THE TEACHING ECONOMIST - William A. McEachern                 

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Issue 41, Fall 2011

William A. McEachern, Editor

BEN FRANKLIN: ECONOMIZER, ECONOMIST

Ben Franklin believed that we learn by engagement. As he put it, "Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn." He was a hands-on scientist and a hands-on economist. He tested his theories and demonstrated the results, as with his famous kite experiment. And he was an economizer. Most of his inventions used resources more efficiently. As he said, "Man is a tool-making animal," and so he was. For example, his invention of the lightning rod was used around the world unchanged for 170 years, saving many lives and thousands of structures. As the first postmaster general, he invented the odometer to use mail carts more efficiently. He redesigned street lamps to burn cleaner and require less maintenance. To save candles, he proposed daylight savings time. Compared to its predecessor, his Franklin stove was not only much safer (by reducing sparks that started fires), it used only one quarter the wood to give off twice the heat. His other inventions included bifocals, "fins" to aid swimmers, and an "extension arm" to help get books from high shelves. When asked what is the use of a new invention, he responded "what is the use of a newborn child?"

Franklin also thought deeply about economic issues. His first published research, "A Modest Enquiry into the Nature and Necessity of Paper Money," appeared when he was just 23. He anticipated the views of Malthus on population, he exchanged ideas on free trade with David Hume, and, according to some accounts, while living in Britain, he offered Adam Smith feedback on draft chapters of the Wealth of Nations. Eric Roll, in A History of Economic Thought (Prentice Hall, 1964), argued that "by common consent there is only one writer in [early American economic thought] who is worthy to be mentioned in the company of early political economists of Europe—Benjamin Franklin"(p. 417). Roll believed that Franklin "was as astute in economics as in other scientific matters" (p. 99).

From 25 years of his Poor Richard's Almanack (a self-help guide for the time), his many other publications, and his abundant correspondence, Franklin is the most quotable of the Founding Fathers. Here are some quotes on education and on other economic thoughts:

The value of education:

"An investment in knowledge pays the best interest."

"If a man empties his purse into his head, no one can take it from him."

"The doors of wisdom are never shut."

"Genius without education is like silver in the mine."

"Those that won't be counseled can't be helped."

"The only thing that is more expensive than education is ignorance."

"Being ignorant is not so much a shame as being unwilling to learn."

"Educate your children to self-control...and you have done much to abolish misery from their future and crimes from society."

Other economic thoughts:

"Remember, time is money."

"A penny saved is a penny earned."

"Creditors have better memories than debtors."

"If you would [like to] know the value of money, go and try to borrow some."

"One today is worth two tomorrows."

"When the well is dry, we know the worth of water."

"Beware of little expenses. A small leak can sink a great ship."

"A little neglect may breed mischief...For want of a nail, the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe, the horse was lost; and for want of a horse, the rider was lost."

"No nation was ever ruined by trade."

"Necessity never made a good bargain."

"There are two ways of being happy: We must either diminish our wants or augment our means."

"The U. S. Constitution doesn't guarantee happiness, only the pursuit of it. You have to catch up with it yourself."

"Happiness consists more in the small conveniences of pleasures that occur every day, than in great pieces of good fortune that happen but seldom to a man in the course of his life."

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