Friday, July 31, 2009

Saving the Cool

OK, let's do something different today. The area where I live is (I hope) near the end of a heat wave. I suspect I'm not the only person who tries to keep cool in such times so I'll share what I've learned over the years. This knowledge is the accumulation of my experience plus what I've learned getting two degrees in physics. I've found by experiment that it works. Whether you have no air conditioning and want to keep cool anyway or you just want to save money on electric bills, there are some things you can do.

First, pay attention to how you dress. Light-colored, loose-fitting clothing will allow your body's natural cooling system to work at its best. In fact, loose-fitting clothing can actually be cooler than no clothes at all. That is because of the “chimney effect,” air tends to move upward between clothing and skin enhancing the cooling from evaporation of sweat. The loose, white robes of the Arabs are very practical for their climate. On the other hand, the wool suit with a necktie is an invitation to overheating, cf the humorous blog I wrote on that subject at

Second, stay hydrated. You need to replace the water you lose to sweat so you can sweat more to stay cool. Also, avoid sunburn. Skin damaged by sunburn is not as efficient at cooling you as is undamaged skin. And of course the benefits of being in the shade are obvious.

Third, avoid alcohol and caffeine. Both are diuretics that make it difficult to stay properly hydrated and alcohol likewise can interfere with recognition of problems.

Now on to your home. In most areas it is reasonable to work with nature to keep your home relatively cool, even during a heat wave. The first step is to avoid the misconception many people have that opening the windows cools the house. Open windows may cool the house or they may actually heat it up, depending on if it is warmer outside or inside. What open windows do is allow outside air into the house and thus cause the inside temperature to approach that of the outside air. If the outside air is cooler than that in the house, it will cool the house. However if it is warmer outside, opening the windows will make the house warmer.

The trick is to save up the cool from night and early morning hours. Usually the temperature drops at night, then rises again during daylight. Open the windows when outside temperature drops below that inside, or perhaps a little before*. Then close them next morning once outside temperature gets higher than that inside, or a little after. It helps if you have inside and outside thermometers so you can measure those respective temperatures.

A good fan or two can enhance the cooling effect when you open the windows. Use the fan to either draw the cool air into the house or to blow the hot air outside. However there are some tricks that make this more effective. Depending on your home construction and the power of the fan, this may actually work better if you only open two windows, one at each end of the house. Then have the fan either draw air in at one window or blow it out the other. That will allow the outside air to enter at one end, displace the warm air in the house, and exit the other end. If you open other windows, the moving air will take the path of least resistance and leave dead spots with no air circulating. You will probably have to experiment to find out what configuration of open windows and fan placement works best for your home.

It also helps to work with any breeze available. Arrange the fan so it blows the same direction as the breeze, thus aiding natural convection.

If you have a two-story house, this works even better. Warm air naturally rises so opening selected windows on both floors will allow cool air enter through the first floor windows and push the warm air up the stairs and out the windows on the top floor. Having a fan blow air up the stairs helps this process. You may want to keep the windows upstairs open a bit longer than those downstairs since the second floor will be warmer than the first floor.

*There are two reasons for opening the windows a bit early and closing them a bit late. First, air is not the only warm thing in your house. All the furniture and other stuff also store up heat and it can be warmer than the air. Bringing in outside air helps cool it. Second and more important, humidity makes you uncomfortable and works against your body's natural cooling mechanism. People living and breathing in a closed house raise the humidity so it is usually higher than that outside. Bringing in drier air, even if it is a few degrees above the inside temperature, can be helpful.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

This and That

Hot air rises. That might explain some of the people who hold high political office, and even some business leaders.

It's discouraging to think of how many people laugh at what they regard as blind faith in religion. Yet many of those same people blindly accept politically correct ideas such as the nonsense that men and women have identical thought patterns. Such people even forced the resignation of a Harvard president who had the temerity to suggest looking at science instead of blindly accepting the politically correct belief.

As the football season starts we'll again hear commentators referring to “skill positions.” What they mean by that is the publicity positions, positions such as quarterback or running back that get lots of attention. Every position, from offensive center to defensive linebacker is a skill position.

If you improve something enough you will eventually break it. That common engineering saying applies elsewhere as well, including in government.

If the opposite of pro is con, what is the opposite of progress?

I drove by a golf course the other day. Grass all neatly manicured and sprayed for every conceivable pest. Water and sand traps carefully planned. Other vegetation likewise carefully planned and manicured. Then on the radio I heard an advertisement about how wonderful golf is because golfers get to experience Nature.

The Obama family spent months deciding which breed of dog to get for a White House pet. That is more time than the president wants to allow congress to decide on things like health care and energy policy, bills that run to thousands of pages and will have serious effects on the whole country.

Some claim that a clever saying proves nothing, but even that clever saying is wrong. A clever saying proves that someone came up with a clever saying.

It's amazing how many people laugh at the idea of an omniscient creator, then act like government officials are not only omniscient but automatically moral enough not to misuse their powers.

What can you find in most camping stores? The most modern sleeping bags and packable mattresses. Tents made of the latest materials. High tech water purifiers. Global Positioning System devices. The newest camp stoves. It's interesting how much technology it takes nowadays to get back to nature.

It's rather interesting how many “consumer advocates” want to prevent consumers from acquiring what they prefer to acquire at the prices they are willing to pay.

What a difference it would make if “community organizers” would organize people to clean up their neighborhoods, get educated, and get jobs instead of organizing them to demand tax-funded benefits.

Much has been said about the greed of banks and credit card companies. Yes they are greedy but let him who is without sin cast the first stone. What about the greed of people who bought things they didn't need with money they didn't have using loans they could not repay?

If common sense is so common, please explain why men have to wear dark wool suits in the summer and why women have to wear shoes apparently designed by the Marquis de Sade.

A businessman who sells something people want at a price they are willing to pay is regarded as selfish. Meanwhile a politician who takes people's money in taxes and spends it on something most don't want may be called a statesman. What's wrong here?

Extrapolating can lead to common human errors. Racism exists in our society, even racist cops. However that does not mean that every white cop who stops a black driver for speeding is racist.

Our society rewards heroes, people who rescue others. That is all well and good, but what do we do for the people who prevent problems so that rescue is not needed?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Educating Minorities (and Others)

Yesterday I outlined what I think every student in this country should learn. That included things like the ability to care for themselves, how to vote wisely and otherwise participate in their government, how to function in an increasingly scientific and technical society, and how to communicate effectively.

“But wait,” you say.” “How in the world are you going to teach all that to inner city kids? Don't they have a hard time learning?” My answer is that we should teach the same way in the inner cities as we do in the suburbs. Let me correct that, we should teach the same way in the inner cities that we should teach in the suburbs. Sadly very few school districts anywhere really concentrate on getting students to learn the important things. They spend effort on self-esteem, sports, finding excuses why some students cannot learn etc. They do not emphasize needed skills nearly enough. I've worked with high school graduates who could not divide 5 by 7, even with the aid of a calculator – and those employees were the product of supposedly good schools.

So what should we do? Again it starts with attention to the goals, avoiding confusion of means and ends. As parents and citizens we must insist that schools concentrate on teaching the important things. Further we must insist that they actually teach – and that they expect students to learn.

So how do we improve education, not only among minorities but everywhere? I think Thomas Sowell has it right in his book, Black Rednecks and White Liberals. The fifth chapter, “Black Education, Achievements, Myths and Tragedies” explodes many myths surrounding inner city education and points the way to better results. Though the book concentrates on minorities and the poor, the concepts apply to all students.

As Sowell shows, successful Black and inner city schools do not all follow the same formula. However they all have some things in common: discipline, high expectations, and a no excuses attitude. Students are expected to behave themselves and to learn. In one successful school students are greeted each day with a list of logic, math, and word problems to work on during odd moments. They are expected to learn, not spend their time comparing clothes or planning parties. Successful schools have the belief that school is a place for learning, not a social gathering.

Discipline, high expectations, and a no excuses attitude. Those things work – though the education establishment has largely rejected them.

I should also point out that successful schools are often not particularly well funded. Clearly a minimum of funding is needed, but the standard political “solution” of throwing money at the problem tends to create more levels of administration to interfere with real learning. Often those administrators spend their time chasing grants for various forms of “disadvantaged” students and helping those students make excuses.

And of course schools should concentrate on what works, not unsupported theory. As Sowell points out, there is often a disconnect between theory and empirical fact. For example one mostly Black and poor school in California had a high success rate, beyond that achieved by more affluent schools. What was the result? The principal was nearly fired. Her crime was the use of phonics instead of the state-preferred whole language program. Only a parental revolt saved her job. The state authorities and the school board wanted to force their way on that school, regardless of outcome. That could have happened with any school, Black, White or mixed. The political emphasis was on the means, not the ends.

