The Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio
Brian Gongol

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First, let's reiterate one point: There's no doubt the economy is having a little stumble right now. But there's still no reason to break into panic -- if the entire economy were to shrink by 5% over a full year, it would be a real shock. And while many people would be affected by that 5% -- some will lose their jobs, some will lose considerable amounts of money in failed businesses and bad investments -- overall, we're still not talking about anything close to the magnitude of the Great Depression, and we're not doing ourselves any favors by over-hyping the scope of the situation. Right now, the best guesses have it that the economy will fall back by 3% or so, for about a year. During the Great Depression, it fell by more like 30%. The more we hype it and encourage greater degrees of panic, the worse the situation needlessly becomes. Sound behavior will get us through. And it's fantastic news that the world's leading economies are talking about increasing trade as a way to help the world economy grow rather than cutting it back. Trade protectionism was one of the key factors in making the Great Depression far worse than it needed to be.

One of the things you can do to make your life better in uncertain economic times is to spend more time investing in your relationships with family and friends. It doesn't have to cost anything -- just pay more attention and try a little harder to stay in touch. Those relationships are what make life worthwhile, anyway -- not the size of a house or the flashiness of a new car. And you can use technology to refresh old connections that may have gotten dusty over time. Facebook seems to have locked itself in as the premiere website for what we call "social networking" -- or what may more intuitively be called "finding and connecting with friends new and old." If you doubt the magnitude of social networking, consider that the President-elect has almost 3.2 million friends and fans on the site.

Incidentally, these technological tools are getting a lot of attention right now because many people credit them with helping President-elect Obama win the election. I take issue with that conclusion: It seems much more likely that the Obama campaign built a great brand and simply managed to use the Internet tools available to it to extend the brand. People didn't feel strongly about the Obama brand because of the Internet; the tools available on the Internet simply made it easier to express enthusiasm for the brand. Coca-Cola, John Deere, and Harley-Davidson all had great brands well before the Internet came about.

It's easy to share a lot of information on the Internet, thanks to sites like Facebook, but it should be noted that the same technology can be used to go too far. Governments have made very aggressive use of new technology to follow people for a variety of legitimate and not-so-legitimate purposes, and there's great risk that a public backlash could emerge if officials don't start to rein in their instincts to use every tool that comes along in the name of "safety" or "security." Just because they can use many of these tools doesn't mean that they should.

Consider: "Liberty -- the freedom from unwarranted intrusion by government -- is as easily lost through insistent nibbles by government officials who seek to do their jobs too well as by those whose purpose it is to oppress; the piranha can be as deadly as the shark." That's from the very oddly-titled United States of America, Plaintiff-appellee, v. $124,570 U.S. Currency, Defendant.

One tool that's probably in the safe and unobtrusive range is Google's new influenza-surveillance project, which takes information on how much people are searching for flu-related data and aggregates it by state to create a real-time map of where the flu appears to be a big deal. They're claiming it's about two weeks faster at predicting flu outbreaks than conventional CDC data.

Speaking of using the Internet in unconventional ways, an entrepreneur is selling Indian-style math education to American kids via Indian Math Online. While I can't vouch for it personally, the idea itself is meritable -- if we know that an educational strategy works in one part of the world, there's no reason we shouldn't consider using it here.

A worrisome note, considering our collective inability to count: The incoming administration says it's going to make fiscal discipline a "medium-term" goal. That's scary -- especially considering that the Federal debt is galloping upwards at an astonishing rate. In a guest commentary for my friend Brian Allen, I took a quick look at the rate of increase in the Federal debt over a recent week. On a per-capita basis, that debt is growing as fast as my mortgage payment. In other words, we're not just spending but fully over-spending at a rate fast enough that, if actually invested, would buy an average suburban home for every man, woman, and child in America. Astonishing.

Online extra: Some thoughts on the recent discussion of a bailout for the Detroit automakers.

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