Monday, May 31, 2010

The Mind of Young America

If the young are our future, we have a problem. That's what you would have to conclude after reading the recent studies about the millennial generation's empathy deficit.

You would also have to wonder at the irony of it all. Therapy and its culture have been touting the value of empathy for decades now. The culture at large believes in empathy, in feeling for other people, beyond almost any other values. Bill Clinton taught us how to feel everyone's pain, and the educational establishment has made schoolwork more feeling friendly.

But, why then are today's young people so deficient in this primary human social skill?

How deficient are they? According to a University of Michigan study college students today are 40% less empathetic than their counterparts of 20 and 30 years ago. Link here. Via Dr. Helen.

The study suggests that today's college students could care less about anyone else and are not in the least interested in seeing things from anyone else's perspective.

So, no one is feeling anyone's pain any more. And this means that these students have no real sense of belonging to a community or of the importance of interacting with other human beings. It seems that they took all that talk about independence and autonomy a little too seriously for their own good.

But where could they have learned such things? Aren't they all liberal Democrats, don't they feel for the poor and the unfortunate among us, don't they all yearn to do community service, don't they support every imaginable program to help the less fortunate, and don't they feel deeply for the whales, the polar bears, and the dolphins?

How does it happen that they have all of these deep feelings and are still self-absorbed and self-indulgent to the point of behaving like full blown narcissists.

Here political correctness makes a contribution, especially by teaching young people to be intolerant of differing political and cultural viewpoints. If you tell people that they should only listen to people whose ideas echo their own, you are in the business of producing narcissists. Remember that the mythic Narcissus attracted the unrequited love of a nymph named Echo.

It also true that many of these students have invested their caring feelings so completely in whales and seals that they might not have very much left for their fellow humans. If you learned how to care by watching movies about polar bears you are developing a care muscle that has little use when you are called on to feel for your fellow humans.

Clearly, something paradoxical is afoot in the land. Dr. Helen Smith identifies the problem clearly. In her view, students are gaining their good feelings on the cheap. They support government programs that are supposed to care for people because they want to feel good about having the right feelings. They have not advanced to the level of wondering about whether these programs are helping real people.

The students are so involved with their own good feelings that they have no sense of the realities of the programs they support. If you really care about other people you care about whether they have jobs. If you support quasi-socialistic experiments that end up costing jobs and then vote for politicians who want to set up more and more programs to take care of the unemployed... does that show how much you care for other people or how little you are interested in their lives?

The authors of the Michigan study have decided that students are suffering an empathy deficit because they have been too exposed to the media, and because they spend too much time on Facebook.

Be that as it may, Dr. Helen is much closer to the truth when she states that this empathy deficit is precisely what you would expect from children whose education had been run by people whose greatest concern is fostering high self-esteem.

At some point in recent history schoolteachers and professors decided to downplay academic subjects and to overplay self-esteem-building among their pupils. They decided to place less emphasis on the dry-as-dust academic subjects and to make the classroom into a group therapy session where everyone could express their feelings.

And since they did not want anyone to feel bad, they de-emphasized grades, competition, and concrete achievements.

As Dr. Helen points out, when you try to foster high self-esteem regardless of achievement, you have gotten into the business of producing narcissists, people whose self-regard is purely self-generated. If the only valid standard of your self-worth is how you feel about yourself, then clearly, you have descended into narcissism.

For further evidence of the influence of the self-esteem movement we can look at a recent column by someone who seems to have more mixed feelings about it. I am referring to Judith Warner's essay in the New York Times a week ago, "The Why-Worry Generation." Link here.

Warner is looking at a different group, recent college graduates, but this group merely comprises the older brothers and sisters of the college-aged generation. She opens her column by saying that this group has been depicted in less than flattering terms, as: "entitled whiners who have been spoiled by parents who overstoked their self-esteem, teachers who granted undeserved A's, and sports coaches who bestowed trophies on anyone who showed up."

Warner does not seem quite as alarmed as I am about all this-- I think she believes that this depiction is a bit of a caricature-- but she is willing to consider the evidence. When she does, she discovers a generation that is so completely full of itself that it is out of touch with reality. But she agrees with Dr. Helen in placing the responsibility at the feet of those who have taught young people to have baseless self-esteem.

Take a look at the evidence, as Warner reports it: "The unemployment rate for early 20 somethings is close to 20%.... Yet, despite the fact that the new graduates are in no position to pose conditions for employers, many are increasingly declaring themselves unwilling to work more than 40 hours a week. Graduates are turning down job offers in large numbers-- essentially opting to move back home with their parents if the work offered doesn't match their self-assessment."

Not only do these young people have no concept of the value of their work in the marketplace, but they have no work ethic either.

You would think that they would recognize a bad economy and a weak job market as realities. You would have thought, as Warner suggests, that they would understand that you have to negotiate with reality, not impose your post-adolescent will on it.

Apparently, this is not the case. For all of their great educational credentials a large number of these young people do not have the skills required to observe reality, to analyze situations, to draw conclusions, to develop action plans, and to implement them.

Warner is surprised to discover that 41% of this group turned down job offers this year. And they did it because they wanted to live the values promoted by the self-esteem movement and the therapy culture.

One professor explained the millennials, as follows: "Almost universally they want to find a job that's not just a job but an expression of their identity, a form of self-fulfillment."

Ask not what you can bring to your job; ask what your job can do for you? Isn't the workplace there to fulfill your soul's need for meaning?

Warner also shows that the millennials have absorbed another lesson from the therapy culture. They are wide-eyed optimists above and beyond all else.

They have bought all of the hope and change rhetoric. As another professor noted: "They're extraordinarily optimistic that things will work out for them.... Everybody thinks that bright days are ahead and that eventually they will find that terrific job."

No one seems ever to have told them that the best way to get that terrific job is to take a less-than-terrific job and perform terrifically at it.

I do not mean to say that there is anything wrong with optimism. Nor, after all, is there anything wrong with confidence. But when optimism becomes a be-all and end-all, regardless of the reality you are facing, it is no longer your friend. And confidence is also a good thing, except when your belief in your own ability has no real relationship with your actual achievements. Then it becomes a rather nasty enemy.

The strange part of Warner's article is that she seems to approve of what the self-esteem movement and the therapy culture have wrought. Since she, as opposed to today's college students, gives a full and fair hearing to the side of the argument that appeals more to me, I am happy to present her point of view.

In her words: "... with their seemingly inexhaustible well of positive self-regard, their refusal to have their horizons defined by the limitations of our era, they just may bear witness to the precise sort of resilience that all parents, educators, and pop psychologists say they view as proof of a successful upbringing."

I am far from certain that all parents and educators think this way. I hope they do not. And I am far from certain that we ought to allow pop psychologists to define what it means to develop character.

