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Visions of Jordan and Ginger Spice Dance in Our Heads

The seemingly endless NBA season is finally over, but there are plenty of other prestigious athletic events to cheer about. World Cup soccer is under way, Major League Baseball is in full swing, and NFL training camps open in July.

The reason for this ongoing cavalcade is that sports have become part of the entertainment industry. The focus is no longer on having fun or finding out which team is more skilled. What matters are ratings and merchandising opportunities.

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I'd like to know how much of the American economy is now connected to entertainment. Fortune magazine this week attempted a tally of the "Jordan Effect" - how much Michael Jordan pumps into the economy (about $10 billion) through his various endorsement deals. Similar tallies could be made on Cindy Crawford or the cast of Star Trek. But do entertainers actually create new wealth, or do they just redistribute other people's money?

This question disturbs me every time I go shopping and have trouble finding consumer goods made in this country. During the past 20 years, we have steadily closed down factories that produced TV sets, bicycles, shoes, and shirts. Is this decline in manufacturing balanced out by the expansion of video rental stores, talk radio, cable TV channels, and professional sports franchises?

I once heard an executive with an entertainment company claim that this trend is not a problem because American culture is a product that can be exported. Other countries, he said, will always provide lucrative markets for our movies, TV shows, and sports teams. To me, this sounds like a member of the royal court proclaiming how fabulous the emperor looks in his new clothes.

The purpose of entertainment is to occupy someone's leisure time without producing any material result. Like the premise of a Seinfeld episode, it's based on nothing. I'm not saying leisure is a worthless activity. Utopians such as Edward Bellamy believed that more free time would allow people to enrich themselves intellectually, through reading and social discussion, with the intent of making the world a better place.

Instead, the entertainment industry encourages idle minds to jump on the World Wide Web and ponder questions like, "Can the Spice Girls survive without Ginger?" How many millions of hours are wasted annually on such trivial activities?

This trend also has cultural implications. As more young people grow up believing that entertainment is the dominant force in American life, we move closer to a society that is completely self-absorbed and unable to maintain basic needs.

H.G. Wells envisioned this problem in "The Time Machine." A race of beautiful-but-brainless people called Eloi frolicked in the sunshine, and were mercilessly exploited by the technologically superior, underground-dwelling Morlocks.

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Maybe it's time to make an updated movie version as a warning to the next generation. But the story doesn't have a lot of action or explosions, so it needs a leading man who will attract a huge audience worldwide. I wonder if Michael Jordan is available?

* Jeffrey Shaffer, a regular Monitor contributor, lives in Portland, Ore.

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