An Unskillful Conversation

Here in Maine the daffodils are up.  There must be more flowers further south where I sat in the spring sun in 1971 designing how a global network of computers would communicate.  The design was good, it worked well for many years, but it was a long job fixing bugs in the engineering.

Communication media are noisy.  We’re used to it with cell phones and in restaurants and such.  We know we won’t always hear what each other says or get their meaning.  Message-sent is not necessarily equal to message-received.  Computer communications work despite that because of error detection and correction protocols.   Human communication uses quizzical expressions, tones of voice, “I’m not sure I understand” and so on.

Difficult as it is to perfect computer communication, human communication is far harder because what we say and hear is distorted by our emotions.

Here’s a conversation I recently had that was prompted by Piketty’s book, Capital, which shows that capital grows faster than the economy in which it is invested.  The book is the subject of much debate at this time because the wealth of those who are already very wealthy is increasing rapidly while the income of everyone else is shrinking.

The implication of Piketty’s research is that owners of capital inevitably get an ever increasing portion of a capitalist economy’s wealth.  In theory, all wealth would end up owned by one individual but in the real world wealth is always redistributed, sometimes as a result of violent revolution, more often in a managed way via a progressive tax system.

A friend asked on Facebook about restoring balance with a wealth tax.  Someone I don’t know responded: “Wealth has always been concentrated in the relatively few wealthy.  But you just can’t take it and redistribute it like pirates taking a ship and dividing the booty.  Some pirates kill the others to get more than their fair share and it starts all over again.”   He went on at length about wasteful Big Government and appeared to be opposed not just to income redistribution, but to taxes in general.

I replied:  “We need some things governments alone can provide.  Governments need revenue.  That means taxes, so one set of questions is about the best tax system.  One element of a better one than we have now is an inheritance tax because those who inherit a lot of money did nothing to earn it — better to tax inheritances and use that to offset some personal income tax.”

His response was:  “One thing many don’t think about when it comes to inheritance tax is all that money was taxed when it was originally made during the deceased individual’s lifetime.  You are taxing it all again.”   He added:  “There’s something else about taxing the rich more than we do presently; they can remove themselves from taxes by moving their wealth or their corporations out of the country.”

I asked:  Why does it matter if inherited money has already been taxed?  Those who inherit the money did nothing to earn it — that’s the big point.” 

And in response to “something else” I wrote:  It’s important to think separately about taxing corporations and individuals.  Corporations are increasingly global entities that can easily relocate aspects of themselves.  They can choose which legal systems the side-effects of their operations will be regulated by, and by which their IP and etc will be protected.  Human people, however, can only be citizens of one nation.  It’s a big step for a wealthy American to give up US citizenship, the only legal way of avoiding US taxes.”

The tone of my reply took the conversation off track.  The response was:  “The real big point is this: Who are YOU to say how anyone else’s money is yours to give away?  There’s no one so generous as someone who is earnestly and self righteously advocating the gifting of someone ELSES money.”

We could have hit “reset” in a face-to-face conversation and gone on to discover what exactly we disagree about but I couldn’t see how to do it on Facebook or any such medium.  I ended up answering the question as phrased, knowing it really wasn’t an answer:  “I’m a citizen of a democracy, which means it is my responsibility to think through and say what policies I believe are best for our society.”

The apology that came for “misusing a figure of speech” gave me the sense that a face-to-face conversation might have led us both to more insight, but I let the conversation fizzle out.

I’ve written and re-written, over and over again, my lessons from this conversation.  First, I convinced myself the problem was the restricted kind of communication inherent in online media.  Eventually, I acknowledged that I was more interested in telling the other fellow what to think than having him show me flaws in what I think.

At last, I recognized the root of the problem.  I let myself feel angry when in his first comment he dismissed Piketty’s research by calling him a fashionable intellectual.  “He’s one of those whose beliefs are impervious to facts,” I said to myself.  That set the tone of my reply. I imagined it to be factual and helpful but that was not the only message I sent.

We can see our logic errors, flaws in our perceptions and what we don’t know by articulating what we think and listening carefully to our words.  That’s what I’ve been working on as I kept rewriting this post.

But it’s quicker if others tell us our errors.  They must listen carefully to be right, of course.  What I just relearned is they only do that if we communicate skilfully, which means not just being clear but also putting ourselves in their shoes.  That’s especially necessary if we imagine their shoes won’t fit.

4 comments on “An Unskillful Conversation

  1. The potential for misunderstanding and escalating debate without reason is one aspect of social media that I really dislike. I feel very strongly about some things that I read and I want to respond but I have seen so many people inadvertently led into vitriolic conversations that I steer well clear. The irony of that last statement, in this medium is not lost on me!

    • Right, in face-to-face and phone conversations we get immediate feedback about others’ emotions so we quickly recognize the effect of our words. That kind of conversation is in technical terminology full-duplex, meaning signals are being exchanged in both directions simultaneously. Social media are more like snail mail, half-duplex, which means that while one is sending, the other can only listen.

      I think people were more aware of the half-duplex challenge in the day of letters and gave more thought to what they wrote. Social media are used mainly for broadcasting or for rapid-fire messages, which is fine for transactions but dangerous for dialog. “What time do you want to meet?” and etc works much better than it did with previous media.

      Discussions about tax systems, government policies and such that were conducted sometimes by mail tend not to work well. But I have had truly thought-provoking discussions about such topics on Facebook with people I haven’t met. I greatly value that possibility. I just need to keep learning how to have that kind of discussion more skillfully, which is a fascinating topic in itself.

  2. Harold replied via Facebook: “I’ve noticed recently that even the simplest conversation is fraught with misunderstanding. As software developers we became quite aware how important clear communication was in the development process. In life it is far more complex even when trying to communicate what seems like concrete things. We are doing a renovation of our house and the nuances of the smallest things seem very difficult to get across.

    I am sure if we could communicate more clearly and more completely there would be far fewer conflicts in this world. We make far too many assumptions in our communications. Our communications are almost always incomplete. We expect the person listening is hearing what we believe we are communicating, that they are filling in the gaps and filling them in correctly, i.e. they can read our minds.”

  3. He did a great job of looking at data. Accumulation of wealth, it seems to me, unless gainfully employed is a syphon on the economy. Looking at data, cash appears to be hoarded in corporate coffers for fear of recession holding off investments awaiting the return of a vibrant consumer. Consumers continue to be restrained by lack of wage increases with a resulting loss of disposable income. There are fine examples in the industrialized world where this hoarding has been kept in check. We only have to look to the North where Canada’s standard of living, education and health are now better than ours.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *