Monday, July 11, 2016

Mythology by Dimension

Last time I wrote about understanding the world by using the lens of mythology.  Everyone has beliefs that they’ve developed since childhood through interactions with parents, teachers, friends, reading and learning.  As this personal mythology matures it becomes a guide for action, a guide for making moral decisions, judging right and wrong.  We each see ourselves as heroes of our own stories, stars of an imaginary movie playing inside our heads.  When we act in concert with our beliefs we are behaving heroically.  Otherwise we are cowards and a disappointment to ourselves.

Our friends, the people we hang out with, what I have called the tribe reinforce these beliefs.  (I purposely use primitive terms like tribe and mythology to emphasize the primitive nature of these reactions.  These core beliefs go deep and are very hard to change.)  When ideas contrary to our mythology arise our tribe helps us combat them by finding examples of how we are right and by shouting down the opposition, portraying them as villainous, evil, stupid, idiotic, naïve, and greedy.  The “others” are purposely lying to us to advance their selfish goals.

But that is usually not the case.  Those we consider villains are heroes of their own mythology, fighting the good fight on the side of what they believe is right.

That’s why we see so much division in the country today.  Everyone is so busy accusing each other of villainy, pointing fingers and calling names, that nothing gets settled.

Now comes the behavioral model.  Behavior has consequences.  If actions hurt you, stop doing them.  If actions cause suffering for others or fail over the long term to relieve their suffering, stop doing them.  We must use these same criteria to adjust our own behavior and to challenge the actions of others.  Name-calling and accusations don’t solve anything.  Behavior is the guide.  Unfortunately personal mythology blinds individuals to many behavioral errors.  Here are a few examples by dimension.

Economic understanding points out that there is no magic money tree.  Money always comes from somewhere, and we can usually trace it back to our own pockets.  When sympathetic juries hand out large awards to compensate for a loss, they fail to understand that insurance companies do not have a big, endless pool of money.  They get their money from us in premiums and will find a way to recoup the loss.  Their competitors will also see how such actions increase their risk and will take defensive action.  Everyone’s premiums go up.  It’s a myth that no one is hurt and only good comes out of this redistribution from the rich companies to the poor victims, but many cling to this myth.

Economic understanding points out that the economic “pie” is not fixed.  It’s not always a zero sum game with winners and losers.  The standard of living for everyone in the US has increased dramatically over the last century – for everyone!  The rich are better off than they were with more luxuries.  The poor are better off than they were with more conveniences.  Delivering fresh produce to a food pantry last year I heard clients discussing the best place to buy an inexpensive microwave oven.  Fifty years ago no one, rich or poor, had a microwave oven!  The rich are getting richer, but that does not imply the poor are getting poorer.  (Note: This Congressional Budget Office report shows distribution of income growth 1979-2007 was skewed toward the higher incomes, but all income levels experienced some growth.)

Many companies and industries are big and powerful.  Barring government interference, companies grow big by getting more customers.  The smart way to get more customers is to give them what they want at a reasonable price.  A bad way to attract customers is to treat them poorly or try to cheat them.  Most companies are smart enough to figure this out or they don’t stay in business very long.  A common myth is that all big companies are greedy and evil based on the actions of a few.  Sure CEOs are overpaid, but so are star athletes, TV and movie stars, super models and rock musicians; but you don’t hear people complaining about George Clooney making too much money.  And you don’t see people planning to skip the next Disney movie to protest how much the CEO is paid compared to the average Disney worker.  Our personal mythology is selective.

(In the interest of your time, I’ll continue the discussion on Friday.)

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