News & Opinion » O'Sullivan


Ignore the economy as best you can, and concentrate on being happy



I hate math. It's so final. Two plus two is always four, and there's no arguing with it. We internalize this around the first grade; it's laid down in our neurons like a basecoat, and no matter how we try to paint over it, it is still there. It can be profoundly depressing.

So even if we ignore the bills piling up, there's a niggling in the back of our brains telling us that we owe $185 on the electric bill, and we shouldn't have bought that car. The payment never goes away! That even if we pay $30 a month on the kid's braces, we're still going to be paying for the next 10 years, or until we die, whatever comes first, and even then, we won't be able to afford the follow-up care. Eventually, the kid's choppers are going to go right back where they were in the first place.

But by then, he'll be worrying about the electric bill. Even though when he looks in the mirror, he may indeed notice something's amiss with his pearly whites, he won't have time to worry about it. He's got to figure out a way to pay his own electric bill.

This is where "denial" comes in. Contrary to popular belief, "denial" is not some crutch for the weak; it's an important survival mechanism. The kid's got to believe he's handsome; otherwise, at the end of the day, when he's done earning money and heads over to the local disco, how's he going to get laid? Two things human beings can't live without are money and sex. We arrange whatever furniture we have in our noggins to facilitate getting them.

But there's something I hate even more than math: economics. Economics has a lot of math in it, but is based on some ethereal concept I can't understand. While mathematics is annoying, it has no substance: Two and two may always be four, but whether it's two apples or two atomic bombs makes no difference. Economics is about numbers manipulating substance. There's nothing absolute or concrete about economics. Loads of eggheads try to say there is, but there isn't.

Suppose my house is made of wood, which it isn't. It's made of drywall and concrete, metal, plastic and a bunch of equally ungodly crap, but let's just say it's made of wood. Suppose when the house was built, one plank of wood cost 10 cents. In order to figure out the worth of the wood in the house, you'd multiply 10 cents by the number of planks of wood. Then you'd do the same with the other materials, along with the labor. You come up with some number. Maybe the number is $30,000. After that, you layer on the profit the builder wants, the profit the marketers who sell the house want, and a whole bunch of intangibles like "charm," favorable location, the likelihood of sinkholes developing beneath it, etc. Eventually, the house is worth "something."

But "something" changes over time. If the planks are made of wood that's no longer available, maybe the value of the house goes up. Suppose the neighborhood fills with high-achieving yuppies or angry hillbillies. The value of the house goes up or down. There's no real value to a house. Its worth is based on factors that are infinitely variable, and I'm not using the word loosely. "Infinite" is not the same as "a bunch." The house may indeed be built on a sinkhole, but when it plummets 30 feet, it may land on buried treasure. Maybe a strongbox full of cash secreted during the last "economic downturn."

I don't know how you do mathematics based on infinite variables. Neither does anyone else. The difference between the movers and shakers who precipitated the most recent economic catastrophe and the rest of us is that they figured out not only how to exploit this fact, but were sociopathic enough to do it.

My feeling is that to survive this economy, we have to exploit this fact, too. If economics lacks an absolute reality, then excessive fear is as irrational as excessive optimism. It's not that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—there's plenty to fear, and to do so is entirely rational. But given the facts, it makes as much sense as anything else to live reasonably, take care of our needs, and strive to be happy.

Comments (3)

Showing 1-3 of 3

Add a comment

Add a comment