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Interview with Ben Franklin: Part 1

Interview with Ben Franklin: Part 1
A Transcript of Investment U’s “Live” Interview

Hello, investors, this is Mark Skousen, chairman of Investment University.  A very happy welcome to the IU subscribers who have signed up for this first “Celebrity Crossover”!

You are in for a treat — a live chat with the most famous First American, a true international man, an inventor, successful businessman, ambassador extraordinaire, and America’s #1 financial guru:  Benjamin Franklin, on this special day of days, the 300th birthday of America’s favorite Founding Father.

As an 8th generation grandson of ol’ Ben, I consider it an honor to interview him this evening on this 300th birthday.  I am a direct descendant through my mother’s line….in fact, my mother Helen Louise McCarty has an uncanny resemblance to Ben Franklin.

Through modern technology, we have connected this evening with Dr. Franklin in cyberspace.  He has indicated his willingness to answer any and all questions for the next hour, but we understand he has another engagement hereafter, so we need to be quick and get in as many questions as we can.

One housekeeping announcement:  Right after the live chat with Dr. Franklin, we will send you a quick survey of tonight’s program.  We hope you will take the time to give us your feedback and tell us who you would like us to interview next.  Another financial guru such as J. P. Morgan, Ben Graham, or Alexander Hamilton?  Or perhaps a celebrity such as Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, JFK, Gen. Patton, or Albert Einstein?  You tell us!  Anything is possible for the next “Celebrity Crossover.”

I’ve already received several hundred questions from anxious subscribers, so let’s get started with our conference call to Dr. Franklin and our first question.

MARK SKOUSEN:  Hello, Dr. Franklin, are you there?

MARK SKOUSEN:  We seem to be having some technical difficulties…..Please stand by….

MARK SKOUSEN:  Okay, I think we now have Dr. Franklin online.  Hello, Dr. Franklin? 

DR. BEN FRANKLIN:  Yes, I am here.  I pray you may forgive my lateness, as I was engaged in some important business in another galaxy.  Space travel is most agreeable in the world of spirits! 

MARK SKOUSEN:  Doctor Franklin, welcome to Investment U’s first edition of “Celebrity Crossover.”  And Happy 300th birthday!  We are delighted to have you as our very first guest.

FRANKLIN:  I’m honored to be Investment U’s first guest on this very special day.  You have done a great job educating investors.  I have always been a firm advocate of self-improvement.  As Poor Richard says, “Genius without education is like silver in the mind.”

But enough of that.  Time is money!  I am permitted to speak with you for only one hour on this important day.  What is your first question? 

MARK SKOUSEN:  Thanks, Dr. Franklin.  Our first question comes from IU subscriber Angel, who asks “How do you feel about being on the $100 bill?”

DR. BEN FRANKLIN:  Oh!  It does indeed please my vanity to be 100 times more valuable than the father of our nation, my good friend Gen. Washington! 

MARK SKOUSEN:  Speaking of Gen. Washington, I see that recently you and Gen. Washington were voted among the top five greatest Americans of all time.  How does it feel to be a celebrity? 

DR. FRANKIN:  To be perfectly honest, I am perfectly sick of it!  When I was minister to France, besides being harassed with too much business, I was exposed to numerous visits, some of kindness and civility, but many of mere idle curiosity.  These devoured my hours, and broke my attention, and at night I often found myself fatigued without having done anything.   I sometimes feel the same way here in the world of spirits, with a constant stream of visitors and relatives I never knew I had! 

MARK SKOUSEN:  How important was your role in founding our great nation?  French finance minister Turgot said you stole the thunder from heaven and the scepter from tyrants. 

DR. BEN FRANKLIN:  I do not feel that I should take too much credit for America’s founding.  The revolution was the work of many able and brave men, wherein it is sufficient honor for me if I am allowed a small share.  

MARK SKOUSEN:  Dick B. asks an economic question:  “Are you concerned about inflation and the declining value of the $100 bill?”

