Drifting without an Anchor

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.” – Hebrews 11:1

Mulling over that last post on The Last Why gave me time to consider the following:

Given the influence of social media and the Internet, a Dunbar Group is probably no longer adequate to describe our closest relationships.

We should enlarge this idea and refer to it as our Dunbar Bubble (our ~150 closest relationships and our most trusted information sources, neither of which honestly intersect with most of the rest of the world). We are all just floating in our own little “worlds,” just “filter bubbles” jostling against each other. Since economic conditions are flat, the jostling feels like competition for limited “space” rather than, in a growing economy, flowing forward together. Think exiting smoothly from a theater after a performance versus fighting your way in panic through a single exit.

With respect to Trust in the last post, two additional aspects came to mind: Responsibility and Accountability. They are not quite the same, and to confuse things dictionaries use them to define each other in a circular manner, to whit (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary):

Responsibility: the quality or state of being responsible: such as moral, legal, or mental accountability.

Accountability: the quality or state of being accountable, especially: an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions. “Public officials lacking accountability.”

Perhaps this is splitting hairs, but consider the following:

When driving there is invariably a speed limit, typically set by local or state authorities, as well as a “correct” side of the road. If we were honest we’d have to admit that speed limits are never too high for what we’re comfortable with; they’re always too slow. But they’re there for a reason – the common good, whether that be for a residential area, school zone, construction zone, or narrow lanes with no shoulder or safe exit path. Our responsibility is to those around us as well as ourselves (and theirs for themselves including us), but our accountability, however, is to the agency charged with enforcing the limits – local or state police. Our “loss aversion” instinct tells us there’s not much potential loss for exceeding the speed limit, but it’s whopping if we drive on the “other” side of the road. So we don’t.

Then consider taxes, whether local, state, or federal. Again, these are set by authorities for specific purposes to benefit the common good. However, we are accountable to the tax authorities and the courts if we fail to meet our responsibilities.

In both of these cases, notice the following truths: the imperfect laws were written by imperfect people to spread around responsibility for the common good in as fair a manner as reasonably (conceivably?) possible, and delegate responsibility to each of us individually to faithfully meet them.

And thereby hangs the tale.

Since the laws were written by imperfect people, it follows that the laws are also imperfect – they contain what we call loopholes. And if there’s a loophole, there’ll be a body slipping though it somewhere. In fact, everywhere.

We saw this in a previous post, where studies have shown that with regards to paying taxes, the average individual manages to avoid about 3% of the taxes the law expects them to pay, but the top 0.05% of the population manages to avoid, on the average, about 15% of its obligations.

And on the highway, my observations are that if I am going 70 mph in a 70 mph zone (with cruise control and a tracking GPS indicating 70 mph), about 90% of the traffic, including trucks, is flying by. Except, of course where there are police, which I know about because a majority of those people who flew by me have forewarned me by posting a “Report” on Waze. And all but a few oblivious drivers slow down.

Why do we do this? (Sorry, apparently there are still more Whys?)

If we look into the Behavior Curve it should become a bit clearer.

The Behavior Curve simply indicates how our behavior changes (on a communal level, from constructive or building on the right, to surviving, to destructive or taking on the left) depending upon how much “Self” is coursing through our minds, either consciously or unconsciously. At the far right of the curve, well into the constructive behavior zone and being more focused on the well being of others, there is still a measurable component of “taking care of myself” that is there. No one can be so completely altruistic that they are 100% other-oriented.

And this ever-present component of “Self,” even if it is only 20% or 30% of our subconscious concern, is enough to sway or alter our behavior. Why?

Because, even if we are Givers (to the right) and not Takers (to the left) and feel we are constantly in a “serving others” mode, it is sometimes virtually impossible not to hold ourselves accountable to – ourselves. No matter how hard we try.

I’m a little late and there isn’t much other traffic on the road, and there’s no indication that there are police around to “hold me accountable,” so I’ll be accountable to myself and speed up to make up time.

And I’ll pad my charitable mileage deduction because it still costs me the same to drive as it does for business, and look what I’m contributing so that the government doesn’t have to step in. Besides the fact I deserve it and am ultimately accountable to me, the IRS will never waste time to identify something that small….

So, here’s the outcome: so long as we are living a world focused on the here and now and our responsibilities can be associated with a common here and now good, defined by imperfect laws or expectations that have been written or created by and will be enforced by imperfect people, there will always be a possible and probable recourse to Self. Sometimes admirable, sometimes despicable, but always depending upon stresses, forces, or crisis circumstances, the magnitude of this accountability may vary, but it is there. Because we, too, are imperfect people.

Two simple but recent examples come to mind.

The producer of The Crown (Netflix, 13 Emmy nominations), Peter Morgan, expressed the following (Variety),

… he appreciated that Netflix was as good as their word in their promise of creative freedom. “There is slightly a promised land, except that I feel a greater sense of responsibility perhaps,” he says. “I recognize that this is a golden opportunity, and I think writers and directors have yearned for and fought for this level of autonomy. So that when you actually get it, I feel a sense of collective responsibility. I feel the weight of my colleagues on my shoulders. Because if I overspend and get it wrong … [If I] make a show and don’t get it right, they’ll want to interfere more to secure their own investment. And I want to show that artists can be trusted. Financially and creatively.”

Here is recognition of responsibility, first to Netflix, for meeting their expectations, financial as well as creative, and second a collective responsibility to creative colleagues. Then there follows accountability to himself in terms of creative expectations. This is a socially admirable “self-accountability” and, judging by the results, well achieved.

Then consider the volunteer rescuers for Hurricane Harvey, part of a “whole-community response” that FEMA has moved towards since Hurricane Katrina, recognizing volunteer rescuers as a valuable resource to make use of. Craig Fugate, former head of FEMA, said (The Atlantic),

“It’s something that responders, whether they’re in the private sector, or they’re volunteer, or they’re in government—it’s this compelling nature that, I want to help them because it makes me feel good. The more I do for them, the better I feel. But, it’s not good for them!” Fugate said. “It doesn’t really make sense to people: But they need us! They need help. But they also need to be in control.”

There is this compelling nature, a responsibility for the common good, but there is also a recognizable accountability to self, doing something that makes one feel good (and possibly also regaining some control). While a bit self-serving, it’s only slightly self-serving considering the contribution made to all those rescued.

One would have a hard time criticizing people for being this “selfish” in these two circumstances, but one can recognize a respectable accountability to Self in each case. We admire them, even though Self benefits to a certain degree.

I think the disappearance of Trust described last time should be viewed as the unintended consequence, the long building result of the overt removal of prayer from public places, coupled with the consequential and more covert slow decrease in open respect for religion and faith in a higher power.

The Behavior Curve considers only Values and Self in its construction. But when one removes or minimizes the highest external driving force that established these fundamental values, then values begin to “float” and become determined primarily by the here and now and the social Dunbar Bubble of culture that dominates one’s life. This “floating” happens because one has also removed the highest external focus of one’s accountability for these values, and replaced it with an internal, relative one.

Instead of God, it is now Self.

Yes, but… research from the Pew Research Center indicates that ~90% of Americans believe in God to some degree.

