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June 28, 2006

The Courage To Act As Employees

In the 21st century, the most powerful venue for principled action -- for voice and dissent -- has shifted from the places we reside to the organizations in which we meaningfully participate and especially the organizations where we work. Most of us no longer live out our lives in places. Instead, our most meaningful interactions with other people happen in markets, networks, and organizations; and, among family and friends. Of these five contexts, organizations are the main one where meaningful aspects of our fates -- jobs, status, daily affiliation, opportunities to pursue meaning -- depend on other people who are not necessarily friends or family yet we know by name and interact with daily. Beyond friends and family, these are our 'thick we's' and, therefore, if any of us wishes to act on and perpetuate the democratic heritage of our nation, we had best learn to do so in these new thick we's in our lives.

Among the most claimed aspects of that heritage are voice and dissent. From the late 18th to late 20th centuries, our traditions for voice and dissent happened in places where we lived with other people -- towns, neighborhoods and so forth. The prime context for this may have always been elections. Today, however, elections are market phenomena -- they are far more subject to the markets, networks, and organizations of electioneering -- including the distribution channel popularly called 'mainstream media' -- than the daily, persistent and intensive action of citizens in local places. As noted in Bowling Alone, such place-based citizen action - complete with reasonable percentages of participation -- still happen in very small towns as well as some places where the traditions are extremely strong. New Hampshire and Vermont fit both criteria and, as you'll see from a careful reading of Bowling Alone, these towns continue the traditions of a world of places as opposed to markets and so forth. Robert Putnam's 'warning signs' of the deterioration in civil society do not apply to these places -- they are the exceptions.

This is confirmed by other observations. For example, analysis of get out the vote efforts in the 2004 election indicated a much easier challenge in Vermont and New Hampshire than, say, New Mexico where that lack the two centuries old traditions or California where the world of markets, networks, and organizations is more firmly rooted.

Practicing voice and dissent within thick we's is essential to democracy. But, in our new world, that means doing so in our organizations. A 19th century American risked much in his or her town by having the courage to dissent from a popular view. For tens of millions of us, this is not the case in the 21st century. We can, of course, attend town meetings and raise our concerns. And, we should. But, the personal risk and exposure in doing so bears no relationship to taking the same action in our organizations. In our towns, most of us most of the time -- if we act or speak at all -- do so in the role of 'customer' and are treated accordingly. In our organizations, by contrast, if we have the courage to act and speak out and dissent, we do so as employees and we risk making a lasting impression -- especially if our voice extends beyond the water cooler.

Go ahead, Try this out. Even if only as a thought experiment. Imagine going to a town council meeting and voicing your concern about some current topic in a manner opposed to popular opinion. Say, for example, you would like to encourage the town council to raise property taxes or give teachers more benefits -- or, the reverse if that's counter to prevailing winds. Or, to test this more precisely in an emotional context, speak in favor or against teaching evolution or intelligent design. If you live in a town or city of greater than 10,000 people (let alone ten times that), the absolute worst reaction you might imagine is getting shouted at that evening and, perhaps, attracting the attention of some press person who hopes to get some attention by writing about you. If you have friends and family who seriously disagree with you, they probably already know about, and have formed their responses, to your position. Again, worst, worst case, you might risk some 'nut job' from the other side screaming at you in the blogosphere or a letter to the editor.

In contrast, imagine for a moment that you choose to voice dissent -- real, challenging dissent -- about matters of real importance to the organization where you work. Ah. What a difference! In this case you must consider beforehand the risks to your job, to your friendships and acquaintances, to your relationship with your boss, to your career prospects and more. Unlike the town context, here you are far more likely to risk some persistent and enduring response. Some memory -- near as well as medium and even long term -- of your action.

Acting as an employee takes far more courage than acting as a citizen. In saying this, I do not mean to trivialize in any way the efforts of citizens who actively participate in local, regional and national affairs. Clearly, the more who participate -- and vote -- the better. But I do mean to point out that courage itself is best tested in the actual thick we's of our lives.

Consider, then, this comment:

Stand Up

As treason charges against the New York Times (but not, oddly, the Wall Street Journal) are getting thrown around on various "respectable" news outlets by people working in "journalism" I think it's probably time for the serious reporters at those outlets to inform management that their resignations will be forthcoming if it doesn't stop.

