Ignore Economics, Wreck Everything
Posted September 13, 2022
Every day brings strange new surprises and evidence of odd distortions we have never seen before.
Hitting the headlines today is the helium shortage that was predicted six months ago. It’s coming to fruition. We are talking about birthday party balloons here. Helium is absolutely critical in the production of hard drives. It fuels MRA medical scans.
“Helium has many qualities that make it irreplaceable,” a source explains. “For starters, it’s incredibly light, the smallest molecule (He is smaller than H2), frictionless at specific temperatures, the coldest substance on earth in liquid form, and helium is completely non-reactive. These special characteristics and many more, make helium ideal for cooling, maintaining controlled environments, leak detection, medical practices, and airborne activities including lifting uses in blimps and balloons.”
The question is why? The answer is the same as with every other seemingly random economic dislocation of the past year. It is continuing fallout from supply chain breakage, industrial uncertainty, weakened trade partnerships, falling investments, and general disorientation of the norms of commerce.
Each of the problems today — there are thousands — have precise reasons tracing to intermediate goods and services. For example, the cat food shortage traces to the aluminum shortage and disruption in meat processing. The baby food problem is a result of cartelization in the industry, plus too much regulation, plus tariffs. The solar panel shortage is due to shattered trade networks in China.
In every case, the shortage is accompanied by very high prices. Demand is high, supply is low, and upward price pressure is everywhere in evidence. How can we know which is the most decisive force at work?
Falling Demand, Higher Prices
The best example comes from the current housing market that has commentators all tied up in knots. Is there a huge boom in housing, as many people say, or is there a bust? The truth is that both are happening at the same time. Demand is dropping dramatically as revealed in existing home sales.
At the same time, housing prices are still going up and up.
This seeming contradiction bumps up against all the intuitions we have developed over decades, which traces to a simple supply-demand model. We’ve come to trust that higher prices have something to do with increased quantity demanded, and we thereby have come to expect that markets will properly adjust by incentivizing production. Then the market clears.
This strange behavior is unfamiliar to most market observers because we still have not, and will not for a long time, come to terms with the new reality. Summing it up: the government has devalued the currency. That is still happening at double-digit rates.
It is not inconceivable that this trend will continue for another year or two. By the end, the dollar of 2025 could be worth $0.50, as compared to its 2019 value, making this period perhaps the longest and most severe inflationary bout since the Revolutionary War.
War on Economics
The trouble is that people are nowhere near understanding it. My inbox fills with media requests and others wanting to know why this price is up, why that shortage has appeared, how come things are going missing, and why is it that the dollar can’t buy as much of this or that as it once did. I end up explaining over and over again that inflations do not follow a linear path that we see in an inflation index.
The typical pattern in inflations is for newly printed money to hunt down the latest fashion, whatever it happens to be. Those change constantly, as the paper maneuvers its way around complex economic structures, providing unrelenting surprises and resulting in tremendous disorientation.
George Gilder’s seminal book Wealth and Poverty explained why sound money is the most neglected of all institutions of rising prosperity. We get that wrong and everything else goes kablooey. Commentators are forever looking for some other source of the chaos, whereas in fact, the real underlying cause is about the quality of money itself.
His other seminal book — among so many — is The Spirit of Enterprise. That is the best book ever written on discovery, creativity, and surprise in the unfolding of an entrepreneurially driven commercial society.
His later book on digital economics (Microcosm) shows how technology is the result of human creativity and its striving to leave the limits of physical resources to reveal the real source of wealth in the heart and mind of the human person. His book on information economics (Knowledge and Power) taught me everything I know about the subject.
Gilder’s book Life After Google is a grand vision of what might already have happened had we not experienced the grotesqueries of the last two years. And that speaks directly to his next book, which I feel sure will be the book of the decade:Life After Capitalism.
George is one of the few intellectuals in the U.S. who saw through the disease panic with crystal clarity. He proved why it is that he has made such a huge mark on the world using only his incredibly creative mind, his limitless talent for written expression, and also his near-clairvoyant imagination to know the next thing.
Economics Cannot Be Abolished
Two years ago, anyone who spoke openly about the disaster that was unfolding around us was shouted down. “You are putting money ahead of life,” they screamed as if economics is not about a society of thriving and striving toward a good life. These topics are truly inseparable, and yet there was a plan in place to drive a wedge between the two.
Gilder knew it, and I did too. We were courting disaster, not only as a country but as a civilization. Watching the train wreck unfold in real time was extremely painful, simply because all of it was entirely predictable and predicted. Nothing happening around us today, not even the seeming inexplicable chaos, is really a shock.
Where do we start by finding our way back to sanity? I would suggest reading every single one of Gilder’s books, starting with the latest that is due out in the fall and then going back to the beginning. His literary legacy is truly capable of rebuilding civilization.
I would go further to say that his literature constitutes the best single education in economics, society, culture, and technology that you can get anywhere. I’ll go even further to say that individuals and whole societies ignore his thoughts at their deep peril. His mind is a gift to the thriving social order and we dare not neglect it.
On the Precipice
We really do stand at the precipice. We all find ourselves fighting for our own financial and economic well-being but also confronting stakes that are even higher. Everything we love is in deep danger, including, and especially, freedom itself.
I will end with a tribute to the great George Gilder. He has dedicated his extraordinary life of the mind to revealing truths others somehow could not see. We are vastly better off because of his earnest work for decades.
We await his next book to help us understand the sad chaos of our times, and point the way toward the light. We’ll get there with his help. Thank you so much George Gilder for all you have done. You have helped us see more clearly, panic much less, and kept your brilliance even when everyone around you and whole regimes were losing their minds.