Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Unified Theory of Voting Reform

Quit your political party.

I'm not alone in my current frustration with politics. Despite my fence-sitting on the concept of, "the best thing that can happen to the government is for it to unable to do anything," I watched with utter disbelief at the latest show of congressional ridiculousness over the past two months while they tried to get a fiscal cliff deal. In my opinion, they've failed so completely that change is not only warranted, it's necessary.

The majority of Americans would list the economy as the number one issue they cared about this past election. Although there are different opinions out there about whether our current debt even warrants concern, more and more are coming to the conclusion that our debt is a critical and debilitating problem (I myself believe that any situation where one's interest payments eat up a significant portion of our revenue is a problem).

In the face of these fiscal difficulties, our politicians have shown time and time again that they are the most inefficient, unrealistic, incapable, and self-centered people in our country. Why work on the problem when it might cause short-term pain that will make voters unhappy and vote against you? Instead of listening to each other and challenging their own assumptions, these people dig in and hold our country hostage again and again. Sure, they've put off the budget cuts for another two months (when this will happen all over again) and passed a deal that keeps most of us from paying higher income taxes, but the way they did it cost our country dearly. The bill would have needed to be passed by mid-December to allow us to file our tax returns (and receive tax returns) on time (a friend of mine wonders what tax software companies are going to do about the software already on shelves);  the constant gridlock has led our country's debt to receive a downgrade; the "extraordinary measures" that our country is about to undertake to pay our bills while we're over the debt limit is costing us more than if we would just up that limit; companies have been avoiding hiring because of uncertainty that hasn't been solved by the latest deal.

All of these problems have a shared root cause (a "common factor" in math terms): the two-party system. That phrase above, "vote against" was intentional. People don't vote "for" politicians anymore. We vote "against" politicians and the party we're afraid to have power. The reason for this has long been recognized yet our current voting system punishes us for voting for third parties. Power comes from exercising options, but first, we need to find a way to give ourselves more meaningful options.

I suggest that everyone go watch the following four videos by CGP Grey: The Problems with First Past the Post Voting, The Alternative Vote Explained, Mixed-Member Proportional Representation, The Problem With the Electoral College.

To be honest, in this world of political inertia where even the most basic and obvious change can be all but impossible (everyone should also watch CGP's Death to Pennies video), I'm pessimistic about our ability to change anything. This is especially true of anything that takes power away from those who currently have it. However, I've been inspired by the gay rights and marijuana legalization movements this past election. Did you know Generation Y made up a larger proportion of the voters this past election than seniors? This younger generation listened to new ideas and did our research. We listened to different viewpoints and considered whether laws and society should stay the same just because they've "always been that way." The research on those two issues didn't change in the past 10 years; the makeup of the voters changed along with our ability to recognize a good idea when we see one and our ability to change our minds (a task that many still find impossible).

That being said, I'm not sure how to proceed, but it seems like the first step should always be awareness. I urge everyone who learns something new from these videos to pass them along to everyone they can. Like any other movement, the biggest barrier to change is a lack of an educated and informed base. The more people who understand the problem and know about possible solutions, the more likely we are to actually move in the direction of positive change.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Unified Theory of Crying

Okay everyone. It’s time to start conceptualizing crying differently.

First, keep in mind that although I’m talking about “crying,” different people handle stress in different ways. I often cry when life seems just a little too hard to deal with, but others go on a swearing binge, get angry, or withdraw. Crying is also the example I use because it’s easy to point to the distinction between someone who is not crying and someone who is. If I were using anger, for example, it would be hard to say when the frustration breaks into anger and the change might be more in degree rather than a clear on/off distinction. Now on to the reconceptualization!

There are two errors men and women (but mostly men) make when trying to figure out why someone is crying. The Type 1 error is when they think whatever they just did is the entire reason for the tears. I’m sick of explaining to people (read: male friends or boyfriends) that just because I’m crying doesn’t mean I’m too fragile to handle the insensitive comment they just made, I’m distraught by their decision not to have lunch with me, or I’ll fall apart if they don’t respond to my text. If I cried every time they did those things, they would (correctly) brand me a needy, psychologically ill person whom they should tell to get help rather than continue to spend time with me.

