Friday, August 31, 2012

The Relentless, Fruitless Search for Facts

In my younger days, I was something of a know-it-all. (I can hear my wife now, saying, "are you counting yesterday as your 'younger days'?) In school, or talking with my family, I couldn't resist lobbing in the facts of whatever was being discussed. From which, of course, I learned that you shouldn't do that if you want people to stay in the same room as you. To be honest, though, what I eventually learned is that much of what I thought of as facts, or more accurately as truth, didn't deserve that lofty title.

I was led to think about this yesterday when I had a brief chat with a respected colleague about the Republican convention, and in particular Paul Ryan. He liked Ryan, overall, but said (the following quote, being from memory, is not a fact), "I'm really disappointed that he lied about that GM factory closing. I don't know why he had to do that." Having seen Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz condemn him as a liar the night before, I told him that I thought the timeline was not as black and white as some were saying, and that Ryan hadn't played with the facts. 

But I had a further thought after we parted: we have created a political (and really a social) culture where opinions are valued, as my dad used to say, "like assholes...everyone's got one, and they usually stink." Contrasted to opinions are facts, which we say are the only things that really matter. So people on both sides of any debate work incredibly hard to have their beliefs, theories and explanations enshrined as facts, and the other side's declared mere opinion, or (in the case of Paul Ryan) smeared as mere falsehood.

Let's go back to the Paul Ryan speech to see what I mean. (The link has an interesting analysis of competing truth claims from NPR). He said

"President Barack Obama came to office during an economic crisis, as he has reminded us a time or two. Those were very tough days, and any fair measure of his record has to take that into account. My home state voted for President Obama. When he talked about change, many people liked the sound of it, especially in Janesville, [Wis.], where we were about to lose a major factory.
"A lot of guys I went to high school with worked at that GM plant. Right there at that plant, candidate Obama said: 'I believe that if our government is there to support you ... this plant will be here for another hundred years.' That's what he said in 2008.
"Well, as it turned out, that plant didn't last another year. It is locked up and empty to this day. And that's how it is in so many towns today, where the recovery that was promised is nowhere in sight." (emphasis from source article)
So if we wanted to map it out a bit, we could say that Ryan, first, acknowledged that we have to acknowledge the President didn't have it easy, noted that the factory was imperiled, stated that then-candidate Obama offered a (somewhat conditional) pledge to save that factory, and then noted that the factory was soon closed for good. If you read NPR's analysis, or any other, I don't think you will find that anyone is saying those statements were, in the basic sense of the word, false.

The dispute, such as it is, can be found in this passage from the Washington Post's Fact Check

In his acceptance speech, GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan appeared to suggest that President Obama was responsible for the closing of a GM plant in Ryan’s home town of Janesville, Wis.
Obama gave his speech in February 2008, and he did say those words. But Ryan’s phrasing, referring to the fact the plant did not last another year, certainly suggests it was shut down in 2009, when Obama was president.
Ryan, in fact, issued a news release in June 2008, urging GM to keep the plant open after the automaker announced it would close it.
The plant was largely closed in December 2008 when production of General Motors SUVs ceased — before Obama was sworn in. A small crew of about 100 workers completed a contract for production of medium-duty trucks for Isuzu Motors, a contract that ended in April 2009.
To break it down, again, the writer claims that Ryan, "appeared to suggest" Obama's responsibility, then acknowledges Obama was accurately quoted by Ryan, then again says Ryan's phrasing "suggests" the plant was shut down in 2009, points out the plant was planned to be closed before then, finds that the plant was "largely closed" at the end of 2008, and acknowledges in fact 100 people were working in 2009. 

The first thing you might observe is that the "fact check" is longer and more ambiguous than the speech it attempts to clarify. The second is that most of the facts on offer are in fact opinions about what Ryan meant, or Clintonesque convolutions about what the word "closed" might mean. 

But what you might miss, in all of this, is that by the time we can all agree that there was no flagrant, intentional violation of established facts on Ryan's part (and if I haven't convinced you of that, please give up on me now) we have completely forgotten about the point he was trying to make. If I was inclined to be cynical, I'd say maybe that was the desired result: distract us from the ideas being discussed by raising the alarm that the truth is being hijacked. But I think there's a deeper issue: as a society, we've become extremely uncomfortable in thinking about and evaluating ideas.

