Saturday, June 23, 2007

Four More Quickies

Let's add another quickie list to our book reviews with four new ones that you might find interesting. I did, but I realize what that counts for.

The first one is probably the weakest content-wise but also the most readable, which may be related. That doesn't mean the three below are hard to get through, they're not. But Richistan: A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich by Robert Frank is a tour of those who count for wealthy these days, the single-digit millionaires, the multiple-digit ones, and the new "millionaires," the billionaires, and it's done in the manner of a really good tour guide. He's based his book on columns on the rich he's been doing for the Wall Street Journal, and it's fascinating, mostly in a car-wreck sort of way. He claims no bias in his presentations, and indeed, there are no screeds here. Those who think the rich are cool and want to be like them will probably walk away from this reinforced in those views.

But those of us who question the lives of anyone with more than any human needs to survive comfortably, especially when those lives come accompanied by expected entitlement and superiority, find the whole new country of rich people (and that's what Frank posits, that the world's rich literally live in a different place than anyone else) both obnoxious and pitiable. He details their lives, how the lower-level rich still don't think they have enough, the ways some of them made and lost and maybe remade fortunes, and the different ways the New Rich view politics and social commitment compared to the Old Guard (more Democrats, for example, and with the power of money, as the 2006 elections in CO showed). He wisely starts with a first chapter on "butler boot camps" which are churning out those long-departed servants (now called "household managers") to well-paid employment and still can't keep up with the demands of newly rich folks whose lives have to be run like businesses. Periodically, he shows us others who are doing quite well also, from catering to the needs of these rich people, sort of a minor industry spreading loot around. Like I said, it's riveting stuff. But in a democracy, the gaps between us can't grow too large without us losing the "us" that's needed for compromise and cooperation. This book will scare any true democrat, if not the Dems, who have pretty much hopped on the wagon.

After reading about all these rich people and wondering if it's really worth it, both for individuals and for our nation, maybe you'd like to ponder the mysteries of happiness. We've reviewed books here before on happiness and its components (or lack thereof), but here's a new one for you, Jennifer Michael Hecht's The Happiness Myth: Why What We Think Is Right Is Wrong: A History of What Really Makes Us Happy. My first thought when seeing the title was, okay, another happiness book, but then I saw that Hecht had written it. One of the best books I've read in a long time was her Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates to Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickerson, so I thought, well, this has to be given a chance. As you might suspect, books with these massive titles have heft, and you should be prepared to give them time. But it's worth it. She's a very good writer, with a nice light sense of humor leavened throughout, and a grasp of history of these topics that makes you feel smart reading her. Her basic point is that the concept of happiness varies from culture to culture and time period to time period. She looks at five basic paths to happiness historically--wisdom, drugs, money, bodies, and celebration--and tears away much of the "myth" that these things can't make you happy. They aren't sufficient for total happiness maybe, but, if used wisely, they've made some people happy for some time. And she relieves those who can't get quite skinny enough or rich enough or smart enough of any guilt for those "failures" which haven't been in past history or peoples. And those who keep buying those magazines and books on how to get happy? Save your money. Just accept and be.

That there aren't certain paths to happiness and that individuals lack major control of the events that shape their lives (and so should make the most of what they have available) wouldn't come as news to Mark Buchanan. He also wrote an earlier book which I enjoyed, Ubiquity: Why Catastrophes Happen, so I knew his The Social Atom: Why the Rich Get Richer, Cheaters Get Caught, and Your Neighbor Usually Looks Like You would be worth reading. It was. Buchanan makes a convincing case for a "social physics" that we frequently discuss here, the idea of applying work in complexity, nonlinearity, networking, and resulting patterns of interacting agents to explain what happens in the world. It's certainly a much better explanation and predictor than traditional social science delivers, particularly economics, which Buchanan takes apart well and forever. The key is to remember that humans, despite the zany ideology of economists, do not live or operate in isolation from other humans. Social psych counts. History counts. Being able to picture what those around you will think and do counts. Once you accept that, you start seeing how the subsequent patterns of behavior make more sense, now, in the past, what is likely the future. We've lived way too long with a bizarre paradigm of individuality that has warped everything about how we interpret the world. As the sciences of complexity and the others develop and expand, those old views will be challenged and, hopefully, finally fall, to be replaced with a better understanding of the trade-offs, good and bad, of everyday living. There's not much new here for those who have kept up with this topic for a while, but the systematic takedown of econ, along with the refresher material, will be entertaining even for them. For those just now being exposed to the material, Buchanan is an entertaining and lucid guide.

The problem for all these writers, talking about "worlds" and views that aren't dominant in the culture, is getting people to listen to them, making their ideas stick. Fortunately, there's a book for that, too, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath. Technically a business book, built around business examples, it has wider application to all the concerns that the Dems and, more importantly, people who will actually change things for the better in the future want to address. (For the record, the Repubs have had this down pat for decades, maybe because they're tied better to effective corporate PR.)

Their thesis is simple and stated in the subtitle, and their book is a history and instruction manual on the topic, well-written, quickly read, and hard to forget. These guys know that, for every stat you give or research you cite, you better have a story to go with it, one that meets clear "principles" for SUCCESs: simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and stories. (Yeah, that's only one S at the end but notice that you will probably remember that, making it easier to pull up the acronym when you decide you need it.) IOW, you can't just assume that the superior logic and evidence of your message will win a debate. You have to make conscious and determined efforts to get that message to "stick."

With their own stories and memorable examples like Jared the Subway sandwich guy (and the fact that you know who I'm talking about and everything Subway wants you to know about him proves the point), they get messages like these across:

Sadly, there is a villain in our story. The villain is a natural psychological tendency that consistently confounds our ability to create ideas using our principles. It's called the Curse of Knowledge. . . .

This is the Curse of Knowledge. Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has "cursed" us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can't readily re-create our listeners' state of mind.
How can we make people care about our ideas? We get them to take off their Analytical Hats. We create empathy for specific individuals. We sow how our ideas are associated with things that people already care about. We appeal to their self-interest, but we also appeal to their identities--not only to the people they are right now but also to the people they would like to be.
The problem [with direct and abstract presentation of facts] is that when you hit listeners between the eyes they respond by fighting back. The way you deliver a message to them is a cue to how they should react. If you make an argument, you're implicitly asking them to evaluate your argument--judge it, debate it, criticize it--and then argue back, at least in their minds. But with a story . . . you engage the audience--you are involving people with the idea, asking them to participate with you.
In addition to creating buy-in, springboard stories mobilize people to act. Stories focus people on potential solutions. Telling stories with visible goals and barriers shifts the audience into a problem-solving mode. Clearly, the amount of "problem-solving" we do varies across stories. . . . But springboard stories go beyond having us problem-solve for the main character. A springboard story helps us problem-solve for ourselves. A springboard story is an exercise in mass customization--each audience member uses the story as a springboard to slightly different destinations.
For an idea to stick, for it to be useful and lasting, it's got to make the audience:
1. Pay attention.
2. Understand and remember it.
3. Agree/Believe.
4. Care.
5. Be able to act on it.

The Heaths end with a "symptoms and solutions" section for common problems with messages not "sticking" and a helpful "reference guide" that should be tattooed someplace accessible for quick recall when debating and discussing policy issues. Seriously. Dump all the wonk books, dump Lakoff and the "framing" debates. This is the "how-to" Bible we should all be carrying and referring to. Might even wake up the Dems. If it can't, there's no hope. Maybe you should start with this one and see if you can come up with "sticky ideas" for the others. Although anyone who can come up with "Richistan" probably doesn't need it.

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