Category Archives: politics

A debate on individualism vs. ecosystems

Occasionally social media breaks loose and real ideas emerge. We recently crossed swords on Google+ with Pierre Johnson, a brilliant mind, in a debate about USPS’s broken business model that turned into a foray on individual liberty. If you ponder what drives today’s disappointed liberals and infuriated conservatives, try these excerpts:
Ben Kunz:

It’s easy to proclaim that government is bad and wasteful and shared resources are a burden, when the truth is almost everyone in our society wants more government than we are willing to pay for. By government, I don’t mean the fiction of waste — which is mostly that, an illusion — but the major buckets of spending called the U.S. military, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Those buckets account for most of our government, whose primary purpose is to fight wars or send checks to old people, and any attempt to cut them significantly draws screams of protest from the right (military), left (Medicaid), or seniors (Social Security and Medicare).

The sad facts are U.S. government spending represents 25% of our GDP while tax revenues are 14.4%. Do the math and we’d have to cut government spending almost in half to balance our budget, and no one is willing to do that.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with shared resources, which are one component of society … as adults, we have to give back to society to support the basic things such as roads, education, and clean air that make our group society possible. It’s a nice fantasy that we can live every man for himself. What individualists often miss is a clear field in the economy or hunting grounds requires a healthy ecosystem, and it is only by the many sharing some of their resources and building rules for the environment that individuals can thrive.

Pierre Johnson:

Collectivists of all stripes suffer from mediocre intellects. They’ve never discovered what can be found everywhere in nature and why any ecosystem thrives — emergent spontaneous order. Yet, hubris-suffering technocrats and their sycophants cling to their false beliefs that through their tiny models of scientism, they have suitably captured the immeasurable — a centillion of interaction and components.

Society is a not so nice fantasy. It doesn’t exist. It’s a word of mere rhetoric spoken by those seeking to use force or the threat of force to take from many and give to some. For any true adult knows that this is how power gets seized and maintained, exactly. Power derives from the consent of the bribed, the beggars for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, TANF, SNAP, Section 8.

While all are right to want to live as long as they can. No one is right to want to live at the expense of faceless, nameless others who get forced to make it happen. For adults know that life-extending, longevity medicine exists and the want for such is foreseeable to anyone in his or her twenties. Aging and disease are not great mysteries that sneak upon humans…

For when life gets boiled to its marrow, we see that all anyone has is living through a limited slice of time. Any imposition upon one’s time amounts to theft and slavery. And as income is money and credit exchanged for packaged skills through time, any enforced taking of that income — what goes by the rubric income taxation amounts to the stealing of that precious time. It’s theft of life itself.

Ben Kunz:

Ah Pierre, has it occurred to you that you, as an individual, are part of a larger species organism that is trying to survive, and as such some none-individualistic behavior such as sharing or altruism is an evolutionary trait that, like a man who wants to breed with 1,000 pretty woman and yet is drawn into monogamy to care for one child, helps others and thus the entire species survive? If we define the individual as the species, and not organism, then collective sharing may be a requirement for survival. So let’s take your thoughts to an experiment (I’m testing my omniscience here, bear with me) and assume what brings you maximum individual pleasure is pumping, in one shot, enough carbon into the atmosphere to fry the entire planet … and to continue this thought experiment, let’s assume every other individual on the planet votes a mandate to charge you $100 million for a permit to do so, knowing (I guess wildly) that you could not do so. Is that an infringement on your rights?

In other words, we are not debating rights, but who the rights belong to. The individual or the species?

Pierre Johnson:

As I mentioned to you elsewhere, species don’t exist. Only individuals exist. Species is mere academic abstraction for individuals having alike genomes.

Since there is no such thing as a species, there cannot exist a collective, hive mind that decides in attempt at survival for the abstraction that we label as ‘species’.

Does the doctrine or way of living known as altruism exist, actually? For many consciously claim to give or help freely, but in their acts, do so because they’re motivated to feel good about themselves. Also, it’s well known that seemingly altruistic acts lead to reciprocation. There could be underlying, subconscious factors at work that are yet to be well-understood by those who study the mind.

As to your thought experiment, “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins,” as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. once said. In other words, it is the equal liberty of others to be left unharmed that constrains your liberty.

Far too many get the whole idea of rights, well, wrong. Rights aren’t permissions bestowed on some by those who wield power and hide behind the name government. Those are privileges. It’s the clever ones who adroitly use words and call such privileges by the moniker ‘civil rights’.

