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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

When the Smoke Clears, I'll Be Doing Science

I get asked, "What do you when you're not writing." Answer: I work as an independent high-level social scientist doing high-level research on Human Nature. This is a broad field, so I specialize. I study actual Human Beings. Is that thinking outside the box, or what? My super-specialized research field is Human Stupidity. I began with this hypothesis: People who behave stupidly on a regular basis are Stupid People. Nutshell version: Stupid people do stupid things. Straightforward? I thought so. But I began to notice certain anomalies — patterns in the data that didn't fit my hypothesis. Stupid things were being said and done by smart people! Including well educated persons, high-IQ persons, articulate persons, well trained persons, professional persons, professor persons, politican persons, right on down the line. What makes smart people say and do such utterly stupid things, and so predictably? This key question led me to a tentative conclusion:
Smart Persons (SP) who regularly do and say Really Stupid Things (RSP) tend to be totally lacking in Common Sense (CS), which is to say they suffer from Common Sense Impairment Syndrome (CSIS).
Take smoking — please. Let's use smoking, and anti-smoking efforts, as a case study. California Proposition 86 would add a $2.60-per-pack tax on cigarettes, giving California the highest tobacco tax in the country. An average pack of cigarettes would be $6.55 each. Disclosure: I don't smoke. I don't intend to start. I don't like cigarette smoking. And I would prefer that people who smoke, stop. Especially my friends and relatives. If it pleases you, I'll even say I hate smoking. Smoking gave my Mom the cancer that killed her. Clear about where that puts my loyalties? Not with companies that sell the stuff, OK? For the sake of discussion, let's accept the premise stated by a particular group of Smart People, namely that increasing taxes on tobacco products will reduce their sale and use. Now, some people disagree with this premise, arguing that smokers will simply buy their tobacco out of state. But we're talking hypothetically here, so for the sake of the argument let's stipulate this: Increasing taxes on cigarettes will reduce the sale and use of cigarettes. Excellent! Now take up jogging. (Kidding! One cause at a time.) So let's take a closer look at Proposition 86. Lo and behold, the Smart People who wrote the proposition provided that the increased tax revenue will dedicated to fund anti-smoking programs, along with emergency room care, health care for children, and cancer and other disease research. Okay, but... If we accept the Smart People's logic that the anti-smoking education campaigns will further reduce the use of tobacco, fewer people will buy tobacco, hence fewer tax revenues, thus we can expect a shortfall of revenue to fund emergency room care, health care for children, and cancer and other disease research. Because even if fewer people get sick from tabacco related diseases (because they have been persuaded to stop smoking or never start), there will still be a need for emergency rooms, health care for children, cancer and disease research. Let's see where things stand. We dedicate ourselves to eradicating the use of addictive tobacco, thus reducing tax revenue, while at the same time expanding budgetary costs for health care, which requires tax revenue? Oops. See that 16-wheeler semi that just crossed over the meridian into our lane? It's a whole new round of unpaid costs that will required future budget cuts or tax increases. And guess who's driving? People with no common sense! Gee. It's almost addictive. Just when we had stopped smoking, look what happened to the addiction. It found a new activity to attach itself to: spending. Actually, two activities. Taxing and spending. But you had already figured that out, right? Yep, you saw it coming when I started talking. That's cuz you've got yourself a heap-a common sense. Okay. If that's true of you and true of a whole lot of us on this bus, then how come there are still so many really smart people out there with no common sense whatever? Not just California — a whole slew of states (Arizona, Missouri, South Dakota, Nevada, Ohio) are working hard to increase taxes on smoking to raise taxes to spend on useful things that will run out of money when the taxes dry up because people are smoking less. Whence this astonishing epidemic of Common Sense Impairment Syndrome? As a social scientist, I have the correct answer. When you put a big tax on something, the people will produce less of it. Politics and government routinely tax our common sense, therefore we're running low. What we need is to find a way to tax the absence of common sense, which should diminish its lack, its dearth, its widespread current unavailability, as a first step toward increasing the presence of common sense. Eventually we might even end up with a surplus. Especially if people start getting the message. Tricky stuff. Almost philosophical. That's why I do science. I'm heading for the lab right now.