Public Policy

Information diet

DIET.039Why is public discourse so divisive these days?

I'm increasingly convinced it's due to the information we consume.

As Clay Johnson put it in his book, The Information Diet, "Just as junk food can lead to obesity, junk information can lead to new forms of ignorance."

Of course, one person's junk food can be another's gourmet feast. And everyone is entitled to a few guilty pleasure, whether its Lay's potato chips or the latest issue of People magazine.  

And I'm less concerned about people who major in the Kardashians than about those whose principal source of news is cable TV or social media.

Sadly, according to the Pew Research Center, those were the two primary sources of political news in the 2016 election.


Cable's position as people's primary news source may be the product of all their wall-to-wall coverage of Trump's rallies.  

But hidden within these results are some troubling statistics. "Republicans are far more likely to count on Fox News (36%) for campaign information than are Democrats (11%)," Pew says. "Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to rely on CNN (26% vs. 12%) and MSNBC (17% vs. 5%)."

This continues a dangerous information diet of only consuming what we like. People increasingly live in echo chambers where all they hear is their pre-existing opinion reflected back to them.

My suggestion? If you're a liberal Democrat, tune into Bill O'Reilly occasionally. If you're a conservative Republican, watch Rachel Madow now and then.

If you're a regular reader of the New York Times, read the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. And vice versa. To get really worked up, read the "comments" online.

You'll disagree with 98 percent or more of what they say. 

But if you take the time to try to understand why they believe what they do, you might find a value or a principle that you can share.

That is the beginning of becoming OtherWise. You'll be free of the echo chamber.







The Pope & Adam Smith

Pope2650Some are interpreting Pope Francis's encyclical on the environment as an attack on capitalism, prompting one presidential candidate to say he'll look elsewhere for economic advice. 

Senior public relations counselors can't be as dismissive of the pope's message, which goes to the very purpose of a corporation.

If one believes that a corporation's only purpose is to create wealth (value) for its shareowners, then its environmental impact is simply an "externality" that need only be addressed to the extent required by law and regulation. And it's perfectly free to do anything legal to shape those laws and regulations to its advantage. 

If on the other hand one believes a corporation's purpose is to create wealth (value) for everyone who contributes to its success and bears the cost of its failures, those "externalities" have moral significance. Corporations need first to ask themselves what they can do to minimize the environmental impact of their operations. And then they need to ask what they can do within their areas of competence to deal with the broader impacts on their stakeholders. 

Public relations counselors should recognize that a significant portion of the public are embracing the pope's message. That's not a call for more green-washing. But for a thoughtful discussion of the underlying question: what is the purpose of the corporation?

Adam Smith, the guy who essentially invented capitalism, was first a moral philosopher. He wouldn't have been so quick to suggest the pope should stick to his rosary. In fact, he would have seen the pope's encyclical as the continuation of a discussion Smith himself started. 



What's broke?

Pew2"If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is age-old advice. But what if we can't agree something's "broke"?

New data from the Pew Research Center suggests that's the case, not only in Ferguson, but across American society.

The Pew survey shows Americans are deeply divided along racial lines in their reaction to the killing of Michael Brown. 80% of blacks say the case raises “important issues about race that need to be discussed,” but only 37% of whites think it does. In fact, nearly half of whites (47%) think race is getting more attention than it deserves in connection with Brown's killing.

Nearly 8 out of 10 blacks (76%) have little to no confidence in the investigation into the killing, while more than half of whites (52%) have a fair to a great amount.

An African American friend told me the situation in Ferguson is "much more complicated" than yesterday's posting suggested. He cited a history of racism as the commununity integrated and persistent racism within the police department, among other factors that need to be dealt with.

I don't think anything about this is simple. And the Pew data confirms it. We apparently can't even agree on the problem.




FergusonI was in the wilds of Alaska, off the grid for the first time since 1994, when news broke that a white policeman shot a young, unarmed black man in Ferguson, Mo. So I've been playing catch-up.

As usual, the tragedy has generated a lot more heat than light.

While multiple inquiries into the circumstances of the shooting plod along behind the scenes, interested parties attempt to shape public perceptions.

The local police chief releases a video showing the victim apparently stealing cigars and intimidating a store clerk minutes before he's shot. The victim's family brings in its own medical examinar who issues an autopsy showing the victim was shot six times. Meanwhile, protesters -- many from outside Ferguson -- clash with police and the governor calls in the National Guard.

At a distance from Ferguson, many shocked observers try to understand (1) how the shooting happened and (2) why it stimulated such an angry response.

There may be a common answer to both questions. And it may not fit into the generally accepted assumption that continuing racial segregation is the cause.

According to an analysis by the Washington Post's "Monkey Cage" political science blog, while St. Louis is among the most segregated metropolitan regions in the country, Ferguson is one of the most racially integrated. Furthermore, the income gap between blacks and whites in Ferguson is smaller than elsewhere.

"The immediate problem in Ferguson is neither residential segregation nor its demise," according to this analysis. "Rather, as many have pointed out, it is that the racial integration of the community has not been reflected in the municipal government and police force, whose racial composition still reflects the status quo of the 1980s." Blacks may live side by side with whites, but they feel disenfranchised.

The root problem is the low rate of African American participation in local elections, which are typically held in separate months from national elections that get more publicity and draw more people to the polls. According to political scientists, "off-cycle elections have been a favored strategy of established ethnic groups in American cities who wished to keep immigrants and minorities out of power." White homeowners and members of municipal unions tend to vote in proportionately larger numbers.

The good news is that the problem of asymmetric representation can be fixed. The bad news is that it will take time -- perhaps a generation or more. The sad irony, of course, is that Missouri is considering a law that would require voter photo ID that many people of color don't have.

Meanwhile, if events in Ferguson follow the pattern of similar crises, protests won't end until someone is sacrificed to the protesters. It may be the officer who shot the young man or it may be the police chief whose ham-fisted response so incensed the community. But someone's head will roll.

What's less likely is that something will be done to consolidate elections and increase participation by African American voters, which is the necessary first step in making governments and police departments more reflective of their communities.



