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Are We Worried About the Wrong Things?

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Even with dismal economic condition and meager growth rate in recent years, United States has, to this point in time, managed to remain the dominant economic as well as a political power in the world. Its economy is still by far the largest with a promising outlook. While only 4.4 percent of the world's population live in the U.S, its share of the world's total Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is still more than 20 percent. 

It is tempting to think that materialistic progress will enhance our overall level of welfare and promote social justice and more tranquil lifestyle. Quite the opposite; it may have only created a false sense of contentment and security. We are more skeptical now about the positive correlation between material growth and the overall social and individual welfare; evidence may even point to an inverse correlation. A growing number of people in the United States, for instance, do not necessarily enjoy a more worry-free life despite their material progress and high standard of living.

Fear and anxiety, mainly triggered by our inability to fulfill our inflated worldly expectations, are prevalent feelings that are growing and taking over the lives of American households. Fear and its resulting psychological malaise seem to have become severe and ubiquitous. Unapologetically, these often unfounded fears have been routinely created by greedy entrepreneurs and injudicious politicians, and are reinforced by mass communication media, more noticeably, dubious fear -- fear of something that may not even happen, or have an infinitesimal chance of happening. Mental distress, the offshoot of fear, seem to have reached epic proportions in this country. The anti-psychotic drugs are persistently among the top selling prescribed medications in the United States. Just the two leading brands, Abilify and Seroquel had the combined annual sales of $9 billion in 2010 according to WebMD website. Most of such drugs are designed to relieve patients from anxiety and phobia; some of them are used to overcome the fear of social gatherings for those of us who have no desire or courage to deal with other people. 

Some of us may hesitate to leave our homes because we are fearful that something perilous may happen to us. The sources of our fears are endless, but let me highlight a few. We are worried about global warming, outbreak of contagious diseases, becoming a victim of crimes, getting sick from consuming tainted tomatoes, peanut-based products, recalled beef, and listeria in cantaloupe. We worry that saturated fats may block our arteries, that our kids may be shot at school or become victims of bullying, random acts of violence, or online predators.

We worry that our personal physical health might be jeopardized by all or one of the following: a deadly fall on the stairs, being hit by a chunk of ice or other debris falling from sky, getting sick from consuming genetically-altered food, contracting the West Nile virus, getting cancer from artificial sweeteners and a host of other suspicious products like toxic plastic containers and other items we use every day. I would be negligent if I did not also mention the ever-present worries about becoming victims of possible terrorist attacks in the future or being audited by the IRS.  

While a number of these fears may have valid justifications and we should be prepared to protect ourselves and manage them, there are more unreasonable fears that are often exploited and turned into money-making schemes. We are often fearful of the wrong things mainly because our risk-assessment mechanism is often erroneous, or our ability to winnow credible information from rumor is feeble. Our subjective feelings will usually lead us to imprecise or sometimes mistaken conclusions.

Where do all of these unfounded fears come from?

Given the fact that many biased experts, ill-intentioned politicians, and profit-seeking entrepreneurs pitch their cleverly crafted exploitative agendas with great gusto, it becomes very easy for us to react irrationally to flawed information or to unfounded rumors. For instance, despite what some politicians want us to believe, we are not living in an increasingly dangerous world.

Let's step back and take a calm rational look at some facts. Violence, organized crime activity, and terrorist attacks have subsided in recent years. In the wake of 9/11, Jihadist's belligerent rants and the fear they engender has not proven to be really catastrophic. The risk of becoming a victim of Internet fraud has been vastly exaggerated. As yet, no one has died from mad-cow disease or avian influenza. However, we organize and agonize over these and similar fears; over-reaction has become the norm rather than the exception. An example of this over-reaction is comparing the powerless president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to Hitler by news commentators. This was perhaps a frivolous attempt by the previous administration to portray Iran as a major threat to world peace despite the fact that this country poses no threat and is incapable of posing such a threat to the U.S. or to the West. If there is one thing that some U.S. politicians are good at, it is blowing things out of proportion like shrewd marketers of fear disguised as public servants.

Unsuspecting and over-protective parents are among the primary targets of the so-called scaremongering professionals who are a fast-growing species in this country. We have too many after-the-fact experts who sound so sure of themselves. However, they usually are merely seeking attention and the public spotlight by insisting on and promoting their one-sided, often controversial views. They are supposedly providing professional advice; however, in actuality they do nothing but foment fear. They utilize fear tactics to influence our decisions and create high public emotion. They often manipulate or misuse statistics to augment their own self-interests with the ultimate goal of creating a lucrative market for their products or services.

We are all vulnerable to exploitation by these so-called experts, especially overly-concerned and easy-to-fleece parents. When it comes to advice about what to do and what not to do in raising our kids, we will be easily persuaded to do just about anything because we think that if we make a mistake, the consequences will be calamitous both financially and emotionally. We also abhor the thought that others may label us "bad parents" if we do not capitulate to the current thinking and fads regarding child rearing.

Fear-mongering is a lucrative business in the U.S. and too often it is a catalyst to economic survival for some industries. Frankly, in market-based economies, profit is the only incentive for economic decisions. In order to turn a profit, businessmen have to be able to sell. In order to sell, there has to be a strong sustained demand for their products. What do they do if the market is saturated and potential demand is lacking? When this happens, they are forced to resort to their imaginative creativity; sometimes this creativity is levelheaded, but all too often it is malevolent. They try to exploit every possible tactics to create demand and the right conditions that are conducive to manipulation.

I believe product differentiation is one of such strategies, especially when it pushed in a silly direction. How many different types of SUVs do we need? What other sophisticated features can we add to a cell phone? How many more flavors of ice cream can we scream for? What other vitamins can we add to a bottle of fruit juice or water? How many more calories can we remove from frozen foods and still have them be edible products? We spend, for example, billions of dollars producing, amending, marketing, and selling fear-relief products that are only marginally life-enhancing. In addition, these products become ineffective quickly or useless because of obsolescence. We spend large sums of money on the purchase, maintenance, and monitoring of safety and detection devices in places like schools despite the fact that schools are still the safest places for children. The odds of your child drowning in your neighbor's swimming pool are probably higher than the odds of your child getting shot at school. Nonetheless, we are more afraid of the danger at school than the danger of a swimming pool.

The public media plays a significant role in creating and spreading irrational fear. News is spread throughout the world very quickly and likewise, the fear that the news may generate. We live in fear when the news media report a terrorist attack on a remote island in a country we may never have heard of before; we hear about an airplane crash in a third world country and it creates fear despite the fact that air travel is still the safest mode of transportation. 

Our fear of technological calamities reinforces our capitulation to the efforts of those who try to capitalize on our fears, apprehensions, and vulnerability. The widespread use of the Internet has created another type of anxiety -- fear of online identity theft and the fraudulent use of our vital personal or financial information. Although, it is a legitimate concern; it is often exaggerated. Now, many are trying to jump on the band wagon, seeking to convince us that protecting our personal information on the Internet is as important as insuring our home for flood, fire, and other catastrophic events. Even colleges and universities are offering courses and certificates designed to help you manage or minimize online risk, and how to protect yourself from becoming a victim of online financial fraud. In my view, all you need to do to safeguard your vital personal information is to be more vigilant.

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Reza Varjavand (Ph.D., University of Oklahoma) is associate professor of economics and finance at the Graham School of management, Saint Xavier University, of Chicago. He has been an avid participant in many professional organizations and active in (more...)
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