Obama’s Design Thinking

(Editor’s Note: a meme like “design thinking” hasn’t really been beaten to death until it’s been associated with and used to explain popular culture :-)

There were two lines in President Obama’s inaugural speech that caught my attention, signaling him as someone who can think beyond the prevailing frames and design new situations. In both cases he rejects the binary framing that so often colors U.S. politics (think Democrat/Republican, Liberal/Conservative…) They are:

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.

Right, we can have both. They are simply design constraints, and if you decide to obey both constraints you are forced to generate new options.

The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works, whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.

Obama will probably cut hard in some places that are wasteful, pleasing fiscal conservatives, and spend heavily in others to stimulate the economy, pleasing social progressives. Here he makes it clear he does not fall neatly into either camp, looking instead to rational measures of progress.

Google Earth Convinces Bush to Act on Darfur

On the bright side, this story of how President Bush acted after seeing a Google Earth depiction of the burned out homes in Darfur is a great story about the power of visualization. But really, was the administration waiting four years to act because the bullet points weren’t powerful enough?

  • At least 400,000 people have been killed
  • More than 2 million innocent civilians have been forced to flee their homes and now live in displaced-persons camps in Sudan or in refugee camps in neighboring Chad
  • More than 3.5 million men, women, and children are completely reliant on international aid for survival

Shoot Your Polling Place (U.S. only)

The Polling Place Photo Project is a nationwide experiment in citizen journalism that seeks to empower citizens to capture, post and share photographs of democracy in action. By documenting their local voting experience on November 7, voters can contribute to an archive of photographs that captures the richness and complexity of voting in America.

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Prosperity vs. freedom in China

The recent Frontline documentary on China, The Tank Man, set a striking contrast of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests against the business and economic boom created since then. They describe this flow one to the other as an unspoken social contract between the government and the people: we’ll give you jobs and prosperity if you accept the status quo on social freedoms. And yet they also point out the rapid growth in protests throughout the country. Is this a contradiction? Is the government just buying time?

Positive solutions that are neither left nor right

In this Bruce Mau talk on Global Creativity, he mostly discusses the Massive Change exhibit. But at the end he drops this, without making it clear how it’s tied in… (my paraphrasing)

Why are we seeing things on the political right and left that are both interesting? They should be at odds. What we realized is that there’s another political axis, and that’s what the project is about. There’s another axis at 90 degrees from the left and right which create a paradigm that is increasingly cumbersome and unproductive. And this new axis is about advanced and positive, rather than retrograde and not.

I sense the existence of this axis intuitively, but it’s difficult to conceptualize examples of this given the constant left-right framing we do. Days after hearing Mau I read Million-Dollar Murray by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker. To summarize/spoil it, some issues in society have a power-law distribution with regard to how they harm us, rather than a normal bell-curve distribution. Gladwell illustrates this with the examples of homelessness, police brutality, and car pollution, all cases where a small percentage account for the overwhelmingly largest costs. In comparing this to our usual political methods for dealing with these problems, he finds real progress is at Mau’s axis, 90 degrees to the left and right…

Solving problems that have power-law distributions doesn’t just violate our moral intuitions; it violates our political intuitions as well. It’s hard not to conclude, in the end, that the reason we treated the homeless as one hopeless undifferentiated group for so long is not simply that we didn’t know better. It’s that we didn’t want to know better. It was easier the old way.

Power-law solutions have little appeal to the right, because they involve special treatment for people who do not deserve special treatment; and they have little appeal to the left, because their emphasis on efficiency over fairness suggests the cold number-crunching of Chicago-school cost-benefit analysis.

I have to think, religion aside, that Jesus was trying to tell us this a long time ago in the story of the father that welcomes back his prodigal son with a feast. Our political institutions are like the other brother who feels cheated, but the wise father knows it’s better to solve problems than manage them.

Is Angie a design thinker?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is making waves at Davos. I like her attitude: “She acknowledged the political necessity to move ‘in small steps.’ She added, ‘In Germany, sometimes things never get going because one doesn’t know how it will work out, and maybe it’s better to do nothing. That’s not my maxim.’

Balancing the heart and head is an old problem…

For the problem is simply how can warm passion and a cool sense of proportion be forged together in one and the same soul? Politics is made with the head, not with other parts of the body or soul. And yet devotion to politics, if it is not to be frivolous intellectual play but rather genuinely human conduct, can be born and nourished from passion alone. However, that firm taming of the soul, which distinguishes the passionate politician and differentiates him from the ‘sterilely excited’ and mere political dilettante, is possible only through habituation to detachment in every sense of the word. The ‘strength’ of a political ‘personality’ means, in the first place, the possession of these qualities of passion, responsibility, and proportion.

— Max Weber, Politics as a Vocation, 1918

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Sorry, I’m not sorry

I’ll go on the record here and say that Sorry Everybody is contrary to the ideals that make America what it is. I voted against Bush, but that doesn’t make me want to apologize to the rest of the world that he won. He won because we are a Republic with a democratic voting process that elected him. To say that we screwed up just because our guy didn’t win is to say there’s something wrong with democracy. Until something better comes along, I’ll stick with democracy, thanks.

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Political framing: Taxes

After Christina shared George Lakoff’s ideas on framing, I’ve been thinking about developing new frames from a progressive political point of view. We can’t simply react to what the conservatives do, we must proactively create the future.

Under the radar, President Bush is gradually moving towards a flat tax, and along the way the changes to the tax code will benefit the rich and hurt the middle class. The goal of my frame is to communicate to the middle class (many of whom voted for Bush against their own economic interests) how this harms them.

My idea is to succinctly and consistently repeat one phrase that communicates how this personally hurts a middle class American. I started by finding the average salary in the U.S., which is $36,520. I’ll round that up to $40K for my purposes, both to use a nice round, memorable number and to be appeal to people’s aspirations. Then I checked the tax tables which are available back to ’92. I came up with:

“Just before Bush was elected, a married person making $40,000 a year paid $6,000 in taxes. Now that person pays ____ in taxes.”

Theoretically taxes will be higher by the next presidential election. As of 2003 they were actually lower (which is even more scary, in that taxes were lowered and a war is being paid for at a time of historically high debt), but that will probably change, even if we have to crash first.

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Debate commentary

Katharine Q. Seelye’s live commentary of the presidential debate is better reading than the debate itself…

9:33 p.m.
Bush should probably not laugh in response to a question about why health care costs so much.

She must be there, or watching a non-delayed feed, as her comments come up before the candidate’s answer. It’s a great way to view what they’re saying through an expert analyst’s point of view.

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