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Pinocchio for president


No, the wooden boy has not thrown his jaunty cap into the ring.

But anyone who saw, heard, or read Rep. Paul Ryan's acceptance speech last night can be forgiven for thinking the kid with the extendable nose was in the race.

By almost every account, Ryan's speech was factually challenged. And that's being charitable.

My nod for the cleverest report goes to the Huffington Post's punny headline: "Paul tales." The headline's gone, but you can read the story here.

A virtual army of fact checkers tore through Ryan's remarks, pointing out untruths, exaggerations, and outright lies. For example, see here, here, and here. Even Fox News had to admit that parts of Ryan's speech were untrue.

It's hard to believe Ryan -- or whoever vetted this speech -- thought he could get away with some of these whoppers. The "you didn't build that" trope had already been dissected and declared mendacious by Bill Keller of the New York Times.  

But that's really beside the point. One of Romney's pollsters had already affirmed that they were "not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers."  

It all reminds me of something I wrote long ago:  People know what they feel without being entirely certain why they feel it. They’ll accept any argument that comports with their feelings; ignore all that contradict them.

A long litany of psychological studies prove it. And now Paul Ryan has demonstrated it on national television.

Fear not. I'm sure the Democrats will demonstrate the same principle next week. It seems endemic to our political system. 


Purpise.023"Profit without purpose is a recipe for disaster."

Those words come from Elizabeth Murdoch, daughter of the media baron and chair of News Corp.'s U.K. television production company, Shine. 

"It is increasingly apparent that the absence of purpose—or of a moral language—within government, media, or business, could become one of the most dangerous…goals for capitalism and for freedom," she said in delivering the annual James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival.

The Murdochs know a thing or two about disasters. And whether or not she intended her remarks as a rebuke -- or an explanation -- for the company's phone hacking scandal, they are spot on.

My own company, AT&T, lost its way when it forgot its mission and focused on its stock price to the essential exclusion of almost everything else. The same can be said of countless other companies that have courted minor or existential disasters.

A company's success depends on a clear understanding of its purpose -- why it's in business beyond making money. 

Maybe the wrong Murdoch is in charge over at News Corp.





LABELS.001.001We are by nature labeling machines -- it's one of the secrets to our species' survival.

We categorize and label everything -- animals, people, situations.

And then we act as if those categories define reality.

Of course, they don’t; almost everything we label could fit into more than one category. But in daily life, unless motivated to behave differently, we stick things in narrow pigeonholes because it’s easier than analyzing and weighing their actual characteristics, similarities and differences.

That’s especially true in our dealings with other people, who are orders of magnitude more complex than inanimate objects.       

Categorical thinking may have helped our prehistoric ancestors traverse the African savannah safely when anyone outside their tribe was a potential enemy, but in the second decade of the 21st century, it’s shortsighted and dangerous. 

I was reminded of this in a recent talk about OtherWise, a book that ironically makes this very argument.

In the course of my presentation, I pointed out that the U.S. is rapidly becoming a minority-majority country largely because of the growth in the Hispanic population.

In the Q&A, one of the audience members objected to the term "Hispanic." She was a college professor who emphatically didn't consider herself "Hispanic," though she had immigrated from Ecuador, and Spanish was admitedly her first language.

Indeed, the term "Hispanic" is an administrative contrivance created by the Census Bureau more than 40 years ago to count Americans who trace their roots to Spanish-speaking countries. It has zero scientific meaning. 

The same could be said of the racial categories on the census form, which pointedly notes that race is a "social-political construct" with no "anthropological or scientific" basis.

So why use those labels at all? The federal government needs data on ethnic ancestory and race to implement a host of laws (e.g., enforcing bilingual election rules under the Voting Rights Act; monitoring and enforcing equal employment opportunities under the Civil Rights Act). The data is also used by local governments to run programs (e.g., identifying segments of the population who may not be receiving medical services under the Public Health Act). And businesses uses the demographic data for everything from locating plants to setting marketing budgets.

In fact, it was leaders of ethnic and racial groups who asked for the categories way back in the '70s. And the Census Bureau has tapped into their expertise ever since.

Still, the census labels can be misleading. For example, as this Pew Research shows, more than half of people who self-identify as "Hispanic" on the census form say they usually identify themselves by their family’s country of origin; less than a quarter say they normally use the "Hispanic" or "Latino" label. 

