Are we worried about wrong things?

Material progress in recent decades has created all sorts of anxieties in the US


Are we worried about wrong things?
by varjavand

As we all witnessed, the decade of 90s was the triumphant era for the US economy. Affluence was all over the place. Massive investment in highly innovative information technology triggered the proliferation of high tech businesses and the emergence of e-commerce and the pending surge in productivity and growth. Moreover, United States was the major beneficiary of the colossal events that took place in 90s such as the disintegration of Soviet Unions and the fall of Berlin wall, giving her an opportunity to cut the military spending and to devote more resources to economic development.

Prolonged economic progress with low unemployment and inflation led to wealth accumulation and increasing income. The growth rate of the US Gross Domestic Product, GDP, reached its peak during 90s. While only 4.5% of world population lived in US, her share of the world GDP was 24% during 90s. This rate has been, of course, steadily but slightly declining since then. Although, a few emerging countries have been able to achieve persistent high economic growth in recent years and are destined to unseat the United States as the sole economic superpower, the US is still the dominating economic as well as political power in the world.

Economic progress may give us a false sense of contentment, security, and human well-being. It is temping to think that materialistic progress will also enhance our overall level of welfare and promotes social justice. However, we are now more skeptical about the link between material growth and overall level of welfare. Evidence may even points to the contrary. People in the United States, for instance, do not enjoy a peaceful and a worry-free life despite material progress and high standard of living. Fear and anxiety, often triggered by inability to fulfill inflated worldly expectations, are prevalent and are growing and taking over the life of American consumers. Fear and resulting psychological disorders are severe and ubiquitous.

More noticeably, the unfounded fears created by greedy entrepreneurs and injudicious politicians and reinforced by mass communication media. Dubious fear, fear of something that may not even happen, or the chance of its happening is infinitesimal. Mental distresses, the off sprigs of fears, have reached its epic in this country. The psychiatric drugs such as Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft are among top 15 most prescribed medications with the annual sales of about $10 billion. Prozac is designed to relieve us from anxiety and fear and Paxil is for those of us who fear the society and have no desire or courage to deal with other people.      

Who can forget the Y2K fear the computer savvies tried to sell to ordinary people. Some Americans expected something like Armageddon. Many converted the basement of their houses into storehouse of foods and other necessities. Numerous companies as well as American government spent millions of dollars in preparation of dealing with the worrying consequences of Y2K. As we all remember well, the year 2000 started, and ended, as usual. Nothing out of ordinary happened; no disruption in electricity, water, or communication networks, no major breakdown of computer networks, no missiles were launched by hostile enemies, and no airplanes crashed to the ground.

In summary, water did not move from water! (ab as ab takan nakhord).

All those who spent so much time and resources in preparation for imaginary disasters were disappointed and the resources used in preparation considered wasted. That experience by itself indicated that even though we are vulnerable to technological calamities, we are not as much controlled by them as we contemplate. Yet, we did not learn enough from that experience and are still capitulating to the efforts of those who try to capitalize on our apprehensiveness and vulnerability.  

We may hesitate to leave our house fearful that something may happen to us. We are worried about global warming, getting sick from consuming tainted tomatoes or recalled beef, saturated fats may block our arteries, our kids may be shot at school, becoming a victim of random crimes, deadly fall from stairs, being hit by a chunk of ice or other debris falling from sky, getting sick from consuming genetically-altered food, cancer causing artificial sweeteners, toxic baby bottles, West Nile virus, being audited by IRS, terrorists may strike again, etc.

While a number of fears may have some validity and we should be prepared to manage them, there are more irrational fears that are often exploited and turned into money-making schemes. We are often fearful of the wrong things mainly because or risk assessment mechanism is often erroneous or our inability to winnow credible information from rumors. Our anecdotal feelings will usually lead us to imprecise, or sometimes mistaken, conclusions.  

Where all these unfounded fears come from?  

Given the facts that many, biased experts, ill-intentioned politicians, and profit-seeking entrepreneurs hard pitch their cleverly crafted exploitive agendas, it is obvious for us to react irrationally to information as well as to the rumors. For instance, despite what some politicians want us to believe, we are not living in a dangerous world. The violence and organized crimes, terrorist attacks, as a matter of fact, have subsided in recent years, fear of the jihadists (the term invented in the US) is not that catastrophic, the risk of becoming a victim of Internet fraud vastly exaggerated, and no one has died from mad caw disease or avian influenza yet.

However, we organize and agonize over these and similar fears. Overreaction has become the norm rather than exception. Comparing the powerless president of Iran, for example, to Hitler, president Bush’s frivolous attempt to portray Iran as the major threat to the US and to the world peace despite the fact that Iran poses, nor is capable of posing, such a threat to the US or to the west. If there is only one thing that US politicians are good at is to blow things out of proportion. They are shrewd marketers in disguise.  