If that is the case, at whatever level that “belief” is, it apparently doesn’t do a very good job in influencing Values, which then translate into Attitudes, which by Choice then become those rather overt selfish Practiced Behaviors everyone observes. Attitudes become Behaviors by Choice.

The truth is, belief in God at any level doesn’t translate very well into “Godly” behaviors, and not just in the US.  Research shows (Pew Research Center) that in Eastern Europe belief in God is quite high, but because the Orthodox Church does not emphasize translating doctrine into daily behaviors affecting interpersonal relationships, practiced behavior has for centuries focused on simple survival and preventing further personal “losses.”

It seems over the world there are very different levels of “belief,” ranging from a Consumer level (nominal belief), a Culture level (participatory belief), to a Commitment level (Practiced Behaviors actually based on Values) (here).  Historically, it seems religious organizations haven’t done a very convincing job of explaining to people “why they are still here.”

Apparently the key is not just belief in a higher power, but accepting that external higher power as the anchor for one’s values, the focus of one’s accountability, and the source of one’s behaviors.

Rather than holding oneself accountable to external here and now authorities (police, organizational management, the IRS, our subculture) only when they are really present, one understands accountability is to one’s internal values as established by an external and ever-present Authority: a proper understanding of an ongoing relationship with God. And therefore because one chooses to hold oneself accountable.

Why will this become even more important to understand?

At the moment most of us still work for organizations that operate within a location and hierarchical framework. We have an office (or if we telecommute, there is an office somewhere to which we are connected), have a manager, and probably work within a team. We have connectivity, and we execute our responsibilities understanding we are accountable to something in the here and now, something tangible, external, and measurable: management, a strategic plan, goals.

(Even if we excel at tangible objectives and goals and contribute significant value added to the organization and customers (and are tangibly rewarded for this), the Behavior Curve shows that there is a still small but significant need to provide for the Self. This is where recognition, gratitude, and unexpected appreciation play a significant role. Ignoring this intangible need probably contributes significantly to the fact that ~60% of employees dislike their jobs and/or their bosses.)

According to experts, how will this change in the near future? Here are some thoughts from Dr. Bob Johansen as expressed in his book, The New Leadership Literacies, and shared recently on the Leadership Freak blog,

Ten years from now, you could be a leader in a distributed organization. It will have no center, it will grow from the edges, and it won’t be controllable.

Hierarchies will come and go in shape-shifting forms resembling a swirl. Rock-star leaders will be rare.

In our increasingly VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) world, simple will be great, but simplistic will be dangerous.

“How do you thrive?”

In a new world such as this, for both leader and subordinates, where the traditional here and now external accountability anchors have disappeared or been significantly altered, where will people’s anchors drift to?

They will drift to the only currently “admired” alternative, the internal anchor we call Self, and the slow behavior slide we’ve seen over the last 50 years will accelerate.

We can almost formulate another Fundamental Principle here, that of the Conservation of Accountability:

Accountability to (Godly Values, Organization, Subculture, Self) = 1

As you eliminate the anchors to the left, you are eventually only left with the last remaining anchor: Self.

We can see the negative effects of this already when monitoring the shifts in higher education to more online classes where the success of collaborative projects often depends upon team members who are dispersed all over the country and who never meet face-to-face. Invariably there arise more “slackers” (self-serving agendas supersede the common good) than “workhorses” (very capable 2nd in commands), and fewer “saviors” (those who drive themselves and the project to completion with excellence, with a side dish of personal satisfaction).

What’s Your Anchor?

It is the “nature” of Human Nature that, looking at the Behavior Curve, our Human Nature acts like gravity and pulls us to the left, down the slippery slope towards greater accountability to Self, and thus towards more potentially destructive behavior. History doesn’t record many individuals who have overcome this gravity and moved up the curve to the right. Too altruistic, and, according to philosophers and psychologists, not a natural human characteristic or behavior.

The capability to think and behave in a constructive way must be instilled and reinforced from outside. By parents, family, clan, tribe, subculture, by those who already possess enough of this attribute. Believing in God isn’t enough. Understanding and accepting His expectations and choosing to hold oneself accountable to live by them is a good start.

Then we could expect to see a revival of our common Necessary: Trust, at first within our Dunbar Bubble, then our community, then in our culture, and finally in our country. And then we might constructively influence the rest of the world.

Trust is the belief in Behaviors for a Common Good, the expectation of things not yet seen.


Posted in 09: Doing, 10: Integrity, 13: Values & Self, 14: Behavior, 16: Culture, 17: Choice | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Last Why

“If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep not getting what you’ve always not gotten, but always desperately wanted.” – Anonymous, updated.

After the last post, The Myth of Meritocracy?, I still had a feeling that something remained, that something was lurking even further below the thread of failed expectations. There was ample agitation expressed in the article that, even with countering the “myth” idea, there was more.

One aspect is that, in spite of failed expectations that arise from easily identified external forces, such as favoritism, bias, unexpected competition, and, of course, the myth of meritocracy, there is also the ever present contribution from internal forces, the unexpected consequences from our own choices (or lack of them), the lack of adequate preparation, and the failure to recognize weaknesses and poor skills. It’s these internal forces that we often fail to recognize, and probably more often consciously choose to ignore. ‘Nothing I did contributed to my failing to get chosen.”

But this would not explain the level of discontent, of anger. The preference to fix the blame on outside forces, other people or circumstances would occur about 80% of the time even in the best of circumstances (the Behavior Curve doesn’t take external circumstances under consideration). But this type of behavior appears to have grown beyond what one would expect, even if one took the slow recovery after the 2008 recession into account.

There seems to be something else that affects this behavior, a deeper root that has not yet been uncovered. Or, perhaps because of Political Correctness, we’re refusing to try to identify one. Thus, I began to ask another Why?

The Last Why?

Two generations ago one could freely hitchhike, even cross country, could start up a relaxed conversation with strangers on a plane (I once got to hold a crying baby for a four hour flight after she fell asleep in my arms), on a bus, or on a street corner, could leave our cars and our homes unlocked at night or when we were not home, could let our children play outside in fields or woods with friends or new acquaintances for hours unsupervised, and could simply drop off our children for childcare. Trust was pretty much assumed in society.

Now, virtually none of these is possible. Trust is no longer a staple of American culture. We’ve devolved to be like the rest of the world.

It does not even manifest itself in Congress (see photo).

(Aaron Baggenstos photographed these bald eagles (symbols of American government and cultural strength and unity) for the Audubon Photography Awards)

The only reliable trust appears to be confined to our families and our individual Dunbar Group – the ~150 people with whom we have the closest relationship and the most mutual influence. Where we once enjoyed the affirming “Trust, but confirm,” we now practice the disaffirming “Untrustworthy, unless proven otherwise.”

A great deal of this mistrust is reinforced by the vast amounts of conflicting information propagated by these new technological platforms of communication (social media, the web), but we continue to tap into them in the search for something trustworthy. Our intuitive sense of trust has been betrayed by the more open and amplified self-preserving behaviors we observe around us. These are no longer the unusual; they have become more the norm. Why?

