‘Microtrends’ as Fun as Microeconomics and Half as Relevant

"Microtrends" - By Mark J. Penn '76 (Twelve Publishers) - Out Now

America is obsessed—with sports, with food, with television, with scandal. And, as Mark J. Penn ’76 reminds us in his new book, “Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes,” America is obsessed with itself. Which is not to say that America is conceited; we are simply more aware of our individuality, particularly our innermost desires. And in this contemporary world of acceptance and tolerance, we are adamantly expressing those quirks regardless of circumstance. Therefore, we are isolating ourselves along lines of personal choice rather than age-old divisions like race or class.

If a group of people realizes they share a singular trait and rallies for it, Penn claims, they could make all the difference in the world. According to Penn—a former Crimson editor and the Clinton campaign strategist who in 1996 identified “Soccer Moms” as a key voting demographic—the 75 groups he dissects in “Microtrends” could have the same effect the Soccer Moms did. That is, each could potentially be the population that wins the next election or the demographic whose wallets advertisers and corporations eagerly strive to empty. But don’t be fooled into believing that the book is a manual on how to take over the world. “Microtrends” is “Freakonomics” meets Gregory Mankiw’s “Principles of Economics.” As an attempt to follow in Steven D. Levitt ’89 and Stephen Dubner’s footsteps by using statistical analysis to debunk conventional beliefs, it falls flat because of its obsession with numbers, which oversimplifies the complex reality of our social and political interactions.

“Microtrends” is a Frankenstein of a book, devoting a few pages to each trend. These range in subject from “Love, Sex, and Relationships” to “Lifestyle”; from “Late-Breaking Gays” (men who reveal their sexual orientation late in life) to “Second-Home Buyers.” Penn embraces a contemporary edge and incorporates elements of pop culture into his material, though the coolness factor of knowing what tattoos Angelina Jolie has is somewhat reduced because of his frequent name-dropping. He’s especially proud of his chummy relationship with the Clintons and the fact that he graduated from Harvard.

Penn makes suggestions in every chapter that imply the impact that people emulating each trend could have on economics, politics, and society. However, he provides no plausible substantiation for his claims. In one chapter, “Southpaws Unbound,” Penn describes the rise of left-handers in the United States. He argues that more lefties could mean more self-expression, military innovation, and “better tennis and baseball players,” simply because some prominent individuals have been left-handed. Such statements are far too generalizing, yet indicative of how Penn approaches discussing all of the trends—as if every possible personality trait could be world-altering.

While the substance of the topics that Penn covers in the book are novel enough to recount as asides over dinner, substantial amounts of information that he provides are lost in a quagmire of numbers. The book, which should instead have been christened “75 Groups of People that Allow Me to Wax Statistics for 300+ Pages,” is a collection of figures from every place imaginable. The numbers come from a variety of random places, including a Time Magazine article on Myspace vixen Tila Tequila to a survey conducted by the American Academy of Dermatology on attitudes towards sunbathing. In his introduction, Penn asserts that “numbers will almost always take you where you want to go if you know how to read them.” But the fact that roughly 2.5% of Americans who get married meet online won’t necessarily lead, as Penn claims, to more couples that commute to see each other, more diverse unions, and more e-therapists. Nor does it mean that children from these marriages face a greater risk of Internet addiction or that they will be easier prey for online predators.

While Penn’s research is extensive and thorough, “Microtrends” is trivialized by this focus on numbers. In a society already far too defined by quantities—scores and grades, income, and even age being only a few examples of how individuals are judged on the basis of nothing more than a counting system—Penn’s book serves to magnify the differences rather than bridge any polarizing gaps between cross-cutting groups.

But at least the numbers game accomplishes one goal: When you list every trend you see, you’re bound to get one right.