Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Dismal Science

I have been undergoing a massive personal project for the past several months -- self-education in the field of Economics. I'm amazed, and a bit embarrassed, that I have gone so long without building a solid baseline of knowledge in the subject. But the bright side here is that since I'm starting from such a meager position, there's been a great marginal return on the effort I've made so far (that was honestly not some kind of play on words, I had no other way to say that). I'm making my way through a lot of the popular literature on Economic Theory, investing, real estate, taxation, economic history, etc. These aren't dense academic texts (and in no way am I claiming, or will I ever claim, to be an expert on the subject) but more the type of stuff you can find in an everyday library or bookstore.

I think part of my impetus for doing this is that now that I'm three years into the *real world* I'm making more and more significant economic decisions. For instance, I had never had the disposable income with which to buy stocks until I returned from my 2006-07 deployment, so I never really felt a strong desire to want to learn everything I could about the stock market. Now that I'm an active participant in the market, it's much more rewarding to read a book like Jeremy Siegel's "The Future for Investors" or Burton Malkiel's "A Random Walk Down Wall Street" (I highly recommend these, by the way) because I can actually put the principles to use. If you don't have time to read them, go long with index funds and look for solid buys with low P/E ratios and healthy dividend yields!

Also, I've never bought any kind of real estate, ever. In fact, the biggest purchase I've ever made was the 2001 A4 that I bought during OCS (and am still feeling a $328/mo hit for). But now that I'm very seriously looking at condos up Lowell, I suddenly have a strong incentive to want to read everything real-estate that I can get my hands on. And on top of that, I have a whole new interest in what the Fed does (even if Ben Bernanke is far from being the most powerful man on the planet, he matters to me in a whole new way).

I imagine that I'll go through a similar process with subjects that I don't *really* care about now (i.e. home improvement) when the right time comes.

I am writing just to share that this has made an enormous impact on the way I read the morning newspaper, the way I interpret things that political candidates say, and -- without getting too dramatic here -- the way I see the world around me. And just a couple months ago, I had no idea what a hedge fund was, and wouldn't have known a large-cap stock from a REIT from a hole in the ground. Of course, there are still miles to go, and I don't plan on stopping anytime soon.

So what's my point? If you don't understand Economics, you don't really understand what's going on around you. You can read all the books about policy, politics, and history that you want. You can read the Big Three weeklies cover-to-cover. You can watch cable news all day. You might even know the names, parties, and major positions of all 50 Governors and 100 Senators. But guess what? You're nothing without a solid foundation in Economics.

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