Your Bucket List
Tea Party Economist
by Gary North: Chief
Justice Roberts, Economic†Fascist
3, 2009, I attended my 50th high school reunion. The
50th high school reunion is the last hurrah institutionally
in the United States. No other final meeting will attract as many
people from a personís generation. There is nothing like your 50th
high school reunion to remind you that the clock is ticking.
posted the photos of the known deceased. Some had been gone for
25 years. Others had been gone less than a year. But the reality
was clear: the list would grow.
The men were
all unrecognizable. So were most of the women. There were a few
exceptions, however. Time had not run over all of us to the same
degree. A couple of men looked more distinguished than at 18. I
hated to see them.
committee supplied name tags with the senior year photos. These
were reminders of time gone by. We could see the before-after contrast.
The contrast was considerable, with only one exception Ė not mine.
me of my 25th reunion. I had on my tag. I was in an elevator.
A young woman asked me what the meeting was. I told her. She asked
what a 25th reunion was like. It came to me in a flash.
"Itís an exercise in comparative rot." She is now pushing
At the hotel
where I stayed the first night, another 50th reunion
was scheduled. A friend of mine from the American Legionís Boys
State program had been student body president at that school. I
would have liked to walk over to see him, but he had died of heart
disease several years earlier. He had been a great football player.
That was a reminder, too. The clock is ticking.
At the Sunday
brunch, I sat with three people. One I had known well; the other
I had known fairly well; the third hardly at all.
One of them
remarked that she had drawn up her bucket list. That term comes
movie with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. Two men meet in
a hospital. Both are terminally ill. They draw up a list of things
to do before they die. They agree to do the things on the list together.
It is better to share the events on the list.
My list has
always been books written and educational materials produced. It
is a long list. It will take good health and a functioning mind
for me to do all of it. It will take at least a decade, I forecasted.
My role model
is F. A. Hayek, the Nobel-Prize economist. I interviewed him in
1985 in Austria. He was 86. He had just finished the manuscript
for his magnum opus: the capstone book of his career. It is a fine
for me is Jacques Barzunís book, From
Dawn to Decadence. It appeared in 2000. It footnoted articles
that he had written in the late 1930s.
The grand old
man of economics today is Ronald Coase. I once wrote an entire book
against his famous theorem. He is still alive at 101. He is still
One of the
other people at the table at brunch was my old competitor in public
speaking. She was a real challenge then. She got better over the
years. She spent a career in education. Her husband of 40 years
had developed a successful business. Then he died in 2003. Six months
later, the business went under through no fault of hers. It was
shut down by the authorities. Unbeknownst to her husband, there
had been a crook inside the firm who had cheated the city and, indirectly,
the U.S. government. She lost her retirement nest egg and spent
three years paying lawyers. She now works in a small book store.
reminded me: procrastination kills. The unexpected can strike at
At every 50th
reunion, there are stories like these. The people at every table
should pay attention to these stories.
The list of
your deceased classmates is growing, year by year. You will be on
it eventually. Get the high-priority items scratched off the list
while you still can.
We are all
told from an early age that the life of a miser is a wasted life.
The miser spends every waking hour accumulating money. Yet he never
seems to accomplish anything with his money. He simply accumulates
This is an
inaccurate analysis, in so far as it applies to a free-market economy.
In a free-market economy, a person can accumulate wealth only by
serving customers. Nobody is going to give him all of that money
just because he asks for it. Therefore, for as long as he is committed
to the expansion of his net worth, he must serve customers faithfully.
He must provide customers with products or services that they want
to buy at the price that he is willing to accept.
To do this,
he must maintain a competitive advantage against other sellers of
similar goods and services. This forces him to innovate constantly.
The customers are free to choose. They are also free to choose new
tastes and desires. Therefore, the customer is exceedingly fickle.
He keeps asking the seller: "What have you done for me lately?"
even though he is driven only by the desire to accumulate money,
is a productive citizen in a free-market economy. He becomes a servant
to customers, and customers find that they have a better lifestyle
because of the commitment of the miser to accumulate ever greater
wealth. The miser is obsessed with the accumulation of wealth, but
in order to assuage his obsession, he must become obsessed with
serving the demands of customers.
Think of what
he has to do. He has to estimate what customers will be willing
to pay for in the future. He must estimate competition from other
sellers who will be actively seeking the money possessed by future
customers. He must estimate the effects of government legislation
on the markets in general, and his market in particular.
He must bear
the uncertainty of all kinds of events that can take place between
now and then. Somebody has to deal with these uncertainties, at
least if future customers are going to be able to buy the goods
and services they want at prices they are willing to pay. These
problems do not take care of themselves.
So, what we
are told about the miser is flawed. It may be correct with respect
to the dangers associated with the obsession to accumulate wealth.
