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James Covey, MBA2016, talks about why you need to care about politics. He says it’s time to stop thinking that ‘if everyone voted rationally, everything would be better. Rationality is determined by the observer.
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LBS Shares is a forum designed for members of the LBS community to come together and share their unique work experiences, personal stories, and insights.
LBS Shares will happen every two weeks and each individual or group of individuals gets 15 minutes to present, followed by 5 minutes of Q&A.
so just showing me to welcome James great okay so yep I'm James MBA 2016 this is my second year are there any Americans in the crowd okay awesome for the anybody else if I'm using shorthand that doesn't make any sense to you like you can't follow what I'm describing about the political system or something just jump in just just say that you're not following any want clarification otherwise it'll get very confusing very quickly so for me I got into politics for a few different reasons part of it is specific to the the kind of background that I had so my family was in the Foreign Service which is the the u.s. Diplomatic Service and so we spent some time moving around i grew up I was a kid in Washington DC we live in Cairo we went back to DC we lived in Berlin we went back to DC I went to college in Baltimore I spent some time in Beijing I went back to the States it was so I spent spent a good bit of time abroad which gave me certainly had a varied life I guess you would say a varied perspective a lot of different issues the I would say that the two those two prongs my life the my experiences in the States and then my experiences of the states while I was living abroad sort of formed why I ended up getting into politics where I grew up I grew up in DC what people say when they mean that for those of you that know your geography DC is a city not a state there Maryland is to the north Virginia's to the south when people say DC they usually mean one of those two states they mean Maryland of Virginia I grew up in DC that's relevant in this case because I went to public school in DC and that informed a lot of what I saw and what a lot of what I understood about the challenges that faced most Americans through my day-to-day life so it was the kind of thing where DC was particularly hard hit by the crack epidemic we ended up moving out of the neighborhood that we were living in right after we came back from Cairo I was I was like five or six my brother night we went down to the park and we came back and we ran up to our mom we were like hey mom we found darts we found darts she was like that's really great put him right here by the door because they're hypodermic needles and then come on inside so it was the kind of thing where that wasn't that wasn't the world that i lived in right that was that was a world that existed around us but it's also important to keep in mind that the neighborhood that I'm describing where that happened where there was severe drug abuse where there were all the other issues that come with that you could literally see the Capitol building and the Washington Monument everything else like a few blocks away from where you'd be standing in that neighborhood so things were not good I went to I went to public school in DC the public school system is desperately underserved it certainly was the case when I was younger it's changing quickly now but there's still problems I went to college in Baltimore anybody seen the wire okay reasonably accurate it doesn't it doesn't give you it doesn't give you the good bits of Baltimore but it does give you does give you a good picture of the problems that are facing Baltimore so there's that you know the the there's a lot of troubles in America cities and that was clear to me throughout my entire life and so the the trampling of minority rights and of the poor in the United States is something that was clear to me from a very young age the and just to sort of stress that point a little bit more this is something you might end up seeing this for you first years you might end up seeing this again great gatsby curve there's something gets talked about a fair amount now you probably know more about this than I do but I'm going to talk about anyway the the best way to look at it is that what you're what you're seeing here is that there is more inequality the more inequality there is an income the more that that translates to the next generation and so that's perpetuating in America some people respond to this they see it they say well that doesn't mean that the American dream by which we mean the idea that anybody can make it with hard work anybody can can move up in life can make it with hard work that doesn't mean that it's not real it just means that it's harder not true what is also happening is that it's getting harder and harder to give your kids the opportunities so that they can actually succeed through harder work that to be able to excel to the next level of schooling which were which also means that they would get to the next level of which means that they would have access to better and better jobs it gets harder and harder and harder to be able to do that so that's a challenge that we face I also grew up during a time of a enormous tumult I guess you could say in in foreign affairs so just give you a quick tour of the end of the 20th century 89-91 the berlin wall comes down americans are very comfortable we think that you know we've won the war of our fathers we've beaten communism we're good to go we're finally living the dream we're able to ignore things like the attack on the USS Cole and we're pretending like as the one off don't worry about that 2001 towers come down