Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Trying New Things


I get tremendous satisfaction from writing Mind Pried Open, and plan to continue it for a long time. However, I have never wanted to spend much time promoting it, and that means my posts find only a limited audience. I've long planned to spend more time building an audience, but have never had the time. Recently, though, I read that quora.com has a blogging platform that increases the likelihood of a relevant audience finding your work. So, in the spirit of experimentation, I decided to move the blog over there, at least temporarily. You can find it here, and my first post here.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you'll continue over at the new spot.


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Wagers, Motivation and Public Humiliation

When I worked at a small agency in Boston, I found myself hanging out in a bar with a friend and colleague, getting a bit tipsy as we talked shop and played Golden Tee. Everything was pretty casual until we decided it would be fun to bet over the result. Eventually, we hit upon a unique wager: the loser would have to go up to our boss during a meeting, inhale deeply, and exclaim, "Wow, Jack, you smell AMAZING!" Suddenly the game took on a manic intensity: the stakes had focused our inebriated brains.

I bring this up, first, to embarrass the person who lost the bet and then backed out of doing it, and second to note the power of a wager to raise the stakes in any activity. If someone asks me whether I could run a 5k, I'd shrug my shoulders because I really could care less. But if someone bets me $100 that I couldn't finish one, I'm going to hit the road and be out training tomorrow. It isn't that I really, really need that money, but that I really, really like to win.

It is that insight, that people's desire to win (or to see their friends humiliated) that is driving a new approach from everything from weight loss to fundraising. And we are very creative about the types of wagers that we make. One interesting way to set up the competitive dynamic is actually to bet on yourself, and make that bet public. That's essentially what Stickk.com is doing: they pioneered the idea of a commitment contract. Here's how it works: you set a goal, for example to lose twenty pounds or run a marathon., and you set up a contractual penalty if you fail to reach the goal. One common approach is to donate some money to a charity you dislike, like an avid meat-eater sending $100 to PETA. The donation is placed on hold, and only made if you fail to reach your goal. Then you set up a referee who validates that you accomplished the challenge, and you can invite friends and family to watch your progress. 

How successful is it? According to Ogilvy PR's site: "StickK.com is doing well in helping people achieve their goals. For people who use the website to set and achieve weight loss goals, for example, there is a reported 85%-90% achievement rate." If validated, that is a far higher rate than programs like Weight Watchers and even prescription weight loss aids. It proves that people don't like losing money, but also that they don't want to be seen as losers once they've made the public bet with themselves.

More recently, a site called moolta.com has taken this idea and applied it to fundraising. The mechanism is a little different than Stickk: here, users raise money by being willing to take on absurd challenges. As nocamels.com explains:
Would you take a shower in a public fountain? What if your friends would donate $50 if you did it? A just-hatched startup called Moolta wants you to challenge your friends to do wildly crazy things, record their antics and post them to their platform. What’s in it for the dare accepters? The dare is a fundraiser — in most cases for charity.
The interesting thing about this model is that the donors are essentially paying to "win" a bet, but the daredevil who does (and records!) the act is really winning by proving his commitment to a cause and his personal fearlessness in public. And when you think about our social media-driven world, people are trying hard to be seen as creative, fearless and unconventional all the time. Moolta has combined a clever way of raising money for charity with a novel opportunity to create viral content.

Clearly, wagers and humiliation are motivating in at least two ways: in the Stickk model, avoiding humiliation and loss is meant to drive desired behavior change. In Moolta's approach, people can bet on their friends' willingness to humiliate themselves for charity, and those friends are liberated to act ridiculously by the fact that they're doing it for a good cause. We love betting on and against each other so much that there is plenty of room for both to thrive.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Wanted: A Personal Growth Engine

You may have heard about the controversy over Facebook's new Graph Search feature: some people have shown how it could expose embarrassing information that Facebook users had thought would be largely private.

I find it interesting that most commentators skipped right to the potential privacy concerns and ignored what ought to be the central question: what is the benefit of being able to search your extended social network for what your friends "like" or are otherwise interested in? (I'm assuming, here, we're talking about individuals and not businesses. Plenty of people have talked about what business might get out of Graph Search.)

I think there is the seed of something valuable in what Graph Search offers, but it is fundamentally crippled by the logic of Facebook. Furthermore, the interest in this type of personalized search points the way towards a potentially massive business opportunity. (If anyone reading this goes on to get rich off this thinking, throw me a bone, will ya?)

What Graph Search offers is the chance to search for people by their accumulated Likes, Shares, Profile interests and other Facebook activities. So, in theory, if I wanted to find men near me to play basketball on the weekends with, I could search for "Men in Maplewood who like basketball and have children." (I'd throw in that last bit to make sure I found the other old farts.) But here's the catch: I can only see results from people who have shared all that info publicly. So I might not be able to find enough guys to get a game if too many local hoop enthusiasts are restrictive in their privacy settings. Or, even worse, I could contact some guys only to have them react negatively to the invitation because they didn't realize that information was public.

Maybe Facebook can overcome these issues: they certainly have enough money to try. But I think Facebook is limited by the fact that people generally don't use it to meet new people, they use it to keep tabs on the people they already know. What's needed is something else: a digital hub that we go to for personal growth, to encounter new people and ideas that can push us.

I'll call this hub, for the sake of simplicity, a Personal Growth Engine. The idea is simple: it would be a place were you'd set goals, learn skills, and connect with people who can help you on the way. Think of it as a digital life coach or mentor. If we built an online destination with the objective of growth instead of sharing, it would look very different from Facebook. Let me sketch out a few potential features of a Personal Growth Engine:

  1. Instead of building a profile around who you are today, you would start out by defining where you want to be. What do you want to get better at? What do you want to learn that you don't know today? How do you want to change your life? You'd share what you already do and know, too, so people who want those skills can connect with you for advice.
  2. The Engine would encourage you to work with other people you already know who share your goals, since the best knowledge we have about goal achievement says it is easier in groups.
  3. Next, you would be given resources to help you achieve your goals. One of my goals is to be a better father, so the Engine would connect me with, for example, an online class from Coursera on child psychology, highly rated activities for kids in my area, popular daddy bloggers, and other parents in my area or my social network with the same goal.
  4. Another key feature would be a goal achievement plan. If I wanted to learn Spanish, the Engine would lay out available instruction and give me a timeframe to complete the levels in. It would compare my progress with other people who started on that goal at about the same time, because we are spurred by competition. And if I failed, it would suggest an alternate path to achieve my goal, for example by switching from individual lessons on YouTube to a group practice forum.
  5. Finally, the network effects would let you find the right tool to achieve your goal. For example, I might search for weight loss tips for guys who have kids, work in an office and like beer. Instead of generic advice, I would find diets that still let me have some brew and I can make work between work and kid time.
Facebook, for the most part, is online junk food. We visit it when we have a free moment to see what our friends are up to or to share a (hopefully) interesting bite-sized nugget of our lives. It isn't meant to take us anywhere or help us grow. Now, generally speaking, junk food is the business you want to be in: people would much rather get candy than be told to eat their vegetables. But the popularity of online classes from Coursera and other sites, as well as online advice about everything from raising children to staying healthy, tells me people do in fact spend a lot of their online time trying to improve themselves. I don't think Graph Search is the right tool to make self-improvement social and personalized, but the demand for that tool is there.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Big and Small and Branding (with free advice for the Republican party)

Partially because of a pitch I just finished working on, where our ideas played with the notion of bigness, I've been thinking a lot about big and small. Specifically, I think these two words have an interruptive value: they can make you stop and reconsider things.