One issue is that we’ve forgotten that Attitudes become Behaviors by Choice. Another is that we’ve presumed that Values, rather than be intentionally taught, will develop by absorption, will be learned vicariously from our subculture and extended society, including these self-same social media. We’ve abdicated Effort.

As a consequence we’ve become more risk adverse with Trust, especially with persons outside our close-knit Dunbar Group. We’ve become more cautious and defensive. While each of us have the capability (Choice plus Effort) to behave in the upper 20% of the Behavior Curve (the constructive taking of initiative, adding value, being “Other” focused, “Giving”), we’ve defaulted to the lower 80% of the curve where the intuitive response is some measure of “Taking” by “Looking Out For #1,” where the only question asked is, “Who did This To Me?” (or its immediate precursor, “What is (S)He going to try to do to me?”

How did we end up openly abdicating Effort?

A majority of people fails to appreciate the connection between their Practiced Behaviors and their Prevalent Attitudes, which are built upon deep-seated Values, whether these are fully recognized or hidden (“Sleeper Values”). And these Values, the deep-seated ones, are taught from a young age, or caught from the wider environment (our subculture, through the Behavior Continuity), and are built on our underlying belief system.

This subtle erosion of Trust, I suggest, began when our primary values-forming belief system began to be discredited.

Once intellectuals (the thinkers) decided that belief in a system of faith in a higher power was unfounded and untenable (it couldn’t be proven by their standards), it followed that “imposition of personal beliefs on someone else” was politically incorrect. It was also concluded that it was in violation of the concept of separation of church and state, and thus any “group practice” of personal beliefs and practices outside of a faith organization was verboten. The irony of this is, that by claiming it was politically incorrect to force young, impressionable children to practice someone else’s beliefs, they forced young, impressionable children to accept their beliefs. (Sigh).

By stripping away the foundation of theirUnnecessaries” (faith, prayer and other practices), the door was opened for the unintended consequence of slowly eroding everyone’sNecessary”: Trust.

Where there was once high public regard for one’s faith and religious beliefs, it is now much more common to express this only in private. What has become much more public is open disregard if not disbelief that people still “believe in that sort of thing.”

The inevitable and visible consequence of this has been a slow slide down a slippery slope, to the left on the Behavior Curve where Self is of the highest importance. An individual’s and a subculture’s only available response in most situations has become choosing the defensive Question #1 and acting on it – Fixing The Blame.

So it appears that these are the steps to the Root Issue:

  1. If you don’t get what you want (“I want it all, and I want it now” 1), Fix the Blame; because
  2. It can’t be anything you did, or couldn’t do; because
  3. Now you feel violated, and it feels better to defend yourself against the world; because
  4. You can’t trust them, they’re just out to Take something from you; because
  5. There aren’t enough trustworthy people anymore to pursue Question #2 (“What can I make from this Opportunity?”); because
  6. They are supposed to extend Trust and Respect to you first, but they didn’t; because
  7. They value themselves (Self-oriented Takers) over you; because
  8. Everyone’s primary, healthy other-oriented values-forming belief system has been undermined, so that
  9. Values have been left to be absorbed from one’s surroundings, from which you learned to
  10. Return to Step 1;

Easy Peasy. Just not Politically Correct.

(1 Queens’ lyrics, especially these, are so culture-appropriate that they have been used in a large number of commercials, documented here)

Posted in 13: Values & Self, 14: Behavior, 16: Culture | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Myth of Meritocracy?

“If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always gotten.” – Anonymous

One subtle thread that was present in the last post, It’s not just the 1%. The upper middle class is oppressing everyone else, too, has begun to show up elsewhere. Perhaps it is the summer heat that causes blood and other thoughts to flow more freely. Or, a distorted economy.

That thread has more to do with failed (or failing) expectations, and this time it honed in on the concept of meritocracy. In The Perils of Meritocracy the idea is professed that it is all a myth, a conclusion circulating because there are some people who don’t succeed or even get on the “mobility escalator.”

This is a puzzle, as I have both experienced meritocracy in action, and also experienced it in action.

Let me clarify: I have experienced it both in action when I was selected from amongst a group of candidates because of demonstrated skills and experience, and also in action when I was not selected, was disappointedly passed over and knocked off the moving escalator. I would like to think I subsequently demonstrated another valuable attribute, having the wisdom not to fix the blame on a lousy or non-existent system or favoritism, but to pursue the unanticipated opportunity that presented itself.

Indeed, favoritism occurs, and it very likely contributes to the Peter Principle, but not every defeat is due to bias or favoritism.

The evidence and experiences of others, now able to be widely propagated via new technological platforms and expressed in the article, did raise my curiosity. And I took this as another opportunity – to raise the question, Why? After all, I sensed there was a nugget of truth in the discussion, just most likely buried under a cacophony of complaints and finger pointing.

The first Why: Why is the conclusion reached that the sharing of negative experiences on these new platforms has introduced an alternate notion of meritocracy: that it is yet another myth about America, similar to the notion that it is the 20% who are oppressing everyone, not the 1%?

Perhaps one clue is an assumed premise in the article,

The myths live on, though, for the same reason myths often will: They ratify a deeply held value in American culture. They allow us denizens of the current moment to hold onto one of the most beloved ideas that has animated Americans’ conception of themselves – ourselves – as a culture over the decades and centuries: that we live in a meritocracy. That our widely imitated and yet idiosyncratic take on democracy has been built, and continues to rest, on a system that ensures that talent and hard work will be rewarded. That the American dream is real, and enduring.

What means, “rewarded”? Is it attaining what we seek, what we want? Having our expectations met? Or is it having the opportunity to pursue it, regardless of the outcome? The former seems to be based more on the assumption of “Equal Success” while the latter more on “Equal Opportunity.”

One should reconsider that “… talent and hard work will be rewarded” doesn’t always mean you will win, but that you get to stay on the playing field. Or perhaps change arenas.

While the article would use these widely shared experiences to expose the idea that theoretical meritocracy is a myth, that it doesn’t exist at all, these same experiences actually shed additional light on practical meritocracy – to bring its reality into sharper focus.

Yes, it exists. And yes, it doesn’t always work perfectly. If it did, we wouldn’t have the Peter Principle to talk about. We want to believe that opportunity is equally distributed. But it’s not.

So, there are a couple of nuggets.  Once again, Why?

Perhaps it is time for a sidebar, a little excursion into Life’s Journey that everyone experiences, whether we recognize it or not.

From my experience and observations, there’s a general pattern in life that can be reduced to the following:

Skills + Recognition + Challenge + Response + Development/Practice + Demonstration +

Opportunity + Adaptability Success

  1. Everyone, absolutely everyone, is born with some innate Skills, Talents, and Gifts
  2. Sometimes an individual recognizes their own skills, talents, and gifts, but
    more often someone else will Recognize these
  3. The individual Challenges him/herself to develop the skills, talents, and gifts, or
    also more often someone else Challenges the individual to develop them
  4. There is some form of individual Response to the Challenge
  5. Time is spent in Developing and Practicing the skills, talents, and gifts
  6. The developed/developing skills, talents, and gifts are Demonstrated, observed & evaluated in action
  7. An Opportunity arises to put the skills, talents, and gifts into practice
  8. With the opportunity also arises the need to show Adaptability to a changing environment

Every Success has followed this path, but not everyone following this path ultimately reaches success. (Side note: the same path is also used by people with negative skills to achieve what is success in their eyes – becoming Takers).

