Monday, November 30, 2009

Lobbying (Not Again!)

I can't seem to get away from the topic of lobbying. Maybe it's following me around. Hmmm, maybe it's following ALL OF US around!

The most recent report to pique my interest appeared in the New York Times 11-15-09 (yes, on the front page). It seems that lobbyists from Genentech, a biotechnology giant, were successful in ghost-writing portions of speeches inserted into the Congressional Record by members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Unknowingly, more than a dozen members of the House have even used almost identical wording when commenting on certain benefits incorporated in health care legislation. Company lobbyists, who are no dummies (more like ventriloquists?), planted two sets of talking points -- one for Democrats and one for Republicans.

Why does this matter? Psychologists tell us that people tend to believe things they hear from people they regard as credible and knowledgeable. All right, I can hear you laughing! Congressmen, credible? Well, compared to self-interested company spokespeople, lobbyists themselves, and so-called scientific reports funded by the company -- maybe so. Everything is relative. And remember, not everyone knows that the Congressional Record is pretty much "made up" -- revised at will, after the fact, to reflect things that were never said. Before you know it, those lobbyist-drafted words will be taken as fact by some naieve college sophomore writing a term paper.

There's another reason this is smart politics for the lobbyists. They know that people tend to get rigid once they have made on-the-record statements. Flip-flopping creates not only criticism from people who refuse to be smarter today than they were yesterday, but it can also engender a condition known as cognitive dissonance. "Why are you now saying x when last week you told everyone you believed y? Aren't you being intellectually dishonest?" Oh my, what politician will admit to that? So once they go on the record, they are easier to manipulate.

I have a suggestion for members of Congress: if you don't know what you're talking about, keep silent until you've done some real homework. And don't expect the self-serving statements of hired guns to always represent the truth.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Half Full? Half Empty? You Decide!

According to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's department, a 12-year-old middle school student in Calabasas (an up-scale community) was kicked and hit by as many as 14 classmates about a week ago, possibly motivated by a Facebook group urging violence against redheads. (See Los Angeles Times, 11/22/09, p. A43.)

What are we to think? Is it possible to generalize from the viciousness and immaturity of pre-adolescents?

One thing we can be thankful for -- among the school's responses was a teacher-led effort to discuss discrimination in their classrooms. Hooray for the American tradition of taking action immediately following disasters. With "risk management" so well incorporated into the lexicon of every organization (much to the delight of insurance companies), is there some reason we can't extent the concept to the prevention of social stupidity?

I can hear the objections already. It's not the job of the school to inculcate values. We don't have time -- we're too busy teaching the required academic subjects and ensuring that our kids do well on standardized tests. Well, I for one am not happy about the fact that a vulnerable child who happened to have freckles was "left behind."

Sometimes I really don't know whether the glass is half full or half empty. There are millions of generous, kind-hearted people in this country. There are millions more who would cheat their grandmother if they thought it would benefit them personally. (Well, maybe not their own grandmother -- but somebody else's grandmother would probably be fair game.)

I guess it reminds us that human beings are exceptionally complex creatures, with conflicting genetic and environmental forces assaulting us from all directions.

Best Thanksgiving wishes to all my readers, and many thanks for your comments and encouragement, both on- and off-screen.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Achieving National Goals

I'm happy to report that I'm making decent progress on writing the book proposal for "I Pledge Allegiance: To What? -- The Paradox of 'Me.' " Herewith, a draft of the summary of the volume's last chapter:

"Chapter 9 describes several strategies that could enhance the achievement of America's fundamental values. First, we must decrease the attention given to pure economic measures (e.g. GDP) and highlight more meaningful social indicators. (The President, for example, could even include a status report in the State of the Union message.) The successful non-profit model should be used more extensively to engage in activities that promote our stated objectives (thereby reducing the ubiquitous and sometimes deleterious profit-at-any-cost motive). Educational programs should incorporate, alongside "pure" academic instruction, modules on cooperation, problem-solving, conflict resolution, and increasing the skills required to cope with personal adversity. The Constitution should be amended to provide for additional representatives and senators, with publicly financed national elections, for the purpose of reducing parochial interests and promoting the common good. Corporations should be legally charged with the public responsibility to take the long-term welfare of all citizens into account, even as they strive to earn profits for shareholders. Inter-cultural exchange programs should be vastly expanded to increase the sense of "family" Americans feel for each other, regardless of geographic, ethnic, and religious differences. Finally, voters should be encouraged to select leaders on the basis of critical thinking ability and the willingness to take counter-intuitive, bold positions when doing so will enhance the pursuit of happiness, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, promote the general welfare, and secure a nation and a world conducive to the well-being of our posterity."

Sorry -- long paragraph I know.

If any readers have additional ideas about how to achieve our fundamental values, as espoused in the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the Constitution, I'd love to hear them!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Corporate Justice at Last (LOL)

Regular readers of this blog will not be shocked to learn that I am skeptical about corporate ethical standards and the effectiveness of this country's regulatory machinery. It came as a bit of a surprise to me that fines were levied recently against some big names for alleged wrongdoing.

Oil giant BP was fined $87 million by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) following a 6-month inspection that revealed hundreds of violations of a 2005 settlement agreement resulting from an explosion that killed 15 workers and injured another 170. According to the Associated Press, OSHA said that "the company also committed hundreds of new violations at the nation's third largest refinery by failing to follow industry controls on pressure relief safety systems." (Of course, the company disagrees and formally contested the OSHA action.)

Meanwhile, according to the Los Angeles Times (11/6/09), "three major retailers have agreed to pay nearly half a million dollars to settle a lawsuit stemming from the companies' sale of toys containing excessive amounts of lead." Collectively, Target, Toys R Us, and Kmart will pay a total of $454,000 in civil penalties and other fines. California State Deputy Attorney General Harrison Pollak is quoted as follows: "The settlement provides a remedy for past violations and makes it less likely that there will be future violations of lead standards."

So far, so good. But suppose I, as an individual, violate a safety standard that results in an increase in mental retardation in children (like lead poisoning does) or that results in 15 unnecessary deaths. Will it impact my behavior if the state, to punish me and make it "less likely" that I will become a repeat offender, fines me $1?

It's not a rhetorical question. Fining me $1 is, within an order of magnitude or two, the same type of punishment as the actions described above.

In 2008, BP reported revenue in US dollars of about $367.053 billion. The fine of $87 million amounts to .02% of such revenue.

Toys R Us, Target/Dayton-Hudson, and Sears Holding Company (owner of Kmart) reported total annual revenue in recent years of approximately $83.9 billion (combining reports from different years, as available). The fine of $454,000 represents .00054% of such revenue.

Ah, justice at last!