Type 1 errors are problematic because it ignores the reality: no unanswered text is worth crying over by itself. If you think that's the only reason I'm crying, you've missed something fundamental about both my personality and understanding of the world. Type 1 errors also have the nasty side effect of causing people to conclude that you’re crazy because rational human beings don’t get upset over those things. However, the most dangerous result of this error is that we’ll think that if the immediate problem is solved, the person we’re dealing with will stop being upset. Usually, the anger or crying just happens all over again when a new problem arises.  I don’t really care that much that you never returned my text and all the apologizing and subsequent texting isn’t going to make me feel much better (though, frankly, it couldn’t hurt).

Type 2 errors are, if anything more dangerous (and not only to your health, men). Ever see a man make the critical mistake of asking a crying woman if she’s on her period? Yes. This is that error. Just because other stuff might be going on in the background doesn’t mean what you did wasn’t tear-worthy, it just means that it might not be the only thing bothering that person. The danger of this error should be obvious: you risk making the person even angrier if you ignore the triggering event in favor of blaming their emotions on things that have nothing to do with you.

Something else to consider about Type 2 errors is that you might be responsible for a lot of the background stress as well. For example, if you’ve been too busy to talk for weeks and then forget an anniversary, yes, the anniversary might not be the entire reason she’s reached a breaking point, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t your fault. The solution is not to assume she’s not really upset with you, but to make the conversation broader than, “I just don’t think anniversaries are that important, and if you were a rational human being, you’d agree with me.”

Here’s the way I’ve successfully explained this phenomenon to my most emotionally-incompetent male friend: picture a point scale with a set crying threshold. This crying threshold varies from person-to-person, but I’ve set mine at 100 points. This means that I cry whenever I hit or go over 100 points. Now, assign each stressor in a person’s life a certain point value. The points assigned to a particular stressor might go up or down based on the situation (for example, the stress points go up for a report as a deadline approaches or down as you get more of it finished to your satisfaction), but at any given time, those stress points add up to a number. The closer that number is to 100, the less serious a new problem or slight needs to be to cause someone's eyes to start tearing. I call the event that causes me to go over 100 points the “triggering event.” That triggering event is the easiest thing to point to as the reason I’m crying, but probably isn’t the whole reason. For example, there have been times where I’ve been hanging out at 99 points and I’ll start crying just because I didn’t get a chance to kiss by boyfriend goodbye or I forgot my book at home.

What really brought this idea home to me was dealing with my much younger sister. She’s currently 13 and has always been somewhat prone to tantrums. When she’s beginning to have a breakdown (my word for when she cries, screams, and loses the ability to be dealt with on a rational level) I do a quick assessment: is she tired, hungry, or worried about something else? If these factors are there, I know that though she deserves to have me address the triggering issue at some point, I should also attempt to deal with the underlying problems, which are usually easier. It’s surprising to me how often, after fixing or at least talking about the background stressors, the triggering event can be amicably disposed of with a two-minute conversation; a conversation that would have been impossible while she was in the throes of a breakdown. This isn’t just good advice for dealing with children or teenagers. There are some things that we never grow out of and, often, it’s the same process but with more complex background stress and triggers. That being said, I’d still give at least 30 stress points to anyone you know is sleep-deprived. Also, I’m a big fan of sleeping on it and eating before confronting someone about something they did that hurt or bothered me.

A couple words of caution. First, human beings don’t always know all the reasons they’re upset. Whether you believe in a subconscious or not, most can agree that little stressors add up. When we reach a breaking point or crying threshold, it doesn’t occur to us to think back to the fact that we were running late for work or felt ignored last night; we focus on what’s immediate. Searching for those background stressors in another person may not yield anything all that concrete and might upset the person because you aren’t taking their immediate problem seriously.

Second, although I like my 100 point metaphor, the map is not the territory. This works well for illustration purposes, but stressors often don’t add up in a rational or linear fashion. Point additions might go exponential just because there are over three stressors working at the same time. Some situations tend to cut that threshold rather than adding points. This also doesn’t take into account how something good in our lives can immunize us against a lot of the effect of stressors.

Despite these limitations I still find it useful sometimes to tell someone, “Yes, I’m upset about you not returning my call, but only for 7 points.” It helps me to be aware of what’s going on in my life that's caused me stress and helps other people understand what’s really on my mind. When it comes right down to it, usually all I want is a little understanding anyway.