Friday, December 30, 2011
You are pushing your cart to the checkout at the grocery store and see ahead of you in line a man with his small son. The man is unloading his cart onto the conveyor and his son, maybe two or three years old, is sitting in the child seat. Suddenly the boy notices the candy along the side of the lane, lets out a scream and starts reaching. His father is distracted with the groceries and embarrassed and tries shushing the kid. Well, that just leads to more screaming and reaching. The father is at wits end, trying to get control of two demands on his attention, the groceries and his son, while glancing around with an apologetic look to you and everyone in earshot, which by this time is about half the store. Finally, he relents and hands the child a candy bar so that he can pay for his groceries and get out of there.
What you are probably thinking at this time is: “Quiet, at last!” but also “That father is in for a real challenge because he has just reinforced a negative behavior." He rewarded the screaming and fussing and can surely expect more of the same in the future.” You are also hoping you do not end up in the store at the same time as this family in the future. Don’t feel guilty. That’s exactly how most people would feel. Any right-thinking adult with an iota of life experience knows that for children, as well as for adults, behavior rewarded is behavior repeated. Behavior discouraged is behavior modified.
Now let’s look at the problem that some people refer to as illegal immigration. People sneak into the United States. They get free public education for their children. They are given jobs by employers who look the other way, just grateful to be able to get someone to do the work “that Americans refuse to do.” They get free medical care at emergency rooms. If that medical care is the delivery of a baby, their new family member automatically becomes an American citizen eligible for government benefits. Some people who want to discourage this behavior think that the answer is to build a wall or a fence instead of recognizing what we all know: behavior rewarded is behavior repeated. Others think that the solution is to confer citizenship on those who have gotten away with it for a given number of years instead of recognizing what we all know: behavior rewarded is behavior repeated.
For some reason, logical thoughts like this can get a person branded as a racist because most of the people in that category are from one country. This is not about race or country of origin; it’s about behavior. If you don’t want a person, any person of any age, to sneak into your country (or have a temper tantrum in the grocery store), you set up a system or react in a way that discourages such behavior. You get more of what you reward and less of what you repress. There are already significant barriers, the hurdles of the immigration laws, that hundreds of thousands negotiate every year to come to this country legally from Mexico, India, China, Canada, Russia and all over to study, work and live free. Most proposal from all sides for dealing with this problem, if it really is a problem, don’t seem to recognize what we already know about human behavior.
Monday, December 26, 2011
A couple of weeks ago I warned that hype in the news was merely a ploy to gain readership or viewership. Those among us with perspective filter the hype and look for the substance. Headlines are intended to get our attention, but just reading the headlines can be dangerous.
Here is a quick example: two reports on the same day on the same subject using the same data (source: Autodata). The headlines read: U.S. Auto Sales Rise in June compared to US Car Sales Dip in June as Confidence Fades.
Kinda makes you wonder…
Friday, December 23, 2011
Payroll taxes? They used to be called Social Security contributions. Wasn’t it just a few years ago that people were worried about Social Security running out of money, needing to be fixed? The trust fund would run out by 2037 if changes weren’t made. Then benefits could be paid at only a three-quarters rate until 2086. Everyone was in a panic. Remember? It's not getting better. Read the first three paragraphs of the 2011 summary report, which moves those estimates up one year and reinforces the need to do something quickly
None of the proposals to fix Social Security included paying in less. Ask any third-grader if paying less into a fund makes it bigger - but last year Washington reduced our contributions by 2%. They plan to make up the difference from the general fund, which is already running a deficit. Now, after one year, to let it lapse becomes “a tax increase,” and they’re fighting over how to avoid it.
The theory is that we will have more money to spend to keep the economy growing. Ironically, politicians suddenly think that we can spend money better than the government; but if we do spend it and Social Security runs out even sooner, what are we going to do for retirement? No, the wise move would be to save it - but then it wouldn’t stimulate the economy. If the plan plays out as intended, it leads to a future with more people unable to retire comfortably because once again we spent money today that was needed for tomorrow. Is this not insane? Is this not a pure example of magic-money-tree thinking, expecting tomorrow's bills to be paid out of thin air?
Maybe it’s an admission by Washington that they never intend to fix it. Then this plan would be favored by younger workers, who already feel like they’re throwing money down a rat hole. At least now they get to keep some of it.
Bribery of a public official is a felony, but when they do it to us, pay us to buy our votes (with our own money plus borrowed money that we will eventually have to pay back!), it’s perfectly legal. This is what Aristotle saw as the major weakness of democracy. We see it played out every election year, and we are letting it happen!
Monday, December 19, 2011
A few days ago I was flipping through the channels on Saturday morning to see if anyone had a local weather forecast instead of cartoons. I found CBS Morning Show with 4 people sitting around the table talking about breakfast cereals. (I think this was a filler segment when some stations break away for local news and weather, but I paused to watch.) They showed four boxes of sweet cereal and were discussing how you have to be careful to read the labels for ingredients and nutritional information because these cereals are packed with sugar and other bad things - "like carbs" (?).
Then they started asking each other what they ate for breakfast when they were kids. The answers included many of these same cereals. The only change was that the cereals used to have “sugar” in the name. Since then the companies dropped sugar from the name, but still add lots of it.
Think about it. Four healthy, grown people grew up eating these cereals regularly for breakfast, the ones they were warning us about just minutes earlier. They were not overweight and their teeth did not seem to be falling out. They had good jobs on TV. Somehow they survived the dreaded sugary breakfasts but felt perfectly justified in warning everyone else about the dangers. Do they think we are not as smart as they are, that we can't figure it out like they did, that they did OK, but our children are doomed? Why do we try to blame cereals (and a host of other products, big corporations and the government) for consequences we can control through our own behavior? This behavior is the opposite of responsibility.
Friday, December 16, 2011
I mentioned in my introduction last May and in my recent review (11/28) that dealing with behavior, classified into dimensions, not only helps better define problems, but by design it also precludes the name-calling and accusations that have side-tracked constructive problem solving in America. In nearly 60 blogs describing problems in America, I have not once resorted to this tactic.
