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If I were looking for a way to move a customer’s eyes off the final price tag, I’d come up with something called a product/service protection plan.

Keep your eye on what we tell you to.

Then, at every transaction, I’d tell the customer the cost of the product with the plan factored in. Most customers will reject the cost and enjoy the vicarious thrill of having haggled to a lower price. Best of all, they’ll walk away thinking they’ve saved money–even if the original product is overpriced.

This works especially well on products whose pricing already is fairly inscrutable. Yes, eyeglass shops–I’m looking at you, albeit with your help.

You start off with some great-sounding deal. But somehow, the final price ends up being about twice as high as the advertised price (two frames for $99!!!!), but still half what the frames would have cost without all the alleged sweeteners.

To wit: the consumer walks into the store with a two-for-$99 ad, walks out with a receipt for $200, but learns an important lesson: the two frames would have cost $400. After all, you wanted lenses that let you see at night, right?

So now I’m curious:

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I’m no sage, but I suspect we’ll hear a version of this refrain over and over again in 2012: People should get more involved!

It’s one of those unquestioned axioms of modern life that people should be involved, that they should be engaged in the world around them. Apathy, we are told, causes problems and allows them to fester. It’s much better to be on the problem-solving side of the street.

But what if the opposite is true? What if people are simply too involved, too engaged? What if that is the real problem? We insert our two cents wherever they’ll fit. If they don’t fit, we’ll make them.

Of course, that’s an easy thing to say from a position of relative material comfort. But think about it for at least a second or two. What if we let things be instead of trying to always make them what we think they should be?

Let it be. It works as a song, but it would be a piss-poor campaign slogan. Or would it? We think of the phrase as implying some kind of hands-off approach: “Oh, just let it  be, will ya?” Economists may be familiar with the French version: “laissez-faire.”

But if you listen to the words (the English ones), they suggest a more active result: Let it BE. In other words, let it be what it is, or what he is or she is or they are. Our temptation is always to meddle, to control, to impose our will, to give our advice.

There’s no good time to stop, to resist the temptation. There’s just the courage to try.

We are now delivering to government the same message that many hardworking Americans are being forced to internalize  in their own lives: learn to live with less. I’m not sure what our country will look like when the lesson is fully learned. But, if you are willing to start educating us, www.livewithless.com, dear reader, appears to be yours for the taking.

It’s another new era in Pennsylvania, another attempt to get it right. Welcome, Tom Corbett. It’s your state now. But all this talk of making PA more business-friendly has me a little bit concerned.

Never shake a baby's hand.

Oh, I understand that businesses need to make money and that they don’t like taxes any more than the rest of us. But we’ve been going in this direction a long time, and I’m not sure it has brought us much in the way of general prosperity.

What your promises are likely to mean is that people will have to sacrifice, people who already are suffering, so that people who have a lot can keep more of it. Yes, it sounds like class warfare…didn’t they earn it after all, and shouldn’t they be allowed to keep it (ah, the presumption–that government is the one “allowing” us to enjoy the fruits of our labor).

It’s easy to pump up the rhetoric. But in the end, it’s just sad. I predict that the libertarian right will be disappointed in the end results of the Corbett administration, but barring some greater economic catastrophe, they will remain convinced that the state just wasn’t friendly enough.

I resisted talking about the murders in Tucson because I didn’t think I had anything to add. I’ve also been happy discussing the highway pathfinders of early 20th-century America. But I changed my mind yesterday after lunch with a friend.

My first instinct was to raise questions about why people seem to develop schizophrenia in their 20s. But that’s what science is for: and the consensus seems to be that the sickness, like many other things, results from a combination of genetics and environment.

I forgot the question, but I'm sure that more medication is the answer.

So, we can’t really change our genetics (at least without risking world war). So that left me with questions about the environment.

The politico-pundit class seems focused on the political environment, the allegedly toxic rhetoric that spurred Jared Loughner to act–or at least gave him a road map for his murderous rage. The debate, no matter how long it lasts or what twists it takes, will end with a pox on both houses, a call to civility, a look ahead, and a return to bliss.

A key station on this path is the recognition that insane acts are ultimately random and unpredictable, even when the insane give off flashing red lights, as Loughner appears to have done. Our stop at this station includes commentary on what friends, family and institutions could have done better. It’s a perfect echo of what we heard after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, Columbine High in 1999, and the list goes on.

What emerges mostly unscathed in all this analysis is the economy, and by that I don’t just mean the last two-plus years of devastation. I mean the structure itself, which seems to put an inordinate amount of stress on young people. Every 18-year-old hears that college is the surest path to economic comfort (despite abundantly clear evidence to the contrary).

What if you find you’re not ready for college, or you’re just not cut out for it? Our culture offers limited options. You flounder, you flunk, you bemoan the alleged scam of higher education–and you prepare to face your own personal economic doomsday. You may even act out in bizarre ways and, if you happen to have some genetic glitch in your system, well…

There’s a powerful force that quashes this line of thinking about economics as environment. We tend to see the economy as a stage on which all actors are presumed equal. It is summed up in the widespread belief that any American can be the next Oprah Winfrey or Bill Gates if they just work hard enough. The onus is always on the individual, never the system. And I’ll bet, if I look, I’ll find this belief among highway pathfinders of the early 20th century. So I’m back where I started, at least for now

It’s a paradox of modern life: We are mobile, yet sedentary. Blame the auto? Blame the glowing, pixellated screen? Surely it can be no coincidence that the rise of those two great technologies–moving carriages and moving pictures–took place over roughly the same period.