We can go back to the earliest Germanic roots of English to discover quickly that right means straight, morally correct. Saying the word ‘rights’ is shortcut for saying a man is right to defend his life, a man is right to defend his liberty, a man is right to pursue his preferences and desires, yet only within the bounds of himself and through any voluntary association…

Ben Kunz:

Of course, if value has a spectrum of definitions, then freedom from paying money as taxes to support others is only one type of freedom; we should also be free from rules that stop us from owning and not sharing value in any other way. So if we remove the artificial line of “money” as value, where does our freedom from sharing value end? If it is wrong to force sharing to help an old woman, why should we have laws forcing sharing that stop me from eating all the food off your table or taking your car? Why do red street lights prohibit my rapid progress? Why can’t I talk on my cell phone near 10,000 feet even if it might crash a plane?

Any restraint would be altruism; altruism may not exist, because its motive is reciprocity, which is another grab at value. Caught in this Mobius strip of self-interest, any imposition of rules against pure consumption and selfish ownership of anything is quashing our freedom, no?

Thus, freedom can only exist in a vacuum without any rules to stop it.

The problem with this concept of freedom is its logic resides in an arbitrary and fictitious definition for ownership. Ownership, unlike your one Truth, is a mental construct with numerous possible parameters that simply draws a line around some “value” that we call our own. Because any individual resides at the center of her universe and may draw her circle of ownership large, the circles conflict, and individual freedoms cannot reside in the same space and time without rules to limit them for others.

I choose now to draw the circle around the planet. It is all mine, and I will not share. Don’t stop me, +Pierre Johnson, because I now own you, and I will not share you with yourself.

Pierre Johnson:

You ask, “If it is wrong to force sharing to help an old woman, why should we have laws forcing sharing that stop me from eating all the food off your table or taking your car?”

Yet, I’ve explained above, my right to be left unharmed constrains your want to steal from me or to harm me.

Though many might use the word value as one might use a screwdriver as a hammer and another a screwdriver as an awl, concepts are invariant and unique.

Value arises from economic relation which one thing bears to another in exchange, Value gets seen expression of a ratio of importance between two commodities. When one of two things in exchange is money, we give value another name, price. Yet no one would be right if she or he described a thing as value, though that thing might give rise to value…

True, ownership is a construct of a mind and through time, many minds. Yet, this most useful construct is unparalleled for its facilitation of human interaction. For it is through ownership that men interact without violence…

Freedom is the realm where a man or woman is self-sovereign. Only collectivists would rhetorically claim that Freedom does not exist and thus decree they are right to seize the living moments of anyone, dictating to those seized how to live, when to live and where to live.

Officialdom is the realm where men and women seize power and dole out privileges often referring to such privileges as rights in exchange for keeping power. Officialdom demands privilege seekers to surrender each of their respective realms of Freedom.

Ben Kunz:

I give up Pierre. I concede individualism is the center, and I will use that to make the collective choice to share with you a beer.

Ben Kunz is vice president of strategic planning at Mediassociates, an advertising media planning and buying agency, and co-founder of its digital trading desk eEffective.

The psychology of polarization

Why is America so polarized? Back in 1961 MIT student James Stoner wrote a master’s thesis that suggested people in groups undergo a “risky shift,” making decisions that are more risky or extreme than the average group member would individually. This was counterintuitive — previously, psychologists thought groups would weigh facts and lean toward the moderate middle, like a jury building a logical consensus — but subsequent studies found Stoner was right. When we get in groups, we go to extremes.

Why? Reasons could be groups diffuse responsibility (you don’t worry as much about the impact on you personally if the group suggests something radical); risk-takers exude confidence and so may lead groups to the edge; and as group members begin paying attention to an issue or problem (global warming is a hoax!), they worry less about the potential negative impacts (um, if it isn’t, we might destroy the planet). The best answer, perhaps, is that people make decisions by weighing “pro” and “con” arguments — but if you hang with a group that leans only one way, the information you are exposed to is biased in your direction, accelerating your viewpoint (since you really aren’t consuming a broad enough array of data to make a truly informed decision).

This explains the Tea Party, 2010’s healthcare arguments, Fox News, MSNBC, global warming deniers, oil company haters, and the pendulum swing in U.S. politics between conservatives and liberals every two to four years. Fragmented consumer media and feedback from social media have accelerated this, as we can subscribe to only the data sets that reinforce our bias. We’re shifting opinions, and that may be risky.

