Friday, July 31, 2009

Landlines, Cellphones, and the Breakdown of the Family

Oh, no! Another over-the-top meltdown about the decline of family, morality, and American values?

Not really.

But I have been thinking about the rise of cellphone-only households for a while now, thanks to articles like this one in the San Francisco Chronicle and others, which report that roughly one in five American households are cellphone-only, ranging from about 5% in Hamptons-Riverhead NY to 38% in Bryan-College Station TX (sources are Arbitron and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

Mostly I have been thinking about this question for a personal reason -- my sister and her husband have recently moved to New Orleans, and are experimenting with the landline-free life.

It used to be, that when I would call my sister at home, I would call the landline. Most often, she would answer, but sometimes it would be my brother-in-law, or one of their children. And truthfully, it didn't really matter. Even if I had a specific question for my sister, I would chat with my brother-in-law briefly and find out how things were going with him and what was new with the kids. Most of the time, I just wanted to talk to someone in the family.

But now, I have to be more intentional: Is it Todd [names have been changed] I want to speak with, or Carla? And since I'm close to my sister, it will usually be Carla. And that's too bad, because Todd's important to me too, and relationships require attention, even if it's just a quick "how's-it-going".

I don't have a solution to this. It's yet another of those "unintended consequences" things, I guess. But I am going to keep thinking about it.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

What Does It Mean To Be "Healthy"?

My brother-in-law, who is an emergency-room physician, used to joke that the definition of someone who's healthy is "someone who hasn't been tested enough."

I used to think that was funny, but I'm not so sure now.

Today's New York Times carries an essay and a book review -- side-by-side in the print edition, no less -- that raises questions about the ways we have been redefining "healthy".

In a review of a new book by Susan Cohen and Christine Cosgrove titled, "Normal at any Cost", Dr. Abigail Zuger considers the medical industry's use of assorted hormones to make sure that girls weren't "too tall" or that boys weren't "too small". Headlined "At What Height, Happiness", Zuger notes that once human growth hormone could be synthesized, important new ethical questions arose: "Psychologically, will children be helped more by the possibility of extra inches than they are hurt by the implication that they are defective, disappointments to their parents for failing to 'perform biologically'? Is deciding against growth hormone for a child like deciding against a nose job, or is it like deciding against eyeglasses?"

The essay, "To Overhaul the System, 'Health' Needs Redefining", by Dr. H. Gilbert Welch, analyzes the re-definement of "health". It is no longer the absence of sickness, but "the absence of abnormality". In order to keep business growing, the medical industry has resorted to two clever techniques: (1) designing ever more skillful diagnostic tools to find ever smaller abnormalities, and (2) narrowing the definition of normal (here, Dr. Welch uses the example of "high" blood pressure, from which, in the past, relatively few adults were thought to suffer; by redefining the "norm", well over half of adult Americans are now "sufferers".)

Dr. Welch notes that "absence of abnormality" fails as a definition for health because it "is both too narrow and too broad. It's too narrow because there's more to being healthy than striving to avoid death and disease. Health is ... also a state of mind. And it's too broad because all of us harbor abnormalities... We then feel more vulnerable. This induced vulnerability undermines the very sense of well-being and resilience that in many ways defines health itself."

The behaviors of individual physicians and researchers who develop the new tools or drugs may or may not be ethical -- I'm not about to make sweeping generalizations here.

But overall, I am willing to say that I consider the actions of the medical-pharmaceutical industry unethical. Both Drs. Zuger and Welch point to serious problems. A third is direct-to-the-patient advertising, which I have always opposed (and for the longest time, I have been a lone voice in a very big wilderness). Finally, a few others have joined me out here.

Yesterday's Times, in fact, carried an article by Natasha Singer about the lawmakers who are finally starting to worry about the risks of these advertisements (as opposed to extolling the virtues of a "more educated" consumer).

My favorite quote was from Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) who is sponsoring a bill that would amend the tax code to prevent pharmaceutical companies from deducting the cost of direct-to-consumer advertisements as a business expense:

“You should not be going to a doctor saying, ‘I have restless leg syndrome’ — whatever the hell that is — or going to a doctor saying, ‘I have the mumps,’ ” Mr. Nadler said in an interview. “You should not be diagnosed by some pitchman on TV who doesn’t know you whatsoever.”

