If you are a parody of conservative values, then what the heck am I? Stephen Colbert, to a conservative television host.

Perhaps undocumented victims of the global financial crisis for the past six years would include comedy writers, particularly those who attempt to make a living by writing slyly ironic articles about ”fake” news that somehow echo reality but are taken to be funny because they are so very far-fetched. The genre of spoof artists, in other words. Such people may still exist in particular spheres – physics and philosophy for example – but away from those, it is difficult to imagine that spoof writers could have any semblance of a career these days.

At least in the financial world, these spoof artists have pretty much nothing to do, for their livelihoods have been stolen by the very people who they are supposed to parody – politicians, bankers and economists. If you don’t believe me, take a simple test and go ahead and spot the spoof news item below:

Central bank vows to create inflation
Authorities tax savings held in bank deposits
Governments borrow to fight debt crisis
Mutual funds pile into government bonds yielding less than inflation
Governments increase tax rates to fight recession

If you had slowly shaken your head and said, ”None of the above”, then you’d be the right person to understand the plight of anyone trying to make a living by raising laughs in the world of finance. (Given the age we live in, perhaps I should state with respect to the above purely as a health warning that none of those things is ”supposed” to happen: central banks are supposed to maintain the purchasing power of their currencies, ie cut inflation not create it; bank deposits should be protected to avoid wider bank runs particularly in over-leveraged banking systems; you cut overall leverage to fight a debt crisis, not replace one kind of debt with another; mutual funds are supposed to earn more than the rate of inflation so its self-defeating to buy such bonds, and lastly, cutting the disposable incomes of the rich is the most brain-dead step imaginable in the midst of a recession).

Why is it important? Because in general, the function of comedy is pass along serious messages mixed with some entertainment, allowing people to ruminate at leisure. From the time that Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 classic Great Dictator brought the perils of Hitler’s regime to the masses in America better than any documentary or book could ever have achieved, there has always been room for intelligent comedy writers to take stances on social issues and help effect changes. Until now.

Thanks to my colleague Kent Ewing’s review in Asia Times Online, I procured and read the book The Curious Diary of Mr Jam by Asian writer Nury Vittachi; one of the key points in the book is the difficulty of framing the standard ”how many people does it take to change a light bulb” joke around the region primarily because audiences aren’t used to the normal expectation of one person: in other words, when you state 10,000 as the answer, the reaction is puzzlement, not amusement. So the standard light bulb jokes fall flat, or work only when you offer an explanation. I would have found certain visits to the dentist less painful than having to explain a light bulb joke to a bunch of Asian bureaucrats or businessmen.

In a similar vein, the notions that a central bank would actually create inflation or a government would increase tax rates to fight a recession simply fail to elicit any reaction from people because they simply haven’t developed a different set of expectations past the notion of governments being responsible, responsive and useful. The notion of hubris as a central cause of a civilization’s decline – well documented from Roman times – perhaps manifests itself best in the sphere of comedy first.

When a people can no longer make a distinction between comedy and reality, the end must be near or at least, close at hand.

Why do we fall, Bruce?

Curiously, the only people who have intelligent reactions to these sorts of things are citizens of the former communist countries and what was derisively referred to as the third world (I find the definition of ”third world” – crumbling infrastructure, volatile politics, ad-hoc asset seizures, no rule of law – funny now, because every aspect of the old definition is met by the current standards of government in the United States and Western Europe, and increasingly less so in the countries for whom the definition was intended previously).

Such people, though, have no credibility in the eyes of the West, therefore we have the specter of folk trying to run around in circles trying to rationalize or negotiate their way out of a downward spiral. A recent classic was when a few months ago, as gold prices were in free fall on a day, a commentator on a financial television channel said: ”Perhaps one of the main reasons for gold to fall is that people are questioning who is behind [ie who guarantees] the commodity.”

Watching that little nugget I choked into my iced tea and it took a few moments to recover; here was a supposedly intelligent person with a degree in economics or some such, pontificating on television.

Worse, the person actually subscribed to the notion that the ”backing” of a government – the US or Europe – actually meant something, against a commodity that could NOT be manipulated. You really couldn’t make up stuff like this; and worse, the notion that you go quickly past parody in such matters. How on earth does one make fun of a person such as this commentator; and worse, how do you get across to their average viewers who must be – almost by definition – dumber than the presenter?

One of the best film franchises out of Hollywood – which is, admittedly not saying much in the first place – is the Chris Nolan reboot of the Batman comic genre. Interspersing the existential struggles of a crime-fighter against a varied group of anarchists across the three films, the central question explaining the struggles of the protagonist is the question ”Why do we fall, Bruce?” with the answer being ”So we can pick ourselves up again”.

In much the same vein, citizens of countries where they have faced random asset seizures, currency depreciation, punitive tax rates and bank runs in the past have quietly moved past their crises and picked themselves back up. The folk in the West though, coming out a long period of prosperity and often mistaking transient wealth for permanent entitlement, are simply ill-equipped to deal with this crisis.

One feels sorry for the citizens of the United States and Europe, but equally we come to the realization that pretty much nothing other than falling flat on their faces would inspire the correct reaction from the masses. Maybe the average Bruce needs to fall so that they can pick themselves back up.


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