Lorenzo & his humble friends

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool

Category: ideas

What money can’t buy

Smoking is big in the Czech Republic. A few years ago the Czech government considered raising the tax on cigarettes. Major cigarette corporation were very unhappy. To contrast the decision of the government, Philip Morris commissioned a study on the effects of raising the tax on the national budget. The study found that the government actually gains more money than it loses from smoking and a higher taxation would have had negative effects. How so? The cost-benefit analysis showed that of course smokers impose higher medical costs on the national budget; but only as long as they are alive. And smokers tend to die much earlier, thus saving the government a lot of money in pensions, health care, and housing for the elderly. Each smoking-related death saved the government $1,227.

Why

If you hire people just because they can do a job, they’ll work for the money. But you could also hire people who believe what you believe: this way, perhaps, they’ll work for you with blood and sweat and tears. Unfortunately, very few people or organizations know why they do what they do.

One exception is Apple. If Apple were like everyone else, a marketing message from them might sound like this: “We make great computers. They’re beautifully designed, simple to use and user friendly. Want to buy one?”. This is how most of us communicate. But it’s uninspiring. Here’s how Apple actually communicates. “Everything we do, we believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use and user friendly. We just happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?”.

If you agree this is a good way to communicate, then you should have a look at what Simon Sinek does.

A matter of targets

A few days ago I was having a conversation with Fabio. My point was, essentially, that we should never limit ourselves because we think we are not capable of something.

This, of course, is a rather banal argument and not particularly original in any way. But it is worth being remembered from time to time, as I often feel that some of my acquaintances renounce to pursue what they would love to do as they do not dare to take the first step for a change in their life. Inertia is a very dangerous thing. There are, of course, many other friends who dared to do exactly what they wanted to do: Andrew, who took off to live in Egypt; Tommaso, who’s pursuing his career in London; Stefano, who left everyone to go and live in Austin; Giovanni, who stayed in Trento to follow his passions; and many others. Anyway!

In the course of my conversation I was trying to remember a quote from the last book I read, Henry Thoreau’s Walden. I usually do not like quotes: taken out of their context their original complexity is diluted, if not distorted. But this one is particularly good. I was able to find it and it goes like this: “In the long run, men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, they’d better aim at something high.

Tang Yau Hoong

Malaysia-based illustrator Tang Yau Hoong recently released a brand new series of posters pairing illustrations with a famous quote.

Henry David Thoreau’s Walden is the last book I bought and I will read it in the next few weeks. I am quite positive I am going to like it  as I am fascinated by those thinkers who can bring together very practical questions with transcendental theories. Thoreau was a master in this field, as he developed the dilemma of individual resistance to civil government in moral opposition to an unjust state. Fabio based his entire dissertation on these anarchist ideas developed in Civil Disobedience.

Under-performing

Last week I finally read Intelligent Life‘s article on Ricken Patel, the young Canadian who founded Avaaz, which is now a major global civic organization with the world’s largest online activist community, including over 20 million subscribers.

The article is about a lot of different things, but there is one in particular I noted down. It is about the reason why Patel started his own company after trying to do some good working for public organizations such as the International Crisis Group, the United Nations, CARE International and the International Center for Transitional Justice. The reason why he gave up working for the public sector is that it is “just mandate-obsessed and risk-averse and controversy-allergic”. Bingo. This is exactly what I have been elaborating – also with Nick and Mindo, here – while working for a total of about twelve months for three different public administrations. Of course, this is just a bit more simplistic and practical vision on the public sector than Max Weber’s iron cage theory. This is, however, the reason why the public sector is often under-performing in such a spectacular way.

Justice

A few days ago I made a reference to some of the main differences that distinguish modern liberals and communitarian thinkers. This is an old debate which still fascinates me. To put it very simply, I would say that this is a conversation between those who believe we have only voluntary obligations and those who believe we have moral obligations of membership and loyalty.

This latter set of obligations does not exclusively refer to universal moral duties that we owe to every human being, such as the duty to avoid harming people unnecessarily, but also to obligations towards the communities we are part of, even though we haven’t assumed the obligation voluntarily. For instance, as communitarians point out, obligations of membership and loyalty can arise from shared identities because we’re someone’s son or daughter, someone’s friend, a member of a particular community, or a citizen of a particular country.

Of course, this is such a big debate that it would be impossible to wrap it up in a couple of short messages. However, as most of the intriguing conversations we can have, this is an argument for further questions and not for definitive answers. As a matter of fact, the best way to think about it is through a few dilemmas which are proposed on Michael Sandel’s Justice website.

  1. If you caught your brother shoplifting, would you call the police? Should you call the police? Many people would hesitate to report their own brother. Is this evidence of a special moral obligation that competes a universal duty of justice, or is it mere prejudice?
  2. Do parents have greater obligations to their own children than to other people’s children? Suppose your child is drowning next to the child of a stranger. Do you have a greater moral obligation to save your own child than to save the stranger’s child? Why?
  3. Do children have a greater obligation to help their own parents when they are in need than to help other needy people?
  4. Do Americans who live in El Paso, Texas, have greater moral obligations to people who live in Alaska than to people who live right across the river in Mexico? Why? What is the source of this obligation?
  5. Is patriotism a virtue? Or is it merely prejudice for one’s own? Most people do not get to choose what country they will live in, and no one chooses where they’re born. Why are we obligated to the people of our own country more than to the people of any other?

Indeed, these are fascinating questions. Thinking about the answers is not only an exercise for its own sake. These big moral issues are one of the reasons why one would be motivated to carry on a long Phd in politics. Meanwhile, you can watch episode 11 of Sandel’s Justice, which is pretty much all about this philosophical dilemma.

What is the common good?

