Sunday, August 24, 2008

Prof. Harold Hill's America

    --Homemade yardsign

Optimism sells. It is one of the staples of American life. And, it makes it difficult to tell Americans bad news.

I was reminded of this on a recent trip to Canada for a week of theater performances. Two of the performances were American musicals and one of those musicals was The Music Man written in 1957. For those who haven't seen it, a professional confidence man arrives in the mythical town of River City, Iowa in 1912 with a plan to separate its citizens from their money by convincing them that they need a boys' band. The con man, going by the name of Prof. Harold Hill, says that the band will provide a wholesome alternative to the new pool table at the local billiard parlor, a pool table that is leading to the degradation of River City's youth. Hill plans to make his exit after the instruments and uniforms arrive and he collects his money.

But when the instruments arrive first, Hill has to contrive a reason for not conducting lessons for the children who will play in the band. He says he will have them use the "think method." They will just think about the melodies, and they will be able to play them.

Now we have the underlying pathology of American life. You can get something for nothing. You can learn without effort. Mere thinking, or perhaps more appropriately mere wishing, is a substitute for action or, in this case, practice.

The very odd part about The Music Man is that when the people of River City find out they've been swindled, they are convinced not to punish Hill by the only real intellectual in the town, Marian, the librarian. She suspected Hill from the beginning and then confirmed with a little research that he was a fake. So, why did she defend him? Because his optimistic salesmanship lifted people's spirits, especially that of Marian's young brother who is painfully shy, in part, because of his lisp. People came to feel better about themselves. Even Marian feels better.

This self-esteem training comes to us from 1912 via a 1950s musical. And, it ends like so much self-esteem training. Everyone feels better for a while, but no one actually becomes competent to do anything. The boys' band is a complete flop. Not surprisingly, no one can play a note.

Now, humans apparently have a peculiar evolutionary susceptibility to optimistic pronouncements. Nate Hagens wrote a piece on human motivation recently on The Oil Drum explaining that people attain a certain level of euphoria just from anticipating a reward. The chemicals which signal a reward begin to cascade through the brain before the reward even arrives.

Our fictional Harold Hill couldn't have known anything about brain chemistry, but he seemed to understand that optimism and pleasant promises sell. Of course, the Harold Hills of America have not disappeared. In the current presidential campaign, John McCain offers relief from high gasoline prices by exhorting that "we need to drill here and we need to drill now." He claims that this could lower gas prices "within a matter of months." As Harold Hill might have intoned, no one has to lift a finger. They just have to think about drilling here and drilling now, and gas prices will drop.

Many already know McCain's claims are false, and that the amount of new oil from offshore drilling, which is what McCain is talking about, would be small compared to our total consumption. The oil would arrive some 10 years from now and have a negligible affect on prices.

But so many euphoria-inducing chemicals are now flowing in the brains of America's low-information voters, that McCain's opponent, who at first resisted what he regarded as bad policy, has now agreed that some drilling offshore ought to be allowed as part of a comprehensive package of energy policy reforms. (For those unfamiliar with the term low-information voters, these are voters who barely pay attention to political campaigns and get most of their information about them from television and radio. Also, let me say here that Barack Obama's energy proposals, while better than McCain's in my view, fall woefully short of the crash programs I believe we need in energy efficiency, renewable energy and electrified transportation.)

Like River City's hapless mayor who warned the townspeople to be careful about Harold Hill, many newspapers have criticized McCain's claims including one that says his proposals amount to "an energy plan for suckers."

Despite the widespread criticism of McCain's claims about drilling, his proposal seems to have lifted him in the polls. Members of the peak oil movement take note! Gloomy Gusses have a hard time elevating dopamine levels in people. For the few who will listen, careful explanation and credible evidence will overcome those increased dopamine levels and provide appropriate perspective on these dubious claims. But when it comes to mass communication with millions who are barely paying attention, promises of relief will get the pleasure centers going even without anyone actually delivering that relief. And, if McCain gets elected, he might very well be forgiven when he can't deliver on his promise just as Harold Hill was. But, of course, McCain provided some uplift when people needed it. That will seem more important to many compared to his incompetence when it comes to energy policy.

The lesson is this: Those intent on spreading the truth about our oil predicament will need to study Harold Hill's techniques which are widely used by the likes of Daniel Yergin and other oil optimists. With brain chemistry working against you, it won't be easy to figure out how to counter them.


Anonymous said...

Kurt, another fantastic essay.

As a former academic who was used to 19 year old students feverishly paying attention to my every word it is extremely difficult to tell anyone else this news. They don't like to listen and I can't give them a quiz to make sure they "get it."

There's no way around this problem as far as I can see. We seem to be unable to do anything but respond to crises, rather than pay attention and get ahead of the curve.

Anonymous said...

It is for the very reasons in this essay that I've shut up after four years of trying to inform people about peak oil.

I have a handful of friends I can talk to. The rest dwell in Sheol.

nika said...

Optimism must have some evolutionary advantage, perhaps its about stress management in the face of overwhelming odds. Stress management that gives the monkey brain enough of a break from the fight or flight response to look at the landscape critically and choose the right choice (run down the right path, etc).

I am not an optimist (tho I wish I were) so I cant presume to know the mind of an optimist. I am an obsessive ruminator, I think deeply about problems and meditate for solutions until I find one. I wonder if perpetual optimism leads to a less in-depth analysis of things (I am guessing not really but perhaps its a matter of degree).

