Monday, November 23, 2009

Economics for Cynics

If Ambrose Bierce were around today—and, in fact, he might be, although remarkably advanced in years—he could explain the causes of the world’s economic troubles in a trice.  In 1905 Bierce published The Cynic’s Word Book, which was reissued in 1911 as The Devil’s Dictionary. In it he showed a sharper understanding of economic matters than those professional economists today who win Nobel Prizes by disagreeing vehemently with each other.  Bierce’s definition of Economy: “Purchasing the barrel of whiskey that you do not need for the price of the cow you cannot afford.”

He also understood that greed on Wall Street was the source of much tumult.  He defined that bastion of financiers as “a symbol of sin for every devil to rebuke.” 

The complexities of Finance he reduced to one sentence, calling it “the art or science of managing revenues or resources for the best advantage of the manager.”

For solutions, Bierce had little confidence in either political point of view.  As a card-carrying cynic, he defined a Conservative as “a statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.”

Journalist and short-story writer, Bierce was born in Ohio in 1842.  He was a newspaper editor and columnist in San Francisco, was later based in London, and then served as Washington correspondent for Cosmopolitan. In 1913 he went to Mexico, embedded himself as an observer in Pancho Villa’s army in Juárez, made it as far as Chihuahua, and has not yet been heard from since.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who cannot rival Bierce in either satirical skill or cynicism, try as he might—and he does—offers this modest clerihew in his memory:

     Ambrose Bierce,
     Though firm and fierce,
     Was easily annoyed by bureaucracy,
     Not to mention hypocrisy.

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