John Bull cannot stand two per cent

“‘John Bull’, says someone, ‘can stand a great deal, but he cannot stand two per cent…’. Here the moral obligation arises. People won’t take 2 per cent; they won’t bear a loss of income. Instead of that dreadful event, they invest their careful savings in something impossible – a canal to Kamchatka, a railway to Watchet, a plan for animating the Dead Sea, a corporation for shipping skates to the Torrid Zone. A century or two ago, the Dutch burgomasters, of all people in the world, invented the most imaginative occupation. They speculated in impossible tulips.

Whenever money becomes very cheap, experience teaches us to expect that it will be misspent. John Bull, as it has been wisely observed, can stand a good deal, but he cannot stand two per cent. The particular form of mania differs in various years; but when the common and tried employments of money yield but a low profit, recourse will be had to new and untried ones, some of which will be unprofitable, and a few of which will be absurd. It is only at the outset of such manias that warning is of the least use – when they attain a certain growth, advice is thrown away. Everybody is seen speculating; and what everyone does must be judicious. Foolish person No. II. imitates foolish person No. I.”

Source: Walter Bagehot, Letter to London Inquirer, 1852