The voice of the paparazzi


The paparzzi used to focus their lenses on the likes of Brad and Angelina for the vicarious thrill of the masses. But now they and their keyboatd wielding colleagues play a critical role in corporate governance and marketing.

Way back in 1970, economist Albert Hirschman suggested consumers and investors have only two choices when they believe a company is doing them wrong: they can "exit" (end the relationship) or they can "voice" (complain until the company changes).

As a practical matter, exit doesn't accomplish much any more. Organized product boycotts are rare. And when Hirschman wrote his paper, the turnover of an average managed mutual fund was 17% a year; by 2000, it was 91%, meaning funds sold nearly all of their holdings every year. Many funds, in fact, have turnover ratios of more than 100%, holding the typical company share for less than a year.

That leaves voice. Again, when Hirschman wrote his paper, voice belonged to a privileged few. One consumer's voice tended to get lost in the  clamor of the marketplace. Even if consumers or investors ganged up on a company, their voices could be drowned out by a barrage of advertising and misdirection.

Today, everyone is a publisher. Blogs and tweets have outsized influence. According to one survey, 90% of consumers say their purchasing decisions are influenced by online reviews.

And media of all sorts amplify the voice of governance experts who used to toil in obscurity. Just this week, the media reported Walmart's board was criticized by an institutional investor group for being too chummy with management. Last week, the media reported Chipotle's sharowners overwhelmingly voted against an executive compensation plan they considered overly generous.

None of these expressions of "voice" is binding. But when the mainstream media report them, they take on added urgency. Corporate America is not governed by the media, but it is highly influenced by it. When I attended AT&T board meetings, I was far more likely to hear "how will the Journal react to this," than "what will the SEC say."

And then this story on the front page of today's New York Times puts a human face on GM's ignition switch problems, turning the emotional level of the discussion way up. 

Law and finance professor Louis Lowenstein termed all this "the voice of the paparazzi," way back in 1999 before the Internet changed everything. Ironically, his son, Roger Lowenstein, is one of the most highly respected of those voices.

"The new voice in town is the raucous, incessant beat of the analysts and the media, and boards and CEOs now pay heed," he wrote. "With good numbers on which to base detailed, credible reports and stories, those oh so rude paparazzi have an impact that puts ministries of finance and cronyism to shame."

That new voice now has more power than Prof. Lowenstein could ever have imagined.


Preview of coming attractions

America's morphing age pyramid

The image above is our future. It portrays the U.S. population in five-year age increments over the coming decades.

We go from a lumpy pyramid with lots of young people at the base and a few old codgers at the peak (as in 1950) to more of a rectangle with pretty even age distributions, except for a really large group of octogenarians-plus at the top (as in 2060).

I won't be around to see it, but what happens between now and then has implications for marketing, public relations, and politics that are worth considering.

  • Daniel Moynihan attributed the turmoil of the 1960s to the large cohort of adolescents and 20 year-olds produced by the Baby Boom in that period. How will the huge cohort of Boomers entering their 50s over the next few years change our culture and politics?
  • By 2060, there will be almost as many people over 85 as younger than 5. Will that create greater division or less? Our experience so far is that young and old don't purchase, vote, or think alike. Will that continue? 
  • At the same time the population turns gray, it's also becoming multi-colored. By 2042, we will be a minority-majority population. That's already true in four states and in our 18 larhest metro areas. Do our communications reflect that yet?  

 For more questions (and a few answers), I recommend the Pew Research Center's latest report, Next America.



The ethics of advertising drugs

DtcaIn the world of communications ethics, most discussions focus on lying in its multifarious forms -- spinning, obfuscating, deflecting, etc. 

But totally truthful communications can also raise ethical questions.

For example, here's an issue I've been pondering lately: do the risks of advertising prescription drugs directly to consumers outweigh the benefits?

On the one hand, direct to consumer advertising helps educate patients and makes them more likely to take the drugs a doctor prescribes.  But since pharmaceutical companies advertise only their newest and most expensive drugs, it contributes to the rising cost of drugs.

Furthermore, many physicians complain that patients pressure them to prescribe advertised drugs even though they don't understand the potential risks. In fact, physicians are far more skeptical about direct to consumer advertising than patients.

And there are other questions:

  • To what extent has direct to consumer advertising promoted an attitude that good health is the product of drug consumption rather than healthy habits?
  • Has direct to consumer advertising made the consumption of presecription drugs seem "normal," rather than an extraordinary intervention to cure an abnormal condition? 
  • Are recent increases in direct to consumer drug advertising, prescription drug abuse, and heroin usage simply coincidental or correlated?

DTC-Advertising-ENIndustry spending on direct-to-consumer advertising rose tenfold in the last five years. Prescriptions written for opioid painkillers such as Vicodin and OxyContin rose more than 500 percent in the same period. There's no question that a lot of those drugs are eventually used for non-medical reasons. As a result, more than 100 Americans die of a drug overdose every day, more than twice the number ten years ago. 

And as prescription drugs become more expensive, harder to get, or simply less effective, they have become a new pathway to heroin addiction. According to the National Institutes of Health, one in 15 people who take non-medical prescription pain relievers will try heroin within 10 years. 

Drug overdoses and heroin addiction in suburban New Jersey have increased so dramtically the state issued a stark warning last year:

"We now live in a state where abuse of prescription pills serves increasingly as a primary route to the unlawful world of heroin, an intersection of the legitimate and the illicit that constitutes a crisis whose devastating consequences are plain for all to see."

Pharmaceutical companies -- many of which make their headquarters in New Jersey -- need to get ahead of this developing crisis. Part of their agenda should include studying the societal effects of direct to consumer advertising. We know that when characters smoke in movies and on TV the rate of smoking among teens increases. Might the same thing be happening here?

Big Pharma may be on the slippery slope Big Tobacco plowed a few decades ago. 



Madison and AT&T's Blind Spot

Madison Google glassesIn today's New York Times' "Sunday Review,"Jeffrey Rosen shines light into a gap in the Bill of Rights on issues of privacy.

Taking a cue from recent court decisions citing James Madison on the issue, he points out that the author of the Federalist Papers had a blind spot when it came to assessing threats to liberty. He was far more concerned about government abuses than anything private actors could do.

