Thursday, August 6, 2009

Adrenaline Junkies

OK, I admit it. I get excited about such things as climbing mountains and even more excited about rescuing someone there. As I get older I'm doing more of the in-town stuff on rescues but my wife complains that in my excitement I talk rather loudly on the phone. It doesn't help her sleep when that happens at 2AM. I'm not sure I'm ready to admit to being an adrenaline junkie but some might accuse me of that.

In fact the desire for excitement is rampant in our society. If it weren't, most movies would flop at the box office and most TV shows, including the news, would fail. One of the worst things we can call a show or a party is “boring.” That attitude has its up side; we all need the stimulus that comes from adventure, suspense etc. However it can also distract us from some real issues. We worship the hero but ignore the person who prevents problems. We even heap honors on people who survived situations they got themselves into by their own mistakes, all the while paying no attention to myriads of others who wisely avoided such problems.

One Wednesday several years ago a young snowboarder on Mount Hood made the mistake of leaving the developed ski area and trying to ride his board out of bounds. He spent a very cold night out before being rescued. While he did act reasonably after he was lost, it was his own bad decision that caused the problem. The news made him out to be a hero, which he was not. As a result several businesses gave him some nice clothing and gear. The mountain rescue people cringed, we were afraid that the unmerited reward would encourage others to take similar chances.

Did the gifts that young man received have an effect on others? I cannot say for certain but what I do know is that on the next two Wednesdays other young men from the same home town got lost snowboarding in the same area. Fortunately those two were not rewarded for their bad decisions. I'm sure they got all the adventure they wanted, but at least they received no new clothes or equipment for their trouble. Nobody else was encouraged to create his own personal crisis.

A crisis, self-generated or not, gets us moving. That can be good for us but it can also cause problems. The health problems from too much stress are well known, but there are other issues as well. Crises and other exciting events focus our minds on the crisis. That can divert attention from other issues, or even from the problems generated by proposed solutions to the crisis. Usually this is accidental, a side effect of a natural reaction to danger. However some people can deliberately use this effect to get what they want.

White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel was unusually candid when he said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste – and what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you didn't think you could do before.” He then proceeded to rush several measures through congress in such a hurry that nobody even had time to read them, much less adequately consider and discuss them. That included an expensive stimulus package that the Congressional Budget Office said was not needed. With the economic “crisis” underway people were willing to grab at the supposed solution without the necessary critical thinking.

The crises needed to do a rush job need not even be real. There is no reason to believe that people have a harder time getting medical care now than they did a few years ago. Yet the Obama administration is pushing its national health care plan as a solution to the “health care crisis” – again as an urgent need which must be dealt with without time to read the 1000 plus pages in the bill. At this writing it is uncertain if that plan will pass or if cooler heads will prevail.

Nor is the current administration the first to create a crisis and use it to pass unneeded legislation. The “War on Poverty” of the Kennedy and Johnson era was hyped as the solution to the “crisis” of poverty, even though poverty had been declining for decades. The plan's proponents promised a reduction in welfare needs as their plan put the poor to work. Anybody who opposed it was painted as uncaring. What happened was the opposite of what was promised. The War on Poverty created more poor people by encouraging some to take advantage of government largess.

The fact is that a crisis, either real or contrived, causes people to try to act without critical thinking. It has the effect of an adrenaline rush, focusing minds on the obvious to the exclusion of less apparent but sometimes greater dangers.

The solution to this problem is to think carefully about how serious a crisis really is, and what other dangers it may be hiding. The natural tendency in a crisis is to react without thinking. That may work if the danger is an animal attack but it is counterproductive for most of the crises we face today. For those we must first think carefully and critically before we act.

Personal note: I’ll be busy with other things for a few days so won’t be posting here during that time. Back about mid next week.

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Bobkatt said...

Hal-thanks for your service to these idiots that risk other people's lives in their search for adventure. I often wondered with the availability of electronics and the dropping cost why we don't have small transmitters available for everyone that uses the slopes or climbs mountains to wear that could locate these people in a very short time using GPS or something similar. They could be rented at ski lifts and made mandatory for a small charge.

On the crisis issue you are right on. Rushing a trillion dollar bailout through congress under duress and threats of international collapse is criminal in my book. We are also told that we can't be told who gets that money or how much. One of the biggest problems with rushing through a program with little or no debate is it often doesn't even attack the root problem that it is supposed to correct. In the health care debacle it appears that the root cause in my opinion is the escalating cost of care not who is paying for it. That aspect seems to be almost overlooked.

Hal Lillywhite said...

I oppose requiring climbers to carry electronic devices. However due to shortness of time and not wanting a comment to be too long, I'll probably wait and put the reasons in a blog.