the threat of violence or murder 99.9 recurring percent of the time. This will actually be true even if I live in Baghdad or Mogadishu and notwithstanding the “rise in knife crime” in my own city. The same could not be said for most of human history, when leaving your dwelling to go hunting or even just for a trip to the local market town was often fraught with the very real danger of violence or death. If I do encounter violence or have an accident of some kind, there is a thing called an “ambulance” that will whisk me to a highly sophisticated healthcare facility. This compares to my likely fate had I been born in nearly any other century – when a cut or a broken bone could have killed me. Literally.
For my own part, on a normal day, I will then travel about eight miles across one of the largest and busiest cities in the world by train. The train will run fine on about 98-99% of days (empirically). If I am like most people, however, I will probably only notice the 1-2% of days where there is a problem with that train service. I will then very likely become angry, rail against how “dreadful” the service is, moan about “the state” of the country and ask “what is the world coming to?” I will totally fail to recognise the unfeasible miracle of technology and logistics implied by the 98%+ days of the year where the public transport infrastructure delivers me and several million other people safely, reasonably quickly and fairly inexpensively from one side of the city to the other.
If I am the sort of person who drives a car to work, I am almost certainly far more likely to focus on how bad the traffic is today than on the utter, abject miracle that is the motor car and the fact that something like half the world’s population can use one nowadays. That’s another few Nobel prizes right there in petrochemicals, engineering, metallurgy and many more genius feats of human ingenuity and cooperation that enable me to move my feet and hands slightly and travel tens of miles every hour (legally) in reasonable comfort. Whilst I do this – there is a good chance that I choose to listen to music or to other human beings who are hundreds or even thousands of miles away from me having a discussion that I can hear as well as if they were sitting in the car with me. The fact that the road system beneath my wheels even exists is another miracle of human innovation, technology and collaboration as are the radio waves that provide me with my music and news.
Talking of music – pretty much anywhere I find myself day or night, I can access and enjoy pretty much any song that humanity has ever produced – unbelievably inexpensively. The technology embedded in every musical instrument in an orchestra took centuries to evolve and mankind’s ability to bring upwards of one hundred of those instruments together – often combined with another few dozen human voices - and produce something as breath-taking and uplifting as what then results is nothing short of miraculous when you really think about it. I probably don’t think about it as I dial through the millions of songs on my smartphone suffering from something called “the paradox of choice”.
Don’t even get me started on planes and flying. Much as 2020 has seen a big backward slide in air travel (sadly), with British Airways retiring its 747 fleet as I write for example, it is still an out and out miracle that you can get on a huge metal machine in any major city in the world (and numerous minor ones too) and fly thousands of miles in comfort and massively safely (statistically). Take a moment to compare this to the abject misery and significant danger of a horse drawn carriage and sea crossing as recently as two centuries ago. Billions of us can and do and have travelled. The dividends this pays for human happiness, cohesion and peace cannot be understated.
…back to work again
When I get to work, there is a lower probability than ever before in history that my work is fundamentally dangerous or threatens my health or my life. In 1800, something like 90% of the population worked on the land or in primary extractive industries like mining. This work was invariably six days a week, back-breakingly hard, often very dangerous and paid almost nothing. Most people lacked basic footwear and warm clothing and were severely malnourished. As a result, most of the population was lucky to reach their fiftieth birthday. The estimated average life expectancy of a member of the British working class for much of the Victorian era was in the early thirties. Today only about 1% of the population works on the land or in mines, and those that do, use enormous machines to do much of that back-breaking work. Life expectancy is up by about four decades.
It is also perhaps worth noting in passing that most of that 89% of the population who no longer work on the land have other, invariably much better jobs. Almost none of these existed or could even have been conceived of in 1800. They are airline pilots, research scientists, computer programmers, graphic designers, social media influencers, restauranteurs – the list goes on and on and nearly all of those new jobs are a much better existence than mining, ploughing or clearing land with your hands.
