Decision Matrix: What Should the U.S. Do About Syrian Refugees?

Many models have been developed to help us make the best possible decisions. In political matters, one sometimes wonders if our leaders ever use any of them! Nevertheless, let’s have a look at a hot political matter as a case study to see how, if politicians were to use an optimal approach, their thinking might go. Our aim is to use a topical issue, one in which we all have a vested interest, so that we might see how the use of a decision matrix could serve us in our important decisions.

The model you should use depends upon the nature of the decision. Are you able to reduce the decision to a simple yes/no? If so, the most common approach is to simply list pros vs. cons, apply a method to weigh them against one another, and whichever side the scale tips, that’s the way you go. That’s great, but life is usually more complicated. It’s actually helpful to retain multiple options because it opens up the universe of potential action. So how might you effectively weigh five or more options against each other?

To illustrate, let’s look at the question of how best to help the people in Syria who have been displaced from their homes because of ongoing armed conflict between as many as a dozen distinct groups. The agitators are polarized to varying degrees between the Shia government of Assad and Sunni rebel groups (which includes ISIS trying to expand its nascent caliphate.) There are Kurdish groups involved in the fighting as well who are friendly to neither. The whole area is now a powder keg as Russian and Iranian interests align with Assad, American interests most closely align with the Kurds, and the Sunnis employ terrorist tactics as a part of an expansionist vision that ultimately affects all of western civilization. For the sake of brevity, we will have to paint with a rather broad brush.

With that qualification, there are basically five responses available to the United States. At the extremes, we could either open the floodgates to as many as we can possibly relocate to America or refuse to take any action on their behalf whatever. Between these poles are three basic possibilities – bring as many as we can as long as they do not show up on intelligence reports as active in extremist or jihadist efforts, apply a much higher standard and bring only those who can be positively shown to be non-participants in jihadist activities or groups, or bring none here but expend American resources and influence to find them suitable refuge in surrounding countries.

To determine which of those five options is best, we must analyze the expected costs and benefits. Again, this picture in reality is complicated, but for the sake of our discussion, we’ll condense them down to four considerations. First, how does our action benefit the refugees? Second, how does our action benefit Americans and their interests? Third, what are the costs involved? Finally, we must consider the risks of each particular course of action.

Considerations like these are often difficult to quantify in absolute terms. But we may agree to and assign relative values. While such an approach doesn’t yield absolute answers, the resulting analysis offers insight as to which action would yield the best net result. The following chart is one such possibility:

decision matrix syrian refugees 1

Of course I can’t be certain that my calculus is accurate considering that I am not privy to intelligence reports, international negotiations, or detailed cost analysis. This is however, my best shot as a thinking American citizen who pays attention to current events.

In light of the high burden, risks, and cost of bringing Syrians in large number to the American homeland, it may not be surprising that Options 4 and 5, those which avoid this action, are preferable. But it is rather close between Options 2 and 3, conditionally bringing some of the Syrians to America and Option 5, simply taking no action. This warrants a closer look.

When you use a decision matrix, you should recognize that not all considerations are equal. For instance, is it a responsibility or obligation of the American government to see to the welfare of non-Americans? To the degree that you believe it so, is this consideration equal to the Constitutionally-mandated task of securing the defense specifically for American citizens? No. We should help, but not to the degree that it hurts Americans.

Likewise, how do we really determine cost and risk? We have the short term logistical cost of screening and moving Syrians. Then we have long term costs because they are not all going to be able to support themselves in a new country where they do not speak the language and have little to none of the skills in demand in an advanced country. So that means there will be an ongoing financial and possibly social drain.

It is also unclear whether moving these people to America is best for them in the long term. Refugees are desperate and vulnerable. As they stabilize, they’re likely to desire a return to normalcy. Is it unreasonable to anticipate that this might be more difficult in a country far removed in both distance and in culture from their home? I assigned the highest relative value, 5, to helping the refugees by bringing as many as possible to America. It could easily be lower.

The risks are perhaps the most volatile and controversial portion of the issue. The Obama administration thus far seems to downplay this part of the decision matrix. President Obama himself chided the Republican Presidential hopefuls critical of his proposed actions saying that they seemed to be as afraid of Syrian women and children as they were of CNBC moderators. I haven’t heard any say so yet, but his opponents might point out that not two hours after the President’s snarky statement, a woman blew herself up in a suicide bombing in besieged Paris in an attempt to murder police. They might also ask the President where these women and children to whom he refers are in the light that 72% of the Syrian refugees are thus far fighting-age men. This is a suspicious anomaly.

