Wednesday, July 19, 2017

To Move Forward, Pass On Opportunities to Score Points
Sitting in a meeting with hard working colleagues, listening to one particularly energetic co-worker link our discussion of how to address the problem on the table with a long history of poor decisions by upper administration that need to be remedied.

As I was listening it occurred to me that if we want to move forward we have to learn to defer that common desire to score points by responding to these incredibly common efforts to contextualize our deliberations.

I am trying to choose my language carefully here, because these are important parts of our conversations. So, I call these efforts to contextualize, to remind us of the bigger picture, to align short-term problem solving with longer-term directions the unit wants to move toward.

At the same time, these often (not always) inject a pass-the-buck attitude into a problem solving conversation. Not in the sense that the speaker wants to avoid responsibility, but in the sense that the entire group of speakers and listeners, usually all nodding our heads in agreement, ride this wave from ‘what can we do about this now’ to ‘we cannot do anything until they fix that.’

So, as I listened I felt the urge to engage at the contextualization level, moderating the analysis by reminding everyone of additional factors, in the hope that this will then mute the tendency to veer off course and disrupt efforts to solve the problem on the table.

Knowing me, had I done that, I would have been easily drawn into a conversation about this larger context and how to interpret it and an unproductive response would then become more likely. I might focus on ‘winning’ by knocking down the argument about context (as one-side or incomplete or off-point)…by scoring points in the movie being written by the speaker, casting me as the villain.
When I do that, I fail to facilitate the conversation productively.

What I did do was listened longer, letting others contribute, and I noticed that the conversation did not veer off course as I had feared it might. Then, I returned to thinking about what concrete action steps we want to agree to in the meeting to move us forward.

As I proposed these, and I heard general agreement on the direction, I added in the middle a short comment about how we want to frame these efforts that allowed me to contextualize the contextualization strategically.

Later I was listening to the news, which (today) means suffering within a juvenocracy. And I thought that even with this president, perhaps particularly with a president like this, we need to defer that common desire to score points by responding to his outrageous idiocy, connecting the immature tweet du jour to the larger context where his bigotry and ignorance cast long shadows over our deliberations.

Rather than join his movie and let him cast us as the daily outraged, I listened and heard other voices talking about policy questions that matter and I returned to thinking about concrete ways to advance better policy (or thwart inferior policy) rather than getting lost in the never-ending debates about the size of his inauguration crowd.

So, when we are able to back off on our tendency to try to score points by knocking down another’s (sometimes good intentioned, sometimes not) tangents we are more likely to contribute to staying focused on addressing the conflicts before us, in more productive and collaborative ways.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

More on Floundering
ABJ editorial columnist Michael Douglas, reminding us that in the most recent election 57 of 100 major papers endorsed Clinton while only 2 endorsed Trump, noted that...

‘Trumpian shortcomings were there for all to see, the absence of public service, the serial problems with the truth, the narcissism, flimflam (Trump University), shallow grasp of policy, bankruptcies, fleecing of shareholders and dark associations, including his mentor of sorts, Roy Cohn, one of the most odious figures of the past century.’

Douglas reminds us that major newspapers that had not endorsed a Democrat for a century did just that in 2016. And Douglas notes that these ‘shortcomings so far have defined his presidency downward.’

Rather than seek to unite America after a close election, these shortcoming pushed him to rule as if he had earned a huge mandate: an extreme travel ban rather than a carefully crafted one, a cabinet of controversial figures like himself rather than experts weighing trade-offs and alternatives. Thanks Michael Douglas, as timely reminder.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017


The president is floundering at what matters most: solving problems for American families.

In fact, his only 'success' to date is his disruption of the First Amendment, perhaps because his tweets are about defending himself and disconnected from the policy work needed to solve problems for American families.

Six months in we should not be surprised. But we should see the need to become more engaged.

Before the election we regularly observed a man without a moral compass, who has repeatedly failed as a husband and businessman, and lacks the compassion and moderation that comes with maturity. More specifically...

We observed on multiple occasions, with our own eyes and ears, Trump...
...treating more vulnerable Americans with contempt
...treating women, veterans, and even gold star families with contempt

We observed on multiple occasions, with our own eyes and ears, Trump...
...has repeatedly failed in business, doing nearly nothing of consequence with his large inheritance, other than outsourcing jobs, stiffing vendors, suing everyone in sight, six bankruptcies, and (among similar ventures) an entire Fake University designed to rip-off hard working Americans.