Back in 1800, people were just as worried about the move away from an agricultural economy as many people today are about technology taking their jobs. The more or less clear record of history is that we probably needn’t worry too much.
“Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short…”
Really not that long ago there was no such thing as a pension, no state support of any kind and no insurance industry. There was effectively no leisure, no television, hardly any books, no recorded music, no sports teams to follow, no international travel, no nightclubs, no beach-bars. The list goes on and on and on. Not that long ago wars killed millions and “pandemics” when they came would wipe out fully one third of the human population, rather than 0.014% (more on this below). There are still conflicts in the world today, but they are literally a microdot of misery as compared to the rest of human history from as recently ago as when my grandparents were alive.
In his 1651 book “Leviathan”, the English Philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, famously described human life as “…solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
I think it is worth really thinking about just how extremely, insanely true this statement was at the time and for all of the rest of human history. We can’t even begin to fathom how hard, cold, uncomfortable, violent, dangerous, impoverished and frightening life was for the vast majority of our species ever born.
Happily, this situation has completed changed in the last few decades. Incredibly. Even if I am on a minimum wage today and even, for many people in the poorest parts of the world, I am better off than quite possibly as many as 99% of all the human beings who ever lived. My life is empirically better than even the royal families and aristocrats of only a couple of centuries ago - in terms of ease, comfort, warmth, shelter, safety, health, longevity, leisure, entertainment, travel and freedom – political, religious, sexual, economic – you name it.
Not just a little bit better. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times better. This is empirically true if you consider any of the things that really matter.
Yet despite this, there is a fair amount of evidence that humans, in aggregate, are less happy today than ever before and, if my social media feed is anything to go by, as I said at the top of this piece, a meaningful percentage of the population – possibly even the majority – think (entirely incorrectly) that “the world is the worst it has ever been”.
Our biggest problem:
The world is the best it has ever been, but most people think the opposite!
The world is categorically not the worst it has ever been. It is, in fact, almost certainly the best it has ever been – on every single measure that actually matters, even with coronavirus, Trump, Brexit and civil rights unrest rising again in the US featuring so heavily in our idea of 2020.
“Cannot compute” – Human Brain Malfunction
The problem is that we human beings have some really bad “software” in our brains. We are hard-wired psychologically to focus on the extraordinary (and negative) to the exclusion of the unremarkable (and positive).
Historically, this kept us alive. In a world of scarce resources and where other human beings were more likely to inflict physical harm on you than not, it paid to expect the worse. It was a key survival mechanism. Sadly, our psychological software has not kept pace with our progress into an era that is factually incredibly abundant, leisured and peaceful – not something our brains are used to at all.
The Media Makes Everything Even Worse
This problem is then massively compounded by our media. Journalists are particularly prone to falling foul of these psychological foibles.
They are actually trained to leverage them since this is what sells copy and drives clicks (precisely because we are all hard-wired this way). News editors and journalists say things like: “Blood sells” and “If it bleeds, it leads.” What this means is that essentially all of our newspapers and TV channels focus quite literally 99.9% of their attention on the 0.1% of bad things that are happening in the world today (or, probably more accurately, 99.99% on the 0.01%).
99.99% of the things that will happen across the whole world today will not be violent murders, terrorist bombs or someone contracting the latest tropical disease but 99.99% of our headlines will be about those things.
Crucially, this gives everyone a massively distorted view of the state of the world. It is actually THE most incredibly stupid and unhelpful feature of modern society when you stop and think about it. Most of us are looking at a glass that is 99% or more full and choosing to focus on (and moan endlessly about) the 1% that is empty. Day in, day out. Truly.
The reason that we do this is in large part due to two psychological biases: First, something called the “availability heuristic”. This is the basic idea that we focus on things that HAVE happened, rather than things that have NOT happened. This might sound incredibly obvious and quite possibly even rather pointless – but it is actually really important – for our mental health, our economy and, of relevance to my remit specifically, our ability to get wealthy. I will try to explain more about this and provide evidence with some topical examples below.
