Why Drive to a Treadmill?

You’re driving past the gym. Your friends laughs. “Look,” he says pointing at the car park, “all those people, driving to the gym just so they can run on a treadmill. Idiots. Why didn’t they just run there?!”

Good question.

Two answers:

1) Your friend is the idiot.

2) A paradox is involved here, but it’s deeper down.

Why is your friend an idiot?

Because most people do have a good reason to drive:

  • I want to do more than go for a run, like do weight training, and
  •  adding an endurance run on top of that is overkill, and
  • I had already driven into town for work, and
  • it was raining, and
  • all the traffic fumes make me wheeze like a three-pack-a-day smoker, and
  • I don’t like getting run over by bad drivers, and
  • have you seen what goes down on these streets? I dislike being murdered.

These last reasons are where the paradox lies. Traffic and violence. They show us how society can get stuck in paradoxical traps.

Take the people who drive so they can avoid running alongside traffic. They become traffic. Other people drive to avoid them. They are stuck in a trap.

Here’s a simplified scenario of how this can happen.

Imagine a village of cyclists. The village roads are car-free. That’s what they want. Now imagine that one of the villagers buys a car.

That car makes the roads a tiny bit unsafe for cyclists. The most timid villager decides cycling is now too dangerous. They buy a car too. This leads to more cars. More danger. More switches. More cars. The whole village ends up doing the opposite of what they all wanted.

They get stuck.

The real world is much more complicated, but a similar dynamic is at play. A lot of us would prefer to get around by foot or by bike, but we are forced to drive because… we are all driving. The loop has pushed us to the point where homes, cities, and businesses – including gyms – are all built on the assumption that you will drive. Therefore you must. Therefore you do. Therefore it is assumed.

We got stuck.

That’s why we drive even when it seems like an idiotic thing to do.

Now let’s turn to the people who drive because they are afraid of violence. Poverty is a major root cause of street violence. A major root cause of poverty (and by no means the only cause) is economics, in particular, an exploitative style of capitalism which has no problem sacrificing people for the sake of profits.

Capitalism of this kind can act like an addiction.

Imagine an oil spill: a  container ship importing foodstuffs. It’s been flouting regulations because that’s most profitable. It runs aground in a bay full of fish.

Before the spill people would happily go fishing in that bay and eat for free. After the spill the fishery is destroyed. Those people now have to buy food. They buy it from a store. The store buys it off a wholesaler. The wholesaler gets it shipped to them on container ships full of oil.

More ships. More spills. More destruction. More substitutes. More ships.


When you choose to exercise by driving to a gym because you feel too unsafe exercising in your own neighborhood, then you too might be stuck in a trap. This trap is big and complicated, put together over decades by all the lobbyists, stockbrokers, oil executives, and more who done questionable things, which created poverty, which made you afraid, which made you decide to buy gas, which funded the oil industry, which sent that money back around to all the questionable people who got you here.

The more you have, the more you get.



Tooth Fairy, What Have You Been Teaching Us?

A case can be made that all the mythical figures of childhood exist to teach children how the world works. The Easter Bunny teaches us the supreme goal of life (chocolate). Santa Claus teaches us morality (good deeds receive material rewards – the prosperity gospel for children). And the Tooth Fairy? She teaches us economics. Her lesson: everything is for sale. Today your teeth. Tomorrow your kidneys.


Think about it.

We encourage our children to sell their teeth to a mysterious stranger who only agrees to meet at night, and only agrees to carry out the exchange on the condition that they can never be identified. Why? Are we prepping our kids for the dark realities of the illegal organ trade? No sane parent would want to teach their children that body parts have a monetary value, yet the Tooth Fairy tradition seems to teach exactly that. What is going on here?

“Oh come on,” you might say. “It’s all just a bit of fun, isn’t it? No one is really doing this to teach their kids about capitalism, are they?”

Are we?

I think we are.

The logic of market exchange runs deep in the Tooth Fairy ritual. If it were just about fun, then the Tooth Fairy could leave anything – toys, a toothbrush, a piece of fruit. But the Tooth Fairy leaves cash. She pays for the tooth.

And it gets weirder.

Many people seem to see this as an explicitly market exchange. Advocates of dental hygiene suggest that the Tooth Fairy ought to leave hygiene evaluations letting children know that good quality teeth fetch higher prices. Some parents seem to have taken this advice. The message to the kids: keep healthy, your body parts will sell better.

Not weird enough?

Tooth prices are subject to inflation. If the money aspect was just for fun, why does it track the consumer price index? We could have all given our kids the same amount of money we got when we were kids. Yet everyone seems to have felt compelled to match the going market rate. You wouldn’t want your kid to feel underpaid would you? Indeed, figuring out what to pay your child can be sufficiently confusing that you might even want help from a financial analyst…


That’s right.

The multinational financial services corporation, VISA, has created what only a finance company could: an app to help you figure out the exchange rate for teeth. How did we get here?

Every culture has some ritual around baby teeth. The first inklings of the modern Tooth Fairy lurk obscurely in the 1900s. She likely grew out of an older European custom of giving baby teeth to mice. The kid would take their tooth, crawl behind the oven, and stick it into that mouse hole you’ve been meaning to patch up. Then they would ask the resident mouse to take the tooth and magically help them grow a strong new tooth. No capitalism here. This was very clearly about fun, and magic, and growing up, and rodents.

Then something weird happened. Magic gifts morphed into market transaction. The Tooth Fairy was born. Considering her values it’s no surprise when and where she comes from: 1950s USA – roll on the consumer society, the Cold War, and the Tooth Fairy. Just why she became so popular so fast is unclear. Could it be because she fitted the cultural zeitgeist so much better than feeding your teeth to a rat? You can’t fight the Commies with a magic mouse.

Do children actually pick up on all these ultra-capitalist overtones? Is it all just fun? Good clean capitalist fun? Who knows? I lived through the Tooth Fairy as a child, and I haven’t sold my kidneys. Not yet I haven’t, not yet.


Deeper Down the Rabbit hole:

VISA have an online version of their app for Canada here

The Tooth Fairy: Perspectives on Money and Magic. Tad Tuleja (1989) AFS Conference Papers, in Children’s Folklore Review (Spring 1991). Here.