Since the election we have regularly observed a man without a moral compass, who has repeatedly failed to bring us together around his self-proclaimed status as deal-maker-in-chief, and lacks the respect for analysis, listening, consistency and compromise required to steward democratic problem solving and policy making. More specifically...

We observed on multiple occasions, with our own eyes and ears, Trump...
...reverse himself on promises that were central to his campaign, such as...

  • NAFTA, Fed, NATO, executive orders, Import-Export Bank, and cuts to Medicaid are all okay
  • Spending millions of tax payer dollars on travel and gold is now okay
  • Bombing Syria without Congressional authorization is now okay
  • Chinese currency manipulation is no longer a problem
  • Lobbyists in the White House are now okay
  • Releasing White House information (transparency) is no longer important
  • Colluding with a hostile foreign power to rig an American election appears to be okay
  • And he expressed surprise to discover what everyone else has known for decades that 'health care is complicated' as legislative efforts to reverse his promise to provide affordable health care for all Americans advance with his blessing

Leadership failure is not new and was not invented by President Trump. We all know that for decades before his election concern about government gridlock (failure to solve problems for American families) was high. And when those failures hit a community hard, like Flint Michigan's lost jobs and water crisis, seeking refuge in a brilliant huckster promising to disrupt DC becomes more appealing than it otherwise might be.

At six months in it is time for all decent Americans to begin the process of coming together around solving problems for American families. We need to come to this conversation with empathy and compassion, particularly for those living lives and seeing the world differently that our own.

It appears that some, perhaps as many as 30% of Americans, are hard-core Trump supporters. We will likely not persuade them to recognize their error and join the New America Coalition. We should remain careful in our efforts not to demonize or fall prey to the kind of hyperbole that dehumanizes them (because some might join us and others might sit this one out).

Our focus should be on more energetically and empathetically reach out (none of us has a monopoly on the truth and democracy works best when ideas clash to forge better policy) to other Trump supporters who made a mistake, or were duped, or are so desperate that 'disruption' sounds like redemption, and together rebuild America both one neighborhood at a time and in DC.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Vanishing Opportunities to Learn Conflict Transformation Skills Kids Without Adult Supervision

Senator Sasse wrote a serious book, The Vanishing American Adult, covering a lot of ground…and it is worth reading for at least three reasons (despite the fact that he is, in my view, unfairly critical of public education in America).

Reading this story is like taking a cross-cultural journey. Sasse’s book serves as a window into the concerns and interests underlying a wide range of political positions frequently taken by those with alternative or competing perspectives on politics, positions I often find difficult to understand.

It is critically important for all of us to hear, from those who actually hold opposing views directly, the thinking and feeling and caring and valuing behind otherwise thin and easily dismissed competing positions. Sasse includes the importance of travel in his remedies and reading his book provides one way for someone like me to invest in democracy by taking the important trip he leads readers on.

Reading this story first allows me to hear from a thoughtful parent and then to more clearly see connections between family values and political priorities. Sasse’s book stands as a candid articulation of how one thoughtful father thinks about raising children today. While the story is impossible to separate from politics, it can be read as first a father’s story about parenting in one family and secondarily about the political commitments and positions that are associated with the values and priorities identified in that father’s story.

The margins of my copy are filled with comments, mostly in disagreement, sometimes in frustration because he seemed to be willfully overlooking factors with more explanatory value because doing so would push him toward solutions inconsistent with his ideology. But I also came away with a respect for his combination of candor and open-mindedness (he often defended his position with reference to thinkers on the other side of the aisle making a related argument).

Reading this story is an important invitation to dialogue. Sasse’s book is provided as self-conscious effort to speak from the heart but in a way that recognizes deliberation and the sharing the goal of achieving agreements (even as we continue to disagree) are prime directives in any prosperous democratic society.

Over and over again, Sasse pulls back and says ‘as you read this I am sure you are imagining policies unlike those I might support, but let’s first come to a basic agreement on the questions and problems before we fall into those all-too-familiar and crippling trenches.’ Every time (and more) when he says this, he is right about this reader.

I agree that we need to come to an agreement on the most important questions and problems, the dimensions of each, and the best available data for analyzing them. He and I anticipate disagreement on potential remedies, but compromise and progress remain more likely if we can accept his invitation to join him at a democratic starting point.

