March 19, 2007

Memo To Journalists: Move From Reporting Ideology to Reporting On Problem Solving

There are many explanations for the flight over the past decade or so of journalists toward reporting about ideology. Among them, of course, is the chicken-and-egg spiral whereby political discourse shifts to 'either/or', 'on/off', 'my way or the highway' presentation and appeal that, in turn, influences journalists to report about the horse race of 'which ideology is winning' that, then, encourages and reinforces the thread bare 'either/or-ism' of the political discourse. In addition, though, are many, many other factors too numerous to list in this post. But, just to illustrate; there's also the incredible, geometric expansion of subject matter, the traumatic shifts in the economic and other realities of journalism and news businesses in this new information/web age of ours, and the rapid drift toward celebrity as a means of competition both for journalists' own careers and for the businesses that employ them. In response to all of these are some clear patterns of how journalists now practice their craft. One, for example, is what I call 'press release' journalism: simply printing the press releases of others and calling it reporting. (My far too subtle intended irony here has to do with the interpretation where journalists 'press the release button --that is, release themselves from their best values and aspirations to actually inform us -- which would take some work -- instead of merely being parrots.)

It's been years now since we've all learned to expect and experience the 'he said, she said' form of what passes for jounalistic balance in this new world of press release journalism. No matter how outrageous any ideological position, the minimal obligation of journalists seems to be met by merely including any comment from anyone who opposes that position. Among the many ways this hollows out journalism, much like termites eat away at a house, is that it eliminates any threshold of accuracy. So long as someone can be quoted, it matters not that the quoted statement is devoid of any fact. We've seen this time and again with regard to Valerie Plame's job status as a covert agent. We see it time and again with regard to creationism, the WMD lies that led to the Iraq disaster, the either/or journalism about No Child Left Behind and more.

Put differently, in a world and culture that spins out of control toward politicizing everything into a black-and-white loyalty test regarding ideology and identity, there becomes no room left for actual problem solving -- for actually trying to do anything about anything. Karl Rove triumphs. All journalists are branded as right v left or, more likely, supporters of Bush and the Republicans versus supporters of the 'left', the 'Democrats, of 'Satan' and of our 'enemies'.

Note again, please, how easy this makes the job of a journalist. The articles basically write themselves. And, the obligation to actually think for one self and to learn about the issues disappears.

None of which is to say that this description matches the best aspirations, the real concerns, the private lives or the truly professional best efforts of most journalists. From my experience, most journalists I know would prefer a better, more constructive way of moving forward into the 21st century. And, I'm guessing, most journalists I don't know would too.

We're dealing with issues of profound change. And, among them, are the challenges of shifting course within the context of jobs and organizations. That's very hard. At a minimum it entails taking risks to do things differently -- risks that affect job security, friendships within the organization, and sense of self. In most organizations, the 'either/or' aspects of our culture can rapidly become 'either/or' loyalty tests or career risks -- perhaps because they really are; or, more likely, perhaps because there is a perception that the "CEO" will come down hard on any risk takers. (Such perceptions, by the way, are as often mistaken as they are correct.)

Changing 'the way we do things around here' within any organization is very difficult. It is one explanation for why new entrants often take market share away from existing players -- at least until the existing players get the message and begin to recast themselves accordingly.

This is now happening in journalism. New players -- blogs, crowdsourcing journalism, citizen journalism, user generated content and more -- are moving quickly and independently toward taking advantage of a core new reality: the essential 'many-to-many' nature of our webbified world.

News organizations that, over the decades stretching from the 1970s to early 2000s, adjusted and grew based on a 'one-to-many' world, today have decades of skills, instincts, processes and economics that don't fit a 'many-to-many' world. This was shocking news to most of these organizations -- and, for the most part, even a year or so ago, most were in denial. Now, across this country, news businesses are rapidly moving from denial to doing something about it.

As they do, I've got a recommendation. Put a stop to 'press release' journalism. Put a stop to reporting about the horse race between a well defined ideology (Rovian Republicanism) and the assumed ideology in opposition (which, by the way, as every single one of us knows is and has also been defined by Rove).

Put a stop to this. And, instead, start to explore and learn journalism oriented to reporting about 'problem solving' -- that is, journalism that seeks to report on and inform people about options worth considering for how to move forward against the many challenges we face as a people.

In this 'problem solving' journalism, there will be no 'totally right answers'. Rather, there will be approaches that 'work sometimes'. And the job of journalists will be to help us figure out when various solutions work and when they don't. (And, yes, also what those promoting any solution have to gain personally -- that is, sources of self-interest that might or might not reach beyond objectivity.)

To take just one example, consider charter schools. Charter schools really do work sometimes. And, at other times they do not work. And, yet still in other situations, charter schools can exacerbate and make worse various ills. In a world where journalists report on education, they'll help us distinguish among the three cases -- unlike today where far too many articles one reads basically present a 'balance' between those who claim, "Charter schools are right!' and "Charter schools are wrong!"

Posted by Doug Smith at 01:41 PM | Permalink

March 17, 2007

What Does The Republican Party Brand Really Stand For?

What can we tell from how we experience the actual behavior of the Republican Party about the values Republicans really stand for? We are aware of a series of beliefs that the Republican Party wishes to include in the brand it markets and sells to Americans (and the world). And, let's be clear, political parties -- like companies -- need to have clear brands in our new world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families. The issue we're putting on the table is about how actual behavior matches those branded beliefs.

In this regard, let's review how the best organizations think about and use brand. There are three phases:

Brand Promise: Using a set of clear beliefs, the best organizations promise behavior that matches those beliefs

Brand Delivery: How the best organizations go forward with products, services, information, distribution, customer service, technology, and more to deliver against the promises made.

