Monday, July 23, 2012

Why Can’t We Make Good Decisions?

I recall reading a doctoral dissertation years ago that dealt with the history of sex.    It was not salacious, but rather an examination of how attitudes change across history.    Some eras were labeled masculine; others, feminine.  In feminine years, the Virgin Mary was increasingly venerated at the expense of Jesus while attitudes towards gays lightened.  Then, the pendulum would swing to the masculine attitude, and leaders would reject such softer views for more rigid ideologies.

At one time, the movement between one era and another were slow.  Lines between them were clearly delineated through published works, commentaries and civil actions.  That’s not true anymore.  Now, societal views swing rapidly, and, at the same time, contain strands from each side of thought.  Part of conflict today comes from the clash between these two diverse ideologies. 

I can think of several reasons why thoughts fluctuate so wildly these days.

The telegraph revolutionized communication.
For starters, communication is vastly improved today compared with even 50 years ago.  In fact, communication changed little between the time of Jesus and the development of printing press in the 1400s.  The next revolution didn’t come until the 1800s with the Penny Press, the telegraph and then the telephone. 
Today, everything is different.  The recent horrific shooting in Colorado was known around the world within minutes of the police call.  That, in turn, allows for a more-rapid dissemination of opinions.  Everyone chimed in, blaming the murders on the decline of Judeo-Christian ethics, lack of gun control or, my favorite, the absurd suggestion by Rush Limbaugh that this was a CIA practice hit.  How can that man open his mouth with both feet crammed into it?

There are also more avenues for communication. A person can be bombarded daily through any number of sources, all providing similar messages – which may or may not be accurate.

In addition, the information has to be presented in bite-sized units.  Pithy statements lend themselves to media presentation, but they fail to fully explain a person’s view.  For example, it’s easy to look at the economy and blame Barack Obama.  That’s absurd.  Few presidents affect the economy in their first term.  It typically takes at least four years for economic policies to filter through.  That’s as true for Obama as it was for Bill Clinton.  A rare exception is George W. Bush who, flushed with cash, dissipated it all in his first term and created a mammoth deficit for his successor to deal with.

Moreover, the constant calls today to “balance” the budget – ironically, mostly demanded by those responsible for the imbalance – ignores the reality that most of us are in debt.  Anyone with a mortgage or who didn’t pay cash for a car borrows money.  The only thing that matters is maintaining sufficient income to cover the expenses.  As a result, any budget discussion must include investigations into proper taxation, a topic that doesn’t seem to enter the discourse very often.

As another example, consider Rep. Michelle Bachmann’s well-publicized comment that she wants to end minimum wage.  I’m no fan of Bachmann, but that’s simply not true.  The Minnesota Representative and former Republican presidential candidate actually said she wants to end all regulations that interfere with job creation and examine all existing ones, including minimum wage.

She has a point on minimum wage, but only a small one.  At $7.25 an hour, it might prevent some employers from hiring someone.  On the other hand, federal statistics show that about 4.4 million Americans earning minimum wage now, representing about 3.4 percent of the workforce.  That’s little changed from two years ago when the minimum wage was $5.85 per hour.  Apparently, not many potential employers held back.  Also, people on minimum wage tend to be younger and have limited education.  They are the most vulnerable to economic downturns in this country.

Nevertheless, the sound bite doesn’t reflect Bachmann’s real suggestion for one way to deal with unemployment in this country.  

That’s equally true with most of the other claims, statements and comments broadcast in some form by the media.   Unfortunately, we don’t take the time to examine them carefully, logically and systematically before the social pendulum begins swinging in the other direction again.

Then, too, there are far more people.  There are about 7 billion of us now.  If even only 1 percent follows a particular ideology, there’s still a ton of people involved.  With communication, they can sound far louder than their comparative puny numbers.

Mostly, though, the reason why philosophies shift so radically lies in education.  People are more educated on paper.  A greater percentage of Americans hold college degrees than ever before.  In the 1940s, only 5 percent of Americans held bachelor’s degrees.  By 2002, the total was more than 27 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.  And we trail many industrial countries – 40 percent of Finns, for example, have degrees.

People today are more knowledgeable.  Any question can be answered via the internet.  Information is readily available on any topic.

However, people seemed to have stopped thinking.  That’s a skill not being taught in school.  Because of the emphasis on testing, schools now teach facts, not comprehension and discernment.  The founders of this country understood the difference.  They recognized a democracy cannot survive undereducated voters.  They didn’t want the masses to vote, only landowners who, presumably, had done well enough because of their education and intelligence to comprehend complex issues.

Today, instead, people are bombarded with sound bites that fail to illuminate an issue.  It’s easier to accept the pithy comments as accurate.  It’s faster.  It’s less complicated.

Unfortunately, such limited comments create wild gyrations in opinions and interfere with everyone’s ability to make wise decisions. Logic and clear thought just aren't sexy enough.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

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