In a sustainable human-scale society there is room for a diversity of views and ways of approaching problems. The optimist, the emotional, the stoic, the pessimist, the oblivious, the neurotic, all had a role to play and each likely found a nurturing environment.

Fast forward to our wholly unsustainable and industrial-scale world where we swim in a sea of humanity, alone, and where we are bathed in homogenizing message.

We still have a broad spectrum of response types: optimists, pessimists, etc.

I think we are heading for a genetic bottleneck and there will be considerable selection pressures against the carefree PO denying optimist (not all optimists are deniers), leaving behind the grumpy pessimistic POiler who prepared for transition.

I wonder how many of those low information surface thinking optimists who choose cognitive dissonance over evaluating all possibilities will survive the die-off or just plain hard times without preparing for any of it.

Perhaps one can see the selection pressure more as pragmatist (need to know and gotta plan) versus magical thinker (A-ok with cognitive dissonance).

I think its possible that these sorts of magical thinkers are beyond reach because they have made themselves unavailable – that is their responsibility.

If this is something that is really important to you (anyone reading), to reach the “unreached”, then perhaps its time to bone up on George Lakoff’s work on framing and messaging see also The Rockridge Institute ( See also where Lakoff is part of Global public Media

Iconoclast421 said...

It helps to visualize the earth from a distance. Look down at the earth from far enough, and you'll see humans as we might see ants. Society is clearly responding to possible threats. It is just not responding in any rational way. Growing up, I had huge anthills near my house, so maybe that's one reason why I'm able to see this clearly. When I poked the anthill with a stick, the ants would respond. Not by attacking me or the stick. They would merely accelerate their seemingly random movements. After a bit of prodding, they would quite literally "go insane". Then they would start climbing the stick en mass, and no doubt would have climbed me if I didn't get the hell out of there.

I don't know what it is that causes ants to change their behavior so dramatically once they reach a certain threshold of agitation. But I do know that with humans, it is the mass media that regulates that "threshold". It is the media that will determine when socities act. And knowing what I know about the media and its controllers, it is safe to assume that whatever action humans collectively take will not be rational in any way.

Henry Warwick said...

I really like the Music Man. I normally despise and detest musicals. But I like the Music Man, Fiddler on the Roof, and West Side Story, each for specific reasons. I won't go into them all, but the Music Man needs a closer reading, and I think you'll appreciate this.

WHY is everyone in the dumps to begin with? Because in 1912, the USA was flying directly into the happy motoring society by way of fordist econo-industrial policy, and the formation of the consumer society. The Model T had been developed in 1908, and by 1912 was clearly and rapidly standing the country on its head. The economy was so disfunctional after the panics and massive unemployment of the 1890s, that the banking cartel felt compelled to collude with the USgov and create the federal reserve in 1913.

1912 was a pivotal year, and if you were born, in say, 1870, you were only 42, but you were seeing a completely different world take form, one completely alien to the one you were raised in.

The lyrics for the song "Rock Island" explain much of it:

The salesman are talking about CASH for the (item in question).

2nd salesman: cash for the noggins and the piggins and the frikins
3rd Salesman: Cash for the hogdhead, cask and demijohn. Cash for the crackers and the pickels and the flypaper


but there's no protest when a salesman says:

ya can talk, ya can bicker, bicker bicker ya can talk all ya want but is different than it was.

and what's the PROBLEM?

Why it's the Model T Ford made the trouble, made the people wanna go, wanna get, wanna get up and go...

and what's the fallout from this? That no one wants to bother with a little bitty two by four store - no sir...

The Music Man was written in he 1950s, long before Walmart came about, but in the thick of the automotive explosion of the 1950s. That explosion was of such a scale, that it dwarfed all previous expansions, and we live in its shadow to this day. However: that is a quantitative fact. The Qualitative fact was much more devastating and disorientating. Again, pretend you're born in 1870, and you're 42 in 1912. You wer eborn 5 years after the end of the civil war. The south was a hellish smoking wreck, and the corruption of the Grant and subsequent carpetbagging (we would call them disaster capitalists) administration followed on. But transport was by horse and buggy or train throughout your youth and adulthood. Then suddenly this clanky smoky nasty buggy, the Model T, comes along. Flying machines are being developed and rail lines are getting faster. Entire new forms of entertainment have been created, seemingly ex nihilo - film, electronic music, record players, high speed lithographic printing.

And the theoretical underpinnings of your universe have been completely spun around and decentred: gone are the grand works of the Hudson river School and sympbolists - now its an endless parade of alla prima painting with the impressionists, soon followed by Cubists. In 1912, Duchamp's seminal painting, Nude Descending a Staircase #2, was painted, ushering in futurism. The avant garde was rearing its absurdist head, and small town salesmen on the Rock Island line in backwater Missouri had no capacity, theoretical or material, to deal with the changes.

The Music Man is a story told only 40 years beyond its fictional time - it would similar to a tale told today about the 1960s.

The Music Man, when stripped of its sticky sweet sentimentalism is a fascinating portrait of the New Modern Age. I would humbly suggest that we now need a Music Man for our own time, as I do not believe we have the luxury of a 40 year time lag to incorporate the changes afoot into our contemporary mythology.

Great essay Kurt. Thanks! Oh - and do m a favour: email me - there's a number of things I'd like to discuss with you that have come up since the last time we met, things that might interest you...