Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Willpower Instinct

This is not the first book I have read to try to boost my own willpower, but in some ways it is the most practical.  I had watched Kelly McGonigal, the author on a TV Ontario program hosted by Steve Paikin and was quite impressed with her ideas to stiffen our resolve.


Self control is more critical than intelligence, charisma or empathy.  We all, one way or another realize that to get what we want we have to overcome our impulses that run counter to our goals.  Still our impulses come from our evolutionary past as ways to survive so they will not just disappear on their own even though our circumstances are different from our ancestors.  It is seldom that fight or flight will effectively deal with most of the problems of the modern world.

We want willpower for different purposes.  I will do something, I won't do something and I want something.  The key one is you want something, an over-riding goal that will help you deal with the everyday urgent temptations and procrastinations we all deal with.  I will exercise and I won't eat bad foods so that I can get the body that I want for myself is a classic example of willpower dynamics.

Kelly's first advice is to see how and why you lose control.  Determine what you do just before giving into temptation.   This is almost always a decision to relieve tension.  You need to recognize that at one point you have made a decision.

Good health stemming from exercise, diet and proper rest is an important foundation for developing self-control.  Stress is a willpower drainer.

The idea of meditation has appealed to me for a number of years.  Like many of my readers I have become a multi tasker even though I am well aware it is counter productive.  The emotional element is that there are so many things you can do, but so little time that you feel cheated.  Trying to do something constructive, such as for work, watch tv (with channel surfing), on the computer, eating, a book on the side.  I have read several books regarding meditation and even once took a class.  Didn't really feel I got far, but Kelly's description was more encouraging and I think I am headed in the right direction.

Often to reward ourselves after achieving some task we will indulge in something that is often counter-productive for example eating  a fattening treat after achieving a diet goal.   This is viewed as a goal-sabotaging strategy.  We should view success as proof we are on our way to reaching our goals and try to reinforce our progress.  Look for alternatives (healthier, but tasty snacks, healthier, but enjoyable activities) as rewards.

Kelly teaches a class at Stanford University on the topic of willpower which is a two way process.  She conveys what she knows and she gets lots of feedback from her students.  Some of what we know about willpower is counter-intuitive.

One recounted experiment was about how people could not stop thinking about white polar bears once the idea was suggested.  A strategy that works is to accept the thought.  One of Kelly's strategies is to "surf the urge"which means to accept the thought that is tempting and just surf with it for awhile.  Eventually it will seem less important and you can move on.

One suggestion she made was to email yourself (through www.Futureme.com) from the future.  The point is that we have an ideal of how we would like to be in the future, but it seems so strange in comparison to all the temptations at hand.  Get to feel more comfortable with your future self and it will be easier to resist both temptation and procrastination.

Ultimately the only way to increase willpower is to stretch it.  When you feel like giving up just hang on for a little bit more and the next time a little bit more on to that.

Every person reading this book will be unique in some way.  There are so many tidbits of advice many of which will hit home, but it cannot be predicted which will have the most impact on you.

Her ending advice is worth repeating.  You must pay attention when making choices.  Self awareness is something you can use to help do what matters most.

If you are interested to learn more about "The Willpower Instinct" and the author Kelly McGonigal you can visit her website at http://kellymcgonigal.com/


Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Myth of the Muslim Tide

Doug Saunders, a reporter with the Globe and Mail while living in England noticed some changes in his neighborhood.  Muslims were moving in.  Over a period of time he became concerned about prejudice against them that came out in ways that he felt were wrong.  A few prominent American politicians such as Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum were very critical of Muslims.

Violence in the Qu'ran is cited as proof of their violent nature. You could find violence in Jewish, Christian and Islamic holy literature.  Doug studied the issue, not from a scriptural base, but from a social assimilation basis.  He took a number of myths and researched to see if there was any truth.  The myths were false.

One myth was that these newcomers would out breed the natives. It has been found that the birth rate of Muslims in European and English speaking North America gradually converge with the locals.  Overlooked is the fact that many immigrants come from rural areas where birth rates are higher, but when people move to urban areas birth rates decline.  He uncovered studies in France and Germany that demonstrated lowering fertility rates over time.

Muslims supposedly are not willing to integrate.  An American study revealed that 49% of Muslims claimed to be Muslim first and American second, but that evangelicals claimed to be Christians first  at a 70% clip. American Muslims tended towards the American view that negotiations were possible between Israeli and Palestinians although in the Middle East this view was not as common.   One of the strongest indicators of integration is inter-marriage and he found evidence in many countries involving Muslims.

We have a history with "outsiders" that is playing out with Muslims.  Roman Catholics from southern Europe and Jews have gone through a similar route.  They were not accepted and viewed suspiciously for decades.  Jews fled eastern Europe in the 1880's.  In 1909 26% of Jews in United States were illiterate.  There was a lot of fear of radical Jews, but gradually they integrated.  At about the same time a lot of southern European Catholics emigrated to America and were mightily resented.

Are there dangerous people amongst the immigrants and should we be wary?  You can find dangerous people amongst all groups of people.  You have to realize that abuse and isolation sometimes bring out the worst of people.  Terrorists tend to have political motives, not driven by religion.

All immigrants will adjust more easily with more educational support.  And I might add enlightened neighbours.

All immigrants share some of their culture.  Jews fried fish and French Huguenot settlers fried potatoes to make the British staple of Fish and Chips.  Italians have spread pizza around the globe. Middle Eastern Muslims have brought fallafels and hummus.

"The Myth of the Muslim Tide" is not a long or difficult to read book.  It has enough hard data and clear thinking to make all but the hard bigots pause.  Examine your own life and history and you will find that the "outsiders" always seem strange and threatening.  Given enough time any group of people will tend to interact with other groups and have positive effects on one another.

Friday, September 21, 2012

PREDICTABILITY AND ENJOYMENT OF MOVIES

There is a dilemma in trying to analyze our attitudes towards predictability.  We crave the security of being able to predict outcomes, but we are also easily bored.  This post is not intended to be definitive, but suggestive.  Any feedback is most appreciated to help me wrestle with this challenge.

Before we watch a movie most of us have some sort of idea of what to expect.  Will there be a few laughs, will there be a happy romance or a tragedy?  Can we figure out ahead of time who was the murderer or who end up together?  Will there be lots of thrilling action?  Who is the father?  Are the performers attractive?  Does it have a happy ending?

Financing movies is scary.  Those who are lured into financing a movie are looking for predictable profits and most are reluctant to take unnecessary risks.  One way of reducing the risks is to borrow from other successes, such as best seller books, long running plays, foreign language award winning movies and what might be called popular prequels.

When selecting a movie to watch, our moods may be different from hour to hour.  Sometimes we want to forget our troubles and have a good laugh.  Sometimes we want to be scared.  Sometimes we hope our blood will race faster.  Maybe we would like to match our wits with a mystery.  A little romance can be what we require.  Sometimes we want to be surprised.  Film makers recognize these as opportunities.

The English Patient is a book I have not read, but had heard a great deal of praise, in particular by Joe Duda.  Joe actually helped me develop a respect for the author Michael Ondaatje and consequently I have read 3 other books (one of which Joe expressed disappointment). One of the books was "On Editing Movies."  In this book Michael wrote about his admiration for film editing, a skill he had not thought about much before his book was turned to a movie.  The experience can be very frustrating for a novelist, but Michael came out with respect for the film making process.

Earlier I wrote about "Bliss" (book written and movie music scored by Zulfu Livaneli) where I had seen the movie first and read the book second.  http://www.johnfdavidson.com/2011/05/turkish-delight-in-book-and-movie-form.html  It illustrates that books provide a better platform for studying in depth and can unleash the imagination.  In "Bliss," the book, the mystery of the movie is revealed near the very beginning.  In the book the author even jokes about avoiding the Hollywood ending that indeed was adopted for the movie version in a captivating manner.  Movies do have some advantages in the sense that a picture is worth 10,000 words and I would add a moving picture with modern technology is more powerful than that.  The limiting factors are time and money.

Most of us, most of the time get bored watching a tv show or movie for more than 90 minutes.  There is quite the challenge of putting the complexity of a novel into that time frame or finding ways to keep attention for a longer time frame.  A more practical goal is to get the essence right and that too is very difficult.  Many screen writers and directors often under pressure from producers make changes in the original material to make it more marketable.  Money and time are closely related.

Money is difficult.  On one hand a movie studio would have better access to large amounts of money than a struggling writer.  But, they need to make a profit and that means controlling costs.  It also means to market to the public they need to consider what they think the public is willing to pay for. The biggest items of expense are big name stars, special effects and promotion.  They are all intended to capture mass attention (or just as often a highly prized niche).  Small budget movies usually have time constraints and are limited in tapping big name stars, special effects and promotion.

Time is also very difficult.  First for the film-maker who especially these days has a specified number of days, often because of contracts of the work team and demands of financiers to get the final product on the market.  From the viewer's point of view we know there is a limit before boredom triggers the law of diminishing returns.  Although the ticket or the DVD has been bought the investors still require the viewers to recommend the movie to anyone who will listen to them and there is the hope in some cases they will be repeat buyers or buy some of the branded trinkets.

Movie trailers and teasers give strong clues about who might enjoy the movie.  This is quite the art. Get attention and not be accused of fraud.  A lot of action in thin slices, perhaps a hint of a plot and lots of big names if available.  Many of us realize that many of the little segments are not in chronological order. A common complaint is that trailers can be very misleading--teasing you with one message, but not delivering.

Foreign films often provide confidence for investors.   Swedish book and movie, "The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo" is  a good example, but there are many others.  A strange phenomena is in India where they have several languages with Bollywood being in Hindi.  They have discovered some movies in other Indian languages such as Tamil, Telegu, Malayam that even when provided with subtitles can be remade confidently to a niche or completely be redone. 

What I called prequels could be any successful movie that could be backward in history.  Sequels have a long history by extending successful movies.  This has actually worked in many instances, but if overdone can become deadly.

To me a movie is an adventure, a story.  Usually afterwards if I enjoyed the movie I go to check on further information.  Usually I have done research before actually viewing the movie.  Sometimes I think my wife is phenomenal in forecasting a key end result.  Often there is more to a movie than the plot.  Sometimes I feel pretty good understanding some of the background of a movie and other times I love being totally caught off guard.  Would you rather be mystified by a really good magician or would you like to know how he did it?

Editorial addition Oct 2/14.  I added in a photo of one of my favorite movies because it is one of the most unpredictable movies I have seen.  Something like "Sixth Sense" or "The Usual Suspects" where the viewer realizes they have let themselves be misled from the very beginning.  "Kahanni" is like that.  While we like happy or predictable endings we appreciate the truly unexpected endings as long as we don't feel cheated.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

DEPENDENCY A NEW HOT TOPIC

Mitt Romney is in the news for some candid comments made on a video.  He is not alone in his thinking and it is good that a touchy topic is out in the open.  This post is reflecting on the insinuation that too many Americans are becoming too dependent.  They supposedly expect all their needs to be met by government and do not take responsibility for their situation.

Stephen R Covey had an interesting thought about dependency.  We are all totally dependent when we are first born--we will literally die if we are not provided with food and shelter.  As we grow we gradually achieve greater amounts of independence.  But in truth even before "civilization" we have always lived in an interdependent world--increasingly so to-day.

While on Stephen R Covey, his first habit of highly successful people is to be pro active.  That is, not to wait for other people to do things, but to initiate action yourself.  It is not healthy to always be waiting for someone else to do something.  I agree with that and try to be more pro active.

Unfortunately many of us, a lot of the time are counting on someone else to make our situation better. It takes all sorts of people to make this world work.  Some to give orders and others to fulfill them. Some to make their suggestions to make things a little better.  Some to question the order.

One illustration of inter-dependence is driving.  Very few of us really understand the workings of a motorized vehicle, but we have discovered driving is a practical way to get from one point to another point and can be enjoyable all by itself.  When large numbers of us decide to get from our own specific point to another specific point  there is a danger of colliding and certainly of getting in each others' ways.  We have developed a system of rules and facilities that help us reach our destinations over 99% of the time. When you are driving in heavy traffic you are assuming that other cars will stay in their lanes and maintain speed.  As long as the other vehicles on the road do what is expected there need be no problems.

Of course there are drivers who are a little careless or even reckless.  In some cases they may be penalized by legal authorities (ultimately authorized by us).  And of course "accidents" do happen and we have developed systems of dealing with them involving repairs to bodies, vehicles and other property that gets in the way.

We have developed a life style that involves going to work, working, living in some sort of housing, taking care of our basic needs, raising a family and if we are smart (pro active) saving up for retirement and emergencies.  We also live in a world that is precariously balanced with the need to sell things so everyone can have a job.  We are now more sophisticated and have access to a basic financial tool known as credit.  Just as in traffic, there are people who have little concern for our safety or if we reach our destination and will manipulate the system to their own advantage.  Fairly regularly they miscalculate and everyone suffers.  People cannot pay their bills and that leads to job loss and that leads to more people not paying their bills.

Admittedly that is over simplified.  We also live in a world where those who control the levers can decide to lower their costs by such things as outsourcing or using more sophisticated machines. Robotics are not going to go away (at least not unless our civilization collapses).

We are in cyclical and structural transitions which we should be able to see taking a long view. However many of those with the levers (and truthfully most of us altogether) take a short term view. I think there will be a global jobs "problem," but it could also be seen as an opportunity.  Work has always been for most people a purpose in life. You make something or do something that makes other people better off and are rewarded.  If you are aggressive and/or innovative you can prosper even as others find expected opportunities closed to them.

The government doesn't have to be seen as the boss who decides everything and does us favors if we know our place.  The government which is really us, can be a facilitator making sure everyone has an opportunity to be useful, not just for their individual benefit, but for benefit of everyone.

Mitt Romney has found a way to make a huge amount of money by manipulating money within the rules of the game.  I am sure many people have benefited from his efforts and perhaps he deserves a high standard of living and to have people seek his advice.  Most of the rest of us are not as talented at moving money around, but almost everyone wants to be useful.

Typical of powerful people Mitt didn't feel the need to get all the facts lined up.  He confused how many people who don't pay federal income tax with how many people are getting government handouts, with how many people voted for his opponent.  These things don't correlate as closely as he seemed to assume.  Many of the households not paying income tax are combat military personnel, retired people, and people who work near the minimum wage and many of them actually voted for his party.  Overlooking the fact that he doesn't do any manual labor, hasn't invented anything, actually described himself as unemployed and yet on his millions pays only 13% tax (mainly due to government rules that his colleagues helped set up).

Why are so many people not making enough to pay income taxes?  Rules set up by those in power to maximize their profits have certainly played a role.

The world is undergoing a major structural change, one outcome of which will be that there will be much less need of physical labor.  Jean Chretien, former Canadian Prime Minister once said that "there is dignity in work."  What will we do when there is not so much work to pass around?

Do some people have to live meaningless lives while others burn out in the pursuit of survival and others can stroll through life?  Can we find value in things besides physical labor?  Can life be made more enjoyable for all of us?  Could more people ascend Maslow's hierarchy?

Nobody has all the answers, but a few thoughts to ponder.  If we on average worked less hours could the work not be spread around?  If the ideal goal of a life is to enjoy it can we not each benefit from learning how to do so and can this process not provide opportunities for others to teach?  Can the teachers not also learn?  We are overwhelmed with information which needs to dealt with for optimal benefit.

Can we count on a government to help us make the transition to the future?  Or are we going to see who can survive the David and Goliath struggle that will hurt everyone?  We are dependent on each other and the sooner we understand that the easier it will be to help each other.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Where is Competition?

The short answer to the title question is everywhere. We are all conscious of it where competition directly impacts on us, but don't always understand the full breadth of it.

Guy Gilchrist used to write a column for The Rider, a horse newspaper I work for.  He wrote of business concerns from the perspective of people in the horse trade.  He raised the question of where they saw their competition and learned that the first response is the next horse business down the road.  Obviously there is some truth to that,  but it is only part of the answer.  The bigger answer that Guy pointed out would include golfing and boating.  In other words while you are competing against those in the same type of business, you are also competing against a wider group of people and in some ways you have more in common with your supposed competitors than you do with the outsiders.

Competition can come from all sorts of directions.  I remember working a booth at a pet show where we had an excellent location right by the main entrance.  We had an excellent product, a pet cleaner/deodourizer that I think was one of the best products I have ever sold.  However one thing was overlooked.  Closer than us to the entrance was the ice cream vendor.  I remember one man coming in with his wife and four kids and decided it might keep his kids quiet if he bought them all ice cream.  We were the first actual "booth" he visited and he was impressed with what we offered. Unfortunately when we got to the price he realized he didn't have enough left--the ice cream man had gotten it!

You as a consumer have an endless desire for all sorts of things, but most of us have a limit to our resources.  Most of us have to make a living so we can handle our needs and wants.   So we are competing with others to make money while many others are competing to get our attention and our money.

Still another experience.  Visiting a factory that made chairs when a spokesman asked my group (who sold office supplies and furniture) who we thought our competition was.  We could all think of other office supply competitors,, but  he expanded our thinking to include computers.  We initially protested that we didn't sell computers.  He pointed out that one of the first things a new company bought was a computer, then they would buy a big impressive desk and chair for the boss and finally with what budget was left they would think about throwing in a few things like a chair for their secretary.  His point was that the whole business literally fell on the pelvis of the secretary.  I thought he was exaggerating a bit, but within the year two owners begged our office to supply an upgraded chair before they lost another secretary.

We all are trying to sell something.  If we are going to make a living it has to be something with some perceived value.  If we are going to survive and prosper we have to make sure our prospects realize the value of the solution we are offering.  Getting attention is important and offering value to the right people.  The prospect has priorities, but often doesn't think of the details.

When you understand your competition  you will understand your prospects a little better.  Each person has their own set of wants and needs and when you understand the most basic needs you will have a competitive edge.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Bill Russell and the rise of defence

At an early age I was very much a hockey fan, as I grew older I gravitated towards basketball.

At the time you could watch hockey any Saturday night and during Stanley Cup playoffs more often and it was a family ritual.  It was difficult to watch basketball as they didn't have the big US tv contracts.  I read a lot about the NBA and college basketball from magazines.  At  the time Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell were very big rivals.  I didn't see too many of their games, but I was very conscious that Wilt was a phenomenal scoring whiz and physically bigger.  Bill Russell was given almost as much coverage and respect by sports writers, but wasn't a scoring whiz or even close to it.  The key thing was his defensive play which was credited with the Boston Celtics winning a huge number of championships.

People do not normally associate basketball and defense with many Canadians at the time dismissing basketball as a real sport because of the high scoring.  Nonetheless if you think about it by just disrupting  the opponent's scoring pattern just a tiny bit your team could win even without big scoring.  Scoring was far from automatic, but it did seem players were able to score both easily, and  often spectacularly on an almost routine basis.  The scores tended to yo yo back and forth.  Every now and then someone would do something spectacular to stop the offense, but more often not noticed was just make scoring more difficult.

As I got older the tv contracts made basketball more accessible and I got to watch a bit more of my basketball heroes.   Blocking shots was one of the more spectacular things Bill Russell did, but he explained his secret was not to try to block every shot, just, the ones he was sure he could block. Ideally the opponents would be psyched out and take evasive actions that often resulted in a poor shot.  Bill Russell retired, but was hired to comment on games, later he did some coaching.  I was very impressed with his analysis. Once when a player was injured he talked about compensating actions--you could tell one of his strengths was reading what the other person was about to do.

In some ways I was fortunate at 5"7" to be in places where I would get a chance to play.  Despite my height I was a pretty good jumper and was able to out rebound and even block shots of much taller players occasionally.  Timing and positioning were vital.  Unfortunately I was not a very good shooter.  Another player I modeled on was Dennis Awtrey, a very tall and apparently clumsy player for the Chicago Bulls (before the Raptors my favorite team even before Michael Jordan).  He just seemed to get in the way of very good players.  I could do that.  My favorite memories were playing defense as I just didn't score very often and never when it really counted.  I was  most often assigned to cover the main ball handler of the other team.  I am vain about all that, but realize I would have gotten a lot more attention if I could have shot better.

Hockey was very much followed by my family.  Oshawa was my home town and we had a connection to the Boston Bruins.  Bobby Orr was a local hero who I met once at a track meet where we were both entered in the long jump.  Ironically we were the first two jumpers not to qualify for the next stage.  I then was introduced to him when I had moved to Haliburton and he was hired to work at a hockey camp.   He was a great defensive player, but most noted for being the highest scoring defenseman.  A real joy to watch.

Like most youngsters I loved watching scorers.  Gordie Howe played for Detroit and we didn't get to see him so much except for the playoffs and I became a fan of him.  Many years later I met Gordie at a book promotion and had a private talk with him away from the crowds.   Although slow to appreciate defense I did catch on.  Stopping the offence, unlike with basketball was routine.  In reality a system was at least as important as an individual player, but then an individual could really stymie an effort and inspire his team mates.  Two defensive players caught my attention Bill Gadsby of Detroit and Doug Harvey of Montreal and they were spectacular doing almost anything to throw themselves in front of the puck.

These days the talk in all sports seems to be defence.  It makes the critical difference, but for most fans it is very boring.  It is hard to beat the excitement of a goal, basket or touchdown, but it is possible to get almost as much enjoyment out of a good defensive move or even a team defense.  As I get older I realize a good defensive player is every bit as critical to winning a game as the scoring heroes.  Bill Russell was the first to start my education.

The photo is from a biography of Bill Russell written by Murry R Nelson.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

I BUILT IT ALL BY MYSELF! NOT

The title of this post reminds me of a youngster (could have been me) who has built something from play toys and is proud of him or her self.  In truth we should encourage him or her to be ambitious and continue to mature their skills.  But we know a lot had to happen before that youngster was able to build that construction and a lot more will happen before they contribute to society.

The mockery of what Obama actually said astounds me.   The ignorance and arrogance of many is amazing, but what really scares me is the willingness of others who know better to exploit a supposed gaffe that was actually truthful.  A distortion is not much different than a lie.  The meaning of something has to include the context or we are not better than smart ass bullies.

Stephen R Covey, a Mormon has my respect for emphasizing that the world is inter-dependent.  We are LUCKY to live in a western civilization that has optimized our inter dependence, at least more than in previous times.  We don't have to do what our parents did, we are relatively free to pursue our own path and fit into society in our own way.

It is the height of arrogance and ignorance to think that anyone achieved anything all by themselves. Obama was not trying to take away credit for the striving and efforts of people who have achieved success.  He was trying to restore a little balance.  Since then the opposition has put up a lineup of people who have done it on their own.  But none them has; they all got some boost from government.

It is far more basic than that.  For someone to succeed they have to sell something to someone who buys.  It might be a product, a service or an idea, but if nobody has the resources or inclination to buy whatever it was stays on the shelf.  We have to survive a stage of helplessness until we reach a point of fending for ourselves and truly we never really reach that stage, else there would be no need for police or armies.  Somehow we must learn the ways of the world both formally and informally.

Communication and transportation, a legal system, a workable currency, a base of potential customers are the necessary foundation of every business.  Some of us benefit more than others from this foundation or you might say are able to exploit their resources more effectively.

There is a great need for balance.  It takes all sorts of people to make our society work.  Thank goodness there are ambitious people with talent, willing to work hard to get what they want.  They get what they want by satisfying desires of other people.  Thank goodness there are people willing to do the grubby work.  Thank goodness there are people willing to encourage us and teach the ways of the world.  Other people do whatever is left.  Some of us have big egos and resent anyone telling us what to do, but others are willing to fit in wherever they can.  We can all point to people who take, but don't give anything back, some are considered successful and others considered bums.

When those who have money are not willing to share, to help others follow their path, to help those who were not as lucky or talented as they were the whole society starts to decline.  We are disgusted with despotic rulers in the current and ancient world and realize we are much more fortunate.   The problem starts with someone leveraging their power at the expense of others.

Do some people deserve special status because they take risks? Maybe, but in fact the government has reduced the risk in many ways.  One thing many of us overlook is the designation "Ltd." which really means the risk is limited to the amount invested whereas before there was no limit. Bankruptcy rules protect not only consumers, but also companies.  Then there is the so called safety net.  What happens when reasonable risks don't work out?

There is a need to respect individual talent, ambition and hard work.  There is also a need to realize that we are inter-dependent.  I recognize that some people think they pay too much in taxes and some of them might be right.  I realize that regulation and bureaucracy can be wasteful and crush initiative. But we have to acknowledge that some people became successful by abusing others and actually kept some deserving people from getting a decent opportunity.  If you think about it there are a few very dangerous people who are trying to take advantage of the rest of us--who is going to protect us?   Most important let us not distort the meaning of the message-- what Obama actually said is very fundamental to making decisions that affect everyone and I think the key to our future.  Reject it or misunderstand it and I think we are headed for anarchy.   And no I do not think that is too strong a description.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Money and Politics

With the American election fast approaching there are concerns that important decisions will be made that are unduly influenced.  We are all drowning in money or at least those in the battlefield states. There is nothing new in my thoughts, but unfortunately many other thoughts are not being voiced very strongly or paid much attention.  Money enters politics through many doors.  Although I am Canadian, my concerns are more visible in American politics.