When I'm sick -- which means "not healthy"! -- I should see a doctor, explain my symptoms, answer any questions she might have, and let her figure out what course of treatment to recommend to me. And if it means that you don't have to watch ads that cause your six-year-old to pipe up with questions like "what's a four-hour erection?", so much the better....

Friday, July 24, 2009

What Caused the Current Economic Crisis, Really?

According to an excellent series that has just appeared in the online magazine Salon, it was a "vast criminal enterprise."

The three-part series is based on an "e-mail conversation" held last month and this between John R. Talbott, a former Goldman Sachs investor banker, and Simon Johnson, former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund. Published over the last three days, part one is here; part two is here; and part three is here.

Each exchange is quite lengthy, and quite dense, and absolutely worth careful reading.

Johnson is marginally more optimistic than Talbott that the Obama Administration can effect real change -- and bring the real criminals (by which they mean corporate control of American elected officials, major and minor, through campaign contributions and industry-level lobbying, not just individuals like Bernie Madoff) to justice.

Real reform, they urge, is what's needed, not minor regulatory tweaks. Talbott insists that "we need to find a way to get corporations out of our government and ensure that they never become either too big to fail or so big that they improperly influence markets and our government." Johnson suggests that one solution might be what he terms a "'tax' (speaking loosely) on size in finance. There is a growing consensus that if you are big enough to jeopardize the financial system and to require a future bailout, you should pay for that privilege."

I still find it hard to understand how the prior Republican administrations could speak out of one side of their mouths about Adam Smith's "invisible hand" and how markets could "police" themselves better than any government regulator, and on the other side mouth Christian pieties. If you are a Christian -- as Adam Smith most definitely was -- you care deeply about the morality of behavior, and you believe deeply in the fallenness of man. To expect people driven by greed and unrestrained by threat of legal action to behave ethically is incomprehensibly naive... or wait: Could it be that one of those two sides was lying???? Oh, surely not....

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

What Do the Words "National Highway Traffic Safety Administration" Mean to You?

It seems to me that "National Highway Traffic Safety Administration" should mean, an agency that investigates issues relating to safety on the nation's highways. But apparently not.

Or at least, "not if the downside risk is annoying Congressional appropriations committees."

A page-one article by Matt Richtel in today's New York Times reports that NHTSA sat on the increasing body of research that multitasking drivers are distracted drivers, and that distracted drivers are dangerous drivers (and hands-free or hand-held doesn't make a difference).

Richtel writes, "The former head of the highway safety agency said he was urged to withhold the research to avoid antagonizing members of Congress who had warned the agency to stick to its mission of gathering safety data but not to lobby states."

The research is being made public by the Center for Auto Safety and by Public Citizen, which filed Freedom of Information suits to obtain the material, and then provided it to the Times.

According to Richtel's article, "The researchers [at NHTSA] also shelved a draft letter they had prepared for Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta to send, warning states that hands-free laws might not solve the problem. That letter said that hands-free headsets did not eliminate the serious accident risk. The reason: a cellphone conversation itself, not just holding the phone, takes drivers' focus off the road, studies showed. The research mirrors other studies about the dangers of multitasking behind the wheel. Research shows that motorists talking on a phone are four times as likely to crash as other drivers, and are as likely to cause an accident as someone with a .08 blood alcohol content."

Now, does that sound like "lobbying" to you? To me, it sounds like important findings that ought to be shared as widely as possible. It's especially important because human beings are lousy at estimating their own skill level, and the effect of distractions on their concentration.

I've had people tell me, "I've had a cellphone for 20 years and have talked and driven all that time, and never had an accident," as though that were proof that all this fancy "research" is wrong. But when I ask, "And how would you know that your record isn't due to the swift reflexes of the drivers around you?", all they can do is splutter.

This story makes me angry, not just because important research, research that could have saved lives, was withheld from the public, but because of the stunning ethical failure on the part of an agency that is responsible for public safety, and responsible to the public. "Cover my ass", if I need to remind anyone, is not a sound personal ethic.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Something (Someone) to Celebrate

Since I spend a lot of time here complaining, it's great to have an opportunity to celebrate something, or rather, someone.

Yesterday I had the chance to listen to NPR's On Point (which I nearly always find fascinating, but rarely have the opportunity to hear), and a story on "hard choices on jobs and wages".

