Friday, December 30, 2005

More of "Business People are Crooks!"

Last time I mentioned the sources of our (negative) ideas about business people. The reasons why such an idea could develop and take hold are important to understand. We also need to understand the consequences of this perspective on the business world.

Several negative consequences of the idea come to mind:

1. Laws and policies come to reflect the attitude that business people are out to cheat or oppress people, resulting in unwarranted costs in money and hours of labor wasted on enfocing regulations and in complying with them.

2. Our behavior reflects an overly "dark" view of the business world (which is probably where we earn our living!). The result is money and time spent on watching employees and employers for signs of bad behavior that really aren't there.

3. Companies waste money and labor on managing their images.

4. We waste emotions, time, and money protecting ourselves from dishonest dealings that may, infact, be perfectly respectable.

On the plus side, lawyers make a killing by creating ways that we can get back at the "bad" corporations. Liberal pundits also kill thousands of trees a month writing about the sins of corporate America. Is it "cherry picking" situations that support a certain viewpoint, or a truthful analysis of the business world?

Next time:

Business is more efficient than government, we think.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Business People are Crooks!

Have you ever had a similar thought? Maybe the fundamental dishonesty of big business is part of your worldview. I'm not going to get into the debate about how well this view is, or is not, supported by the facts. All I'll do is indicate some of the causes and consequences of the idea that business people are dishonest.

Three principle sources of this idea suggest themselves. First, the news media tend to draw attention to real and alleged misbehavior by business people. Second, there is the individualistic, competitive culture we live in. Maybe, just maybe, this culture primes us to believe we are going to be taken advantage of by other people. Thirdly, we tend to have our reasoning colored by prominent, recent events. We tend to think of these situations when the topic of business conduct comes up in any form. (That's what psychologists call the availability heuristic.)

And why wouldn't business people take advantage of us, if they can? We have money and they have no particular reason to care about us, do they?

Next time I'll make a few remarks about the social consequences of this idea that business people are crooks. My conclusions may be a tad bit disturbing to most people.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The American Dream, Again

OK, this post is really about all visions of the good life. Its just that one idea, with some variations, tends to dominate societies. I hope that what you read here will be clear, yet absdtract enough for you to apply to whatever society you live in/want to know about/really like.

I think we can agree that the classic American Dream has been diluted and modified over the years. Now we want to own a home, even a small condo will do for some of us. (Is it what we want or just an accomodation to the reality of home prices that are out of reach for the average middle class working stiff?)

I bet the same pattern of dilution and modification happens over time in all modern societies. The details are going to vary, of course. The functions that these ideas of the good life serve are a bit more universal.

Visions of the good life serve a variety of functions for individuals and for society.

1. Markets for homes, vehicles, books (homebuying, financial planning, and more topics)
2. Jobs for real estate agents, constructions workers, and utility workers.
3. Drives investing, saving, borrowing (business for banks!)
4. Fosters commitment to the social system - play by the rules and you can live the Dream

But, visions of the good life have their costs. Here are a few of them:

1. Environmentalists decry the pollution, loss of wilderness areas, and fossil fuel consumption traceable to people pursuing the American Dream.
2. The financial demands can put severe mental strain on people.
3. The need for a spouse may promote instrumental relations between men and women.

So, how do you think these ideas apply in _______ (pick any society you are familiar with)?

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Defining the Good Life

This post is mainly about the American Dream. If you live in another country it should be easy enough to see how what I write applies to your society's main ideas about the good life. I say "main idea" because other ideas of the good life will also exist, as they do in the United States.

So, what do I mean by the American Dream? Its a house in the suburbs, a spouse, children, a stable career with a good salary and good prospects for continued advancement. The part about the house in the suburbs is what you probably thought of first. I suppose that is the most commonly accepted element of the American Dream.

Where did the idea come from and what are the consequences for individuals and for society? Remember that consequences of an idea like the American Dream can be good or bad. And always remember that what counts as good and bad will depend on one's perspective. I'll return to both of those themes in many of my future posts.

(A sociological sidenote - What follows is a functionalist analysis, meaning that it focuses on functions and dysfunctions of the subject. A function is simply a positive consequence or benefit whether or not planned; some functions just happen in the course of things. A dysfunction is a negative consequence.)

Next Time: I'll say more about the origins of the American Dream, and list some of the social functions it performs.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Our Ideas and Their Impact on Society

News flash - People have lots of ideas about things. Some of these ideas are better than others. Some of the bad ideas are worse than others. No, not the ideas that get people on television shows like World's Wildest Police Videos or America's Funniest Home Videos. Nor am I talking about the ideas that get mentioned in either "dumb crook" news or the Darwin Awards.

The ideas that I'll be focusing on for the next several months are ideas about relationships, work, politics, and other areas of social life. Instead of trying to categorize and explain in great, abstract, detail I'll just offer you a list of some of the ideas I want to cover.