Ryan's idea, if I can be so bold as to interpret it, is that government, held out by Democrats as an essential part of promoting innovation, creating jobs and building businesses, will in fact sap our vitality and harm our economy if it becomes too central. The anecdote he offers here resembles a small morality tale: an aspiring ruler promises a community that he can save their factory and their jobs, they enthusiastically support him, the factory closes anyway. The moral is that we should not put our faith in any leader, but rely on ourselves (and on the entrepreneurs who are held up as the people who can really create jobs.)

Now, none of this is factual, but that doesn't mean it is mere, useless opinion. It is an argument, a principle, a philosophy of governing, or (as Jonah Goldberg might say) an ideology. In a world where the facts alone cannot tell us which politician to vote for, we shouldn't look down our noses at belief systems that help us make sense of a complex world and determine a plan of action. In fact, they are absolutely essential, and choosing a belief system to follow is the proper task of this (and every) election. We used to be more comfortable talking about competing philosophies and using our values and life experience to choose between them, but now we dig, frantically, for the fool's gold of facts that aren't really facts at all.

I believe the desire to declare "facts" where none (or few) exist can be traced back to our respect for science. We see scientists answering some of the most complex questions of the natural world and want to do the same thing to the political and social worlds. While understanding that impulse, I would offer a note: we refer to the great revolutions of science with labels like, "The Theory of Evolution" or "The Theory of Relativity" because those breakthroughs are not facts. They are models that best explain the observations made by countless scientists, that are confirmed by abundant experiments. Saying that evolution is not a fact does not mean that it is on equal footing with Creationism: the vast preponderance of facts support evolution, while Creationism rests entirely on questionable religious authority. But it acknowledges that someday, a theory may come along that builds on what we currently know, and will better explain the facts than evolution does. 

There is no such preponderance of facts to support either "The Theory of Market-Driven Growth" (aka Republicanism) or "The Theory of Government-Guided Economic Stability" (aka Democratism). So place your faith not in the self-appointed fact checkers, but in your own ability to weigh the two candidates' philosophies and determine which one you trust.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Messaging verus Brand-Building: A Lesson from Politics

I've nothing original to say about the presidential race, so don't worry: this isn't that kind of a post. But I am curious about why our political debates seem so unpleasant and uninspiring, and why our trust in our leaders seems to be at an all time low. My contention is that we can track the problem to the constant polling and struggles to "win the news cycle": in other words an emphasis on messaging instead of--and in truth at the expense of--brand building.

David Brooks, in a recent column reinforcing a point made by Peggy Noonan, wrote about his "...attitude toward this presidential campaign: It’s incredibly consequential and incredibly boring all at the same time." He has a number of theories why, but I'd like to focus on one:
Third, increased focus on the uninformed. Four years ago, Barack Obama gave a sophisticated major speech on race. Mitt Romney did one on religion. This year, the candidates do not feel compelled to give major speeches. The prevailing view is that anybody who would pay attention to such a speech is already committed to a candidate. It’s more efficient to focus on the undecided voters, who don’t really follow politics or the news. 
Brooks doesn't get into how they target the uninformed, but I think we know: create a sensational claim about your opponent that fires up the media, and hope that the media will run with it to the point that it enters the consciousness of the uninformed voter. And, to drive the point home, run lots of ads echoing the attack.

As a marketer, I both understand this approach and am appalled by it. I understand because, unlike just about any other decision you make, presidential elections are a binary choice. The electorate "buys" one candidate or another. Individual voters have the option of staying home, but to a candidate's political operation, a non-voter is much better than a voter for the other guy, so that's alright. If, in contrast, I'm trying to sell a Toyota Camry, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to attack the Honda Accord, because the buyer can just go and buy a Nissan Maxima (or buy nothing, which is just as bad for you as if they buy a competitor.) You have to make a sale, so you might compare when you're better (especially when you're "best in class") but you won't just go negative.

But, as I said, I find it appalling that a campaign would go this route, not from any moral squeamishness (though many attacks cross a moral line) but because it is ultimately counter-productive. To be an effective political leader, you have to be a brand.

The ironic thing is that Barack Obama aspired to be a brand in 2008. In the classic marketing formulation, a brand should provide a rational, emotional and self-expressive benefit. How did Obama want to do this? His rational benefit was that he claimed the power to bridge an increasingly divided America. His classic line was, "there is no Red America and Blue America, just the United States of America." In other words, he was a centrist, a pragmatist, and would find solutions acceptable to both sides. You could argue that this was the "change" he often spoke of: not just the change from George W. Bush, but the change from ideological conflict to rational, solution-oriented governance.