A few days ago I read this editorial in the Washington Post by Richard Cohen. In the course of just over 750 words he describes the field of Republican candidates as a mess and calls them political pygmies, ignoramuses, dimwits, contrarians, Christian jihadists and a motely crew of opponents (to the President). According to him Romney is a flip-flopper, a liar, a “clarifier” and an opportunist. In addition to the clarifier and opportunist labels, he calls Gingrich a jolly demagogue, an exaggerator, a fabricator, and concocter of calumnies. He considers them both thoroughly hollow, without moral principles. Tell me how this general disparagement, this litany of insults, does anything to move the country forward, politically or in any other way. No matter what side of the political spectrum, we must do better than this.
Monday, December 12, 2011
Years ago the smart folks at Harvard put together a change model. They pointed out that change happens only when there is sufficient discomfort with the status quo (to motivate a change), a clear model or vision (what you want to change to) and a practical plan to get there. These requirements are multiplicative (DxMxP), which simply means that if any of the three factors equals zero there will be no change.
It worked well for the moon landing. We were embarrassed by the Russians putting the first man in space and dissatisfied with the situation. President Kennedy set the vision of sending a man to the moon (and returning safely). NASA put together the plan walking through the necessary steps: the Mercury program (one man in space and then in orbit), Gemini (two astronauts in orbit) and Apollo (three in a capsule eventually landing on the moon and safely returning). All along the way and by design, NASA enhanced and broadened their capabilities. The desired change, from Russian to American domination of space exploration, happened.
Now consider the Occupy movement in terms of DxMxP. There is definitely dissatisfaction, a discomfort shared by many. We feel taken advantage of by the dishonesty, greed and manipulation characteristic of some big bankers and financial executives. (Whether that is the primary or only complaint is unclear.) What’s the vision? What do we want instead? Is it a nation where those bankers and executives are forced to conduct business honestly and fairy, or one where everyone gets the same share of the pie regardless of effort, talent or contribution? Can there be a practical plan when the desired outcome is unclear? Remember, when any of the three factors equals zero, there will be no change. Constructive change requires much more than camping in parks. It also requires a specific vision and a plan to get there.
Friday, December 9, 2011
The wise avoid problems by learning from the mistakes of others. I pick Italy as the teaching point, although it could be Greece or any of several other counties. Italy is on the verge of bankruptcy; their country is going out of business, so to speak. Our country is facing a similar problem, but we are not as deeply in trouble as some of those in Europe.
When we look at Italy we find from one article that it “has financed years of lavish social benefits by borrowing and borrowing.” From another we learn “that 93 percent of Italians consider cutting the country's huge public debt a top priority but few are willing to make personal sacrifices to do so.” (Isn’t it refreshing that magic-money-tree thinking is not confined to the US?) It may be easy to scoff and say that they dug themselves into this hole and are now unwilling to pitch in to dig themselves out, but I’m sure most of them were unaware of the development of the problem or didn’t see it as serious. They enjoyed their social benefits, which soon became expectations, and that only now, in hindsight are described by outsiders as lavish. They felt that they had earned, worked for or fought for those perks.
Later in the second article it states that although “there is some hopefulness about the future of the economy -- 55 percent anticipate a better situation five years from now -- the longer-term picture is gloomier: Only 35 percent of Italians think children born today will be better off 20 years from now, while 43 percent anticipate a harder life for the next generation.” This should not be surprising. As disinterested observers we can easily see that the lifestyle they were enjoying was not, after all, worked for or fought for or earned. It was borrowed, supported by debt that their children must someday repay.
Perspective and Economic Understanding are crucial to our success. America is not yet in the position of Italy, but every day we are moving closer, borrowing from our children to support our lifestyle that we have become so accustomed to that few would be willing to describe it as lavish. Nonetheless, if lavish means you couldn’t really afford it in the first place, that’s exactly what it is. When the time comes for all to sacrifice, I hope we are wise enough to learn from Italy and others, and to understand that the pain will be less if we begin sooner.
Monday, December 5, 2011
I have wondered a couple things for many years about television news (and news agencies in general). One is why all the urgency and second, why all the location shots?
Television news, whether national or local, seem to rely on the tag line, “you heard it here first” or "breaking news." They are apparently trying to take credit for their speed – minimum time between the event and the report – even if they must sacrifice details. Most of the time, what they are telling me, whether it’s first or not, has no urgency for me. It could be a hurricane on a distant coast or a farmer losing his barn to a high wind. It could be the results of an election or a fire at a local factory. It might even be another Hollywood celebrity arrested or entering rehab. In all these cases, I care so little that it could easily wait until the next day. Most of this stuff has no effect on my life. I don’t change my plans based on it. I don’t lose sleep over it. In fact, the way both local and national news have become littered with celebrity- or gossip-oriented “news,” I wouldn’t care if I never heard some of it. If an event affects me directly, I’ll probably get a call from the police or hospital. “Oh, no – we have to evacuate!” On the other hand, people having to evacuate from a town 1000 miles away is interesting but not time-sensitive. So why all the urgency? They want us to think they are special and use speed, rather than accuracy or objectivity to try to differentiate themselves.
I also am puzzled by and feel sorry for all the reporters forced to stand on location out in the cold and rain or in the dark telling me about what happened there several hours ago and showing me a picture of a street, a field, a house and possibly some yellow police tape. I know the stations and networks have paid a lot for the fancy equipment that allows for these reports, but trust me, the novelty has worn off. I know a picture is worth a thousand words, but a picture of a reporter standing on a dark street corner or in a blizzard telling me it’s snowing is worth no more than the same reporter, warm and snug in the studio, telling me the same thing. Sometimes even they seem at a loss as to why they are there, searching for a witness to interview or a by-stander for an opinion, desperate for an intelligent question, finally settling for, “How did you feel when the barn blew down?” or, one of my personal favorites, "When you woke up this morning did you ever imagine this would happen?"
This is just more hype from the news outlets requiring us to have the perspective to recognize it for what it is. If we show that we care more about substance than fluff, they will start delivering it.
