Jun

10

 There is in my opinion a great similarity between the problems provided by the mysterious behavior of the atom and those provided by the present economic paradoxes confronting the world. In both cases one is given a great many facts which are expressible with numbers, and one has to find the underlying principles. The methods of theoretical physics should be applicable to all those branches of thought in which the essential features are expressible with numbers.

I should like to suggest to you that the cause of all the economic troubles is that we have an economic system which tries to maintain an equality of value between two things, which it would be better to recognise from the beginning as of unequal value. These two things are the receipt of a certain single payment (say 100 crowns) and the receipt of a regular income (say 3 crowns a year) through all eternity. The course of events is continually showing that the second of these is more highly valued than the first. The shortage of buyers, which the world is suffering from, is readily understood, not as due to people not wishing to obtain possession of goods, but as people being unwilling to part with something which might earn a regular income in exchange for those goods. May I ask you to trace out for yourselves how all the obscurities become clear, if one assumes from the beginning that a regular income is worth incomparably more, in fact infinitely more, in the mathematical sense, than any single payment? In doing so I think you would then get a better insight into the way in which a physical theory is fitted in with the facts than you could get from studying popular books on physics.

Paul Dirac said this at the banquet for the Nobel prize winners in 1933. If you bother to search the net on this topic, you will find the usual harrumphing of the Economics degree holders (Tyler Cowen offers his usual Berkeley snot rockets) about how Dirac was a genius but not as smart as they are about their subject.

Dirac never again discussed economics in public or private. He had thought about what the fundamental principles could be and offered his quiet suggestion about where so far they had failed to pass the test that physicists were required to apply to their work. The theory of discounting did not compute successfully as a prediction of future events. In pointing out the infinitely greater value (in a numerical sense of that tricky word) of a time series (which is how the math works out even for us village idiots) versus a single payment, Dirac was telling his audience what physicists were struggling with - those bothersome infinities that keep destroying the mathematical truths and beauties of our thoughts about nature.


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