Ben Kunz is vice president of strategic planning at Mediassociates, an advertising media planning and buying agency, and co-founder of its digital trading desk eEffective.

Original posted on Google+. Image: Sadie Hernandez.

Vote for me or pay $927.55

Whatever your politics, you have to admire the U.S. Senate campaign for Linda McMahon, which is warning Connecticut voters that they’ll pay $927.55 more each year on utility bills if they don’t vote for her. That’s the allusion, anyway, in a polished direct mail piece cautioning about proposed cap-and-trade legislation. McMahon bases her claims loosely on two studies, one by the conservative Heritage Foundation that suggests braking pollution could cost the typical American family of four $829, and a more optimistic outlook by the Congressional Budget Office which puts the impact at a few hundred dollars per family, with households in the bottom income quintile even saving money.

Truth aside (this is politics so let’s not worry about that), the piece is brilliant. McMahon is tapping our desire for facts with a hard numeric offer that appeals to human psychology. Direct marketers have known for decades that including a “hook” with a number is one way to boost response rates; consumers are more likely to pick up a mail piece to try to puzzle out whether the deal has positive transaction utility (that is, a good value), and then upon reading it are more likely to take action. Numbers give credence to claims, perhaps because as humans we are overloaded with informational stimulation from the outside world, so we instinctively latch on to any data points with hard clarity. Numbers are filters that help us make judgments by limiting our decision pathways. If we said we were brilliant, you might doubt us, sniffing BS. If we said we had an IQ of 133, you’d likely believe it. Like tall tales about emissions costs, the question is, why does any numeric claim seem more likely to be true?

Schwarzenegger taps Twitter to fix California

California is dying. If you haven’t heard, the state is in a $21 billion hole after years of voters bringing expensive spending measures to ballot without any requirement of finding funding to pay for them. Thanks to their crazy Constitution, California voters can lock spending in for the future, but taxes to pay for that spending can only be raised if two-thirds of both houses of legislature agree — a near impossibility. If California were a family, the kids would be eating candy every night for dinner while the parents argue over who pays for groceries on the credit card.

So Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger deserves a hat tip for bypassing everyone and soliciting ideas from the masses via Twitter. California’s new web site crowdsources potential solutions; anyone can submit an idea by adding the hashtag #myidea4ca to a tweet, and the message will appear on the site for voting up or down by other viewers. Because the site has tweaked Twitter to allow a voting mechanism, the best (or at least most popular) suggestions float to the top. So far California has received 910 ideas from the public, including using aqueducts to generate hydro power, eliminating agencies that are duplicated by the federal government, releasing non-violent prisoners from jail, and, of course, legalizing drugs.

It’s worth pointing out that California is using Twitter as a listening device here, not a PR broadcast vehicle. Instead of pushing out hyperbole about how one party wants to fix things, it’s asking everyone to pitch in their own ideas. Giant organizations in trouble that listen, instead of spin — imagine that.

Antimarketing: If it works for health care, why not you?

We’ve been watching the sordid healthcare debates in the U.S. with fascination. 46 million Americans still have no health insurance, medical costs are skyrocketing, total spending is on track to become one-fifth of the GDP by 2020, and the younger population does not have the numbers or tax inclination to support aging Boomers. But toss out one whiff that the government will hold death panels to kill old people, and hey, that sounds realistic, and suddenly people are mad.

We won’t say who is right or wrong (although we read pages 425-428 of the actual bill that described end of life counseling and have to say, it’s the basic job description of a social worker). The point we can all agree on is casting seeds of doubt works — as well as spitting in a salad dressing bottle.

Antimarketing works best in politics where you only have to tip a few percent of people in the middle of the spectrum to stop a cause. Political masses act like an inverted pendulum, a tipsy balancing pole with a hinge near the ground that can easily be pushed left or right. Antimarketing also appears in urban legends (remember the early one about not flashing your car lights to someone else at night cause a gang would then come and kill you? Or was that healthcare panels, we forget…). It plays upon our fears. It pushes us *away* from taking an action, and if enough people don’t act, your anti-cause has succeeded.

