Some things just don't deserve the old college try

It seems you can now get a carrot in the team colour of Texas A&M University, namely maroon. It doesn't concern me directly because I'm a University of Texas man and as our colour was orange we always had carrots that matched. But if the lack of purple carrots had become a major quality-of-life issue, it surely raises the old question of whether too much money can be bad for you. Old, and hence forgotten. In their second debate next week, John Kerry and George Bush probably will squabble about how they can make America richer. I'd rather listen to George Washington who, before there even was Internet pornography, wrote, "It has long been a speculated question among Philosophers and wise men, whether foreign Commerce is of real advantage to any Country; that is, whether the luxury, effeminacy, and corruptions which are introduced along with it; are counterbalanced by the convenience and wealth which it brings with it." A practical man, he added that as the colonies were certainly going to trade, they should have a government that would ensure it was carried out justly.

Whereas in these sophisticated times we argue about whether trade increases wealth. The Canadian Labour Congress briefly confessed that it did before reverting to industrial strategies and autarky. Hey, it worked for North Korea. Uh, except for the mass starvation. My dusty old Plato's Republic includes this dialogue: "Socrates: 'And in the community all mutual exchanges are made on the assumption that the parties to them stand to gain?' Adeimantus 'Certainly.' CLC President Ken Georgetti: 'Huh?'" No, sorry, that last bit's a typo. But how far we've progressed since that Yankee yokel Benjamin Franklin said "No nation was ever ruined by trade." Ha ha. Hey buddy, why don't you go fly a kite?

Of course, Franklin didn't have pears whose labels change colour when they're ripe. (The 2005 Old Farmer's Almanac says "Watch for smart sensors to appear next on kiwis, avocados, mangoes, and melons.") It sure beats all that tedious handling of fresh ingredients. Plus it frees up time to drive to our therapists to complain that we feel alienated despite having fires with on/off switches.

Don't even get me started on the butt-kicking machine (no, really). But in my notes I keep a file called "Gadgets We Don't Need," with subheadings like "Toys we don't need," "Food we don't need" and even "Gadgets We Can't Survive" (a rice-cooker that altered pacemaker settings). At least picture messaging from camera phones doesn't seem to have caught on, and you rarely see one of those Internet toasters that print the weather forecast on bread (we're looking at some butter, and later a wave of marmalade ...). But we still have automated Santas and robot fox hunters and scents just for tweens and ...

I do not wish to be regarded as a mindless technophobe. My file also contains "Gadgets We Did Need" (for instance the screen door), and the other day I managed to put my cellphone on call-forward all by myself. I haven't yet figured out how it downloads pictures, but I got far enough to know by the file names that people are not, how shall I put it, using this feature primarily to increase their exposure to great art.

Nor do I seek legal action. In Saudi Arabia they banned cellphones with built-in cameras but it didn't work. It's the old paradox of too much law and too little order. Only we can prevent pornography files: Political self-government depends on personal self-government. Which is why the impact of growing wealth on self-control worried wise men back when food was cooked with fire.

In one sense we have literally gone soft, in an epidemic of obesity. But I am more worried that the American government's vast Medicare program is considering paying for weight-loss surgery.

Can citizens who can't resist the contents of the refrigerator possibly resist those of the public treasury? Assuming they can still work the door handle. The Globe and Mail says when Yahoo! got 13 U.S. families to give up the Internet for a fortnight, some had forgotten how to use a phone book. One guy had to call a friend's wife to ask how to boil an egg. Money may not be able to buy happiness, but helpless ignorance is clearly for sale. Plus social science to boost our self-esteem.

So we still have smugness, in purple if you want. And the guy who bred it claims the A&M carrot is sweeter and more nutritious than the orange kind. I still think people staring helplessly at eggs in the colours of their home team that they have no clue how to cook would not have impressed George Washington.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson