Barefoot Economics

It has been almost a year since I discovered and embraced the joy of barefoot running.  Even as the East Coast braced for another blizzard, I seized the opportunity of a mild El Niño winter day here in the Pacific Northwest to reel off six miles on my lunch hour in the sneakers God gave me.  In the cold and slop, I compromise with minimalist shoes like Vibram Fivefingers and Feelmax Niesas.  Paradoxically — or so it might seem — since I stopped putting layers of cushioning and stabilizing materials between my foot and the ground, recurring overuse injuries to my hamstrings, calves, and knees that have dogged me for years have simply disappeared.  As I near my one year barefoot/minimalist anniversary, I find myself logging thirty to forty miles a week and more on mostly hard, urban surfaces without pain or discomfort in nothing more than moccasins, and often less.

Like most recent converts to barefoot running, my worldview was tectonically altered by Chris MacDougall’s “Born to Run,” which for me was to fitness what Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma” was to food.  Woven in to a ripping good yarn about an ultramarathon duel between the preeminent distance runners of industrial civilization and a reclusive tribe of hard-drinking  aboriginal superathletes from the Copper Canyons of Mexico (spoiler alert — the Indians win) is the compelling observation that modern humans had been running long distances barefoot or close to it for a hundred thousand years before the invention of the modern running shoe in the early 1970s.  Packaged with that observation is the suggestion that the explosion of running-related injuries since that “innovation” might not be a coincidence.

Granting MacDougall’s thesis, an interesting economic disconnect is apparent.  If running shoes not only fail to prevent injuries, but in fact cause and exacerbate them, then all the money that is spent on them is worse than wasted.  Yet all that spending is counted as positive economic activity in the most influential measure of our nation’s aggregate welfare, gross domestic product.  And the purchase of running shoes is surely just one of a multitude of transactions that count towards domestic product while contributing little to, and perhaps detracting from, actual welfare.

But snake oil is as old as suckers, and suckers do eventually wise up.  Each scam, fad, or mania, must eventually run its course.  Still, as the proverb says and behavioral economic research shows, there is a sucker born every minute.  So some significant portion of any economy will inevitably be dedicated to the consumption of useless or harmful goods and services.  The gap may be narrowed by consumer protection and education efforts, but it can never be closed.  Knowing this, should maximizing GDP really be the unalloyed objective of economic policy?

This and other incongruities between GDP and actual welfare have motivated various efforts toward specifying alternative measures of beneficial economic activity for some time.  None has yet gained a consensus among academics, much less policymakers.  But in the meantime, as the miles of cool, springy grass and buttery-smooth concrete caress the densely-packed neurons of the soles of my amazing, durable, perfectly-evolved feet, I know that any measure that fails to account for my priceless euphoria cannot motivate policy that is well-calibrated to encouraging the truly excellent life.

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