Thursday, December 04, 2008

Of Chicken Hearts and the Economy

I really enjoy old-time radio. I love listening to programs like "The Golden Days of Radio" and "The Big Broadcast" that feature the great old radio comedies, mysteries, dramas, and the science fiction/horror stories that only radio can do so well.

One of my favorite classic radio stories was a 1937 episode of Arch Oboler's Lights Out! program titled, "Chicken Heart." The story concerned a scientific experiment in which a disembodied chicken heart kept artificially alive in a laboratory suddenly started to grow. It kept growing (with the appropriate rhythmic thump-thump, thump-thump sound effects) until it eventually grew so large that it covered the earth. In the final moments of the story, the narrator is flying above a world that is nothing more than a vast, pulsating chicken heart...we hear his voice over the mighty pounding of the chicken heart below, the drone of the airplane's engine gradually sputters out for lack of fuel, and ... well ... use your imagination. That's the beauty of radio, after all.

I was thinking about the chicken heart story last night as I pondered the smoking crater where my retirement investments used to be.

It seems that there's a cautionary tale here. The chicken heart in the story kept growing without limits, eventually destroying the entire world. In the same way, economists (and those of us who used to trust them) expected that the economy would keep growing without limit or risk, generating more and more wealth. Well, the economy has chicken-hearted on us, if I may coin the term. We've learned that there's no such thing as endless growth without consequences. "Financial instruments" which assumed ever-increasing home prices to back mortgage debt as an investment imploded along with the collapse of the housing market, dragging everything else down with them. The real estate bubble burst, leaving many people with mortgages far in excess of the new, real value of their homes. The quest for ever-increasing profits and ever-lower prices sent jobs overseas, throwing millions of people out of work...and making them unable to take advantage of those lower prices.

You can almost hear that chicken heart beating in the background.

I guess the lesson is that endless, unrestrained growth is not always a good thing. I don't think Arch Oboler had the economy in mind when he produced the story of the chicken heart, but it nevertheless provides food for thought.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


P.S. - Comedian Bill Cosby did a hilarious routine based on the Chicken Heart broadcast, which you can enjoy - with his inimitable sound effects - on his 1966 album, Wonderfulness.


Mal's Team Gherkin said...

I grew-up adoring those 1950's British BBC radio comedies, like Tony Hancock, The Goon Show, and Yes What?

Mal :)

KKTSews said...

Sometime in high school I recalling learning about the Tulip bulb bubble and the only thing that stuck in my head was that supposedly rational people were paying the equivalent of hundreds of dollars for a single tulip bulb--back in the 1600's or so. The lesson I learned was two-fold: 1) the "herd" doesn't make rational economic decisions and 2) every bubble eventually bursts. Now, I hate economics, but I wonder why economists don't recall this basic story.

Mike said...

I've heard that some economists are quitting their jobs and trying to get hired on as gypsy fortune tellers. But they're getting turned down for lack of experience.

Melissa B. said...

I was thinking about retiring (well, the term is relative, since I'm WAY under age!)in a couple of years, when I'd be young enough to still enjoy life. Oh, well. I'll probably end up being one of those crochity old bags with a cane, hitting my little whippersnappers over the head when they get out of line! BTW, I'm a finalist for a Pretty Neat Blog Award. Sure would appreciate your vote! Please come by to see me to get the details. Thanks!!