“Never Waste A Good Worry”

I joined a book discussion group and read the following in this week’s book: “As the world’s population reaches seven billion people, the earth is filled. Not only is the earth filled, human population is in danger of overwhelming the earth, and of making life exceedingly difficult for future generations.” The author seems thoughtful and concerned and his point seems reasonable. The only problem is that it’s completely wrong.

The aforementioned population problem (called the “Malthusian Trap”) is the crux of “Malthusian Theory,” which argues that the human population will overwhelm the available resources. These terms are named after Thomas Robert Malthus, who warned about these dangers in…1798. Or, put another way, over 220 years ago. This fear of overpopulation has been around for at least 220+ years and there are still people worrying about it. “Just wait,” they say. 

Another issue people have worried about for centuries is the national debt. Ever since Alexander Hamilton led the federal government’s decision to assume the colonies’ Revolutionary War debts (called “assumption”), Americans have been worrying about the debt. Thomas Jefferson famously opposed assumption, railed against the national debt, and even tried to pay it down while in office (just a couple years after Malthus penned his theory). Yet, like Malthus, Jefferson’s fear has not yet been realized after 200+ years. The national debt has been an issue in nearly every political election for 200 years, often framed as an imminent threat that is out of control. Yet, America grew from 13 rebel colonies to the wealthiest most powerful nation on earth. Of course, these debt worriers also say, “Just wait.”

Perhaps the global population will overwhelm the available resources or the national debt will drive America to ruin. But I wouldn’t bet on those things. I’d bet that agriculture and technology continue to improve as they always have and that we will not run out of resources. I’ll bet that the national debt will not harm the US in my lifetime. I could be wrong on either issue, but other side has been wrong for 200+ years on both issues. 

So, what does this have to do with investing? There are fears based on real risks and there are fears based on perceived risks. I obviously believe the above two issues are way more perceived than real, but there are many other less obvious examples where we tend to fear unnecessarily. Add in that humans are wired to overreact to fear, pessimism often sounds more convincing that optimism, and that we are easily seduced by logic and theories even when reality, history, and empirical evidence doesn’t agree. Clearly, there are times to be cautious and exercise caution, but not always.

To close, I’ll share that I was a worrisome kid (heck, I’m still a worrier). Whenever I shared a worry or fear with my dad, he nearly always gave me the same advice: “Matt, I’ve learned that most of my fears are never realized. Most of my worries never come to pass. I learned to ‘never waste a good worry.'”

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