We Project Our Work Worldviews Onto Others Without Realizing It

A good friend of mine spent decades as a sales manager. Now he manages managers. His compensation has always been based in part on commissions; as a result, he thinks employees are almost entirely motivated by money. Not just his employees, all employees. He’s grown so accustomed to the cutthroat competition of his workplace, he thinks free-market capitalism is the answer to whatever the question is. There’s no public sector, tenure, or labor unions in his work world, so they are economic problems, not solutions.

He’s a conservative. Another good friend, a liberal, is a transportation engineer for the Feds. Since he’s in charge of Washington State’s highways, I like love to complain to him about my daily commute. As an engineer, he believes any problem can be solved if we’re just rational enough. One form that rationality takes is letter writing. He thinks everyone should write letters, like he does, to people in leadership positions because they still influence policy even in this information saturated, digital world in which we live. And he’s absolutely right, the world would be a better place if everyone followed his lead.

But his engineer friends and him don’t seem to appreciate how differently other people think. People like me. I confess that I don’t feel much sense of efficacy at all. If I’m honest, I feel like my worsening commute is done to me, I feel totally defenseless. As evidence of that, I don’t even vote in a lot of local elections. I’m an educated writer, so if I feel that way, how many others are likely to pick up paper, pencil, envelope, and stamp despite our engineer friends’ very well intended rationality.

That sorry state of affairs didn’t stop my friend from sending me an email yesterday titled “Public comments wanted on the draft Washington Transportation Plan”. With this little addendum, “No comments made then no whining allowed.” The bold is him raising his voice which he only does when a local high school football ref makes an iffy call. One more detail to note in the email. “Washington State Department of Transportation seeking input on 20-year plan by Nov. 6.” 20-YEAR PLAN. That’s hilarious.

I’m glad our state’s traffic engineers are thinking in 20 year terms, however, it’s cray cray for them to think non-engineers like yours truly think similarly. In twenty years I want to be napping in my back seat as my car drives me to the Home Course for a quick 18. When I think of transportation infrastructure, hell, when I think of life, the short-term is 1-2 years, the medium-term is 5 years, and the longest term is 10 years.

Note to engineers. Non-engineers think differently. If you want to enlist their help in data gathering and problem-solving, you have to be a lot more savvy in reaching out to them. You’re probably better off delegating it to people rooted in the social sciences and humanities.

This subconscious tendency to generalize from one’s work and then to project one’s work worldview onto others is probably inevitable. As are the associated conflicts and frustrations when others don’t conform to expectations.

I’m sure I generalize from my work and project my work worldview onto others too, I just need to think more about the ways I do that. I will report back in 20 years.

Reader Beware

From today’s inbox.

Hi Ron,

We are interested in sending over a quality and relevant article to your site (pressingpause.com) as a contribution. Is this something you might consider? If yes, please email me back and I’ll be happy to send over the article for your review asap.

Note that the copy will include a few references to our client. We’ll also pay you $100 per post through PayPal, for your time and effort. I look forward to hearing from you, Ron.

Have a good day!

[name]
Marketing Manager
[email address]
http://www.letsgetwise.com

You’re probably hip to product placement in television and film, but what about in on-line and traditional print? When reading, do you ever ask, “What am I being sold?” If not, it’s time to start.

Please help me refine my reply to Ms. Marketing Manager. Here’s what I have so far.

Dear Ms. Marketing Manager,

Hell no.

Sincerely,

Ronald S. Byrnes

Which Way the Economy?

One of the perks of living in the upper left hand corner, is getting Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) television programming. I dig me the CBC. So much so if hockey was my religion, I might move North.

A recent CBC documentary titled “Secret Suppers of Vancouver” was interesting on several levels. This 2+ minute trailer provides a nice feel for the case study of grassroots economic change.

When new business models bubble up, like Uber and Airbnb, the established businesses they most threaten, such as city-based taxi cab companies and hotels, hire lobbyists to get legislators to pass more and more legal requirements for businesses to operate which makes it virtually impossible for cash-strapped startups to comply.

