Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

“societal transformation is easy . . . once you know how!”

(next morning 2nd thoughts below)

Today I heard Malcolm Gladwell speak at a fundraiser for a homeless-housing group where friends of mine work. It was a fancy-pants fundraiser, fifty bucks a pop, at the Convention Center, 900 people there. I wore a tie.

Gladwell was an effective speaker -- confident, witty, engaging, super-articulate, even passionate. A friend had seen him at a smaller, pre-event event, earlier in the day, and said that he was shy and awkward -- he didn’t turn on the “professional speaker” mode until the big crowd was there. His article on the cost of medically treating chronically homeless people, which ran in the New Yorker last winter, was what got him invited. The article was interesting, but his speech was way off the mark -- he was trying to sell us on his Tipping Point concept in the context of solving homelessness, and he didn’t know what he was talking about. But he sounded confident and cheerful about it!

His book, The Tipping Point, has fascinating analyses of how societal transformations have occured, and his talk today gave examples as analogies to how we can solve homelessness. The most elaborate example related the story of how an RCA underling connived to broadcast a heavyweight boxing match with Jack Dempsey in 1921 -- the first live broadcast of a sporting event -- and how this broadcast sparked enormous sales of radio sets for RCA.

Gladwell draws 3 lessons from the story.

1) The transformative person had no economic or political power, but he had social power. The man who put together the first live sports broadcast had contacts to get a radio transmitter, a boxing expert to “announce” the fight (the world’s first play-by-play announcer), and RCA radio-set salesman to arrange to play the broadcast in public places.

2) The transformation happened incredibly rapidly -- after the radio broadcast, radio sales went from practically nil to practically universal.

3) The transformation included a reframing of the purpose of the radio. Until the live sports broadcast, radio had been used to broadcast news and music, and people had plenty of other access to news and music. Broadcasting an event simultaneously with its occurence made people think of radios differently.

Gladwell gave other examples, but they all had these lessons in them. And then he went from describing how these transformations worked in the past, to prescribing how we could make it work to end homelessness.

1) Use our social power -- our personal connections. Don’t worry about economic or political power -- transformation happens without much money in the end.

2) Don’t be bogged down and pessimistic -- the transformation will happen quickly.

3) We need to reframe homelessness from a “moral” question to an economic question. In many cases, treating people medically is more expensive than housing them and providing them with services that will prevent them from needing so much medical treatment -- this was a reiteration of his article, and the only useful suggestion he had. Second, he spoke of how many chronically homeless people, once they find housing and services, actually go back to work, and that we should reframe the question of homelessness away from morality, and toward the idea that our society needs productivity from everybody.

This last suggestion of his rang five bells false. While it is true that many people go back to work once they find stable housing, Gladwell’s rosy view elides the fact that many of these people going back to work will never become free of the need of subsidy. In addition to that, you don’t have to cite Marx (Ebeneezer Scrooge or Alan Greenspan will do) to know that our economic system requires a surplus population of unemployed people.

In attempting to transform his descriptive analysis into a prescriptive program, Gladwell overlooked two mighty obstacles.

First, in the RCA radio example, and all the other examples he gave, the rapid transformation was preceded by the development of a powerful and well-funded infrastructure. In RCA’s case, it was the national network of radio salesman and the highly capable manufacturing capacity: without these two factors, the broadcast of the Dempsey fight would not have had its effect.

Second, nobody can ever predict beforehand what the transformative reframing will turn out to be. This is key. I will repeat it. Nobody can ever know beforehand what a transformative reframing will turn out to be. If you could, you’d be a wealthy person.

Now, it turns out that Gladwell was speaking to a room full of infrastructure people -- people, like my beloved spouse, who have devoted their careers to making incremental changes in society that cause major changes in individual people’s lives. So that’s a good thing -- the necessary piece of infrastructure is more-or-less in place. It’s simply ill-thought-out (and somewhat rude) of Gladwell to downplay its importance.

Yes, I’m an incrementalist, I’m bogged down in the everyday detail of it, I can’t see the transformative storm on the horizon. But neither can Gladwell -- or, if he can, I’m not convinced. I don’t really believe him though -- I don’t believe he really sees it. I think he’s selling optimism -- I think he’s selling pep-talk. Solving homelessness is possible, but it ain’t gonna be cheap, and it ain’t gonna be easy, and to pronounce otherwise is sky-pie-ing. But it could be quick -- and I hope he’s right there.

Questions re: homelessness that need reframing:

1) Siting. NIMBYism is huge and powerful. Social power does come into play here, and among my friends and acquaintances in the homeless-housing biz, the ones who have good social skills and broad contacts do have an easier time with NIMBYism. One does not need Gladwell to observe this, but his analysis supports it.

2) Funding. This is going to be expensive, and to pretend otherwise is false. If Gladwell sees an inexpensive solution, he shouldn’t be so shy about it.

3) Local solutions v. national solutions. Seattle has a 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness -- in Seattle. The suburbs are getting off lightly, and local governments lack the taxing power of the federal government.

Gladwell’s next speaking gig is at the World Business Forum in Frankfurt, Germany. There he’ll be selling his Tipping Point book to very wealthy and powerful people, telling them they need to make their products “sticky.” Yeah, “sticky,” that’s the ticket -- we just need to get “sticky.” And once you know how -- it’s easy!

Gladwell’s made his ideas “sticky,” and it’s certainly transformed his earning potential -- these speaking gigs pay tens of thousands of dollars. I don’t know how much he charged for his speech today -- maybe he gave a cut rate, maybe he even spoke for free, but I doubt it, and $10,000 to $15,000 for his 45 minutes (plus travel and prep time) would not surprise me. He is an excellent speaker, I just happen to think that the market overpays for the product, which usually amounts to a good sermon and pep talk. Gladwell at least had good stories, and his jokes made me laugh a couple of times, but his prescriptive program was ill-informed and fantastical, based on the false idea that finding that sticky, transformative reframing is easy.

I do like his writing, but making the leap from description to prescription -- well, he sells it well.

2nd thoughts, next morning: Social power and reframing are important (but I knew that from his book), and it is worthwhile to note that societal transformation has happened quickly in the past (after serious and substantial infrastructure-building beforehand) and that it could happen quickly in the future. But social science has no predictive power; past performance is no guarantee of future performance; and so to say that it will happen quickly is misleading, and to make it seem easy is simply bizarre.

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