Back when it was good, you didn't understand it and it didn't matter; the numbers kept going up anyhow. The ones who knew, knew, and you were content to go along for the ride. You didn't have to understand.
If your numbers didn't go up quite as quickly, quite as steeply, as their numbers did, that was fine, too; you couldn't expect to do as well as people who'd figured out how to repeal gravity.
They took risks you wouldn't dream of taking -- except that they weren't risks; that was the beauty of the whole thing! And they were the only ones who had figured it out.
It had something to do with houses; that much you understood. Beyond that, though, it was all pretty much a mystery: How some properties with such-and-such a value could be chopped up into tiny pieces and mixed together with some other properties with such-and-such a value that were chopped up into just as many tiny pieces, and then when the pieces were put back together in a different order, somehow they were worth so much more than they'd ever been worth before the chopping started.
It was someplace between magic and alchemy, but it worked; the numbers were the proof of that, and the numbers kept going up. All the numbers kept going up -- the houses and the stocks and the funds and the markets. And if you felt the occasional twinge of guilt for not grasping how all this was possible, for profiting from it despite not grasping how all this was possible, it didn't trouble you for very long. You could always outsource the grasping.
There were people out there who made their living understanding these sorts of matters for you. All you had to do was take the advice, and rake in the dollars.
Then the strangest thing happened: The numbers started going down.
You didn't understand it and it didn't matter; the numbers kept going down anyhow -- the houses and the stocks and the funds and the markets. Some of the lucky ones saw it coming and bailed with their billions. The rest sat tight; they were sure it was nothing more than a passing blip, a momentary sputter. They'd repealed gravity, after all. They were invulnerable.
And you sat tight, too, because you didn't understand it well enough to do anything else. Or you panicked -- too late, of course -- and got rid of everything at terrible, basement prices, because you didn't understand it well enough to do anything else.
So now you're trying to understand. You're reading sections of the newspaper you've never read before. You're tuning in to the business shows on the cable channels. You're trying -- too late, of course -- to educate yourself. Not to be an expert, but just to comprehend some piece of what's happening to you and to everyone you care about. To protect yourself the next time around. To be a little less willing to go along for the ride.
You're only partway there, but you've already started learning things. You've learned that the ones who knew, didn't know. They didn't know back when it was good, and now that it's not good -- now that gravity has reasserted itself -- they still don't know. Nobody knows.
And that may be the scariest part of all.
Rick Horowitz is a syndicated columnist. You can write to him at email@example.com.