In praise of aspiring ‘influencers’

Content creators are the fastest growing type of small business worldwide. Today, over 50 million people consider themselves ‘influencers’ on social media.

According to YPulse – a youth research organisation in the United States – over 72% of Generation Z wants to become online celebrities.

Nowadays, getting famous on Instagram or TikTok is the ticket to wealth and fame. According to a Harris poll, more kids dream of becoming a YouTuber than an astronaut.

Generation Z kids do not want traditional careers in engineering, medicine, consulting, and teaching. Becoming viral on TikTok through outrageous flamboyance can make you a millionaire.  “Don’t need no education, don’t need no thought control”.

Intellectuals, social conservatives and cultural pessimists commonly decry this trend of ‘superficial consumerism’. “Yet another dissolute younger generation in the making”, they sniff.

Yet, pop culture meets a need. No one is forcing the youthful masses to follow ‘influencers’. Following them takes time, and buying the products they endorse swallows money.

This is not new. Teenagers have been buying ‘brands’ for decades. They having been indulging and experimenting in all sorts of things that affront their elders, probably from time immemorial.

So the followers of the influencers must be getting a benefit. In part, it will be a social group thing. I get that.

Moreover, ‘influencing’ must be a competitive and risky business. Entry is free. Anyone can be outrageous and flambuoyant – until the euphoria fades. One tweak that misses its mark could destroy months or years of assiduous cultivating of one’s followers.

Take Daniel LaBelle for example. He started a physical comedy channel on TikTok last year, and now has over 23 million followers. Podcaster Joe Rogan has to entertain 200 million people monthly on Spotify.

Imagine waking up every morning wondering what you can do next to titivate such followers, without blowing everything. Who wants that pressure?

Many influencers will crash and burn, just as pop musicians have for decades.

But pop music endures because it entertains. So far influencers are passing that test.

Amateur hour

If you want to know everything about ancient Egypt, read a magazine article about it. If you want to know a little less, read a book. If you want to know nothing, study Egyptology.

It is a paradox, but it is true.

As Einstein once said, “The more I learn, the less I know.”

Or was it Aristotle? Or Churchill? It’s usually one of the three, and who cares about correct attribution?

But I digress. The problem is not with those people who learn just enough to know they know nothing. The problem is all the others.

These are the people who believe they can land a jumbo jet on an aircraft carrier because they played Microsoft Flight Simulator a few times.

And the millions of sadly ignored All Black coaches who have watched a few tests on TV.

And, not to forget, our team of five million epidemiologists.

We know the issue as the Dunning-Kruger effect. People with low abilities often overestimate their competence. 

Surprisingly, the effect is named after David Dunning and Justin Kruger – although I am sure Einstein could have said it, too.

Dunning and Kruger also gave us a good explanation for their discovered effect. They claim that people are not just incompetent. But people also lack the ability to process enough information to realise how incompetent they are.

Well, I need to think about that.

Unfortunately, modern culture amplifies the Dunning-Kruger effect. Instead of warning people of their inability, it encourages them to live it.

If you have ever watched casting shows or reality TV, you know what I mean.

There are the would-be entrepreneurs going on The Apprentice who could barely calculate the GST on their products.

There are the singers on America’s Got Talent who should not even perform under the shower.

And there are the amateur chefs on Hell’s Kitchen who drive Gordon Ramsay to cascades of expletives.

We can but speculate where this exaggerated belief in one’s own ability comes from.

Is it the schools where every child is a winner? Where there is no failure but only deferred success?

Is it the helicopter parents who stop their children from ever failing – and if they do blame the teachers?

Or is it our general norm of non-offensiveness which makes us call every bent spoon a spade?

Honestly, I have no idea. I guess I am going to write a book about it.

3x4 Tips To Deal With The Dunning Kruger Effect
Dunning-Kruger Effect

Clarke and Dawe in 2021

My article in the week’s Insights newsletter. It is a #3, the third item in the newsletter which is always an attempt at humour. You can sign up to our weekly newsletter here.

One of the finest shows on economic affairs was ‘Clarke and Dawe’. The two satirists collaborated from 1989 until John Clarke’s death 2017. If only this partnership were still around in the era of Covid-19 and quantitative easing. I miss their satire.

So how would Clarke and Dawe explain the current global economic recession today? I wonder…

BD: Thanks for joining, you’re a macroeconomist, correct?

JC: A pleasure to be here. Yes, I am indeed.

BD: As a response to Covid-19, quantitative easing (QE) was used by central banks. How does it work?

