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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Spaghetti Sauce, Ranch Dressing and the Myth of the Ultimate Banjo!

The Non-Paradox of Choice

I like my music eclectic. I like to choose what I listen to and there's really not a good radio station out there that plays what I want to hear. I like talk radio and Pandora on the Internet that lets me listen to what I want to hear. Imagine to my surprise to discover that all this ability to choose what I want, whether it's radio or spaghetti sauce is making me miserable. Who'd a thunk it?

I watched a couple of TED speeches this morning on the subject of choice. Now, you would assume that choice is a good thing. In fact, if you support “choice”, you apparently are a good solid liberal.

Well, not necessarily.

Choice is "not necessarily" a good thing according to Barry Schwarz, author of “The Paradox of Choice”. Barry, an avuncular commentator, who gave his talk wearing a t-shirt, shorts and sneakers, disagrees with the great Western belief that the way to maximize happiness is to maximize freedom and that the way to maximize freedom is to maximize choice.

Now already, Barry has got on my wrong side by giving a speech in the same clothes he wears to mow the yard. I hate avuncular, possibly because I’m avuncular myself and other avuncular pundits steal my thunder! How can I be a loveable oddball if everyone else is going to be a loveable oddball!

Next Barry gets further on my bad side by telling me that too much choice makes me unhappy.

What old man? Have you been drinking? I love choice. Choice makes me deliriously happy. Give me 10 varieties of everything and I get this contented goofy smile that makes my wife wonder what I’m up to. When I was a kid, for instance, there were just two kinds of salad dressing. Miracle whip and that orange French stuff. I remember when Thousand Island first appeared. They didn't want to stray too far, though. They called it Thousand Island French so we wouldn't be confused. Then Bleu Cheese came along and that was interesting. Then, finally the king of all salad dressings hit the shelf---- RANCH! We thought we had died and gone to salad heaven!!! But according to Barry Schwartz, all those 176 varieties of salad dressing make me unhappy because no matter which one I pick it will never come up to my expectations.

I’m sorry, Barry, but if I pick up a bottle of Kraft Buttermilk Ranch or Ken’s Ranch, either one, then I’m gonna be very happy. Now, if the only Ranch dressing out there were Hidden Valley, I’d be much less happy - too much pepper, I think. But, the wonderful thing is that there are also people out there who like Hidden Valley or some other brand of Ranch (or one of the 20 brands of vinaigrette, 7 brands of French and dozens of other interesting choices).

Barry takes us next to the electronic store and complains that there are over one million possible combinations of components you can buy to create your home stereo system. Poor Barry says he’s going to regret his choice whatever he chooses because his expectations for perfection in sound are just way too high. He figures we'd all be much happier with just one choice like in the good old days when you bought one of those clunky console radios or you didn't buy any radio at all. Apparently we were happier in those days.

Well I lived back then and nope! Wasn't happier. It actually hacked me off that the corporate radio makers had so little imagination. I saved my nickels and bought the first transistor radio that hit the Woolworth Store. When the Gibson's Discount center came to town, I became a devotee of their electronics section. When Wal-Mart went up, I thought I'd died and gone to home stereo heaven. I don't know if I assembled the best stereo ever, but my mother kept making me turn it down, so I figured I'd done well enough! Only a sociology professor from Swarthmore College could be such an obsessive naval gazer that he couldn’t pick out a stereo he likes because there were too many components to choose from.

Then, of course, there's the moral of this sad tale. Barry ends by pointing out that the truly happy are those whose choices are so limited, that anything new will make them ecstatically happy. From there he draws the (leftist) conclusion that since most of the world is poor and has limited choice and we have too many choices in the wealthy West (and by his definition - therefore incapable of being happy), we should (surprise) redistribute our wealth to the world's poor countries thereby making them happy and us happier too now that we’re rid of all that pesky money that gave us all those choices.

Schwartz’s assumption that making us poorer will result in our being content is just plain goofy. I suggest, that instead, we reduce the salaries of Swarthmore sociology professors so they instantly have fewer choices. It ought to make them happier, huh? Then when Barry goes to the store, he doesn’t have so many choices – the Value Time brands offer far fewer varieties of salad dressings and since he wouldn't be able to afford the expensive stuff – voila! His expectations for satisfaction would thus be lowered. I do believe that Barry will be happier because some of the Value Time products are quite better than you would expect. So Barry would have every chance of happiness and we wouldn't have to wreck our economy to improve his outlook!

If it doesn't work, Barry, you might try anti-depressants. Wal-Mart has some really good ones for $4.

The other lecture I listened to was by Malcolm Gladwell who talked about Howard Moskowitz’s experience with consumer choice and spaghetti sauce. Gladwell to my surprise disagreed with Doc Schwartz. Gladwell talked about how Dr. Moskowitz did market research for food companies and discovered the principle that there is no universal best choice for anything. Marketers had for years been asking the wrong question.

Instead of which spaghetti sauce was best, the question they needed to ask was “Which spaghetti sauces were best.” Note the plural. Turns out people didn’t like just one type of sauce. When Moskowitz finally asked the right questions he found that consumer preferences actually fell into 3 to 6 clusters (like thin old world, cheesy and chunky).


People like different varieties of things! Who would have guessed? Variety makes us happy? Wonder why that is? Have you ever looked around at the world? There are oceans, deserts, plains, mountains, rolling hills and rivers. Look at just the flowers - the infinite variety of them. Animals, plants and minerals abound in spectacular array. If we are truly made in our creator’s image, then it’s little wonder that variety makes us happy.

