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.