Saturday, December 26, 2009

Rediscovering Principles -- But Which Ones?

I recently discovered a book that purports to utilize a very similar tactic to my own work-in-progress -- commenting on the degree to which modern America conforms to fundamental "Founding" values.

Matthew Spalding ("We Still Hold These Truths: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future") cites the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, as I do, but for the most part uses a different set of principles from the ones enunciated in the preambles to those documents. (Yes, he talks about liberty, but quickly associates it closely with religion, which as we all know was barely mentioned in the Constitution -- and then only to ensure that there be no religious test for holding public office.)

As might be expected from an author closely associated with the Heritage Foundation, his conclusions (from the last chapter -- I haven't read all the preceding chapters yet) comprise a veritable glossary of modern conservative philosophy: limited government, limited regulation (no mention of the deregulation of financial markets that just about caused another Depression), anti-welfare, anti-gay, pro-religion (anti-secular), opposed to socialized health care, anti-deficit (apparently unless the red ink is used to finance wars that implement an engaged foreign policy), pro-strict constitutional constructionism, pro-free enterprise, and pro-"liberty" (but apparently not opposed to the sections of the Patriot Act that violated the Fourth Amendment).

Appointed judges, intellectual and political elites, mainstream journalists, bureaucrats, and Europeans -- the customary targets of conservatives -- all fall victim to his keyboard. He almost equates property rights to the means of pursuing happiness, totally ignoring reams of evidence to the contrary. (As we know from last week's post, nobody expects a correlation any more between belief systems and evidence.)

Who is Matthew Spalding? He's a graduate of Claremont McKenna College, with a doctorate in government from Claremont Graduate School. (You'll find no mention of his doctorate anywhere in his book. Perhaps he's not proud of it; or perhaps having a degree of that nature makes it difficult to criticize the intellectual elite.) Spalding serves as project leader for the Heritage Foundation's First Principles Initiative, which "seeks to provide a much-needed education for policymakers, the news media and ordinary citizens on the ideas of liberty and constitutional self-government" (quote from the Heritage Foundation website).

Spalding testified recently before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, warning about constitutional and practical problems associated with naming high-level bureaucrats (commonly called "czars") to positions with the power to coordinate public policy in selected arenas (like health care). Perhaps he didn't anticipate that anyone would make a connection between this testimony and the fact that the Foreward to his book is written by none other than William J. Bennett -- reformed mega-gambler, author of "The Book of Virtues" (are you laughing yet?), and former Drug Czar under President George H. W. Bush. Can you spell I-R-O-N-Y?

Seeing something like this in print (a plethora of assertions with minimal footnotes, albeit with a list of relevant references at the end) merely adds to my motivation to publish the counterpoint to that view.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

What Would a Space Invader Think?

If a space invader believed what Americans say about education, he/she/it would conclude that we value it highly. If this same creature were to sit in on any of a zillion business meetings, he/she/it would also determine that Americans base their strategies, beliefs, and actions on facts (or in the face of uncertainty, at least the most reasonable assumptions), plus a logical thinking modality that connects facts with inevitable conclusions. If the alien were to overhear the thousands of conversations in businesses and non-profits alike about "continuous improvement," he/she/it might conclude that we are all intimately involved in feedback loops where consequences of current actions modify future actions.

If our hypothetical space invader then extrapolated to assume that Americans, in general, modify their belief systems and actions to conform to reality, he/she/it would be making a huge mistake.

I am not the only person to notice this phenomenon. Writing in the 12/14/09 edition of the New York Times, Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman commented: "When I first began writing for The Times, I was naive about many things. But my biggest misconception was this: I actually believed that influential people could be moved by evidence, that they would change their views if events completely refuted their beliefs."

In a similar vein, columnist Tim Rutten wrote in the Los Angeles Times (12/12/09) that "our national conversation is dominated by a culture of assertion rather than a respect for evidence reasonably assessed."

One has only to witness the current "debates" about practically every important political issue of the day to verify these ugly truths.

I have been privileged as CEO of a mid-sized non-profit organization to learn about and actually utilize a complex and multi-step decision-making strategy (thanks in part to a skilled consultant) -- and it works! Unfortunately, the model is too complex to describe here in its entirety. Suffice it to say that it incorporates ten steps, including agreeing on the characteristics of a desirable outcome, ascertaining facts, and projecting the likely outcomes of alternatives suggested by a diverse group of people.

I don't see much evidence that decisions made in our public arenas conform to any cohesive decision-making process. We rarely define our goals carefully. We ignore or dispute facts based on pre-existing belief systems rather than modifying our beliefs to conform to generally recognized facts. We don't listen well; "debate" doesn't have the same meaning it used to.

In today's political world, evidence carries little or no weight; life-long learning (ideally part of the "education" we claim to value) is a joke. There is only one step in the political decision-making process: what do I already believe, or need to believe in order to get re-elected? Facts be damned.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but without giving weight to evidence, would we not still believe that the earth is flat and occupies its rightful place in the center of the universe?

