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To be OtherWise

OtherWiseI'm ending 2011 with a few thoughts on what we might do about the issues discussed in some of my previous posts. 

The traditional approach to difference in most pluralistic societies is the cultivation of tolerance.

But tolerance is the cheapest virtue, if it’s a virtue at all.  At best, it’s a cease-fire that allows each side to retain, and even cement, its hostile attitudes. 

One party can agree to put up with the Other and still look down on him or her. Keeping one party at a distance nearly always fosters misunderstanding and suspicion.

Tolerance may promise non-interference and facilitate peaceful co-existence, but it doesn’t lead to understanding. And certainly not to joint action. On the contrary, it’s built on a willful ignorance that leaves the other party unknown.

Productive societies need more than what one philosopher called a “benign indifference to difference.” Tolerance is only the first – and arguably lowest – step in becoming wise in the ways and why of others – to be OtherWise.  Sometimes, it may be all that is attainable; but it should never be a satisfactory goal.           

The opposite of “intolerance” is not “tolerance” but “hospitality.” Hospitality requires us to welcome and to make room for the Other, without any judgment beyond recognizing our common humanity. 

It’s seeing the Other as a person and not simply as a totem of difference. It’s engaging that person in conversation, fueled not only by curiosity, but also by the conviction that he or she can teach us something of value. It’s sharing that person’s experience emotionally as well as intellectually.

That doesn’t mean we have to set aside our own beliefs in favor of cultural and political relativism. But such an encounter forces us to surface and examine our own preconceptions and biases.

We are each embedded in the particular history and culture that shaped us. Being OtherWise means treating others as individuals, with their own unique story. 

Paradoxically that requires keen self-awareness.  Only then can we be free of our preconceptions and unspoken fears. Thus unencumbered, we can discover all the ways we are the same – in our interests and our destiny, if not in our experience and our ancestry.

Why bother to acquire the wisdom of relating to the Other?  Not because it’s the nice – or even right – thing to do, but in order to be more effective in our increasingly diverse and global society. 

Becoming OtherWise is a critical management requirement of the 21st century. It entails intellectual, as well as emotional, development:

  • Expanding our worldview to include news of other countries,
  • Increasing our cultural literacy of other people,
  • Increasing our religious literacy of other faiths,
  • Challenging our biases and assumptions about the “Others” in our lives,
  • Educating our emotions and developing our sense of empathy,
  • Engaging with people outside our immediate circle in meaningful ways.

To be OtherWise is to be open to others and to see them as fellow human beings of dignity and worth. It is to hear their story and to share our own with them.  It is appreciating their differences while finding in them common interests and values. 

The OtherWise are not naïve and gullible.  They realize that some people would take advantage of them, even do them harm.  But they try not to make such judgments based on stereotypes; they evaluate people as individuals. And they don’t paper over real disagreements; they confront differences of opinion honestly without thinking less of the person who holds them. They try to find a way to respect the perspective of other people, even if they can’t share it.

To be OtherWise is to see ourselves as others see us and to see ourselves in others. It is to understand the hidden forces that shape others’ behavior, as well as our own. Only then will we see the others, not as something apart, but as someone who is part of our world and our life.  Only then, will we be OtherWise. 

That's my wish for you in 2012.  See you next year.

Our fractious nation


How has an expression of extreme annoyance become the slogan for our time?

Most Americans are pretty close to the center on almost every issue – including the emotional third rails of abortion and gay marriage. But those at the extremes, we're told, have sufficient fervor to drown out the center if not each other.

It's merely difficult to see the center through the heat waves rising from the fiery arguments around its periphery.

America is not fractured, we're told, just increasingly fractious. 

Sadly, I think there's little practical difference. As the center deludes itself into thinking it need not concern itself with fights at its edges, its political, social, and economic choices relentlessly narrow.

These new levels of fractiousness have their roots in two relatively recent developments -- the moralization of politics and the politicization of communications media. 

1. The line between ethics and politics has always been fragile, but in the 1980s it was breached in a far-reaching way. That was the year that the Republican party recognized the motivating power of moral absolutism and included an anti-abortion plank in its campaign platform.

The Democrats, kowtowing to feminists in their ranks, took precisely the opposite view and positioned their stance as a blow for women's rights. Similar battles over "cultural values" such as gay rights ensued. The GOP adopted the mantle of a family-friendly, religious party; Democrats allowed themselves to be positioned as ir-, if not anti-, religious.

Both parties adopted a fundamentalist or relativist approach to documents like the Constitution and the Bible. Republicans profess belief in free markets and absolute moral standards, while Democrats are more inclined to moral relativism and tightly regulated markets. Political debates became emotionally charged, generating more heat than light.

Those who have policy differences aren’t simply wrong, they’re morally corrupt. Politicians in both parties have to genuflect before the arbiters of political morality to get nominated. The media worship at their altars to get ratings.  

2. At around the same time, communications media went through tectonic shifts, first from a broadcast to a cable platform, then from an analog and wired environment to one that is digital and wireless. 

The days when almost everyone dined on the same diet of evening TV news gave way to a multiplex of 24-hour cable programming that eventually tailored itself to the agendas of the right and left. 

The Internet enabled on-the-fly filtering so people could avoid opinions at odds with their own, creating a decidedly anti-social network that isolates and divides. 

Wireless technology took that network to the streets. Today’s kids spend more time texting than talking on their cell phones. The give and take of actual communication has been replaced by bursts of telegraphic text, heavy on snarky observation and commentary, but devoid of content more thoughtful than curated web links. 

The product of these developments has been an increase in the volume and reach of differences if not their substance. Evidence contrary to accepted dogma is ignored or devalued. Rumors, gossip, and  rants consistent with one's views are swallowed whole like a sacramental host. And if non-controvertible evidence later rebuts it, the original source is quickly forgotten, leaving only the emotional impact, sometimes with even greater virulence. Once engaged, hot cognition continues to glow even when the fuel is turned off.

Public discourse is fueled by passion, rather than facts and data. Every partisan is a self-appointed Prophet, whether on a picket line, in letters columns, or in blogs and Tweets.

The public square has become an echo chamber, full of walking and talking exclamation points. It is noisy, raucous, and powered by deep-seated resentment. 

Today’s right and left are really two sides of same coin. Both target preference. One sees it in the underclass, the other, in the upper class. 

For centuries, new communications technologies helped bring people together. Every innovation – from tribal drums to telephones – collapsed geography a little more, making the world smaller.  Now it seems that the most powerful of those innovations are doing the exact opposite: geography is actually folding in on itself, like a digital black hole from which nothing can escape.  

The result has been an historic deficit in the lubricant of civic life – trust. 

In decline since the 1960s, tust in nearly all institutionsis now at its lowest point ever. In fact, it has evolved into a cloud of free-floating anger not seen since the French Revolution.

Bite that.

A classical education

Know-thyselfA classical education left me with three Greek and Latin phrases, two useful and one that initially appeared supremely irrelevant.

The phrases worth remembering are "There's nothing new under the sun" in Latin and "Know yourself" in Greek. The third phrase is also Greek and may have broader application than I used to think -- "The animals are running."

Indeed, all three phrases apply to America today.

In the category of "nothing new," is America's increasing diversity.

We started life as a prediminantly Protestant Anglo-Saxon country, but became more diverse even before the Revolutionary War had ended. And now we are told that by 2042 the U.S. will be a minority-majority country.

In other words, non-Hispanic White Americans will soon be in the minority. It's already true in several states and in a growing number of large cities.

Of course, that has raised alarms in some quarters, reflected in the current hysteria over immigration, mosque-building, and foreign-language signage. All of that also falls into the "nothing new" category.

Emma Lazarus to the contrary, many Americans have had misgivings about foreigners on our shores ever since boats docked from anywhere but England. Ben Franklin had truly obnoxious things to say about the Germans settling in Pennsylvania, the Brahmins of Boston considered the Irish a separate race, and California sold Chinese people at auction if they couldn't pay a monthly head tax.

On one level, such fear of people who are different reflects the animal instincts that still run through our genes. When our primordial ancestors dropped from the trees and started walking across the African savannah on two legs, survival favored those who had an innate ability to work in small groups, as well as a deep hostility towards anyone not of the group.

Those characteristics were so critical that, over a number of generations, they became the norm. And they survive to this day.

All of which suggests that the best way of dealing with diversity is not only to try to understand others, but also to understand ourselves. Or as my old Greek text put it, γνῶθι σαυτόν.



Q & A on income inequality

Questions-qaQ. Why should we worry about income inequality?  

