Are You Amusing Yourself to Death?

I’ve often said that the first step to becoming a better investor is an easy one: Turn off the TV.

CNBC — and its competitors — will only make you dumber and poorer.

This comes as a surprise to many. After all, financial channels offer a steady stream of well-credentialed experts, men and women with impressive titles from prestigious firms. Most have PhDs, years of experience, or manage large sums of money. They look good. They sound sharp. They have insightful opinions and reams of arcane investment data tripping off their tongues.

How could listening to them possibly make you a worse investor?

Because the unstated premise behind these shows — which exist, of course, to sell advertising — is that investors should be in a near-constant state of reaction:

“The market is hitting a new high today. What should investors do now?”

“The Fed has left interest rates unchanged. What should investors do now?

“GNP was up an unexpectedly strong 3.8 percent last quarter. What should investors do now?”

They bring on an analyst with a bullish view and another with a bearish one — on stocks, bonds, currencies, commodities, interest rates, or the economy — let them square off for a few minutes, then cut to commercials. A few minutes later, they come back and do it some more. This goes on day after day, week after week, year after year.

Near the market bottom in 2009, I was playing tennis with a friend who was badly upset about the market’s belly flop.

“I tell you,” he said in utter disgust, “I’m really tempted to just turn off CNBC and sell all my stocks.”

“There is another option,” I reminded him.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“Just turn off the TV.”

Lately I’ve been thinking that what’s good for investors might not be a bad idea for the rest of us. Why do so many bright, talented, educated people spend countless hours staring blankly at the tube?

The short answer, of course, is we enjoy it.

But do we, really? Is watching TV more fulfilling than what you’d be doing if you weren’t?

If you get specific about it, you may feel a little ridiculous. For example, have you ever told yourself something like:

  • Gee, I really need to get more exercise, but Dancing With the Stars is on in 10 minutes. (Maybe I’ll just watch them exercise instead.)
  • I promised my daughter I’d teach her how to play chess, but these Seinfeld re-runs are really funny.
  • It’s long past time I stopped in to visit my aging grandmother, but I can’t miss the playoffs!
  • I promised myself I’d learn to play the piano this year, but this week is the finals of American Idol.
  • I really do want to plant that garden. But I can’t miss my soaps.

If we’re challenged, of course, we have plenty of rationalizations.

Let a TV critic tell you that most of the programming is mindless junk and you’ll point to the educational stuff on The History Channel, Discovery, or National Geographic, even if that’s only a fraction of what you watch.

If he replies that you’re still being subjected to hours of commercials each week, you tell him you tape the shows and fast-forward through them.

If he counters that taping only allows you to consume even more television, you can always play your trump card: “Mind your own business.”

After all, you’re an adult. It’s your life to live. You can spend it any way you want.

But, between South Park and Grey’s Anatomy, do you ever reflect on how you’re spending it?

Last week, I read journalist David Lipsky’s recently published collection of conversations with David Foster Wallace, the brilliant young writer whose Infinite Jest made Time magazine’s list of 100 All-Time Greatest Novels. (Wallace battled depression for years and, tragically, hanged himself in 2008. It was a tremendous loss, not only for his family and friends but for contemporary fiction.)

At one point in the interviews, Wallace says, “I’ll zone out in front of the TV for five or six hours, and then I feel depressed and empty. And I wonder why. Whereas if I eat candy for five or six hours, and then I feel sick, I know why…. One of the reasons that I feel empty after watching a lot of TV is that it gives the illusion of relationships with people. It’s a way to have people in the room talking and being entertaining, but it doesn’t require anything of me. I receive entertainment and stimulation without having to give anything back but the most tangential kind of attention. And that is very seductive.”

Bingo. No matter how good the programming is — and let’s face it, some of it is excellent — or how rapidly you fast-forward through the commercials, the hours you spend in front of the tube is time you haven’t spent pursuing your goals, living out your dreams, or just interacting with another human being.
If you’re elderly and companionless — or housebound for some other reason — that’s different. But that doesn’t describe the majority of us.

Twenty-five years ago, Neil Postman warned of our consuming love affair with television in Amusing Ourselves to Death. In the book — a jeremiad about the danger of turning serious conversations about politics, business, religion, and science into entertainment packages — he argues that TV is creating not the dystopia of George Orwell’s 1984 but rather of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World:

“Spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. There is no need for wardens or gates or Ministries of Truth. When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk.”

He concludes that we’d all be better off if television got worse, not better.

According to A.C. Nielsen, 99 percent of American households have a television set. Two-thirds have more than three. These sets are on an average of six hours and 47 minutes per day.

Forty-nine percent of Americans polled say they spend too much time in front of the TV. It’s not hard to see why. The average viewer watches more than four hours of TV each day. That’s two months of non-stop TV-watching per year. In a 65-year life, a person will have spent nine years glued to the tube.

You already know how little you’ll gain by watching so much TV. But have you also considered what it’s costing you?

[Ed. Note: Alex Green, Investment Director of The Oxford Club, hasmore than 20 years of experience as a research analyst, investment advisor, financial writer, and portfolio manager. He is the author of The Secret of Shelter Island: Money and What Matters, as well as the editor of “Spiritual Wealth,” a free e-letter about the pursuit of the good life.

Alex is an expert panelist with the Liberty Street League, ETR’s exclusive club based on the principles of self-determination and self-responsibility. The League is dedicated to helping members take advantage of under-the-radar, off Wall Street wealth building opportunities, including precious metals, Internet business, fine art, commodities, real estate, and much more. As a member, the League will also help you keep your money safe from the prying eyes of the government and financial organizations that don’t have your interests at heart. Find out more about the Liberty Street League — and how you can get a free copy of Michael Masterson’s Ready, Fire, Aim for signing up for a trial subscription — here.]