By Jonathan Pollard
“Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everybody else.”
– Margaret Mead, American Anthropologist
Ronald Reagan, as U.S. president, likely drew heavily from his successful acting career during WWII – a time during which Americans experienced marginal tax rates as high as 90% – while promoting his economic platform in 1981. Reaganomics, it turned out, was inspired by the views of Arthur Laffer, who gave us the Laffer Curve, which illustrates the rate of taxation necessary for maximum revenue to be generated. Laffer, in developing his theory, disagreed with President Gerald Ford, who advocated for tax increases. As it happened, the American economy boomed during much of Reagan’s two terms in office, thereby lending credence to his – and his administrations – mastery of comparative analysis.
Reagan’s wartime financial struggles formed the motivation for much broader improvements down the road much the same way as Laffers’ philosophical discord with Ford laid the groundwork for Reagan’s fiscal overhaul. Laffer, in fact, conceded that his idea was not original, instead inspired by much earlier economists, some dating back centuries.
In this rather involved scenario, the interwoven complexities of the comparative analysis concept played a leading role in crafting one of the most prosperous decades in American history. But, ironically, it is when this invaluable tool is reduced to its most pedestrian elements that tragic irrelevance bubbles up and holds hostage common sense. Bandied about haphazardly and unchecked, trivial, ill-thought-out comparisons run rampart.
Picture this: strolling through a park one morning, a friend freezes suddenly, frantically nudges you on the shoulder, looks you square in the eye, and – in a mini-seizure – comments something like, “Check out the water fountain. See that dude sitting on the bench, the guy in the Hawaii-Five-0 shirt chatting up those three women? Look at his nose – Doesn’t it remind you of Jose’s?”
For arguments sake, let’s say, yes, this guy’s nose does actually bear a striking resemblance to that of Jose’s. Or let’s say the slope is similar but the length is not. Or taken a step further, let’s conclude that the two agree on the slope and overall size, but differ on the predominant ruts on this particular snout – and that this very valuable information surfaces only after a few minutes of nauseating debate. And that later that evening these two happen upon Jose himself and reignite their childish little dispute to the bewilderment of their now embarrassed compatriot.
Either way, it’s fruitless. A second take at a garden-variety door might prompt a genius sound-bite such as, “Hey, look at that door. It’s the exact same colour as Marcy’s!” Okay, true or not … point being? Worse, subsequent positive reinforcements – “You know, Paul … it is. Wow, you got some really whack observational skills!” – don’t help. Rather, they create a false sense of assurance.
Indeed, doors, ink cartridges, lamps, front lawns, carry-on luggage or any of the plethora of everyday stuffs artlessly held up solely for comparison’s sake, unless it serves a valid purpose, should be left alone. Others, conversely, could be considered fair game.
Haircuts, for example, could reasonably be compared in a barber shop or a hair salon. “Could I have a cut similar to the one in this picture?” Cotton, buttoned-down shirts as well … In fact, a term – comparison shopping – has cropped up describing the inherent value of comparing items for sale. “That’s a snazzy-looking Hilfiger – I saw the exact same one last week for twice the price. I’m not letting this baby go!” So context does play a role. But who the hell gives a flying monkey’s hairy ass if Marcy’s midnight black mahogany accented door looks just like Betty’s? … Unless, of course, that same anonymous door served as the perfect point of comparison for what Paul envisioned his rear entrance to be … that would be a different story. It becomes relevant.
These comments stand up to scrutiny because they’re personalized. They further the realization of a stated goal. You want a particular door type in your house. You come across such a door and use it as a point of comparison. Perfectly acceptable – the comparison becomes personalized. Reagan compared the Laffer Curve to his preferred economic vision – again, acceptable. But to impetuously blurt out that so-and-so has the same bangs as Justin Bieber, the old fart in the condo down the block uses a similar cane as your grandpa Joe who lives in Arizona, or that the guy waving down a cab across the boulevard has the same bang-on shoes as your little cousin Sue is just ridiculous. It serves no purpose, especially if the parties compared lack familiarity, and has no place in modern-day discourse.
But with that, any discussion on comparative misspeak would not be complete without the mention of mutual exclusivity, which occurs here in spades. It seems evident that even those having advanced degrees, upstanding reputations, and/or special privilege do occasionally regress. It’s fair to speculate that Mr. Arthur Laffer himself, amid one of his fiscal orations, paused long enough to say to one of his colleagues, “Gee, you know, I saw a tie exactly like yours on a mannequin outside that shop on Fifth and Main.” So it does happen, even to the best and brightest. We all bleed red, after all. Bad habits, however, can be modified. And over time and with concerted effort, some can even be – except for the occasional slip-up – considerably curtailed.
C’mon people, think.
This article is part of a yet-to-be-published book collection of vignettes, Decaffeinated Logic. Jonathan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org