Our economic system is based on irrational consumption. Imagine the businesses and industries that would go belly-up and the people who would be put out of work in short order if consumers suddenly started making only rational purchases.
One of the first to go would be the vitamin industry, or more broadly, the vitamin, mineral and supplement industry. Those who actually need to pop vitamin pills—vegans with self-induced vitamin B12 deficiency, non-vegans with vitamin deficiencies caused by various medical conditions, people who rarely see the sun, and so forth—just aren’t numerous enough to keep the multi-billion dollar vitamin and supplement industry going. If you eat a reasonably well balanced diet you don’t need to take vitamins or supplements, and if you don’t eat a reasonably well balanced diet, taking vitamins and supplements won’t make up for it.
There is growing evidence—that bugbear of postmodernists and New Agers—that megadoses of vitamins are not only worthless but may do serious harm. By now, nobody familiar with the evidence believes that taking megadoses of vitamin C has any effect on the common cold, but it can cause kidney stones. A study at the University of Colorado has shown that taking large doses beta carotene increases the risk of developing lung cancer and heart disease by up to 20%. The same study showed that a folic acid supplement taken to reduce precancerous polyps in the colon, actually increased the number of polyps in the colons of those who took it compared with those who received a placebo. It may well be that certain cancer cells love the extra vitamins we don’t need.
Another industry that couldn’t withstand an outbreak of rationality is the diet and weight loss industry. The 95% recidivism rate for those who try to lose weight is probably an exaggeration:
But many, if not most, claims made by weight loss books and products are obvious scams. You can’t eat what you want and lose weight, and no product can block the absorption of fat or calories enough to make you slim. The weight loss industry does best as the New Year begins, just after the paroxysm of irrational buying associated with Christmas.
Most of so-called alternative medicine is costly nonsense. Naturopaths offer some common sense advice—get plenty of rest, don’t overeat, exercise—combined with utter quackery like homeopathic remedies, and they charge for it at a rate comparable to that charged by legitimate doctors. Even a relatively small increase in rationality would put most naturopaths out of business. The publishing industry would take a major hit if a majority of readers suddenly realized that Deepak Chopra and his ilk are complete crackpots.
If a sizable portion of senior citizens in the U.S. suddenly became informed about foreign and domestic issues, Fox News would lose viewers and advertisers faster than a Siberian husky sheds it undercoat in the summer. CNN and MSNBC would lose market share too, probably to The Economist.
Multinationals like Pepsi have made untold billions by claiming that tap water is unsafe and pushing bottled water, which in fact is often just tap water, sold for many times its actual worth. They have also promoted the myth that our own thirst is not a reliable indicator of our need to drink water, so we have to walk around carrying their grossly overpriced product in order to stay hydrated.
So until we can replace out current economic system with a more rational one, we can all thank the irrational and completely uninformed for keeping us all economically afloat. The irrationality of the housing market, though, is another story.