|THE SCARE ECONOMY: OUR MONEY, OUR VIRTUES,
|In a special ABC-TV network news
special show, John Stossel asked: "Are we Scaring Ourselves to
Death?". It was not the first time for Stossel to ask very sensible and
important questions which are usually politically incorrect. This article will
bring out the main points of the show and pursue further than the show did the
ethical dimensions of the question, and from the ethical will touch the
spiritual which the show did not allude to, naturally.
"Fear—it's one of our most complex emotions. Some of us master it and take big risks. It's helped to build America into exploring new frontiers. But others seem almost paralyzed by fear. We are afraid of the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat." With these words, the announcer introduces the issue.
Ralph Nader, the liberal "consumer advocate" mentions: "chicken contaminated with pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, sometimes contaminated with rat feces."
The announcer: "we are afraid of airplanes, new cellular phones, new technology that might expose us to invisible hazards and shorten our lives."
Crime. The biggest fear for some. Gated communities, a new development in these last 10 to 20 years: residential projects within a wall with a gate and security man at the entrance, the modern castle and moat. Ralph Wagner, a gated community resident, expresses his view about crime: "you never know when it's going to happen. You just hope that you are not going to be the one."
Barbara Flowers, a perspective home buyer: "and I think the more things we can do to protect ourselves the better off we will feel."
Still about crime: Sen. Joseph Biden: "It's very difficult to exaggerate the problems we face."
Senator Robert Dole: "Since 1960 the rate of violent crime has increased by more than 500 percent."
John Stossel confesses that in his previous assignments as a consumer reporter, he mostly dealt with product scares including asbestos. He mentions that New York City has 52 asbestos inspection teams. New York city tax payers paid $100 millions dollars in clean up costs while schools where closed and children cried.
"Love Canal" was the first declared ecological time bomb. "Love Canal was just the beginning. Once officials started looking they found toxic chemicals throughout the nation." says a reporter. "These new invisible threats were especially frightening: contaminating the drinking water, killing cattle and making people sick—cancer, miscarriage, birth defects."
The government evacuated the town of Times Beach, Missouri, because there was dioxin in the soil.
Alar, the preservative for apples, made for good scare stories. Peter Jennings reported that in a school district, at the height of the scare, they were banning apples and apple products.
Perrier—traces of the poisonous benzene have been found in some samples and every bottle in every store in America has been ordered off the shelves.
The list continues: poultry are improperly cleaned, hot dogs are full of fat with low nutritional value, flying in airplanes, carpets are dangerous—we should live on bare floor—hamburgers, pop corn, margarine, caffeine is not good for your but decaffeinated coffee is full of dangerous chemicals.
John Stossel has this exchange with Ralph Nader: JS "You make life sound terrifying". RN "Well, life is preparedness, the old boy scout motto, be prepared." JS "Well maybe that works for him, but I don't want to be that prepared."
The Reality is not so fearful.
Crime is not up. It is down. Violent crime is not up. It is down. The FBI numbers on crime relate to the reporting of crime instances. The Department of Justice figures have not changed. Rape is up possibly because women are more willing to report rape.
Mark Warr, criminologist, U. of Texas at Austin: "If I'm the chief of police and I haven't gotten money from the city for the last ten years, my goodness, I may want to create a crime wave and scare the dickens out of everybody to get money."
Still Warr: "I was called by a reporter one time from a newspaper I won't name who wanted to do a story on crime and trends in crime. When I told him that crime was going down, he said I'm sorry, my editor will not let me report that story. It's not news when crime is going down."
Asbestos? Dr. Stephen Levin of Mount Sinai Medical Center said that New York's attempt to remove asbestos probably spread more in the air. The very expensive and time consuming and school closing work made things worse.
Love Canal: there has not been so far any evidence of increased cancer. The closing of the town in Missouri was a mistake, said afterwards the government official who did it.
The Alar scare also proved to be groundless.
On the other hand much more ordinary things kill people: stairs kill 1,000 Americans a year, bicycles 700.
