TOO MUCH

Being young(ish) and living in college towns among people who tend toward the less lucrative college degrees, a high percentage of my friends would make good case studies for a Quarterlife Crisis reality show. To be blunt, I don't know many people who are terribly successful, financial or otherwise (and I certainly am not either). Let me put it this way: it's the kind of social group in which having health insurance is a cause for great envy. Even my friends and acquaintances who are gainfully employed in something more rewarding than the service industry live with a lot of anxiety and the sense that the world is crumbling around them. Basically, I have a very large social circle spanning most of the country and I can honestly say (anec-data!) that most people I know are at least somewhat depressed. To be in one's 20s and 30s today is to be overwhelmed by debt, overworked and underpaid (or not working at all), and constantly second-guessing every choice that led to this outcome. It's a biased sample, but not totally unrepresentative of the problems facing people in this age bracket.

The explanations for this are numerous and we could spend weeks discussing them all; everything from parenting techniques to macroeconomics to technological advances is relevant to understanding the predicament of the first generation of Americans to do worse than its parents. One specific explanation that has been very interesting to me lately is the psychology of indecision and the consequences of making too many choices among too many options. It doesn't matter that many of these choices are of minor importance – Where should we go for dinner tonight? Am I eating too much wheat gluten? Which toothpaste is right for me? – because the psychological cost is a function of volume as well as intensity. And there are reams of research providing evidence that it leads to depression, anxiety, lack of focus, and other problems.

The toothpaste aisle is my favorite example of this phenomenon. The next time you are in the Box Store or whatnot, stop and take a look at it. I mean, really look at it. There are, what, 75-100 different kinds of toothpaste? Maybe more. God only knows what the difference among them could be. There are dozens of flavors (all essentially identical but with creative naming variations on "mint") and all kinds of pseudoscience claiming different benefits as a marketing angle. The truth, of course, is that you can probably grab any tube of toothpaste approved for sale in the U.S. and, provided it's used regularly, reap exactly the same rewards. Your teeth will be clean and your breath will smell half-decent. But there's something about the experience that is paralyzing; we always worry, "Am I buying the right one? Which one is the best value for the money?" And then we worry about the consequences of choosing the wrong one (70s commercial voiceover guy haunts your dreams: "Gingiviiiiiitissss….")

The problem is not simply that we have trouble choosing from a large number of options, but that we A) are made to fret endlessly about the consequences of the "wrong" choices – How is your kid going to get into Harvard if you don't pick the right diapers? – and B) the choice often provides very little benefit for the cost. What do 100 kinds of shampoo or 50 different TVs get us? It gets us propaganda about how we live in the Greatest Bastion of Freedom in the history of the world. Try getting the TV you want in Soviet Russia! Everyone gets the same TV there…if they're lucky!

This was somewhat rambling, and for that I apologize. But this has been on my mind quite often lately, and the social, political, and economic ramifications are pretty clear. More choices in more areas are more likely to make us feel depressed, indecisive, and anxious than to make us feel fulfilled, happy, or successful. Sometimes I think it would be just great if the toothpaste aisle consisted of a single plain white box labeled "TOOTHPASTE." Would any of us really be worse off in that case?

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75 Responses to “TOO MUCH”

  1. xynzee Says:

    Well like Ed, I'm a bit late to the party. I believe that Devo already beat you to it with "Freedom of Choice".

    But isn't it GREAT!! We got Choice!! We're number f###in' ONE!! because we have so many choices to choose from. No where else do you have so many choices so we must be number F###in' ONE!!

    I'm with Bucky and Jimcat. Beer! Unfortunately, even those start to taste the same after a while. Just as long as my choice isn't limited to Schludweiller, 4 Ecks or worse yet Sap-pooor-ewww!

    I can be a happy bunny.

  2. Jimcat Says:

    @Arslan: I see a couple of problems with that system as you describe it.

    1. If there is a lack of consumer brand diversity across the board, then that eliminates the variety that the people want (in my case, beer) as well as the variety that they can do without (toothpaste).

    2. Government subsidized culture is okay, as long as the culture that the people want to enjoy is the same as that which the government chooses to subsidize. As cund-gulag pointed out, many Russians were more interested in the Beatles than the Bolshoi.

    Even in America today, it is possible to live one's life without being baffled by product diversity or bamboozled by marketing. See John's posts on the subject above. All it takes is a conscious decision not to be taken in by marketing. Many Americans choose to concentrate their energy on the arts, athletics, or beer. Many more don't – I try to let that bother me as little as possible.

  3. JohnR Says:

    Obviously struck a nerve, Ed! A couple things – I'm smack in the middle of the 40-60s, and fwiw, I did worse than my parents. My siblings by and large have done about as well, but by having both spouses (and any children) do whatever jobs they could get, rather than just rely on Dad's income. My one-income family has been barely scraping by for the last 25 years. Things weren't so bad in the 90's, but after that, we stopped running surpluses every month, and began running deficits (or with luck, breaking even). My choice – I took a flex-time job at lower pay to be able to deal with family health emergencies, but it's been a real Micawber life. Luckily my older boy speaks Chinese fluently, so he's off to China with a job now that he's graduated. At least they're hiring.
    As for choice, CUND is right – a decade or so back when I was recovering from death and doing part-time stuff to get back into the work thing, I did a stint in QC at a big cosmetics outfit. I was amazed to find out that pretty much all those various brands are the same thing, made by the same company, but just labeled differently so that you think you're making a choice. Anybody who's raised kids immediately recognizes the old "forced choice" trick. The thing is, we don't normally expect to think of ourselves as the two-year-olds.

  4. Eric Titus Says:

    My problem at grocery stores isn't about choosing between products that are basically the same (toothpaste), but ones that are different but all fill the same niche (potato chips, tortilla chips, pretzels, etc). But in general, I just get the cheapest thing that isn't from the store brand and that works out.

    What is really amazing, though, is places like clothing stores that have 20 choices but none of them seem to fit just right!

  5. mel in oregon Says:

    here's something to think about, while you wallow in self pity. probably every post on here is written by a white male. so look at your ancestors in europe. many, many generations of peasants with no rights, no education & no hope of change. or look at most people in the world, 3 billion people in real poverty, hungry all the time, no hope for a better life for their children, & no hope of change. look at my ancestors (i'm cherokee), slaughtered by you "good" christians so you could steal our land & resources. look at black people, 300 million of their ancestors brought to this country as slaves so capitalist christians could exploit their labor to become wealthy landowners. the fact is the united states never had any prosperity for most people except for a few decades after ww2. then when other countries recovered from the war, & the united states began to have some competition, we started the long slow decline which has been going on for around 30-40 years. see, what the real problem is for you, is when the top capitalists in the united states only expoited people with dark skins, there was no problem for white people. now the corporate top executives & their toadies in the three branches of government know the united states cannot compete internationally, so they are exploiting not only the dark skins, but any white person that isn't wealthy. the extremely wealthy are beholden to no country, their only allegiance is to money. that's the beginning of knowledge.

  6. Carrstone Says:

    @Arslan;
    I agree with you – we didn't worry about excessive choice, we worried about the gross lack of choice. I know which worry I'd rather have.

  7. Elle Says:

    see, what the real problem is for you, is when the top capitalists in the united states only expoited people with dark skins, there was no problem for white people.

    I was at a meeting to discuss the impacts of the post-financial crisis global economy contraction on women, and there were a number of economists and policymakers from the Global South. They put it extremely nicely but there was a sense, as they listened to a bunch of Europeans describe the problem, of 'Shall we break out the world's smallest violin for you privileged bitches now? Welcome to the party.' Totally fair point.

  8. Eric Titus Says:

    @mel & @elle
    If I could have a nickel for every person who thinks that the problems they care about are more important than those of the next person, I'd be 6 billion nickels richer. I can understand the appeal of going to discussions about the glass ceiling and pointing out that Africans are even less likely than women to head Global 100 companies. But at best you'd win some people over to your opinion while hijacking a potentially useful conversation.

    For a long time, there have been groups of liberals in the US who do precisely what you want and think that what's important is solving someone else's problem, such as race relations or problems in the global south. A lot of those people were rightly called elitist and out of touch. The truth is that people are more effective and sensible when dealing with problems they can relate to on a personal level. That's why there have long been people in the US who feel exploited by the current system, contrary to Mel's claim. If the beginning of knowledge is to understand that the wealthy aren't looking out for the common good, the next step is to learn to express sympathy and solidarity with people with different grievances.

