Okay, today I am looking for help in understanding how there is a market for vending machines selling gold in malls in an economy in which nobody has any money, nobody is making any money and nobody is spending any money.
I am sure somebody out there can help — preferably not someone from Lehman Brothers.
Peculiar circumstances, too involved to explain here, once put me in the position of having to testify in court that just because I didn't know something, that didn't mean that it was unknowable.
I had no trouble saying that what I didn't know could fill volumes. That seemed to satisfy the lawyers, and I am completely comfortable and at home with a realistic assessment of my own ignorance. Heck, it worked for Socrates.
And I'll admit in a heartbeat that one of the things I don't know much about is economics. If I did, I would have known exactly what the product was that Enron was buying and selling. Today I would understand the widget business better.
By widgets, I don't mean the cute little things that show up on the touch screen of your smart phone, sometimes because Google is just sure you'll want to know about whatever mysteries they unveil. I'm talking about the original widgets, which were fictional thingamabobs in the 1924 George Kaufman play Beggar on Horseback. They were used to represent nonspecific manufacturables for decades until the techies stole the term from us, just as they stole "file" and "tools" and "buttons."
In today's economy, we are told that nobody is making widgets because nobody is buying them because the people who used to make widgets are out of work and not buying things the widget-buyers sell to get enough money to buy widgets.
It's sort of like the Laffer curve (which deals with tax rates and economic growth), except that instead of a curve, it's portrayed as more of a downward death spiral.
My question is this: Why, then, is the stock market — which gives us a snapshot of how sales of widgets and other things and their futures are doing — going up when it represents what we are told is a reality in which everything is going down?
Who is buying stock in what and why? My builder friends still aren't building anything, my automobile-selling friends still aren't selling anything, and if you want to clear a room full of bankers in a hurry, just say the word "loan" in a soft voice.
So who is using his leftover dollars to pop down to the mall and buy a few gold coins or some Credit Suisse gold bullion bars out of a vending machine?
There is already one in the Town Center mall in Boca Raton (where, admittedly, the economic Richter scale is a little on the muted side). Some 20 other gold vending machines are in malls scattered around Europe, and one in Abu Dhabi is such a hit that it has to be refilled daily.
Okay, if you have refilled your tank lately, you can understand the Abu Dhabi part, and if you believe the oil-producing nations, you can keep blaming the speculators … some of whom apparently live in Boca Raton.
Are enough people listening to Glenn Beck, Chicken Little and the rest of that fraternity about how the economy is crashing and we have to rely on God, Guns and Gold to save ourselves when the imminent (imminent for a few decades now) crash finally happens?
Look. I'm human. Somewhere in the depths of my soul the ghost of Wallace Beery as Long John Silver leers and rubs its hands together at the thought of fondling a Krugerrand or two or tucking a few velvet-bagged bullion bars or discs into my safe deposit box. And, gold prices being what they are, it's probably not a bad investment.
But running down to the mall and loading up on gold because you think it will be all that much help makes as much sense as listening to Homeland Security's advice about protecting yourself from biological and chemical agents by sealing yourself in a room with sheets of plastic and duct tape. (A good idea until the oxygen runs out, but the manual didn't get that far.)
I was at a social event a year or so back when I met a gold dealer and remarked, conversationally, that his seemed like an interesting occupation, as long as he wasn't one of those nuts who kept telling people they had to have gold to survive the coming economic apocalypse.
I knew I had made a mistake when he got that sort of distant look in his eye and said, "Well, actually … "
Like I said, there is a lot I don't know.
But after the collapse, when it is just you and Mad Max holding off the rampaging hordes, nothing is going to help for long.
If, instead, we have slipped into some kind of bare-subsistence bartering economy, American Gold Eagles and your wedding ring and that charm bracelet you haven't worn since high school might help you out.
But my guess is that a can of Dinty Moore Beef Stew will take you farther … and further.