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What lies ahead for the U.S. economy? Will it remain strong? Or will it collapse? Will all the Internet billionaires go broke and be forced to use their Palm Pilots to kill rats for food? Wouldn't that be great?
To answer these questions, we need to understand how the U.S. economy works. We'll start by following an imaginary dollar bill on its fascinating journey as it circulates through our economic system:
Our dollar is ``born'' in the U.S. Mint when a blank piece of paper goes into a printing press and comes out with a picture of George Washington and a pyramid with a weird eyeball. It then travels, with millions just like it, on a conveyor belt to the office of the Treasury Secretary, who sits at his desk 24 hours a day with a pen and a huge bottle of amphetamines. After he signs the dollar, he places it into circulation by tossing it out the window behind him. At this point we lose track of it. All we know is that it eventually winds up in the possession of Bill Gates.
So never mind following the money. Money is an outdated concept anyway: The hot thing is stocks. Stocks are BETTER than money, because with money, there's no mystery about what it's worth: If you have $2,038 at 10 a.m., it will be the same old boring $2,038 at 5 p.m. Whereas if you own stocks, you have the excitement of knowing that at any moment you could be wiped out by economic forces that you do not even dimly comprehend. This is called ``owning a piece of the pie,'' and it is the dream that has millions of hard-working, clueless Americans investing everything in the Stock Market, a place operated by shouting men with big armpit stains. You should get in on this immediately. It's easy! You need to understand only two things, which are called the ``Dow'' and the ``NASDAQ.''
The ``Dow,'' or ``Dow Jones Industrial Average'' for short, is calculated by adding up the stock prices of 50 major companies, then dividing by the number of times they get on base. The Dow represents the Old Economy, defined as ``companies that still write on animal skins.'' These are the obsolete, dinosaur companies that are still trying to make money by - get ready to laugh - actually manufacturing some kind of product. Ha ha!
This concept has two big economic flaws. First, it involves labor, which is, almost by definition, work. Second, when you produce a physical product, you run the risk that it will fall into the hands of the American consumer, who is the least intelligent life form on Earth, including the sugar beet. Whatever your product is, some consumer will find a way to injure himself with it. Then you'll get sued, and the plaintiff's lawyer will make you admit, in court, that NOWHERE on your product did you put a warning label stating that the consumer should not set it on fire and jam it into his ear canal. Then the jury - consisting of consumers - will find you guilty and award the plaintiff the biggest number of dollars it can think of (currently, a ``skillion'').
So the U.S. is turning the business of making things over to the Third World, which doesn't mind becoming a manufacturing-based economy, because until just recently its economy was based on yaks. Meanwhile, we're developing a New Economy, based on the ``NASDAQ'' (which stands for ``a bunch of letters''). This is an ``information-based'' economy, defined as ``an economy in which you can't figure out what anybody actually does.'' The key activity is buying stock in ``NASDAQ'' companies, which have value because they run the Internet, which is the engine that powers the economy because it provides everybody with vital information, mainly about how the ``NASDAQ'' is doing.
The other essential tool of the ``information economy'' is the cellular telephone, which enables businesspeople, wherever they are, to attempt unsuccessfully to return each other's voicemails. In airports, I have eavesdropped on hundreds of businesspeople's phone conversations (they use ``high-tech'' headsets that require them to shout, so the only way NOT to eavesdrop on them is to be deaf). As far as I can tell, none of these people has ever actually reached the person he or she wanted to talk to. But they keep trying! They are in the airport right now, pacing and shouting to nobody. This kind of productivity would be impossible without information technology.
And it's just the beginning. Some day, our economy will become so advanced, so purely informational, that we won't even walk around. We'll just lie on our backs, motionless, while the Third World takes care of all of our bodily functions for us, including chewing our food. I hope you like yak.
Dave Barry is a humor columnist for the Miami Herald.