Sunday, April 22, 2018

The "I'm-not-biased" bias

While pumping away on the elliptical machine at Gold’s Gym the other day, I looked up to see two side-by-side flat screens showing Fox News and CNN.  I couldn’t hear what was going on (I was listening to left-leaning NPR on my headset), but I could surmise the bias of each from the visual presentation.  Fox was interviewing the African American father of a slain teen who was killed by an illegal immigrant.  Meanwhile, CNN featured a discussion over the banner “Is Sean Hannity Trump’s ‘Shadow’ Chief of Staff?”

I was reminded of last month’s hullaballoo over the “must-run” speech delivered by local news anchors working for the Sinclair Group.  I confess my first reaction to this news was, “so what?”  Aren’t we asked to do things we don’t like by our employers from time to time?  Further, there was nothing untrue in the statement the anchors were directed to read on the air. 

Still, something bothered me about it.   TV journalists spend their careers developing a personal brand based upon journalistic integrity.  And, having someone else – especially your boss – putting words in your mouth is inconsistent with the idea of integrity.  Had it been me, my Sicilian temper is likely to have gotten the best of me; and, today, I would be sending out resumes instead of writing this post.

The statement suggests that mainstream media sometimes picks up “false news” from social media without checking the facts.  That doesn’t come close to identifying the real challenge faced not only by media but also by each of us trying to figure out what to believe and how to evaluate it. 

False news?  Mainstream media doesn’t need help from Zuckerberg et al.  How about Dan Rather’s 2004 CBS News report on George W. Bush’s military service during the Vietnam War?  Or, the 2008 front page NY Times article about the alleged affair between John McCain and a lobbyist?  Both turned out to be untrue and both resulted in retractions (Dan Rather lost his job over it).  But that doesn’t change the fact that the choice made by those mainstream media organizations to pursue those stories reflects their bias. 

Then there was the 2016 Newsweek story about American interrogators in Afghanistan desecrating the Koran.  It was later retracted but not before the Muslim attacks on government organizations and NGO’s which resulted in the death of 15 people.  And, don’t get me started on the Rolling Stone rape story. 

It’s only fair to say that mistakes will be made and principled news organizations correct their errors, as was the case in these examples as well as the winners of Trump’s Fake News Awards.

So, what of it?

The word bias has taken on a pejorative connotation, as if good people shouldn’t be biased.  It’s a ridiculous notion.  Bias in decision-making has been well established since Daniel Kahneman’s groundbreaking work (which won him the Nobel Prize for Economics). 

We all have biases including the titular bias of this post.  The danger, as I see it, is in believing that we can be unbiased.  That can only lead to the certainty that we are right!  How can we reconcile our differences unless we introduce doubt into our thinking? Isn’t it possible that you may be wrong about some of your dearly held beliefs?  If it’s possible, you are open to learning more.  If not, you’ve stopped learning and anyone who believes something other than you do is dead wrong.  How can that lead to healthy dialog?

As for media, bias is reflected in many ways.  The selection of the Fox News story cited above reflects a bias in favor of the President’s most outrageous statements about immigrants.  The CNN discussion raises bias to a new level.  “Is Sean Hannity Trump’s ‘Shadow’ Chief of Staff?” isn’t even news.  It’s conjecture.  A good journalist should be aware of Betteridge’s Law, which states that, “any headline that asks a question can be answered by the word no.”


Saturday, March 17, 2018

Globalization vs. Nationalism: It's not your fault; it's our fault

In the 20+ years since the establishment of the WTO ushered in the era of free trade, the world has become more prosperous. And, that prosperity has been spread far and wide.  Billions of people in the developing world have moved out of extreme poverty.  The free exchange of goods, capital, and labor has created these opportunities under the umbrella of globalization.  Innovation, political leadership, social activism, entrepreneurship, and technology have all contributed.
As nations grow prosperous, their values change. First, as economies industrialize, the population moves away from “traditional values” in which religion, and deference to authority are important, and become more open to change. Second, as they grow wealthier, nations move away from values that emphasize the security of one’s family, or community, toward “values” that emphasize individual rights, not just for one’s own community, but also as a matter of principle, for everyone.
Of course, wealth creation does not automatically result in an equal distribution of rewards. Popular support for globalization has always rested on the premise that most would benefit, some could succeed beyond their wildest dreams through their own efforts, and a social safety net would protect temporary losers.
Among nationalists, those left behind economically see these trends as threats to normative values. Their shared sense of identity, norms, and history promotes trust within their cohort but not beyond.
This divergence in values has led to tribal behavior and polarization in developed countries.  Populist politicians – from Trump Republicans in the U.S. to the AfD in Germany and 5-Star Movement in Italy -- appeal to the emotions of those left behind with impossible promises of policies that will return to the good old days, while those with more cosmopolitan attitudes eschew the values that would support those policies.
“If you don’t behave according to your values, you will constantly be at odds with yourself. You’ll be in physical distress, treat others badly and destroy the relationships that you value most.” -- Excerpt from "The Reluctant CEO: Succeeding Without Losing Your Soul"
Today’s polarization is a result of how we, as a society, have chosen to manage globalization and technology.  Both political and business leaders share the blame. However, in this environment, business leaders -- who normally view themselves as problem solvers -- can no longer afford to view these circumstances as someone else’s problem.  Too many of our citizens feel we are off on the wrong track and socialism is now the preferred economic system among 44% of Millennials, an attitude that threatens our prosperity.
The right response lies in addressing these challenges head on.  For example:
  • The era of cost-based offshoring will be succeeded by geographically dispersed, technology-based systems, like 3-D printing, to broaden the base of people who can benefit from a capitalist system.
  • Technology platforms have evolved to support entrepreneurship that will decentralize the concentration of economic value in large, global enterprises.
  • Most importantly, as we approach full employment, businesses can address their biggest challenge (lack of qualified employee candidates) by investing in human capital.  An education system that focuses on point in time certification (degrees, certificate programs, etc.) could be replaced by continuous education and training.  Technology platforms, like EdX and Coursera, can support an initiative like this today.