Friday, December 2, 2011
It's easy to notice that the more connected we are and the faster our communications networks become, the more hype becomes a factor in our lives. Politicians, news media and advertisers take every opportunity to persuade us using exaggeration, misrepresentation or scare tactics. The choice is to react to it or deal with it. People with perspective find it much easier to deal with; they question and usually ignore it.
To begin with, take three recent news stories: the Target promotion I referred to on 9/16, the satellite falling to earth in late October, and a story telling us that the people we hang around with affect our eating habits.
A week after my original comments we find that Target was unable to meet the demand for their limited-time designer special. They were forced to turn away customers and refund money to others. One complained that she was refunded $700 spent on clothes, plates and a bike instead of the receiving the goods. (What are your real values if you spend money on a designer bicycle?) The next item, mentioned daily for almost a week, was the satellite falling to earth – we know not where. It was the size of a large bus, weighed 6.5 tons and was plummeting! Despite the odds of anything hitting you being 1 in 21 trillion, it was a major item on the news for days. It turned out to be nothing. Finally, if your friends and family are overweight, chances are you are too. Let’s all go out for pizza and decide if this is really newsworthy or more common sense dressed up and hyped up to appear surprising and distressing.
In their attempt to manipulate us to watch, listen, or buy, do you notice how often the news people use the words “warning”, “danger”, “threat”, and “crisis” or attempt to undermine good news by following it immediately with the word, “but”? Do you notice how they ask the most emotion-laden question hoping to get the subject of their interview to break into tears?
Politicians are as crafty. Without naming names (after all, this blog focuses on our behavior, not on politics), let me give some general examples. Several politicians give the impression that those who don't agree with their stance on the issues are totally against Social Security and Medicare. They try to scare older people and give no one a chance to address, question or try to fix a system that people have been concerned about since the early 1980s. (Yes, it has been that long and I have the yellowed Wall Street Journal articles in my desk to prove it.) They are not saying these things because it doesn’t need fixing, it’s hype, scare tactics to discredit their opponents. Another favorite is to call attention to a particular problem by singling out one heart-wrenching example implying there are millions more in the same situation, and immediate action is called for.It requires perspective and critical thinking to see these for what they are, more attempts to get us to react with a vote or a purchase, before we think things through. It’s all hype.
Monday, November 28, 2011
Consensus in America continues to be that the country is heading in the wrong direction. For six months I have been posting behavioral examples of why I think this is and categorizing that behavior to the five key dimensions. This is a good point to review the basis of the argument.
Behavior has consequences. We all know that from experience. One problem is that the link between the two is not always immediate or clear. A benefit of knowing this is that behavior can be changed to yield more favorable consequences. Another is that when you deal with behavior, you preclude personal attacks; the behavior, not the person, is the problem. Finally, thousands of possible actions and decisions can be reduced to a manageable number of categories or dimensions, making it possible to generalize conclusions. This applies to both the individual and to a society like ours.
Each week I show how the larger problems Americans face today are mostly behavior-based, the accumulated consequences of faulty choices and actions. By design this behavioral approach bans name-calling and accusing and the other unproductive speech we see from our politicians and interest groups. This model takes the solution out of the hands of the government and put it back into the hands of the people. Thus, I am taking no political sides – most attempts by government fail because they lack the understanding this new model provides.
What we have in America today is not a food safety problem or a childhood obesity epidemic or a healthcare crisis or financial meltdown or retirement security crisis or run-away litigation or a failed educational system or a drug problem or too many guns or not enough guns, etc. What we have are faulty behaviors that can be divided into 5 key dimensions. Changing our behavior would take us a long way toward solving or beginning to solve nearly all these issues.
Economic Understanding: We are all connected economically. As the economy expands everyone benefits to some extent. When there is waste everyone pays. There is no magic money tree to provide benefits without future payments due. Eventually we are all on the hook, and the burden is usually greater on those who can least afford it.
Discipline: Many things in life are simple to understand but not easy to do. Dieting is the prime example – eat less, exercise more – but how many keep looking for the easy answer, one that promise big results for little effort?
Responsibility: Admit failures, pay debts and meet obligations. It’s about doing the job I signed up for. Sometimes life in America seems like a buffet line where people fill their own plates and then sit down at the table to complain about the meal. They claim to be victims and look for someone else to blame – and someone else to bail them out.
Critical Thinking: Use logic, not feelings to solve problems. There is difference between facts/evidence on one hand and endorsements /stories on the other. We waste a lot of time and money on unproven remedies, by following our gut reactions and by trusting celebrity heros.
Perspective: When I have perspective, I separate the important from the trivial, the substantial from the artificial. I don’t profess one set of values then live my life differently. I put proper emphasis on possessions, and I practice moderation.
Positive behavior (words, actions, choices) in these categories leads to positive outcomes. Weak performance will cause the problems and crises to continue to pile up. Not recognizing the underlying behavioral factors has led us to ineffective solutions, more controversy, larger crises and increasingly uncivil discourse. I will continue in this blog to present simple, everyday examples from the news and advertising that show symptoms of problems in these dimensions that build into major failures within our society.
Friday, November 25, 2011
On our walk around the block a while ago, my wife made a very good observation. She said, “Don’t ever let me take my health for granted.” People don’t usually think about their health unless they are sniffling, coughing or hurting in some way, or unless they see someone much worse off than they are. We normally take it for granted.
I thought this was especially insightful, because I think it speaks to a core idea behind Perspective. What makes people think (and act) like watching the football game on Sunday, being the first to get the latest videogame, wearing the latest styles, finding out the latest Hollywood gossip or having the coolest car is the most important thing in the world? They often set aside or ignore those things that they claim to value: family, friends, a steady job, retirement security, and sometimes their health. They don’t take time to appreciate them, too busy pursuing the latest fashion or “in,” cool, gotta-have toy or accessory. Most don’t appreciate that a little over 75 years ago there was no Social Security and 150 years ago there was not even the concept of a weekend. We take a lot for granted. Appreciation would help us keep perspective and live our lives more moderately (and probably more happily).
