Tag Archives: the human condition

What are we worth and how do we measure it?

If your first instinct was to answer in terms of bank balances, stock market portfolios, real estate, investments, retirement pensions and the like, you proved how right Professor Philip Roscoe was in his book I Spend, Therefore I Am: How Economics Has Changed the Way We Think and FeelIt says a lot about the world we’ve leaving to our children and what they need to understand about it.


From Maclean’s, March 17th, 2014
Economics is so mainstream, we can put a value on a kidney, and even the donor’s worth

In 2006, economist Nicholas Stern made a series of alarming predictions, in a report commissioned by the British government, of the potential results of a worsening climate. Among them were the extinction of up to 40 per cent of all species, 200 million climate refugees—many of them ominously gathered on Europe’s collective lawn—and “an average reduction in global per capita consumption of at least five per cent, now and forever.” Stern has been roundly berated in the media ever since, particularly over the refugee projection, but the actual debate in the media was waged over the five per cent, and whether he exaggerated the cost of acting in the future while underestimating the cost of acting in the present.

For Philip Roscoe, professor of management at St. Andrews University in Scotland and author of the evocatively titled I Spend, Therefore I Am: How Economics Has Changed the Way We Think and Feel, the response to Stern was a perfect example of his book’s target: the triumph of the economic model. Once Stern introduced his own calculator and slide rule into his projections the argument could only be engaged on those terms: There is no market price for species extinction or massive refugee influx, so there was, in effect, no argument to be had. After a half century of measuring everything in dollars and cents and proclaiming how financial incentives control all behaviour, Roscoe says, “We lack the language to understand or even talk about issues in any other way.” What’s more, economic speech brings into existence what it postulates: “human beings as self-interested, calculative and even dishonest entrepreneurs of the self.”

Literally. Roscoe sees the reach of the economic model of humanity in the way suffering dictated by economic policy—the effect of the austerity program in Greece, say—is seen as “the wrath of God—inevitable, and in its inscrutable way, just.” But also, eight years after Stern, in the appearance of theoretical and even actual markets in human body parts.

Economic thinking—especially about private property—and notions of personal autonomy are closely intertwined, notes Roscoe. Autonomy is perhaps Western civilization’s supreme value today, the flashpoint between its prevailing secularism and its traditional religious faith. That quarrel has played out for more than half a century in a host of sexual issues, and more recently, in the growing acceptance of our right to die when we choose. Arguments against it that boil down to a gut feeling of “because it’s wrong” no longer have any traction. “Paternalism is the greatest of crimes,” says Roscoe.

And if death is an individual choice, a market in organs—a legal one, that is, for a black market already exists—may be inevitable. Roscoe suspects so, even as he marshals powerful counter-arguments. To start, he notes, there’s no reason to believe a legal market would not mimic the illegal one, in which, as he quotes an anthropologist working for the anti-trafficking organization Organwatch, kidneys flow “from south to north, from east to west, from poorer to more affluent bodies, from black and brown bodies to white ones, from female to male.” In Iran, the only country on Earth where selling organs is legal, the poverty of the sellers makes follow-up care rare for most, leaving them weak, unable to work and even more impoverished. “So what?” is the market absolutist’s response. It merely stands to reason that sellers would be poor and buyers rich—who are we to strip away the individual’s choice? Especially when the demand is so high.

Yet it’s a fallacy to think an open market would bring a supply equal to demand, Roscoe says. Consider the blood market, where paying for blood seems to have transformed rather than expanded the supply chain. “Blood sales, where legal, have tended to slow blood donations. They don’t wipe out the latter, though, so they don’t shrink supply, but blood sales don’t increase supply by as much as you’d assume, either. The California plasma market now works well, with regular sellers, but when it started it had lower-quality suppliers and higher monitoring costs.”

And that is where Roscoe feels himself falling into the very abyss he sought to avoid. Did he just make an economic argument against the monetization of human bodies? Once you’ve arrived at opposing an organ market because it would increase transplant costs, you’ve joined a continuum that includes those trying to establish a baseline price for organs. One American economist has made calculations—arbitrary, in Roscoe’s opinion— for the $15,200 price tag he believes would match up supply and demand: $7,500 for “risk of reduced quality of life,” about $3,000 for a month’s lost earnings during recovery and $5,000 for risk of death. Note particularly the income cut-off, Roscoe says—the model assumes those earning more than $36,000 a year wouldn’t be interested. The debate, he predicts, will focus on that sort of question— “how much?”—and not on “should we?”

