Monday, November 23, 2015

That Thanksgiving Shopping Thing

Anticipating another fuss about people having to work at Wal-Mart (and other stores) on Thanksgiving, I remind everyone of my comments several weeks ago:  companies don’t create jobs and governments don’t create jobs – although governments can make the environment more favorable for jobs to be created.  No, customers create jobs.

It follows that if someone objects to people having to work at Wal-Mart on Thanksgiving, don’t be customers.  They wouldn’t open a store and pay a lot of workers to stand around at vacant cash registers waiting for the business to happen.  For that matter, if you object to Wal-Mart’s business practices, don’t shop there at all.  Remember, though, there are some people who are very happy to have a job at Wal-Mart and even some people who are willing and able and happy to give up Thanksgiving to make a little extra needed money.

No, if you don’t want to see people working at retail stores on Thanksgiving, stay home and watch the football games.  Don’t be the least concerned about the number of people it takes to participate in and broadcast a game, many of whom are not only working, but working far away from their homes on Thanksgiving.  And if you are lucky enough to attend one of these games and would like to buy a hot dog and a beer, keep in mind that it would be impossible if the people who worked in the concession stand insisted on having Thanksgiving off.  You also may hope that a gas station is open on the way home.  Many people like to be righteous, but only when it fits their lifestyle and convenience.

Face it, many people have to work on Thanksgiving and some of them have jobs that pay little more than working at Wal-Mart.  Wal-Mart seems to be a sort of symbol for this kind of protest – big, evil Wal-Mart.  Personally I wouldn’t care if the Wal-Mart down the street from me just disappeared, but I know there are many people who are glad to work there and many people who are glad to shop there so for their sakes I hope it doesn’t.

Remember the economy is not just a bunch of numbers reported in the news.  The economy is you and I making choices every day, choices that affect many other people.  In turn the choices of others can come back to help us or haunt us.

Friday, November 20, 2015


Last time I warned how life is moving so fast and becoming so much more sophisticated and complex due to technical innovations that trying to survive with the same old habits, assumptions and behaviors of the past would lead to disaster.  It is a premise of these essays that the crises American society faces are mostly the accumulation of the consequences of individual behaviors.  It is important and urgent to understand this and adapt.

You have read here and in many other sources the scientific explanations of modern behavior, how we often base our reactions on primal instincts that served us very well in the ancient past, and that perhaps allowed us to get by with a minimum of inconvenience a few generations ago, but now have become more and more problematic in our modern high tech, high speed world.  Here is yet another example discussing the phenomenon of comparison.

Authors explain in this CNN science article:  “We are hardwired to engage in comparisons…we're doing it to try to make sense of our world. Do I make enough money? Do I need to update my kitchen? Do I need a new car? Are my kids doing well? It's almost impossible to make those assessments objectively. So instead, we turn to comparisons.”  This tendency can work for us or against us.

Comparison makes for competition.  Wondering if I am as good or can be as good as the next person makes me raise my goals and standards.  People tend to work harder at any task when they feel competition with another, for example, “people tended to run faster if their rival was also racing that day.”  Generally this effect benefits everyone.

Comparison also makes for disappointment and waste.  It can make a person miserable.  Trying to keep up materially with the “Jones” or constantly comparing ourselves or our children to others in every aspect of life is frustrating.  When two people compare salaries or possessions there is always a winner and a loser.  So it is with almost any such comparison.  Since everyone has individual strengths and can’t be good at everything, comparison is bound to eventually result in disappointment.  Some research cited in the article shows how even monkeys can be driven to frustration and disappointment due to their hardwired tendency to compare themselves to their peers.

The lesson here is the same.  We can no longer afford to go through life on automatic pilot.  The tendencies of our ancestors are lurking in our brains ready to derail our ability to cope with the modern world by activating defenses and reactions that served us well in the past, but keep us from taking the time to make considered and well-informed decisions about our fast-paced life.  This is not going to go away; it’s only getting worse, in terms of speed and technology.  Critical thinking, to slow us down, and a healthy sense of perspective, to lead us away from disadvantageous comparisons, is more critical now than ever.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Why is This So Urgent and Important?

Recently I ran across a book defending the financial system, Smart Money, by Andrew Palmer.  The author says that since the recent financial crisis and bailouts, the system as a whole has been demonized to an extent that people no longer appreciate its benefits to society.  There was mismanagement and criminal activity, but that is no reason to give up on new innovations or demand regulations that turn the clock back to simpler times.

