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By Douglas Moran

Palo Alto's Culture War: Analytics vs. Aspirationals

Uploaded: Nov 10, 2013

Many assessments of why the debate on Measure D was so bitter and divisive incorrectly cast it as a series of individual, isolated mistakes. Instead much of it was the result of differences in basic philosophical and psychological attitudes toward decision-making. This is not something new—I have been aware of it for almost two decades—but it has gotten more intense recently (will speculate later). You can see it not only on affordable housing, but a range of development issues (density, transit...). And there has been a schism among environmental activists going back to at least 2004 (the Environmental Services Center (ESC)) and seen in 2011's Measure E (undedicating Baylands for a potential composting factory).

The dividing line is marked by the proverb "Hell is full of good intentions; Heaven is full of good works", or more commonly "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions."

On one side are what I will term "Aspirationals", who seemingly dismiss the wisdom of this proverb (Can you tell that I am on the other side?). They seek to solve problems and make positive change, but engage in little more than "Stage One Thinking", that is, thinking only about the immediate, desired consequences of their actions (not to be confused with "First Stage Thinking").

On the other side are what I will term the "Analytics" who are, well, analytical. They worry that first impressions are often wrong. They worry about unintended consequences, ...

Many organizations not only accommodate both types of people, but understand that their success is dependent on maintaining a healthy tension between the two (aka, check and balances). What has happened in politics in Palo Alto (and elsewhere) is that the Aspirationals have become increasingly hostile to the Analytics. They have moved past simply being dismissive of the Analytics' concerns—they attack them as being immoral (for rejecting a no-questions-asked backing of good intentions) and claim that they are being dishonest about what their concerns are. Recognize that I am not talking about random individuals and anonymous comments (for example on Town Square Forums), but leaders openly and repeatedly making such characterizations. The Analytics see such tactics as bullying to try to force a bad decision, and are fighting back.

Reminder: Basic human psychology dictates that Aspirationals will have disproportionate leadership presence in most organizations, not just in politics and government. Optimists get promoted faster and further, and confident people are seen as more competent than they actually are. Plus Aspirationals are drawn to politics as a mechanism to inflict their belief on others.
Aside: For those unfamiliar with the phenomenon of optimism increasing as you go higher in an organization, see the fable (Weblink), which also suggests how such optimism left unchecked can be a problem.

The best way to illustrate that this is a pervasive problem is with a long-ish series of examples.

An example of Aspirationals are various City leaders who support massive building of office space, saying that it is crucial for Palo Alto's economic health—that Palo Alto must provide future Googles and Facebooks—notice the plurals—with enough office space that they don't need to move elsewhere. They also say that there must be space for the many other companies that want to locate here. These leaders seem undaunted by the math. Start with Google being over 30,000 people world-wide and Facebook's Menlo Park campus is designed for 9500. Where do they think that much office space could be located? Have they seen the size of the Googleplex? What about infrastructure support? Do they really think that an additional 50-100,000 workers in Palo Alto is either desirable or practical? As is typical for Aspirationals, they wave off such concerns: Growth, by their definition, is both necessary and good. And we shouldn't bother them for details.

High-speed rail (HSR) is another example of this phenomenon. Aspirationals got on-board because it was advertised as a way to reduce Greenhouse Gases (GHG), but they show no interest in the details of whether it actually will. What was important was them being able to believe that it would.

In 2009, Council candidate (now Vice Mayor) Nancy Shepherd said that she was confident that various of the big problems facing Palo Alto could be solved because of the "talent" available here. She mentioned HSR, the (large) ABAG housing quotas, and densification. This was in her speech at her campaign kick-off event, and I looked around the crowd to see if there was anyone else who was incredulous. Nope. Since I was at the event to hear her priorities and how she approached issues, I later talked to her about HSR to see if there was any more depth to her opinion. Nope. She continued to express her belief that the problems would be readily solved if "smart people" applied themselves. Such a Pollyanna-ish approach to difficult issues is common among Aspirationals.

Although Aspirationals have little patience for details, most recognize the need to present a case, and wind up presenting rationalizations rather than reasons (see Stephen Colbert's "truthiness" (Wikipedia)). Problems ensue when the Analytics mistake this for an analytic argument and check the facts and logic and find substantial errors. Since the Aspirationals see their argument as simply pro forma, they see little or no need to correct those errors and continue to use those erroneous rationalizations. The Analytics then mistake this for clear evidence that the Aspirationals are being deceptive, if not outright dishonest.
Note: There were numerous example of this during the Measure D debate. However, I am declaring this out-of-bounds here to avoid restarting discussions that have occurred ad nauseam in many other forums.

Example: The City's Planning Department hosted a talk on the State laws pushing densification in cities, with two speakers who had been highly influential in the formulation of those laws. The rationale was that densification would greatly shorten commutes, which would reduce Greenhouse Gases (GHG). The first speaker asserted that a newly minted lawyer hired by a firm in Stanford Research Park would be unable to find any housing that she could afford any closer than Tracy (65 miles). The second speaker asserted that an engineer hired by H-P would have to go all the way to Los Banos (95 miles). During question time, I noted that Census data indicated that Mountain View to Santa Clara was far more likely and asked how that would change their judgment. A Council member squelched the question.