I do find it strange that Warner drops into an argument from authority, as though the simple fact that our culture, in this time and place, has decided that high self-esteem is of consummate importance must mean that it is of consummate importance.

Of course, it is not bad to be optimistic; sometimes it helps you persevere in hard times. Nor is it bad to feel a level of confidence that is a notch above your achievements. And there is nothing wrong with being resilient in the face of limitations.

But once you accompany those qualities with a deficient work ethic and the belief that the world owes you a living, and must recognize your talents as you, and not the market, judge them, you are headed for some serious trouble.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Two Enlightenments

There's nothing very new about the culture wars. They have existed in one form or another for centuries.

I was reminded of this when I read David Brooks' excellent column on the two Enlightenments, the British and the French. Link here. Brooks finds the origin of our current disputes over the value of individual freedom versus the power of the state in the conflict between the British and French Enlightenments.

The culture wars have taken on different forms at different times. And they have involved different issues. Nowadays, of course, everyone claims the mantle of freedom and everyone claims the mantle of reason.

But one man's freedom is another man's oppression, and one man's rational choice is often derided if it does not correspond to what a higher authority believes to be true.

So, I do not want to say that one side favored freedom and reason while the other did not. The real distinctions are more complex, and the journey through this intellectual thicket more difficult than we have been led to believe.

For some the culture wars are simply a continual debate between the followers of Plato and those of Aristotle.

Since Aristotle's thought did not enter European civilization until the Middle Ages, we may see the beginning of the medieval culture wars in the struggle between the Dominicans and the Franciscans, or better, between those who followed the rational thought of St. Thomas Aquinas and those who preferred the spiritual path of St. Francis of Assisi. That conflict dates to the 13th and 14th centuries. Aquinas was one of those most responsible for advancing Aristotle's thought.

Evidently, the conflict between these monastic orders was not the first evidence of a cultural schism in the Church. A century earlier the powerful mystic St. Bernard of Clairvaux used his power to have the great rational thinker, Pierre Abelard, excommunicated.

Most of us have learned that Abelard got himself into serious trouble, and suffered a grievous injury, for falling in love with his young tutee Heloise. Truth be told, the greater part of his trouble involved marrying said Heloise and then refusing to acknowledge their union in public.If you would like to read the rest of the story, especially the part about the intellectual disputes, I would recommend Etienne Gilson's wonderful account.

A more consequential schism was initiated by Martin Luther in the early years of the 16th century. I think it is fair to say that Luther's Reformation tried to break down the Church's monopoly on salvation. And Luther also attacked the Church's control over Bible reading and interpretation.

His individualistic and anti-institutional movement allowed everyone to read and interpret the Bible freely. It sought to overcome the weight of dogma and the inquisitions and witch hunts that the Church, in an effort to impose one true belief, had been practicing for centuries.

The battle between the Protestants and the Church was often fought in terms of reason versus superstition, but it would hardly be fair to say that Thomas Aquinas was anything but rational. Medieval theology, to say nothing of scholastic philosophy, was an orgy of rational deliberation and analysis.

Many have noted correctly that the Lutheran project would have been impossible without the advent of the printing press. Taking the Biblical text out of the hands of the scribes and the Doctors of the Church would have been a near impossibility without a technology that could produce more and more affordable books.

We tend to think of the printing press as an unalloyed good. Yet, those who heretofore exercised control over information and ideas were hardly thrilled by the prospect of having everyone being free to interpret sacred texts as they would wish.

When thinkers rail against communications technology-- today they are on the warpath against the internet and the blogosphere-- I believe that they simply do not respect the minds of people who are less educated than they. Being unenlightened would-be despots, they dream of nothing more than shutting down dissent. And going back to a time when they were controlling access to information and opinion and when very, very few people had the means to question their facts or opinions.

After the Reformation had struck the first blow for individual freedom the next blow was struck by the Industrial Revolution.

Using accumulated scientific and technical knowledge the Industrial Revolution began, in the 18th century, to transform the labor market from manual labor, animal labor, and cottage industry into factory and machine-based manufacturing.

But the Industrial Revolution was accompanied by British Enlightenment philosophers, like David Hume and Adam Smith, who argued for free enterprise, free markets, and free trade. When these philosophers argued for free trade over protectionist tariffs, they were striking a blow for freedom against the power of the state.

Their views did not go unchallenged. At the same time Romantic poets like William Blake and William Wordsworth led a counterrevolution that sought to recover what had been lose when manufacturing became concentrated in factories and where reason, not inspiration, began to set economic policy.

Those debates were hardly sterile academic exercises. The Industrial Revolution disrupted society in ways that were unprecedented. And while some saw what had been gained, others were fixated on what had been lost. Thus, two cultures, one progressive, the other reactionary.

The British Enlightenment philosophers argued for economic progress while the poets argued for a return to the state of nature.

Perhaps it is paradoxical, but the British Enlightenment also respected the rational decisions that had been taken in the past. The accumulated wisdom of rational beings constituted tradition. An Edmund Burke argued strenuously against the French Enlightenment and French Revolution with their tendencies to destroy the past and attempt to create a new world from scratch.

French Enlightenment philosophers, followed by the philosophical work of German idealists like Kant and Hegel, believed in the power of reason, but they largely preferred the conclusions drawn by their own superior rational faculties. Like a Martin Heidegger in the 20th century, they saw themselves as potential philosopher kings who would help create a brand new world.

Of course, the British Enlightenment philosophers were also mining the resources of their nation's experience with the common law. The tradition of the common law, instituted by Henry II in the 12th century, involved allowing individual judges to decide cases as they were presented, according to precedent and their best judgment. The common law is an accumulation of case law decisions; its decisions were not graven in stone. If they commanded respect it was for their having endured and served as a way to adjudicate disputes fairly.

As Oliver Wendell Holmes was later to argue, the common law is a perfect example of judicial trial and error, of establishing laws that worked for the people in place of laws that had been dictated by higher authorities.

At the time Henry II's innovation severely circumscribed the Church's power and authority. And this caused the conflict between Henry II and Thomas a Beckett. To add a little perspective, at roughly the same time that Henry II was initiating the common law, St. Bernard of Clairvaux was presiding over a kangaroo court that condemned Peter Abelard for heresy.

More importantly, perhaps, is what the common law wasn't. It was not a set of rules concocted by a small group of great thinkers. It was not the work of philosopher kings.

As it happened the French Enlightenment was far more radical than its British counterpart. It wanted to tear down everything, including the monarchy, the aristocracy, the clergy, and the industrial order. It had so much faith in the power of reason that it believed that once it tore everything down, once it deconstructed the world, it could replace it with a social order that was more consonant with Nature.

It owed more to poetic inspiration and the spiritual side of life, the ability to see the true Ideas, than it did to scientific experiment, or to the trial-and-error judicial cobblings that constituted the common law. Where the British Enlightenment believed sufficiently in reality to allow it to cast judgment on its efforts, the French Enlightenment, through a Rousseau, concocted a mythic pre-civilized world against which all of the rest was to be judged.