Secondly, something called “the hedonic treadmill” – this is the established fact that we tend to assimilate things incredibly quickly, even really extraordinary and miraculous things, and take them entirely for granted. This was what I was getting at in the top “day in the life, 2020” section of this piece.
So… back to the “availability heuristic”:
Exhibit A: Coronavirus
Covid-19 is a classic example of how the availability heuristic is massively distorting most people’s view of reality (and risk for that matter). Because of my day job working for a specialist healthcare investment bank, I get a great deal of information about CV-19 delivered to my inbox. My daily email from a team of leading healthcare analysts tells me that there have been about 37 million confirmed cases globally and just over a million deaths as I write.
If you accept that the population of the world is about 7 billion – this means that after not far off a year, about 0.52% of the world’s population has had the virus and just over 0.014% has died from it. Of course, the data is not entirely reliable. These numbers are clearly incredibly hard to measure and compile accurately (This is an article about how “worldometer’s” numbers are highly likely to be wildly unreliable for example, for anyone quoting them).
But, based on arguably the best information available, it seems that after nearly ten months of this crisis, roughly 99.5% of the world’s population has not contracted covid and 99.986% of the world’s population has not died from it, notwithstanding all those angry posts on social media about how “other people” are failing to "socially distance" or wear masks.
Seriously. Let that sink in for a moment and then compare that reality to the perception of covid you probably have from the media. Depending on where you live and what media you consume, both mainstream and social, I would hazard a guess that you are being bombarded with piece after piece, interview after interview and social media post after post on coronavirus. Most of us have heard about little else in 2020 and will hear about little else today and every day for months to come.
The disease is clearly highly communicable and certainly deadly, particularly for certain (small) segments of society, but the simple fact remains that after nearly a full year since the first people fell victim to it, 99.998% of people in the world have not died from it and 99.5% of us have not had it. Even if you assumed the numbers are fully twice as bad as that – to me, this is still a powerful example of a “1% problem” in a “99% world”. How much airtime does that reality get? Basically, none at all. This is the “availability heuristic” in full swing.
Emotive Anecdotes vs. Meaningful Data
Many UK readers will be aware of a TV presenter called Kate Garraway. She has been in the news a great deal in recent months as her husband, Derek Draper, is critically ill suffering from CV-19. This is one of many such emotive stories which our press focuses on day after day. But where are the news stories that cover the sixty-six or so million of us in the UK who don’t have CV-19? There are none at all. There is hardly a single newspaper, TV or radio station which will deliver that as a news story. “Great news. Today, roughly 99.5% of us do not have covid.”
In no way do I mean to trivialise or discount the very real suffering of people like Kate Garraway, her husband and thousands of others like them. I simply want to point out how unbelievably distorted an idea we have of things – and of the risk of things – by virtue of this cognitive bias, because of how our press functions inherently and also because most human beings are very bad at conceptualising things that involve very big numbers.
Coronavirus is a very “third rail” / hot-button topic so I fully anticipate a deluge of hate mail from people given what I’ve just said. To be clear – I don’t mean for a second to suggest that it is not a problem. My point is merely that our conception of the quantum of it as a problem is massively, massively out of whack and overblown – as a statement of fact.
…and this is very important, because we live in democracies where governments care about and are often guided by public opinion when they make policy decisions. CV-19 is a horrible disease, a problem for healthcare systems and a tragedy, without question. But it is my strong belief that the collateral damage caused by our policy response is already a multiple of what has been and will be caused by the disease itself.
Several million cancer screenings have been missed globally as a result of our policy response. As long ago as July, sensible healthcare officials were estimating 35,000 additional cancer deaths in the UK alone as a result. I believe this number is probably a long way higher by now based on what I see and hear in my day job and can only grow.
I also believe that there will almost certainly be more deaths from suicide as a result of the economic and psychological impact of our response to the disease than will be caused by the disease itself. Rates of alcohol consumption, depression and domestic violence are up massively all over the world for example.
This view is shared by the authors of the “Great Barrington declaration” that has been doing the rounds in recent weeks and has been signed by more than 25,000 medical experts (and 250,000+ people like me, candidly). In black and white, these three authors are:
Dr. Martin Kulldorff, professor of medicine at Harvard University, a biostatistician, and epidemiologist with expertise in detecting and monitoring of infectious disease outbreaks and vaccine safety evaluations.
Dr. Sunetra Gupta, professor at Oxford University, an epidemiologist with expertise in immunology, vaccine development, and mathematical modeling of infectious diseases.
Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, professor at Stanford University Medical School, a physician, epidemiologist, health economist, and public health policy expert focusing on infectious diseases and vulnerable populations.
The Great Barrington declaration is controversial, as you would expect. The whole thing is controversial – but what I think is not controversial is that our media and your media, wherever you are, are focusing massively disproportionately on this crisis, because that is the nature of our press and of our imperfect psychological hard-wiring. This is really bad for all of us and we really should think about it far more than we do - our journalists certainly should.
Exhibit B: How “damaging” social media is…
I have been reminded of another similar example of this phenomenon at work recently thanks to a program called “The Social Dilemma” and by virtue of having heard incredibly strong negative views expressed by so many people about companies like Facebook and Instagram, particularly in recent months.
“The Social Dilemma” is a powerful documentary which suggests that the big tech’ companies are, increasingly, a very negative force in the world and causing untold harm – particularly to young people. In the same vein, in the recent past I have heard people say things such as “Facebook is the most insidious and evil organisation in human history. They are literally killing people.”
Again – I think this is a clear case of focusing on the 1% and ignoring the 99%. I would suggest that there is no way that Facebook is even approaching being “the most evil organisation in human history.” To credit that statement, I would compare them to, say, the Nazi party in 1940s Germany (a time when all of my grandparents were alive and well of course – so only two generations ago).
If you were Jewish, homosexual, or from any number of ethnic minorities in 1940s Germany, there was a pretty high risk that one night a group of awful thugs would smash down your door, pull you and your loved ones out of your house and herd you onto a train. You would then likely travel for several days across Europe, pressed up against a throng of others in materially worse conditions than most of our livestock travel in today, with no water or toilet facilities, quite possibly in sub-zero temperatures. Many died on those journeys.
There was no-one to prevent this from happening to you if you still lived in Germany.
Facebook may indeed be causing harm. Because of that Mark Zuckerberg has been hauled in front of the US Congress and EU Parliament. The same could not be said about any of those in power in 1940s Germany. You may feel that Zuckerberg’s Congressional and Parliamentary interviews were more or less toothless, but he and others like him have at least been held to account in some shape or form.
I would suggest that the damage Facebook and others like them may or may not cause is a long way from being forcibly evicted from your home, having all your belongings stolen, spending a week in a crowded train carriage starving and covered in your own excrement and then being shot in the back of the head or gassed and pushed into a mass grave by a bulldozer.
I would argue that Pol Pot, Mao Zedong, Genghis Khan and several thousand other leaders throughout human history all did rather more harm than any social media company has done or will ever do. Go look at the implements of torture in the Tower of London and indeed any other medieval building if you want to see what humans did to each other for most of the rest of human history. I feel more or less strongly that thumb screws, red hot pokers and the rack were rather worse than body shaming or online bullying.
999,980 teenage girls did NOT commit suicide
There was a section of that Netflix “The Social Dilemma” documentary which I thought was particularly illustrative of the availability heuristic and how damaging it can be to our view of the world and our ability to maintain perspective (and how irresponsible and hyperbolic so many directors of such documentaries are - because this is what gets more people to watch their films!):
The program looked at evidence that “child suicide in the US has tripled” since the advent of social media, by showing the increase between 2011 and 2020 – complete with sufficiently dramatic music and appropriately pained expressions from the psychologists being interviewed.