Considering that, in those days, the printing press hadn't changed very much in the three centuries since Gutenberg invented it, that's not too surprising. But today's situation is different in kind not just quality.

"Now that Google and AT&T can track us more closely than any N.S.A. agent," Rosen writes, "it appears that the Madisonian Constitution may be inadequate to defend our privacy and dignity in the 21st century." Indeed, based on my own experience at AT&T in the very earliest days of the Internet, he's right. 

Back then, the company hadn't yet anticipated the Internet's full impact on itself, not to mention society. But the executives responsible for gaining a beachhead on the shores of the world wide web immediately understood the value of all the customer information that would be flowing through our servers, e.g., what web sites they visited, what seaches they conducted, what products they bought, etc.

However they had a problem -- the privacy policies the company had developed for the telephone business put all of that data off limits for any purpose other than billing and service. Under a strict reading, it couldn't be used to target advertising to customers. And under any reading, it couldn't be sold to other companies.

A committee of senior executives was convened to address the issue. I recommended that we maintain the same strict privacy standards unless customers to "opt in" to their use for other purposes.

It wasn't a popular position and the company eventually decided customers would have to "opt out" if they wanted to limit the use of the data we accumulated about their Internet usage. 

The AT&T I worked for has since been absorbed by another company that assumed its name and, I fear, Madison's blind spot.  



Understanding the right

5159439310_bleeding_heart_liberal___wingnut_conservativee_xlargeIn addition to spending more time on the treadmill, one of my New Year's resolutions is to read more from the other side of the political spectrum. It's part of my personal program to move beyond a bumper sticker understanding of the political right. (Sadly, watching Fox News while on my treadmill won't do that. So much for two birds with one stone.) 

I got off to a good start with an essay by Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner in the National Journal. Gerson was a speechwriter for Bush 43; Wehner was an advisor to Gov. Romney's presidential campaign

Their essay is an erudite and insighful explanation of conservative principles. 

Following an obligatory excoriation of the Obama administration as a "travesty" and a "federal power grab," they pause to catch their breath and ask, "what is the proper and appropriate extent and purpose of that government?"

To their credit, they distance themselves from the "rhetorical zeal and indiscipline" of some conservatives "in which virtually every reference to government is negative, disparaging, and denigrating." They agree with the Tea Party view that we should return to the founders' ideals of government, but they disagree that Madison and company viewed the central government as "an evil, or even as a necessary evil."

"The Constitution did not simply create limits on government, as some of today's conservative rhetoric seems to imply; it created a strong if bounded central government," they write. "It is important to speak up when those boundaries are breached, but it is important, too, to remember the aims of that government."

They then describe those aims in broader terms than I would have imagined, with specific reference to the writings of Madison, Hamilton, and Lincoln.

In the process, they identify America's main political battlefield as "the space between the individual and the state" where "the family, civil society, and local community" have historically operated. 

Those institutions have traditionally been responsible for our citizens' moral formation. And they believe most of our current disagreements boil down to a disagreement about the state's role in the formation of the people's moral character. The loudest voices on the right believe the federal government has no role; those on the left believe it has an unfettered role.

Gerson and Wehner believe the state has a limited role in people's moral formation, though they caution modest expectations.

They even go as far as to declare, "Government holds some responsibility for creating the ground for that equality of opportunity, which is not a natural condition." Indeed, they describe our current condition in terms that sound downright leftish:

"... equal opportunity itself, a central principle of our national self-understanding, is becoming harder to achieve. It is a well-documented fact that, in recent years, economic mobility has stalled for many poorer Americans, resulting in persistent intergenerational inequality. This phenomenon is more complex than an income gap. It involves wide disparities in parental time and investment, in religious and community involvement, and in academic accomplishment. These are traceable to a number of factors, including the collapse of working-class families, the flight of blue-collar jobs, and the decay of neighborhoods that once offered stronger networks of mentorship outside the home."

So are they lefties in disguise? Hardly. If they sound reasonable, it may be because they are.  

Here's what they have to say about the role of government:

"American citizenship has evolved around the exercise of liberty in a complex, mutually dependent web of institutions. One of those institutions is and must be government — effective, respected, and limited.

"The purpose of the state is to keep society safe and strong; to protect us from outsiders and from each other; to maximize freedom in a way that is consistent with security and order and that advances the common good; to provide society's 'mediating institutions' the space they need to thrive; to encourage equal opportunity for all citizens; and to make a decent provision for the poorest and most vulnerable. All of this is meant to allow people to flourish and to advance human happiness."

It seems to me there's plenty of room for reasonable people to agree in words such as those.  

Our trust deficit

Trust deficitThe new year will bring the familiar gnashing of teeth over financial deficits, from kitchen table and bar stool to cable news studio and Congressional hearing room. But the deficit that should exorcise us the most is the decades-long decline in the trust we place in our leaders and our institutions.

That trust deficit is the biggest drag on the economy and on the effectiveness of government.

The causes are understandable.

Political leaders misled us (Vietnam War, Watergate, Lewinsky affair, Iraq, Wikileaks, Obamacare rollout, etc.). Business leaders betrayed us (shifting risk to employees for healthcare and retirement, accounting scandals, product recalls, offshoring and outsourcing, etc.). Religious leaders violated our trust (sex scandals, coverups, etc.).

The free market failed us (income inequality, wage stagnation, joblessness, Internet and housing bubbles, bank failures, etc.). In recent years, we found lead in our childrens' toys, salmonella in our peanut butter, and steroids in our sports heroes. Nothing seems genuine and honest anymore.

That alone would be bad enough. But political partisanship has been a kind of flywheel feeding on and nurturing ever higher levels of distrust. 

Consider how Americans feel about political parties.

US Political Feelings.022

The National Election Survey has been tracking people's feelings about political parties on an imaginary thermometer since the 1970s. People generally feel warmly about their own party, reporting San Diego-like temps in the range of a balmy 75 to 80 degrees. 

Not surprisingly, people don't feel as warmly about the other party. Those temps hovered around a chilly 50 degrees for about 20 years. Then, around 1993, they fell by about 10 degrees before plummeting to below-freezing temps in 2008.

