Friday, November 27, 2009

Questions? or Pseudoquestions?

“Why can't I go to the party” “Why can't I stay up as late as Bill does?” “Why do I have to take that boring math class?” If you are a parent of a teenager you've heard such questions ad naseam (at least if you're a responsible parent). Quite likely you've noticed that those questions are an invitation to an argument and you may want a better way to answer them. Actually they may not deserve an answer because in most cases they are not questions at all. They are pseudoquestions.

A pseudoquestion is really a complaint phrased as a question. People who ask real questions want answers. People who present pseudoquestions want you to change something. The teen doesn't want to know why he can't go to the party or stay up late. He doesn't want to know why he has to take that math class. He wants to go to the party, stay up late and skip the math class. If he wanted to know the answers, you could explain to him the dangers of the party, the need for a good night's sleep, and how math will be useful to him later. Then he would be satisfied. However no answer is a satisfactory response to a pseudoquestion because the “questioner” doesn’t want an answer.

That is the key to distinguishing between real questions and pseudoquestions. If the “questioner” really wants an answer, then it is a real question. However if he only wants to complain or get you to change something he doesn't like, it is a pseudoquestion.

The distinction is important. Real questions are the gateway to progress while pseudoquestions simply cause contention. Physicists questioned things like why the atom is stable and why some other odd things happened that they didn't understand. The result, after many years of seeking the answers, was quantum mechanics. That science stands behind much of modern technology, including the computer on which I’m writing this article.

The point is that those scientists didn't complain that the atom wasn't acting the way their knowledge at the time said it should. Instead they asked real questions and dedicated time, talent, and energy to finding the answers. The pseudoquestioning teen, on the other hand, doesn't seek to learn why math or a good night's sleep is so important. Instead he devotes time, talent, and energy to complaining and trying to get his parents or school administrators to change the rules.

Of course children can drive their parents crazy with either real questions. What parent hasn't been driven to distraction by questions such as, “why is the sky blue?” “How do birds fly?” “Why don't snakes have legs?” There was even a popular song about that, “Little Wendy Why-Why” by Al Hoffman and Martin Kalmanoff. The song expressed the exasperation of many parents when their offspring start to resemble “one big question mark.” Such questions come faster than parents can answer them, but at least they are real questions. If parent and child pursue answers together, those questions can lead to some real education as well as parent-child bonding.

However the difference between questions and pseudoquestions is not limited to children. Pseudoquestions also plague business and public life, and even adults can hinder their own happiness when such disguised complaints keep their focus on what they don’t like. What manager hasn’t had an employee “ask” something like, “Why can’t Jim do it?” In most cases that employee doesn’t want to know why Jim can’t do it, he just doesn’t want to do it himself. A better employee might ask something like, “What is the best way of doing this task so that the company prospers and we all benefit from it?”

Some people also ask “questions” like, “Why doesn’t the government pay for my health care.” Do you think they really want to know the answer? I doubt it, they just want to avoid taking responsibility for that part of their own lives. Give them a good answer and they will continue to complain.

It is also common for people to obstruct their own lives with “questions” like, “Why do these things always happen to me?” When you ask such a “question,” do you really want an answer? I doubt it, more likely you want bad things to stop happening. A much better question would be, “What can I learn from this?” Or “What can I do to make things work out better in the future?”

How do we deal with pseudoquestions? There is probably no pat answer. We might just give an answer and if the person is not satisfied then say, “I answered your question and it is now obvious that you didn’t want the answer. You just wanted to complain and I’m not going to listen to complaints. Get on with your life.”

What if you find yourself the culprit in “asking” pseudoquestions? The same thing applies. First recognize that that’s what you are doing. Then give yourself a mini-lecture such as the above. You might even go look in a mirror and tell yourself to stop complaining and get on with your life.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Politicians – Personality and Problems, Part 2

What kind of person becomes a successful politician? How does that personality type affect performance in office? Last time I discussed how being an extrovert gets people leadership positions but militates against good decision-making. However there are worse problems with the personality type that often acquires political power.

