Monday, October 29, 2012

How We Select Our Leaders, Reinvented

Here is my next column in Mensa's The Intelligencer. 

The Life Well-Led
by Marty Nemko

How We Select Our Leaders, Reinvented

Is the the lying and deceptions of both presidential candidates disgusting you? How about that they and their SuperPACS will have spent $2 billion, heavily to pay for truth-obfuscating commercials, slick ads that clutter your e-mail and snail mailbox, not to mention telemarketing get-out-the-vote phone calls interrupting your dinner?

And the future bodes worse: The Supreme Court's Citizens United decision means that they can raise money without limits to manipulate us into voting for them.

Indeed, today, nearly every sentence spoken by major politicians is dial focus-group tested by Madison-Avenue-inspired "messaging teams."  Sometimes it seems we're not voting for the best candidate but for the best propaganda machine.

As troubling, those special interests wouldn't be pouring billions into campaigns unless they were confident it would make politicians do their bidding rather than what's best for the nation.

Perhaps worst of all, the need to run a four-year-long press-the-fat-cat's flesh campaign deters many of the most worthy people from running.

I believe that the following two approaches would ensure we elect better and less-corrupted leaders:

The Two-Week Publicly-Funded Campaign

  • All campaigns would be 100% publicly-funded. That has been proposed and rejected in the past as a denial of free speech. I believe that abridgment is far outweighed by the benefit to society
  • All campaigns would be just two weeks long. That would control cost and only minimally reduce voter knowledge: By the time most voters vote, they've forgotten what they heard  weeks ago.
  • The campaigns would consist only of one or two broadcast debates. Those would be followed by a job simulation: running a meeting.
  • A neutral body such as C-Span or Consumers Union would post each major candidate's biographical highlights, voting record, and platform on key issues. 
Such a system would reduce candidates' corruptibility while increasing the quality of information voters would have about the candidates. As important, better candidates would run, knowing they needn't run an endless, expensive, beholden-to-special-interests campaign.  

Alas, this problem does create a thorny problem: Who participates? The best solution I can come up with is that the Democrats, Republicans, Socialists/Greens, and Libertarians would each have the option to present a candidate.

An even more different approach: Don't Elect. Select.

In Don't Elect. Select, our government officials would be selected, not by voting but using passive criteria. For example, the Senate might consist of the most newly retired of the 10 largest nonprofits, a randomly selected CEO of the S&P Midcap 400, the Police Officer of America's Cop of the Year, the National Teacher of the Year, the most award-winning scientist under age 30, a randomly selected Harvard visual/performing arts instructor, plus random citizens.  To ensure sufficient but not excessive continuity, the senators would every four years, anonymously rate each others' job performance, and the top 25% would retain their job for the next four years and the other 75% would be selected using the passive criteria mentioned in this paragraph.

The benefits of this system:

  • We’d have a more worthy and ideationally diverse group of leaders.
  • Because there would be no campaigns, our leaders would not be beholden to big donors.
  • The public would view such a leadership with more respect than they have for our elected candidates.
  • The absence of campaigns would save the public a fortune. Just our income tax form’s $3-per-person check-off box to political campaigns is projected to, over the next 10 years, cost the taxpayer $617 million[i].

Of course, one might argue that the incumbent politicians would never allow it. After all, the foxes are guarding the hen house. But I believe the media, equally eager to see better leaders, would urge the electorate to support candidates who would vote for a fairer selection system. And politicians, concerned about their place in history, would feel pressure to support the change. History would view politicians that voted themselves out of a job for the good of the nation as heroes, while no-voting politicians would be seen as self-serving obstructionists.

Another objection is that Don’t Elect. Select would require a Constitutional amendment, which is no easy task, but the Constitution has already been amended 27 times. I can’t think of a more worthy reason for number 28.

This is an adapted excerpt from from my just-published seventh book: What's the Big Idea? 39 Disruptive Proposals for a Better America.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Are We Sure Enough that Democracy is Best?

Most people accept, as an article of faith, that democracy is better than dictatorship. Indeed, the U.S. spends billions trying to convert dictatorships to democracies...except, of course, the dictatorships the U.S. likes.

But is there sufficient evidence that democracy, net, is superior to dictatorship, to what Voltaire advocated: benevolent despotism? (He called it, "enlightened absolutism.")

Examples: King Frederick the Great and Empress Catherine II of Russia  incorporated many ideas of enlightened philosophies and were great advocates of tolerance and of the arts. 