There may be psychological disorders involved here that are a threat
to the long-term mental stability of misers. But, with respect to
the social function of misers, they can be highly productive people,
and they are rewarded for their productivity by customers.
While we say
we do not think highly of misers, a lot of us grew up enjoying Scrooge
McDuck comic books. Uncle Scrooge was a decent fellow, but there
is no question that he was focused on the accumulation of wealth.
We all remember the cartoon image of Scrooge sitting in his vault
on top of a pile of gold coins, thoroughly enjoying himself. For
a lot of people, the cartoon image of Scrooge McDuck on top of his
gold coins was the only representation they had of the pre-1934
gold coin standard that prevailed in the United States.
Yet there is
no question in my mind that there is something wrong with the miser.
He accumulates wealth, supposedly for its own sake, and in doing
so, he becomes the servant of wealth. In order to serve wealth,
he must serve customers in a free-market economy. But, whether you
analyze his situation from the point of view of his being in bondage
to money or being in bondage to customers, there is no question
that the miser is in bondage.
wealth which will enable him to buy his way out of most problem
situations. We usually think of somebody as being very wealthy who
can solve these problems by writing a check. We know that he cannot
solve all of his problems this way, but he can certainly solve a
lot more problems than we can solve by writing a check. We would
like to have the kind of wealth that he possesses as a safety net
against all of lifeís negative events that can come upon us, and
that we would like to be able to avoid, or at least buy our way
This is the
single most powerful argument in favor of the accumulation of money.
Money is the most marketable commodity. Money is what everybody
is after, and therefore everybody is willing to sell something in
order to get his hands on it. It is not that every man has his price,
but it is true that every man has a price for something that he
owns, even though he may not have a price for everything he owns.
TRADE-OFF: TIME VS. MONEY
is the most marketable commodity, we accumulate it in order to deal
with those events that we cannot foresee with accuracy. These events
may be positive or they may be negative. We may be given an opportunity
to take advantage of something wonderful, or we may be given an
opportunity to avoid something terrible. The point is, money is
the asset that gives us the opportunity.
One of the
signs of adulthood is that we recognize the inevitable trade-off
between time and money. Ben Franklin put these words into the mouth
of poor Richard: "A child thinks that 20 years and $20 can
never be spent." Actually, he wrote that the child thinks the
20 years and 20 pounds can never be spent, but we no longer use
pounds in the United States. The aphorism still holds up in England.
His point was this: a childís time horizon is so short that he thinks
that 20 years is a very long time. When he is 70, he no longer thinks
the road to the final farewell, an individual is supposed to figure
out that time is the only irreplaceable asset. He runs out of time,
and money cannot buy him any more of it. This is common knowledge.
But this common knowledge does not produce the same response in
everyone who possesses this knowledge. The knowledge may be common,
but the response is not.
When you are
younger, you have time to recover from your mistakes. When you are
younger, you do not have a lot of money. As you accumulate more
money, you find that your ability to recover from mistakes is reduced.
You have less time to recover from those mistakes. Therefore, you
need more money. Remember, money is the most marketable commodity.
It is the commodity that lets us buy our way out of mistakes. So,
as time slips away, we need more money to help us recover from bad
Yet even here,
we face the fact that the ultimate limitation does not have much
to do with our decisions. The ultimate limitation is the fact that
we will die. So, the accumulation of money has a built-in limitation.
We can accumulate it to deal with bad events, but it does us no
good in dealing with the ultimate bad event. We can buy our way
out of a lot of problems, but we cannot buy our way out of death.
In the year
2000, a 73-year-old singer named Ralph Stanley sang a song, "O
Death." He sang it in a movie, O
Brother, Where Art Thou? He had been singing songs as a
bluegrass musician for half a century. He had never won a Grammy.
With that song, without musical accomplishment, and with an old
manís voice, he won his Grammy. I think that was fitting, and a
few years later, I had the opportunity to tell him so face-to-face.
At the tail end of his career, and at an age at which most men are
retired, Stanley was still on the road, still performing, still
making money, and still entertaining audiences. He was not sitting
around waiting for death. In fact, he was entertaining even larger
audiences, because of that song, which was not known as a bluegrass
song, and which he sang a cappella.
I also think
of Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs, who died this year. I was able to
see both of them late in their careers, just as I had seen them
half a century earlier. They were still on the road, still entertaining
people, and still had basically the same skills they had had as
young men. This is a tremendous advantage for any man. It is not
available to every man, but when it is available, I think people
should take advantage of it.
died four months before the release of the wonderful movie, Ray,
which was a biography of his life. He was still performing until
the end. I remember an interview with him a couple of years earlier.
The interviewer asked him if he planned to retire. He answered the
question in three memorable words: "And do what?"
ON THE JOB
The men who
stayed on the road, entertaining people until the end, serve as
examples for me. Staying at your work as long as you can keep producing
something that others think is worth paying for, or at least spending
time reading, is a great blessing.