A classic example is the 'Think Small' ad to the left. The assumption the car buying public made at the time was that bigger is better, but this ad challenged the notion head on. It forces you to ask an obvious question: why, exactly, do I want or need a bigger car? Many people, I believe, answered it by saying they were shopping for bigness because of social pressures and not because they really wanted it. And so a smaller car made them feel not just frugal, not even smart, but like an individual. The word small didn't just mean physically smaller, but psychologically smaller, moving from a collective level of decision making to a personal one.

An interesting counter-example can be found in the cell phone business, where Samsung seems to be trying to stake out a place for itself as the 'big' smartphone maker. It starts, of course, with making a phone so big that some people question whether it is even practical, but a look at their ad will also give you a sense that (even though they don't use the word) they are trying to link that physical bigness to a sense of transformation, of expanding possibilities. It subverts the trend towards smallness that tends to rule in the technology space. But I think being more explicit about the value of bigness in a space that so often devalues it would have potentially been a lot more disruptive than their reliance on the oft-abused stand in, free.

Why are the notions of big and small so powerful in branding when used correctly? I think we can trace that back to the interplay between our desires for stability and progress. Our default position is to stick with what we know and our comfortable with. But we also don't like being stuck with something outdated, so we tend to assume certain trends: that cars will keep getting bigger or cell phones will keep getting smaller. In other words, we assume progress is linear and predictable, and buy accordingly. Marketers use those assumptions to keep selling new versions of their products. But sometimes products come along that flip the trend assumptions on their heads. What is a savvy marketer to do? Challenge the trend head-on, and give people reason to think that the trend is arbitrary or played out. Your departure from the norm isn't then lesser, or even just different, but bold, better: in short, a sign of radical, unexpected progress people can get excited about.

At some point in thinking about this topic, the wires in my brain that think about marketing got crossed with those that think about politics. It might have been this article that Jonah Goldberg wrote about federalism, and how absurd it is for the federal government to interfere in local disputes about things like the proper care arrangements for the six-toed cat population of Key West, Florida. He writes:
Federalism reduces partisanship by shrinking the importance of the federal government. It increases happiness by maximizing the number of people who get to live the way they want to live.Unfortunately, proponents of federalism tend to start the conversation with the really big issues: gay marriage, drugs, guns, abortion, etc.I'm for making all of those things local issues wherever possible, too. But, admittedly, those questions are complicated or emotionally freighted. Some questions do cut to the heart of what it means to be an American.  But many don't. So let's start there.
This struck me as an interesting idea for shaking up the political status quo. However, it has a branding problem. Support for federalism is often associated with the big issues he outlines, and supporters of local decision making are demonized: if, for example, you support federalism in the case of gay marriage, you are really a homophobe who wants to deny civil rights. If you support federalism in gun laws, you are really trying to take firearms from law abiding citizens one state at a time.

So, even though I am a supporter of federalism even in the case of big issues, I agree with Mr. Goldberg that we should start with the less controversial issues. I would go further to say that the taint that has been put on the word 'federalism' might require politicians to think of a new way to promote this cause.

A model for this would be the 'Big Society' movement launched by the Conservative party in the UK. They call this, "a massive transfer of power from Whitehall [the seat of their national government] to local communities." It plays off of the notion of 'Big Government', the idea that in an increasingly tumultuous and challenging world, we need a central power to set the rules that will make things fair and happy for more people. However, I think the challenge we face isn't that people don't like 'government', but that they increasingly don't like 'big'. So implying that society is going to get big implies shifting that stress to a different place.

Almost any institution that gets the word 'big' affixed to it is loathed. Not just Big Government but Big Business (and its tributaries like Big Finance and Big Pharma) and Big Labor. The word, in the context of institutions, has come to imply imbalance and heavy-handedness: the individual is simply too small to push back if one of these forces is arrayed against them. It also suggests facelessness. Who do you appeal to if Big Business screws you over? People are just tools of the system. Any individual bureaucrat might be nice enough, but if he can't help, there's nothing you can do. (Check out this article on rebuilding after Sandy for an example.) People are fed up with Big, and a lot of them feel like it's holding them back.

In the last election, a lot of people seemed to view Obama versus Romney as a choice between Big Government and Big Business, or as a choice between the poor and the rich. Neither of those formulations seemed to favor Romney. So, my promised free advice to Republicans: be the party of Small. Right now, they try to embrace Small Business, which is a start, but what about Small Decision-Making (the label might need work, but I mean keeping decisions and laws local as outlined in the libertarian argument above). What about Small Finance (breaking up Too-Big-To-Fail Banks and treating hedge fund earners like the rest of us)? I'll let someone else find the name, but what about acknowledging that there are only a few issues where government needs to dictate a uniform standard of morality to all 50 states and 300 million Americans? And of course Small Debt, which is self-explanatory.

The beauty of this platform, which I'll call the Freedom to Live Small, is that it allows people to campaign on big and popular principles while acknowledging that local beliefs might not support each manifestation of those principles. So a Republican in New Jersey can be personally in favor of tight gun control, but respect the right of Texans to live differently, and not be a hypocrite. I actually think it would be pretty refreshing to hear a politician on either side of an issue, instead of grandstanding, say, "We believe in X in my state, have passed laws that support it, but I see no reason to impose that belief on the entire country."

But the psychological benefits of Smallness go beyond any particular law that might be enacted (or avoided). It is a promise that we'll have fewer anger-fueled national arguments, that a flawed educational or economic theory won't hamstring the entire country for a generation if it is implemented, that we won't live our lives buckling under the pressure of one powerful institution after another. It is a promise that we can increase the level of mastery over our own lives, that smaller is simpler.

Maybe I'm crazy, and there's not much to this idea. If so, just chalk it up to me being a Big bullshitter.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Mortality, Money and Other People

The data might not be this clear-cut, but clearly the US is an outlier.
How much is your life, or your health, actually worth? I'm sure you'd put a pretty big number on it. If, for example, you needed to borrow $100,000 to cure a chronic, life-altering disease, I would bet you would do so. Where you place your personal cutoff point when health care is no longer worth the money will vary, but at some point almost everyone will decide that it is better to accept your mortality than to expend your family's wealth in pursuit of life-extending care.

But what if I re-phrased the question? What if I asked how much your life and your health should be worth to some third party who is obligated to pay for your care? It is much less likely you would say, "you know, the government/insurance company has wasted enough money on me, it's time to let go." No, if you are entitled to care from someone else, you will want as much of it as you can get.

I think the above chart (which, in updates to the blog posts where I originally saw this now point out, is a display of GOVERNMENT spending, and may have other inaccuracies) is showing what happens when that psychological truth is given free reign. In the other countries shown, there is an understanding that the government will impose limits on what will be paid for in the interest of fairness and frugality. In the US, by contrast, there are very few limits. This leads Matthew Yglesias to argue that the much-maligned death panels are actually just what we need. As he puts it:
The "death panels" charge was a potent one for a reason. But not only is this health care spending on the elderly the key issue in the federal budget, our disproportionate allocation of health care dollars to old people surely accounts for the remarkable lack of apparent cost effectiveness of the American health care system. When the patient is already over 80, the simple fact of the matter is that no amount of treatment is going to work miracles in terms of life expectancy or quality of life.
To clarify, again, Yglesias was writing when he thought the chart captured ALL healthcare spending in each country, but surely adding in non-government spending on elderly patients would not invalidate his general point. Namely, that the decisions other countries make about what care is economically justifiable, which we would call "death panels", are the only way to constrain the growth in healthcare spending when the government is footing the bill.