One particular example is high-frequency trading that took off in the mid-2000s.  This use of high-speed computing to execute trades in the market has led to a number of bad practices, where those traders are able to take advantage of price swings and manipulate the market in various ways.  He asserts that the publicity received by instances of manipulation exaggerate the real size of the problems (understandable when I consider similar reporting of rare airline crashes).  He claims that the advantage of speed merely replaces the former advantage of monopolistic privileges of having a place on the trading floor, where similar manipulation was known to have happened.  HFT leads to more efficiency and lower transaction costs, and the “HFT era part because of concerns about how the old system worked.”

So what’s the big deal and what does this have to do with behavior?  The biggest problem with HFT is “that the unchecked logic of competition has increased the risk and potential severity of sudden market crashes.”  [Emphasis added.]  A company can go out of business in a matter of minutes.  The economy, the one we depend on for our livelihood and the goods and services we need, could receive a major shock in a matter of hours!  The speed of these automatic transactions, faster than the ability of humans to intervene when things go out of control, is very dangerous.  It calls for regulation and responsibility.

Now see the parallel with behavior.  The types of innovations that drive the financial industry are not unlike those that affect our daily lives.  Many people have smart phones; most have cell phones.  The Internet is a common platform for personal financial transactions and simple shopping. A billion people on Facebook, and how do they make their money? – Advertising and selling consumer information gleaned from the massive amounts of stored data.

We go on line to see news, which now at 24 hours is filled with fluff and repetition.  We gather information on fashions, hobbies and view the latest postings of cute babies or clever animals.  (On average teens spend more time on their devices than sleeping.)  While we do, we are exposed to hundreds of times the advertising compared to a generation ago and hundreds of times the misinformation, some of it harmless enough, but much of it full of bad health advice, unproven nutritional advice, advocacy of feel-good but illogical policies featuring skewed economic understanding, along with the usual divisive political partisanship depending on accusations and name-calling (rather than facts or logic) to promote positions.  Social media is filled with opinions:  those we agree with we take as fact; those we disagree with are seen as insults.  Among all this chatter, we must deal with threats like identity theft and phishing that were unheard of a generation ago.

Here we sit, with the same critical thinking (some would argue worse based on America’s educational decline), the same economic understanding, perspective, sense of responsibility (some would argue worse based on the current trends in narcissism and victimhood), and discipline (some would argue much worse based on the obesity epidemic and personal savings crisis).  Here we sit, expecting to get by and strive in the high-tech, high-speed twenty-first century clinging to the belief that the behavior and skill levels of the past will see us through.  Instead of getting more demanding, we have in fact become more tolerant of lax behaviors in many of these areas, defending weaknesses instead of motivating for change, defending failed government programs that make people more dependent, squandering our money on luxuries and expecting someone else to bail us out at retirement.

The potential dangers of high-speeds in finance offer an important lesson about the real potential dangers of the high-speed society we live in.  The regulation to avoid disaster in the first instance comes from government and everyone will cry out for it.  Regulation to avoid disaster in the second can only come internally and there is nary a peep.

Friday, November 13, 2015

World Science Day

According to CBS News, last Tuesday was World Science Day.  It struck me upon hearing this that not many Americans appreciate the true nature of science, its objectives and how it is supposed to work.  This is partly the fault of the media that is eager to toss out every new discovery, often with very little clarification by journalists who themselves do not understand science or have any background or interest to ask the right questions.

Science, real science, is interested in finding the truth.  To do this scientists come up with an idea of how the world works, called a hypothesis.  They then must figure out an intelligent way to collect data to confirm or reject the hypothesis – it could be right or it might be wrong.  They are never absolutely sure of the result because random events or coincidences can interfere with the interpretation of the data.  If they think it is a valid hypothesis, they publish it in a journal and invite others to critique the experimental design or to gather their own data to try to confirm or disprove it.  The strongest theories withstand many tests attempting to overturn them.  They stand as long as no one can find exceptions.

That’s how it is supposed to work.  To get to the truth, scientists must be skeptical, even about their own ideas.  It is dangerous when they fall in love with their own hypotheses.  Then they defend it instead of questioning.  They may overlook or ignore contrary data or requests for clarification.  Rather than admit they may be wrong, they resort to personal attacks.  They act not like scientists but more like a parent defending a child against bullying.

Unfortunately this happens rather often, aided by the media, where a sexy story about a new breakthrough is far more appealing than a retraction, and by the system, where institutional and governmental grants favor scientists with a track record of “wins,” data that even tenuously confirm the hypothesis, tempting researchers to manipulate results.  The dynamics of funding and publicity can have devastating consequences for science and its search for the truth.

One example of this comes from a book called The Big Fat Surprise about the history of accepted (and sometimes incorrect) guidance about the food we eat and its affect on our health.  Without getting into the subject of the book – it’s worth reading – here are a few disturbing exerpts to illustrate this wrong approach.  “This kind of [negative] reaction met all experts who criticized the prevailing view…Researchers who persisted in their challenges found themselves cut off from grants, unable to rise in their professional societies, without invitations to serve on expert panels and at a loss to find scientific journals that would publish their papers.”  (p.4)  “Experiments that had dissenting results…were not debated and discussed but dismissed or ignored altogether.” (p.44)  The author argues quite convincingly that this kind of unscientific reaction has led to unsupported public policy on nutrition.