DR. BEN FRANKLIN:  In life nothing is certain but death and taxes, but now I see I must add inflation to the list.  With your constant inflation, it seems I become more popular ever day, and now my face is as well known as the moon.  My only fear is that your government will soon abandon banknotes entirely in favor a cashless society, leaving the greatest nation in the world with no daily reminder of its most famous philosopher!   

MARK SKOUSEN:  Several of our subscribers blame our central bank, the Federal Reserve, for the constant depreciation of our currency.  Craig R. wonders “Should the Fed go back on a gold standard to return discipline to our government and stop the inflation?”

DR. BEN FRANKLIN:  I favor a hard currency with considerable flexibility according to commerce.  Because of our lack of sufficient quantity of hard money in our country, I published a pamphlet in Philadelphia favoring paper money in moderate quantities, and found it be highly beneficial to commerce.  But during the Revolutionary War, the public demanded more than was necessary because they were not willing to pay their taxes.  The Continental dollar depreciated rapidly and hurt our credit both here and abroad, and I was often unable to sleep at night because of the financial distress. 

MARK SKOUSEN:  Jim T. wants to know if you think the Fed should be abolished.

DR. BEN FRANKLIN:  In the 1780s, there was a great deal of opposition to the Bank of North America, but I had a very good opinion of it and owned ten shares.  It withstood all attacks and went on well, and the dividend was never less than six percent.  Their notes were always instantly paid on demand and were accepted on all occasions as readily as silver.  After my death, I was happy to see the creation of the Bank of the United States, the first central bank, by the able Mr. Hamilton, and was sorry to see its demise.  I am of the opinion that America would have enjoyed a greater, more long lasting prosperity had it maintain a prudent central bank throughout the past two centuries, although it appears that your central bank since 1913 has undoubtedly issued too much credit. 

MARK SKOUSEN:  Quite a few subscribers want to know if you share their deep concern about various problems in America today.  Carl B., for example, asks, “What do you think of the nation’s huge trade deficits, big government, the war in Iraq, the loss of jobs to outsourcing, the Patriot Act and the potential loss of our civil liberties, CEO scandals, and a collapsing dollar?”

DR. BEN FRANKLIN:  Stop!  Stop!   I see nothing has changed since I left this sad world over 200 years ago.  Upon my return from France, I saw in the public papers frequent complaints of hard times, etc.  There can be no country in which there are not some sort of troubles.  And it is always in the power of a small number to make a great clamor.  So my advice to you is to take a cool view of the general state of affairs, and perhaps the prospects will appear less gloomy than you have imagined. 

MARK SKOUSEN:  So you are still an optimist about the future of the United States?

DR. BEN FRANKLIN:  Long ago I said that with God’s blessing, America is destined to become a great and happy country.  I still believe this.  When I see the extravagant rejoices every 4th of July, the day on which we signed the declaration of independence, thereby hazarding our lives and fortunes, I am convinced of the universal satisfaction of the people with the revolution and its grand principles.  No nation has ever enjoyed a greater share of human felicity. 

MARK SKOUSEN:  Roy asks, “Mr. Franklin, I imagine you are astonished by human space travel.  Should we colonize other celestial spheres?”

DR. BEN FRANKLIN:  I used to wish it my destiny to have been born two or three centuries hence, for inventions of the type you describe.  For I do love the world of science and technological innovation, and attempted my share of practical inventions.  In France, I witnessed the first air balloons, which I regarded as one of the most extraordinary discoveries of our age.  Now that I am free from bodily limitations, I now roam through the universe with ease, and in no time at all.  You are slowly catching up, and your present progress is rapid.  Yes, explore the celestial worlds as I do! 

MARK SKOUSEN:  You were publisher of America’s first investment newsletter, Poor Richard’s Almanac, and you had incredible success as a businessman.  Many of our readers want to know your investment philosophy.  For example, IU subscriber J. M. asks, “If you had to give just one piece of advice on how to succeed and prosper today, what would it be?”

