When the Rules Change

by | June 17, 2024

Americans over the age of 50 grew up with Peanuts, an iconic animated television series created by Charles Schultz. It portrayed an idyllic America, where kids played outdoors, unsupervised, learning the rules of life: How to make friends, get along, and get ahead. 

Peanuts starred Charlie Brown, a good-natured, plucky kid, but also a thoroughly ordinary one. Charlie wasn’t the smartest of his playgroup (that was Lucy or perhaps the dog, Snoopy), nor the most talented (that was the Beethoven-playing pianist Shroeder), nor the messiest (Pig Pen), nor even the cutest (Linus or Peppermint Patty). 

But Charlie was nevertheless the show’s protagonist, around whom life’s challenges revolved. He represented each of us – regular people making our ways through life, trying as much not to fail as to succeed, pursuing happiness for ourselves and love for others.

Peanuts wasn’t just for kids. In adults, it evoked the most positive forms of nostalgia, a longing for the innocence and simplicity of the life that we lose when we become adolescents and then grown-ups. Peanuts was a world without cynicism, hatred, or despair.

Peanuts was quintessentially about learning the rules of life, as well as how they could arbitrarily change, sometimes with devastating consequences. No vignette better captured that than Lucy holding an American football for Charlie to kick, only to remove it at the last second, leaving Charlie to embarrassingly swing, miss, and fall ignominiously on his back. 

Yet Charlie’s pluck, his desire to succeed, and his genuine belief in the goodness of man gave him the faith to try the kick again and again, only to be fooled each time by a remorseless Lucy.

In those moments, we dismiss Charlie’s faith in Lucy. We see in her a mean-spirited girl, the bully we all encountered in the playground. We wince with Charlie, hoping he will learn from experience, as we all eventually did.

Yet we realize that Lucy is also us. She is that fear we have all felt, that we cannot win the admiration and acceptance of others simply by being true to ourselves. Lucy isn’t mean for the sake of being mean, she harbors the insecurity of someone who judges their worth relative to others. For Lucy, success is power. She advances by diminishing others. She is driven by fear of inadequacy.

And then we grow up. We learn the rules of the game. We learn how to avoid being duped. We begin to understand how the ‘system’ works. We use that understanding to succeed in school, get a good job, get promoted, make friends, fall in love, start families, and achieve social acceptance.

But what happens if, despite all our careful observation, our lifetime of learning, our emotional and innate intelligence, our learned skepticism and our acquired caution, the rules suddenly change?

Unlike Charlie Brown, we are no longer innocent. We have learned that people are fallible, envious, and capable of misdeed. We can no longer simply trust. We have lost the faith of childhood and replaced it with defense mechanisms. We seek refuge in family and friends, as well as in our material advancement, or in our hobbies and pastimes.

But is that enough when the rules change?

The Peanuts generation felt it knew the rules. Life was broadly meritocratic. Yes, bias existed in all its forms and the starting line was not the same for all. But hard work, perseverance, and goodliness were the surest routes to achieving the American dream.

Society’s norms were well defined and commonly understood. Debate took place at the edges, not the core. 

Among others, we believed the following. Free markets worked. International trade was mutually beneficial. Sound money and low inflation could be delivered by technocrats managing independent central banks. Taxes and business regulation ought to be high enough to provide for basic social needs and to protect us from harm, but otherwise as low as possible to encourage economic freedom. Voting was a right, but also an obligation. The rule of law applied to all.

Those rules, those norms, were broadly recognized, respected, and accepted.

We were all Charlie Brown. 

And now? 

The rules (and norms) have changed. So, what do we do?

We might like to escape into beauty, as Schroeder found in classical music. Or into frivolity and humor, playfully embracing our inner Snoopy. Or wallow blissfully in the filth of consumption, reveling in our inner Pig Pen.

But we cannot rid ourselves of the Lucy inside us all. 

We cannot be better people and better Americans until we understand that our happiness depends on our goodness. We must realize that envy, no matter its source or justification, makes us the person we cannot abide. We must recognize that when our angst and grievance are weaponized by others for personal gain, we become victimized by those pretending to amplify our voices. We must recognize that the temptation to demonize diminishes us and robs society of trust.

America used to have rules. It used to abide norms. Rules and norms fostered the common trust. Without them society breaks down.

Peanuts taught us how difficult it is to grow up. It revealed how we cope with adversity. It exposed the futility of escapism into beauty, whimsy, or self-gratification. It demonstrated the importance of trust. It revealed the weakness that is humanity, and the need to accept norms that allow us to live in shared space, enabling all to pursue individual happiness.  

Filed Under: Theme of the Week

About the Author

Larry Hatheway has over 25 years’ experience as an economist and multi-asset investment professional. He is co-founder, with Alexander Friedman, of Jackson Hole Economics, a non-profit offering commentary and analysis on the global economy, matters of public policy, and capital markets. Larry is also the founder of HarborAdvisors, LLC, an investment advisory firm catering to family offices and institutional clients worldwide.

Previously, Larry worked at GAM Investments from 2015-2019 as Group Chief Economist and Global Head of Investment Solutions, where he was responsible for a team of 50 investment professionals managing over $10bn in assets. While at GAM, Larry authored numerous articles on the world economy, policy-making, and multi-asset investment strategy.

From 1992 until 2015 Larry worked at UBS Investment Bank as Chief Economist (2005-2015), Head of Global Asset Allocation (2001-2012), Global Head of Fixed Income and Currency Strategy (1998-2001), Chief Economist, Asia (1995-1998) and Senior International Economist (1992-1995). Larry is widely recognized for his appearances on Bloomberg TV, CNBC, the BBC, CNN, and other media outlets. He frequently publishes articles and opinion pieces for Bloomberg, Barron’s, and Project Syndicate, among others.

Larry holds a PhD in Economics from the University of Texas, an MA in International Studies from the Johns Hopkins University, and a BA in History and German from Whitman College. Larry is married with four grown children and resides with his wife in Redding, CT, alongside their dog, chickens, bees, and a few ‘loaner’ sheep and goats.

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