The Points Imperative

I’m on the road today, staying at a hotel I’ve stayed at before.  When I arrived at my room last night, I found something new positioned on the TV remote control — a notice encouraging me to make “the green choice,” turn down housekeeping, and earn 250 bonus “rewards” points in the bargain.

Like most — if not all — business travelers, I’m a participant in various rewards programs for airlines and hotels.  Unlike some people, I’m not a fiend about it.  I don’t have a credit card associated with an airline or hotel chain that would give me double and triple rewards and allow me to really maximize point accumulation, and I don’t plan my travel around using one airline or staying in one hotel chain to concentrate my points and earn rewards faster.  I know that this costs me the ability to rack up rewards more quickly, but I’d rather take the most convenient flight and stay in the most convenient place, regardless of whether it’s my preferred rewards option, and if that means it takes a lot longer to get those free nights or free flights, so be it.  Convenience today is more important to me than potential free vacations down the road.

It’s interesting, though, that the rewards programs now seem to be morphing into an even more general behavioral modification device and incentive program.  I’ve been receiving emails from one hotel chain promising me points if I take surveys that will take 5 or 10 minutes to complete, for example.  And now a hotel chain thinks that an offer of 250 rewards points might just tip the balance and incentivize me and other travelers to hang the “no service needed” notice on the outside door handle of our rooms.  I suppose that there are some people who are so focused on getting points that the bonus points offer really could change their behavior, decline maid service, and save the hotel on housekeeping-related costs.  (I decline the maid service as a matter of course, points or no points.)

It would be interesting to know what kind of studies were done to develop these points incentive programs, and how successful they are at producing the desired behavior.  How did the hotel chain decide that 250 points — as opposed to 500 points, or 1000 — was sufficient to entice people to reject maid service, and is the program working as intended?  I’m not an expert in these programs, obviously, but 250 points doesn’t seem like a lot.  Was part of the points decision-making process in that case to make the “bonus” large enough for people to care about, but small enough that people would need to engage in the kind of long-term behavioral change that would really produce savings for the hotel chain?  And how many people are really willing to answer detailed surveys about their backgrounds, personal interests, and preferences in exchange for 1,000 of those coveted points?

For some people, maximizing point accumulation apparently is an imperative, and we can expect the airlines, and hotels, and other rewards program businesses to continue to use the programs to encourage us to change what we do and how we do it.

 

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Teaching Your Kids About Personal Finances

April is “National Financial Literacy Month” in the United States.  In 2003, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution declaring April Financial Literacy for Youth Month, and in 2004 the Senate — apparently concluding that a wider audience should be getting that message — broadened the concept to National Financial Literacy Month.  The underlying concept is to use April to teach Americans how to establish and maintain healthy financial habits.

1057a15b2bc0402Like so many well-intentioned Senate resolutions, Financial Literacy Month hasn’t exactly worked out as planned.  April is a good choice — the month where Americans settle up and pay their federal, state, and local taxes is bound to make people focus on their finances — but the statistics and surveys show that Americans, on average, don’t manage their finances very prudently.  They don’t save for retirement, they have too much debt and use too much of their disposable income paying interest on that debt, they don’t live on a budget, and they haven’t put anything away into a “rainy day fund” to allow them to deal with an unexpected crisis.

When it comes to financial literacy, most Americans are still in the pre-school stage.

Recently I ran across an interesting article on how to teach your kids about financial literacy.  The article identifies five “life lessons” that can help to put children on the road to financial self-reliance.  The very first lesson is giving your kids an allowance, earned in part by doing chores around the house, rather than being given money or a credit card whenever they ask.  That basic concept reinforces two important adulthood realities — money has to be earned, and it’s a finite resource that doesn’t appear by magic and needs to be spent with care.  Other lessons include having your child save for a big purchase, getting a first job, going to college, and moving out — all of which have their own, important personal financial elements that will help to give your offspring a solid base on which to address their own lives as independent adults.

These are good lessons, to be sure, but I think that perhaps the most important lesson is what a child learns by observing her parents and other adult family members.  Do they behave responsibly?  Do they have jobs?  At the end of the month, are they fighting about money or fretting about how they are going to pay the bills?  Do they talk about finances at home, and discuss whether to buy a new car or use the money for some other purpose?  Have they established a college savings account or taken other long-term savings steps?  All of these are ways of conveying a crucial message:  people do have some measure of control over their personal finances, they can make choices, and financial matters aren’t something to be discussed in secret but rather are part of the backbone of any family.

Some of us, myself included, were fortunate to have had good family role models that taught us, by how they lived their lives, about the importance of hard work, saving, and investing.  They didn’t need a Senate resolution to tell them that setting a good financial example would help their children and grandchildren to live responsibly and within their means.

