Are There Basic Laws of Human Stupidity?

A fascinating new book took 43 years to receive its first widespread publication in its original language. Why should you care? Because the belated arrival confirms the machine of the world doesn’t operate well. A logical, predictable planet under wise management is the one we want.

Carlo Cipolla offers us a sort-of-comic essay called The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity.

Is it playful? Yes.

Is it serious? Yes.

Is it enlightening? Yes, again.

Moreover, at 74 pages, the slender volume is worth the slim slice of time and money to find out yourself. No extra calories, either, so discovering the five rules won’t blow your diet.

Here are the laws our friendly adviser asserts, with a few edits and comments to ease your understanding:

  1. Always and inevitably, everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
  2. The probability that a person be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person. The author Carlo Cipolla means you will find the same percentage of the stupid everywhere. They inhabit all jobs in all societies, all races and genders, and all education levels.
  3. The Golden Basic Law. A stupid person is (someone) who causes (harm) to another person or group while himself (gaining nothing) or even possibly (hurting himself).
  4. Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people infallibly turns out to be a costly mistake.
  5. A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person. A stupid person is more dangerous than a bandit.

Cipolla’s description of stupidity concerns the ill-timed actions of the souls he describes, a kind of bizarre giftedness for catastrophe creation. They lack self-awareness of their talent for messing things up for those who don’t recognize their toxicity and flee.

These creatures use their strange, malign, unintended capacity to cause misspent energy, squandered time, spoiled appetites, perplexity, unhappiness, physical distress, and lost wages and property. Misery floats in their wake. This unknowing band carries habits similar to people Joseph Epstein refers to as Chaos Merchants.

Here is a personal example. My wife was driving to an unfamiliar Chinese restaurant in Philadelphia around 1974. We were attending a professional conference. Several bright attendees we just met were with us.

One bloke insisted he knew the way. He exuded absolute confidence. We were moving at speed when he insisted the time demanded we make a left turn. A moment later, we were facing four lanes of oncoming traffic.

This well-educated guy embodied stupidity.

Think about the people you’ve dated, married, befriended, and worked beside or for. I’m sure many were conventionally bright. I imagine you believed your continuing acquaintances harmless.

Cipolla would suggest some were stupid (by his definition), and the world is more dysfunctional for their being here. He might have entitled his volume The Inconvenient, Unpredictable Doings of Preposterous People.

The book attempts to differentiate its target from the helpless, the corrupt (bandits), and the intelligent. The author also tells us how some in this crowd arrived in positions of power.

Possible explanations include being born into a higher class or caste, entry to an advantaged and protected religious order where male authorities have lacked oversite, and elections. His opinion of the political misguidedness of his targets echoes the words of H.L Menken:

On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

What can you do about the danger? Since many of us defend against senselessness by reasoning with others or maneuvering around them, the author instead tries to persuade us that success and safety require us to keep a distance.

He quotes the German poet Friedrich Schiller, who wrote, “Against stupidity, even the gods fight in vain.”

I would add this. Most people of reasonable intelligence make mistakes in managing the totality of humanity. First, we think of ourselves as more rational than we are. Second, we judge others and predict their actions without adequate skill whenever we base our expectations on sober consistency and astute instincts they do not possess.

Our tendency to ignore so much of what we learn also comes into play. And they, the dangerous ones, often appear innocent and well-meaning. We want to give people second chances and desire the same from them.

Nor do we wish to live in fear of disasters brought by members of our species who, we believe, don’t roam the earth with distinctive hats announcing their presence. (Oops, we could be wrong).

As the 4th Basic Law reminds us:

Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people infallibly turns out to be a costly mistake.

There are reasons to doubt the author’s contentions. He was an economist, not a psychologist, and doesn’t present data to support his ideas. Yet, in my judgment, he is devilishly wise and has hit upon something of importance.

Here is my recommendation. You might get a laugh and a new perspective on the human condition if you take on his writing. At worst, you’ll be out a few dollars and a miniature amount of time you won’t get back.

Read the book. With luck, you’ll come away with a little wisdom and a smile.


The second photo comes from a Tax March, San Francisco, CA, on April 15, 2017. The final image is called Naughty Carrot Wearing a Dunce Cap, November 13, 2019. In order, the creators of these two visuals are Punk Toad and Schmidti333. The source was

The Lighter Side of Freud

0084Therapy is such a grim business. At least it is stereotyped that way.

