Prophet of Doom

In 1976, economist Herbert Stein, father of Ben Stein, the economics professor in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, observed that U.S. government debt was on an unsustainable trajectory.  He, thus, established Stein’s Law:

 

“If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”

 

Herbert Stein, looking worried about the budget deficit. [PT]

 

Stein may have been right in theory.  Yet the unsustainable trend of U.S. government debt outlasted his life.  Herbert Stein died in 1999, several decades before the crackup.  Those reading this may not be so lucky.

Sometimes the end of the world comes and goes, while some of us are still here.  We believe our present episode of debt, deficits, and state sponsored economic destruction, is one of these times.

We will have more on this in just a moment.  But first, let us peer back several hundred years. There we find context, edification, and instruction.

In 1696, William Whiston, a protégé of Isaac Newton, wrote a book. It had the grandiose title, “A New Theory of the Earth from its Original to the Consummation of all Things.”  In it he proclaimed, among other things, that the global flood of Noah had been caused by a comet.

 

William Whiston, reading from his doom by comet scroll. [PT]

 

Mr. Whiston took his book very seriously. The good people of London took it very seriously too. Perhaps it was Whiston’s conviction. Or his great fear of comets.  But, for whatever reason, it never occurred to Londoners that he was a Category 5 quack.

Like Neil Ferguson, and his mathematical biology cohorts at Imperial College, London, Whiston’s research filled a void.  Much like today’s epidemiological models, the science was bunk. Nonetheless, the results supplied prophecies of the apocalypse to meet a growing demand.

It was just a matter of time before Whiston’s research would cause trouble…

 

Judgement Day

In 1736, William Whiston crunched some data and made some calculations. He projected these calculations out and saw the future.  And what he witnessed scared him mad.

He barked. He ranted. He foamed at the mouth to anyone who would listen.  Pretty soon he had stirred up his neighbors with a prophecy that the world would be destroyed on October 13th of that year when a comet would collide with the earth.

Jonathan Swift, in his work, “A True and Faithful Narrative of What Passed in London on a Rumour of the Day of Judgment,” quoted Whiston:

 

“Friends and fellow-citizens, all speculative science is at an end: the period of all things is at hand; on Friday next this world shall be no more.  Put not your confidence in me, brethren; for tomorrow morning, five minutes after five, the truth will be evident; in that instant the comet shall appear, of which I have heretofore warned you.  As ye have heard, believe.  Go hence, and prepare your wives, your families, and friends, for the universal change.”

 

13th October 1736, according to William Whiston. Today he would be a “climate scientist”.  [PT]

 

Clergymen assembled to offer prayers. Churches filled to capacity.  Rich and paupers alike feared their judgment.  Lawyers worried about their fate.  Judges were relieved they were no longer lawyers.  Teetotalers got smashed.  Drunks got sober.  Bankers forgave their debtors. Criminals, to be executed, expressed joy.

The wealthy gave their money to beggars. Beggars gave it back to the wealthy.  Several rich and powerful gave large donations to the church; no doubt, reserving first class tickets to heaven.  Many ladies confessed to their husbands that one or more of their children were bastards.  Husbands married their mistresses.  And on and on…

The Archbishop of Canterbury, William Wake, had to officially deny this prediction to ease the public consternation.  But it did little good.  Crowds gathered at Islington, Hampstead, and the surrounding fields, to witness the destruction of London, which was deemed the “beginning of the end.”

Then, just like Whiston said, a comet appeared. Prayers were made. Deathbed confessions were shared. And at the moment of maximum fear, something remarkable happened: the world didn’t end.

The comet did not collide with earth.  It was merely a near miss.

 

In The Long Run We Are All Alive

The experience of Whiston, and his pseudoscience prophecy, shows that predictions of the end of the world come and go while people still remain.  Sometimes the fallout of these predictions, and the foolishness they provoke, is limited.  Other times the foolishness they provoke leads to catastrophe.  Here is what we mean…

In the long run we are all dead,” said 20th Century economist and Fabian socialist, John Maynard Keynes.  This was Keynes rationale for why governments should borrow from the future to fund economic growth today.

 

Keynes holding his book. Many people believe that “counter-cyclical stimulus” is a sensible policy. It isn’t any more sensible than pro-cyclical stimulus would be. All these interventions disturb the smooth functioning of the market economy and end up wasting scarce resources. As a rule, only political cronies stand to benefit. And yes, we are definitely not “all dead in the long run”. [PT]

 

Of course, politicians love an academic theory that gives them cover to intervene in the economy.  This is especially so when it justifies spending other people’s money to buy votes.  Keynesian economics, and in particular, counter-cyclical stimulus, does just that.

U.S. politicians have attempted to borrow and spend the nation to prosperity for the last 80 years.  Over the past decade, the Federal Reserve has aggressively printed money to fund Washington’s epic borrowing binge. Just yesterday, for example, Fed Chair Jay Powell confirmed that the Fed will pursue policies of dollar destruction to, somehow, print new jobs.

The world as it was once known – where a dollar was as good as gold – has come and gone.  Today, in life after the end of that world, we are witnessing the illusion of wealth, erected by four generations of borrowing and spending, crumble before our eyes.

Moreover, contrary to Keynes, in the long run we are not all dead. In fact, in the long run we are all very much alive.  And we are all living with the compounding consequences of shortsighted economic policies.

 

Image captions by PT

 

MN Gordon is President and Founder of Direct Expressions LLC, an independent publishing company. He is the Editorial Director and Publisher of the Economic Prism – an E-Newsletter that tries to bring clarity to the muddy waters of economic policy and discusses interesting investment opportunities.

 

 

 

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6 Responses to “In The Long Run We Are All Alive”

  • TheLege:

    I’m sure utopia cowboy will be along any minute to avail us of a warning that gold will plunge below $1,000.

    Because …King Dollar.

    • utopiacowboy:

      Lol now that you mention it, the USD has strengthened this week and gold is in the toilet. As bad as things are (and they are terrible) gold can’t get a bid. Gold at $1000 or gold at $10,000? Which is more likely?

      • RedQueenRace:

        Lol. Gold is still above its previous all-time high but it is “in the toilet.”

        Are you still a definite buyer at $1300? Or did you ask your magic 8-ball again and get $1000 or so this time?

        FWIW, I am currently short via GLL. But only as a trade because of gold’s previously highly overbought condition which I think needs a bigger correction. I closed 1/3 of the short profitably on the first hard drop and am up a stunning $1.95 on the rest as of this post.

        Unless we enter hyperinflation gold is not going to go straight up. It will go up and down but over the long run it will trend up. While the Fed’s balance sheet hasn’t done much over the past few months $1000 seems pretty unlikely without a sizable contraction of it. We saw what happened the last time they tried to shrink it and with ever expanding federal deficits continued expansion looks to be the way to bet.

        P.S. Just checked again. My GLL position is now up $2.70. Warren who?

      • TheLege:

        I see. So I should sell at $1,940?

        (In order to buy back in at $1,000)

  • Wombat:

    Oh yes good stuff.
    This is my thought….if ever there was a country heading into the 3rd world it is the good old US of A.
    I say that because it is doing all the things that 3rd world countries do.
    Its a shame really because I quite like the place.

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