Monday, March 2, 2009

Economics of the Idle

A boxy but good gentleman with a barely discernable foreign accent -- perhaps European, perhaps Japanese -- asks:

Hello Mr. Phone,

Driving into work today I got hopelessly stuck in traffic while listening to an NPR piece about the dire state of our economy. The story continued about how unemployment is through the roof and, basically, no one is working anymore. So my question is: if no one is working (except for me, of course) then why am I stuck in traffic on the way to work? Where are all these people going? Have they been conditioned, through years of work, to just get in their cars and drive between 7 and 9am every weekday morning?
Thanks for listening! PS- are you a rotary phone or a conference room-worthy, multi-lined digital jobby?

I would be a well built phone of classic lines and time-proven features, were I a phone. I am a man, all in all.

The economy functions on the collective random acts of a community. Looked at as a whole, these random acts tend to form patterns over time. Thus, it is possible to add "-ics" to the end of economy and write about it on chalkboards and poorly laid out periodicals. At the root economics is a collective prayer for logical predictable activity from people. Like drug prohibitions and speed limits, we can see that this prayer has not yet yielded compliance by the population. Perhaps it is time to give up.

Give up, my friend, give up on dire computations that may or may not correlate your traffic experience to employment rates.
  • As I squat on the sidewalk and rattle a few sparse coins in a tin cup I ask not what the larger patterns are and how they have affected me.
  • As I pace an empty board room idly wondering if my new tailored suits have come in from Hong Kong, I do not consider the correlation between unemployment trends and my ability to dress myself.
  • And when it comes time for me to pick up that severance check and head out the door of the shuttered factory one last time, it is not for me to compute the relationship between my situation and the trends that are tugged along by the persistent scroll of text at the bottom CNN and Fox News screens.

I call on you to stop driving yourself mad with economics and adopt Economology. With Economology we can think of ourselves as separate from the economy, just as when we study herpetology we are separate from newts. My morning tea is ruined if it is always a self-conscious act that proves or disproves an economic theorem. I would rather that I am a newt in someone else's study and they are a newt in mine.

While this is not the best discipline to work from to derive actionable scientific results, let's be frank. The result we desire is happiness. Let's choose a school of thought based on what can create more individual happiness. On that criteria, the dismal science certainly falls down.

I apologize. I try to only create one new science every six months and I have just surpassed my quota.

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