Silly people like me have been trying to warn you for years - you created, cultivated, nourished, and promoted these people. They're one of you. Take a stand, because pretty soon it's going to be too late.

The mainstream media are a crucial distribution channel that determine the nature, content and opinion bias upon which folks in our new world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and family depend. If you or anyone wishes to dissent from how the mainstream media handle their responsibility, you can do so as a consumer (purchase or not purchase; provide feedback positive or negative), as a competitor (offer a different or the same product), as a litigant (sue them), as a family member and friend (speak up at the dinner table) -- or as an employee of mainstream media corporations.

Of these, there is simply no question that the most courageous -- and the most pragmatic, near term and impactful -- choice belongs to employees who ask and answer the question, "What do we, the people of this enterprise, really stand for?

If you want to 'make a difference' -- if you want to pass along to your children and their children -- a world that is safer, saner and more sustainable, then you must act as an employee in the thick we of your organization because organizations are the driving crucible for the markets and networks that determine the fate of the planet.

Posted by Doug Smith at 12:31 PM | Permalink

June 20, 2006

Airlines, Presidents and Institutionalized Lies

Folks who work in the airline industry cannot differ from the population in general in terms of their proclivity toward mendacity. Yet, as every air traveler understands from repeated experience, stewardesses/stewards, pilots and check-in folks at airlines lie over and over again in their arrival and departure communications. They do not tell the truth -- instead, they always -- always -- exaggerate what is possible into expressions of the probable and the spin is unidirectional: it's always the most optimistic possible.

This is institutional, not personal. Grant airline folks this: they must communicate within a complicated context of air traffic control, equipment and personnel readiness, and customer service guidelines. Not to mention the stress that most regular travelers feel -- and that the airline folks must feel themselves.

Airlines, however, are not unique in institutional mendacity. As is made extraordinarily clear in Daniel Ellsberg's Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, so is the insitution of the presidency when it comes to foreign policy.

His book recounts the institutional pressures that make it prohibitive for presidents to even consider options that might be construed as 'losing' -- in the history recounted in his book, 'losing Vietnam'. Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon all demonstrated that this institutional defect was bipartisan. It was a disease that infected Democrats and Republicans, men of reasonable honor and intellegence as well as the reverse.

Ellsberg's tale, among many other things, conveys how essential it is for other branches of government as well as the press to do their job if our nation and the world are to be spared the costs of this institutional mendacity. His book is terrifically well written -- it's like a thriller yet better because it's nonfiction.

As you might expect, the book is a record of our experience in Vietnam. Yet, while Ellsberg never mentions anything beyond 1974, the book is also a preview of Iraq, Afghanistan and the war on terror. Every mendacious act of the presidency has been replayed -- right down to last week's visit to Baghdad and the Rovian inspired political messages now being echoed by a press and Congress yet to wake up to their Constitutional responsibilities.

And it is this last point that makes the final paragraph in Ellsberg's book so devastatingly tragic. Having wrapped up his story with the indictments and resignations of the key players in the Nixon administration (including Nixon himself) -- all of whom conspired actively to lie their way toward a policy far beyond what the public wanted or a functioning democracy and rule of law would have permitted -- Ellberg writes :

"What we had come back to was a democratic republic -- not an elected monarchy -- a government under law, with Congress, the courts, and the press functioning to curtail executive abuses, as our Constitution envisioned. Moreover, for the first time in this or any country the legislature was casting its whole vote against an ongoing presidential war. It was reclaiming, through its control of the purse, the war power it had fecklessly delegated nine years earlier. Congress was stopping the bombing, and the war was going to end."

We are now approaching four years since Congress fecklessly handed over the war power to the Bush Administration and nearly as long since Bush -- and his team -- embraced the institutional mendacity of the highest office in our land to commit the lives, honor, treasury and fate of our nation to three wars -- Afghanistan, Iraq and terror. There have been more than 20,000 U.S. and hundreds of thousands of non-U.S casualties to date along with hundreds of billions of dollars spent. The 'brand' of the United States is linked to torture, unilateral war, and the rule of personality over the rule of law -- causing hundreds of millions of people both at home and abroad to live in fear of the Bush Administration.

