Mind Changer on Local Talk Radio

One of the two “moderate conservative” hosts of a local talk radio program admitted yesterday that he changed his mind about liberal media bias.  That was quite an admission, because for years he defended the media and said that any bias was perceived by the reader and not perpetrated by those in the media.

While the other host of the program tried to claim credit for the conversion, he admitted that the blatant actions of two people changed his mind: Charles Gibson and Katie Couric.  I didn’t get to hear which actions.  I assume Gibson’s response to the ACORN break played a factor.  I don’t pay enough attention to Katie to know what she did.

I’m always interested to see what things can change a person’s mind (hence the name of this blog), so I’m glad he mentioned it.  It turns out that Saul Alinsky was right again.  Alinksy, an alleged influence in Obama’s life, suggests showing an enemy in their true light so people can see what they really are.

The guy who made the ACORN tapes found success with that tactic.  It looks like Gibson and Couric.  All I can say is keep up the good work.

To appear “smart” this guy continues to qualify his position.  He doesn’t believe there’s an organized conspiracy in media, but now he sees how individual biases, especially when a majority of people in the profession align idealogically, can influence the angles and the coverage.  I haven’t heard any support the “organized media conspiracy” theory.  That’s a straw man he’s set up for himself to knock.

All this reminds of a story from conservative journalists (some do exist).  I’m not sure who this came from.  This gentlemen was working late one night with one of his liberal editors when the topic of bias came up.  The conservative journalist said that 90% of the staff were card carrying Democrats.  He asked his editor if he could see why the stories were biased.  The editor replied that journalists are trained to be objective and professional.

The conservative journalist then asked, “well, okay then, since journalists are trained to be objective and professional, how would you feel if 90% of the staff were card carrying Republicans?”

His editor replied, “That wouldn’t work.  You can’t trust them to be objective.”

I think of that story every time I hear people defend bias in the media or pretend it doesn’t exist or pretend it only exists on Fox.  It is hard to see our own biases.

But, I think people are starting to see their bias.

Five Marks of Great Leader

Here’s a great column on leadership by Paul Johnson originally printed in Forbes Magazine, May 9, 2005.

In both business and politics leadership matters more than does any other personal factor. A country with a first-class leader can punch above its weight class (look at Britain under Margaret Thatcher). Admiration for a company’s chairman/ CEO is sure to be reflected in the share price. But what makes a real leader? How can we recognize one?

Moral courage. This matters most. It is the willingness to stick to one’s beliefs, to pursue a course of action in the face of overwhelming criticism, great adversity and, not least, the faintheartedness of friends and allies. This kind of courage is always in short supply–and never more so than today. President George Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair have demonstrated it in standing by their Iraq policy, now seen to be a success but earlier marked by a long period of disheartening reversals. The late John Paul II also exhibited moral courage. He put the principles in which he believed at the center of his actions, defying criticism inside and outside his church.

A single spasm of courage is not enough. It is that which is shown over the long haul that demands the most of a man or woman and ultimately brings the best results. That was the kind of obstinate, persistent, self-reinforcing courage shown by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and Winston Churchill during the lonely struggle against Hitler. It was notably lacking during the Vietnam War–the reason that war was lost. It is, however, present in Iraq, where victory is now within our grasp.

Judgment. Courage without judgment is pointless and may be dangerous. What makes a person judge wisely? It is not intelligence, as such. Clever people with enormously high IQs often show scarifyingly bad judgment. Nor is it education. When I need advice, I rarely turn to someone with first-class honors from a top university. I turn to someone who has knocked about the world and cheerfully survived “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” One man to whom I turned for his judgment was Ronald Reagan. Though not a scholar by any gauge, he almost invariably judged correctly on the few big issues that really matter.

Being able to judge well is often linked to an ability to mix with and learn from other people–not so much from experts but from common people, those who lack the arrogance of power or the desire to show off their intelligence but who nevertheless think deeply about life’s trials. A person of judgment develops the habit of asking questions of such wise people and listening to their replies.

A sense of priority. In running a country or a vast business, one is faced with countless problems, huge and insignificant, and has to make decisions about all of them. Clever leaders (I’m thinking of Jacques Chirac) often have a habit of pouncing on minor issues and pushing them at all costs, even to the detriment of their real interests. Sorting out the truly big from the small takes an innate horse sense that’s not given to most human beings. It has little to do with intelligence, but it is nearly always the hallmark of a great leader.

