Where’s the Win?

In a discussion about mortgages and foreclosure, someone commented that a system has to allow for failure if it is to have any chance of success. This is not unlike the theological argument that forced confession does not engender faith. Even more so, I think this is analogous to the idea that winning a competition is meaningless unless there was a real chance of losing the competition. It’s hard to boast if everyone wins.
I think the commentator was pointing to the genius of free market capitalism. All things being equal, the most industrious and effective people win. But all things are not equal and the ideology of capitalism is no more applied in the real world than the ideology of communism. They are interesting economic theories, but have little to do with the world we live in.
When groups organized around the principle of capital creation grow powerful enough, they change the rules to reduce the possibility of losing. An empty victory is still a victory because the capital continues to grow.
I think the commentator was missing the problem entirely.
Mortgage lenders stand to loose a tremendous about of money through foreclosure. Our country stands to loose a tremendous asset of patriotism through the loss of a sense of rootedness in the land. Corporations loose a level of dedication in their labor force rooted in the sense of indentured servitude a thirty year mortgage conveys.
What does an individual or family stand to loose through foreclosure? Is their sense of financial security better or worse without paying two and a half times the purchase price of a home that is worth only two thirds of that price? Will they have more or less to save for retirement and health care costs? Will they have more or less to save for their children’s education? Is it better or worse to be able to move closer to one’s workplace?
I think a system has to allow for success if it is to continue.


Why aren’t you Occupy-ing?

I’ve been talking to people about the various Occupy actions, with a particular focus on OccupyMN because that’s where I live.

I started with my parents. A playful tease. Yes, I am old enough to know better. Yes, I am old enough to feel embarrassed about having done this. My parents were born just as the Great Depression got underway — now you see why I feel a little embarrassed.

When I heard they were going to D.C., I asked if they’d be joining the protest.

Their first response was “what protest” — early days — Occupy Wall Street was only in it’s third week at this point. Even so, I was surprised because my parents are politically savvy news hounds. If the main-stream media have covered a topic, they know about it.

Their next response was, “Don’t be silly. We are too old for such things.” Never mind that my parents aren’t the protesting kind. They are more the pro-democracy, keen on honoring human rights, silent sentinels of the cold war kind of people.

Together since their youth, they have dedicated their entire adult lives to defending freedom. For thirty-two years, they served the U.S. Navy. Now they support a national heritage site, provide scholarships for the children of sailors, and volunteer at the polls.

It’s not their way to protest the unilateral reduction of their retirement contract. It’s not their way to protest the denial of basic civil rights to some of their children and grandchildren. They might talk about it. They will definitely vote about it. But you won’t find them on the streets carrying signs.

What about you? Are you just not the kind of person to take to the streets? Do you disagree with the message? Are you confused by the lack of message? Are you waiting for them to ‘land’?

If you haven’t connected with the Occupy actions, why not? Some of the responses I’ve heard are included below. Please add your thoughts too.

What would you do?

Recognizing that October in Minnesota doesn’t inspire a lot of causal milling about outside, I been wondering what motivates people to OccupyMN.

Okay, even Minnesotans ask the broader question: why does anyone live here? If you’re curious too, it’s the people. For my part, I didn’t fall in love with Minnesota so much as with a particular Minnesotan.

I’ve been asking people, “what brings you out to Government Plaza today?” Turns out it’s the people: children and grandchildren, neighbors who struggle to make ends meet, patients who don’t get the care they need. For the record, I haven’t heard anyone demanding personal bailouts. The people I’ve talked to are concerned about others.

So I changed my question.

If you could make one change in our society, what would it be?

Some initial responses are posted below. Please add your own.


Facilitating Large Meetings

A grouping of more than ten people who want to discuss issues requires a different style of facilitation than committee meetings or lectures.

A typical committee or business meeting includes fewer than ten people and typically drives toward acheiving one to three goals. These goals might include sharing the status of an on-going project, developing a recommendation for decision makers, or deciding on a course of action. Effective meetings require planning, coordination and purpose. Effective meetings stay on point and adhere to the publicized agenda. Effective meetings are summarized in minutes.

