Saturday, October 2, 2010

Decisions, Decisions

I had something of a revelation recently; people don’t tend to make decisions rationally. Also, they don’t tend to make decisions – they actually see an outcome they want and then frame their decisions to secure the outcome.

I know, I know. Everybody else knows this, but I didn’t (or I have forgotten). Maybe its because, according to the Myers-Briggs typology; I’m an INTJ borderline ISTJ.

More probably, my work as a consultant engineer means that I put in an inordinate amount of analysis and logic into the decisions I recommend to clients. So, my working environment conditions me to backing up my decisions with a body of work, and to having my decisions scrutinized and challenged. I’m OK with that because the decisions I make have big dollar values associated with them. In my mind, the bigger the implication of the decision, the more effort is required to research the issue to come to a conclusion.


The problem with people is that we routinely fail to prioritize, or rank, the decisions that face us in life. The apocryphal tales that come out of the retail business indicate that a person will spend just as long deciding which new toaster to buy as he or she would in deciding which house to buy (the reason it takes longer to buy the house than the toaster is that we’ve got to co-opt the banks into the venture we’ve decided to undertake). Of course, the situation is not helped by an advertising industry that wants us to get worried if we’re not seen driving the new car or if we’re not taking the right diet supplements. God help us if we’re using last year’s toasters!

I could run through the whole gamut of decisions from here – from relationships, to how to vote, to how we need to address climate change and global inequities. Yes! This last one is a real biggie, and we’ve got to jettison the urban myth of the infinitely growing economy.

What, I hear you say? Martin’s getting all political and tree-huggy. And shouldn’t we simply blame global industry (a.k.a. anyone but me)?

Seriously, though, we need to consume less, and we need to distribute our planet’s limited resources more equitably (because they will run out). And I don’t see it happening when the biggest thing on the agenda in the negotiations between the Bank of America and Merryll Lynch on the eve of the global financial crisis was what compensation needed to be paid to the senior executives (as I found out this week). I don’t know the final dollar amount was, but it was enough to bail entire cities. It could have saved thousands of families defaulting on their mortgages. What determined their sense of what decisions were more important than others? The word ‘greed’ seems the most appropriate.

The trouble is, when you listen to CEO John Thain’s “rationale” behind his remuneration, you’d think the guy was making sense. Listen up, he’s a bean counter. He might be a rather good bean counter, but who made the decision to pay him $4 million per year, when actual bean growers have to live off less than $2 per day?

I’m not suggesting that pay and rewards should not be differentiated, but at what point do they become obscene and shameful? Who decides what is obscene and shameful? It seems we have a conflict of interest between the likes of John Thain and the 5,500 (approx) bean growers who collectively earn as much as he does individually? What a bunch of bankers – it seems they pay themselves these amounts not because they deserve it, but because they can.

I could lapse into cynical depression at this point. Can anyone make sound judgments? And what makes a good judgment “good”, or a bad judgment “bad”?

My problem is that I refuse to believe that the best judgments are those that serve my self-interests the best, yet that is how most people will evaluate the decisions they make. They have wisely decided that they will not entrust their self-interests to people who tend to put their own self-interests first.

So, here it is – the ultimate engine of our individual and collective decision-making mechanisms. Self-interest rules! And bugger the world (even if there’s not much of a world left for everyone else after I’m finished with it).

My only hope is to appeal to One who is higher than all these muddied undertows (see Gen 1:2 and Psalm 93:3-4); One who has demonstrated His willingness to abandon His self-interest on our behalf (see Romans 5:8).

The biggest decision I need to make is whether I can believe in Him.

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