Too often politicians are power seekers, seeking that power because they like to control others. That is often combined with a tendency to listen to people who tell them how wonderful they are.

If we think about it this should be no surprise. Where else but politics can a control freak acquire the power to take people's money to spend on pet projects, to order people to do or not do things etc? Even the corporate CEO cannot force people to buy his product if they don't want to – but a politician can often do just that. Don't like General Motors cars? You're free to buy from Ford, Chrysler, Toyota, or even not buy a car at all. Don't like the public school system? Sorry you have to pay for it anyway, even if you send your kids to private school.

Of course not all politicians are of that type, but a political career has to be enticing to control freaks. That type of person is unlikely to seek a career in retail sales or engineering. Instead he is likely to try to either get into management or more likely into something like politics where he has the possibility of being able to tell others what to do. That means that initially those who enter politics are disproportionately of the type of individual who want to control others.

Even those who get into politics for other reasons find themselves tempted. Power is heady stuff and such people can get caught up in the ability to control others and spend huge amounts of other people's money. Political power becomes addictive. That addiction often includes a belief that those in power know what is best for others. They often have or acquire what Sowell calls the “unconstrained vision” in that they believe they can and should fix all the world's problems. This intellectual arrogance helps them justify the belief that they can and should control everything.*

That gets exacerbated by the fact that sycophants tend to cluster around the powerful. Anyone in a position of political power will attract a following of “yes men” who attempt to advance their own ends by flattery. Such people tend to infest the staffs of congressmen, presidents, governors etc. They tell their boss or friend what he wants to hear, reinforcing his already great tendency to think of himself as all-knowledgeable. As a result we have too many politicians who want to control all aspects of our lives, being encouraged by their employees and acquaintances. That is bad for the country, and for each of us individually.

Once again a good solution to this problem is to return to the constitional principle of limited government. We must stop congress from overstepping its bounds. We should become the control freaks, controlling and limiting congress instead of allowing congress to control us.

*See for example my review of Sowell's book, “The Vision of the Anointed” posted here September 4, 2009.

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Friday, November 20, 2009

Politicians – Personality and Problems, Part 1

What kind of person becomes a successful politician? How does that personality type affect performance in office? I'm afraid the answers to those questions do not bode well for the country. The fact is that the requirements to get elected have almost nothing to do with the ability to do a good job and in fact often militate against good decision-making.

Consider for example two people. Joe is an extrovert, a real people person who knows how to get people to like him. Bill on the other hand is a contemplative type, given to thinking seriously about any significant decision, weighing the pros and cons and making careful decisions. Which is more likely to be attracted to politics? The answer of course is Joe. He will thrive on the glad-handing and other aspects of political life. His outgoing personality will attract supporters and voters who think they have a real connection with him.

However in the unlikely event that Bill tries to get into politics he will have a hard time inspiring supporters. Regardless of how correct and well-thought-out his positions, people will think of him as dull compared to Joe. Without the excitement that a more charismatic candidate can inspire, Bill will have a difficult time getting volunteers and campaign donations. Worse, voters may regard him as lacking in leadership. Barring something like a major scandal on Joe's part, Bill has almost no chance of winning an election against him. An outgoing personality is a big advantage in politics.

In fact Timothy Judge of the University of Florida business school says that being an extrovert is correlated with being chosen as a leader, but not with being a good leader. “We go for these effervescent leaders when what's really needed is a dull, focused, plodding [type] building effective groups and organizations.”*

As a decision-making consultant I'm convinced that Dr. Judge is correct, not only in politics but also in business and other aspects of life. The charismatic extrovert attracts followers and gets them excited. However that excitement is often directed at the wrong goal or the wrong means to that goal. This personality type frequently fails to adequately evaluate what he is doing. Furthermore, his charisma often causes his followers to act unthinkingly as well. Too often the result is disaster. Jim Jones, David Koresh, and Adolf Hitler come to mind as examples of this type of personality-driven leadership.