Ralph Nader attitude, in addition to being professionally self-serving, is indicative of the scare mentality he has helped develop. By the way, the Corvair—remember, "Unsafe at any speed" the book that made him famous—was found not to be particularly dangerous.
John Stossel asks: "is any risk OK". One Valerie Scott responds "No. No".
The chief of police who wants a bigger budget and the media who know that scare stories bring in bigger ratings are very well aware of these attitudes and are feeding on them.
Sheriff Johnny Mack Brown, president National Sheriff Association, is very sorry about people in the gated communities "they become hostages in their own homes. They don't want to come out. They don't want to go shopping. They don't want to do anything because they have fear. They start barring their windows. They start locking their doors". He notes that the teen-agers these elderly protect themselves against should be the ones to be worried because crime rates among teen-agers, especially black teenagers are the highest of all groups.
The unreasonable attitudes before risks can be analyzed in two categories:
— those who first think that life should be riskless, that no amount of risk is acceptable. This attitude shows a great ignorance of metaphysics or at least the facts of life known by all reasonably educated persons. Such persons cannot be Christians and the fact that they are listened to shows that society is not Christian because this opinion is preposterous and cannot be the basis for social policy.
— those who think that even if all risks should not be eliminated, it is the government job to protect us from risks, therefore they can just as well go all the way and spend as much as it take to try and remove all risks. This attitude of selfishness and lack of understanding of civic responsibilities and government responsibilities also betray a strong leftist and liberal frame of mind. We are all under the care and wise management of Big Government so Big Government should do its job to take care of us.
John Graham, Ph.D., Harvard School of Public Health: "There are a lot of risks we ought to go after. The problem is, as a country, we're having our attention diverted to relatively small risks." and "what is news is not necessarily the biggest public health problem. The mysterious, the bizarre, the speculative, make good news, but the day to day problems people have in traffic crashes, as they end up in the emergency room, thousands of Americans everyday, that is the kind of problem that we need to get attention to but that the media doesn't have a hook to sell it."
What we have therefore, is not rational analyses of the common good in terms of physical danger but a media-driven, ad hoc, sensationalist, fear-generating stories. Is this the way to govern one of the most advanced democracies of the world?
Reason lacks glamour. "What really saves lives says Graham and others, are little things like smoke detectors, better crash protectors on highways or just paint more lines in the middle of the road, boring remedies for ordinary problems, but money spent here would save far more lives than spending billions on things like asbestos removal."
Reason is not always politically correct and point to a government mandate: Ralph Nader thinks that $1800 more to put belts on school buses is money well spent. But the Harvard School of public health found that belts would not make much of a difference. Children are much more likely to get killed when they get off the bus.
Reason also deals with truthful facts and reaches logical conclusions: if school bus belts could save about 12 lives a year aren't worth it? No says Dr. Graham: "You are engaging in statistical murder. When you decide to spend $50 millions to save a few lives when you could spend the $50 millions to save a hundred lives or a thousand lives, that's a case of statistical murder." What he means is that making the wrong decision is to decide to have people die when you could have prevented their death because you just could not read the statistics properly, be it incompetence or stupid emotionalism or gutless fear, or a politician preserving his political life.
Some safety regulations may kill more people than they save. Recently consumer groups in the airlines demanded that the FAA require infant seat for children under two. Sounds logical? No. One reason is that infant in a seat means for the parents to buy one more ticket and airplane tickets are expensive. The family is more likely to chose to drive. But flying is more safe than driving. Such a decision would lead to more people killed.
Such analysis is a little complicated for politicians and single interest groups. Although it is a very good analysis chances are that it won't be accepted long. Also it contains an element of paradox and of counter-intuitiveness which does not make good copy for politicians or for consumer associations press releases.
Some people realize a little late that politicians have made the wrong decisions: William Reilly, former EPA (Environment Protection Agency) Director: "Some problems were much less serious than we thought they were. Hazardous waste is the best example. We went much farther than was justified in terms of saving lives or protecting health."
When the EPA decided that the city of Aspen, Colorado was sitting on a silver mine dump which should be full of lead, it decided to design a $8 million program to remove all the top soil.