Of course, we can point to dictatorships that were a huge net negative: for example, Hitler, Idi Amin, Stalin, and Robert Mugabe. But many democracies also do poorly, although they're less likely to yield extreme failures because of democracy's self-regulating nature.

The question is whether we should accept as an unquestioned postulate that democracy is so superior to dictatorship/benevolent despotism that there is no better way for the U.S. to spend the billions of our tax dollars it spends every year trying to convert dictatorships into democracies, often unsuccessfully.

Certainly, democracy has advantages: The citizenry is more likely to feel buy-in, ownership in the country's laws and mores. There's the stability that accrues from democracy's self-regulatory nature. There's the cosmic justice that leaders are selected based on the collective decision-making of the electorate  And the decision to elect a person represents a lot of collective wisdom: the entire electorate's. That's crowdsourcing on a massive scale.

That said, democracy has serious liabilities:

The electorate is manipulated by ever more sophisticated "messaging teams" so that who we vote for is heavily based, not on who'd be best at running the country, but on which candidate has the most effective propaganda machine.

The people who run for democratically elected office must run a constant four-year press-the-flesh campaign, thereby deterring many top people for considering becoming a government leader.

Democratically-derived legislation leads to tepid compromise that has been ironed out over months and years rather than bold decisions made quickly. Yes, often, compromise, deliberateness, and moderation are optimal, but sometimes bold, individually derived initiatives would be wiser. Those are difficult to come by in a democracy. 

This list of democracy's and dictatorship's pros and cons is not meant to be exhaustive but only to justify the worthiness of considering this question: Are we too blithely assuming that democracy is such a net good that, in these tight budget times, that there is no better use of the billions of dollars we taxpayers spend every year trying to get other countries to change their "misguided" ways?  

 I truly am not sure but am interested in your thoughts. 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Upcoming US News Blog and Speaking Engagements

The start date for my weekly U.S. News career blog is Dec. 3. My first post will be Workplace/Career Predictions and Trends for 2013. 

As mentioned in a previous post, my contract with U.S. News requires my posts be original to U.S. News, but I can re-post them here a week later. So, my next career post here will be Dec 10, when I will re-post that Predictions and Trends piece.

For those of you'd like my current career advice now, here are options:

Sunday, October 14, 2012

How to Be Smart in a Stupid World

  • Before making a decision, even a small one, ask yourself, "What's the risk/reward or cost/benefit of each option?"
  • Draw your political perspectives from the likes of Tom Friedman, David Gergen, and Charles Krauthammer not from entertainers, for example, Jon Stewart, Dennis Miller, or Stephen Colbert, let alone Angelina Jolie, Adam Sandler, or Bono.
  • Patronize The Economist, The PBS News Hour, CSpan, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal rather than TimeThe Daily Beast, Cable Network TV News, or the Huffington Post, let alone floggers (no it's not a typo) such as the Daily Kos or Daily Caller
  • Prefer people who have developed intelligently derived views from both liberal and conservative perspectives rather than people who are liberal or conservative on everything.
  • Draw your beliefs more from non-fiction, for example, good biographies or books on leadership than from fiction: novels, movies, and plays. Fiction creators are artists. I don't believe it's wise to form one's views based disproportionately on artists' input.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

To Find a Job, Break the Rules

Standard job-search techniques aren't working well.

My clients are having more success using the strategies I describe in To Find a Job, Break the Rules. It's published in the current issue of Bottom Line Personal.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Which Colleges or Graduate Schools Should You Apply To?

This time of year, many people are choosing the colleges and graduate schools to apply to.

You'll likely create a wiser list if you ask an admissions person the questions among these that are relevant to your situation:
  • For a student with my grades and test scores, what's the average freshman-to-senior growth in reading  writing, etc? (If you're told that the institution doesn't collect that data, it suggests they don't care enough about student growth to do so.)
  • What percentage of freshmen with my grades, test scores, and planned major, graduate within four years? Five years?  If it's a graduate program, what is the average, not the expected, time it takes to complete the degree?
  • My family makes $X a year and has, not counting their home, has $Y in assets. My GPA is Z and my SAT/GRE etc is Q.  Approximately, how much am I likely to end up paying in cash and how much loan will I be expected to take? And what will my package look like in years 2-4? Year 5 and beyond?
  • In your institution's most recent accreditation review, did it receive a full ten-year term? What did the accreditation's visiting team report cite as your institution's greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses? 
  • Would you email me a copy of the results of the most recent student or alumni satisfaction survey?
  • What percentage of graduates in my planned major are professionally employed within a year of graduation?

