Thursday, August 12, 2010


Harry Truman was reported to have once said “You can line up ten economists end to end on the floor and you’d never come up with a straight line.” He was almost certainly right.

Since I retired a few years ago I’ve done a bit of dabbling in economics, principally to amuse myself as I amble off into the sunset. I’ve read the classics from Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” to Marx’s “Das Kapital,” with a bit of Hayek, Friedman, Pipes, DeSoto, DeSouza, and Higgs sprinkled in. I’ll admit my bias. Adam Smith and the free market capitalists make sense to me. Marx? I got about half way through “Das Kapital” and decided to ship it off, free of charge, to some east coast Marxist who could make better use of it.

This past May I decided to tackle John Maynard Keynes’ “General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.” It’s now August. I’ve made it as far as chapter 10, “The Marginal Propensity to Consume and the Multiplier.”

Theoretically, I should like what I’m reading. Granted, I’m only an eavesdropper, but I think I’ve read enough to understand that (1) We’re all going to die (2) Thrift is bad (3) Consumption is good (4) Consumption is all the better if you can get government to pry the loot from the hands, bank accounts, and investment portfolios of the rich, their children, grand-children, and great grand-children and give it to guys like me right now so that we can consume like drunken sailors.

What’s not to like about that? It may not make sense, but it doesn’t have to. The notion of enshrining inter-class and inter-generational theft may not be an honest way to spend five shillings, as economist Paul Samuelson once put it. But, as he also said, it’s “pure genius.”

It’s no wonder politicians have become such skilled practitioners of the pickpocket’s art. They’re geniuses too. They can appropriate money they haven’t earned, from people who have. And what are they doing with the money? They’re creating a totally dependent class of citizens and an army of government bureaucrats that would be the envy of Genghis Khan’s pillaging hordes.

For the past 10 years this has been a very bi-partisan effort. George Bush, a closet Keynesian, gave us trillions in debt and deficits. Barrack Obama, a full bore Keynesian, has set the pedal to the metal. We now have fourteen trillion in debt and if the Congressional Budget Office is right we’ll add another eight trillion by the end of the decade. And you and me? We’re just along for the ride in the back seat, with the geniuses at the wheel. It may look to us like we’re careening down the edge of a cliff with no brakes and no clutch, but they know better. We may be scared out of our wits, but they’ve got the cure. “Just shut up and take a slug of the Sneaky Pete. Everything’s gonna’ be fine.”

The alternative to this is austerity and smaller government, which was just voted in by the British. As I write, British Prime Minister David Cameron is slashing and burning like a wild man. His task, as he sees it, is to drastically reduce the size and power of government that has “turned able, capable individuals into passive recipients of state help.” Now I ask you. How much fun is that? It seems downright uncivilized.

Is it really a good idea to have “experts” at the helm when you’re trying to navigate your way between disaster and catastrophe? I remember a young student from my days in grad school. He was absolutely brilliant, theology’s equivalent of Keynes. It was widely accepted that he could manipulate the Almighty like a child playing with Silly Putty. There was a word - eschatology - he became quite enamored of and he managed to squeeze it into every sentence he uttered. One day it might be the “consequent eschatology of Schweitzer.” On another it might be “eschatological developments and the social milieu.” I once asked him how he would explain what he was saying to a cab driver. He looked at me, nonplussed, and said “Cab drivers aren’t worthy of this.” I suspect many of his parishioners, if he ever had any, have long since been devoured by Scylla or sucked down the vortex by Charybdis.

Given the fun I’ve had to this point, I can hardly wait to get to Keynes’ chapter 24 – “Concluding Notes on the Social Philosophy Towards Which the General Theory Might Lead.” As I look out the windshield I think I know we’re it’s heading and I want to scream, “We’re going off the cliff; we’re gonna’ crash and burn!” But I’m no expert. Maybe I’d better take another slug of the Sneaky Pete to dull the oncoming pain.

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