  9. Elle Says:

    @Eric

    I can understand the appeal of going to discussions about the glass ceiling and pointing out that Africans are even less likely than women to head Global 100 companies. But at best you'd win some people over to your opinion while hijacking a potentially useful conversation.

    I'm sorry, but I don't think I understand your point.

  10. Eric Titus Says:

    @Elle
    They put it extremely nicely but there was a sense, as they listened to a bunch of Europeans describe the problem, of 'Shall we break out the world's smallest violin for you privileged bitches now? Welcome to the party.' Totally fair point.

    In your example, whether women in the 'global north' are privileged compared to the 'global south' is unrelated to the question of how they're being effected by the recession.

    Similarly, african-americans have gotten the short end of the stick since the start of the US. Does that invalidate the grievances of today's youth? I'm reminded of seeing posts during OWS pointing out that now young white kids were learning what it's like to deal with a hostile police force. It makes sense to have that reaction, I just don't think it's that constructive.

  11. Elle Says:

    In your example, whether women in the 'global north' are privileged compared to the 'global south' is unrelated to the question of how they're being effected by the recession.

    Not really. Women (in a substantive, not a descriptive sense) in the North are closer to macroeconomic levers than women in the South. Economic policy articulations may be fantastically ungendered in the North, but women in the South are even less visible.

    I think there is value in having a real conversation about appropriation. It's a constant that ideas articulated by the powerful resonate to a greater degree than those articulated by the non-powerful. Whomever the non-powerful are, depending on the lens being applied to a circumstance, a sense of frustration that their work to identify and label a problem is being lifted wholesale by the powerful, is understandable. Struggles over turf are not just about individual or organisational ego. If you lose your seat at the table, then you lose influence over policy, access to funding, and your identity as expert. There is no guarantee that whomever appropriates your idea will represent the community of interest you represent in taking it forward.

    To use your example, if OWS succeeded in creating some kind of police/OWS liaison body, and that body did not have a race-sensitive analysis of police/community relations, they would not be effective in representing a community or communities who had already done work to identify specific problems with policing.

    I do agree that nothing is an unworthy topic of discussion, interest, or concern. I just don't guarantee that I'll find it interesting to discuss it, or that I'll be concerned about it.

  12. bb in GA Says:

    @mel

    Your litany is one that is sung often by the Left. Some good points.

    However, your slavery math is inaccurate, best I can tell.

    "From the 16th to the 19th centuries, an estimated 12 million Africans were shipped as slaves to the Americas.(see Slavery in the Americas)[3][4] Of these, an estimated ***645,000**** were brought to what is now the United States.[5] By the 1860 United States Census, the slave population in the United States had grown to four million.[6]"

    The 4 million arises because of slavery in perpetuity (i.e. children of slaves belong to the owner of the parents.)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery_in_the_United_States

    Let's round the US number up to 1 million. You say 300 million. That's 2 orders of magnitude discrepancy. Typo? IF not, would you share a source?

    From Jamestown in 1607 to the outlawing of importation of slaves via the US Constitution in 1808, your 300 million would require something on the order of:

    300E6/ 200 years = 1.5 million people per year for 200 hundred years straight.

    If we assume 500 people per ship that would be 3000 ships per year for 200 years. And for the first 50 – 100 years there is no place to land which makes the numbers get worse.

    "It has been estimated that in 1600, the population of Africa stood at about 50 million people, or thirty per cent of the combined populations of the New World, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. By 1900 the population of Africa had grown to 70 million, but made up only ten per cent of the total combined population. Furthermore, the population of Africa in 1850 has been estimated to have been only about half of what it would have been had slavery and the slave trade not been a factor in African history."

    http://www.ucalgary.ca/applied_history/tutor/migrations/four5.html

    As you can readily see, your number exceeds the total population of all Africa several times over in the centuries involved.

    "The Truth don't need no proppin' up" – Old Southern saying

    Indeed, it's bad enough as it is…

    //bb

  13. Major Kong Says:

    @bb

    "One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic." – Joseph Stalin

    So what if it was only 1 million? That's still a pretty huge number.

    Heck, we only lost 54,000 in Vietnam but we felt it was noteworthy enough to build a monument.

