Monday, February 28, 2011

My Show on KGO Radio Will End March 20.

A couple of years ago, Karel (pictured right,) a popular talk show host on KGO-AM (ABC-San Francisco) said something ill-advised inadvertently on the air. Management replaced him with me.

My program is very different from Karel's entertainment-centric show. Mine consists of career tips, three-minute career makeovers on callers, an exploration of work-related policy issues, and a Last Lecture to end each show.

Alas, today I got a call from Jack Swanson, KGO's director of programming, who said that Karel has served his penance and so will be returning to his spot. My last show will be March 20.

While I'm sad, my feelings are moderated by the fact that I did give it my best shot and that KGO gave me more than two years to make myself indispensable. I have no ill feelings toward KGO. It's a quality organization. A special thanks to my producer J Westerling and engineer Anthony Young.

I'm grateful that I continue to host another radio show--on KALW-FM (NPR-San Francisco), Sundays 11 am to noon, archived for a week on the NPR site and permanently on my website. The show is similar to the KGO show except that there are no commercials and I interview some pretty smart people. I've done hundreds of half-hour and full-hour interviews with the likes of Craig Venter, Alan Dershowitz, Jack Welch, Deborah Tannen, Richard Dawkins, F. Lee Bailey, Noam Chomsky, Bjorn Lomborg, Robert Reich, Cokie Roberts, and a week ago, Richard Florida, HERE's a link to more info on both the KGO and KALW shows and to the archive.

After hearing the news that I was being replaced on KGO, I've tried to model what I coach my clients to do: aim for something even better. So today, I emailed an invitation to the people in the world I'd most want to interview on my KALW show: Steven Pinker, Richard Posner, Jeffrey Sachs, Freeman Dyson, Daniel Dennett, and Bill Gates.

Update: I've now received five yeses and no nos: Posner will appear Mar 27, Dyson on May 15, and Pinker, Sachs, and Dennett in the fall, dates to be determined. That's a great balm.

I'm grateful for all I have had and continue to have. I hope to be able to continue to serve you through my NPR show, this blog, my tweets, and my career coaching for a long time to come.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

How I'd Reinvent Taxation

Jeffrie, a commenter on my previous post, asked me to propose a reinvention of our tax system.

Here's my shot at it. Your comments for its improvement are welcome:

I am putting aside the question of whether taxes should be increased or decreased. Here, I merely propose what I believe would be a fairer, less time-consuming, and more societally benefiting system for collecting whatever level of taxes is deemed appropriate.

I believe that both the individual and corporate income tax should be abolished. Any form of taxation requiring voluntary reporting of information and a panoply of deductions and credits is too time-consuming and gameable.

I'd eliminate most payroll taxes: especially Workers Compensation and Unemployment Insurance. They are job killers and yield negative unintended consequences. Workers Compensation is truly rife with fraud. And Unemployment Insurance encourages sloth. Most of my clients who are unemployment say they won't look for a job until the payments run out. Then, such inertia takes hold that even then, they find it hard to do the aggressive job search that's usually necessary these days.

Fines in excess of the asymptotic amount needed for deterrence are forms of taxation. I would reduce fines so they fit the crime. For example, a stop sign violation, currently $300 where I live, would be $40. A San Francisco parking ticket, which currently is $85 would be $20. A DUI would be reduced from $3,000 to $500.

I'd heavily tax consumption. Government should promote a less materialistic lifestyle, most importantly because it promotes people having more important goals, but also because the American empire is in its decline, fewer people will ever afford afford a consumptive lifestyle, even with zero taxation. Also, less materialism will yield environmental benefits.

So to ensure a progressive tax system, I'd exempt from taxation all basic goods, for example, basic food, clothing, shelter, used cars under $2,000, etc. All other items would be subject to taxing at one of three rates: standard, luxury, and alcohol/tobacco. Only clearly luxury items would pay the luxury rate: hotels over $200 a night, cars over $40,000, jewelry over $1,000, etc. I would legalize prostitution and it would be taxed at the luxury rate. The highest rate would be imposed on alcohol and tobacco because I want to deter their use and because those items impose tremendous costs on family members and on health care. I'm imagining that revenue neutrality could be achieved with a sales tax rate of 25%, 35% for luxury items, and 50% for tobacco and alcohol. That consumption tax, like all sales taxes, would be collected at the time of sale so it is minimally gameable.

I would heavily tax estates, Passing wealth to heirs discourages productivity. My intuition tells me that the appropriate rate would be 0% up to $100,000 rising to 90% at $1,000,000 or more.

I'd lightly but progressively tax investment income. I want to encourage investment, because it makes capital available for lending to businesses, which in turn, creates jobs and better or cheaper products and services. But it seems fair that people who earn money without doing anything for it should have that income taxed. I conceive of a rate that would start at zero for a year's investment income of under $5,000 to a maximum of 20% for an annual investment income of $40,000 or more.

Corporations can move headquarters overseas if too heavily taxed. That would lose too many U.S. jobs and too much tax revenue. So I'd reduce the corporate income tax rate to nearer the world average, perhaps to 15%, but with loopholes closed to avoid such injustices as Exxon-Mobil and GE paying zero tax.

For all taxes, a 25-cents-on-the-dollar tax credit would be awarded for money given to charity. I believe that charities, on average, provide services more cost-effectively than does the government and so I want to give people the option of giving their money to charity rather than to the government.

Your thoughts?

Richard Florida and Marty Nemko on How to Improve the World

Richard Florida, author of Rise of the Creative Class, who is considered a significant thinker and policy wonk, and I had an hour-long conversation on my NPR San Francisco show today. Our topic: how to improve the world.

We agreed on some things, for example:
  • the need for what he calls a "New American Dream:" replacing materialism with loftier values.
  • the need to replace our schools: arcana-filled curriculum dispensed by generally well-intentioned but ineffectual, uninspiring teachers. As he said, 100 years from now, we'll shake our heads in wonderment that we forced students to spend all those years in boredom, in those prisons we call schools.
  • that we would more likely live the life well-led if, every time we contemplated doing something, we rated that action on a a scale from -100 (selling crack) to +100 (working to cure cancer.)
  • my idea of an Assistants Army. Instead of government make-work jobs, do a PR campaign to encourage citizens to hire assistants: to help in caring for their infant, a homework helper for their child, a "honey-do" assistant for themselves, and a companion for their elder relative.
  • the need to replace our electoral system, in which our votes are manipulated by a hubristic media and win-at-all-costs, richly-funded political campaigns.
Today's media's members have experienced so little life outside academia/ journalism school but are oh-so confident that they know how to fix the world and thus toss off their responsibility to present all responsible sides of an issue. Instead, they do everything in their power to manipulate the electorate into believing what they believe and voting the way they do.
Political campaigns are highly sophisticated Madison-Avenue-inspired propaganda machines paid for by special interests from unions and ethnic/gender-power groups on the left to corporations and fat cats on the right.

What chance does the poor voter have of making enlightened choices in picking their elected officials?
Richard liked both of my ideas for replacing what he called "our beyond-dysfunctional, comical electoral system:"
  • Selecting our government officials the way a mutual fund index fund (which outperforms most funds) chooses its stocks: a passively selected panel. (I've written about that HERE).Or if democracy remains the sacred cow:
  • 100% publicly-funded two-week long campaigns consisting only of televised debates, a job simulation (running a meeting) and the candidates' voting record and positions, aggregated by a neutral such as Consumers Union or C-Span, and published prominently on the Net and in print.
Alas, I found myself rolling my eyes at Florida's prescription for reducing the racial/socioeconomic achievement gap. He passionately urges us to focus yet more on early childhood. Alas, has now been well established, the billions and billions already spent on a half century of Head Start, Early Start, and even on social workers spending tremendous amounts of time in-the-home of low-income newborns has not reduced the achievement gap, let alone been cost-effective uses of taxpayer dollars.

I responded to Florida by opining that the answer is honesty: to honestly admit that despite having spent trillions (literally) of dollars in the past few decades alone to reduce the socioeconomic and racial achievement disparity (everything from Early Start to forced busing into suburban areas to welfare-to-work job training to high-quality free housing) the gap remains as wide as ever.

Instead of spending yet more trillions of ever-scarcer taxpayer dollars on programs known to be ineffective, we must redirect those dollars to a research effort to find new approaches that are more likely to work.

And, as I've argued in previous writings, yes, environment is important, but so are genetics. To fight the achievement gap only by trying to change people's environment and ignoring the genetic is like fighting Mike Tyson with one arm tied behind your back. We must not viscerally reject genetically oriented approaches to reducing the achievement gap. There are ethical approaches to doing so. I've mentioned these in previous posts but summarize them here:
  • Making free birth control widely available in high schools with high pregnancy rates. Especially valuable would be the new-generation implantables such as Jadelle, which is easy to insert and remove but which, in place, lasts at least two years and has been found extremely safe and effective by the highly respected Population Council.
  • Intelligent Choice. This would be public-service-announcement/education/media campaign to remind teenagers and young adults that in choosing the father/mother of your child, you're choosing the genes you want your child do you have. For example, "Do you really want your child to inherit the genes of that Bad Boy you find so attractive?"
  • Starting Life with No Strikes Against You: Depression, impulsivity, empathy, intelligence, etc. all are almost certainly under both environmental and genetic control. We should fund research to enable prospective parents to elect, non-coercively, to have their eggs and sperm examined to help ensure that their baby starts out without a genetic strike or two against them, and if all their sperm and eggs are defective, can elect to have a procedure to replace the defective genes with those for normal or even above-average intelligence, resistance to depression, etc. To ensure that such treatments don't increase the gap between rich and poor, MediCal or ObamaCare would cover those procedures just as they cover most other treatments.
It was an interesting hour. Again, HERE is the link to the show.