The new socius was not going to be based on the Industrial Revolution or principles of free trade. To the extent that it followed thinkers like Rousseau, it worked to restore man's harmony with Nature. Roughly in the way that Romantic poets had been calling for. And this meant instituting a reactionary deconstruction of the Industrial Revolution.

Beginning with Rousseau's notion that man was born free but is everywhere in chains, the French Enlightenment sought to return to a mythic, natural world order where freedom meant being free from the constraints of organized, to say nothing of, civilized society.

I confess to being very much on the side of David Brooks when he closes his column with these words: "Yet there is the stubborn fact of human nature. The Scots were right, and the French were wrong."

He might have mentioned that the French Enlightenment thinkers, to say nothing of their followers and acolytes, did not really believe in facts or in the reality of human nature.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Coaching Lessons: Self-Awareness

There's self-awareness and then there's self-awareness. Call them homonyms if you like, but there are any number of forms of self-awareness.

Knowing yourself might refer to your ability to know your role in a family or a company or a team and to act accordingly.

If the CIO starts acting like the CEO then he does not know who he is. The same pertains when the CEO starts acting like an outside consultant. If a father starts acting like a brother toward his son, then he too lacks self-awareness.

Knowing yourself might also refer to your knowing your tastes, what you like and dislike.

If you know that you do not like tangerine sherbet or exotic vacations or grand opera, you will probably not choose to indulge them.

Someone who hates action adventure movies will probably avoid them. And someone who loves Harlequin romances should probably not avoid them.

And then there is the kind of self-knowledge that refers to what therapists call insight. In therapy, you know something about yourself when you discover that you have been choosing to date the wrong people because your parents were clearly wrong for each other. Or you might understand that you are trying to drop out of school because you have been traumatized by bullies. Or you might come to believe that you wanted to be a banker because you were improperly toilet trained.

All of these insights might have some conversational value. Depending on you audience you can trot them out to show that you have gained self-awareness,. None of them will really help you to resolve the problem they identify.

Knowing why that your parents were wrong for each other will not show you how to make a better choice of a partner. In fact, you have probably always known it, and look where it's gotten you.

Knowing that you are afraid to be bullied will not get you any closer to the school. You have always known it. It has always weighed on your consciousness. The more you are aware of it the less you want to go to school. Your problem is that you do not know what to do to stop the bullying. And that has nothing to do with being aware of your feelings of powerlessness.

Finally, knowing that you chose to become a banker because you were improperly toilet trained, a piece of insight that used to count as the height of psychoanalytic self-awareness, will not tell you whether or not you should continue being a banker or should go off to the woods and throw pots. You would not have to be very much of a Freudian to trace pot throwing back to a deviate version of toilet training.

This is as good way as any introduce a final definition of self-awareness, one that I have, after Peter Drucker, mentioned before. That is: knowing what you are good at, and what you might, with enough work, truly excel at. Link here.

Should you pursue a career as a banker? The answer does not lie in your childhood or your tastes. It lies in knowing whether or not you are good with numbers. If you are a natural with numbers then banking or a similar field would be a good fit for your talents.

It's a lot easier to get better at something you're good at than to get good at something you're bad at. Self-awareness in this sense of the term involves knowing which is which.

And finally, there is the self-awareness that refers to your character flaws and strengths. Knowing yourself means knowing that you have a tendency to be irresponsible or undisciplined and setting out to correct them. It might also mean knowing that you are kind and considerate and punctual.

Alexandra Levit summarizes these latter forms of the concept: "Self-awareness, which may be defined as being conscious of what you are good at while acknowledging what you have to learn, is one of the most underrated leadership skills.... [L]eaders are more likely to be unaware of how their behavior impacts others. Also, in appearing to know everything all the time and disguising their mistakes and weaknesses, they diminish their credibility with colleagues and reports." Link here.

This concept has many different angles. Let's examine some of them.

First, self-awareness must involve knowing whether you have the talent to be a great leader. Not everyone does. Some people do much better as consultants than as commanders. Some do better working on their own than working in or in front of a group. Others are a natural at taking charge, motivating others, and producing team harmony.

Second, a leader must know himself well enough to know when and how to delegate. If the leader has an expertise in accounting he might decide to take personal charge of the accounting operation. But if his expertise is in law, he would do best to delegate the major responsibility for running the marketing department. If a general has been promoted because of his expertise in battlefield strategy, he should not also try to take control over logistics.

Third, a leader knows when he has made a mistake and admits it. This involves modesty and humility, the ability to submit yourself to judgment. It is commonly understood that schoolteachers are supposed to have all the answers. At times, this leads teachers to pretend that they know the answer when they do not.

A teacher will be more respected if he or she admits to a knowledge gap than if he or she pretends to know it all.

When the stakes are higher, however, admitting to a major mistake can be very costly indeed. If a general ordered an assault that ended up like the Charge of the Light Brigade, admitting the mistake would mean forfeiting his career. If a CEO personally approved the relocation of manufacturing facilities, and if political events shut down the new plants, he must accept responsibility for his error. Especially, if those more savvy in politics had warned him.

Finally, Levit emphasizes that leaders lead by example. This concept dates to Confucius, and it means that leaders need to have a basic understanding of how their behavior sets the tone and the mood and the spirit of their company, their brigade, or their team.

Knowing yourself means knowing that if you project an attitude of disinterest, then everyone around and under you will emulate your example. It means that when you see a bad attitude or low morale among your staff you first look at the kind of example you have been setting for them.

Seeing how others react to you might have everything to do with how you present yourself to them. Thus, when your team has developed bad habits, do not start out blaming them for having had bad training, but start taking a long, hard look at yourself, asking what there is about your appearance, your demeanor, your attitude, your work habits that might be producing functional disharmony.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Has Obama Lost the Mandate of Heaven?

After the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, can we now say that President Obama has lost the Mandate of Heaven? At least, that is the way it would be discussed in China. In America the same question was raised, in different terms, by Peggy Noonan in a fine column today. Link here.

In Chinese history natural disasters have often been taken as signs that God no longer recognizes the legitimacy of a dynasty. In 1976 an earthquake in Tangshan province killed 300,000 people. Shortly thereafter, Mao Tsetung .
died, the Communist dynasty ended, and China started down a capitalist road.
Usually, the kinds of disasters that show God's disapproval of a regime are catastrophic earthquakes or floods or even storms.

Does the Gulf oil spill qualify? Here it depends in part on what you call it. Have you noticed that the terms most commonly used, spill and leak, do not do justice to the magnitude of what is happening at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico? When you watch the pictures of oil gushing from pipe on the floor of the Gulf what words do you think of. Perhaps a word like gusher or a word like hemorrhage.