A. Because it erodes trust -- the social capital on which on well-being and economic growth depends. 

Q. Isn't income inequality the natural result of our free-market system?

A. Some level of income inequality is motivational and is not only to be expected, but a positive force in society. But current levels in the U.S. are unprecedented and dangerous. 

Q. Has inequality really gotten worse?

A. The Congressional Budget Office recently took a comprehensive look at household after-tax incomes for the period between 1979 and 2007. Both years reflected similar economic conditions, each coming before a recession. In addition to wages, bonuses, dividends, interest, capital gains, and other forms of earned income, the CBO auditors took into account government payments such as social security and welfare. They also subtracted all federal taxes paid, including payroll taxes. And they adjusted all data to account for inflation.

After crunching the data, the CBO concluded that after-tax income for households at the higher end of the income scale rose much more rapidly than income for households in the middle and at the lower end of the income scale. 

  • For the 1 percent of the population with the highest incomes, average real after-tax household income grew by 275% between 1979 and 2007. 
  • For the 20% of the population with the next highest incomes (those in the 81st through 99th percentiles), average real after-tax household income grew by 65% over that period.
  • For the 60% of the population in the middle of the income scale (the 21st through 80th percentiles), the growth in average after-tax household income was just under 40%.
  • For the 20 percent of the population with the lowest income, average after-tax household income was about 18% higher in 2007 than it had been in 1979.  

Q. What accounts for these differences?

A.  The CBO concluded that the principal reason is that all major sources of income became more highly concentrated in the very highest-income households. 

  • Wages and bonuses are by far the largest source of income, accounting for about three-fourths of total income across all households in 1979 and two-thirds in 2007.  But whereas in 1979, 60% of wages and bonuses went to people in the lowest 80% of incomes, in 2007 less than 50% did. 
  • There are different theories to account for this, ranging from the impact of salaries paid to a relatively small number of superstar athletes and entertainers, to the outsized compensation given to corporate CEOs, and the increasing concentration of the economy in higher-paying financial, legal, and medical industries, as well as the general increase in jobs requiring higher levels of education and technical skill.

An important secondary cause of increasing income disparity is that non-wage income became a larger piece of the total income pie over this period. Capital income (i.e., interest, dividends, and rents), business income (i.e., an owner or partner's share of busines profits), capital gains (i.e., profits realized on prior investments), and private pensions became a larger piece of the total income pie over this period.

All of these sources tend to be concentrated in the upper income households. But the biggest change in this period was the share of business income concentrated in the top one percent of households.(Business income increased partly because business earnings increased in this period. But it was also due to tax changes that caused many businesses to redefine themselves as "S Chapter" corporations that pass their earnings on to their owners or partners, avoiding double taxation at the corporate and individual levels.)

But an unexpected reason, at least to me, is that government transfers across most income groups declined as a share of total income.

  • For example, Medicare payments -- which are not means-tested -- grew, shifting more government payments to middle- and upper-income households. 
  • On the other hand, spending on federal means-tested programs like Aid to Families with Dependent Children declined. As a result, households in the lowest-income quintile received 54 percent of federal transfer payments in 1979 and only 36 percent in 2007.

Finally, average federal tax rates went down by two percentage points in the period, but payroll taxes increased. The result was a less progressive federal tax system. 

 Taken together, nearly all households' share of income after government payments and federal taxes either went down (for the bottom 80%) or stayed the same (next 19%), while the share to the top 1% more than doubled. 

According to the CBO, higher after-tax incomes for the top 1% of households accounted for more than half of the increase in income inequality.

In sum, it seems that income inequality is due to a less progressive tax system, decreases in government benefits for lower income groups, higher compensation for occupations requiring more education and technical skill, and CEO compensation that has grown faster than the economy.

Q. So what can we do about income inequality?

A. I think at least part of the solution requires action on four fronts:

  • Restore the progessivity of our tax system, especially on the 0.1% highest-income households, 
  • Apply more means-testing to government benefits, including Medicare and Social Security,
  • Improve corporate governance to get more control over executive compensation,
  • Make major investments in education to equip people with the skills needed to compete for higher-paying jobs.

Q. What are the chances of any of this happening?

A. It all depends on people like us deciding to do something about it.


Merry inequality

t may not have been totally in the spirit of the season, but I got into an interesting discussion about income inequality at a holiday luncheon yesterday.

I am against it; my luncheon companion has no problem with it.