For some time now, the popular press has bandied about the question: Is Iraq another Vietnam? Remember that the feckless press fought hard against this idea for years -- editorial boards censured anyone who suggested the word 'quagmire' -- and politicians who dared to utter it knew they were risking the Big Smear from Bush, Cheney and others.

What's fascinating about the Ellsberg book, though, is how it portrays something far more profound than this. Yes, Vietnam and Iraq bear many resemblences (and, some important differences: for example, Vietnam from the mid-1940s through to our exit was a battle for national independence while Iraq has always had about it -- even under Sadaam -- the barely suppresed conflicts more akin to civil war).

But, what's far more critical than the resemblences of the actual conflicts is the direct, straight-line identical institutional defect that contributes to situations like Vietnam and Iraq. Same institutional defect; different players.

The Presidency itself is broken in this regard. And, what is terribly worse, the insitutional mendacity that Truman through Nixon parlayed into national tragedy in foreign affairs has metasticized into reigning policy in all matters: economics, emergency management, science, the environment, the separation of powers, judiciary appointments, the Constitution, the rule of law, elections, civil rights and more.

Ellsberg recounts the famous line of John Dean that 'there's a cancer on the presidency'. With the expansion of institutional mendacity to domestic as well as foreign affairs, we now live in an age where the presidency itself is a cancer on our nation.

Notwithstanding the Bush Administration's broad gauged criminal assault on it, however, the Contstitution -- and the institutions it set up to deal with monarchial tendencies in the executive -- can still act to protect our democratic republic.

But, to do so, the human beings in those institutions must stop being feckless.

Posted by Doug Smith at 12:34 PM | Permalink

June 18, 2006

Blind Ambition

Pharmaceutical companies invest a lot of money in the research and development of new drugs. That's true. And, it is also true that the past decade or so has seen a dramatic rise in the dollars they spend on marketing drugs, making small tweaks to existing drugs in order to extend their patents, contributing money to officials who have legislative oversight of patent laws, developing relationships with doctors who are in a position to review and promote drugs, and instituting legal action to protect patents and other measures needed to protect their drugs.

Unfortunately, Big Pharma too often also report money spent on these latter efforts as part of the 'investment needed for new drugs' -- thereby, overstating such investments. Meanwhile, company after company have also drunk deeply from the well of shareholder value extremism -- the ideology that dictates that the single, maniacal objective of all the people who work in these companies is the creation of shareholder value, mainly through making profits their singular obsession.

Do people who work in Big Pharma care about the health and well being of others? Yes, of course. Do those values hold equivalent concern and weight as the pursuit of profits and shareholder value? No. Not if we look to the actual behavior of Big Pharma companies -- of which, this latest effort from Genentech to block the use of one of it's existting drugs that can help prevent blindness by substituting that cure with one that is one hundred times higher in price in order to insure profits is but the latest example. One hundred times. Not ten times higher. One hundred.

One imagines there are debates among the thick we's who work at companies like Genentech. It's frankly unimaginabe that 100% of the executives and employees agree with the extortionate policy that seems to be emerging here.

Still, when every single one of those executives and employees sit down to dinner tonight, they will need to explain to their families and friends why, at Genentech, the pursuit of value trumps the pursuit of all values -- including but not limited to profits -- in how they -- the thick we of Genentech -- define and pursue their common good.

Posted by Doug Smith at 12:49 PM | Permalink

June 09, 2006

Lux et Veritas

From a letter to a fellow Yale graduate:

This week the media revealed that a political scientist named Juan Cole was denied a professorship at Yale in what sounds like unusual circumstances. Cole (currently tenured prof at Michigan) is evidently very highly regarded as a scholar. He was specifically recruited by Yale and was approved by the two committees that, if I understand it, are most often the most critical for such hirings. His name was then passed up to a higher committee for, again, what is described as typically a formality. But, in between the approvals and what turned out to be a rejection by this higher committee, a concerted effort was mounted against Cole, an effort marked in part by deceit and lies about him.

The higher committee has now rejected Cole and there is a strong appearance that the result happened through some combination of fear of lost alumni money and acquiescence in accusations that Cole is an anti-Semite.

Yale folks knew from the beginning about Cole's scholarly excellence as well as his controversial role in public affairs as related to Iraq, Israel etc. If he was 'too hot', he never should have been recruited let alone approved by the two usually determinative committees.