An uncontrollable gusher or hemorrhage would certainly count as enough of a natural disaster to express God's disapproval with a regime.

So, I am willing to question whether we Westerners, with out tradition that says that our leaders rule with the consent of the governed, still believe, somewhere and somehow, that our leaders must have the Mandate of Heaven?

Look at it this way. Before Hurricane Katrina the nation was seriously disquieted about the presidency of George W. Bush. The war in Iraq was not going well at all. The nightly news was filled with images of violence and carnage from Iraq.

But it was the president's response to Hurricane Katrina that crystallized the image of presidential ineptitude and insouciance.

In a way the facts did not matter as much as the image and the way the image played with other suspicions about why things were going so well in Iraq.

Not to belabor the point, but if the Bush administration had aggressively moved in to New Orleans after Katrina and given the world the impression that it was fully in charge of the situation, then people would probably have assumed that they could maintain their confidence in George Bush to resolve the problem in Iraq.

After Katrina, it did not matter what George Bush did. He turned the Iraq war around and no one seemed to care. As I see it, that is what it means to lose the Mandate of Heaven.

When people ask whether the current Gulf catastrophe is Obama's Katrina, they are asking whether it will mark the moment when he lost the Mandate of Heaven.

A majority of the population already disapproves of the Obama administration for a variety of reasons. And yet, the question still remains: Is Obama doing a good job given the situation he inherited, or have his policies made things worse.

If the Gulf catastrophe marks the moment when people come to see that Obama has made things worse, he will have lost the Mandate of Heaven.

Keep in mind that the Mandate of Heaven is not the same thing as what Westerners call the divine right of kings. The Mandate of Heaven refers to the ethical conduct of political leaders.

Presumably, when a dynasty begins its rulers show great concern for the good of the people. After a while, later generations of dynastic rulers become less concerned about the people, less concerned about behaving in a responsible and upright fashion, and more worried about their own good.

In Western terms they become narcissistic and decadent. When catastrophe befalls the people they manifest disinterest and unconcern.

The issue is not so much whether the leaders can immediately mitigate the catastrophe or can rescue its victims with their own hands, but whether they are present and accounted for or whether they are off playing golf.

When a catastrophic earthquake killed tens of thousands of Chinese in 2008 the Premier of China, Wen Jiaobao flew to the site within 90 minutes to personally direct the relief operations. The government threw just about everything it had-- from troops to equipment-- at the problem, without delay. Thus it survived an earthquake that killed tens of thousands of people.

A leader's place is with his people in time of trouble. If he is not, then the people will normally and rationally assume that he simply does not care about them.

Given that the Mandate of Heaven derives from Chinese thought it refers largely to the ceremonial aspect of leadership. No one imagines that Obama should have flown to New Orleans, jumped in a submarine, and plugged the hole. But everyone has a right to expect that he would have been there, often, to show his concern, to be briefed and to oversee the relief efforts. Everyone has a right to expect that all of the resources of the government would have been mobilized, not just to stop the hemorrhage, but to ensure that a minimal amount reached shore.

Keep in mind that President Obama has so little regard for ceremonial leadership that he is planning to skip out on Memorial Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery.

Yesterday President Obama held a press conference where he pretended to take responsibility for the calamity. As one might expect it did not take him very long to mitigate his responsibility by blaming BP and the Bush administration. To the minds of most, his greatest concern is containing the political damage that he has been suffering because of the disaster.

A couple of days ago everyone was impressed when mild-mannered Democratic consultant James Carville let rip at Obama for not being there for the people of New Orleans in their time of trouble. Many people were surprised to see Carville attack a Democratic president openly and publicly, but no one thought that his emotion was anything but an appropriate reply to to a major presidential failure.

If you are a Democratic president and you have lost James Carville, then you have lost the Mandate of Heaven.

Looking for a Job is Still a Job

I have occasionally emphasized the point that when you are out of work and looking for a job, you should approach the job search as a job. Links here and here.

Today I came across Gary Starr's article on this topic at Therein Starr shows the steps he took in his job search and how he saw his job search as a job. Link here.

Do Falling Hemlines Tell a Tale?

Perhaps it is a mere curiosity, akin to astrology, the Super Bowl indicator, and tea leaves, but some investors believe that the length of women's skirts reflects the state of the stock market. In their minds, short skirts denote frivolity and confidence, a positive attitude toward the economy, and thus befit a bull market. Long skirts reflect fear and gloom, an impulse to hunker down, and the pain of a bear market.

Whether or not that's true, the New York Times reports that, from street fashion to design studios, skirt lengths are falling precipitously. Fashion forward young women are starting to wear skirts whose hemlines even brush against the floor. Link here.

It's fair to say that when the purveyors of fashion try to dictate a new trend, they want women to buy more clothes. A young woman with a closet full of short skirts might well decide that she does not need yet another micro mini. But, if the fashion changes, she will be obliged to stock up on maxi skirts.

On the other side there have been moments when the lords of fashion promoted a new style, only to find that women simply refused to buy it. And it also happens that fashion designers hang out on the street to get inspiration from the style trends of everyday women. From the street to the runway is often the way style develops.

Either way, a fashion trend seems to bespeak a culture trend. And if longer skirts are coming into vogue, then we all want to know what it means. The Times sees it as a cultural indicator and offers an analysis: "Today the fluid but rigorously plain maxis reflect a subtly shifting cultural climate born in the wake of the Dow's collapse."

If so, it is a delayed reaction, though one that would suggest the advent of a secular-- that is, long term-- bear market.

According to the Times skirt length also represents a turn away from "the frivolity and calculated provocation of a thigh-high skirt 'toward a more austere sensibility.'"

If this is true, what happened to hope and change? How much is the young generation simply expressing a fundamental disappointment in the new administration? Is it preparing for greater austerity and more belt tightening, ahead.

Of course, hemlines had risen so high that they really had nowhere to go but down. And with rising hemlines there was accompanying transformation of values. Modesty and mystery went out of fashion, and young women began hooking up, sexting, and posing for Girls Gone Wild videos.

Young women who wore extreme minis reached a level of exposure that horrified their elders, but that also seemed to undermine their own self-respect. If a woman exposes nearly everything to everyone, she loses her right to choose to whom she wishes to expose what.

Intimacy is not very intimate, it's not even yours, when you offer it to everyone.

Forget about the self-puffery prescribed by the self-esteem movement; if you really want to develop and maintain your self respect you have to start by showing the world, in your appearance and decorum, that you respect yourself.

I hate to use the word, but micro-minis seem to disempower women while maxi skirts seem to produce heightened self-respect. As the Times suggests, they seem to give women back their swagger.

After the necessary disclaimer that no one knows whether this trend will continue, one forecaster still predicted that five years from now all women will be wearing maxi skirts: "and fending off the advances from unsavory-looking strangers with an insolent hitch of the hem."

