Blink and Politics

I recently completed Malcolm Gladwell’s second book called “Blink.” I may be one of the last people to read it, as all of his books had lengthy stays on the best seller list. I enjoyed his other three books so much, I felt I needed to complete the cycle. If you have not read it, I would encourage you to do so, as it very compelling and an easy read about how we think without conscious thinking. The more experience we have with a subject, this process yields an effective way of making decisions.

There are numerous examples therein, but one of the easiest to describe is how a leader of a firefighting crew entered a house and when they could not put out an extra hot fire in the kitchen after dousing it several times, the leader sensed something was unusual about the setting. His experience and sensation led him to get the firefighters out of the house now. Just after leaving, the main floor collapsed as the fire was burning from the basement below. His unconscious knew something was amiss and his gut told him to get out quickly. His basis was his vast experience in fighting fires and all he could later think through was the fire was not acting as it should have been – its intensity was high and they were not making a dent in putting it out. Hence, he came to a decision in the blink of an instant.

In the book, though, there is a body of work which allows people to be “primed” to think one way or the other. In essence, when you are making snap decisions, you can actually be predisposed to respond a certain way. Again, there are numerous examples therein, but one that I found compelling is the historical gender discrimination toward women in classical music. At one time there was only about 5% of a symphonic orchestra made up of women and those tended to be around more feminine instruments (their words not mine). What was learned after one woman (with an androgynous first name) became considered for a German symphony playing the trombone after a blind-tryout, is a definite gender bias existed for the previously considered “male” instruments. After she won two law suits proving her claim of discrimination, conductors started doing blind tryouts. They realized it should be about the music and not how you look. After this became more the norm, symphonic orchestras became more evenly split by gender. The conductors were “primed” to think a certain way before which led to the discrimination. The good side of the story is this discrimination has been largely overcome.

While reading the book, it hit me that the spin-doctors in politics are doing what these conductors were doing. In politics, we are being primed to think a certain way. So, if something is said enough, there are people who will believe it to be true. Even those of you who may support an opposing candidate, you can be led to believe some of this priming to be true. You may have observed the GOP likes to use the adjective “job-killing” in front of every Democratic policy. Job-killing regulations, job killing Obamacare, e.g. The spin-doctors are priming you to believe that everything the Democrats or President has done or is doing are job-killing. The irony is the President has done more to create jobs than he is given credit for and, as an Independent voter, I don’t see a lot of job creation ideas coming from the GOP led-Congress.

Some may say we are smarter than that and would not fall for such tactics, but I am convinced in a world of uninformed voters, we can be led to believe a certain way.  The more common tactic we have seen in the GOP primaries and before is to reference the “liberal or lame-stream media.” These references have caused a large contagion in the conservative parts of our country to believe the mainstream media is out to get them and the only place they can get unbiased news is through outlets like Fox News. As most people know, this is actually the opposite of what transpires as Fox News is one of the most biased news sources around and fills people with propaganda on a regular basis. They have moved the median to the right on the normal curve, so when fair news is portrayed, it looks like it is more liberal than it is. I have heard more than one editor say, the only bias the media has is toward conflict.

There are numerous examples to draw from and I must confess that I do believe the conservative side of the house does more of this than the more liberal side. Truth be told, this is one of the three major reasons I left the Republican party five years ago. I observed a higher propensity to make stuff up – be it “weapons of mass destruction” or “swift-boating.” People died because of the former priming example and John Kerry was vilified unjustly for having fought in Vietnam by someone who did not in the latter example. Yet, both sides are guilty of the process. Sarah Palin was not qualified to be a Vice-Presidential candidate in 2008 and was not adequately vetted. Yet, if we turned back the clock and John McCain went in another direction, she could have finished her term as Governor, been re-elected and maybe run for Senator of Alaska. If she had put the time in, she may have been a much better candidate with more experience down the road.

I believe once the GOP got over the sugar rush of her candidacy, I think she was in part unfairly vilified by the press which heightened her negatives. Again, she was not qualified or versed in the issues of the day. To be truthful, she may never have gotten up to speed even over time. Yet, while there is legitimacy to the majority of the questions being asked of her, there was also some unfair treatment in my mind. I think Senator McCain saw that. I think she was unfairly promoted as a rock star which probably heightened the media’s criticism. Unfortunately, we will never know, as she liked the rock star image so much, she quit as governor and her credibility will forever suffer. Getting back to “Blink,” she does not have the detailed experience to be able to make the quick on your feet calls about issues of import.