Unsuspecting parents are among the primary targets of the so called scaremongering experts, a fast-growing species in this country. We have too many after-the-fact experts, so sure of themselves. These experts usually do not get enough attention unless they are one-sided, often with extreme views, and overly confident. They are supposedly providing professional advices, however, they do nothing but to use fear to influence our decisions, and to create public emotion which is not necessarily compatible with rationality. They often manipulate or misuse statistics to serve their own interests with ultimate goal of creating a market and earning profit. And, we are all vulnerable to exploitation by these so called experts especially the overly concerned gullible parents. They make us afraid of unfounded fears, and risks that cannot materialize. When it comes to raising our kids, we will be persuaded easily because we think if we make mistake, the consequences are calamitous both financially and emotionally.

Fear-mongering is a lucrative business in the US. It is the secret of economic survival for some companies. Briefly stated, in market-based economies, profit is the only incentive to economic initiatives. To make profit, businessmen should be able to sell. To sell, there should be a strong sustained demand for their products. What happen if market is saturated and potential demand is lacking? Then, they resort to their imaginative creativity, sometimes levelheaded but often senseless. They try to exploit every possible means to create demand and the right conditions that are conducive to manipulation How many more brands of SUVs do we need? What other sophisticated features we can add to a cell phone? How many more flavors of ice cream we scream for? What other vitamins we can add to a bottle water? How many more calories we can take out of the frozen foods?

We spend billions of dollars on producing, amending, marketing, and selling fear-relief products that are not even marginally life-enhancing and they become obsolete quickly. We spend billions of dollars on the purchase, maintenance, and monitoring the safety and detection devices in United States in places like schools despite the fact that school is the safest place for children. Chance of your child drawn in your neighbor swimming pool is greater that getting shot at school. Nonetheless, we are more afraid of the danger at school than at the swimming pool.

The public media play a significant role in spreading the fear. News is spread throughout the world so quickly whether it is a terrorist attack in a remote island or an airplane crash in a third word country creating fear despite the fact that air is still the safest mode of transportation. The widespread use of internet has also spread another type of fear, fear of fraudulent use of your vital personal or financial information online. Now, many are trying to jump into the band wagon seeking to convince you that protecting your personal information on internet is as important as insuring your home from flood, fire and other catastrophic events. Even colleges and universities offer courses and certificates designed to help you to mange or minimize online risk and how to prevent being a victim of financial frauds online. In my view, all you need to do to safeguard your vital information is to be extra careful.  

I believe, it is the nature of human beings when our basic needs are taken care of, and there is no need to worry about shelter and food, we create other types of anxieties such as inability to maintain our standard of living the way we are used to or to fulfill our overblown expectations. In other words, when the basic worries are gone, we tend to resort to the second generation of fears. We search deep inside ourselves to find rationalization for fear. This tendency might be innate and hardwired into our brain. We always find excuses to worry especially during good times. When economic condition is favorable the causes and sources of fear multiply.

Material progress in recent decades has created all sorts of anxieties in the US especially because it has led to increasing inequality and skewed distribution of wealth. The rich getting richer and the poor poorer, the ever widening income gap will become eventually a problem we have to deal with. Otherwise, it will lead to deep economic recession because of its adverse effects on middle class.  

May be all these remind me of our cute expression:

Lucky me, I don’t have a donkey, so I don’t need to worry about the (cost of) donkey food (ghorbaane khodam keh khar nadaaram, az kaah va jovash khabar nadaaram).


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Dear Hakim

by varjavand on

Dear Hakim;

The key point of my discussion is that ordinary people are susceptible to manipulation by profit-seeking entrepreneurs especially those who cannot calculate the probability of something happening correctly. Risk is all about probability. These are the factors that weaken our ability to evaluate risk accurately.

Control factor, we are more afraid of flying than driving our own car even though the risk of getting injured or die in a driving accident simply because we don’t control the airplane but we control our car

Dread factor, death by gun shot is much more horrible than death from heart attack

Time factor, terrorist attacks kills now; however, heart attacks happen in long run

Publicity factor, terrorist attacks are highly publicized however; death by heart attack or in a swimming pool is not

Cost factor, it is much costly if something happens to our child and the costs are immediate, however, costs of death by heart attack are nor known a priori and they happens in long run

Thanks for your comment




This is what I think

by Hakim (not verified) on

I read your very long article. I agree with you that many people in the richest nation on earth are feeling unsure about their future.
I can list a few reasons for it here:
1- The stability that used to be in US work places are long gone.
2- All the, so called permanent jobs are really temporary jobs, or they look at way anyway.
3- There is no social protection against being out of work, or if there is any, it is very insignificant.
4- The cost of living is very high and it is impossible to maintain a normal life without a good salary.
5- The speed of changes in US work place is very rapid. Everyday, people feel and see that their jobs are moving out to Asia.
In general, People feel nerves, as loosing job withouth pension, saving and social protection can cause a very severe hardship for their family.