Brand Experience: How the customers, investors and others experience what gets delivered -- that is, whether the promise, the delivery and the actual experience match up and reinforce one another.

Recently, for example, Howard Schultz, the brand mastermind who runs Starbucks, sent a memo to his senior executives asking aloud about whether Starbucks efforts to streamline stores (and increase revenues and profits) had damaged certain key aspects of the brand promise: 'romance' and 'theater'.

By stocking prepackaged coffee and using automated machines, Schultz worried that the brand delivery shifted from the promise of 'romance' and 'theater' to the experience of -- my words -- your basic retail grocery store-like assembly line.

"Romance" and 'theater' may be difficult to deliver on in ways that create the intended customer experiences. But, if Starbucks chooses those beliefs and promises to be core to their brand promise, then, as Schultz alerts the executives, it's incumbent on Starbucks employees up and down the company and all across the world to take steps that do the best job possible of delivering against those promises.

The Republican Party has a set of core beliefs with which it has branded what it promises America. These include small government, efficient government, fiscal responsibility, family values, defending America, prosperity through individual opportunity, low taxes and so on.

But, all Americans of all political stripes -- and especially Americans who belong to the Republican Party - need to ask whether the brand delivery and brand experience match up with these brand promises.

What happens to companies can also happen to political parties -- indeed, any organization in this new world of ours. At some point, if the brand delivery and brand experience radically contradict the brand promise, then the customers (in this case, voters), the investors (in this case, contributors) and even the employees (in this case those who work and volunteer for the Republican Party) will actually look at the delivery and the experience to define the brand of the Party and not to the promises themselves.

If, for example, Starbucks fulfills Howard Schultz's worst fears and focuses so much on efficiency and profits that it's coffee -- and the experience of being in one of it's stores -- has zero to do with romance and zero to do with theater, then Starbucks will be branded by customers, investors and, again, even employees as 'just another coffee company'.

This is the reality of managing brands in a world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families.

And this reality applies to the Repubican Party.

Many news organizations, pollsters, political professionals and other insiders can (and will) continue to monitor the Republican Party's brand solely at the level of promise. In this sense, they can report on and talk about promises, promises, promises -- as if those were -- as in the now ancient days of marketing the only thing that mattered.

But, while they are essentially just talking to themselves about tautologies ("The Republican Party stands for family values because The Republican Party stands for family values!"), an ever increasing number of voters, contributors, volunteers and employees who live in the rest of this new 'real world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and famliies' will persistently -- that is daily and weekly -- bump up against the actual delivery and experience that -- if they radically contradict the promises-- reach a tipping point that then brands the Repubican Party in ways that will be extraordinarily difficult to reverse because -- well, because promises of reversing them will sound like 'promises, promises'.

All of which is to say: Take a moment and reflect on the brand promises of the Republican Party and then ask, what do you observe about how the Party delivers on those promises as well as how you and people you know experience what the Republican Party really stands for.

Do this and, if you can put aside partisanship of any kind (pro or con) -- if you are capable of that -- then try to objectively observe: What's the current real brand of the Republican Party?


Posted by Doug Smith at 12:39 PM | Permalink

February 09, 2007

Self Loathing

Mary Matalin, press advisor to Vice President Cheney, dislikes herself:

" I do not like anyone .. who purports to be a purveyor of truth and serving the public by serving the truth out there who flagrantly is making up stuff."

Posted by Doug Smith at 01:02 PM | Permalink

December 09, 2006

Responsibility and Instability

In a post about the Iraq Study Group Report earlier this week, Josh Marshall notes, "The rub of the issue I don't see being discussed -- at least not directly -- is this category question: are US troops more a cause of instability in Iraq or a solution/buffer against instability?"

It is a crucial question. Yet, I think, there is a more critical category question, one that has to do with the essential role of adult responsibility in fostering change. In any human enterprise faced with profound change (a nation, a company, a set of friends, a family, a church and so forth), only the adults involved in that situation can take responsibility for bringing about whatever changes are to come -- whether those changes are good, bad or in between. To illustrate: if you smoke, only you can take responsibility for stopping (or continuing). No one else can do it for you. (In this, by the way, I'm not using 'responsibility' in the sense of credit or blame; but, rather, in the sense of ownership, duty and care required to act and be accountable to one's self for those actions -- the kind of responsibility that, by the way, George W. Bush has not been fitted out by nature or nurture to exercise.)

In the case of Iraq, this means that Iraqis must take responsibility for whatever changes are to come -- neither US soldiers nor US contractors nor anyone else can take that responsibility for Iraqis unless we and/or other non-Iraqis are intent on carrying out that responsibility over a long haul. Thus, should we choose, we could take responsibility for implementing changes in Iraq over an open ended, long period of time (10 to 20 years). So, could Iran.

But absent our or Iran's or anyone else's choosing to participate as open ended, long term players in Iraq, we revert to this reality: only Iraqis can take responsibility for their own changes and situation.

Now, if stability is one desirable change to be sought, then only Iraqis can take responsibility for that stability. We cannot do it for them.

The inevitable route to stability in Iraq (absent a miracle) is through the instability currently characterizing what's happening there -- and, probably, worse instability to come. There must be instability on the path to stability. But, and this is key, there will not be stability unless and until Iraqis take responsibility for whatever instability comes first. And, as long as we are present, this will not happen. In this sense, the question about whether we are a cause, or buffer against, instability is unresponsive to the question of what must happen to create conditions where Iraqis take responsibility for their own change. If we are the cause of instability, Iraqis do not take responsibility. If we are the buffer against instability, Iraqis do not take responsibility.

