The Angry Whopper

The emotion of anger ranges in intensity from mild irritation to overwhelming rage. As public mood becomes more negative, social anger spreads and intensifies. A good illustration is the negative mood of 2008 and early 2009 that yielded a major bear market and social discontent. A mid-2008 poll by the American Psychological Association found a 20% increase in the number of Americans reporting feelings of irritation and anger compared to the previous year. And that was even before the financial crisis and sharp drop in the stock market in Fall, 2008.

My favorite example of this trend was the effort by the  normally upbeat fast food industry to capitalize on the angry social sentiment. Burger King unveiled the "Angry Whopper" in January, 2009. It included jalapenos and spicy Angry Sauce. To publicize it, Burger King created a website where people could fill out an Angry Gram to send to people they found annoying: "Dear_____, I've had it up to here with you….What a loser. You make me wanna go ballistic. Yours angrily,______. "

Burger King also created a Facebook application offering a free Whopper to customers who DE-friended 10 people from their Facebook friend list, each of whom received a note telling them they had been dumped.

If social mood had remained negative, perhaps the menu would also have offered Furious Fries and Seething Sodas. But the Angry Whopper was removed from the menu after three months, just as the bear market ended and social mood started to improve. Positive social sentiment produces less appetite for anger.

On a more serious note, hate crimes often increase as the stock market falls sharply, and they decrease as the market rises. FBI crime statistics show that hate crimes increased during the major market decline in 2008, with an 8 percent increase over the previous year in hate crimes against religious groups. As the market advanced strongly in 2009, the number of hate crimes declined 15%, to 6,604. The market maintained its gains in 2010 and hate crimes remained 15% below the 2008 figure.

During the bear market, anger gelled into nationwide anti-tax "tea parties" that invoked the symbolism of the 1773 Boston Tea Party. In April, 2009 an estimated 1.2 million people gathered for 2000 tea parties that evolved into a grass-roots political movement. CBS news correspondent Jeff Greenfield wrote about the "Mad as Hell" movement that featured rancorous town hall meetings --some involving fistfights and arrests – with Congressmen shouted down and hanged in effigy, a Washington taxpayer rally that included pictures of Obama with Hitler and Stalin, and an unprecedented outburst by Congressman Joe Wilson during a nationally televised presidential address to a joint session of Congress: "You lie!" His public accusation against the president made him an instant hero to some.

At the bottom of the bear market, Newsweek's March 30, 2009 cover headlined, "The Thinking Man's Guide to Populist Rage." The Washington Post opined: "History will record the third week of March, 2009 as Outrage Week in Washington. Like a spring fever, outrage spread across party lines and 86 House Republicans joined the Democratic majority in passing a 90% punitive tax on bonuses. At the core of all this populist outrage is a mystery: Why now, exactly?"

Why then? Because social mood was at a negative extreme, as reflected by the 57% drop in the stock market in just 17 months. A September, 2009 Time magazine cover displayed a frowning Glenn Beck with his tongue sticking out and the headline,"Mad Man: Glenn Beck and the angry style of American politics." The cover story's discussion of  today's "paranoid politics" noted the similarity to the angry populism of the Depression embodied in radio preacher Father Charles Coughlin who attacked capitalists and communists alike, and railed against Jews and FDR to an audience of 40 million.

The Time article also reported that a poll of 6400 Americans in early 2009 found nearly 3 out of 4 agreed with the statement, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore."  This line was from the 1976 dark satire Network, during a previous bear market era. As Time noted, "Its hard to find a film that better captures the rotten vibe of the early 1970s." And of the latter part of the past decade.

The angry mood was also captured in an April, 2009 internal report by the Department of Homeland Security that warned of increasing danger of domestic terrorism. A December, 2008 report by the Army war College warned of the possibility of massive civil unrest and the need for military soldiers to be used in the event of widespread domestic violence and protests against corporations and government.

In September, 2008 as the stock market dropped precipitously, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson told congressional leaders that a declaration of martial law might be needed in a worst-case economic scenario. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported that the number of active hate groups rose in 2008 and had grown 54% since 2000. And the Associated Press reported a resurfacing of the militia movement in the U.S.  Just as popular anger was turning ugly, positive social mood returned and launched a three year bull market. Consequently, the widespread civil unrest feared by some authorities did not materialize.