No surprise that most of Vancouver’s restaurant owners find this loose network of semi-secretive personal kitchens threatening. The restaurateur in the trailer who says, “. . . and I respect the hell out of hustlers” is an outlier.

Some regulation is necessary for large swaths of consumers to trust businesses are competent, and in the case of the food service industry, to ensure public safety is maintained. But it’s wrong to use regulations as a tactic for limiting competition. Doing so stifles the creative destruction that’s part and parcel of a vibrant economy.

I couldn’t help but think about my industry, teacher education (and also charter schools) while watching Secret Suppers of Vancouver. My industry works tirelessly to make sure teacher licensure requirements remain sufficiently rigorous, thus protecting our jobs. Clearly though, one person’s “rigor” is another’s excuse for limiting competition.

Whether Vancouver, San Francisco, or your municipality is getting the regulatory dance just right is something upon which reasonable people will disagree.

It’s too simpleminded to generalize about regulations, we have to ask whether the current level is appropriate on an industry-by-industry basis. Once public safety is assured, we should error on the side of limiting regulations so that new new types of economic activity, like Secret Suppers of Vancouver, will regularly bubble up. Large, established companies should be expected to adapt to upstarts creatively meeting consumer’s needs and desires.

More personally, I was really conflicted by some aspects of Vancouver’s secret supper network. In all honesty, I would love to be a member of the club eating amazing food with all the cool kids. But the movement also has an exclusionary feel to it. You have to have ample social capital to even learn about the personal kitchens and to score an invite. Then you have to have more money than average to be able to afford the exquisite, personalized service.

Watch the full length documentary and then help me be less confused.

 

 

 

 

If Only Schools Were More Like Businesses

Every once in awhile, it’s important to inflict pain on yourself. Builds character. Run a marathon. Fast for a day. Do your taxes. Watch a Wayne LaPierre press conference. Or most painful of all, listen to politicians and business people talk about what we need to do to reform education in the United States.

Their message—breakdown the government monopoly on schools by infusing them with business principles. Most importantly, competition. Between teachers, schools, and districts. Highest standardized test scores win. Their unquestioned premise is that the business community has its shit together. The pro-business propaganda is so steady we start to believe it.

Yeah, if only schools were more like businesses.

Lots of schools would close every year. But I guess we could just tell the affected families that “creative destruction” is just a natural, even healthy part of the business cycle. They’ll understand. Yeah, if only schools were more like businesses.

And teachers would start relating to students the way my local bankers and insurance agents routinely do, from behind websites, and sometimes via the telephone. Last week I received birthday cards from my bank and my insurance agent. I recycled both cards without opening them. No one at my bank or insurance agency would know me if I walked into their offices. We have no personal relationship, only an economic one. The best teachers know their students individually, and something about their families, their interests, their hopes for the future. But maybe all that effort to connect with students is misguided. Maybe teachers should be more like my banker and insurance agent. Just design some websites where students can get assignments and submit their work and mail out computer generated birthday cards once a year. Yeah, if only schools were more like businesses.

And every school would ace every state assessment whatever the form. Because that’s the way my car dealership works. When I take my car in, I’m told they have to get perfect scores on the evaluation they mail to me afterwards. Heaven for bid if they get any “9’s”. It seems like gaming the system to me, but I guess it’s just an advanced form of assessment thinking, everyone getting perfect scores all the time. Yeah, if only schools were more like businesses.

Most importantly, the best thing about business people is they’re always accountable for their performance. Regular performance reviews ensure it. That’s what teachers need most of all, more business-like accountability! Or maybe not. Here’s Nassim Taleb blowing that fallacy apart:

Those who have the upside are not necessarily those who incur the downside. For example, bankers and corporate managers get bonuses for “performance,” but not reverse bonuses for negative performance, and they have an incentive to bury risks in the tails of the distribution – in other words, to delay blowups.

Read the history of Wall Street from 2007-2008 for sordid example after example. Five years later, in the U.S., there’s a sure-fire way for business people to avoid accountability. Climb the corporate ladder as high as possible. Yeah, if only schools were more like businesses.

