The destructive allure of "bubble thinking"


By Tom Ehrich

Ever witnessed “bubble thinking”? Here’s what it looks like.

It looks like Apple trying to get away with a minor upgrade to its iPhone and Apple Watch, an upgrade that barely moved the needle on performance, features or design, and yet was labeled courageous and exciting. Only someone living inside the Apple fan-boy bubble could be fooled by a new color for the iPhone – shiny black, easy to scratch, costing $749 and up – and a new ceramic band for the watch.

Tech critics wondered if Apple had simply run out of ideas. I doubt that. Bubble thinking isn’t about ideas, it’s about living in the echo-chamber of self-reinforcing perceptions and making too much of the incremental nudge that the guy next to you considers a game-changer.

“Bubble thinking” looks like the absurd theater that NBC put forward when it sent an entertainment anchor to moderate policy interviews with presidential candidates. The result, even NBC admitted, was a “disaster.” The outclassed anchor proved himself unprepared and incompetent. With tough-as-nails, highly informed Rachel Maddow available for the event, NBC chose lightweight Matt Lauer. That’s “bubble thinking.”

“Bubble thinking” looks like the Trump campaign, in which an uninformed candidate tries to capture the White House with bullying, invective, bigotry-flogging, and a torrent of lies that defy real-time fact-checkers. His vocal fans love the show and have no interest in facts, policies or democratic principles. They just love getting permission to shout hatred. Trump’s bubble rallies are hothouse events that only like-minded souls are allow to attend, where Trump shouts, the people shout and Trump turns their shouts into ad hoc pronouncements.

“Bubble thinking” looks like high season at the Hamptons on Long Island, and its counterparts in other urban areas, where extremely wealthy people enjoy supremely precious time parading in expensive tribal costumes and talking passionately about things that don’t matter, and then return to boardrooms and law firms determined to grab even more wealth from a struggling economy so that they can do it again next summer.

“Bubble thinking” looks like a $5 million fifth-floor walkup apartment in lower Manhattan. It looks like a $200,000 college education that provides no skills or mental toughness for jobs that actually exist.

Inside the bubble, people don’t deal with facts or truth. They deal with what they want to earn, not the value of what they do. They deal with the promise of great wealth if they can scam the market quickly enough, not the long-term damage done by fraudsters. They love the excitement of high-octane collaboration and don’t stop to ask if their efforts accomplish any worthwhile purpose. They love the money and the toys and don’t ask about real costs and real benefits.

Inside the bubble, fooling people matters more than serving people. Getting elected matters more than strengthening democracy. Having power matters more than using power for the good. Keeping the doors open matters more than doing anything worthwhile inside them. The interests of shareholders matter more than the employees who create the wealth and customers who buy the product.

Bubbles are enticing, and yet they always burst. Sometimes dramatically like the dot-com bust around 1999 or the bursting of the housing bubble in 2007 and beyond. Sometimes in sad middle-of-the-night abandonment, like the poorly managed company that raids pension funds, borrows heavily, and then closes its doors with little warning and no accountability. Sometimes the bubble bursts in a house that won’t sell, a product that falls short of hype while it’s still being financed, or a commencement ceremony where highly paid administrators dispense expensive degrees to graduates burdened with debt, and then send them out to a job market that isn’t fooled by their diplomas.

If Trump can keep his bubble intact long enough to capture the presidency, the bursting of it will be epic, tragic and dangerous. But it will burst. We can be sure of that. Bubbles always burst. Bubble thinking always loses out to reality.

For example, the Matt Lauer/NBC bubble didn’t last even the length of his show. Even as he cowered before the bully, knowledgeable reporters and analysts were calling Lauer to account. The aftermath was blistering. His career is down the tubes. In the end, Lauer’s apparent intention to embarrass Clinton and to build up fellow entertainer Trump backfired and had the opposite effect.

The moral: don’t mess with bubbles. They don’t last, and they do great damage when they burst. Better to see reality, tell truth, and accept the ups and downs of accountability.

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