The emotional benefit he offered was his other buzzword, "hope". This tapped into something deep within the country's psyche, because I'd contend we were feeling particularly hopeless after the wars, natural disasters and economic strains of the Bush years. But to achieve the emotional benefit he aspired to, Obama would need to deliver on the rational benefit. Part of our hopelessness was that our very system seemed to be failing.

Let me explain self-expressive benefits before I tackle what Obama offered: they are essentially what affiliation with a brand says about you. Nike has a famous self-expressive benefit: when I wear Nike gear, I'm showing the world that I'm a committed, hard-working athlete. Obama had a unique self-expressive benefit. His supporters were able to say, "I'm the kind of person who sees past labels (whether Democrat and Republican or black and white) and makes a visionary choice." A vote for Obama was saying you were on the side of tomorrow.

But a brand has to be very careful not to over-promise, because people don't like it when they fall for a brand only to feel it has let them down. I'd say Obama's failure (in the minds of a majority of Americans) to deliver on his promised rational benefit has tainted the emotional and self-expressive benefits he offered. If I was giving him advice, I'd say that his best bet is to go out with a certain amount of humility, and say, "I think we've accomplished some important things, but I pledged to change the attitude in DC and that is, to put it mildly, still a work in progress. I haven't done that as well as I wish I had. But one big initiative of my second term is going to be (pick issue with broad bipartisan support), and I hope if I am fortunate enough to still be the leader of this great country, that my Republican colleagues will sit down with me, share their thoughts, and give my proposals a fair shake." If he was really thinking about his brand, that issue would be deficit reduction, and he'd find a way to make a proposal that would make at least some Republicans say, "Damn, that's not such a bad idea."

But it seems obvious at this point that Obama's strategy is to say that Republicans are impossible to work with, and that they want only to help the rich and return us to the bad old days of George W. Bush's presidency. He doesn't seem to care that his message is poisoning what is left of his brand.

So, what about Romney? His challenge is that he is an essentially cautious man, and those types of executives tend not to focus on brand-building because good brands take a strong position, and by nature don't please everyone. Even the company he started, Bain Capital, borrowed the brand name of a famous consultancy. So it's not surprising that his brand is poorly defined. There seems some chance that the selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate might help him to define it, but his lack of brand-building before the pick means the pair is vulnerable to being defined as benefit-slashing, heartless tools of the wealthy. I'd advise them to make their rational value "sustainability", though you could equally say "preservation" could work: essentially, that we are going to find ways to sustain America's greatness and America's promise to her people. Our entitlements, our security, our freedoms and our place in the world could all be defined as unsustainable on the path we're on now. I'd relentlessly make the point that both Republican and Democratic leadership have made decisions that put our wealth, our freedoms, our safety net and our security at risk, and the Romney/Ryan administration will retrench us in a way that they are on sure footing.

That easily enables an emotional benefit of: "unleashing potential". People want to believe that we could do a lot better, that the system or the decisions of our leadership are hamstringing us. Give them faith that you have a solution.

Republicans typically try to tap into a self-expressive benefit of patriotism: I think it's fair to say a lot of Republicans harbor suspicions that Democrats like the America that they think will exist in the future, when we fix it, not the country that exists now. My guess is you'll see that again this year, but I think that'd be a missed opportunity. It doesn't appeal to anyone worried about their job or their family or their debt. I think they need to make people feel that a vote for Romney is a vote for optimism. That not all our options are miserable, that we can rearrange things so that more people are more successful and happier.

The trick is, to build that type of a brand the Romney campaign would have to stop focusing on Obama's flaws and say how he would make things better. And have the facts and conviction to make the case compellingly, and keep making it despite all the fleeting issues that will pop up during the campaign. But there is no reason to expect this to happen. Instead, we should anticipate the daily messaging efforts to continue. Here's Brooks again:
Both campaigns fervently believe that more spending leads to more votes. They also believe that if they can carpet bomb swing voters with enough negative ads, then eventually the sheer weight of the barrage will produce movement in their direction. There’s little evidence that these prejudices are true. But the campaigns are like World War I generals. If something isn’t working, the answer must be to try more of it.
 Maybe things will change, but it is more likely we'll keep getting messaged by both sides, and keep feeling worse and worse about where our politics and our country are going.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Collapse of Our Institutions