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Apple Inc. and the Betrayal of the American Dream

Big week for Apple fanboys and girls. New iPhone. You better keep up with all the cool people and buy one. It will change your life. Well, maybe not, but you’ll be the envy of all those iPhone 4 losers. “Wow dude,” you can say to them, “that’s one short, thick, throwback phone.”

A recent book by two Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporters titled, “The Betrayal of the American Dream,” criticizes Apple for outsourcing too many of its jobs. Here’s a National Public Radio story on the authors and their book.

Even though I’m an Apple fanboy and investor, I believe the bigger the company and the greater its influence in the world, the more we should hold it accountable for being transparent, honoring workers’ rights, and protecting the environment. Apple’s marketing, products, and momentum can bedazzle at the expense of critical inquiry.

I’ve been swapping emails with my friend—Dan, Dan, the Transportation Man—about driverless cars. The last one I sent him linked to an article that suggested, initially at least, driverless cars will cost around $300k. “Just do what Apple does” he wrote back sarcastically, “and outsource it (the manufacturing of the driverless car) to China.”

In the United States, especially during election season, knee-jerk criticism of outsourcing is legion. Few of the critics take any time to consider how much more they’d have to pay for their toothbrushes, clothes, iPads, bicycles, and cars if they were all completely manufactured in the United States. Heaven for bid if we connected a few dots.

In their critique of Apple, I wonder whether the “Betrayal” authors factor in the daily benefits of its products to users around the world. I made light of the newest iPhone, but you’d have to pry my MacBook Pro from my cold dead fingers.

Also, outsourcing is an abomination only when economic nationalism prevails. It’s possible, theoretically at least, to think more globally without sacrificing love of country, and therefore, to cheer job growth irrespective of political borders. Especially given global economic interconnectedness and the fact that most of Apple’s foreign-based employees buy some U.S. imports.

The authors would chuckle at my naivete. They’d point out we continue to run a tremendous trade deficit with China because international trade is conducted on a grossly uneven playing field. China has far fewer labor and environmental regulations, pays workers far less (even when adjusted for cost of living), and places protective tariffs on our imports. The uneven nature of the international trade playing field is a pressing problem.

But I wonder what the authors would say about the charitable giving the GalPal and I will be doing the next few years as a result of recently selling some Apple shares that had quadrupled over the last four years.

For me, the jury is still out on what kind of corporate citizen Apple is. I value critical analyses, but at present, I will continue to use its products and invest in it. I am not a model to follow. Apple’s fate will be determined by the individual and collective decision-making of technology users around the world.

For cutting edgers like me, there’s just one decision left. A black or white iPhone 5?

And The Medium Sized Fish Eats The Small Fish

I often get frustrated with the Michael Moore’s and Rush Limbaugh’s of the world because their ideological analyses slight endless economic, political, and cultural subtleties that require deeper thinking and more tentative conclusions.

Peter Whybrow, in his excellent book American Mania, explains Adam Smith’s work in ways few conservative free-market zealots probably understand. “Smith favored private ownership, with capital being locally rooted,” Whybrow writes. “He distrusted large institutions—be they government or corporate—as forces that foster greed, distorting and suppressing the dynamic market exchange and social intimacy that are essential to fair dealing.

As businesses merge and increase in size,” Whybrow contends, “and as manufacturing and services become geographically remote from each other, the behavioral contingencies essential to promoting social stability in a market-regulated society—close personal relationships, tightly knit communities, local capital investment, and so on—are quickly eroded.”

In other words, your less likely to exploit someone you know.

It’s in this context that I recently read Alpine Experience’s dead-tree newsletter that arrived old school in the mailbox. Alpine Experience is a local independent retailer that specializes in high quality outdoor gear of all sorts. If their website wasn’t so poorly designed I’d link to it. Here’s their slightly less bad Facebook page. I used to have an Alpine Experience t-shirt that said, “Friends don’t let friends shop at chain stores.” I shop at AE once a year when they have their annual sale. When their prices are marked down 30-40%, they almost seem normal.