everybody goes bananas because nothing like that has ever happened to us and we start doing things that are that are atrocious you'll have classmates I certainly have classmates I have friends back home who's who's occasionally their bodies and occasionally their sanity was was corrupted in our pursuit of these wars and that was horrific to watch happen it was horrific to watch the march to war in Iraq that was built off of I think it's fair to say lies and it was very that that was a shaping moment for how for how I saw what could happen in our political process so all of that bundled up with the fact that i grew up in DC we saw the politicians up close didn't want anything to do with it and yet and yet Barack Obama comes on the scene and second probably only to my wife um Barack Obama changed my life so his his experience of growing up abroad his experience of understanding what the United States what the what the real promise of the United States is what we mean to people around the world what we what it means to live up to our ideals what it what it means to see the devastation in in our biggest cities man's been a lot of times a community organizer in Chicago during a particularly troubled time there if anybody's interested at any rate he comes on the scene and you see that there's actually there's a lot of people that feel the same way and that there there is indeed in America that we can fight for I mean I was living at China at the time in Beijing and people were getting ready for the Olympics so seeing the kind of economic growth was taking place there versus you know the great stuff that was happening thanks to our second try at supply-side economics which is really great and totally works and definitely doesn't destroy our cities is it was there was a sharp difference at any right so I started campaigning I went to Ohio and then Mississippi and then Indiana and then Montana during the primary elections and then I went back to Indiana when you're running a campaign by doing okay on time about halfway through where I'm weird okay when you're on a campaign what that means is think about it a couple different levels you have a local level where you're in a precinct or a town or accounting something like that you're moving up there's a statewide campaign and then there's a national campaign the national campaign is the thing you follow the most easily that's going to be in the new york times they're going to cover it in foreign newspapers that's going to be things like who took potshots at who and what did they say and how awesome was it when you know the Donald Trump kind of sound bites it's not campaign it's not this is its noise it's noise for a lot of people but nobody's minds are being changed by any of this you're just you're you're maintaining posturing it's like when you go out you see a bunch of guys and they're like oh hold me back I'm gonna fight it's like you're not gonna do anything this is nonsense you go to a state level and you're fighting more specific battles right you're talking about things that are mattering to people on a much more localized level they're going to have concerns that are going to vary from state to state for instance Ohio in Indiana have been massively hit by they have strong manufacturing bases that have eroded significantly for a variety of reasons that we don't have time to talk about versus a place like Montana highly agrarian but there's also there's a growing educated class that's fueling tech ventures even in certain parts of the state you're going to have a lot of varied concerns that people are going to be focusing on differently you need to be targeting what you're talking about when you go to a very very local level this is where you you here has anybody heard the term organizing when it comes to campaign politics this is the root level of all politics it means that the organizer is a person that goes out it's the same for labor organizing you go out you identify supporters you train them how to go out and find more supporters and what to talk about and they go out and they do that you're building a network rapidly right that's the biggest piece of a campaign if you want to win by in a lot of these places you need to win by single percentage points it means that you need to identify and turn out your voters that's what you're doing this is back-breaking work you're going you're knocking door-to-door you're talking to everybody that you can you're getting these people that want to support your candidate to also go door to door knocking everybody's knocking everybody's on the phones you're like a telemarketer and a door-to-door salesman and it's occasionally soul-crushing but this this is the meat of democracy because you're actually talking to voters and you're getting people to go out and talk to people that they can actually convince this is where people are being convinced about who to vote for this is where actual discussions of policy are happening I had more subjective conversations about policy and about differences in policy on doorsteps than I ever did with even friends when I was back in Washington DC which is what I did after we won we won in Indiana first time democrat won since nineteen sixty four so if you voted for Barack Obama in 2008 you're welcome the what I did I went back home and the place where I was able to find a job I wanted to keep keep helping in any way that I can so I worked for the Department of Energy I first did I built the daily briefing book for a guy named Steven Chu how much done about 15 minutes great for a guy named Steven Chu he won a Nobel Prize working on lasers his idea of a detailed paper was was it was hard it was hard to match that so that was pretty difficult work in the beginning and and then I worked on our policy and international