“If you want to live a happy life, tie it to a goal, not to people or objects.” — Albert Einstein

A friend of mine from “over ‘ome” uses two expressions that could only have originated in Old Blighty: “bugger’s muddle” and “saggarmaker’s bottom knocker”.

As a country, we’re in a bugger’s muddle over the subject of the work we choose to do. We always have been, but now we’re somewhat more perplexed. What do we want from work? How do we prepare and compete for it? How do we find it? Will it find us? Will it make us happy? Will it secure our retirement? Will it be there by the time we enter the workforce, or will it have been replaced by something “new and improved”?

Ask everyone you know how he or she defines “work” and you’ll probably hear a different definition from each of them. Why? Because what people do to earn a living and why they do it is driven by where they live, the influence of their families and friends, the values of the community of which they’re a part, how those values shape their view of the world, and how the experience impacts on them. And by whether they’re committed to the idea that you can actually do what you love and love what you do.

By the way, saggarmaker’s bottom knocker is a real occupation, albeit one that’s almost obsolete and was probably never found in Canada.

The world’s MI (muddle index) has risen by several orders of magnitude because of what the world’s up to and what it’s doing with technology, among other things. In fairness, technology isn’t to blame as much as the speed with which it’s insinuated itself into every facet of our life. But that only happened because we let it happen and we welcomed it. For example, there are at least 100 microprocessors in the car you’re driving, not to mention what’s in your smartphone. Your HDTV wouldn’t exist without them. Neither would your refrigerator, your microwave oven and many of today’s timepieces. And while we’re at it, let’s not forget Moore’s Law.

Medicine wouldn’t be medicine without technology. Neither would hearing aids. Do you listen to your favourite music on vinyl or do you download it to a digital device? Do you stream video to your iPad?

How long did it take for life to become technologically incomprehensible? It depends on when you start counting. Babbage and Turing never saw a SIM card. This link to Wikipedia will give you a bird’s eye view of the history of what makes computers tick, and of their predecessors. The first modern commercial computers date from 1951. The Internet was born on April 7, 1969. The personal computer received IBM’s blessing in 1981. Apple’s first iPhone debuted on January 9, 2007. If that isn’t breathtaking enough, ask yourself when you first heard the words “Google” and “smartphone”. When was the last time you heard anyone talk about AOL, Netscape, Compaq or Flying Toasters? They used to be household words.

We don’t have to understand technology to make peace with it. But if we’re looking for work, we might want to understand whose business is changing because of it and that that business could be a source of employment.

This is the world we live in. Anyone who’s unclear about how it came to be what it is is in excellent company. What it will become is anybody’s guess. But old ideas that give way to the new ones many of us love to embrace don’t fade away because they’re obliged to; they’re abandoned in favour of better ideas. And that process will never stop.

If you’re looking for a new source of income, or plan to be, try not to lose sight of the fact that, in more places than you can imagine, the next best things are already taking shape. We don’t wash our laundry by pounding it on rocks by the edge of the river, and fewer and fewer of us hang it out to dry on clotheslines. Would you really want to live without Google, your iPhone, Facebook and Twitter?

People with imagination, conviction, energy, a better idea and a competitive spirit have always been with us. They started companies that spawned competitors and formed industries that produced things we didn’t even know we needed and now can’t live without. When we buy a digital camera, do we give a second thought to the thousands of people who lost their jobs producing photographic film and photographic paper and processing them? How much film do cameras in smartphones use?

Nothing about our lives, our careers or our work is happening in a vacuum. Thanks to social media and wireless telephones, stories that are headline news in the morning are yesterday’s news by evening. In the real game of life, résumés, networking and social media play a distant second fiddle to sifting through and making sense of how today’s 2.5 quintillion byte ration of what the human race has been up to impacted on your Plan A—and your plan B, if you have one. Tomorrow there will be another 2.5 quintillion bytes.

Personal Due Diligence is predicated on the notion that the world is still a pretty exciting place. You can tap into that excitement for your own benefit if you’re prepared to be one of the relatively few people looking in out-of-the way places today, before the other 7 billion people on the planet discover them.

PDD doesn’t claim to understand everything about this world: far from it. But we understand enough about it because our work demands it. We guide our clients in how to extract deep market intelligence so that they can apply it to evaluating and managing the risk associated with decisions that will shape their career and their life.

You might want to listen to Talkin’ ’bout an ethical revolution: Money, morals and movements of change. It first aired on The Current on CBC Radio One on July 2, 2013. It’s about the human condition. You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the link or by downloading it. You may not agree with everything you hear, but it’s 27 minutes and 30 seconds of radio that will make you think. We inserted “personal” in front of “due diligence” because even though we understand technology, first and foremost PDD is about people.

