Table of Contents


Some Curses and Blind Spots in American Thinking

Let me explain what I mean by “blind spots” and “curses”.

A Curse ensures that, seemingly by mysterious malign magic, things don’t go as well as they should. In fact this is the result of Instinctive thinking being misapplied. When a Curse bites, either extra expense is required to get something good done for a community or the opportunity is completely missed.

Note that, in this section even more than others, we should see a community as meaning any size human grouping with shared fortunes, from a family through a company up to a nation.

The Curse of Overprotectiveness and the Curse of the Patronized Patient are discussed above. The first is the result of Instinctive group protection, while the second flows from Instinctive patient caring by the extended family, very strangely diverted into a streambed dug by professional arrogance.

Blind spots occur when, despite something staring them in the face, people somehow just don’t notice. As with curses, blind spots add expense, but more often in disenfranchisement than in time and money. They cause chronic problems, the kind that seem to go on and on without solution.

On occasion, blind spots cause or interact with Curses.

The Curse of Being Important

This is the Curse I find most frustrating. Throughout human history, the Curse of Being Important has been one of the most consistent idea killers.

As a community becomes more prosperous and understands its world better, new ideas, opportunities, and technologies pop up that it can exploit.

Sometimes exploitation is quick and easy, and the benefits are swift and bountiful. Sometimes a new idea languishes and never does much to help the community, perhaps never understood beyond its inventor, perhaps fouled up in red tape, perhaps shunned for cultural or emotional reasons.

One major predictor of a new idea’s fate is whether or not it suffers under the Curse of Being Important.

What Triggers This Curse?

The Curse of Being Important happens when too many people in a community think an idea is important, and they all want a say in how it is exploited. As the proverb says, “Too many cooks spoil the broth.”

The Instinctive thinking going wrong that makes the Curse is a mix of misapplied Us-vs-Them and misapplied protective advice offering. This can happen for a variety of reasons from enthusiasm to fear, from altruism to envy, and beyond. At a family level, the project can be something that one or more kids are doing for the first time while “helicopter” parents hover closely over it—say, baking cookies. Or it can be something that will affect many daily lives for a long time to come, such as building a road. Or something much less practical that inspires many people, such as being able to soar like a bird, which inspired designing parachutes, zeppelins, and airplanes.

Whatever the cause of the inspiration for a new idea, the Curse happens when lots of community members get involved in implementing it. When the process of exploiting is simple and the people involved are just the inventors and users, when the idea is seen as harmless and toy-like, then much of the Curse can be averted.

Sometimes everyone involved behaves well, which creates the Blessing of Being Important—a near miracle that mostly happens when the project is seen as a solution to a severe impending threat coming from the outside world, such as winning a war. But much more often the project falls victim to this Curse; meddling affects it in ways that make success less likely.

The Major Problem

For a budding idea subjected to the Curse of Being Important, the biggest problem is that it can’t be fully explored. With any new technology, what the idea will become as a tangible product or service isn’t clear at first, and it’s very easy to squash so that it never becomes anything. This is the purpose of small-scale pilot projects: To quickly and inexpensively explore how a fuzzy idea can become something concrete.

For instance, among the ideas thrown around in the mid-70s were that personal computers would water lawns and hold Mom’s recipes. It turned out that these two applications weren’t nearly as much in demand as were financial planning tools such as spreadsheets. And it didn’t take more than a few thousand dollars to discover this, because early personal computers weren’t Cursed. They were considered toys. It was mainframes and minicomputers that were important. (We’ll come back to PCs later; they’re probably the most important technology ever to dodge this Curse.)

This effect of the Curse is important because accepting good new ideas is not inevitable. In the histories of companies, communities, and civilizations, there are many examples where one group ended up walking away from a good new idea. For example, in the Song Dynasty, China began developing the world’s largest and most technologically sophisticated merchant marine and navy. But a few hundred years later, in the mid-1400s, xenophobic elements in the Ming dynasty marginalized the merchant marine. That dynasty also walked away from an industrial revolution based on steel-making. Such abandonments can make history when a different community—in this example, the nations of Western Europe—then embraces and develops the idea, proving the rejecters wrong in a spectacular way.

The primary symptom that an idea is suffering from this Curse is that many people are not merely worrying but offering advice that must be followed by those developing it; the tinkerers and explorers are given less of the flexibility they need. Thomas Edison’s insight that invention is ninety-nine percent perspiration and one percent inspiration requires a lot of things to be tried of which only a few will work well. The failures and partial successes become the basis for the next generation of attempts.

But when each failure is kibitzed with “See! See! I told you so!” or “Before you try something else, there’s more paperwork you need to fill out” or “You’d better start getting results or we’ll have to cut off your funding”, it digs a premature grave for the new idea.

When the exploration rate is slowed by worrywart restrictions and report requirements, the idea endures only in its biggest and simplest forms, because those are best adapted to crawling-speed exploration loaded down under mountains of paperwork. The limited exploitation of nuclear power has been a perfect example, as noted in the next section.

I also saw this happen to the mid-1970s MIT gene modification experiments. While I was a student there, someone started a flap in the local papers about killer germs getting loose, and the resultant smothering precautions delayed genetic engineering breakthroughs for years.

This Curse raised a smaller but equally ugly head in the same field in 2009. An MIT student with a hobby of doing simple genetic experiments in her home was questioned about her work’s potential by a government-paid anti-terrorist analyst.

A Tale of Two Opportunities

Let us compare two technology breakthrough opportunities, one taken to the hilt, the other missed because of this Curse.

In the 1970s, integrated circuits (ICs) were invented. IC technology not only made mainframe computers and minicomputers faster, cheaper, and smaller—commodity uses within existing tech—but led to personal computers, a surprise use. PCs presented users and programmers with an entirely new way of using computers. ICs used in PCs were so successful that within 10 years the total computing power of the world’s PCs surpassed that of its mainframes, and the PC’s legacy of changing how people use computing power continues today, four decades later.

That’s serious success!

Now compare that well-known success story to a well-known failure story. In comparison with IC technology, nuclear power technology is a stillborn child.