Child suicide is a massive, massive tragedy without a doubt (and I say this as the father of two children under the age of three). Any increase in the instance of it should concern us, but wait just a minute here. The evidence they give shows the number of suicides in ABSOLUTE terms going from somewhere between 5 and 10 girls per million in 2011 to 20 per million in 2020. Not 5,000 to 20,000 or 500 to 2,000. 5 to 20!
What we are saying here is that in the last decade or so the numbers tell us that we have gone from say, 999,995 teenage girls from every million NOT committing suicide to 999,980 NOT committing suicide. Think about that for a moment. Can we REALLY extrude any kind of viable signal from this information? As I say – any suicide is a tragedy – but can we REALLY say that 10 additional individuals making that tragic choice PER MILLION is consequential or that this data definitely implies correlation? Isn’t that a small enough number that there could be any number of very case-specific and personal reasons why those ten or so additional girls decided to take their lives? Can we REALLY lay the blame so confidently at the door at social media with such tiny, tiny numbers?
If I’m honest – I am sure that social media can and does have a negative effect here – and there is probably some causality in this correlation for sure. But – the story that is NOT being told here, at all, is all the good that it might be doing. We are looking at the "1%" (or 0.002% in this example, actually). What about the other 99.998%?
What about the "good"?
How many of the 999,980 girls in 2020 who did NOT commit suicide because of the stressors of social media got something really good out of using it? There are more than 10 million groups on Facebook alone. Not all of them are awful. Indeed, how can we calculate the potential positive impact on those teenage girls of a kaleidoscope of groups that bring them together with other kids with the same interests? What about all the book clubs, maths clubs, or those that focus on pets, or cooking or sports of all kinds? What about the millions more friends that have been made, many of which cross international borders in a way that is unprecedented in human history?
What about the US exchange student being able to keep in touch with the Japanese family they stayed with such that they’re so much less likely to believe government propaganda about the Japanese and accept the idea of going to war against them one day as we did only two generations ago?
What about all the support groups for rare diseases and cancer patients for whom Facebook groups can be and have been lifesaving? I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2008 and there have been plenty of times since then where I can tell you that I have been incredibly grateful to be a part of the “Crohn’s and Colitis UK Forum” group on Facebook, along with the other 46,700 members – just in the UK.
How much work is being done on the aggregate good being delivered by social media? I don’t know the answer empirically, but I do know that essentially none of it ever makes it into the mainstream press on the subject. Ever. Here is an article about fifteen potential benefits of social media that took me thirty seconds to find online. You can be 100% sure that pieces like this seldom if ever make it into any of our mainstream press. No news editor wants to run such a warm, fuzzy and dull story. It doesn’t bleed, so it doesn’t lead, so we all spend 99% of our time focusing on what I think is probably a 1% problem – or even a 0.1% one.
...and editors and journalists at places like the Sun seem either to lack the intelligence to look more closely at "evidence" such as what I've just presented above or, perhaps more likely (sadly), are just sufficiently cynical to use headlines as egregiously hyperbolic as "pre-teen suicides soar 150%" from that given data point because they need to sell their newspaper.
Exhibit C: "Terrorism"
Yet another particularly tragic example of a "0.1%" problem with an incredibly unhealthy and unhelpful "99.9%" media focus in recent years has been the American public's obsession with "terrorism". Last time I checked, you had a statistically higher chance of being killed by a bee or a wasp than by a terrorist. Seriously. This fact notwithstanding, the US government has spent the last couple of decades pissing away literally trillions of dollars on "homeland security" and ludicrous military overkill across the world - causing untold misery and almost certainly impoverishing many future generations of Americans given the horrific effect that this has had on US debt levels. President Obama presided over ten times more drone strikes than even Bush did, killing nearly 1,000 civilians in the process, and during his presidency US government debt increased by more than under all previous US president's combined (literally astonishing) - a big driver for which was almost limitless spending on homeland security and the military. For the avoidance of doubt - I have no political axe to grind here. I think contemporary politicians are pretty much all as bad as each other and entirely economically illiterate - to judge by their actions at least.