In this sense, all the chat about embedding our forces and doing other things to train Iraqi security forces misses a huge point: however important such training and education might be, they never substitute for the act of an adult taking responsibility for his or her own change. I can educate you until the cows come home about the negative effects of smoking cigarettes. But, until you decide to go buy a patch or otherwise cut down on cigarettes, all that education is just so much wind. Yes, education might be a rational approach to inducing you to take such responsibility -- to persuading and convincing you. But, it is demonstrable that education works best when it is directed at adults who have already chosen to take responsibility for whatever changes are to be aided by such learning. This is not the situation in Iraq.

Among the tragic consequences of this reality is that The United States of America initiated a unilateral war of choice that, in turn, led to a horrendous situation where only an inevitable period of instability in which Iraqis take responsibility for killing one another will lead to a return to stability. The United States of America has this blood - and the blood to come -- on our hands. This is the other sense of the word responsible, as in credit and blame.

But, at this point, our only option to exercise responsibility in the sense of owning the way forward demands an open ended, long term occupation of Iraq -- a 10 or 20 year commitment to, first, enforce stability and then, gradually, gradually, gradually manage the situation toward Iraqi responsibility for the direction and evolution of that stability into something better than stability alone.

If we are not going to make such a commitment - a commitment where we take responsibility for bringing about stability -- then our only responsible option is to leave so that Iraqis have no option but to take that responsibility themselves. And anyone suggesting or claiming otherwise, including the Iraq Study Group, Josh Marshall, Dick Cheney, Nancy Pelosi or anyone else is more interested in responsibility as blame/credit than responsibility as a duty of care toward Iraqis and Iraqi stability.

Posted by Doug Smith at 01:18 PM | Permalink

November 26, 2006

Honest Problem Solving

Problem definition is among the most critical -- essential -- elements of effective problem solving. Taking the time, putting in the effort and gathering as many views as possible about the nature of the problem at hand dramatically increases the odds that effective solutions will be found. As a quick illustration, consider the family who, month after month, see themselves falling deeper in debt. Does this family have a credit problem to solve or a spending problem to solve? The airwaves are filled with commercials offering to help such families solve their credit problem -- an indirect, anecdotal piece of evidence that a whole lot of families in this situation are choosing to define their problem as access to credit instead of finding different approaches to spending. Until the families change the way they define their problem, the odds are against them finding solutions that work.

That's plain common sense.

So, what are we to make of these sentiments from Senator Chuck Hagel on the problem we call Iraq:

"The time for more U.S. troops in Iraq has passed. We do not have more troops to send and, even if we did, they would not bring a resolution to Iraq. Militaries are built to fight and win wars, not bind together failing nations. We are once again learning a very hard lesson in foreign affairs: America cannot impose a democracy on any nation -- regardless of our noble purpose.

We have misunderstood, misread, misplanned and mismanaged our honorable intentions in Iraq with an arrogant self-delusion reminiscent of Vietnam. Honorable intentions are not policies and plans. Iraq belongs to the 25 million Iraqis who live there. They will decide their fate and form of government."

Problem definition: We've got to move beyond noble purpose and honorable intentions if we are to find a solution to this problem.

That, of course, is dishonest. Senator Hagel knows very well that the government of George W. Bush did not enter Iraq with a noble purpose or honorable intentions. The record shows that less than two weeks after taking office, the Bush Administration began plans for "taking out Sadaam". It used 9/11 to push those plans forward. They lied about WMD. They lied about Sadaam's connections to 9/11. They lied about Sadaam's connection to al-qaeda. They lied about the cost of the war. They lied about their preparedness for the post-war occupation. They lied about how things were going. They lied about their questionable methods, such as those used at Abu Ghraib. They continued to change the definition of the problem they were seeking to solve (e.g. what constitutes 'victory') and misrepresented and lied about how they described the situation in order to fit the message of the day. Throughout the affair (and as recently as a month ago in the run up to the mid-term elections), they demonized as traitors anyone who did not agree with their lies.

There were no honorable intentions. There never was a noble purpose. Quite the opposite. Yes, there was ideology. But, ideology and noble purpose are not synonyms. Did Hitler have a noble purpose? Did Stalin? Would you call the events triggered by the madness of Rev. Jim Jones linked to a noble purpose? How about Osama bin Laden? Noble purpose? Honorable intentions?

The Bush Administration defined the problem to be solved in at least three ways: First, to win and retain political power in the United States. Second, to "take out Sadaam" as part of Rumsfeld's 21st century military vision. And, third, to strike anywhere and everywhere that, famously, there was even a 1 percent chance that anti-Americanism and/or terrorism could be found.

There is nothing either noble or honorable about any of this.

And until folks like Senator Hagel rid their problem definitions of perpetuating these lies, the big lie of honorable intentions and noble purpose will continue to cloud our capacity for clear problem definitions and clear problem solutions.

We will make much faster progress when people like Senator Hagel find the stomach to acknowledge the full picture. The Senator correctly describes the actions of the US government when he writes: "misunderstood, misread, misplanned and mismanaged."

Now, the Senator -- and others -- must also speak as clearly about the fact that the Government of The United States acted dishonorably and did so with purposes linked to power, greed and arrogance. If our government is now to move forward, it must do so with a renewed fidelity to the rule of law and our historic aspirations toward decency, fairness, tolerance and liberty and justice for all. And the first and truest step toward doing this is: stop lying.

Our government has acted wrongly. And like a family who continues to seek easy credit instead of taking responsibility for spending, we will not find workable solutions to the mess we've created if we perpertuate the dishonarable lies that produced this mess in the first place.