Among the callers to the show was "Rick from Lexington" (MA, I believe), who explained that he had been a vice president for research & development at a publicly-traded company until about 18 months ago.

Why was he laid off? Because senior management had asked him to lay off his entire staff (he was not originally supposed to be laid off himself).

Because he believed strongly that shuttering his department was the wrong business decision, he argued bravely to be included in the r&d layoff, and eventually was.

Asked by host Tom Ashbrook whether the short-term cost-cutting move that the company espoused had succeeded, Rick's answer was, "No."

He provided more detail in the comments section of the show's webpage: "The rest of the story is actually very ironic. The purpose for laying off the R&D program was to redirect the cash to development of a shorter-term project. Although the project was of significantly lower quality, its proximity to the market, and therefore short term profit, won out over the longer term investments in the R&D programs I led. Within a few months, the shorter term project encountered a predictable and devastating setback, the company’s stock plummeted, it was de-listed from the stock market, the CEO was fired and the Wall Street analysts who covered the company proclaimed that the former R&D programs, which were by then irretrievably lost (sold to another company with all hands lost), were the only things of value in the company. There’s a lesson, and perhaps some comfort, in there somewhere."

Rick knew, and I'd like to celebrate, that there are some things worth getting laid off for.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Ethical Blogging Means Blogging, well, Ethically

I've written about the ethics of blogging before, but I'm going to keep writing about it until we all get it right!

Today's New York Times has an article by Pradnya Joshi on how "Approval by a Blogger May Please a Sponsor." In it, a number of bloggers comment on how valuable their reviews are to manufacturers. Says one, "You can’t really write a review if you haven’t used it or done it... It really is a valuable thing for marketers. It’s a real mom with a real voice."

That's absolutely true, as far as it goes. And many, probably most, bloggers who write reviews are good about posting whether the product under review was provided by the manufacturer or whether they purchased it themselves. Again, good, as far it goes.

But the sentence that stopped me was this one: "But unlike postings in most journalism outlets or independent review sites, most companies can be assured that there will not be a negative review: if she does not like a product, she simply does not post anything about it."

Now my mother did raise me in the old-fashioned "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all" school. But I'm quite sure she was thinking about social relations, not business ones. Ethics are ethics, whether you're talking about your personal life or your professional one, but manners will change somewhat depending on the circumstances. And this isn't a question just of manners, but of trust.

Let's say that I, as a reader, go to this blog hoping to find a review of Product X, which I am considering buying. I don't find it there. Is that because the blogger hasn't gotten around to reviewing this hot new X yet? Or is it because she did review it, and didn't like it? How would I know?

Frankly, that's not "polite", it's dishonest.

Friday, July 10, 2009

If You Can't Trust Your Team, Why Are They Your Team?

In a "previous life", early in my corporate career, I was a marketing analyst for a durable-goods company. One of my responsibilities was producing the monthly sales report -- how many Model XYZ1 did we sell, how many XYZ2, what % better or worse was that compared to last year, what were the year-to-date figures, and how many units did our competitors sell. Pretty straightforward (these days, no doubt, this would be coughed up automatically by a computer).

Since our parent company was located in Europe, one month I added a brief explanatory paragraph about current U.S. economic issues that had probably affected our sales.

I got some positive feedback from the few sales and marketing executives would received the report, and so kept adding to the commentary, so that the report grew from about a half-page to several pages (never more than four -- I figured no one could stand reading any more than that).

And then I started getting requests from other departments -- finance, production, technical development, advertising -- that hadn't been on the original distribution list. They had heard about the report, seen the most recent issue, found it helpful. Could they be added? Sure, I said. So every month the distribution list got a little longer.

Until we had a bad sales month. And then I got called into the office of the EVP of sales, who complained about the size of the distribution list. Why were all these people getting this report? Most of them didn't need to know how many XYZ1s and 2s we were selling. If we had a bad month, why should we share that with them?

I was stunned. Remember, this was a report that went only to people in the company, and contained only public information. If we couldn't trust our own people, I asked him, who could we trust? And, for that matter, if they weren't trustworthy, why were they our people?

I'm not telling you this story to impress you with my ethics. I'm telling this story because I've been thinking a lot lately about companies and the ways they behave, about the impact of the senior executives' ethics (or lack thereof).