But the reason the death panel argument is so potent is that we in the US understand healthcare as an entitlement, full stop. Politicians have sold Medicare, Medicaid and now Obamacare as a guarantee of full care. Think about this statement by President Obama: "I'm running because I believe that in America no one should go bankrupt because they get sick." That is a pretty remarkable statement, when you stop and think about it, because healthcare is enormously expensive. And as a practical matter, he doesn't mean it: someone who opts for experimental procedures, who tries a costly drug to tread a disease for which it is not indicated, or even someone who chooses a doctor outside of their insurance plan can all still go bankrupt. What he really means is that no one who follows the rules and limits the government imposes on healthcare will go bankrupt because they get sick, but that's not what most people hear. And so when the government tries to impose or extend those limits, people get very angry. And, as has been noted extensively in political commentary, older people vote.

There isn't a happy ending to this story, because people don't like giving up something they think they've been promised. But the only way out of the healthcare mess we're in is to make people feel they're making a financial tradeoff when they consume healthcare. One simple suggestion: the government could give tax credits (or even cash awards) to seniors who are among the lowest consumers of Medicare. Eventually, we could seek to establish a lifetime dollar target for an individual's government health benefits. People who die under that number would pass on some percentage of the difference to their estates. Or, we could provide an annual grant to seniors to buy coverage, and they pocket the difference if they find a cheaper option. (This is essentially Paul Ryan's Medicare reform proposal.) 

None of these changes would be painless, and there is a large contingency that wants to maintain the status quo no matter the costs. But a system that pretends there are no limits on what we can afford to cover, and implies there are no limits on how much care it is even rational to get, encourages people to seek out the maximum amount of care instead of the care that makes sense for them, their families, and their finances.

I know, in writing this, that I might be thought cruel. In other words, that I'm saying we should let people die if they're poor. But I'm not: what I'm saying is by creating a system that encourages the view that you should do everything possible to stave off death, no matter the financial or personal toll, we've driven people to disbelieve in their own mortality and have outsized expectations for what medicine can do. In contrast, I would recommend this piece on how doctors die: people who truly understand medicine, health and the human body are much less inclined to seek end-of-life care.

There is dignity in accepting when our life has run its course. One of the under-discussed benefits of giving more control of our health decisions back to us is that we will more clearly make our own decisions about when to keep fighting and when to let go. With no death panels required.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Persistence and Resilience

"You've got to be persistent."
My son is at the point in his development when he wants to run and play every waking moment. Keeping up with him takes a constant effort and a saint-like willingness to endlessly chase him and keep him from accidentally killing himself.
The only thing that will keep him calm for any decent block of time is The Best of Elmo 2. At this point, I have memorized every word on that video.

It consists mostly of famous musicians appearing to sing a song with Elmo, but stuck in there is a brief clip of David Beckham talking about the importance of persistence. It is a simple lesson, but one that I hope sinks in for my son. And it also made me think that maybe I've been a bit too pessimistic about our country recently, including in posts like this. But the best argument in favor of optimism for our future is that American society celebrates and rewards persistence.

Persistence, if you're not willing to watch David Beckham's explanation of it, is simply the willingness to keep trying to solve a problem that doesn't seem solvable after the previous attempt. It is a comfort with starting fresh, with reinvention. And America has been a magnet for persistent people, who are willing to dig as deep as they have to for an answer. And not just our Edisons, our Fords, our Wright Brothers: most everyone who got off a boat to make a new life here was jettisoning old assumptions and comforts to try something new, and was ready to keep trying until they found success. We still have an abundance of these folks, and I feel sure that if things got rough enough, we'd see more of a concerted effort by them to get involved and devise some new solutions.

I think a second element is required to solve big, complex problems: resilience. Some people, I think, might believe the two concepts are similar, but resilience is in many ways a precursor to persistence. The word actually comes from the Latin resili which means to spring back or rebound. Resilient things and people thus have the ability to return to their original state when they become deformed: exactly the opposite of getting bent out of shape. So you need resilience individually to return to your optimistic starting point and try again, but more importantly you need to live in a resilient society, one that doesn't get too distorted by bad laws or bad leaders. The US has, in the Constitution and the system of government built by it, an extraordinarily resilient political system. It has allowed a wildly diverse people over a huge expanse of territory to adapt to changing times and emergent challenges. Though we can't take for granted that it can solve every problem, it would be unwise to bet against it in any particular moment of crisis. As Glenn Reynolds wrote recently, if the federal government becomes overbearing or dysfunctional, we can evolve towards more localized decision-making that can ratchet down some of the national-level disagreements that today seem so resistant to resolution.

Nassim Taleb has been writing about something like this when he talks about antifragility. Basically, he's saying we need to design our institutions so that crisis and even failure makes them stronger, instead of destroying them. He also outlines five ways to build antifragile organizations that should be read by anyone high up in government or business. (I do think the transparent attempt to make 'antifragile' a business buzzword is a little sad, though I'll probably be using it in a presentation at some point next year.) Regardless, one point he made really stuck with me:
Some businesses and political systems respond to stress better than others. The airline industry is set up in such a way as to make travel safer after every plane crash. A tragedy leads to the thorough examination and elimination of the cause of the problem. The same thing happens in the restaurant industry, where the quality of your next meal depends on the failure rate in the business—what kills some makes others stronger. Without the high failure rate in the restaurant business, you would be eating Soviet-style cafeteria food for your next meal out.
 As a country we've been pretty good about learning from our mistakes: having 50 states means the folks in 49 of them can watch one try something new, and copy the ideas that make things better. A lot of the fear people have about recent trends is that we seem to be making the same mistakes over and over again. Consider how many fiscal crises we've had in the last five years, and how similarly all of them have played out. If we lose our resilience/antifragility, we're in deep trouble.

I grew up in Monroe, Connecticut, one town over from Newtown. A lot of my family lives in that tragedy-stained town, and I think it offers cause for both hope and alarm if we consider what it tells us about our persistence and resilience. On the one hand, we've had a steady stream of these tragedies in recent years, and we haven't been resilient enough to find a new approach to our laws or our culture that would help, and we haven't been persistent enough to stay focused on the issue after it fades from the newspaper headlines. Yet, when you see how the people of that town are handling the horror they've been through, you can't help but believe we still have a reserve of these qualities. They are helping each other, finding creative ways of getting the surviving children back to class, and raising money for the victims' families.

May we apply their example to the equally challenging, but far less awful, issues that face our government and our economy.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Empire of the Elite

The most recent election gave me the nagging feeling that I, and most everyone I know, was being played for a fool. The so-called fiscal cliff debate has finally confirmed it for me. I was foolish to believe, against the evidence of my own experience, that our leaders care about us or are even particularly concerned with being our leaders. What we are witnessing right now is the latest round of a great, global game of Empire. The people we think of as our leaders should more properly be viewed as our rulers.

This is not, by the way, an Illuminati-like argument that there is a cabal secretly controlling the world. It is rather to say that the natural state of man is not participatory democracy, but leadership by an elite, and that natural state is reasserting itself. And the elite we have is, all things considered, considerably kinder and gentler than previous versions. But the fact remains that they are ruling us, and their goals are not our goals.

Now, this is a huge topic, and I am at risk of getting lost in it, so I'm going to quickly lay out my thesis and give you a couple of arguments in support of it. My basic theory is this: in the 1800's, the Europeans, and especially the British, created the first global system. People from those countries were the only ones who had a chance to be rulers, but the colonies created opportunity for many people who otherwise would have been trapped by their class to rise. This was one strand of the meritocratic model.

