Nov 19, 2013

Happiness Revisited

Paul Solman is one of those reporters who you'd like to have beers with on your deck. I find that PBS Newshour is overstocked with such people.

Solman is the Business and Economics Correspondent for the Newshour. What his bio does not include is that his father, Joseph Solman, was a notable expressionist painter. Oddly enough Solman shares this with Robert De Niro, whose father, Robert De Niro, Sr., was also an expressionist painter. I believe they ran in the same social circles. (I'm not exactly sure why artists create so many interesting children, but when I need an artistic temperament/viewpoint/character in a novel, I always go with a painter or a photographer, heeding the writer's dictum that there is nothing more insufferable than reading a writer write about writers.)

This summer Solman did a one-two punch on happiness, a topic about which I've already written. Both pieces address happiness in relation to prosperity and both pieces rely on behavioral economist. I think there must be some hope as Solman comes from an artistic/humanist background. As I mentioned in the post linked above, I find most behavioral economists missing the mark, especially when compared to how well great art dwarfs these scientific explanations.

Finding the Connection Between Prosperity, Compassion and Happiness aired on 20 June 2013. It highlights several books and studies that conclude: 1) The highest GDP does not mean that Americans are the happiest people on the globe, 2) Wealthy individuals are not necessarily the happiest, and 3) Lower class/income people have the ability to feel more compassion, which is key to happiness.

I still find behavioral economics studies hopelessly muddled, but here's the quote from Dacher Keltner, a Berkeley professor of psychology, that stood out:

"When you grow up in lower-class backgrounds and lower-class circumstances, there's just more difficulty in your environment; there's more unpredictability; there's more risk; there are more threats.
And what we have learned from really interesting neuroscience is that humans, in the face of threat, connect to other people. And then complementarily[sic], we thought, you know, if you grow up in a more privileged circumstance, you orient inwards to what's inside of you. And those are two fundamentally different ways of approaching the world."

What Keltner is describing is introversion vs. extroversion. And the conclusion is that lower-class backgrounds make people extroverted and upper-class backgrounds make people introverted.

I distrust such sweeping generalizations and have seen a lot of lower-class backgrounds which created coarse, unfeeling people and plenty of upper-class backgrounds which have created generous and caring people. And vice verse, if that's not too confusing.

The very next day came Solman's Exploring the Psychology of Wealth, 'Pernicious' Effects of Economic Inequality. A Berkeley study found that wealthy people are less well behaved than unwealthy people. The conclusion was based on how many expensive cars violated pedestrian laws and how high-income earners take candy from children and cheat at games.

This is not really surprising if you've ever been around ambitious people. It is rarely an accident that such people become successful and if you look carefully at the uber successful, you will find unpleasant behavior. They don't mention people who have inherited wealth nor people whose wealth is serendipitous. Like Gloria Mackenzie, the 84-year-old Lotto winner, who apparently carries on in her frugal and pleasant ways. Has she become an asshole?

It might well be that people who buy BMWs and Porsches are simply more unpleasant. I've seen many more BMWs drive fast and recklessly (and do horribly in a UK snow storm) and apparently a Porsche 911 in film is shorthand for jerk owner. And their ads are often about rewarding oneself for a job well done.

This all brings me back to how art describes the symbolic realities so much better than science.

Nov 15, 2013

Weekly Highlight: 46

Week 46 of this year provided perfect examples of how government is not like business. Nor can it ever be.

As a mean middle-aged woman used to scold her division (of which I was a member), business's first order is "Shareholder Value." That would be corporate jargon for making money for investors. The profit motive is so strong when put into action that you have to have some kind of rules to contain the ambition and greed that goes along with money-making enterprises. (My plug here is that one of my characters from Powder Dreams, the drug-dealing money-laundering Marty, is the personification of this instinct gone awry).

Government at all levels is intended to take care of its citizens and residents, providing basic infrastructure and advanced services for which we pay taxes. The idea that government should be making money off of taxpayers is repugnant. It is called devouring the hand that feeds you. Instead it is supposed to be a fair shake.

The fundamental mistake that so many people make is that somehow government can be run like a business. No one ever seems to want businesses to be run like governments. My favorite rebuttal to this kind of thinking, besides the logic outlined above, is that the first two rules of corporate turnarounds are: 1) Cut costs and 2) Raise revenues. Number three is get on a plane to your best customers and kiss their asses.

But I never hear from the people who want government run as a business any desire to raise revenues. There is a moral instinct that gouging taxpayers is wrong, although let us not forget to pay Caesar what is Caesar's due. Like all complicated problems, taxes are a balancing act that need constant adjustments.

Now this brings us to this week, when Obama has screwed the pooch on a national scale. (I voted for him, twice, once as a symbol and once to keep out the investment banker; I wonder about a political system that is making me vote reactively). The Affordable Care Act, passed in 2010, might have had the noble intent of providing better health care for everyone in America, but right now the big noble idea is floundering in a botched implementation.

Big ideas take tremendous precision and persistence to happen. At a personality level, the people with big ideas absolutely require the detailed planners to make their ideas happen. This is especially a problem with Obama. Anyone who keeps up with New York Times' Maureen Dowd knows that Obama is not only a big ideas man, but one who is introverted and needs a lot of alone time after minimal people time. So where are his implementers and why hasn't anyone been fired for this mess?

By the way, if you want my vote, all I want at this point is either better health care at the same price or the same health care at a cheaper price. And if you can do both, I might vote for you twice. While you are at it, I would love for someone to explain to me why insurance is necessary for good health care.

The flip side from this week of business vs. government is Amazon's partnership with the United States Postal Service. A government service that coined the term "going postal" and lost $15.9 billion last year partners with a private company that is continuing to redefine every business model it touches. In this case, U.S.P.S. is really looking for Amazon to help them out of their cavernous hole and Amazon sees them as a tool in their continued retail dominance.