This is usually my reaction to people who are passionate about some trivial causes or offended by some off-hand remark. I wonder what they expect and why they aren’t thinking about what they have rather than what they lack. A few weeks ago on the CBS Sunday Morning Show, one of the stories was about people objecting to the use of leaf blowers, to the point that they were proposing local ordinances to ban their use. The issue was that the leaf blowers were noisy and blew around dust and dirt as well as leaves. A few cities have banned them already. I was struck by the size of some of the houses these people lived in and the beautiful view they enjoyed. How many hours out of the year they did they have to endure the “suffering” of leaf blowers? Talk to some people who live near an airport where the loud noises happen daily. Buy some earplugs. Look at the big picture. Get some perspective.
In America our glass is not half empty/half full, rather it’s about 90% full for even the worst-off. Yet many spend their time dwelling on the 10% or 5% or less. We spoil ourselves, spoil our kids, and continually look for the easy answers (to weight loss or any number of other problems). It is no wonder that some people in the rest of the world find it so easy to envy or hate us, or both.
Monday, November 21, 2011
A week ago I wrote about the Bank of America settlement - how the bank was hardly impacted, the lawyers did very well and the customers, on whose behalf the suit was filed were little more than interested by-standers. Here is another where Wal-Mart gets a $27.5 million slap on the hand, the lawyers collect 25% plus expenses, leaving the customers with less than $1 each (unless they choose to hire their own lawyers and take another shot at Wal-Mart and Netflix).
You read about these settlements frequently. If you listen closely to the ads on TV for personal injury law firms, the client endorsements usually say, “I got a settlement for X”, not “I was awarded X.” The question for consideration today is, why settlements? The answer can be traced to a general lack of economic understanding, the prevalence of magic-money-tree thinking. Here are the typical dynamics.
Someone is injured or wronged in some way. Lawyers are hired (possibly by persuading them that they are victims) and promise to represent them at no cost to them. They decide who is at fault, usually any related party with a lot of money or insurance. (If you are injured by a poor person or struck by lightning, you’re pretty much out of luck.) They then approach the parties, accuse them of responsibility and give them a choice. They can avoid the full expense of a trial or by accepting a settlement, or they can fight it. Insurance companies and large firms, like Wal-Mart, understand that juries are usually more sympathetic to the injured party, who is portrayed as a victim no matter what their share of the fault, and that these same juries have little economic understanding. They think that these companies have a big stash of money and that making them pay has no ramifications on future prices or premiums for the rest of us. It’s classic magic-money-tree thinking. The companies also know that they can end up paying 100% of damages, even if they are only minimally to blame. With the odds so stacked against them (in part by societal failures in a couple of key dimensions), settlements make more economic sense.
When all is said and done, though, these examples continue to show us who the real winners are.
Friday, November 18, 2011
How hard is it to find evidence of problematic behavior in one or more of the five dimensions or of institutionalized support for these habits? Surprisingly easy. There are days when I have to pick and choose among available topics.
Today I have an Associated Press article left over from 3 weeks ago presenting research that tells how hormones make it more difficult to keep weight off after dieting. The headline begins, “Not your fault!” This is right out of the poor discipline/poor responsibility playbook. It gives people the excuse that they can’t stick to their diet because of their hormones. Ironically the header above the article features six advertising links, five of which are for weight-loss products, programs or surgery – the easy answers that everyone looks for when faced with the hard work of getting back to and staying at the right weight. This is practically the definition of discipline and responsibility failures that bubble up into many other societal issues and crises (budgeting, smoking, and alcohol abuse, to name a few).
How, in the first place, can any reputable scientist say that hormones are the problem? Didn’t humans have the same hormones many years ago when the number of overweight Americans was less than half of what it is today? It just doesn’t add up.
Second, how can the parent of a teenager use hormones as an excuse for regaining weight and not let that teenager use hormones as an excuse for any of their own destructive decisions? This sounds like a can of worms ready to be opened.
I have sometimes jokingly said that if I ever got arrested for anything, I’d just tell the police that what I was doing was performance art and protected under the First Amendment. Now, I guess, if that doesn’t fly, I have the excuse of hormones to fall back on.
Monday, November 14, 2011
Recently a judge ordered Bank of America to pay a $410 million settlement to customers for overdraft fees. Two things about this story are interesting, but not emphasized as I think they should be.
Let’s look more closely at the numbers. One lawyer claims that BoA collected over $4.5 billion in fees but was fined less than 10% of that. He says that 13.2 million customers will receive an average settlement of $27. So that’s $356.4 million to the 13.2 million customers at $27 each (big deal!), $53.6 million left over for the lawyers, and the bank gets to keep most of what it collected – not a bad deal for the bank, a good deal for the lawyers and a pittance for everyone else. Later in the article it mentions that the lawyers got even more, $123 million, but those numbers don’t add up. If they are correct, it would be even less for the customers. (I have never been a BoA customer so have no particular ax to grind.)
The customers' objection was to how the bank calculated overdraft fees to maximize their revenue But remember where those overdraft fees came from – people who cashed checks or used debit cards when they didn’t have enough money in their accounts. This is third grade math, addition and subtraction. Sure the bank may have been sleazy in the way they calculated the fees, but there would not have been any fees to calculate had their customers not made the overdrafts in the first place. It all gets back to individual behavior. Where would the bank and lawyers be, if the customers added and subtracted correctly? Where would the customers be, for that matter - $4.5 billion richer?
Friday, November 11, 2011
It’s my 63rd birthday, and I want to tell you how embarrassed I am when I see that television ad with the threatening-looking senior citizen warning politicians to keep their hands off Social Security. There are lots of seniors out there, and most of us vote!
Aren’t these the same seniors who want only the best for their grandchildren? Aren’t these the same seniors who want the Congress to move forward and compromise for the good of the country? But ask them to even consider compromising Social Security or Medicare for the good of the country and you will have a fight on your hands. Their answer suddenly becomes the equivalent of: “Don’t touch our benefits, even if it means saddling our grandchildren with the accumulated debt.” (Of course, some of the well-to-do seniors intend to protect their grandchildren’s inheritance by having a lawyer set up a scheme to shield their wealth, requiring the government to pay their final expenses. Another good deal for your average taxpayer!)
