I’ve never won a Nobel Prize. I’ve never won any prize, come to think of it, except a banjo contest, once, in the late 70’s. Winning a local banjo contest and being a Nobel Laureate in Economics are hardly the same. I am thankful for that. Playing a banjo requires considerably more skill than being an economist, which, remarkably, despite years of advanced academic training, really requires none at all.
From Adam Smith, through Marx, on to Hayek, Keynes, Galbraith, and Friedman, Krugman, and amplified and dissected by Volcker, then Greenspan, and now Bernanke, there are as many academic and studied economic opinions as there are economists. This is not a new development. Many of these economists have about as much influence over the economy as banjo players, and aren’t nearly as fun to listen to. Many of them have not learned that when the experts can differ by 180 degrees, any opinion in between the two extremes cannot be reasonably discounted. It is so with all human sciences.
Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman has made it clear that in his Nobel Laureate opinion, Mitt Romney told “flat-out untruths” (meaning he lied) during last week’s debate as compared to President Obama’s “minor fudges.” (meaning he also lied.) The distinction the esteemed economist noted was one only of degree, not substance. Ultimately, it is not even one of degree, because unlike brilliant economists, who, perhaps, dealing in only multiple and varied shades of gray according to their own economic outlook and purposes apparently are unable to discern that a lie is a lie. Simply put, if it is not true then it is a lie.
It is easy for an economist to say, when the lie or untruth suits his purposes, that it is only a minor fudge. This is similar to a banjo player cranking out several musical clams, who then plays the same clams a second time, as if to persuade his audience he meant to play it that way BOTH times. If one says it long and loud enough, it must be the truth.
Besides, how could a Nobel Laureate also be a liar? Oops, remember Nobel Laureate Barack Obama and his “minor fudges”? Perhaps a Nobel Laureate can lie after all, or at least, “minor fudge”.
Economists love to point out the shortcomings of the earlier economists, as if the ancient Adam Smith knew less than modern economists. When did money change? Why is money different now than when Adam Smith studied money and the economics of men?
Perhaps it is because “modern” economists have new, academic, educated names for the debasement of the currency. Understandably, the people who control the currency (governments) took control of it thousands of years ago because ity was too easy to debase in private, corporate hands. Governments, knowing how precious and dear being able to control the currency was, kept this privilege to themselves so they could debase it for their own purposes. Borrow money now, debase the currency at will, and repay your debt with debased currency . . . THEN, declare the old money no good, and make some new money.
When Macro-economists meet up with micro-economists, and they both encounter laissez-faire economists and supply-side economists, several and each of which may be Nobel Laureates, you have an academic-super-educated bunch of hogwash that likely could not generate enough market capital and experience to run a peanut stand successfully without government subsistence; though they would be very successful at acquiring the government subsistence. Pretty soon, with government grants, price-supports, tariffs on imported peanuts, credits for usage of green-energy fuels for peanut boiling and parching, lobbying for penalties to be imposed on those who prepare their peanuts in a less-green, less-healthy way, and credits for Delta Airlines to restore serving peanuts to their passengers in exchange for purchasing them exclusively from the Academic-Economist Experimental Peanut Company, soon you’d have a multi-billion dollar business, employing thousands of people, having an economic impact on hundreds of thousands, and all of this being done with government money.
I walked into the doorway of the Academic-Economist Experimental Peanut Company in the mall. Several people desperately rushed to greet me, about like the number that attack you when you walk into a Best-Buy Store. I felt somewhat threatened by their aggressiveness. After a bit of a struggle, the uniformly clothed sales persons all gave way to the one who was willing to use his fists and elbows more freely than the others, who then skulked away, lurking for the first sign of fresh meat. I had been selected by Employee #161357 who emerged from the fracas, and by golly, I would be served.
“Did you come in today expecting to make a peanut purchase, or were you just browsing?” Employee #161357 asked me, using the Alternative Advance Close, as if he thought he was the only one to be aware of such sales tactics.
“Browsing??? I came in to buy a bag of peanuts,” I said.
He was nearly jumping up and down for joy, all over a bag of peanuts. He asked, “Did you want parched or boiled?”
“Spanish, Georgia, Canary Island, Nicaraguan shade-grown, or Texas-Jumbos?” He asked.
“Hmmmm! I don’t rightly know? I hadn’t thought about it, really,” I replied.
“We’ve got them all in plain, salted, Cracked Dead-Sea Salt, honey roasted, in the shell, out of the shell, Cajun-spiced, cheese coated, Spumante-soaked, Bourbon-infused, hemp-tonic soaked, buttered, pre-digested (for those with no teeth), Ranch, Thousand Island, Vinaigrette, Cinnamon and sugar, under parched, medium parched, and dark parched, Shake-and-Baked, Tabasco-soaked, Habanero-soaked, whip-cream and chocolate shave topped, chocolate coated, gummi bear coated, and pureed almond-flavored,” he said.