DR. BEN FRANKLIN:  In my time, we had no stock exchange.  I invested in many ventures during my long career, and suffered many failures, but my most successful method was — after my business as a printer — economy!  Economy is a great source of wealth.  But as to investing proper, probably my most successful investment was in real estate.  I owned 7 or 8 properties in Philadelphia and the income from these properties was a great source of revenue for me and my family, especially during times of uncertainty and war.  As a result of my income properties, I died a wealthy man. 

MARK SKOUSEN:  B. Schwartz notes that the prices of apartments in New York are at their highest price ever in 2006.  Aren’t you concerned about a real-estate bubble and potential collapse and depression?  Many of our subscribers are worried about this. 

DR. BEN FRANKLIN:  Young man, experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other!  There are always croakers, as we called them, who are predicting ruin.  When I lived in Philadelphia, one such elderly man who had a wise and grave manner came frequently by my door at the printing house to give me a detail of misfortunes and bankruptcies, and to predict that all was going to destruction, and that I should sell all my real estate and business, etc. etc.  Fortunately, I ignored him, and at last I had the pleasure of seeing him pay five times as much for one piece of land as he might have bought when he first began his croaking. 

MARK SKOUSEN:  But what if you are wrong, and we are hit with a great depression, or war?  We live in uncertain times.  How can we protect ourselves? 

DR. BEN FRANKLIN:  Poor Richard always says, “An empty bag cannot stand.”  I always made it a policy to live simply and frugally, so that by my economy I was able to build up substantial savings and investments.  This policy proved favorable to me during the American Revolution.  In 1774, a great source of my income was cut off when I was dismissed by the Crown as postmaster general and colonial agent, and I lost £1,800 a year in income.  But my family and I survived because I had bank accounts in three countries, some bonds and stocks, and income properties.  

MARK SKOUSEN:  Mr. Whit A. asks, “Given the high debt load of the US, how about investing in foreign markets for a good return on my money?”

DR. BEN FRANKLIN:  Poor Richard says, “Great ships can venture more, little ships should keep near shore.”  I always thought it a wise policy to keep funds in several countries, and I had bank accounts in Philadelphia, London and Paris.  I have always been an admirer of the Chinese, the most ancient, and from long experience, the wisest of nations.  Industry and frugality are the strongest virtues in the East, and therefore, I prophecy endless prosperity in Asia and China as they escape the chains of tyranny. 

MARK SKOUSEN:  Richard I. and Taylor D. ask, “What is your outlook for natural gas?  Do you recommend any Canadian oil & gas trusts?” 

DR. BEN FRANKLIN:  Ah!  Inflammable air puts me in mind of a little paper I wrote some years ago when I was ambassador of France, addressed to the Royal Academy of Brussels, which ended, “And I cannot but conclude that the figures inscribed in it are, all together, scarcely worth a FART – HING.”  I suspect the same may be said about my advice with regard to natural gas!

MARK SKOUSEN:  Well, can you be perhaps a bit more serious about your outlook for stocks and gold?  Several subscribers, such as G. Sigel, have asked you forecast for the stock market and gold.  Marc P. says that he may be losing faith in the dollar.  Should he buy gold?  With your gift of prophecy, can you enlighten us about the outlook in 2006?

DR. BEN FRANKLIN:  Like a game of chess, which I played regularly in life, the circumstances surround the next few moves can often be calculated with some precision by those with experience.  There was no doubt that I often enjoyed some degree of success with regard to the future.  I predicted that America would win the war for independence and that she would be a mighty nation.  But as to the price of the stock market and gold, I am afraid to say that we here in the world of spirits are not blessed with omniscience, and so I must defer to my descendant, Dr. Skousen, who has made it his profession, only to add the saying of Poor Richard, “Weighty questions ask for deliberate answers.” 

MARK SKOUSEN:  I thank you for your kindness.  [In case IU subscribers are wondering, I have stated unequivocally that stocks (especially foreign) and gold will both rise in price in 2006.  So far we are on target.]  So, while we deliberate on that question, let’s ask you what’s on the mind of G. R., who asks, “What is the safest way to invest?” 

