Friday, July 26, 2013
Back to the Basics - A Review
A few days back I learned that the public’s opinion about the direction of the country was very negative. I wasn't surprised, but my lack of surprise was not politically motivated. I was not surprised because I recall seeing these numbers for the last 25 years and rarely do a majority of Americans think we are headed in the right direction. The chart on this page shows that it never happened over the last 5 years – and these polls come out about monthly. A chart of New York Times polls shows less than half a dozen instances between 1995 and 2008 where more than 50% had a favorable opinion. Despite changes in Presidents and Congress, Americans consistently believe the country is headed the wrong way. So why don’t they do something about it?
That’s a good question. Usually if something hurts, you try to fix it. Minor irritations may heal on their own, but serious problems get attention. If it hurts for 25 years or more, I doubt that any sane person would apply the same solution over and over. But that’s exactly what Americans have done; expecting results from the government or thinking that changing parties will fix things. It hasn’t worked because the problems are ours to fix.
Is the solution to the obesity epidemic governmental action, as Mayor Bloomberg and others seem to think, or is it eating less and exercising more? Do we solve education failings with edicts from Washington or when parents take appropriate responsibility, working with teachers not against them to make sure the children learn both academics and respect? Do we solve poor saving habits and retirement insecurity with bank regulations, consumer protection and AARP-backed legislation or when ordinary Americans begin distinguishing between wants and needs, passing up tempting offers and spending more wisely and frugally? Our behavior has consequences. Sometimes the consequences are unpleasant. As long as we wait for others to solve our problems, the pain will not go away.
This behavioral model takes a personal approach. By emphasizing behavior, we eliminate name-calling, instead specifying the error without blaming or demeaning. Our behavioral errors have led to poor outcomes. Americans must take responsibility for the crises of the day and adjust individual behavior, so that the accumulation of consequences doesn’t overwhelm everyone, as it did a few years ago when too many people bought houses they couldn’t afford. (Blaming greedy bankers won’t keep a similar problem from arising again. Changing individual choices, actions and expectations will.)
Real solutions come from better actions and decisions in five dimensions. With discipline we get control of our weight, our finances and correct poor consequences of other bad habits. With responsibility we are motivated to do what is required of us, not looking for someone else to blame or to pay for our errors. Using economic understanding, we realize that governments spend tax money taken from us, that corporations spend the money we pay for their products, and that there is no magic money tree, no free lunch – it all gets back to us. When we use critical thinking, we are not lured by unsubstantiated claims or tricky advertising designed to play on our hopes and emotions. Critical thinkers hold the media, politicians and advertisers to a higher standard. Perspective helps us appreciate what we have instead of forever longing for more. With perspective we practice moderation and learn to lead calmer and more focused lives. Together these five dimensions outline behavioral changes that can make us better and happier as individuals and as a nation.
Each week in the news, there are dozens of stories about how people miss opportunities to make their lives better, and by extension to start moving the nation in the right direction. I choose a couple of these examples to illustrate where we are going wrong. My hope is that readers will develop the skills, the instinct, to recognize these examples and find more on their own. Politics is not a factor. If we can slowly change the mindset of America from one of looking to someone else for an answer to one where Americans take responsibility for how their individual choices determine the direction of the country, we can turn it around. Otherwise, the conclusion must be that it really doesn’t hurt; it’s just people wanting to complain.