affairs I planned conferences all over the world and and got to travel including right before my wedding I spent two weeks on the road with my boss talking about clean clean manufacturing in Turkey and then you know international energy issues in India and then we went to singapore and indonesia and it was a it was a whole thing and ultimately i still got married so that was terrific the i also got to spend some time at the Council on Environmental Quality which is at the White House and there I interacted with interest groups and businesses this is again a key part of what you do when you're working in politics is that you're taking input from the outside you're relaying the thoughts of the administration or of whomever it is that you're working for back you're trying to find common ground you're trying to build things that you can you can shape coalition's around certain ideas that have broad support we're going to come back to that and then I got to go back to the Department of Energy and do strategic planning for a new secretary Ernest Moniz if anybody's been following the the nuclear potential nuclear agreement with Iran he was one of the key negotiators for that he is far and away the coolest dude that ever worked for there was one time that I was preparing I was getting ready for him to arrive for a trip he got in the plane was delayed like 5-6 hours they didn't get in until two in the morning and we're like what what can we do how can we make this better you know what do you what do you guys want when you land he was like yeah nothing you can do about its weather if you get some taco bell and a couple of beers that'd be great okay yeah we can do that best guy ever worked for so all of this gave me a very specific perspective on politics and the political process and all of that and for the Americans what I'm really saying here is how I would want you to care about politics differently and for others this is about how you should be observing politics if there are people in the room that genuinely don't care about politics than your presumably extremely bored by this point also you should seriously care like these are these are people that are making decisions that are going to affect you for the next 30 50 for the rest of the time of your alive there's people that are going to make it for you you can be involved in that or you can just toss it to the side if you want to toss it aside and that's fine but the less people that have to work to convince right but you should probably get involved because most of you probably care all ready for a lot of reasons the climate is changing there's a lot of questions about a nuclear Iran as we talked about there you know Isis ISIL depending on how the 10 depending on your perspective so-called state that's another good one there's a lot of issues there's a lot of things worth caring about and you should probably do that here's the thing does anybody know does anybody know the site wait but why it's it's good fun it's this guy he goes out he finds topics that he doesn't understand anybody drills down into him and he just talks about him a lot and he really investigates it one thing that he talked about is this is this a perspective that a lot of you guys would agree with right no incorrect but let me tell you why the perception here is that what you're getting into is that if you're in the middle that you have a mix of these two perspectives and the mix of the two perspectives is therefore rational right because you're getting that these people have a certain perspective than these people have a certain perspective in your closest to the center so you're mixing those two ideas and you're good to go right and then there's these guys on the on the on the far side and they're just crazy right because they have ideas that are far outside of the mainstream ideas that are far outside of the mainstream could include specific ways that you should address sexual assault on campus it could be things like revenue-neutral carbon taxes these are extreme ideas they're not held by the mainstream that doesn't make them extreme it makes them outside of the mainstream but it's a question of how you evaluate that so it's a lot more don't think of these things as being a binary or if you live in you know a multi-party system don't think of these things as being on very set axes like that and the closer to the center are you are the more it makes sense think of these things as a sphere all of the issues that you care about or a severe and there are people near the center where you can start building coalitions because they're closer your beliefs I would also these are phrases that are going to be very very familiar for a lot of Americans in the room and that may be familiar to other people but this idea of I'm a moderate I'm an independent this is my favorite one you know I'm fiscally conservative but yeah I'm socially liberal right both parties are the same if everybody just voted rationally things would be different none of that is true I'm moderate or independent that's not actually thank moderates independents tend to they have very specific voting patterns they vote more in line with one party than would someone who loosely identifies with either party but doesn't really participate so that's not really a thing both of the parties are the same or all of the parties are pretty much the same or offering that that's that's just objectively not true you cannot look at the policy proposals of parties in any democratic system and and make that statement unless you live in like a dystopian oligarchy and there's only a state-sponsored opposition and then you could probably make that statement but unless that's the case then that's not true and you should dissuade yourself from that if everyone just voted rationally