There’s this old joke.
Two economists are walking down the street when one points to the ground and says, “Look, a ten dollar bill!”
The second economist replies, “That’s crazy. If that was a ten dollar bill someone would have picked it up already.”
I love it because there’s a really interesting dynamic in it (beyond mocking economists) that seems increasingly relevant to me.
At the risk of getting pedantic, here’s what I think is so interesting about what’s going on in that joke. The second economist’s point is that if there was something easy and potentially lucrative out there, someone would have already done it. But the flip side is that someone is always the first person to spot the ten dollar bill.
I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot as I triage my journalistic life. People are always coming to me, trying to get me to pursue a story on what seems to them a vital and important truth. “If only they would do X,” the person argues…. “They” is typically the idiots in charge, and “X” is the obvious ten dollar bill on the sidewalk that my intrepid reader thinks he or she has spotted that will fix some societal problem.
If it’s on a beat that I cover with any depth, I usually know right away that it’s not really a ten dollar bill. Sometimes at this point I try to explain why it’s not really a ten dollar bill. This often does not go well.
If it’s not obvious to me right away that it’s not a ten dollar bill, I then face the triage decision – do I spend the resources necessary to bend over and try to pick it up and see if it’s real? The metaphor weakens here – ten dollar bill scrutiny usually takes a lot of work. In a lifetime of journalistic experience, I’ve learned that most things that look like ten dollar bills are not – that there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for why the idiots in charge haven’t done X. But on occasion, it’s really a ten dollar bill, which can turn into a useful journalistic contribution.
This comes to mind because I recently embarked on a long walk with a guy who seems to see ten dollar bills everywhere. I’m thinking I might need to cut the walk short.