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Most Anti-Capitalist Scene Ever?

Some days, I lean capitalist, other days more socialist. This scene from Death of a Salesman pushes me leftward.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

A Sampler from the One-Woman Show I Co-Wrote and Piano-Accompanied

Here's a six-minute sampler from the one-woman show I co-wrote and piano-accompanied, Big, Black, and Shy. 

It starts with the performer, Jeffrie Givens, recreating an incident as a preschooler that reveals her extreme shyness. It includes a cameo appearance by my doggie Einstein.

At 1;04, there's the first snippet of her remarkable singing/performing ability.

That's followed by the improbable (and funny) true story of how I helped her go from being so shy to someone who performs in front of thousands of people.

At 3:45, she ends her show with a song the lyrics of which embed a lesson we all could probably benefit from.

As you'll see, she got a standing ovation, as she has every time she's performed the show.


My Approach to Being a Talk Show Host and Producer

Today, I entered my 24th year as producer and host of Work with Marty Nemko. So I figure it's not a bad time to tell you a bit about how I do it.

These ideas might be instructive not just for talk show producers and hosts but more broadly.

I choose guests with little regard to how much media experience they have. I care mainly that their mind is fertile, their content fresh and important, and they can think on their feet--I pre-interview most guests.

To help compensate for their lacking media experience, I embed these tips in the email I send them confirming their appearance:
Guests often ask me, "What makes a successful interview on your show?" Of course, it varies with the topic, but generally speaking, a good guest offers non-obvious but important information, entertainingly dispensed, for example, with a good anecdote.

My guests have also found the following tip helpful. Follow "The Traffic Light" rule of thumb: During the first 30 seconds of an utterance, your imaginary "light" is green: your audience is paying attention. During the next 30 seconds, your light is yellow: Some people are starting to space out and/or think you're long-winded. After the 60-second mark, your light is red. Yes, there are occasional times you want to run a red light, for example, when you're telling a clearly interesting story or when an answer requires a bit more than 60 seconds, but generally you should stop. If more info is warranted, I'll ask a follow-up question. Using the traffic-light rule of thumb ensures the change of voices that makes an interview more of a vibrant exchange than a series of lecturettes. 
I strive to be authentic. For example, some talk show hosts use a "radio talk show voice." I speak naturally, conversationally. My career counseling clients that have heard me on the radio say I sound exactly the same. My favorite radio host, This American Life's Ira Glass has made the same choice. His voice could win an award for least likely to be a radio host yet his show is one of the most celebrated in radio history.

I sometimes script my introductions, other times not. There's an authenticity that comes from a non-scripted introduction but I've learned how to read a script so it doesn't sound scripted: I paraphrase and/or add a bit to the script, ad-lib.

For my typical half-hour interview, I usually prepare six to eight questions. I put them in a planned order but after asking the first question, I listen carefully to the answer so I can decide whether to comment, ask an unplanned follow-up question, or go to one of my planned questions. Listening well is very important and very underrated.

I send my planned questions to my guest in advance. My goal is not to stump him or her; it's to elicit the most thoughtful, rich answers s/he can generate.

Some listeners decide whether to keep listening based on the guest's answer to my first question so that question is usually the one I think will most interest my listeners and that my guest is likely to answer wonderfully. 

If there's a really tough question I want to ask, for example, one that invites a candid admission, I ask it right after s/he's given a great answer and is feeling relaxed. An example of when that worked particularly well  was when I interviewed Los Angeles Dodger great, Maury Wills. At the right moment, I asked, "Hall-of-Famer Don Sutton was always suspected of doctoring the baseball so it would do weird curves when pitched. How'd he do it?" Wills responded, "Oh, I kept a bit of emery cloth in my glove and when the ball was thrown around the infield after an out, I'd rub the ball against the emery and throw it back to the pitcher." For those of you who aren't baseball cognoscenti, he admitted committing an offense serious enough to warrant a suspension from baseball and maybe even get Sutton's Hall of Fame status asterisked. 

While I try to be kind to my guests, my main obligation is to my listeners. So when necessary, I will probe and be tough on guests if it will better serve my listeners. Similarly, during the show's call-in segment, while I try as hard as I can to help each caller, if I feel the air-time will be better spent if I interrupt, I do so even though it may seem rude.

