There's a Place for Bum-clock Investing

TurboTax is coming out of the box today. While money is on our mind, I want to point out that there's a place for bum-clock investing. Let me explain.  

There's an Irish folktale in which a poor widow tells son Jack to sell the cow at market. He goes and sees a man who has a mouse, a bum-clock (cockroach), and a bee that plays the harp. When he whistles, the bee plays the harp and the mouse and bum-clock dance - and everybody and everything else can't help but dance, too. Totally charmed, Jack trades the cow for the bee and harp and goes home. "Money?" Mother asks. "Not money, but value!" says Jack, and the mother agrees - for the few minutes that the whole house dances. Then everything settles and she's furious. She sends him to market again with the second cow. The mouse comes home. "Not money, but value!" Same delightful dancing followed by the same wrathful scolding. Of course, the mother sends him yet again with their very last cow. Of course, he comes back with the bum-clock.

This time Jack sees his folly and penitently wanders from home. Fortunately, his wanderings lead him to a joyless princess whose father will offer her in marriage to anyone who can make her laugh. Well. What else would a bee, a harp, a mouse, and a bum-clock be good for? Of course he gets the princess and all connected royalty and riches.

This tale might remind you of "Jack and the Beanstalk," but the Beanstalk investment was 100% speculation. The Bum-clock investment had immediate pay-off. Jack saw value in the product itself. He saw beauty. Not money, but value.

Now, I'm not advocating frivolity, either for the poor or rich. There are dire needs that must be met before many a pleasure. But let's not forget that part of being human is enjoying what is beautiful and not just what is necessary.

Charles Ingalls did not forget this. If you read the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder you will be impressed by how hardscrabble the settler life was. Pa Ingalls excitedly leaves one farm so he can take a job that will pay him $50 a month and give him an early shot at picking a claim. Laura is wide-eyed about her first teaching job which will pay her $40 for two months. But just a couple years later, after several such teaching jobs, Pa asks her if she could help him buy an organ. For. One. Hundred. Dollars. 

An organ? Not seed? Not a machine? Not stock? An organ? 

Pa saw in the organ not money, but value. Laura's sister Mary would come home from college, forced by blindness to live with her family the rest of her days. But she could play the organ. It was pleasure for her, beauty for them. Not money, but value. 

They bought the organ.

Pa and Laura funded beauty from near-poverty. Let's look at someone who funds it from wealth. A fascinating NOVA documentary highlights Michael Scott, who was the first CEO of Apple. Today he invests in color. Color. He has a state-of-the-art gem lab. In Treasures of the Earth: Gems, NOVA says Scott has built "the world's largest database of minerals, their structures, their properties, their optical characteristics, so we understand this rich realm, the kingdom of minerals, in much more complexity and completeness than we ever have before." 

What will this knowledge do for humanity? Haven't a clue. But, "knowledge is never wasted," I heard a man say. You never know how the knowledge gathered in following your interests will help others. 

Now in each example, both parties saw value that only they had the power to assess. The next Ag bill wasn't going to give settlers subsidies for organs. I'm less certain whether modern-day research foundations would fund Scott's gem lab. But I don't think it's likely with competition from energy, cancer, and climatology.

And this is a reason I gladly consent to capitalism and laissez-faire economics. Capitalism enables the everyman to patronize beauty.

There's a lot of confusion as to what capitalism actually is. I don't mean cronyism. I don't mean a system engineered to give privileges to Corporate America. Capitalism is not an engineered system at all. It is a description of what naturally happens when individuals control their money and property. When individuals have personal economic freedom - and are protected from suppression, whether of the government or other private parties - the mechanisms of supply-and-demand and free competition begin to form the river of a diverse economy. 

An engineered system like socialism dams up the river so the water can go to places by design. Problem is, it also dams up the source of the flow by removing incentives to innovate and work. This is why socialism can look good at first when implemented in a rich country. It has a lot of resources to distribute. But over time it will exhaust them, and you'll see the lines get longer and longer for goods and services.  Moreover, those "goods and services" are decided by a smallish group of people contending with layers of regulations and politics.

So if economic incentives to be industrious are dried up, leaving people dependent on government programs* (by nature inefficient), and those government programs have to prioritize necessary things, then the average person will not have the means to finance beauty.

How do you think the average independent artist will fare in such an economy? If his potential fan base is less able to make and find work? If it must hand over much of its money to a bureaucracy that will use it first to fund itself and second distribute food stamps and health care?

Now, free market capitalism, just like democracy, will not make a people better. It's up to individuals and institutions to educate and elevate. But if we want a free society, what alternatives to the free market actually work?

So. Everybody. Indie artists benefit from capitalism. Because it lets everyone be free to do their own bum-clock investing - not for money, but value!

*Certainly there is still a place for public welfare programs from both a humane and public safety perspective.

P.S. This post has some huge terms that beg to be defined and more thoroughly defended. I know. I have to leave it as is for now.

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