I am considering using this book in my Social Entrepreneurship class. I like using authors who disagree with me, authors who are political practitioners (‘in the arena,’ so to speak) and authors who write in a pragmatic and thoughtful way I expect my students to find engaging and challenging.

Senator Sasse has a very conservative voting record and yet he has been a #nevertrump from the start, writing this open letter. He is trying to help us figure out how to more productively address the conflicts we face. I respect that, even though I usually disagree with his prescriptions.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Tree Hearding
While I sat at my computer telecommuting, there was an entire world of activity around our house today as Paul and his crew of two took down two damaged oaks and two dead black pines on our property. These guys earn their money.

Above is the best 'before' pic I have. You can see all the trees that are now gone. Below is what it looks like now. I did not shoot the pics well enough to accent the contrast, but four huge trees are missing.

Here is another version of before & after, looking over the shed from a different angle...


Pictures do not capture. Or my picture taking ability does not capture the dramatic transformation. Drop in and see it in person!

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Honor Alternative Perspective to Make Democracy Work: 
Civility Alone is Not Enough
In a democracy, sometimes the other side wins and rather than take up the sword against them we work to check and balance their power within existing institutional arrangements. We disagree with them, that is a given, but that does not mean we cannot find common ground on this or that question to solve problems for families and communities.

To do this, we need to learn the skills of democratic citizenship: listening, deliberating, learning from experience, compromise, tolerance of disagreement and even discord at times. We need to see those who disagree as perpetually potential allies. When we, instead, paint them as ‘Hitler’ level threats to all that is good in the world we undermine our founder’s vision of a free and prosperous democratic republic.

James Hodgkinson attacked Republicans, because they were Republicans. Conservative media outlets (and at least one member of Congress from Ohio) blamed hateful Liberal rhetoric demonizing Trump and the Far Right. James Adkisson attacked Liberals and told us that he was acting in response to calls from “conservative” talk show hosts like those piling on Hodgkinson for his political terrorism but those same media outlets and pundits “neither acknowledged responsibility nor altered their rhetoric.”

The previous paragraph, paraphrased until the final line, is how my new favorite political analyst begins her most recent blog about the ways we think and talk about violence in tribal terms. If our team member is violent—that individual must be mentally ill (and unrelated to our team activities), but if their team member is violent than that violence can only be understood as an outgrowth of the language and activities of that horrible team. [You can, and should, read her blogs here.]

As Patricia Robert Miller notes, their violence ‘is typical of them,’ it defines them, it reinforces our pre-existing image of them as enemy, while our violence is an aberration only connected to us in the distorted thinking of opponents or a biased media. She then shares a great illustration she uses in class; great because it is so clearly apolitical and yet allows us to see the political dysfunction at work.

“That’s how ingroup/outgroup thinking works. The example I always use with my classes is what happens if you get cut off by a car with bumper stickers on a particularly nasty highway in Austin (you can’t drive it without getting cut off by someone). If the bumper stickers show ingroup membership, you might think to yourself that the driver didn’t see you, or was in a rush, or is new to driving. If the bumper stickers show outgroup membership, you’ll think, “Typical.” Bad behavior is proof of the essentially bad nature of the outgroup, and bad behavior on the part of ingroup membership is not. That’s how factionalized media works.

So, it’s the same thing with ingroup/outgroup violence and factionalized media (and not all media is factionalized). For highly factionalized right-wing media, Hodgkinson’s actions were caused by and the responsibility of “liberal” rhetoric, but Adkisson’s were not the responsibility of “conservative” rhetoric. For highly factionalized lefty media, it was reversed.

That factionalizing of responsibility is an unhappy characteristic of our public discourse; it’s part of our culture of demagoguery in which the same actions are praised or condemned not on the basis of the actions, but on whether it’s the ingroup or outgroup that does it. If a white male conservative Christian commits an act of terrorism, the conservative media won’t call it terrorism, never mentions his religion or politics, and generally talks about mental illness; if a someone even nominally Muslim does the same act, they call it terrorism and blame Islam. In some media enclaves, the narrative is flipped, and only conservatives are acting on political beliefs. In all factional media outlets, they will condemn the other for “politicizing” the incident.”

The ‘factionalizing of responsibility.’ An outgrowth of echo chambers or interpretive enclaves, where cable news and the internet (fueled by public and private sector elites exploiting both) have both democratized access to information and political communication even as it has also made it easier to avoid hearing counter arguments and live as if the opinions of me, my party, sect, and era are ‘just common sense’ and beyond dispute.

