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Is There Anything We Can Agree Upon?

The other day I was arguing with a friend about recycling, but the disagreement quickly escalated into a debate about …

The other day I was arguing with a friend about recycling, but the disagreement quickly escalated into a debate about everything under the sun. First, my friend claimed recycling newspapers is an indisputably good policy that benefits society. I said recycling is a good idea-from a moral or ecological point of view-but that with paper rates depressed, it actually costs society more money to recycle newspapers than to cut down more trees.

We then moved on to topics. My friend said seat belts save lives. I cited  a book called, “The Armchair Economist,” by University of Rochester Professor Steven E. Landsburg, which shows that seat belts seem to increase the number of highway fatalities, because drivers who feel safer wearing their seat belts are more likely to take chances on the highway.

Eventually, I realized I could find no common ground with this woman. She thought the Internet could save mankind by increasing the amount of information available to ordinary people and, thus, enable them to make the correct decisions about health, politics, and investments, among other things. I said that more information is the last thing human beings need, and I contended that information overload actually increases the likelihood of people making foolish decisions, simply because too many equally valid arguments are arrayed before them.

This last leg of our discussion clarified why we have achieved political gridlock in this country: We can’t agree on anything. Many Americans believe universal health care will solve all the problems of the poor, but many others think it will doom smaller enterprises and increase unemployment. Many Americans believe workfare will solve the structural problems of the inner-city poor by eliminating the welfare safety net, but others claim it will merely take low-paying jobs from people who truly want to work and create a labor force of ineffectual malingerers. Many Americans believe Babe Ruth was the greatest ballplayer of all time. But others say it was Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Ted Williams, Roger Maris, Ty Cobb.

If you run down the list of vital issues confronting this nation, you will see that there is almost no area in  which the public has reached a consensus. For example, some people think abortion is a woman’s right; others regard it as cold-blooded murder. Some people believe the federal deficit is a cancer eating away at the  nation’s future; others believe deficits don’t really matter. Some  people think profit will rescue the nation from its present educational crisis; others believe that abandoning the public school system will further divide the Republic into two factions: an affluent, well-educated group of suburban “haves” and a destitute, poorly educated group of urban “have-nots.”

As I pondered these issues, I began to compile a list of things that can be said, with reasonable certainty, to be true. In other words, statements everyone can agree on. Here goes:

1.             Traffic jams are no fun.

2.             Rats do not seem to serve any vital ecological purpose.

3.             John Grisham sells an incredible number of books.

4.             Rush Limbaugh is fat.

5.             Geraldo Rivera is not as good a journalist as the guys on the “MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.”

6.             New Orleans is a more exciting place to spend the night than Columbus, OH.

7.             Diapers are better when changed.

8.             Professional wrestling seems to be a little fake.

9.             Canada is cold in the winter.

10.          Abraham Lincoln was a better president than Jimmy Carter.

It’s not a long list, but it is encouraging to know we do share some beliefs. I was proud of myself when I finished this list, so I typed it, made copies, and distributed them to friends. To be honest, I expected to be showered with praise. Boy, did I miss the boat. My seven-year-old son, Gordon, insisted that professional wrestling is completely on the up-and-up. A friend who works at a tabloid said Geraldo is a million times more effective as a journalist than those PBS deadbeats. A native of Ohio said college football is king in Columbus, proclaimed that there’s nothing more exciting than the weekend the Ohio State Buckeyes play Michigan, and asked how many national championships Tulane University has brought home to the Big Easy. My travails continued when an ecologist friend informed me that rats do serve a useful function to the environment by consuming vast amounts of garbage. An obese friend said my comment about Rush Limbaugh is a value judgment and contains no objective truth. A thriller buff said John Grisham’s sales are nothing compared to Stephen King’s. A Canadian relative pointed out that even in the dead of winter, it can be mild up in Alberta because of the Chinooks. A commuter friend claimed that traffic jams are a wonderful opportunity to listen to books-on-tape. Therefore, at the end of my herculean intellectual efforts, I was left with only two assertions that are incontestably true: Diapers are better when changed, and Abraham Lincoln was a better president than Jimmy Carter.

Oh, well. It’s a start.

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron’s and The Wall Street Journal.

About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.