I resigned my AARP membership many years ago, but they continue to embarrass me with their lack of perspective and magic-money-tree concept of government spending. Actions have consequences, and just because you won’t be around to suffer those consequences is no excuse to be selfish and belligerent today.
Monday, November 7, 2011
Science and religion: it seems Americans often get the two confused. Religion is a matter of faith; you “believe in” certain concepts: heaven, hell, angels, salvation, God or gods, etc. Science is pragmatic; it’s used to predict and to explain the mechanisms that drive those predictions. Good scientists don’t “believe in” theories, in fact they often look for evidence to refine or overturn them.
The problem with getting the two mixed up is that people want to believe in or not believe in certain scientific discoveries. They will reject findings that are contrary to what they wish were true. Is the earth round or flat? We have some pretty good evidence in this case, but some still choose to believe otherwise. I have heard defenders of Intelligent Design argue that many scientists don’t “believe in” the Darwin’s theory of evolution and that it’s only a theory. Both those statements are true, but science has nothing to do with belief and theories are valuable for their predictive power. If they can use the knowledge developed from this theory to produce a more effective flu shot or help the police solve a crime using DNA evidence, then it’s useful. That’s all that matters.
Now I have come across a few recent articles that people will want to argue with, primarily on the basis of preferences and beliefs. The first was an interview with a Purdue University professor of horticulture who was asked about whether organic foods are better for you. His answer: “There are papers that show certain (organic) foods … are better for you and others that say (they are) not.” Notice that only certain ones may be better. Some people continue to justify spending more on this “maybe” situation, not having done any research or reviewed the studies, but they believe they are doing the best thing for their families. Well, if wasting money is the best thing for your family, go for it! Likewise there have been many studies showing that tap water, which costs less than a penny a gallon, is as good as bottled water, which is more expensive than gasoline. Many don’t want to believe it.
In another study “researchers are finding very little benefit from these substances.” The substances referred to are multivitamins and supplements, an industry with $20 billion in annual sales. In addition, scientists have found some dangers. How many Americans will rethink their habits or at least consider the possibility and how many will go along believing what they want to believe and acting accordingly?
Finally, I saw an ad in the mail for slimming briefs (formerly called a girdle) that asks: “Are you one of the millions that believe in the power of magnetic therapy?” Belief is required because there is no science behind it.
My question is: Are you one of the millions who confuse science with religion? If so, you are wasting a lot of money, money that could be spent adding value to your life instead of adding profits to companies with clever advertising tricks and bogus products. Some things are to be believed and some are to be tested first. We must understand the difference.
Friday, November 4, 2011
I received an insurance bill this week with payment options. The Internet auto-payment was labeled, “Save a tree.” This approach is clearly designed to manipulate my behavior, to guilt me into using the Internet instead of the postal service. (Next I would expect the USPS to come back with a campaign to “Save a job” to counter this loss of business. Then I would really be torn!) Since they already sent me a coupon and return envelope, I was wondering how my throwing those away and going on line would create any savings. I guess if I sign up this month, I don’t really have an impact on any trees until 6 months from now when they don’t send me anything in the mail. The dirty little secret is that they don’t really give a rat’s rump about trees; they are just trying to reduce their cost of doing business.
Actually, I signed up, not because I have a soft spot in my heart for trees, but because it’s easier for me. In fact I will now be paying all my bills electronically. It may have an effect on some jobs, the postal carriers and people who open mail at the insurance company and utilities. It may even save a tree or two; but if people really cared about trees, they would not treat each one as precious. They would instead sacrifice some to build firebreaks in the forests to help better limit the damage from wildfires like those in Texas and California recently. They would let the loggers and paper companies cut down some while planting some more and not get all sentimental about the old, tall ones. Generally, the only difference between cutting down a tree and harvesting a corn crop is the amount of replacement time: one year vs. 30 to 125 years depending on the type.
Critical thinking reminds us that this insurance company and others who use the “Save a tree” tactic only want to reduce costs while they present the appearance of being public-spirited. It’s good for business.
Perspective reminds us that there are always trade-offs. In this case it’s between trees and jobs or between closely guarding all trees and reasonably farming them for their own protection and for the products we need. Perspective leads us toward a course of moderation.
Monday, October 31, 2011
What’s with these Wall Street protests?
These people aren't necessarily evil. They are just a lot better than you and me at figuring out ways to make money, but of course, that's not fair!
Is it a failure of Critical Thinking – a protest against the fact that life is not fair, with no one able to agree on the definition of success or fairness?
Is it a failure of Perspective – able to afford to take the time and make the trip to participate in a gathering that was organized via computers and smart phones, not grateful for what they have, but jealous because they don’t have as much as someone else?
Is it a failure of Responsibility – unhappy with circumstances but marching to demand that someone else fix the situation?
Perhaps it’s a combination. Just who are these 1% people they are protesting against, anyway? When they are nameless, faceless entities characterized as Wall Street fat cats, it’s easy to demonize them as evil, greedy and deserving to be singled out and punished for being rich. According to this CNN article and other sources though, only about 14% fall into the financial category, Wall Street types; and I’m sure not all of them are evil and greedy. The top 1% also includes people like Peyton Manning, Oprah Winfrey, Lady Gaga, Tiger Woods, Justin Bieber, Leonardo Dicaprio, Eminem, Kobe Bryant, Dr. Phil, Steven Spielberg, Katie Couric, Larry the Cable Guy and many other favorites from sports and entertainment. I don’t think the animosity against the rich extends to this group. If you resent the fact that they are rich, stop buying their music, watching the games, and going to the movies. Look at the Forbes list of richest Americans. Most of them got there by providing us with products or services that we gladly paid for.
These people aren't necessarily evil. They are just a lot better than you and me at figuring out ways to make money, but of course, that's not fair!
Friday, October 28, 2011
I recentlyran across this article about identical twin sisters having babies on the same day in the same hospital. It reminded me of an Oprah show a number of years ago about a young boy and young girl who were best friends in a Russian orphanage, were adopted separately and were reunited by accident in a restaurant in Michigan. I may not have all the details right, but the details don’t matter. The point is that the audience oohed and ahhed over the seeming miracle. A story about such a coincidence always causes people to look for connections or causes and ask the question: What are the odds? Well, let’s do some critical thinking.
