Monday, February 26, 2007

Change the System: Make Strategic Investments

I was riding in a taxi in Washington, DC talking with my companion about morality and moral dilemma when the taxi driver interrupted:
Moral dilemma? I'll tell you about a moral dilemma that the City of Washington, DC is putting me through right this moment.

I make my basic living as a taxi driver. But during the day, when things are slow, I supplement my income by taking patients to get their dialysis treatments. The City pays as part of it's program to assist poor people get needed medical care.

So here's the dilemma I'm in. I need the extra money. The people need to get to the care centers. But the City hasn't paid me in five months! That's right... five months. It's not a billing discrepancy. Everyone agrees that I'm supposed to get the money. They just don't have the money to pay us.

So what am I to do? Stop picking up and delivering patients who need my service to get their medical help?
Now that's a moral dilemma.

Problems like that haven't gone away. A recent Washington Post editorial exposed very similar circumstances: promises made, good intentions put into governmental programs, and no (or slow) actions or funding. Think Katrina.

Or think about all the other major problems that could be remedied with foresight and preventative investments which I like to think of as strategic investments [an investment now into remedying a social problem to save a larger amount at a later date. Think Head Start programs. In venture capital terminology, strategic investors are distinguished from venture capitalists and others who invest primarily with the aim of generating a large return on their investment.]
  • Alzheimer's will shortly become our biggest and costliest killer. The medical costs for a patient are phenomenally high as they become more and more incapacitated. As baby boomers age and other diseases find cures, Alzheimer's is moving quickly up the ladder to the number one spot. The numbers and costs are against us and NIH knows this as does every major health organization -- yet funding for Alzheimer's research is still meager and disorganized. There's no reason why a strategic investment today won't reap cost-saving benefits in the future. Yet... it's not happening.

  • Mental health is another serious concern. In Congress they're talking about "parity" which is a spin word to defuse the issue. [Disparity between full medical coverage versus limited mental health coverage (if any).] Yet today's military can't cope with their present load (as evidenced by recent articles about an APA Task Force studying the subject). Returning Vets from Iraq and Afghanistan's have mental health issues AND head injuries that are causing VA costs to skyrocket out of budget with future years even worse. As life becomes more complex and people live longer, mental health issues become more prevalent. Yet they are still treated primitively when it comes to insurance coverage. Limited treatments, if any, may alleviate pain temporarily, but don't provide life-changing help. Other than cost, there's no reason why a strategic investment here won't reap long-term benefits. Yet... it's not happening.

  • Educational changes are also strategic investments. Educating doesn't just happen in schools. Think Surgeon General Koop's condom and anti-smoking messages. Complexity, ethnic diversity, religious tolerance, compassion, and developing an understanding that we're all the same AND in the same boat are teachable and could have significant cost savings (think no wars).

  • Treating addictions as a mental health issue through early education and exposure to and emancipation from the underlying causes is another cost-saver.
The list goes on (the climate crisis, immigration, stem cell research, biotechnology, etc.) but the bottom line is the same: an altruistic strategic investment today will save what we'll have to pay down the road.

We all know that government is innefficient. Ours is. But this is an area that they (we) are charged to provide. Let's get the new Congress and the next administration to do their job - particularly in the area of strategic investing.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Psychology and Politics

"Fear of death has the highest correlation with being conservative" says scholar and author Frank Sulloway.

Many recent studies prove that the fear of death drives people to demonize those who hold different world views or beliefs about life and death. Tragically, most people are willing to sacrifice themselves in war to preserve their nation’s or religion’s particular symbols of immortality in a desperate attempt to achieve a sense of mastery over death. On a lesser scale, people can be – and are – manipulated using pseudo fears that elicit the same psychological reaction(s). Thus the title of this message: Psychology and Politics.

There are many studies, and many government-funded ones after 9/11, that delve into the psychology of politics. Particularly, that identify characteristics which differentiate between liberal and conservative ideologies.
  • Three books by George Lakoff: Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think; Metaphors We Live By; and Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate--The Essential Guide for Progressives.

  • Other books by Jost (Political Psychology: Key Readings (Key Readings in Social Psychology)), Kruglansky (The Psychology of Closed Mindedness (Essays in Socialpsychology)) and Sulloway (Born to Rebel) provide in-depth research useful to identify distinguishing characteristics of conservative and liberal personalities.

  • The Origins of Ethic Strife, Mind and Human Interaction, Vol 7, #4, 1996, Robert W. Firestone.

  • In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror, Pysczynski, Solomon, Greenberg.
Consider these examples from a NY Times article by Patricia Cohen:
  • Most liberals think about morality in terms of two categories: how someone's welfare is affected, and whether it is fair. Conservatives, by contrast, broden that definition to include loyalty, respect for authority, and purity or sanctity.

  • There is a whole dimension to human experience best described as divinity or sacredness that conservatives are more attuned to.

  • Offices and bedrooms of conservatives tended to be neat and contain cleaning supplies, calendars, postage stamps and sports-related posters; bold-colored, cluttered rooms with art supplies, lots of books, jazz CDs and travel documents tended to belong to Democrats.
Thinking cynically, this is wonderful material for political strategists. Imagine what they could do with a presidential campaign budget and these targeting tidbits. They could slice and dice messages that would inflame religious fervor, patriotism, fear of terrorism, and loyalty to either enlist the conservatives or provoke the liberals (depending on who the consultant was working for). And they could match their voter and cable channel databases against consumer purchasers of jazz CDs, members of book clubs, etc. to further enable accurate demographic targeting.

I wasn't always this cynical. I used to be a believer, particularly in Democrats and their social consciousness. But dirty politics has bred dirty politicians on both sides making them indistinguishable in their infighting and fundraising; only in their positioning are they different -- they are still Democrats and Republicans with major differences in beliefs and wants and an inability to compromise for the common good.

When people are fearful or exasperated, they forget that we're all just like one another. They forget that if other people have different colored skins or religious practices that, nevertheless, they are human and have human desires and aspirations, that they're fragile, hurting, have a limited life span - that they're just like us.

As psychologist Robert Firestone said in his interview with Fred Branfman, "It's madness to be rigid: to define God in your own terms in a way that excludes other people's beliefs. It's madness to think that our way is right and everybody else is wrong. It's even the definition of insanity where you think everybody's wrong and you're right."

Click to see the 5-minute video clip from the interview:

It's time to remember that we're all the same. It's time to teach it in our schools and secondary media (like movies and commentaries) and from our pulpits and bully pulpits. It's time to teach people a world view full of complexities yet that we're all the same, that to be at odds about belief systems and to be defensive is criminal when it leads to destroying other people. This I believe and this I hope will happen when we get a different administration.