In the 1940s non-explosive uses of nuclear fission were being explored. It provided energy in a way that was faster, cheaper, and smaller than existing tech. One of its first uses was in submarines, a second was in large electrical generating plants, and … that was it! To this day, that’s pretty much all nuclear does. We don’t have nuclear-powered steel furnaces, cars, or wristwatches, which would be commodity uses. We don’t have surprise uses, such as powering artificial hearts. (More on that in a moment.) Unless you work on a submarine or in a nuclear power plant … or live next to a plant … seventy years later nuclear power has changed your daily life not at all!

Why does nuclear power remain esoteric and operate only in places and ways where the average community inhabitant doesn’t have to see it much?

I answer, “A fatal dose of the Curse of Being Important!”

In its early development, the IC concept was non-threatening. The personal computer began as a toy, neither important nor dangerous, and was still seen that way while its potential was being explored by individual users and programmers in small-scale experimenting, blooming to the fullest.

But nuclear power’s early development was overshadowed by the first engineering application of nuclear physics—making nuclear bombs to end a frightening war. So from Day One it has been considered important and dangerous, falling fully under this Curse, and its full potential to change our lives for the better has yet to be discovered.

But … But … Nuclear Is Dangerous!

A couple of people who read earlier versions of this section complained that comparing IC to nuclear power is apples-to-oranges, because nuclear is so dangerous.

Yes, nuclear power is dangerous. Sometimes nuclear accidents kill people. But so do automobile, airplane, and industrial accidents. All of these can kill bystanders as well as people using the technologies. Every powerful technology is inherently dangerous as well as beneficial.

Nuclear power’s biggest difference from other potentially deadly technologies that humankind uses routinely is the emotional belief, deeply held by many people, that nuclear’s danger is unmanageable. And that is reflected in government regulation.

Let me give an example from my personal experience.

In the 1970s the University of Utah was doing research on artificial hearts, including the famous Jarvik-7. My future wife was working there with the animals that carried the experimental hearts and heart valves the researchers were producing. I was in love with her and I liked science, so we hung around the labs and listened to the scientists talk.

A common discussion topic was how to power an artificial heart. The natural human heart is a surprisingly efficient pump: It puts out a lot of power, it doesn’t damage blood cells while it’s pumping, and it doesn’t need much space.

One of the energy sources considered was nuclear power. But it was considered only briefly. As one researcher told me, “We would have had to file about ten linear feet of paperwork just to get an OK to bring nuclear materials here to the lab. We wanted to solve a heart problem, not a paperwork problem.” So compact, efficient nuclear power was never seriously considered.

As a result all artificial hearts to date are much bigger than the natural one, and fitting them into a human body is a big challenge.

Death by Atom

All humans die. But for some reason I have not figured out, there seems to be survival value in judging good and bad methods of death. That much seems Instinctive; every culture has good ways and bad ways to die. But what those are differs without apparent rhyme or reason. For the ancient Egyptians, the thought of getting eaten by a Nile River crocodile sent shivers up spines, and there was a thriving industry of magic makers offering protection specifically from that terrible death. In ancient Rome, one of the privileges treasured by a citizen was that if you had to be executed, it would be by beheading; now, videotaped beheadings are considered particularly brutal and revolting executions.

One way of looking at how a culture judges ways of dying is to look at its story telling. In modern fiction, a man lying about the death of his parents who wants a ho-hum response tells listeners they died of old age … peacefully … in their sleep. For a sympathetic response, the liar invents a car crash. If he wants sympathy for himself, too, his sole remaining parent died of cancer, slowly, as he watched by their bedside for months. But for an “Ewww! That’s terrible!” response, the liar will say they died a lingering death after a nuclear accident.

“But ohhhh!” cries the story-teller, looking past the listener, his eyes widening in fear, “Here they come now … as glow-in-the-dark … zombies!! ahhhh!!!”

At which point the listener knows they are in a 2010s zombie apocalypse story.

The long, slow, inexorable progress toward a painful end that high level radiation poisoning causes has been a terrible way to die ever since its danger came to public consciousness. That fear, along with radiation’s link to cancer (another ugly way of dying in modern times) and fear of nuclear explosions, has spilled over into our perception of risk and danger, creating a blind spot that has stunted our ability to take advantage of nuclear power.

A sidelight: Perhaps surprisingly to many of my readers, initially radiation was seen as a powerful curative, a panacea that was actually desirable to add to one’s life. Even when I was growing up in the ’60s, I remember thinking of it as powerful energy and wondering if the body could harness it. Pro or con, the emotion about it has been strong.

More Historical Examples

Besides impeding full exploration, the Curse of Being Important can also cause a related problem: Impeding later, better adaptations.

Times and technologies change faster than laws. The working environment in which an idea is explored may change so swiftly that the many controlling laws and regulations imposed by this Curse lag badly behind. That slows the reinvention process the idea needs in order to adapt to changing times. Any competitive ideas not burdened with the Curse will prosper while proponents of the heavily cursed idea are bogged down with lobbying and city hall fights.


Railroads with steam-powered locomotives were one of the first Industrial Age miracle technologies, becoming popular in England by the 1820s and affecting a lot of people both positively and—even more important—negatively.

Railroads need a lot of property. Trains are big, noisy, and dirty. Plus, there is a lot of danger in train operation. High-pressure steam boilers can leak or explode, coupling and uncoupling multi-ton cars can go wrong, construction or maintenance projects can have accidents, all injuring or killing workers. Trains can injure or kill anyone who happens to be crossing the railroad track or walking near it.

As a result, the body of law that has developed to regulate railroads is in many ways distinct from other community laws—examples of the Curse of Being Important in action.

In some cases bus drivers have been required to open their doors while stopped so they have a better view and can hear any train whistle or horn better.

There may be exemptions for currently unused tracks (usually if and only if an “Exempt” sign is posted) and for crossings where an approaching train causes bells to clang, lights to flash, and arms to drop across the crossing—even though, at least in Utah, a few times a year someone in a passenger car or on foot kills themself at just such a crossing for light rail.

The regulated vehicles often have signs on their back ends to warn unsuspecting drivers, and there is mention in some driver-training manuals.

Such regulations aim to protect both the railroads and the public, and in average circumstances they do that fairly well.

But when competitive alternatives to railroads became popular—such as trucks driving down the new interstate highways and, until 9-11, commercial airlines—lagging law kept railroads from quickly reinventing themselves, and they became a marginalized industry. The two most prominent icons of this failure to adapt are Amtrak, formed to handle rail passenger business following a mass bankruptcy of American railroads in 1971, and the near absence of high-speed rail systems in this country.