The disposal and concentration of effort. Leaders must allocate their time and energy. As a schoolboy right after World War II, I had the good fortune to get a minute of Winston Churchill’s time.”Mr. Churchill, sir,” I asked, “to what do you attribute your success in life?” He replied instantly,”Conservation of energy. Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down.” Of course, Churchill was making a joke, but he was also making a serious point. Whenever possible he did all his letter writing and telephoning in bed, before getting up. Then he’d come bounding out, fresh and eager, ready for the real action of the day.

Humor. This is a key element of leadership, and I can think of few successful leaders totally devoid of a sense of humor. Even Helmuth von Moltke, the austere German strategist, laughed twice–once when told a certain French fortress was impregnable, and once when his mother-in-law died. Stalin himself had humor, though chiefly of a gallows bent. Margaret Thatcher was said by her enemies to have no sense of humor, but I often made her laugh. Once or twice I heard her tell jokes with great success, as, for example, when she delivered her feminist maxim at a dinner attended by 600 men: “The cocks may crow, but it’s the hen that lays the egg.”

This column struck a chord with me in 2005 when I originally read it because I was working closely with leaders that lacked all these marks and it was apparent.  But, what really stood out, they were very high IQ, well educated, good pedigree.  What was missing is that they hadn’t “knocked about the world.”

It is maddening as an associate, shareholder and citizen when leaders in business and politics are promoted based on their education and perceived intellect, rather than their results.

Results are not fool proof promotion measures either.  Some people get lucky with good results and fail at the next level.  But, results work far better than any other promotion tool.

I like real world examples.

Look in fields where results matter.  Rarely do well heeled duds work their way up through the ranks of organized crime.  Same goes with football coaches.  Can you imagine the snickers if a head football coach was hired because he had a degree in coaching from an well respected, top tier institution?  Nobody would buy that as a valid predictor of their coaching performance.  Nobody.  What about a military general?  While many do have degrees from well heeled military institutions, they are also all battle tested.  They win, they get promoted.

And, yet, many consider top tier college degrees acceptable qualifications for many other vastly more important jobs like President of the United States or large publicly traded companies.  If they’re that good they should be able to provide meaningful results of leaders of smaller organizations before taking on the big jobs.

Great Write-Up of Elinor Ostrom's Work

John Stossel provides the best write-up for lay people of Elinor Ostrom’s work that I’ve read so far in his column today, Self Governance Works.  Elinor shared the Nobel Prize in Economics this year.

If I take fish from a common fishing area, I benefit completely from those fish. But if I make an investment to increase the future number of fish, others benefit, too. So why should I risk making the investment? I’ll wait for others to do it. But everyone else faces the same free-rider incentive. So we end up with a depleted resource and what Garrett Harden called “the tragedy of the commons.”

Except, says Ostrom, we often don’t. There is also an “opportunity of the commons.” While most politicians conclude that, depending on the resource, efficient management requires either privatization or government ownership, Ostrom finds examples of a third way: “self-organizing forms of collective action,” as she put it in an interview a few years ago. Her message is to be wary of government promises.

She has studied, for example, self-governing irrigation systems in Nepal and found successes never anticipated in the textbooks. “Irrigation systems built and governed by the farmers themselves are on average in better repair, deliver more water, and have higher agricultural productivity than those provided and managed by a government agency. … (F)armers craft their own rules, which frequently offset the perverse incentives they face in their particular physical and cultural settings. These rules may be almost invisible to outsiders. …”

“These rules may be almost invisible to outsiders…” reminds me of Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand.  The Invisible Hand is why we do what we do.  Smith wrote more about this subject in his Theory of Moral Sentiments.  In addition to economic incentives, our actions are influenced by prudence, propriety, benevolence and justice.   These four governors of behavior are under appreciated.  I consider economic incentives along with prudence, propriety, benevolence and justice to be the five fingers of the invisible hand.

Government intervention can screw up economic incentives and it can also screw up the other four fingers.  Something a German lady told me comes to mind.  She said that while East Germany was freed 20 years ago, the culture of a heavy handed slave master statist government is still there.  The people are rude.  They live to meet the codified rules and not much else.  The government rules replaced a person’s sense of prudence, propriety, benevolence and justice.  DMV anyone?