JC: Well, it starts at a desk in a central bank. You take the computer out of box, press buttons, click enter. You alert the banking sector and the Treasury, send both an email, and press copy. You buy bonds and send money.

BD: And why did central banks start QE? Isn’t that ‘counterfeit money’? You can’t just print money at will.

JC: They print it digitally. You press buttons with more zeros on the computer – Boom! New dollars, just like that. It’s a free ATM machine, just bigger.

BD: But there is no free lunch, though? What are the financial implications?

JC: Potential inflation, consumer prices could go up. The more money you print like Zimbabwe, the poorer you become.

BD: What do macroeconomists do?

JC: We talk about economics without stories. It’s up, down, left, or right for unemployment, CPI, inflation, GDP etc. Straightforward, really.

BD: Correct, and what about government debt globally?

JC: They’re broke. Particularly the Europeans, the Japanese, and the Americans. Debt levels are above their entire annual economic output.

BD: Right… so what does that mean?

JC: No money. Broke economies were being lent money by other broke economies, but now they are all broke. The only lenders are central banks. It’s a last resort, so to speak.

BD: My goodness. The digital printer machine is out of control, and governments are broke. What’s the next step you think?

JC: Another bail out from central banks, probably. And then a bail-out of the central banks, most likely by themselves.

BD: Correct, an ongoing merry-go-round. Is this sustainable?

JC: Yeah, we might as well be entering clown world.

BD: Correct. That’s a grim end to that story. Thank you for your time.

JC: My pleasure. Oh, I better check the gold price. And where did I leave the key to my safe deposit box?

Mr John Clarke — Clarke & Dawe
Clarke and Dawe

Get rich with Dogecoin

Recently, you have been really responsible with your finances. You stopped buying chicken paninis, cut back on the flat whites, and eating out at KFC. You put more money into a savings account.

Unfortunately, the reward for being financially frugal is a meagre 0.8% per annum of interest. After 2% inflation, you are losing money.

Not very satisfactory.

But, if you cannot build some long-term wealth in the bank, what else can you do?  

Well, let us explore a few options.

You could try housing. However, you’ll need to get a new mortgage and a substantial amount of deposit. It is also costly, with the average house price now exceeding $800,000. And that will only provide you with a 30% return within a few months.

But what if I told you that you could make a 900% return, no a 11,000% return in the same period?*

How about investing in Dogecoin! Yes, that meme dog cryptocurrency.

It started in 2013 as a joke Bitcoin alternative with a caricature of an innocent Japanese Shiba-Inu dog as its symbol.

Then, this year in February, Elon Musk tweeted about it, and Dogecoin took off to the moon.

A dollar invested when Elon tweeted is now worth $17.4 – Oh wow.  

Dogecoin is now worth $80.5 billion – worth more than companies such as Ford Motors, Honda and Adidas. Dogecoin was a joke about cryptocurrencies, but in an ironic twist, it became a wealth-creating digital asset.

In April 2021, a man named Glauber Contessoto gained notoriety for becoming a Dogecoin millionaire. We are supposedly living in a completely new era of unorthodox wealth creation.

Or perhaps it’s just a bubble. During the 1600s in Holland, multicoloured tulips became prized possessions. “Tulipmania” saw prices go crazy until it burst into nothing of substance. 

The folly of human speculation has always been there.

My generation particularly loves bubbles – look at GameStop, for instance. You can profit and still get a decent result on investment by selling at the right time.

No need to be financially responsible. Eat out, buy KFC and spend your remaining funds on the latest Dogecoin.

It will be fine as long as you are the last one out before the bubble bursts. Just short it. Easy peasy.

*Not investment advice

The Theory of Human Stupidity

Humans are complicated. We are intelligent species that dominated the world with our knowledge and brilliance. We built pyramids and skyscrapers, we went to the moon, and we invented Pokémon GO.

Yet, throughout human history, human stupidity has triumphed time and time again – whether it is communism and fascism killing millions of people, recurring asset price bubbles and their eventual bursts, or carelessness leading to environmental degradation. We never cease to stop causing unnecessary harm to ourselves or others.  

Stupidity applies on an individual level, too. We have dozens of cognitive biases, believe our own lies and feel good about it.

But is there something more systematic about human folly?

Italian economic historian Carlo M. Cipolla believes so. In his book ‘The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity’, Cipolla identifies four different kinds of people – stupid people, helpless people, intelligent people, and bandits.

As a group, stupid people are far more powerful than the Mafia and the Military-Industrial Complex because they actually drive and influence social outcomes. 