But beyond those prominent emblems are the lesser opportunities railroads have missed out on. We don’t see any small-scale or temporary railroad activity.

Lack of small-scale and temporary uses of a technology are sure signs that the Curse of Being Important is in full effect.


Insurance is important, but it’s intangible and not used every day. This makes it hard for the average customer to shop for. As a result, it suffers from this Curse. The insurance business is heavily regulated. One example of a vexing oddity is that you can’t buy insurance across state lines, presumably because the various mandates each state has placed on its own insurance carriers couldn’t be enforced on those based elsewhere.

Once again, what is missing includes small-scale and flexible solutions.

Health Care

The biggest health care issue is absent from the heated debate that has been going on in the US for decades: Patient enfranchisement by Patient Pays. As I’ve demonstrated above, if patients were empowered, smaller scale and flexible solutions would flower and complaints about the system would drop dramatically.

Insurance companies, not patients, are now the health care industry’s customers. Procedures conducted upon patients are punches on the tickets that providers hand to the insurance companies for payment. Whether a procedure worked, whether it was even necessary, is largely irrelevant to whether it punches the ticket.

That few people see all this as a problem is a prime example of a blind spot. More on that later.


Several characteristics of the construction industry invite the Curse of Being Important.

Sometimes, indeed, the building buyer has an ongoing relationship, say for several housing developments over a period of years, several buildings in different cities, new bridges all around a state. But that’s comparatively rare, and even if the builder is a repeat vendor, the crews the builder hires may be different.

So in place of direct customer-provider feedback, we have building codes and building inspectors.

In the best of circumstances, the codes are well-synched with reality and the inspectors are dedicated to their work and feel enfranchised to do it well.

But under the Curse, laws and codes may not keep pace with reality, so that both builders and inspectors end up discouraged and disenfranchised. As noted above, that’s fertile ground for corruption.

As elsewhere, flexibility and small-scale experimentation are the first victims of this Curse on the construction industry. Contrast the variety and visual excitement of the booth designs that show up at large-scale trade shows, like CES (the Consumer Electronics Show) at the Las Vegas Convention Center—none of them restrained by the codes that apply to buildings.

Air Travel

Air travel is a complex, heavily regulated activity, but what makes its version of this Curse unique is the fear of flying that many air travelers have. This produces America’s enthusiastic worship at the Altar of the Holy Metal Detector, discussed as one of the Case Studies at the end of this Book Two.

At first glance, air travelers seem to pay directly for their service, which should mitigate some of the Curse. But in reality, they pay directly only for airplane operations. They pay indirectly for the airplanes and crews that the airlines buy and hire, while taxpayers pay for airports, air traffic control, and other airport personnel.

Immediately after World War I came the barnstorming era, with small-scale airplane and even airline experimentation. But since the 1950s the airline industry has felt the Curse’s full effect, with a triple dose after the 9-11 disaster leaving the industry deeply marginalized compared to what it could be if the Curse were lifted. The increased demand since then has instead been met by other means of transportation (private aviation, including executives’ infamous “private jets”, commercial trucking, and even personal vehicles) and by in-place communication means, from old-fashioned conference calls to the newest social media.


Parents don’t sit in classrooms, their children do. So even in private schools, where most parents pay the usually high tuition (many parochial schools have astonishingly generous need-based scholarship programs), there is some disconnect between users and payers. The gap is even wider in public schools, where taxpayers in the relevant geographic areas—from school district to county to state to country—foot the bill, and legislators at all those levels allocate their taxes and try to manage the methods and contents of teaching.

Another messy element is that, as the current heated debate shows (even if it sheds little light otherwise), there is no clear way to measure a school’s success in providing an education.

So the many people who consider education to be important are likely to have numerous different ideas on how to handle it, some of those ideas being polar opposites.

The Curse of Being Important manifests in education particularly as lack of flexibility and as vulnerability to ill-informed pressure groups.

TV and Telecommunications

The first electricity-based commercial telegraphs were developed in 1837, in the UK by Sir William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone, and later that year in the US by Samuel Morse, of Morse code fame. Since then the improvement in price and performance of electrically based data transmission (wired and wireless) has been steady and mind-boggling.

The “footprint” of telecommunications service has declined steadily as well. For wireless cell phone technology in 2012, there’s hardly any footprint at all—inconspicuous devices hung on existing buildings or purpose-built transmission towers, plus some administrative offices and housing for system servers. Compared with the footprints for providing transportation service, gasoline and heating oil, or steel, it’s miniscule. The footprints of the older landline telephone technology and of broadband computer access are little larger, and that for television and radio even smaller.

But all of that is despite the Curse of Being Important. To see manifestations of its strength, look at the arm-long list of additional surcharges on your monthly phone bill, listen to the constant talk about what should or should not be broadcast on TV and radio, and notice how many hoops you have to jump through in order to buy a cell phone and its service.

Compare the early development of telephone, radio, and TV to the early development of the Internet. The Internet of the 1960s and ’70s was considered so unimportant that it was sponsored by DARPA—a government organization specifically designed to promote what the commercial world sees as “loser technologies” that yet have hope of someday helping the US military. Only because in its early days the Internet dodged this Curse was that idea able to be explored fully.

The symptoms of this Curse are now beginning to be felt even on the ’Net, but the subject is too painful to discuss.


It has been surprising to me that the Curse of Being Important shows up so strongly in employer-employee relations. There is heavy regulation of hiring and firing practices and of working conditions throughout much of the world. After all, in Prisoner’s Dilemma terms any small business, and many a larger business, should be a Double-Cooperator environment:

And finally, a major feature that should discourage the Curse: The payer-payee relation is direct; an employee works for a person or company and gets paid by that person or company.

So heavy precautions against Defection should be unnecessary … it would seem.

But the Curse is strong, and as a result there is lots of third party intervention in the relation.

The reason for this regulation-heavy environment is the complex nature of the relations in the business environment. Because of this, Instinctive Us-vs-Them thinking can occur in confusing and contradictory ways.

As an example of the complexity, consider the relations in a typical restaurant: We have a manager, customers, waiters, and other staff. In these relations, who is Us and who is Them?