Regardless of degree, it is not reasonable to discount completely risk factors, especially considering that jihadists have admitted that infiltration through refugee groups is one of their strategies. We could argue about whether 5% or .5% of the refugees pose a serious threat. The fact is that the more who come to America, the greater the risk that more terroristic attacks could result.

In order to incorporate the disparity between risk factors, we can apply a weighting scale. In the following chart, we simply acknowledge that risks and American interests are, say, twice as important as costs and the interests of Syrian refugees.

decision matrix syrian refugees 2

An interesting thing happens when you take this deeper look. Yes, Option 4 retains the preferred spot. But Option 3, the selection of relatively fewer refugees under stringent screening vaults into second place. In both analyses, Option 1 remains a distant last place and should be removed from consideration. (Unfortunately, this seems to be the path that the Obama Administration prefers. One might wonder how their considerations and weighting would differ from this one, and why.)

Whether you gain consensus in your organization through a formal decision matrix, the process is worthwhile. It encourages the team to find answers in murky areas. It helps focus discussion on facts rather than invective.  As a leader, you both teach your team to see how you reach your decisions and you also learn from them as they shed light in areas you did not previously consider. This habit is good for organizational health.

Guns are Good

Are cars good or bad? If you say good, what of the more than 35,000 annual domestic deaths due to motor vehicle crashes? If in consideration of these losses, hundreds of thousands of injuries, and their polluting exhaust you conclude that cars are indeed bad and therefore their use should be further limited, you may be discounting the higher lifestyle and freedoms that the automobile affords millions.

Many believe guns are bad. It’s a reasonable position, as their effects upon the human body are horrific. It’s especially easy to vilify guns in the wake of senseless mass shootings as recently happened at Umpqua Community College in Oregon. We can all imagine ourselves or our loved ones innocently attending classes or going out for an enjoyable night at the movies and suddenly subject to an unthinkable attack.  It is reasonable to take action to prevent that from happening.

Homicide by firearms number around 11,000 annually (and falling – the murder rate is down 50% from its historic highs in the early 1990’s, but it is spiking as much as 73% this year in some cities.) Suicide gun deaths are double that. A few thousand fewer people die each year by the bullet as do in motor vehicle accidents. Our reactions to these unpalatable incidents are very different, though.

Perhaps it’s because traffic deaths are overwhelmingly accidents. Only about 500 or so gun deaths are accidental. The others are all intentional. As mentioned, two thirds of these deaths are suicides. Of the homicides, historically around 75% are committed by people with a criminal history. Crimes of passion and first-offender murderous gun-wielding madmen are relatively rare.

But this doesn’t stop left-leaning politicians from calling for more gun control each and every time a lunatic strikes. Their argument is that it is innately wrong that guns should be so common and easy to obtain. I suppose they also believe that it follows that if we enforced even more gun restrictions than are currently on the books, there would be a reduction in these events. Though this may be sensible on the surface, fewer guns = less opportunity = fewer murders, the evidence does not support the claim.

We won’t be able to fully prosecute the gun control argument here. I do wonder why these same politicians never point out that every mass shooting (defined as more than four deaths aside from the perpetrator and numbering over the past century at around 170 or so) with two exceptions since 1950 occurred in places where it was illegal for citizens to carry guns. Gun free zones in fact act as advertisements where perpetrators can be relatively assured that there won’t be people there to prematurely thwart their efforts. Advocates for more gun control also don’t discuss the profiles of mass shooters  – almost always young, white, and male with a 60% likelihood of having been previously diagnosed with mental disorder. Some suspect that the behavior of some recent mass murderers may be linked to harmful side effects of powerful psychotropic drugs used to treat their behaviors.

Pundits and politicians also seem reluctant to discuss deeper social realities that may relate to these tragic incidents – the breakdown of the nuclear family, the lack of a clear demarcation between boyhood and manhood, the onset of violent video games, the worship of celebrity, and laws that make it nearly impossible to commit a person to a mental institution without their consent.

One might reasonably doubt that those politicians are really trying to solve the problem. It seems at least possible that they have ulterior motives. What might those be? You might consult the literature of their ideology and study history for answers. I’ll leave that up to you.

