Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Earworms and economics

Okay, I got over being tormented by Billy Joel, and this is how, although it’s not a perfect cure—more like the musical equivalent of Methadone, where I still have the addiction but have shifted to something that at least allows me to function. For those who also have repetitive music syndrome, otherwise known as an earworm, it’s worth a go. Otherwise watch it at your peril:

Having, for the most part, recovered my attention span, I read the June issue of Harper’s, which I recommend, first for the immensely readable and dismaying essay, “Our Phony Economy” by Jonathan Rowe, delivered to the Senate Commerce Committee on March 12th, where he explains that the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the figure by which the health of our economy is measured, is based entirely on expenditure, irrespective of the reasons for that expenditure, nor is it balanced by healthy advances in other areas.

…Find out what is growing and the effects. Tell us what the growth is in concrete terms. Then we can begin to say whether it has been good.

The failure to do this is insane. It is an insanity embedded in political debate and in media reportage, and it leads to fallacy in many directions. We hear, for instance, that efforts to address climate changes will hurt “the economy.” Does that mean if we clean up the air we will spend less money treating asthma in young kids? The atmosphere is part of the economy too—the real economy…if we burn more gas, the expenditure gets added to the GDP…but there is no corresponding subtraction for the toll this burning takes on the thermostatic and buffering functions the atmosphere provides. (Nor is there a subtraction for the oil we take out of the ground.) Yet if we burn less gas, and thus maintain the crucial functions of the atmosphere
[as well as, I will add, obviating the need for extra expenditure by future generations to cope with the damage], we say “the economy” has suffered, even though the real economy has been enhanced.

By this reasoning, I suppose, a disaster like Katrina could be considered an economic “windfall” (haha) because the GDP measures only the expenditure made to clean it up, not the toll on human life. This is what’s wrong with everything in this country, and how we got to over-valuing the GDP in historical terms, as Rowe tells the story, is a lesson in how almost everything happens—not by edict, but something harder to reverse: the accretion of small assumptions which then become taken for granted.

Also in Harper’s is a discussion, by Gary Greenberg, of five books on neuroscience, which I’m discovering is a special interest of mine, as I’m always trying to figure out how much of “me” is “me,” and how much is governed by chemistry, biology and (something Greenberg doesn’t touch on) media influence.

Because finally, in addition to the well-known “Harper’s Index,” on the last page there’s “Findings” which catalogues in similar deadpan manner the results of various scientific studies. One of them is the horrifying statistic that “as much as one-quarter of Earth’s beach sand is now made of plastic.”

This takes me back to where I began, with the realization that fully one-quarter of my mental capacity is taken up with musical plastic, in the form of commercial music that has seeped in over the years. It’s frightening to consider that in addition to Billy Joel, who I never actually listened to, I can call up the music and lyrics of almost every musical ever written (a genre I actively loathe), as well as the entire catalogue of the Eagles. And we haven’t even gotten to the tyranny of Christmas music. Don’t get me started.


martha miller said...

And what about ads?? I have a million of those stored away, too!
"You can take Salem out of the country, BUT..."
Now just try Not to say the 2nd half of that jingle.
(This is only for folks over fifty...)
Oh! Oh! Oh!
It's Bonomo!
Turkish Taffffeeeee!

Anonymous said...

Why don't you try actually listening to Billy Joel? His technique of songwriting is classically based and quite clever. You might find that you enjoy those ingenious 'earworms'.

Anonymous said...

Great. Now I'm going to have to read the Harper's. I've been avoiding it because it looks likely to contain Worrying Information.

Carol Diehl said...

Spatula, I totally agree with you about Worrying Information (WI). There's so much WI out there it's hard to know what to worry about next, so I generally try to avoid it. However when an author, such as Rowe, goes beyond mere WI to include sociological insights that can change the way we think, I'm there.

I have, however, found an antidote to WI, and from now on when I feel overcome, I'll watch the Oasis video I just posted one more time.