Shop – Or Not?

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I suspect our cave-dwelling ancestors had it much easier than we do now. When they got hungry, one (or several) of them went out on the savannah, found a beast worth killing, then brought it back to the cave where it nourished the clan.

Today, that fresh game is found in supermarkets – and even online – so we do what we do, we shop. We shop for everything. And as relative abundance has prevailed in the first-world, we shop for things we need – as well as for things we don’t need.

That’s why I was so intrigued by Ann Patchett’s recent piece in the New York Times, “My Year of No Shopping.” Here’s how she teed it up:

The idea began in February 2009 over lunch with my friend Elissa, someone I like but rarely see. She walked into the restaurant wearing a fitted black coat with a high collar.

“Wow,” I said admiringly. “Some coat.”

She stroked the sleeve. “Yeah. I bought it at the end of my no-shopping year. I still feel a little bad about it.”

Elissa told me the story: After traveling for much of the previous year, she had decided she had enough stuff, or too much stuff. She made a pledge that for 12 months she wouldn’t buy shoes, clothes, purses or jewelry.

I was impressed by her discipline, but she shrugged it off. “It wasn’t hard.”

I did some small-scale experiments of my own, giving up shopping for Lent for a few years. I was always surprised by how much better it made me feel. But it wasn’t until last New Year’s Day that I decided to follow my friend’s example.

Want more? You can read the full article here.

Time to Party…Or?

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By almost any measure, the U.S. and the world economy are booming. We seem to have moved well-beyond the 2008 recession and are moving forward on all cylinders.

That’s why I found Desmond Lachman’s New York Times article, “The Global Economy Is Partying Like It’s 2008,” so intriguing. He wonders if we’re in another bubble. He begins like this:

Certainly, the American economy is doing well, and emerging economies are picking up steam. But global asset prices are once again rising rapidly above their underlying value — in other words, they are in a bubble. Considering the virtual silence among economists about the danger they pose, one has to wonder whether in a year or two, when those bubbles eventually burst.

This silence is all the more surprising considering how much more pervasive bubbles are today than they were 10 years ago. While in 2008 bubbles were largely confined to the American housing and credit markets, they are now to be found in almost every corner of the world economy.

 

Want more? You can read the full piece here.

Stories

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Ever since our cavemen ancestors drew pictures of their successful hunt (it had to be successful, or they wouldn’t have returned to talk about it), Homo sapiens have been enticed by stories.

And while we’ve known that over past generations, today, that notion is under attack by the idea of making “informed decisions” supported by DATA.

But now there is push-back, and that’s why I found David Leonhardt’s recent piece, “What I Was Wrong About This Year,” so refreshing. It puts an explanation point on the need for STORY. Here is how he begins:

The Israeli intelligence service asked the great psychologist Daniel Kahneman for help in the 1970s, and Kahneman came back with a suggestion: Get rid of the classic intelligence report. It allows leaders to justify any conclusion they want, Kahneman said. In its place, he suggested giving the leaders estimated probabilities of events.

The intelligence service did so, and an early report concluded that one scenario would increase the chance of full-scale war with Syria by 10 percent. Seeing the number, a top official was relieved. “Ten percent increase?” he said. “That is a small difference.”

Kahneman was horrified (as Michael Lewis recounts in his book “The Undoing Project”). A 10 percent increase in the chance of catastrophic war was serious. Yet the official decided that 10 wasn’t so different from zero.

Looking back years later, Kahneman said: “No one ever made a decision because of a number. They need a story.”

Want more? You can read the full article here.

Thinking Well?

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As human beings, we pride ourselves on being rationale…after all…we’re not lemmings running off the end of a cliff…right?

I thought we were, that is, until I read a short op-ed by David Brooks. Here is part of what he said about how rationale we are:

Richard Thaler has just won an extremely well deserved Nobel Prize in economics. Thaler took an obvious point, that people don’t always behave rationally, and showed the ways we are systematically irrational.

Thanks to his work and others’, we know a lot more about the biases and anomalies that distort our perception and thinking, like the endowment effect (once you own something you value it more than before you owned it), mental accounting (you think about a dollar in your pocket differently than you think about a dollar in the bank) and all the rest.

It’s when we get to the social world that things really get gnarly. A lot of our thinking is for bonding, not truth-seeking, so most of us are quite willing to think or say anything that will help us be liked by our group. We’re quite willing to disparage anyone when, as Marilynne Robinson once put it, “the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved.” And when we don’t really know a subject well enough, in T. S. Eliot’s words, “we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts,” and go with whatever idea makes us feel popular.

Want more? You can read the full article here

Challenges

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Victor Davis Hanson is a force of nature. Recently, he commented on the state of our nation and the challenges we’ve built for ourselves. Here’s how he began:

Our Baby Boomer elites, mired in excess and safe in their enclaves, have overseen the decay of our core cultural institutions.

Since the Trojan War, generations have always trashed their own age in comparison to ages past. The idea of fated decadence and decline was a specialty of 19th-century German philosophy.

So we have to be careful in calibrating generations, especially when our own has reached a level of technology and science never before dreamed of (and it is not a given that material or ethical progress is always linear).

Nonetheless, the so-called Baby Boomers have a lot to account for — given the sorry state of entertainment, sports, the media, and universities.

The Harvey Weinstein episode revealed two generational truths about Hollywood culture.

One, the generation that gave us the free-love and the anything-goes morals of Woodstock discovered that hook-up sex was “contrary to nature.” Sexual congress anywhere, any time, anyhow, with anyone — near strangers included — is not really liberating and can often be deeply imbedded within harassment and ultimately the male degradation of women.

