Saturday, May 29, 2010

Want and Need

It is human to confuse the distinction between what we want and what we need.
If things were free, we’d all live in mansions, drive luxury sedans, and watch giant HD televisions. We’d have giant tennis courts in every playground and basketball courts under air conditioned domes. Our children would go to the best colleges and wear perfect new outfits every day.
But things aren’t free. Things cost. And that raises problems.
First is opportunity cost. If I spend money on one thing, I can’t spend that same money on something else. Opportunity cost is easy to overlook; to see it, try this exercise. You’re about to spend a hundred dollars on a golden widget. Stop and ask yourself: if I suddenly found myself with a fresh new hundred dollar bill, what would I spend it on? If the answer is not “a golden widget,” your opportunity costs may be too high.
With a need, opportunity cost doesn’t matter. A need is something we can’t do without. If we’re honest with ourselves, that’s a very short list. I definitely need food, but I merely want steak.
We’ve had a growing national problem with the want/need thing in recent years. We define need based on what we used to have, or what other folks have. “Can’t live without” is defined as “not used to living without” or “nobody else is doing without it.” Many of us have convinced ourselves that we need things we can’t afford. Many businesses have made big bucks from enabling our spending spasms. And our leaders have set mighty bad examples.
No political side owns the high ground on this issue, though both like to claim it. DC has been spending money we don’t have on “essentials” for a while now, and the only thing that faux liberals and pretend conservatives disagree on is what we’ll insist is necessary. One decided that grabbing some big glob of government health care for (mostly) every citizen is necessary, no matter the cost. The other decided that a war for pride and oil was necessary, no matter the cost. And both decided that the US needed to own industry and banking. (And it’s not just as US thing—see Greece).
All parties concerned will offer the same defense—we absolutely needed the thing that we bought. And certainly that’s the judgment we all make—what do want to classify as a need. (Voters are part of the problem—no politician has ever won election by telling voters, “You don’t really need that, so stop asking for it.”
Setting priorities is fine. I decided years ago that books and music are more important to me than really nice shoes. I decided that paying most of my kids’ college costs was something I wanted more than any number of nicer toys. How much I wanted the nicer toys doesn’t matter, because here’s the second thing—there’s only so much money, and no amount of want nor need changes that.
That’s why it’s important to know the difference between wants and needs—because when the money gets tight, you can’t just get everything on both lists.
Sometimes a real need comes along, like a round of cancer or a giant exploding oil well. The irony with most so-called natural disasters from the Johnstown flood to the Titanic to the most recent coal mine deaths is that they are frequently the result of humans deciding that something (like, say, lifeboats or a way to plug up the sub-oceanic hole they were digging) wasn’t really necessary.
Sometimes it’s not our fault that we can’t afford the things we want. Nobody plans on losing their job or coming down with an expensive disease. Here in Venangoland, we’re insulated from most real estate sticker shock; if we lived in a metro area, most of us couldn’t afford the houses we live in now. Complain all you like about real estate tax rates; moving to a place where your house drew half the millage rate but cost six times as much would not save you money.
Whether it’s our fault or not, individually or collectively, we can’t afford what we can’t afford and we don’t need what we don’t need. I’m not saying it’s easy to figure out our limits or sort out our wants and needs, but a good first step would be to admit that we need to do the figuring and sorting. I need shelter; I don’t need the Taj Mahal.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Modern Sociopath

(News-Herald, May 13) They don’t make sociopaths like they used to.
Sociopaths were dashing, charismatic liars, cheaters and manipulaters. They were dangerous, even if they were charming. To them, other people simply were not real, and therefore the sociopath felt no guilt or empathy when using others as disposable set dressing in the sociopath’s ongoing live-action play entitled “It’s All About Me!!”
Sociopaths appeared in pop culture as engines of death and destruction. A dozen slasher movies and their sequels are built around a soulless, relentless sociopathic killer. The psycho with a chain saw stood in for the unkind, unyielding grinding gristmill of the world. He was everything Out There that was out to get us.
But our cultural sociopaths have changed. Nowadays millions tune in, for instance, to watch the exploits of Gregory House, a character whose disregard for other human beings is monumental, and Bones, a scientist whose ability to connect with other human beings is virtually non-existent. These characters appear in dramas, but we have funny sociopaths, too. Sheldon of Big Bang Theory and Barney of How I Met Your Mother are characters who are shamelessly self-centered. Sheldon’s attempts to intellectually dissect the behaviors of friendship and Barney’s use of women with less regard than usually given for Kleenex—these are the source of weekly laughter for millions of folks.
These are the super-competent sociopaths. Dr. House would be completely unemployable, except that he’s the most brilliant doctor in the tv world. These characters provide fictional entertainment even though, in real life, we wouldn’t put up with them for five minutes.
The old scary sociopaths were our fears—take a wrong step, and something bad will get you. The new sociopaths are our fantasy—wouldn’t it be fun to be so smart and capable that you could treat people badly with impunity.
However, real-life sociopaths fit another mold. I call these guys the benign sociopaths, because most of the time they are relatively harmless.
Small town life provides some insulation from classic real-life sociopaths. These guys tell big, grandiose lies to create a scenario that celebrates their excessive awesomeness, but that’s hard to pull off here. We may remember the guy who touted his service record and claimed to be a famous celebrity’s personal pilot, and we’ve seen more than one boss who tried to manage various groups by telling each set of people a different set of lies. They’re gone; the short loop of small town talking short-circuits standard sociopathic smokescreens.
Not that the internet doesn’t add a new wrinkle. With an afternoon and some software, I can set up web pages to make me look like the heroic CEO of a massive, powerful organization. But it’s still the classic sociopath’s way to use people as props for the larger-than-life fantasy playing in his head, and once those people outlive their usefulness or stop playing their part, the sociopath will drop them like hot rocks. In a small town, it doesn’t take long to pile up enough hot rocks to burn you.
A benign sociopath is quieter, less obvious. He may not be all that bright, and so his dreams are not that big. Instead of being surrounded by the human and material props of great wealth and fame, the benign sociopath may dream of being good enough at his job that his underlings don’t question him and he doesn’t have to take any difficult phone calls.
The benign sociopath finds dealing with employees, customers or clients frustrating because he is literally incapable of grasping any viewpoint other than his own. When they try to express their concerns to him, they might as well be describing Mars in Greek. He becomes frustrated because he cannot imagine how anybody could see any view other than his. He doesn’t really have any idea what you just said to him, so he will just repeat himself until you go away.
The benign sociopath finds these interactions so bothersome that he will lie and manipulate to avoid them. He loves email, because you can’t talk back to him, and he’ll give you information at the last possible minute so you don’t have time to disagree with him.
How to deal with a benign sociopath boss? Like all sociopaths, he’s living in a personal fantasy in which he’s beloved, successful, and undisturbed by everyone else’s reality. If you can keep breaking down that fantasy, you might have a chance for change. Or he might just pick up a chain saw.