Friday, February 18, 2011

An Attempt to Scare You into Working Harder to Land a Job

We all like reassuring news. So when job seekers read the headline: "Unemployment down to 9%," the feeling is, "Well, 9% is bad but a little better, so maybe it won't be so hard to land a job."

Anecdotally, my career counseling clients are having a much tougher time than ever trying to land a decent job, and two analyses of the unemployment statistics explain why. The self-serving government statistics grossly underestimate how difficult the job market really is:

The Editor-in-Chief of U.S. News wrote THIS, and this week's, Business Insider contained THIS even more frightening piece: 19 Scary Facts About Getting a Job in America. I too wrote on this topic.

The Business Insider report concluded with, "Getting a job today means going up against terrifying odds."

Yes, if a job seeker is a star and/or has a powerful network, s/he will find a job without undue pain. But the more typical job seeker must face today's reality that to land a decent job, you may be in the fight of your life. I say this knowing it's scaring you but I'm finding that most job seekers still delude themselves into thinking that the normal job search efforts that worked in the past will still work. I want you to be employed, so I feel I should try to shake you from your complacency.

Today, average, let alone below-average candidates must do an A+ job search: some combination of compelling cold and warm contacts with employers who are not advertising jobs, outstanding internet/social media presence, cover letters and resumes that prove, not just assert, your ability to be a superior employee in the applied-for position, and perhaps most important, knock-em-dead collateral material. Examples: A salesperson sends 50 great leads he'd call if hired. A CFO describes the top 10 trends in C-level financial work that would be crucial for that company to consider. An applicant sensing a fluid job description, writes a post-interview thank-you note that tactfully proposes a reinvented job description that would be better for the employer and for which the candidate is an ideal fit.

I wish I could say, as I have in earlier years, that a moderate, steady, well-targeted job-search will usually work. Unfortunately, today, everything has changed. We are forced to ratchet-up our efforts...significantly. Alas.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Anti-Male Ethos Accelerates

A car was parked in front of a public school in the San Francisco Bay Area, the epicenter of "gender equity."

The care bore a bumper sticker, Girls Rule, Boys Drool" with a picture of a girl stomping on a face-down boy.

When I got home, I googled, "Girls Rule, Boys Drool" and there were 239,000 results, most of them text and 16,400 images. Here are some I found particularly interesting.

Imagine that you were the parent of a boy. How do you think you'd feel? He'd feel?

Your comments?

The Video of the Piano Concert I Gave

In an earlier post, I mentioned that I was giving a piano concert in my home. Well, here it is. In sum, it's my life told with stories and piano playing: from show tunes to Tom Lehrer, from ragtime to Les Mis to The Stripper (including audience participation!) There's even a magic trick.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Way to Boost Your Odds of Making a Living as a Performer

So many people would love to make a living as a performer: musician, comedian, actor, magician, etc. But we are living in an era in which most people expect to get their entertainment for free, whether legally, for example, by watching TV or YouTube videos, or illegally by stealing. Oops, the politically correct term is "file sharing."

It seems that the only people who are making a good living from performing are the 0.00001% who are superstars, for example, the Grammy winners. Is there hope for the less august among us? Let me tell you what I would do if I were trying to make a living as a performer.

People are still willing to pay for live experiences, so every Friday and Saturday night, I'd give a piano concert in my home. Here's the one I've given. If I were living in a too-small apartment, I'd use a free or very-low-cost apartment complex community center, room in a church, school, etc.

I'd play things that would be maximally audience-pleasing while also pleasing myself. My program would mainly consist of improvisations based on a two-to-three-minute interview of audience members. In between, I'd play Broadway show medleys, Tom Lehrer songs, ragtime, old standards, sing-along, and some self-deprecating anecdotes. (I wonder why self-deprecation is so much better received than self-promotion? That's a a rather counter-commonsensical norm that is deeply embedded in our culture. But I digress.)

At the end of the concert, I'd sell my CD, writing a very personalized inscription for each buyer . (I'd ask each buyer a couple of questions about him/herself before writing the inscription.)