Along the same lines, I found this citation from a 2015 bravery in science award.  “Prof Ernst continued in his work [of research into complementary and alternative medicines] despite personal attacks and attempts to undermine his research unit and end his employment.”  They don’t like what he is saying, so they try to shut him down.  This is not a path to the truth, but it’s who gets the publicity that counts.

Some ideas that are readily accepted as true today were initially resisted and some ideas that were once thought to be true were subsequently disproven (but may remain popular because people want to believe).  A good example of the first case is the theory of plate tectonics to explain earthquakes and geological formations, “when first proposed, it was ridiculed, but steadily accumulating evidence finally prompted its acceptance.”  A good example of the second is this quote from WebMD:  “Vitamin C was first touted for the common cold in the 1970s. But despite its widespread use, experts say there's very little proof that vitamin C actually has any effect on the common cold.”  Proper science continues the search and does not resist further evidence, whether positive or negative.

We can’t make valid discoveries and get nearer to the truth if opposing viewpoints are shut down or if a single study becomes the darling of the press or scientists or society.  One of the worst examples is the case, again, against vaccinations, where the researcher was so enamored with his hypothesis that he was driven to falsify data to confirm it.  Even after he was stripped of his license to practice medicine, people, induced by unqualified celebrities, still cling to this misinformation.

Understanding at least this much about science is vital to critical thinking.  In this world of social media and non-stop health news from the press, how else will we survive the onslaught of new studies, well-intentioned regulations and scary health news?

Monday, November 9, 2015

More on Those "Haters"

Several weeks ago I mentioned how everyone loves to accuse opponents of being haters.  When someone opposes something or denies “rights” they are automatically labeled.  Not only is this opposite of the spirit of the behavioral model, where we address the actions and not the person, it is also often far from accurate and certainly not constructive.

Consider how people ordinarily act toward people they hate.  Do they see the object of their hatred making mistakes and try to step in to correct those mistakes, or do they rejoice at the fact that those they hate are making mistakes and will face the consequences in the future?  The logical answer is the latter.  They want to see the people they hate fail.  

If you see a loved one smoking or abusing drugs, you try to help them quit, knowing that what they are doing now will likely catch up to them in the long run.  That opposition is not an act of hatred.  Although the constant nagging may not seem like love to the person with the problem, it’s not inspired by hate; it’s just the wrong approach.  Likewise, parents tell their children to wait until they’ve eaten their meal before having dessert because they love them and want them to stay healthy.  They deny their children the opportunity to make the mistakes and develop bad habits.  Certainly they are not cooperating with their children’s wishes, but their motive is not hateful.

This logic easily applies to family and friends, but what of strangers?  Strangely enough, some people believe that God has ordered them to take this busybody approach to the decisions of others.  Find in the Old Testament, Book of Ezekiel, for example:  “When I say to the wicked, ‘You wicked, you must die,’ and you do not speak up to warn the wicked about their ways, they shall die in their sins, but I will hold you responsible for their blood.  If, however, you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, but they do not, then they shall die in their sins, but you shall save your life.”  (So, some actions of interference or denial may be cases of doing one's duty or trying to avoid future punishment rather than of hate.)

Think about the people who protest, like those outside abortion clinics or those who oppose same-sex marriage or Occupy Wall Street.  No question some of these people are filled with hate, but I would guess it is not a majority.  Most of these people think they are doing the right thing.  They take their stance based on their values or their understanding of how the world works (or should work).  They are trying to make things better and prevent other people from making mistakes that they will pay for in this life or the next.  This can hardly be considered hateful.

Before jumping to the conclusion about motives, or accepting the opinions of others about motives of an individual or a group, it’s important to think about the situation carefully.  Opposition does not usually spring from hating.

That’s why the behavioral model demands that we deal with behavior only.  Attribution of any motive is unacceptable and a waste of time.  We don’t fire an employee for a bad attitude; we fire an employee because, after numerous attempts to correct the situation, he failed to behave as required.  It makes no sense to try to attribute the failure to attitude or any other personal attribute.  The behavior is unacceptable.

Likewise, if we dismiss political or personal disagreements by assigning motives or labels, we are wasting time and have not moved forward in resolving the disagreement.  Of course, in today’s society it seems that the only resolution sought is one of bullying the opposition into submission with personal attacks and accusations – I win, you lose, problem solved!  But the real problem remains.  That’s why without the behavioral model America will continue it’s downward slide.