Then my new English professor friend and political mentor turns to a topic close to my heart: civility.

“While I agree that violent rhetoric makes violence more likely, the cause and effect is complicated, and the current calls for a more civil tone in our public discourse is precisely the wrong solution…. It isn’t because of tone. It isn’t because of how people are arguing; it’s because of what people are arguing. To make our world less violent, we need to make different kinds of arguments, not make those arguments in different ways.”

Miller argues here that calls for civility miss the point. She might even say make the situation worse, because today (is it new or amplified or only feels new because this is our time on the stage?) our political communication is tribal: we think & talk in ways that put loyalty to our group and opposition to our enemies first and problem solving (democratic decision making) second.

To focus on a problem with the tone of our conversation (as civility arguments often do) suggests all we need is to add ‘the right honorable gentleman from Worcestershire’ as a preface to conclude that he ‘is full of shit’ and all we be right with the world. While being more polite might help, might increase listening, it does not even recognize the deeper conflicts driving political communication today—messaging that is more like what Frankfurt calls ‘bullshitting’ than an effort to engage in challenging conversations. Miller explains…

“Our world is so factionalized that I can’t even make this argument with a real-world example, so I’ll make it with a hypothetical one. Imagine that we are in a world in which some media that insist all of our problems are caused by squirrels. Let’s call them the Anti-Squirrel Propaganda Machine (ASPM).They persistently connect the threat of squirrels to end-times prophecies in religious texts, and both kinds of media relentlessly connect squirrels to every bad thing that happens. Any time a squirrel (or anything that kind of looks like a squirrel to some people, like chipmunks) does something harmful it’s reported in these media, any good action is met with silence. These media never report any time that an anti-squirrel person does anything bad. They declare that the squirrels are engaged in a war on every aspect of their group’s identity. They regularly talk about the squirrels’ war on THIS! and THAT! Trivial incidents (some of which never happened) are piled up so that consumers of that media have the vague impression of being relentlessly victimized by a mass conspiracy of squirrels.

Any anti-squirrel political figure is praised; every political or cultural figure who criticizes the attack on squirrels is characterized as pro-squirrel. After a while, even simply refusing to say that squirrels are the most evil thing in the world and that we must engage in the most extreme policies to cleanse ourselves of them is showing that you are really a pro-squirrel person. So, in these media, there is anti-squirrel (which means the group that endorses the most extreme policies) and pro-squirrel. This situation isn’t just ingroup versus outgroup, because the ingroup must be fanatically ingroup, so the ingroup rhetoric demands constant performance of fanatical commitment to ingroup policy agendas and political candidates.

If you firmly believe that squirrels are evil (and chipmunks are probably part of it too), but you doubt whether this policy being promoted by the ASPM is really the most effective policy, you will get demonized as someone trying to slow things down, not sufficiently loyal, and basically pro-squirrel. Even trying to question whether the most extreme measures are reasonable gets you marked as pro-squirrel. Trying to engage in policy deliberation makes you pro-squirrel.”

Good illustration. See also Distorting the Law, where the authors argue persuasively that the decades long, coordinated assault by the far right on anyone who is not a fanatical worshipper of an unfettered free market system (with the tort reform movement as the example that is analyzed in detail in this brilliant book) for another illustration. And, in the shameless self-promotion category, you might also see Sound-Bite Saboteurs.

Seeing it in the concrete helps us then see what was hidden-in-plain-sight: how this dynamic we now take for granted in some ways is like the rust that never sleeps, eating away at out body politic by making deliberation, even serious conversation, significantly more difficult than it is already. Returning to paraphrasing (replacing squirrel with policies) Miller…

“We cannot have a reasonable argument about what policy we should adopt in regard health care, or regulation, or tort reform or education or climate change because even asking for an argument about policy means that you are on that evil other team and must be opposed as a threat to all we hold dear. That is profoundly anti-democratic, unproductive (it makes solving complex problems even harder), and un-American.”

Instead of thriving on vigorous disagreements where we all sharpen our analysis and improve our problem solving…the foundation of innovation and the instrumental soul of democracy…this type of political communication encourages us to “feel justified in using violence” against those who disagree with us by arguing we should outlaw slavery or give women the right to vote and work and get an education and lead.