It is the complexity of business relations mixing with Instinctive Us-vs-Them thinking that brings on the Curse. This results in a morass of government regulations on relations among employers, employees, and customers that are expensive for the community.

Things Not Cursed

With the exception of integrated circuits, everything mentioned so far has been badly cursed. For comparison, here are a couple more things that have dodged the Curse of Being Important and reaped the benefits.

Electric Motors

We don’t give the electric motors all around us a second thought … which is a pretty good symptom of not suffering this Curse. If the only people thinking about something are those who design with it, that thing is unlikely to be cursed.

Another symptom is the variety of tasks a thing is used for. Electric motors come in a wide range of sizes, ranging from tiny battery-powered ones in wristwatches up to huge ones running ships and pipeline compressors.

The benefits of being Curse-free include that electric motors have been steadily improved for a long time—for well over a century, in fact. The concept was first demonstrated in 1821 and commercialized, unsuccessfully, in the 1830s.


Refrigeration was first demonstrated in the 1750s as a science experiment, but it wasn’t until after many unsuccessful attempts (as with Edison’s light bulb later) that commercially viable forms were developed in the US and Australia in the 1850s. We don’t give a lot of thought to refrigeration, but it has been a civilization changer. From allowing meat products to be shipped from Argentina, Australia, and New Zealand to the rest of the world, to allowing lots of people to settle in southern Florida and California, to letting much of the world just pull a cool drink from the fridge, it has changed lives.

But aside from some brushes with environmentalists because it is energy intensive, we take it for granted. It has dodged the Curse.


The first plastic was developed in 1855 as a replacement for ivory used in billiard balls. This is an example of the benefit of a technology being introduced as a toy. The kinds of plastics and the scope of their use have increased steadily since then.

Today, plastics have a touch of the Curse of Being Important because for many people they’ve become a symbol of all the evils of modern living. Specific concerns of this decade come in two flavors: There is evidence that estrogen-mimicking chemicals, among others, can leach into the food supply from certain plastics. And people argue about how best to get rid of plastic objects when we’re finished using them.

Fortunately for the economy and everyone’s comfort, these aspects have remained a minor part of modern community thinking.

Avoiding This Curse

The Curse of Being Important is most harmful when it’s imposed while an idea is young, fresh, and not yet well established, because more people become interested in scary outcomes of using it and they don’t yet feel the benefits.

But a budding idea grows best when efficient and smaller scale uses are discovered in a phase of do-it-yourself garage- and backyard-type experimenting. This is what happened with IC technology (see above) and computer programming. Both were considered safe for anyone and everyone to play with, which is why the first breakthroughs, such as the Apple II computer, came from teenage experimenters.

So the best thing you can do for the development of your new idea is to figure out how to present it as an entertaining toy or game. At all costs avoid asking for government support. Calling in the government automatically invokes this Curse.

Limiting This Curse

If your idea is cursed, what can you do? Try to keep it from getting cursed even more! The Curse of Being Important is not an on/off thing. It’s definitely shades of gray, from dusty to tar-covered.

First and foremost, try to reduce the emotional content of your new idea, to avoid accusers tapping into community emotional fears, as happened to genetically modified (GM) foods in Europe, though thankfully not here. GM critics successfully applied the word “frankenfoods”, establishing vegetables as parallel to Frankenstein’s monster in public opinion, and politicians paid attention.

Second, as you deal with emotional criticism realize that rational analysis won’t help much until you’ve defused the emotion.

As one means of forecasting if you will have a problem, consider the contents of science fiction stories and especially movies. If you can imagine that a mad scientist in a movie is promoting your idea, who then gets stopped by a heroic grad student (who proposes to his professor’s daughter at the end of the last reel), then you need to position your idea differently.

The cheesy SF movies of the 1950s gave plenty of warning that nuclear energy was going to be a tough row to hoe emotionally. In dozens upon dozens of movies, the monster was made big and dangerous by a dose of radioactivity.

Likewise, SF movies of the new century (equally cheesy despite better SFX) caution us similarly against genetic engineering—or sometimes just have fun with it. The original 1960s comic-book version of Spiderman got his powers from being bitten by a radioactive spider; in the 2002 movie version, it was a GM spider.

The Curse of Unintended Consequences

The ubiquitous Curse of Unintended Consequences is the root of story-telling of many sorts, and of much real-life complaining about choices.

This Curse is the root of the proverb that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions and of the so-called old Chinese curse, “May you get what you wish for.” (I’m betting that one is not actually of Chinese origin.)

And this Curse is at the root of most blind spots involving social justice and guilt thinking. I discuss some of those blind spots several pages below, toward the end of the section on “Booms, Recessions, and Dream Changing”.

Blind Spots, Mostly in American Thinking

My List

Q: What do combating terrorism, the War on Drugs, fighting climate change, reforming health care, and registering sex offenders have in common?

A: Examples of blind spots in the American community thinking.

Q: Are there other such blind spots?

A: Yes, but that list is a start.

Q: Do you yourself have blind spots, Roger?

A: Yes, I’m certain I do. We all do. But these days fewer things surprise me, and I don’t often waste my time on quixotic quests. I have uncovered many of mine. That said, let’s get started with this list, okay?

In each case, the American community is investing a whole lot of time, money, and attention in an effort that isn’t working. Instead of solving the problem it’s doing serious damage to the American community for one or both of two reasons:

Americans have remained over-the-top about each of these worries for one or more decades. They see the serious threat and feel anything and everything must be done to counter it. Those who advocate current policies in each area are enthusiastic, dedicated, and right-thinking people who want the best for all of us. But they are blind to how their choices are making America ugly.

Root Attitudes

This blindness is caused by root attitudes, feelings held so deeply that they’re axioms to much of the community—they don’t need explaining, they just are. It’s like watching an old-fashioned melodrama. If a man in a cape and a black suit comes slinking onto the stage staring at the blonde maiden, you don’t wonder if he’s her long-lost cousin from Dubuque who has a back problem—you simply know he’s a villain and hiss him before he has a chance to say a word.

The root attitudes that cause our blind spots are based on deeply Instinctual thinking. As I’ve argued in Book One, in most of the millennia since mankind first lived in Stone Age villages, that kind of thinking was effective. Evolutionarily, the comparatively short period following Neolithic times, much less the technological era, are far too brief to have selected against using Neolithic thinking when it’s not appropriate, and not realizing that that is what’s happening. Particularly since there hasn’t been life-and-death pressure in the matter.