From hooking up to hitching up. That would be quite a cultural transformation.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Aesop's Fable and the Financial Crisis

I daresay that everyone is working very hard at trying to get a handle on the ongoing financial crisis. Clearly our future is at stake, and many of us are not entirely confident that we really know what is going on.

A couple of days ago Martin Wolf explained it all in very clear terms by using Aesop's fable of the grasshopper and the ant.

I link his Financial Times article for your interest here. Enjoy!

Coaching Lessons: Why Didn't You Tell Me?

Making good decisions requires information. As long as you do not have so much information that you cannot make any decision at all, having more information is an essential good.

Managers acquire information by reading and studying reports... in detail, down to the last semi-colon. You may recall that Michael Burry was one of the first to see the problems with subprime mortgages, because he was one of the few who read all of the prospectuses contained in the packages the banks were selling.

No good manager relies only on prepared reports. He wants and need people who will provide him with clear, accurate, and comprehensive information. Sometimes he will receive it via email, but on other occasions he knows that he will acquire more information by talking directly with staff.

A manager cannot be everywhere, and should not try to be. Frenetic activity is disconcerting to those who witness it and should be avoided.

A manager must create an atmosphere where people will present him with what he needs to know when he needs to know it... not too much and not too little.

Every manager and every coach has had the experience of analyzing a problem based on information provided. He will draw up a plan to address the problem and present, or even begin to implement, the plan. At some point in the planning process someone will interject that the plan is not feasible because someone forgot to communicate one small, but vital, piece of information.

If you are the manager, you will be tempted to exclaim: Why didn't you tell me?

Here is a situation where it is best not to yield to temptation. The question is accusatory and will provoke a defensive response.

If the employee comes to feel defensive about his error, he might be motivated to share more information, but his anxiety might also make it more difficult for him to know what is pertinent and what is filler. If he decides he must provide you with a mountain of useless information you will not have accomplished your goal.

If you need to respond to a negligent employee, why not phrase it differently, not with a question, but a statement: I wish you had told me sooner.

This places some of the onus on the employee while not casting blame. It also offers a sliver of credit for having communicated the information: better late than never.

A recent post from the Harvard Business School blog offers a further analysis of this problem. Link here.

The post makes the salient point that if a manager's staff does not speak up, does not provide useful and vital information, then the manager must ask himself how he has created the wrong office environment.

As the authors note, it is obvious to everyone that a bullying or threatening manager will receive less accurate information. If everyone is afraid of you they will tailor their communications to forestall punishment, not to contribute to the company good.

Other managers give the impression that they are either overwhelmed by work, and thus, do not really want to be disturbed, or are perfectly happy with the status quo, thus, do not want to hear any information that would cause them to question or to change it.

Then the authors add the most salient, and probably the least noted point: namely, that many staff members do not communicate their ideas or information because they have come to believe that their managers are simply not interested in hearing it.

So, how does a manager go about convincing his staff that he wants their input? That is the question.

This is difficult because the cues we give are often very subtle indeed. A dismissive glance might persuade your assistant that you do not want to hear what he has to say. A clear focus and direct expression of interest will obviously tell him that you are happy that he has spoken up or provided you with new information.

If information comes to you via email, you have better control over your response. You should always respond graciously and with gratitude. And you should explain how helpful it is to receive the information. If the information leads to action, you would do well to keep the employee in the loop.

If your reply reads like a form letter, your employee will come away thinking that you do not care. If it reads like you have thought through his proposal or found his information useful, then he will know that you do.

It is always challenging to know how to respond when a staff member raises a difficult issue during a meeting, when he explains that something has been going wrong, or that the results you had hoped to see do not seem to be feasible.

When hearing bad news, the first thing to do is to thank the person who reported it. Then, be sure not to try to find out who is at fault, who should be blamed.

Upon hearing bad news the correct response is to shift focus to contingency plans or mid-course corrections.

All recommendations for future action should be received respectfully. That means restating the idea in slightly different words, the better to show that you are mulling it over. You must recognize the good will that went into formulating it.

You are not going to follow every suggestion that you receive, but you should, as a competent manager, make all of those who offer suggestions feel like their contribution is valued.

People rarely have a vital interest in whether or not their ideas are adapted. They do have a vital interest in whether or not they are respected.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

AWOL as a Foreign Policy

Yesterday I criticized some of Tom Friedman's musings about the virtues of Chinese-style autocracy. Today, to show that it was not personal, I will offer some positive remarks about Friedman's new column. Link here.

In an interesting exercise in circumlocution Friedman takes the measure of Obama's policy toward Iran. He does not mention Obama by name, but the president's name is like the dog that didn't bark. Reading Friedman you have to conclude that he believes that the current debacle that is Iran policy derives directly from Obama's conspicuous absence.

Friedman begins by discussing the May 17 picture of the presidents of Turkey and Brazil joining hands with the president of Iran to announce a new, and worthless, deal on nuclear fuels. That these two leaders allowed themselves to be used as props to sustain a brutal dictatorship strikes Friedman as extreme ugly. As well it is.

In his words: "Is there anything uglier than watching democrats sell out other democrats to a Holocaust-denying, vote-stealing, Iranian thug just to tweak the U.S. and show that they, too, can play at the big power table?"

The question is obviously rhetorical, but maybe it is not entirely rhetorical. If we ask who is ultimately responsible for laying the groundwork for this new alliance, the answer must be: Barack Obama. Is it not his absence that creates a place for others at the big power table? Uglier than this alliance is the foreign policy fiasco that has paved the way for it.

Obama's amateurish foreign policy stumbles have created a leadership vacuum, an every-man-for-himself situation where different leaders feel emboldened to involve themselves in alliances that they would never have formed if they believed that there was a sheriff in town or that they would have to answer for it?

After all, Obama has gone out of his way to befriend Iran. How can he criticize nations that develop the kind of friendly relations that he seems so ardently to be seeking?

Obama came into office to repudiate George Bush's axis of evil. The two states that had found themselves on that list, Iran and North Korea, understood that they were being given an opportunity to produce mischief.

The North Koreans have just committed an act of war against South Korea and Iran is moving forward on its nuclear weapons program with perfect impunity. We can easily can see that they have taken the measure of Obama and have found him wanting, to say nothing of absent.

Friedman does not exactly say this, but I do not think that I am over-interpreting his article. I think that he is making a similar point, but using a subtle rhetorical ploy.

I do not fault him for his circumlocutions because, after all, he is Tom Friedman and his article will be read by the foreign policy neophytes who are driving administration policy. Friedman is trying to influence policy by using circumlocutions and by shaming the administration. If yours is a voice heard in the corridors of power you do best not to call them out for the fools they are. That would make them defensive and would make them dig in their heels in righteous indignation.

