Our Economic Past | Stephen Davies

The Great Horse-Manure Crisis of 1894


"These prophets of doom rely on one thing—that their audience will not check the record of such predictions.

In fact, the history of prophecy is one of failure and oversight.

Many predictions (usually of doom) have not come to pass, while other things have happened that nobody foresaw.

Even brief research will turn up numerous examples of both, such as the many predictions in the 1930s—about a decade before the baby boom began

—that the populations of most Western countries were about to enter a terminal decline.

In other cases, people have made predictions that have turned out to be laughably overmodest,

such as the nineteenth-century editor’s much-ridiculed forecast that by 1950 every town in America would have a telephone,

or Bill Gates’s remark a few years ago that 64 kilobytes of memory is enough for anyone.

The fundamental problem with most predictions of this kind, and particularly the gloomy ones,

is that they make a critical, false assumption: that things will go on as they are.

This assumption in turn comes from overlooking one of the basic insights of economics: that people respond to incentives.

In a system of free exchange, people receive all kinds of signals that lead them to solve problems.

The prophets of doom come to their despondent conclusions because in their world,

nobody has any kind of creativity or independence of thought—except for themselves of course."


The Horse Manure Problem

March 29, 2011 at 1:23 pm


"In 1894, the Times of London estimated that by 1950 every street in the city

would be buried nine feet deep in horse manure.

One New York prognosticator of the 1890s concluded that by 1930

the horse droppings would rise to Manhattan’s third-story windows."