The American Dream
Business people are dishonest
Business is more efficient than government
Money leads to happiness
Destiny/Fate/things that are "meant to be"
Homosexuality is unnatural
Economic growth is good
Market forces are natural
Life after death
God cares about people
God has revealed himself/herself/itself to humanity
Science is about the pursuit of truth
God plays favorites
God determines who is rich and who is poor
People succeed through their own efforts
People do what they want to do
_________ is human nature
Humans are somehow above/apart from nature
We live in a dangerous world/society/dangerous times
Competition is a natural part of life
Sexuality is dirty/sinful
Teenagers should only be taught abstinence
Sex education promotes promiscuity
Gender roles
(subjects may be added or deleted as my interests and imagination dictate)

What a list! I better get started. And if you can think of anything of wide interest that I've overlooked please tell me.

You may be wondering what I intend to write about each idea. Well, we've already covered the fact that our ideas come from several sources - our own heads, religion, education, family, peer groups, and the mass media. I'll let that dog sleep. I'll be concentrating on the actual and possible consequences of each idea, with one or two posts devoted to each idea.


Interested in exploring the subject of ideas in society at greater length? Look for my book, Ideas and Everyday Life, in April of 2006. Get more of my blog posts, with examples that apply to your daily life.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Ideas and Society

What do the Patriot Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, intelligent design, pension plans, and New Age beliefs have in common? They all reflect ideas that, for better or worse, shape the way society works.

(They also give me an excuse to squeeze key words into my blog!)

So, this is the end of my long series on how ideas shape our social institutions. Review my past few weeks of blog entries and you'll learn how ideas shape education, religion, families, our economic system, and our political systems. You'll also learn a few things about the origins of the ideas we have about each of those five social institutions.

This entry offers a quick summary of the good and bad ways that ideas about each of the "Big Five" social institutions can shape our lives (some are consequences for society; some for individuals):

Religion - social inaction, mental illness or health, dangerous behavior, support for ideas that undermine widely held values, wasted energy, dogmatism focusing action on harmful social action, promotion of -isms like sexism or racism, "good works" that do what's intended

Education - resources wasted on misguided "life skills" and diversity training, counterproductive policies and programs, curricula that do not match real-world needs, reinforcement of positive behaviors like teamwork and self-discipline

Family - improved outcomes for children because of childrearing practices, mental health benefits, economic gains, mental illness

Political System - ideological positions that waste resources by ignroing facts and logic, irrational policies, policies that support or undermine widely-held values, opportunity costs of bad policies and laws

Economic System - good (or bad) plans for exploiting natural resources, relationships warped by "economic" thinking, social justice can be undermined or supported, corporate misconduct.

I know this is all at pretty abstract. Take the opportunity to reflect on how some of those things I just listed relate to your own life, work, family, or religion.


Interested in exploring the subject of ideas in society at greater length? Look for my book, Ideas and Everyday Life, in April of 2006. Get more of my blog posts, with examples that apply to your daily life.


Next Time: I'll be starting a series on the social impact of specific ideas from religion, science, public policy, and other areas of social life.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Political Systems & Ideas, Part IV

This is my last post on the impact of ideas on our political systems. Or, maybe I will think of something else to add?

Anyway, I promised to describe the decision-making process. I also want to describe an alternative model that may be sold to politicians, though only with considerable difficulty. You may want to stop reading here if math scares you :-)

So, how do we make political decisions? You know about parliaments, Congressional committees, lobbyists and such. But I intend to answer the question at a philosophical level. This priobably makes a lot of sense to you: Emotion, money, ideology, and numbers of supporters determine which political decisions get made. The same factors also determine the probablity of a given outcome. The formula probably looks like this:

(Emotion + Money + Ideology) X Numbers = Policy

Maybe my use of addition and multiplication is not quite accurate, but I think the model is fairly close to reality. (Interested in how to measure those variables? Ask me!)

Here is a pseudo-mathematical way of depicting an alternative strategy for making political decisions:

Facts + logic + value consistency + cost/benefit ratio + money + supporters = policy

The cost/benefit ratio would look like this:

net gain for society = (quantitative benefit + qualitative benefit)/costs

(Again, you will have to ask me if you want to know how these things can be measured.)

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Political Systems & Ideas, Part III

The ideas that shape our political system and guide our politicians can obviously have negative consequences. Everyone knows that. What you may not have considered is this: "negative consequences" can be those results that undermine our values (really, not just according to one side or the other). Ideas determine how we decide to use our resources.

Laws, regulations, policies, and political philosophies are shaped by ideas. Easy enough. But what exactly can go wrong if the ideas we act on are bad ideas (meaning counterfactual. illogical, or destructive of widely-held values)? There are two types of problems that come to mind.

First, we waste resources doing things that simply do not work and will not work. Politicians love to accuse each other of doing just that. I think I understand the root of the problem, and maybe you do as well.

I can't explain what "working" means in a politcal context since the interpretation of things depends on one's political views. This is not technically true - the measurable result of an action is what it is - but we act as if it were. Thus, each side can accuse the other of wasting resources based on their own definition of what "working" means. Selective use of evidence rears its illogical head on a regular basis in the political world.

