Friday, August 29, 2014

Roundup of Behavior

Here are a few short stories to emphasize the need for strong behavior in the five key dimensions.

More on Moderation:  A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how perspective leads to moderation in our wants vs. needs, in our spending, and in what causes we promote and how strongly we back them.  You don’t have to be a philosopher to understand how moderation leads to a happier life.  Now we read about a solar energy operation in California killing birds by scorching them.  They are under investigation by Federal wildlife officials.  It closes with a statement from a renewable energy expert reinforcing this whole idea of moderation.  “When it comes to powering the country's grids, ‘diversity of technology ... is critical … "Nobody should be arguing let's be all coal, all solar, all wind, or all nuclear.  And every one of those technologies has a long list of pros and cons." 

Perspective and critical thinking also make us less susceptible to hype, the kinds of sales pitches we run across every day on TV, on line, in print and from our friends and family.  One crazy example comes in this short article about a Jimmy Kimmel prank where he pasted an Apple logo over a $20 Casio wristwatch and asked people their opinions.  As they say, “You’d be surprised at how many people loved the new “Apple” product.”  This may seem like a silly example, but how different is it from shopping at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s and paying extra for what are hyped as more nutritious and safer products, then finding out that your peanut butter and almond butter has been recalled “because the products may be contaminated with salmonella and may pose a health risk”?

 We never have to look far to find discipline failures.  The obesity epidemic, which makes it sound like people are catching it from others and have no personal control, is just one example.  Here is a recent headline with another example:  “36% of adults lack retirement savings, including many 65 or older.”

A little more perspective helps in many areas.  Here is a story about a mom in Houston who developed (and sells) an app for parents whose children ignore their cell phone calls.  When the call from mom is not answered, the phone is locked except to dial 911 or call mom back.  Parents think it’s wonderful; kids think the opposite.  Many of us remember a time when no one had a cell phone.  If we wanted to contact a child who was away from home, we must have other solutions.  We also remember a time when expecting certain (respectful and responsible) behavior from our children did not call for a technological solution.  Does such an app strengthen a relationship or build resentment.  (And how long before some kid markets an app to override this one?)

Critical thinking and healthcare go together.  Many politicians and pundits use the term healthcare when they really are talking about health insurance.  They seem to think that making something easier to pay for will reduce the price.  In reality, it is more likely to increase usage, and the laws of supply and demand tell us that, everything else being equal, the price will increase.  It may be cheaper for the individual patient, but the cost to the overall system will go up.  Economic understanding tells us that when the cost to the system goes up, that increase finds its way back to our wallets, either in higher premiums paid by us, higher premiums paid by employers which limits the amount of pay increase, or higher premiums paid by the government which comes back to us as higher taxes or the negative effects of a larger government debt.  We can’t escape the higher costs.  Fiddling with insurance does not reduce costs or improve care as so many of the simplistic arguments want us to believe.  Yet these arguments slide by unchallenged.

As I said last time, many of our problems are self-inflicted and can only be solved by looking at behavior in light of the five dimensions and adjusting as needed.  It seems too simple, but next month I will give one reason why this is so difficult.

Monday, August 25, 2014


After so many examples in a row, it’s a good idea to step back to recall where these essays lead.  For over 20 years a standard polling question has been:  Do you think America is headed in the right direction?  Over that period, very few polls have shown that Americans agree.  From election to election, regardless of the outcome, the one constant that we find is that most Americans don’t think the country is headed in the right direction.  The biggest mistake has been to continue to look to the government to fix the problem.

We read in the newspapers or on the Internet or see on TV, lists of problems and crises plaguing American society.  A serious search for root causes leads not to government policy, except in those typical cases where they try to fix one thing and create another set of unintended problems.  The root cause of most of our societal ills is the problematic behavior of individual Americans.  Behavior has consequences.  Poor behavior leads to poor consequences; positive behavior results in positive consequences.  The combined effect of poor behavior by a large group leads to societal problems and crises – the mess we currently find ourselves in.  It’s as simple as that.

Consider some of the most common issues cited when Americans complain about their country:  lagging education, children living in poverty, obesity epidemic, healthcare, Social Security funding and retirement insecurity, food safety, drug and alcohol addiction, frivolous lawsuits, gun violence, drunk driving, drug abuse, vaccination scares, and discrimination.  These and many other minor issues depend not on outside influences, but on the poor choices we make and the actions we take.

Twice each week I look for examples in the news and elsewhere of how we are going wrong.   To better understand and present these behavioral examples, I categorized them into five key dimensions.  Strong behavior in each of these dimensions by most of the people most of the time cannot help but lead to more positive outcomes, which is the only way to get America headed in the right direction.