A few months ago, I came across this article, compellingly titled "In Nothing We Trust", which catalogues our widespread lack of faith in the institutions of public life. Here's a sample:
People have lost faith in their institutions. Government, politics, corporations, the media, organized religion, organized labor, banks, businesses, and other mainstays of a healthy society are failing. It’s not just that the institutions are corrupt or broken; those clich├ęs oversimplify an existential problem: With few notable exceptions, the nation’s onetime social pillars are ill-equipped for the 21st century. Most critically, they are failing to adapt quickly enough for a population buffeted by wrenching economic, technological, and demographic change.
The article goes on to highlight all the ways our institutions seem to be failing us. And who can deny that the pillars of civic life listed above are failing badly? Anecdotally, I speak to many people who feel as though we don't have the will or the ability to accomplish great things -- or even necessary things -- collectively.

The authors imply that this is a failure of adaptation: we need to change but we won't. But I think it is more fundamentally a failure of communication. We are increasingly incapable of telling others what we need and what we can offer. We don't have the shared assumptions, or the shared vocabulary, necessary to accomplish much institutionally.

An example: there was recently a dust-up about whether government created the Internet. An article by Farhad Manjoo ridiculed conservatives who challenged Obama's claim that the Internet was a fruit of government spending. He correctly points out that most of the fundamental technologies that allowed the Internet to develop were created by government agencies or government-sponsored research. But let's look at the original Obama quote that sparked the controversy:
“The Internet didn’t get invented on its own,” Obama said. “Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.”
This was part of Obama's now (in)famous Virginia speech, where he uttered the often-quoted words, "You didn't build that." Conservatives have spent the month or so insisting that the speech revealed Obama holds to a liberal worldview that the government is the prime mover of society. Liberals pushed back by saying he was making a totally uncontroversial point about the role of infrastructure and basic research in allowing society to function and advance smoothly. But let's go back to the quote above: Obama uses the phrase "so that", implying that (to a conservative's ears) the purpose of the Internet was to allow private enterprise a new opportunity to make money. That's pretty clearly not true: the basic technologies of the Internet were invented to allow easier communication between a group of academics and researchers, and additional technologies and programs were, over decades, layered on top of it to create much of our current online experience. Conservatives are objecting both to the apparent diminishing of that private contribution, as well as the notion that government was far-sighted enough to develop the Internet for the private economy's gain. But again, liberals hear the same words and take away only that the government's efforts were a necessary precursor to private entrepreneurship.

The schism in the electorate exemplified by the above controversy suggest it is going to be near-impossible to get the two sides to agree on anything. Which leaves institutions two options: choose a side or try to split the difference. Choosing a side, of course, infuriates the other, while attempting to be "objective" just invites endless gotcha moments whenever one side thinks you've failed to live up to that ideal. It leads to a culture marked by scorekeeping and interminable squabbles over details rather than the progress that comes from a clear and widely accepted purpose. What we have now is two adversarial social tribes, each searching for a way to win.

To some degree, this tribal combat has always existed, but it is enhanced and made more toxic by information overload. Try to figure out, for example, the potential impacts of Obamacare on our budget and deficit. Read the Congressional Budget Office analysis, which alone will overwhelm you. (I'll be honest, I haven't read it all and don't plan to.) Now look at the responses from conservatives who criticize its more optimistic assumptions, and liberals who don't think the CBO credits certain cost-saving measures enough. Who's right? They'll all make at least superficially plausible arguments (unless you wade into the depths of the blogosphere) but there's no final answer. When there were relatively few information sources to choose from, consensus was at least possible, or you would have two or three arguments, a number manageable enough to consume and judge. Now, there's always another voice clamoring to be heard, and so most people throw up their hands and trust the folks representing their tribe to be right.

I'm taking a Coursera class on fantasy literature taught by Eric Rabkin, of the University of Michigan. For our first class we read Grimms' Fairy Tales, and he lectured that part of the purpose of the Tales was to forge the basis for a common German identity. The stories we tell each other, the fundamental beliefs that inform how we process information and make decisions, those are the basis for agreement and the starting point for institutions that can function well. Nowadays, though, we don't have any common stories, and even the words we hear mean different things depending on our politics. We seem doomed to fight over who is right while our institutions collapse around us.