The people who had lived 100 years with that top soil did not want to be bothered and resisted. The EPA insisted that the people were ready the accept risks which they, the EPA, could not accept. They eventually did a study of lead content in the children blood and found it way lower than the national norm. The EPA was still not satisfied and would not take Aspen off the super-fund list. They want to conduct other tests with pigs! They have the authority to enforce a clean up. "The Super fund law is a very powerful law" says proudly its Aspen enforcer.
Bill Reilly was the director of EPA at the time and he agrees with the citizens of Aspen.
The scare of a few pathological fearful and the poor analysis of many, including politicians, self-interested experts etc. leads to systems of laws and regulations which make no sense.
The Ethics of Government Regulations
John Stossel then produces a chart showing lines of different lengths showing the time taken off the life of an average citizen by different kinds of risks.
He pleads guilty of having reported on risks such as coffee machines, train accidents, lawn chemicals which would not show on his chart in terms of lost lives because they are so small.
He then shows that 5 years and a half is the length of life time lost a smoker risks in average for smoking. He says it is silly for smokers to be afraid of flying or of cellular phones for which they, on average, risk only a few days or weeks of their lifetime.
He then shows the longer line: poverty. It is well documented that poor people have shorter life expectancy because of a host of reasons. This shorter life expectancy due to poverty is between 7 and 10 years.
Stossel charges that the government is contributing to this poverty. Indeed the cost of regulating many products and services which comes from us from business and industry is a strong factor of making the population poorer: these products are more expensive and fewer people buy them, hence the corporations are not doing as well as they could and are not providing good jobs. Also the billions of dollars which we all spend in government regulatory agencies is money taken from our pay checks through taxes and prevent us from buying more from the economy and create jobs.
The end analysis is that the government is the most hazardous item in our environment as relate to our health and safety.
It is incumbent on those who are in leadership position, especially in the Church, to re-introduce a strong ethical—and spiritual—component in this debate. And they cannot be satisfied with some lip service to the issue. They must do it with quite some force to communicate and convince the greatest part of the population until this population's attitude changes.
We cannot have the attitude that life must be totally risk free. Our purpose in life is not to avoid risks but to praise and serve the Lord and one another; sometimes that means taking risks.
The government is not Divine Providence. We each have to follow a plan of life which the Good Lord has decided for us and He will let us suffer the bad outcomes of some risks so that, by reacting according to His teachings and taking advantage of His grace we will bear these sufferings meritoriously. Those risks He will want to preserve us from He will so do.
That was at the level of the individual. At the level of society at large, it is inconceivable that a more systemic approach not be taken on how government can help and where it can help best. Public policy cannot be set by reporters with high-tech cameras pushing all the scare buttons on the populations and then on politicians to respond to the "legitimate anguish of the population". Obvious matters like protection of drivers against accidents are effective and should be implemented. "Designer" scare issues should be abandoned at all costs.
The credibility of any public figure who supports any of such scare by giving it credence and proposing expensive solutions should be impugned for ever because this is really bad government, although it is all too common nowadays.
"The culture, the society, only has so much money" said Bill Rilley the former EPA director.
We have to choose if we want the money of our society to feed the scare monster or not. Industry can produce gates for gated community and better locks, and insurance plans which protects from very elusive risks. Government can grow obese with regulations agencies which protect us from dangers which would be negligible compared to the health costs associated with the very existence of these agencies.
An economy can be targeted towards many things. For centuries, governments had war economies because industry produced little and most of the fabricated things were weapons of war and destroyed in wars. We have now this Scare economy with machines, media reporters, asbestos removal companies and government agencies to protect us.
We could have instead a pioneering economy looking for new marvels of creation and utilizing them as new resources to develop all economies and lift up the standards of living of all people so that they can also learn to grow in the virtues in this life and attain everlasting life in the next.
To change to that type of economy entails together a change in the attitudes of individuals and the way governments and the political system makes policies. The Church—us in the pews and our shepherds—is especially well situated and equipped to bring about these changes, or, if you prefer, to engage in this apostolate.
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