Monday, August 8, 2011

Irrational Expectations

Of all the irrational things we do and expect on a regular basis, and there are many, one just keeps on popping up again and again on blogs I read and in the comment sections. The thing is, I think I may be the only one who sees it as irrational. Ive never seen anyone else comment on it nor has anyone ever responded positively to my comment/question when I make it. I think it is because it involves questioning that thing which everyone just takes for granted and never questions. Its never even entered their mind to question it. Its the idea of interest on saving. Saving, it seems to many, is what defines a rational/good/responsible person. "Save some for tomorrow". "Dont use it all up today". "You dont know what tomorrow brings". These are all true/rational statements. So where is it I take issue? Not with the act of saving itself, because I save plenty, but with the idea that MY saving is necessary and as a result I should be paid handsomely for my saving. In fact, it seems to be posited by all, when I save (an act which helps me) I should be rewarded with not only access to the level of present consumption I decided not to do, but I should have the opportunity for MORE consumption later. And if that condition doesnt exist when I decide at a future date of my choosing? I get to curse our government (they are always to blame) and cry INFLATION INFLATION!! I find the whole exercise quite odd and I hope to show that its quite irrational.

Much of the discussions on econ blogs involves terms like nominal, real, medium of exchange, unit of account, credits, debits, interest and of course the big two.......inflation/deflation. All these terms refer to different accounting variables changing in relation to one another and of course accounting is how we keep track of, keep score FOR, money. Thats all accounting is. These numbers are supposed to represent real economic variables (real being sweat and atoms, ala Winterspeak) but often these numbers take on lives of their own and lose relation to real stuff. I want to argue that removing money and simply looking at real economic factors makes interest irrational, at least the levels that many people seem to think they should earn. Interest and by extension, I believe, extreme variations in wealth would be impossible in a barter world. Except by outright use of force, fraud or theft (Yes I know that probably explains the situation in our monetary world as well but........)

The most common place this idea comes to the forefront is in discussions of our public debt levels and the machinations of our federal reserve. People are concerned today that our low long term interest rates are punishing savers, exposing them to the woes of inflation, as our govt prints cheap money and makes their previously saved dollar worth less and less. Ignoring, for the purposes of this post, the whole flawed notion that most people have about exactly WHAT govt debt represents for the private sector (an asset or a liability), I want to just address the whole notion that someone should EVER expect their buying power to stay the same for a 10, 20 or 30 year period. Just exactly what does everyone else need to do in order for you to keep your buying power intact for three decades? Think about it. Today you have extra money and instead of buying 20 loaves of bread you buy 2 and save the money. Now you will likely be able to buy two loaves of bread a week for the next nine weeks, as the loaf of bread rarely changes prices significantly over 10 weeks, but if you keep that money for 5 years why should you expect that you could still buy 18 more loaves of bread with that money. If you can great, but why does the rest of the system have to operate in such a way as to guarantee it. And if the system doesnt do so, why is the system flawed? Now there are things that you might be able to do with that money to facilitate the likelihood of such a market price for bread. You could invest in technologies which make the harvesting of wheat more efficient or technologies which make the seeds grow more wheat per acre but if you dont, you have no gripe. This same discussion can apply to every product which you decided not to buy and instead saved your money.

Now, according to orthodox economists this is exactly what savers do. They put there money in places where the professionals make these decisions to keep the progress of capitalism moving, protecting the buying power of your dollar. Trouble is this isnt really true. Most of what we call investing is simply buying an already created commodity like a stock, or gold and waiting to find another sucker to buy it later at a higher price. This is the sole purpose of "investing" for most of us and this mindset is perpetuated if not outright demanded by the "professionals" who manage our money these days. Its simply gambling, waiting for the odds to move in your favor and then catch some poor sap in a losing position. Now of course in a world where people are only gambling their own money every winner is off set by a loser, its a zero sum game. But today we have large investment banks gambling OTHER peoples money where they stand to lose nothing (govt backing) and the others lose everything. Its not like your friendly high stakes poker game at all.

So lets remove the money and see what a saver is really doing and really expecting. A saver is simply deciding to only consume what they need right now and putting some aside for tomorrow. If they needed it they wouldn't save it. So how is it so noble to make the rational decision to only consume what you need? If they are lucky enough to have way more than they need what can they do? They either put it aside and use it before it spoils, deteriorates or is somehow not in the same condition it started and therefore not of the same utility or they find someone else who might can use it. Now if they have that someone else maybe they trade but there is never a guarantee that there will be someone else needing what you have extra of. But lets say you find someone who has none of what you have and would like some but they have nothing you need or want. What to do? You can invest in him and let him have it and work with him to help him return something to you. Your investment requires work on your part and your return is commensurate with the effort you put in to your investment. If you just say "here" and walk away you've given him something but you should not expect anything in return other than an in kind gift. No interest. If you would like some real returns down the road say one, two or five years ahead, you need to do something to bring that to fruition. Investment is an effort not a passive activity.

I remember being taught the "Rule of 72" a number of years back. The rule took the interest rate divided it into 72 and came up with the doubling period for your investment. 7.2% doubled every 10 years. 3% doubled every 24 years. Now of course this was just "nominal" doubling. This didnt necessarily reflect twice as much real stuff being created and that is the point. How could we ever set up, endorse, encourage and continue to genuflect towards a system which says it can double in size in every 10 and 20 years....... forever!? Is this not madness? Is it not being designed to fail? We could never have these expectations in the absence of money. In the absence of an abstraction which purports to represent real activity but in truth is becoming totally detached from real activity.

In the previous example of loaves of bread. Would it be rational for someone to lend a loaf of bread to someone and expect 2 in ten years? Maybe. Could everyone expect that? No. Especially not into perpetuity. If you wait 20 years you would expect 4. 30 years you would expect 8. It becomes obvious using real stuff that these interest returns are irrational expectations.

So if there is something you want, get it now. Dont save the money and expect to be able to get IT or its equivalent in 5 or 10 years, not unless you make an active effort yourself to try and ensure such a thing. Its like the girl you had the opportunity to marry when she was 21 beautiful and wanting to marry you. At 30 she may be fatter, she may have let her complexion go OR she may be more beautiful than ever but love someone else now.

Save when you dont need everything you have but dont expect the rest of the world to make sure you can get what you want later. It dont work that way

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