Modern-day communitarianism began in the upper reaches of Anglo-American academia in the form of a critical reaction to John Rawls’ landmark 1971 book A Theory of Justice (Rawls 1971). Drawing primarily upon the insights of Aristotle and Hegel, political philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor and Michael Walzer disputed Rawls’ assumption that the principal task of government is to secure and distribute fairly the liberties and economic resources individuals need to lead freely chosen lives. They argue that civil society should serve to produce citizens who care, at least occasionally, about the common good. By doing so, they switched the focus of the philosophical thought from the individual (and critics may say “from the individual freedom”) to the community and its sense as a whole. Of course, this is a tricky perspective, perhaps even dangerous; and the debate between communitarian and liberal thinkers is now old fashion. But I still think it is a fascinating one.

Thanks, in five words

Studying in Italian you learn to prepare long and complicated speeches, which are indeed very musical and beautiful and full of rhetoric, but often fall short of brevity.

Since the moment I seriously started studying in English I began appreciating synthesis as a precious gift. No wonder synthesis is one of the key talents of contemporary world, and many successful ideas are built on it – that TED speeches and twitter, for instance. Of course, extreme synthesis has its own pitfalls, as it may lead to schizophrenia and superficiality. If used well, however, it makes better, more efficient, clearer speeches.After all, you do not need plenty of space to say something and we do, in fact, remember more clearly simple and short messages rather than long and complicated communications.

Take the Webby Awards, which honor the best of the Internet and introduced as its most satisfying tradition the brevity of its acceptance speeches, which are strictly limited to five words.

L’autonomia e l’arte del possibile

L’autonomia é davvero un privilegio? O forse che essa incarna un’idea ed una visione politica?

In uno studio tecnico di grande chiarezza, Marco Cammelli suggerisce che l’autonomia é, o potrebbe essere, un efficace modello di governo se si riconoscesse l’esistenza delle regioni – di tutte le regioni in Italia – come organi istituzionali e non solo amministrativi. Per farlo, é necessario chiarire il ruolo, le funzioni e la natura delle regioni a statuto speciale, a partire da una comprensione “della piena autonomia regionale e locale … non come premessa obbligata o un esito necessario … ma come eventuale punto di arrivo di un processo di maturazione e consolidamento di classi dirigenti locali e di raggiungimento di requisiti e standard”. Questa visione dell’autonomia come espressione dell’arte del possibile ritorna nel recente articolo di Andrea Ciambra pubblicato su Politica Responsabile alla vigilia dell’incontro dal titolo “L’autonomia come risorsa di (multi)sistema: Trentino e Catalogna a confronto”, che si é tenuta sabato 1 giugno nel contesto del Festival dell’Economia. Andrea, che io ricordo frequentare alcuni corsi con me ai tempi in cui era un dottorando della Scuola di Studi Internazionali, scrive che in Italia manca una “concezione dell’autonomia come riconoscimento di un’identità stabile, di una maturazione politica e amministrativa per molti aspetti slegata dal governo centrale e caratterizzata piuttosto dalla presenza di un’agenda politica chiara e delle risorse (anche umane e sociali) sufficienti per realizzarla”. E ancora (mi scuserà Andrea se lo cito a spezzoni): “quel che dimostra il caso trentino è che l’autonomia può essere un premio, può essere uno stimolo, può essere uno standard elevato da mantenere con la creazione di una forte tradizione amministrativa e una cultura politica univoca basata sulla specialità e l’eccezionalità”.

E’ essenziale che l’autonomia sia intesa come riconoscimento di una capacità istituzionale e non più, come invece veniva fatto in passato, come strumento di difesa identitaria e culturale. Il buon governo, tuttavia, rischia di rimanere uno slogan fine a se stesso se non lo si traduce in un’agenda politica basata su alcune scelte precise. Questa può forse essere la lezione che giunge da altre autonomie europee: il governo della Catalogna – ma anche quelli di Scozia e Paesi Baschi, ad esempio – hanno scelto di investire nella ricerca universitaria attraendo studenti stranieri, hanno fatto investimenti importanti in ambito culturale, sportivo ed europeo, rafforzando il ruolo e le funzioni delle rispettive regioni nell’Unione europea e hanno scelto di incoraggiare l’immigrazione attraverso politiche inclusive, valorizzando alcuni elementi distintivi del territorio. Ovviamente, come dice Andrea, questi modelli sono difficilmente esportabili per via di diverse condizioni storiche, prima ancora che geografiche o demografiche; e tuttavia la comparazione serve a comprendere che il rafforzamento delle autonomie speciali deve necessariamente accompagnarsi a una fase di definizione di alcune, poche, chiare priorità strategiche. Questo é un passaggio essenziale in un periodo di aggiustamenti fiscali e tagli ai fondi pubblici, nel quale tutti i governi sono chiamati a non disperdere le risorse. Scegliere alcune priorità e rinunciare ad altre rappresenta il compito più difficile e al contempo più interessante del futuro che aspetta le autonomie speciali.

Local resistance to global austerity: it will never work

A few weeks ago I read one article from Dr. Greg Sharzer and I am still thinking about it. Greg Sharzer is the author of No Local and an Adjunct Researcher at Gyeongsang National University in South Korea. In this article he argues that the localist form of citizenship may empower us, but it cannot confront capitalism. Against a global network of power must emerge globalised forms of struggle.

I am not sure I agree with the message of the article. I always thought that localist forms of citizenship are the most efficient and the most immediate response to the destruction that derives from global capitalism. Just to be sure, global capitalism is not entirely bad: as other phenomena it brought positive innovations, but at the same time it undeniably entails very powerful and dangerous consequences, which need to be understood, discussed, and tackled. Should we do so locally or globally?

I am puzzled. This is certainly one of the most important and fascinating debates for all those confronted with political and social problems nowadays.