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The Virtual Economy

Economics is neither a science nor an art -- it's a tool, and like any tool it can be used to create or destroy.

It can also become rusty, broken or obsolete.

And that's where we are today, peering in confusion into a toolbox that doesn't contain one single implement that will fix the damage.

The problem is that the damage we're facing now is different from anything we've known. The economic meltdown -- as it is poetically referred to -- has not been caused by a breakdown in production, by inflation, by social upheaval, or even by war. Those are the usual suspects when your economy is "real" -- that is, when your economy is measured in goods and services.

But when your economy is running another program side by side, a program that has nothing to do with production but runs on speculation and dissimulation and manipulation, you're in trouble. Deep trouble.

That is the Virtual Economy that has just imploded, pulling everyone into a very black hole.

Moralists could have a field day with this, blaming greed and dishonesty for the disaster. True enough, but how many people saw the fundamental sham and vacuity of the Virtual Economy? How many people recognized that these hedge fund managers and investment brokers were just playing Monopoly on a huge scale? No, worse than playing Monopoly -- they were gambling. Trying -- and brilliantly succeeding -- to make money with money.

While many states were outlawing casinos and lotteries, these people were indulging in those very activities: games of chance backed up by some clever calculations, and maybe a foot on the hidden throttle.

Their winnings (don't call them "earnings"!) were lightly taxed, if at all, and their non-productive activity was factored into our economic picture, wildly distorting it. Their tentacles reached invisibly into so many areas of American life that only the poorest of the poor and the richest of the rich were untouched and unaffected.

That is why it seems the Virtual Economy has to be "saved" now, or the disaster will spread further into the Real Economy; we know it has already begun. But are we, implausibly, saving the gamblers? And, irrationally, preserving the system? Are we putting a 700-billion dollar Band-Aid on an infected limb that needs to be amputated?

The problem with anything virtual is its elusive, illusory nature. You can't exactly see it, locate it, touch it. But the Virtual Economy must be seized and dismantled, redefined and restructured, and carefully regulated and reintegrated if it is ever to serve a useful purpose.

And at the moment, I can't see that it ever will.