Putting All Your Potatoes in One Basket

How the dismal science applies to your life.
March 13 2001 9:00 PM

Putting All Your Potatoes in One Basket

The economic lessons of the Great Famine. 

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The analogy is imperfect: Nineteenth-century Irish potato farmers thought the famine was temporary and therefore underreacted (continuing to plant as before), while 1980s American manufacturing workers thought the widening wage gap was temporary and therefore overreacted. In both cases, inappropriate reactions magnified the effects of the initial surprise.

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One moral is that it's better not to make mistakes than to make mistakes. But of course we already knew that. The deeper moral is that one particular kind of mistake—a confusion between what is temporary and what is permanent—can explain a lot of human history.

Steven E. Landsburg is the author, most recently, ofMore Sex Is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics. You can e-mail him at armchair@landsburg.com.

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