Cipolla found that the same proportion of people in any group tended to be stupid, even within the group of Nobel laureates or professors, or even blue-collar workers. The reality is that we have to face the same proportion of stupid people, no matter where we go or travel.

Everyone underestimates the effects of stupid people in action because it is not apparent. As a result, non-stupid people underestimate the damaging power of stupid people.

Intelligent people benefit themselves and society; bandits steal from others to benefit themselves; helpless people are exploited for their naivety despite contributing positively to society. However, stupid people are counterproductive to both their own individual and society’s overall interests.

Cipolla says that a stupid person is far more dangerous, especially if the individual was born into the elite class. Their total damage capacity is infinite within their potential position as bureaucrats, generals, and even politicians.

As stated by Yuval Harari, history teaches us that people must never underestimate the role of stupidity in human history. It is one of the most powerful forces around the world.

We cannot trust human decency and supposedly good human leadership to do what is best for humanity. We can only hope that is the case, but stupid humans could win at the end of the day.

The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity by Carlo M. Cipolla - Penguin Books New  Zealand

Military Theatre

These days, even the German army cannot afford to neglect its green credentials. Pity if that’s the only thing it is good at.

German military manufacturer FFG just presented its latest tank. This is not your usual combat vehicle, not just because of its deep blue livery. It’s a hybrid.

The Genesis, as they call this beast, is a modern field general’s Prius. Except it runs on eight wheels, weighs up to 40 tons and has a 30mm automatic cannon. No Tesla can compete with that.

And it’s a technological miracle. The Genesis reaches speeds of up to 100 kilometres per hour. In silent mode, the only thing you can hear is the gun, and it can drive submerged under four metres of water.

The tank’s green credentials excite Germany’s military strategists. Pity that the rest of the German military is no longer fit for purpose.

The past decade has been terrible for Germany’s armed forces. And this time, it did not even lose a war. Hardly a week goes by without new absurdities from the Bundeswehr. It is hard to imagine how this country ever threatened anyone but itself.

A couple of years ago, only four out of 128 Luftwaffe fighter jets complied with NATO’s basic requirements. But that was still a better percentage than the German submarine fleet back then: all six U-Boats were out of commission.

Maintaining marine equipment is not exactly the Germans’ strength.

The pride of the German navy is a three-masted barque, the Gorch Fock. Though it looks like a relic from the Crimean War, it was only commissioned in 1958. It should have undergone a €10 million repair job in 2015, but five years and €135 million later, the Gorch Fock job is still unfinished.

The list goes on. Airforce pilots losing their licences because their helicopters don’t fly. Soldiers complaining they need to bring their own thermal underwear on exercises and deployments. And the army apparently only has enough ammunition for two days of fighting should the country ever find itself at war.

Maybe the Bundeswehr is just a sign of the times. It virtue-signals some modern values and guarantees that no country ever need to fear the Germans again.

Even their electric tanks would need to be recharged shortly after crossing the border.

Riding into the political sunset

Winston Peters will exit politics for the third time in his career. I spotted his ghost at Parliament the other day. He looked unusually grumpy.

Maybe it was just my hallucination, but after decades of observing him it was incredibly lifelike. After all, his mannerisms have become predictable. So, I sidled up to the apparition and asked if he found the election outcome a bit depressing.

“No, no. No, no. No, no. There’s no need for you to go into a fit of gloom and doom at this point in time,” he replied curtly.

Ok. But perhaps he had some thoughts on Ardern’s campaign?

“Can I finish? Can I finish? Look, Mr Hong, you’ll do much better if you listened for a second.”

I began to apologise, but he must have thought I was interrupting — “No, no, no, no, stop right, stop right there. Stop right there, Leonard.”

Instead of carrying on, he just glared at me. After a few moments I asked if this was the true end of his political career.

“Look, look, this is just now speculating on what neither you or I or anybody else, including the experts, could possibly prognosticate this far out.

“Why would you make a statement like that? Try and be neutral and unbiased. If you are going to ask questions back it up with some certainty.”

Now I understood what it’s like to be a press gallery reporter. Poor things.

“I’m not giving you my comment on that,” Peters continued. “But I do believe in a thing called commercial accountability, as we also believe in political and journalistic accountability.”

I gave him one final chance to say something nice to say about David Seymour and Gerry Brownlee.

“If Nelson Mandela can walk out of Robben Island after 27 years and forgive his oppressors, so can I.

“I could’ve been the Prime Minister years ago if I was prepared to suck up to the right-wing ideology for the National Party. I think that we’ve covered the subject as comprehensively as we can possibly do it.”