Secondly, acting on bad ideas is more likely to produce unintended consequences. After all, the definition of a bad idea is one contrary to facts or logic. Unexpected problems may cancel out any benefits that happen to come from the bad idea. Of course, "problem" and "benefit" are two politically loaded terms. Is it really a benefit if rich people get to keep more of their income under a new tax law? Or is that a problem?

It hardly matters how you answer those questions since the answer depends on your interpretation. The lower tax burden is a fact, but the goodness or badness of it depends on your perspective. One could analyze the actual impact of the tax cut, then compare the impact to relevant values (fairness?) and to the budget. Is the budget smaller because the rich are paying lower taxes? Will greater spending by the rich produce new revenue, business growth, and more tax revenue? Is this outcome acceptable?

Next time: Thoughts on how political decisions really get made, and on how they could be made.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Political Systems & Ideas, Part II

My schedule is getting crazy so this wil have to be another short post. Nevertheless, I do plan to make a few remarks about ideas and their consequences for our economic system.

Social pollution - ideas that are counterfactual, illogical, or that undermine widely held values.

Social pollution in our political system has serious consequences. When we support a policy or law that can be shown to be harmful, we are effectively using the political system to pollute society. The mass media and the Internet can help the process along. How many political actions are supported by pretty, passionate people without a clue? I'm thinking of Jenna Jameson speaking for PETA, but there are probably better examples. How many of the debates on serious issues in this country are driven by illogical or counterfactual emotional appeals? And then there are the sound bites and slogans.

Yes, political action can also promote moral progress. No argument here! Political actions to extend voting rights or to ban land mines were both worthy efforts. The Internet and mass media can also help here, but don't expect too much. Anybody can post anything on the Internet, and the media tend to focus on "sexy" issues, sound bites, and charismatic talking heads who will attract viewers.

How serious are these problems, really? I'll address that question next time (December 10).

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Political Systems & Ideas, Part I

Is direct democracy a good idea? Is representative government a better idea? How can we reform our malfunctioning system of government? Are other democratic countries really doing any better? Is Congress (or the Parliament, Duma, Bundestag, et cetera) mostly representing interest groups or the people?

So many questions! Some may have reflected your own thoughts about the political system in your country. Some may seem obvious to you: Of course our congress is paid for by big business. (What about nonprofit groups like the National Rifle Association?)

So what ideas do you have about the government and the political system more generally? Do any of these ideas ring true:

1. The government should stick to its Constitutionaly prescribed duties.
2. The government should take cre of the less fortunate.
3. Our system of government is broken and needs to be fixed.
4. Maybe a small group of intelligent, educated professionals could do a better job than the politicians.

Maybe you can add other ideas? Maybe your ideas depend on what level of government we are discussing. The federal government should have one set of duties. like defense and foreign relations, while states take care of education and social welfare programs.

All of your ideas, including the "right" answers to the questions that I posed at the start of this blog, come from the usual sources. Religious leaders, teachers, parents, friends, and the media all carry ideas about politics and government. We observe some of these ideas and integrate them into our thinking. This is fine, but sometimes leads to the bad ideas being treated like good ideas, and we won't see it this way because of the perspective we've acquired from others.

Next time: More comments on where our ideas come from and how they affect the political system.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Ideas and Work

Having just written about ideas and economic systems, it seems appropriate to insert a few words regarding ideas and work. (Work = the exchanging of labor, skill, or specialized knowledge for pay; domestic labor, volunteer work, and yard "work" do not count for purposes of this blog entry)

So, what sorts of ideas do people have about work? Where do those ideas come from? What impact do they have? Are the ideas actually good ideas, and how would we know?

Here are some types of ideas that people have about work:

1. The meaning of work
2. The plight of the regular, average worker
3. Worker's rights - and their responsibilities to employerrs
4. Employer responsibilities to workers - and employer rights
5. Mythical beliefs about certain types of work - writers make tons of money, working for yourself as an Internet entrepreneur is a fast, easy way to succeed

What is the meaning of work? There are many opinions on this question. Work is simply what we do to pay the bills and make a little extra "fun" money. Work is, or should be, a major source of meaning in peoples' lives. (Funny how this idea is shared by capitalists and Marxists!) In some cultures, work is seen as punishment, so people do as little as they can. In other cultures work, in the modern sense, does not exist. People just labor to survive.

What are the sources of these ideas about work? That idea, and others we have about work, come from the mass media, school, parents, and peer groups. For example. magazine articles, books, and television shows all promote the image of "climbing the corporate ladder" as a desirable, manly goal. Some women's magazines have helped create a womanly version of the same idea.

Going back to items 3 and 4 above. Maybe you can think of some of the rights and responsibilites of both workers and their employers. Give it a try! If you have colleagues or friends from different cultural backgrounds, try comparing ideas with them. If you do this little exercise, I'd apperciate hearing the results. Just post a comment here.
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