When one reads Senator Hagel -- especially when he concludes on the note of supporting the Baker-led Iraq Study Group - one sees that the real problem being defined is still the first plank of the problem as defined by George W. Bush's crowd from the beginning: how to win elections and retain political power in the United States? How to spin the messages through our media and political markets about Iraq in a way that will let political leaders who compete in those markets -- as well as the media companies and their celebrities who have replaced news with promotion -- get the troops home without acknowledging that those same troops were sent off to fight, get injured and die for a lie.

Senator Hagel -- and James Baker -- are seeking access to more credit. And they most definitely are not prepared to take full responsibility for our spending problem -- i.e. what's been and will continue to be spent in blood, treasure, values, the rule of law and our national honor and decency.


Posted by Doug Smith at 12:45 PM | Permalink

November 08, 2006

Moving The Foul Lines

This past Sunday, the local newspaper endorsed the incumbent Congressman John Sweeney against his challenger Kirsten Gillibrand. Throughout his career in politics, Sweeney has repeatedly behaved in ways that raise questions about his character -- incidents suggestive of problems with alcohol, a variety of questionable fundraising and lobbying practices, and violent behavior -- including a report of domestic violence in December 2005. He has never, however, been charged with any specific crime.

He did, though, rise within the Republican-controlled Congress. As the endorsing editorial noted, he held a position of power that could benefit bringing home the bacon to his district. And, with regard to Iraq, the endorsing editors noted that, while Sweeney has voted with Bush, he had recently questioned the wisdom of some of the choices made by the Bush Administration.

On the other hand, the endorsing editors went on to point out Ms. Gillibrand had lived much of her adult life outside the Congressional district and had failed to run for a more local office.

The day after the endorsement, a group of leaders met with the endorsing editors to criticize their choice -- mostly because of Sweeney's domestic violence incident -- an incident that Sweeney first denied, then acknowledged, then denied, then acknowledged, then refused to cooperate with.

The endorsing editors told their visitors that, while they appreciated their concern, they believed they had made the correct endorsement because Sweeney has not been charged with any crime.

So, there we have it. The foul lines on what is permissable to consider about questions of character -- at least for sitting members of Congress who have power to bring home the bacon -- has moved. If you are a challenger, you can be judged not ready for office because you've lived most of your adult life outside the district and you haven't earned higher office by holding more local office. If, however, you are a powerful, sitting member of Congress, you deserve re-election so long as you haven't been charged with any crime.


Posted by Doug Smith at 01:35 PM | Permalink

October 22, 2006

Weakness

In any human situation -- a relationship, a family, a team, an organization, a market, a war -- the blend of arrogance and incompetence is one of a handful of formulas for weakness. Why? Well, of course for myriad reasons. Just one, though, suffices as illustration: Arrogance in the form of "I/We are never mistaken and, therefore, never need to invite other viewpoints into our choices" guarantees that incompetence remains incompetence forever. As I say, a prescription for weakness. And, therefore, a prescription for certain failure.

All of us must make our own choices (e.g. in voting as well as the exercise of speech) about paths forward. As you approach such choices - for example, this coming Nov. 7th -- think about whether, in light of the troubles and difficulties from terror to Iraq to disaster recovery to social security to education and on and on -- you choose to pull the lever in favor of a Republican Party deeply and permanently committed to being weak.

Put differently, you have a choice: Support a Republican Party whose blend of arrogance and incompetence ensures perpetual weakness; or, choose another possibility that, whatever your anxieties or hopes, is not yet permanently condemned to failure.

Posted by Doug Smith at 11:56 AM | Permalink

October 01, 2006

Value versus Values

From Der Spiegel in Germany:

"In its report on Afghanistan, CorpWatch - a U.S.-based corporate watchdog - concluded that the companies were more interested in making money than helping the people. Thousands of foreign experts have been dispatched to Afghanistan.

The consulting firms in Kabul have been given multi-million-dollar budgets from their governments to establish a central bank and three ministries: Finance, Justice and Commerce. They have also been tasked with slowing poppy cultivation and finding alternative sources of income for the farmers. Their remit further extends to building schools, roads and hospitals.

{snip}

American taxpayers would be stunned to hear where their tax dollars were actually going, the CorpWatch report says: beyond being wasted on failed projects, it helped pay for "contractors' prostitutes and imported cheeses." The CorpWatch investigators spent months monitoring the flow of international funds and concluded that business-savvy representatives of donor nations rather than Afghans were the real beneficiaries.

The U.S. government lavished $150 million on the private security firm DynCorp. Its mission: to close down Afghanistan's poppy fields. Ninety Americans and 550 Afghans set about the task. The result: thousands of extremely irate farmers who - despite having their crops destroyed - were denied realistic compensation.

The Rendon Group from Washington, D.C. was charged with winning public support for the United States and its military in Afghanistan. According to CorpWatch, the PR firm - which reportedly has close ties to the Bush administration - has received contracts worth more than $56 million since September 11, 2001. It has failed miserably in Afghanistan: never before have the Americans and their allies been as unpopular as they are today.

The euphoria that greeted Americans in Kabul on Nov. 13, 2001 has long been replaced by suspicion. Today many Afghans regard the erstwhile liberators as occupiers."

All of which begs these questions:

What do the people who work at these companies really stand for?
What do the people who work in the government organizations that hire these companies really stand for?

