Class Warfare Blog

April 23, 2017

A Vision of Rational Decision Making Denied

In a comment on another site, I stated that I had an overarching goal for my teaching “career,” which was the promotion of rational decision making and that I retired from that profession a defeated man. In my last post I commented that “Currently scientists are seeing that we tend to think better in groups, that no individual has all of the puzzle pieces but in communication with others, clusters of puzzle pieces get formed, and then clusters combine to make larger clusters.” We are social animals; we work better in groups. Now we find that we even think better in groups.

My work on rational decision making lead me to this same conclusion. You see, we invested in “interest-based decision making.” This came about as an investigation of less confrontational collective bargaining processes, but we realized it applied to all collective decisions.

I will not bore you with regard to the details of this process but I will point out two of the keystones. The first is that at the beginning of every decision-making process was a complete investigation of “the problem.” Before a problem could be addressed, everyone needed to know what it was and understand it, so this took up much of the “decision-making time.” It also paid immediate benefits. Groups did come together to “address an issue” only to find out that when they tried to clarify it, all involved decided it was not a problem. In one case labor and management came together to solve a problem only to find out that for management, there was no problem, that the problem that labor had to resolve. Management offered support but felt it was not a “stakeholder” in the issue, so should not be making any decisions about it. Labor concurred.

The second keystone was before solutions to identified problems were explored, the “interests” of all of the people involved had to be shared. These were the conditions and reasons that any solution had to satisfy to be viable. Typically, all solutions had to be affordable, had to not break laws, etc. But when exploring the interests of a group, interests like “being seen to be playing fair” arose, as did “fulfilling fiduciary responsibilities,” and “displaying competence.” This part of the process was called “putting the why before the what.” This was especially important for people just “wanting to have a seat at the table,” to be involved. Many people want to be involved, but if the do not have any interests a solution needs to satisfy, they aren’t a stakeholder and do not need to be involved.

This process seems, from the outside, to be cumbersome and it can be but is actually very efficient over time. Over time, the interests of groups become clear and known. People show up to interactions having clarified their idea and have brought any data they think pertinent (usually sharing it ahead of time) as to what problems are so that phase can be addressed rapidly. The big plus is that the solutions that come out of this process are just better. they are more accepted by the decision-making group, who share their acceptance widely and that gets people on board and buying in more rapidly. And better solutions need less tweaking and last longer, a definite bonus. Plus, it was easier to recognize good solutions, because to get that label, an idea had to solve the problem and meet all of the interests of the parties involved.

One example of such a solution is that my last employer, a $150 million a year enterprise, never negotiated salaries with labor. The reason? Each labor segment of the enterprise received a percentage of the income of the business. If revenue went up, everyone got raises. If revenue went down, salaries could go down, but in reality, people were motivated to find cost savings so that did not happen but the process was in place if it had to. As a labor negotiator, I was shocked that labor gave up negotiating salary because that was our “big hammer.” We would always save salaries until last and negotiate working conditions, et. al., first. If we were denied any progress in the early stages, the wage demands would get larger and firmer. This was Negotiating 101. But here I saw management and labor jointly trying to solve problems without the “big hammer” hanging over their heads, because they honestly wanted to be good partners and be part of the solutions, not part of the problems. Go figure.

Contrast this situation with the way we “solve problems” politically. We start with a solution. This is often a proposal or a bill. Then we “score the bill,” that is try to figure out what the costs associated with the “solution” are. Then we assess the political viability of the bill. Will there be enough votes to pass it? Will the President sign it? Is a veto override possible?

At no point is there any effort made in sharing the problem or clarifying it for a wider audience. Instead, some simple homily is offered. Often the titles of the bills are telling, “The American Patriot Act” and “The Affordable Car Act,” or “No Child Left Behind.” And that is it. A great deal of scurrying around to get “support” from this group or that is done, but next a vote is taken (or not).

This is amazingly obfuscatory. Historically, communication was poor, so we assumed that our legislators had our best interests at heart and that they understood what the problem and the solution were and would do the right thing. Right. We quickly saw that political deal making and pandering and profiteering held more sway than some “having our best interests at heart.” But we still go about this in the same fashion even though mass communication is firmly embedded in our society.

Imagine that for any problem that legislation might be offered to solve, there were a period in which the problem had to be clarified and explained clearly and publicly. Plus the interests of all parties involved would have to be stated. If some private group, like the AMA wanted to chime in, it would have to state its interests. If that list did not include some obvious interests we know they held, then it would be clear to one and all that that group had “hidden agendas.” Those issues could then enter the public debate. (Anyone who thinks that the AMA does not have an agenda to protect the employment rights of certified doctors and prevent any doctor not so certified from working, needs to think again. All professional societies have these interests.) Then after these two phases have occurred a work group would be constituted to write the legislation. (We think better together than apart.) We would not have dueling bills, we would have one. That no one party would get all that they desire is probably the norm. That better solutions would be had than just taking the ideas of one or two people and ramming them through, would also be the norm.

Part of the listing of interests, of course, would be a listing of the “campaign contributions” from all parties affected by the legislation to the legislators.

I guess you can see why I feel defeated. I have participated in both processes. One builds relationships, increases job satisfaction amongst decision makers, and creates better solutions that last longer. The other … doesn’t. It is not as if we do not know how.


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