Warning: Our competitors’ products might kill you

The puzzle is, why don’t more advertisers try this same thing? We’ve seen whiffs of it — PETA ads protesting animal furs, anti-clean-coal ads showing nasty dust sprayed around a white house. Our favorite is the recent Australian skin-cancer rap, and not just for the swimsuits. But it is very difficult to push consumers away from buying objects, because the magnetic attraction of food/sex/shelter/status/signaling overrides any counter argument rather easily. We’d be fascinated to see more antimarketing in the real marketing world. Would it work? You fight so hard to attract customers to your product; what happens if you push them away from a competitor?

Image: We Made This

Why people are screaming about health care (it’s all about the middle)

Marketers could learn a thing or two from the ongoing debate on U.S. health care. Namely, in public communications battles, you don’t have to convince everyone — just a few percent in the middle.

First, the news: The United States is embroiled in arguments over whether and how to reform its health system. About 18% of Americans under 65 lack health insurance, and the United States is the only Western industrialized nation that does not provide universal health care. Universal coverage does not necessarily mean socialism or extreme taxes — there are actually four very different economic models which can be mixed to pay for it, including single-payor, private insurance, public insurance, and compulsory insurance. In a way, the U.S. already has universal coverage: emergency rooms provide last-resort care to the ill without insurance, and hospitals must offset those unprofitable cash drains by earning more in specialties such as cardiology and orthopedics. Critics of reform respond that healthcare will account for 21 percent of the U.S. GDP by 2020, that the free market is the most efficient check and balance on those costs, and that government bungling would lead to rationing and diminished services.

No matter. The issue is complex, so both the left and right have created glowing/demonizing language around the issue. Liberals have coined the positive-feeling “Public Option” title, minimizing future rationing or tax costs. Conservatives have suggested a federal plan (which includes end of life counseling) might kill old people and is downright evil. And so this week townhall meetings erupted into fights, putting people in hospitals. Everyone pointed fingers, with liberals blaming conservatives for inciting riots and conservatives suggesting liberal union thugs were threatening Middle America.

Tipping the scale requires pushing the middle

Why such extremes? It’s good communication science. Hyperbole works because in politics or crowds where the average opinion must be swayed, public relations doesn’t have to change everyone — just the central balance of the scale.

For example, the U.S. population remains relatively split between the two major political parties. While the 72 million registered Democrats now outweigh the 55 million Republicans, the recent presidential election was neck and neck until the economy collapsed in September 2008. If the Dow had gone up instead of down, McCain would now be president. The even split, plus general apathy on most issues, means any political consensus could swing either way with enough push.

Communicators influencing the masses know that in the middle of any spectrum, there are a few who can be swayed. Liberals and conservatives are already dug in. But if 1 in 20 people in the central base believe (pick your reality) that healthcare reform could protect the lives of 46 million Americans who don’t have coverage / will risk the lives of millions by rationing their current insurance, the issue will tip toward victory or defeat.

Which explains extreme messaging. Everyone on the edge of an issue already hears you. So you have to shout to get to the center.

Image: Room 116

The brilliance of Sarah Palin: Response mechanisms, activate

Here’s a secret: today is July 3. Nothing happens in the mass media without people carefully planning it (unless you’re caught hiking the Apalachian Trail in Argentina). So Sarah Palin’s announcement today that she was calling it quits as governor of Alaska was timed carefully for a huge impact in the media. What gives?

First, let’s look at the date. July 3 is the last real news day before a long U.S. holiday weekend. This means in the United States news that breaks today will reverberate without distraction over a quiet weekend of car traffic and barbecues. Announce something on the 3rd, people will remember it, and there will be a pronounced pause before reporters or analysts can chase you down for a critical response.

Second, let’s look at the message. Sarah Palin is resigning from the governorship of Alaska for efficiency, to avoid lame-duck wastefulness, to not be like other governors, to free herself up for other forms of service. It’s pretty clear that people in Alaska will be upset and viewers in the other 49 states are intrigued. Palin has just launched herself into a national political spotlight.

Third, let’s look at the controversy. Yes, it’s unusual to back out of an elected post. But if Palin were to begin a bid for the 2012 presidential election with paid advertising, it would cost her more than $3-$5 million to run ads in one day in all the major U.S. dailies and broadcast networks for an official campaign launch. Instead, with one press statement, she’s achieved more than that in free publicity.

