Crises Need Prepared Capitalists

I have to admit a failure.

For all of my knowledge of the crisis at hand (I have amazing access to information), for all of my will to face it, and for all of the small preparations I made for my own safety, I’ve lived in such a way that has made me – for now – largely unhelpful in the response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Namely, I don’t have the cash.

Because I did not hustle, sell, plan, accumulate, and invest in the good times, there is not much I can do (aside from asking the help of others) to bring personal protective gear to medical staff, food to my neighbors, or investment into research and development to fight this virus.

It’s maddeningly frustrating to watch this unfold while feeling my hands are tied by finances. But I know what I did wrong.

There is a real sense that – assuming I want to help mitigate suffering in the world – I need to be the kind of person who accumulates cash and liquid assets. So I have a sort of duty to be a good capitalist, in the original sense of that term.

I failed this time. I won’t fail next time.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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By The Time We Notice We’re Hungry, It May Be Too Late

“[A]s the top U.S. watermelon-producing state prepares for harvest, Reuters reports, “many of the workers needed to collect the crop are stuck in Mexico …. Without the workers crops could rot in fields throughout the country,” starting in Florida and California where major harvests begin in April and May.

As you can probably guess, the problem stems from the COVID-19 panic. The US State Department has halted routine visa applications and consulates are limiting both staff numbers and staff contact with applicants. That’s making it difficult for the quarter million migrant workers who normally pick America’s crops to get here and get to work.

Most Americans aren’t hungry. Yet.

But unless something changes, we’re going to start GETTING hungry in a couple of months.

And by then, it will be too late. Planting cycles don’t turn on a dime for our convenience and ripe crops don’t wait. They get picked when it’s their time, or they go to waste. We get the food while the gettin’s good, or we don’t get it at all.

There’s a non-trivial chance that Americans are rushing headlong into a horror we haven’t seen since the Civil War — mass starvation — or, at the very least, malnutrition on a scale we haven’t suffered since the Great Depression.

We can’t avoid that outcome with stimulus checks in our mailboxes. All the money in the world won’t buy you a cantaloupe if there aren’t any cantaloupes to buy.

We can’t hold it off with corporate bailouts, either. It’s not money Big Agriculture’s lacking for, it’s permission for its workers to come pick the crops.

If we want to keep eating, our politicians are going to have to knock off this “shutdown” nonsense and let people get back to work.

Yes, even if that means that COVID-19 remains a problem or becomes a bigger problem.

The varying probabilities of catching the disease, and the varying probabilities of dying from it, pale next to the absolute, indubitable, 100% certainty that if we do not eat, we WILL die.

Politicians can’t just shut down major parts of an economy at will, start them back up, and expect things to go well. They can’t throttle the food supply chain without consequences.

We gotta eat.

Which means we’re going to have to insist that the politicians hang their Mussolini costumes back up in the closet and magnanimously permit us to get back to our lives.

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How Isaac Newton Turned Isolation From the Great Plague Into a “Year of Wonders”

College students around the world left campus this month, unsure when they would return and what daily life would look like until then. Forced to leave their friends and classmates behind and return to their childhood bedrooms, young people, who on average are less impacted by COVID-19’s dire health effects, may understandably feel angry and resentful. Free and independent, with their futures full of possibility, these students are now home and isolated. It can seem wholly unfair and depressing. But the story of another college student in a similar predicament might provide some hope and inspiration.

Isaac Newton’s Quarantine Experience

In 1665, “social distancing” orders emptied campuses throughout England, as the bubonic plague raged, killing 100,000 people (roughly one-quarter of London’s population), in just 18 months. A 24-year-old student from Trinity College, Cambridge was among those forced to leave campus and return indefinitely to his childhood home.

His name was Isaac Newton and his time at home during the epidemic would be called his “year of wonders.”

Away from university life, and unbounded by curriculum constraints and professor’s whims, Newton dove into discovery. According to The Washington Post: “Without his professors to guide him, Newton apparently thrived.” At home, he built bookshelves and created a small office for himself, filling a blank notebook with his ideas and calculations. Absent the distractions of typical daily life, Newton’s creativity flourished. During this time away he discovered differential and integral calculus, formulated a theory of universal gravitation, and explored optics, experimenting with prisms and investigating light.

Newton biographer James Gleick writes: “The plague year was his transfiguration. Solitary and almost incommunicado, he became the world’s paramount mathematician.” (p. 34). Newton himself would say about this forced time away from university life: ‘For in those days I was in the prime of my age for invention & minded Mathematics & Philosophy more than at any time since.’”

The Great Plague eventually ended and Newton returned to Trinity College to complete his studies, becoming a fellow and ultimately a professor. The discoveries he made during his time away from campus, though, would form the foundation of his historic career for years to come and become some of the greatest scientific breakthroughs.

This is a trying time for all of us, as our lives are upended and our routines are disrupted due to the pandemic. There is much to despair about. But this could also be a time for reflection and discovery. The sudden change to the rhythm of our days, and the associated isolation, could unleash our imaginations and inventiveness in ways that might have been impossible under ordinary circumstances.

Rather than being a nadir, this “social distancing” experience could be the peak of your creativity and production. This could be the time when you formulate your greatest ideas and do your best work. This could be your year of wonders.