The question is not about the odds of these two particular youngsters meeting again or of these two women giving birth on the same day. The question is about the odds of the producers of the Oprah Show going out and finding such an extraordinary situation or the odds of a newspaper reporting an unusual coincidence. (There have also been stories of a mother and her daughter giving birth on the same day.) Consider that there are over 300 million people in the US doing their daily activities, including being born or adopted, having traffic accidents, going on vacation, shopping, working, dying, attending schools and sporting events and movies and concerts and restaurants, climbing mountains, skydiving and a full range of other activities. It is very likely that several unusual coincidences would arise somewhere over a period of time just by chance. If part of your job is to look for heartwarming or freakish stories, as a news agency or a television show would be, they should be relatively easy to find. Notice that we are not specifying that we find a story about twins giving birth on the same day. The requirement is only to find unusual coincidences. The odds of doing so are high.
I don’t want to be a party-pooper, rather a devil’s advocate. As you may know a devil’s advocate in Roman Catholic law is an official appointed to present arguments against a proposed candidate for sainthood. Even the Catholic Church sees the appropriateness and necessity for healthy skepticism and critical thinking when making important decisions. Likewise it should be appropriate and necessary for us all to exercise caution, to think things through more carefully before ohhing and ahhing and assigning mysterious or supernatural causes to a surprising event. It’s especially important when we are faced with the “snake-oil” vendors trying to sell us miracle products or services using amazing stories, fancy scientific-sounding arguments or faulty statistics.
Monday, October 24, 2011
Earlier this month Purdue University held a student forum where administrators shared their perspective, and students were encouraged to ask questions. It seems an admirable practice and more will be scheduled. One of the main topics was scholarships and the plans about how to raise more funds without tuition increases.
One part of the article caught my eye because it seemed not quite right. Students were asking about scholarships and the college president related to a reporter: "Some of the scholarships we do give, students are interested will they keep pace with inflation because their expenses grow every year.”
You would think students would be grateful to receive scholarships. Instead, they are commenting on their increasing expenses and asking if the scholarships will increase, as if asking Mom or Dad for a raise in their allowance.
Instead of calling them scholarships, let’s call them what they really are to the students, free money. It's a gift, not a right. How does this sound? “About this free money you are giving me, you see my expenses keep going up and if you keep giving me the same amount of free money, I may not be able to make ends meet.” How is this entitlement mentality going to translate into their life and work experiences after graduation?
Friday, October 21, 2011
Good news for the dimension of Responsibility! There are some who disagree with using the disease model to label and treat alcoholics.
Alcoholism is a serious personal and societal issue, but this article points out that calling it a disease may create other problems with the diagnosis and treatment of some individuals. The article hints at, but does not directly say, that treating it as a disease also implies limited personal involvement in overcoming the problem.
One aspect of unsatisfactory behavior in the dimension of Responsibility across our society is to look for someone or something else to blame for our problems or suffering. Claiming to be the victim of evil banks, big companies, the government, the actions of another (no matter how remote), a genetic defect, or a disease excuses us from personal responsibility, but also removes our control. It is no longer our job to fix the problem, because it was not our fault to begin with. We look to others for solutions: doctors, lawyers and juries, government regulations, or advocates. This passive approach leads to increased power for those rescuers and decreased power for us. Therein lies the danger. We are off the hook for the short term but have voluntarily diminished our choices and opportunities over the long term. This is so insidious because these delayed consequences of inaction seem less threatening at the moment, lulling us into a false sense of security.
So many things these days are getting labeled as diseases or as the result of some genetic marker in our DNA that it is refreshing to see some of the experts backing off, allowing room for personal ownership and participation. The fewer ready-made excuses the experts serve up, the better our chances of taking charge of our lives.
Monday, October 17, 2011
A failure in the dimension of Perspective is the superiority of the superficial over the substantial when choosing criteria for decision-making. Simply put, we tend to value appearance over function when we decide how to act, how to vote, what to value and how to spend our money. We substitute values based on appearance and popularity for our stated values of family, faith, charity, etc. Evidence is everywhere.
A few days ago I caught the local news on TV and saw an advertisement for a dentist. The emphasis was not on your teeth, but on your smile. I’ve noticed this trend other places and even at recent trips to my own dentist. More are promoting teeth whitening and straightening. Not long ago dentists were mostly concerned about flossing, gum disease, and cleaning and filling teeth – substantial stuff. I’m sure these items are still very important to them, but now they have discovered that to attract customers takes a superficial appeal, how bright and attractive your smile is.
Later in the same broadcast the news anchor reported on a deer jumping through a glass window. She commented that fortunately no people were injured, but the deer had to be put down – “poor deer.” Now if it had been a rat or a skunk, I’m sure I wouldn’t have heard “poor rat.” Deer in populated areas are pests, causing more damage and potential disease than rats, but deer are cute. People will protest the killing of deer (but not rats). It’s a double standard based on appearance.
How does this carry over? We often get the more attractive or charming, rather than the more competent candidates for office. Attractive people tend to get lighter legal sentences, faster promotions and are hired more readily. With indirect encouragement from the news media, we put as much stock in the opinions of movie stars and singers as those of known experts. We are underwater on our houses but continue to buy more toys or products to impress our friends. We trade a car that is not yet paid off for a newer model and go further into debt. We forget to value people and things for what they are and judge instead based on whether they are cool or in. As I say, examples are everywhere, some trivial and some important, but they all represent failures in the same dimension of behavior, Perspective.
Friday, October 14, 2011
Each week on Monday and Friday I post further explanations of my premise and examples of behavioral failings. I contend that behavior has consequences and that the crises of the day are merely the accumulated consequences of overall behavior, poor individual decisions creating trends in society. Pick a problem and I can show how it is born from behavioral failures, which can be classified into five key dimensions. What needs fixing is not the visible problems, but the underlying persistence of poor choices. Examples show the prevalence of these behaviors throughout our society. I hope that more people will see events through this new lens to become more sensitive to the core behavior and less focused on mere symptoms.