He's especially concerned that President Obama wants to fix the problem by redistributing the bank accounts of the wealthy to the poor because it's not "nice" that some people have a lot of money.

My friend isn't unique in holding that opinion.

A Gallup report issued yesterday found that most Americans think income and wealth inequality isn't a problem but merely an acceptable part of our economic system. And if we must do something about it, a large majority believe we should grow the economy and increase equal opportunity so people "can get ahead if they want to."

In other words, a lot of Americans believe wealth inequality is a matter of choice. I suspect my friend is one of them.

So here are a couple of thoughts.  

First, opportunity is not as equally distributed in the U.S. as it should be even though we've been at it since the country's founding (and redoubled the effort about 50 years ago). As I've written in other posts, lots of people still suffer from unconscious bias. And the legacy of past racism is evident in our cities, suburbs, schools, workplaces, shopping malls, and highways. In other words, everywhere.

Second, re-balancing wealth in the U.S. is not an issue of being "nice." A long litany of studies has established that wealth inequality reduces people's well-being, results in fewer public goods, and even lowers overall economic growth. (See, for example, this report from the International Monetary Fund.)

Third, while people certainly are entitled to what they earn honestly, our progressive tax system is designed to ensure that rich people pay a higher tax rate than poorer people. That helps to offset the regressive nature of other taxes, such as sales taxes and social security taxes that have income ceilings. But it's also designed to inject more fairness in our tax system.

Rich people have benefited from the U.S. economic system at least as much as from their own talent and luck. In fact, their luckiest break was being born in the U.S. As Warren Buffet admits, he probably wouldn't have been as successful had he been born in Bangladesh.

Unfortunately, the U.S. tax system now has so many loopholes and preferences that it is not nearly as progressive (or fair) as it once was. Fixing that problem would go a long way towards reducing income and wealth inequality.

I suspect that's what Obama has in mind. His political opponents, on the other hand, will undoubtedly portray it as increasing taxes on "job creators." Or, as my friend did, a Soviet-style form of wealth redistribution.





It's nice to be White

Gt_presidential_seal_pen_630x420_111201I've written before about implicit bias, the unconscious attitudes that lead to discriminatory behavior. 

An on-going Harvard University study revealed a pattern of discrimination against darker-skinned people among Whites and also among Blacks and Hispanics. But it doesn't take a statistical study to realize that it's nice to be White.

Worldwide, skin lightening products outsell self-tanning products 20 to 1.  Preference for lighter skin colors are deeply embedded in our unconscious, resulting in bias in everyday transactions from shopping to hiring. Not to mention arrests and convictions.

To that list, thanks to an investigation by ProPublica, we can add presidential pardons. The investigation's title says it all: "Presidential pardons favor Whites."  

Indeed, the ProPublica study shows that "White criminals seeking presidential pardons over the past decade have been nearly four times as likely to succeed as minorities."  

For example, all of the drug offenders forgiven during the Bush administration at the pardon attorney's recommendation - 34 of them - were White. A Black, first-time drug offender -- a Vietnam veteran who got probation in South Carolina for possessing 1.1 grams of crack - was turned down. A White, four-time drug offender who did prison time for selling 1,050 grams of methamphetamine was pardoned.

Overall, although Blacks account for 38% of federal inmates, only 2 to 4% of those who applied for a pardon received one. That compares to 12% of Whites and 10% of Hispanics.

Apparently, when President Bush turned the pardon process over to career Justice Department lawyers in reaction to the controversy surrounding his predecessor's pardon of a big campaign contributor, it didn't remove implicit bias from the equation.

According to ProPublica, by the end of his term, the pardon process had moved President Bush himself from "frustrated" to "disgusted." A sentiment we can all share. 



Right way, wrong way


Philosphers have had a corner on morality for eons. But now, they need to make room for exerimental psychologists.

Jonathan Haidt is a philosophy major turned psychologist who never lost his taste for exploring the Big Questions.

He has some trail-blazing experimental research on the nature of morality, i.e., why people have a sense of right and wrong and what shapes it. That's the subject of his upcoming book, The Righteous Mind. And it shows up in his highly informative web site.

I refer to some of his more interesting findings in OtherWise. Many are particularly relevant to my exploration of the forces that seem to inexorably divide us.

One would think that a moral sense would make it harder to divide people. After all, nearly every culture and religion purports to embrace the Golden Rule as an ideal -- treat others as you would like them to treat you.

