In praise of the average Americans
If there is one thing that too many modern-day Democrat and Republican party elites share, it’s a mild contempt for the average American. For Democrats, Americans are obese spendthrifts susceptible to faith-based argumentation at the expeense of logic and evidence. For Republicans, Americans are obese spendthrifts susceptible to the temptations of a debased popular culture ...
If there is one thing that too many modern-day Democrat and Republican party elites share, it's a mild contempt for the average American. For Democrats, Americans are obese spendthrifts susceptible to faith-based argumentation at the expeense of logic and evidence. For Republicans, Americans are obese spendthrifts susceptible to the temptations of a debased popular culture at the expense of moral probity. Well, a bunch of stories this week suggest that the average American is a hell of a lot smarter than the donkey and elephant elites. Over at Slate, Daniel Gross observes that Americans are responding to interest rate increases by.... reducing their spending and paying off their debts:
If there is one thing that too many modern-day Democrat and Republican party elites share, it’s a mild contempt for the average American. For Democrats, Americans are obese spendthrifts susceptible to faith-based argumentation at the expeense of logic and evidence. For Republicans, Americans are obese spendthrifts susceptible to the temptations of a debased popular culture at the expense of moral probity. Well, a bunch of stories this week suggest that the average American is a hell of a lot smarter than the donkey and elephant elites. Over at Slate, Daniel Gross observes that Americans are responding to interest rate increases by…. reducing their spending and paying off their debts:
It turns out many customers are having entirely rational reactions to rising interest rates (and perhaps the new bankruptcy law). They’re taking the sometimes painful steps necessary to reduce credit card debt before it gets too onerous. Perhaps MBNA was caught short because it has taken consumers so long to wake up. For nearly 20 years, consumers were schooled to believe that interest rates generally fell and that any increases were short-term blips. Now, the Fed has boosted rates seven times recently, and we’ve entered a period in which interest rates will likely rise or remain stable—but not fall. Credit card companies have been operating in an era of falling interest rates so long that they may have forgotten that when interest rates rise, people either seek to pay down debt or look for cheaper sources of financing…. There’s another wrinkle in the complex interest-rate climate that may hurt credit card companies. Interest rates on credit cards tend to respond to moves in short-term interest rates, which means they are rising. But mortgage rates respond to moves in long-term interest rates. And those rates remain remarkably low. Since long-term rates are steady, it now makes more sense for people who need cash to turn to a home-equity line of credit rather than to an MBNA card. At the margins, some Americans seem to be using their slowly growing incomes to reduce credit card debt rather than to buy new stuff. (That could be one factor behind March’s weak retail spending report.)
And while we’re on the subject of consumer behavior, could commentators please stop bashing Americans for not saving enough when they are acting rationally? If the assets that Americans hold — like equities or their houses, for example — are dramatically increasing in value, then it makes sense that their stream of additional savings will taper off. Meanwhile, earlier this week Jonathan Bor and Frank Roylance reported in the Baltimore Sun that just a smidgen of obesity might be good for you:
Government analysts downgraded the annual death toll from obesity Tuesday in a study that is certain to bewilder a public already obsessed with dieting and nutrition. In fact, they inexplicably found that people who weigh a few pounds more than the ideal are less likely to die than those who weigh a few pounds less. Taken together, the findings will undoubtedly leave scientists and consumers arguing over obesity’s true role in mortality — though no one argues that being overweight is good for you. The latest report by scientists with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that obesity kills about 112,000 people a year, only a third of the number estimated just four months ago…. The study, which mines data from three national health surveys spanning the 1970s through 2000, also found that people who are slightly overweight actually have a lower chance of dying than people who weigh a few pounds less. The same cannot be said for people who are truly obese; they face a greater risk the more weight they gain. Health experts agree that American are becoming fatter with each passing year, leading to an epidemic of diabetes, even among children. Still, Tuesday’s announcement will hearten critics who have argued that government agencies, which spend millions convincing Americans to eat less and exercise more, have inflated obesity’s death toll.
The legal team here at danieldrezner.com would like to remind everyone that this report does not recommend obesity and that anyone now tempted to go order several Hardee’s Monster Thickburgers are doing so at their own discretion and not with the blessing of danieldrezner.com. More seriously, check out food economist Parke Wilde for an informed appraisal of the ramifications of the CDCP study. Finally, that allegedly brain-dead American boob tube may acually provide more cognitive stimulation than previously thought. Steven Johnson explains why this might be true in the New York Times Magazine:
For decades, we’ve worked under the assumption that mass culture follows a path declining steadily toward lowest-common-denominator standards, presumably because the ”masses” want dumb, simple pleasures and big media companies try to give the masses what they want. But as that ”24” episode suggests, the exact opposite is happening: the culture is getting more cognitively demanding, not less. To make sense of an episode of ”24,” you have to integrate far more information than you would have a few decades ago watching a comparable show. Beneath the violence and the ethnic stereotypes, another trend appears: to keep up with entertainment like ”24,” you have to pay attention, make inferences, track shifting social relationships. This is what I call the Sleeper Curve: the most debased forms of mass diversion — video games and violent television dramas and juvenile sitcoms — turn out to be nutritional after all. I believe that the Sleeper Curve is the single most important new force altering the mental development of young people today, and I believe it is largely a force for good: enhancing our cognitive faculties, not dumbing them down. And yet you almost never hear this story in popular accounts of today’s media. Instead, you hear dire tales of addiction, violence, mindless escapism. It’s assumed that shows that promote smoking or gratuitous violence are bad for us, while those that thunder against teen pregnancy or intolerance have a positive role in society. Judged by that morality-play standard, the story of popular culture over the past 50 years — if not 500 — is a story of decline: the morals of the stories have grown darker and more ambiguous, and the antiheroes have multiplied. The usual counterargument here is that what media have lost in moral clarity, they have gained in realism. The real world doesn’t come in nicely packaged public-service announcements, and we’re better off with entertainment like ”The Sopranos” that reflects our fallen state with all its ethical ambiguity. I happen to be sympathetic to that argument, but it’s not the one I want to make here. I think there is another way to assess the social virtue of pop culture, one that looks at media as a kind of cognitive workout, not as a series of life lessons. There may indeed be more ”negative messages” in the mediasphere today. But that’s not the only way to evaluate whether our television shows or video games are having a positive impact. Just as important — if not more important — is the kind of thinking you have to do to make sense of a cultural experience. That is where the Sleeper Curve becomes visible.
Read the whole thing. The only troubling note I found in the piece was the admission that, “The only prominent holdouts [to more cognitively sophisticated plots] in drama are shows like ”Law and Order” that have essentially updated the venerable ”Dragnet” format and thus remained anchored to a single narrative line.” Which is true, except that when you tally up all the “Law and Order” and “CSI” shows & spinoffs, that’s an awful lot of the prime time schedule. Johnson earns my goodwill, however, by labeling his phenomenon the Sleeper Curve after this classic exchange from the Woody Allen movie Sleeper:
SCIENTIST A: Has he asked for anything special? SCIENTIST B: Yes, this morning for breakfast . . . he requested something called ”wheat germ, organic honey and tiger’s milk.” SCIENTIST A: Oh, yes. Those were the charmed substances that some years ago were felt to contain life-preserving properties. SCIENTIST B: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or . . . hot fudge? SCIENTIST A: Those were thought to be unhealthy.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner
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