Back in the late 1960's as I was finishing High School I read a lot of books (see BookhouseBoy). I became convinced that hard times were a-coming ... that the US economy couldn't continue to prosper ... that the huge and growing deficit, declining savings rate, mammoth foreign trade imbalance, rising taxes, and sudden divorce of US money from its gold foundation, etc. all added up to a 1930's-style crash at the least. Following advice in tomes such as Harry Browne's How You Can Profit From the Coming Devaluation I sent a thousand dollars or so — a fair fraction of my youthful savings — to a Swiss bank. I used it there as collateral to borrow more money to buy bags of silver coins on margin.

Sounds silly in retrospect, and it was. I got back about half of what I had put in when I gave up in 1971, luckily for me. Silver prices didn't skyrocket, the US dollar didn't collapse, and the governments of the Western World didn't seize private holdings of precious metals.

But the lesson was a good one to learn: be skeptical of articulate, charismatic storytellers. Most critically: beware of futurists who plot exponentially rising curves for carefully-selected parameters. Real-world trends don't persist indefinitely. Geometric growth can't continue.

As Richard Hamming (see ResearchAndLife) and others pointed out long ago, "...a change of a single order of magnitude produces fundamentally new effects in a field." (Introduction to Applied Numerical Analysis, section 1.10). A few doubling times, and you're playing a completely different game. New rules mean new relationships and new patterns. New feedback loops among and within systems will produce new results. (see FifthDisciplinarians)

So disbelieve financial catastrophists when they forecast global monetary meltdown — and disbelieve boom hucksters when they predict glorious global prosperity. Discount ecological catastrophists who fear imminent environmental disaster — and discount their opponents who argue that pollution, ozone layer depletion, greenhouse gases, etc. are sheer fantasy. Raise eyebrows at technophiles who foresee effortless and ever-accelerating scientific/engineering progress — and similarly wrinkle the forehead at technophobes who anticipate network gridlock, uncontrollable bio-nano-info-terrorism, and social infrastructure collapse.

The right attitude:

  • diversify holdings;
  • buy insurance, or self-insure through savings; and
  • plan to change strategy every decade or so.
    Be prepared, in other words, to be surprised — and to recover quickly.

(see MoneyWisdom, OnQuickness, and BennettOnLife)


TopicEconomics - TopicSociety

(correlates: ConFormation, InfiniteInAllDirections, DowTheory, ...)