This not only makes political discussion more fractious, it also colors how people see our problems. Climate change is either hoax or armaggedon. Inequality is either a problem or the goal. Food stamps are either a crutch or a lifeline. Government itself is either the problem or the solution.

My wish for 2014 is that we break the shackles of this binary view of the world. That we find business, political, and religious leaders who can effect a slow, steady restoral of trust in our elected officials and our institutions.

That would make for a truly happy new year.


Thank Grandma



We're all the men and women our grandmothers wanted. More than they (or we) ever expected.

Three recent books spell it out.

Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind reveals the inherited gut feelings that undergird our moral systems. And he shows how difficult it is to bridge the differences that result, especially in religion or politics. 

Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow distills 50 years of psychological research into a lucid explanation of how our decision-making is shaped, and sometimes dominated, by "cognitive illusions" passed down from generation to generation.

E. O. Wilson's The Social Conquest of Earth refashions the story of evolution to show how group selection is the driving force of human development.

Taken together, all three authors credit our common Grandma 8,000 or so generations removed for making us who we are. Grandpa played a role too, of course, but even he had a grandmother who anthropologists are pretty sure got the evolutionary cart rolling.

When she and her sisters dropped from the trees and began walking across the savannah, survival favored those who were disgusted by rotting meat and excrement. Those who weren't gorged themselves, got sick, and died.

Similarly, those who ran from snakes in the underbrush lived longer than those who decided to hang around to get a closer look.

Those who had a natural ability to work in groups brought down bigger game than the loners who set off on their own. Freeloaders and bullies were tossed out to fend for themselves.

A natural sense of fairness and an aversion to causing harm to group members contributed to the group's survival. As did an instinctual hostility towards strangers who could threaten the group or steal resources.

Offspring born with such instincts survived and passed them on to later generations, all the way down to us. 

Some scientists believe that much of our behavior and most of our beliefs are the product of unconscious biases, inclinations, and instincts inherited from our evolutionary Grandma.

They are the fabric of our moral beliefs, the engine of our thinking, and the framework of our relationships. They were adaptations to the environment in Africa 140,000 to 200,000 years ago, even before the development of language.

And they did such a good job for Grandma and her offspring that they endure to this day.

The next frontier

Victoria's SecretGay marriage has won acceptance by the majority of Americans and is a reality in a growing number of states.

Now it's time to pay more attention to  a segment of the population that still lives in the shadows: people whose personal gender identity doesn't match their assigned sex.

These people are known as "transgender." They are not necessarily homosexual. In fact, they can be gay, lesbian, straight, bi-sexual, or a-sexual. And not all transgender people undergo -- or even want -- sex reassignment surgery. 

And that's just the beginning of  complications, as the Wikipedia entry under "transgender" demonstrates. But two things are certain: (1) most transgender people lead difficult lives and (2) most non-transgender people are uncomfortable around them.

Society needs to resolve a host of issues complicating the lives of transgender people, ranging from pronoun designations (e.g., whether to refer to a transgender man as he, she, them, or some other term) to overt discrimination and hate crimes. But we each have a responsibility to educate ourselves. You can learn the basics here

As I discuss in OtherWise, the rights of transgender people are the new frontier in gender politics. They are our era's "Other." 

And as was the case for gay rights, popular media will be the battle front. Just as "Will and Grace" helped Middle America accept gay men, "Orange Is The New Black" is helping increase understanding of transgender people.  

Next up? It could be Victoria's Secret. The model strutting her stuff above is Carmen Carrera. More than 35,000 people have signed a petition to win her a spot as the first transgender "Angel" on the label's next runway show. 


It's always something

Roseanne roseannadannaRemember Roseanne Roseannadanna?

Apparently, she's back on the air.

On Oct. 27, Lara Logan of CBS News did a "60 Minutes" story featuring a British security consultant who claimed he was in the compound the night Ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed.

His story differed significantly from the official account and added fuel to the political controversy about an alleged coverup. 

It was such a hot "get," the network teased it on its evening news program earlier in the week.

It was also almost certainly a fabrication. When the Washington Post reported his account was wildly different from the account he reported to the FBI, the network retracted the story.

Ms. Logan apologized on the network's morning news show, then again on "60 Minutes" itself. Kind of.

She said she was sorry for "including (the British security consultant) in our report." Left unsaid: without him, there would have been no report because everyone else interviewed had said their pice many times before.

Of course, none of this matters. Research shows that retractions don't change nearly as many minds as the story being retracted. Indeed, facts contradicting previously held beliefs actually cause people to hold onto those beliefs even more vehemently. 

As Roseann Roseannadanna would say, "It's always something."

Junk polls


This afternoon, an official-looking "Congressional Research Survey" landed in my mail among all the catalogs and credit card offers.

The light blue envelope looked very official, with a "tracking code" and warnings that it contains "registered material." In fact, the names of my Senators and Congressman were visible through a glassine window.

Inside, I was warned that the survey is "non-transferable."

It was created by Dr. Ralph Reed to pick up where the Tea Party Caucus left off, He makes no bones that its purpose is to "send a powerful message to conservative candidates for Congress and the Senate in 2014 that they would do well to make ObamaCare the main issue and focus of the 2014 mid-term elections."

That kind of pre-supposes the results of the survey, but considering the structure of the questions, it was probably a safe assumption.

For example, this is Question 3:

Issue Summary: The Tenth Amendment of the Constitution states as follows:

'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."

Do you think ObamaCare is CONSTITUTIONAL, and consistent with liberty? Or is ObamaCare an UNCONSTITUTIONAL assault on America as the "land of the free?"

It doesn't appear to matter that the Supreme Court settled that question. But then Question 4 makes it clear that the whole survey is unconnected to reality:

Issue Summary: President Obama is now using the ObamaCare law to force doctors and hospitals to investigate which patients own a gun so the federal government can track and monitor law-abiding gunowners. This is part of Obama's program to strip away your SECOND AMENDMENT right to keep and bear arms.

What's your reaction to President Obama's use of ObamaCare to go after gunowners, and to attack your rights...? 

The other questions follow the same pattern and are clearly designed to elicit responses proving that people believe ObamaCare will lead to socialized medicine, rationing, higher costs, and America's very survival as "land of the free."

