Popularity Cowards: We Prefer to Be Around Someone Who Cares

Mother Teresa in Calcutta Orphanage, holding future Tata Dealer
I was rereading the "Cognitive Risk:  EWaste Cell Phone Cancer!" blog from 2011.   I am kind of proud of it, its one that reached pretty high and could have wound up stuck in the weeds (like so many others in my "draft" box).

In this evolutionary brain "thought experiment", I put western civilization on the couch and explore how political movements - such as free trade or anti-globalization - take root.

Today's post is another "thought experiment", about how we have evolved to embrace both justice and mercy, and how that affects the way we hire or fire people.   I think it is good to be compassionate, but cowardly not to terminate when elephant extinction is at stake.

As a business person, I can identify something that is uncomfortable... the need to fire people who are not contributing.

As a parent, I prefer the coach who doesn't cut my kids from the team.

Here's where the rubber meets the road.  My generation was inspired by Jane Goodall, Jacques Cousteau, and Diane Fossey.  They made us feel empathy for weaker species, and to feel in our hearts a passion for earth's environmental diversity. The lure of empathy and critical thought is vital to our movement.

I felt the same heart-wrench when NYT journalist Jeffrey Gettleman wrote last week about the surging, militarized poaching of the African Elephant.  It stirred my passion, and my frustration.

Environmentalists are dropping the ball.  We are chasing e-waste and a war on reuse, and every time a dime of our attention is wasted on the fake story, we lose credibility.  We need to learn from our corporate species, and fire environmentalists who are misdirecting finite attention and money towards bogus hoaxes and myths of the harm and danger of reuse and recycling.

When I say I want to fire someone, I get a strange look from most of my friends who are also inspired by Goodall, Cousteau, and Fossey, and who feel genuine sympathy for the "E-Waste Poster Children".  I'm urged to balance and compromise, I'm told that "we wouldn't be here" if not for Basel Action Network and Greenpeace.   Well... I can say with 100% certainty I WOULD BE HERE.  I got here first, both to the movement for sustainable development of the southern hemisphere, and to recycling, and to reuse and repair, to exports, and to Africa.   And if someone has to tell BAN.org they are fired from the environmental movement, well might as well be me.

What is the balance between cooperation and conflict?  How do we shift a movement from mercy to justice without losing the empathy that brought the people we love to work with us?

I can best analyze this by looking closely at the idea of firing someone, causing someone to lose their job.  I am after all hoping that Jim Puckett will become unemployed, as I cannot get him to tell the truth or to abandon his firefight vs. the geeks of color.  If Robin is capable of firing someone - something I do have to do as a businessperson - how does his mind do that and still remain empathetic?

Sympathy and empathy are evolved functions of our complex brains.  We have to know when it's appropriate to show mercy, or the opposite - justice.  In my thought experiments, I imagine a higher power, a being much smarter than me, making similar determinations about who wins and loses in evolution.  The result is that people I like to have around are different from people I want to be in charge... a test America fails at many an election.

One way we manage our sympathy or empathy for a fired employee is to use a simple "justice formula".

- S/He Deserves it (bad behavior, drug use, stealing, incompetence)
- S/He Doesn't Deserve it (downturn, declining market demand for their skill, lost bids)

Termination.   It's easier to make this cut of "deserve to be fired" in your mind, as a thought experiment, than it is to do in real life.   In real life, there are often emotions involved in a firing decision.   The terminated employee may "make it easier" by not getting along with someone else in the workplace, the terminated employee may have another job offer and all you need to do is write a very nice letter of recommendation and get the other position offered to him/her (the immaculate termination).  "Deserve/Doesn't Deserve" is binary, but the factors around real firings are often noisy and complicated.

As an employer, as a corporate conscience for your banks, investors, and other employees, you may really be faced with too many people on a lifeboat at some stage.  If you keep everyone and never terminate anyone, you will in the long run create fewer jobs.  You will never even meet some person who otherwise would come work for you, because they never got hired.  Their seat is taken by someone who's counterproductive or who is doing something that doesn't contribute to growth.

Frequently, I use a sports analogy these days.  If you love your team, and you want them to do well, and the team manager is too soft and keeps the ageing stars on as long as they want to come to work, your team is going to fail.    At some point, Larry Bird has to leave the Celtics.  No matter how emotional the past joy he brought, wheelchairs are not allowed on the court.

"You have to learn to step over the bodies", a counselor (Glenda) told me.    It was the analogy of the medic on the battlefield.   You may meet dying people you cannot save, begging you not to leave.  But if you choose to stay, there's some other soldier on the battlefield who needed your tourniquet, someone who would have lived... and the dying soldier dies anyway.

The mistake that socially conscious business people make is to confuse margins with greed.

If my company does not make a profit, just breaks even, that will work as long as I'm all-knowing and omniscient.   As long as I can anticipate the outcome of every bid, the play of every competitor, the interest rates of future loans, and exactly when capital equipment will break down, I can run without a margin.  But the truth is that today's profit pays for tomorrow's close call.  Profits aren't bad, they are no worse than food in the pantry.   People who oppose profits, and oppose firings, and oppose investments in globalization, are not going to grow the economy.  If you have the good luck to have guaranteed repeated profitability, then you pay dividends, which benefit IRAs and retirement plans.  Small business, however, operates without a safety net, and the boss makes up the difference with (my) childrens college funds.