On the other hand, Dwight Eisenhower lacked a charismatic personality. Yet he successfully led the battle against Germany in World War II and later accomplished much as president of the United States. His style was to listen to his advisers, then make the best decision he could. While not all his decisions worked out perfectly that style was much more effective than was that of Montgomery, the flamboyant British field marshal. Eisenhower's more collaborative style led to better decisions than did Montgomery's self-aggrandizing personality.

In most cases, that is what good leadership requires: making good decisions and getting subordinates to carry out those decisions. The extroverted personality militates against those good decisions, though it does inspire followers to act. However enthusiastic action on a bad decision is usually counterproductive, often worse than no action at all. On the other hand, even half-hearted work on a good decision seldom causes harm and usually does at least some good. Furthermore, once followers see the effectiveness of the good decision, their enthusiasm is likely to increase and they are likely to work harder to implement that decision.

The solution is obvious, whether for the voters or the search committee seeking a new CEO or other leader. Seek first wise and collaborative decision-making skills and ignore the charisma and personality of the candidates.

However there are worse problems with the political personality. I plan to discuss a couple of them next time.

*U.S. News and World Report, November 2009, p26

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Congressional Problems, Our Problems (Part 2)

Congressional Problems, Our Problems (Part 2)

Last time I discussed pressure to do something even if it’s wrong, and stage one thinking. Those problems affect all of us but especially congress. Now let’s move on to a couple of other problems.

A third congressional problem is that there is seldom any motivation for congress to fix the problems it creates. Just look at the mortgage issue for example. People who should never have qualified for mortgages were able to do so because of pressure on lenders and because of programs to allow them to get loans with no down payment. It should have been no surprise that many subsequently defaulted on those mortgages. So has congress cracked down on the problem? Of course not, that might cost votes. Instead we now have a program of mortgage subsidies that allows the subsidy to be used for the down payment. I'm afraid the results will be predictable.

In our own lives we are also tempted to stick with bad decisions long after we should recognize that they are bad. This is a natural human tendency, based on something that has benefited the race for eons. When a child misbehaves we usually do not immediately decide that having a child was a mistake and abandon that child. That is a good thing when it comes to children, but not with investments or most other bad decisions.

We all make mistakes. The wise learn from those mistakes and correct their problems. The unwise persist with their bad decisions, to their detriment. (In fact the truly wise learn from the mistakes of others.)

A forth problem is accessibility bias, the tendency to be unduly influenced by most recent or most noticeable events. The cognitive psychologists have done experiments demonstrating that what we have recently seen, or what is spectacular, tends to overwhelm the less spectacular things or those in the distant past. In one experiment, subjects spun a wheel giving numbers up to 100. Then they were asked to guess how many African countries were in the UN. There was an amazing correlation between the number they saw on that wheel and their guesses about UN countries. The number accessible in their minds unduly influenced their guesses on an unrelated topic.

Think of how this affects congress. Who gets most of their attention? Clearly not the guy working in a factory or on a farm trying to keep up with the needs of his family. No, there are union and business lobbyists, “public interest” groups with an ax to grind, and others twisting their arms or convincing representatives of their viewpoints. All that attention provides accessibility bias toward meeting the demands of those groups at the expense of good citizens who haven't time to camp on the representative's doorstep. The result is that congress has a distorted, one-sided view of reality.

Of course accessibility bias affects us all. The memorable advertisement, the spectacular and bloody news story etc. all cause us to view the world differently than we would otherwise. Without conscious effort to avoid distortion we will not have a good picture of the world.