The technical terms for this is an "advocacy poll." It starts out with a desired result and crafts the questions to get it.

I'd like to say that Dr. Reed's timing is off. Sadly, I know there are plenty of people who will happily fill out the survey exactly as he'd like.

 He's only going through the exercise for the donations that will accompany their responses. And he's counting on reigniting their outrage to open their wallets.

That's the worse kind of junk mail.


The center is squeezed

Head in viceNBC News and Esquire magazine just published the results of a new survey that suggests the nation is not as polarized as our elected representatives have proven to be.

Their analysis used a sophisticated statistical technique to cluster survey respondents into groups whose members were as alike as possible, but that were also as different from the other groups as possible.

(Think of it as sorting your socks by color. You might end up with four clusters -- e.g., black and grey, white and cream, brown and tan, and argyle. The socks in each cluster would be very similar to each other, but very different from the socks in the other clusters. That's what they did with survey respondents, based on their demographics and opinions.)

When they were done crunching the numbers, they ended up with 8 clusters, which they gave cute names like "Minivan Moderates."

The 4 clusters in the middle represent 51% of the population. (Back to the sock example, each cluster would have a different number of socks in it, but most of the socks might be in just one or two clusters.)

More than half (55%) of the people in this new "center" describe themselves as politically "moderate." Self-identified "liberals" accounted for 20%; "conservatives," 25%.  (Tea Party supporters represented 15%.)

The new center also espouses pretty pragmatic views on a wide range of hot button issues -- 54% agree the government shouldn't legislate how Americans behave in their personal lives when it comes to marriage, abortion, owning guns, or using marijuana. 

On the other hand, 54% believe the government should maintain programs like food stamps, Medicaid, and welfare so people who hit on hard times don't fall through the cracks.

But the new center also feels squeezed from all directions.

Thanks to the poor economy and rising inequality, only 5% still believe America is a land of opportunity for all. Almost a third (31%) doubt that everyone can work themselves into the middle class.

Our increasing diversity seems to be squeezing the new center from the other direction as well.

Nearly two-thirds (63%) believe that in respecting the rights of minorities, “we’ve limited the rights of a majority of Americans.” Almost one in five says diversity makes them “very anxious.”

In fact, people in the new center favor ending affirmative action in hiring decisions and college admissions (57%). More than half (58%) would require voters to show photo-ID, a move which disenfranchises minority voters.

Likewise, most of the center (54%) is against a path to citizenship for people who came to this country illegally. A plurality (40%) is worried that “racial tensions” will turn violent in the near future.

The survey was conducted in August before the threat of government shutdowns and default were in the news. What's happened since can only have turned the screws on the new center.


Stupid is as stupid does

Capitol DunceIt's enough to make Forrest Gump blush. 

Everyone from the Senate chaplain to sitting federal judges, not to mention 89% of voters, is fed up with Congress.

Yet our elected representatives seem incapable of extricating themselves from the mess they've created. 

I only wish Carlo M. Cipolla, a professor of economics at Berkeley had lived to see it.

Cipolla is famous for developing the basic laws of human stupidity

In philosophical terms, Cipolla was a utilitarian. He analyzed human behavior in terms of gains and losses. He defined a stupid person as someone who "causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses."

It seems to me that Congress comes very close to proving Cipolla's theory.

Now, to be perfectly fair to Prof. Cipolla, although he thought the proportion of stupid people was far greater than widely believed, he did allow for at least three other possibilities. He said that people could also be:

  • Bandits, who cause losses to another to benefit themselves, 
  • Hapless souls, who cause losses to themselves as well as to others, or 
  • Intelligent people who create gains for both themselves and others.

All four cases are illustratred below.

The horizontal “X” axis measures the advantage gained from one’s actions. The vertical “Y” axis measures the advantage gained by others.

I leave it to you to decide whether our elected representatives deserve to be in one of those other categories. Bandit maybe? Hapless?

Of course, Cipolla also suggested that the most dangerous people of all are those who are so stupid they don't know they're stupid.  

That category looks most likely to me all the time.



War by other means

CivilWarIf war is politics by other means, it can work the other way too. What we're seeing in D.C. these days is politics as continuation of the Civil War.

There is little doubt that the current gridlock in Washington was the brainchild of Tea Party Republicans. What's less obvious is that the Tea Party Caucus in the House of Representatives is essentially the old Confederacy. 

Of the 47 members of the Tea Party Caucus in the House, 31 -- or two-thirds -- are from former states of the Confederacy.

They aren't trying to restore slavery, but their other motivations are very similar. They object to the federal government's meddling in their lives, want to starve the beast to death, and question the legitimacy of the current president. 

Their districts are 10% more affluent and 3% "whiter" than average within their own states. Voters in their districts are also less likely to use food stamps and more likely to have health insurance.

Those districts didn't just happen. As Republicans gained control of state legislatures, they rejiggered election districts so they could withdraw into what the Cook Political Report calls "safe, lily-white strongholds."

According to Cook, many Republican districts are products of "creative redistricting."  It notes, for example: "Using only 2010 census data, Rep. Daniel Webster’s Central Florida district jumped from 57 percent white to 66 percent white; Rep. Pete Sessions’s Dallas-area district leaped from 42 percent to 53 percent white; and Rep. Pat Tiberi’s Central Ohio district soared from 68 percent to 88 percent white. All three Republicans had relatively close races in the last decade but won easily in 2012."

As the nation gets more diverse, the GOP is getting whiter. Just what old Jefferson Davis had in mind.


How to close the institutional empathy gap

Mind-the-gapThis blog is about second thoughts, and I had some serious ones last week.

I gave a talk about OtherWise to a business group. The very first question after my presentation set me back on my heels: "You make a good case for developing more empathy," my questioner asked. "But what institutional changes would you recommend to accomplish that?"

I tap-danced around the question and said something like, "Sadly, there is no institutional solution. We have to work at the individual level to change our institutions."  Out of politeness, my questioner let it go at that.

But I've been thinking about his question ever since. Then I realized the answer was on the front page of every newspaper, led the evening news, and dominated the blogosphere.

The Great Government Shutdown is the product of an empathy gap that in turn results from gerrymandering.

Let me explain.

