The Top Layer of the Cake

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My father died at the age of 91 on December 2. He was not a man to make profound observations. He was a facts man. He spent World War II in the military police and two decades in the FBI. The FBI mostly investigated. He liked Sergeant Joe Friday’s line: “Just the facts, Mam.” Jack Webb made that line famous on Dragnet, which started on TV the year he joined the FBI: 1951. He was a big Dragnet fan.

He did make one profound observation to me that has stuck. I am not sure if it was original with him. I have never heard it from anyone else. Here it is.
Life is like a three-layer cake. When you are young, there are two layers between you and death. Then your grandfather dies, and there is only one layer. Then your father dies. You are on top.

He spent 48 years as the top layer. I do not think I will spend 48 years there.

His observation reinforced a prediction made by my maternal grandmother, who on my 25th birthday remarked: “You will be 30 before you know it.” I was 50 before I knew it.

We all know how slowly time moves for a child. It moves most slowly in the last week before Christmas. Christmas to Christmas seems like forever.

Ben Franklin remarked: “A child thinks that twenty dollars and twenty years can never be spent.” He actually said pounds, but dollars has a ring to it, despite the inflation. Money runs out sooner than we think. So does time.

A year to a four-year-old is most of what he can remember. A year to an old person is a small fraction of his life, and he cannot recall the recent details anyway.

We know these things about time intellectually no later than the death of a grandfather, and usually no later than the death of our first dog. But, emotionally, it takes longer to register.

In terms of time-budgeting, it takes some people decades to come to grips with this. I suppose there are a few people for whom it takes the physician’s words, “You should get your affairs in order.”

A classic line in this regard — maybe the classic line — was William Saroyan’s, which he allowed to be published posthumously. “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed that an exception would be made in my case. Now what?”

NOW WHAT?

As a man recently elevated to the Order of the Top Layer, permit me to make a few general observations. Then I will draw a few conclusions.

The clock ticks at the same speed for everyone. This is the most democratic aspect of life.

In 1971, I read a news magazine’s obituary of “Papa Doc” Duvalier, the dictator of Haiti. The author began with this: “Last week, Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier was visited by Haiti’s last remaining democratic institution.”

I realize that I am older now than he was when he died. Yet he seemed old to me at the time, if not to the teenage girls who accompanied him.

Time is the great equalizer. Warren Buffett is worth ten thousand times more than you are, assuming you are worth $5 million. But he is 78 years old. Not many people would want to trade places with him, one for one. The young know better. So do the old, who have grown accustomed to their places in life. About the only person I can imagine who might be willing to trade places with him is his partner, Charlie Munger. Charlie is 84.

If money were the measure of success, then success would elude all but men like Buffett. Success would be limited to people with a peculiar skill, the ability to make money. The ladder of success would be tightly defined and tightly policed by agents of those occupying the top 500 or so of 40,000 rungs.

Yet when we read history books of any nation, by any author, the very rich receive very little coverage. It is not that authors hate the rich. It is that the rich have so little verifiable influence on what historians can easily trace.

The rich man gets rich by serving the wants of large numbers of people. The more people he serves, the richer he gets. But the more people he serves, the more difficult it is to see the specifics of his influence: too many specifics. His influence becomes noise: not uniquely identifiable with him.

Bill Gates is an exception. He is a two-trick pony: operating system development, which he bought (QDOS), and an internet browser, which he mostly copied (Netscape). He accomplished a great deal by mass marketing two peculiar and highly specialized products developed by others.

The more extensive the division of labor, the more dispersed that any invention must be in order to have any influence. It is dispersion that creates influence: millions of people use it. But the more that it is used, the less clear the connections of cause and effect.

Leonard E. Read created the first libertarian think tank in 1946: The Foundation for Economic Education. He also wrote one of the greatest teaching articles ever written: “I, Pencil,” on the division of labor. It matches Adam Smith’s discussion of the pin factory in Chapter 1 of The Wealth of Nations. Read once told me this:
You will know you have been successful when someone quotes an idea you wrote, and he has no idea where the idea came from.

My conclusion: “Dispersion counts.” The greater the dispersion, the greater the impact — and the less space you get in the history books. The most famous person in the history of famous quotations is not Shakespeare. It is Anon.

In terms of lifestyle, the rich live pretty much as the rest of us do. Capitalism has made us all incredibly wealthy. What does the super-rich person have that we cannot afford? Two things: (1) a large home located so far from the highway that we cannot see it; (2) a home so large that it requires full-time servants. In short, he has what we cannot see. If we can see it, he isn’t very rich, unless he is so rich that he does not care. Warren Buffett lives in the same house he lived in when he was starting out. The house is in Omaha. He has made his point. He is a one-trick pony: buying low and never selling.

The people who are guaranteed to get into the history books are politicians who start major wars and spend lots of other people’s money . . . or print it. In earlier eras, the senior general appointed by the senior politician got into the history books, but not since Korea. The division of labor has made generals into interchangeable parts.

Inventors used to get in, but the fate of Philo Farnsworth set the pattern. He invented the television. Then there is Tim Berners-Lee. He invented the World Wide Web. I can think of no one who has influenced more people’s lives. Neither of them made any money.

Who invented the computer? (No, it was not John von Neumann.) Who invented the mouse? Who invented the ball point pen? You can look it up on Wikipedia. But who invented Wikipedia? And what Austrian School economist was his inspiration?

These people had this in common: the same number of hours in the day. They share this with you.

So, the correct question is not Saroyan’s “Now what?” The question is “What next?”

WHAT NEXT?