Posted by Doug Smith at 11:34 AM | Permalink

September 21, 2006

The Shared Idea Of Reality

Among the sources of predictable beliefs and behavior in our new world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families are shared ideas -- that is, ideas that folks share some understanding about (even if it's inaccurate) and act upon that understanding. In the run up to the Iraq war, for example, a variety of organizations (the Bush White House, the Republican Party, the mainstream TV and Radio news organizations, thousands of newspapers, Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress, Halliburton, Bechtel, the National Review, and any number of other shadow lobbyist organizations) planted, nurtured, grew and maintained this shared idea: that Sadaam Hussein worked together with al-Qaeda and the 9/11 terrorists.

Tens of millions of Americans (and others) bought into this idea. They believed it. And they behaved based on that belief. It was, is and will remain one of the most profound illustrations of the power of shared ideas to shape shared values in our new world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families.

It -- and the larger phenomenon it represents -- also illustrates an age old verity: namely, that inherent in all strengths are dangerous weakenesses. Civilizations -- like men and women -- can be undone by their strengths if they fail to heed that all strengths have limits and that those limits, in turn, point to strength-as-weakness.

Our civilization -- our culture -- is extraordinarily skilled at marketing. Given that we've pioneered the new world of markets, networks, and organizations, this mastery ought not come as any surprise. We've had long experience at selling. Of course, even those who lived in a world of places -- a world where place bounded up ideas as well as relationships -- were sellers. And, human nature being what it is, a spectrum of belief and behavior has always prevailed. There have always been those who took advantage through shady practices -- and those who have not. Caveat emptor (buyer beware) is an ancient notion.

Still, our new world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families provide unbounded opportunities to sell. Consider only the disturbingly predictable misuses of the Internet (from child pornographers luring 'actors' to folks who use Craig's List to set up victims of theft). We also have long experience with financial or other product schemes that rip folks off based on false advertising and sales.

Not until the Rove White House, though, have we experienced the misuse of marketing competency on such a grand scale. And, it has not been limited to selling wars on false information. Compassionate conservatism, Helathy Forests, Clear Skies, Homeland Security, Terry Schiavo, the Geneva Conventions as antiquated or vague, Dissent as Treason, Osama bin Ladin as Hitler, the Unitary Executive, Bush as Churchill, the Coalition of the Willing -- and on and on. Among the most telling comments was the one in which a Bush White House spokesman said to other media players, "You are irrelevant. We make our own reality."

The objective here -- the singular, the one, the only -- objective has been and remains: power. I'll always remember the sage advice from an experienced lawyer to his younger colleague about how best to sort out the various legal issues among parties to complex commercial transacttions: 'follow the money'. That is, if you look hard at how any particular issue (warranties, indemnification, insurance, etc) affects the monetary interests of each party, you'll have a good idea about how their respective lawyers will act.

Well, with the Rove-led White House and Republican Party, the adage morphs into: what will it take to win and retain power?

That, then, is the interest at stake. Certainly not: what would it take to best govern the most powerful nation in the world in the interests of that nation's peoples as well as the globe's peoples. That is now an outdated notion -- one that is surely not widely shared among the power brokers of our new world. They are in it for themselves.

And, in their immoral misuse of marketing, of course, the Rovians have also endangered more than just the rest of us. They've planted the seeds of their own undoing by ignoring the corrupt effects of their power. They have so broadly and widely mastered the art of using markets, networks and organizations to foster powerful shared ideas with no basis in reality -- or, rather, as said earlier, they are so expert at marketing that they create their own reality. Just one that bears no relationship to now antiquated shared idea of accuracy; that is, to facts 'on the ground'.

Today, we all live in their reality. But, the primary principle of their reality is that reality itself is a fable - a false representation. So, we now live in a world where tens of millions of people shadow box with fable - with fabulous shared ideas that, like helium balloons, float free from any tether other than the marketeers. And this means that, absent some herculean effort on the part of powerful players -- and one sincerely founded upon acting in the interest of others -- we have set ourselves free from any shared idea of accuracy at all.

This is far beyond 'up is down'. This is about the destruction of any accurate or fact-based shared idea of direction itself. This is about the destruction of accuracy in the concept of language. It's about creating a new language: theirs. Consider: "Stay the course". Not too long ago (1990s), that phrase contained the implication of direction. Not any more. That's 'old world thinking'. To have any connotation of direction, 'stay the course' would need to imply something fact-based about goals, about strategy and about implemenation of strategy. Bush's use of the phrase has nothing to do with any of those things. There are no goals. There is no strategy. The boots on the ground in Iraq have no idea, no plan, nor any daily action that bear any correlation to the concept of implementing a strategy. They're just trying to stay alive while Bush 'stays the course'.

No, "stay the course' has nothing to do with fact-based reality. It has everything to do with winning elections, retaining power and continuing to use power to create a new, fact-free reality.

Go ahead. Look around yourself -- or your kids or friends or even just folks in general. Ask yourself what percentage of the 'input' -- the information on which we must navigate our busy lives in this new world of markets -- is fact-based? If the input comes from 'news', is the 'news' fact based? If the input comes from the Bush White House, is it 'fact based'? If the input comes from TV programming (even 'reality shows'), is it fact based? How about from your relgious leaders? What about schools? How about work?

What is your reality?

And, how does your reality compare and contrast with this report from an American Colonel:

"When I discuss the possibility of an American military strike on Iran with my European friends, they invariably point out that an armed confrontation does not make sense -- that it would be unlikely to yield any of the results that American policymakers do want, and that it would be highly likely to yield results that they do not. I tell them they cannot understand U.S. policy if they insist on passing options through that filter. The "making sense" filter was not applied over the past four years for Iraq, and it is unlikely to be applied in evaluating whether to attack Iran."