Large gatherings are different in a number of ways. These gatherings tend to be one-way communication, like lectures, with time set aside for questions at the end or multi-faceted discussions intended to surface various point of view. They tend to focus on one subject, but can be expanded to focus on many.

If you are facilitating a large multi-faceted discussion intent on surfacing various points of view certain minimal structures are critical to your success.

  1. Introduce the Topic(s)
  2. Address Maintenance Issues
  3. Ensure Everyone Understands the Topic(s)
  4. Subdivide the Conversation
  5. Re-address the purpose of the meeting

Introduce the topic or topics of discussion. People who thought you were planning to address something else can leave at this point.

Address maintenace issues separately. Any gathering of people, for any duration needs to understand a few basic things about the gathering. Devote less than five mintues to this. These are things not open for discussion.

You are informing the group about hygene issues, e.g.

  • bathroom at the end of the hall on the left
  • food and drink at the back of the meeting space
  • facilities people have badges

You are also discussing the mechanics of the meeting, e.g.

  • please raise your hand to ask a question
  • we will (or will not) be taking breaks as a group
  • you will (or will not) have a chance to share your opinion with the group
  • these are the activites and times planned for this meeting

Ensure everyone understands the topic and the reason for gathering to discuss it. For example, “We are here to discuss Situation X and possible solutions.” If people disagree with the description of Situation X, you may need to take time to hear divergent views of the situation before moving to the discussion of possible solutions. You, the facilitator, get to decide how much time you will devote to this discussion and how you will describe the situation to discuss. If people want to discuss a different situation they may do so elsewhere.

Subdivide the conversation. There are basically two ways to do this: as a group or in sub-groups.

If everyone needs to hear everything as it is presented, you might set up three to five speaking stations, each devoted to a broad categorization of views. Allow each speaker a specified time to speak (say two minutes) and rotate permission to speak among the stations. At the end of this open-speaker portion of the meeting, summarize the views shared at each station.

If it is not critical for everyone to hear everything as it is presented, small group discussions can be very effective. Participants self-select groups broadly representing their views. In these groups, participants share the reason they hold a particular view. Each small group summarizes their position and presents it to the group. This is similar to the faciliators summarizing the views shared at each speaking station.

Re-address the purpose of the meeting. You’re on the home stretch. The group has agreed to the topic(s), surfaced important ideas about the topic(s) and gained a perspective about the topic(s). If this was the goal, great, you’re almost done. If you’ve gathered to decide on an action, now is the time to poll the group. In a perfect world, the group agrees on an action and everyone goes away happy. Sometimes they need a second round. That’s okay, but it’s not part of this meeting.

Publicize the results. You thought you were done, didn’t you? If no one can remember what was decided, you’ll end up re-hashing the whole conversation later. Summarize the major points of the meeting and share it with everyone you invited.

? ? ? MIGHT makes RIGHT ? ? ?

I wrote this on the ground at the plaza where OccupyMN has gathered. As I did so, a person came up to me to let me know “they” won’t like that. The police, you know, won’t let  me write on the ground. “Chalking,” they called it, knowingly.

“A woman was arrested last night for chalking. This is a public square, you know, paid for by taxes. They don’t want to clean up your mess.”

I thanked them for their concern. Walking away, they scoffed, “hardly worth getting thrown in jail for”.

I went back to my big, bold, pink letters. “MIGHT makes RIGHT” I surrounded them with big, bold, blue question marks.

It would be a silly thing to get arrested for. Imagine the headlines. “Bad Nana Caught Dusty-Handed Playing with Sidewalk Chalk in Public.”

It’s so silly, so absurd, it would be worth it.

I will NOT calm down

When I saw a person holding this sign at OccupyMN Sunday afternoon, it struck a cord.

When one thinks they are being taken advantage of, or thinks others are being taken advantage of, being calm is not a rational response.

When I shared this sign via Twitter, someone noted the irony. Shouldn’t I advocate calmness if I’m thinking about peace?