I like their irreverent, personal newsletter, but I’m sure it’s probably more expensive to produce than they can afford. Inside this issue was an honest, interesting reflection on Olympia’s newish REI store’s impact on AE’s bottom line. The author, I think the store’s owner/manager, said the new REI is definitely impacting their bottom line. Admitted they’ve fallen behind projections and need to have a good winter. I really hope I’m wrong, but given REI’s economies of scale and vastly superior on-line presence, I anticipate AE going out of business.

REI is a large national chain, but its progressive business practices give it a positive, medium-sized, community-based essence. Like AE, it’s a groovy store. It has been voted one of the Top 100 businesses to work for the last 14 years in a row. Read more about its enlightened business practices here.

Recently I was cycling with an acquaintance, an independent architect who has fallen on hard times. He’s taken a job at REI to get by, working as a cashier 16 hours a week. We were discussing the AE-REI tug-of-war. He told me he needed glove liners shortly before getting the job and they were $20 bucks at AE and $7 at REI. Probably an exaggeration, but I suspect comparable products are often 30-50% more at AE. That would be a huge headwind to building a reliable customer base even in a good economy.

Back to Whybrow. REI is not a megacorporation that fosters greed, nor does it distort and suppress the dynamic market exchange and social intimacy that are essential to fair dealing. But it’s not as small nor as local as AE and it doesn’t share it’s long history.

What to make of this capitalist case study?

Chelsea Clinton and the Meritocracy Myth

Yes, I'd be happy to join your board.

After reading a few accounts of Chelsea Clinton’s recent appointment to the Board of InterActiveCorp (IAC), a company that runs sites including Match.com, Ask.com, and Dictionary.com, here’s what I think we’re supposed to conclude.

There’s one winner and one loser.

The obvious winner? C-squared herself. The Wall Street Journal explains. Ms. Clinton will receive an annual retainer of $50,000. In addition, she will receive a $250,000 grant of IAC restricted stock.  

IAC’s stock is up 41% this year. Say she serves for ten years. With stock appreciation that will be well over $1m in income for attending what I suspect are quarterly meetings. Winner, winner, several very nice chicken dinners. She’s currently working on a Ph.D at Oxford. Sure hope they reimburse her for her airfare.

The loser is actually losers. From Alyce Lomax in Daily Finance:

This new appointment is a big — and possibly bad — deal for IAC shareholders.

Boards of directors are charged with protecting shareholder interests, whether many investors realize it or not. These days, plenty of corporate problems — such as out-of-control CEO pay — can be correlated with dysfunctional or flimsy boards that have nothing near an independent spirit that’s willing to challenge management teams.

Now 31, Chelsea Clinton was in her teens during the dot-com bubble and only about 20 years old when it burst, for example. That was a make-or-break time for companies like IAC, but she was probably still pretty preoccupied simply with the process of growing up.

GMI’s Nell Minow commented on Clinton’s appointment on PBS’sNightly Business Report, arguing that the best directors have decades of achievement to speak for them. She also pointed out that IAC’s Diller has a tendency to populate his board with “cronies,” which is just one reason The Corporate Library gives that company a near-failing “D” grade for its corporate governance.

In addition, Diller supported both of Clinton’s parents’ campaigns, which gives shareholders no reason to believe this is the kind of independent director that helps make a robust boardroom. In fact, she sounds a bit dependent on her parents’ careers at this point.

Name-dropping “important” or “known” appointees instead of adding truly experienced directors indicates weak corporate governance and madly waving red flags for shareholders. 

The unreported loser is the notion of meritocracy that the right loves to trumpet. This is the idea that the relative work ethic of U.S. citizens determines their success instead of the color of their skin, their gender, or their parents’ connections. Ironic that a first family of the left disproves one of the right’s foundational ideas.

C-squared’s appointment proves the playing field, that is life in the U.S. in 2011, isn’t level, the starting line of life is staggered, and an individual’s personal capital sometimes trumps others’ smarts and work ethic.