The other important change needed in education is one of attitude. Schools must teach students to function in our society. That means they must learn things like correct English, not “Ebonics” or some other substitute. If those students are to succeed they must be able to communicate in the standard language of the country. Too often, as Sowell says, “Today the culture that is celebrated in much of the media and in the schools is not the culture that has succeeded, but the culture that has failed.”

That must change. Students must understand that a solid education is not “acting white.” Many slaves took great risks to get an education, and some white teachers took risks to teach them. Their descendants face no such obstacles and should make learning a priority. We should emphasize the stories of those who risked so much to get an education. I can't help but think that that would inspire many young Blacks today to take advantage of their opportunities.

Of course we should also learn from the most effective teachers. You might think of one of the best teachers you ever had. How did he make a difference in your life? Almost certainly it was not his teaching methods. Teaching techniques are often useful but insufficient by themselves. Probably what you remember about that teacher is enthusiasm for the subject and love of the students. Such enthusiasm can fire a class with excitement and turn learning from drudgery to an enjoyable challenge.

Sadly most of our education system refuses to reward the best teachers. The drudge who just puts in time will be paid the same as the superteacher who fires a class with desire to learn and who helps them learn well. Worse, even a great teacher or principal may be disciplined for failure to follow “approved” methods even if the teacher’s method works better. In such an atmosphere even the best teachers tend to burn out.

Children can and should be educated in all the areas I've outlined. Unfortunately we cannot leave this to the “education” establishment. School administrators are often more concerned with new buildings, political correctness and their next promotion than with what students learn. Improvement will not happen unless parents and voters insist on goal-oriented learning, with teaching based on sound, empirically proven methods. Excuses must not be tolerated. Discipline must be enforced. Students must be expected to learn. That is true in the inner cities, it is true in the suburbs, and it is true everywhere else.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Educating Minorities (and Others)

OK, I’ve complained several times about the misguided practice of giving preferences to minorities. I’ve said that the way to help the disadvantaged is to start with primary and secondary education, helping children build a foundation for their lives. “So,” you might ask, “how do we go about that?” A good question and of course you know I wouldn’t bring it up unless I had some suggestions.

First, again we should begin and continue with the end in mind. There are some things every citizen should know, some skills every citizen should have. Primary and secondary schools are the place to teach that universally required material:

1. Students will need the ability to care for themselves, both financially and health-wise.
2. They will need some way to earn a living.
3. In the U.S. and other democracies they will need to vote wisely and otherwise participate in their government.
4. They will need to function in an increasingly scientific and technical society.
5. They will need good oral and written communication skills, including the ability to understand and to communicate information.

The waiter, the electrician, and the college professor all need these skills so we must provide them before they go their separate ways (except in the case of earning a living which they usually learn later). All students should have:

a. A health class to prepare them to care for their bodies. This should include disease prevention, good nutrition etc.

b. A class in personal finance, including the dangers and wise use of credit.

c. A solid preparation for citizenship. This should include how the country functions and how citizens can make a difference.

d. A class in critical thinking. Such a class will help future voters see through the nonsense in political ads and will help future consumers see through the similar nonsense in commercial ads. (Woops! Politicians and advertisers won't like this one.)

e. Solid math classes at least to the level of simple statistics.

f. Classes in basic biological and physical science.

g. At least one class in current technology, including how to prepare for changes in technology.

h. English classes, which emphasize reading and listening for understanding, and clear speaking and writing.

i. I'm going to add one more, a class that I've never heard of being offered but which is the most important of all: Every student should take a class in how to continue to learn outside of the classroom. Our modern society is changing so fast that learning should be a life-long process. This need not be continual enrollment in classes; it can be good reading, educational videos, attending lectures etc. A diploma should be regarded as a license to keep learning.

Those classes would teach skills that every adult should have and use. They should be taught in every school system so students learn them before they go off to work, job training, or college.

I regard each of the above as mandatory. Next time I’ll talk about how to get there.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Entitlement Fraud

Suppose you are studying for your dream job, a job that will be interesting, rewarding, and that will pay well and provide good benefits. You expect that 1000 people will be hired when you graduate. The hiring process will require that you demonstrate knowledge of all aspects of your qualifications. However you learn that there are 10,000 people expected to apply for that job. How hard would you study?

Now let's change the scenario a bit. The people hiring not only want employees who can do the job, they also want a certain physical characteristic, namely red hair. In fact they are willing to hire people otherwise unqualified if they have naturally red hair. Of the 10,000 people studying for that job, only 800 are redheads and you are one of them. That means you are essentially guaranteed a job. Now how hard would you study?

“That's silly,” you say. “What employer would ever do such a thing? If they did they would only encourage certain groups to slack off. The employer would end up with incompetent employees. Other employees would resent them and the incompetents would feel inferior. Morale and company performance would both suffer.”

Sadly the answer is that lots of employers do similar things, and our government encourages them to do it. In fact government is the prime offender. The desired characteristics are not red hair but dark skin or two X chromosomes. Any employer with an insufficient number of employees in those categories is considered to be discriminatory, regardless of other reasons for the workforce makeup. Universities also attempt to admit students at least partly on the basis of ethnicity. The results are predictable. We've created a form of identity-based society. Groups of people think that they are entitled to jobs or advanced education because of their ethnicity or sex. In all too many cases, identity supersedes qualification.

For example, “Black American college students planning to go on to post-graduate education were found by one study to feel no sense of urgency about needing to prepare themselves academically 'because they believe that certain rules would simply be set aside for them.'”* That study was done before such things as the Bakke decision, but it does illustrate the problems created by entitlements. People simply don't work as hard when they perceive no need to do so.

Similar studies have found a lackadaisical approach to learning elsewhere when some ethnicities were given preference for hiring or admission. Malaysian students were legally entitled to preferential hiring for government jobs, over the better-educated Chinese minority. In the American Virgin Islands children knew they would have government jobs waiting so they failed to apply themselves in school. Meanwhile their West Indian classmates did better academically but were not eligible for those jobs. In those cases it was the majority getting the preferences and slacking off because of those preferences.* *

The result in such cases is discrimination against those who work harder to become qualified. Another result is poor performance of all employees. Those employees hired (or students admitted) to achieve “racial balance” or something similar are seldom qualified so they cannot do the work well. The qualified employees resent those hired to meet quotas, so they often fail to work to their ability. Everybody loses.

The U.S. Naval Academy is a sad example. Most applicants with C average grades and a 500 SAT score can forget about ever being admitted. Not so for black applicants. In an effort to “remove artificial barriers” they can be sent to a remedial school in Rhode Island where they will have a chance to improve their grades. Even if they fail there they may be admitted to the academy. Then if they do poorly in either class work or deportment they will be treated with kid gloves in order to reach the de facto quota of black naval officers.

As a result of this special treatment, those “special” students are the subject of resentment. Their white classmates resent the fact that they got special treatment. Of course there are plenty of qualified black cadets at the academy and they resent the fact that people may think that they were also admitted under affirmative action instead for their very real qualifications. As citizens we might all resent the fact that defense of our country is being entrusted to the unqualified.

Of course we should help inner city kids whose schools are hardly worthy of the name. However the way to do it is to provide them with opportunity for a good education, not to put them into situations where they are unqualified. Unfortunately too many people want to do it backwards. They want to build the superstructure before the foundation by admitting the unqualified to higher education or by hiring them. Instead we should build the foundation first by educating them at the primary and secondary level.

College admission is not an entitlement. Neither is a job. We need to encourage people to become qualified for education and jobs, not just give it to them because of skin color. Giving someone an “entitlement” because of irrelevant physical features deprives the person of the satisfaction that comes from being a productive citizen. It deprives others of the jobs or education they might have had. It deprives the country of what that person might have produced had he developed his potential instead of just taking “entitlements.”

We should all work to stop this nonsense, for the betterment of the country and for the benefit of both those discriminated against and those handicapped by receiving preferences.

*Thomas Sowell, The Quest for Cosmic Justice, p40, referring to Daniel C. Thompson, Private Black Colleges at the Crossroads

** Ibid

Friday, July 24, 2009

Confusion of Means and Ends, Part 2

Back when I was in the army we were inspected regularly, especially at one big Annual General Inspection. An officer would not only look at things like how neatly the soldier dressed but he might ask questions. The most important question was, “What is your mission?” If a soldier got that one wrong his commander was in trouble; it was the commander’s job to make sure that his people knew such things. (In fact the soldier was also in trouble since his commander would know who couldn’t answer.)

That was a good start to the problem of confusion of means and ends. If every member of an organization knows what the goals are, they are more likely to contribute to reaching those goals. However it takes more than just an occasional question to create that awareness and an understanding of its importance. In fact the army training in general failed to emphasize the mission. The officers paid a lot of attention to ceremony, spit and polish, how we rolled our socks in our footlockers etc. We usually could have passed the visual part of the inspection and answered the questions, but few if any soldiers really gave much thought to the mission. In fact I was tempted to say that our mission was standing inspections.