So, if you ask yourself why Friedman offers a very harsh view of the results of our Iran policy without ever mentioning Obama, the answer should be fairly clear. He is dramatizing, rather than stating, that Obama has been AWOL on Iran.

Obama has abrogated his responsibility to provide leadership, and therefore the most conspicuous fact in the international chess game, as in Friedman's article, is the absence of Obama.

During the protests that followed the rigged Iranian election, in the time of the Green Revolution, Obama's voice, so clear and forceful in attacking the Israeli government for its settlement policy, was nowhere to be found. He made AWOL his signature policy toward Iran.

If you doubt my reading, take a look at this passage: "In my view the 'Green Revolution' is the most important self-generated democracy movement to appear in the Middle East in decades.... We have spent far too little time and energy nurturing that democratic trend, and far too much chasing a nuclear deal."

And here is Friedman closing his column: "Anyone working to delay that [i.e. Iran's going nuclear] and to foster real democracy in Iran is on the side of the angels. Anyone who enables this tyrannical regime and gives cover for its nuclear mischief will one day have to answer to the Iranian people."

If that is not an indictment of the administration policy, I don't know what is.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Dictator-for-a-Day Club

How would you like to join the Dictator-for-a-Day Club? If you accept this offer you will joining luminaries like Woody Allen, Tom Friedman, and Andrea Mitchell. All have declared in favor of making our President Dictator for at least a day.

And no, you do not become dictator yourself. But if you join the club our presidential dictator will implement your ideas. It's better than nothing.

The Anchoress reports on the recent activities of the club here.

Why make anyone Dictator-for-a-Day? Well, Woody Allen and Tom Friedman are frustrated because our system of government is so dysfunctional. Woody wants to make Obama dictator for a few years, but Tom would be happy to make him dictator for just one day so that he could, by fiat, do all of the good things that the political system will not let him do. That means, all the good things that Tom Friedman wants him to do.

The wonderful part is that neither Tom nor Woody has the least doubt that their ideas, or Obama's policies, are anything but the best. When you are that smart, you have overcome all of those pesky little doubts that pester lesser minds.

You may have guessed it, but Tom is frustrated that Obama has not been able to implement all of the green initiatives that they have in, say, China.

He dreams of what the world would be like if only we were like China and then drops into denial mode and declares that, of course, he would never want to be China. But China can, by fiat, undertake research in green technology, and we know that this is important because Tom has been hawking green technology as the solution to all of our problems.

If you like irony, here's a really good one for you. If truth be told, newly industrialized China is one of the most polluted countries on the planet. I am not talking about carbon dioxide, recently named a pollutant by our government, but about industrial poisons, the kind that foul the atmosphere in China's greatest cities and make the air nearly unbreathable and the water corrosive.

A minor detail that, because China is a world leader in green technology.

(Did you notice that if carbon dioxide is a pollutant, then we are all serial polluters, by the mere fact of exhaling?)

Anyway, Woody and Tom have dispensed with the pretense of favoring deliberative democracy or even liberal democracy. As I and many others have noted, modern liberalism does not believe in free speech, free markets, or free trade... thus it is anything but liberal. In fact, it is a convenient disguise for their true desire, which is to have us all be ruled by philosopher-kings.

Commenting on this call to dictatorship, Ann Althouse said: "A love of autocracy often lurks beneath the liberal veneer. There's this idea that the right answers are known and the people are just too deluded and distorted to see what they are and to vote for them."

This helps to explain why liberals are constantly impugning the intelligence of everyone who disagrees with their dogmatic opinions.

Liberals are in favor of free and open debate, until they lose the debate. Then they want to do away with the debating society. They favor the marketplace of ideas until the truth it reveals does not correspond to what they believe.

Why these dreams of dictatorship now? That one is easy: because Tom and Woody and their fellow liberals have been losing the debate. It's not just our form of government that is standing in their way, but public opinion has turned decisively against them.

Imagine their frustration when they see that large majorities of the nation are cheering a recent Arizona immigration law that their friends think is an abomination.

But it is not just that they are losing the debate. More importantly, they are sore losers. They have no sense of sportsmanship. If they cannot win in deliberative debate they start wishing for a system of government where they can suspend the constitution and do exactly what they please.

Good-bye free speech; good-bye free debate; good-bye separation of powers; good-bye balance of powers... Tom and Woody are here and they know what is best for you, whether you like it or not.

Coaching Lessons: Think Like an Owner

Jack Stack was working with a not-for-profit theater group. Board meetings were devoted exclusively to judging the merits of this or that production.

No one, however, was looking at the larger picture. And once Stack did, he noticed that the company had run out of money and was not going to be able to meet payroll.

Stack reported his experience in the New York Times. Link here.

As an expert manager Stack knew that he had to broaden everyone's awareness of all aspects of the company. He needed to get them to think strategically, to stop focusing on what interested them and start working on what was best for the company.

How did he do it? By making everyone aware of an incentive. If they could not think beyond their own narrow self-interest, the theater company would cease to exist. Without sufficient revenue there would be no more shows.

Seeing the big picture, setting company strategy, involves a complex negotiation with reality.

Good managers know this well. They know that staff members who are apprised of the big picture will be more motivated to do a better job because they will have a greater understanding of how their work contributes to the larger corporate good.

An employee who merely knows that he has to crunch numbers is less effective than one who knows what those numbers represent, why they matter, and how they relate to the company's mission.

You are better coordinated if you know what the other hand is doing, if you know what other members of different departments and divisions are contributing to the larger enterprise.

Being part of something larger than yourself, being a member of a functioning team, makes you more productive and more engaged.

A manager can accomplish this by replacing sensitivity training with orientation meetings. Instead of having an outsider come in to explain grievance procedures and to make everyone defensive, why not have representatives of different parts of the company make presentations explaining what they do on the job and how it relates to what other people do.

And have senior executives explain the company's history, identify the people who are in charge, define the company's mission and policies. And it would be helpful if staff is also apprised of ways that it can share in the company's success: through stock options, ownership interests, and bonuses.

In these ways a manager will help his staff to think like owners.

If you are a staff member and want to become a manager or executive, you must also learn to think like an owner.

To advance as an executive you must show your dedication and devotion to the company, its mission, its policies and its success. You should make it your business to learn everything about the company, even when it is beyond your job description. Future managers do their best at the job they have, but their focus is on the job they want to have.

You will not be able to offer a cogent solution to a problem you have encountered on your job if you are not cognizant of the way the company works as a whole. If your proposals show that you are thinking of what is best for the company, they will be respected even if they are not adopted. If your proposals merely reflect your personal interest, they will be ignored and your chances for promotion will be compromised.

If your sole interest is keeping your job, you might be extremely assiduous at any task assigned to you, but your efforts will be circumscribed by its narrow focus. Managers will notice that you are not a team player, that you do not seem to care about the company's future.