Here's an article about the affair in The Jewish Week Of New York -- which, of course, is an interesting source given the accusation against Cole of anti-Semitism.

I read Cole's blog regularly. There are times when I disagree with him. But, I read him mostly because of his scholarly as well as contemporary grasp of what's happening in Iraq and while he sometimes is thin skinned about the beating he takes in the press, he's assiduously fair about other points of view. It's disappointing that Yale students will not have the opportunity to study Middle Eastern affairs with someone of his depth and expertise.

The tragic Red/Blue nature of our troubled country, of course, makes choices about folks like Cole particularly fraught. And yet, the ideal of the university includes, in part, the commitment to academic freedom. That commitment, in turn, is mightily tested when pressured by concerns for money as well as concerns about prejudicial aspects of cultural differences (e.g. anti-Semitism). Still, as you know, it is in these toughest and most fraught circumstances that a university's depth of commitment to academic and learning values is most truthfully revealed.

Posted by Doug Smith at 11:58 AM | Permalink

June 05, 2006

Value Madness

The fixed and seemingly inviolate obsession with shareholder value might -- might -- now deny government agencies the information needed to prepare for hurricanes. Again, I say might. According to this article, a supercomputer's forecasting methodology created by government funded scientists at Florida State University (I repeat: State university - as in a government entity) has been licensed by that State university to a private company, Weather Predict. According to the licensing agreement, Florida State scientists are not permitted -- yet -- to provide forecasts to any agency without permission from Weather Predict.

The article points out that the supercomputer has among the best track records in accurately forecasting hurricanes.

The article also mentions that Weather Predict's CEO assures one and all that, of course, nothing will get in the way of helping out government agencies during the hurricane season; and, that his company is currently working on making sure such arrangements are in place.

So, let's recount:

Government money funds employees of a government institution (Florida State) to create a supercomputer that accurately forecasts hurricanes.
The institution sells this know how to a private sector company.
The private sector company now sits between the use of the computer and the well being of folks who live in the United States of America.
Those folks are citizens and taxpayers -- whose money funded the invention.
Weather Predict's CEO promises 'to work it all out".

One can imagine a State University licensing technology to the private sector - both to take advantage of it's own advancements as well as to encourage market-based uses of weather prediction. No problem.

But, it's absurd that the licensing agreement fails to limit the license itself to a range of uses that are free and clear of any need of the forecasts for the public good.

And, having failed at incorporating such language in the contract, it is absurd that the issue of protecting the public use of forecasts made by a supercomputer created out of public money is still up for negotiation.

Weather Predict is now endangering millions of lives as it tinkers with how best to make a profit.

This all might work out. Let us hope so. But it is absurd -- it is immoral -- that the situation even exists.

Posted by Doug Smith at 12:30 PM | Permalink

June 04, 2006

Not One Ounce Of Prevention

Today's LA Times has a well written article about the shortage of doctors in the US, including succinct explanations of why the shortage has happened, some of the consequences we can expect and what it will take to remedy.

As I say, it is a well written and concise article. And, because of that, it illustrates a profound problem: The incredible difficulty folks have in thinking comprehensively and out-of-the-box.

Read the article and you will come away with this conclusion: Medical difficulties stemming from too few doctors are best and (only) cured through more doctors.

Quickly now: We need more doctors (and nurses and other health care providers).

But, the arithmetic in this is stultifying. It's all about solving problems of quantity with quantity. Not one word about 'thinking differently" about how to approach health care.

Not one word, for example, about what medical schools teach doctors about the challenges of health care in a world of markets, networks and organizations. For example: What about epidemiology, public health and prevention?

How can doctors, nurses and other health care providers change the ratio of inputs and resources from 'too heavily weighted toward curing those who are sick" to a better blend of 'prevention and cure'?

In a world of markets, productivity is critical to sustainability. Input/output relationships matter a lot. But if our public discourse is limited to arithmetic relationships -- that is, to increase outputs, limit your solutions to increasing the same amount of inputs -- we are left only with the same rate of productivity. Want more cures? Get more doctors!!

If we are to shift the ratio of productivity, we must find better uses and approaches to the inputs. And that means we should be focusing tremendous effort and creativity on what medical schools and others teach and think about prevention, early detection, low-tech interventions and an incredible variety of other means toward building a healthier society.

Posted by Doug Smith at 12:09 PM | Permalink