If the goal is to make an impression, Sarah has succeeded wildly. People are listening, they are attuned, they are wondering what message will come next. Liberals are secretly grousing, hearing a bold message on hold, the holiday here, little chance to dig in for a retort. Conservatives are rejoicing — we’re in the headlines, she’s doing something big, what will come next? Whatever one’s politics, all we can say is well played, Mrs. Palin, well played.

Why Iran?

More than 20,000 people marched in the streets, blocking roads, waving flags, decrying the corruption that has pushed another quarter million from their homes, with rumors swirling about genocide.

We’re talking, of course, about the Tamil conflict in Sri Lanka.

Tamil? Sri Lanka? Not even on your radar? That’s OK — most Americans don’t follow international politics at all. So you have to wonder why one international tragedy causes nary a ripple in the United States while another, the current Iranian election angst, has affluent Americans turning their Twitter headshots green in solidarity. This statement doesn’t make light of either dispute but simply notes that some messages go wild while others wallow in the back pages of dry newspapers.

Iran is a case study in why some topics go viral

The Iranian elections caught CNN by surprise a week ago when Twitter lit up with complaints the news network was not covering the riots. To be fair to CNN, most Americans usually don’t give a hoot about international politics. Between 60,000 and 100,000 civilians were killed in the Darfur genocide, yet few in the U.S. can name the continent Darfur resides upon.

By comparison, over the past seven days discussions of Iran have escalated in social media; by Saturday, June 20, “Iran” was included in 3 percent of all tweets. The controversy has struck a chord, perhaps because Americans are fresh off an emotional election and are projecting their Obama passions (he’s a savior / he is destroying democracy) onto a very foreign election. Perhaps the thought of anyone gaming an election irritates us, when our own country just had such fervent debates about our next leader (a fresh hope / friend of terrorists). Perhaps U.S. social media users were secretly flattered at the thought of their favorite new tool, Twitter, being used to circumvent draconian censorship (although The New York Times reports Twitter use in Iran was marginal compared to other, less sexy technology such as text messaging).

It’s all a case study in the Gladwell Tipping Point power of context — for any message to go viral, not only must it be resonate and reach network influencers, but the network itself has to be primed and ready. Humans propagate messages best when their communication ecosystem is staged, like dry grass waiting for the spark that causes wildfire.

Our thoughts go out to those struggling to find truth in Iran. The answers are neither simple nor easy. It’s very interesting, though, to find out suddenly that Americans care. For some reason, unlike CNN, our networks were ready.

Photo: From the Flickr collection of Faramarz Hashemi, who is sharing graphic images of the current conflict in Iran.

Of taxing tea parties and simple prose

Americans pay far too much in taxes, to hear today’s protesters tell it, and the “Tea Party” rallies against the tax code being held across the U.S. show how simple messaging can resonate. Simple, but perhaps not accurate. The table above shows the history of highest marginal tax rates in the U.S., which peaked at 94% in 1945, fell to 70% under Nixon, 50% under Reagan, 39.6% under Clinton, and 35% under Bush. President Obama has hinted he would return tax rates to the Clinton-era level, a movement that many on the right now call socialism but by historical standards is still a bully good deal.

This isn’t to say who is right or wrong; we’d love to pay zero in taxes ourselves, if only schools and fire departments and highways could be built out of rain from the sky. The Tea Party concept is brilliant because it simplifies the message, evokes America’s history, and makes protesting sound like a bit of fun. If you want to build a movement, don’t talk details or history — instead, create a catchy name. Don’t miss Rick Santelli’s original CNBC tea-party rant that started it all.

‘Nice not to see Cheney’: As Obama speaks, Congress Twitters

As President Obama took the podium last night, members of Congress did more than listen. They started tweeting on their Blackberries, sharing text messages 140 characters at a time.

“One doesn’t want to sound snarky, but it is nice not to see Cheney up there,” typed Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon. Republican Rep. John Culberson of Texas went further, broadcasting video live from his camera phone. It’s all reported in a brilliant column by Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, who writes:

“Some members called it a new age of transparency, a bold new frontier in democracy. But to view the hodgepodge of text messages sent from the House floor during the speech, it seemed as if Obama were presiding over a support group for adults with attention-deficit disorder.”

Call it the new duality of consumer media consumption. Even as we participate in live events, we feel compelled to contribute, and new social media broadcast tools make it simple to carry on side conversations. The impact for marketers is both positive and negative. Pro, disseminators can listen in to instant feedback on what people think digesting the message. Con, your audience may tune out. Heck, the President can’t even capture their undivided attention.