Exhibit D: Investment
Most pertinently for my purposes, given that I am supposed to write on investment, this psychological bias is also why most people fail at investment. By focusing on the small minority of the time that markets “crash” most people fail to capitalise on the vast majority of the time that they don’t.
As I have written in a previous article:
“People who have taken no time to study it or really understand it, think that the stock market is horribly risky. This is perhaps unsurprising given that the media goes bananas every time there is a ‘massive crash’ and that is most people’s ‘reality’ when it comes to investment. The 99% of the time that a sensible, diversified portfolio will gradually and entirely effectively build your wealth doesn’t make front page news…"
When financial markets crash, you will see lots of headlines like "£120 billion wiped off shares in a day.” What you will never see is a headline that says: “UK stock market alone has created nearly £1 trillion of value since 2009.” The gradual and significant increase in wealth that comes from investing over many years and sticking to your guns never, ever makes the front pages of our newspapers and no television anchor ever says “Great news - the stock market has increased by 3% this month…”
As a result, we all have a horribly distorted view of and understanding of financial markets and this is incredibly damaging to most people’s chances of becoming wealthy. The most effective antidote to this reality is to understand it. Which is why I started Plain English Finance and spend hours of my time writing this stuff. 😉"
The Real "Pandemic" in 2020
I could go on and on and on with example after example here. 99.9998% of teenage girls in America are NOT committing suicide because of social media, 99.986% of the world has NOT died from coronavirus, 99.9% or more of the world's population are NOT affected by terrorism in any shape or form on 99.9% of days and investment isn’t anywhere near as risky as most people believe.
My key point, which I believe is incredibly, incredibly important, is that the real pandemic in 2020 is that, truly, too many of us are giving 99.9% of our focus to a never-ending series of 0.1% problems.
This sells papers, clicks and TV shows but it is a huge problem – and far more so than most of the things we actually do worry about – even things as awful as coronavirus, teenage suicide and terrorism. In a democracy, this fundamental malfunction of human psychology, compounded by the inherent failings of how our media work, leads to terrible policy and, arguably more important, is making people fundamentally unhappy and stressed.
It is THE key driver of mental illness and conflict between people and it is the reason so many people think the world is a terrible place - when it really isn't, if you have a 99% mentality at least. It is already causing social unrest the like of which we haven’t really seen since the 1960s. Let us fervently hope that it doesn’t lead where such things have led in the past – to revolution and war - and the unbelievable misery that this would imply for all of us.
This is almost certainly the most controversial of my articles and I have no doubt that I will field lots of angry responses and hate mail, but I am willing to take that risk because of how consequential I think the subject matter is.
Ultimately - proactively avoiding the siren song of the “1%” press and the prevailing contemporary zeitgeist all around you, and trying really hard to force yourself to look through a “99% lens”, will massively increase your chances of becoming wealthy (my focus as an investment writer). Far more important, however, it will very likely make you far happier along the way.
It is perhaps worth highlighting that it is relatively hard to do. It requires real discipline and effort, given everything going on around us every day and given how we are all hard-wired psychologically – but it is most definitely worth trying if you possibly can. In fact – I believe it is one of the most fundamental “secrets” to a good life. As Abraham Lincoln said:
“Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.”
- Abraham Lincoln
Realising that we actually live in a 99% world – more often than not as a statement of empirical fact - is a huge help in that endeavour.
Before I sign off - I did want to just ask that if you found this email compelling and if the subject matter resonates with you and if you think it makes sense, please, please do share it as widely as possible. As I have already said - I think this stuff could end up being incredibly important for the trajectory of many of our societies in the months and years ahead. If you agree, please don't be afraid to share this article.