DR. BEN FRANKLIN:  I made it my investment policy to arrange my affairs so that no single loss in one area could destroy my entire estate.  I also made it a point to pay off all my debts.  In 1772, there was a banking scandal in London.  But I only hazarded a little, using my credit with the bank.  Being out of debt myself, my credit could not be shaken by any run upon me. 

MARK SKOUSEN:  Did you not prefer to earn regular income in bonds?  Ruchi asks, “Should we invest in bonds or CDs?” 

DR. BEN FRANKLIN:  Money begets money!  I made it a habit to invest regularly in high-yielding safe government securities in three nations, and earned yearly income from well-secured loans to dependable individuals.  With interest rates rising, this appears to be a prudent strategy. 

MARK SKOUSEN:  Patricia K. asks about your philosophy of investing.  She says that “successful investing is 80% psychology.”  Do you use emotions and gut feelings to make business and investment decisions?

DR. BEN FRANKLIN:  Only to my regret!  You must guard against those natural inclinations, customs, or the undue influence from friends to make investment decisions.  Enlightened investors must be strictly rational in their investment and business choices, and limit your selections to well managed companies with good prospects and frugal spending habits. 

MARK SKOUSEN:  Esther H. asks, “Do you think young people spend too much time playing video games and watching TV?”

DR. BEN FRANKLIN:  Such idle, useless amusements!  In the Autobiography, I explained how I got ahead through industry and frugality, and refrained from these idle distractions.  But I did enjoy flying kites! 

MARK SKOUSEN:  Yet did you not play chess regularly for amusement? 

DR. BEN FRANKLIN:  Indeed, that ancient game of mental enlightenment gave me much wisdom–and pain!  Instead of taking a long walk, a ride, or some other form of bodily exercise, I found myself engaged in three or four hours of sedentary relaxation.  Consequently, I suffered the gout and the stone and other maladies that destroyed my constitution. 

MARK SKOUSEN:  Besides chess, was other forms of diversion did you enjoy?

DR. BEN FRANKLIN:  In addition to amusing myself with books, pamphlets and newspapers, and the pleasure of female company, I depended often on weeklong journeys into the countryside for the establishment of my health.  While I was colonial agent in England, I traveled regularly to visit the homes of friends in Scotland, France and Germany.  I found these journeys advantageous for both health and spirits. 

However, when I became ambassador to France, my work was so cumbersome and demanding that I never was able to continue my practice of taking lengthy journeys into the country land, and my health suffered accordingly.  Let that be a lesson to all of you!  Work not to excess, eat not to dullness! 

MARK SKOUSEN:  F. K. states, “I have a son in college right now.  He’s considering law school and then government service.  What is the best road to success?”  And Halma asks, “Are our lawyers and politicians today’s royalty?” 

DR. BEN FRANKLIN:  In my time, the law was an honorable profession, but the study is dry, laborious and long.  I am of the opinion that almost any private profession is preferable to a public one.  It renders one more independent, more a freeman and less subject to caprices of superiors.  My grandson Benny being a very sensible and good lad, I had thoughts of fitting him for public business, but learned by sad experience that service is no inheritance.  I determined to give him a good trade as a printer.  The world of commerce is almost always preferable to government employment!

MARK SKOUSEN:  Feb states, “I would be very interested in your list of historic and educational books which you studied and have found most useful.  Thanks.”

DR. BEN FRANKLIN:  Like most children, as a young man, I read Pilgrim’s Progress, Gulliver’s Travels and other classics.  And I always enjoyed the biographies of great men, such as Plutarch’s Lives.  And of course I read the Bible.  But for you today, there is so much more to choose from.  I am delighted that my own story is still in print. 

MARK SKOUSEN:  Yes, let me interrupt, Dr. Franklin, and inform the audience that there are many editions of Franklin’s Autobiography in the bookstores today.  I want to highlight in particular a new translation of your Autobiography in the language of the 21st century done by Blaine McCormick, a professor at Baylor Business School, called Ben Franklin, the Original Entrepreneur:  Franklin’s Autobiography for Modern Times.  It’s very readable, and beautifully illustrated.  In fact, my mother gave copies of this new translated Autobiography to all of her children and grandchildren as a family legacy.  I highly recommend it! 