I'd market my concerts by:
  • creating a demo video, which I'd post on my site, on YouTube, low-fee online ticket seller Brown Paper Tickets, and on Goldstar, which will--free to the performer--email that demo and an announcement of an event to an enormous mailing list, offering half-price tickets. (Of course, I get paid only half for those buyers.)
  • Try to get on local TV and radio shows to demonstrate my interview-based improvisation. (I'd interview the host for a minute or two and then play an improvisation based on her.)
  • To capture attendees' email addresses so I can email them announcements of future concerts, at intermission, I'd raffle off a free CD--they'd have to put their email address in the jar to have a chance to win.
Of course, this model could be adapted to different sorts of creative work. For example, an actor could do a one-person show. Or, I know two magicians here in the San Francisco Bay Area who've each successfully done a variant of my approach: Peter Morrison and Gerry Griffin. (They each bought a low-cost venue for them to perform their show. Peter does his solo. Gerry brings in the best low-cost magicians to accompany him.)

For performers of sufficiently broad appeal, this approach would seem to offer a better-than-usual prospect for enabling them to live their dream of being paid to perform.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Even YOU Should Hire a Personal Assistant

Most people think personal assistants are for the wealthy. Unless you're flat broke, even if you're unemployed, consider hiring a personal assistant to do your house cleaning, laundry, errands, gardening, wait for the repairman to come, etc.

In our jobless non-recovery, quality people can be hired for $10-15 an hour. Even hiring someone for a few hours a week can be a great investment. If you're a job seeker, you can spend those hours looking for a job. That's of far greater value than the cost of the assistant. If you're working, you're freed up to be more productive and, in turn, position yourself for a raise.

Even if don't care about earning more money, consider hiring a personal assistant: S/he will give you that most valuable of commodities: time, time for recreation, family, or productive work .

I've had a personal assistant for the past 20 years and each has stayed with me an average of five years. The keys:
  • Don't hire someone too marketable or they'll leave. (It takes time to train someone. You don't want to have to go through that every few months.) You don't need a superstar; you need a responsible, kind, ethical person with reasonable intelligence.
  • Treat the person wonderfully. That needn't mean a high rate of pay. It means treating them with respect and kindness, giving earned praise, showing interest in them as a person, and doing little niceties like taking them out to lunch or giving them small presents. Those are not favors. I've truly enjoyed being a kind boss to my assistants.
  • I give my assistant a lot of autonomy on how s/he does her tasks and her hours are flexible. Not only does s/he appreciate those things, it helps me establish that s/he meets the requirements for a 1099 contractor rather than a W-2 employee, which saves me costs and paperwork.
I recommend finding your assistant not by placing an ad but by asking your friends and relatives for referrals. You'll likely be giving that person a credit card and full access to your home. If the person is a friend or someone recommended by a friend, s/he is more likely to be trustworthy.

A Fast Approach to Reducing Anxiety, Stress, and Fear

My clients have been using this three-tool approach to reducing stress, anxiety, and fear with reasonable success:

1. Realize that all of us deserve to not be shackled by worry, even if you've made mistakes. We all have.

2.As soon as a worrisome thought enters your consciousness, quickly replace it with a productive activity.

3. If you can't distract yourself, ask yourself, What's the most likely positive outcome?" That'll ease your anxiety. Then, "What's the worst that's likely to happen? How could I cope with that?" You could, couldn't you?

If you try this strategy or a variant thereof, let me know how well it works for you.

On Men at Valentine's Day

This was sent to me by an anonymous reader:

It's that time of year again: Valentine's Day. It's a time when men are castigated for being unromantic, too obsessed with sports, uncaring, and just not that "loving."

In the minds of the female-focused mainstream media and retail industries, it's a great way to guilt-trip men into buying more jewelry, flowers, restaurant meals, and whatnot. But never mind that we've commercialized another holiday that's not supposed to be commercialized.

What's this about men not being loving? Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Men, in my estimation, are actually very loving. They just don't show it in the way that the media-and-retail-industrial complex portrays it. So how do men show their love? Here are just a few ways that few people notice or give men credit for:

Men show their love by waking up at 2 AM and schlepping to the store in the rain to buy a quart of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream when a late night craving strikes.

Men show their love by checking out the things that go bump in the night, whether they're stray dogs or burglars.

Men show their love by not only obvious acts of chivalry, like opening doors, but also scraping the windshield, shoveling the sidewalk, dispatching the spiders, and taking out the trash to spare their women from these and other unpleasant jobs.

Men show their love by working in jobs that are boring, difficult, risky, stressful, dangerous, and even life-threatening so that their wives can work in jobs that are comfortable, safe, fun, and easy - or not at all.

Men show their love by worrying about what's going on in the world so their women don't have to.

Men show their love by doing those things on their "honey do" lists when they'd rather be watching the game.

Men show their love by fixing the things that are broken, whether it's a faucet or a heart.