Posted by Doug Smith at 11:29 AM | Permalink

September 02, 2006

The Size Of The Pie And The Share Of The Pie

For those who have the courage and wisdom to pay attention, among the most important contributions of the now decades-old quality movement in the contemporary business world is it's demonstration of 'both/and' thinking and acting. When people adopt and pursue shared purposes built on 'both/and' principles, they identify and articulate two or more objectives that are in constant tension with one another. For example, within the broader field of quality, an organization might pursue both fewer errors or defects and faster speed of delivery. These two objectives struggle with one another. A group pursuing only speed has an easier, less constrained set of solutions than the group pursuing both speed and fewer defects because the former can simply speed things up and accept more errors.

The benefits of both/and approaches, though, go far deeper than the stated objectives themselves because they support and promote effort that is more fully human -- more challenging and, therefore, more creative and more fulfilling. While elitists might disdain the deeper meaning within the work of a team of folks at the front lines of a company pursuing both speed and fewer defects, the people on the team itself will and do report that with success comes the experience of both deeper affiliation and deeper meaning. No, such folks do not equate either the affiliation or meaning with the poet's truth or beauty -- but they do know and sense the importance of collaborating with other human beings on something that matters. As Marlow in The Heart of Darkness admiringly, respectfully says of the man who helps him guide the boat up the river, these folks do work, they do something.

And they do it together, fully challenged by both/and realities of human existence.

Our planet is beset by powerful men and women who ignore the way of both/and humanity in favor of single goals and single answers. In this, they pursue self-interest over shared interest and personal power and wealth over shared purpose and the rule of law. In contemporary geopolitics, we see this abhorrent, destructive self-interestedness in the form of powerful governmental, corporate and media officials who claim truth stripped of reason as a shield to their own pitiful failure to embrace the opportunity for a more fully human experience given to them at birth. They love single answers because they are the easy road to self-enrichment. They eschew both/and because, down that road, lies shared struggle and shared responsibility.

In economics and business, we see this single answer extremism primarily in the form of our age's deep and widespread acceptance of shareholder value as the trump card for business performance. The primacy of shareholder value is today as widely shared as the belief in motherhood. And, yet, unlike motherhood, the beliefs and behaviors of shareholder value extremism march us toward and over the cliff of despair and destruction every single day. Whether it is exploding mortgages, layoffs, deteriorating benefits, moves to privatize social security, ongoing environmental destruction, decades-old erosion of real wages, poverty that is hidden by false statistics, rising obesity and eating disorders, failure to equate energy policy with national security -- etc, etc, etc -- the either/or thinking and action of single answers have now endangered our planet and put the futures of our children and their children at grave risk.

The Philistine plutocrats admonish us to either accept the primacy of shareholder value or destroy our markets, our business prospects, our jobs and our country. That is the 'either/or' proposition that has an iron grip on our society today.

And, it is the either/or proposition that has propped up the irresponsible, self-interested officials in government, corporations and media who have spent the last three decades promoting the false notion that the 'size of the pie' -- the size and growth of GDP -- somehow exists in isolation from the 'share of the pie' -- the distribution of income and wealth. Both matter.

Both matter to the aspiration embedded in our national heritage known as 'liberty and justice for all'.

Not for some. For all.

Not just for the top 1% who now control more than 40% of our wealth.

For all.

Not just for the top 20% who control more than 80% of wealth.

For all.

"For all" includes the bottom 40% who actually have less than 2% of our society's wealth.

For all.

Just like the quality team who challenge themselves to be more fully human by tackling both speed and fewer errors, all of us -- every day we wake up -- have the choice to demand of ourselves and those who would claim to lead us that we commit our resources, our capabilities, our hearts, our minds and our guts to building a society that aspires to both a larger pie and a just distribution of that pie.

We cannot and will not find our way to this 'both/and' pursuit of happiness, though, until we once again adopt belief and behavior that demonstrably care about people beyond ourselves. Nor until we -- and especially the 'we's' of organizations -- explicitly evict shareholder value extremism from our midst. We must not condemn shareholder value itself -- only the tenets by which it is made a golden idol, a trump card of either/or-ism whose shininess blinds us to the corrosive reality with which it destroys our common humanity -- including, importantly, the humanity of those who practice and espouse it.

Let us now -- right this moment -- turn our eyes toward both the size of the pie and the share of the pie. And let us do that work together.

Because the clock is ticking. And our children our crying out for us -- their elders -- to take shared responsibility for creating a safer, saner and more sustainable future.

For all.

Posted by Doug Smith at 01:30 PM | Permalink

August 14, 2006

Stuck On One's Own Flypaper

"See the engineer hoist by his own petard" is an ancient adage about the law of unexpected consequences. Many centuries ago, engineers in armies would contruct 'petards' -- wooden boxes filled with gunpowder -- and use them to blow holes in fortified gates and walls. The unintended consequences included premature explosions that injured or killed the engineers and those around them. "Hoist by his own petard" has ever since meant "blown up by his own bomb".

In one of their now favorite but after the fact rationalizations for the war in Iraq, folks in the Bush Administration like to talk about the 'flypaper strategy' -- the notion that by fighting terrorists in Iraq, we don't have to fight them elsewhere. There are many problems with the logic of this assertion -- the number and spread of terrorism has risen dramatically after the invasion of Iraq, there are attacks and foiled attacks in lots of nations other than Iraq, and Sadaam Hussein really had little to do with the terrorists who attacked the United States. And there is also this: Shouldn't we prefer and actually seek to fight them elsewhere -- since that's where they are most dangerous?

But, in an update on being hoist by one's own petard, we also must ask: who exactly is stuck on the flypaper in Iraq?