Can money sway the opinion of an educated man?  I would say yes with some logic and some emotional appeals.  Can money persuade people to vote against their own economic interest?  Evidently.  Can money influence the ignorant masses?  I would say so admitting that we are all ignorant of the complexities.  Politicians are elected to represent our interests because we are too busy worrying about other things.

Money has become the most critical factor in getting elected and fund raising the most respected talent.  Perhaps because voters are too preoccupied with other concerns to really know the issues or even what is in their own best interests.  They are increasingly vulnerable to the loudest or most clever  or most frequent argument.

So critical to getting elected that most politicians spend an increasing amount of time fund raising.  A big part of the rest of their time is spent trying to satisfy those who have given them money.  That means less time trying to sort through the difficulties of their responsibilities and less time getting to know other elected members that they might have to compromise with.   The average voter has too little time to understand the complexities of issues and now the trusted elected officials are also being squeezed for the time.

The main beneficiary of campaign money is the media, the different branches of which get paid to advertise the merits of some political parties and express negative viewpoints of the opposition. Undoubtedly that is why they give little emphasis to the negative effect of money and in fact often use fund raising statistics as an important part of the horse race analysis.  Money is equated with virtue or at least as leverage much more than something that demands critical attention.  Viewing the election as a horse race helps create fear that your side needs to spend more money to keep up with or distance the party from the opposition.  The actual issues are not discussed in great detail.  People who rely on the media to better understand the issues are poorly served.

We look to the media to explain things. Some of us trust them to at least present the facts.   Perhaps we make our media selections based on our biases, but nonetheless we assume we are getting the real goods within that framework.  Seldom are we getting an honest analysis of the issues, but we certainly learn of gaffes and the politics of every decision.

Media accept ads that have been discredited by fact checkers or are in questionable taste.  To me that is similar to in the past accepting ads for tobacco until it was outlawed.  An election represents a bonanza that most of the media eagerly embraces.

A virtue of a rich man is said to be that they can't be bribed or unduly influenced by special interests. There may be some truth to that, but because the cost of getting elected is going up it is choking good intentions.  It is refreshing to see that money does not always ensure victory, but it is necessary to make oneself heard.

In the recent Republican primaries, the first major elections after the Supreme Court made it possible for corporations to contribute unlimited amounts of money for political campaigns, it was found to be very influential. Unfortunately vast amounts of money was used to tear down opponents, in this case opponents that will be asked to unite under the final candidate.  Winning the nomination was considered more critical than the long term benefits of showcasing their own policies.

In Canada I found it very disturbing that the victorious Conservatives quietly took away the $2.50 contribution to a political party for each federal vote it was able to secure.  It seems to me they felt they were better at fund raising, in reality had better access to large corporate donations.  I feel that the $2.50 each vote gave to a party encouraged people to vote for the party of their non strategic choice without the party feeling obligated to a special interest.  Parties had to satisfy the mass of voters to get their support.

My position for several years has been that proportional voting is the most practical form of true democracy.  In Canada we have a multi party system that gives a much wider choice of options than the American system where a third party is too expensive for a winner take all set up.  Most of us find it hard to accept that the majority of votes were for other policies than those that are now in power.  Big monied parties do not need to win majority approval, only a plurality.  That means their strategy is in part to split the opposition.  In the end if successful they can ignore the desires of the majority.  An election should be a battle of arguing ideas.

Possibly there are a few donators who just want a fair election and feel that with their contribution they are more likely to achieve that goal.  Unfortunately it is human nature to expect something in return for a favour.  Perceptions can be negative, even when not justified.

We want our law makers to spend time trying to make fair and just laws.  We do not want them to be obligated to any special interests.  Money gives leverage to those who want to take advantage of the rest of us.

The winners all say that it is better to have one party in control as they can get things done.  The minority parties at best force compromises.  In time voters will recognize that some parties are not working with the others and that some ideas are better than they originally voted for.  Our society will gradually become more liberal or more conservative, but with respect for those on the other side.

I do not believe any politician wants to be beholden to any individual, after all that really means they have less power than they originally desired.  I also don't believe any of us voters like the idea that anyone we vote for has obligations that may not be in our interest.  No perfect solution seems likely, yet in the interest of democracy we have to strive for a system where money is not the decisive factor.