President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and many others blame the gun for the crime. Hillary said in a recent speech that it is wrong not to hold the gun manufacturers accountable for these deaths. (I wonder how GM and Ford feel about that one.) I think it’s safe to say that they and their supporters fall into the “guns are bad” camp.

History makes a counter argument. How did society function before widespread firearm ownership? In Europe and non-industrial parts of the world, power was held by the strong. The big man called the shots. The lord, baron, governor, duke, or king ran, what were in essence, protection rackets. There was no such thing as a middle class. There was little freedom or personal ambition and therefore progress was slow.  It was a world that lacked justice and Thomas Hobbes famously described in Leviathan where life was “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.” In too many places, this describes life to this day.

Women were particularly vulnerable. They were nearly universally considered second class citizens, somewhere between men and children. This was not because women lacked strength of character and of mind, but strength of arm. The gun has served as an equalizer in society and indeed is a factor in ushering in the modern age.

The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is amazingly powerful. It was written short and sweet so as to be difficult to subvert. That hasn’t stopped the efforts of the left, as its spirit would forbid the existence of a gun free zone. Often, those who favor the restriction of firearms refer to the Second Amendment as out of date and not suited for modern life. To hold this view, you must ignore the rationale that the authors themselves gave for its prominence in the Bill of Rights.

The reason that the Second Amendment is in our Constitution is this – to protect personal power. James Madison explained the role of the militia (private armed citizens.) It was necessary as a check against any governing force, foreign or domestic.

Madison and his contemporaries understood human nature better than our current crop of leaders. In an ideal world, guns would be unnecessary. Everyone would be enlightened so as to eschew violence and warfare. They would not seek dominion over others. But as the men of America’s founding knew, this is not human nature.

For that reason, guns are necessary. Like it or not. I believe the world is best served when moral and peace-loving people are better armed than those who are not. In the hands of the just, guns stop evil dead in its tracks. Therefore guns are a great good.

What Troubled Boys Can Teach Us

A group from the Allegany Boys Camp, located in the scenic deep woods of western Maryland, recently visited our church. The residential all-year camp was established for boys with emotional and behavioral troubles. The boys and their leaders shared songs and gave us insight into their daily life. I was impressed by some of the powerful techniques they employed to effect positive personal change. Their methods are apt for people from all walks of life in all organizations.

To one degree or another, we are all imprisoned by patterns of thought that limit our functionality, compromise our inter-personal relationships, and rob us of the peace and joy that we are supposed to experience in life. In extreme cases people break free of these chains via a “reset button.” A classic example is the addict “hitting bottom,” whereby they either muster the resolve to make needed changes or die.

In the case of the boys who live in camps such as the Allegany Boys Camp, they may or may not hit bottom. They’ve already been removed from their family environment where they couldn’t learn to function in a healthy way. Instead, they experience life broken down to the very basics as a way to shatter their limiting paradigms. A wilderness camp that lacks electricity or running water suits perfectly.

We take so much for granted in our modern life. We lack perspective about what is truly involved in the creation and delivery of the goods and services with which we are accustomed. We take the people in our lives for granted.  We assume that things will always be as they are, regardless of our personal decision making and behaviors. That assumption is dangerous, sometimes deadly.

The boys at the camp have some clothes and personal toiletries. That’s it. Their days are completely structured. That structure is well thought out. They deal with first things first, like when they wake each morning they make their beds and clean their tents. The boys engage in strenuous challenges that afford them opportunities to learn new skills and make important decisions. Their schooling is reminiscent of “unschooling,” or directed learning from life experiences. (Other than math – the counselors said it was hard to teach math that way.)They take on serious projects like designing and building the large and sometimes elaborate tents that provide them shelter. As they learn, achieve, and grow, they earn privileges. A bunch of other good things happen too.

Of course they gain more perspective about modern life and the important relationships in their lives. They learn that they are not isolated and alone – that others have walked similar tortured walks and emerged victorious. They share serious and not-so-serious experiences, and my guess is that they form bonds unlike they have ever previously experienced in their lives. Their new relationships, skills, and continual accomplishments build self-esteem and confidence. This erodes victim mentality, diffuses anger, and awakes them to the possibility of a brighter future.

The camp’s leaders shared two practices that particularly stood out. First, to accomplish the many tasks necessary at the camp, they employ a three-step process: 1) Plan, 2) Execute, 3) Evaluate. Each part of the process is equally important, and every boy must participate in all three steps. Second, when problems inevitably arise, they confront the issue immediately and together. Nothing is left to fester.