To make a long story short, men show their love through their actions. After all, actions do speak louder than words. So ladies, if you think your man isn't romantic or loving, think again.

A Reader from Pennsylvania (It's sad that we live in a society in which he feels he had to write this anonymously.)

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A Poignant Letter from An Alleged Victim of Discrimination

Because I've written in opposition to reverse discrimination, I get a number of letters from white men who feel they've been victims of it, asking me for advice.

I'm choosing to print this one because of its poignant last line.

(Note: Yesterday, when I sent the author the link to this blog post, he asked me to make some changes. So if you read this letter yesterday and see changes today, that's why.)

Dear Dr. Nemko,

I have been discriminated against many times.

For example, after five interviews, I beat out 1,200 applicants for a department head position in the San Diego County School District. I quit my previous job, giving up my pension and health benefits. Then, before reporting to work, I was called and told I couldn't be hired. I later found out that the person who ended up with the job is a Black woman. I discovered later that in the district's applicant scoring system, even with the affirmative action bonus points applied, not one African American had made it to the top 300!

Another example. At age 14, I became an apprentice to an optical fabricator. I developed a process to production-fabricate a military optic. The government "encouraged" my boss to do an AA hire so instead of me, he hired one whose salary was paid by the government. The boss had to go through three of them because none of them could understand how I created what I did.

This hurts the most: I was hired as an enumerator by the 2000 Census and got the top rank evaluation but when I applied to be an enumerator for the 2010 census, the interviewer, a Latina, asked, "Your last name is Crockett. Did your family fight against the Mexicans at the Alamo?" I was not hired.

Have you any ideas how I might make a discrimination claim? So far every referral has ended with a minority voice mail and the person either does not return my call, asks for a fortune up front, or even told me--and I know this can't be true--that white males can't be discriminated against because they're in power.

Forgive the poor writing. I was crying while writing this.

Rick Crockett

What the Mainstream Media Doesn't Tell You About Israel

I think it's fair to say my blog posts have never been emotional but having just watched this six-minute video about Israel, I feel the need to write this emotional post.

No doubt, Israel has overreacted at times. Mightn't you if your neighbor's government, Hamas's charter called for your annihilation and was firing bombs near your home? How'd you feel if you were an Israeli and you knew that the Palestinian people selected Hamas as its government and has its military armed by Iran, a soon-to-be-nuclear power led by a Holocaust denier who is in solidarity with Hamas' pledge to destroy Israel?

And now Egypt will likely be run by a government far less accepting of Israel than Hosni Mubarek is. The Muslim Brotherhood, with ties to Al Qaeda, is among the leading contenders. And the U.S. president is the least Israel-friendly in history. To top it all, the mainstream media is growing ever more leftist, which means it advocates for economic have-nots, without regard to their merit. As is demonstrated in the video, Israel is not yet an economic have-not and thus will always get worse media coverage than the poor Palestinians.

As you decide how much to support Israel vs. the Palestinians vs. the countries surrounding Israel, and as you decide whether the mainstream media uses a double-standard to judge Israel compared with the Palestinians and other Middle Eastern countries, I invite you to at least consider the facts in this video. At minimum, you'll find the music uplifting.

Although rationally, I can't take pride in others' accomplishments, emotionally, I find myself proud that a people whose genetic roots I share has done so much good for the world, including for Muslim people whose leaders want to exterminate the Israeli people, just as the Nazis wanted to.

P.S. This second video highlights many more of Israel's amazing contributions. I believe that watching that eight-minute video will make even the most anti-Israeli person more pro-Israel. I am in awe at what Israelis have done for the world.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Even Harvard Now Agrees We Send Too Many to College

Finally, even Harvard's School of Education is recognizing that we send too many students to college. It also has awakened to the truism that for students who attend college, there must be more focus on essentials than on esoterica.

It seems so obvious that it's more important that students graduate college with better communication skills than deconstruction skills, stronger probabilistic thinking than hermeneutic thinking, better Google-searching ability than journal-article-searching ability.

Yet academics continue to insist--without reprisal--on teaching more of what they care about than of what students need. How hypocritical that most professors decry elitism yet teach topics that most college graduates will never need to nor even care to know.

HERE is the link to the press release that contains a link to the Harvard report.

I am ever more convinced, as I've written for years, that higher education is America's most overrated product, and HERE is a video-recorded interview I recently did on the subject.

Are We So Sure Democracy is the Best Way?

As we hear nearly universal calls for democracy in the new Egyptian regime, I wonder if we too uncritically accept that democracy is the wisest form of government. Is it so clear that we wouldn't be better-led with some other approach to selecting our leaders?

