The world today is in the hands of a set of quacks who pass themselves off as "Economists"; their pseudo-economic science is nothing but ancient superstition dressed in modern garb. Yesterday they sold us "Indulgences", today they sell State Bonds. The whole spectacle should be riotously funny except for the fact that these quacks and their coterie of flatterers who grant them awards, distinctions and Nobel Prizes have driven the world to the brink of destruction.
We behold a spectacle worthy of the satire of the great Erasmus of Rotterdam, who wrote his immortal "In Praise Folly" in 1511. His treatise became the world's first "Best Seller" - all literate Europe read it and laughed. Laughter is an enormously effective demolisher of pomposity, as the semiologist Humberto Eco pointed out in his book "The Name of the Rose".
Would that we had an Erasmus around , to make the world laugh itself silly at the antics of the quacks who pass themselves off as Economists, Central Bankers and Finance Ministers in the world today.
Erasmus poked fun at his 16th Century world, saying that the supreme goddess who ruled it was "Folly": she determines all events.
An interesting and important exceptional case of the defeat of Folly, or Quackery as I should like to call it, presented itself in London in the middle of the 19th Century.
Perhaps the most frightening threat that faced 19th Century Europe was the ever-present possibility of the plague of cholera, which took off tens and hundreds of thousands of Europeans in sudden, unexplained outbreaks in its populous cities. A city-dweller might leave his neighborhood for a weekend in the country, and return to find that 10% of his neighbors were being carted off in boxes to the graveyard.
The prevailing idea was that cholera was airborne; stench denoted sickness, and in London in the 1850's there were stinking places aplenty. There was no central sewage; human excrement was deposited in the cesspools under the cellars of buildings; the cesspools frequently overflowed into the cellars and courtyards in poorer neighborhoods. Cesspools were periodically emptied by "night-soil men", and the contents was carted off to the fields, but it was a costly operation. What sewers there were, discharged into the Thames as a grand sewer, which produced such an unbearable stench that, one memorable Summer, Parliament was forced to adjourn.
The reigning medical quacks had convinced the civil authorities that cholera was airborne and refused to contemplate any other cause as possible.
Think of Draghi. Or Ms. Yellen. Or Ben. They will simply not listen to reason. QE to Infinity - the mark of the quack.
In 1836 a young man of humble origin walked 200 miles from the North of England to London, in order to become a doctor. He was an unprepossessing genius.
His name was John Snow. By 1853 he had developed a reliable technique for relieving pain safely in surgical procedures, using ether or chloroform. Queen Victoria, about to have her eighth child, was interested. Snow was summoned and he administered chloroform to the Queen in labor, with success. The humble John Snow thus reached the pinnacle of prestige in the medical community.
But success did not diminish Snow's inborn genius for investigation.
In the Summer of 1854, cholera struck the area of London's Soho. People began to die by the hundreds. The civil authorities blamed the plague on the stench prevailing in the area.
This theory did not make sense to Snow. Does Draghi make sense? Snow thought that if the mortal illness came from the intestines - the intestines practically dissolved in violent diarrhea leading to death in a matter of hours - therefore, the disease had to enter the body through the mouth, not through the air. His opinion was ridiculed.
The most prestigious doctor in England did not remain in his office, as he might have done, for his personal future held brilliant prospects. Snow walked through Soho and took copious notes of what was happening "on the ground" among the sick and dying.
He drew a map, which in later years became quite famous, of the area struck by cholera, and noticed that the recorded deaths were clearly associated with the presence of a water pump at 40 Broad Street.
A week after the plague began he went to a meeting of the Board of Governors of St. James Parish and showed them his map, and beseeched them to remove the handle of the pump at 40 Broad Street. The Board had serious misgivings but finally acceded to his request. The cholera plague subsided. Can we hope that the quackery of Keynesianism will be ever-so-reluctantly abandoned, somewhere, with a return to real money once again?
The final lynch-pin which substantiated Snow's intuition that the water in the pump was causing cholera, was furnished by a resident of Soho: a minister of the Church of England who loved and cared for his flock, Rev. Whitehead.
Whitehead had initially opposed Snow's view, but finally came around to be his most ardent supporter. Whitehead decided to explore the cesspool of the house that faced the pump; this was the house where a baby girl had been the first victim of cholera. The cesspool was found to consist of rotten bricks and its effluent was discharging into the well at 40 Broad Street! Thus the sickness had migrated from the baby girl's excrement, to the cesspool of the house where she had been sick, to the water pump's well and thence to the whole community.
Snow's genius prevailed, in due course. It took some time, but at last his doctrine was accepted and the "miasmatists" - those who thought of cholera as airborne in stinking air - were forgotten. Eventually, a huge program for city sewage was implemented, a true wonder of engineering, and London's sewage was diverted to the lower Thames, where the tides took it out to sea.
Had it not been for Snow, London might have eventually faced an existential threat from cholera. Thanks to Snow, the quacks were defeated, and reason prevailed. Can we hope for reason to prevail in a world run by quacks in Economics, in Central Banking, in Finance Ministries? Snow showed London, "It's the shit in the water that's killing us!" When are the world's quack economists going to accept that it's central banking and the fiat money shit it issues that is killing our world?
Snow knew that the disease was propagated through remains of excrement of sick individuals in drinking water, but he never learnt what it was in the excrement, that caused cholera,for he died in 1858, at 45 years of age. In the 1850's, the use of microscopes to detect microbes had not come into wide use. Three decades later, Koch discovered the cause of TB, "Koch's bacillus", and further identified the cause of cholera as Vibrio cholerae; but further research proved that an Italian, Pacini, had discovered the microbes (animalcules, he called them) in 1854 - though nobody had paid any attention. So today the microbe that causes cholera is known as Vibrio cholerae Pacini 1854.
* * *
Nothing at all has changed in the 504 years since Erasmus wrote "In Praise of Folly", to the delighted amusement of all Europe.
Erasmus' Folly, the goddess who rules the world, is taking us to destruction.
I close with lines from the play "The Cocktail Party" by T. S. Eliot:
"The circle of our understanding
is a very restricted area.
Except for a limited number
of strictly practical purposes
we do not know what we are doing."
* * *
(For further reading on Cholera, I recommend the fascinating account by Steven Johnson, "The Ghost Map", published by Riverhead Books, N.Y., 2006.)