At the same time, the United States was neither ruled or ruler, but a democracy (although a far from perfect one) where people were free to pursue their own goals. This was a second strand of meritocracy. But after World War II, the European empires were destroyed and the US was ascendant, although facing an existential foe in the USSR. The US, then, adopted a modified form of empire: it didn't rule directly, but provided economic goodies and military protection for those who played along. It also allowed the most talented people from other nations to come here and join an elite that would either build wealth here or take their knowledge back home. The meritocracy was thus globalized, but at the same time our exposure to the first strand of meritocracy (which essentially held that the most powerful or talented should administer the world for the greater good) began to modify our own more individualistic conception of success.

The result is ably described in this quote from a 2011 article in The Atlantic Monthly:
[T]he rich of today are also different from the rich of yesterday. Our light-speed, globally connected economy has led to the rise of a new super-elite that consists, to a notable degree, of first- and second-generation wealth. Its members are hardworking, highly educated, jet-setting meritocrats who feel they are the deserving winners of a tough, worldwide economic competition—and many of them, as a result, have an ambivalent attitude toward those of us who didn’t succeed so spectacularly. Perhaps most noteworthy, they are becoming a transglobal community of peers who have more in common with one another than with their countrymen back home.
The key word in that paragraph, by the way, is competition. Our elite are consumed with getting into a position of global prominence and then beating their fellows in the great game of wealth and power accumulation. They are not, with few exceptions, primarily concerned with building national or local prosperity. They are building a global empire of the elite, and we are its subjects.

The conversation around the fiscal cliff is a clear indicator that our national politicians, and the media and business leaders that surround them, are more concerned with power than outcomes. The entire conversation, from the President on down to David Gregory on Meet the Press this morning, is driven by who gains political advantage from a deal, or lack thereof. Only rarely do you hear anyone even mention the underlying issues of debt and spending that have gotten us to this point, and the conversation almost instantly breaks down over whose numbers are more important, and moments later we are back to looking at who is winning the polls.

The politicians on both sides work for, and want to be part of, the elite. That's why they're willing to raise taxes on income before they'll go after taxes on investment. Because the bankers and hedge fund managers who pay those low taxes on their earnings all went to the same elite schools as the politicians, attend Davos with those politicians, and go to costly fundraisers with (and often for) those politicians. The politicians know these people and care about them in ways they could never know or care about most of their constituents. Now, this isn't to say every politician is this way, but certainly enough are that it distorts our civic life profoundly.

Since this global elite is so focused on money (as a numeric indicator of power, if nothing else) it is not surprising that financiers would be at the heart of the matter. Many made the argument that a global financial system that is so complex and intertwined that the collapse of any large institution could destroy the worldwide economy should be dismantled. I have never heard a coherent argument against this position, I am sure it polls incredibly well around the world, and the banks go on more or less untouched, and they even manage to do things like help Iran launder money in the search for profits.

Again, I'm not saying we're being oppressed or horribly mistreated by these rulers, merely that they are making the decisions they think are best for "the people" without really caring about what the people want, and that they are increasingly adept at extracting wealth from us without giving much of value in return. This elite has managed to avoid a shooting war in and amongst the developed nations for over 70 years, and has, I think, done some good in reducing the impact of extreme poverty. Their record isn't all that bad compared with some other ruling classes we could look at.

It is just good to keep in mind that this global ruling class is ultimately running the show, that it neither feels connected to or much worries about the middle class in the countries it happens to inhabit, and that it feels no compunction about being very well-compensated for its efforts. If nothing else, it will help you make more sense of seemingly manufactured events like the fiscal cliff.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Baldness and Coping with New Versions of Yourself

I had one of those random shower thoughts this morning: why do some people seem to handle being bald well, while others act like it is a handicap and either hide it or complain about it? It eventually let me to conceiving of the above scale, which goes from those who don't seem to be able to deal with balding at all to those who make it core to who they are.

The semi-serious point behind the scale is that some people are willing to build their identity on who they are today, while others hold on to an outdated concept of who they are. When I look in the mirror and feel down about my own follicle depletion, I'm usually thinking of who I was a decade a go, and wishing I could go back to having some aspects of who that guy was. And when I find myself actually proud of the reflection staring back at me, it's because I see the husband, father and advertising guy I am today and not some diminished echo of my past.

Maybe if we were able to get past our endless love affair with youth culture, and our obsession with our sex lives and the sex lives of others that tends to go along with it, we'd be able to see aging and its indicators as a sign of progress and not decay. At least, I am assuming that's what Jason Statham does.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Virtues of Being Two-Faced

Politicians are often accused of being two-faced, and President Obama is no different. In particular, his critics say, he calls for unity and bipartisanship out of one side of his mouth, while bashing his opponents as extremists from the other. But what if, rather than being a fault of a shifty politician, two-faced behavior is actually the hallmark of the successful and flexible leader? 

Reihan Salam writes persuasively that Obama demonstrates a trait common to well-regarded rulers from both recent and ancient history: an ability to convince allies he is still on their side even when he makes decisions that they disagree with. He concludes a long post by saying:
Perhaps sphinxlike leaders make the strongest leaders — allies see in them exactly what they want to see, thus giving the leader in question considerable freedom of action. Ronald Reagan’s political success arguably derived from the fact that his conservative supporters saw him as a loyalist and his moderate supporters saw him as pragmatic and flexible when necessary. In a related vein, Barack Obama commands the allegiance of a large number of base liberals, moderates, and culturally conservative minority voters because members of each of these potentially clashing constituencies see him as one of them.
He earlier notes that Obama was able to run ads in local markets that contradict some of his stated positions and would seem likely to offend his allies...and he did not suffer any criticism or loss of support from his core. For example, he ran some ads in Ohio that implied he was more supportive of coal than Romney, but environmentalists didn't blink. If Romney had similarly run an ad in Ohio expressing support for the auto bailout or for raising taxes on the wealthy, there's no way his political allies would have accepted it in silence.

How does Obama get away with seemingly pandering to win support like this? Salam's answer, in part, is that his allies either believe he doesn't mean it, or that he is simply making necessary compromises with political reality, moving the country as far in their direction as is possible. Another way of thinking about this is to say that, for many of his supporters, who Obama is matters more than what he says, or even what he does. And another way of thinking about it is that Obama has a brand that is deep and resonant enough to say seemingly contradictory things.

There are a few lessons marketers can learn about brand-building from Obama's achievement:

  • Be really clear about what you stand for, and have an argument for how your actions reflect your beliefs. Although many conservatives felt like Obama was disdainful and combative, he steadfastly stuck to his brand, which was the reasonable compromiser, the "adult in the room". It might have made his opponents want to throw a rock through their TVs, but by fighting to preserve that brand he was able to hold on to moderate voters despite widespread disappointment with the economy. Similarly, a brand that changes what they stand for every time a new competitor enters the market or the environment changes loses its credibility and coherence.
  • Understand how far your brand can stretch. Obama would never have been able to appeal to Tea Party types, and wisely didn't try. He found places where he could tweak his messages to appeal to low-attention voters or the undecided without violating his brand.
  • Identify the marginal opportunities using "Big Data". Writers have commented at length on how savvy the Obama campaign was in micro-targeting different slivers of the population. Often, they say that Obama was marketed like a consumer product. But a lot of consumer brands could learn from Obama's ability to address regional issues and go beyond broad ethnic and gender categories. Hispanics aren't just Hispanics, they are also women, and parents, and employees. Obama's campaign seemed to appreciate that people have composite identities, and they had the data (and budget) to act on it.
If you want to build a mass market for something, whether it is a politician or a product, it is unlikely that everyone you're trying to convert wants the same thing. So your brand has to have room for a lot of different facets or points of emphasis. Ultimately, a strong identity actually creates more room for flexibility in messaging, because your audience is willing to forgive individual messages that don't connect with them if they are invested in the brand. And if your competitors hear your diverse messages and call you two-faced? You should probably take it as a compliment.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Incomprehensible Impermanence of Man's Creations

Change is both the most central fact of our existence and something we try strenuously to ignore. The person we are in old age likely bears little resemblance to our ten year-old self, or even our thirty year-old self. The places we live, the arguments we have, the technology we use to enhance our work and play: all will evolve or disappear as time passes.