Understanding the Economic Process:  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 free benefits without some future payment.  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 promises big results for little effort?  (And how much money is thrown away in this pursuit?)  Similar behavior leads to financial problems.  We want it now, unwilling to delay gratification. 

Responsibility:  Admit my failures, pay my debts and don’t look for others to blame.  It’s about doing the job we 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 bail them out.  Our children pick up this behavior.  If it’s never our fault, no one ever learns from mistakes and improves.  It’s a downward cycle.

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 or by following our gut reactions.  Advertisers, politicians and the media take advantage of us by appealing to our emotions, presenting faulty statistics and arguments, and using stars and idols to hype their products.

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 and live my life differently.  I put proper emphasis on possessions and special events and practice moderation.

See how these dimensions link together.  I decide I want the “American dream,” to buy a house.  I don’t use perspective to be grateful for what I have and understand that a house is nice, but my apartment is adequate for my needs right now.  I don’t use critical thinking to examine my budget or carefully read the fine print.  My low discipline makes me unwilling to wait until I can better afford it.  When the interest rate goes up and I can’t afford to pay, I blame the evil bankers who talked me into it.  This happens to millions of people and we have a financial crisis that affects even those who used good judgment.  Some people are so angry, they trash the house on the way out, not caring that the cost will be absorbed not by the evil bank, but by their neighbors whose property values sink even lower and by the evil bank’s honest customers who will get less for their money, pay higher interest or be shut out of getting a loan.  It doesn’t start with the government or the bankers, though they do play a role.  It starts with individual behavior that accumulates to a large group level and leads to a financial crisis for the entire society.

Strong behavior (words, actions, choices) in these five categories leads to positive outcomes.  Overall weak performance will cause the problems and crises to continue to pile up.  The simple, everyday examples given in these bi-weekly essays are meant to show the symptoms of problems that build over time into major failures.  Not recognizing the underlying behavioral factors has led us to ineffective solutions, more controversy and increasingly uncivil discourse.

The road to success is through the five dimensions.  If the majority of Americans took them seriously, trying to behave just a little better and not tolerating the behavior of those who refused or denied the problems, the country would turn around.  As long as we depend on magic government solutions and apologize for the slackers, we will get more of the same.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Salt: More or Less?

Here is an interesting dilemma.  Within 24 hours CBS and NBC each posted an article on Americans’ salt intake.  One said it’s a problem and the other said it was OK.

CBS (at 4:27 PM on August 14) says we consume too much salt, almost three to four times as much as recommended and that it leads to high blood pressure and other problems.  “A new study from the New England Journal of Medicine says more 1.5 million heart-related deaths worldwide can be blamed on eating too much salt.”  Recommendations range between 1500 mg per day from the American Heart Association and 2300 mg from the FDA.  Later in the story they mention that another study addressed the problem of too little salt, but discount the findings of that study with a severe critique from their expert.  Then they go on to blame packaged foods for most of the problem, 65% from groceries, 25% from restaurants, and only 10% added at the table or in cooking.

Meanwhile NBC (at 5:02 PM on the evening before) told us that it’s not a problem.  They cite a different article from the same source, the New England Journal of Medicine.  “New research suggests that healthy people can eat about twice the amount of salt that’s currently recommended — or about as much as most people consume anyway.”  In a study of 100,000 people this study concludes that:  “people who consumed 3,000 to 6,000 milligrams per day had a lower risk of death and cardiovascular events than those who had more than 6,000 mg or less than 3,000 mg.” They, in turn, acknowledge the study cited by CBS, but their expert defends this too-little-salt study admitting some weaknesses, “but called it massive and said it ‘well might be the best data we’re going to get.’ ”  Their expert goes on to say that the study cited by CBS also had flawed data and concludes by pointing out: “Japan, one of the highest salt consumers, has one of the longest lifespans.”  Needless to say, the American Heart Association is not pleased with this idea and urges the FDA to ignore it.

The first question that comes to mind is:  Are we eating twice as much or three to four times as much salt as recommended?  Are they even using the same recommendations to compare?  The only place the two seem to agree is that if you are over 60 or already have high blood pressure, you should watch your salt intake.  Does anyone have an answer to this one?  A question that goes to the heart of the matter is: why does one network website choose to headline one study and interview an expert who promotes it and dismisses the other study, while the other network takes exactly the opposite approach?  Wouldn’t it be more honest, balanced, and “journalistic” to report the apparent controversy instead of picking sides?  Are they just competing to see which headline is more inflammatory?  It certainly shows that what we get is not necessarily news, but what the networks choose to report.  If this is the way they act one simple issue like salt, how can we trust them on others?