“I just want a bag of plain parched peanuts,” I said, wondering why anyone would want almond flavored peanuts; why wouldn’t they just buy almonds, instead?
“In shell or pre-shelled,” he asked.
“In the shell. Just a bag of plain parched peanuts.”
“Small, medium, large, super-size, Texas-size, or the weekly delivery program,” he asked, all the while putting down information on a computer screen as fast as he could type.
“I suppose a small would be fine,” I said, wishing we could get on with it.
“The Texas-Size is only 75% more than the small, and you can get weekly delivery for only $115,00 per month. Would you prefer early in the week deliveries, or weekend deliveries,” he said, using that alternative advance again.
“Damn, son. I just want a bag of parched peanuts,” I don’t want a program of parched peanuts that requires a second mortgage.”
The joke was wasted on him. “Oh! No, sir. You won’t need a mortgage. If you sign up for our Academic-Economist Experimental Peanut Company Visa card, you get an immediate 20% discount on today’s purchase and free shipping on your weekend deliveries of your favorite peanuts, or would you rather have our peanut sampler program instead. Here’s the credit card application. I’ll get the paperwork started here, just as soon as you the forms completed.”
I looked at the papers he handed me. I looked at him right in the eye. All I wanted was a bag of parched peanuts. I declined to say anything else to Employee #161357. I laid the papers on the counter and began heading to the door. As I did, all the other employees, seeing me leave the presence of the protesting Employee #161357 and head towards the door immediately awakened from their skulk and failed to recognize that I was leaving the store without making a purchase, they just knew that I was no longer being engaged by Employee #161357. All at once Academic-Economist Experimental Peanut Company Employees #138225, #100517, #93675, and #32287, began fighting each other madly trying to reach me, as Employee #161357 joined in the melee.
As I watched the mass of flying fists and pulled hair, the forms, the sale papers, the coupons, and everything roiling towards me, I pulled out the cheap, four-barreled, Italian-made .22 pistol I keep in my pocket. I pointed it directly at the mob. This seemed to calm them down a bit, though I rather feared that I needed silver bullets in the .22 rather than the hollow-points I knew to be in there.
“But where are you going?” cried Employee #161357 in anguish.
“I’m going to buy me some peanuts,” I said, waving the four-barreled .22 at the mass of human sales-flesh.
“But you can get them right here,” wailed Employee #161357 as he disappeared back into the frenzy of peanut salespeople, drawn like a dust bunny into a vacuum cleaner.
I walked out the door without saying another word. I tucked the pistol away in my pocket. It was not the first time it had helped me escape pesky, over-zealous salespeople. I hopped in my truck and sped away, far away, in any direction, in every direction, not wanting to think about peanuts, credit-card forms, or decisions, decisions, decisions . . . one should not have to make decisions when buying a bag of peanuts beyond “parched” or “boiled.”
As I drove along, I passed a country crossroads. There in the shade of a home-made tent attached to a rust-over-faded-red-and-white ‘72 Chevrolet pick-up truck was an unshaven, somewhat unkempt man, leaned back in an old aluminum lounge chair, you know, the kind with webbing on them like they used to make. He had a banjo in his hands and a sign out front that said, “Fresh Peanuts – Parched or Boiled.” I slammed on brakes and whipped in.
As I got out of the truck, I could hear the sound of Keep Your Skillet Good and Greasy coming from his claw-hammered banjo. He kept on frailing away as I approached. I stood there and listened a minute. When he was satisfied that he was through he stopped playing, looked me up and down cautiously, and said, “Howdy.”
“Hello,” I said back. “How much are your peanuts?”
“Two dollars a bag.”
“Two dollars a bag!” I exclaimed, thinking that was a bit high.
He didn’t change his expression one bit. He simply said, “They are good peanuts.”
“Two dollars for parched, or is boiled a different price?”
“Either one,” he said.
“Do you use Cracked Dead-Sea Salt on you boiled peanuts?” I asked.
He looked at me curiously, as if I may have landed in a UFO and been from another planet. “Nope. Just plain old salt. Not even iodized.”
“Do you sell them on credit?” I asked.
He laughed out loud. “Mister, if you don’t have two dollars, why’d you stop? Nobody needs a bag of peanuts; they want a bag of peanuts. And if you want a bag of peanuts here, they cost two dollars. And as far as credit goes, if you don’t have two dollars, I’ll reckon I can give you a bag of peanuts if you just have to have them.”
