Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Costs of Pollution

Yeah, we can all agree that bad ideas are, well, bad for us. But what does that really mean? What are the consequences of social polution, in time, energy, and dollars? This morning I happened to glance at the celebrity news section of the Washington Post Express. (Guess what? Brangelina was mentioned. Ditto, two drug-addicted and useless rock stars.)  This unfortunate encounter led me to expand the scope of this post a bit. Now I also think its important to cover the social costs of frivolous things...

The costs of social pollution fall into three basic categories. You may even recognize this stuff from economics classes.

1. Money wasted - How much do people spend on  questionable services, products, social programs?

2. Time wasted - How many hours of labor are wasted each year on pursuing all manner of dubious schemes, both social and personal?

3. Opportunities missed - What else could we have done with the labor and money we squandered?

So, how do the costs add up in real life? Let's say, and this is based on a real-life social program, that we decide to budget $300,000 to set up a program aimed at reaching kids who have been negatively influenced by Goth subculture. Let's say that after $230,000 have been spent we find no young people who need to be rescued from Goth subculture. The social cost of this silly social program is $230,000 plus the 160 hours of staff time spend not locating any young people to help. The social pollution here is the idea that we can/must set up a social program to "rescue" people from a subculture that's labeled as "harmful" in some general way.

What quantifiable and known-to-exist social issue could the time and money have been spent on? Maybe a program to intervene in the lives of teens who are at high risk of suicide? The social value of this sort of intervention is generally not questioned and there are scientific grounds for sorting people into the categories of "high risk" and "not high risk."

So, that's the impact of social pollution on society. Now, lets turn back to the subject of celebrity news for a minute. And a minute is about all I can stand!

How much money do people spend on celebrity gossip magazines and newspapers? How much money gets spent on the reporters, freelance writing, photographs of stuff that's really none of our business? How much labor time and money is spent on creating and distributing those periodicals. One could ask the same questions about celebrity "news" shows like Access Hollywood. What could fans of this stuff be doing with the (conservatively estimated, by me) 2,000,000 hours a year spend consuming useless information that's generally none of our business anyway? What could the writers and editors be doing that keeps them working while providing some social value? (Yes, I know the stuff makes money, but that does not prove its social value, you capitalist tool.) 

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