Working in a drug store in high school wasn’t ideal, but it was a job. All my friends worked at cooler places at the mall – Orange Julius, the Gap, etc. I was stuck dealing with old ladies who needed my advice on what kind of enema to use (I told them that I preferred Fleet) and stocking the birth control aisle, wondering what apocalyptic chain of events would have to occur for me to actually need one of these mysterious products.

Despite my overall distaste for the job, my boss at the pharmacy taught me something important that I have carried throughout my life:

If you say hello to the customers, they’re much less likely to rob you.

It sounded dopey, but seemed to work. If potential thieves feel like they’ve made a connection to someone working in the store, maybe they somehow feel guiltier lifting product. Maybe it just makes them feel more like they’re being watched, so they’re less likely to take the risk. Either way, a little personal contact seemed to go a long way in keeping order in the drugstore. (Except for the people who flooded the store on December 26th, attempting to return their Christmas lights by falsely claiming the lights didn’t work. These people should have been imprisoned – instead, they usually got their money back, as long as they had their receipt.)

That was 20 years ago, before people began communicating with each other via e-mail, before customers began doing all their business online, and when you could still cook up a believable fake driver’s license in the basement of your friend’s older brother’s house. (Damn you, DMV, with your holograms!) These days, hardly anyone in the business world actually talks to each other anymore – and we’re all being robbed as a result.

You don’t have to go back too far to imagine what getting a mortgage used to be like. You walked into an actual bank and talked to an actual banker, who probably learned your name. When the bank decided you were worthy of receiving credit, they sat down and figured what kind of loan you could afford, based on your income. It was in the mutual best interest of both parties to make sure you got a mortgage you could repay – since the bank held your debt on their books, they had a vested interest in your financial well-being.

Fast forward to today’s home lending practices, in which customers are simply numbers on a page. The American economy collapsed in large part because financial institutions pushed unrealistic mortgages on individuals, packaged all these questionable loans together, insured them, and pushed the risk off onto others. Instead of being “Ed Smith, mortgage holder,” you simply became numbers on a roulette wheel – a wheel that came up double zero last year, wiping everyone out.

Of course, it is beyond Pollyannish to suggest we go back to the old days where your banker knew your name and held your mortgage locally. The profits allowed by technology are simply too great for financial institutions to pass up. But the theory still has credibility – people are much less willing to rip off people that they know personally. And as we become a more impersonal world, the opportunity to crudely take advantage of others grows exponentially.

Making the world less impersonal would mean somehow turning around the direction in which all of our social interaction is headed. In increasing numbers, people are segregating themselves politically. The internet allows individuals to read only the news that they agree with politically. Over the past several decades, people have grown less likely to join associations, attend church, form strong bonds with others at work, and become involved in civic events.* As a result, we don’t talk to each other anymore – interpersonal relationships have become antiquated relics of the past, especially with those who have different political ideologies.

This self-segregation has dire consequences. Last week, “comedienne” Janeane Garofalo appeared on MSNBC, accusing anti-tax protesters of being “racist rednecks.” She went on to accuse conservatives of having defective brains, which allows them to be brainwashed by Fox News. (The fact that Garofalo’s only meaningful paycheck (for her role on the Fox show “24”) is signed by Rupert Murdoch adds to the irony, and may be the reason she needed to disassociate herself from the network.)

There’s absolutely no doubt that Janeane Garofalo doesn’t know a single conservative. She lives in a bubble, in which ridiculing right-wingers is a sport, enjoyed by all her like-minded pals. When she derides half the country as “racist rednecks,” she’s not insulting a single person she knows personally – so she can continue with her crude, bizarre rant with impunity, cheered on by the equally insulated Keith Olbermann. It is completely foreign to her that regular, lunch pail-toting Americans might actually object to government taking more of their money and distributing it to wealthy investment banks and auto executives.

As technology and demographics continue to shrink our social circles, we face immense challenges. An impersonal society is one in which predators take more advantage of others, in which political discourse grows more crude and insulting, and in which the lack of civic involvement leads elected officials to rule with impunity. Maybe we should all just stop for a minute and say “hello.”

Then, our government might be less likely to rob us.

-April 20, 2009

*- Robert Putnam, “Bowling Alone,” Simon and Schuster, 2000.