TV Top Pick #6: The Newsroom

profile, sitting at a desk

Let me be clear up front, I am not recommending you go back and watch this Aaron Sorkin created TV drama from 2012-2014.  However, there is one scene I’d like you to check out.  The scene features Jeff Daniels in his role of news anchor Will McAvoy, being interviewed with two politicians at a local college.  The part I’d like you to pay attention to comes 2 minutes and 10 seconds into this 5 minute clip, if you want to skip ahead. The current political divisions in the country inspired this idea.  Hear me out.

What bothers me is why acknowledging the lack of US supremacy on even the smallest item somehow is translated into “you hate our country.”  Coaches on a sports team look carefully at other teams to see where they’re deficient; always trying to find areas to improve so they can become the best.  That doesn’t blemish their team loyalty, does it? During my years building high-tech companies, we used radar charts to aid competitive analysis.  These charts highlighted our assets and liabilities, forcing us to focus on shoring up weaknesses while capitalizing and leveraging our strengths.  Acknowledging someone else performing better in a particular area was an opportunity to examine what they were doing and figure out how we, using our creativity and innovation, could get better at it than them.  As it says in this clip, it starts by understanding the problem.

What if we, as US citizens, came up with a scorecard to honestly rank ourselves against other countries?  A list might include some of the things below.  Then, every four years, before an election, we ask the administration who’s asking for another four years, how they did on the scorecard?  Of course we’d want to stick to metrics easily measured and difficult to fudge. A host of domestic and international agencies are well-equipped to make calls like this.  If a concern arose that scores may be less than honest and precise, do what they do at the Olympics: hire a dozen firms, six chosen from each political party and when the ratings come in, throw out the highest and lowest rankings and average the rest. Easy!

Here are some ideas on measurable things that could be on the scorecard:

  • Biggest economy, largest GDP. Rate of Growth.
  • Average household income.
  • Maturity and quality of infrastructure: roads, bridges, electrical and Internet coverage (measured by internet/electrical penetration), etc.
  • Safety of citizens. (Murder, violent crimes, property crimes per 100,000 residents).
  • Access to clean air and water.
  • Health care quality, perhaps measured by average life span of citizens, infant mortality rates, wait times for elective procedures, responsiveness if/when emergencies occur.
  • Amount of freedom citizens have. (Would be interesting to see how the measurements would be developed for this one, but it’s important to nearly all Americans, so needs to be included).
  • Incarcerated citizens per capita. Rates of recidivism. (We want to measure all things that matter, not only the things we know where we’ll do well.)
  • Literacy ranking. Percentage of population graduating high school, college, post college and advanced degree percentages. (While some may or may not think this important, investing in citizen’s education is a metric worth keeping track of.  Are there ways to determine where we stand internationally in math, science, languages, art, music, sports, etc.)
  • Amount of national debt. Owed to US Citizens vs. owed to other countries.

This is just a quick start to provide some ideas.  You might have some as well.  Maybe it eventually leads to the Top 50 (or Top 100) attributes making up a great country.

At the end of their four years in office the President and his administration, would be forced to stand up and say, well, in the area of X we moved from #16 in the world to #9, and in area Y we moved from #4 to #1.  Now, we ran into a problem on item M where we went from #17 in the world to #22, but let me explain what happened and why.

I’ve no idea if New Zealand has any sort of formal scorecard, but I found this video of New Zealand’s Prime Minister summarizing her accomplishments and making the case for another term rather interesting.  If I were a citizen of New Zealand, I think it would make it clear to me if I would want her in office for another two years.  Some will find this compelling and others, repugnant, I suspect. What did you think about her focus? On the right things? Unlike the above clip from a television series, this one is actually the real deal, no high-paid writers, no Aaron Sorkin, just reality.

My hope if this idea got legs and were to come to pass, we would see politicians start to work on the things that help our country with citizens holding them accountable for moving forward and getting things done.  It might very well cause a shift in focus to the things that really matter in government and less on the things that don’t. My two cents and deepest apologies if this is too political.

Epilogue: Everything that happened during Jacinda Ardern’s first two years in office, occurred during her pregnancy and delivery of her first child.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

What we fear, and why?

On a Sunday earlier this spring, before the whole Coronavirus issue, Maggie and I were hiking in the valleys surrounding nearby North Mountain, in Phoenix, AZ. As we walked a couple engaged in a vigorous discussion passed us, going in the opposite direction. They were speaking Russian, a language I’ve learned to recognize. They spoke freely, with no shyness or hesitation. As we walked I was struck by what my brother, Leif, had told me about riding the Russian subways when he and his family lived in St. Petersburg.

Leif and his wife would not speak out loud on the subways. Communicating meant pressing their lips carefully against each other’s ears or those of their children and whispering quietly. He had a genuine fear for their safety if other riders had been able to discern they were foreigners. The children, however, were fine. Growing up in Russia, they had no discernible accent and could speak freely. This experience made me think about how fortunate we are to live where we do. It is unlikely anyone in the USA fears for their safety when speaking a foreign language or having an accent.

At the most local level, where we live, Americans rarely feel fear of “the other.” The Greek family that runs the bakery upsets no one. The Mexican family living down the block with the mother and father who aren’t so good at English, heading to work every morning, and often getting back late, leaving the kids to fend for themselves are completely fine. The neighbors all keep an eye out for them with a willingness to step in if anything looks amiss. Even the elderly Sikh man who’s never seen without his turban has been accepted, with some neighbors figuring out that not cutting his hair is part of his religious observance and they’re okay with that.

Given this is true, then why are we so easily manipulated to fear “the other,” by politicians and others wishing to use that emotion for their own ends? How sad when “the other” even becomes our own neighbors, friends and even family, when they have political positions different from our own. Unfortunately, it’s not hard to understand although difficult to do anything about, other than being aware and vigilant of what is going on.

Our attitudes of fear and even hate of “the other” is a primal survival mechanism. It is part of our instinct to avoid danger, to fear anything appearing to be different. It is what kept us alive in ancient times. As the writer Bill Bryson so eloquently states in his book A Short History of Nearly Everything:

“Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life’s quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result — eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly — in you.”

But like many remnants of our reptilian brain, some of what goes on in that part of the brain has very little usefulness in modern society. When one race or group of people consciously or unconsciously fears for their safety, if their importance or control is threatened, they’ll develop defenses. This can quickly lead to exaggerated and negative beliefs about the other race or group to justify their actions to secure their own safety and survival.

We’ve outlived most of the need for this deep-seated instinct, but it still exists and is often manipulated by unscrupulous individuals and advocators. It is easy to cause us to fear a horde of “XYZ militant terrorists,” or whatever “the other” group is that is being exploited, or “this party or people” who want to destroy our country.  It holds barely a thread of something that sounds like fact, and any actual risk of such an event or attack occurring is often so remote to be downright silly. Yet newscasts are frequently monopolized with these unlikely and remote eventualities having little chance of ever impacting a particular listener.

For instance, around Halloween, many people fear their children are at risk of being given poisoned candy by strangers while trick or treating, even though there has never, ever been a documented case of this happening. Ever. Yet “urban legends” are regularly brought up and repeated, often as fact and often on the news.

I get angry when the media blatantly exploits these deep instincts. My brother and his wife’s fears on the Russian subway were probably justified. It made sense to trust their experience and reports from American friends advising caution. But it does not make sense to trust politicians or media talking heads who exaggerate or make up facts to make us fear other people when that fear, in context, is not justified. Or, at the very least, they should be required to put the fear they’re pointing at in the context of other real risks the population actually faces. But that’s another whole set of examples and considerations.