I raised my eyebrows. Again, he must have thought I was about to ask a question.

“I’ve got a message for my friends in the media, and it’s all bad. Most of them have been arrogant, quiche eating, chardonnay drinking, pinkie finger-pointing snobbery – and fart blossoms.

“I have never heard such obsequious, subservient grovelling, kowtowing, palm-kissing nonsense.”

And so, the inimitable, Right Honourable Winston Peters walked into the political sunset. Generations of journalists will miss his wordy ways of not answering questions.

We wish him unexcited calm in retirement. It would be a New Zealand First.

Card games in a post-truth world

When in the US earlier this year, I came across many souvenirs mocking the country’s leader, including a card game called, Trump Cards: The Wackiest Game of Fake News.

It looked like a fun party card game in which players tried to pick out ‘Fake News’ from real quotes by President Donald Trump. A player receives one point for a correct answer and zero for incorrect answers.

So, let’s break out the card game and test your abilities. Did the US President really say these things or is it ‘fake news’?

“I will make Mexico pay for a wall on the border.” Ah yes, the infamous wall. Bingo! That’s an easy guess. The Donald definitely said this. 1 point.

“Bambi’s mother was clumsy. She deserved to die.” Nope, this one was completely fabricated. Good try. 0 points.

“To the fake Pocahontas, I won’t apologise.” A classic! Pocahontas was one of his nicknames for political rival Senator Elizabeth Warren. 1 point if you guessed the quote was real.

Right, now for something a bit harder:

“For anyone that has money, they know the first rule is to use other people’s money.” Sounds like Trump, doesn’t it? Well, it was really a quote from American rapper Kanye West.

“Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest — and you all know it!” Yup, Mr Trump again.

“I’m a perfectionist.” Was that the US President? No, it was our Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on the decision to drop to Alert Level 3. But it looked like a Trump quote, didn’t it?

If you miraculously got all six points, congratulations, you are immune to fake news… well, so you think.

Comedians and rappers are meant to have great one-liners, that’s their job. I guess politicians also make a regular appearance on “History’s Greatest Quotes Vol 1-59.” In this world of fake news, it’s not only difficult to tell what the truth is, but increasingly, what the original context was.

Trump Cards’ is fun for the whole family, but games like this are only possible because we are so used to quotes being pulled out of context by newspapers. In isolation, any line can sound terrible but clipping a few quotes from thousands of hours of speech doesn’t help solve the problem of fake news. Even Ardern can sound like a buffoon out of context.

I can live with a fun card game, but I don’t think anyone is sure how to live in a ‘Fake News’ world that destroys context almost as a matter of course. You can quote me on that.

What I won’t miss in quarantine

The gloomy headlines say New Zealand just flagged its 28th case of coronavirus. Great.

But as Twitter inevitably explodes again about nation-wide self-isolation policies, I’m starting to think the outdoors isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Most of us will miss seeing friends over a weekly Starbucks coffee, walks on the beach, being in the sun and – my personal favourite – golfing. But as the outside temperature drops and the normal flu season kicks in (yes, other types of flu still exist), to be honest, it’s hard to think of anything good about sweaty gyms and crowded coffee shops.

Besides, winter means more rain. I hate the rain. The upside of working from home is that it’s cosy, dry and it’s always the perfect time for hot chocolate. What’s not to like?

Walking to work is also literally a pain in the backside. I certainly won’t miss travelling to and from the city every day, up and down hilly streets with a sweaty back.

And if I’m not in the office, there’s no need to look ‘civilised’ in a suit. I can wear pyjamas from 9 to 5 and it’s not as if the cat will complain to HR. Besides, the best thing about casual clothing is the lack of ironing, giving me more time for Netflix in the evening.

But my advice is to keep a collared shirt and a blazer within arm’s reach if you can’t rule out surprise Skype calls. Just make sure to lock the door: the last thing you want is a toddler bursting in during a video chat with the CEO.

The home office is also way cheaper. No more unnecessary $4 morning coffees or expensive $15 Pad Thai for lunch. And the commute from couch to spare bedroom will cost pennies (depending on the size of the house, of course). Bonus: the lower emissions of trudging across the hallway will also be far cleaner for the environment. Again, depending on what was eaten for dinner last night…

I do expect a lack of vitamin D to boost my immune system. But pulling my laptop closer to a north-facing window will probably solve that problem. Also, we humans are social animals and since no one will be walking the streets then not even a window will help fill that need. That could be an issue.

But it’s only for a few weeks. The outside world will still be there when I get out, right?