For example, might this lead to wiser leadership: The country would be led by a 10-person team selected using passive criteria, the way stocks are selected to form an index fund. For example, it might include the most newly retired CEO from one of the 10 largest nonprofits, a randomly selected CEO from the S&P Midcap 400, the most award-winning scientist who completed his PhD in the last ten years, the American Philosophical Association Teacher of the Year, the winner of the American Police Officer's Association Cop of the Year, the National Elementary School Administrator of the Year, plus a few people chosen at random.

Especially when we see how, to get elected in a democratic system, requires so much flesh-pressing of and becoming beholden to special interests, four years of campaigning that requires disingenuousness to be elected, and in which the callow electorate is so manipulated by the ever more sophisticated Madison-Avenue "influencing" techniques, is it so clear that democracy is the best way to elect our leaders?

Your thoughts?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

What I'd Say to the United Nations

If I were to give a talk to the United Nations in light of the coming regime change in Egypt, here is what I would say:

The lack of well-paying jobs, especially in countries that are subject to political and religious extremism, for example, Egypt, will result in continued increases in terrorism.

Those increases will engender ever greater risk of worldwide cataclysm as weapons of mass destruction become ever more miniaturized.

Think, for example, what would happen if a terrorist released a vial of highly communicable deadly smallpox in an international airport check-in area. (That's before the TSA screening.) Or a terrorist in one of the millions of trucks that visit crowded downtowns detonated a suitcase- or larger nuclear or radiologic device.

The solutions are:
1. We must talk with terrorist organizations. Engagement has a better risk/reward ratio than vilification. More important,
2. We must be far smarter in how we spend our money. We currently spend fortunes far in excess of their likely benefit on, for example, military adventurism, stopping airline shoe bombers, space exploration, politically popular social programs known not to work, and dubious schemes to try to cool the planet.

We must redirect that spending to efforts far more likely to improve humankind, for example:
  • teaching entrepreneurship (the key to creating jobs)
  • encouraging an Assistance Army, in which people are encouraged to hire assistants: new-parent helpers, parenting coaches, homework helpers, personal assistants, companions for the elderly, etc.
  • decreasing people's belief in materialism. There will no doubt be times when there are not enough well-paying jobs to go around. People need to realize that materialism, even the holding of private property, is not key to the life well-led. In the end, kindness, productivity, and simple pleasures are more central.
  • the primacy of ethics. Regarding the latter, everyone must be taught again and again, through adults' actions as well as their words, that all of us must consider, before undertaking any action, what's best, not just for us, but for humankind.
Even as I write this, I worry that perhaps I'm overestimating the potential for the full range of humankind to behave according to universal wisdom. After all, I must admit that typically, my behavior is altruistic only as long as it doesn't hurt me. Too often, I forgo the unpleasant altruistic act. Occasionally, my behavior is even mildly malevolent, as when I sneer at a driver who's driving only at the speed limit unlike my usual 10 mph over.

But I prefer to err on the side of optimism. So I would like to close by stipulating to my proposed solutions being very difficult to implement although perhaps not as difficult as the effort to cool the planet. But I believe the results, even if imperfect, would do more to improve the lives of humankind than anything else, yes, anything else. Certainly, my plan is far better than what we're currently doing. Should we begin?

Friday, February 4, 2011

Three Often-Helpful Procrastination Cures

I've written a lot on overcoming procrastination. Tonight, I feel like writing a short update: what I currently believe to be the most-often-helpful strategies:
  • Make it fun. Most procrastinators don't value productivity enough to make them tackle unpleasant tasks. So ask yourself, "What's the fun way to do this?" Ask yourself that when planning how you'll do a task and when you reach a stumbling block,
  • Make it simple. This is a variant of "make it fun." How could you do the task more easily and still do it well? Perhaps it's deciding you'll do it less perfectly. Perhaps it's restructuring the task to emphasize your strengths. Or asking someone to help you with the tough part. Or the tried-and-true technique of breaking the task down into baby steps.
  • Become beholden to someone. More even than most people, procrastinators hate to be embarrassed. So if you take on a partner for the project or tell people you're committed to completing task X by date Y, your fear of having to tell them you didn't do it may motivate you to get it done. A variant on that: Do the task for your child or spouse. You don't want them to see you as a loser or bad role model.
Your thoughts?

Behavioral Genetics: The Most Important Topic You Don't Discuss

What is behavioral genetics? It examines the genetic basis of intelligence and of personality characteristics such as depression, empathy, impulse control, predisposition to addiction, and sexual orientation.

There are good reasons we don't discuss behavioral genetics. As an Economist article pointed out, we currently can't do anything about the genetic roots of our behavior, so discussing it merely encourages personal fatalism, when in fact, our behavior is at least partly changeable. Also behavioral genetics evokes thoughts of the horrific Nazi eugenic plan, in which millions of people were slaughtered in an attempt to create a master race.