Even if successful, these efforts will not be seen as a path to societal economic success unless business leaders own the narrative.  A national – or perhaps global – business alliance should take on the task of economic renewal, telling and retelling their story in order to overcome current political trends and societal attitudes that will, over time, undermine our economic foundation.  
The only question…


Friday, February 16, 2018

We Trust the Government We Don’t Trust

American’s trust in government has been in decline since the Kennedy/Johnson administration according to Pew Research.  Yet we seem to ask more and more of it.

Trust is more likely to occur in local communities because we tend to trust information we take from direct experience.  We relax a bit when dealing with people we know or with people whose reciprocal expectations match our own.  In countries with small, relatively homogeneous populations, government can successfully play a larger role in daily life.  The Scandinavian countries, so often cited as a model by liberals, are good examples.  Each has a population smaller than New York State that is over 90% native born.

The US, on the other hand, has a population that includes over 40 million immigrants, closing in on 15% of the total.  If we add first generation Americans, we have about a quarter of the population whose reciprocal expectations are not aligned with more established citizens.  The last time we found ourselves in a similar demographic mix was shortly after my grandparents immigrated here in the 1910’s and 20’s (from what was then a s***hole country).  What followed was a backlash and, in 1924, Congressional legislation to limit immigration, the remnants of which form the basis of policy today.

The social mechanisms that have enabled us to assimilate have been left behind as technology – from ATM’s, smart gas pumps, and self-checkout at Wegmans to video games and social media – replaces person-to-person social interaction.  People from different walks of life simply don’t talk with one another as we once did. 

In parallel, we have observed a breakdown of trust in institutions.  We stopped trusting our government when government stopped being trustworthy -- during the Vietnam War and Watergate.  We stopped respecting social institutions -- political parties, organized religion, national media -- when they stopped meeting our needs.  And, we stopped trusting people with different political beliefs when their politics became more extreme. 

So, at a time when we need to learn to engage our neighbors, become more welcoming to immigrants and litigate our differences locally, the social fabric necessary to our success has been torn.  At a time when more of our resources should be directed within our communities, Washington is in a pitched battle over how our money should be distributed.

And, let’s not overlook how money affects this paradigm.  The lion’s share of our taxes is not collected by our local communities or state government but rather by Washington.  It takes money to administer laws and enforce them.  So, the rules made in Washington affect us more than those made locally.  We can see the impact in our schools and our transportation infrastructure.  State and local governments can’t do much without federal support. 

So, the cycle reinforces itself.  More money goes to Washington; more of the laws that affect our local communities are made there; and, we ask more of Washington than of local governments that could be more responsive to our needs.  By paying taxes and demanding programs of our Congressional representatives, by asking them to legislate right and wrong, we express our trust in the federal government implicitly.

Isn’t it ironic?


Saturday, February 3, 2018

The Demise of the Big 3 is Good for our Community

Last week’s announcement of the acquisition of Xerox by Fuji, Ltd. is another nail in the coffin of Rochester’s Big 3.  I would contend that they have been long dead and good riddance.

I don’t mean to minimize the suffering of those who may lose their jobs as a result.  Nor, am I ignoring the emotional impact on a community that long identified with our erstwhile leading employers and benefited from their contribution to our community. 

I am simply saying that these events over the last 25 years or so are part of the natural order.  Just as the Bronze Age gave way to the Iron Age, companies come and companies go.  Both Xerox and Kodak were part of the Nifty 50 highflying stocks in the early 1970’s, a list that includes many companies that are long gone.  Those that have survived, including GE, IBM, and AT&T, have done so by morphing into something else.  A time traveler from the 70’s wouldn’t recognize them today.

I am tempted to quote Michael Douglas’ “greed is good” speech from the movie “Wall Street.”  But, the last time I did that I was buried by hate-email.  I could also quote its counterpart in economic theory, Schumpeter’s “Theory of Creative Destruction.”  But, that would put you to sleep. Instead I’ll simply point out that the demise of the Big 3 is not one of the Seven Deadly Sins and, moreover, we are complicit. 

As a consuming society, we have explicitly expressed a preference for email over the post office and Netflix over Blockbuster – to say nothing of the number of businesses that have been disrupted by the Internet from travel agents to Big Box retail.  No one looks back and mourns the loss of jobs from those transitions.  We’re too busy consuming what they sell.

And, so, the Big 3 are no longer Rochester’s biggest employers because their customers now prefer the better products and services of others. 

For the most part, the impact of the Big 3 on the local economy has been gradual.  The move of Xerox’ headquarters, the big layoffs at Kodak, and the sale of Bausch & Lomb occurred over a 30 year period.  And, what has happened in the wake of those activities?

Entrepreneurs have founded companies, like Conserve, eHealth Technologies and SunCommon NY, which have grown quickly, providing jobs and healthy working environments.  In short, our community has become less dependent on large mega-corporations and thrives on fuel provided by smaller companies with local owners. 

Local business owners are more likely to be good citizens of our community.  They support local charities, create jobs locally, and ask less of taxpayers in the form of infrastructure and tax breaks. 

We -- their neighbors, customers and stakeholders – should stop mourning the loss of a bygone era and begin to identify with the community we have become.