How do we solve the problem of confusion of means and ends? Awareness is the first step; we must keep our goals in mind and think about how our actions relate to those goals. This should be in our minds whenever we make a decision or take some action. . However that is only a start. People have to make wise decisions that put the goals first, before such things as their individual status. It is the people making the decisions and taking action that determine how effectively we advance toward our goals.

How do we get those people to decide and act wisely? One obvious measure is to push decisions down to the lowest level feasible in any organization. If people close to the issue are empowered to decide, they will usually make better decisions than someone way up in the hierarchy. In a chain of stores, local managers should be able to decide on how much of which products to keep on hand. Yes, some will make mistakes but almost certainly not as many mistakes as if someone remote from the area makes those decisions. It is the local employees who know that people in one town prefer grits while in another oatmeal will sell well.

This extends to families as well. Parents may think their little ones look just darling in certain clothes. However those clothes are likely to collect dust in the closet if the children hate them. The goal should be responsible children, not fashion statements. Of course parents can and should place limits on their children, for example not allowing their daughters to dress like whores. However children should have reasonable discretion according to their maturity, they know what they like to wear better than their parents do.

This decision-making power should be attached to responsibility of course. The local store manager is responsible for profits and if he what he buys sits on the shelf he may find himself demoted to a position where his mistakes don’t cost so much. Children should not be given unlimited clothing budgets but should know that they have only so much to spend. If they blow it all on the latest fads, they will not have money to buy the new fad that comes along next month. They will be out of style and will quickly learn the benefits of buying things of lasting value.

This is one reason to devolve government responsibility to the smallest jurisdictions feasible. The local town council or county commission is likely to know how much they need to spend on police, jails, road maintenance etc. Edicts from Washington, D.C. are likely to overfund some areas while leaving other needs starved for money. One example was the federal effort a few years ago to fund more local police. It was well-intended but the objective was not more police. The objective was to keep criminals off the street. More police were only a means to that end. Many jurisdictions already had a “revolving door” problem with their jails; they had to release criminals for lack of space. More police simply spun those revolving doors faster.

In government, business, family and personal life we have to keep the goal in mind. Every manager or parent should make sure that people understand the goal and why their own actions are important to that goal. If some activity does not help reach the goal, it should be re-evaluated. Each employee or family member should also be assertive in asking why his work is important. It is up to each one of us to know what to do and how that contributes to the overall goals of the organization.

As our actions move us toward our goals instead of simply concentrating on means, our lives, our businesses, and our government will improve.

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Confusion of Means and Ends

In his book, The Peter Principle, Laurence J. Peter describes sending in his application for a teaching job. The application was returned with a note that policy had changed. In order to ensure receipt of applications, they had to be sent by registered mail. Someone was paying attention to the means but ignoring the fact that the end had already been achieved – his application was safely received.

As strange as that event seems, less obvious examples of confusion of means and ends abound in our society. I once worked in a company that set out to get the benefits of “just in time” manufacturing. In fact the company even sent many of us to training courses on the subject.

The idea was to use components very soon after they were produced. If a flaw crept into the production process it would be detected quickly and corrected before it produced a lot of bad parts. In fact the trainers told us quite explicitly that the purpose was not to avoid large amounts of inventory but to improve quality. Clearly that was a good idea in many situations. Just as clearly, it was an idea that required thought in its application. Keeping inventory low was not an end in itself; it was a means to an end.

Sadly many company managers confused the means with the end. In fact they hired a consultant who went through and found “excess” inventory, then uncritically recommended that it be thrown away. Among the inventory discarded was the stock of a specialized transistor no longer manufactured. The result was expensive. The company received an unexpected order and had to take scarce design engineers from other projects to do an emergency redesign. Had decision-makers kept in mind the purpose of a low inventory they would almost certainly not have created that problem.

Sports teams can also fall victim to this confusion of means and ends. Such things as tackles for loss in football and three point baskets in basketball make for good statistics and can help win games. However when they become ends in themselves they divert attention from other aspects of the game. In the effort to get tackles for loss a football team may provide opportunity for long gains. It only takes a couple of long touchdowns to change the outcome of a game. A basketball team may get lots of three-point plays, but that may cost them the higher percentage shots from the two-point range. In either case, the coach and team may concentrate so much on statistics that they forget that their objective is to win the game. How often do we hear that a team won every statistical battle except the final score?

In personal life, a shopper may unthinkingly pursue bargains to the point of ignoring other aspects of his or her purchases. Driving 40 miles to save a couple of dollars will cost more than just paying more closer to home. Likewise buying something on sale that you would not buy at the full price does not save money, it costs. Finding the lower price is a means to the end of saving money; it is not an end in itself.

This confusion of means and ends affects all aspects of human life, from personal and family life right up through the federal government. However as organizations get larger the problem becomes more severe. Large organizations are necessarily bureaucratic and bureaucracies pay attention to processes. They cannot function without lots of rules so it is no surprise that many employees come to regard those rules as the purpose of their jobs. However the rules are means, not ends in themselves.

The clerk in a government office or large company may regard filling out paperwork as the objective. In most cases that clerk or even the department manager has no idea of the purpose of that paperwork. In fact should the reason for the paperwork change it is quite unlikely that the required paperwork will change with it. That is one reason large organizations become so hide-bound and unable to react to conditions. And of course the larger the organization, the worse this problem becomes.

With that it is no surprise that the organization with probably the worst case of confusion of means and ends is the largest organization we have, namely the federal government. It is so large that there is no way to run it except through rules and procedures that end up being one size fits all “solutions.” One of the most amusing examples (if you weren’t the victim) happened with the Y2K problem, the scare that computers wouldn’t work after the year 2000. The Securities and Exchange Commission rightly worried about how brokerage computers would handle dates after that time.

That needed attention so in July of 1999, “The Securities and Exchange Commission approved a rule requiring brokerages to cease business and transfer customer accounts to other firms if they haven't adequately addressed year 2000 computer problems by Nov. 15.” What that meant in practice was that the brokerages had to show that they had computers that would handle dates beyond 2000.

For most brokerages that was a reasonable rule but there was an exception. One small brokerage had been quite successful operating with no computer at all. Their pencils, papers, and calculators had no Y2K problem, and would not have had trouble with any year beyond that. The simple and logical reaction from the SEC would have been to just say, “OK, your system will work beyond 1999 so you are approved.” Did they do that? Of course not, they insisted that the brokerage show them how their computers would work. Eventually the brokerage had to buy a computer to comply with the rule. I suspect they sold it later, after the worry went away.

I could probably multiply examples endlessly, I’ve only scratched the surface here. However the above should suffice to demonstrate the problem.

Next time I’ll discuss some ways to avoid confusing means and ends.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Rush to Judgment

“Limited time offer!”

“You must act now!”

“Only 25 available at this price, get yours while they last!”

Unless you live cut off from modern radio, TV, and newspapers you have been bombarded by similar statements. Advertisers and sales people know that you are more likely to buy if you don’t take time to think before you act. They are paid to separate you from your money and they get good at it.

This pressure for a rush to judgment interferes with good decision-making. Customers grab the “bargain” only to decide later that they really don’t need it, or that it was the wrong style for them, or even to find that the store down the street is offering the same thing at an even lower price. They are out the money and may be stuck with an item they really don’t want or need. If the “bargain” involves a long-term contract from buying on credit, those customers will pay for months or years for a hasty decision.

Any time we are pressured to decide in a hurry, there is probably a reason. Most likely the salesperson knows that if we really think about it we will decide not to buy so he tries to keep us from thinking.

Politicians too can pressure us to “buy” their “bargains” without adequate consideration. The bills claimed to bail out the economy were rushed through congress in less time than the Obama family spent deciding what breed of dog to get as a White House pet. As I write this, both the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court and the Obama health plan are being rushed through congress. The so-called cap and trade energy bill was already rushed through the house – with no time for representatives to read it. President Obama claims that the health plan and “cap and trade” are urgent, we must act now! Sound familiar? Others are claiming that the Sotomayor must be confirmed before the next session of the court. They do not explain why it is better to take a chance on her than for the court to operate one justice short.

We are now seeing the results of the rush to judgment on bailing out the economy – unemployment has continued to rise. Yet we are being pressured into more rush decisions on the health plan, on energy, and on Sotomayor’s confirmation. Should we perhaps be just a bit suspicious?

My own formula for dealing with such attempts to induce panic is:

First I ask myself if there is really any reason to hurry? Is my life, health, or financial well-being at risk if I take more time to decide? I find that there is almost never any good reason to hurry. Even if the “only 25 available at this price” get sold, it seldom does any real harm to me. If there is reason to decide quickly I do the best I can, using the same principles I would use if I had more time available.