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Wisdom in Plenty vs Wisdom in Crisis

When times are good, there are a lot of people to learn from.

When times are dire, there’s almost no wisdom to be found.

It seems when the world is humming along and freedom and prosperity are abundant, there are many experienced hands in many fields with a lot of interesting and useful advice and input.

When the shit hits the fan, prosperity ceases, and freedom is strangled, nearly everyone ceases to bring wisdom or insight to the table. People who seemed smart and creative in prosperity become dull and reactive in a pinch. People who seemed free and courageous become groveling quick.

And some of the people that seemed the least insightful and the most crazy in the good times appear among the remnant of insightful and courageous in crisis.

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Open Borders: Now Do You See What We’re Missing?

In Open Borders, I never claim that immigration restrictions make life in the First World bad.  I don’t try to scare people into supporting more immigration, a la, “Without more immigrants, we’re doomed.”  What I claim, rather, is that immigration is a massive missed opportunity.  While life is fine the way it is (or was, until a month ago), there is no reason to settle for “fine.”  If there is a dependable way to dramatically improve our lives, we should seize it.

What then are we missing?  The standard and correct answer is: tens of trillions of dollars every year; see Clemens’ classic “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” article.  Allowing human talent to move from low-productivity countries to high-productivity countries greatly enriches mankind.  A mind really is a terrible thing to waste.  Until recently, though, these tens of trillions of dollars of unrealized gains have been awfully hard to visualize.

Now, human tragedy provides crystal clarity.  If you examine almost any American population center today, it doesn’t look bad – just empty.  Enormous economic sectors – restaurants, entertainment, retail, and much more – have suddenly shut down to fight coronavirus.  As a result, tens of millions of folks are stuck in their homes, wasting their talents, and contributing little to the world.  An optimist would correctly remind us that we’re hardly starving, and we have Netflix.  Yet an optimist should also gladly acknowledge that it would be awesome to suddenly recover all that we’ve lost.  If the virus vanished overnight, a Niagara Falls of missing productivity would be unleashed.

Imagine, though, if we’d never known anything better than what we have today.  If you claimed that we were missing trillions of dollars of gains, most people would be deeply pessimistic.  Some would bemoan the fate of grocery stores if restaurants were legalized, or warn that releasing tens of millions of homebodies into the workforce would lead to catastrophic unemployment.  The main mental block, though, is that people would have trouble visualizing a straightforward way to make us trillions of dollars richer.

If you can get over this mental block, if you can see what we’ve lost, then it’s only a small step further to see what we’re missing.  If people were free to take a job anywhere on Earth, humanity would have more agriculture, more manufacturing, more services.  We would have more restaurants, more homes, more elder care.  We would have more doctors and more janitors, more meal delivery and more cars to deliver the meals.  If coronavirus can eliminate 90% of the restaurant business, open borders can add 90% to the restaurant business.  You’ve seen the former with your own eyes, so you should have no trouble seeing the latter with the eye of the mind.

To be fair, you could demur, “We’ve shut down most of the domestic labor market to prevent the spread of a horrible disease.  Similarly, we shut down most of the international labor market to prevent something similarly horrible.”  The difference, of course, is that the coronavirus is all too real, while the horrors of immigration are speculative at best.  Indeed, on inspection they’re largely imaginary.  And while many will now be add infectious disease to the list of social ills to blame on immigrants, that argument too makes little sense.

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Keep Healthy Habits, Help Others

How will you spend your time now that civilization has been canceled by executive command? Is it time to brush up on your stone-age skills?

This would be a good time to familiarize yourself with the edible wild plants growing in your yard and to learn the natural substitutes for toilet paper.

Learn to make and use an atlatl and stone-tipped spears in case you need to bring down a mammoth. Pool cues might be a good raw material for this sort of thing. Of course, the recent scarcity of mammoths could put a kink in this plan.

A bonfire in the backyard for roasting your kill would probably attract the wrong kind of attention anyway. This should be a last resort.

Perhaps you could choose to go to the opposite extreme and retreat to a virtual world for a fortnight or two, where your biggest dangers are ransom-ware and scammers promising eternal love in exchange for airfare to America.

Or will you ignore the hoopla?

I’m always in favor of taking precautions against unnecessary risks, but people can go overboard. There are times precaution gets replaced by panic. Politicians love taking advantage of panic since they rarely pay a price for being wrong. They claim the credit if people believe they got it right, but you pay the price every time they are wrong.

I’m going to hope you’re a regular reader of this column and as such you’ve listened to my frequent suggestions to be a “prepper” and stock up on essential supplies in case of unforeseen circumstances. This means you were already prepared and didn’t get caught up in the last-minute scramble for essentials … or for the luxuries some people consider essential.

Aren’t you glad you listened?

The phrase “May you live in interesting times” is said to be a curse. I’m not certain it is. Would you rather be bored to death? Times can be interesting, but — when you’re ready for whatever life throws at you — not cursed.

This too will pass. You’ll be fine when all is said and done. There are lessons in all this. Smart people will learn and remember these lessons; others will stay clueless.

Don’t let the hand-wringers and fear-mongers upset you. Do things you already know will help you stay healthy. Healthy habits haven’t suddenly become dangerous. Lend a hand to those who, due to age or health conditions, may be more at risk. Together, but maybe not within coughing distance, we will get through this.

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