In an angry social environment, hostile attacks gain traction with the public. The bitterness during the 2008 – 2009 bear market was on ample display in major bookstores. Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism was a number one bestseller, as was Michelle Malkin's Culture of Corruption: Obama and His Team of Tax Cheats, Crooks, and Cronies---this just seven months into the new presidential administration, during its "honeymoon period". Two other 2009 strident bestsellers were Ann Coulter's Guilty: Liberal 'Victims' and Their Assault on America, and Catastrophe, Dick Morris and Ellen McGann's attack on the Obama administration.

In the aftermath of the earlier 2000 – 2002 bear market, the political left and right traded published punches, some of which were below the belt. High-profile attack titles from liberals in 2003 included the number one bestseller Lies and the Lying Liars who Tell Them from Al Franken (now a U.S. Senator), Thieves in High Places: They've Stolen Our Country and Now It's Time to Take It Back by Jim Hightower, and Dude, Where's My Country?  by Michael Moore, which also topped the bestseller list. Moore had another irate bestseller that year with Stupid White Men, as did Molly Ivins and Lou DuBose with Bushwacked.

Conservative Ann Coulter lashed out with Treason: Liberal Treachery From the Civil War to the War on Terrorism. She also had a 2002 bestseller with Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right. Slash-and-burn vilification of political opponents was in high demand, and an angry public was a receptive market for vitriolic prose.

Public figures of all kinds were the target of contempt in early 2009, including sports stars such as baseball player Alex Rodriguez who admitted using steroids six years earlier. In February, Olympic hero Michael Phelps, who won eight gold medals in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, was suspended from competition for three months after pictures surfaced of him smoking marijuana at a party. The same month, former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle was forced to withdraw his nomination as Secretary of Health and Human Services following controversy about his tax records. High profile individuals confront a harsher public environment during periods of negative social mood. Their infractions tend to be ignored or minimized during positive social mood.

The target of greatest loathing during the 2008-2009 bear market was Wall Street itself. In February, 2009 David Segal wrote in the New York Times that Wall Street had become a financial epithet: "Wall Street has become a target of populist rage, raw material for talk-show tirades, the occasional street protest and a lot of punchlines." A retired Wall Street executive said, "I'd almost rather say I'm a pornographer." Anger was prevalent among both the "little guys" and the well-to-do, as seen in a January, 2009 survey of millionaires by a Chicago consulting firm. "More than anything else we saw in focus groups was anger," said the Spectrum Group. "People were really mad."

Negative social mood in 2008-2009 produced bear markets in stocks around the world and prompted international anger and protest. Seven people were injured and one killed at a "financial fools day" rally at the Bank of England April 1, 2009 as angry protesters fought with riot police. In late 2008 rural protests and strikes spread to cities throughout China, a country with a history of suppressing organized dissent and labor movements.

After the Greek stock market fell by two-thirds in 2008 (and even before its sovereign debt crisis), rioting erupted after the fatal shooting of a 15-year-old Athens boy, causing $1.3 billion in damages. The same month, up to 100,000 protesters marched on the Parliament building in the nation of Georgia to demand the resignation of the President. Greece also experienced a resurgence of Golden Dawn, a fascist neo-Nazi political party. Its leader publicly declared it was racist and it was accused of hate crimes against immigrants. 

Canadians were angered and regional tensions inflamed in December, 2008 when the prime minister shut down Parliament for seven weeks to avoid a no-confidence vote. The political opposition then attempted to form a new coalition. "That is as close to treason and sedition as I can imagine," said Bob Dechert, a member of the Prime Minister's party. The same month, a court disbanded Thailand's governing party and barred many of its leaders from politics; four months later hundreds of protesters smashed their way through glass doors at a regional economic summit, causing the Thai hosts to abandon the meeting. Fifteen thousand residents of Kashmir took to the streets in protest against the Indian government in June, 2009.

Angry social mood was evident across the globe during the 2008 – 2009 bear market. This provides a preview of the rage that is likely to erupt during the next major bear market and downturn in social mood.