That means that you should volunteer for extra work, and not complain about missing a trip to the beach. Someone who puts the company interest ahead of his own is there when he is needed. Dedication to the company requires that you make personal sacrifices, willingly.

If you are a staff member you should think of yourself as the second string quarterback. You roam the sidelines during the game, but you are totally focused on the game. You are complaining about how you have not gotten enough playing time. In fact, the thought does not even cross your mind.

The second string quarterback must know the game plan, must understand why this game plan was chosen, and must be able to imagine himself executing it effectively. During the course of the game he should be able to see how the plan is being modified and to know why.

He is, in short, as much a part of the team as the starting quarterback. And his best preparation for the moment when he will be in the game is being completely in the game even when he is not.

Similarly, you become a manager by thinking like a manager even before you are a manager. You are better placed to be given executive responsibilities if you demonstrate that you can think like an executive even when you are not an executive.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Thrill is Gone: Obama and Wall Street

For the next few days it will surely be the talk of the town: John Heilemann's extended narrative of the dysfunctional relationship between President Obama and Wall Street bankers. Link here.

I doubt that it's author would even claim to be offering objective journalism, so I will not credit him with it. In fact, Heilemann is advancing a narrative that is making Wall Street the scapegoat for the failures of Obama's fiscal policies.

Heilmann seems aware of the White House strategy. He begins his article with the simple fact that after losing the Senate race in Massachusetts, the Obama team decided it had to change the message. Seeing populist rage directed toward it, it chose to try to redirect that rage toward Wall Street.

Strangely enough, after making this salient point, Heilmann proceeds to create a narrative that presents the White House line.

I have been following this development on the blog... here and here.

Story lines have their virtues and their limits. Describing the relationship between Obama and Wall Street as a romance gone bad makes sense. I have used it myself. Everyone can understand it from personal experience.

But you can also describe it as an illusion that hits reality.

Realities are often more complex, more intricate, and more opaque than stories. Most people have a lot better idea of why a love affair goes sour than they do of why the financial system nearly melted down in 2008. Since precious few people understand the financial system it is very easy to cast blame wherever you like and it is extremely difficult for bankers to defend their actions.

Thus, they are easy targets.

Not only for the administration, but also for John Heilmann. Begin with his title: "Obama Is From Mars; Wall Street Is From Venus: Psychoanalyzing one of America's most dysfunctional relationships."

On the one side you have the manly Obama, the man in charge, the incarnation of the god of war, fighting the good fight against economic oblivion. On the other side you have a bunch of hysterical, effeminate Wall Street whiners and carpers who are mostly interested in their mega-bonuses. And the themes developed in the article bear this out: Obama is cool, clear-headed, making decisions based on what is best for the country; Wall Street bankers are angry, intemperate, self-interested, greedy crybabies.

So you have an idealized version of Obama contrasted with a derogatory caricature of Wall Street bankers. On top of it, Heilmann also demeans Venus, who is anything but the way he describes the bankers.

In Heilmann's narrative Wall Street bankers caused the crisis and Obama has bailed them out. Not only that but he rescued the world economy. In his words: "He and his team could credibly claim to have saved the world economy from falling off a cliff."

Of course, this is an idealization, the kind that sees no fault, the kind that accompanies true love. As with most intemperate expressions of love, it obfuscates reality.

In the interest of advancing the narrative Heilmann cleverly ignores the role that Henry Paulson and Ben Bernanke played in rescuing the financial system and stopping it from falling off of a cliff. In much the same way Obama himself likes to talk about the great progress that's being made in Iraq, as he did Saturday at West Point, while conveniently failing to give any credit to his predecessor.

Surely, a substantial number of Wall Street bankers were seduced by Obama. They fell for the idealized image of the savior, the agent of change, the man who would rescue them and the world. By now they seem to have recognized that they were duped by a mirage; the candidate they supported is not the president who is governing.

They were simply defrauded. For that they are right to feel anger. When you have been the victim of a massive fraud, you will, once you discover it, feel considerable anger.

The same might well be true of larger public that voted for Obama and that now feels deceived, defrauded, and, consequently, enraged.

Despite what the media suggest, there are times when it's right to feel anger. There are times when your emotions are appropriate and suited to the situation.

Whatever Heilmann means when he says that he is psychoanalyzing a dysfunctional relationship, he is implying that there is something wrong with Wall Street's anger against Obama. He is implying that they are transferring the unresolved anger issues they have with someone else to the innocent savior president.

I would not preclude the fact that many people, from Wall Street and Main Street, feel some measure of anger at themselves for having been duped. Clearly, they no longer wish to leave any ambiguity about their feelings, and about their willingness to vouch for Obama.

The real question is: how did these very savvy bankers get tricked into vouching for Barack Obama.

As Heilmann reports, the bankers who first met Obama in late 2006 were underwhelmed. But they eventually came around, seeing him as someone with: "brains, composure, bi-partisan instincts, an aversion to class-based conflict."

When it came down to a choice between the seemingly rational Obama and the seemingly overwrought John McCain, they were happy to cast their votes for Obama.

For the general public the information about Obama's past associations, the company he kept, should have sufficed to persuade them that he was anything buy bipartisan and averse to class-based conflict.

Wall Street bankers probably made their decisions based on personal impressions. They are sufficiently important to win real face time with the candidate; they formed an impression of a live human being; they did not take their cues from Sean Hannity.

You might say that they would have done well to follow their first, somewhat negative impression of Obama. If not, they could have gotten a hint from the fact, as Heilmann reports, that the first meeting between Obama and Wall Street took place in an office that belonged to George Soros.

Had they recognized the hand and the influence of a hyper-partisan purveyor of political extremism they might have saved themselves the indignity of having to walk back from their role in helping Barack Obama become president of the United States.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Richard Russell Says Sell Everything

Two weeks ago I posted about the great stock market debate. Should you sell the rallies or buy the dips? Link here.

I quoted two of the investment world's two most pessimistic prognosticators, David Rosenberg of the Toronto based firm, Gluskin Sheff, and Richard Russell, of the Dow Theory Letters. As I mentioned you can receive Rosenberg's eletters by signing up. Russell's service is strictly by subscription. Link here.

Since that post Russell has turned darkly bearish. He feels that the stock market has begun the second leg of the secular bear market that started in 2007-8. And he believes that the consequences for America will be dire. Link here. As the Barrister posts at Maggie's Farm: Yikes. Link here.

Truth be told, however, Russell did not say to sell everything. He said to buy gold.

Russell's views have now been widely reported. Aside from the linked article, they also made Barrons this week.
As it happens, when it comes to identifying long term shifts in the market Russell has an excellent track record.

Keep in mind that when one person's views become widely known they influence sentiment. And contrary sentiment causes the market to move in the opposite direction.

