Friday, December 30, 2011

Build a Fence?

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

More on Hype in the News

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?

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

Responsibility - Don't Blame the Cereal

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

The Power of This Behavioral Approach

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.

Unfortunately this type of “argument” has become more common.  Why? – Because it works.  People respond to the name-calling, public mockery and personal criticism when they are offered instead of ideas.  That is why I am adamant in my attempt (in this blog) to educate as many as possible about the behavioral model for societal problem solving.  First, it gives us something specific to work on (changing behavior).  But equally important, those who make it a habit learn to ignore these personal attacks, looking for (demanding) instead clear behavioral examples.  If we can build critical mass behind such a movement, we can force a more civil conversation about what matters, the behavioral missteps (not only by politicians but by ourselves) whose consequences continue to drive America in the wrong direction.

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

Learning from Italy

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

A Little More on Hype

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

Moving at the Speed of Hype

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.