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Pushing the Envelope

Sometimes the solution to a seemingly insurmountable problem is staring us right in the face. Beethoven used to bust flimsy …

Sometimes the solution to a seemingly insurmountable problem is staring us right in the face. Beethoven used to bust flimsy harpsichords into smithereens until somebody hit on the practical solution of the grand piano. Holland would get flooded every winter until somebody dreamed up the idea of the dike. China suffered the depredations of marauding barbarians for centuries until it built the Great Wall. Similarly, the American people, saddled with a colossal federal deficit, could make this problem disappear overnight if we would merely take one obvious step. Cut back on the email.

The deficit currently stands at roughly $600 billion, and few Americans expect it to go down anytime soon. Proposals to reduce it inevitably get torpedoed, because no one wants to cast the vote to cut Social Security benefits, slash Medicare or raise taxes. Yet the solution to the problem has been hiding right there in plain sight for years: If everyone would simply cut back on the amount of email they read, and stop instant-messaging all day long, the deficit would evaporate overnight.

According to The New York Times, the economy loses $650 billion a year because of unnecessary workplace interruptions. Some interruptions are traditional: shooting the breeze, gazing out the window at unusual cloud formations, stopping everything to locate the disco mix of “Stairway to Heaven” on one’s iPod. But most of that $650 billion is wasted reading or writing email. This is an infinitely more terrifying figure than the hundreds of billions lost each year to substance abuse, chronic back pain, sleep apnea, migraines, obesity and compulsive tardiness, all of which have been cited as major drains on the economy. Those are only the tips of the iceberg. Email is the iceberg.

How bad is the extraneous email epidemic? RescueTime, a productivity- monitoring outfit company cited by The Times, says the average worker checks his email 50 times a day and sends an instant message 77 times. This, one can only assume, is mostly to inquire “What’s up?” Things have gotten so bad that some firms are thinking about implementing “Zero-email Fridays,” literally denying the staff the right to communicate with co-workers in a nonverbal fashion for an entire day.

This is fine, but far tougher electronic love may be needed. Henceforth, companies that are serious about addressing this problem should threaten to fine any employee caught sending frivolous or unnecessary emails. Jamming devices would prevent workers from using their cell phones or Blackberries to circumvent the new regimen, with snitches playing an active role in monitoring nonessential email. Anyone repeatedly violating this policy would come to work on Monday morning to find a pink slip waiting for him. A pink slip, not an email.

How likely is it that such an innovation would be adopted? Very likely. Responding to the spiraling price of oil, Americans have cut back on travel, started to ride public transportation and begun to purchase smaller cars. They have also meekly accepted bans on trans-fat oils, smoking in restaurants, using leaf blowers between June and September, and consuming alcohol after the third quarter at football games. Americans are sometimes slow to respond to a crisis, but once they realize that slashing the deficit is the moral equivalent of war, you can count on them to put their shoulders to the wheel and their email accounts in the deep freeze.

Kicking the habit isn’t all that hard. I, for one, never open an email unless it has to do with money. By limiting my output to terse communiqu�©s (“Where’s my money?, “Do you have my money?”, “Don’t make me ask again about my money”), I have slashed the amount of time I spend on the Internet from three hours a day to four minutes. I still have trouble getting paid, but at least I no longer feel personally responsible for driving my country into the poorhouse.

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.