And here, another Why?

It turns out there are two additional factors that, typically, are rarely taught though they might be caught. You either pick them up on your own, or you miss them.

Let me provide a hint by recasting the above path as follows, with a subtle change:

Skills  Recognition  Challenge Response Development/Practice Demonstration

Opportunity Adaptability Success

The two additional factors are hidden, if not buried, at every step in each of the bigger “s” above and they are very important. They are:

  • Choice – whether self-motivated choice based on one’s internal values, or motivated by external values from family, subculture, or others,

followed by:

  • Effort – action, either self-motivated by desire, or imposed by others.

These two are coupled; they only work when they are practiced together – if you come to a fork in the road and choose “left” but don’t go left, you are going to be at the fork a long time.

Included in Choice is also the need for a developed skill of decision-making. Without it, one is just flipping a coin.

Back to the article,

We want to believe that talent will triumph, and that hard work will be the tool of success. Which is to say: We want to believe that opportunity is evenly distributed.

While we may want to believe this, I agree that, in reality, this is not the case. Unfortunately, opportunities do not always fall randomly and equally in our laps. They become truly available only if we Recognize them and Choose to Respond to them (steps 2, 3, and 4 above).

Unfortunately, the article falls into the Either/Or trap and intentionally wanders off course adding a bit of unnecessary blame fixing, albeit second-hand,

But of course, that great escalator is far faster for some than it is for others. It is harder for some to get to in the first place than it is for others. And it’s been that way from the beginning: This country, as Walker put it, “was constructed on a racialized hierarchy.” It’s a hierarchy that remains today – one that is evident, in ways both obvious and insidious, across American culture, across the American education system, across the American housing system, across the American economy.

It is true, unfortunately, that one still encounters bias across America. This is another nugget.  But that does not mean that all or even most instances of failure to move up a ladder are due to oppression from above (be they the 20% or the 1%) or bias outside one’s control.

Not every defeat is due to bias and not every offense is due to racism. To take unfortunate examples and reframe them as the rule is the unintended consequence of fallacious Either/Or thinking.

Hollywood makes a lot of movies. Why are there no movies that follow the plot line: boy discovers skill; boy develops skill; boy pursues dream; boy gets shot down or beat up; boy goes home in defeat and dies; The End? No: boy learns; boy recovers with renewed intent; boy overcomes. (Rocky I, II, III, IV, V; Finding Forester; The Pursuit of Happyness, etc.). If meritocracy was a myth and only perseverance was needed, Hollywood has been making the wrong movies.  (To be fair, movies are now being made with female heroines going through the similar plot lines. However, it is still culturally unacceptable to shoot, beat up, bloody, blow up, or kill female roles. As said, opportunity is not equally distributed.)

Society does have the responsibility to create additional Opportunity in the first 4 steps in the path above, which is a program that Jamie Dimon describes on LinkedIn. But real impact will be achieved when Recognition and Response are instilled well before students come out of college. It must also begin much earlier, with families, clans, and tribes (subcultures) instilling appropriate values, expectations, motivation, and tenacity to pursue this path, rather than choosing to focus the blame elsewhere.

The honest truth is that within every demographic group or population, there are four distinct behavior groups:

  • The Unable – those who don’t have sufficient skills (they drew up DNA “short” somewhere; they didn’t choose this, but they are “poor” in some arena)
  • The Unwilling – those who have skills but lack motivation to develop them (the result of choice, either inherent or imposed)
  • The Unaffirmed – those who have skills, motivation, and put in the effort but came up short somewhere or sometime (maybe the wrong skills; maybe the wrong application; maybe the 2nd best candidate; maybe the victim of a “hierarchy” or favoritism. The latter should not be occurring, but it is not the only reason people fall into this group)
  • The Underappreciated – those who have skills, motivation, accomplishments, and achieve some measure of success (often with an insufficient amount of gratitude and recognition; even these must learn to recognize there will always be resistance and jealousy and develop a thicker skin and press on)

Realistically speaking, most of us probably fall into the last category (after all, why do 70% of employees dislike or hate their jobs), and, if we would admit it, we can identify different areas or skills where we would actually fall in each of the four categories at one time or another.

One Last Thing

So, Why is meritocracy accused of “not working”? One fact commonly ignored is that,

Meritocracy is applied by imperfect humans to imperfect humans in an imperfect world.

One of those imperfections is the inability, or unwillingness, to accept our share of responsibility for our contribution, no matter how small, to a resulting stressful state of events. These are the situations where we invariably have a Response – we pose one of The Two Questions,

  1. Who Did This To Me? (which leads to a poverty or victim mentality that tries to Fix the Blame), or
  2. What Can I Make of This Opportunity? (which is a forward-facing, success oriented response),

and then we apply the Big “”: once we Choose one question, we then Act on it.

Responding with one of The Two Questions is not new; it’s an age-old phenomenon that derives from the Behavior Curve, our survival instincts, and a little cultural incentive. It’s contributed to cultural upheavals since man could document them.

What to Do

Education and training might help all this, but the foundation starts even earlier. Talking to your kids about values, hard work, expectations, and race appropriately and early.

Lila MacLellan spoke to an educator about the best way to start the conversation about race with kids. For example, many well-meaning parents (most likely white parents) assume that by avoiding the topic of race, their children will grow up not “seeing” it. But psychological studies have shown that’s not true: Even small children form ideas about race (vicarious learning), often by absorbing all the wrong messages from their environment (Regression, or even Coercion, to the Cultural Mean).   All too often Cultural Means are distorted, incomplete, self-serving and self-perpetuating.

It starts internally with the values and expectations established at a young age, before school, in the home. And it is molded by the “Village” one grows up in. External programs might help, but only if they are applied on a firm foundation.

Without the intentional setting of firm foundation that looks intentionally, healthily, and realistically to opportunity, our behaviors will continue following the established pattern. The Behavior Curve shows that in a stressful situation or crisis, ~80% of people respond with the first question, “Who did This To Me?” with a not surprising outcome.   Perhaps the last nugget of truth is that the lead-in quote should more correctly be,

“If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep not getting what you’ve always not gotten, but always desperately wanted.”

Posted in 03: The Peter Principle, 13: Values & Self, 14: Behavior, 16: Culture, 17: Choice, Career, Gap Theory | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

It’s not just the 1%. The upper middle class is oppressing everyone else, too.

“What’d I do, officer?” – Me. “Breathing while ‘well-to-do.’ ” – The Income Police.

Busted! Or at least strongly accused. Or possibly run off the road by vigilantes. Whatever the case, the headline grabbed my attention.

The title read, “It’s not just the 1%. The upper middle class is oppressing everyone else, too,” for an article by Jamie Peck in The Guardian. I am aware of the widening “income” gap between the upper middle class and the middle class and various rationales for why this has been happening. I just hadn’t come across any attempts to pin it on a broader swath than just the 1%, or the more generic “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” I took the bait. I clicked.

The first thing I learned is that this is a short opinion piece about a larger opinion piece, the book Dream Hoarders by Richard Reeves (which I haven’t read, relying here on my best secondary source, Jamie Peck).

