Monday, February 22, 2010

Change or Not to Change

Posted By on Mon, Feb 22, 2010 at 7:17 PM

I'm a sucker for books about change. I want to be a better person, writer, and athlete. So I feast on books like "Outliers," "Freakonomics," "Googled," "The Tipping Point" and a new one by Chip Heath and Dan Heath called "Switch."

And I don't change, or at least not much. Maybe reading and thinking about change is a poor substitute for making friends, taking piano lessons, writing a novel, and doing more pushups. Which brings me to the slightly weird campaign to reinvent local government. Big Brother meets Up With People and the Chamber of Commerce. I'm not sure who and what is behind this and why, but I know one thing: the proper role of journalists is to be journalists, not boosters.

There was a quarter-page advertisement in Sunday's Commercial Appeal with a picture of an attractive young woman and the message: "MemphisShelbyCounty: let's have a real conversation." The mix of plain type and bold type, apparently meant to subtly convey a message, was too cute by half. The contact was, the disembodied voice that sometimes posts on this website.

I have no use for paid spokespersons, disembodied voices, or anonymous commenters. I lie for free. Introduce yourself, tell me where you're coming from, and we can have a conversation. I'm listed.

I strongly suspect that The CA, my employer many years ago, is in cahoots on this. Back in the day, if somebody wanted to launch a campaign to change city and county government, a reporter would have been dispatched to ask questions. Nowadays, the CA editorial page, still stuck on Willie Herenton, huffs and puffs about transparency but won't tell us much about its own earnings, its sacred cows, or the people behind and its newspaper advertisement.

Rebuilding government may well be an idea whose time has come. Or not. But it's a little presumptuous to talk about having a conversation. Some of us in politics and the media have been getting our hands dirty, using public schools and parks, taking our lumps, and having conversations — pleasant and not so pleasant — for years.

Meanwhile, government has already been rebuilt. Profitable nonprofits and high-paying quasi-public agencies and authorities have carved out dominions ranging from the airport to downtown, the riverfront, Shelby Farms, hospitals, the Orpheum, and now part of the Fairgrounds. Public gets the trash pickup, police, schools, buses, car inspections, and the jails for people and animals. And the bills, of course.

Then there's this, from a review of "Switch" by Christopher Chabris, a professor of psychology writing in the Wall Street Journal. The book is about people, companies, and organizations that have successfully changed in a big way.

The key is "precise actions that will each achieve a minor goal and move one step closer to a major one." Sounds like pushups to me.

And this: "Politicians, for instance, have long known that appeals to emotion are more effective than appeals to logic — not because people are stupid but because the mind is designed to use logic as a tool for supporting our beliefs rather than challenging them."

And this: "All the good intentions and native intelligence in the world can be defeated if the setting is not right. But small changes to one's environment can have a big effect."

And a disembodied conversation that goes nowhere can have a big effect on preserving the status quo and the vested interests.

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