I’ve mentioned four problems here:

Pressure to do something, even if it’s wrong,
Stage one thinking,
Failure to learn from and correct previous mistakes, and
Accessibility bias

Those four problems affect us all. However the nature of congress causes them to have more effect on that body than on most of us. We see the reason every time we look in a mirror. As Pogo said, “we have met the enemy and he is us.” Voters continue to demand action, even if wrong. Voters demand superficial solutions and fail to demand evaluation beyond stage one. Voters fail to demand that congress correct past errors or look beyond the lobbyists when making decisions. Until that changes, congress will not change.

What can we do? As voters we can demand that congress do better in these areas. More importantly, we can look at ourselves, how we vote and the things we ask of our representatives. However, beyond that we should encourage a return to a limited, constitutional government. We need to get away from the whole idea of government as a paternalistic solution to all our problems. The power to solve those problems is also the power to take our freedoms and create new problems.

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Friday, November 13, 2009

Congressional Problems, Our Problems (Part 1)

About a week ago I wrote about how congressional obfuscation is going to cause problems with health care and elsewhere. Those obfuscations seem to be the work of a few congressional leaders and may be deliberately caused. However even beyond that, congress operates under some serious disadvantages. Those disadvantages also apply to much of what the rest of us do, though not to the extent that they apply to congress.

First, congress is under pressure to do something about any perceived problem. Sadly, our representatives will get lots of bad publicity if they refuse to act and almost no positive reaction if they fail to move, even if the proposed action is damaging to the country. That publicity swings elections, putting pressure on our representatives to do something, even if it's wrong. I posted an entire blog on this subject back on June 15, 2009. (

A second disadvantage is that congress by nature engages in stage one thinking. What that means is that they look only at the initially expected results and do not ask things like, “and then what?” Political pressure is always for the quick fix, Adverse results usually come later, on someone else’s watch. Congress will authorize bailout funds for all sorts of businesses but fails to ask, “Then what?” What will happen when the money is spent? What will the massive borrowing or taxation do to the economy?”

How about when congress voted to pressure banks to make mortgage loans more “equal opportunity” by loaning to minorities? Did the representatives ask, “What then? Will those marginal mortgages have a high default rate?” If they did they must not have cared about the answer, which was obvious. We now have economic problems caused in large part by the defaults on those marginal mortgages. Furthermore, those who borrowed and were forced into default have their credit damaged. They were harmed by the “help” congress gave them.

This of course applies also to our personal and work lives. It is easy to make a decision based only on the obvious. We can buy that TV or new car we want, even on credit. However it is more difficult to think about “what then?” What happens when the bills start coming in? What happens if our employer has to cut back and our income drops?

This also applies to our love lives. A friend was recently married after a rather rushed courtship. She is older than most and perhaps a bit set in her ways. Her husband likewise has previous life experiences that gave him certain expectations. My wife and I tried to warn her that she should look at things carefully, especially the “big three” marriage problems: children, money, and in-laws. She did not do that, and the marriage may not survive. She and her husband now have problems in all three of those areas. She could have asked herself (and her intended husband) things like, “How will we deal with your children? Any children we have? How will we act if your parents interfere with our family decisions? How will we manage our money?”

Some have the idea that love conquers all. Well nearly all marriages start with two people in love – but have you checked the divorce rate in this country? Stage one thinking contributes heavily to that problem. However if couples would just look a little deeper many would either not marry or would go into marriage with a better idea of how to stay happy with each other.

Stage one thinking is a recipe for trouble, in personal, work and national life.

To be continued next time with a couple of other such problems.

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Lessons from Fort Hood

By now nearly everyone in the U.S. knows that Major Nidal Hasan killed 13 people and wounded over 30 others at Fort Hood. This tragic event almost certainly could have been prevented and we should learn from it. However we should be careful that we learn the right lessons. One thing we should not do is blame all Muslims. Most Muslims in the country have condemned this act as anti-Islamic. They point out that the Koran prohibits such murder of non-combatants. Hasan was clearly an extremist, out of the mainstream of U.S. Islam.