Schwartz is wrong. Variety does not make us unhappy. We make ourselves unhappy. The lust to have the most, the best, the greatest is what makes us unhappy. Schwartz and his ilk are constantly looking for the perfect answer, the best system, the ultimate government that will make everyone be content with their lot in life.

Barry gave it away the problem, though, when he talked about how no matter what we choose, it’s never enough because we expected to have the absolute best and didn’t get it. There is no absolute best, Barry! It’s a false premise! Is there a best flower in the world? No, only millions of wondrously beautiful flowers. Is there a best vacation? Nope, only trips to the mountains, to the sea, to historic sites that are wonderful and fun each in its own way. Maybe you love going to Vegas. I didn't much care for it.

If in your life you must have the most, the best, the absolute greatest, whether it be things or prestige or power, then you WILL be miserable whether you have many choices or no choices at all. If in your quest to have it all, you’ve realized you never will, then it makes perfect sense that you would then want to spoil it for everyone else. Those who have more than you must have less or you cannot be happy! At least if you can get people to accept this redistribution of all the wealth thing, then everyone will be ‘equal’ and then you can stop worrying that you didn’t get as much as someone else.

My grandmother who was raised in a racist culture once told me she didn’t mind if black people were equal to her, it only bothered her if they thought they were better. The truth was, it bothered her if they were richer than she was too. I didn’t understand that then, but I have come to see that those who long for power, prestige and place are always discontented if they imagine that anyone else has got a better deal than they did. They can never be happy unless they have a sufficient number of folks they can look down on.

If they can’t have that, at least no one should be better than they.

On my banjo hangout website, unfortunately Dr. Schwartz's theory seems to play out.  All the wondrous variety of banjos and banjo styles seems to cause some folks a lot of dissatisfaction and downright unhappiness. Guys are always fighting over which banjo is best or which style is correct. Why? I think I have an answer.  I think it's about why we choose.

There are two kinds of people in the world I believe.  Givers and takers.  Givers believe they are here to serve others.  Takers believe they are here to get as much as possible while they are here.  They expect to have the best of everything - the best stuff, the highest position, the most power.  They are unhappy when they do not get the best of whatever it is.  They feel like they have failed.

So for them it is true.  They are happier when there are fewer choices.  That way they can make sure they get the best.  Then they are happy because they have manufactured evidence that they are better than others.

It explains why socialists claim to want everyone to be happy and content and yet persist in creating monochromatic societies where everyone is equally miserable. They talk about choice and then give us only one party to vote for and one leader. Think how happy we'll be to actually get a pair of shoes after waiting an hour and a half in line - no matter that they are all one color, style and not available in your size. After all, you have a pair of shoes when before you didn't. Be happy!  Of course, then they exempt themselves from being like everyone else and build a dacha in the country and sip champagne and nibble caviar while they congratulate themselves that everyone else is not equal except, of course, themselves.

For those of us who follow Christ, capitalism doesn’t cause us distress when we have too many choices. We're happy if others do well (or even better than we). We believe if we do well, we should share with others. It doesn’t bother us if there are those who don’t share their wealth. That's between them and God. They are not our responsibility. It is only important that we are kind and share with others. It’s why in cultures that have a significant proportion of practicing Christians, you find they literally pour money and aid into poorer countries. In the United States, everyone, rich, poor or middling gives more foreign aid to the world than the US government does.

A majority of Americans are NOT unhappy socialists. So why should we turn our government over to people who believe that they are unhappy because they have too much choice and can’t be sure they have the best of everything and want to make us all equally poor and restrict our choices so we’ll be grateful for what little we have. Henry Ford once said that his customers could have any color Model T they wanted as long as it was black. That worked so long as Ford Motor Company was the only game in town. Once he got a little competition, people started getting new colors for their cars. Ford was a progressive socialist pioneer. Of course Old Henry only liked socialism as it applied to the masses. He'd really have squawked if you'd tried to apply the same principles to the great man's own lifestyle, but then the folks who advocate universal misery expect the masses to give them extra stuff, a higher position and more power as a reward for their outstanding leadership.

I'm thinking we're better off with capitalists like Moskowitz and Gladwell who are out there busily trying to figure out what kinds of things make us happy so they can make it available to us in more abundance? I have no interest in governance by people who want us to have only one or two TV stations. I like that we have 157 channels and I don't care if Bruce Springsteen thinks there's "nothin' on".  I always find something because I don't have to watch the best show, just something I like.

For me it’s like choosing between an all you can eat $5.95 buffet with tons of choices versus one of those little places where you pay $100 a plate and the chef tells you what to eat and shrieks at you if you ask for some ketchup!  For me, it's a no-brainer, but then I don’t need the ego boost you get from being able to afford to pay a couple hundred bucks to be told what I like to eat.

Don't like socialism for the same reason!

Me, I'm glad there are banjos I can't afford and styles of banjo I can't play yet.  How cool is that?  And when I stand at the Baskin Robbins counter, I know that whichever of the 31 flavors I get, my mouth is going to be very happy.  So, don't be telling me there's only one best banjo and one best playing style and that having fewer choices would make us happier.

It would be like God only making one kind of flower.

How boring would that be?

Just one man’s opinion…..
Tom King

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