I feel the same way about Vice-President Joe Biden and a lesser extent to former VP Dan Quayle. Biden has actually done a highly commendable job as Vice-President. He has been a tremendous extension of President Obama, especially on foreign affairs, yet people keep waiting to pounce on his gaffes or misspeaks. People are primed to think a certain way about him, so he is not getting the credit he deserves for his work the last three years. Our younger folks may not remember Dan Quayle, George H.W. Bush’s vice-president. He was not nearly as experienced as Biden, yet like our current VP, the press and others waited to pounce on his gaffes and misspeaks. I felt he was treated unfairly on more than one occasion, even though no one should include him on a list of great VPs. Yet, folks were primed to think a certain way about him. So, he could never overcome this priming.

This is where we must come in. There are numerous blogs from some folks I follow about  our increasingly uninformed voting public in the US. I would include the misinformed (or misled) voters among them. We need to ignore the adjectives that are there to prime how we think. We have to work hard to focus on the issues and what people would do given their party or individual stance. What scares me most about a Romney victory has more to do with the stances he and his party take on issues. Global warming is here and is man-made and we have to do something about it. You cannot cut the deficit by reducing taxes – we need to thoughtfully cut spending and raise revenue. We must provide freedom to all people, not just heterosexual Christians. We have far too many guns in America and no one outside of law enforcement should own an AK-47. We have job, infrastructure and education issues which we must resolve. We cannot resolve them by cutting spending for teachers, bridges and mass transit. These are the issues to me.

I guess being an old fart has afforded me one set of experiences – to know when something or someone is full of BS. I have made mistakes and will make them in the future, but we need to call out the BS when we see it and focus on the facts. Otherwise, we will blink and let people tell us what to think. The more facts, experience and context we have, we will be better prepared to let our unconscious make good decisions.

When the well is dry, we learn the worth of water

The title above is a quote from Benjamin Franklin which speaks volumes. Water is a very dear resource and we truly do not know its ultimate value until it is gone or our access to it is limited. I recently completed one of the best history books I have ever read “Water – the Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power and Civilization” by Steven Solomon. Solomon has written for the New York Times, Business Week, The Economist, Forbes and Esquire among other places and is the author of “The Confidence Game,” so the book has an investigative storytelling bent which makes history come alive. Yet, it is not just a history book as he brings us to today’s times and provides us with cautions to heed as we move forward.

In short, the book shows the ability for great civilizations to rise, thrive and fall based on their ability to control water resources for drinking, farming, manufacturing, sewage and transportation. Through this we learn the vital role that bringing water into an area for use and then using it to sweep away sewage from that same area can have in enhancing or debilitating our lives. To paint an ugly picture, London in the mid-1800’s had a terrible period, as did other major cities, where cholera, dysentery and other diseases were prominent. The period was called “The Big Stink” as sewage was not be adequately washed away and was actually being dumped into the same drinking water sources. After years of postponement (sounds like our debt crisis) of dealing with it, the smell became so grotesque that Parliament had to act within 18 days to set in motion a plan to resolve it.

I use this example rather than others as it shows how basic the needs water fills and our inability to use it wisely can be truly catastrophic. Rome was known for its aqueducts and how it flourished with the baths it created. The baths which improved hygiene became so popular, they were the social meeting places where people of all strata kept themselves clean and healthy. It is not ironic that Rome flourished during this time and fell when many of these aqueducts were destroyed by invaders from the North.

To use a more recent example, Teddy Roosevelt is probably the greatest water president in US history. Before his time, the greatest US water accomplishment was the building of the Erie Canal which reduced the cost of goods transport immensely connecting ports. Roosevelt had three major contributions – the building of the Panama Canal, the development of planned water rights and retrieval in the west to help irrigate dry areas for crops and sustenance, and the protection of water sheds via the vast number of parks he created. His inspiration and force of will also led to the building of the Hoover Dam which occurred later and whose success was copied many times over by his cousin, Franklin when he was in the White House.

It is arguable that these water initiatives by Teddy Roosevelt are key reasons the US is as powerful today. I recognize that downplays the roles of many others, but the US leveraged its access to both coasts through the building of the Panama Canal. Plus, it helped the can-do psyche of Americans after earlier attempts by France to build the canal failed. Successful major construction can be uplifting just as failures can be crushing as China saw with the huge failure of a major dam project completed just four years ago.