“I’ll take a bag of each,” I said, handing him a five dollar bill. He gave me the peanuts and my dollar change and wrapped that five dollar bill into a wad of cash as big as a camel’s cud. I asked him to play me another tune on the banjo, and he started a jubilant rendition of Soldier’s Joy. I stood there listening while I ate my parched peanuts, saving the boiled ones for later.
When he finished the tune, I asked him, “How long have you sold peanuts here?”
“Almost five years on this corner, five days a week, rain or shine,” he said.
“If you don’t mind, will you tell me what you did before you got into the peanut business?”
“After getting my undergraduate and masters in economics at Emory, I got my Ph.D. at Penn, became a bond and derivatives trader for Goldman Sachs, left there to become under-secretary of the Treasury during the second term of the Bush administration, then left to teach economics at Brown. I got tired of all that, came back home, and have been happily engaged in the peanut business right here in Froward County, Mississippi, since.”
“Wow! What a resume! What made you leave the academic world to come here and sell peanuts of all things?” I asked, once again realizing that there was frequently more than meets the eye in seemingly ordinary, everyday people.
“I left on a bet,” he said.
“Yep. The other professors I served with on focus groups from various universities said I had no grasp of the macro-economic picture and the advantages of a centrally planned economy. One of them, who had never been in business of any sort made the statement that he doubted I was as capable in business as a banjo-playing peanut salesman. We made a bet, so, here I am.”
I pondered this for a minute or two. He watched me closely as I pondered. “What was the bet, if you don’t mind telling me?”
“If I lose, he gets nothing. If I win, he gets a bag of peanuts every week for as long as I stay in business. I’ve sent that bag of peanuts every week for the last five years. I send it to his attention in care of the Dean of the Department of International Economics at the school where he teaches. It rubs them all the wrong way to see those peanuts, but they gloat because they think I am a loser,” he said, sadly. Though he seemed sad, I could tell that this sadness was not for himself, but for others whom he had once held dear and admired and perhaps lost along the way or perhaps they lost themselves. I wondered about it.
“What do you get if you win?” I asked.
“I get to stay here and sell peanuts. You’d be surprised how many peanuts you can sell right here in Froward County,” he said with a wink.
“But this is a long way from BMWs, starched shirts, Goldman Sachs, stock options and golden parachutes, The Treasury Department, and Academia,” I said.
“Not so far as you might think,” he said with a grin and a glint in his eye as he picked up his banjo and started a joyfully reckless rendition of Cumberland Mountain Deer Run. I patted my foot in time with the music as I ate my peanuts. The faster he played, the faster I ate my peanuts. I think he already knew this would happen, speculating that I might buy another bag or two before I left. He added, “I hated my jobs, then. But I love every single minute of every day in this honest, absolutely truthful living I make now. I answer to no one but the people who buy my peanuts. I satisfy me and them and no one else.”
They were good peanuts, too. They were honest peanuts. They were cash-on-the-barrel-head peanuts. I had little doubt that I was in the presence of one of the most successful men I had ever met. When he stopped playing, I asked him if he was familiar with the Academic-Economist Experimental Peanut Company. He laughed out loud.
“Yep,” was all he said when he finished his laughing. He then began to thump out Mississippi Sawyer on his banjo! I nearly danced in the contagious joy of the music that came from his banjo. When he finished, I had another question.
“Have you heard of John Maynard Krugman? He won the Nobel Prize in Economics a few years ago.”
He laughed even louder than the first time. “Of course,” he said, “He’s the one I send the peanuts to every week.”
It was my turn to laugh out loud. I had at last found an honest, capable person in the successful business of practicing the dismal science. He may have had opinions about economics, but he limited his opinions to the practice of selling peanuts, which, apparently he did very well.
I hope John Maynard Krugman enjoys his weekly peanuts. He gets them for free. He doesn’t even have to charge them on his Academic-Economist Experimental Peanut Company Visa Card.
All others pay cash.
As I got in my truck to drive away, three other vehicles were pulling in to get some peanuts. The last thing I heard was the fading sound of Arkansas Traveler coming from his banjo. I had met the Zen-master of economic self-realization. If anyone deserved a Nobel Prize in Self-Realization, it was him. But they don’t have an award for that humanity; just for clever, smart-sounding humanities like Peace, Literature, and Economics…none of which are hard sciences.
I didn’t even ask him his name. Maybe next time.
Maybe Paul Krugman and Robert Reich can get together and decide how government jobs are the key to economic growth while folks like the peanut man and me figure out how to pay for it, else the government will continue to debase our currency to do so. If they do, then look for peanuts to be four dollars per bag, not because the peanuts are worth more, but because the money is worth less.
I don’t have a degree in economics, but I can count money . . . and something is not adding up.