Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Values: are you truly living yours?

Source: Pamela Slim
It is hard to escape the inequality so visible in San Francisco. Walk down one side of Fillmore Street and you are greeted by row upon row of designer labels. Walk down the other side and you are greeted by the down and outs. The vast divide captured in less than a mile got me thinking. Have we each created two different worlds in which to live in? Let me explain.

We have a deep set of values that we are proud of. These include fairness, justice, empathy, generosity, judgement and curiosity about the unknown. We cultivate these within ourselves and support our family and friends in doing the same. Our homes are filled with love and warmth. They are well-maintained and welcoming. We encourage our children to speak their minds but also to listen carefully. We ensure that they share with those who live in and enter our homes. We build relationships with our neighbours and look after each other in times of need.

But here's the confusing part. We are not inherently self-interested, yet support a world that rewards self-interest. We are fair by nature, yet allow an economy to exist that distributes income and opportunity unequally. We enjoy forming balanced judgments based on reasoned arguments, yet accept one-sided rhetoric from politicians and businesses. We empathise with the suffering of those nearest to us but easily walk past a homeless person on the street. We care for plants and animals at home, yet consume goods that are harmful to the planet or involve animal cruelty.

How can we simultaneously operate in one circle for our friends and family and an entirely different circle for our fellow humankind? Does this simple division drive the outcomes for society that we most want to avoid - income inequality, poverty, environmental degradation, political stasis? Perhaps it does. We divide our world into things we think we can control and those that we think we can't. But the outer circle will eventually creep up on the inner circle. We suffer the consequences of inaction.

It doesn't have to be like this. We can be proactive and create change for everyone. Gandhi said "whenever you are in doubt or when the self becomes too much with you...recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him." If we identify our core set of values - fairness, justice, equality, sustainability - and apply them to every action that we take, then we can shift these circles so that they cross. In time, they might even merge. The private demands that we have would be equal to the social demands. Clean air. Decent pay for a decent day's work. Tax justice. Effective social security support. The way to achieve change is to truly live our values. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

We all make bad choices

We all make bad choices. We are impatient in the face of saving money. We buy items which we know will come down in price in a future sale, but that we must have now. We procrastinate as deadlines loom. We check Facebook and Twitter instead of getting on with the job at hand. We see tomorrow as the time for reform. After all, that's when our diet will begin.

We all have the ability to make worse choices. When we are stressed or anxious, chemicals are released into our brain that diminish our capacity to think. We react on impulse rather than with rationality, using the same techniques our ancestors used when decided to fight or take flight, but without the corresponding danger.

In making better choices, we often need the help of outside forces. To improve our incentive to save towards retirement, our employer matches any contribution that we make (up to a certain level). To help us make better food choices, we sign up to programs that provide menus, calorie counters and even ready-prepared meals to our doors.

Some people just don't have that kind of help. A lot of employers in low-wage industries do not offer benefits like pension plans. Working two jobs because one minimum wage job doesn't pay enough means not having the time to think beyond bills to health or well-being. Tax breaks on savings aren't worthwhile because wages are so low. The mental burden of being poor makes it harder to make good decisions (it is estimated to be the equivalent of losing 13 IQ points). So a bad financial choice for some might mean having to skip a dinner out. A bad financial choice for others might mean skipping dinner altogether.

But here's the punchline: tomorrow looks the same... for everyone. That's why it's hard to change. We don't expect our apartment to disappear overnight. We don't expect our employer to fold. We don't expect our family to disintegrate. And so it is with those living on the edge. If you don't expect to have any more time tomorrow than you did today, surviving on convenience foods makes sense. If you don't expect to come into money in order to afford to go back to school, sticking to the job(s) at hand seems like the only option. Our best guess of what will happen in the future is based on our experience now. And if today is not filled with hope, then there is no room for change tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The 'Force of Philanthropy

The wealthiest 400 Americans are estimated to be worth over $2 trillion. That's as much wealth as the bottom 50 per cent of American families combined. Redistribution of this wealth has the potential to transform society for the better. Welcome to the "Golden Age" of philanthropy.

In 2010, a "Giving Pledge" was announced, where billionaires agreed to give away one half of their wealth to charitable causes. Its major proponents were Bill and Melinda Gates, and Warren Buffett, three of the richest individuals in the world. By 2014, 127 signatories had pledged more than $0.5 trillion. To those billionaires who did not sign up (and were not actively involved in philanthropy), Warren Buffett wryly said, "maybe I should write a book on how to get by on $500 million. Because apparently there's a lot of people that don't really know how to do it".

Any initiative of this scale, and involving such an exclusive club, is open to criticism. There were those that pointed out that the limit of one half of wealth was chosen because of the tax deductions it offered. There were those who said that the pledge enabled billionaires to donate to private family-run foundations that were opaque and were slow to deploy funds. And because the US relies more heavily on philanthropy to support social problems than Europe, there were those who worried that large-scale donations blurred the line between private and political interests. It simply made already powerful business people even more powerful.

At a conference last week on business ethics hosted by Claremont Lincoln University, I asked why billionaires were waiting until they gained membership to this club in order to donate? What if philanthropy was built into the culture of business to begin with? This is what the current generation joining the workplace - the Millennials - are demanding. They want to work for companies with a conscience. By 2020, Millennials will make up 1 in 3 Americans. By 2025, they will account for three-quarters of the labour force (Winograd and Hais, 2014). They matter.

Nowhere is this more relevant than in San Francisco, where technology has created both winners and losers (see this great illustration by journalist and illustrator, Susie Cagle, for the facts). There are some signs that things are changing. Salesforce, a cloud computing company, operates a 1:1:1 model of philanthropy. 1% of its equity, 1% of its product and 1% of employee time are donated to charitable causes. So far, the company has given $68 million and individual employees have provided 680,000 hours in community service. This includes supporting skill development, like coding. At AirBnB, employees put their technological know-how towards solving social problems. In 2011, its engineers matched hosts who wanted to donate their places with those needing shelter after Hurricane Sandy. Both firms have seen rapid growth in market share and sales. More companies should follow such examples. Profit and philanthropy can go hand in hand. Social problems don't wait for tomorrow. Neither should philanthropy.