I then try to take a reasonable amount of time to consider the decision with appropriate care, depending on the nature of the decision. I won’t spend much time deciding what to order at a restaurant, but for something like a major purchase or how to vote in an election I’ve developed my own 12-step process:

1. Keep the goal in mind.
2. Gather and analyze information.
3. List options and possible outcomes.
4. Determine outcome probabilities.
5. List possible consequences and benefits for each outcome.
6. Do cost-benefit analysis for those outcomes.
7. Look at changing the probabilities.
8. Examine legal and moral issues.
9. Listen to a devil's advocate (or be one yourself).
10. Decide if it is worth the risk.
11. Decide if I can tolerate a bad outcome.
12. Put it together and decide.

As a decision-making consultant I suggest those steps to clients. Just as AA’s 12-step program can help people overcome alcoholism, so these steps can help overcome a habit of making bad decisions.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Enemy of the Good

Back when I was in the technology business I had a customer who kept improving the design of an instrument. It seemed that each improvement required a change in the design of the silicon chip it would use. We would just get prototypes done for that chip, then we would be told that modifications were required. Improvements continued until the state of the art passed them by and the project was canceled. The design team had “improved” that instrument right out of business. That illustrates a common saying in engineering: the perfect is the enemy of the good.

Now I have no objection to perfection. I would be delighted if my car, my body, and my children were all perfect. (To ensure domestic tranquility I should mention that my wife is already perfect.) The problem with perfection is not the concept but the cost and the difficulty, sometimes the impossibility, of achieving it. With enough money I could probably have a perfect car, but perfect children and perfect bodies seem to be rather rare in this world. We have to settle for what we can reasonably obtain and those who insist on perfection in everything will be disappointed.

Most people realize this. Unless your name is Bill Gates or Warren Buffet you probably cannot afford a perfect house so you settle for a good house or apartment, one that meets your most important needs. It may not have the pool, the game room, or the large family room you prefer but it works. The furniture and decorations you have in that home may not be what Gates or Buffet would have, but they do their job. If you can live happily there, then that home is a good home.

Furthermore we have to divide our resources between many needs and wants. Money spent on something like a fancy house is not available for use in buying a car, food, clothing, and other things we need. Time likewise is limited; we cannot be at the same time enjoying the beach with our children and earning the money to pay for that trip to the beach.

Most of us realize that our time and money are limited. We are talking about scarce resources that have alternative uses, so we have to prioritize. When we use our own resources we tend to think of such things. That fancy TV or restaurant meal may be worth the money it would cost, at least if we think of that expense in isolation. However if we think of it in terms of how many hours of work it takes to pay for it, or of what else we could do with that money or the time to earn the money, it may not be worth the resources we have to divert to its purchase.

Good businesses realize this. In fact most businesses face lots of opportunities in the form of new products or services they might offer. However managers realize that each opportunity would require scarce company resources. It takes time and talented people to develop, produce and market any new product. The wise manager will pick only those opportunities most likely to succeed and focus on those. Unwise decision-makers try to do too much; a problem that has caused many failures as companies diluted their efforts or entered fields where they had little expertise.

Unfortunately there are many who insist on perfection, often at the expense of others. They want a perfect health care system; everybody should have access to the latest medical tools and procedures. They want everybody to be able to own a house, even those who cannot afford to do so. They look at those items in isolation, without considering where the resources will come from or what other uses those resources might have. And they want to use the power of government to provide that perfection to everybody. Their motto is, “it’s worth it.” In isolation it may be worth it, but we do not live in isolation. We live in a complex world that requires trade-offs.

That government power is a big part of the problem. When you or I overspend, we face the consequences personally and often quickly. However government functionaries face no such consequences. They can even fool themselves into believing that they have unlimited budgets since they can print or borrow money. However this is about resources, not money. Printing more money does not create more MRI equipment or train more physicians. Encouraging lenders to offer mortgages to marginal borrowers does nothing to help those people make that monthly payment to avoid repossession. Even giving people money to pay the mortgage only takes resources away from other people.

In my opinion George W. Bush’s biggest problem was that the tried to do too much. He diluted his efforts and lost focus. Unfortunately President Obama seems to have the same problem but even worse. He is trying to do everything at once. Such an effort is bound to fail.

Of course we are not immune to this problem as individuals. In fact advertisers spend a great deal of money to convince us that every product is worth it. Some have even attacked our sense of self-worth by telling us that we are worth their product, implying that failure to purchase means that we are really not very worthwhile. We can and should resist that sucker-bait.

The way to resist the sucker-bait of accepting only perfection in everything is to keep our limitations in mind. We have only so much time and money. Whether in government or personal life we should think carefully about how to maximize the benefits we get from those limited resources.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Identity Politics, Part 3, A Polarized Society

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Yugoslavia. When it existed as a country it was in the Balkan region, an area known for ethnic and religious strife and for fomenting violence. That violence too often spread to other countries and even triggered World War I. Yugoslavia itself was composed of diverse groups with historical animosities. Yet for a time under Tito the country was relatively peaceful. Whatever Tito’s faults, he kept ethnic tensions under control by not allowing demagogues to stir up old hatreds. That all ended after his death. Slobodan Milosevic re-ignited the historical mistrust and tensions. He undoubtedly saw political gain for himself by use of “divide and conquer” rhetoric. The result was that the country disintegrated, but not before thousands died in internecine violence.

Sri Lanka is another example. The Tamil and Sinhalese generally got along peacefully for decades. Then the newly independent government decided to make Sinhalese the official language and to institute an affirmative action plan, ostensibly to make up for past discrimination against the Sinhalese majority. The result was 25 years of nasty civil war and terrorist actions, even now only partly settled.

Yugoslavia and Sri Lanka illustrate the dangers of identity politics. Sadly, they are not isolated examples. Sunni and Shiites in Iraq, Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, Armenians and Turks, etc. Wherever one group is pitted against another there will be strife, and it is not possible at the outset to know where that strife will lead. Favoritism in education, employment, and government benefits is nearly certain, but the problem often goes farther. It is common for both sides (or all sides when more than two groups are involved) to see themselves as victims and others as oppressors. That leads to a mob-like mentality, regarding the “oppressors” as a group of faceless enemies. This helps justify all manner of anti-social behavior, ranging from isolated attacks on individuals all the way up to armed revolution.

Where will the identity politics in the U.S. today take us? It is impossible to say. However we can know where it has taken us in the past. This country has seen Blacks lynched just because someone accused them of looking at white women. We have seen church burnings and bombings. We have seen race riots in which innocent shopkeepers were assaulted for the crime of being of a different ethnicity than the neighborhood majority. Fortunately at present we do not face overthrow of our government by armed revolutionaries, at least as far as I can foresee. However continued demagoguery can stir up strife in this country, including riots and other violence.

What can we do about this? First we must publicly and vociferously oppose the demagogues who try to pit one group against another. When a politician or other misleader advocates favoritism we must call it the bigotry it is.

Secondly we should emulate those parts of our society in which bias is most nearly eradicated. The most color-blind areas today are probably the military and professional sports. In those fields people are rewarded for performance, not for skin color. Few people care much about the color of LeBron James’ or Tom Brady’s skin. However both men have fans who care very much about their ability to get a basketball in a basket or a football into the hands of a receiver. Millions of young people work very hard to develop abilities similar to those of Brady and James.

What if we could spread the ethic of hard work and personnel qualification beyond sports and the military? What if we told the Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons of the world that they should encourage education and work instead of preference as the way to succeed (something Jackson used to do)? How would that change our society? Imagine millions of young people working as hard to learn math as some do to learn basketball. What would that do for them individually and for the country as a whole within a few years?

Let us tell the identity politics demagogues to crawl back under their rocks. Instead let’s encourage everybody to find enjoyable, fulfilling work and to become good at their work. And let’s reward them for performance, not for ethnicity or gender.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Identity Politics, Part 2

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Senator Patrick Leahy has strongly implied that criticism of Supreme Court nominee Sotomayor is racist. And what were those “racist” remarks? The culprits quoted Sotomayor verbatim. There is no doubt that Sotomayor made a racist statement. There is no doubt that she said it multiple times. Yet Leahy has the nerve to accuse people of racism when they simply point out what she said. Worse, he misquoted her, apparently deliberately.

Leahy claimed, “[Sotomayor] said that, quote, you 'would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would reach wise decisions.'" Notice that he claims to be quoting her verbatim. That was a lie; he was creatively editing her words to make her statement sound neutral when in fact it was racist.

What Sotomayor in fact said was, “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life." The claim that her race and sex would reach better decisions is clearly racist, as I’ve discussed in my blog on the Gander Test. Removing the racist part of the quote is dishonest. Leahy is a liar when he says that he is quoting her statement.