Friday, May 07, 2010

The Trouble with Stupid Rules

(News-Herald, May 6) Now that the school year is starting to wind up, I’m wondering how things have been going in Danvers, Massachusetts.
You may recall that a high school in Danvers banned all uses of the word “meep.” Students were gathered for an anti-meep-policy assembly. All parents of students at the school received a robo-call about the new rule, and the principal also informed folks that police were “being kept aware of the situation.” A lawyer who sent the principal an e-mail that said, in its entirety, “meep,” received a reply telling her that her e-mail had been forwarded to the police. Students organized a protest through facebook. The administration blustered some more.
The whole situation was a fine example of the Rule of Stupid Rules in action. The Rule says, in part (and I’m saying “in part” because I’m making this rule up now and I might want to add to it later), that Stupid Rules never solve the problem they’re created to solve and always do great damage to the institution that tries to use them.
Stupid rules are bad for the organization, whether it’s a school or a volunteer board or a municipality or an entire country. Here is why:
1) Stupid rules almost never actually address the problem they’re meant to address. Reports from Danvers suggest that the original problem was that students were using “meep” to harass a biology teacher. “Don’t harass the teacher” seems like a good rule, and more useful in this situation. They were yanking open his classroom door, popping into the room, and yelling “meep.” The four-letter word in question seems like the least problematic variable in this equation.
2) Stupid rules are usually painfully specific. In Pittsburgh, it’s illegal to sleep outside on a refrigerator. This devotion to detail means that
3) Stupid rules are hard to enforce and easy to mock. If I go to the burgh, may I sleep beside a refrigerator? May I sleep on a stove or microwave? What if I’m on the refrigerator resting my eyes?
If I can’t say “meep,” can I say “meet”? Or “eep”?
4) Stupid rules lead to major battles. Once I start mocking your rule, you and I both know that we are no longer really talking about the rule. By instigating a stupid rule, you create whole new ways for me to thumb my nose at you. Not only that, but to the casual observer, it doesn’t look like I’m being disrespectful, and if you go ballistic, you’re the one who looks stupid.
The principal at Danvers High created a situation where any student could easily mock his authority, and all he got for his trouble was yards of news coverage in which he looks like a dope.
5) Stupid rules don’t work. Want to bet that students in Danvers still say “meep”? Because stupid rules actually encourage people to oppose authority while giving them new and creative ways to do it, stupid rules actually create way more problems. I’ll bet when this mess started, the meepers were mostly just the students of that particular teacher. By the time the authorities were done, every student in the school was a meeper.
6) Trying to crack down just puts you in the wrong.
Seriously. Did that principal once consider what would happen when he was standing in a courtroom trying to explain to a judge why the first amendment does not cover the right to say “meep”?
7) It erodes institutional respect. When you’re in charge, you get a certain amount of respect for showing up, and after that you either build it or destroy it. The Declaration of Independence observes that all government takes its power from the consent of the governed. Give the governed enough reasons to stop thinking of you as a legitimate authority, and pretty soon you won’t even be able to get them to follow you out of a burning building.
Almost every state and municipality has some stupid rules on the books. Someone in uniform who insists on enforcing them as if they are essential to preserving civilization doesn’t increase respect for the rules—he just decreases the respect for his uniform. Likewise, the steady flow of stupid rules from big marble buildings in DC has not increased anybody’s faith in the Fed’s ability to save us all.
Danvers’ meepy international fame faded in about a week, but the t-shirts are still for sale and I’m betting that’s one principal who is looking forward to summer vacation.

From my Flickr