09/01/2008 02:33 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

August and the Wile E. Coyote Syndrome

Road Runner has once again avoided the trap, evaded the roadblock, meep-meeped his way past his pursuer. He gathers up momentum, runs off the cliff, glides in air, continues his unbroken sprint on the other rim of the canyon.

Wile E. Coyote attempts to pursue. (Why? It's his nature.) Now he's off the cliff, his legs pumping so furiously they trace circles in the air. He has a smile on his face.

What he seems not to notice is that he's running on thin air.

He's doin' fine. He's doin' better than fine: he's on his way to catch that pesky Road Runner. The smile on his face says, just as soon as I get to the other side of this canyon, I'm going to take that Velocitus Delectiblus to school.

There are of course no foundations for his sentiments. There's nothing, not a thing, beneath him. Just a steep drop, a thousand feet or so, to the bottom of the canyon.

For the moment, though: boy is he happy. Excited. You can almost see the delighted visions of poultry dinner dancing in his head-- Until he looks down.

This Road Runner moment was brought to you, as an animated short subject, by Chuck Jones and Michael Maltese. But the real Road Runner moments -- far more terrifying, and with far larger repercussions -- occur with some regularity, in the large financial markets.

At the end of the last millennium, it was the dotcom boom. Anything with a punctuation mark and three letters after its name was golden. Did you lose more money this quarter than last? Good: that means you're not small-minded. Is there no tangible product? Good, because that means you're not tied down to bricks-and-mortar. The less you had, the better off you were. And if you had a staff of 150 working 12-14 hours a day, eating Oreos, creating no value, doing nothing visible, audible, tangible? Why then, you were a Millionaire on Paper!

This is the world caught by August, opening this week, which I wrote as a meditation on the slow boom, the fast bust. August's protagonist Tom Sterling, played by Josh Hartnett, is a Millionaire on Paper. He has the world in a bottle and the stopper in his right hand. Tom is smarter than Wile E. Coyote: he knows that if he looks down, it's all over. Armed with this intelligence, he'll do any and every thing within his power to avoid that moment of insight.

In the end, whether he wants it our not, Tom runs into Ogilvie (played by David Bowie), a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. To Ogilvie (in the words of Abe Polonsky): there's addition, there's subtraction, and the rest is-- Conversation.

Our world depends on dreamers. But as we saw with the dotcom bust, as we're seeing now with the subprime-and-beyond bubble, the same energies you need to propel you forward are exactly what prevent you from acknowledging the truth. And the relentless enthusiasm that served you so well on the way up may not be so beneficial on the long way down.

Wile E. Coyote learned this lesson hundreds of times, without real consequences. America learns it again and again, and it kills us every time, and in fact, we never really learn it at all.

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