Somehow a demented Harvey Weinstein got into his head that the fantasy women in his movies who were customarily portrayed as edgy temptresses and promiscuous sirens were reflections of the way women really were in Los Angeles and New York — or the way that he thought they should be. It was almost as if Weinstein sought to become as physically repulsive and uncouth as possible — all the better to humiliate (through beauty-and-the-beast asymmetry) the vulnerable and attractive women he coerced.

Want more? You can read the full piece here

Up or Down

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There is a lot of bad news out there: Church shootings, North Korea nukes, catastrophic storms, and on and on. It’s easy to wonder if the world is going to hell in a hand basket.

That’s why I found a recent piece by David Brooks so revealing as well as uplifting. Here is part of what he said:

The popular gloom notwithstanding, we’re actually living in an era of astounding progress. We’ve seen the greatest reduction in global poverty in history. As Steven Pinker has documented, we’ve seen a steady decline in wars and armed conflict. The U.S. economy is the best performing major economy in the developed world.

In 1980 the U.S. had a slight edge in G.D.P. per capita over Germany, Japan, France and the U.K. But the U.S. has grown much faster than the other major economies over the past 37 years, so that now it produces about $54,000 of output per capita compared with about $39,000 for Japan and France.

During the mid-20th century the West developed a group-oriented culture to deal with the Great Depression and the World Wars. Its motto could have been “We’re in this together.” That became too conformist and stultifying. A new individualistic culture emerged (pivot) whose motto could have been “I’m free to be myself.” That was great for a time, but excessive individualism has left society too fragmented, isolated and divided (hatchet). Something new is needed.

Want more? You can read the full article here

What is Your Idol?

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Full disclosure: I’m a huge fan of David Brooks. So, when I see his op-ed each week, I feel like I’ve received a gift.

Recently, he penned a piece, “When Politics Becomes Your Idol.” It spoke to me and I think it will speak to you. Here is part of what he said:

What you see is good people desperately trying to connect in an America where bonds are attenuated — without stable families, tight communities, stable careers, ethnic roots or an enveloping moral culture. There’s just a whirl of changing stepfathers, changing homes, changing phone distractions, changing pop-culture references, financial stress and chronic drinking, which make it harder to sink down roots into something, or to even have a spiritual narrative that gives meaning to life.

Today, partisanship for many people is not about which party has the better policies, as it was, say, in the days of Eisenhower and Kennedy. It’s not even about which party has the better philosophy, as it was in the Reagan era. These days, partisanship is often totalistic. People often use partisan identity to fill the void left when their other attachments wither away — religious, ethnic, communal and familial.

Want more? You can read the full article here

A Recipe for Happiness

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Some people believe that a solitary journey toward contentment is what will really make them happy. Sadly, it a self-help truism that isn’t really true.

I thought I understood that…at least intuitively…but it really hit home for me when I read a piece, “Happiness is Other People. Here is part of what this recent op-ed had to offer:

In an individualistic culture powered by self-actualization, the idea that happiness should be engineered from the inside out, rather than the outside in, is slowly taking on the status of a default truism. This is happiness framed as journey of self-discovery, rather than the natural byproduct of engaging with the world; a happiness that stresses emotional independence rather than interdependence; one based on the idea that meaningful contentment can be found only by a full exploration of the self, a deep dive into our innermost souls and the intricacies and tripwires of our own personalities. Step 1: Find Yourself. Step 2: Be Yourself.

Self-reflection, introspection and some degree of solitude are important parts of a psychologically healthy life. But somewhere along the line we seem to have gotten the balance wrong. Because far from confirming our insistence that “happiness comes from within,” a wide body of research tells us almost the exact opposite.

Academic happiness studies are full of anomalies and contradictions, often revealing more about the agendas and values of those conducting them than the realities of human emotion. But if there is one point on which virtually every piece of research into the nature and causes of human happiness agrees, it is this: our happiness depends on other people.

Want more? You can read the full article here

Common Ground

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Every so often, I find an article that speaks volumes about how we live our lives and sometimes suggests a course correction.

That’s why I was taken by Erick Erickson’s revealing piece, “How to Find Common Ground.” He admits it took a near-death experience to inspire him to write this article. Here is part of what he shared:

“As we have moved more of our lives onto the internet, we have stopped living in actual communities. Instead we have created virtual communities where everyone thinks the same. We do not have to worry about the homeless man under the bridge because he is no longer part of our community. He is someone else’s problem. But that simply is not true.”

“Even as the internet provides us great advances, it also segments us. We have social-media tribes and our self-esteem is based on likes and retweets. We have hundreds of television channels and even more video choices online where Hollywood no longer has to worry about broad appeal. There is a channel for everyone, and everyone in the tribe will get the inside jokes. Social-media interactions have replaced the value of character.”

“The truth, though, is that our Facebook friends are probably not going to water our flowers while we are on vacation and our Twitter followers will not bring us a meal if we are sick. But the actual human being next door might do both if we meet him.”

“This is what I want my children to know if I should die before they wake. The kitchen table is the most important tool they have to reshape their community. Preparing a home-cooked meal and inviting people over, both those we know and those we want to know, forces us to find common ground.”

Want more? You can read the full article here

Making a Difference

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Most Americans will say they are “for” racial equality. But to borrow a term coined by an American president decades ago, they (we) are the silent majority.

My sense is that many people want to “do” something beyond treating all individuals they encounter with dignity and self-worth.

That’s OK for most of us, but when someone is in a leadership position, not speaking up become silent ascent.

That’s why I was so taken by the remarks by Lieutenant General  Jay Silveria, the superintendent of the US Air Force Academy, who made a sharp statement to cadets after racial slurs were discovered on students’ rooms. This short video will make you think.