‘Make a Difference Day” — Really?

October 17, 2010

For release noon Oct. 19 and thereafter (620 words)

“Make a Difference Day,” also known as the National Day of Doing Good, will be this Saturday. I confess to being unaware until a year or two ago that “the day” has been an annual event since 1992, co-sponsored by USA Weekend magazine and the Points of Light Foundation.

I learned about it from an insert in my electricity bill. The message from American Electric Power (AEP) was that  ” . . . more than three million people will observe this national day of doing good by engaging in projects large and small in towns across America . . . projects that will benefit children, families, the elderly, neighborhoods and entire communities.”  

The company took pains to point out that its employees “make a difference” throughout the year, not just on the fourth Saturday in October. As the insert put it, “AEP employees and its retirees are among those who will be making a difference on this special day, often in addition to the many other activities they do throughout the year to support and play an active, positive role in the communities where they live and work.”

Was it boasting about its employees’ contributions during their eight-hour days, five-day weeks, and 50-week years? No, it’s what AEP people do outside the marketplace that counts for the “doing good” crowd. Getting paid to produce something doesn’t make you a difference-maker as far as these people are concerned.

Of course, the mind-set that one cannot do good while doing well does not originate with AEP. It saturates our media culture, colleges and universities (including business schools) and church pulpits. So what about the millions upon millions of eight-hour days, five-day weeks, and 50-week years that people put in on the job? Do they matter?

Not exactly, intone the difference-making pundits, the professors and the preachers. The best that can be said for our workaday jobs is that they provide income, freeing us to do those other, nobler things that “make a difference” — you know, things like volunteering our Saturday mornings to refurbish swings, slides and see-saws at the local public park (those who originally produced and sold the swing sets were presumably not difference-makers).

But let’s get back to AEP and its employees. What about the electricity that results from their eight-hour days, five-day weeks, and fifty-week years?  More pointedly, what about the medical procedures, life-saving and otherwise, that take place in hospitals powered by AEP electricity?  Does that electricity “make a difference?”  Not for the difference-making pundits, the professors and the pastors. They’re too busy celebrating what AEP employees do when they’re not producing electricity.

The truth, though, is that the most important difference-making that Americans ever encounter — hands down, no question — occurs day in, day-out in the marketplace. It’s not just AEP electricity going to hospitals. Nor is it that AEP electricity enriches its customers’ lives in countless other ways. Nor is it that there are many other producers of electricity. It’s that the American marketplace generates prodigious amounts of housing, food, clothing, transportation, energy and education, among other things. Those who produce all these things make huge differences in Americans’ lives. It is no overstatement to say this latter difference-making dwarfs anything that occurs on the fourth Saturday in October.

What would you say if a tour guide leading you through the Rocky Mountains constantly pointed out roadside ant hills? Out of touch? Probably. So it is with those who will exalt events this fourth Saturday in October. Surrounded by marketplace difference-making on a scale never before known in human history, they celebrate a Saturday afternoon spent refurbishing park swings, slides and see-saws.

T. Norman Van Cott, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a professor of economics at Ball State University. Contact him at ipr@inpolicy.org.


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