The difference is the goal and how the implementers are driven to achieve the goal.

Nov 12, 2013

Youth and Privacy

Breaking news. Teenagers are scattering to other social networking sites, especially messaging apps. The Guardian explains:

"Part of the reason is that gradual encroachment of the grey-haired ones on Facebook. Another is what messaging apps have to offer: private chatting with people you are friends with in real life. Instead of passively stalking people you barely know on Facebook, messaging apps promote dynamic real-time chatting with different groups of real-life friends, real life because to connect with them on these apps you will typically already have their mobile number."

The Internet and smart phones are wonderful things, but like all such powerful tools they can bring out both the best and the worst of people. The particular problem I'm witnessing so much is people using their smartphones while driving. This is just stupid and really should be a social stigma on the order of drunk driving.

But what I liked about the article was that it showed young people struggling to bring order to the Wild Wild Web. They are figuring out how to limit their audience and their digital footprint for social acceptance. It is a subject in the media weekly.

At the same time as the Guardian ran the above article, the New York Times posted an article about social media affecting college applications. There are some truly mind-boggling stories of hormones and judgement at odds. But some students are figuring out how to navigate 
what is acceptable with their peers versus what adult society expects of them. In some cases, students are maintaining two Facebook accounts, one for their social life and one for their school and job applications:

"For their part, high school seniors say that sanitizing social media accounts doesn’t seem qualitatively different than the efforts they already make to present the most appealing versions of themselves to colleges."

And finally, in the same week, comes the heartwarming story of Max Mosley, the former head of Formula One, whose Nazi orgy was not only filmed but leaked to the world at large. Google was recently ordered to block images and videos of the orgy from appearing in its search results.

What I found so fascinating about the case are the two opposing forces:

“At this point in time, the pendulum is swinging toward individuals’ privacy and away from freedom of speech,” said Carsten Casper, a privacy and security analyst at the consulting firm Gartner in Berlin.

Google really cannot be held accountable for what other people put on their web sites. But if they show those images, can they? So far the answer is yes, they were held accountable. I don't know if this is the answer, but I'm encouraged that the question is being asked and the answers are being fought over in court.

And back to those teenagers. Maybe this points to a new generation of people who do not merely want to be famous, but who want to be seen accomplishing something.

Nov 8, 2013

Weekly Highlight: 45

The 45th week of 2013 presented the world with an excellent example of business yin and yang.

A company that started business in 2006 and launched an IPO on the human need of communicating is suddenly worth $28 billion.

Meanwhile a company that has been around since 1985 and once had 9,000 stores, announced plans to close its last store.

This is Twitter and Blockbuster.

Anyone who had a smug Blockbuster employee proudly announce your video rental late fees can only say, "Good Riddance."

It is not so easy to say "Welcome" to Twitter. Here is human communications nibbled down to 140 characters. Not words. Not sentences. But characters. And spaces count. Clearly this is a reaction to the Facebook blabbermouths who go on rants about how good their picallili pastrami rye sandwiches are and how afterwards they're going for a manicure. Now such a person has to break up the rants into bite-sized rants, although they are still empowered.

While I work tirelessly to simplify and hone my writing, 140 characters seems more caveman than succinct.

The biggest irony is that Blockbuster had a chance to buy its competitor, Netflix, in 2000 for $50 million. Yes, that's the same Netflix that today is worth more than $19 billion. And Netflix ended up putting Blockbuster out of business.

If you ever despaired about making a business work, just remember how quickly Twitter made it big. And if you ever wonder how you could be so lucky in business, don't forget Blockbuster. This is how quickly business moves these days.

Nov 5, 2013

Martha Stewart Revisited

Macy's CEO Terry Lundgren wrote in a 2006 email: “Lots of people don’t like her [Martha Stewart], but they like her products and will happily buy them from Macy’s.”

This tasty quote came from a New York Times article about business founders becoming brand icons. The email summarized research a public relations firm did for Macy’s.

Well, I've already written about how insidious Martha Stewart can be and by the way she made a cameo in my book Powder Dreams. But that was three years ago and recently a funny thing happened. One Saturday I flipped on the TV - unusual in itself - and there was Martha Stewart's Cooking School. She was doing pasta sauces.

At first I was curious. Martha started with a Bolognese. By the time she was rasping bottarga, I was hooked. Not only was I hooked, but I totally agreed with her. She has great taste.

She seems to have moved beyond her jailbird years and is making some effort to soften her image. Some efforts do not work, like the anecdotal stories she uses to make herself more appealing.

What did work was seeing her hands, which reflect a human mortality that even Madonna cannot escape. She also genuinely loves the food she cooks, taking each creation in with her perfectionist eye. She then stoops over for a smell and by the time she's sampling her own cooking, you can almost taste how good it is. The side shots also show an ageing and thickening figure which gives just a hint of grandmotherliness.

This is the same Martha Stewart who made an appearance as an alien in one of the Men In Black movies. Barry Sonnenfield, the director, once saw Julia Child and Martha Stewart making the same cake or something. (Fresh Air has many of their old shows still in Real Media, making the Barry Sonnenfield moment too damn technologically difficult to listen to). I remember very clearly that Martha's creation was perfect whereas Julia's was a disaster.

I'm reading Julia Child's My Life in France, and I'm looking for Martha's ambition in Julia but instead what I see is someone who dives head first into the river of life. Martha Stewart still deserves praise for so many things (e.g. making less expensive 100% cotton sheets available to the masses) and apparently there's a whole new generation which follows her but does not necessarily love her. Julia Child, on the other hand, will be adored for a very long time.