The Economics of Human Nature

Not much action in the financial markets yesterday. The Dow fell 20 points…completely inconclusive. We don’t know whether the final stage has begun or not. We think it has…but we’re not sure.

The big action was in the bond market, where the US government tied its all-time record by borrowing $25 billion worth of 10-year notes. All in all, the sale went well…but yields rose slightly…to 3.69%. At some point, bond yields will rise decisively to the upside. But whether that has begun or not…we don’t know yet.

Ben Bernanke says he will raise the discount rate “before long.” The inflation numbers are coming in higher than expected. At some point, Mr. Bernanke will have to raise rates to stop inflation. But we suspect that that will not happen any time soon. We have a depression to live through first.

But we strongly suspect that Mr. Bernanke has no idea what he is doing.

In short, we don’t know what will happen or when it will happen. But we’re pretty sure that Mr. Bernanke understands even less than we do. (For reasons we elaborate below…) Still, we’re counting on him to guide us. We just watch what he does…and listen to what he says…and head in the opposite direction!

In the meantime, we are snowed in tight…at least three feet of snow is outside our door.

Washington went from panic to desperation yesterday. The snow came down lightly…but then the wind whipped it up. Local officials ceased road clearing operations when it became ‘too dangerous’ for them to operate. They couldn’t see where they were going or what they were doing.

Local motorists were told to get off the road. This seemed unnecessary, from our point of view, since it was impossible to get on the road…or even to tell where the road was. Still, we were warned to stay off so that emergency vehicles could get by.

Wind gusts up to 60 mph were reported. Power went out for thousands of homes. Then, the power company stopped trying to fix the downed wires. They judged it too dangerous to continue working.

Then, the police too, announced that they could not respond to calls. They might as well have sent out an invitation to criminals: Rob a liquor store; please.

Fortunately, the miscreants were holed up too. Nobody wanted to go out. And those that did risked their lives…at least, that was how the authorities made it sound:

“If your car is stuck, remain in your vehicle. Do not attempt to walk to safety. You may become disoriented by the white-out conditions.”

They were afraid you would fall into a snow bank. Then, when the giant snow-blower came through, your frozen body might damage the machine.

And so the nation’s capital and surrounding suburbs went quiet. No one moved. No one went to work…because there was no work to go to. No one went shopping because there were no shops open. Schools were closed. Edward – who escaped to a friend’s house before the snow began – has the whole week off.

This winter is setting records in the Mid-Atlantic region. Fine by us. Our juice works. We have a gas fire in the living room. And we stocked up a supply of wine that would last us through the apocalypse, if necessary.

We are comfortably snowed in. Warm. Well-fed. Even content.

Our refuge yesterday was marred only by one thing – our own thoughts.

“What about the poor people in hospitals and old-age homes?” asked our mother…88 years old. “People can’t get in to work. Who looks after them?”

“Well, it’s probably time for a little culling,” we joked. “Nature has to assert herself from time to time.”

Of course, mankind is always trying to get the upper hand against nature. In matters to do with science and technology, he has clearly succeeded. His efforts, compounded over generations, make it possible for your editor to enjoy one of the fiercest blizzards to hit this part of the world in 100 years. He is able to watch the snow through his double-paned, insulated glass windows…while drinking a glass of wine that came all the way from South America. He is able to check the financial news from all over the world on his laptop computer…and then pass on his own opinions and thoughts to hundreds of thousands of readers all over the planet.

To nature, man is master. But to human nature he is still a slave.

Ah…dear reader…that is the kind of thought you get in a blizzard… A thought worth having but one that, on a normal day, would have driven by like a Post Office van. But yesterday, it was stuck in a drift…right in front of the house, impossible to ignore.

Yes, dear reader…man makes progress in things he can touch and feel…twist and hammer. He can fashion himself a warm house…and a truck to deliver the newspaper.

But there are many things he can’t get a grip on. Even in the 21st century, despite all the study of domestic relations, he gets along with his spouse no better than Henry VIII got along with his…and he fares no better with his children than Jacob did with his boys.

But wait… You’re probably thinking that this snow is causing your editor to go a little stir-crazy…right? He has a case of cabin fever, maybe…he’s getting pretty far afield from his Daily Reckoning subject matter, right?

Well, you are wrong.

One thing that man cannot get a grip on is central banking. Or, more broadly, economics.

Wait a minute. If he can send a man to the moon he can certainly make some progress in economics, right?

Wrong again!

Economics is not a hard science. It’s a human science. Like psychology or history…it’s an observational science. A decent historian observes what happens and does his best to tell the story faithfully. He is a fool if he thinks he can control it or make it turn out differently. An honest psychologist, also, can sometimes help people understand what they are doing. At the margin, he can even change human behavior – perhaps. But he cannot really change the way people think or feel. Because he cannot change human nature.

Likewise, an economist with a residual trace of dignity and integrity admits that he is only half-capable of describing how people get along in their economic undertakings. At best, he has a dim, vague idea of what is going on. He may even be able to give some good Dutch-uncle advice from time to time. ‘Don’t spend more than you earn,’ he might tell his nephew. Or, ‘a penny saved is a penny earned.’ Or, ‘don’t put all your eggs into one basket.’ That kind of thing. At the margin, this advice might even be helpful.

But never in his wildest delusions does he imagine that he can improve or control an entire economy. In a theoretical sense, this would mean improving human nature…and he knows this is impossible.

Human nature expresses itself in an infinite variety of ways. One man wants to work hard. One wants to spend every penny. One likes gaudy automobiles. Another is afraid it will be a cold winter…he spends all his money stocking up on food and firewood. Who’s right? They all are expressing their own fears, desires, and ideas – through the markets and the economy. Any action an economist takes to improve things necessarily means bending these people away from what THEY want towards what HE thinks they should have. And since prosperity makes no sense outside of the voluntary choices of the people themselves, the meddling economist inevitably makes them poorer. Because his interference shifts time and resources away from what people really want.

The economist is human too. As such, he is prone to human error…and a prisoner of human nature.

The Daily Reckoning