And by a ratio of two to one, the survey respondents said the nation's 50 million people with roots in Spanish-speaking countries do not share a common culture. 

Most importantly, nearly half say they consider themselves to be "very different from the typical American." Eight out of 10 say they speak Spanish and nearly all want their children to. 

No organization is more aware of these issues than the U.S. Census Bureau. This morning, it reported on experiments it is running to better match its need for gathering demographic data with the way people think of themselves.

It's a worthy effort. Meanwhile, in our day-to-day lives, the rest of us would be wise to lay all our labels aside.

No one is defined by their accent or the shade of their complexion. Even if the government has to track it because some people act as if it does. 




Tell me a story

BlocksThe New York Times Sunday Magazine features an interesting column by science writer Maggie Koerth-Baker. 

It's interesting both for its content and for the different headlines and illustrations in the print and online versions.

In print, the title is "How to move a mind" and the illustration is a set of differently-colored squares meant to portray a changing mind. (See above to the left.)

Online, it's "The mind of a flip-flopper" and the illustration features the topsy-turvy photos of Messrs. Romney and Obama, pictured below. In other respects, both versions are essentially the same. Romney Obama

Highlighting Romney and Obama's flip-flopping slants the online article toward political junkies. Apparently the print version can get by on its psycho-sociological chops.

The subhead of the print version summarizes the column best: "Changing a strongly held belief has little to do with actual facts."

The column reviews some of the research I've pointed to in these postings and in OtherWise concerning our tendency to examine facts through the lens of our beliefs.  But it adds an interesting angle -- the power of storytelling to connect with the emotions that are the bedrock in which many of our beliefs were planted.

Those emotionally-charged beliefs become an important part of our very identity. 

Koerth-Baker quotes a psychology professor who says stories are more powerful than data because they allow us to identify emotionally with ideas and people we might otherwise see as “outsiders.” Once you care about a character, he says, you can find a way to fit them into your identity.

And in politics, identity is the game-changer. Voters want to know "Is he or she one of us?" 

Apparently, that goes for magazine editing as well. Online, the Times is a political junkie; in print, it's a more sober observer of society.  In this case at least, that's the story it tells.



Wedge politics

Wedge Politics.001Mitt Romney's latest ad is the best example of wedge politics in recent memory.

 In wedge politics, one party uses an emotionally-charged issue to divide the electorate. By definition, wedge politics are divisive.

Wedge politics polarize voters around a single issue, instead of allowing them to consider the pro's and con's of a candidate's positions on other, often more important, issues.

The chart above shows a sample of dependable wedge issues. 

Of course, the media love it because it gives them something to talk about even though they know it's mostly phony and largely irrelevant. Eighty percent of the media coverage of the 1960 presidential campaign was favorable in tone; since 1980, more than half of campaign coverage has been negative.

Romney's latest TV commercial doesn't sink to the Neptunian depths of the famous "Wille Horton" ad of the 1988 presidential campaign. But it illustrates the same basic technique: find an emotional issue that divides people and demonstrare how your opponent is on the wrong side of the issue. Repeat as necessary.

Romney's issue is "welfare" and his proof is a recent administration decision to let some states more leeway in requiring welfare recipients to work.

In reality, the leeway was requested by only a handful of states, including two with Republican governors, and it was granted only on the promise that the changes requested would allow them increase by 20% the number of recipients moving from welfare to work. To top matters off, Romney himself had requested the leeway when he was governor of Massachusetts. 

The whole thing is explained in a Wall Street Journal story that carefully avoids taking sides, while also avoiding an "on the one hand, on the other hand" approach.

But you know what? These "nuances" don't matter. The point of the Romney ad is not to convince Obama supporters to change their mind. It's not even to win the support of the few people who have yet to make up their minds.

The whole point is to continue the campaign of otherizing the president as someone who wants to create a "nation of government dependency." (Romney's words.)

To be fair, the Democrats' cries of "where are your tax returns?" isn't much better. 

Instead of discussing the respective responsibilities of government and business, or what to do about the economy, the candidates are intent on describing their opponents in one-dimensional terms that have little to do with real issues.

It's sad.