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April 30, 2018 | The True Source of Fake News

Is an American author of books and articles on economic and financial subjects. He is the founder and president of Agora Publishing, and author of the daily financial column, Diary of a Rogue Economist.


OVER A BAR, IN YOUGHAL, IRELAND – “Here in Ireland, it is bad luck to cut down a holly tree,” says our weekend helper, Ronan.

“Oh… and I don’t think your wife would like to know about that one, either.”

He pointed to the two trees we had just felled. We thought they were firs.

“Noooo… They’re not firs. Well, maybe a variety of fir. More likely, a variety of yew tree. They’re decorative trees because they give a yellow light when the sun hits them. Women like them in the garden.

“But I won’t say anything.”



Bad Juju

We spent the weekend cutting down trees. Not that we have anything against trees… But after 100 years of neglect, our new Irish home could use some tidying up.

There were several holly trees we wanted to take out. But you never know with myths. Are they true? Is there a reason for them that we don’t know about?

If we cut down the hollies, will we be so worried about bad juju that we’ll bring misfortune upon ourselves?

You may be thinking… “Who cares?” But myths are at the black heart of fake news… and they are essential to civilization, too.

Without myths to filter and shape incoming data, life is incomprehensible… meaningless… and chaotic.

The headlines make no sense. The “news” is mindless babble. And people have to kill each other for no good reason!

Myths provide simple structure; they are accommodating… and comforting. The truth, on the other hand, is infinitely complicated – hard as a park bench and often unbearable.

Myths are what keep our voters, our soldiers, and our Fed governors in business. Majority rule; minority rights! Fight terrorism! Stimulate the economy!

But last week, we focused not on the grand myths of today… Instead, we wondered about the wisdom embedded in aphorisms, proverbs, and traditions. Those are myths, too.

“A penny saved is a penny earned.” “A stitch in time saves nine.” “Those who do not work shall not eat.” We are surrounded by them – things that we believe, but cannot prove. At least, not scientifically.



Old Truths

Last night, the barman downstairs explained the chemical process that makes Guinness:

You see, you put grain in the vat. You add a little pure water. Then, you let it ferment. And out comes Guinness.

Over time, beer-making knowledge improves. Material progress continues as new things are discovered. But there are no new discoveries in social, political, or economic matters.

Instead, we simply discover the old truths over and over.

But how can you tell the difference between useful myths – those that bring us the time-tested, distilled wisdom of hundreds of generations – and the convenient lies that we tell ourselves to avoid facing the truth?

In his great novel, Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky explored the subject. The protagonist, Raskolnikov, is convinced that he is above and beyond the restrictions that other civilized people obey.

He challenges the most widely held taboo in Christendom: Thou shalt not kill.

Murder used to be much more common than it is today. Archeological studies (looking at injuries on ancient bones) have found staggeringly high murder rates, higher than even those of modern Baltimore.

Researchers found a tribe in California, for example, with a murder rate estimated as being 14 times higher than Baltimore’s today.



Myth of Morality

“Thou shalt not kill” is apparently a fairly new idea. Humans had already been around for about 200,000 years before Moses came down from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments.

Today, most people believe that murder is not only illegal, but immoral; you shouldn’t do it even if you are sure you can get away with it.

But morality is a kind of myth, too. There’s no way to prove that it is a bad idea to kill, for example, or that something bad will happen to you if you do.

And there’s no way to know if the Republic would be a better – or worse – place if you take out one or two of its Democrats. At the very least, it would likely liberate a parking space!

Dostoevsky’s lead character, however, discovers that there is more to these prohibitions than just the law or just “what-we-want-now.”

There is conscience, for example – a residual feeling, or a kind of hard-wired sense of right and wrong. That’s the whole idea of morality… that there are consequences, often unseen and unexpected.

You can tell yourself that “deficits don’t matter,” in other words… But that won’t stop you from going broke!

“I don’t really believe, you know… about cutting down the holly trees,” Ronan continued. “But why take the chance?”

The hollies are still there.




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April 30th, 2018

Posted In: Bill Bonner's Diary

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