Achilles, in the Iliad, was famously given the choice between his name carrying on in lore forever, or living a long and happy life. He chose fame and early death, because the thought of his life having no greater significance was intolerable. And so it is for us. In the face of our own impermanence, and without the promise of eternal fame, we like to cling to things bigger than ourselves to provide an anchor. Surely, our city will still be here. The church that I help build will endure. The political party I support will make changes to the nation that will have a lasting impact. But we know all of these, too, are false promises, just as someday there will be a last reader who thrills to the recorded tales of Achilles' heroics.

I wrote recently, in advance of an election that I feared my side would lose, that the United States would cease to function as the nation we know within my lifetime. The only bold part of that prediction is the time frame, because in the course of history it is inevitable that this country will end. And yet think of what that means, in terms of the disruptions to human lives (and very possibly death and tragedy on a massive scale). Think of the ripple effects on the rest of the planet. Think of what the country has endured through before now: a fight for freedom, invasions, Civil War, a Great Depression, two global conflicts, and Richard Nixon.

And yet, is there anyone who feels better about this country after the election that concluded yesterday? I'm sure Democrats are pleased that there standard-bearer won. But are they now optimistic that the problems which seemed to grind the country to a standstill (economically, politically, socially) will now be resolved, especially with Republicans maintaining a majority in the House? It isn't just that we are evenly divided between two camps: the problem is that the two sides are drifting further apart and, frankly, hate each other. When we lift our heads to look towards the future, the impermanence of this country looms, and yet we live our lives today as if we can count on things staying more or less the same.

But all of this is a little abstract: we don't really know how our politics will play out. Perhaps we will in the coming years reach a new understanding between left and right, and our union will strengthen and endure. And we have a far better example of the impermanence of our creations right now, one that literally shifted the sands under us. Sandy, that witch of a storm, challenged our notions of permanence in our very homes.

We used to know that, in particular on the shore, that we could not expect our buildings to stand forever. We built humbly, or in ways that assumed an eventual disaster. But now we crowd our shores with houses as if the sand bars and barrier islands they are plopped upon are permanent, not mere accidents of shifting currents. And when a storm comes to remind us, leaders like Governor Christie demand that we rebuild despite the warning from nature. We cannot understand that the shoreline we are so familiar with will, in time, change completely. I remember the shock I experienced when touring Ostia Antica in Italy, and realizing that these ruins, with no ocean in sight, were the remains of a once-mighty port.

There are psychological studies that show we tend to discount events that will occur in the future, but I think our focus on the immediate has deeper roots than merely preferring benefits in the short term. In a post written immediately after Sandy, Walter Russell Mead wrote the following:
[O]ne day, dear reader, a storm is coming which neither you nor we can survive. The strongest walls, the sturdiest retirement plans stuffed with stocks and CDs, the best doctors cannot protect us from that final encounter with the force that made and will someday unmake us.
Coming to terms with that reality is the most important thing that any of us can do. A storm like this one is an opportunity to do exactly that. It reminds us that what we like to call ‘normal life’ is fragile and must someday break apart. If we are wise, we will take advantage of this smaller, passing storm to think seriously about the greater storm that is coming for us all.
Yet most of us dread these reminders, and do everything in our power to put them behind us as quickly as possible. Not just because we hate the inconvenience and suffering, but because we cannot stand the reminder that our end is coming for us. We don't like admitting that ultimately, nothing we do in this world will endure. There are no permanent marks we can make.

God, I think, made this so to nudge us back towards Him, and to make us realize that He is the only infinite, the only constant we can rely on. But even believers have, at best, and imperfect relationship with God, and thus we find ourselves confronting the evidence of impermanence all around us, and yet turning away and saying it must not be so.

Friday, October 19, 2012

My Wife, Equality, and That Which Is Not Seen

NOTE: My wife in no way put me up to this post. Rumors that my busy travel schedule and an accidental trip down the Midtown Direct line to Mount Tabor have me in the doghouse are completely false. More seriously, these are my opinions, not hers, which should go without saying but often doesn't.

Economists, especially of the rightward-leaning variety, like to cite Frederic Bastiat's Parable of the Broken Window when they talk about the consequences of government spending, or how economic decision-making has invisible secondary effects, and lots of other things besides. (One of the nice things about parables, whether they come from Jesus or an economist, is that they can be applied pretty broadly.) This parable comes from an essay called, "That Which is Seen and That Which is Not Seen", and they show that a broken window, which some people might call an economic benefit because it forces the owner to spend for repairs, is actually a misallocation of resources because it diverts that spending away from a more productive channel. 

I'm now going to abuse that parable a little bit, and say that we most often observe the effect Bastiat is describing when it comes to well-meaning rules. So, here's where my wife comes in. She is "That Which Is Not Seen", the unnoticed victim of rules that are meant to protect women and in particular working mothers. In short, I believe that the rules and regulations meant to protect women in the workplace are in fact keeping her out of the workplace.

A bit of background. My wife, Kim Reed, is a very talented person who could be doing any number of things (check out her vastly more interesting blog if you want a sample) but has focused, career-wise, on product development. This is in essence the science of taking an idea from a designer or artist (or company bigshot, as the case may be) and figuring out how to get it made at commercial scale and at a cost the market will bear. She's done this for companies making curtain rods, dinnerware, watch bands and, most recently, high end jewelry. Kim felt like her job at Tiffany & Co. was a sign she had made it in New York, and that it would open up lots of options in her career. She felt that way when she got pregnant, even though she intended to return to work there after our son was born.

But she decided she wanted to take six months instead of three months, and Tiffany wasn't cool with that. They said they'd consider her for other roles when she was ready to come back, but somehow that hasn't worked out. My belief is that, in a company that is predominantly staffed by women of child-bearing age, they didn't want to set the "bad precedent" of allowing too much employee flexibility around maternity leave. And since the law says you are protected for 12 weeks, and then pretty much on your own, that makes 12 weeks the default, and woe be it if you feel like you need more time. 

Now, I don't begrudge Tiffany the right to make the best business decision for their company, and I suppose (although her reviews both there and everywhere else she's ever worked would make it seem unlikely) that they didn't consider her a particularly productive employee. But I do think that the laws that "protect" women treat them as a uniform group and define (and thus limit) what they can expect from a company. Twelve weeks is an arbitrary number, not some well-thought out limit on the needs of new mothers.

I wouldn't have thought much of what happened with Tiffany if it hadn't been for her subsequent experience in the job market. My wife has had a large number of interviews, and with a handful of companies has gone back multiple times, and left with the expectation of an offer. And a pattern has emerged. All of a sudden she stops hearing from the company, and either they completely ignore her (again, after multiple rounds of interviews taking significant chunks of her time) or give a non-answer as to why she is no longer being considered.