These deceptively simple practices hold power for all of us. In our workaday lives, we often operate unmindfully, at warp speed, and in response to circumstantial demands. We imagine that step two, execution, is what matters most. We give ourselves permission to sweep issues under the rug. This mentality is costly, both personally and corporately in our families and our organizations.

Planning and evaluating suffer under the demands of deadlines and pressures of crisis management. Yet this is where intelligence is both applied and gained. You may hear it said that “life is a marathon.” This may be a disadvantageous way to think. It’s perhaps more powerful to think of life as a series of wind sprints.

Before we do, we think. We take the time necessary to properly plan. Then, when it’s time to execute, we do. We run that wind sprint flat out and give it our all. After, we stop, take a breath and see what we may see. We are intentional about learning from our experiences. We ask good questions, such as: What went right? What went wrong? Why? What do we know now that we didn’t know before? If I had it to do over, what would I do differently? This manner of living our lives, running our teams, and functioning in any corporate activity is far superior to keeping our heads down and mindlessly hamstering away.

We are mostly risk averse. We generally dislike confrontation. We want to conserve energy. For these reasons, the most common disposition is to let things go. What things? Things that bother us. Things that we do that bothers us and things that others do that bother us. We’ve learned to worship our comfort zones, hold our tongues, keep a stiff upper lip, be a team player, don’t make waves, and avoid being seen as a troublemaker. This may be fine for incidental issues. But the ones that recur? They won’t go away on their own. They get worse. When we lack the courage to address them quickly and decisively, they cost us far more.

The culture of the Allegany Boys Camp creates the expectation that issues will be courageously confronted and that these issues are the business of the entire group. One person’s problem is every person’s problem. If families and work teams adopted this mindset and our organizational culture became informed by these practices, I believe that it would lead to higher function and healthier and happier relationships.

Thank you to the leaders and the boys of Allegany Boys Camp. Your generous sharing of your stories inspires me. I hope they inspire you too.

Must Violence Be Everywhere?

On Labor Day I took my family to Mt. Gretna. The plan was to hike the beautiful trails and treat ourselves to ice cream at The Jigger Shop. We did in fact hike, and we did get ice cream. But not at The Jigger Shop.

Not ten minutes before we arrived, it had become a crime scene. We knew something was amiss when police sped past us as we approached. We saw ambulances and speculated that somebody must have had a heart attack. The truth turned out to be worse.

A woman was murdered by an abusive man from whom she had been trying to escape for at least a year. He chased her out of her gift shop and shot her dead in the parking lot of The Jigger Shop. Shortly thereafter he turned the gun on himself. We arrived to see employees and patrons huddled in the nearby places to which they had fled. We learned of the details from bystanders as Life Lion helicoptered the perpetrator out. At this writing he is in critical condition.

The experience had a surreal quality. Maybe it was the contrast between the charming hillside, wooded streets, and storybook cottages, some of which were elaborately decorated with blooming flowers and imaginative sculpture, and the flashing lights, police tape, covered prone body, and the knowledge that no place, no matter how serene, is free from violence. In the aftermath of this experience, it’s clear that violence happens any time in any place.

Since we have lived in our current house there have been at least four separate homes on our street where police have arrived in response to domestic violence. Right now, within the circle of people I personally know, there is a person in hiding from a potentially violent spouse. The experience my family had on Labor Day is sadly not uncommon. Every day it seems that there is a similar story – today it is a beautiful Texas dentist who was murdered. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, someone is physically victimized by their intimate partners once every three seconds.

That’s why I’m surprised to learn that the trend is not towards more domestic violence, but away. This Bureau of Justice Statistics report  cites a 64% decline in the years between 1994 and 2010. This makes sense, as the rate of violent crime is shrinking with the aging of the population. It just doesn’t seem like it. I suppose that’s why we must be careful about conclusions we draw from anecdotal evidence.

Domestic violence has always been a feature of society. Statistics for domestic abuse pose challenges for accuracy, but it is accepted that roughly one third of women and one quarter of men worldwide suffer at least one instance of domestic abuse during their lifetimes. By any measure, the problem is pervasive.

What, if anything, can we do as individuals and a society about this?