But as Haidt (pronounced "height") observes, morality too often "binds people together into teams that seek victory, not truth. It closes hearts and minds to opponents even as it makes cooperation and decency possible within groups.” It seems believing something is wrong carries a corollary obligation to demonize anyone who disagrees.

That's not an argument against morality. It's a plea that people who purport to follow high standards of morality reexamine their own behavior.

And it's a suggestion that anyone who truly wants to understand others must "respect and even learn from those whose morality differs from our own."



Cognitive illusions

Daniel Kahneman dedicated his career to understanding how we make decisions.

The theme of his new book, Thinking Fast and Slow, is that many of our judgments and decisions are less the result of careful thought as the product of unconscious bias and intuitive feeling.

We all suffer "cognitive illusions," the rational equivalent of optical illusions. Thinking-fast-and-slow-9780374275631-daniel-kahneman-books-clip

Kahneman unearthed so many insights on the source and consequences of those illusions that he won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2002. 

 He believes that people's brains have two separate systems for organizing knowledge.

System One is blazingly fast and probably evolved so our prehistoric ancestors could survive in a world of hungry predators. It allowed them to react to shadows in the bush quickly enough to stay one step ahead of venemous snakes and saber-tooth tigers.

We call those quick judgments based on limited and fragmentary information "intuition." They allow us to act without waiting for our conscious awareness to catch up.

System One works because it has immediate access to a vast store of memories and impressions, especially those tied to emotions like fear, pain, and hatred. It's often wrong, but in the jungle it's safer to be wrong and quick than right and slow.

System Two is the slow process of forming judgments based on conscious tought and the critical examination of evidence. Kahneman believes System Two was probably a relatively recent evolutionary adaptation, arising from the need for prehistoric tribes to make plans and coordinate activities.

In theory, System Two allows us to evaluate System One's conclusions, correcting and revising them.  Unfortunately, it uses more calories and is more time-consuming. It's hard work. So we're less likely to use it. And even when we do, it's not immune to illusions.

A long litany of cognitive illusions afflict it, from “availability bias” (judgment based on memories that just happen to be quickly available or have strong emotional content) to "zero risk bias" (a preference to reduce a small risk to zero rather than attempting a smaller reduction in a bigger risk).

The problem is that System Two seldom operates independently of System One, which is faster and has greater emotional content. And as Kahneman ruefully points out, simply knowing of the existence of cognitive illusions doesn't free us from their effects.  

For example, if you got this far, you've now read 391 words on the subject. What is pictured in the following photo?


That's right -- two eggs. But some people can be tricked into thinking the photo pictures something else as Systems One and Two battle furiously within their brains.

Keep that in mind the next time you're dealing with other people, especially if you're arguing over a contentious issue.

Neither of you is really listening and evaluating the available data. You're probably operating off a whole host of cognitive illusions.  


What's PR?

PR.003One of the national PR associations is sponsoring an online effort to redefine "public relations."  

Good luck with that.

To most people, the practice of "PR" exists somewhere between the harmless hype of P.T. Barnum and the toxic smokescreen of a Nixonian cover-up. To many people, at its least offensive, it amounts to word-smithing, party-planning, glad-handing, and pitching (as in trying to convince some hapless reporter to write or not write something).  

At a more objectionable level, PR is "spinning," which is a term of art for "lying;" or it's "influence," which can easily de-generate into outright bribery.

One of the most dangerous trends I noted when I was active in the field was the way the tactics of lobbying and political campaigning were bleeding into the practice of public relations.

Many CEOs are captivated by lobbyists who prowl the corridors of power on what appears to be an equal footing with our elected representatives.  Of course, their way is greased with gobs of well-placed PAC and corporate money. But they seem to have clear goals, and they can be ruthless in achieving them. That appeals to the typical alpha-dog CEO.

I don't mean to suggest that lobbying is inherently evil and PR is pure. (My beloved son-in-law is a lobbyist, after all.) But the two functions are fundamentally different.  Lobbyists and political operatives are basically transactional. They're all about getting a vote (or avoiding one). 

Public relations, on the other hand, should be about building enduring relationships. And that has to start with understanding a broad range of stakeholders, not so much to influence them, as to help shape an institution's policies and practices.

If I had one suggestion for the folks trying to redefine PR, it would be this: whatever you come up with, put less emphasis on advocacy and more on the kind of listening that can inform corporate decisions.