Thursday, January 24, 2008

Scare tactics

The New York Times is currently running stories about high levels of mercury found in sushi tuna served in NYC restaurants. Curiously, these tests were ordered by the Times itself. Shouldn't their ombudsperson look into this apparent conflict of interest?

As long as I can remember the media have run scare stories. These stories sell papers, and with the Internet threat bearing down on them, the legacy media need attention more than ever before.

Some years ago, during another mercury scare, scientists took out a fish perfectly preserved from 100 years ago. It too was found to have "unacceptable" levels of mercury.

I eat sushi about once a week. Sometimes I have tuna, sometimes not. The key to proper diet, I believe, is balance. I tend to avoid beef, for example, but once in a while I have some just for variety.

Today though there are millions of food nuts who eagerly scoop up (if you will excuse the expression) these scary reports. Another item to avoid--hooray!

What this set of taboos looks like to me is a version of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. In one version of this condition, the sufferers ceasely compile lists of things that must be avoided at all costs. As a result their lives become a daunting labyrinth, with danger lurking around every corner. Sometimes I wonder how these foody OCD folks can survive at all.

Another current scare is the economy. It seems clear that we are in for a rough patch. But another 1929? I don't think so. What these analysts fail to acknowledge is the concept of creative destruction that Joseph Schumpeter identified as the very essence of capitalism. Some firms are rising, some are disappearing. Some nations are forging ahead, others are lagging behind.

Mayor Bloomberg made an incisive quip yesterday. He said that a recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose your job.

Since my retirement income is partly tied to the stock market, I am bracing myself for a few losses. Next year, if not before, there will probably be a correction. If the sky is going to fall, so be it. But this is not a serious concern. I have other, real problems to worry about--including my health and the state of my apartment. These things directly affect my well being. Moreover, I can do something about them.

Some things that we are supposed to get excited about, we can't do anything about. Does anyone doubt the following? Regardless of who is elected president this fall, we will have troops stationed more or less permananently in Iraq, "earmarks" will go on unchecked in Congress, and lobbyists will continue to write most of the legislation that gets passed.

Never, I think, has Candide's advice been more timely: it is time to cultivate our own garden.


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