And at their joint birth was our friend, A.L. Westgard. In 1916, he conceived–or at least was associated with–the idea of taking motion pictures of the

It would have been more exciting if the car had fallen off the planks. But that would have to wait for more sophisticated film editors.

entire United States. This according to an article in volume 20 of The Camera: An Illustrated Magazine Devoted to the Advancement of Photography.

Here is a selection from the article (note how two nascent industries stand to gain, and, of course, use of the word “dream,” as in “The American Dream”):

Mr. Westgard, who knows the beauty spots as no other man knows them, believes that he can show Americans things about their own country of which they scarcely dream.

The Pathe Company, which will distribute the films, believes so, too, and so does the Combitone Picture Company, which is financing the expedition. The pictures are to be entirely different from any hitherto seen, because made by the new Combitone process, invented and perfected by F. W. Hochstetter, formerly of the Edison staff, now consulting photo chemist of the American Photo Chemical Company.

Today, with our much richer business vocabulary, we would call this commercial venture an example of synergy.

We often romanticize the jobs displaced by technology, especially if the people who held those jobs are long dead. Consider the blacksmith, the milkman and the manufacturer of flint-lock muskets. But the people who helped kill off those jobs showed about as much remorse as we do today when obsolete jobs disappear.

Umbrellas are useful on flat boats, as there is usually very little shade.

The loss of the ferryman’s job was a sign of progress for our friend A.L. Westgard. The indications lie in his 1920 book, Tales of a Pathfinder, a collection of anecdotes from his many cross-country trips. In one chapter, a very short one, he describes the fate of motorists suffering from the strict hourly schedule of the man who operated a ferry across the Colorado River outside Yuma, Ariz. Motorists often had to sleep in their cars, the lights of Yuma blinking across the river, because the ferryman refused to work outside his normal day.

I suppose Westgard could have recommended adding another shift or two to ensure 24-hour ferry coverage, or at least late-evening rides for tardy motorists. But that would not have been progress. Instead he campaigned for a bridge, eventually spurring action by Arizona, California and the feds–“and the ferryman lost his job as he fully deserved,” in Westgard’s words (page 46, Tales). Nothing personal about progress, eh? Or to paraphrase: All progress is personal.

* Find the lyrics here!

It takes an economist to move me to write. I’m listening to NPR this morning after dropping the kids with their grandparents and on comes a Bank of America economist. He begins to bemoan the largest deficits this country has ever run in peacetime.

Get it? Peacetime. 

Last I checked, the US military was active in two countries that, while few people prefer to use the term “at war,” can not be described as peaceful: Iraq and Afghanistan.

I guess they fed the kool-aid to the “economists” as well as the risk managers at BofA. Maybe they should check back into the reality-based community once in a while.

But what’s equally maddening is that the NPR reporter seemed to let the “peacetime” comment pass without, uh, comment. Journos love to bring on the experts when they need perspective, but they don’t always like to ask the experts tough questions. That would just complicate things.

So I’m waiting for someone to come up wth a convincing reason for me to care that not one House Republican voted for the economic stimulus bill this week.

Given the circumstances, it was practically a free vote and serves mostly as a Clinton-like refrain circa 1994: We’re still relevant. Take us seriously

The Senate is going to work its magic on the bill. It probably will look very little like the one that passed the House. So House members will have another chance to squawk — and another few weeks of doom-and-gloom economic news to condition them.

Barack Obama is  most likely not quaking in his boots over the power of the House GOP to stifle his agenda. They obviously can’t. It’s big of him to make nice, but I’m sure he or his advisers understand the politics driving House members. It’s the Senate they have to worry about.

They may even have anticipated a party-line “no.” I haven’ t heard anyone in the White House complaining (not that I have an ear anywhere near that hallowed ground).

How can we forget the many token “no”votes cast against the bank bailout? It died, then it came back to life so we could beat it up again over how ineffective it’s been. If you wanted to conjure up fresh proof that government spending doesn’t seem to work, you would have done the same.

There’s this notion going around that tough times will reveal the true character of America. It’s a good bit of marketing and satisfies our desire for myth. But it’s baloney.

When you’re backed up against a wall, you learn one thing: people have a keen sense of survival and a knack for self-preservation. It’s those other times that show us what we’re made of, like those times everyone thought they could get rich buying and selling tech stocks  houses  oil futures hope?

I guess Bush will take the blame from a lot of people. But whatever else he did, he didn’t force anyone to take on a mortgage they couldn’t afford.

But didn’t he and his cronies create the climate that made all those criminal excesses possible? I suppose they might bear some responsibility, but people have to take their share of the blame occassionally.

We get the leaders that serve up what we want to believe, and we very badly wanted to believe in everlasting wealth.

It doesn’t mean we still can’t become Treasury Secretary some day, even if it means a come-down in pay.