There are those who argue for increased gun control, as fewer guns mean less gun violence. The argument may hold water if one can successfully show that it would fall more than the suppressive effect that armed victims have upon perpetrators (individuals, gangs, and governments.) One would also have to show that the policy would indeed keep guns from the hands of criminals and that the net effect would be worth the cost of freedoms and the changing of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

This would also leave unaddressed the fact that the rate of domestic violence is as high or higher among unarmed populations. The issue is not one that will be remedied through legislation – it is already illegal to physically assault another person (at least in our country – in countries that abide by Sharia Law husbands are free to beat their wives.) This problem is like most of our other problems – it is a problem that stems from sickness of the soul.

People who abuse others have likely themselves been abused. It is through their experience that this behavior is normalized or somehow deemed appropriate. They clearly suffer from emotional problems, and these have myriad causes, from the side effects of medicine to genetic disposition. But there is also a clear cycle of violent behavior.

All human beings, like all creatures, can be violent. This includes everyone, emotionally damaged or not. What leads to peace and domestic tranquility is a sense of well-being and safety, an appreciation for the connectedness between people, and a well-developed sense of morality.

Where these things are lacking, violence ensues. An unmarried mother is ten times more likely to suffer domestic abuse than a married one. Welfare recipients are four times as likely, with some studies indicating that as much as 82% of welfare mothers experience abuse. Education and wealth do not inoculate against domestic violence, but they sure do reduce its likelihood.

Yet more school and more money do not provide satisfactory answers to this problem to me – how about you? I suspect we would benefit by something a little more powerful and pervasive. Something more radical.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Jesus Christ was a radical. In a world at least as violent (granted, without guns) than our own, he taught love and peace. In the gospel of Mark 9:50, he described how this works: “You must have the qualities of salt among yourselves and live in peace with each other.” What he meant was that just as salt seasons and preserves food, moral people influence, inspire and elevate those around them.

We can take from this a strategy to deal with the issue of domestic violence (or any other moral issue.) We must start with ourselves. We need to tend to our spiritual health so that we might “flavor” the spiritual health of those around us.

You know what I like best about this strategy? It focuses us on that which we can exert some power – ourselves.

Mr. Trump’s Wild Ride

We’re now knee-deep into the next U.S. Presidential election cycle. To say that the race is interesting is quite an understatement. With huge personalities and even bigger issues, the next fourteen months promise the political ride of our lifetimes.

But it isn’t just theater. If you pay close attention, you can tell a lot about where we are as a society by the goings on. We’ll take it left to right.

Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist who finds the Democrat party too conservative for his tastes, is drawing surprising crowds. (A recent Los Angeles event exceeded 27,000.) Maybe this would be less remarkable if he was a fresh dynamic face a la the 2008 Barack Obama. But Sanders turns 74 next week and is saying the same things he’s said for years. Yet even young people are responding to him.

Perhaps it’s that they simply can’t get their arms around the current Democrat front-runner, Hillary Clinton. Her largest gathering to date has been 5,500. But she has something Bernie does not (aside from fame) – a massive political machine that has been consolidating and building power for 30 years.

Despite that she is not the shoo-in most assumed. She is a deeply flawed candidate, lacking the communication effectiveness and likeability that served her husband so well and burdened with the baggage of decades of near-constant scandal. She retains strong support among those who don’t follow current events – they are accustomed to her surname, they fondly recall her time as First Lady as one of relative peace and prosperity, and heck, it’s time for a woman President, right?

But those who pay closer attention know that she may not remain viable. If the justice system worked with integrity and consistency, she would have already been indicted for egregious breeches of national security in order to conceal her communications when she was Secretary of State. Perhaps in the end she will dodge this bullet. She has all the others. But she won’t if the Obama administration decides that it would be best for its legacy to back someone else.  Even if they don’t, she is dying a political death by 1000 small cuts as the drip-drip-drip of illegally hidden emails continues to emerge in big batches. They may hold no massive revelations, but it is a constant reminder of her ethical and decision-making shortcomings. And there are five months of it yet to go.

Democrat party insiders are seriously worried that she is becoming unelectable and that her nomination would mean handing the Republicans victory next November. The problem is that they have a thin bench. The handful of other potential candidates, Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee (don’t be hard on yourself if you’ve never heard of them, hardly anyone else has either), do not seem to hold answers. It appears likely that Vice President Joe Biden, if he can muster the energy himself at age 73 for such a massive undertaking, will enter the race. If he does, he will likely be the nominee.