Miller’s point is that encouraging violence this way is not about tone. “James Henry Hammond, who managed to enact the ‘gag rule’ (that prohibited criticism of slavery in Congress) didn’t have a different “tone” from John Quincy Adams, who resisted slavery. They had different arguments.”

Here is where the lens of another field helps me rethink civility. 

Miller points out that demagoguery is a particular kind of argument, one constructed to encourage and justify violence designed to silence others. It is an argument that frames the world as us versus them, good versus evil, erasing complexity and nuance, detail and history and context. And when this type of argument results in violence, as expected and intended, “it doesn’t end there because of the tone of dominant rhetoric. It ends there because of the logic of the argument. If they are at war with us, and trying to exterminate us, then we shouldn’t reason with them.”

If civility is more than about just being polite, there are good reasons for this. Being polite is not only insufficient, but thinking of that as a solution likely makes the problem worse by masking the wolf in sheep’s clothes. So, let’s focus on the type of argument being advanced and the relationship between that argument and our best available data, rather than on tone and manners and decorum alone.

“It isn’t a tone problem. It’s an argument problem. It doesn’t matter if the argument for exterminating the outgroup is done with compliments toward them (Frank L. Baum’s arguments for exterminating Native Americans), bad numbers and the stance of a scientist (Harry Laughlin’s arguments for racist immigration quotas), or religious bigotry masked as rational argument (Samuel Huntington’s appalling argument that Mexicans don’t get democracy).

In fact, the most effective calls for violence allow the caller plausible deniability—will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?

Lots of rhetors call for violence in a way that enables them to claim they weren’t literally calling for violence, and I think the question of whether they really mean to call for violence isn’t interesting. People who rise to power are often really good at compartmentalizing their own intentions, or saying things when they have no particular intention other than garnering attention, deflecting criticism, or saying something clever. Sociopaths are very skilled at perfectly authentically saying something they cannot remember having said the next day. Major public figures get a limited number of ‘that wasn’t my intention’ cards for the same kind of rhetoric—after that, it’s the consequences and not the intentions that matter.

What matters is that whether it’s individual or group violence, the people engaged in it feel justified, not because of tone, but because they have been living in a world in which every argument says that they are responsible for all our problems, that we are on the edge of extermination, that they are completely evil, and therefore any compromise with them is evil, that disagreement weakens a community, and that we would be a better and stronger group were we to purify ourselves of them.
It’s about the argument, not the tone.”

I really like the way Miller brings this back to both elite agency and to our own individual culpability here. Just like the table I stubbed our toe on did not ‘make me angry,’ they are not the cause of our anger and frustration—no matter how often public and private sector elites (nominally on my team) encourage me to see my pain through this lens. There is no war on Christmas, but there is lots of violence and harm and hurt we could be reducing together if we weren’t so distracted tilting against windmills like a war on the traditional family or war on coal or drugs or crime. 

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Facing the Prosperity Gospel Head On

My wife just introduced me to Patricia Roberts Miller today, whose blog on the prosperity gospel and just world hypothesis is well worth reading, as we all try to figure out how to respond to the deeper cultural & reactionary forces driving Trumpism.

Here is a link to her blog.

The premise for the prosperity gospel is that the existing hierarchy is intended and defended by god; it is just; it is easy to understand; there are only makers and takers and it is a violation of god's plan, therefore, to upset the current distribution to allow bad people to get good things (particularly for free).

Miller's central point is that calling those on the religious right hypocrites because they support eliminating health care for the poor misses the point. They are not hypocrites because they have constructed a belief system where that cold-heartedness is, in their eyes, what god intends.

So, we need to come up with a more effective response. Calling them hypocrites must be displaced by more effective ways of framing a response. Miller suggests we begin that work by first taking the time to understand the scriptural arguments behind the prosperity gospel, today and in the recent past.

Then the challenge is to find ways to think & talk about this that do not play into our opponents' hands (like framing this as 'you are a hypocrite').

For me, this pushes me to return to George Lakoff 's distinction between the strict fathers frame preferred by conservatives and the nurturing parent frame preferred by least as one starting point for strategizing.

Miller also highlights the importance of seeing the weakness of their method, a deeper layer for this conflict.

If the method once produced a creed that supported slavery, even though they now denounce slavery but still use the same method, we need to see the deeper flaw in a method that starts from the premise that the existing power structure is what god intended and then searches the bible for language to support this at any point in time (language to support slavery in the past and language to support denying the poor health care today).