By Donella Meadows
–February 6, 1997–
I have a friend who keeps a list titled: “Dumb Things We Could Stop Doing.” I add to that list just about every time I hear the news.
Take the CIA, for instance. It might have made some sense once to have a CIA, but now it seems worse than purposeless. CIA higher-ups seem to be constantly leaking secrets to the Russians. It’s not clear why we even have secrets any more, nor why the Russians would care. But if secrets are somehow still essential, the CIA appears to have devolved into a counterproductive secrets-transfer organization.
So why have it? Secrets don’t mix well with democracy, anyway. I nominate the CIA as a dumb thing we could stop doing?
Reporting the GDP (gross domestic product) every quarter is another candidate. The economics literature is full of articles detailing why the GDP (the total money we spend on final goods and services) is a misleading index. It adds together stuff we like (first-time homes purchases by young couples, say) with stuff we don’t like (cleaning up after accidents, campaign ads, lawyers’ fees). Many benefits and costs are not measured at all (volunteer labor, parenting, pollution). It’s not even clear that we should rejoice when the GDP goes up, or worry when it goes down.
So why do we keep reporting it breathlessly, as if it had some meaning? Let’s just quit.
Abolishing the GDP will also stop the news briefs telling us that the GDP report will come out tomorrow, or this afternoon, or an hour from now. While we’re on a roll, let’s stop reporting ALL things that haven’t yet happened — what the Federal Reserve Board may be about to do to the interest rate, what the president is expected to say in his speech tonight, what the OJ jury may be about to announce. Speculation is not news. It’s idle, time-filling chatter. If we don’t have anything better to talk about, let’s have music, or silence.
We could quit broadcasting the Dow-Jones index every hour, too. Who needs it? The index doesn’t tell anyone what happens to his or her particular stock portfolio. It doesn’t reflect the real state of the economy, just the opinions of a few professional gamblers. Anyone who needs to follow moment-by-moment stock-price wiggles is probably already on the floor of the exchange or plugged in by Internet. Spare the rest of us. Cut to the weather instead. Here in New England we DO need hourly weather reports.
As we stop doing dumb things, we could start doing smart things. After we wean ourselves from the Dow-Jones, for instance, we could apply a stiff tax on the sale of any security that has been held for less than, say, a month. That would smoke out the folks who play the market like a casino. We could offer them a gentle recovery program for their addiction, and the stock market could return to its purpose, which is to provide long-term loans for actual industrial investment.
That reminds me of another dumb thing we could stop doing — lotteries. A lottery is a tax on people who are bad at math, says a joke going round the Internet. It’s a huge tax — people sink $25 billion a year into state lotteries and $330 billion into all forms of legal gambling. The folks who do that are for the most part poorly educated, and they don’t have money to waste. Only a fraction of what they lose comes back to them in funds for schools or whatever. A direct tax would hit all income levels more fairly, would channel more to the schools at less expense to the taxpayers, and might even help educate people to understand their chances of winning a lottery.
Here’s another dumb thing: crowding up against the luggage conveyor while we wait for bags at the airport. If we all stood back six feet, we could see the bags coming and step forward and wrestle them off the belt without shoving.
We could also stand back from traffic accidents and crime scenes. Unless we’re helping, we have no business anywhere near them. News cameras don’t either. Something in us reacts viscerally to blood and crumpled metal, just as something in us can get hooked on gambling or nicotine or heroin. Indulging these cravings is not smart. There’s no news in gory images. No reason why we need this information. It just makes us believe that our world is more dangerous than it really is.
And we could stop crowding up against lakes, rivers, and oceans. We shouldn’t build anything within, say, a block of the water, or better yet, a block from the edge of the floodplain. That would keep banks green and scenic, give more people views and access, keep septic tanks and lawn chemicals from polluting the water, and prevent property loss.
Let’s see. This is fun. More dumb things we could eliminate:
The Electoral College.
Little labels glued on every apple in the supermarket.
Clearcuts on slopes, where the next big rain will bring down a landslide.
What would you add to this list?
And with the money we save from the CIA, the GDP calculations, the Dow-Jones reports, the lotteries, and end of the need to bail out communities from floods and slides, what smart things might we do?
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1997