Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Dirty Little Secret About Our Economy

Lately, I've been in a surreal state of ESEDD: Extreme Simultaneous Engagement and Disengagement Disorder. On one hand, I've been more engaged in my work and writing ... and even music ... than ever before. On the other hand, things that used to engage me (namely, news and opinion) are failing to cut through.

Part of this could be yet another symptom of middle age. I like to say that you spend your 20s thinking you know everything, your 30s realizing you don't know anything, and your 40s realizing that nobody knows anything. Last night on the way home from work, I heard callers to a talk radio show speak passionately about the Arizona immigration law. When asked if they had actually read it, not one said yes. I haven't read it either, so why should I have an opinion on it? I could get informed by reading the newspaper, but one of today's lead stories was about whether shorts are appropriate in the work place. (Really, Star Tribune, really?)

Researchers at the Institute of Made-up Facts in My Head That Are Probably True estimate that 80 percent of people who talk and write passionately about issues know nothing or very little about them. (The other 20 percent do, but are paid to take a position one way or the other.)

And then there are the ads. I've lately come to realize just how much marketing is based on the obfuscation of "causality" vs. "correlation." It's true that an alarming number of car accidents are caused by distracted driving. It's also true that a growing amount of distracted driving is due to the use of cell/smartphones. It's also true that a growing number of teenagers, especially girls, use cell/smartphones and text all day long, including while they drive. But is it true to say that being a teenage girl causes car accidents? No, that's correlation. Is it true that smartphone use while driving causes car accidents? Yes, that's causality.

Yet, this distinction is totally out the window when it comes to product marketing, or a lot of "studies" for that matter. "Parents who have a lot of books in the house tend to have smarter kids." Right, that's because having books in the house is generally a symptom of intellectually curious people. And those people tend to have smarter kids for all kinds of reasons. Do the books themselves, sitting on the shelf, unread, cause kids to be smart? Again, I am reminded of Navin Johnson's reaction in "The Jerk" as he stands by the gas pump, bullets meant for him instead hitting cans of motor oil: "Wow, this guy really hates cans!"

Which clumsily brings me to today's not-very-well-thought-out rant: The dirty little secret about our economy is that it depends on stupidity, laziness and willful ignorance. Who doesn't know that the real keys to being healthy are exercising and eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables? Yet how much money ... and how many jobs ... are generated from the outright denial of that fact? How much money is poured into pills, supplements and gimmick diets ... anything to help people avoid getting on a treadmill and steaming some broccoli?

Who doesn't know that a good night's sleep is the key to everything from mental well-being to maintaining a healthy weight? Yet how many people sacrifice sleep with the hope of making it up with Red Bull, 5 Hour Energy, or insanely expensive cups of coffee? (Oops ... )

So once again, I'm terrified at the fact that the incentives are not aligned. For the same reason that you'll never see an hour-long TV special on why you should turn off your TV, the government (especially in a recession and carrying a crushing debt load) is never really going to be serious about creating a sharp, informed, critical-thinking citizenry. If we actually had such a thing, our economy would disintegrate.

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