Instinctual thinking is comfortable thinking—it’s an easy way to think whether it works well, or not. We have continually expanded who we consider human, so that “Us vs. Them” works somewhat differently in a globalized world than in the days of tiny one-patriarch tribes, but it’s still there.

Something to note: Although I premise my arguments on what we know of evolution, what follows isn’t science. None of it is proven. But while I have great respect for science, I also respect life experience. And although my evidence is anecdotal, it has a lot of depth. I’ve lived and worked in five different countries through six decades, and I’m a great fan of reading current events, science, and history.

My hope is that my analysis will ring true with some aspiring or even working scientists and inspire them to do the legwork of transforming my insights into science.

The Curse of Unintended Consequences Bites Down

These days, the road to Hell is a superhighway, smoothly paved by the Curse of Unintended Consequences: The failure to be Analytical enough about all the consequences of our choices, not just the intended benefits and consequences of our good intentions.

To a greater or lesser extent, all the blind spots discussed in this section are caused by such failures.


I’ve argued above that we need to break the symbiosis between Big Media and Big Terrorism. Here, let’s consider how modern terrorism has evolved as a symbiote with modern news reporting.

As news media have become increasingly part of our lives, with reporters and now untrained citizens equipped with more portable, more quickly deployable recording equipment, there has been a revolution in what people can know about their community and their government.

A lot of the effect of this change in news reporting technology has been beneficial. I attribute the relatively bloodless regime changes of the late 20th and early 21st centuries—from the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Soviet Union that followed to the Arab Spring that is evolving even as I write—to this immediacy of news reporting. It’s a lot harder to hide bloody government repression from a community when every Tom, Ivan, or Muhammad on the street can potentially show the blood to the world. The movie-theater newsreels that were ubiquitous in the 1930s and ’40s were replaced by “film/tape/video at ten” and now “pictures on YouTube”, each stage less easy to censor.

But the old reporters’ attitudes behind “If it bleeds it leads”—and before that, “Stop the presses!” to put the latest sensation on the front page—still match the appetites of news consumers. And that is the root of terrorism’s potency, its cost-effectiveness as advertising for its cause … if the only costs you count are the costs counted by its perpetrators.

What makes terrorist threats and action against airline travel in particular so effective is the American community’s deep-rooted fear of flying, which also causes the media circus surrounding every commercial airline crash. A lesser factor is Americans’ strong though perhaps less deeply rooted fear of suicidal people—witness the great concern caused by kamikaze pilots in World War II, comparable to that caused by suicide bombers today. And then there’s the actual fact that it’s much harder to guard against a suicidal opponent than against one who wants to get away alive. Airplanes and violence and, often, a suicidal assassin … Wow! Talk about maximizing ad effectiveness on a tight budget!

The American community’s blind spot (shared by most other targeted communities) is its failure to recognize terrorism as advertising. As I’ve argued above, the effective way to fight its malevolent advertising is media self-censorship. I’m unwilling to invoke that method against, say, purveyors of low-nutrition foods and dubious medical nostrums, but in the case of terrorist causes the alternative—counter-advertising campaigns—would only feed the flames.

But rather than work to reduce terrorism’s advertising returns, Americans have invested heavily in largely blind expenditures on homeland security. One part, though, is visible: The worship of the Holy Metal Detector, a modern religion most visibly practiced by commercial air travelers as led by the TSA priesthood.

How can you tell that airport passenger security is a religion? Because what is said about it, and what the people involved are thinking, are both very important to its effectiveness.

Compare faith-based airport passenger security to fact-based reality, like flying the plane. If you go to an airport and start bad-mouthing airport security, does it matter? Oh yes, very much! If you flip the starter switch on the plane and nothing happens, does it matter if you start cursing the plane, the ground crew, and the plane’s manufacturer? Not in the least! (Well, unless you have your mike set wrong so the whole plane hears.)

Mind-Altering Experiences

The blind spot in America’s War on Drugs and other prohibitions of mind-altering experiences (including early 20th-century Prohibition) is that the prohibitionists don’t see the huge expense they incur by disenfranchising the would-be practitioners of popular kinds of mind altering.

The root of the blind spot—the deep Instinctive thought—is a belief that the mind alterers become uncontrollably irresponsible and therefore must be stopped at all costs. This fear flares up most heatedly when the mind altering is being done by strangers in a strange way—it’s strange to witness and “Thems” are doing it. This is another incarnation of the idea that an evil spirit can get inside a person and take over their actions. If “The devil made me do it” is an acceptable excuse, then every effort must be made to keep devils out. Every effort! … and you have a blind spot.

The better alternative is to hold people responsible for all their actions … including those done at the suggestion of any devils that they let get inside them.

For much more on this subject, see the discussion of the War on Drugs’ Blunder Chain early in this Book Two and the Case Study on Human Enjoyment of Altering Consciousness toward the end of this same Book.

Guilt Thinking

Nothing seems to create a blind spot against cost-benefit analysis faster than feeling guilty. Guilt powers some of the biggest and craziest spending in America and the world.

We live in a basically prosperous society, which means we have a lot more discretionary resources than communities ever had before. Discretion means we have choices, and we can choose frivolously or wisely. This is one of the things we teach our children, especially in economic downturns.

What we don’t usually spend enough effort on doing, or teaching our children to do, is analyzing consequences—using Analytic thinking. As a result Instinctive thinking becomes strong in our discretionary choices; being genetically programmed for altruism, we want to do something good with our resources. But without Analytical cost-benefit analysis, our giving can be both wasteful and harmful.

More on the Curse of Unintended Consequences in a moment. For now, let’s look at the distorting effect of guilt thinking that pays no attention to benefits or consequences.

Climate Change

Climate change in the 2010s has become a high profile issue as with virtual unanimity the scientists in the field have declared that human caused climate change is leading to deleterious effects from increasingly crazy weather to incipient sea-level rise, overwhelming anything from a little oceanfront property to whole small island countries to major world cities, depending on whose predictions you trust. And the general public has reacted strongly to those predictions. There are calls for action—very expensive actions—and they are being fully considered.