Correct me if I'm wrong, but without giving weight to evidence, would we not still be bloodletting to cure people of diseases rather than giving them antibiotics?

(OK, admittedly, this means some people do pay attention to some facts some of the time, since we do have antibiotics and don't believe the earth is flat. But we still can't agree on health care policy, climate change, tax policy, the value of foreign interventions, etc.)

I'd love to see an intelligent creature from outer space slap a few people in the face and say "Wake up! You are destroying each other and the planet! Use your mental capacities for something more meaningful than voting for the next American Idol!"

Sunday, December 13, 2009

"Rethink Reform"

Today's New York Times (12/13/09) includes a full-page ad sponsored by the "Committee to Rethink Reform." The ad shows an elderly couple on a lonely country road facing a "highway sign" that says "Next Medicare Doctor 71 miles." The lady is using a walker. Huge letters above the graphic spell out "Cutting Support for Medicare Means Cutting Doctors for Seniors." Below the photo, we find this baffling message: "Incredibly, the Senate just voted to cut billions from Medicare. And despite $36 trillion in debt they expanded the program! More debt and rationing for seniors is coming."

Just out of curiosity, I did a little research. I wanted to know who was so concerned about the health care our seniors are receiving. I also wanted to know, if possible, where that $36 trillion figure came from and who wrote the ad copy that uses a plural pronoun to refer to a singular noun. LOL.

This so-called committee is really a project of the "Employment Policies Institute," which according to its own website is "a non-profit research organization dedicated to studying public policy issues surrounding employment growth." Among other things, the Institute publishes studies allegedly demonstrating that the minimum wage has a damaging effect on certain parts of the labor market. (It also doesn't help businesses very much, but I suppose that's incidental.)

CREW -- Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington -- links the "Rethink Reform" effort to discredit health care reform to Bernard & Company, which is closely connected to another non-profit called the "Center for Union Facts." According to the IRS Form 990 filed for calendar year 2007, the "Center for Union Facts" paid Bernard & Company more than $839,000 in compensation, from revenue of less than $3 million. According to CREW, Bernard & Company is closely associated with a long list of conservative causes.

So, I ask you: who really paid for this "Rethink Reform" ad? If we're going to exercise our right to free speech (yes, we all believe in it), is there at least an ethical responsibility to stand up and say it publicly, without hiding your identity?

The question has two answers. First, I don't really know who paid for it. Maybe somebody with lots of time and a research tool more powerful than the Internet can find out. (How likely do you think most readers of the ad will be to find out who really paid for it?) Secondly, in a sense, we all paid for it, because contributions to the "non-profit" organization that sponsored it were tax deductible!

I recently saw in another publication -- I believe it was "The Chronicle of Philanthropy" -- that the IRS is approving applications for new non-profit agencies almost carte blanche these days. Now, I suppose one could argue that doing "research" and publicizing the results also serve an educational purpose. But is education the real purpose of organizations like the "Center for Union Facts" and the "Employment Policies Institute"? Or is the purpose to blatantly influence public policy? (The ad in question concludes with "Call your Senators and raise hell," followed by an area code 202 phone number.) And if they can lobby with tax deductible money, why are the Sierra Club and the American Civil Liberties Union not eligible for non-profit status?

Monday, December 7, 2009

A Few Words about Philanthropy

I accepted a donation this morning for the non-profit organization I work for, from the Verizon Foundation, in the amount of $20,000. Since I had no other burning issues for this week's post (lobbyists, feel free to breathe a sigh of relief!), I thought a few comments about philanthropy would be in order. Not only is it "seasonally appropriate," but it provides a bit of a contrast to my usual invective against selfishness.

Philanthropy is "big business" in this country. At this morning's meeting, the Verizon Foundation distributed close to half a million dollars to 20 or so non-profit social service organizations in the general areas known as the San Gabriel Valley and Inland Empire regions of Southern California. Nationally, the Foundation makes grants totaling millions of dollars every year.

According to the Giving USA Foundation, which tracks such things, philanthropic giving in this country amounted to some $295 billion in 2006. Most of this money came from individuals; only 4.3% of the total came from corporations and corporate foundations. About one third of all tax deductible gifts -- the largest single "chunk," -- goes to religious institutions. Social service agencies get maybe 10%.

In 2005, more than 1 in every 4 adults reported doing some volunteer work. I don't know exactly what definition was used. Chances are that coaching your kid's soccer team counted.

According to the "Chronicle of Philanthropy" (12/10/09), Bill and Melinda Gates have contributed approximately $21 billion to their foundation. The most recent gift of $350 million will pay for the building of the foundation's new headquarters building in downtown Seattle.

The same issue of the Chronicle reports that Goldman Sachs has pledged $500 million "to help develop small businesses and train entrepreneurs." (It occurs to me that successful entrepreneurs sometimes end up using the services of a large financial services firm, when they take their companies public.) Skeptics have accused the company of trying to buy a more positive image, pointing out that half a billion dollars is a small fraction of the amount the company pays in bonuses to its employees.

Businesses wouldn't try to purchase good will by making charitable donations -- would they? If they did, would it be a bad thing?