Our society revolves around the pleasure principle. Unless something is pleasurable, it excites suspicion and is deemed unworthy of pursuit. This is one reason so many American youngsters entering the job market are dumb, difficult and will be, ultimately, dispensable. They've been taught, by parents and pedagogues – falsely – that learning and work must be jolly fun all the time. If your field of endeavor is no fun, quit it.
Anyone who has studied seriously, or worked to master a craft, knows that nothing worth learning or mastering is easy or enjoyable, at first – unless you're a genius, a natural, or both. Most of us are not. For proof of the fact of mediocrity, look no further than the normal distribution, the Bell Curve.
With mastery, however, comes enjoyment. And mastery generally means hard work.
"The value of hard work is overrated. Laziness is the mother of invention": these were riffs offered up against my case by one of the bloggers at BarelyABlog.com. The writer, a physicist, makes my point for me: He happens to be a relative of Wolfgang Ernst Pauli, recipient of the 1945 Nobel Prize in physics!
No, not everyone can "work smart." Whereas graft is within each person's reach; genius is not.
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The pleasure principle is at play in the realm of both personal and public finances. Saving for the future is not fun. It means postponing pleasure for the sake of solvency, or other more ambitious future gains.
Tellingly, a survey by the "National Foundation for Credit Counseling" has revealed that "more than half of all Americans say they don't use a budget. Also, 26 percent of adults in the U.S. admit that they're spending more than they did a year ago. And 40 percent of consumers are still battling unpaid credit card debt month to month."
Financial planner Lynnette Khalfani-Cox – whose wisdom CNN helps dispense – tailors her advice to the pleasure principle: "The real problem," she asserted in her WalletPop.com column, "is that relatively few of us can live happily – for any sustained period of time – on an overly restrictive financial diet." Khalfani-Cox has diagnosed "frugal fatigue" in her clients ("frugality fatigue" sounds less terminal, at least grammatically). Ms. Khalfani-Cox's financial counsel is fit for infants: "Make the process of saving fun."
The devolution of the national character has dovetailed with the rise of the state. Central planners are in philosophical tandem with the pleasure principle. Duly, social policy has evolved to enable politicians to grow their sphere of influence by pleasuring an increasingly petulant people.
At a cost.
The U.S. is fast reaching a tipping point. As Fox News reported, citing Census Bureau data, American families are "getting more in cash handouts [$2.3 trillion in 2010] from the government than they pay in taxes [$2.2 trillion] for the first time since the Great Depression." Almost half of all American households owe no income tax.
Would that all households were exempt. Instead, and against healthy social evolution, social engineers have roped the financially fit in the service of the unfit.
Time preference rates is a term used by Austrian economists in this context – it is the degree to which different people discount the future in favor of immediate gratification. Although only a social determinist would blame the Federal Reserve Bank for all of man's failings, monetary policy helps to distort time preference rates.
While baselessly crediting the "Fed's interest-rate policies, together with other measures," for having "helped avert a much deeper economic slump," the Wall Street Journal admitted, just the other day, that artificially keeping interest rates so low doesn't "just hurt retirees. [It] also penalizes people of any age hoping to build up funds for the future, and discourages rainy-day savings that could make U.S. consumers more resilient to job losses and other financial jolts."
Anyone who hasn't yet escaped into gold and other metals knows that even sizable savings will yield almost no returns. As the Journal confirms, "Americans who have done everything right, have worked hard, saved their money and stayed out of debt are the ones being punished by [artificially] low interest rates."
In our credit-fueled, consumption-based economic culture, those who want it all now come out on top. Such a fiscal climate does nothing to cultivate the type of economic actor that saves, invests and produces.
On the level of macroeconomics, the politicians, enabled by the Fed, are pursuing policies that will see the dollar continue to drop like a stone, assets devalue, and saving and retirement become near impossible. Soaring prices and the collapse of the currency will follow in succession.
On the level of microeconomics, however, Americans can reacquaint themselves with the spirit of this country's founders. To paraphrase Max Weber, it was the ascetic "Protestant Ethic" that gave rise to the "Spirit of Capitalism," and to prosperity.