However we should not be surprised that someone like Leahy, well on the left of the political spectrum, would do such a thing. Many of those people are incapable of recognizing racism in anybody but a white person. Leahy probably thinks that telling his lie is actually serving a good cause. Many of those people actually believe that it is not possible for a Black or Hispanic to be a bigot. That is a part of identity politics, they judge people by the color of their skin or their sex, not by what they actually say or do. However racist is as racist does, contrary to what the leftists claim.

This is the other side of identity politics, excusing all manner of sin on the basis that the culprit is a minority. Worse, anyone who criticizes a minority, even for valid reasons, is labeled a bigot for having the temerity to speak the truth or a non-politically-correct opinion. This is widespread in our country today. For example, anyone who opposes homosexual marriage will be called homophobic and anyone who opposes affirmative action will be called racist. That is just the way identity politics works.

Another aspect of this is the article of faith on the left that any minority must be leftist. Many go so far as to call a black person who does not toe the leftist line “not an authentic Black.” In fact recently Senator Barbara Boxer used testimony by Harry Alford, chair of the National Black Chamber of Commerce, to imply that the other groups represent black people but that Alford’s organization does not because it does not go along with the leftist agenda.

Many of Boxer’s ilk think that minorities should remain in lockstep and not be allowed to stray from the leftist reservation. They think that minorities off that reservation lose their identity.

Can we change the adherents of identity politics? I doubt it, at least not most of them. They tend to have closed minds on the subject and will reject facts or sound reasoning. In fact they will call such facts and reasoning bias, but of course cannot tell us how they are biased. Oh there may be a few who listen to reason but most won’t. Most regard the accusation as proof, no more discussion needed.

What we can do is refuse to give in to the twisted accusations of identity politics. Of course first we must examine ourselves to be certain the charges are untrue. If they are all we need do is make a simple statement of that fact.

A leftist might say, “You’re a bigot, you called Sotomayor racist.”

A good response might be, “I am not a racist, in fact I have many Black and Hispanic friends. I simply quoted her own words, words she has spoken multiple times. Then I pointed out that if someone made a similar statement, claiming that a white man could make better decisions than a Latina woman, it would be recognized for the racism it is. Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander and Sotomayor’s statements are racist.”

Such a response probably won’t change the mind of the accuser; he is likely too closed-minded to understand it. However it will have an effect on neutral observers. Furthermore it will help us avoid the temptation to become as biased as the accuser in an attempt to avoid the accusation.

Leahy and his ilk will undoubtedly continue to make false accusations of bigotry. However I do not believe they are the majority in this country. I believe most people are smart enough to see how ridiculous those accusations are.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Identity Politics, Part 1

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“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” So spoke the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963. To a great extent his dream has been realized. Official barriers to certain races have been eliminated. The Jim Crow laws are no longer with us. Of course there are still bigots in the country but at least they can no longer use the force of law to keep people out of schools or jobs just because of skin color. However the official forces of evil have are still with us, ironically now sometimes represented by the very people who claim to follow Dr. King.

The identity politics of Dr. King’s time involved blatant discrimination against black people. Today’s identity politics is not as blatant but still advocates discrimination. In the name of civil rights some are now advocating that people be judged by the color of their skin or by their sex instead of by the content of their character or their ability. In the state of Oregon for example, the Department of Human Services brags about having a great majority of women in upper pay ranges. They claim that having a majority of women somehow gives them diversity. They also say that they need to hire more people of certain races. That is hardly the color-blind society of Dr. King’s dreams. I have to admit that I fail to see how that can be squared with the constitutional requirement for equal protection under the law.

Identity politics is based on the idea that certain people should be given preference. That used to mean not hiring Blacks, Irish or people of certain other ethnicities. Today it again means discrimination against people of a certain skin color or sex. It is a group-based instead of an individual based legal theory. If a white man of 50 or 100 years ago discriminated against a black man of that same time, identity politics says that today we should discriminate against a white man to make up for it. The fact that both men from 50 or 100 years ago are now dead does not enter into the equation, nor does the fact that neither the white man discriminated against today or the black man benefiting from discrimination were even born when the earlier discrimination occurred. This theory punishes and rewards people for actions outside their control, actions done by people long dead.

Suppose your neighbor whose hair is the same color as yours were to steal a large amount of money, then disappear. His victim also moves away to parts unknown. Would it be fair to require you to pay back the money to someone in the victim’s old neighborhood whose hair is the same color as the victim’s? Yet that is essentially what today’s identity politics does under the name of affirmative action. Its advocates want to punish people for having an appearance similar to dead bigots. They want to use that punishment to the advantage of people who look like dead victims of discrimination. Rewards and punishments are handed out to people who had no control over the actions on which those rewards and punishments are based.

Consider three babies born the same day in the same city. One is the child of a wealthy black physician, another the child of a white single mother who struggles to pay the rent, while the third is born into a middle-class Chinese family. The physician’s child goes to a top-tier university, expenses paid by his father. The white child manages to get into the same university, taking out loans and working part-time to get his education. Both graduate with honors and apply for the same job. Who do you think will be hired? Most likely the doctor’s child because of his skin color. In fact, for many jobs the black person will be hired even if his qualifications are lower than those of the white person.

And what about the child of Chinese ancestry? He wasn’t even admitted to that university, even though he was more qualified than the other two. He had the misfortune to live and study in California where students of oriental ancestry have done too well. They are discriminated against in order to restore “racial balance.”

Affirmative action is discrimination, pure and simple.

In the long run identity politics harms everybody. While it’s obvious how in harms those discriminated against, there is also real damage to the supposed beneficiaries. Those people are encouraged to spend their time and energy defending their preference instead of working to get educated and preparing to compete on a level playing field. The person who spends his time working to get preference in hiring may come away with a job but will probably not feel competent in that job. If he spends that time studying engineering, science, business or something similar he will probably become qualified for a rewarding and possibly lucrative career.

Fairness and the constitution both require a color-blind society. We must work toward that end. Identity politics and affirmative action mean judging people on ethnicity or other irrelevant characteristics, not on character or ability. That is discrimination, pure and simple.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Mob Rule, Part 3

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The mob mentality – it is dangerous to both our personal character and to society at large. If we subordinate our actions to the beliefs and decisions of a group we become less human, less than we should be. We also endanger others and risk passing along false or bigoted beliefs to our families. This is a problem that has plagued society throughout history and it shows no sign of going away on its own. If it is to be eliminated we must take action against it.

How do we recognize the problem so we can deal with it? Perhaps the most insidious aspect of the mob mentality is that we can so easily participate in it without realizing it. Indeed, the essence of a mob mind-set is not thinking about what we are doing, a severe form of groupthink.

How then can we stop this nonsense? How to eradicate or at least reduce the mob mentality in our society? It won't be easy but there are ways to do it, and it starts with each of us. We must look at our own lives and thinking patterns before we can presume to tell others how to correct their own mind-sets. A recipe for starting to do this is:

First, self-awareness. We must learn to ask ourselves if we really believe what we say in public, or are we just putting up a front? Are we just “going along to get along?” This self-examination is probably the hardest part. Ideally we will learn to examine ourselves in the heat of a group consensus. However even thinking about it afterwards is helpful, that can be a step towards clear thinking in the face of inappropriate group consensus.

Second, if we find that we are showing signs of a mob mind-set, we can attack the causes directly. If we are deindividuating ourselves we can stop and think of ourselves as individuals. I could say to myself, “Hal, you are a person, an individual with a brain and integrity of your own. Why don't you act like it? Who will you see in the mirror tonight, a real person who acted like a man or someone who gave up his personhood to others?”

Third, we can also look at the “enemy” as individual human beings, not part of an amorphous group. I can think that each person who opposes me is a human with a face, with human desires and needs. Those people may enjoy the same sports I enjoy, watch the same sunset I watch, and in many other ways be the type of people I might enjoy knowing. The fact that we have different colored skin or disagree on politics, religion, or other things is really only a small part of who we are. If I can call those people by name that will help even more. It can be easy to hate someone for the disagreements we have or the color of their skin. It is more difficult to hate Bill Smith who likes football and barbecues, but happens to disagree with me in one area.

By such measures we can reduce our own susceptibility to mob mentality. That is an important beginning. What next? How do we help and encourage others to do the same? The first step is to have the courage to speak up. Frequently a group will refrain from anti-social action if only one person points out the problems. That should not be surprising since most members of a mob are indulging in groupthink. They believe everyone else agrees with the group. One person speaking out can destroy that fallacy and they may all wake up to the reality of what they are doing.