While I try to err on the side of being encouraging to callers, I'm not afraid to be discouraging. For example, today, a caller asked what I thought of her business idea of having play-centric workshops for dog owners: creating Halloween costumes for dogs, how your doggie can help you deal with winter's cabin fever, etc. My response was that I don't believe people would pay enough money to make that more than a hobby. I suggested instead that she, who has lots of experience with dogs, dog owners, and their psychology, offer petology counseling: pet bereavement counseling or how to deal with being told, for example, that their pet has cancer requiring expensive treatment, which the owner can't afford. The caller was disappointed I didn't like her idea but I believe that she and the listeners were better served by my straight shooting. 

I must admit to occasionally and reluctantly pulling punches in areas of political correctness. Dare an idea of mine veer right of center even occasionally, I engender such anger from the supposedly tolerant liberal NPR audience that they often contact the station demanding I be taken off the air. It's hard to make myself continue to endure such opprobrium. So, increasingly, I've found myself skirting such issues. 

Often now, when I want to tackle a controversial topic I do it by moderating a debate between two equally-skilled protagonists. Or I might debate myself: I first do the best I can advocating for one side then the best I can in taking the other side and finally inviting callers to weigh in. Perhaps most fun, my wife and occasional co-conspirator on the show, Barbara Nemko, and I are the debaters and, in the middle, we switch sides. That way, the listeners can choose the side they find most persuasive, unaffected by which debater is better.

Producing and hosting Work with Marty Nemko has been one of my life's most rewarding activities. If you have a fertile mind and can think on your feet, you might want to try it but don't expect it to be remunerative. Even if it's not, it's still worth doing. And if you do it without expecting pay, it's relatively easy to broadcast your show, for example, by podcasting, or on a public-access television station or campus radio station.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Muslim Employment and Marketing

The Muslim population is growing rapidly worldwide. In the U.S, it's expected to double by 2030 to 6.2 million.

Here are some thoughts regarding careers for and serving Muslims and marketing to Muslims:

Sensitivity to Muslim employees' needs
  • Observant Muslims pray five times a day. In many if not most situations, it seems to me reasonable for an employer to offer Muslim employers flexible hours. Of course, s/he must get as much work done as a non-Muslim employee.
  • Just as employers have appropriately become more tolerant of employees that wear nose rings and tattoos, even in customer-facing positions, I believe employers should not be biased against job candidates that wear a hijab and burka (veil and modest outfit,) even in customer-facing positions. That said, as of now, it may be easier for Muslims to find professional-level work in such fields as accounting, engineering, and writing, for example, technical writing.
Attracting Muslim consumers
  • Observant Muslims value sexual modesty, religiosity, and family. Advertising that reflects that will be more effective.
  • Clothiers expecting to appeal to Muslim women should, in addition to hijabs and burkas, American-style dresses and skirts, but of longer length, even in the summer months.
  • Consider an advertising campaign around Eid, which is a gift-giving holiday.
  • Muslims are forbidden to touch alcohol or pork. Much makeup uses alcohol and pork fats. To attract Muslim consumers, vendors should sell makeup with neither. 
FYI: You might ask, "Why would someone with veil-covered face care to wear makeup?" Answer: She is allowed to remove the veil at home.
Employment and Self-Employment Opportunities Serving Muslims
  • Observant Muslim women will not disrobe for medical examinations and treatments if the practitioner is a man. More female health care providers are needed, especially those speaking Arabic and/or Farsi.
  • Muslims eat Halal meat, in which animals are slaughtered in, let's just say a different, way. Muslims also eat more goat than do other groups. Halal meat farmers and distributors should thrive.
  • Muslims are not allowed to charge interest on loans. There are workarounds. Financiers who specialize in Sukuk, bonds, where the lender takes part-ownership, should do well.
  • Halal-friendly tourism: tours offering Halal food, hotels with sex-segregated pools and that do not serve alcohol, schedules that allow five prayer periods a day, include Mosque visits, etc. 
  • Halal personal chefs
  • Islamic studies programs are burgeoning at universities. While in most fields, PhDs have trouble landing a professorship, it may be easier for PhDs in Islamic Studies.
  • The CIA and related agencies seek candidates competent in one or more Middle Eastern languages and cultures. 
  • Muslim psychologists, especially "matrimonial counselors." While there is a growing Muslim feminist movement, most Muslim relationships are different from typical Americans'. Psychologists and other counselors who understand and respect the Muslim approach to relationships may flourish. 
  • Teachers in Muslim schools. Muslim schools in the U.S. are increasing.  
  • In business development or sales, you may want to develop a plan to tap the worldwide Arab market: 350,000,000 consumers, not just in the Middle East but in Africa, and in countries such as Indonesia and Pakistan.