The Boy Who Cried “Regulation”

Recently Facebook’s billionaire CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, published an op-ed piece in the Washington Post that called for “a more active role for governments and regulators” to establish “new rules” for the internet.  The op-ed has provoked lots of comment.

facebook-ceo-mark-zuckerberg-testifies-before-us-congress-highlightsZuckerberg’s op-ed piece begins:  “Technology is a major part of our lives, and companies such as Facebook have immense responsibilities. Every day, we make decisions about what speech is harmful, what constitutes political advertising, and how to prevent sophisticated cyberattacks. These are important for keeping our community safe. But if we were starting from scratch, we wouldn’t ask companies to make these judgments alone.”  He says he agrees with people who say Facebook has “too much power over speech” and argues that government regulation is needed in four area — harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability.  Zuckerberg adds:  “By updating the rules for the Internet, we can preserve what’s best about it — the freedom for people to express themselves and for entrepreneurs to build new things — while also protecting society from broader harms.”

Zuckerberg’s article, while couched as a call for regulation, reads like a PR piece for Facebook; it argues, among other things, that Facebook has developed “advanced systems for finding harmful content, stopping election interference and making ads more transparent” and has taken other steps in the four areas.

It’s safe to say that Zuckerberg’s clarion call has been viewed with significant skepticism in the United States and abroad.  An article in The Hill says that “[r]egulators, lawmakers and activists who have grown wary of Facebook saw Zuckerberg’s move less as a mea culpa and more as an effort to shape future regulations in his favor,” and quotes, for example, a UK regulator who says that if Zuckerberg really believes what he has written he can start by dropping an appeal of a $560,000 fine the UK imposed for Facebook’s activities in connection with the Cambridge Analytica scandal.  Others are leery of inviting the government to regulate on-line speech, and believe that Facebook — having thrived and made millions in a regulation-free environment — now wants to see regulations imposed in order to complicate and thwart efforts by new competitors to grab some of Facebook’s social media market share.

The reaction to Zuckerberg’s op-ed piece illustrates what happens when you have frittered away your credibility.  Facebook’s history doesn’t exactly fill people with confidence that the company has users’ privacy and best interests at heart; too often, the company appears to have placed generating revenue above user concerns and data protection.  I’m inherently dubious of any governmental action that touches free speech, and large-scale regulatory efforts often impose staggering costs without providing much benefit — but even if you think such efforts are a good idea, Zuckerberg is exactly the wrong person to float such proposals.  He’s like the boy who cried wolf.

Old-School Joe

Joe Biden is an “old school” politician.  First elected to the U.S. Senate from Delaware in 1972 — that’s almost 50 years ago, folks — he traces his roots to a different political era.  Joe Biden has been involved in politics at the national level for longer than just about anyone you can think of, and certainly longer than anyone else who might be a serious candidate for President in 2020.

screen_shot_2019-04-02_at_10.23.19_pm_0It’s pretty clear that Joe Biden is what you might call a “hands-on” politician, the kind who likes the handshakes and arm around the shoulder photos and ropeline grappling with admirers.  That’s why you can find countless photos of Joe Biden in physical contact with somebody — some of whom look happy about it, and some of whom look very uncomfortable — and why some of the people who are attempting to explain his current predicament say things like “he hugs everybody.”  It’s a political style that was commonplace in decades past, when some politicians believed that the personal touch and laying of hands was a way to establish a memorable connection with voters and establish power relationships with other politicians.  The backslaps and shoulder grabs were also a way to allow the politician to remain the center of attention, even when someone else was getting an award or making a speech.  Such politicians embodied the old comment about the politician who so craved attention that he wanted to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.

When you’ve been playing the political games for as long as Joe Biden has, perhaps you lose touch with prevailing views, and perhaps you lose a good sense of the line between an appropriate contact and creepy, personal-space-invading behavior.  No one, male or female, is going to object to handshakes, or a backslap or tap on the shoulder.  But grabbing the upper arms or shoulders of a woman to pull her close, smelling and kissing the hair of a woman, and leaning in so that your face is inches away clearly cross the line into more intimate contact and should be reserved for close friends and colleagues.  The fact that Joe Biden was routinely engaging in such conduct with complete strangers, from biker women in diners to political candidates at rallies to the wives of people appointed to federal jobs, shows that he simply didn’t — and perhaps still doesn’t — understand what are long-standing, and commonly accepted, social boundaries.

Joe Biden’s old-school roots may help to explain his behavior toward women, but they don’t excuse them.  Part of being an effective politician is having sensitivity to what is going on, and how society — and standards and boundaries — are changing.  Joe Biden apparently lacks that quality.  His clutching and space-invading behavior with women is creepy and a real problem, but in my view the fact that he apparently didn’t understand that until now raises deeper concerns about him.