A case in point: today's New York Times has a column by Floyd Norris about Beazer Homes USA, which has just entered into a "deferred prosecution agreement" with the Justice Department. According to Norris, "the company will pay $15 million, and perhaps more if it manages to earn profits enough and does not decide to file for bankruptcy."

He notes that, "Some of that money will go to defrauded homeowners, assuming they file claims and submit evidence. No money is to go to lawyers who help those homeowners, however. If the company knows a particular customer was defrauded, and by how much, it is under no obligation to point that out to the customer."

Best of all, from my perspective, is that the chief executive officer and the chief operating officer have kept their jobs, and the board of directors has not changed. The CEO even earned a significant bonus last year, for "communicating the importance of compliance by employees."

Say what?

Here's the way I see it: Either the CEO was complicit in the massive fraud that was going on at his company (over a period of at least seven years), or he genuinely didn't know what was happening at his company. If the former is true, he's a crook, and should pay the penalty; if the latter is true, he's incompetent, and should pay that penalty.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Boy, This Behaving Ethically Stuff Can Be HARD

Mostly because it's so hard to be 100% sure that my behavior really is ethical.

The truth of the matter is, since my name isn't Mohammed (praise be he), Jesus, or the Buddha, it's a safe bet that my behavior will never be 100% ethical. That doesn't give me license to throw my hands up in the air and say, "If I can't be perfect, why should I bother?" That would be like saying, "Since I had an extra cookie for dessert today, which isn't on my diet, I'm a total failure, so I think I'll just go eat a pint of ice cream."

I've been thinking about this since the weekend, when I read not one, but two, reviews in the New York Times of the same book, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, by Ellen Ruppel Shell (the Sunday business section review, by Devin Leonard, is here; the Monday arts section review, by Janet Maslin, is here).

Ms. Ruppel Shaw's argument is that we as consumers are so fixated on getting the best possible "deal", by which we mean only that the price is a low as possible, we consumers are responsible for companies behaving unethically. We are the reason for a lower standard of living in the U.S., as jobs have moved overseas to keep labor costs low; we are the reason for environmental damage around the world. She cites as examples Wal-Mart's underpayment of workers, Red Lobster's support of Thai shrimp farms (which have been accused of severe environmental degradation, along with other lapses), IKEA's use of wood from Eastern Europe (where, according to some estimates, as much as half of all logging is illegal), and so on.

Her solution is a consumer revolution, in which we would make our purchase decisions match our principles.

In principle, I'm 100% in support of that solution.

So what's the problem?

Leonard, in his review, notes that this will be hard, especially in a recession. Anyone who still has a "real" job is worried about it, and there are millions of people in this country alone who would be thrilled to have a real job whose security they could then worry about. In that environment, even more than usual, every penny counts. In that environment, how much more am I willing to pay for the certified-organic fair-trade coffee?

Maslin, in her review, points out that Ruppel Shaw is quick to lay blame, but doesn't look at herself as closely as she does at others, or isn't as knowledgeable as she thinks she is: "At the end of a chapter largely devoted to the horrors of Asian shrimp farming, she describes being in a Red Lobster restaurant with friends and being enlightened enough to eschew cheap shrimp in favor of chicken. Yet cheap chicken-farming isn't any less ghastly. It just doesn't happen to be addressed in this book."

So, I hope Ms. Ruppel Shaw is right, and that we can wean ourselves away from the "and it was so cheap!" mentality. And I hope that every time we find out that our "ethical purchase" wasn't quite as ethical as we thought it was, we won't give up the effort. We'll just be a little more careful next time.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

An Advertising Message? Here?

Yes. Sort of.

One of the best things I did for myself this year was to sign up to audit a course at Union Theological Seminary, team-taught by the seminary's president Serene Jones, ethics professor Gary Dorrien, and Princeton professor Cornel West, on "Christianity and the U.S. Crisis." President Jones was one of my favorite professors at Yale Divinity School, when I studied there a few years ago, so it's no surprise that I jumped at the opportunity to hear her speak this past spring. So did a few hundred others, and since the course lectures were posted on iTunes University, even more people have heard these three eminent theologians speak.

Among all those listeners was PBS' Bill Moyers. Last Friday, he hosted a conversation with the three. For those of you who missed it, the entire program is here. The heart of the matter, as Dr. West put it succinctly, is that "You can't have a prosperity gospel when the prosperity is gone... And the market is no longer the model." So where do we go from here?

I can't recommend it highly enough.