A Critique of Pure Reason Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord, and smiteth the market upside its head.
By Stanley Bing

(FORTUNE Magazine) – I was seated with a group of fellow executives recently, immediately after breakfast, trying to listen to nonsense at that very early hour without falling asleep. This, of course, is our destiny, particularly for those of us who make our living producing little but decisions for others and money for our shareholders and ourselves.

It isn't the easiest part of the job, however, for those of us who suffer from meeting narcolepsy. A few years ago I had to attend, after a night of cordial socializing with my peers, a presentation on Quality by an individual from NASA. He had a stack of overheads 18 inches high. He spoke in a military monotone. The room was dark. On that occasion I actually erupted into stentorian snoring, returning to consciousness, after a well-placed elbow in my ribs, with a honk that elicited unkind laughter from a room of more than 100 people. That was bad, careerwise. This time, however, I was not tempted to drop into the arms of Morpheus. Sleep and anger are incompatible.

There are some tired saws that personally offend me. "Love conquers all," for instance, is patently false, and people should shut up about it. Likewise, the other day I saw a book whose thesis is that compassionate, humane management is transforming the American workplace. I nearly lost my lunch on that one, which would have been a shame, seeing how that particular meal cost the corporation more than $80, plus tax and tip.

On the morning in question, the company brought in an individual to instruct us on the rationality of the stock market, the rules that govern it, and how we could manage our company with those rules in mind. I wish I could create for you the noise I would like to make in response. But you must imagine one for yourself. Make it now, if you like. Got the picture?

Perhaps I am being unfair. The circumstances of this little chat could have been better. That morning the Dow Jones industrial average had fallen into the chasm that lies immediately below the infrastructure of corporate capitalism and was spelunking down there in earnest. The Nasdaq, too, had dug a nice trench and was at that moment face down in it.

The guy at the front of the room was showing slides demonstrating the relationship between cash-flow growth and share appreciation. It looked pretty simple. The charts he displayed had a lot of numbers on them. As you know, numbers are objective things and denote predictability and certainty. He was also using a lot of acronyms, which always make inexplicable things sound plausible.

The only problem for this fellow, who was very young for the enormous job he holds and pleasant looking in a crew-necked-sweater sort of way, was that sometime in the past couple of years everybody had been issued a pager, cell phone, Palm, or other gizmo with which to keep in touch with the world, and that everybody's wireless friend was at that very moment buzzing, whirring, vibrating, chuckling, humming, or playing either Beethoven's Ninth or "La Cucaracha." And on each little screen was the same message. The world was ending. The market was in a swoon. And there wasn't a single respectable reason for it.

As our presenter played his merry tune of multiples and growth rates and quarterly consistency and fa-la-la and wang-dang-doodle, certain questions swept through the room as if by telepathy. These questions included: (1) Why was this happening? We were the same company we'd been yesterday! Our sector was growing in double digits! Nothing had changed! And here we were, being swept into the mung with everyone else! And (2) Why in the world was this happening?

And still the band played on. In his defense, I am sure he believed what he was saying, this minister of the macroeconomic state. He must, I suppose, in order to manage with equanimity the billions (and soon to be trillions) of other people's money in his control, and move the piles of lucre from there to there without fainting, without a sense that it is all a gigantic crapshoot.

Of course, people once had proof that the world was flat and supported at its edges by four giant tortoises. That didn't make it true. And the fact that there were no tortoises didn't stop them from sailing off westward to go eastward either.

Came the question and answer period, and we just sort of looked at the poor guy for a while, many of us stifling the urge to rip his face off. Much of what he'd said had been unintelligible, but perhaps that was because we were uninitiated. So we reached for clarity, since he was, after all, in the clarity business. Why, we inquired, was the market so insane, if rational laws were in place to keep the giant clock ticking with the regularity of a goose? Momentary vagaries and corrections that would smooth themselves out over time, we were told. The virtuous who produced results would ultimately be saved. What was one to do in the interim, before this righting of all wrongs took place? Buy more securities, we were told. All crashes such as the one we were now experiencing were great opportunities for those who had faith in the system. And there it was: In the end it was all about faith.

The friendly priest from the Church of Adam Smith departed to a nice round of golf applause. We took a break, marching off to the restrooms like abashed cattle, mooing a little. There I found myself standing, staring into the middle distance, next to a senior officer of the corporation. One hand was occupied with personal tasks. The other held a cell phone to his ear. I cannot relate what was said into the phone, but it was highly scatological in nature and pertained to the drubbing the market was taking.

"Jack," I said to him after he bade a brisk farewell to the mashed turnip on the other end of the line, "do you think the market is rational?"

"Rational!" he said. "It's not @#$! rational! It's !#@$ insane!" To which, I believe, we must all say amen. And so, driven by fear, greed, and the stupidity of its least courageous members, the market goes on swinging up and down like a giant, malevolent pendulum. And we who live on its vagaries work, and watch our pagers and Palms for signs, and wait for the madness to subside. And in the meantime, we pray that things will be all right, that we will be all right.

In the end, you know, all we really have is our faith. Faith, as ever, would seem to be the most rational stance of all.

By day, STANLEY BING is a real executive at a real FORTUNE 500 company he'd rather not name. He can be reached at stanleybing@aol.com.