Which brings us back to numbers - we have become suspicious of them. There are only ten basic digits…but just look at them. Since we gave up Roman numerals, our numbers aren't straight. Who can trust the number 5, for example? The squiggly little humbug! It is crooked. It has a straight bar across the top, which makes it appear on the up and up…but then it stabs down and then hooks around to the bottom. Very devious.
Still, when they are on their own, numbers - like men - seem to be fairly reliable and decent. You have one dollar. We have three chickens. The team scored nine runs. But mix 'em and match 'em…put 'em in a crowd …and you can get any combination and any scammy result you want.
We mentioned yesterday that after the feds got finished scrambling the GDP numbers, they revealed growth of precisely 3.9% per year. We pointed out that "growth" itself doesn't mean much. Life imitates academia; we begin to act like dead economists say we should act. The professors tell us that digits are important. The next thing you know people are worrying about their cholesterol count and their return on investment. Not only that, but they're putting their wives to work in order to increase the digits in their household incomes…and watching the Fed to see what it will do with the digits in short-term interest rates.
And lo! Their interest in digits…in making money and spending it…causes the digits in the GDP to go up. Instead of cutting their own lawns or baking their own cookies, our new digitally-enhanced citizens pay someone else to do these things so they can spend their own time making more digital money.
Ah yes…dear reader…we've come to that. Even those 'paper' dollars are often not even paper. They are computer fantasies. Your bank tells you that you have a certain number of dollars in your account. You take it for granted that the dollars are there. But there are no dollars…just a spectral trace of dollars in digital form.
So, you tell someone that you have 10 dollars and 22 cents. What do you have? Ten what? It sounds precise…but the precision is as much a fantasy as the money itself. You don't know what you have. Maybe you have nothing at all…or something that could become nothing pretty darned fast. Ten dollars was what we earned for two days' hard labor in the tobacco fields when we were 15 years old. Now, it is what we earn every five minutes. Yes, we are older and wiser…and people pay us more money today than they did 40 years ago. We're not the same person we were then…and the money isn't the same either. While we gained value in the workplace, our money lost value.
The feds say the inflation rate is less than 3%. How could inflation be running at less than 3% per year while prices on the most important things in commerce - food and energy - are increasing 10 times as fast? We don't know; it's one of the reasons we've lost faith in digits. They lie.
The only way the feds could get the inflation rate down was by smashing it on the head. And guess what happened? The GDP rate popped up. Yes, dear reader, real output is calculated by subtracting the inflation rate from nominal output. The lower the inflation rate, the higher the GDP number. So, if you can beat down the inflation number, that GDP number will get bigger. Neat, huh?
John Crudele, writing in the New York Post:
"The trouble is, the GDP only grew that much because the government somehow manufactured a big drop in inflation.
"According to the Commerce Department report, inflation was only 0.8 percent in the third quarter.
"When you look at real economic growth - meaning, after inflation - every tick down in inflation causes a tick up in economic growth.
"The rate of inflation was 2.6 percent in the second quarter of 2007 and 4.2 percent in this year's first quarter. Wall Street was expecting 2 percent inflation this time.
"Inflation at a slow 0.8 percent rate would certainly be welcome - if only it were credible.
"But even less believable is the fact that the inflation rate nose-dived at the same time oil prices were heading toward $90 a barrel - which it now exceeds.
"So, in reality, economic growth is probably much slower than is being reported. And inflation is a lot higher."
We're convinced; reality and digits don't hang together anymore. Maybe they never did.
And then on Walmart and the digital divide:
Here's something interesting…this week, Wal-Mart says it has crossed the 'digital divide,' by offering a computer for less than $200. Yes, dear reader, this is a big day for us here at The Daily Reckoning. Now every yahoo with $200 in his jeans can read what we write. This is a big step forward for society, too, say the commentators, because now we will have 'digital equity,' meaning everyone can have access to all the digital information, news and opinions they want.
Of all the crackpot notions to come along in recent years, the idea of the 'digital divide' was among the looniest. If you didn't have access to the Internet, they said, you would be left behind…doomed to live in poverty and obscurity all your life.
But what do people actually do when they get a computer? Do they go onto chat lines to exchange interpretations of Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason?" Do they begin to read Posidonius's account of the battle of Pydna…or search for solutions to Poincare's last theorem? No, they play poker…watch stupid videos…or visit porno sites. In other words, digits don't actually improve people; they just make it possible for them to indulge more abundantly in whatever shiftless pursuit they take up.
The list of famous and successful people who never even laid eyes on a computer is as long as the Encyclopedia Britannica. And even today, many of the smartest and most successful people in the world view them as time-wasting distractions.