Here, I think, other rules that are meant to help women are actually hurting Kim. You are, as an employer, not allowed to discriminate against women with children. You aren't even allowed to ask about someone's family status or how it might effect their work. But you can't expect people not to think about it. What's more, once you hire someone, you risk an expensive and frustrating lawsuit if you let them go and there is a perception you might have done so because of their family issues. You might not be allowed to say any of this (and you're in it deep if you ever write it in an email or otherwise document it), but if you're hiring you can't help but think about it. And so I believe that a woman with a young child, who hasn't been working for a while, is now seen as a potential legal liability as much as a potential asset. And, if you decide not to take the chance, but can't articulate an approved reason to reject the person? Well, easier just to never call back and let the issue, as the said in Office Space, "work itself out naturally."

I normally try not to get into personal issues on this blog, but I think this is a great example of understanding how the mind works and how we react to incentives. The government, for understandable reasons, sets up rules that are meant to protect women in the workplace. But people don't necessarily respond to the intent of the law (which is to ensure women aren't treated worse because they have children) but rather to the effects of the law (which is to make it legally easier to deal with men or women without children). Women like Kim who have children have to behave within the strictures of the laws that have been created or else they are suspect, seen as a problem waiting to happen. 

I think that one of the greatest benefits to society in the last century has been the unlocking of women's potential to impact society for the better. We have, in essence, doubled our human capital. But a lot of what passes for "women's rights" is condescension that assumes all women want the same things or need the same protections. And I think, based on the evidence of Kim and many other women I've known, that if the genders competed on an entirely even playing field, us men are likely to get trounced.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Watching Our Nation Break in Two

NOTE: This is last in a series of four planned posts about how we make decisions as a society, and where our political leadership might be taking us. It is meant to be non-partisan, but my conservative-ness might slip through. In the first post,I discussed the difference between team thinking and crisis thinking, and how we seem to be demonstrating a team mentality while saying we are in a crisis. The second post considered the possibility that things aren't all that bad, but political marketing is making us feel the world is falling apart. The third post looked at whether we are waiting for a crisis we know must come, but is taking its sweet time to get here. This post will consider the possibility that our society is in fact splitting in two.

In 2004, the map you see to the left became a bit of a phenomenon. People fed up with the divisiveness of that presidential election (and particularly those bitter about being on the losing side) half-jokingly suggested breaking the country up into the blue "United States of Canada" and the red "Jesusland". This notion tapped into a deep feeling that we can no longer agree on the direction of the country, and it would be better if we divorced now and formed two ideologically coherent countries.

I haven't heard anyone advocating for the country to split lately, so it would be tempting to laugh off that map as a passing fancy. But the idea that the "other side" is not just wrong, but illegitimate, has if anything gathered steam since 2004. The Birther movement can be seen as a crude way to deny to Obama the legitimacy to even advance an argument. Equally crude, though nicely packaged, is this argument from Ron Rosenbaum that the Republican party is irredeemably and undeniably racist, and thus not a legitimate participant in our national debate. Lest you think I exaggerate:
In a way mainstream media outlets who promote a false equivalency between the two parties by failing to note at the very least the neo-racist supporters of the Republican Party are themselves complicit in the charade that the GOP is a morally legitimate entity. Not that racists don’t vote Democratic, and yes I know the GOP was, was, the party of Lincoln, but that was long ago in another country.
The distance between this statement and saying that anyone who votes for Mitt Romney is a racist is short indeed, and from there it is just a few more steps to an argument that any Republican elected, or any Republican law passed, does not have moral legitimacy.

If all of this is a little too high minded, take a look at your Facebook or Twitter feeds after the next debate. I'm pretty sure you'll see the liberals decrying Romney's desire to leave the poor and vulnerable unprotected to help out his rich cronies, and the conservatives attacking Obama's anti-American, socialist policies that are destroying the country's spirit and shredding the Constitution. 

So what? People disagree about politics, and they aren't always nice about it. At the end of the day, most of these arguments come and go, with no lasting impact on the unity of our nation. Our democracy has lasted almost 250 years by adjusting to the changing beliefs of its people: eventually we find common ground and move on.

There's one exception to this rule, and I think the example is instructive. As I wrote a year ago, in the years before the Civil War we had fewer and fewer common principles to help us reconcile our differences. Eventually, the differences of belief between the Union and the Confederacy were severe enough to provoke first succession, then war. The only way to reconcile these wildly divergent beliefs was for one side to crush the other, and force its beliefs upon the losers.

Is there a current schism anywhere near as severe as that in the time before the Civil War? I took a stab at capturing some of the differences between "Red Culture" (that associated with Jesusland) and "Blue Culture:

Obviously this is an over-simplification, but my point is that in ways big and small these cultures are wildly different, with very few areas of overlap. This does not feel like the description of two strains within one coherent society to me, but two antagonistic societies living side by side. It also feels like there is not much chance of one side convincing the other on any of these issues, as these views are based in deep beliefs and worldviews that are hard to challenge.

My sense is that Blue Culture is the more recent development of the two, one that has its roots in the trauma of the Great Depression and which fully took shape when the Baby Boomers challenged the moral consensus around religion, sexuality and gender roles that existed (somewhat uneasily) before the 1960s. That worldview has always defined itself in opposition to a more patriarchal, conservative America, which they felt left the disadvantaged to fall through the cracks. In the 1980's, conservatives began to push back, reasserting traditional values and worrying that the goals Blue Culture was advancing would sap American individuality and vitality. We now seemed to have reached something of a stalemate.

A few essays ago, I argued in essence that this stalemate was somewhat stable, that neither side would really move us that far from the common ground that we have somehow stumbled upon. But I think the sense of impending crisis, and the limits of deficit spending, will undermine this truce. Conservatives want to cut taxes to give individuals more control of their money. Liberals want to raise spending to extend social services to more people. For a long time, we could take turns from one administration to the next, but we can't paper over our differences this way anymore.

How will this end? I don't believe we have a second civil war in us. My guess is no Californian will want to take up arms to keep Georgia in the Union, or vice versa. And I also don't think we are going to suddenly resolve all of these problems, barring an external crisis that forces us to come together for survival's sake. I see two possibilities: one is that a financial crisis much bigger than the 2008 crash devastates the country, and our irreconcilable differences force a rapid and nasty divorce on us. The alternative (and the one I'm rooting for) is that we realize we're running in place and decide to stop, and we figure out a way to either split up amicably or devolve all but a few functions of the federal government to the state or regional level.

Sadly, I don't see America in its current form lasting my lifetime. That may be tragic, but it doesn't need to be. A country with a single citizenship, a single military, but two different systems of domestic governance, could be a good thing. It would ease most of the contentious debates we suffer through today, and would allow those who don't "fit in" on their side to migrate to the other territory. And it would acknowledge our shared heritage while not lying about how differently our two cultures view the world.

But since the odds of an amicable divorce seem so long, I'll end with a bit of a prayer: please, please let me be wrong.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Crisis Slouching Towards Us

NOTE: This is third in a series of four planned posts about how we make decisions as a society, and where our political leadership might be taking us. It is meant to be non-partisan, but my conservative-ness might slip through. In the first post,I discussed the difference between team thinking and crisis thinking, and how we seem to be demonstrating a team mentality while saying we are in a crisis. The second post considered the possibility that things aren't all that bad, but political marketing is making us feel the world is falling apart. This post looks at whether we are waiting for a crisis we know must come, but is taking its sweet time to get here. The final post will consider the possibility that our society is in fact splitting in two.