Thus, in the interest of a different look at the couch, here is something to consider. I cannot vouch that this therapeutic aid will work as advertised, but I leave it for your consideration:

Or, if you are more of a coffee person, this might be just the thing for you: Take a close look at Dr. Freud’s comment on the top cup, above. Click on the image if you can’t make it out.

I assure you I’m not on the payroll of the Unemployed Philosophers Guild and do not profit from your purchase of their products. Simply consider this a public service announcement.

The “Vomit Cleanup Fee”


If you throw up in a Chicago taxi, they will charge you $50 for the mess you make. Indeed, the driver might ask you to empty your entire wallet, given his loss of revenue during the time spent scooping your gastric juices, in addition to the need to have the upholstery steam cleaned.

The reason I know all this is that I’ve been in lots of cabs due to the awful winter we’ve had in Chicago (and much of the USA). With idle time sitting during one of those rides, I spied the list of charges that included the “vomit cleanup fee.”

Of course, taxi rides can be interesting for many other reasons. The drivers can be from almost anywhere. One such was a recent emigrant from Eritrea, a country in the Horn of Africa. A little research indicates that most of the six million or so inhabitants of that country speak Tigrinya, a language I never knew existed. Nice learning opportunity.

Not so nice is the fact that sometimes you are subjected to the aroma of recent passengers. I’m pretty sure that someone who preceded me lately left some pretty serious body odor behind. Fortunately, my journey didn’t last long or I would have gotten out quickly and taken another cab. No “deodorant failure fee” was on the aforementioned list, by the way.

Out of curiosity, I googled to find out how all this is handled in New York City. As some of you know, Chicago is sometimes called “The Second City” (after New York), and it does turn out that we are behind in the cost of messing-up-cabs, too. According to an Associated Press report of September 19, 2013:

Manhattan city commissioners have given cab drivers permission to charge a $75 fee to customers who vomit or otherwise soil their vehicles.

Clearly, they anticipated all the possible foul things that could happen in a taxi. They further indicate that St. Patrick’s Day and New Year’s Eve are the big winners (or losers) for the taxi business in this particular area of concern.

All of this got me to thinking about the things — inappropriate and offensive things — that people do in public or where someone else can observe them. If we are going to penalize people for vomiting in a cab, there are a few other penalties that might make the world a bit more civilized:

Here is a short list with a little commentary:

  • The failure to wash your hands after using the washroom/WC fee. Men are especially guilty of this. However small the amount of the penalty, I’m quite sure that a properly enforced charge would allow us to retire the National Debt in a matter of weeks.
  • The bumping into you without saying “sorry” fee. This problem is relatively new. It didn’t exist 15 years ago. I suspect the proliferation of people walking the street with backpacks the size of Cleveland — all the while preoccupied with smart phones — have made a contribution to this latest form of incivility. I’ve seen people almost decapitated by linebacker-sized civilians who show no awareness that they might actually have hurt someone.
  • The “way too much” perfume or cologne fee. This can be almost as bad as the body odor problem mentioned earlier.

As I said before, it has been a tough winter. Unfortunately, Mother Nature is unlikely to accept my invoice.

The top image is an Xi’an taxi in the People’s Republic of China photographed by Xianxing. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Seven Signs of Getting Older (on the Wretched Road to Decrepitude)

A Toast

I thought of calling this essay “The secret signs of aging that THEY won’t tell you about.” I figured that might engage the conspiracy theorists out there. TRUST NO ONE, as The X-Files used to remind us.

Still, I hope that you will trust me enough to treat what follows as a public service designed to inform you of some little-discussed, but tell-tale signs that your body is heading in a direction from which there is no return.

Why am I doing this? I don’t want you to be taken by surprise when decrepitude finally arrives. It happened to my mom in just that way. One day, past middle-age, she looked at her face in the mirror and heard herself uttering, “When did this happen?”

Of course, some of the more obvious signs of aging are well-known. Things like losing your hair, going gray, loss of muscle tone, and increasingly “jiggly” body parts are already represented in popular culture as danger signals. So are wrinkles, age spots, a tendency toward a thickening of the mid-section, memory issues and so forth. So I’m going to deal only with those things that are a bit less obvious.