I also love this passage: “While most politicians conclude that, depending on the resource, efficient management requires either privatization or government ownership, Ostrom finds examples of a third way.”

By examples, he means real world examples.  Real world examples are all around us, yet I find that those examples are often under appreciated by people who box themselves into theoretical confines.   I’m the Elinor Ostrom of my workplace.  Whenever we have a grand new idea, I look for real world examples that are similar.  It is darned difficult to get people to accept those real world examples.  It’s also darned difficult to get those people to admit that they should have more carefully considered those real world examples when they get similar results.

On the Margin

Here’s an excellent podcast from Russ Roberts of EconTalk:  Munger on Shortages, Prices and Competition.

Listen to it.   This covers a gamut of topics:   Vaccines, minimum wage, organ donation, airline deregulation.  Roberts and Munger do a great job of explaining factors other than price that we use to allocate our resources on the margin everyday and don’t realize it.

For example:  FREE VACCINE!!! Great. We’ll all get it.  Right?  Nope.  Why not?  It’s still not worth it to many because there are “costs” involved.  Time waiting in line, getting there, having a chance to catch the illness while waiting in line to name a few.

I’m listening to the podcast for the second time as I write this.

If This Guy is Concerned…

…you should be too.  Thomas Sowell’s column today is titled Dismantling America.   The beginning:

Just one year ago, would you have believed that an unelected government official, not even a Cabinet member confirmed by the Senate but simply one of the many “czars” appointed by the President, could arbitrarily cut the pay of executives in private businesses by 50 percent or 90 percent?

He goes on to ask a few more questions like that.  Then ends with:

Nothing so epitomizes President Obama’s own contempt for American values and traditions like trying to ram two bills through Congress in his first year– each bill more than a thousand pages long– too fast for either of them to be read, much less discussed. That he succeeded only the first time says that some people are starting to wake up. Whether enough people will wake up in time to keep America from being dismantled, piece by piece, is another question– and the biggest question for this generation.

I agree.  Some people are waking up.  Are enough?  We’ll see.  It’s easy to get the wool pulled over your eyes when it’s “your guy” pulling.   I talk to a lot of people with the woolly eyes.  You may too.

If you want to lift the wool a little, first remind them that as long as free elections are maintained in the country their guy may not always be in charge.  Then ask them what they think about some else’s guy or gal doing some of the same things, like setting executive pay, taking over businesses, ramming large bills through Congress and so forth.

For me, that’s always been a litmus test to keep the wool out of my eyes.

Why Government Doesn't Work

Every once in awhile, I think it’s good to repost why government programs don’t work as well as free markets.

It’s because government programs funds are based on the intention of the program, while free markets are funded based on the outcome.  Failing government programs tend to get more money from the people controlling the purse strings, the politicians, in order to appear that they are working for the people and to buy votes. That’s called a negative reinforcing loop. In other words, negative consequences are rewarded and thus continued and strengthened.  This is like the parents who always bail their kids out of trouble and find out that their children can’t function as a productive member of society when then become adults.

Failing private programs get less money from the people controlling the purse strings, the customers or donors.  Customers and donors willingly buy from private programs that are producing desirable outcomes, otherwise customers would try something else.  This is a positive reinforcing loop.  Good consequences are rewarded and thus continued and strengthened.

People often miss, or discount, the strength of these positive and negative reinforcing loops.

They also seem to think that supporters of free markets believe that free markets are perfect and that any failure in a free market invalidates this belief.  They don’t understand that supporters of free markets readily understand that failure is present in both systems.  But, believe the self-correcting nature of the free market is better than self-destructing nature of the governmental system.

The Five Whys

I’m a long time supporter of a the Five Whys, the GE method for identifying the root cause of problems.  I’m a supporter of it because it gave a name to something I, and many other people, have used intuitively nearly every day of their lives – common sense.  But, it’s nice to have an official name and use by a successful company to make common sense sound sexy.

However, I’m also concerned because I too often see common sense ignored in situations that could use a great deal of it.  We tend to throw common sense out the window when it interferes with a dearly held bias.  I observe that such biases are the main obstacle to getting to the honest root causes.

I’ll use body weight as an example.  People have strongly held bias that their diet is okay, but wonder why they’re gaining weight.  Such people haven’t allowed themselves to look past their bias and consider that the root cause of their weight gain may be how much food they put in their mouths.

What I could use is a “Five Whys” method for helping people overcome their bias.