Contrast that with the reaction to alarmist pronouncements in the 1970s of a coming Ice Age—not human caused. Climate research stayed just another Earth science that made good reading. The calls to action were lonely voices in the wilderness.

The difference is guilt. The warming is human caused, but any New Ice Age will be just an act of God.

Now that guilt over climate change has become a driver among the overprivileged, moves for mitigating it have too often been aimed more at assuaging that guilt than on rationally allocating resources to the most effective strategies. Assisting Vanuatuans to relocate away from their coasts makes more economic sense than shutting down every smokestack industry in the world, but the former is not all that is being recommended.

There is a spectacular trillion-dollar set of Blunders in the making, powered by guilt.

Other Examples

Here are a few other cases of guilt-driven crazy spending:

In these cases and others, the cost of providing benefits and/or the worth of the benefits provided are routinely ignored not only by the donor but also by the recipients, who admittedly have other items on their agendas. I am reminded of the ancient Israelites’ annual scapegoating ritual, in which the sins of the community were placed on the head of a goat before driving it off into the desert. Except that the cost of one goat a year was minimal.

Genetic Engineering vs. Plague

I mentioned above, as a victim of the Curse of Being Important, development of genetically modified foods. The root of the blind spot there, and of the over-the-top fear against genetic engineering as a whole in its various forms, seems to be the Instinctive terror of plague—of uncontrollable disease. This shuts down any rational cost-benefit analysis of risk.

Health Care

I have argued at length above for Patient Pays as a solution to many problems with American health care. The blind spot there is ignoring the enormous costs inherent in decoupling receiving health care from paying for it.

When the goal is not, as it should be, patient satisfaction but whatever one or (usually) more non-patient groups thinks is “good care”, all sorts of wasteful spending styles become likely—extra spending for extra paperwork, extra protections, and turf wars over deciding what is appropriate treatment and what is not. The historical mother putting a feverish child to bed as her own mother teaches her to make a proper poultice, with a house call–making doctor brought in only as necessary, has evolved into the overproduced medical encounters we experience today.

Only the Right Kind of Jobs

There is a blind spot at the root of what I call the Midwest Disease. This huge, expensive blind spot has happened time and time again in various places throughout history.

In the 1960s I was growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, then the 7th largest US city. It billed itself as “The Best Location in the Nation”, the heart of what was then called the Steel Belt, stretching across the US Midwest from Ohio to Wisconsin. At the time that area had it all—good people, good location, good money from lots of good-paying jobs in industries such as steel and auto manufacturing. Detroit was the 6th largest US city.

But instead of continuing to grow in size and prosperity from its peak in the ’60s, the Midwest shrank, and the decline in what is now called the Rust Belt hasn’t stopped. In the 2010s, Detroit is America’s 12th largest city and Cleveland is 41st. Cleveland is now billed as the Mistake on the Lake and Detroit is seriously proposing turning a quarter of the city back into farmland and orchards.

What happened?

The Midwest took its jobs for granted! For fifty years the local powers that be have concentrated on fostering “good” jobs, non-polluting jobs, and social justice, to the fatal neglect of fostering more jobs, period. As “fair” became the focus, the brightest and best and ambitious—the prolific job creators—voted with their feet. Those people who remained were happy to vote for more rules and regulations about how to be fair. They remained oblivious to the link between concentrating on fairness and slow job growth. Worse, it became the excuse: Slow job growth happened because job creators weren’t being fair.

The travails of the Great Recession have uncovered this same blind spot afflicting other parts of the nation. California looks like it’s becoming the next Rust Belt—we may soon be hearing about the Fool’s Gold State.

There is additional urgency to getting this straightened out. Something is coming that can blindside us. We are on the cusp of an even more dramatic change in manufacturing, a Third Industrial Revolution. If we don’t solve this challenge of “fairness versus moreness” in America, it will become the Rust Nation as other areas of the world snag the prolific job creation that that revolution will bring.

Saving the Children

Another blind spot in 21st-century America and elsewhere is spending excessive effort on protecting children.

Getting Hurt Is Natural

Growing up calls for constant and enormous changes. Like any other animal, a human child has to mature from a single fertilized cell—a zygote—into an adult consisting of trillions of cells. And then has to pass the Grandchild Test—having lots of grandchildren so some other family line, not necessarily human, does not take its place.

Which, especially for us humans, requires another enormous process, learning. Learning is how an organism figures out how to act appropriately for the specific environment it is living in, which is very different between a Tahitian beach and a Siberian city. Children learn by trying all sorts of things, not just once, but many times, until they get it right. Think of a child learning to walk.

It is part of the natural experience that some things children try not only don’t work, they hurt, maybe even do damage. When a child falls, it can hurt, maybe producing a skinned knee, or even a broken leg. When a bee stings, that too hurts, perhaps swells an arm up for a few days, or in rare cases even kills. Often healing the damage leaves a scar.

As with any other young animal, this is what a growing-up child is designed to do, learn from mistakes as well as successes. An experience that hurts can be simply a lesson with a strong message.

Of course, as highly intelligent animals, children also learn from teaching by their elders. To a certain extent, that can replace direct experience. But only to a certain extent! Some damaging childhood experiences can produce damaged adults, sure, but the absence of damage-bearing experiences can do the same. Scars should not be considered terrifyingly abnormal.

Protecting Children Is Also Natural

Beside the natural process of getting hurt while growing up is the deep animal Instinct for adults to protect offspring from lethal harm.

Even with that Instinct, in all species except advanced civilized humans, most offspring die before becoming mature enough to reproduce. Our current situation is a deeply and truly blessed exception.

In all species but ours, most children are destined to fail the Grandchild Test, so mothers bear dozens to hundreds to thousands more children than will reach adulthood. Consider how many seeds there are in one apple or one cantaloupe, let alone how many a whole tree or vine produces in a season, and how many seedlings would be eaten or otherwise destroyed in the wild to prevent the world from being overwhelmed by apples or cantaloupes. Consider how many eggs a codfish lays, how many kittens or puppies there are in a litter, and so on.

Similarly though less extremely, even in historic times human infant mortality was a given, and in prehistoric times, the cull rate was higher yet.

Taking adult time and resources to, as much as possible, protect offspring from lethal experiences pays off. Creatures who develop that Instinct are either more likely to pass the Grandchild Test or are able to do so while spending fewer bodily resources on producing children. However, not surprisingly the Instinct has some difficulty distinguishing lethal from hurtful from merely painful! And in an advanced civilization, the amount of resources at our disposal can set “as much as possible” to abusive heights.