The Republicans, in stark contrast, have the opposite problem. There are so many (16 at the moment) vying for the nomination they can’t even fit them in the same debate. The Republican Party bosses desperately want Florida’s ex-Governor Jeb Bush to get the nomination, as this would extend the reliably pliable Bush family insider legacy.

Their problem? Nobody else does. In fact, the mood of republicans is to get as far away from professional politicians as possible, especially entrenched-in-Washington types. This is why Donald Trump, Dr. Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina, none of them ever having held public office, are gaining steam. In a Monmouth University poll of likely Iowa caucus-goers, the three of them together represented a 56% majority, with Trump at 23%, Carson at 18% and Fiorina at 10%.

Donald Trump adds particular zest to the show. He defies accepted Presidential political calculus. He makes all sorts of verbal mistakes, over-simplifies issues, and self-aggrandizes. He’s abrasive to those he doesn’t like, he’s evasive, even testy, when confronted, and as a billionaire he doesn’t exactly check the “knows how I feel” box.

The Washington machine, an unholy conglomeration of the vested interests of the current power structure, prefers their political theater a bit more refined and predictable. They see him as a sideshow or distraction – certainly not serious – a candidate who is bound to fizzle. It’s very possible. But they don’t speak or act like they understand the dynamics behind his rise.

This is because they are elitists. They don’t respect the will of the people. They prefer their oligarchy to representative democracy. Americans hate this. It’s not the founding vision. The resentment is the force behind the Tea Party, the most significant grassroots political movement in over 100 years. The Tea Party has handed the Republicans two landslide elections, one in 2010 and one in 2014. Their message was clear – stop the Washington juggernaut. The Republican Party response has thus far been: “thanks for the votes and the suggestion, we’ll think about that.”

They continue to ignore the message at their own peril. If the Republican machine selects Bush, it will be the end of the Republican Party as it is now constituted; they will go the way of the Whigs. It shouldn’t surprise the insiders that their political ship is listing. But they fall into the same trap as everybody – they can’t see past their paradigm. This always blinds us to reality.

Trump is tapping the vein of discord. Sanders may be as well. Both men speak plain. They say what they really think and they mean what they say. In Trump’s case, he’s a tough and strong advocate for American interests. Sanders shows integrity as he stands on issues even if they have historically been unpopular. Americans are unused to seeing these qualities in their leaders. They are responding with real enthusiasm.

I find the rise of neither Trump nor Sanders, but that of Dr. Carson to be the most interesting and refreshing development thus far. Like Trump, he breaks the mold. Unlike Trump, his style is soft-spoken and humble. He is reluctant to make matters about personalities, his or his opponents. So what might be propelling his growing support?

I hope it is this: he is a man of obvious and unassailable principle and character. He has bedside manner. Like Sanders does with Clinton, this contrasts sharply with Trump.

Americans are not only disgusted with business as usual, they sense real danger. Maybe they’ve seen one or more of the growing number of predictions of impending doom and collapse. (Or they watch The Walking Dead.) Maybe they’re afraid as President Obama’s deal with Iran looks like it will pass through Congress. They fear that if Iran, and by extension Islamic terrorists, obtain nuclear weapons, it spells trouble with a capital “T.”

Maybe they don’t like their investments bouncing around like a Super Ball. Race relations seem to be going in the wrong direction, and now it looks like “Black Lives Matter” advocates are inciting violence against police. The Washington machine is unwilling to close the southern border. All of these, and other factors, are straining our system.

Against this backdrop, people feel desperate for strong leadership. A guy like Trump provides precisely the tenor that attracts frightened people – a strong leader they can trust to slay the dragons for them. The problem is that it doesn’t usually work out so well. Leaders like that eventually slay dragons you like too.

Dr. Carson is not a dragon slayer. He is a healer. He doesn’t fit a previous Presidential prototype. This is also one knock against him – people mistake gentleness for vulnerability. They suspect his lack of political experience means that he will find himself chewed up by the machine. I doubt that. Principle is principle. A person who lives by their principles is not easily dissuaded or defeated, no matter the foe.

We need to talk more about the principles that unite us. We must clarify why they matter and how they should be applied to today’s challenges. Someone thoughtful, courteous, well-spoken, and respectful may be best positioned to lead this conversation. The media certainly won’t. While I’m not at the point of saying that Dr. Carson should be the Republican nominee or the President yet, it’s encouraging that he is doing well.

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.