Saturday, November 15, 2008

Cross Traffic Does Not Stop

Browse through reviews of self-help books and you’ll find two tones: Praise garnished with revelation, and criticism along the lines of simplistic, obvious, common-sense. There’s no secret to happiness – how many times have you heard that – but it’s easy to forget. In the meanwhile, there are other things to remember: Whenever you greet and part with the day you're asked to brush your teeth. Official recommendations for weekly physical activity are two and a half hours a week (an hour above older standards), but watch out for excessive exercise as well. Fast and calorie-rich food is unhealthy, so take some additional time in picking out groceries. We’re fortunate to live in a society where we have two food pyramids – an old one and a new one – between them there’s really no excuse for unhealthy eating.

The human mind is a scarce resource, and all sorts of people are battling for it. Like any great scarce resource, it has tons of invaluable alternative usages, some of which are deciding on which usages are best.

Everything that is vying for your mind is competing with its alternative usages. TV commercials are the most obvious case, but they're just the tip of the iceberg. The new-age self-help guru who wants you to meditate every night is competing with your dentist who wants you to brush your teeth. And the CDC who ask for two and a half hours of exercise each week are competing with your therapist who wants you to spend more family time. Rest assured, all these parties have the best of intentions, but the problem is that no one sees it from an economic perspective.

The government is in the same situation: The future of our country, some people say, is education. So education has to be mandatory. But at the same time, if the auto industry falls apart, then the whole economy is going to shreds. Automobiles and banks, we need to save them both. That and health care. How can you put a price on something so important as health care?

The truth is that everything has a price, and in a free market, all of these seemingly intangibles are already factored into that price. Implicit in any price is not only the resources necessary for any product, but also those resources’ alternative usages. A limited amount of capital cannot pay for everything – you’re reminded about this fact of life whenever you check your bank statement.

Our modern time is filled with so many causes – so many months and days are tied to a cause, that we may have to extend the calendar. And it comes to the point where each of these causes is not battling ignorance and non-recognition, but they’re battling both each other and for your personal time.

An unfortunate fact about democracy: It’s easier to add to the clutter than to take away. How else, I ask you, did our government get so big?

Misallocation of scarce resources, as any economist will tell you, has innumerable unintended consequences. This holds for the mind’s resources as well. Exercise is all well and good, but no doubt other things come first: A job, food on the table, and maybe even a social life. Exercise enthusiasts who work in public health are not waging a war against a nation of couch potatoes and ignorance, they’re waging a war for your free time. That war maybe worth fighting for, but their victory will come at a cost: The alternative usages of your time.

I personally enjoy some types of exercise, and I’ve read many accounts of how good it is for you. But I haven’t read any accounts of how exercise is better than other things that you can do in those two and half hours of your week. Nor have I seen any arguments comparing the effects of brushing your teeth with a few minutes of meditation. Nor have I seen arguments that spending more money on health food beats spending that money on higher education. Such studies might seem silly - what does meditating have to do with brushing teeth - but they get at the underlying point that they these activities tap our personal time, which is perhaps the most important scarce resource we have.

There are real consequences at stake. Just as rent control increases homelessness, dedicating your personal time and attention to the wrong thing has drastic consequences.

American roads provide an excellent example. A well-written Atlantic article by John Stadden attributes America’s higher rate of traffic accidents to our sign-cluttered streets. The article drives home the dangers of misallocating resources: It’s easier to put up another sign on a street than to consider which signs need to be taken down. No one considers when does too many signs begin to take a toll?. This point becomes painfully obvious if you browse some of the worst street signs people have seen here. As Stadden points out, American roads are unique from other countries' in their sheer number of both traffic signs and accident rates, which remain a factor even after all sorts of other differences are taken into account. The result is a misallocation of attention, which is our most needed resource when we drive. This likely causes more accidents, fuels stress and road rage, and it’s probably why drunk driving is such a big issue, as it compounds the effects of blunted executive decisions.

The positive side of things is that the economy is never static. Julian Simon argued that the ultimate natural resource is not found in the earth, it's our mind. Without our mind, current and future natural resources would be useless. Apocalyptic predictions of overpopulation and world starvation proved to be false because they assumed that human ingenuity was static.

All the more reason to be on the lookout for things that missallocate the mind's resources, be it restraints of free speech, dictating centrally to people what's important, or having leaders determine our nation's distribution of goods. The American government is just like our road sides: paved with good intentions but ultimately consisting of too many road signs - confusing ones, unnecessary ones, silly ones, and downright dangerous ones. Keep this in mind whenever you pass any sort of cause, be it one for the public, or one for your time and attention. Imagine the sign-littered road that represents both this country and your mind: Does it really need another sign?

Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1) Happiness Now, 05/21/2007, by wrestlingtropy; (2) Too Much Exercise?, 01/26/2008, by assortedstuff; (3) Businessman brushing his teeth while driving his car, Imagine Digital Stock Photography (4) Cross traffic does not stop, 01/08/2008, by Pat Rice; (5) Cluttered Corner, 03/19/2008, by Alan Stanton; (6) Um, Which Way Do I Go?, 09/26/2008, by US71

Video: (1) Music video uploaded by henrikak47 of the song
Rockit, by The Gorillaz, released on their album D-Sides, released 11/20/2007. Sphere: Related Content

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