Corroding Individuals and the Community

The downside of being overprotected isn’t just that you risk becoming “spoiled”, with no consideration for other people.

If you never interact energetically with the physical world around you, you don’t learn your physical limits, and you can’t judge the limits of those around you. You may be lucky enough to live a lifetime without that lack of capability ever mattering—or you may not. This affects, or should affect, your self-confidence and feeling of enfranchisement, even in an advanced civilized setting.

People who haven’t learned to deal well with adversity because they’ve never practiced seeing things through tend to get overexcited under pressure, to worry too much and too quickly, to see applying prescriptive conformity to the whole community as a cure for problems. That’s hard on everybody’s enfranchisement.

“No pain, no gain” has turned out to be a dangerous oversimplification in the weightlifting arena that spawned the saying, but it applies better to life as a whole: Without risking pain, physical or otherwise, interesting and excellent achievements are usually out of reach.

The activities and groups that do the best job of combating child overprotection are, unfortunately, sometimes seen as laughably old-fashioned: Athletic programs, field trips, Boy and Girl Scouting, and outdoor summer camps. They are in fact more necessary than ever.

If a person’s interaction with the world outside themselves is limited to TV shows, video games, and books, the resulting introspective personality may produce, if we’re lucky, literature for the ages—although I think that even there, exposure to rough and tumble reality improves the product! But if we’re unlucky, it can be the root behind emerging narcissistic lifestyles among males such as metrosexuality and Japan’s “girly men”.

The Evolutionary Arc: Bride Thinking

Even in this age of family redefinition, children are raised mostly by young women. In pre-civilized environments, young women with young children survive best by being cooperative with, even submissive to, the rest of the community—being Bride Thinkers. Older women who have more experience and older children can think differently, standing up for their individual rights as Matron Thinkers. But on the average, that’s not a good strategy for young mothers.

The benefit of Bride Thinking is that the community Instinctively cooperates with young mothers; people spontaneously do lots of nice things for them and for young children. (As suggested earlier, this is also the reason that young women are all cultures’ standards of beauty in a way that no other group can match.)

The dark side of Instinctive Bride Thinking is that raising children incurs the Curse of Being Important, so the community feels empowered to offer lots of advice. In civilized environments, that means governments offering advice in the form of regulations and laws. They are the community’s forceful way of saying, “We know how to raise your children better than you do.” Few things can bring bureaucrats and politicians faster emotional support than shouting “I’m doing this for the children!”

The blind spot occurs when the community does not measure the benefits of the mandates supported by its Instinctive thinking against their drawbacks: The lost opportunities for children to explore our world and understand it better, and the disenfranchising of parents from the child-raising process. When this happens, instead of feeling loved and supported by the community the parent thinks, “Why should I feel responsible? Why should I bother to try doing this well, when everyone around me is vehemently telling me how to do it?” And the parent’s child experiences the negative consequences discussed in the previous section.

Sex Abuse

The most flagrant waste is the hysteria around protecting children specifically from sexual abuse rather than from physical abuse in general.

Let me tell you about the first time I saw a girl naked. I was five years old and horsing around in the bathtub with my brother, eighteen months younger, kicking each other in the balls. We had recently heard that it was a good way to bother other people if you were fighting them, so we were experimenting. At that age, shoving at each other with our feet underwater turned out not to hurt too much.

Our upstairs neighbor brought down her daughter, who was six, to join us in the bath. I was going to kick her in the balls too, but … she didn’t have any! That was strange!

I asked her, “Why don’t you have any balls?”

And she being the older, more mature female responded, “Because I’m a girl. I get to have babies instead.”

That explanation left me mystified, but I accepted it as just another mystery of life, and my little brother and I went back to having fun.

No one will be surprised by this story. It is generally accepted that sex is something children do not comprehend—they haven’t grown up enough to think about the concept in adult ways.

Except, you’re thinking, in the case of sexual molestation! That, as everybody knows, causes premature sexualization and often ruins a person for life.

So far as I can discover, what everybody knows in this area is based on unsupported assumptions. There is no doubt that physical abuse of children can indeed cause long-term psychological harm, as can physical and/or emotional neglect. But so far as I can discover, no one has found a difference among harms based on whether or not sexual acts were involved. In fact, no one is even interested in the question; apparently, the answer is assumed to be known without actual research!

If I’m right about this, we should protect children from sexual predators, especially in positions of trust, because they can cause fright, pain, and physical harm, including transmitting disease. But worrying about prematurely exposing children to sexual situations makes about as much sense as worrying about prematurely exposing them to algebra—neither one is going to have much meaning until a child’s ready.

Even if a child is old enough to be aware of sex, our society’s concepts don’t change. Here is a highly illustrative story.

Back in the ’80s, an ambitious 28-year-old man shares a hot tub with a 15-year old girl—and that’s it, no sex, no drugs, no drink, no touching, certainly no rape. The man regrets his action enough at the time to pay the woman $150,000 in hush money. Some 25 years later in 2010, the woman is talking. She claims, in essence, that having a man see her naked in her early teens put an evil demon inside her that subsequently ruined her life, and she is now telling all in order to try to exorcize that demon. The man, now holding a high post in the Utah legislature, faces a long prison term, which many think is too good for him.

Now, the first thing to know about this story is that it didn’t happen. For one thing, the hush money wasn’t paid until 2002. Far more important, when the woman went public, she alleged sexual abuse, involving a months-long relationship with her then employer, without specific details. It was the man who gave the media the no-touch hot tub story (which the woman soon disputed, saying the man really “likes massage”) before resigning from the legislature. The statute of limitations had long expired and other than loss of reputation his only punishment was the end of his political career.

The second thing to know is that the story was widely believed and discussed just about as I’ve first told it above. The superstition that any exposure to sex can put an evil demon into a child and curse it for life is powerful in contemporary America. This leads to grannies being prosecuted as child pornographers for taking pictures of their naked grandchildren playing in a bathtub.

So powerful is the superstition that if you deny it to many Americans, as I am doing to you now, you’ll get some head scratching and looks of deep worry about you and your thinking. Deep-seated Instinct, not any sort of rational thought, is driving how we treat child pornography and other sex crime.