Political scientists have long noted that gerrymandering has created politically "safe" districts where elected officials don't have to worry about voters of the other party. 

Of course, both parties try to design congressional districts to favor the election of their candidates. Unfortunately, that has resulted in the kind of polarization that led to the political gridlock we're now experiencing. 

In North Carolina, for example, when the 1990 census gave the state an additional congressional representative, the Democratic-controlled state legislature drew up a new district that was primarily African-American. It was an ungainly, skinny thing hugging a major highway that sprawled across the state, but it has reliably voted Democrat ever since. 

When the Republicans regained control of the North Carolina legislature, they used the 2010 census as an excuse to redraw congressional districts.  They shifted the boundaries of the reliably Democratic 13th congressional district to decrease its black population by 39%. A Republican took over the seat in 2013.

"So what?" you say. That's the way the game has always been played. That's true. But these days the result is not only to make districts "safe" for one party or another. It also makes the districts themselves more homogenous.

For example, it wasn't only the 13th district's racial composition that changed when it was redistricted. Median incomes also increased by 42%, making it the richest congressional district in the state.  

That means whoever is running for Congress in the 13th district can safely ignore its poorest voters. Worse, by concentrating on the richest voters, they risk losing their sense of empathy for the poorest.

Researchers have shown that wealth and status reduce empathy. People of higher socioeconomic status are more likely to feel they’ve earned their high place in society, and can't understand why everyone else can't.

This situation repeats itself in nearly every "safe" district. With one important difference: "safe" Republican districts tend to be economically better off than other districts in the same state.

That may explain why some Republicans want to cut the food stamp program and defund the Affordable Care Act. For example, voters in the 12th district are only about half as likely to have health insurance as those in the 13th. And they're almost twice as likely to receive food stamps.

See for yourself. You can find economic and demographic data on every Congressional district here.

So on second thought, I should have answered the question about institutional change differently.  There is something we can do: elect state legislators who will ensure that Congressional Districts are truly heterogenous, with different incomes, educational levels, and political leanings. It's the only way to close the empathy gap and to put Congress to work for all voters.


False equivalency

Not-equal-to-mdAn open micrphone caught some interesting byplay between senators Paul and McConnell the other day.  

Paul told McConnell: ""I just did CNN and I just go over and over again 'We're willing to compromise. We're willing to negotiate.' ... I don't think [Democrats]  poll tested 'we won't negotiate.' I think it's awful for them to say that over and over again."  

The whole clip is here but you'll have to watch a commercial to view it.

The local station that broadcast the pols hushed conversation said it showed how much the government shutdown is really about messaging as far as congressional legislators are concerned.

That's not exactly news, even though it is startling to see two senators confirm it so blatantly.

To me, the real story is how easily logic can be twisted in political discourse.

The technical term for the GOP's apparent messaging strategy is "false equivalence." It consists of attributing the same term to two parties without examining the underlying meaning of the term in context. The example my logic professor used in philosophy class years ago was:  "Rats have four feet. Dick is a rat. Therefore, Dick has four feet."

The example Messrs. Paul and McConnell are using is: "We're willing to negotiate. The Democrats aren't."  

Sadly, their analysis of the likely polling for such an argument is correct. Americans like their representatives to get along and to compromise. Politics is just another word for negotiation, as far as they're concerned.

But there really is no equivalence between the parties in this case.

The Democrat-dominated Senate passed a 2014 discretionary budget of $1.12 trillion.The Republican-dominated House of Representatives approved a budget of $986 billion, a $13 billion reduction. But they also attached an amendment that would defund the Affordable Care Act. The Senate approved the House budget, but stripped out any reference to Obamacare.

That sounds like negotiating to me. In fact, on the numbers, it's essentially capitulation. (Even leaving aside that the GOP budget includes savings that the "revoked" Affordable Care Act is supposed to produce.)

Of course, few people know these numbers. All they've heard is that the two sides have dug in their heels. And -- from the GOP -- that the Democrats "refuse to negotiate."

But if a hijacker says he'll blow up a plane unless he's taken to Cuba are we supposed to negotiate a shorter flight? Like to Jacksonville?

Is it accurate to say one side has "dug in its heels" when it has already made concessions?

I don't blame the average voter for falling for this stuff. But political reporters are supposed to know better. And when they run headlines like "Both sides have dug in their heels," they demonstrate that they don't.


Dispossessed Americans

Grapes-of-wrathTo better understand why so many people are opposed to immigration reform, I analyzed the comments to the Wall Street Journal article mentioned in my last blog post.

That piece characterized immigration as basically positive, but didn't take a position on any of the issues surrounding the current proposal for reform. Rather, it took an historical perspective, exploring the long history of immigration in America and even suggesting that the country was "built for immigrants" rather than simply "by immigrants." (Emphasis mine.)

Nevertheless, or not surprisingly, depending on your perspective, the online comments were overwhelmingly negative.  I analyzed the first 100 comments published.

I counted separate postings by the same person as one comment, but tracked the total number of "recommendations" they received. (On the Journal web site, a "recommendation" is equivalent to a Facebook "like" and is a rough indication of agreement.)

For simplicity and clarity, I ignored threads that sometimes made comments off topic or simply repeated prior assertions.

I recognize that people who disagree with something are more likely to comment than those who agree. The article continued to attract comments after I began my analysis. As of this writing, it had attracted more than 270 comments. A quick reading suggests that the tenor of the comments hadn't changed much.

So what did I find?

  • Nearly 9 out of 10 comments (88%) took issue with the article's premise that the U.S. has an innate ability to accomodate diverse peoples and that immigration is basically positive.

  • Negative comments received far more "recommendations" than the positive comments did, 95% to 5%.

  • More than half the negative comments and recommendations (51%) were based on a perception that immigrants aren't assimilating into American culture (28%) but are here simply to collect welfare benefits (22%). 
  • About one out of ten (9%) said they were not opposed to immigration but simply to giving illegal immigrants anything but a one-way ticket home. 
  • Another one out of ten (12.5%) consider today's immigrants fundamentally different from prior generations, largely for the reasons explained above.