DR. BEN FRANKLIN:  I am most pleased with these new efforts to make my book accessible once again to all Americans.  Now, in addition to my own story, I would recommend another financial classic, The Richest Man in Babylon, by George Clason, because of its defense of the virtues of industry and thrift. 

MARK SKOUSEN:  I agree.  The Richest Man in Babylon is the great financial book ever written, and ought to be in every IU subscribers’ library.  Now here’s another question about youth.  P. S. states, “I have a 16 year old son.  What are the most important things he can do now to be successful as an adult?” 

DR. BEN FRANKLIN:  I wrote to my grandson Benny that in life there are two sorts of young people.  One sort are those who are well dressed and live comfortably in good houses, whose conversation is sensible and instructive, and who are respected for their virtue.  The other sort are poor, dirty, ragged, ignorant, and vicious, and live in miserable cabins or garrets on coarse provisions, which they must work hard to obtain, or which, if they are idle, they must go without or starve. 

What made the difference?  The first had a good education given them by their friends, and they took pains when at school to improve their time and increase their knowledge.  The others either had no friend to pay for their schooling, and so never were taught; or else when they were at school, they neglected their studies, were idle, and wicked, and disobedient to their masters, and would not be instructed; and now they suffer. 

By the way, Mark, I was happy to see you quote this letter in the Compleated Autobiography. 

MARK SKOUSEN:  Thanks.  Speaking of the Compleated Autobiography, if you don’t mind, I’d like to ask my own question.  Were you pleased to see your memoirs finished after all these years, and what’s your opinion of the final product?  Be honest.  I’m used to criticism!

DR. BEN FRANKLIN:  I greatly regret that I was unable to complete my life story due to a painful illness of the gout and stone, and the press of public business.  There were so many lessons in my political life which I wished to pass on to all Americans.  There is a natural division between the original Autobiography and the Compleated Autobiography.  The original covers my life as a businessman, an inventor, and a civil servant in Philadelphia.  The Completed Autobiography is the story of my life on a national and international scale, covering my important political and diplomatic history.  I am therefore greatly pleased to have my Autobiography completed by a descendant.  I find it most agreeable and hope it is as successful as the original. 

MARK SKOUSEN:  Thank you! 

DR. BEN FRANKLIN:  However, as Poor Richard says, “approve not of him who commends all you say.”  And therefore I do have a complaint.

MARK SKOUSEN:  I should have known. 

DR. BEN FRANKLIN:  I wished you had omitted some of the personal letters in the work, such as my letters to Madame Brillon in France.  A gentleman does not make public his private correspondence with a woman, especially when she is beautiful and married.   

MARK SKOUSEN:  Well, the cat is out of the bag now.  But since you brought up your relationship with women, several subscribers are interested in your personal life.  For instance, Jeremiah wants to know “Of all the women you had relations with, did you actually love any of them?”

MARK SKOUSEN:  While Dr. Franklin pauses to think about this unexpected question about his personal life, I just wanted to remind our IU subscribers that in honor of Franklin’s 300th birthday, the nation is involved in a variety of celebrations of this great Founder.  The US Post Office issued a first-day issue today, and will release a special 4-stamp collection on April 1.  Today the US Mint is offering two commemorative coins (go to www.usmint.gov), two beautiful coins with great messages on them; I suggest you buy them before they run out.  And finally, the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia has an excellent Ben Franklin exhibit that will be touring the country this year.  For more information, go to www.benfranklin300.com.  And now let’s return to the “live chat” interview, where we asked Dr. Franklin a rather embarrassing question about his relationship with women.