Even as a young child, I was fascinated by how much we inherit. One reason is that I was born to parents who had the worst imaginable environment: Holocaust survivors who, as teenagers, were wrested from their Poland homes and imprisoned in concentration camps, and after the war, dumped onto a cargo boat and dropped in the Bronx as young adults, without a penny to their name, no education, not a word of English, no relatives (nearly all were killed in the Holocaust), no connections, only the scars of the Holocaust tortures. Yet they were successful and well-adjusted, as were many of the Holocaust survivors I've come to know. Early on, I knew that while genetics aren't everything, they certainly are important.

But what really drove home the power of genetics was my own experience. Although I was the child of poor, uneducated, non-English-speaking, Holocaust-surviving parents, and living in a Bronx tenement, my mother insists that I was reading the New York Times (with little comprehension, no doubt) when I was three years old. My earliest memory is of my mother parading me from apartment to apartment showing off my reading ability. Even though my parents never read to me nor took me to the library, by watching words spoken on TV and staring at a few children's books and then the newspaper, by the time I was in the first grade, my reading comprehension was on a 12th grade level and my IQ was 155. Without practicing more than 15 minutes a day, I became a professional pianist when I was 13 years old.

My fascination with behavioral genetics went dormant until, in my doctoral program at Berkeley, I read studies of identical twins who were raised apart. Despite often being raised in extremely different environments, the identical twins' IQs were virtually identical, as were their personalities, even their career and avocational preferences.

My interest in behavioral genetics grew further in graduate school when I chose my area of specialization. I've always loved judging things so, not surprisingly, I gravitated to evaluation: program evaluation, individual cognitive evaluation, etc. The more I read evaluations of "model" programs designed to change children's environments, the more I became convinced that while environment may matter, genetics matter more. I reviewed the evaluations of Head Start, Title I, the Kansas City experiments of spending massive amounts per child, experiments with having students from Chicago housing projects attend top prep schools, and media-touted "miracle" programs like Marva Collins' schools, Central Park East, and more recently, Ed Trust, and KIPP. When I dug beneath the self-promoting schools' marketing efforts and a media eager to show that education matters, I became ever more certain of the relative power of genetics over education.

Beyond studying those programs' evaluation data, I visited a number of such programs. I've come to believe that a model program is one you haven't visited. My most startling memory is when my wife Dr. Barbara Nemko (Napa County Supt. of Schools and recent regional Supt. of the Year) and I visited Central Park East School, the subject of two glowing features on 60 Minutes, touting Central Park East's test scores as proof that education can close the racial achievement gap. We spoke with the principal, who, after we gained his trust, literally cried and said that the temporary blip in scores came from an impossible-to-sustain monumental effort that faded not long after the cameras left and that, now, the school's achievement scores are right back to the average of the other public schools in Harlem.

I was very dispirited by all this. After all, I had devoted my life to changing people, hoping that environment mattered a lot. I quit my position as a biomedical researcher at the Rockefeller University to become a drug counselor in an inner-city New York junior high school. Failing to change the kids, I took the six years to get a Ph.D. from Berkeley in education. After that, I returned to teach in inner-city Richmond, California schools, and while my students loved me, I do not believe my extraordinary efforts yielded significant enduring changes in the kids. I later became a career counselor, dealing with less problemed people, and despite having a 96% client satisfaction rate and being proclaimed "career coach extraordinaire" by U.S. News, I still find it very difficult to change people, for example, from low-motivation to high-motivation, let alone from being an average performer to a star.

Even though I have a Ph.D. specializing in program evaluation, I'm disproportionately affected by personal experiences. I'll never forget my friend Miriam Weinstein telling me, "Every mother of two or more kids knows how powerful genetics are. They have distinct, enduring personalities from Day One, or even before. Thirty years later, my kids' basic personalities have remained the same." Every time I ask a mother if her experience comports with Miriam's, she always says yes. That further solidified my belief in the power of behavioral genetics.

At my core, emotionally, I'm a liberal. I care about helping the have-nots, perhaps in part because I came from such humble roots and my parents were victims of the Nazis. I've wanted, for decades, to find reasons to believe that changing the have-nots' environment, whether through educational innovation or spending, nutritional improvement, job training, mass media, whatever, would close the achievement gap.

Yet now, at age 60, I am more convinced than ever of the power of genetics. Just as tuning up a VW Beetle will never turn it into a Ferrari, I am now convinced that trying to close the achievement gap by changing only people's environment will continue to fail, as it has for the past half century, wasting yet more taxpayer trillions on such programs. And indeed we have, in the U.S., spent at least a trillion dollars since the 1960s on such efforts, and the achievement gap remains as wide as ever.