  • Finally, a small (12.5%) but not insignifant group believes immigration reform, as well as the changing character of immigrants themselves, is part of a liberal plot to expand its electoral power.

  • The last 15% had a variety of reasons for opposing immigration reform -- from calling it a plot by Big Business to lower wages or expressing an enduring fear of Muslims, to saying "I don't care about the rest of the world" or "if diversity had real benefits, whites would want more of it."  

So what are we to make of all this?

It seems to me these are the comments of people who feel dispossessd, aliens in their own country. They are scared and angry. No rational argument -- no fact-based rebuttal -- is going to shake them from their feelings of assault and betrayal.  

A question worth exploring: what will?


Invasion or new blood?

Anti_amnesty_rectMichael Barone is a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, a reliably conservative Washington think tank. His piece in this morning's Wall Street Journal on immigration is a thoughtful, insightful, and informative survey of the subject.

The title summarizes it nicely: "A Nation Built For Immigrants." Barone's thesis is that America's diversity is not the unintended consequence of the way the country was designed, but it's very purpose.

He notes that not everyone is happy about this. "Will the recent surge of newcomers tear the U.S. apart?" he asks in the subtitle, quickly replying, "Not if history is any guide: From the beginning, America was made to unite citizens, even those with deep differences." 

Barone believes America has always had "an inbuilt capacity to accommodate and assimilate outsiders." And he documents it admirably.

I learned a lot from the article and I plan to read the book on which it's based: Shaping Our Nation: How Surges of Migration Transformed America and Its Politics

Since I've written a book on bridging differences -- OtherWise -- I found his thesis encouraging.

But then I read the comments from Journal readers. Here are just a few examples: 

"Historically Immigrants came from similiar cultures while many different countries. They had many of the same values, ethics, and beliefs. Today's immigrants come from a totally different set of cultures where they don't come to become an American but to be what they already are while enjoying the American life. They don't want to adapt, they don't want to melt in, they don't even want to be an American. They just want what we have and feel somehow they deserve that we provide it for them."

"Our founders expected everyone to be an American not a Muslim American, an African American and all the other sub categories that are divisive and not at all unifying. It is multiculturalism that will ultimately tear the country apart."

"In many cities like Miami or Los Angeles it is easy to find many immigrants who have been in the U.S. for years who can barely speak English. Previous generations of immigrants to America wanted to speak English and assimilate into American society."

"Up until the 1960's, America's hardscrabble immigrants had to land on their own two feet as quickly as possible if they were to survive. They survived and then they succeeded. Today, immigrants land on a social net of housing, health care and Food Stamps."

"Today, the vast majority of Illegal Aliens are entering from Mexico. Most are illiterate, uneducated, have no real job skills except the very lowest skill levels. Many are a drain on the tax payers who collect public assistance, food stamps and welfare. They have an " anchor baby" and a whole new opportunity for " freebie benefits" become available, courtesy of the hard working American taxpayers."

"Asian and European culture is education/development of skills to get ahead. Unfortunately, if you travel South you get to see a culture that is not the same. Sitting-around idle is the norm and not a stigma like most other cultures."

There were some pro-immigration comments in the mix, but most railed about what they called this "new crop" of immigrants.

I tried correcting some of the most obvious errors of fact -- e.g., illegal immigrants can't collect welfare and are not eligible for food stamps, the proportion of U.S. foreign born who speak English is higher than it's ever been, the Congressional Research Service estimated that the net cost immigrants impose on government is essentially a wash when their taxes and spending are taken into account, studies show that immigrants are acculturating at the same rate as in the past, Muslin Americans have essentially the same values as other Americans, etc.

But then I realized few of the commenters were interested in factual information.

This is not exactly a new situation. Despite our founders' intentions, we have always been somewhat suspicious of immigrants. What Ben Frankin said about German immigrants in Pennsylvania would resonate well with the "Minute Men" guarding our southern border.

Barone's thesis that America was created to unite people with deep differences is correct. The comments simply demonstrate that the process of assimilation is much messier than the article suggests. 

Assimilation has never proceeded at an even pace for any group.

Individuals adopt different elements of their receiving society's culture at different rates.-- e.g., language, music preferences, social values, food choices, marriage in or out of culture, religion, etc. They often conform to different cultures in different settings, e.g., at home or at work. And they may retain some aspects of their original culture for generations. 

 In the meanwhile, the receiving culture itself is changing, partly in response to the influx of new immigrants. I suspect Mr. Carbone would agree that this openness to cultural change is one of the things that makes America different from other countries. It accounts for the richness and vitality of our culture.

Ironically, it's also one of the things that scares many people about immigration. 



Us & Them

In a world of "us" and "them," the deepest, darkest chasm seems to be between people of different political beliefs.

According to Pew Research, 8 out of 10 people see more conflict between Democrats and Republicans than between any other groups.

More than between the rich and poor, immigrant and native, black and white, or old and young.

Of course, political conflict has always been an American characteristic. Senators were known to draw swords on each other within the Senate chamber. But somehow the People's work got done.

Neither is the case these days. It's worth asking why. Several thoughts occur to me: 

The divide between the political parties is sharpest on so-called cultural issues (e.g., gay marriage and abortion). Sociologist Jim Hunter, who first used the "culture war" metaphor, says such conflict is "rooted in different systems of moral understanding... that provide a source of identity, purpose, and togetherness for people who live by them." In other words, it's salient and sticky.

The Republicans were first to figure that out when they called for a constitutional amendment to ban abortion in their 1980 campaign platform. The Democrats responded by opposing such an amendment. And the games were on. Religion, sex, and politics fused for those who were highly religious, making compromise impossible. 

Villifying one's political opponents not only became easier, it was also more effective. In time, tactic became habit and eventually morphed into core belief. It's now the dominant feature of the political scene, available in high definition outrage on Fox and MSNBC. 

It’s also reflected in grassroot political feelings. Since 1977, the National Election Survey has asked people to gauge the warmth of their feelings for the "other party" from 0 to 100 degrees on an imaginary thermometer. Political Feelings.020From Carter through the presidency of Bush 41, people's feelings about the "other party" hovered a comfortable, if chilly, 40 plus degrees. Today, it's in the freezing teens for both parties.

