The U.S. government destroyed the World Trade Center and made it look as if terrorists did it. The CIA killed Kennedy. A secret cabal runs Wall Street and the world’s banks, cleverly manipulating the levers of finance for its everlasting enrichment. What these conspiracy theories all have in common is the presumption that the world is run by a small coterie of super-competent people—people so smart they make no mistakes, and can hide their elaborate machinations from the rest of us. It’s a comforting belief, providing order in the place of chaos. But it’s not the way the world actually works. If you poke your nose into any large institution—government, medicine, universities, newspapers, Hollywood, major corporations—you’ll find that even the most successful of them is plagued by the same spasms of stubborn foolishness, shortsightedness, and rank incompetence that you and I see in our own lives every day. Even the smartest among us can succumb to periods of collective madness, in which people cannot see what is right in front of their eyes.

Now it is the titans of finance who stand humbled before us, having invested lavishly in financial instruments neither they, nor virtually anyone else, truly understood. Century-old corporations are in ashes. Trillions of dollars in paper wealth have evaporated in a matter of weeks. And how did the sage statesmen who run Washington respond? By bickering like children over abstract ideologies and blame and hurt feelings, as another trillion or so in stock market wealth disappeared. It’s small consolation, as our 401(k) plans melt like ice cream cones dropped on a hot sidewalk, but we now know this about the cabal that runs the world: It’s no smarter, or wiser, than the rest of us. - William Falk