That is why, as I've written before, I believe the wisest approach to addressing the persistent racial and social-class achievement gap is to supplement research to identify better environment-changing interventions with research that would enable prospective parents to elect to ensure that their children don't start out life with a genetic two strikes against them.

If such research were permitted by the government and especially if subsidized by the government, we would, within a decade or two, find gene clusters responsible for at least components of intelligence, empathy, impulse control, depression, addictions, etc. At that point, prospective parents could be given the option of having gene therapy to ensure their baby is born as--what liberal philosopher John Rawls calls--a "winner in the genetic lottery."

As I wrote in a previous blog post on this subject, I want to stress that there is a Grand Canyon of difference between the monstrous Nazi eugenic plan and what I'm proposing. The Nazis wanted to murder people. I merely want to give parents choices, uncoerced choices. And to ensure that it doesn't exacerbate racial or class differences, I advocate the taxpayer subsidizing outreach and treatment payment for the poor, just as we do with MediCal and other health programs for the poor.

What do you think?

Update: Buried in one of the 33 comments on this post is mention of a major study being supported by the Chinese government. That study is comparing the full genome of 1,000 of China's most intellectually precocious children with the genome of 1,000 average children. They've already found the genomes of the two groups to be different from each other. Most readers of blogs don't read the comments so, because I find that study intriguing, I mention it here. My thanks to the commenter, Shawn, for providing the link:

Another update: In a private comment on this post, a reader asked if I've ever implemented "Intelligent Choice," which I proposed in a previous post. In Intelligent Choice, the media and schools would initiate a campaign stressing that among life's most important decisions is who you'll have a baby with. For example, "That cool Bad Boy may be fun to date but do you really want your baby to have his genes?" In this blog and in my other writings, I give away many such ideas because I don't have time to implement them but I'd love it if someone decided to try to make Intelligent Choice happen. If you're interested, email me at and I'll share details.

A Reinvented Election System

We consider democratic elections among the highest goods. Even in an era of incomprehensibly high federal deficits, the U.S. government, whether under Republican or Democratic control, spends billions of dollars to ensure democratic elections not only in the U.S. but worldwide.

Another example of our commitment to highly democratic elections is that literacy tests have, for almost a century now, been virtually eliminated so citizens now need no more qualifications to vote than to have passed their 18th birthday.

I want to argue here that a voting-readiness test should be reinstated. Why? First, because it's much more difficult today to cast a wise vote. Candidates' positions on issues are more much difficult to understand because much more complex issues are at play in our global, information- and technology-centric society. At the same time, candidates are spending enormous sums on highly sophisticated Madison-Avenue messaging consultants from Frank Luntz on the right to President Obama's dream team of influencing experts on the Left. Every campaign commercial or speech is based on computer analysis of focus groups' dial ratings of every word. Such efforts not only dwarf the election propaganda techniques used when voter literacy tests were banned, those efforts dwarf even the efforts of Josef Goebbels, Hitler's infamous Minister of Propaganda. It is extremely difficult to vote wisely.

So it's no surprise that we mainly elect lawyers and even occasionally actors (e.g., Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger,) and comedians (e.g., Al Franken and Tom Ammiano.) All that, at a time when truly wise, brilliant, ethical leaders are ever more important.

I believe those factors tip the scales in favor of requiring a voting-readiness test. More valid than a literacy test would be a test of the ability to critique a political campaign ad, commercial, and debate.

A high level of sophistication would not be required to pass the test--merely enough that a voter demonstrates the ability to acquire basic knowledge of the candidates and issues. That way, the benefits of a broadly participating democratic electorate could be retained while significantly improving the quality of the electorate's decision-making, and in turn, the quality of our elected leaders.

A nice side effect is that some people would prepare for the test, thereby making them better voters and, overall, better thinkers.

Of course, a voting-readiness test would bring liabilities. Obviously, there is the significant cost of even once-in-a-lifetime testing of each voter. More serious may be the alienation and disenfranchisement of people who fail the test. Exacerbating that alienation,
even if scrupulous care were taken to ensure the test was fair to all racial and ethnic groups, if disproportionate members of such a group failed, it would yield accusations of racism and thus increase tensions.

Yet I believe the benefits of a voter-readiness test would far outweigh the liabilities. We would see better quality leaders, and in turn, better, fairer laws, a better quality of life for the citizenry, and even perhaps fewer wars.

To further improve the quality of our elected officials, as I've written previously, I advocate replacing our current election financing system with a 100% publicly funded system, which would allow only two- or three-week-long campaigns consisting only of televised debates and job simulations (e.g., running a meeting) plus an online/printed statement of voting records and positions on key issues.

Do you think America would, net, be better if a voter-qualification test were required and campaigns were the few-week-long publicly funded system I propose here?