You’ll no doubt be aware of the famous experiments conducted by Professor Pavlov on some dogs. Professor Pavlov managed to prove that dogs were capable of learning, that the same stimulus time after time could lead to a conditioned response. Clever things, dogs.
Cleverer than me, at least. We have a stove at home, and every day, except for those few weeks in August when it’s warm enough not to need it, I clean out the stove. To help with this task there’s an object called the “riddling tool”, which moves the grate back and forth and throws all the coal ash and dust and bits of charred wood down into the pan below. Yes, I live in the nineteenth century, I know, but that’s beside the point. Every day I do this and every day I begrudge the amount of time it takes and so every day I set to the task furiously, hastily, carelessly. And not quite every day, but maybe four or five times a week, at some point, the riddling tool will fly off the little metal stub it’s supposed to be hanging onto, and (still encased in my delicate, unprepared hand) smash a millisecond later into the side of the stove. The stove is made of cast iron, or something that looks like cast iron and is surely the hardest substance yet devised by man. I will drop the riddling tool, and howl, and Sarah, if she’s in the room, will shake her head and remind me that if I took just a few seconds longer over the job and looked at the stove whilst I did it, I could manage it just as well and without injury. Once the pain has subsided, I’ll agree.
Until the next day, when faced with the same challenge, I will do exactly the same thing, and (probably) incur exactly the same injury. Because unlike Pavlov’s dogs, my response has not yet been conditioned by the pain. I have not learned from my mistakes.
Turns out I’m not the only one, though. A few weeks ago I wrote this piece, wondering how on earth stock market indices could be at or close to all-time highs, when the economies of the countries hosting those same stock exchanges were stagnant, or still in recession, or at best struggling to recover from the pain of the last few years. And now there’s this, from the Land Registry via the BBC, telling us that house prices in London are higher than they’ve ever been. Another all-time high. Now, I live in the North-West where the only thing at an all-time high is resentment of people from London, so you’d be forgiven for taking this as sour grapes, but it’s not, I promise. Another all-time high, with borrowing conditions still harsh and wages below inflation (let alone house price inflation). Can’t people see that this is just another bubble, growing and growing until the people who do see it’s a bubble outnumber those who don’t and “pop”, it’s all over?
Over the last few years I’ve read a lot of doom-mongers (I’m not one of them, despite what I’m writing here), and it seems the traditional thing to say at this point is that when the crash comes, it’ll be longer and deeper and harder and harsher than anything we’ve seen before. And it’ll herald the end of capitalism as we know it, or the dollar as a reserve currency, or the banking system, or the hegemony of the stock markets. And I suppose it might do all those things. But I doubt it. Because we’re too dumb to remember, you see. Give it a year or two after the great depression of 2015 and we’ll all be out there rushing to buy tulips or South Sea Company shares or synthetic CDOs of non-performing German real estate loans.
And half of me will shake my head, and wonder how we can be so stupid, why we’re making the same mistakes all over again, why we’re unable to learn the lessons of history. But the other half will look down, at the riddling tool, and the bruised hand, and say “Lessons of history, mate? You can’t even learn how to clean a stove”.
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