However there are cases in which one person opposing is not enough. I doubt a Ku Klux Klan cross burning would stop just because one person spoke out. However even then there are measures that can be effective. The first is to reverse the deindividuation, essentially re-individuate some of the mob members. If possible call them by name and mention something in their lives that calls them back to their humanity. In the book To Kill a Mockingbird Scout does this by calling Mr. Cunningham by name, then apologizing for the fight she had with his son. Suddenly that man must recognize himself as an individual. He can no longer put aside his own personhood.*

Though a work of fiction, I believe that is an example of how a person can be reminded that he is not simply part of an amorphous group, he is a human being. I suspect that even a KKK member, if he can be identified by name, would respond to such an approach. His anonymity would be removed and he would be forced back into the world of individual persons.

OK, I know I've given my readers (if I still have any) a tall order. However nothing worthwhile is likely to be easy so I challenge you to do your part by first examining yourself, then by having the courage to speak out when a group is going off into the mob mentality. It may not be easy but I promise that it will be worth it.

*I thank the author of the Wikipedia article on “Deindividuation” for reminding me of that episode in the book.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Mob Rule, Part 2

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Imagine if you will the following:

Situation 1: You're walking home when you see a wallet in the gutter. Inside you find $250 in cash. It turns out that the wallet belongs to your neighbor. Do you keep the cash and claim the wallet was empty when you found it, or do you return it intact?

Situation 2: A major storm just passed through your area. It dropped a few limbs from a neighbor's tree in your yard but did no other damage to your property. While cleaning up you accidentally break a window. Repair will cost $250. Your insurance won't cover the damage because you broke the window yourself. Had the window been broken by a falling tree limb it would have been covered. Do you pay for the repair yourself or do you claim that it was storm damage and get the insurance company to pay for it?

Most people would probably return the money to their neighbor. In fact many would return it to a stranger. However many of those same people will cheat and tell the insurance company that the storm broke the window. Often people who consider themselves honest will not only defraud the insurance company but will take a few “unauthorized benefits” from their employer or help themselves to some items at the store that they didn’t exactly pay for. Some business managers will divert company resources to their personal use. Why that disconnect in honesty? I think the cause is similar to the mob mind-set discussed yesterday; actually what we might call the reverse mob effect. Anonymity and diffusion still play a big part, but in a different way.

First, anonymity and deindividuation: The wallet owner is an individual, but the insurance company is an amorphous entity. In this case it is the victim, not the perpetrator that gets deindividuated. It is the victim who lacks personhood. That makes it easy to think we are harming nobody when we cheat that company.

Second, diffusion: The effects of cheating the company are diffused over a large number of people, doing very little damage to any one of them. In this case it is not the responsibility that is diffused but the damage. Stealing that $250 from the insurance company is still fraud, but is less visible because only a little is stolen from any one individual.

This reverse mob effect affects business and public life. For example, once when I complained about wasteful government spending I got the response, “I regard it as my duty to get as much federal money spent in the county as I can, even if it is spent on wasteful projects.” The speaker was a county commissioner, allegedly a fiscally conservative republican. I had complained to him about the waste but he just wanted to get money into the county. He didn’t think of the fact that he was taking tax money from the widow in Nebraska, the struggling young family in Wyoming, or the parents in California trying to pay for their daughter’s education. The reverse mob effect allowed him to ignore the overall results of his efforts.

Such shortsightedness is common. It is easy to convince ourselves that nobody is hurt when we take maybe a hundredth of a cent from millions of people. We don’t want to think that millions of people may be doing the same, stealing in the aggregate rather large sums of money from each victim. Nor do we remember that a business or government is nothing but a collection of people. Those people need and deserve the fruits of their labor to care for themselves and their families.

Businesses do not manufacture money; instead they exchange goods or services for it. If they lose money to theft they must make it up by raising prices, cutting employee pay or benefits, or reducing payments to stockholders. Worst case, they go out of business and leave customers, employees, stockholders, and even creditors without funds. When we cheat a retailer, insurance company, or any other business we are really cheating the people who depend on that business. Spreading our crime over many people does not change the fact that it is a crime.

Likewise, government has no real way to obtain resources except from the people. Even borrowing or printing money is just a different way to get those resources from you, from your retired first grade teacher, and from other citizens who have to give up the results of their work to provide for government projects. If we demand and get a fancy sports stadium at taxpayer expense, we are really taking the money from those people, many of whom don’t care a fig about sports.

We can improve our economy if we get everybody to realize that there is no such thing as stealing from government or business. Those organizations are only intermediaries between us and other individuals, flesh and blood people with names, homes, families and their own wants and needs. When we defraud a company or the government, we are really defrauding each individual who has an interest in that organization.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Mob Rule, Part 1

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It was in the 1930’s when Hugh Nibley, a doctoral candidate in the classics, proposed writing his dissertation on the perennial phenomena of the mob in the ancient world. The topic was rejected. Too unreal, too irrelevant to the mood and spirit of the modern world the committee said. Nibley, later a renowned scholar, had to choose a different topic. The institution that rejected a study of the mob as irrelevant to modern society was the University of California at Berkley.

As Berkley found to its sorrow, the mob is very relevant to our society. Not only have we had riots in many inner cities, but less publicized mobs often affect public decision-making. It’s worth examining the mob mind-set not only for that reason but to see how it affects some of our own even non-violent actions. I’m not a psychologist but I have read a bit about the subject and I conclude that there are two components of that mind-set:

First, the anonymity of the mob, what psychologists call deindividuation (essentially losing ones individuality). Participants don’t think of themselves as individually responsible for the mob actions. Removing that personal responsibility allows them to do things they would never do if they thought they would be recognized and called to account as individuals.

Second, diffusion of responsibility. Mob members can easily think that they had no part in the decision to act, so they are not responsible for their actions. Everybody just follows the crowd with no conscious decision-making on the part of most mob members. This is groupthink writ large.

The result may be a lynching, beating up someone of different ethnicity, stealing merchandise from a store during a riot, or other anti-social action. It may just be the crowd getting out of hand at a rock concert. In the minds of mob participants none of it is their fault; they are just going along. The fact is that people will do things as part of such a group that they would never do as individuals.

Those moral gyrations may sooth consciences, but the participants are still responsible for their actions. The person who steals a TV during a riot is just as guilty of thievery as the burglar who breaks into the store at night. The Ku Klux Klan member who helps beat up a black person is just as much a thug as the mugger who beats someone without hiding behind a white sheet. The lynch mob member who helps hang a potentially innocent man is a murderer, quite as guilty as the guy who gets mad at his neighbor and shoots him.

“That’s all well and good,” you say, “but how does it apply to me? I’ve never been part of such a mob.”

Are you sure of that? You may have never been part of a violent mob but look again at those two aspects of the mob mind-set. Do they not apply to non-violent group actions as well? I would call anything done with that mind-set a mob action.

Look at business decisions for example. If “the company” decides to mislead customers or cut corners on quality, is that somehow better than if you or I as an individual did the same? Yet it is easy to mask our part by anonymity or by diffusing responsibility, especially in a large corporation. In fact the Spanish term for corporation is “sociedad anĂ³nima,” literally anonymous society. The large group allows a mind-set similar to that of a mob; people can think of themselves as not responsible for their actions and unlikely to be held accountable for them. Yet the employee who helps mislead a customer is just as guilty of fraud as is the charlatan who sells snake oil.

Other organizations can have similar problems but there is one that exceeds them all – Government. Government is most prone to this problem and is in a position to create the most damage by its mob action. In addition to deindividuation and diffusion of responsibility, government adds a patina of legitimacy to the mob mind-set. This is combined with a power beyond what any private organization possesses.

Few people are willing to steal from a neighbor to get money for entertainment. However we accept all too readily such things as congressional earmarks for museums of dubious value or a bridge to nowhere. Cities are all too willing to provide tax money for sports teams or artwork, which only a small minority of their citizens will ever enjoy. Local governments even force people to sell their property to private businesses preferred by the politicians. Those actions amount to thievery, regardless of how they are justified. The elected officials who support them are thieves and the voters who demand them are thieves as well. The anonymity, diffusion of responsibility, and patina of legitimacy associated with government do not change that fact.

Fortunately we have progressed beyond the time when people thought slavery was acceptable because government approved it. Now we need to get beyond thinking that government thievery for earmark projects or favored groups is acceptable.

We can hope that people will catch on to this and realize that they are responsible for their actions, either as individuals or as part of a group. However the only way that will happen is for those who already know this to spread the word. As citizens we must avoid demanding government-based thievery for our benefit, and we must oppose it when others make such demands. In our work we must refuse to take part in mob-like actions of deceit and fraud. And of course we must teach this to our children, Lord knows the schools won't teach it.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Sleight of Word

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“Hey Mom, we want to climb Rooster Rock.*” My friend’s son was the adventurous type and she didn’t like the idea.

“You will not climb Rooster Rock today.” Her response left no wiggle room – or so she thought. He didn’t climb it that day, he climbed it that night.

Every parent of a teenager has probably encountered such verbal rationalization. Kids tend to look for any excuse to avoid the clear wishes of their parents; it’s part of growing up. However such twisting of clear meaning is not limited to the young.