Making personal choices and decisions in today’s economic and social climate is hardly a walk in the park, but they must be made. Please drop us a line or call. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at what you’ll find.

Do what you love and love what you do

The 2010 – 2012 Gallup survey State of the American Workplace: Employee Engagement Insights for U.S. Business Leaders showed that “7 out of 10 employees have ‘checked out’ at work or are ‘actively disengaged’ ”. The estimated cost to the American economy: $450 – $550 billion annually, enough to pay off 92% of Canada’s national debt.

Among the report’s recommendations:

  • Select the right managers. Whether hiring from the outside or promoting from within, organizations that scientifically select managers for the unique talents it takes to effectively manage people greatly increase the odds of engaging their employees. Instead of using management jobs as promotional prizes for all career paths, companies should treat these roles as unique with distinct functional demands that require a specific talent set. They should select managers based on whether they have the right talents for supporting, positioning, empowering, and engaging their staff.
  • Coach managers, and hold them accountable for their employees’ engagement.
  • Define engagement goals in realistic, everyday terms.
  • Find ways to connect with each employee.

In its report, Gallup blames managers for failing to engage their subordinates. But what if the managers aren’t engaged? What if a trail ran through all of them all the way up the line to the office of the Supreme Manager, the CEO? After all, where do corporate policies and practices originate that have to do with an organization’s values and whom and how it brings them into the enterprise in the first place? Somebody made the final decision to hire or promote those managers. How many of those decisions were bad decisions? And who’s going to take the fall for them?

Maybe, just maybe, the disengagement malaise isn’t about managers who didn’t do their job. Maybe it’s about something deeper, like the way business dehumanizes people.

It’s not that we don’t understand that bottom lines and EBITDA and ROI and ROA and a boatload of other acronyms define whether a business is succeeding or not. It’s just that business has forgotten, or has chosen to forget, that employee numbers have faces and families and lives away from the office (remember those days?). They’re the ones who talk to HR (once known as Personnel) once every so often when they’ve had it up to here with that manager who was supposed to engage them, didn’t and probably couldn’t.

I applaud the Gallup effort. Their recommendations make a lot of sense. But just because Gallup sees the wood for the trees doesn’t mean that the people at the top do. Or that they’ll adopt or implement them. Why would they? They’ve managed to avoid doing it up until now, haven’t they?

William Wordsworth may just have had it right when he penned The world is too much with us. These days, everything we see and do and enjoy and cherish has a price tag on it. Engagement is a wonderful concept, but not when it comes from the lips of someone who just got the memo. All things considered, people still have the capacity to recognize sincerity when they see and hear it—and when they don’t.

On the front page of The New York Times International Weekly insert in the Toronto Star (June 30th), you’ll find an opinion piece by Peter Catapano entitled The Humanities Prove a Hard Sell During Hard Times. It recalled a conversation Bruce Stewart and I had with a professor at Northern Arizona University not so very long ago about the value of an Arts degree in “these hard times”. Soon after reading this morning’s article, the line in Woodsworth’s poem came to mind.

I should point out that I’m a Science man, not an Arts major. I can’t say for sure when I first came across the opening line in Woodsworth’s poem. But what I can say is that it captured a sentiment that a lot of people are expressing—or at least, thinking about. It’s about the human condition. Fine art, philosophy, sculpture, music, literature, poetry: they’re all about the human condition. For a lot of people, EBITDA isn’t, but that doesn’t mean that we should ignore them, or that we can afford to.

Steve Jobs respected and incorporated the human condition into everything Apple conceived. I was a late convert to Apple. I love my iMac and my iPhone. But, and I say this with all due respect and admiration, I can’t frame and hang either of them on my wall, although I can listen to Madama Butterfly and look at art associated with the opera on both of them.

In his post of June 24th entitled What’s going on under the surface, Bruce delved into the need to remember that all that glitters is not gold when contemplating leaving one employer or one career for another, or starting one. We encourage our clients to look beneath the surface at internal workings as well, starting with candidate selection and evaluation and development because they reflect how management views the human condition.

No one can predict with absolute certainty when the stress of these hard times will ease. What we do know for sure is that happy beats miserable hands down every time. The medical community has always known that. That’s why we advocate meeting with parents and their children at the beginning of their second to last year of high school when they have enough time to devote to deciding what will make them happy. And with people who want to do what they love and love what they do.