Reeves defines the upper middle class as those earning $120,000 a year or more (whew, that leaves me out. Never made that cut once. But, I wonder, is that for individuals or couples?). According to Reeves, not only is this group widening the gap in income with those below them, but they are also hoarding opportunities in a way that makes it difficult for any outsiders (or below-ers, I guess) to climb into it. No argument on the first claim, but that second one needs some scrutiny.

It seems the argument originates from Reeves’ (and Peck’s) assumption, paralleling the majority of the media and politicians, that life and the American economy (or any economy for that matter) is purely a Zero-Sum game. That there are only so many good jobs, spots in elite colleges, and tony area codes to go around. If someone else gets one, then you don’t.

The identified flaw, apparently, is not that there is direct classism, but rather that the upper middle class use their privileged state to give their children a head start (nice choice of words, there, I think) and set them up to succeed from the beginning, from well funded schools through to nice internships, “because of who they know.” (Peck adds, “only the upper crust can afford to do unpaid internships,” apparently forgetting that many a successful corporate executive or CEO began in the mailroom, some only after arriving as an immigrant with only a few dollars in their pockets. I sense that the word “initiative” is not in either of their vocabularies.)

“By the time they enter the job market, they have considerable advantages over everyone else. And then they inherit vast sums of wealth. All the while, they use the myth of meritocracy to justify their position.”

Wow. I feel as if I have been slapped in the face with a dead fish (one that, apparently, also took the click bait). A couple of quick thoughts:

  • “…they have considerable advantages…” Highly likely to be true. However, most of these advantages consist of a series of sequential events:
    1. They had certain skills and talents;
    2. Someone recognized these and challenged them to develop them;
    3. They chose to respond to the challenge;
    4. They demonstrated these developing skills, and received feedback from superiors;
    5. They received recommendations from people with proven skills in recognizing credible talent (i.e., not family members);
    6. They then moved into a competitive environment where they not only had to continue to demonstrate these skills (i.e., produce); but
    7. Then had to demonstrate the ability to further develop and execute new skills, levels of proficiency and good decision-making (i.e., adapt and grow).

From my experience, this sequence is like a chain – break the chain at any link and you go back and either start over or start earlier. Or you give up and don’t. It’s called Performance Gravity.

Those “high incomes” referred to? They are primarily attained when one reaches the seventh step, not when one starts somewhere in the first four steps.

  • “…And then they inherit vast sums of wealth.”Not likely to be true at all (perhaps this is another form of emotional clickbait to induce one to read further). Not only is this not true of the upper 20%, it is not true of the 1%, and may only be true of the 0.1%, at best. I’ll return to this later. The remark seems to imply that we are now subject to class overlords similar to the landed aristocracy of earlier centuries in Britain (and elsewhere). There is ample discussion of the minimal influence of the idea of inherited wealth in America in Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century.
  • “… they use the myth of meritocracy to justify their position.”Yes, there is always some form of “old boy club” involved in climbing up the career ladder, only today we call it “networking” and develop software and get-togethers to make sure we are connected. But even the “networking” follows the seven steps above to a high degree. In retrospect, I can say that more than 80% of my career moves occurred through a relationship with someone I knew (“networked” with) professionally. However, in all of those cases their impression of me was due to validating me through the “sequence of events” mentioned above. And in the other 20% of career moves, I had to validate the sequence myself.

Moving on to the article’s next paragraph,

“On a micro level, these behaviors are understandable. What parent wouldn’t do everything in their power to ensure the best possible life for their children? But carried out on a mass level, they lead to what Reeves characterizes as a “less competitive economy, as well as a less open society”.

Hmmm. Another feint followed by a slap. If I understand this correctly, what is expressed is that for each of us, as parents with children, this behavior is acceptable, a form of Survival of the Fittest, or One against the World. But if a whole lot of people, acting as individuals who independently develop and practice the same skills and behaviors “on a mass level”, then it is more or less a conspiracy and intentional oppression of those who have not developed the behavior. Interesting. It’s as if when two or more people gather together with similar behaviors, they become Takers perpetrating a Negative Sum Game on the rest of the world. I suspect there is also something missing here, but I will return to this below.

“While it might feel good to hate these people and/or convince them to hate themselves for hoarding all those dreams, that’s not ultimately going to solve anything.”

Ok, so I think I’ve been whipsawed from “understandable” and commendable behaviors (“What parent wouldn’t …”), to the unintended consequences of these behaviors (“… they lead … to a less competitive economy…”), to outright accusation of intentional oppression (“… convince them to hate themselves for hoarding all those dreams …”).

Now I’m beginning to detect a fly in the ointment. To whit,

“Rampant inequality is not the fault of a class of people doing exactly what anyone would do in their position but a political and economic system that incentivizes and enables them to do so. (Don’t hate the player, hate the game.) It follows that the solution is not individual and moralistic, but collective and political.”

And there she is, still wiggling. Consider this,

  • “Rampant inequality is not the fault of a class of people doing exactly what anyone would do in their position, …” (Oh, thank heavens. I was really beginning to think …)  Yes, there is inequality, but data suggest it is not as wide a gap as in other countries nor is it as polarized as presented. And one traditionally designates a “class” by birth characteristics, not by chosen accomplishment or earned characteristics. To do so creates a wider chasm between “them” and “us” (whoever “them” is). But since this sentence has been crafted in an absolute form, let me counter with one crafted from the other side of the coin, one with more than a hint of validity but scrupulously avoided because it is not PC, “Rampant inequality is also contributed to by another class of people not doing exactly what anyone would do in their position …” More on this below.
  • “… but a political and economic system that incentivizes and enables them to do so. (Don’t hate the player, hate the game.)” (Gee, it’s nice now to clarify that one shouldn’t hate the player after such an excellent job of fixing the blame on him up to this parenthetical remark.)  Yes, there is a political and economic system, in fact, possibly two. One, which is generally passive, provides a framework of freedom and opportunity for an individual to develop and become the best that they can be (“develop” here directly implies motivation and the exertion of energy. Like most competitive games, it requires learning the rules and how to play by them well. And ethically.). The other system, layered on top of the first, is an active system that either provides various forms of “help” that very often incentivize and enable the recipients not to do exactly what any motivated person would do in their position, or imposes forms of “obstruction” or “punishment” for those who do what any motivated person would do in their position, and succeed at it.
  • “It follows that the solution is not individual and moralistic, but collective and political.”  And that, of course, is the next logical conclusion once one has first decided that the individual plays no role (except when they are successful) and second, that the current 2nd political and economic system has not sufficiently corrected the issue. This is right out of the playbook written by Daniel Moynihan, which appears in The Central Liberal Truth,

“The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”

This is a perfect example of Either/Or thinking. Actually, the greater truth is that both views are right to an extent, and both approaches are needed to change a culture, starting with the individual.

Closing thoughts and other comments pushed to “More on this below”

One basic question that came to mind early on was, “What income sources were included in the $125,000 income cutoff used to define the Upper Middle Class?” Is it only earned income (income from labor, working any job), or does it also include unearned income (income from investments and other capital, for example). The question is actually critical. I will presume the data arise from US Census and tax data, which would mean it includes both.

At the same time the same data would show that a preponderance of the capital that produces unearned income is concentrated in the upper 50% of the population. This raises the next basic question, “Why?”

First, data indicate that 80% of the English speaking world does not feel comfortable with math at all, especially in their finances. Further, 2/3rds of English speaking people cannot explain compound interest (the process by which deposited money grows with time because interest is reinvested – the Time Value of Money).1 As a consequence, the majority of the population is at odds not only with managing their monthly finances, but planning for the future as well.

Thinking a bit more broadly, I also suspect the following would be easily shown:

  • All people are born with certain gifts, skills and talents (potential);
  • Some people have these gifts recognized by family members or others, who then attempt to stimulate and develop them as needed life skills (capabilities);
  • Still fewer of these people are motivated (choose) to respond to the challenge of developing these skills and putting them to use (opportunities) with an eye to the future (success);
  • Others are not motivated (do not choose) to respond and develop them, and pass that attitude on (unintended consequence).

So, what might be a different factor in “income” and/or “wealth” inequality than is typically recognized?

How about: Choice. And in particular, either seeking and choosing to respond to opportunities, or choosing not to respond and leaving that as one’s legacy.

Supporting that idea is the article, America’s new tobacco crisis: The rich stopped smoking, the poor didn’t. Everyone has access to the same information on the link to cancer and health, so why would the poor, with limited income, spend $8 a pack on a dangerous habit? It’s not as if they haven’t been exposed to the information, the notification by the Surgeon General. So there must be a strong element of Choice, modified by a sense of belonging to a familiar group (a “poverty clan”) and needing to follow in the group’s behaviors, that is: Regression to the Cultural Mean.

Another distorted phenomenon is participation in state lotteries and dealing with winning. Research has shown that the majority of people who participate in state lotteries are those who can least afford it: a majority of players are below the average income. The chance to win big to close that money gap is far easier to comprehend (and choose) than understanding the risks and the near non-existent chance of winning. To top it off, even if someone wins, there’s a 70% chance they will burn through all of their winnings within 5 years, regardless of the amount (into millions). Lotteries do not buy happiness, nor financial savvy. This is so common that companies exist that will buy back a lottery annuity to bail people out of the deeper financial difficulty they put themselves into through not being able to manage their new found wealth.

How about this recent article, “Wealth managers are the driving force behind global inequality, according to a sociologist of the ultra-rich.” This deals more with those who are not playing the game by the rules, in this case ethically paying one’s fair share of taxes. Tax evasion was studied in 18 countries and the results indicated that there is a section of society that hoards and effectively oppresses the rest of the world by forcing them to carry more than their fair share of the tax burden. Graphically, these are the results from the article,

One needs to look carefully at the graph, particularly the horizontal x-axis: it is not linear. “P0-10” means “from 0% to 10%.” The segments to the left are in deciles, that is, lowest 10%, then the next 10%, etc., for the first 9 tick-marks up to the 90th percentile. Then the percentiles change: 90%-95%; then 95%-99%; then 99%-99.5%. What is important is that it is only those above the 99.95% percentile (the upper 0.05%) who evade taxes above the macro average of everybody else. It isn’t the 20%, or even the 1% who are hoarding! It’s the 0.05%!

Or, how about “14-year-old Warren Buffett’s first tax return shows he was making bank even as a teen.” He paid $7 in taxes on $592.50 of income in 1944. Included in that income was $228 in interest and dividend income – in other words, as a teenager, in the lower deciles of “income” and “wealth” (i.e., if considered a single wage earner he would be below the poverty level), he already knew about unearned income and chose to pursue it!

Buffett also declares in his interview and press release, that “My 2015 return shows adjusted gross income of $11,563, 931. My deductions totaled $5,477,694, of which allowable charitable contributions were $3,469,179.  … The total charitable contributions I made during the year were $2,858,057,970, of which $2.85 billion were not taken as deductions and never will be.”

One can play ethically by the rules, do very well, and put more back into aiding society and the poor than most government programs end up doing. This is more the rule than the exception, unbeknownst to most.

And speaking of government programs, consider, “Despite money and effort, homelessness in SF as bad as ever.” Despite all the money spent directly addressing homelessness ($275 million in 2016), the problem is as bad as ever in San Francisco. Too much of treating what others think the issue is.

And then there’s this, “Coins thrown into plane engine by elderly passenger for ‘luck’.” Clearly she wasn’t “poor” as she had enough coinage to throw away (for ‘luck’).

What one has to consider is that being “poor” covers more than just insufficient income or wealth (they’re different!). Being poor can also realistically concern physical, mental, emotional, and even spiritual issues. After all, even though Jesus pilloried the Pharisees for failing to take care of the widows and the poor (and not just financially poor), he also said the poor would always be with us. Those unable to address their poverty should be taken care of. Those able to do something should be helped with actual needs, not wants.


In one sense I did enjoy the article and what parts of the book it used and referenced. It (and the must-read comments section) confirmed for me that much of what is already known, that poverty is not the result of rapacious financiers (or even a “class” of people) exploiting the poor,2 is inadequately understood or accepted. What we encounter is still built upon a foundation of Incomplete Information, that the thinking is too often Either/Or (combative, including incendiary journalism) rather than And/And (solution finding), that politics and society have superbly reinforced the General Negative Sum Attitude (“If I don’t have it, you must have taken it before I could, so I am entitled to get it back any way I can”), and that policies are too often based on Fixing the Blame. All the inevitable consequence of ignoring Gap Theory.

This must be the new American version of Saving Face.


1 The Ascent of Money, Niall Ferguson, p 12-13.
2 The Ascent of Money, Niall Ferguson, p 15.

Posted in 04: Games People Play, 06: Incomplete Information, 16: Culture, 17: Choice, Gap Theory | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Of Verbs, Circles, and the Cultural Mean

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!” – A child’s desperate retort.

Remember that refrain? Seems like a necessary staple that runs through every pre-adolescent’s life, reinforced by helpful friends and parents desperate to build up a tough skin.

Until one day the need for the refrain disappears, or seems to disappear.

The truth is, it doesn’t disappear. It just dips below the horizon, but words still exert their gravitational pull.

Julia Silge recently posted a follow-up piece about what verbs tend to occur after “he” or “she” in several novels. She looked at such cultural icons in 19th century English literature as six novels by Jane Austin, a few by George Elliot (another woman), and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. (I recall in high school I only had to read one of these, and it took me a long time. Silge, on the other hand, along with a few other bloggers who dove into this activity, resorted to coding a program to scan through a digitized literature database. They also kindly provided examples and links to their code so we, if so motivated, could engage in a similar exercise.)

Then, David Robinson, a coding colleague of Silge, followed up on this intriguing analysis and looked at Gender and Verbs across 100,000 stories.

What, might you ask, would we/could we learn from this fascinating exercise and treasure trove of information, information about gendered pronouns, verbs, coding, and digitized databases of hundred of thousands of stories of which we were no doubt completely unaware?

On the surface we would discover the following: the verbs (action words, remember, that express physical or mental action) that follow “he” and “she” tell us what behaviors the authors associate with their characters.