I wanted to provide a little varied context from the book, as we look at problems of today and the near and longer term future. I had incorrectly given credit for this quote to Jim Rogers, the CEO of Duke Energy, but a key chapter title in the book is called “Water: The New Oil.” We have growing concerns in the US, especially in drier parts of the country, but even other areas which are not known for being dry. More on these later. While we have these concerns, we are still referenced as being more water rich than other places on the planet. What this book highlights is the insatiable desire for water in water poor countries is causing the misuse or  unplanned use of water at too fast a pace so that it cannot be replenished. What will bring the Middle East to its knees will be the ever worsening shortage of water. As rich a country as Saudi Arabia is through oil, it is water poor and will very soon be using up its water supply. Other countries are even in more dire straits in that region.

If you move into the African continent you can look to Ethiopia to where the Nile begins, but most of the water is used in Egypt. Issues have erupted around the sharing of water and will continue to be of concern. The building of the Aswan Dam was in some respects a success, but in others a failure as it was built in the wrong place. Much of the water created from the dam evaporates before it is used. The book points out to these kinds of issues as we plan ahead and we must. This issue becomes even more critical in water and economically poor countries. So, globally we need concerted planning on we should use our water resources. This problem will only become worse if we grow unfettered increasing the number of people on our planet and the impact of global warming continues to affect our supply.

Bringing the issue back to the US,  we are water rich, but could be better personal, industrial and governmental stewards of our water. Americans use far more water than others on the planet. We are seeing droughts and water fights between Georgia, Alabama and Florida and Texas has numerous places where the water table has dried up, e.g. The global warming impact will continue to hit the driest places on the planet the most and it is one of the factors there has been the onset of forest fires which we are seeing here and in Australia and Russia.

So, we need to act now to plan ahead with better water usage strategies and not wait for the “big stink” to occur using that as a metaphor for all water problems. And, we need to continue to offer and help other countries develop strategies and execute them at the regional and local levels. One of the ironies is in parts of rural India where the British water management back in the early 1900’s did not reach, they still maintain water councils who provide stewardship over water use. India has grown so rapidly in major cities, that the infrastructure needs updating, but these smaller water council areas continue to be judicious users of water because they had to be that way. We all need to be judicious.

So, what can we do? At the individual level, conservation is key. Three of the greatest water uses are in flushing toilets, washing clothes and washing dishes. If we each can strive for more the more energy-efficient wash cycles and lower water use toilets that could be an enormous savings. There are recycling examples for water where toilets can draw from shower water and rainwater collections can be used for watering plants. We Americans need to cut back on the lawn sprinklers as well as we abuse this privilege. We can do this through use, but also by planting more indigenous grasses and plants. I am also reminded of my Dad’s navy shower restrictions on ship – 25 seconds of water. You used five to wet your body. Then you soaped up and turned back on the spigot for the last twenty seconds of water to rinse off. I am not advocating navy shower limits per se, but we do not need to be like my children either and lounge around in the shower.

Yet, I think we need to be aware and advocate that we should address our problems. There are some very good things going on in our country that can be done elsewhere. Setting aside the Big Stink example, Orange County in CA has successfully reused sewage water as drinking water and for irrigation. As scary as this sounds, they use multiple filtering and cleaning techniques that have proven to work.  There is continued exploration of desalinization techniques with ocean water, but they tend to be very expensive and the issue of what to do with the salt is an issue. Plus, there are some neat things going on in industry to use recycled water for various uses.

On the flip side, we have continued to be poor stewards in other areas and have been slow to act in rectifying these issues. In “Living Downstream,” Dr. Sandra Steingraber has noted we continue to pollute our waters with petro-chemicals which wreak havoc. In Canada, they have outlawed ornamental pesticides for home use due to the air and water poisoning. And, one of the big reasons I am against fracking is, in addition to the toxic issues it causes for air and water, it uses an exorbitant amount of water, 2 – 5 million gallons per fracking well. Fracking did not cause the drought in Texas, but it sure is not helping it now. We need a strong EPA, not a weakened one.

Finally, this is a major issue that affects every resource issue, so it needs to be stated. I am going to ask everyone to set aside their religious beliefs for these next few statements. The earth cannot support the unfettered increase in population.  We are in the neighborhood of 8 million people. If we all consume as Rwandans do, the earth may be able to support 15 million. If we consume the way Americans do, the earth could only support less than 2 million. Please reread these two sentences. So, if we do not have planned birth control, we will run out of food and water. Even if you set aside global warming and its impact which is here and will get worse, we cannot support an unfettered increase in our population. So, when I hear how evil Planned Parenthood and its global partners around the world are by our more evangelical global citizens, my reaction is we desperately need family planning and birth control or we are sentencing ourselves and our children to die or to a much different kind of life. In my bible, God told us to be good stewards of the earth. We all need to step up to the plate now and heed his wishes or we will witness Benjamin Franklin’s caution noted above.