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In Praise of Irrational Exuberance

Bill Meredith

"…how do we know when irrational exuberance
 has unduly escalated asset values…?"
                              Alan Greenspan

New Year's Day is the most unfair of holidays. The old year was a mess, and we were glad to be done with it. We started the new year full of hope, with promises to exercise regularly, lose weight, read the Great Books, keep in touch with friends, and Be a Better Person, confident that this time it will be different. But before the first week was done we had a mine disaster, wildfires in the southwest, the Abramoff scandal, more bombings in Iraq, bird flu in Turkey, and to top it all off, Lou Rawls died. Nothing different, after all.

With things starting this way, I was a bit depressed when I started my ritual First Saturday walk to Toms Creek. It was overcast and chilly, and there were no birds in sight; but just as the creek came into view I heard a rattling noise like you get when you blow into a coach's whistle with your finger over the hole. It was a belted kingfisher, and for the next 15 minutes I watched it fly up and down the creek, rattling with unrestricted enthusiasm. There was no logical reason it should have been doing this; there was not another kingfisher around either to threaten its territory or to stimulate amorous impulses, and it could have fished just as efficiently by perching over a pool and waiting. The only message its raucous behavior seemed to convey was, "I'm here, I'm alive, and I feel good about it!" As I watched it, Alan Greenspan came to mind; here was a perfect example of irrational exuberance.

From a human point of view, the kingfisher shouldn't be feeling this way. The coldest part of winter is yet to come; the creek will surely freeze over at least once, and the bird will starve if it can't find open water to fish in. If it survives til spring, it will have to find a mate, fight off rivals, dig a burrow in the stream bank for its nest, and work its tailfeathers off to feed a brood of youngsters, if they aren't killed by predators before they are able to fly. It doesn't know any of this, of course, but I doubt if it would matter if it did. Exuberance is programmed into its DNA; with all the odds that are against it, it couldn't survive with any other frame of mind. Exuberance isn't just being noisy; it indicates hope in the future and confidence that hardships can be overcome.

As I walked on, I began to see exuberance everywhere. A beaver had chewed a third of the way through the trunk of an ash tree that was at least two feet thick and 50 feet high; what it would have done with such a tree if it had come down probably never occurred to it. Squirrels were chasing each other about in the tops of trees, leaping six feet or more through space to branches as thin as wires and ignoring the fact that it was cold and cloudy and mating season is still two months away. A Carolina wren, scarcely five inches long, was singing in a voice loud enough to carry half a mile. Myrtle warblers were foraging on poison ivy berries, twittering happily; it was obvious that there were not enough berries left to last until spring, but none of the warblers seemed depressed.

As I walked toward home, my mood improved, and I remembered Norman Vaughan. He was the last surviving member of Admiral Byrd's expedition to the South Pole in 1928, and there was a note in Time magazine that he had died last week at the age of 100. He would have been 23 years old at that time, and had no experience in such things, but, full of irrational exuberance, he talked Byrd into taking him along as a dog-sled driver. Evidently he spent the rest of his life doing things common sense should have prohibited; he climbed a 10,000-foot mountain at age 89. I remember reading about Byrd's adventures when I was a 5th-grader, and dreaming of doing such heroic things when I grew up, but I turned out to be of a more cautious nature. Yet even now, when I read Vaughan's obituary, I feel a twinge of envy. Being irrationally exuberant beats being depressed or bored.

That evening, sitting in a comfortable chair and watching the football playoffs, it occurred to me that as I walked past the new housing development on the way to the creek that morning, I did not see a single child. The new lawns were empty; the adjacent ballfields were deserted. It should not have been that way. If I had been a child in such a place I would have been out there kicking a football (badly), or poking sticks through the ice on mud puddles, getting dirty and probably catching a cold, and doing all those things that now fill my memories. The kids that should have been out there now were indoors, staring vacantly at TV cartoons or poking mechanically at computer games while they stuff themselves with sodas and junk food. They are growing up soft and overweight, and if they show the least bit of exuberance they will get a dose of Ritalin for it.

Alan Greenspan is a great economist, but he is a lousy ecologist, and an even worse child psychologist. Irrational exuberance may be bad for the economy, but in the world of nature it is a vital survival mechanism; and it may prove to be equally vital for the survival of this country. Without it, we wouldn't have had the Wright brothers, or John Glenn, or, for that matter, Ben Franklin and George Washington. Norman Vaughan was not just a last survivor of a dying breed; he represents a spirit that made this nation what it was at its best. That spirit is dying with him, and it is not being replaced.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith