I Used to Like People

snap out of itDon’t get me wrong. When I meet somebody or spend time with clients, friends, family, or brand new acquaintances, I enjoy the experience. I’m generally positive and supportive. I relish moments of real connection. To me a stranger is just a friend I haven’t yet met.

But something has been shifting. Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s society. Probably it’s both. My attitude is morphing into: “I love meeting and spending time with quality people.”

What’s a “quality person?” My answer is this: people who get it. They get the basics, such as: “life is more than my following my base desires,” “if it is to be it’s up to me,” “I am to love and support others,” “I continually learn and grow.” Many do indeed get it. But many, it seems increasingly, don’t.

I see it whenever I drive. So many drivers are distracted, unfocused, neither courteous nor considerate. I mean, when a light turns green and there’s a line of cars behind you and the drivers all want to get through the light, hit it! Some leave gaps so large it seems that they’re doing it on purpose to piss people off. No, usually they’re just that clueless.

It is a reflection of our times, I suppose. It’s everywhere: restaurants, malls, crowds of all kinds. By virtue of the miracle of the digital age, so many are physically proximate but mentally distant. It amazes me to see groups of friends out presumably for a fun night, but instead their heads are down in their smartphones, and they invest their attention not in their companions but elsewhere. It is just plain sad when it’s a couple on a date.

My attitude likely comes with age. As we grow and mature, more and more of society’s doings strike us as superfluous, even misguided. The immature, regardless of age or era, are ruled by emotion. They’re self-indulgent. The immediate trumps the long run. They abandon their personal power in the illusion that it is someone else’s responsibility. They naively expect life to be “fair.”

I find myself struggling for patience for people who have the mindset that is an outgrowth of these limiting beliefs. I suppose it isn’t accurate to say that I don’t like them; I just wish their lights were on. Sometimes I fantasize about doing what Cher’s character in the 1987 film Moonstruck did – slap the person hard and shout: “Snap out of it!” (It didn’t work for her; it wouldn’t work for me.)

It isn’t completely their fault. For decades now, schools from Kindergarten through grad school indoctrinate a certain type of thinking as much as they teach students how to think freely and creatively for themselves. Education performance has been declining for 40 years. Well-meaning but misguided programs teach to the test as though this is a remedy. Teachers themselves lack context and a brand of group-think is limiting the capacities of multiple generations.

This effect has reverberated throughout society. With the onset of the digital age, many game-changing innovations have been created. The world is smaller and more connected as we can find detailed information about almost everything almost instantly. But something is being lost, too. Information and knowledge is of little use without the context to perceive why one thing matters over another. As the speed of society has increased, people less frequently slow down for careful consideration. An important part of social interaction, a part that serves to glue us together, is atrophying.

The degradation manifests itself in many ways. Some of it is visible. Americans are physically flabby. You’ve most likely seen the stats. 69% of adults over 20 years of age are considered overweight, 36% are considered obese. This is in one sense a symptom of the wealth that our society has created. Nobody wants for their next meal. Or even the next snack. But I suspect there is something more here too.

The blight is largely invisible. If we could quantify a similar scale with respect to mental health, the stats would be worse. People exercise their minds less than they exercise their bodies. Master Jung, the martial arts master who founded the school where I first studied, used to say: “If people had the same level of control over their body as they do their mind, most would be unable to walk.”

He said that in the 1970’s. That insight has stayed with me my entire adult life. If anything, it’s worse now. We’re distracted. We don’t think things through. We don’t even realize that we can control our minds. We imagine that it is up to others to deal with tough issues. This is extremely dangerous.

It is dangerous for our souls. It is dangerous for our families, communities, organizations, and our nation. It is dangerous for the cause of freedom. Why? Two reasons: 1) It coarsens society, and 2) It opens the door for despotism.

As I write my heart aches along with those who have seen the story for the loved ones of those who were shot on live television in Virginia. The perpetrator appears to be a disgruntled ex-employee of the news station. He suffered from the effects of a coarsened society. All those limiting beliefs I mentioned earlier? He had them.

There is plenty of outrage in the media for an act like this; more so because of the drama of it happening on a live broadcast, the fact that it happened to media members, and that it serves the cause of those who want more gun control. There is a suspicious lower level of outrage for the thousands of Christians in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East who are systematically being persecuted and killed in horrific ways. For that matter, the horrors of the systematic harvesting of baby parts committed by Planned Parenthood and revealed in a series of covert and shocking videos do not seem to be gathering as much collective interest either.

Rhetoric in this presidential campaign season is focused as usual on jobs, illegal immigrants, Islamofascism, government regulations, and various program initiatives. All are important, yes. But they are also distractions. Rarely do we hear discussions about what matters most: the care of our spirit.