Here they are, in no particular order:

  1. Becoming invisible. As a kid I enjoyed watching reruns of the movies that were based on the H.G. Wells tale The Invisible Man. Eventually, however, I discovered that no secret formula was required in order to achieve this apparently non-material state. Germaine Greer described it in a 1993 book called The Change. She was referring mostly to women, but it applies, to a lesser extent, to men as well. Simply put, if you are someone who has historically drawn the gaze of others because of your fetching appearance, eventually that stops, usually earlier than you were expecting. Instead of turning the heads of others, they now walk past you with hardly a look. You have become invisible. Your age is showing.
  2. The descent. Your body parts are on the move, like an infantry in retreat. Breasts, butts, jowls, double-chins, and even your height are slowly succumbing to the superior force of the opposing army, otherwise known as gravity. The direction of their path is toward “The Underworld” as the ancient Greeks used to call it. We usually refer to it as “six-feet under.”
  3. The generation gap. I started teaching at Rutgers when I was 25 in 1972. I can recall a moment in my first year there, lecturing a group of 19 or 20 year-olds. For some reason I brought up the name Adlai Stevenson II. No one had any idea who I was talking about. Yet Stevenson had been the Democratic Party’s Presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956, and famously confronted the Russians at the United Nations during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, only 10 years before. Yes, he died in 1965, but most Americans my age would have known who he was. In that moment, I realized that there was a body of knowledge that I could no longer naively assume I shared with those younger than I. As you might have noticed yourself, it eventually grows to cover lots of ground, with you knowing about things that are older, and younger people knowing about things that are newer. Movies, music, and TV shows are among the areas of information that seem to overlap less and less. Familiarity with historical events and technology also inhabit this divide, separating you from the growing group of people who were born after you.
  4. Betrayals of the body.  There is way too much territory here to cover fully, but let me give you a sense of what is in store for some of you. Your body will begin to inform you that its performance of actions you have taken for granted, does, in fact, take some effort. You are likely to discover that you actually have knees and that their job isn’t easy. Some aches and pains here and there tend to creep in, particularly involving your back. By middle-age, arthritis isn’t unusual, although it can be quite mild. Your nose and ears can begin to look bigger. If you are a man, shaving your face eventually becomes more of a challenge because the contours of your face change, leaving tiny hills and valleys that resist your effort to scrape them smooth of stubble. Your skin is likely to get drier. Sense of balance can decline. Many of both sexes encounter the need to urinate more frequently and find themselves scouting out public washrooms just in case. Yikes!
  5. How People Treat You. I remember taking my daughter Carly to the Art Institute of Chicago when I was 50, asking for two tickets, and being given a “senior discount” automatically by the young cashier — well before I was actually a senior. Young people, when they notice you at all, will see you as ancient by the time you are 40. Not long after, they will begin to refer to you as “sir” or “ma’am.” In the grocery check-out line, even middle-aged cashiers will ask whether you need help carrying the groceries to your car. I realize that some of this kind attention is given simply as a matter of course even to those who are younger. But, regardless of how fit you are, it will remind you of the fact that you are no “spring chicken.” And, just in case you are a checker at the grocery market, I’d like to let you know that I do indeed need some help. The help I need is to stop being asked if I need help!
  6. Sleep disturbance. You are at an increased risk of having trouble sleeping. This is actually much reported, so you can find the details elsewhere.
  7. The evening out. No, I’m not talking about a night on the town. This item refers to the changes in physical appearance that cause people to begin to look more alike. It is pretty scary really. Some male faces begin to look more like the female kind, with or without the addition of “man boobs” a little lower down. Some women’s faces look less different from those of men, even to the point of facial hair growth and thinning hair on top of the head. Perhaps worst of all, people who were once movie-star beautiful eventually discover that their declining level of pulchritude makes them less distinguishable from those who were never good-looking. I guess Mother Nature figures that the unfair advantage of beauty is just on loan, not a permanent gift.

Now that I’ve described these lesser-known signs of aging, I’ve gotta ask you a question. Why did you want to know? If you are young, whatever that is, you almost certainly don’t really believe you will ever become aged. And, if you are old, well, you probably already know the secrets I’ve mentioned. But, what good, at either period — young or old — does it do to know this stuff?