  14. Eric Titus Says:

    Elle, I think we're in agreement about this, and it's simply a matter of perspective. Being a white male, I probably am more likely to think people should jump on board if an idea they've always supported begins to have mainstream (i.e. white, middle-class) appeal.
    But I also think that coming together sometimes requires accepting the support and enthusiasm of some new group, even if that group is new to the party and rather naive.

  15. Arslan Says:

    it.

    "1. If there is a lack of consumer brand diversity across the board, then that eliminates the variety that the people want (in my case, beer) as well as the variety that they can do without (toothpaste)."

    Since humankind got along fine without any brands whatsoever, this was not the massive problem you think it was. The majority of Soviet citizens came from peasant roots, so what seems like a paltry lack of brands to you looked like a cornucopia to many of them.

    "2. Government subsidized culture is okay, as long as the culture that the people want to enjoy is the same as that which the government chooses to subsidize. As cund-gulag pointed out, many Russians were more interested in the Beatles than the Bolshoi."

    Forgive me if I don't take his pithy liberal claim seriously, since I live in Russia and am more than familiar with the culture. This is the Western liberal narrative of Soviet history which, like liberalism in general, isn't connected with material reality.

  16. Xynzee Says:

    @elle and mel: well that's their fault for choosing to not be born rich Anglo-European males ;)

    All Randian humour aside, if you're going to get into a slinging match of most hardly done by peoples I think Terra Nullis beats your Treaties and enslavement. So that makes it a toss up between the Aboriginals and Japan's Ainu. Though the award goes by default to the native Tasmanians. They're all dead.

  17. Elle Says:

    Elle, I think we're in agreement about this, and it's simply a matter of perspective.

    I don't think we are, because I see actively including all perspectives as fundamental to the policy process, which I think should be as participatory as possible. But it's okay to disagree.

  18. Elle Says:

    if you're going to get into a slinging match of most hardly done by peoples

    Nope, that's unrelated to my point, and I don't think that was Eric's point, either.

  19. Jimcat Says:

    Arslan, I'll concede that you know Russians better than I do, and the system of limited consumer choice and state approved culture may indeed work better _in Russia_. But on the other hand, I live in America and am quite familiar with the culture here, and I know that it wouldn't work for us.

    Three-quarters of my ancestors originated in Poland and Lithuania – parts of the Russian sphere of influence for centuries. Come the 20th century, they had the choice to live in communist Russia or capitalist America. None of them decided to go back to the USSR after experiencing the brutal capitalist oppression of the working class.

  20. bb in GA Says:

    @major

    Any detail in my post that would lead you to think I was minimizing anything? I'm sorry if that is so.

    How would you receive it if I posted that Hitler was responsible for the death of 500 million Jews in Europe during WW II? Since that number vastly exceeds the number of Jews in the world…etc. If I correct the record, does that mean that I am minimizing the Holocaust?

    How about the US govt killing off 50 million Cherokee during the Trail of Tears? Same thing…by estimating the actual number, I have minimized nothing, have I?

    Somewhere between Lord Kelvin:

    "I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be."

    and Einstein:

    "Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted."

    is the happy place to live, but I think the historical record deserves our effort at accuracy.

    //bb

  21. Bernard Says:

    lol, the end of the affluence in America is what shows the bare facts of "propagand". thanks to the Republican party the mask has been peeled back over how most Americans live. though, most Americans still believe the BS coming from the Republican/Democratic Elites.

    that the newer generations, whatever their labels are finding an America not at all like their parents and grandparents means it is time to wake up and see the reality, which i think Occupy did a little exposing of.

    my parents were of the Depression. and i will never be able to do as well as they did. thanks to the Decline and Fall of the American Empire. lots of causes to that downward trend for all the rest of us worker bees.

    waiting and watching for the younger generations to see "reality" as it is today is a most fascinating exercise.

  22. Archery Journal Says:

    I like your blog. Ed, What motivated you to call this blog "TOO MUCH", not that the title does not go with the content, I am just wondering. Well put Ed.

  23. Omahacrab Says:

    Just on your toothpaste point. You'll enjoy:

  24. Rachel Says:

    I sent this to my friend while stocking up my new apartment:

    "WHY ARE THERE SO MANY DIFFERENT TYPES OF HAND SOAP, PLEASE KILL ME"

    also, this XKCD comic is relevant to the toothpaste packaging. http://xkcd.com/993/ (sorry if this was posted…I admittedly did not want to scour all these comments)