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This Is Just Not Happening

Newspaper readers instinctively turn to the same section every morning. For many it is the sports, for some the financial …

Newspaper readers instinctively turn to the same section every morning. For many it is the sports, for some the financial section, some actually start on page one with the bad news about the war, the stock market, Medicare. Not me. When I get my newspaper, the first thing I turn to is the crackpot essay on the op-ed page. Whether it is someone proposing fueling our cars with the oil used to make French fries, or restructuring our political system by allowing citizens to sell their votes, there is nothing I enjoy more than a reasoned, tersely written essay delineating a program that will never be instituted, an innovation that will never be adopted, a breakthrough that has zero chance of ever being implemented.

People who dread the disappearance of newspapers trot out a list of things only the print media can do well. Slimmed-down online news media can easily handle sports, breaking financial news, culture, and science. But only real, live newspapers have the muscle, the moxie and the money to go up against the government, drug kingpins or the NFL. Yet the thing I would most miss if newspapers disappeared is that section of the opinion page devoted to zany proposals that will never bear fruit. Not long ago, I read an essay in The New York Times by an academic who suggested breaking up the United States into several nations because the country is too big. His arguments in favor of “regional devolution” were cogent indeed. Be that as it may, the U.S. is not going to splinter into several countries. We tried that in 1861 and it didn’t work. Everyone knows that regional devolution will never come to pass because Americans like being the most unwieldy nation on earth. Anyway, being part of a republic is the only thing that keeps California from going around the bend. The rest of us would never let them go off half-cocked by themselves.

Regional devolution thus joins vote selling, sending back this spring’s IRS rebate checks, installing windmills on tenement roofs, replacing cash with barter, and persuading the Yankees to accept a salary cap in the realm of astonishingly clever ideas whose time has not yet come and never will. Why then do newspapers publish them? Several reasons. One is that these speculative tracts are not nearly as demented as letters to the editor, and rarely libelous. Two, they provide a breath of fresh air on op-ed pages drowning in generic punditry. By inserting one of these goofy articles on a page brimming with the ramblings of superannuated gas bags, the editors hope that the reader will be tempted to read the accompanying thumb suckers about the Senate’s duplicity, or the Fed’s incompetence, or the dire state of the economy. Since columnists write the same article over and over again — the president is a liar, our schools stink, steroids are ruining baseball- guest editorials by futurists, curmudgeons and whack-jobs let some oxygen seep in. But perhaps the major reason for the popularity of utopian essays is that a large number of newspaper readers are crackpots themselves, and love to start their day by reading an essay proposing that the SEC be franchised, or that everyone on the planet reduce global warming by piggybacking on a neighbor’s shoulders. At a time of dwindling readership, the last thing newspapers want is to alienate their core readership.

In registering my affection for nut-job editorials, let me admit a personal bias. Over the years, I have written fanciful essays proposing that the Chinese take over Amtrak, that penitentiaries use holograms to deceive prisoners into thinking they are living in Loire Valley chateaux, and that economists stop using terrifying numbers like $50 trillion, and instead resort to innocuous euphemisms like, “This will cost taxpayers a pretty penny.” But at no point have I ever lost sight of the fact that these suggestions would never be heeded or embraced, much less applauded. I may be a crackpot. I am not an idiot.

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.