Posted by Doug Smith at 12:19 PM | Permalink

August 13, 2006

Up Close And Personal

One of the recurring themes over the nearly five years of war in Afghanistan and nearly three-and-a-half in Iraq has been the Bush admiinstration policy to discourage photographs and video of the coffins returning home. In our new world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families, a relentless stream of coffin imagery would risk conveying one element of the human cost of war -- and do so in a way that might personalize that cost to folks beyond the freinds and families of the brave men and women who make the ultimate sacrifice. Moral philosophers -- indeed, any human being who would like to consider him or herself moral -- would argue that personalizing the costs of war is a necessary element in making war moral and justifiable. Such folks might or might not continue to support the war; but, the point is that mere abstractions (e.g. a number of dead and injured) do not bear the weight of intense, real information and meaning. Indeed, even pictures of coffins would be less real than the visit families receive from military officials bearing the bad news. Still, in our world of markets, networks and organizations, there is a premium on ensuring that our democracy is strengthened through information that matters to making choices.

Having said all that, a recent set of experiments cast an additional and unexpected perspective on the morality of choices like war that put human beings in harm's way for larger purposes. The experiments have to do with time frame and raise a profound point about the value of information before another human being is put in danger rather than after that person has been injured or died.

In the first of these two experiments, participants are told that they are standing on a train platform watching the immenent approach of a runaway train. There are five people who have fallen on the tracks and are helpless to get out of the way. Next to the participant on the platform stands a very large man.

Question: Would you push the large man onto the tracks to absorb the impact of the train and save the five people?

85% of respondents say, "No."

Second experiment. Same situation. Only this time, instead of a large man standing next to the participant, there's a switch that, if pulled, will send the on rushing train to another track out of sight on which, the participant is told, stands one person.

Question: Would you pull the switch?

The majority of respondents say, "Yes."

Among the many interpretations about how reason and emotion battle to explain this difference is what one might call the 'eye contact' factor. In the first experiment, the large man is more real than is the person standing on the tracks in the second experiment. A second and critical explanation also points to the difference between specifically using a human being as an instrument in the first experiment versus the sense that the death in the second experiment is a 'by product'.

When the United States attacked Afghanistan one month after September 11th, the facts known at the time and subsequently verified on the ground were that the Taliban government housed Osama bin Ladin, Osama bin Ladin had ordered the September 11th attacks, and the attack on Afghanistan would give U.S. forces a reasonable chance of capturing Osama bin Ladin.

In light of this, it's worth asking if you were the decision maker, whether and how much it would have changed your decision had you personally met the men and women of the U.S. armed forces who would be put in harm's way in Afghanistan versus not having met them but knowing that some would die and be injured as a consequence of a choice to go after bin Ladin?

When the United States attacked Iraq a year-and-a-half after September 11th, the stated reasons for doing so included charges that Sadaam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, had the delivery capability to use them on the United States, had direct contacts with Osama bin Ladin and actively supported the September 11th attacks. Subsequent to the invasion, each of these stated facts turned out to be false -- and that those making the decisions knew or should have known they were false.

It's worth asking if you were the decision maker (and you knew or should have known the stated reasons were false), whether and how much it would have changed your decision to invade Iraq had you personally met the men and women of the U.S. armed forces who would be put in harm's way in Afghanistan versus not having met them but knowing that some would die and be injured as a consequence of a choice to go after bin Ladin?

Now, over five years after invading Afghanistan (and failing to capture bin Ladin) and over three-and-a-half years after invading Iraq (and failing to achieve the security and stability that Donald Rumsfeld names as conditions to a military victory -- let alone the many conditions he describes as critical to overall success), it continues to be worth asking yourself -- as a moral person -- if it would make any difference to you in continuing to 'stay the course' in either or both of these theaters of war were you required to meet every man and women sent to their possible death or injury as a precondition to your choice to use them as instruments for your policy? And, would you answer differently if you were not required to meet them; but, rather, only thought of them as abstractions on a different track?


Posted by Doug Smith at 01:04 PM | Permalink

August 06, 2006

Casting Call

Wanted: A presidential impersonator.

The body politic of the United States of America is in need of a president. According to Constitutional rules, however, an actual president is not even a theoretical possibility until January 2009. Until then, the nation must do the best it can without a real president. (Although, it's clear, the nation should do the best it can to establish processes for qualifying potential holders of the actual office in order to avoid repeating the mistake of having an empty office for another four years beyond January 2009.)

This casting call, then, is for men (or, if remarkably talented and physically able, women) who bear a sufficient resemblence to George W. Bush and have the requisite skills to impersonate George W. Bush. The job, however, is not -- I repeat NOT -- to be a comic. The comical aspects normally associated with impersonators are specifically not asked for and all who audition with that in mind will be rejected. Simply put, we are long past the point where there is anything even remotely funny about the emptiness in the office of president.

Instead, we are looking for a serious, sober and responsible impersonator. Someone who can pretend -- credibly pretend - to actually perform the functions of a president. Once selected, we will ask this presidential pretender to travel the nation engaging citizens in dialogue and discussion about the major challenges facing our nation. This will demand that the person selected be willing to dedicate the time needed to read and otherwise learn about the contexts, backgrounds, principles and related materials and thoughts normally associated with what the holder of the presidency is accountable for knowing. Among the first such briefing materials will be succinct background memoranda on the rule of law, the Constitution, having an open mind, asking for thoughts from those who disagree and mastering the basics of the actual subjects on which the presidential impersonater will speak.