For instance, in 2009, 1600 people were sentenced to an average of more than 7 years in jail just for downloading dirty pictures of kids. Keep in mind that the original justification for making it illegal to receive child porn, overriding our First Amendment rights—which, in this area, the Supreme Court says is justified—was to protect children from abuse by producers of child porn. When viewers often get more punishment than producers, that’s a textbook example of going over the top because of a blind spot.

Then there are public registries for sex offenders, with often incredibly restrictive conditions on where the registrants may live. The reason given why someone has to register as an offender is the likelihood that they will re-offend. So why don’t bank robbers and scam artists have to do the same?

And when the sex offense is mooning people as a high-schooler, publicly pissing while drunk to the outrage of a police officer, having sex with your one-year-younger lover, or something similar, the case for life-long public registration as a safeguard against again harming the community breaks down. Yet such offenses can put people on the same list as actual rapists.

Permitting our Instinctive thinking to steer has, predictably, resulted in laws and policies that greatly corrode civil liberties and enfranchisement while not proportionally protecting the community.

The Sacred Masculine

Feminist literary circles celebrate the Sacred Feminine—with the basic idea, going back to women’s suffrage days, that if women ruled the world, it would be a kinder and gentler place. This is feel-good thinking, which means there is Instinct behind it. The facts suggest a slightly different theory about how to get kinder and gentler societies: Support the Sacred Masculine.

Many adult male mammals have little to do with others of their species, males or females, except during an annual mating (“rutting”) period, when they fight other males and mate with as many receptive females as they can—far more if they’ve won their fights than if not.

Human males are rarely like that. We have the Sacred Masculine, the ability to cooperate with both females and other males throughout the year. Mother Nature, quick and dirty design engineer, has partly solved the problem of getting men to hang around women more by extending the human mating season to yearlong. Human language skills, which make arranged marriages possible, have also helped; parents want in-laws who will be cooperative.

But the generic mammalian loner pattern, deeply hardwired for uncountable generations, lurks under the surface in the male brain, ready to come out.

This genuine old-school, aka Instinctual, thinking is most likely to emerge when males get disenfranchised. Rarely do we hear of a corporate lawyer shooting an investment banker over a love affair. Far more frequently the media cover one unemployed man knifing another with whom he’s been drinking together all day, apparently over nothing at all—but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was often actually over a woman, as in the many fictional bar fights that undoubtedly mirror real life.

The same pattern is ascribed to aboriginal males whose communities have been displaced by more technologically advanced immigrants. And gang members, usually from urban multi-generation matriarchal welfare communities, famously react to minimal disrespect with maximal force.

However, there are circumstances in which the Instinctual attitude can spread out of the underclass.

In prosperous, technologically advanced communities, women do their share equally with men. On the whole, this isn’t good … it’s absolutely great! But as we increasingly accept the economic potential of the female half of our population, we need to be sure that the male half stay enfranchised. Men still need to think, “This community cares about me, and what I do makes a difference to it.”

If we are not sensitive to this, the Sacred Masculine can shrivel. The more the social environment becomes conducive to old-school male thinking, the more we will experience the irony of men living in the midst of great prosperity engaging in destructive activity ranging from raging to computer hacking, simply dropping out and doing nothing much while living in momma’s basement, or indulging in intensely frivolous metrosexuality of the sort happening in Japan (see the note at the end of the “Corroding Individuals and the Community” section above).

Embracing the “Shit Happens” Attitude

The year I spent as a soldier in the war in Vietnam was a difficult and frightening time.

Terrifying things happened like getting shot at and rocketed, and little uncomfortable things happened like having to deal with unpleasant work, unpleasant procedures, and unpleasant people. And underlying all this was our longing to be back home with family and friends.

Sometimes bad things were the result of bad luck, sometimes of someone being stupid. Some could have been prevented but hadn’t been. The why didn’t much matter; we had to live with the result.

We became fatalists in Nam. We’d say to each other, “Shit happens,” then shrug and go on, and continue to do our best in the circumstance we were handed.

When I came back to the US, I was impressed with, and distressed by, how pervasive the opposite attitude was whenever anything bad happened: We need to stop what we’re doing, figure it out thoroughly, blame someone, and make sure something similar can never, ever happen again. Only then can we get back to business.

I call that the Federal Case attitude. As a standard operating procedure, it’s as silly as it is expensive.

Instead, we need to accept that we live in a real world, not an ideal one, so mistakes and other bad things are going to happen, while we keep working on making our world better. The responsible people do a quick, coldly Analytical cost-benefit analysis, learn from any mistakes, and quickly move on.

The main virtues of the Shit Happens attitude are:

Choosing the Shit Happens attitude over the Federal Case strategy requires rejecting Instinctive thinking, which would have us follow our hearts to seek perfect justice and vengeance.

When something goes spectacularly wrong in modern society, it suffers from the Curse of Being Important. There is a lot of emotion powering people’s Instinct to meddle and set everything right forever, without counting the cost; especially when a guilt-fueled issue comes up, there’s an impulse to “send a message” no matter the price.

Unless the larger community is endangered, I argue it should instead back off and let the people involved first think hard and Analytically to decide what new preventive action if any must be taken and what heads if any should roll. If that requires calling in outside experts, let them be called; but the community shouldn’t force them in.

Embracing the Shit Happens attitude means less effort spent on trying to solve “woulda, coulda, shoulda” problems of the past and more actual progress

Conclusion: How to Combat Blind Sports

The most important element in combating community and personal blind spots is becoming aware that they are possible and looking for them.

If a problem mysteriously won’t solve, even though it has been attacked in many ways and for a long time, it’s time to look for a blind spot.

When a course of action seems very simple, very obvious, and quickly reasonable, but it disenfranchises others, promotes crime and corruption, corrodes civil liberties, restricts a powerful tool, or has other negative effects—or just costs us a lot in time, money, and attention—then we need to do enough cost-benefit analysis to be sure that it is really a good solution to an actual problem.

We need to train ourselves and teach our children that not all gut-thinking is good thinking. Easy, comfortable Instinctive thinking often interacts badly with the harsh realities of advanced civilized living.

In sum, it would be really, really nice to see the Road to Hell deprived of paving material. If we can reduce our Curses and blind spots, that will happen.