TCS Daily

Prosperity's Nitpickers

By Radley Balko - April 22, 2004 12:00 AM

It's too bad Julian Simon isn't around anymore. Once dubbed "The Doomslayer" by Wired magazine, the optimistic economist reveled in bringing down capitalism's biggest naysayers -- most famously via a ten-year wager with Stanford University doom and gloomer Paul Ehrlich. Simon would be tickled to find that the fad among 21st century pessimists actually accepts his premise that market economies are, after all this time, still plugging along pluckily.

The pessimists have no choice. All the evidence says that the developed world enjoys the best health, most comfort, and most productivity mankind has ever experienced. Modern cynics, then, have no choice but hound around for tiny pockets of distress amidst our Tivo, three-car driveway, vacation-in-Duck lifestyle. Today's cynics no longer focus on sustainability, they focus on gluttony. Scarcity isn't a problem, but excess is. Victory over hunger may well be on the horizon, but the real question seems to be, can we conquer ennui?

The most obvious example of this quest for niche maladies is the to-do over obesity, which Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson rightly labeled "an affliction of affluence."

Of all the horrors that could afflict a given country's have-nots, America's poor it seems have too much to eat. An organization called the Food Research and Action Center actually put out the absurd claim that poor people in America are simultaneously overweight and hungry. Alleged advocacy organizations today chide America's food industry not for shorting consumers, but for giving them too much product for the dollar, and, if that weren't bad enough, for making that product overly tasty and desirable.

The truth is, for all the scare talk of obesity, life expectancy in the United States is at an all-time high. It's up three years since 1977, nine years since 1950, and thirty years since 1900. No matter how old you are, you can expect to have more years ahead of you than any person your age who ever lived. Heart disease, stroke and most forms of cancer are in decline.

Conservative author Dinesh D'Souza best put the obesity "epidemic" into perspective in his book What's So Great About America? D'Souza asked a friend from Bombay why he'd been trying for decades to move to America. His friend replied, "I really want to live in a country where the poor people are fat."

Author, scholar, and sometimes-curmudgeon Gregg Easterbrook joined the chorus of prosperity's nitpickers with his new book The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. In a New York Times piece written to promote the book, Easterbrook acknowledges that we're more prosperous than ever, but laments that we're also burdened with widespread outbreaks of clinical depression, spam email, traffic, urban sprawl, and stress. "Our lives are characterized by too much of a good thing," he writes, "too much to eat, to buy, to watch and to do, excess at every turn."

Last month, yours truly dissected a Washington Post essay by Nicols Fox, author of the book Against the Machine: The Hidden Luddite Tradition in Literature, Art and Individual Lives. Fox sighed that humans are frustrated by our desire to compete with efficiency and the near-perfect example set by the machinery of capitalism. The result, Fox writes, is that "we poor, besieged humans, forgetting our own advantages yet no match for the tireless, unemotional machines and systems that have become our models, feel constantly obliged to apologize for our inadequacies."

Add to Fox and Easterbrook one Barry Schwartz, professor of social theory at Swarthmore College. Schwartz's buzz-generating book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less argues that the glut of consumer choices offered up in today's economy no longer benefits consumers but aggravates them. Like Easterbrook, Schwartz cites studies purporting to show that despite growing wealth, Americans haven't gotten much happier in the last half-century.

Schwarz claims that part of the problem may lie in the fact that we have too many jars of mustard staring ominously down at us from the condiment aisle. "Just walk into any large supermarket or drugstore looking for hair-care products," he writes in Parade magazine, "and you'll likely be confronted with more than 360 types of shampoo, conditioner and mousse. Need a painkiller? There are 80 options. How about toothpaste? You have 40 types to pick from."

And that, Schwartz believes, leaves many of us feeling overwhelmed, depressed, and, later, anxious that we may have made the wrong decision.

These critiques of our comfort and achievement are silly, callous, and terribly short-sighted.

For his part, Easterbrook buys into common economic fallacies he's much too clever to fall for. He expresses regret, for example, that advances in agriculture have displaced jobs on the family farm. But I doubt that Easterbrook longs for the early 20th century, when 45% of American laborers toiled in the fields -- and most of them could expect to live all of 47 years. Few of them worried about spam email or urban sprawl, of course. And most were too busy earning a living and fighting off now-preventable diseases to notice just how melancholy they were feeling. But I doubt Easterbrook wants to trade some romanticized notion of family farms for the days when about half of us had no choice but to work on them.

George Mason economist Tyler Cowen points out that Schwartz' "tyranny of choice" really isn't tyranny at all. Those of us overwhelmed by the options available at so-called big-box stores can opt for boutiques and specialty stores, where we pay a bit extra to have our choices slimmed down for us by proprietors whose tastes fit our own. You might call them editors for consumers. Excessive choice, then, not only doesn't oppress us, it creates new jobs in an emerging field -- the field of choice winnowing. And the rest of us have choice even in choosing how many choices we have.

There's a serious side to all of this, too.

There's more than a whiff of anti-consumerism in these tomes on the petty burdens of prosperity. The critiques from writers like Easterbrook, Fox, and Schwartz carry with them implicit public policy prescriptions, the gist of which suggests we need to slow down the machines a bit, lest we spin ourselves into a Williams-Sonoma-fueled malaise.

For some perspective, we might contrast Easterbrook, Schwartz, and Fox's nitpicks with the reporting New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has been doing from Africa.

Each year, Kristof writes, 500,000 third world women still die during childbirth. In places like Chad, they battle not only disease and lack of adequate medical care, but also the ignorance that comes with abject poverty. Kristof visited one woman hospitalized after a fruitless labor led her husband to poor "black water" down her throat, which is water soaked with charcoal used to write verses from the Koran. Several months ago, Kristof wrote about fistulas -- a horrible, heartbreaking condition that hits pregnant women in the developing world when malnutrition leaves their pelvises too small to pass a child. The women are left with dead, rotting fetuses in their wombs. They're rendered outcasts, and generally left for dead by their communities.

Kristof is a leftist who, after touring Asia for a book, visited what most of us have come to call sweatshops. That trip, along with his recent trips to Africa, left him an unapologetic free trader. "I'd like to invite Richard Gephardt and the other Democratic candidates to come here to Cambodia," he wrote last January, "and discuss trade policy with scavengers like Nhep Chanda, who spends her days rooting through filth in the city dump."

We don't need to slow the engines of capitalism down, we need to ratchet them up, so their drippings reach places like Chad, Nigeria and Cambodia. It would be awfully selfish of us to deny the third world the fruits of our development simply because we're bored with the excesses of comfort. We need more production, coupled with wide-open trade, to bring the burdens of wealth articulated by the free market's wet blankets to the people who long to bear them.

We should strive to saddle women who scavenge city dumps in Cambodia and fistulas sufferers abandoned for coyotes in Niger with the tyranny of mustard, the frustration of rush hour gridlock, and the aggravation of spam email. We ought to work to make Bangladeshi parents agonize over putting their hyperactive sons on Ritalin. We ought to see how many Malaysians we can get addicted to Paxil, and Papua New Guinean housewives to Valium.

When the critics of capitalism are reduced to mining the suburbs for languor and tedium, when consumers in market economies gripe not about scarcity or pollution, but about too many ketchups and self-check grocery aisles, perhaps it's safe to say that free-marketeers may finally have the central planners on the ropes.

Let's see how long we can keep them there, and how many of the world's poor we can infect with the afflictions of prosperity while we're at it.


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