The Day The Dinosaurs Died

You’ve probably read about how a massive asteroid strike ended the era of the dinosaurs and caused their ultimate mass extinction.  The geological evidence indicates that, 66 million years ago, the asteroid hit on the Yucatan peninsula of modern Mexico and produced massive earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tidal waves, and forest fires.  The strike threw up a dense plume of dust and debris that turned the world dark and wiped out 99 percent of life on Earth.  Thanks to that asteroid strike, the Cretaceous period ended with a bang and the way was clear for mammals — and human beings — to take the dinosaurs’ place at the top of the food chain.

sk-2017_04_article_main_mobileWhat was it like on the day, 66 million years ago, when the asteroid struck the Earth with such terrible force?  Robert DePalma, a doctoral student at the University of Kansas, has found compelling evidence of what happened on that momentous day, and this week he published his findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  In 2012, looking at a site called Tanis, in the Hell Creek geological formation in North Dakota, DePalma found layers of perfectly preserved animals and fish fossils at the precise boundary between the Cretaceous period and the Tertiary period that followed it — the very day when the asteroid struck the Yucatan.

The geological evidence shows that the asteroid strike created a magnitude 10 or 11 earthquake that generated seismic waves that reached out thousands of miles.  In prehistoric North Dakota, which like much of the North American continent was covered by an inland sea, the seismic waves produced a water surge that threw fish onto shores to suffocate — producing the layers of fish and animals that DePalma found.  At the same time, molten material was hurled into the atmosphere.  In the geological formation, DePalma found bone, teeth, and hatchling remains of many dinosaur groups, including an intact dinosaur egg complete with embryo — indicating that the dinosaurs survived that fateful day, although their ultimate day of reckoning was coming.

In an article in the New Yorker, DePalma describes his find as “like finding the Holy Grail clutched in the bony fingers of Jimmy Hoffa, sitting on top of the Lost Ark.”  Thanks to him, we now know a lot more about the day that the ground buckled and snapped, the waters surged, the skies were lit with fire, and the world changed forever.

Colorful Kegling

Russell was in town for the weekend, and at his request on Sunday we went bowling at the HP (for “high performance”) Lanes Bowling Center off Cleveland Avenue.  Knocking down the pins was fun, as always, but our little taste of modern bowling made me realize how dramatically the bowling experience has changed since I was a kid.

Our bowling alley in those days in the ’60s was the legendary Riviera Lanes in Akron, Ohio. It was a place for people who were serious about bowling.  The bowling balls were all black — the only nod to color appeared on the 6-pound balls for little kids, which had red and blue triangles on them — and the only noise was the balls rolling down the alley and scattering the pins.  To complete the somewhat somber, focused atmosphere, against one wall there was a huge photograph of President Nixon, with an intense look on his face as he began his approach to the foul line, bearing the title “Our Bowling President.”  It helped to lock in the belief of most of the keglers that bowling was the all-American sport.

HP Lanes is . . . different.  For one thing, the “house balls” are as colorful as Easter eggs.  The area above the pins is a riotous, Mardi Gras-like study in pastels, and there was rock music playing at a pretty healthy volume.  There wasn’t any photo of a bowling president around, either.  The only link to the bowling days of yore was the color of the lanes, the ball delivery system, and the American flag.

Anonymizing The Shooters

New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, staked out a firm — and interesting — position after a terrorist attack by a white supremacist on two New Zealand mosques killed dozens of people last month.  “[Y]ou will never hear me mention his name,” said Ardern. “He is a terrorist, he is a criminal, he is an extremist. But he will, when I speak, be nameless.”  She added: “He may have sought notoriety, but we in New Zealand will give him nothing. Not even his name.”

anongiftsPrime Minister Ardern is the latest figure to argue that the individuals who commit mass shootings should be anonymized, and that news reports of such crimes should not name the killers.

The anonymity effort traces its roots back to the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, which produced massive coverage of the American teenagers who did the killing.  The Columbine shootings are believed to have motivated many other mass shootings, both in the United States and around the world, and some observers argue that giving the Columbine shooters publicity and celebrity-style coverage only encourages future attacks.  The New Zealand shooter, for example, was supposedly inspired by a 2015 mass shooting at a church in Charleston, South Carolina.

As one criminologist, Adam Lankford, has put it:  “A lot of these shooters want to be treated like celebrities. They want to be famous. So the key is to not give them that treatment.”  Detailed news coverage of shootings can also be used as a guide to would-be shooters who are planning their own mass attacks, and can motivate future killers to try to outdo the death tolls in prior shootings.  It’s apparently a sad, sick reality of our modern world that some people are so obsessed with becoming famous that they will commit heinous crimes against innocent strangers to obtain the publicity they crave.

Should the terrorists and criminals who commit mass shootings be named, or should the news media refrain from identifying shooters while otherwise providing the news about such killings?  There’s no doubt that the names of criminals are part of the news.  Every new reporter learns about the “5 Ws and an H” — who, what, where, when, why, and how — that should elements of any news story.  But members of the news media also are part of society and have always accepted some element of social responsibility in their news coverage — by not publishing ultra-bloody or violent images, for example.  Withholding the names of mass shooters who hope for notoriety is just one additional step down that same path.

I don’t know whether anonymizing mass shooters will help to discourage future tragedies, but I do know that what has been done to date hasn’t worked.  I applaud the stance of Prime Minister Ardern and hope that reporters and editors will start to recognize that providing publicity to such shooters simply makes the new media a pawn in their sick and twisted effort to become famous.