For Jane Austin’s novels, the “Verb” versus “Character Gender” table looks like this (from Silge’s post. As a note for clarity, these are the verbs skewed, or most predominantly following “she.” Thus, the verb “remembered” is associated with “she” 8 times more often than it is associated with “he.” And the verb “stopped” is associated with “she” 4 times less often (0.25x on the scale) than with “he” (in other words, 4 times more often with “he”). It took me a while to clear that up, being a scientist trained to always scrutinize any data plotted on a logarithmic scale.)

For Jane Austin and her 19th century reader’s culture, women’s actions appear to be more intrinsic (that is, internally experienced), while men’s seems to be more extrinsic (that is, externally expressed).

The results from Robinson’s analysis appear as follows (with a more understandable scale):

While the most prevalent verbs (physical or mental actions) change, the underlying apparent character attributes in this analysis are not too different (intrinsic versus extrinsic, except perhaps for the “stabs” action on behalf of women).

Fascinating! So from whence do these different (and supposed) gendered actions arise?

I propose that the answer is that we did it to ourselves. Those “words that will never hurt me,” the words that were contrary to how we wanted to see ourselves, became replaced by words that aligned with how we did see ourselves (for better or worse). While the “words that will never hurt me” disappeared below the horizon, the “words that define me” continued to circulate, repeated and reinforced by our culture: those around us, those in our closest circle or relational network, our Dunbar group.

In essence, it is the result of Regression (or Coercion) to the Cultural Mean, of being helped to conform to what our “culture” expects of us.

These quick exercises do seem rather broad, and Robinson suggested some valid questions for further study:

  • Is the shift (differing predominant verbs after “he” or “she”) stronger in some formats or genre than another? We could split the works into films, novels, and TV series, and ask whether these gender roles are equally strong in each.
  • Is the shift different between male- and female- created works?
  • Has the difference changed over time? Some examination indicates the vast majority of these plots come from stories written in the last century, and most of them from the last few decades (not surprising since many are movies or television episodes, and since Wikipedia users are more likely to describe contemporary work).

I, not surprisingly, came up with a couple of questions of my own:

  • Presuming that the digitized database is comprised of only English language stories (which seems to be the case), is there a shift in stories in other languages (which express “how people think” and is closely intertwined with a culture)?
  • Is there a shift associated within English speaking and writing subcultures?
  • Is there a shift detected generationally (i.e., the age when the authors wrote)?
  • And, to really nail down the current and active Regression to a Cultural Mean, is there a shift observed in current news and social media (which are already conveniently digitized).


Now, if you are beginning to think some people have too much time on their hands, the group is larger than you think.

The following exercise began with a simple request: Draw a circle. Go ahead. Take a pencil and piece of paper and quickly draw a circle. Don’t think too hard!

A post on Quartz by Thu-Huong Ha and Nikhil Sonnad followed up on this simple request. From their post,

Did you start at the top or bottom? Clockwise or counterclockwise?

In November, 2016, Google released an online game called Quick, Draw!, in which users have 20 seconds to draw prompts like “camel” and “washing machine.” While fun (Blog: for people who have too much time on their hands), its real intent is to use the sketches to teach computer algorithms how humans draw. By May of this year, the game had collected 50 million unique drawings.

Do you see the looming opportunity here? Time on one’s hands… 50 million drawings… Already digitized… And available on a public database… No time to lose.

And of great interest is what they found,

Our analysis suggests that the way you draw a simple circle is linked to geography and cultural upbringing, deep-rooted in hundreds of years of written language, and significant in developmental psychology and trends in education today.

The post is well worth the read, but some interesting facts are revealed in the data.

  • Americans tend (86%) to draw circles counterclockwise
  • Japanese tend (80%) to draw circles in the opposite direction (clockwise)
  • British, Czech, Australian, and Finnish circles were drawn like American ones, counterclockwise, with the same consistency (~86%)
  • Others are even more consistent: around 90% of French, German, and Filipino drawers submitted circles drawn counterclockwise
  • In Vietnam, a full 95% were drawn this way

Most of the world, it seems, draws circles counterclockwise, with just two exceptions: Taiwan and Japan.

A major aspect that sets cultures apart is language, especially in its writing, and the correlation seems to be fairly strong. From their data:


The authors looked at language attributes such as reading and writing from left to right or vice versa, and stoke sequence in writing. Their conclusion,

Together these studies show not only that culture and handwriting shape the way people draw abstract shapes; they also suggest our tendencies get stronger over time. The more we write, the more our habits become ingrained.

There are countless ways that we subtly, unconsciously carry our cultures with us: the way we draw, count on our fingers, and imitate real-world sounds, to name a few. That’s the delight at the heart of this massive dataset. To test our theories, we approached colleagues, friends, and family who write in Japanese, Arabic, Hebrew, Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese, and, feeling a bit silly, asked them to draw circles. They gladly jumped in, wondering what their fingers would do, and eager to feel part of something larger.

What is revealing in these two, seemingly innocuous and frivolous studies is that with increased access to large datasets (of seemingly innocuous information), significant patterns can be identified and associated with cultural roots. Arnold Toynbee spent much of his life looking at volumes of written historical records in order to develop his magnificent A Study of History (previously covered beginning here). Thomas Piketty used not only historical records recently digitized, but computers to identify patterns and trends for his heftier Capital in the Twenty-First Century (something I am working on reading, patiently).

What is also revealed is, as indicated earlier, culture, which helps define how we think and who we are, has a more influential role in societies and nations that we have been willing to realize. But culture also defines who is not one of us, and that needs to be even more greatly taken into account as we continue to deal with a more globalized and ever shrinking world.

It doesn’t do any good to throw up barriers and bury our collective heads in the sand. We need to take the time to connect, listen, and understand each other, whether it’s individually, political parties, or nations.

Posted in 16: Culture, Lessons from History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Instant Inconsistencies

“Damn the torpedoes inconsistencies, full speed ahead!” – Just about Everybody.

Formula 1 has its Silly Season (rumors about which driver is moving to which team), but traditionally that happens only near the end of each year’s races.  It appears that the thrills of merely talking about F1 flip-flopping have mutated and spread into an actual world life-style: flipping year round while disregarding the flop (that is subtle.  I’ll wager you will have to research it. Don’t hesitate to ask.).

There is a lot going on in the entire world right now, and in case you are not up to speed on some of the more regionalized activities, I offer the following take from a good curating site I enjoy (Quartz; June 10th daily-brief newsletter):

Good morning, Quartz readers!

Voters—such fickle creatures. Just ask Theresa May. She campaigned against Brexit, then had to reinvent herself as a true believer in it when the British unexpectedly revolted against the EU and she was thrust into the prime ministership. Thinking she could solidify her majority, she held a snap election this week—but the public that had voted for Brexit turned on her and took away the Conservatives’ majority in Parliament.

Scotland, meanwhile, voted against independence from the UK in a referendum in 2014. The following year, in a general election, it gave the pro-independence Scottish National Party a landslide victory. Emboldened, the SNP campaigned for this week’s election on a promise to hold a second referendum. Result: It lost a third of its seats—most of which, adding insult to injury, went to May’s Conservatives.