I was in a small meeting with a group of a half dozen smart and experienced marketers here in New York City, when the conversation turned to the screwed up-ness of our society and our politics. In no time at all, about half the group was discussing the steps they were taking to prevent the government from seizing their retirement assets in the event of financial collapse, how much cash you should take out of the bank and keep hidden under the proverbial mattress, and whether a shotgun or a pistol is the better home defense alternative. And the half not participating all had a look on their face that said, not "look at the conservative nut jobs" but "geez, I probably should start thinking about this stuff." Doomsday preparedness has, it seems, achieved a sort of mainstream respectability it completely lacked not too long ago.

This failure of leadership has been widely noted by the public: consider how abysmally low are the approval ratings for Congress, who are after all directly elected by the people expressing their disapproval. We often explain this seeming inconsistency by saying that a lot of people like their congressman alright, but hate the results of the whole assortment of them. But what if people are voting for the party they find less objectionable, because they accept the narrative that the other guys are mostly to blame, without any real faith in the individual they are electing? (As a personal observation, I've never voted for anyone, for any office, feeling that that individual was worthy of support. I've voted against people I thought would be awful leaders, and I've voted for certain expressed positions without much confidence in the person expressing them.)

Is our doom hanging over our heads? The problem is that we can't be sure. Maybe this is just the extended darkness before the dawn. But the belief people seem to have, regardless of political affiliation, is not that things are going to get better, but that we pulled back from the precipice briefly, but the problems are only getting worse behind the emergency barriers we've erected.

Where that crisis comes from depends on your political affiliation. When I talk to liberals, they tell me that that this is a crisis caused by our business and financial elites. In their telling, the system is rigged to enhance their power and earnings, and their narrow-minded selfishness is wrecking the fairness and the shared prosperity of the American system. Conservatives will blame different elites: those in the government and the heights of culture who want to overspend other peoples' money and try to solve deep rooted societal problems through heavy-handed federal intervention that's doomed to fail. Interestingly, one side's hero is the other side's villain. Liberals think the government can constrain the greed of businessmen. Conservatives lament that by constraining businessmen, government has exacerbated our financial problems, keeping the 'job-creators' on the sidelines.

This public split may actually be a core reason why a future crisis seems inevitable. If we can't even agree on who is driving us to ruin, how can we stop it? And each side identifying a cohort of wrongdoers who align with their preexisting politics disguises another possible answer: our business, our political and our cultural elites have all failed us. Peggy Noonan has noted that we seem to have elites in all walks of life who want to be cool instead of being leaders.

What I guess I'm suggesting is that, if we take off the partisan blinders, we might find that our problems are in no small part due to an elite that has become self-perpetuating and self-serving. This elite shares certain assumptions (about the virtue of a meritocracy created by a flawed college admissions system, for example) but more importantly, certain relationships. The fact that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have four Ivy League degrees between them is often cited as an example of their talent and drive, but rarely as an indication that leaders from both parties tend to travel in the same rarified circles. Increasingly, the elites from all walks of life come from the same background, which means they are broadly more sympathetic to each other than to those left behind by the modern world. It also means they lack the necessary sense of urgency to hold off the crisis dragging towards us: everyone they know is probably doing fine.

The problems we face don't have painless fixes. But our elites gain power by telling their supporters that they don't need to bear the pain, that it is the responsibility of the other side. So as long as the crisis is held at bay, they can retain their power through these cheap arguments. Which perhaps explains why the crisis is slow in coming: if there are short term financial moves that can be made to forestall it, our elites will grasp it, no matter the long term consequences. Because every day that they are in power is a day they can enrich themselves, and be told how wonderful they are by their cronies and hangers-on.

If the gut feeling expressed by my work colleagues is right, the crisis is coming for us like a zombie: slowly, but relentlessly. Our elites aren't thinking of that eventuality, but are playing for their short term advantage no matter what might be looming on the horizon. And the bulk of citizens, who intuit that things are going off the rails, can't find anyone they trust to fix the problem when they can't even agree on who's to blame.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Is Political Marketing Making Us Crazy?

NOTE: This is a series of four planned posts about how we make decisions as a society, and where our political leadership might be taking us. It is meant to be non-partisan, but my conservative-ness might slip through. In the first post, I discussed the difference between team thinking and crisis thinking, and how we seem to be demonstrating a team mentality while saying we are in a crisis. This post considers the possibility that we are being manipulated by sophisticated political marketing. The following posts will examine the possibility that we are entering a slow moving crisis, and that we are in the process of separating into two distinct societies.

It seems like most people, despite their political leanings, agree that things are very bad right now. The economy is lousy, the world is an increasingly unsafe place, and there is a miasma of despair and anger that seems to have enveloped the country. But what if things aren't so bad? Or, to be a bit more specific, what if we're being made to think things are worse than they are by people who want to manipulate those feelings? And, if that's still too cryptic: what if the political marketing gurus being paid vast sums of money to get their candidates elected are trying to make us feel as terrible as possible to get us to vote the way they want?

Modern political consultants have the full range of data and analytics that other marketers have. This data is so powerful it can, for example, help Target determine when a woman is pregnant, and when she is due. So we should expect that political marketers know what issues drive candidate preference in what cohorts, what personal interests we have that campaigns might tap into (I was served a large number of Pet Lovers for Obama ads a few months ago) and even the factors that will make us more or less likely to go to the polls on a given day.

This wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, but combined with one other factor it becomes toxic. Namely, we don't much like our politicians right now. Recent polling found that almost twice as many people approve of the BP oil spill than approve of Congress.And while approval ratings for our presidential candidates are significantly higher, a lot of that is probably each team approving of their standard bearer. Fixing the reputation of politicians is going to require a long period of better performance and better behavior, and no individual candidate can do much about that in the short run. So the solution is to make sure that voters find your opponent more odious than you.

This is where we confront the big difference between politics and most other forms of marketing: politics is a zero sum game. Since what matters is not getting as many people as possible to vote for you, but to get one more person to vote for you than votes for any other candidate, politicians and their handlers get just as big of an impact from denying an opponent a vote as they do when they win one for themselves. You can't sell a Chevy just by making people hate Toyota, because they can always buy a Honda or a Ford. But Obama wins if he can make enough people hate Romney even if he is almost as unpopular, and vice versa.

So if we can accept that politicians have to navigate an environment where they, as a class, are disdained, and we accept that in a zero sum game the rewards for negative marketing are at least as high as those for positive marketing, and we accept that political marketers know an awful lot about our hot buttons and our voting behavior, then we can assume these marketers are following a strategy that will increase our misery and our belief that our country is falling apart. Why? Because they know that their base is primed to think the worse of the other team, so negative marketing about an opponent isn't going to turn them off. And they know voters who could go either way aren't inclined to think very highly of politicians, so it is easier to confirm that bias by sliming your opponent than it is to build yourself up while your opponent is sliming you. And lastly, they know that the opponent's base is never going to vote for them, so the best they can hope for is to make that base so disgusted that they choose not to vote at all.

We can see this dynamic at play in this year's debate over Medicare. Both sides are working as hard as they can to convince us that their opponent is going to wreck Medicare for seniors. Neither side acknowledges very directly that Medicare is endangered by rapidly rising costs and that painful decisions will have to be made, but rather imply that their plan is the only way to save the program. The negativity-to-solution ratio is dangerously high. Maybe that's why this Wall Street Journal column resonated with me: the author argues that we are being suckered into thinking the parties are further apart than they are, and that most of what we register as serious disagreement is really just noise.

But, you say, even if the Republicans and Democrats aren't offering serious solutions to our urgent problems, we at least know that we have urgent problems, right? Well, perhaps not. One under-discussed possibility is that the problems we have might not be so insurmountable. Maybe there are structural advantages the US has that will reassert themselves over time, or maybe the public is already waking up to the unsustainability of the course we're on and will back needed changes. As a country, we have faced seemingly impossible problems before, and have always managed to pull through and continue our march forward.

