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.