Suppose you ask your boss for a 10% raise. The boss says he would like to pay you that much, but with the current economic problems he just can’t do it. Instead you get a raise of 5%. Did you get an increase or decrease in your pay? Of course most people would laugh at you if you complained about getting your pay cut, it wasn’t cut it just wasn’t increased as much as you wanted. That’s the way mathematics works – unless you are in government.

The legislature in my state finally wrapped up its 2009 session, after much moaning and complaining about having to cut spending. In fact they raised the budget over the previous biennium. The “cut” was that they couldn’t spend as much as they wanted to spend. That is a common tactic among politicians: propose a big increase over previous spending, pass a smaller increase than originally proposed and call it a cut. Somehow they often get away with it.

That is only one example of fast and loose use of language to mislead people. Those who do this claim they didn’t lie, but the effect is the same. Politicians, advertisers and others twist the language in order to hide or change meaning instead of to communicate clearly. That is still dishonest and the people who do it are liars.

Like politicians, advertising and sales people regularly hide the truth with such terms as “save up to $50” or “we can help you lose up to 10 pounds in a week.” Just what does “up to” mean? Clearly if a person loses half an ounce or saves one penny, he is included in the “up to” group. Though advertisers mislead people into thinking they will save $50 or lose 10 pounds, few if any people will lose or save that much. The great majority will probably save or lose almost nothing. The term “up to” is a weasel word (or weasel term) that sucks meaning from the words around it, much as a weasel sucks the nourishment from an egg while leaving the shell externally intact but empty.

Similar examples abound. You’ve probably received mail from some company indicating that, “in order to serve you better we are making the following changes.” The changes often include fewer services or charging for services previously provided without charge. How that serves us better is never explained.

Some politicians want to avoid the label “liberal” so they call themselves “progressive” without saying just what is so progressive about their ideas. If we examine those ideas we find that they are quite similar to the statist “big government is right” beliefs that give liberals a bad reputation among much of the population. The “progressives” want to give us a bigger, more powerful government, something we rejected in 1776. I would call that regressive, not progressive. However the term “progressive” sounds good so they get away with it.

Unfortunately I don’t foresee any end to such disguised lying. As long as there is a buck to be made or political power to be gained, people will attempt to deceive others. They will seek loopholes, use misleading language and otherwise try to avoid plain and open communication. The only solution is for each of us to make the effort necessary to really understand. We should not just follow the misleading impressions they deliberately create.

We can ask ourselves what is really behind statements from advertisers, sales people, politicians and others who might benefit from creating misunderstandings. Are there “weasel words” that suck meaning from other words? Are there other meanings for the words being used? Are they inventing new meanings for words? Yes, that takes effort on our part, and constant vigilance, but there is no other way to protect ourselves from being deceived.

We can even go a step farther when opportunity presents itself. We can publicly point out the misleading communications. If a sales person claims savings of up to $50, ask him what the average saving is and how that number is determined. Ask the politicians how they can call a budget increase a cut. Ask the company how cutting previously provided services is supposed to serve us better.

What I would really like to see is for schools to teach critical thinking, encouraging students to question such statements. Certainly there is no shortage of examples they could use to illustrate such a class. However I doubt that will happen so we will all just have to do our part. With enough questioning, especially public questioning, we can expose those misleading claims. That would be especially true if people regularly and publicly tell those fancy liars, “I think you are trying to mislead me and I’m not going to fall for it.” If that starts happening regularly it will encourage those fancy liars to start using plain and effective communication instead of trying to cover up what they really mean.

*Rooster Rock is a basalt column, rising well over a hundred feet from the bank of the Columbia River. Though not a difficult climb, it is spectacular enough to give a mother gray hair.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Words, Just Words

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“Freedom of religious worship and freedom of antireligious propaganda is recognized for all citizens.”

Believe it or not, that quote is from the constitution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Article 124. That’s right, under communism the Russians and their colonies had a constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. We all know how effective that guarantee was. The communists wrote freedom of religion into their constitution, then ignored it.

The fact is that constitutional protections depend on more than the words on paper. There are always people willing to stretch or even ignore the words. They may have good intentions or they may just want to amass power to themselves. Either way, it is only by constant vigilance that we can maintain our freedoms. For a U.S. example we need look no farther than the ninth and tenth amendments, both of which have been ignored for decades:

Article 9. The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Article 10. The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

We have seen the federal government continually take powers not delegated to the United States, powers that should be reserved to the states or the people. For example my state allows medical marijuana and assisted suicide (both of which I oppose). The constitution clearly does not delegate regulation of drugs and suicide to the federal government, yet that federal government has stepped in to try to overturn the state law. Years ago the federal government issued quotas regulating who could grow wheat and how much. They even prosecuted a farmer who grew wheat that never left his own farm but was used to feed his animals. Such actions were in clear violation of the ninth and tenth amendments, yet the government got away with it.

The federal government has also imposed de facto quotas on employment, requiring equal outcome instead of equal opportunity under the guise of outlawing disparate impact (also known as adverse impact). As a result, the 14th amendment is often ignored if authorities prefer to give preference to certain groups.

Those constitutional abuses continue because the citizens fail to defend the document. Reportedly Benjamin Franklin was once asked what kind of government we had been given. His answer was, “a republic – if you keep it.” Keeping it requires constant and informed vigilance. I believe that this means that citizens must:

1. Know what the constitution actually says and means. In general this is not that difficult, it is not a lawyers’ document. Normal people can understand the words and meaning.

2. Understand the reasons behind the various provisions. For example, the founders did not intend to give us a pure democracy. Instead they intended to provide a limited government, restricted from doing certain things no matter how many people want them. They also intended to provide a balance between heavily populated states and states with smaller populations, and between the different branches of government.

3. Be willing to sacrifice their own short-term interests for the benefit of long-term freedoms and the benefits that come from living under a constitutionally restricted government.

4. Vote wisely. Too often people are urged to vote as though just voting would help the country. Instead they should be urged to inform themselves and evaluate the issues and candidates carefully. We do not need more ignorant or apathetic voters, we need voters who care enough to learn and think about how they are voting. We need to support candidates who are wise, ethical, and committed to constitutional government.

5. Participate in government by writing representatives and by other means. Congress, the president, governors etc. are our employees and like any boss we should keep up with what they are doing and let them know how we think they should do their duty as our employees.

The constitution is a wonderful document. However it will remain just words unless we the people actively defend it.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

News Diversions

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As I write this, there is discussion between President Obama of the U.S. and Prime Minister Putin of Russia on how our two countries will interact. There is a proposal being floated to spend yet more taxpayers’ money for “bail-out” purposes. Al Gore, in his effort to get yet more government control over our lives, is comparing his fight against “global warming” to the fight against the Nazis. There are many other significant happenings in the world, but we hardly hear about them. Why? Because the news media is tied up with the funeral of an entertainer whose influence on the world will be insignificant within a short time.

Of course Michael Jackson’s family and fans have a right to mourn his passing, but should that dominate the news to the near total exclusion of everything else? That is an example of how the news media distorts the reality of our world. The picture they present handicaps us with what is technically called “accessibility bias.” We tend to think that event importance is proportional to how easily we can remember them – and the press makes it easy to remember what they headline. This distorts our thinking to our detriment.

Within a few weeks, I doubt Michael Jackson’s funeral will have any importance to any but his family and a few fanatic fans. However decisions between the U.S. and Russia may affect our lives for decades. How the country deals with economic problems will do likewise. Yet this media-generated accessibility bias crowds those issues from most people’s minds, replacing them with something trivial in the long term. Our disregard of the important issues can harm us in the long run – we cannot solve our problems by paying attention to entertainers.

Everybody should understand some facts about the news media and why it is so likely to mislead us:

First, the news people do not work for readers, listeners, or viewers. They work for the advertisers who pay their salaries and expenses. Advertisers demand an audience and that forces the news to emphasize what attracts people instead of what is important.

Second, news people are quite as subject to bias as anyone else, probably more so. Studies have repeatedly shown that the news is biased leftward in the U.S.,* but that is probably not the most important bias they have. A more damaging effect is media bias toward the spectacular of which the Jackson funeral is only one example. I’ve seen this in my time in search and rescue; reporters regularly emphasize the spectacular and perceptions of danger. They ask leading questions in interviews, intended to elicit responses of how dangerous the rescue is. This bias toward the spectacular is a consequence of their dependence on a large audience to attract advertisers.

Third, every reporter and editor lives with a tyrant called the deadline. Most news organizations regard it as preferable to get the news out quickly than to get it right. That is a requirement imposed by their boss, the advertisers. If the competition gets the story out sooner they, their audience will decline. Of course that militates against accuracy.