That coarseness we’re talking about? Some of it is behind the political rise of Donald Trump. He takes no crap. He suffers no fools. He is unafraid. He says what he really thinks. Americans are so starved for leaders with these qualities they are willing to overlook or accept traits that would be political poison in a different time. This leads to the second danger.

When people feel desperate and their care for others is diminished, they take drastic actions. They will tolerate if not support outright immense cruelty and injustice. The last thing we need is a demagogue. But this is precisely what happens when minds and hearts shut down. People want an easy answer and a strong personality in a leader can embody one in their minds.

What we really need is the opposite: to think more clearly and be more loving. I suppose this means that I can’t just be dismissive and only seek people who I deem “quality.” I’ll have to continue to try to engage in as meaningful way possible everybody I meet. Oh well; life isn’t supposed to be easy.


$70,000 for Everyone!!

Dan Price, CEO of Seattle-based Gravity Payments, made headlines this past spring when he announced a plan to pay everyone in his company at least $70,000 per year, regardless of their position or tenure. His employees wildly cheered him and he was lionized by many in the media for his people-oriented, forward-thinking approach to compensation.

All those with a basic understanding of economics and human nature knew better.

Forbes and others are now reporting how right these skeptics were. In just a few short months and before the plan could even be fully implemented, the Gravity Payments ship has run onto the rocks. It seems that his highest achieving employees found themselves riled by the idea that their salaries weren’t much more than the newest intern. I know; a real head scratcher.

The results are potentially catastrophic for the company. Some of Price’s key people flew the coop. A few important customers are said to have also left, nervous about the company’s long-term viability and suspicious that the policy would ultimately be priced into their services. Price himself is reported to be experiencing difficulty with the transition from his previous $1 million salary to $70K. He’s supposedly had to rent out his house. I’m sure there are plenty of other adjustments ahead for him – $70K doesn’t go as far as it used to.

You’re probably in one of two camps on this issue: 1) You’re with Dan and the other idealistic hopefuls in wondering what went wrong and pondering ways to fix the unexpected problems, or 2) you’d say something like: “no s#*t Sherlock.”

I’m sure Dan and his like mean well and are in the main lovely people. They just don’t quite appreciate a few important truths. It’s not all their fault. They have been systematically taught to think in a way that fails them. Today, most Americans are victims of this conditioning.

The case of Gravity Payments highlights two concepts that are important in our critical thinking. The first is in the field of economics. Everybody needs to understand the basics of market dynamics, which dictate the optimal allocation of resources. Here is the classic chart that illustrates the concept:

supply and demand

This illustrates the relationship between providers of goods and services and their consumers. One side of the equation, called the supply curve, maps out the quantity that a market will provide at any particular price point. More revenue = more production. Not too hard to picture.

The other representation, known as the demand curve, plots the quantity of the good/service that will be purchased at each price point. Higher prices mean fewer will buy the good. Makes sense, right?

Markets, when operating in free conditions (a caveat that exists less and less frequently), converge to a point of equilibrium. This equilibrium matches the available good or service with the demand for that product. The price is determined by this natural force and it facilitates the most efficient allocation of goods, whether it is peanut butter or accounting services.

Our government (or sometimes consortia of government and/or private entities) often tinkers with the equation to produce a result that they deem superior. What everyone must understand is that these ends are only superior from a particular vantage. For the society as a whole, it is always a net long term loss – a sacrifice – to impose price controls, tariffs, quotas, or caps. Such policies invariably cause surpluses and shortages that damage real people.

People most often lose sight of this reality when it comes to wages. There is a sense that certain people deserve or don’t deserve certain wages. Much talk centers around the “outrageous” salaries that professional athletes, entertainers, or CEO’s receive. Conversely, many look to a minimum wage that should be imposed upon the market so that people may avoid squalor. They fail to appreciate that the market works whether they agree with its determinations or not.

The compensation of athletes and entertainers is a direct function of the money generated from their talents. They’ve always been well paid, but it’s more dramatic today because these industries generate massive amounts of money and the players have negotiated over the years a bigger piece of the pie that once went in greater proportion to team owners, record companies, and movie studios.

In the case of CEO salaries, companies compete for the services of those whom they believe the most competent to lead their organizations. The price for this talent is set by competition that will offer greater incentives in order to attract top talent to their firms. This populates the CEO demand curve. The value, or at least the perceived value, is informed by the needs and economics of the industry.

This same dynamic sets the price for labor at the lower end of the spectrum too. Minimum wage laws, well-intentioned they may be, damage the people they are meant to help. Remember, when prices are artificially increased, fewer goods are consumed. When that happens, providers shrink their operations or disappear altogether. This means fewer available jobs. New dynamics emerge that affect not only the lowest wage earners but the prices for items all along a supply chain where their labor is involved. This results in a higher cost of living to go along with fewer employment prospects. I’ll let you fill in the blank on who gets hit hardest by these two damaging effects.

Markets are complex and ever-changing. This is perhaps one reason why we sometimes do not see these kinds of basics. But principle does not change. If you want to reach the highest quality decisions for you, your family, your organization, your community, or your nation, you must do so with respect to first principles.

This brings us to the other lesson evident with Gravity Payments. People are people. They’re going to behave as people do. This means that, no matter how educated, well-meaning, enlightened, etc., people will react in predictable ways to specific circumstances. The key thing to remember here is that people will not accept, over the long term, that which they view as unjust.

Known since the time of Adam Smith, the phenomenon was called the Equity Theory of Motivation by J. Stacy Adams in the 1960’s. It means that people do not operate in a vacuum. They pay attention. It means that if you notice someone making relatively the same as you but who contributes less, you won’t like it. You will be likely to either ask for a raise or if you’re one of the passive-aggressive among us, you’ll find yourself simply contributing less. You and the organization suffer. This is precisely what happens in collectivist systems such as communism and socialism and it is why they ultimately fail.

A firm’s wages are priced into its products. Its products must offer value relative to the other options consumers have. So it is the competitive landscape that places the range in which a firm can remain viable and sustain its compensation policy. Dan Price was altruistically willing to reduce his personal compensation to share with his team. He lost sight of the effects on others on his team, not to mention his customers.

When we advocate “beneficial” policies such as cap and trade, minimum wage policy, and over-regulation, we likewise cause inefficiencies that cause far more harm than the benefits of the policy. Experience and history shows that markets collect and disseminate more wisdom than even the smartest among us. The most successful leaders have learned to best serve others not by managing markets, but by clearing barriers so that their organizations become more aware and agile as they systematically contribute to the well-being of its constituents.

“I’m Mad as Hell, and I’m Not Going to Take This Anymore!”

“I’m as Mad as Hell, and I’m Not Going to Take This Anymore!”

The famous cry from the 1976 film Network was prescient. If you don’t remember or know this classic, check out its most famous scene here: Beale’s rant. When you watch it, you’ll see that in 40 years, a lot hasn’t changed. Geniuses Paddy Chayefsky (writer) and Sidney Lumet (director) even imagined elements of reality television, YouTube videos, and sensationalist journalism 20 or more years before their time.

Can you relate to Howard Beale’s speech? Millions can. It may in part explain the quandaries political analysts find themselves in this young presidential campaign season. Perhaps unrest among the electorate is the crucial factor in the surprising-to-many polling numbers. There is, after all, more than a little Beale in the air.

The question is – was Beale right? Is getting mad the first step towards productive solutions?

History suggests both yes and no. Revolutions of all kinds are fueled by passions. Anger can be a powerful spur to action. Opposites of indifference, both love and hate move people to take risks and make sacrifices to change the status quo. The same ball these emotions may be, they have different spins. Each leads to very different ends.

The “love spin” can, at least in part, be applied to the American Revolution, for it was a revolution intended to historically elevate the individual. Through a combination of circumstances, wisdom, and many believe divine intervention, it was not a plea for the destruction of the system, but for independence and opportunity. Amid cries of “No taxation without representation,” it led directly to the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the longest lasting, most successful representative republic in human history. It ushered in the modern age.

A few years after the original Tea Partiers threw British Tetley’s into Boston Harbor, on the other side of the Atlantic, raged the French Revolution. Its rallying cry was “Liberté, égalité, fraternité!” While calling for democracy, it was, in essence, a class war that led directly to blood soaked streets at the base of the guillotine (during its height, called the Reign of Terror, an estimated 16,000+ were guillotined, another 15,000 – 25,000 less fortunate were executed with whatever means available at the time) and later the despotism and Imperialism of Napoleon. The string of resulting events set the stage for not only the Napoleonic Wars but both World Wars more than a century later.

Today, as then, people are angry. They have cause. Here are the big ones:

  • Our government will not defend our borders or enforce immigration policy; illegal immigrants (in concert with enabling employers and officials) use resources, commit crimes, and do not pay taxes to offset the financial and social strain.
  • The Obama Administration continues to dismantle and degrade our military, gutting it of its best commanders and most effective weapons systems while doing little or nothing about the deplorable levels of VA system medical care for veterans returning from America’s longest war.
  • Urban populations see opportunity for improving their conditions slip further and further away; schooling effectiveness declines while the system resists innovation such as school choice and vouchers.
  • The Obama Administration left a power vacuum in Iraq and has since allowed ISIS to gain wealth, territory, and influence; it is now the first terrorist group with a caliphate of its own. The group is now operating in America, with over 70 arrests in the last two years (a couple in NJ was just arrested this week in the attempt to organize a small ISIS fighting force.)
  • The Obama Administration seems to be more sympathetic to the Mullahs than our allies in Israel and elsewhere, as reflected in the latest negotiated agreement with Iran.
  • China and Russia, among others, continually conduct cyberattacks against private and public American institutions with seeming impunity.
  • Our government continues to systematically decimate our currency through overspending, the Fed’s quantitative easing, and relaxed regulations that allow the top five banks to engage in perilous leveraged activity. These practices have robbed American wage earners and our progeny of the over $150 trillion, over half the wealth in the entire world. The 2008 housing bubble bailout alone cost every American household $108,000.
  • Money continues to flow into the hands of the wealthiest, the middle class’s real wages fall, while a poor-without-prospects “dependence class” grows.
  • Civility and decency continue a long decline and there is a dearth of voices who even want to reverse the trend, much less offer effective solutions.

All of this contributes to a feeling of unrest, even impending doom. These are problems long in the making. Our government’s mishandling of health care, the EPA’s spilling of toxic material in Colorado, seemingly constant scandals such as Benghazi and Hillary Clinton’s emails, Fast and Furious, IRS bullying, FCC and EPA over-reach, and countless other corruptions and failures of governance erodes faith that the system is even capable of fixing itself. People look to the upcoming election as an opportunity for an outsider, somebody who will not necessarily “play ball,” to shake the status quo and enact policy initiatives that will address the critical issues before it is too late.

All of the above described have reason and cause. We struggle with two incompatible visions of the American future. Those on the left side of the scale see more and better governance as the path to a better society. Nancy Pelosi passionately expressed this vision when she opined that it was good for people to not have to work in jobs they don’t want to do, that they could be free to pursue relationships and pastimes that are not what we think of as productive in a traditional way. She was selling the merits of a permanent, dependent, underclass.

Those on the right side of the political scale see injustice in systematically taking from those who are productive in order support those who are not. They also believe that you do a person no favor when you keep them dependent. They believe that this stunts a person’s personal and spiritual growth.  Therefore they favor the reeling in of government function.

This fight between the left and right is an old one. It is coming to a head, as the system is straining under its enormous size, the additional weight of debt, and external pressures from around the globe. The situation is exacerbated by those in control who systematically sap it of its remaining lifeblood – money.

Americans are very aware of this dynamic. It has clearly affected the normal political calculus. In previous election seasons been-around-the-block candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders expressed interest in potential runs. Neither was taken seriously. Today, they are front runners in the first Primary states Iowa and New Hampshire.

A week after the first debate, three of the top five polling candidates on the Republican side, Trump, along with Carly Fiorina and Dr. Ben Carson, have never held elective office. This is both unprecedented and remarkable. It is also healthy. New voices and perspectives may prove very useful.

But it is also potentially hazardous. Platitudes and rancor lead to dark paths. We are susceptible, because the system protects itself. Real, well-considered discussion is fleeting. We are fed through the media a polluted stream of partial truth and distractions. Political dialogue mostly consists of the exchange of barbs and insults.

What leads to better results, in our national politics as well as our organizations and even our neighborhoods and families, is respect and shared values. This is what we need to talk more about. We need not so much Megyn Kelly’s gotcha questions as we need to critically and actively listen to each other. We must be willing to learn.

Generally, I place little faith in politicians to effect positive change. Those candidates stuck in old paradigms, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and even Donald Trump, are not currently positioned to effect the change they claim to desire.

But I see rays of hope. Specifically, the rhetoric of Dr. Ben Carson seems imbued with a spirit of love and healing. To a lesser extent, I see elements of this in Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, and even Mike Huckabee. My hope is that the discussion and resulting policy initiatives move in this direction. If so, it would be historic. It would be potentially productive, possibly restorative. We may be able to grow together past identity politics, the politics of division, to a place where we begin to appreciate that we are in the same boat and we mostly want the same things.

So sure, get mad. Go on a rant, if it makes you feel better. But then settle down in the knowledge that the solutions lie in openness, cooperation, honest learning, and caring about one another. It may even be possible to break the machine that is marching us to ruin and tyranny, and do so without bloodshed.

It will require love and courage. This I pray for all.