Some people feel that any firing, like any death, is to be avoided.   The confusing thing is that those people are so damn nice to be around.   Today we tend to call them "liberals", but there are many liberal ideas I espouse which do not fall into this trap.   And there are conservatives who believe that every American job lost overseas should have been kept as well.  The ultra right and ultra left tend to join over the issue of firing and outsourcing.
"The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt."
-Bertrand Russell
And perhaps from evolution, we have evolved socially to "like" people who "care".   Perhaps, over centuries of evolution, there have been hunts and harvests that people survived by sharing when they were lucky enough to have something, and people who didn't share wound up with spoilage.   The people who "liked" being around people who don't share and don't care have all died off.

But there's an opposite evolution... "Survival of the People who Hang Around the Fittest"...

We have that instinct in childhood, which is in part what explains abusive behavior in human adults.

There's a distinction between "Wisdom" and "Preferences".   We "like" things that are natural to "like", that we have evolved to "like" and to vote for.   But we "like" the doctor who stays on the battlefield with the dying soldier, we like the medic who stays longer to comfort the near-dead, though we may never see the statistical cost of the soldier who dies because of it.  We "like" the boss who is soft and doesn't want to terminate unproductive staff, we "like" the coach who keeps starting Larry Bird on the court.

Liberalism dies in the marketplace, like a sports team of has-beens who cannot sell tickets or tee shirts to the younger fans.  If you cannot fire people, you lose to the team that will.

I had to fire people.  This is why my company has been able to grow.   Because we grow, we recycle more, we offer more material from the waste stream to replace metals, silicas, minerals, polymers, and fibers culled from the earth.  It's the evolution of the 1%.

Giving money to wise people is the best case for tax cuts for the wealthy;  there are worse cases also being made.  But....  It has to be said, that giving money to those who fail can only work up to half the time.

The wisest wealthy want the USA to balance the damn budget.   The wise wealthy may, this year, say "keep the tax cut, pay down the deficit".   They may just hope that the money doesn't go to a government agent who is too timid to terminate incompetent federal employees, and to axe good ideas whose math doesn't pan out.

I love conservation, I love energy conservation... but when I heard how many homes were actually improved by the millions Senator Bernie Sanders was bragging about, I shuddered, and I thought this pendulum is going to hurt when it swings back at us. He's very popular among greens, and my company needs his followers to like us.  But it does matter how much money per house insulated.  If it doesn't matter, you will never, ever want to fire someone who only insulates one house per year.

The case for conservative environmentalism:  We are running out of time.

Elephants do not deserve to go extinct.  I know that, I know it in my bones.  It is hard for me to imagine that changing, no matter how smart or how dumb I pretend to be in my thought experiment.  If I have 100,000 dollars to save elephants, I'm going to fire anyone who is not the best elephant saver.  In a heartbeat!

If your cause, or your company, is failing, you must have the courage to reassess.

I'm a devout environmentalist.  I chose the environment as my Karma Yoga, as my cause, when I was a teen.  I chose recycling as an activity because it was concrete and measurable.  It saved trees.  It saved energy.  It could be measured by the ton.  I was told I was tipping at windmills, and I was surrounded by hippies who were, indeed, windmill tip-atters.

CHANGE requires serious science and Socratic method.   If your cause is failing, you must have the courage to change tactics.  We don't like firing fellow environmentalists;  we like them, they are friends.

But Basel Action Network must be fired.   I've chosen them because they symbolize a weakness in our movement.  They are draining budgets, and have a false prescription for the poor people whose photos they use to get money.  There may be others, there may be worse.  But these people, while they are not the worst actors, are creating an environment that the worst actors thrive in.  They take good suppliers out of the marketplace, and kill good buyers with harpoons between the eyes and sand kicked on the face.

There may be worse causes, I don't know.  My job is not to fire in order of worst-ness.  It is to hire the best and those people can't be hired if worse people are sitting in their seats.  The boss only has to demonstrate that you are incompetent, not that there isn't someone even more incompetent that should have been fired first.

If I donate to a site that shows pictures of elephants, I expect my money to benefit elephants.  If I donate to a site with a nun holding a child, I expect my money to help the child.   BAN shows photos of kids in a poor scrap yard, but mistates where the scrap comes from, mistates their parents choices of careers.


If environmentalists do not have the courage to stand up and fire the weakest and most deceitful and selfish player on our team, we are going to lose.  We cannot suffer the distraction of a campaign which forces colleges, universities, cities and states into a war against geeks of color, into paying money for nothing but posters in a defamation campaign against the tinkerers who represent the emerging markets best and brightest.


Here I make my stand.  If they are going to sue me for it, they can take me down easily.   But we must all have the courage to stand up to a bully wearing our own uniform.  The Basel Convention does not say what BAN says it says.  The export containers do not contain what BAN says they contain.  The workers and recyclers overseas do not have the choices BAN says they have.  The shredders in the USA do not create the wealth or employment BAN says they create.  The money BAN takes from us does not benefit the children they say it benefits.

Environmentalists cannot be popularity cowards.

Give your money almost anyplace else.   Save the Children.  Save the Whales.  Save the Elephants.  The "save the E-Waste" campaign of the past ten years makes environmentalists a laughingstock in heaven.  Please have the courage not to give them a dime.  Please have the courage to tell Santa Clara and other counties to abandon their boycott of the geeks of color.

If I take this stand, and my company takes this stand, we have no choice but to be the best.  We cannot pollute, we cannot ship toxics along for the ride, we must do our best.  I welcome the challenge, and I challenge BAN to welcome the scrutiny.

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