To stay on
the job merely for the accumulation of wealth seems to be the incarnation
of foolishness. If you are accumulating wealth in order to deal
with the crises of life, the older you get, the less rational this
is. The great crisis of life cannot be dealt with effectively with
the money accumulated over a lifetime. As the old line goes after
the funeral: "How much did he leave behind?" And the answer:
"All of it."
When a person
serves customers or nonpaying free riders of various kinds, he is
performing the highly useful service to individuals and to the community
at large. He is contributing to the advancement of humanity. He
is extending the kingdom of whichever god he serves. But if the
god that he serves is simply a pile of money, he is serving a god
that is both fickle and uncaring.
This is why
parents warn their children about the foolishness of becoming a
miser. He is focused on the accumulation of wealth, but he is not
equally focused on the larger issues of life. The end is foolish,
but the means are not only legitimate, they are mandatory for the
survival of civilization. Service to others is basic, but when a
person serves the success indicator of money rather than the success
indicator of lives benefitted, he has moved from the office of servant
of men to the office of servant of things. This is always an act
As I grow older,
I am increasingly aware of the ticking of the clock. Fortunately,
I first heard it ticking a few days after I turned 17. So, I have
always heard it in the background, but I hear it more loudly today.
The relevance of this is the completion of my work. I have less
time to do this. I am therefore always trading off time against
this trade-off, I am constantly aware of the fact that I am buying
lifestyle. The sooner that somebody comes to grips with the fact
that what he is really buying is lifestyle, the sooner he will begin
to allocate both his time and his money more effectively.
If a personís
lifestyle is defined by the accumulation of money, then he can be
a miser in good conscience. If all he wants to do is imitate Scrooge
McDuck, customers stand ready to enable him to achieve his goal,
just so long as he helps them achieve their goals. But the customer
is more likely to be self-consciously buying lifestyle than the
The miser helps
the customer buy the lifestyle he wants, and the customer helps
the miser buy the lifestyle he wants. But, when we look at the two
kinds of lifestyle, most people conclude that the customer has greater
wisdom than the miser. The customer is getting something for his
money. The miser is giving up something for is money. The miser
is giving up time. If all he enjoys is the accumulation of money,
he can still be a servant to customers. But the customers shake
their heads in disbelief, amazed that anybody could be that shortsighted.
I suggest that
anyone who is wealthy enough to begin to shift from satisfying paying
customers to satisfying nonpaying customers is coming to grips with
the reality of death.
A person who
looks beyond the grave, and who asks how he can leave a legacy to
those who survive them should also conclude that merely providing
money for his heirs or others is a shortsighted legacy indeed. The
money will help them achieve their goals, but he should not be giving
money away to people whose goals are inconsistent with his. He is
subsidizing that which he does not believe in by accumulating wealth
today. This is an unwise decision. Much of the Book of Ecclesiastes
deals with this unwise decision. I
have written a commentary on this book.
If a personís
lifestyle corresponds to the legacy he wishes to leave, he is in
an ideal situation. If he sees that his legacy will be a benefit
to those survivors who pursue his view of life, he can more easily
bring himself to continue to sacrifice time and maybe money on behalf
of those survivors and his way of life. But if his lifestyle is
inconsistent with the legacy he hopes will survive, he suffers from
ethical schizophrenia. He is operating at cross purposes.
If a person
accumulates wealth all of his life in order to spend is last decade
or two in leisure, he had better be very sure what kind of leisure
it is that delights him most. If he wears himself out, so that he
cannot continue to enjoy, he has made a catastrophic lifetime decision.
He should have accumulated less wealth in his early years in order
to spend more time in his lifestyle of choice. The sooner a man
grows up, the sooner his lifestyle choices will be consistent over
with this outlook is simple: maybe the leisure activities he selected
in his youth were self-destructive. Maybe what he really wanted
to do was eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow he might die. Now
he finds himself old and infirm, not having died, and unable to
pursue the dreams of his youth.
This is why
it is important for a young man to assess the trade-offs between
time and money. If there are things that he really wants to do,
but he can do effectively only when he is young, he is going to
have to spend time and money that could be used in the pursuit of
a lifestyle suitable to old age. He had better prefer a lifestyle
that is consistent with the legacy he wants to leave behind.
Tom T. Hall
summarized this in his song about a young man who wanted to be a
poet, who met a grizzled old cowboy. The young man asked him the
secret of life. The old man was precise:
horses, younger women, older whiskey, more money."
must do better than this.
list helps you with setting priorities. This is why it is an important
It helps you
to get a handle on costs. There are always costs: time and money.
It also helps
you assess your legacy. What do you want it to be?
Is what you
are doing now consistent with it?
Make your bucket
list. See what it tells you about you.
North [send him mail]
is the author of Mises
on Money. Visit http://www.garynorth.com.
He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An
Economic Commentary on the Bible.
2012 Gary North
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