Meaning: if too many people take Russell seriously and become pessimistic, this will contribute to negative sentiment and will drive the market higher, in the short to intermediate term. If too many people decide that Russell is just an old crank, then... watch out below!

If I had to bet the ranch I would say that Russell is more likely to be right than wrong, but that this does not mean that his outlook will come to pass tomorrow morning. But if the market is headed down to the March 2009 low, around 6540, or even lower, then selling today is not such a bad idea.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Misspeakings

I was about to begin this post with the phrase: Right thinking people.... But then a warning light went off. It told me, in no uncertain terms, that in the interest of accuracy, I would have to start:

Left thinking people want to know, need to know, and would love to know how they are going to defend Democratic Senate candidate Richard Blumenthal from his serial lies about his military record.

As you know, the information did not come down to us from the National Enquirer or Fox News. If it had, left thinking people would know that they could simply attack the messenger. No, the news came from the New York Times, and left thinking people cannot reasonably discredit the Times.

According to the Times, Blumenthal lied, and he lied over and over again, when he stated that he served in the Marines in Vietnam.

As fact would have it, Blumenthal served in the Marine Reserves and never went to Vietnam. He only joined the Reserves after he ran out of deferments and pulled a high number in the draft lottery.

As soon as the facts became public knowledge Blumenthal decided to get out in front of them, to fight back, to denounce those who would impugn his character because he told a bunch of lies.

So, Blumenthal stood up, surrounded by a group of veterans, and took full responsibility... for misspeaking.

Why would you need to make veterans into stage props, as though they have your back, when you are taking responsibility?

Worse yet, as several commentators have noticed, you do not take responsibility for lying by declaring that you did not really lie.

By refusing to admit his lie, Blumenthal compounded his lie. Misspeaking is nothing more than a weasel word: a misleading word that tends to obscure a fact.

Besides, taking responsibility means paying a price, sacrificing something, doing penance, being contrite. Blumenthal sacrificed nothing and was anything but contrite. He was aggressive and defensive. And he happily accepted his party's nomination as candidate for the Senate from Connecticut.

This should not surprise anyone. A party that enjoyed its greatest recent success behind the presidential leadership of a draft dodger is not going to turn all squeamish about a lack of military service.

A party that rallied to defend a man whom Sen. Bob Kerrey once called: "an unusually good liar" is far more beholden to power than to truth.

Still and all, left thinking people have a bit of a problem with Richard Blumenthal. How are they going to defend him at cocktail parties? How will they rationalize voting for him at the next coffee klatch?

Left thinking people need ammunition. They need something to defend a known liar who does not have enough honor to man up to his lies.

Now, Maureen Dowd has come riding to the rescue. She has provided a finely wrought set of talking points for your next conversation about Richard Blumenthal. Now you can explain why it is right and good that he is running for the Senate and why you are going to send him the maximum contribution. Link here.

According to Dowd, Blumenthal was not really lying. He was indulging in wishful thinking. Aside from that, he is not a Republican, which would, ipso facto, make him an abominable miscreant, and neither his nor Joe Biden's nor Hillary Clinton's lies rise to the level of Dick Cheney's lies.

Dowd does not use this word, but for her it all boils down to Blumenthal's truthiness. Which is another way of saying that gut feelings trump mere facts.

Blumenthal wasn't really lying; he was expressing his feelings. And how can our therapy-addled culture begrudge him that?

Dowd seems to believe that Blumenthal wanted so fervently to have served in Vietnam that he mistook his wishes for facts. Besides fighting in a war looks better on your resume than the job of organizing a Toys for Tots campaign.

As we know, Blumenthal had every opportunity to fight in Vietnam. He was at great pains to avoid such service. If he now wishes he had fought, does that mean that he wants to spruce up his resume or that he regrets not having had the opportunity to defend liberty abroad?

Given the fact that Democrats are often considered to be weak on national defense, did Blumenthal simply want to provide evidence to counter an inevitable accusation?

If so he would not have been the first. To counter the charge of weakness he tried in his news conference to project strength by expressing outrage. As I said, surrounding yourself with a platoon of Marines does not bespeak strength; it shows weakness.

Dowd understands clearly that members of a party that owes its current success to its anti-war crusade can easily be taxed with weakness. She is suggesting that the real fault does not lie with Blumenthal but with the rest of us, because we require a higher measure of patriotism from Democrats, even from the war hero John Kerry.

Neither Dowd nor any serious left thinking person reminds us of the slanderous lies that war hero Kerry pronounced against the American military in the public forum of a Congressional hearing.

The charge against the Democratic party was not invented out of whole white cloth. One might cite the dozens of votes in which Congressional Democrats voted to defund the Iraq war and to redeploy the soldiers to Okinawa. If you did not know that these votes were shameless political expediency-- the Democrats were most opposed to the war because Republicans were running it-- you might think that Democrats were hell bent on surrender.

Finally, because Dowd is Dowd, the article closes with the one talking point that you must keep on hand when next you want to defend Richard Blumenthal. That is: Bush lied!

Dowd does not exactly use that word; she says that Bush and Cheney engaged in "vile exaggeration" to get us into war.

But, who's lying now? The calumny about Bush lying us into war has been repeated so often-- a favorite tactic of the propagandist-- that everyone takes it to be true.

Let's review the point. For it to be true George Bush would have had to know that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Then he would have had to falsify the information deliberately in order to entice us into a war.

But if Bush know that there were no WMDs, then he would have known more than all of the intelligence services that had looked into the matter. Is Dowd sure that she wants to grant George Bush such superior intelligence?

Of course, Congress voted in favor of the war. Many Democrats supported the war. Many of them are on the record denouncing Iraq for its WMD program. All of them had access to the same intelligence that the executive branch used to make its decision.

If you are a Democrat who voted for the war, and you now want to abrogate your responsibility, what better way would there be than to declare that you had been lied to. In the ethical world of taking responsibility, Bush lied is a disgraceful cop out.

The problem is not merely that Richard Blumenthal lied, and that he cannot bring himself to take responsibility for his lie. The problem is not even that Blumenthal, like many other Democrats, tries to counter the notion that he is weak on national defense by adopting a pugilistic posture. The greater problem is that Congressional Democrats who voted to authorize the Iraq War fell back on "Bush lied" as a way to deny any responsibility for it when it wasn't going well.

Now that it is going well, that great exemplar of truthiness, Joe Biden, claimed that credit was due the Obama administration.

Be that as it may, in this morning's Washington Post Kathleen Parker wrote a wonderful column about the Blumenthal kerfuffle that truly shames Maureen Dowd. Parker does not provide talking points for left thinking folks, but her words show well why Blumenthal is not even very good as a wanna-be warrior.

In her words: "Blumenthal ... did not have the right to build personal equity on the borrowed suffering of others. Had he gone to Vietnam, as he apparently thinks he should have, he would have learned this: Real heroes never brag, and real Marines don't lie."