Nor should we blame “quiet loners,” another group often implicated after the fact. The great majority of loners in this country are upstanding citizens and never commit any serious crime.

No, the lesson we should learn from the Fort Hood killings is that we should look at the facts, regardless of what they say. In the case of Hasan, the facts were plentiful and pointed to an officer who could not be trusted. He had posted his anti-American views quite openly on the Internet. It now appears that he had attempted to contact al Qaeda. Why trust someone like that? Would a football team hire a trainer who wanted that team to lose? Would a business hire an employee who was loyal to a competitor?

While nobody could have predicted that Hasan would “go postal” and commit mass murder, there was plenty of evidence that he was not to be trusted. Even had he not committed murder, he would probably have been an ineffective in a combat area and quite likely would have worked against the cause he was paid to support.

In such cases we must reject the temptation to treat employment and similar decisions as though we were in a court of law. There is no automatic presumption of innocence in the employment arena. Instead, employers must do what is likely to be best for the organization. In cases such as that of Nidal Hasan, that means looking at if he was likely to be an effective therapist to the soldiers he was supposed to serve and to help them function effectively in their jobs. Decision makers must look for positive evidence of ability and willingness to do that job, and do it right. Lacking such evidence they should not assign him to the task.

In Hasan's case, the ability was probably there but there was reason for serious doubts about the willingness. In fact, there was reason to suspect that he would work against U.S. interests. He should have been placed in some non-critical assignment or even suspended from duty until all relevant questions were answered. Of course we cannot know what would have happened had that been done. However it is possible that he would never have committed those murders.

The lesson applies elsewhere. Except as required by such things as union contracts, employers need not give employees the benefit of a doubt. If there is reason to suspect that an employee is damaging the company, the employer can and should investigate. And there is no requirement of “proof beyond reasonable doubt.” If there is no evidence that the employee is doing the job as it should be done, that employee has no right to a presumption of effectiveness.

Likewise, we as consumers are in the position of employers when we decide whom we will employ by purchasing their products or services. We need not assume that advertisers or sales people are totally honest. It is up to us to evaluate their claims and refuse to “hire” them if we find the evidence insufficient.

We must all learn to investigate pertinent evidence for cases that affect our lives.

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Friday, November 6, 2009

Congress: Obfuscations are Us

Released in a meeting closed to the public, Nancy Pelosi's latest health care plan is a masterpiece of obfuscation. Nearly 2000 pages, all written in legalese – if a reader wants to know what one section means, he must go to a different section to see what special meaning is applied to the words, or what exceptions are built in. What does it really say? I don't pretend to know since I've not read the monstrosity. If I get lots of time and can find a copy on the web I'll try to read it. However I suspect part of the intent is to discourage citizens from reading it.

I have heard commentator claims about what it says. Medicare cutbacks. Reduction in the right to put money in a health savings account. Higher taxes (probably inevitable in any “reform” this congress is likely to pass). Costs heaped on business and individuals. The possibility of federal charges for anyone who refuses to buy insurance. Are those claims true? I suspect so but I'm not sure. I am sure that Pelosi and her cohorts became complicit in those claims by creating such an undecipherable monster. When nobody understands a bill it is inevitable that rumors will circulate. Some of those rumors will be true, some false.

Furthermore, if the past actions of Pelosi, Obama and Reid are any guide we can now expect to see a push for quick action before people have time to understand this bill. I do not believe they trust the people enough to let us know what it will mean. In fact Pelosi has now reneged on her promise to post it on line for 72 hours before any vote.

So much for the open government the democrats promised.