Yes, if you are young, perhaps you will take better care of yourself because you give some thought to your body’s future. And, consideration of your physical destiny will remind you to develop sources of self-definition, pleasure, and meaning other than the glorious state of your face and physique. Still, decrepitude is a “bigger than life” opponent who tends to have his way. There is little you can do to fend off time’s offending hand.

I suppose you can put the information above in the category of “the examined life.” I’m usually in agreement with Socrates on the matter of the unexamined life not being worth living. But, I’ll tell you what, your unexamined physical future is probably best left hidden under a rock most of the time. Like the thread on the sweater that begs to be pulled, a preoccupation with such things is pretty destructive. Believe me, you don’t want to imagine a day when you will ask your lawn care service to add the trimming of your lengthening nose hair to their weekly task of cutting the grass.

The top image, called Everyone’s Invited, is the work of SuicideGirls and was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

“Welcome Aboard Group #6!” The Future of Airline Boarding


I am usually in the last group to board the airplane on any trip I choose to take. It might have to do with using “frequent flier miles” or buying discounted fares. But, almost invariably, I am in Boarding Group #5.

There is something mildly humiliating about this. Kind of like being placed in “the dumb row” (as it was then called by the kids) back in the primary grades. How is the order of boarding determined? I have two theories:

  1. Cheap labor in terms of monkeys in front of keyboards, randomly pressing keys that will make the assignment.
  2. A more systematic and thoughtful attempt based on the following characteristics:
  • Group #1. Rich, famous, well-connected, well-dressed, influential individuals.
  • Group #2. Business people in charge of running the world, making money; the movers and shakers.
  • Group #3. Good and decent folks who go on frequent vacations and enjoy their lives. “Hot” men and women who didn’t get into the first two groups.
  • Group #4. People who typically fall into the above groups, but are having a bad day. Maybe they bought the tickets a bit late or were assigned to Group #4 by accident.
  • My group. Moral reprobates, the unwanted, the unwashed, the unpopular, and any individual with a history of at least two years of prison time and a certificate proving that he received his Governor’s pardon while on “death row.”

In other words, being in Group #5 is never a badge of honor. But today I suffered an additional humiliation that I didn’t even know existed. Something new. I was assigned to Group #6.

Normally it is difficult enough as a member of Group #5 to find any overhead space for my carry-on luggage. Now what?

A few minutes ago I asked the woman manning the desk in front of the gate what it meant. “Oh, we just started that. We are trying to speed up departures since a lot of people have complained about delays. So once the first five groups are seated, we will push-off. Then the people in Group #6 will be asked to start running toward the moving plane. The crew will drop a rope ladder and you just grab it with one hand, keep hold of your luggage with the other, climb up, and knock on the door. We’ve been able to reduce delays by up to five minutes this way.” She paused to look me up and down. “You look pretty spry for an old guy. I’ll bet you can do it.”

I looked at the young woman in disbelief.

“Thanks for the compliment,” I said with some irony in my voice. “You said you’d bet that I could do this. Exactly how much are you willing to wager?”

The woman turned to the other lady in charge of the counter and pointed her in my direction. “Hey Trixie! How much are you willing to bet that this guy can make the “rope ladder boarding?'”

“How old is he?” Trixie replied. “Remember, if he is a senior he gets a five second head-start.”

My eyes started to water after I’d told her that I am, in fact, a senior. I was touched that the airline was willing to give me the extra five seconds.

Trixie reached into her purse after a long look at me. “I’ve got $2.50. How about that for a bet?”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” I said, as I regained my composure. “But what if I shouldn’t make it? What if I fall down?”

“Oh, in that case we give you a seat on the next available flight — assuming there is an open seat, of course. And, you get to board in Group #5.

She pointed across the concourse to what appeared to be an empty space that had just a bit of equipment. “Why don’t you go to that room over there. You can practice running and climbing the rope ladder. We’ve got it all set up. And, for $5 we will sell you a knee guard in case you fall. What would you like, one knee or two?”

I opted for protection on both knees, forked over the $10, and did a little practice. I’m back in the waiting area now. They are going to call Group #6 soon, so I have to go. Let’s hope that I don’t disappoint Trixie. I’d hate to cost her $2.50.

The photo is of a Vietnam Airlines Boeing 777-200 taking off from the Frankfurt Airport in 2012. The photographer is Milad A 380 and the image is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.