Tuesday, May 3, 2016

A choice of embarrassments

Endless Wall Trail over New River Gorge near Lansing. Via LiveAndLetHike.
So David Brooks ("The Choice Explosion") seems to have started his project of atoning for his failure as a journalist and changing the way he does his job, venturing out into that vast dark forest where the Trump voters lurk to get "socially intermingled" with them, trying to find out, as Trump himself would put it, "just what in the hell is going on". At least his column today has a dateline, just like a Friedman column—"Lansing, W.Va."

But he hasn't actually started on any of that social intermingling yet, though it looks like a location well supplied with undereducated and underemployed white guys—not even with a taxi driver.

(Incidentally, some years ago I was able to demonstrate that Thomas Friedman almost never speaks to a taxi driver in the preparation of a column; he's gotten a bad rap on that for some reason, and I think it's time for people to stop spreading this calumny. How dare they suggest that the Mystax Magnificens would make a habit of seeking information from someone without power or fame, the way a vulgar newspaper reporter might do?)

Instead he seems to be holed up in his hotel room reading self-help books for distressed MBAs—principally Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work (2013), by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, the bestselling authors of Making it Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (2007) and Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard (2010). I imagine he must have been having trouble deciding which bits of the Heartland to visit. Turns out there are literally dozens of different places in these United States, and you can't go to all of them on a columnist's severe deadline schedule. This embarras de choix is a typical problem for all of us today:
Americans now have more choices over more things than any other culture in human history. We can choose between a broader array of foods, media sources, lifestyles and identities. We have more freedom to live out our own sexual identities and more religious and nonreligious options to express our spiritual natures.
Moreover we Americans seem to like it that way, unlike Japanese people, who prefer to have their choices made for them, according to research Brooks quotes from Sheena Iyengar (Professor of Business in the Division of Management at Columbia Business School), I assume discussed in her TED talk. And this has the unfortunate consequence that many of our decisions are bad ones:
As Chip Heath and Dan Heath point out in their book “Decisive,” 83 percent of corporate mergers and acquisitions do not increase shareholder value, 40 percent of senior hires do not last 18 months in their new position, 44 percent of lawyers would recommend that a young person not follow them into the law.
These are obviously consequences of people having too many choices. Clearly it has nothing to do with CEOs being stupid and greed-blinded or attorneys realizing too late that choosing wealth over meaningful work was a mistake.

I imagine Lansing, W.Va. turned out to be one of those suboptimal choices—it's actually three miles from the nearest motels, in Fayetteville, where he also could have stayed at the three-star Historic Morris Harvey House Bed & Breakfast, which might be more his kind of place. The only lodging options in the unincorporated town of Lansing itself would be a cabin at the Opossum Creek Retreat or a whitewater rafting camp; one of the rafting spots, Class VI–Mountain River, does have an open-air tavern, but perhaps the local folks don't drink there.
The Heaths recommend making deliberate mistakes. A survey of new brides found that 20 percent were not initially attracted to the man they ended up marrying. Sometimes it’s useful to make a deliberate “mistake” — agreeing to dinner with a guy who is not your normal type. 
Whether traveling to Lansing was a deliberate mistake, a deliberate "mistake" (was it a deliberate error to repeat the phrase with the added quotation marks?), or an entirely random error, he doesn't dwell on it. Indeed, he doesn't even mention the place after the dateline, which is a shame, because it sounds really beautiful, and I'm sure it does have at least some inhabitants. He just soldiers on with his Heath brothers, sharing some of their wisdom, making the best of a decision that didn't work out quite right. I made the choice of not reading it very carefully.

The policy proposal is that all schools need "explicit decision making curriculums". Not clear whether it's the decision or the curriculum that needs to be explicit.
This is probably especially important for schools that serve the less fortunate. The explosion of choice places extra burdens on the individual. Poorer Americans have fewer resources to master decision-making techniques, less social support to guide their decision-making and less of a safety net to catch them when they err.
They also have fewer choices, in virtually every respect, which is probably discomfiting for them, since most are not Japanese. Indeed I wonder whether some of those discontented white guys and potential Trump voters Brooks is so concerned about might have relatively fewer options available to them than, say, David Brooks does, in terms of everything from what lovely little four-year residential liberal arts college to go to and which bride to select to what delicious meal to order in from Blue Apron or Home Chef. Brooks seems to have heard a little about that on a recent visit to Pennsylvania, where he did find somebody to talk to:
A school principal I met in Pittsburgh observed that living in an area of concentrated poverty can close down your perceived options, and comfortably “relieve you of the burden of choosing life.” It’s hard to maintain a feeling of agency when you see no chance of opportunity.

In this way the choice explosion has contributed to widening inequality.
That's certainly one way of looking at it. Or maybe widening inequality has contributed to the sense that some people have an abnormal number of choices open to them where others have none, and they happen to include everybody David Brooks knows.

Rafting near Lansing, via Quality Inn.

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