DR. BEN FRANKLIN:  I will try to answer this difficult question.  In my hard-to-be-govern passion of youth, I engaged in intrigues with low women.  Out of one such affair I fathered a son, William.  That much I admitted in my Autobiography.  But I soon after took to wife Deborah Read, who proved to be a good and faithful helpmate and a wife I loved dearly.  My only regret is that she adamantly refused to join me in crossing the ocean to England, and we lived apart for the final years of our lives. 

MARK SKOUSEN:  What about all those French ladies?  Did you ever marry again? 

DR. BEN FRANKLIN:  I wished I had.  The married state is the happiest union, but my proposal of marriage to the amiable Madame Helvetius was rejected, she being resolved to remain single all her life.  Madame Brillion was a lady of the most pleasing conversation and an excellent musician, and I spent an evening twice every week at her home.  I loved her dearly and sometimes wished to go further.  But she was married to Monsieur Brillon and, even though he had fallen into an affair with their maid, whose treachery wounded her cruelly, she remained devoted to her husband.   

MARK SKOUSEN:  I should add that the relationship between you and Madame Brillon is revealed in detail in the Compleated Autobiography.  Regarding French women, John and Abigail Adams said they were disgusted by your playboy behavior among the French women, who sat on your lap and kissed you repeatedly in public, etc.  Do you deny these allegations?

DR. BEN FRANKLIN:  I wish the Adams’s were more charitable!  Somebody, it seemed, gave it out that I loved ladies; and then everybody presented me their ladies to be embraced, that is, to have their necks kissed.  For as to kissing of lips or cheeks it was not the mode there; the first was reckoned rude, and the other might rub off the paint.  The French ladies had, however, a thousand other ways of rendering themselves agreeable by their various attentions and civilities, and their sensible conversation.  ‘Twas a delightful people to live with. 

MARK SKOUSEN:  Sounds like it.  You obviously liked the French back then.  But what about today? 

DR. BEN FRANKLIN:  At the time I said France, a nation of magnificence and negligence, was the most civilized nation on earth, because they were a generous nation, most hospitable to foreigners and Americans, and protecting the oppressed.   Since then, it appears that the French have changed.  They hope for offices and public employments, and do not value enterprise.  In America, people do not inquire concerning a stranger, What is he? but rather What can he do? 

MARK SKOUSEN:  Leta asks, “Ben, did you use your money wisely or did you spend it frivolously on women?”

DR. BEN FRANKLIN:  Women and wine, game and deceit, make the wealth small and the wants great.  I learned this lesson all too often! 

MARK SKOUSEN:  One of our subscribers W. H., accuses you of being a secret British agent, and says he has heard various stories that you secretly played both sides of the war.  What’s the real story?

DR. BEN FRANKLIN:  I have always had many enemies who have sought to injure me with false accusations that fall little short of treason.  This is just one of many.  There were spies all around me in Paris, both French and English, but I paid them no attention.  When a man’s actions are just and honorable, he has nothing to worry about.  In France, Messrs. Arthur Lee and John Adams caused much dissensions in Congress about my affairs.  I heard frequently of Mr. Adams’s ravings against the French and me, whom he suspected of plots against him.  Trusting in the justice of Congress, I usually did not bother to respond.  God knows my zeal and faithfulness to the United States of America! 

MARK SKOUSEN:  Another subscriber, B. N., accuses you of being a member of several secret societies including the Illuminati, a pre-communist secret organization established in Europe in 1776.  Do you deny this? 

DR. BEN FRANKLIN:  I was happy to join any organization that attracted influential persons who could support a worthy cause, including American independence.  My own Junto was a secret organization in Philadelphia, and limited to 12 tradesmen by invitation only.  I was a member of the Free Masons, and made it a practice to join a lodge whether I lived, whether in America, England or France.  I sponsored Voltaire to become a member of the Lodge of the Seven Sisters in Paris.  I saw nothing sinister about it.  Every person of some importance in public and private life were Free Masons, and it served our American cause immensely.  I do not, however, subscribe to any of the goals of the Illuminati, so called. 

Interview with Ben Franklin – Part 2  |  Investment U Interview Series Archive