Most Americans aren’t very good with numbers, and the hucksters and charlatans of the world sure do take advantage of that. Among the chief hucksters and charlatans are the politicians, and circulating around their camps are the economists. I don’t trust economists for the simple reason that they use numbers to fool people, rather than determine the truth.
By training, I am a professional navigator. That includes a bit of math, a bit of astronomy, a bit of meteorology, and a lot of practice. Navigators today don’t have to sweat the stuff that we used to have to sweat. The first time I made landfall on Japan, as an apprentice in 1969, we weren’t really sure where we were until we got a radar return from the coast. Navigators who learned under those conditions learned a very high respect for blunt truth in observation and calculation, and the consequences of, shall we say, “supplementing” the truth.
Here is a brief history of mathematics, science, and economics. The first thing that people had to figure out was when to start migrating north for the summer or south for the winter. A bright fellow noticed that during the year, the sun would rise and set progressively farther to the right (or left), until it rose or set as far to the right (or left) as it was going to get, and then start back the other way. And that if he noted which way the sun was moving, and how far along it was, he could predict when to start the migration. His predictions proved accurate and reliable, and the people came to trust him.
Time passed, and people discovered how to grow crops on purpose. But they needed to know when to plant their seeds. So now, instead of guiding the migration to new hunting grounds, this fellow determined when to plant the seeds. And his predictions proved accurate and reliable, and the people came to trust him even more.
So now the people sought fertile land, by the river, and the crops flourished. But every year the river flooded, so the people needed a way to figure out where their borders were after the river went down. So they went to the fellow who had been telling them when to plant their crops, because they trusted him, and he scratched his head. But he went to work on this new problem, and he invented geometry, and his answers were accurate and reliable, and the people came to trust him even more.
So civilization continued to progress, and then they sailed across the ocean, and then they built a bridge, and at each step, the fellow’s descendants solved the problems of civilization, and they used algebra and trigonometry and calculus and did their work with instruments and numbers. And the instruments and numbers gave the right answer so reliably that when they didn’t, when a bridge collapsed or a locomotive exploded, everyone was astonished and the person who made the mistake never got to build another bridge or locomotive.
So finally, when all the really important problems were solved and people had nothing else to do, they started wondering why some countries and some people were prosperous, and others weren’t. And the people who studied the economy were called economists, and they thought and pondered and discussed, and when they thought they understood what was going on, they wrote about it. But they didn’t dare use numbers, because they knew that they couldn’t possibly use numbers to describe something as huge and fuzzy as an economy.
But as the general population themselves became worse and worse with numbers, their respect for numbers (and anything expressed in numbers as fact) grew. So the “economists” realized that if they wanted to be taken seriously, they needed to sprinkle some numbers on their work. So they concocted some fantastic arithmetical constructs that superficially looked like something from science or engineering. Like so:
Now that looks like something that would give an answer as dependable as a prediction of the strength of a bridge or the power of a locomotive. But of course, it’s not. If a navigator placed the safety of her ship and crew at risk on the basis of such indeterminate information, they would deserve to be sent ashore for good, if they should somehow manage to reach port.
So the economist says “GDP grew by a miserable 1.7% in the second quarter, blah, blah, blah” and everyone listens. Then, later, we have to revise the actual growth figure for the second quarter. And then we don’t know what the number really was, and we probably never will. But that doesn’t matter because it’s irrelevant. The real problem is that even if we knew exactly what the GDP was, we still wouldn’t know what it means. But because the “economists” express their theories with such certainty, and so neatly package in numbers, we nod our heads and act as though we’ve learned something. And of course the “economists”, being as jealous of their position in society as anyone, are in no rush to explain to us that their supposed facts and alleged figure actually do nothing else but conceal the underlying truth that beyond the most basic principles understood for centuries, today’s economists have no more idea what is going on in the economy than an astrologer understands celestial mechanics.
So other than tie themselves into burlap bags with a big rock and throw themselves into the ocean, what should “economists” do? They should think, they should examine, they should ask questions, they should debate with each other, and when they think they have an explanation of why the economy is so bad, they should write it in an article, with no numbers or symbols or equations. Just an explanation, like Adam Smith would have written, of what’s happening and why.
I am so glad I got that off my chest. Thanks for reading. And may God continue to bless America!