After all, the broad trend of human history is positive, and there are a number of reasons to think tomorrow will be better still. At this point, though, I should put my cards on the table: though I am confident we will continue to advance in the long term, I think the problems this country (and really the entire industrialized world) faces are too big to avoid serious pain in the shorter term. Marketing is a powerful tool, but it rarely conjures emotion from nowhere. Rather, it taps into and amplifies the feelings we already have. So our natural feelings of impending doom may be enhanced by the political back-and forth, but they are based in something real: namely, a concern that we've lost control of the country our forebearers built.

I'll explore the implications of that idea in my next two posts.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Crisis Thinking Versus Team Thinking

Note to readers: election season is a great time to think about how we think. How do we process the complex information we need about the state of the country and boil that down into picking a candidate? And how do those candidates try to appeal to us? This is the first of a series of posts on that topic. Today, we start with an argument about the two types of thinking that drive societal-level decisions. Second, we'll look at how campaigns use marketing techniques to force our attention and, in consequence, make the electoral choice seem more monumental than it may in fact be. Finally, we will look at whether we are in fact one society, or are slowly splitting in two, and what that means for our decision-making. 

Many writers, including Malcolm Gladwell in "Blink" and Jonah Lehrer (should I automatically write "the discredited Jonah Lehrer" from now on?) in "How We Decide", have put pen to paper on the subject of individual decision-making. But, if my sketchy education and brief Googling effort is any guide, writing about how society makes decisions is much less common. So, I'm going to engage in some unvalidated speculation about what I see as two different ways that societies make decisions about their future.

The first, and by far more common, type of group decision-making is what I'll call "team thinking". We engage in team thinking when we are trying to improve our position or build something in a relatively safe and stable world. Team thinking defines an "other" that is essentially familiar. The obvious example is our political system, which has increasingly created a bright line between "Republican" and "Democrat": you tend to be on your team, want your team to win, and will adjust your beliefs to fit in more often than not. (And, when you hold beliefs that aren't those of the "team", you'll tend to de-prioritize them: Jonathan Last has an interesting piece profiling the collapse of the pro-life Democrat caucus when Obamacare forced them to choose.) Why? Because it feels good to be on a team. It is a source of identity, it provides an instant bond with like-minded folks, and it provides a vehicle to amplify your perceived impact on the world. You may never achieve greatness in your profession, you may not ever save a life or win a trophy, but you get to bask in shared accomplishment if the candidate you support wins an election. (Or if the sports franchise you support wins a title, for that matter.)

Politics provides ample evidence that people come together in this way for the social benefits of being on a team as they do to coherently advance their beliefs. Churchill, widely considered a man of passionate and strongly held views, switched political parties not once, but twice. Ronald Reagan started out his political life as a Democrat. If political parties were mostly about advancing coherent agendas, and not about team thinking, we might expect that politicians and thinkers who grew disenchanted with their ideological home would tend to drift away slowly, eventually forming new parties and movements to reflect their ideologies. And yet, we more often see the dramatic flip from one to the other. (Why people switch is a whole other issue, but suffice it to say it seems most often that an individual is so alienated from his party one one or two key issues that he is willing to jettison support for others that seem secondary.)

Team thinking explains a lot about the current election, like why Tea Party voters are lining up behind Romney despite their loudly expressed reservations about him earlier, and why liberals seem to have forgotten about President Obama's pledge to close Guantanamo. Our guy might not be perfect, but that doesn't matter: he's better than the other team's guy, and he'll overall help us advance or defend our agenda. Think of decision-making in a team thinking environment as a game of tug of rope: you line up behind your captain and pull against the other side, and try to get as much movement as you can in your direction, knowing a moment later the other side will probably pull back.

A functioning society that has progressed beyond crushing despotism will generally exhibit some sort of team thinking, breaking down along the dominant fault line of its day. Often the teams are strictly political, but sometimes they become martial, as we can see in the history of England: the nobles were often aligned against the royal family to some extent, jockeying for power, and from time to time these disagreements were settled on the battlefield. But these battles weren't apocalyptic: they occurred when the political process couldn't contain the disagreements of the day, and when they ended, there were new political fault lines that quickly emerged. (Shakespeare got quite a lot of material from these shifting allegiances.) Eventually England's political system developed so that disputes could be more easily contained within it, decreasing and then ending the use of force to decide who should wield power.

It is fair to say that most of our societal decisions are made by team thinking: one team gets a bit more power, advances its agenda for a time, and then the other team rallies and advances its agenda. Sometimes one team fails often enough that it is replaced by a new team. (In American history, the Whigs were essentially replaced by the Republicans, which was a reorganizing of the old team along more coherent lines.) But every so often, team thinking fails and is replaced by crisis thinking, which has completely different characteristics.

A crisis occurs when a significant majority of a society feels threatened enough. The classic example is when a country is threatened by war from the outside: In World War II, the British formed a unity government under Churchill that no longer concerned itself with any of the typical divides that marked its political debates. The society oriented itself to victory at all costs. When Churchill, who was by this point again a Conservative, made alliance with the Soviet Union, he was hardly questioned for his choice to partner with a leftist government. Yet, famously, as soon as the threat was removed (actually before the war even officially ended) team thinking reasserted itself and Churchill, who thought he could assume the support of a grateful nation, was unceremoniously dumped as Prime Minister.

There are a few characteristics of events that trigger crisis thinking that we can identify:
  1. Novelty: A crisis cannot be an ongoing political dispute that merely intensifies. A crisis erupts out of nowhere, and in the scramble to address it, the political teams are making decisions without their talking points and pre-constructed arguments.
  2. Obviousness: If enough people are questioning whether a given event is in fact a crisis for the community, crisis thinking will likely not develop, and instead the question of whether the event is a crisis will be debated by the teams. To illustrate this point, consider terrorism. We suffered terrorist activity in the 1970's (the sacking of our embassy in Iran), the 1980's (the Marine barracks bombing in Lebanon) and the 1990's (the attack on the USS Cole, the African embassy bombings), but none of these were considered crises important enough to make major changes to law and policy. After the destruction of the World Trade Center, though, we passed the Patriot Act, launched two wars, and turned air travel into a passage from Dante's Inferno. And at the time no one really questioned these decisions because our crisis thinking approach was engaged.
  3. Scariness: If we don't see a situation as potentially threatening or lives, our wealth or our families, it almost definitely won't trigger crisis thinking. If you consider the terrorism examples above, none of the examples before 9/11 happened on US soil. And before the Twin Towers fell, people didn't feel that terrorism threatened their daily existence, that it could make the life we know in America disappear. Afterwards, most of us couldn't help thinking that we might die the next time we got on a train or went to the mall. We were scared, and scared people worry a lot less about tax rates and Supreme Court appointments.
The reason for this lengthy speculation on these two types of decision-making is that I think we are living in an interesting hybrid period. In 2008, we hovered on the edge of a crisis. The economy was collapsing in a way that made people wonder if their life savings were safe, or if they would ever find work again. But we stabilized enough that most of us decided our normal team thinking could resolve the rest of the problem. Meanwhile the steady drumbeat of bad economic news comes from around the globe. We are primed to think crisis, but we have it too good to resort to the harsh measures of crisis thinking. In the meantime, we are stuck with the dreary spectacle of politicians crying "catastrophe" at every opportunity, injecting a frantic yet unproductive energy into our debates. The result? We may be getting so cynical about it all that we'll have a harder time finding the necessary resolve on the day a true crisis hits.