In fact, it took a particularly frosty 10-point nose dive when President Obama was elected. 

 Although he won election by a popular vote margin of six points, and then won re-election by a larger margin than his predecessor had, nearly half of Republican voters doubt his legitimacy. One in five literally believe he is the anti-Christ.

One doesn't negotiate with the anti-Christ. As Mark Warren put it in the October issue of Esquire, "many Republicans have come to feel righteous in their willingness to cripple the government rather than accede to governing with evil. They imagine themselves as oppressed, as warriors in league with the Founders, and they feel justified in opposing this evil by any means necessary."

Certainly that doesn't apply to all Republicans. It may not even be true of the Republican leaders in the House and Senate.

But it's true enough of enough true believers to shape what those leaders can do. And that, friends, is why the government may shut down next month, or default on its debts, with all the attendant chaos and gnashing of teeth.

Which will just deepen the chasm between us.

A new Corporate Garbo

Garbo, Greta_NRFPT_07AT&T apparently has a new slogan. It doesn't appear at the end of its ads, but it's the gist of a recent letter my former AT&T colleague Jim Cicconi sent to Senator Dick Durbin.

To wit, "I want to be left alone." 

Durbin had asked AT&T if it agreed with “stand your ground” legislation a company-funded organization was recommending as a national model.

The organization in question is the  American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). 

ALEC is a nominally non-partisan organization that produces "model legislation" to promote "free markets" and "limited government" at the state level. About 200 of it's "model policies" become law every year. It is funded largely by companies that benefit from said "free markets" and limited "government," i.e., regulation.

CicconiMr. Cicconi is the man with the company checkbook for ALEC's purposes. He also commands an army of state and federal lobbyists. When I worked with him, Cicconi had a war chest in excess of $60 million. It's probably more now, and he knows how to spend it to get what he wants. 

One way he spends it is on organizations like ALEC that give him a voice in the drafting of legislation.  One thing he wants is to be left alone as he goes about this task.

That was the point of the letter he sent to Senator Durbin. Cicconi said he considered the senator's question an attack on AT&T's rights to free speech. "Any response to your request," he wrote, "will be used by those interests whose purpose is to pressure corporations to de-fund organizations and political speech with which they disagree."

In other words, Cicconi suggested the real issue at stake is defending a company's right to free speech, not changes to self-defense laws that give people immunity for using deadly force.  

The Wall Street Journal, which ran extensive quotes from Cicconi's letter and praised him for refusing to be "blackmailed" or "bullied," wholeheartedly agreed.

As it happens, when the Trayvon Martin case stirred up public concern about stand your ground laws, AT&T quietly told ALEC to cool its jets or, as the Journal put it, to shut down "noneconomic advocacy" that "detracts from the group's core mission."

Frankly, that core mission deserves a long, hard look, especially since the Wall Street Journal and companies like AT&T seem so sensitive about it. 

Do we want anonymous corporations paying for "model laws" in such areas as civil justice, commerce, insurance, communications technology, education, energy, the environment, agriculture, health, human aervices, international relations and tax and fiscal policy?  

That's what ALEC -- which started life as the Conservative Caucus of State Legislators -- considers its core mission. According to Common Cause, 98% of ALEC's funding comes from the very corporations most affected by laws in those areas. And, according to an ALEC executive quoted in an NPR report, company lobbyists and lawyers work side by side with state legislators in crafting the "model laws." 

Companies certainly have the right to fund such activity. According to the Supreme Court, it's a matter of free speech.

And  Mr. Ciconni is probably right -- revealing AT&T's funding of such organizations might subject it to criticism or at least uncomfortable questions. But isn't that the price of free speech? 

The Wall Street Journal won't print op eds without identifying the economic entanglements of the people who write them. Is it too much to ask that state legislatures do the same for the so-called "model legislation" they're considering?


Holy Week

Washing-feetMillions of Christians are celebrating Holy Week, remembering a man whose singular message was one of love. So it's a little disconcerting to see how some of his nominal followers are interpreting his message.

The Wall Street Journal today carried a lovely little story about Pope Francis' decision to wash the feet of 12 prison inmates in the traditional Holy Thursday ceremony. All of the inmates were young immigrants in an Italian detention center. Some were Muslim and a couple were women.

Traditionally, the pope washed the feet of retired priests in some Roman basillica. But Pope Francis has been going out of his way to show that he intends to focus the church on the poor and the downtrodden. I think he means it.

His plan to live a simpler life by moving into a Vatican guest house may be no more successful in reforming the people who report to him than Jimmy Carter's decision to carry his own luggage. But I think his heart's in the right place.

Sadly, the online comments to the Journal story suggest that it will be hard to get everyone on the same page.

The very first comment criticized the pope for washing the feet of a woman. "Many of us are shocked and appalled," Joe O'Leary tutted. "Many of us hope the pope sees the error of his un-biblical ways and issues an apology."

Another commenter wrote: "Thank God the Pope is not a Nazi anymore."

Still another accused the pope of naivete. "The obviously well-intentioned [and staged?] gesture of a pope washing the feet of a Muslim will backfire.... with very nasty and crude remarks from mainstream Muslims, who wouldn't ordinarily acknowledge an ecumenical outreach, and couldn't tell the difference from that and one of their scimitars."

To be sure, several readers took these folks to task.

But I've noticed the same pattern in the comments section of both the Journal and the New York Times -- a knee-jerk reaction to fill the slightest partisan opening. 

The same issue of the Journal carried a story that the Obama administration may include entitlement reform in its upcoming budget. That stimulated dozens of comments. The very first one was typical: "And Lucy is holding the football," wrote Jonathan Rourke, suggesting it's all a devious trick. To which one reader replied, "Bingo!"

If Obama walked across the waters of the Potomac River, some people would say it only shows he can't swim. To be fair, some people would say the same thing of George W. Bush in similar circumstances. 

We're all entitled to our opinions, of course. There's even such a thing as justifiable anger. But those opinions and anger shouldn't become the very lens through which we see the world or they become biases and bigotry. 

As Pope Francis put it in explaining why he washed the inmates feet, "So what does this mean? That we have to help each other…Sometimes I would get angry with someone. But we must let it go and if they ask a favor, do it."