Sunday, May 20, 2018

Platitudes vs. Principles

Americans now reflexively expect the government to solve our problems, whatever they may be.  I am incredulous.

We have expected our government to guide our economy.  The result has been inequality and deteriorating infrastructure.  We have expected our government to ensure we all have adequate health insurance.  The result is a morass of inefficient bureaucracies and escalating cost.  We have expected our government to improve the prospects of our least fortunate citizens (remember the war on poverty?).  The result is that poverty has become entrenched in our inner cities and has extended to rural communities. 

How did we get here?

Politicians of both parties have abandoned principle in favor of an unstated philosophy that has been embraced by the public: “government should enforce what I think is right.” Whenever 50% of the population is imposing its beliefs on the other 50%, we have lost track of the basic American principles of freedom and rule of law.

Instead, we get platitudes.  What’s a platitude?  I recently saw a definition that cuts to the quick: a platitude is and idea that (a) is admitted to be true by everybody, and (b) isn’t true.

The recent bi-partisan budget deal is exhibit #1.  Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC) called it a deal that “makes us weak as a civilization.”  Meanwhile, Sen. Charles Shumer (D-NY) called it a “win for the American people.”  So, which is it?

Well, you can be sure that whenever you see both Chuck Shumer and Mitch McConnell smiling, the taxpayers will be paying a bigger bill. (In this case, a mere $288B.) Such compromises always results in rewarding political friends, engaging in social engineering, and supporting businesses by socializing losses incurred by so-called capitalists.

Some media like to focus on examples of government waste from studying the sex lives of Japanese quails to printing reports that no one reads.  While that’s great fodder for social media LOL’s and angry faced emojis, it’s not the right place to focus our attention. 

The “free market” (not that it’s really free) is responsible for our prosperity but also is the cause of much pain. Society may benefit from higher average incomes but is harmed when businesses with near monopoly power eliminate the competition or when the side effect of our prosperity is damage to the environment.  To advocate policies in support of business while ignoring the negative side effects is irresponsible.

Our strategic competitors – primarily Russia and China – have been investing in military technology while we have shrunk our global presence and are burdened by a wasteful bureaucracy (the Navy has more Admirals than ships).  Yet, rather than debate the defense budget from the standpoint of strategy, we quibble about the size of the budget and what programs should be saved in defense of jobs in one Congressional district or another. 

We should be having healthy debates based upon principles.  What are public goods that should be supported by government? Does it include protecting natural areas?  How much should our budget commit to the Smithsonian Institution or national monuments?

What is government’s role in protecting the privacy of its citizens?  Should the government guarantee a minimum standard of living?  How should we restructure Social Security and Medicare to ensure benefits for an aging population without overwhelming the generation still at work?  How should our immigration policy be redrawn to ensure our economic growth while treating those who wish to come here humanely?

These are the debates we should be having.  Instead, conservatives focus on how to undermine the effectiveness of institutions that provide women’s health services, while liberals endeavor to restore the 20th Century glory of a now obsolete trade union model. 

Both liberals and conservatives can agree in principle on the need to ensure our prosperity while providing an effective social safety net.  Both can agree that we need to maintain a leading edge in military technology in order to ensure our national security.  Both can agree that our environment must be protected by government regulation.  We should have a healthy debate on all these matters. 

Unfortunately, we can’t do so until we get past the perceived need to govern by platitude rather than principle.


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?