The Humbug Promise of Modern Life

by Bill Bonner

Two Swiss economists took it upon themselves to study how professionals charge for their services. They were interested in how doctors and mechanics, for example, earned their money. These pros have a unique advantage over other service providers. Their clients think they need something from them, but they don’t know what it is. Not surprisingly, a mechanic who specializes in exhaust systems will find they need a new muffler. A doctor who operates on the brain will tend to want to open up their crania.Not surprisingly, too, the better informed the client, the less the intervention. Doctors, for example, went under the knife less often than other patients. And lawyers’ wives had the fewest hysterectomies.

Doctors, mechanics – and to some extent, stockbrokers – offer what economists refer to as “credence goods,” or faith-based services. The client trusts the service provider to tell him what he needs. The less he knows about the subject, the more he tends to “need” (The article in the Economist did not say so, but we will venture a guess:he will “need” even more if the costs are borne by someone else.).

A lumpenamerican believes his needs are as endless as his faith. Dollars? Give him more! Defense? He can’t get enough of it. Education? “The more you get, the better off you are,” he says. Heath care? He actually believes that the more he consumes the products of the health care industry, the healthier he will be. He must think that the Creator made him with defects – which would only be corrected by the intervention of the 21st health care establishment.

Maybe his sawbones and pill pushers could improve on millions of years of evolutionary development. That is the humbug promise of modern life…of all the world improvers…of technology and democracy, isn’t it? That a pill will make us healthier than nature intended…that a surgeon will make us handsomer…that a big screen TV will make us happier than a little one…that Wall Street can make us richer…that universities can make us smarter…and the Pentagon will make us safer?

Who wouldn’t believe it? And yet, the gods must laugh. For in every industry and every business – in every life – they’ve already planted the weeds of corruption, creeping into every little crack and cranny, silently invading every empty space until the promises are choked off. The pills make us sick. The big screen bores us. The surgeon makes us look like a clown, a fool or a ghost. We spend years in school and know less than when we went in. The central bank that was supposed to protect our money destroys it, and the government that is supposed to protect us ends up turning the whole world against us.

We don’t know what the average man thinks, but we have thoughts of our own. We wonder what portion of the billions and billions of dollars spent on health care actually make people healthier? After the billions spent on lawyers, administrators, insurance agents, form processors, meetings, drug mongering, edifices, unnecessary lawyer-proofing procedures, regulatory chicanery and incompetence, puerile testing, patching up the reckless and the criminal in emergency wards. After giving medical umbrellas to people without the sense to come in out of the rain, and trying to keep St. Peter at bay for days, weeks or years with life-support systems and death-defying medical stunts – how much is left? Not much. That is our guess.

Health care – like education, hangings, paper money, pornography, and democracy – reaches its point of diminishing returns quickly. Too much, and you are going backwards.