Forth, Reporters and editors are seldom very knowledgeable in the areas they cover. The field does not pay enough to attract many scientists, lawyers and other such experts. That is compounded in many cases by a misguided belief that it is unethical to allow a source to review a story for accuracy. If the reporter misunderstands, his error is likely to get published. While it makes sense to not give the source veto power over the story, allowing that source to correct misunderstandings when time permits would only improve accuracy.

Here’s an example from the local newspaper, an article about a rescue in which I participated. According to the paper, the victim fell off a cliff, landing near the Sandy River. Rescuers rappelled down a 200-foot cliff to reach him, then called in a helicopter since it would be very difficult to get him out without an air evacuation. It was a daring and dangerous rescue. That story was probably the result of a combination of bias toward the spectacular and a rush to meet the deadline. Nearly every detail was wrong

Nobody fell over any cliff, nor did anyone rappel off one. There were no real cliffs in the area. In fact there was a good trail down to where the victim was and it would have been impossible to fall very far because of thick brush beside that trail. In fact the victim got drunk and fell in camp, hitting his head on a stump. The sheriff’s office called the helicopter only because of suspected head injury; it looked like he needed to reach a hospital quickly. The news was not even close to the truth.

Of course not all news organizations are equal. TV and radio face the most stringent deadlines and so are most affected by that problem. Daily newspapers have a bit longer to submit their stories so they can be more accurate if they chose to do so. The weekly magazines are even better in that regard, but still a long way from perfect.

What to do? There is no easy solution. However individuals can dig a bit deeper into the news, asking themselves what they are missing and just how important those celebrity stories really are. Both our individual lives and our wise participation in the political process depend on good information. We must seek out that information.

*The most prominent of those was probably done by UCLA and Missouri researchers showing that the media is significantly to the left of congress. A summary can be found at

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

British Imperialism Continues Today

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The United States celebrates independence from England every Forth of July. Canada Day, when Canadians celebrate their country officially becoming a kingdom in its own right, is on July first. Australia traveled a road similar to that of Canada, becoming a united country in 1900.* Other British colonies similarly became free, ending the once mighty British Empire. That empire which once spanned the world no longer exists, at least officially.

However one aspect of British imperialism continues to expand, bringing misery to millions who are obliged to pay for their misery out of their own pockets. This travesty has spread almost unopposed to Russia, South America, Japan and many other victims. Only a few, mostly Islamic-controlled, lands seem to resist. Even there the scourge is making inroads. I refer to the sartorial imperialism of the suit and tie, forced upon almost any man who wants to be taken seriously in business, politics, or many social circles.

Notice the photograph of almost any diplomat visiting the tropics or the desert. The temperature may be 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 degrees Celsius) but what must the poor man wear? A dark wool suit and a necktie! The dark suit will absorb the sun’s radiated heat, the wool will help retain it in his body, and the noose around his neck will block any ventilation he might get from that avenue. His clothes are an invitation to heatstroke. Then just in case that isn’t enough to make him miserable, his shirt is probably starched and stiff. It is a triumph of image over substance.

Why are men required to wear such a silly costume? Like many customs, this goes back centuries. The men’s suit of today is the result of clothing developed in northern Europe, with the final touches applied in England. The climate there is cool and damp. Central heating was introduced only recently. It made sense to wear wool clothing, closed around the neck to prevent heat from escaping. As long as that was confined to the climate where it developed, no great harm was done.

Unfortunately as British conquest and other influence spread, so did the suit and tie. I’ve seen such suits in Guayaquil, Ecuador where the residents say the temperature is two degrees cooler than Hell (though at least some of men there have the good sense to wear white instead of dark suits). I’ve seen it in the desert southwest of the United States and in the hot and humid southeast. This is an idea run rampant into places where it doesn’t make sense. Not only does this sartorial bondage make men uncomfortable, it also costs money and energy. If men remove their coats and ties, air conditioning can be turned off or down. Then in winter they can wear coats or sweaters as conditions require.

For the ladies, I know you also suffer from forms of sartorial bondage. My wife and daughters complain about pantyhose and shoes that are difficult to walk in and which cause foot problems. Lacking direct experience with such I’m limited in my ability to comment. However I do believe that men and women can make common cause, throwing off the restraints of uncomfortable and sometimes unhealthy clothing.

Society seems to demand that men dress for winter year-around, with coats and ties. Meanwhile women are often expected to expose their legs, even in winter. That is silly, nature made men in general more tolerant of cold than are women, yet men are required to wear the warm clothing in the summer while women are expected to wear dresses and skirts, even in winter.

Yes, the photo on my web site ( shows me with a noose around my neck. That seems mandatory to be taken seriously in the business world but it doesn’t mean I like it. Nor does it mean that such a noose makes me smarter, in fact that uncomfortable and constricting bit of fabric may interfere with my thinking.

We need another revolution, this one against silly clothes. Let’s all wear coats only to keep warm and ties not at all. And if the ladies want to dispense with panty hose and wear comfortable shoes, more power to them. We could even boycott businesses that require such silly clothing as part of their dress code and vote against politicians who spend lots of money on impractical clothing.

*The British Parliament did maintain limited power over Canada until 1982 and over Australia until 1986.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Simple Life, Part 2

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A couple of days ago I discussed how our complex society allows us to live simple lives. It takes the efforts of many people even to provide the number 2 pencil for which we pay only a few cents. Yet nobody deliberately organizes all those people to do the work. Each simply does his job in order to be paid. Most don’t even know that they are helping to make pencils.

We might compare this economic organization to a human body. Countless cells perform specialized functions, most with no central direction. Lung cells move oxygen into the blood and remove carbon dioxide waste, receiving in return the nourishment they need for their own lives. Yet those lung cells are certainly unaware that the oxygen they provide sustains the heart, the brain, the muscles and other tissues. Likewise cells in the stomach and small intestine digest food and move it into the blood, providing nourishment to every part of the body. Yet the stomach cells know nothing of how their nourishment is used, they only do their job in exchange for the oxygen and other things they need. That goes on throughout the body; different cells form organs that do their jobs without knowing how the products of their work are used. In exchange those cells receive the nourishment and waste-removal services they need to live.

Whether you believe in evolution or divine design, your body is a wonderful system. Now suppose you are approached by a gifted surgeon who offers to make a few improvements. He thinks it is not fair for the brain and heart to get first call on available oxygen and food. Surely the feet deserve as much consideration as does the brain, after all your feet help the whole body get around. Why is the body so arranged that when you get cold circulation slows to the feet and they get cold while the brain and heart stay warm and nourished? To each according to his need and the feet have needs just as does the brain.

Would you accept such modifications of your body? Probably not, who could foresee the unintended consequences of his “improvements”? It would be worse if the person offering to operate were a lawyer instead of a surgeon. Yet we have politicians worldwide insisting that they know best how to improve economic matters.

The interesting thing is that a great number of those politicians are lawyers and very few ever seriously studied economics. Somehow they seem to think that knowledge of legal matters qualifies them to tell the rest of us how to run our businesses. In fact the U.S. government has just appointed a new chairman for General Motors – and that man has no experience in the auto industry. We can hope for the best, after all that company has a major effect on our economy. However I’m afraid I can’t be very optimistic in this case.

Why should government dictate business practices? Many think that such control will lead to fairness and prosperity, but why should that be so? Such a belief requires that government officials be:

a. Able to consider all the appropriate factors and make wise decisions, and

b. Moral enough to put the needs of others above their own.

I do not believe we can trust any mere human to meet those requirements. The economy is so complex that no person can understand all its details. How does he compensate for weather that affects crops? How does he allow the risk taking necessary to developing new products without also allowing waste? How does he distribute compensation to best motivate people to do what will benefit the population? Such a person will face many more questions, all unnecessary if individuals are left free to manage their own affairs.

Nor can we trust people in power to be totally altruistic. They are quite as human as the rest of us and just as subject to temptation – nay more so because their positions of power protect them. I find it amazing how many people complain about greedy business executives and yet are willing to trust their welfare to government employees. They seem not to realize that those government employees are quite as human as are the businesspeople.

Is the free market perfect? Of course not, there are greedy executives and other problems. However the market at least allows a choice. If you don’t like the cars Ford makes you can buy a Chevy or Toyota, or even not own a car at all. Government allows no such choice. Don’t like public schools? Too bad. You can send your children to a private school but you still have to pay for the public school you do not use. It’s as if you had to pay Ford when you buy that Toyota.

Government is necessary for some functions. We need national defense as well as a local police force. We need a road system and it is not practical for private enterprise to provide it. However when government starts meddling in affairs that the people themselves can manage, we are headed for trouble. That is why a country like Soviet Russia, with tremendous natural resources, became so poor under communism. Well-intentioned people “performed surgery” on their system and the result was poverty and misery for the vast majority of the people.

Before we ask government to meddle in our economic system we should think about what might be the result. It is likely to be as bad as having that surgeon change the way our bodies work.