Monday, November 28, 2011

Review and Refresher

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

Another Legal Settlement

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

Evidence Abounds

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

Bank of America Settlement

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

Perspective on the AARP

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

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

Where's My Tree?

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.