A strange story from the news last week gave minimal information about the case. Apparently a man was helping his in-laws retrieve Christmas decorations from the attic and made a misstep, falling into the garage and injuring himself. He sued his in-laws.
Let me speculate that he sued not because of any family feud or bad feeling, but because he and his in-laws felt that their insurance would pay for his injuries thus relieving them of the expense. After all, that’s what insurance is for!
I hope I am wrong, because this is clearly “magic money tree” thinking, so common among people weak in Economic Understanding. When only the insurance companies or the government or some big industry must pay, many people think that the money comes from some big pot of reserves just sitting there to cover these sorts of contingencies. They don’t appreciate that this pot gets refilled regularly through our taxes, our insurance premiums or higher prices for goods and services. In the case of insurance this sort of activity not only affects the one company involved, but also increases the risk for all insurance companies, causing them to require a larger reserve, which translates into higher premiums for everyone. There is no magic money tree. All the funding that seems free at the time eventually finds its way out of your pocket and mine.
Monday, October 10, 2011
Last time I reinforced the need for critical thinking by pointing out the dubious value of self-reporting surveys. Whether they be about politics or personal habits, they tend to be an inaccurate reflection of actual choices and behavior. I wonder why news agencies spend so much time on them. Here is an article that reinforces that point and goes on to give good examples of conflicts within the other four dimensions as well. It’s about healthier menu choices in restaurants.
The report begins, “while 47 percent of Americans say they'd like restaurants to offer healthier items like salads and baked potatoes, only 23 percent tend to order those foods…” Since the information comes from different surveys, we must be careful, but the general behavior, if not the specific percentages, is confirmed by sales figures presented later in the report, so again there seems to be a large discrepancy between stated preference and actual behavior.
Further along they remind us that, “the government has stepped up its oversight — and influence — over the industry that it blames for America's expanding waistline.” This blatant admission that the government does not blame people for eating the wrong foods but blames the industry leads the government to seek solutions by regulating restaurants instead of expecting personal responsibility to change behavior. When they find out this requirement of listing calories and offering more healthy choices is not working, what is their next option? How do they escalate when they don’t trust us to do the right thing? Next logical steps, as I stated in earlier articles, would be increased threats to our freedom, perhaps minor in this case, but where would it end? As this controlling philosophy remains predominant in the minds of our government, they will feel justified in regulating away all of our choices.
Later the report cites the efforts of a couple of restaurants to conform to the regulations. Omitted is the reminder that in one way or another we are paying for the additional food preparation, research and reprinting of menus; but as we are strong in economic understanding, we are aware of this. Like any other attempt to solve a behavior problem by attacking symptoms with regulations, it inevitably leads to higher costs for the public – not unlike the additional fees that came on the heels of consumer credit card protection – but it does not solve the problem. Most Americans and the government have yet to learn the main lesson of economic understanding - added costs are passed on to the consumer.
Finally, why don’t people choose the healthy menu items? Examples in the report show as reasons: peer pressure and that “[h]ealthier foods also are usually among the most expensive menu items, which can be tough for recession-weary customers…” Both relate to perspective, overly caring what other people think and not looking at the long-term effects of today’s decisions.
All this effort and regulation tries to solve a problem (unhealthy eating) brought on by behavior (a failure in discipline). This single article, read from a behavioral standpoint, reinforces my point that weaknesses in the five key dimensions are the root cause of most of our contemporary crises and therein lie the solutions, not in any outside programs or government interventions no matter how well-intentioned.
Friday, October 7, 2011
The news media seem obsessed with survey results, people telling us what they think or how they feel. Being a critical thinker (at least most of the time), I take the results of these self-reporting surveys with a grain of salt.
So I take these reports in the news less seriously. When I hear that consumer confidence is slipping, it’s interesting, but not as reliable as the retail sales numbers at the end of the month. What people say and what they do often differ.
I am skeptical for several reasons. It is easy for organizations to word survey questions with the intent of influencing the answer. People often want to impress the survey taker. Most surveys leave no room for follow-up or clarifying questions. The sample surveyed is often done with convenience in mind or is otherwise not properly designed.
I have seen survey questions that are preceded by a paragraph about how terrible or how wonderful a particular practice or policy is. They then ask if you favor continuing the policy. It’s important to see the entire question before judging the validity of the answer and brief news stories often omit this information. In a similar vein, how many times has a salesperson told you directly that anything less than “completely satisfied” on the follow-up survey will reflect badly on the store?
Sometimes people just want to show the survey takers how cool or clever they are. They try to guess at the desired answer or try to position themselves in the right group. There are many examples where married couples are questioned separately about something they do together: housework, managing the finances, general decision making, who disciplines the children or frequency of sexual activity. Invariably discrepancies appear between the answers of husbands and wives, discrepancies that can be explained only by a misperception or an attempt to give a favorable rather than an accurate answer. Apply this to teens self-reporting on tobacco or drug use. Are they being honest or exaggerating?
Some surveys give a choice of answers, but perhaps none fits the exact situation. I have received many customer service surveys that leave me scratching my head because I did not experience the service they ask about and there is no “Not Applicable” option. I can’t give them the correct answer and there is no way to clarify. The same can be true with public opinion questions. My “10” or “completely agree” may differ, not from your experience, but from your definition of these terms.
Finally, there are people who, either purposely to influence the outcome or through negligence, survey an incomplete or biased sample. I sometimes get unsolicited phone surveys, which I hang up on. I wonder what they do next. Do they get someone else from their list with the same demographics (and how do they know my demographics anyway?) or more likely, do they just go to the next name on the list? Sometimes they survey likely voters and sometimes just registered voters. It makes a difference.
So I take these reports in the news less seriously. When I hear that consumer confidence is slipping, it’s interesting, but not as reliable as the retail sales numbers at the end of the month. What people say and what they do often differ.
Monday, October 3, 2011
Early in my career my job involved administering a union contract, one that had a protection clause that was somewhat controversial. Management called it “comparison” and the union and workers called it “regression.” You only had to listen to the choice of words to tell where the speaker stood on the issue.
