On the 42nd Anniversary of Bretton Woods
I spent a half day with renowned ‘Experimentalist’ Gerard Senehi a few years ago. I have often thought of our conversation since then but it wasn’t until I was flying home from my recent trip to 64° N in Sweden that I finally put another one of his puzzle pieces in place. If you’ve never met an Experimentalist, I highly recommend it. While the casual observer could dismiss components of Gerard’s art as that of a performance magician, such a conclusion would evidence an acuity deficit.
Great performance magicians do what no one else can pull off. If they’re really good, rather than triggering a reflex that seeks to confront the implausibility of the illusion, they actually invite their audience into a yearning for an ever deeper experience. Most of us, when we see a bent wine goblet conclude that the stem suffered a terrible mechanical malady or was brutally manipulated in its blowing. Watching a spoon bend while being softly held by the hand of a talented performer, we find ourselves at once puzzled by the impossibility of the observation but, in the same moment, wanting to see just how far the bend can go. In the midst of the illusion, the vast majority are at once hoping to be dazzled more and wondering why we can’t do it. In the middle act, few seek to argue with their direct observation based on their knowledge of steel and how ‘it can’t do that’. And, by the way, if you’re one of those types, get real! It’s all an illusion after all!
Back to Gerard. We discussed the conspiracy formed between the performer and the audience in which, through subtle manipulation of the apparent ‘normal’ the apparently ‘abnormal’ can be introduced to the point of having the audience become a willing participant in the expanding experience of ‘unbelievable’. Performance magicians use this graduating incredulity to build to the crescendo of an act – the Prestige – at which time anything, albeit implausible, is possible. While skeptics and fans try to work out the “How does he do that?” question regarding the individual acts themselves, my fascination with Gerard had to do with his sensitivity to his audience.
“How,” I asked, “do you know the point at which the illusion will evoke an expansion of possibility vs. the line over which, should you cross it, the audience will reject you and the illusion as too intrusive and too unbelievable?”
Over the course of the remainder of the conversation we entered into a delightful and unresolved inquiry into the evocative responses from individuals and groups which either build an incredible opening for expanded perception or lead to a full shutting down of ‘possibility’. We discussed the moral implications of navigating the edge between heretofore unconsidered perception and deception. As Gerard has frequently stated in interviews, it is not his to answer the question but to more thoroughly ask it.
Which leads me to today’s flight. I spent several hours inside the magic of the illusion brought to commercial scale by William Boeing in 1916 and the U.S. Navy in World War I. Pushed across the Atlantic from Stockholm to New York in just over 8 hours with a couple of Pratt & Whitney turbofans, I marveled at how, in less than 100 years it had become possible to spend a long weekend in Scandinavia the week after flying 24,700 miles around the globe in the preceding two and a half weeks. For millennia, flight was the domain of birds and phantasms. Now, when I board the plane I pay little mind towards the inviscid flow of fluid air over the contoured wing – a notion that would have been considered absolute madness three short centuries ago. Sitting in row 12, I am entering the persistent illusion that compresses time and space and makes neighbors out of continental divides.
Just prior to boarding the flight in Stockholm this morning I was reminded of the news I had not missed. Markets across the globe are teetering on the edge of collapse as they seek to divine from employment and durable goods the moment in time when the illusion of interventionist ‘free’ money has to end. None of the equations work anymore. We’re not getting a healthier economy. We’re not seeing more economic activity across the global scene. We’re holding our breath for the German elections in September after which we know that the Eurozone will seize up. We know that the U.S. equities bull run has been more golden calf than exodus from bondage. We know that, without tax ‘advantaged’ abuses, our celebrated cash surpluses would evaporate revealing the abject anemia of our capital circulation. And we know that the illusion in Washington D.C. and playing out in capitals across the G-20 is neither by nor for the People but for the patrons who seek to dance their marionettes one more time before the strings all fray.
Ironically, we’re living in one of the most pervasive stage magician shows ever assembled. On stage we see production illusions in which money and balance sheets are created out of thin air. We see reports of growth while liquidity vanishes. We see transformation where what used to be faith and confidence is transubstantiated into uncertainty and fear. We see levitation of balance sheets and prices driven by pure speculation – not for a productive future but for a timed exsanguination. When the music stops and the curtain falls this theater of the absurd will not leave us yearning for more.
The magic show that began with fledgling conspirators at Bretton Woods during July of 1944 in the midst of World War II began unraveling 42 years ago when the U.S. defaulted on its sacred trust to the assembled throngs at the Mount Washington Hotel. Then U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull set the stage for the act by stating that the accord could eliminate, “the economic dissatisfaction that breeds war, (and) we might have a reasonable chance of lasting peace.” Did he (or we) ever intend to end economic dissatisfaction, discriminations and obstructions as he stated to the American people. And now, which of these have we elected to abandon? Economic dissatisfaction? Discrimination? Obstruction? Lasting Peace?
Yet why do we stay in our seats as if to wait to see if the outcome might actually be something other than the certainty of the curtain falling on the act? Unlike the Experimentalist who seeks to open unconsidered perception, why are we still stupefied with the deception? Sadly, I think the answer is that we still desperately want to believe. We want to know that some beneficent someone is looking out for us and understands things that are too complex for the common man and woman. We want to know that in our darkest hour, a few intrepid souls have their superhero capes pressed and ready for action and that, despite our banal neglect, we’ll have the just-in-time savior who will make sure that no meaningful harm comes to us.
Gerard’s persuasive show enjoys its magnetism because the consensus illusion is not questioned. He’s not the mentalist. Rather, he demonstrates the power of being liberated from illusions that limit experience and perception. Impossible – whether its bent wine glasses, transoceanic flight, or integral economics – is merely a temporal illusion held vigorously by those who seek to control and constrain. Bend a glass, soar above the clouds, emancipate wealth from the consensus predatory illusion and just maybe you’ll experience a little magic yourself!