Similarly, for as long as I can remember (about two decades), the affordable housing advocates have been using the argument that Palo Alto needs to build more affordable housing so that our police, fire fighters and teachers can live here. And just as long, it has been pointed out that police and fire fighters make too much (salary + overtime) to qualify for affordable housing. And when Palo Alto Housing Corp (PAHC) is asked if there are any teachers on their waiting lists, the answer has always been "Not to our knowledge." Yet the advocates continue to passionately use this argument, and just as passionately assail anyone who questions it.

Not only does truthiness free believers from any obligation to collect and analyze actual facts, it also causes those believers to see expectation of factual arguments as illegitimate if not belligerent (an attempt to force them to waste their time in a pointless exercise).

A major aggravation for an Analytic is having to deal with Aspirationals who are unable to understand that they are using basic forms of basic logical fallacies. An example of the Fallacy of the Unrepresentative Sample: Over the years I have heard time and time again an Aspirational make roughly the argument that "Commuting by Caltrain is good" and "I find it easy to commute by Caltrain" therefore "Most everyone should commute by Caltrain". It is futile to try to explain to such people that the utility of Caltrain for them is the result of advantageous locations of both their home and their work, and that for many people it is very different.

The Fallacy of Wishful Thinking is incredibly common. For example, the Analytics will assess the likely impacts of a high density development (on schools and traffic) based on local experience with similar developments. The Aspirationals advocating for the project will reject that, claiming that this development will be different because they want it to be different (even though they have no control), and their ideology gives them faith that it will be.

Part of the reason that traffic concerns about the Maybell project escalated so quickly and so far were the bitter lessons-learned from the process on the narrowing of Arastradero. For example, one of the big concerns of the neighborhood was that increased congestion on Arastradero would cause increased cut-through traffic on Maybell (and other residential streets). The lead advocate for the narrowing dismissed this exclaiming "Drivers shouldn't do that!" (Fallacy of Wishful Thinking). Other advocates verbally attacked those raising this concern, asserting that it was a merely a smokescreen for their desire to "drive 50 mph" on Arastradero, endangering children. Residents walked out in disgust and dismay because City staff, rather than trying to moderate the meetings, seemed to side with the bullying by the advocates.

One of the problems created by the unwillingness of Aspirationals to work through details and consequences is that they often are clueless about the harm that their proposals can inflict. And when it is pointed out to them, they are so psychologically locked in by "good intentions" that they cannot adapt.

For example, at the meetings on the Arastradero narrowing, several seniors complained that they had dropped their Physical Therapy class because the traffic congestion had exceeded their willingness (ability?) to cope. The Aspirationals replied that those people should bicycle to the class. Their tunnel vision was so strong that it didn't register that someone needing Physical Therapy might not be able to bicycle that distance (3 miles), that one of those seniors had a cane next to her, or that none appeared to be in physical condition to undertake such a ride.

For example, there is a substantial block of transit/bicycling Aspirationals who believe that deliberately increasing traffic congestion is good. They reason that if they make commuting by car painful enough that they will force people to use transit or bicycling, and thereby reduce Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. Because they believe that they have the right to force others to adopt their righteous cause, they are unwilling to even discuss what makes transit unusable to so many. And they refuse to consider that they might not be able to ratchet up the pain enough to get enough people to switch to transit to offset the increase in Greenhouse Gases (GHG) from cars caught in the (intentionally induced) congestion. The Fallacy of Wishful Thinking strikes again.

In another example from the early and mid-2000s: I attempted to have a meaningful dialogue with several of the leading advocates for affordable housing, but that dialogue too often quickly devolved into the following. Their belief is that anyone who wants to live in Palo Alto should be able to do so at a price they can afford, and that it is the moral responsibility of current Palo Altans to provide the necessary subsidies. I point out that there are many families that are sacrificing financially to stay here to keep their children in Palo Alto schools, and that they can't afford additional taxes for those subsidies. The response has been that if such families don't want to pay those taxes, then they should move out of Palo Alto. The advocates rejected the apparent contradiction in their beliefs saying that such families wouldn't be forced out for not being able to afford to stay, but that they were choosing to be "selfish".

Speculation on why discussions on affordable housing are so contentious: When you attend smaller meetings on affordable housing, it is routine for many of the participants introduce themselves citing a religious affiliation. And it is not uncommon to hear people cite "Christian values" as the basis for their position. Take a perspective that this is a basic moral issue, not a political one, and combine it with much of their discussion occurring within a bubble of people who believe the same, and you have an environment where it is very easy to demonize people who disagree with oneself.

Request for Comments: (1) Refinements and critiques of my analysis, (2) Additional illustrative examples (both for and against), (3) Are the Aspirationals really as clueless as they seem about how provocative their behavior is to Analytics? (I suspect that they are), (4) Is there anything that might reduce the intensity of this conflict? (5) ???

WARNING: Do not use this blog entry as yet-another opportunity to re-fight Measure D. Yes, I know it is hard to "Don't think of a purple cow", but as I have shown above, there are plenty of other examples to use in discussing this issue.

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