things would be better rationality is defined by the observer just because someone isn't making a rational choice there's there's a great book in American political science called don't think of an elephant and the idea is that it's about Kansas and the transformation of Kansas from being a democratic state to being a Republican state and the idea is that you know the the Republicans were able to you know cause voters of Kansas to care about these identity issues and to scare them away from thinking about the things that work or two to their economic values that were they were able to get them to not think about their economic self-interest not sure they were voting very much in their self-interest it's just that they define that differently than a political scientist who's basing that exclusively off of economics as being the sole point on which they should be voting people are voting based on their perceived self interest you declaring that to not be rational isn't going to cause them to change their vote also this thing you know I don't really care about politics politicians only care about getting reelected totally irrelevant politicians are your instrument these are the people that go out they are your representative to get things done whether they do or don't want to get real elected is entirely besides the point it's about the pressure that you as a citizen and as groups of citizens can bring to bear on them to cause them to vote in a couple of different ways I'm going to I'm going to close this down real quick okay here are the things that I would recommend for you one rationality is defined by the observer right what's a rational what's a rational conclusion consume as much meat as you can from lots of different sides I make a point of doing this and it makes my blood boil because i have a very specific i have a very specific viewpoint that's built by my very specific set of experiences that i told you about and i told you about them so you understand that i have a ton of biases when I come into given situation so when people talk about cutting you know state benefits the poor there might actually be a very valid reason there that can be backed up by data I have a knee-jerk reaction against it so I make a point of trying to read up on why they think it's a good idea I don't like it but that's sort of the cost of living in a democracy I would really really encourage you to get active with a political party even just a candidate being involved in the democratic process seeing what it takes seeing the people that will sacrifice to burning change whatever that might mean to you you might be on a diametrically opposed point in the political process to me that's fine participatory democracy is the point get in there get involved and care deeply about the outcome when you are consuming your varied media a lot of it will focus on tactics so it'll focus a lot on Donald Trump said that Donald Trump said thats Donald Trump said this none of that is policy it's all nonsense what is he actually proposing what are the costs what do I think of the benefits to the benefits of this outweigh the costs how does that compare to the other candidates not Donald Trump is really targeting this group of people and so he said this and that's going to make them but none of that matters you're focusing on the wrong thing that's for the people running his campaign and that's for like party insiders once you're a party insider get into that worry about the tactics in the short term worried about the impact that it's going to have in the country be receptive that goes for life that goes for everything allow yourself to be convinced if someone has a better argument I'm happy to take any questions that people have yeah yeah so a couple of things one I think you saw that I was never I don't spend a whole lot of time in one place at least historically when we left DC that was the longest I've ever lived in one place at one time I've been there for about you know going on six years and so I started getting a little well auntie want to see what else was out there also there's a lot of ways to be involved in politics working for a political party working for candidate working in a government all of those things those are great ways of being very very invested in the political process another way of being invested is by caring about these things by talking to other people about them by volunteering when you can I volunteer when I go home for four candidates and and by when you can using your wallet in the American political process that's a big part of it and so there's there's a lot of ways to be involved in politics that don't mean you have to work in it so I don't I didn't stop caring but these stop being the challenges that excited me on a day-to-day basis that doesn't mean that they somehow it means that they faded into my number two spot as opposed to be in my number one yeah people's beliefs people's actions of discussions actually have an impact how do you convince them to care about politics really it feels like I care and spend time on it on it right what's going to be my question so at least for my country or countries that where we come from South America where there's a lot of corruptions and politics are not people that you admire and we still feel that we're surviving there we government how do you inspire that generation that is already super frustrated and get talented people yeah so two things one the the other point is not just places where the political system is unattractive or where it feels like nothing changes but the places where it's actively dangerous to be involved in politics right that's that's a totally different thing so for like 44 I was a teacher in China at one point in my life and that was great because it also gave me studying