Since then I have become sensitive to the way others use words to try to influence me as I try to make rational decisions politically and economically. In politics it’s more transparent, for example, some talking about inheritance tax and others about death tax, but there are a few in advertising that seem subtler.
One that is especially widespread is the substitution of the word home for house. In general usage, a house is a structure where people might live. A home on the other hand connotes something more personal, defined in one source as “the place in which one's domestic affections are centered.” Accordingly realtors don’t sell houses any more; they sell homes. We are enticed to look for new homes at a parade of homes. It was a very clever marketing strategy to get buyers to think of the touchy-feely aspects of the transaction and react emotionally to “the home of your dreams” or to fall in love with a home, but it seems to have caught on everywhere. I rarely hear people referring to the places where they live as their house. It’s their home, and they may have a second home or a vacation home somewhere. They buy homeowner’s insurance in case it burns down. I wouldn’t be surprised if soon they don’t have a dog home in the back yard with a bird home hanging from the tree! Does “the American dream of owning a home” imply that an apartment or rental property cannot be made into a home with love and care? The real estate industry probably hopes so. This has become so widespread that I recently saw a religious wall hanging saying, “Bless this home”, rather than using the traditional wording of house.
Of course there are others trying to change our vocabulary to their advantage including: car dealers selling pre-owned cars as if to imply that someone only owned it for a while, but didn’t really use it; executives calling us associates instead of employees, then going out of their way not to associate with most of us – too important/busy for that; or restaurants and hotels calling us guests instead of customers. (Well, if I’m your guest, why are you making me pay?) I received a survey from a restaurant asking me to compare them to other “rapid service” establishments. Maybe the term they used was “swift service,” but it definitely wasn’t “fast food”! Good luck with that one!
It’s all a ploy to get us to switch off our Critical Thinking mechanism long enough to slip one by us. I’d rather see the actions/results that they are trying to portray with these words than the fancy marketing terminology.
Friday, September 30, 2011
A couple of days ago the AP published an article on lower gas prices. The price has dropped significantly since summer and some people were amazed and thrilled to find prices below $3 a gallon. If things go well some parts of the country could see prices as low as $2.50 in the near future (or not).
What does this have to do with perspective? To me it’s a reverse example. Here we have people very happy with prices below $3 and possibly headed toward $2.50, whereas not too long ago we were hearing cries of pain and anguish at prices as high as $2.50, but compared to $4.00 it seems like a bargain. People tend to have short memories and get used to things as they are, reacting with some discomfort to changes. In this example it is joy rather than discomfort, but because we have experienced such economic and technological growth and improvements throughout our lives, our expectations are set and any loss or reduction causes discomfort.
Perspective should remind us that how things are today is not the way they always were. Gas was not always three or four dollars a gallon, but televisions were not always digital, with 50-inch screens, surround sound, 200 channels, or even in color (and we had to get out of our chair to change the channels). Less than one hundred years ago most Americans had to live without radios, a second car, a washing machine, a vacuum cleaner, in-door plumbing, Social Security or any expected retirement, Medicare or any health insurance. More recently people got along fine without home computers, dishwashers, (4G) cell phones, moon roofs, garage door openers and home air conditioning. But it’s easy to take these things for granted and feel we could not live without them, when, in fact, people lived for many centuries without them. It’s easy to understand how Greek citizens can march in protest over loss of benefits while their country teeters on the edge of bankruptcy.
Perspective is about values, values that keep our wants from morphing into needs, values that remind us what is vital vs what we can really live without. It’s nice to see the price of gas turn around, but it should also remind us to be grateful for what we have and to consult our core values when we decide how to spend the extra cash. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it very bluntly in his 1964 lecture at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies: “Yet, in spite of these spectacular strides in science and technology, and still unlimited ones to come, something basic is missing. There is a sort of poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually.” I think he was talking, in part, about perspective and wonder if we have been progressing or declining since then.
Monday, September 26, 2011
As I reconsider my main topic, that behavior has consequences, I ask myself how anyone could disagree. Hasn’t this been the message since our youth from parents and teachers, hard work will be rewarded and laxness penalized? The ancient wisdom of the Yoga Sutra states in part that the consequences of an action will be either painful or beneficial (2.14) and that results of actions will be either immediate or delayed (3.22).
It seems that the opposite viewpoint would be very fatalistic, that no matter what you do, say or decide, your fate is sealed. You are not rich or famous or popular or successful or happy because you were not destined to be. It’s not what you do or say that makes a difference, it’s what other people decide. That is giving up, not taking responsibility. True, Americans often rely on prayer to assist in their decisions, but they typically pray for help in making a decision or being successful in their actions. Talking to God helps them sort things out, may help put things into perspective, reminds them of options, or helps them keep the courage to cope when things go wrong. When something is out of control they put it in the hands of God, but usually only after they have done everything they can think of. That's not the same as giving up and their action or inaction that comes after praying will also have consequences.
To follow what I am presenting each week requires acceptance of this basic belief that what we do matters. Bad things do happen to good people and good things to bad people. This tends to challenge our faith. On the other hand, good things happen to good people and bad things to bad people, but without the apparent irony this fact gets little attention. In general, better decisions result in better outcomes. Luck does enter into it, but there is truth in the saying that you make your own luck.
That’s why I am adamant about the information presented here. I continue to see examples of opportunities for better decisions, and hence better outcomes, in the key dimensions. I also see examples of powerful or influential people who really do believe that a sizable proportion of the population is at the mercy of forces beyond their control. To overcome this is a double challenge: taking control of our lives away from those (self-righteous) helpers while simultaneously making better decisions in face of the challenges presented by an increasingly technological society. It’s our only way out.
Whenever people ask the question, “What’s wrong with America today?” my simple answer is this: Our behavior is not consistently strong enough in the areas of Discipline, Responsibility, Economic Understanding, Critical Thinking and Perspective to deserve better outcomes. I see evidence everyday and share it with you twice a week with the hope that more and more people will begin to find behavioral solutions to our societal problems instead of relying on the traditional view and trying to fix the problems by working on the symptoms.