And all that brings up another question: What is the probability that any such health care legislation will actually work? It is well known in engineering that the more complicated a design, the less likely it is to actually function as intended. In one class I took the saying was, “if you can't explain how it works to a retarded five-year old you will never understand why it doesn't work at all.” The point was that all successful circuit designs are simple, or combinations of simple designs.*

That rule applies in life generally. Complexity is more useful for obscuring the issues than for reaching stated goals. That applies to government programs as much as anywhere else. The health care bills being proposed are all complex in the extreme. I cannot believe that any of them will actually work as advertised. And there is a huge disadvantage just because they are proposing a government program. An electronic circuit goes into production only after it is tested. In contrast, the test of the health care bill will come only when it is imposed on the citizens who will have no choice but to live with it.

The entire health care “reform,” as proposed by Pelosi, Reid et al, promises to be an expensive boondoggle. We must convince our representatives to oppose it.

*This has been somewhat modified in recent years as computer modeling of electronic circuits has become the norm. That allows problems to be identified before the actual circuit is constructed. However the human designer still works with relatively simple parts of the circuit. Unfortunately we have no such modeling programs available for government programs.

Postscript to the previous blog about big lies and the Obama administration: I've just read about how administration officials are equating pay raises to jobs saved. "If I give you a raise, it is going to save a portion of your job," The speaker was HHS spokesman Luis Rosero.

How any reasonable person could swallow that one is beyond me. The administration seems to be making a career out of telling big lies.

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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Big Lie

“Tell a big enough lie and people will believe it because they think nobody would dare say such a thing if it weren't true.” That advice, often attributed to Hitler's dictatorship, seems to have spread around the world. It pains me to say this about my country, but it also seems to have infected the U.S. presidency and congress.

For four straight weeks in October President Obama mentioned his health care reform in his weekly message. In each of the four messages he went so far as to claim that the people and congress were coming together to provide bipartisan support for his plan. I do not understand how anybody could believe that claim. Doubts have been growing, even in Obama's own party, and that was obvious before Obama made his claims. Either he is completely out of touch with reality or he is telling a big lie.

It saddens me to make such an accusation within my own country, just as it saddened me when Nixon was shown to have engaged in a cover-up of the Watergate break-in. Unfortunately the facts are there. Nixon did participate in the cover-up. Obama did tell a flagrant lie, claiming people were coming together to support his plan when the opposite was true.

Worse, that was not an isolated incident. On 24 October, Obama claimed that the “reform” would help save small business in the country. Somehow imposing higher costs on those companies is supposed to help their bottom line? You gotta' be kidding! Can he be that out of touch with reality or is he telling us another big lie?

Though there is not yet a single, finalized health care reform plan, it is clear that all the plans Obama and his followers support would add costs, either through taxes or through forcing employers to provide insurance. Companies with that additional expense would be competing with imports from China, Southeast Asia and elsewhere, places where wages are low and employer-paid health coverage hardly known. The result will be the near destruction of small business in this country.

Obama is not alone in this. Sen. Max Baucus claims that there is a “sense of inevitability....we're going to pass health care reform and it's going to lower costs, provide better health insurance coverage.” Sorry Max, there is no sense of inevitability except as you create one. Nor is it all that obvious that government meddling will lower cost or provide better coverage. I’m not sure if you are that out of touch with reality or if you’re telling another big lie, but it has to be one or the other. What you claim is completely wrong.

Al this is reminiscent of teen-age peer pressure. “Everybody's doing it, why don't you?” It appears to be an attempt to steamroll the opposition by creating a false impression that the “reform” is inevitable. Reasoned discussion takes a back seat. Instead the message is that we better get on board, join the bandwagon, do what everybody else does without thinking it through.

There was a time when we expected honor in our elected servants. While the story of Washington and the cherry tree was not true, it does illustrate an expectation that the people we hire to run the country should tell us the truth. Sadly that expectation has changed and we now go so far as to say that the way to tell if a politician is lying is if his lips are moving. That must change. We, the voters, must put a stop to this nonsense. We must contact our representatives and tell them to stop lying. If they refuse we must publicize that, then fire them at the next election – or recall them before that election if recall is available.

No democratic government can long survive unless the voters can trust their representatives.

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