Is it odd to agitate for peace?

Working toward a more peaceful existence means being willing to offend the sensibilities of those who exploit others.

Mortgages are not Social Contracts

Mortgages are annuities, financial instruments, not social contracts. Familial relationships, households, are social contracts. Our closest bonds form the fabric of our social structure. Changes in one household ripple through other households. Unjust acts in one household damage other households. Generally, we pressure each other to behave honorably. Sometimes we ask one person to maintain their household structure even though they are being treated unjustly within it. Here I am referring to abusive relationships and the social censure the abused faces when trying to dissolve the relationship.

Mortgages are not social contracts. When one household borrows money to purchase a home, they are not promising to help their neighbors maintain the value of their own investments. If a store offered to charge a minimum price for an item so that they and other stores could make a profit, we’d call it price fixing. We’d say it was illegal — unless they were selling gas, but that’s another question for another time.

Mortgages are financial instruments, annuities, like savings accounts. A person might offer to let a bank hold, and use, their money in return for a small periodic fee. Typically the bank reserves the right to change that fee at anytime. If the fee, the interest rate, is too small, the person might move that money to another bank. Too bad for that person the Federal Reserve sets interest rates, but that’s another question for another time.

A bank might offer to let a person use their money in return for a small periodic fee. They don’t want the person to change the fee at will, so they ask the person to agree to pay a specified interest rate, or rates, for as long as they are using that money. Banks also know that they can’t just move their money from one person to another if the first person isn’t paying enough. The money typically isn’t there. So they secure their investment with physical property of equal or greater value. Essentially banks are buying a financial interest in a physical property.

Generally, if a store tried to substitute one item for another, say glass for diamond, we’d call it fraud. If a broker tried to sell financial interest in a company that didn’t exist, we’d call it fraud. If real estate is said to have a greater value than it does, we call it ____?

Banks have purchased financial interest in physical property of lesser value than their investment. Sounds like a bad business decision. One way to remedy this is to drop the bad investment and move to more profitable investments. That’s business. Another is to convince people the physical property is worth more than the investment. That’s fraud.

One way to convince people that the physical property is worth more than the investment is to attach emotional equity – a social contract – to it. Still fraud.

Disengage – Focus Forward

Attacking the person never addresses the issue, but it has the power to dominate the conversation and destroy creative energy. Your creative energy.

When people think others are suffering and offer insults, they are trying to distance themselves. They are reassuring themselves they will never experience that kind of pain because they are different, better. It’s nice to think who we are insulates us from what we might experience. But it doesn’t.

Nothing hurts more than being told we deserve every bad thing that has come our way. Nothing hurts more than having our earnest efforts to do well dismissed.

People who insult you are not open to conversation. They are not trying to understand you or even to change you. They are just angry because you are reminding them that who they are cannot protect them from what they might experience.

You don’t have to answer. You should not answer.

Not in the moment. Not later when you are refining your ideas and the way you want to present them. Doing so can consume all of your effort.

Democracy needs your ideas. Disengage from personal attacks. Focus forward. Share your ideas with those who will listen.

Being Heard w/o a Microphone

Democracy depends on participation. Democracy depends on you.

You deserve a chance to speak. You deserve to be heard. Here are a few tips that can help you project your voice without exhausting yourself.

The basics: Air – O – Ah:

  • Air: Breath deeply a few times before you address a large crowd. This will calm your mind and support your voice.
  • O: Focus on the vowels, they carry your voice
  • Ah-ha: Speak to the person furthest back in the crowd. They will smile and get it.

As you inhale, imagine you are filling your lungs all the way down to your feet. As you speak, feel that air coming up from the ground below your feet and effortlessly carrying your message as far as you want it to go. Give a little more time to your vowels, they will thank you for it by making your voice easier to understand.

Two additional points:

  • Relax. This isn’t the only time you’ll get to address a large crowd. You don’t have to race to get everything you want to say into one quick breath.
  • When competing to be heard, choose wisely. The airplane will always win.