In a free society, the creativity of everyone becomes part of society’s capital. The creativity of every participant counts for something. Through voluntary exchange, we make offers and receive offers. We put our talents to work.

Economists like to speak of the vast array of tax-funded institutions and projects such as highways as “social overhead capital.” They love to focus on the supposed productivity of social overhead capital. Yet they are well aware of boondoggles. Boondoggles are sold to voters as social overhead capital.

What is really significant as social overhead capital is the religious and legal framework of society, which is established by custom. But economists and historians ignore this, because its effects are so widespread and filled with noise. No one invented custom. Rarely can a custom even be dated, other than a few holidays. The integration of customs was not designed by anyone who gets into the history books.

In a free society, each of us has an opportunity to make a breakthrough that leaves a legacy. This can be for good or evil. But the great thing about custom is that good developments tend to get imitated, while bad ones get quarantined — mostly by custom.

The worst customs that evade the quarantine process are likely to have the backing of the civil government. The government thwarts the system of positive and negative feedback that custom supplies and the free market institutionalizes through accounting: profit and loss. Government taxes the successful to subsidize the unsuccessful.

When we see early in life what our legacy should be, we can work on it, even fund it from our productive efforts to meet market demand. Our legacy may be our work in our jobs. But for most of the really creative people who make it into the history books — call them social entrepreneurs — their jobs are not their legacy. Their jobs fund their legacy.

When your job is your legacy, then your legacy will not be visible for long. As a pastor of mine once put it, “You will be remembered slightly longer than it takes for the water in a bucket to fill up the hole that your hand left when you pulled it out of the water.”

What next? Job or legacy? How do they interrelate? What is your budget for each? In money? In time?

The tyranny of the urgent is a ruthless tyranny. It is the main source of the words, “You will be 30 before you know it.”

You will be 50 before you know it. Or were.

WHICH LAYER ARE YOU?

I was fortunate. In 1959, almost 50 years ago, I was in a classroom at my high school. It was lunch time. I had a flash of insight. I had been in that same room a year before at lunch time. Something in my perception of time went “click.” I knew I was running out of time.

In 1960, I decided what my legacy should be: a study of what the Bible has to say about economics.

In 1961, I moved to the second layer.

The second layer is when most people master their jobs and begin their legacy. The third layer is the period of finalizing the legacy.

For me, the timetable is on schedule. I plan to finish my economic commentary on the Bible by the end of 2009. It will be about 25 volumes long. If I do this, God willing, I will be two years ahead of schedule. I had targeted 2012 as the deadline for the completion of the exegetical foundation. I made that estimate in 1977. I have allocated 10 hours a week, 50 weeks a year to this task, with part of one year off: 1999.

The finalization process will be a series of books on the summation of the commentaries and structuring this information into a coherent pattern. I produced the outline in my 1987 book, Inherit the Earth. I must fill in the gaps and add the footnotes.

A good model for developing a legacy is Ludwig von Mises. He finished his first major book in 1912: The Theory of Money and Credit. This book reconstructed monetary theory by reworking his teacher Böhm-Bawerk’s theory of capital. That was a major theoretical book. Mises was 31 years old.

Eight years later, he took his insight into capital pricing and wrote an essay that showed why socialism is irrational: no system of pricing by asset owners. In 1922, his full-length refutation of socialism was published: Socialism.

He continued to rework economic theory in terms of these insights. His career illustrates the saying, “You cannot change just one thing.” He modified Böhm-Bawerk’s theory of capital in 1912, and he was not finished in 1922.

In 1940, he published a large treatise of economics in German. He was living as an exile in Switzerland. In 1949, his magnum opus, Human Action, was published by Yale University Press. Here was a treatise on economics that was both consistent and comprehensive — not quite violating Gdel’s theorem, but close. There had never been anything like it before. He was 68 years old. By that time, he had been a third layer man for almost half a century: 1903.

He stayed on the job for another two decades, retiring from teaching in 1969. Because he stayed on the job, Murray Rothbard and George Reisman became his students, the former as an auditor and the latter as one of his Ph.D. students. Also in this august group were Hans Sennholz and Israel Kirzner. Only one of Mises’s four Ph.D. students did not attain a lasting academic legacy: Louis Spadaro. Four Ph.D.’s in an academic career spanning over half a century does not seem like much. In terms of impact, it was.

When you are on the top layer, the clock should tick louder. Even though your hearing is declining, you should hear that clock.

How loud is it?

IMPLEMENTATION

If you are a second-layer person, you must work on your legacy. You must begin to budget for it. The time must be paid for. If you have a 40-hour week, and you want to launch a business on the side, then the second business will cut into your legacy time. I suggest that the second business be related closely to your legacy.

If you do not have the energy for a second business, then adopt a second unpaid career as a volunteer.

If you do not have time for a second career, I suggest that you take a pair of wire cutters and cut the wire on your television set. (Unplug it first.)

Your best strategy is to translate whatever you know of potential significance into a blog site or a web site. If not, then make sure you organize it by using a good free-form data base. I like NoteScribe. Your goal is to assemble the foundations of a package: a video project with screencasts, a PDF manual, and a PDF workbook, plus audio MP3’s for training. A free screencast program is CamStudio. Some good examples of teaching screencasts are on the NoteScribe site.

Here is a site that will get you started.

Get something in print or on-line. This discipline is crucial for leaving a legacy. The legacy must be passed down to people who will put it to immediate use and then extend it.

CONCLUSION

Moving to the third layer is a rite of passage. It should be a turning point in your life. There is no layer between you and the darkness.

Dylan Thomas said not to go quietly into that night.

Not with YouTube available, we shouldn’t.

Gary 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.

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