Even in this age of high-tech toys, two of my young grandsons can still be entertained by the emission of little iridescent spheres from a plastic loop that has been dipped in soapy water. I am talking about bubbles – the kind that last for only a few seconds before bursting.
A bubble can also be a metaphor. Old King Solomon talked about emptiness in the ancient book of Ecclesiastes. One word the wise ruler used to describe the fleeting nature of life without meaning was vanity – and it can be loosely translated as “soap bubbles.”
Of course, most of us have heard about economic bubbles. They occur when factors such as speculation drive prices to a level far beyond actual intrinsic value. In the past few years we have seen a dot.com bubble, a Chinese stock bubble, and of course, most recently, the real estate bubble.
Charles Mackay, a nineteenth century Scottish journalist, wrote a fascinating treatise entitled, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. First published in 1841, the book chronicled “the most remarkable instances of those moral epidemics which have been excited, sometimes by one cause and sometimes by another, and to show how easily the masses have been led astray, and how imitative and gregarious men are, even in their infatuations and crimes.”
Mr. Mackay describes an assortment of nefarious financial schemes dating back to the early 1700s. He noted that they were then nicknamed Bubbles. To him, this term was “the most appropriate that imagination could devise,” adding that, “the most absurd and preposterous of all, and which showed more completely than any other, the utter madness of the people, was one started by an unknown adventurer, entitled, ‘A company for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is.’”
This could well describe American politics du jour.
When bubbles burst people who have been hypnotized by their splendor tend to be disappointed - like children who see something compelling one moment, only to witness sudden dissipation. And sometimes, when bubbles connected to intensely personal concerns burst, there is discouragement – even disillusionment.
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