Across the channel, meanwhile, consider Emmanuel Macron, who had never held elected office before winning the French presidency last month against established party grandees and the far-right’s Russian bot army. This Sunday, his brand new party looks set to sweep the first round of parliamentary elections, defying predictions that a centrist message wouldn’t resonate across hundreds of diverse local races.

It seems our desire for instant gratification has conquered politics. Voters are channel-hopping, snacking on ideologies and political styles, moving on as soon as they’re bored. In that light, Donald Trump is a political genius: His slippery, shifting positions on just about everything command attention and perfectly reflect the restless mood of the times. People are eager for something—anything—different, and damn any concerns about consistency.

There is something to admire in this increased ideological flexibility, given how quickly our world is changing and how stale many parties’ platforms have become. But gratification isn’t satisfaction, and entertaining politics isn’t good government.—Jason Karaian

Hmmm.  Sounds like the freedom to change ideologies has trumped the responsibility to understand them (and anticipate their unintended consequences).

So, here are Gap Theory and Fundamental Principles 6 (Missing Information) and 7 (Not ‘Getting’ Something) in action.  For the uninformed, unavoidable.

But is it possible that a consequence of simply overcoming Fundamental Principle 6 is also becoming clearer –

An overabundance of Information does not simply lead to an increase in Understanding.

And then there follows the next logical conclusion –

A brain fart does not equal Wisdom.




Posted in 06: Incomplete Information, 07: Getting It, 16: Culture, Gap Theory, Lessons from History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rendering Unto Caesar

“Size matters, apparently.” – Anonymous

Haven’t had time to post for two months, but I certainly haven’t been inactive.

These two months have seen the period leading up to April 18th, Tax Day, which most will still remember. No, I did not spend all that time trying to figure out what I had to render unto Caesar. I was working with a CPA in trying to figure out what Caesar was deciding others needed to render unto Caesar Himself. For a very large number of others.

I learned a LOT during this exercise.

One thing in particular is that there is not A W-2 form (the one you get from your employer). There are Many W-2s. At least 10 different ones by my last count. All with the important information somehow randomly distributed across the form, which for someone’s convenience may be formatted either as one per page, or two per page, or three per page, or four per page either 2 across and 2 down or 1 across and 4 down or, creatively, 1 above 3 below (??). Finding the right information (if a required box is actually there) resembles an Easter egg hunt wearing someone else’s glasses. But at least one thing is consistent: the little number in the corner that indicates the “form” is IRS approved is always the same: OMB No. 1545 0008.

And I concluded that it is no longer simply sufficient to render unto Caesar; it is time to render Caesar, or at least the IRS tax code. And by ‘render’ I mean the primary definition of the verb to render:

To render: To extract by melting, as in rendering lard. That is, to subject to heat so as to cause excess fat to be eliminated.

And then chucking the fat.

Another was more a reinforcement, a confirmation. Nations do indeed have cultures. And it is a strong element in US culture to complain about taxes, and/or try various ways to minimize or avoid them. This is in spite of the fact that the US is one of the lowest taxed developed nations in the world (here). It’s a game. Complaining about taxes is part and parcel of our culture.

There are other, subtle expressions of national culture, especially when comparing other nations. One very interesting expression appeared in the Washington Post on March 4th (at a time during which I could not post as I was very preoccupied in trying to fit various people’s “stuff” into a form(s?) that Caesar would be proud of or at least gloss over quickly).

The article was entitled, “These 5 architectural designs influence every legislature in the world – and tell you how each governs,” and is a review of the architect authors’ book, Parliament.

By studying each of the United Nations’ 193 member states legislatures and plenary halls for meetings, the authors hoped to understand how each political (i.e., national) culture is both shaped by and expressed through their chosen architecture.

Interesting. And thank heavens it was only 5 designs.

These 5 building designs have hardly changed since the 19th century, which could also say a lot about the resiliency of national political structures. And since there are only 5, we can have a quick overview here.

1) The Semicircle

This is the most common shape and dates back to classical antiquity (presumably with the Greeks). It made a comeback with the French Revolution, and became particularly common thereafter in Europe when nation-states were being formed.

The idea of the semicircle is to fuse the members into a single entity. While Greek semicircle assemblies were accessible to all in a direct democracy, in modern nation-states the semicircle is used to foster consensus among an elected group of representatives.

Both chambers of the US Congress, the House and Senate, convene in a semicircular setting.

2) Opposing Benches

A second form for representative governance is the combative British model of opposing benches that encourages two parties to see themselves in distinct opposition to one another and generally provokes a more heated debate. (Watching current news or historical British BBC dramas conveys this very well). The format dates back to the 13th century.

Because of historical ties, this format is common in many Commonwealth countries.

3) The Horseshoe

This is a hybrid of the Semicircle and Opposing Benches in which the opposing benches bend toward each other on one side of the room to form a horseshoe (Note: this is perhaps so that those members who lean more towards compromise and wish to avoid being hit by thrown objects and ridicule can sit safely in the middle bend).

This is found in many other Commonwealth countries.

4) The Circle

This is much more rare, with only 9 parliaments meeting in this setting. It was inspired by the 8th century Icelandic Althing.

It was introduced in the 1980s for the West German parliament in Bonn with the intention of representing democratic equality, but was hardly used after German reunification when the parliament moved to Berlin and returned to the semicircle.

It is, however, still used in some regional German parliaments.

5) The Classroom

“The fifth and final type is the classroom, where members of parliament sit in regimented rows focused on a single speaker in the hall. This typology is particularly common in countries with a low rank on the Economist’s Democracy Index. For instance, the parliaments of Russia, China and North Korea all meet in a classroom setting, where they can be lectured by the leader.”

That’s a direct and very informative quote. Note the prevalence of key words often used to describe their national cultures.

Other bonus material from the article further illuminates the concept of a national culture:

“A comparison of the size of assembly halls also reveals that – ironically – the scale of the assembly halls seems to be inversely proportional to the country’s rank on the Democracy Index. Parliaments in the least democratic countries convene in the largest halls.”

(Apparently, size matters.  Is it the leader’s need to intimidate, or the national psyche’s need to feel “great”?)

The article’s closing remarks are also perceptive:

“Once built, parliaments are locked in time. But political systems can and should adapt to what is changing in the world. Since architecture gives shape to ideas, it can be a powerful tool to rethink our models for collective decision-making. It can be one way to reshape our deliberative bodies and experiment with new models that are more attuned to contemporary life and to the challenges we are facing today.”

After reading the article (whilst still being steeped in forms), I realized there are some ‘oddities’ we somehow miss even today:

Congress, which meets in a “deliberative semicircle,” creates our laws (those high level things that define what we want to accomplish); the rules and regulations (such as the IRS Code) that we have to live by are actually created later in a “non-deliberative, lecture classroom.” Or possibly a cubicle farm. Where they create W-2 forms.

And, lest we forget, Town Hall meetings – those icons of democracy that are intended to be fully democratic with everyone invited to voice their opinions and debate – are typically held in lecture classroom format because they are meant to be informative, not deliberative. And that is because we also forget that we are a representative republic, not a direct democracy. For the latter we would need one heck of a huge assembly hall.

Probably with seating in a circle.

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