Our overly cushioned running shoes, I mean economy

Minimalist, barefoot running is now in vogue. It seems to minimize shocks to the body and may be something for economists to think about as well, Richard Handler writes.

The problem with the more and more of everything approach

I was at the latest Munk Debate on the North American economy last week. ("Be it resolved North America faces a Japan-style era of high unemployment and low growth.") 

We are broadcasting it Tuesday night on CBC Radio One's Ideas. And while I was there to pare down the remarks of the very prominent economists assembled to help guide us through these perilous times, I couldn't help think of the walking shoes I had just purchased.

The notion popped into my head as the Nobel Prize-winning economist, and New York Times columnist, Paul Krugman was telling us that the U.S. needed another big stimulus package to get us out of this mess.

His argument was that more and more (borrowed) money was needed to kick-start a stagnating economy, and it wasn't far off what his main opponent in the debate, former Harvard president and presidential adviser Larry Summers, was saying as well (print more money).

That was when I began to think about all the advice I had received over the years about "more and more."

We need more love, more education, more money, lots more consumption to stimulate the economy, and much more padding in the running shoes we wear.

Artificially stimulated feet

I've always accepted the more and more philosophy in most matters (like education, money and love). But recently I have been thinking that buying fancier, more padded footwear only caused me more problems.

Five little toes. Adidas's version of the barefoot-style runner. (Adidas/Associated Press)

When I first started purchasing these shoes, my feet felt ever so uplifted. I felt that I glided above the ground like a hovercraft.

How nice not to feel the Earth as I zoomed from one slab of pedestrian pavement to the other. I was perfectly "leveraged," as the economists like to say. Hurray for artificial stimulus of the feet!

However, reality has a way of intruding, in economics as in footwear.

After coasting over the landscape for years, my feet began to bother me. All the foam cushioning was beginning to have a negative effect, especially when I added orthotics, another walking aid.

Walking aids on top of walking aids. Self-propulsion began to feel unnatural. I waddled like a duck on wobbly stilts.

The upshot: what was supposed to help me was backfiring. I had become dependent on artificial stimulus but no matter how many more foam layers I added (and the more fancier shoes I bought), my feet only felt worse.


That's when I figured that what I needed was some serious "de-leveraging," to echo the words of the Canadian financial strategist David Rosenberg, Krugman's partner in the Munk Debate on Friday.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman: more stimulus please.

Though I don't have a Ph.D. in economics, I had already moved to de-leverage my shoes and strip them down to basics.

I had resisted buying the fancy "motion control" and "stability" models, and opted for the firmer "neutral" variety.

As a consequence, I could even feel the floor that evening as I sat in my comfortable chair during the debate at Roy Thomson Hall.

Now, dear readers, I know this is not a perfect analogy. Nobody is going to get the Nobel Prize for buying, or even building, the perfect running shoe.

You earn a Nobel for the dismal science, as economics is sometimes called.

But more and more it strikes me that the more-and-more thinking is what has landed us in so much trouble in recent years.

Too much government and household debt is what is crippling countries such as Greece, Italy and the U.S., just as overbuilt running shoes may be crippling marathoners or simply brisk walkers, like yours truly.

Just look at all those Kenyans who win marathons! Do they train on multi-stage platform sneakers? These Africans are beating the European and North American runners with their multi-million dollar research labs behind them.

Barefoot and jogging

As a consequence, a whole new style of running has developed — called minimalist or barefoot running. The main evangelist is Christopher McDougall who wrote the best seller, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe. A runner who had become crippled with injury — he had been wearing hyped-up, overly stimulated running shoes — McDougall tells the story of a tribe of Indians in Mexico, the Tarahumara, known for running astonishing distances in thin-soled sandals.

It wasn't just the simplicity of the shoe, the lack of cushioning, that caught McDougall's attention. He discovered that when you add layers of bouncy foam it changes a runner's gait so the heels strike the ground first and harder, sending shockwaves through the body.

The Tarahumaras, on the other hand, land mid-foot when they ran, which translates into landing gently on the heel.

Now, as a result of this attention, some of the big shoe companies are marketing "barefoot" running shoes that look like gloves for the feet. Five toes sticking out of a rubberized sock. On the racks at the sports stores, they look like chimps' feet (evolution in reverse?).

For my part, I can understand the interest. Taking the "more and more" out of my walking shoe, I can feel my gait changing too.

I now walk on a more even keel. And so far, at least, my feet hurt less and aren't as "overheated" (also a danger for a scaled-up economy).

Of course, there are arguments for and against minimalist running, as there are about stimulating the economy. Maybe simple cutting back isn't necessarily the best approach in a complicated world.

I confess I am agnostic on the subject of whether we should pay down the debt or increase the deficit. Take away the padding or add more cushioning.

But my adventures with my feet have given me a new appreciation for the notion that more and more of everything may not be the best thing as far as personal well-being goes. Especially when it comes to where the foam rubber hits the road.