Chinese history and also being there and being able to talk with my students who were about my age at the time was great because it gives you totally different sperience being involved in politics there is just a bad idea unless you have a very different approach to risk right so and that can be the case in in some place in the Latin in South America and and all over the world you have them you have problems of corruption where you have more and less functioning democracies and there's a lot of very interesting analyses about where America falls on that scale which are often very uncomfortable to read but the the point is that there's there's two things that that in my mind have an impact here one is overall education of the population the more educated people there are the less the less people that there are desperately just trying to survive day to day and the more that you make that possible means that there are more people that have time to thoughtfully engage with the political process and so that's something that definitely raises it up but that's also that also comes up with you know the idea that people do have to get involved and it means that you can pick a limited scope pick a pick a specific issue and this is going to be the thing that you care about I care about the environment or I care about labor reform in the mining sector or something this is going to be the thing that I focus on I'm going to make this better and then you work on that you draw attention to that and you start building out from there and this is the way some people have been able to the way that some activist had been able to do it are are every time that there is a seismic shift needed in our political process which is often that's the way that it always starts is something very very specific and then you build out once you start building this new ground for assumptions in this new ground for for what people can believe in that's that's what i would suggest for the countries where it's genuinely dangerous to be involved in the political process or genuinely dangerous to be to be seen to be critical that's a lot trickier it's also a lot braver I don't have specific recommendations there that is way outside of my experience yeah what are you hoping to go on um yeah that's fair so I got I got the the constant changes that are taking place in energy production are fascinating to me I got some familiarity with those when I was working in the government I want to be able to work on those issues the the way that the private sectors occasionally leap begging head of the public sector in its ability to deploy clean energy and its ability to to generate power without the same reliance on fossil fuels or by making fossil fuels more efficient is super exciting and that goes for virtually anybody that's working in the energy space so that's that's something that I really like and something that I really care about and if you guys are interested in learning more there's a journal BS Global Energy Summit I hear that i'll be happening later hey so that's it's so great it's something that I totally wanted to talk about that I couldn't shoehorn into what I was talking about so thank you so much for giving me a platform the idea that you will you you cast your vote and then you're done that's the end of the process right and so every 22 years we we have congressional elections and then every four years we do a presidential and it goes back and forth like that right and that's it that's your whole interaction with the democratic system nope the whole thing is that you continue interacting with that person that you helped elect or that you voted against and you keep bringing to bear a network of people that are around you that care about similar issues and you try to persuade constantly and you try to build constantly new coalition's to bring to bear the issues that you care about that's how the process works so when when you go home after you know that first tuesday after the first monday in november and you stop engaging with the political process that's where the problem starts you have to keep pressing and you have to keep and frankly a lot of it is about being a squeaky wheel that's the biggest part of the yeah i'll answer quickly huh it's like very optimistic hahaha in the whole process these logging groups that have money and power yeah for sure so any group of citizens with access to capital can can do that they can become a lobbying group and what that means is they go out and they put pressure on they do exactly what I'm describing that people should do they put pressure on elected representatives my issue is less with the lobbying groups a lot of the lobbyists actually have a valuable purpose that you know none of these representatives can be masters of every possible subject that they're going to be asked to vote on and the lobbying groups from often opposite sides will come in to meet with that representative and try to give them their perspective that's a valuable process it's also a valuable representation of of you know democracy in action that's citizens bringing to bear certain thoughts but you're what you're describing is that it can come to be dominated by people with more resources yes that can totally happen and that happens because one they have more money but also because frankly not enough people are engaged we have maybe half the country voting yeah it's going to be really easy to swipe it like if you write a big check in that kind of environment it's gonna be really Xia sway people you get more of the country out there voting you're gonna have to spend a lot more money it's going to become infeasible to simply sway elections with cash so yeah it's totally optimistic but all of this is optimistic I mean we're governing ourselves it's crazy you