In requiring this preparation, we are asking the presidential impersonator to recognize that his or her job is not -- again NOT -- to impersonate George W. Bush. Rather, in the physical guise of looking like George W. Bush, the presidential impersonator is requried to act like a president. This will at first be difficult for audiences to comprehend because it will demand them to observe two seemingly contradictory phenomena: (1) a person looking and talking like George W. Bush; and, (2) a person looking and sounding like a president.

Still, we must work with what we have. Our hope is that the presidential impersonator will soon enough overcome the difficulties of audience expectations upon seeing "George W. Bush" and find some credible space within to portray an actual president. We do not demand that the presidential impersonator have an extraordinarily high IQ or any other 'special' talents. All we ask is that the presidential impersonator actually take the responsibilities of that high office seriously -- to seek through engagement with citizens to actually pretend to be interested in governing a nation instead of ruling it, to lead by helping to increase shared and real understanding instead of destroying the possibility of such things, and to seek to discover and exercise wisdom and accountabilty for choices instead of operating on unschooled instinct and ideology.

Put differently, we are seeking someone who actually would like to be a president and to take a responsible, sober shot at doing the job. We hope to provide audiences the experience of what things might be like if we had a president. This, too, will demand audiences to give the presidential impersonator a chance -- to avoid shouting and storming and uncivil actions. But, it is our hope, that if a persidential impersonator actually showed the willingness and capacity to speak to real audiences instead of artificially controlled and selected audiences, that the audiences and the citizenry will remember how they can contribute to civil discourse even in the face of disagreement.

We expect the selected person to spend the next three months or so preparing for 'going on the road'. Once the presidential impersonator is ready, we will implement a marketing plan that takes the presidential impersonator to venues in which he (or she) can interact with citizens every single day until January 2009. We will enlist the support of both new and traditional media in covering these appearances. And we expect a series of books, documentaries, movies, musical numbers, etc as well as sponsorships and advertising to support the entire enterprise.

In seeking the qualified presidential impersonator, we hope to provide the appearance of leadership as a 'second best' alternative to the absence of leadership that necessarily results from the fact that the office of President of the United States is now empty.

Posted by Doug Smith at 02:59 PM | Permalink

July 18, 2006

It's The Pronoun, Folks

In the Bush-Blair exchange caught unexpectedly on microphone yesterday, Bush said to Blair, "See, the irony is what they need to do is get Syria to get Hizbollah to stop doing this shit and it's over."

Predictably, the corporate media -- recognizing instinctively that the word 'shit' can attract an American audience that has been infantalized by the media itself -- were characteristically either playing up the word 'shit' or, if the media organizations come from self-perceived higher class neighborhoods, substituting (expletive) or describing the word ("Mr Bush used a profanity") instead of naming the word.

It's farcical. At least so far we've been spared the description that Bush had a 'language malfunction' -- perhaps because in a defensive posture, the major media's general counsel have advised that calling attention to the word 'shit' might lead the Senate of the United States to name a committee demanding that the FCC use their brand spanking new indecency regulations to fine news organizations that named the word or played the audio.

Meanwhile, the key word in Bush's candid moment is not 'shit". It's the word 'they'.

Much has been made about the lack of accountability in this administration. One typical leading indicator of folks who hold themselves accountable are those who also take responsibility in the first place.

Someone assuming responsibility does not comment from the sidelines, like a spectator, about what 'they' should do.

"They"?

How about "we", or "I"?


Posted by Doug Smith at 12:04 PM | Permalink

July 13, 2006

The Unitary Executive For Dummies

Speaking on behalf of the Bush Administration to Senators in Congress yesterday -- and, by extension, to all Americans -- a Justice Department official summed up the various theories and ideologies used by those who support George W. Bush's assault on the Constitution and democracy:

"The president is always right."

Folks, this guy means what he said. This was not some slip of the tongue in a heated moment contextualized by some particular policy. This was a prepared remark intended to summarize the Administration's policy for ruling the United States.

For those of you who have not been following the evolving position, it goes something like this:

In time of war, the Constitution empowers the Commander-in-Chief to make all decisions.

We are in a time of war -- actually an endless war against terrorism as opposed to a war against a state.

Until the Commander-in-Chief declares this war to be finished, he is, as he himself put it "the decider".

As previously contended by Richard Nixon before he became the first person ever to resign the presidency, if the president does it, then it is the law.

In our unique new kind of endless war -- one that has no national or state borders -- the Commander-in-Chief decides anything he sees as part of that war. Former distinctions such as 'foreign' and 'domestic' are, like the Geneva Accords, 'quaint'.

Congress and the Courts might make suggestions to the Commander-in-Chief.

However, because the Commander-in-Chief is the decider -- the unitary executive -- he is not bound by such suggestions and can use signing statements or take any other action, including simply ignoring the suggestions, as he sees fit.

The president is always right.


Posted by Doug Smith at 12:07 PM | Permalink

July 09, 2006

Proof Reading

Proof reading is among the most essential parts of the jobs of writers and editors. And, as with the quality control aspect of any job, there is levels of daffiness. What? On proof reading this last sentence, I must re-write it: "And, as with the quality control aspect of any job, there are levels of difficulty."

These corrections were easy. Sometimes, though, quality control is more difficult. To exercise judgment and to insure meaningful quality in communication, writers and editors must look at the range of obvious possible interpretations of words by readers/viewers/listeners and choose whether they - as writers and editors -- intend readers/viewers/listners to use those interpretations. If not, then it's back to editing to narrow the range to what's intended to ensure that what's written lies within the common sense of meaning. Then, again, if the words convey what's intended, the job is done. Publish it.

Yesterday's papers, for example, had this report from Baghdad:

Three American troops were killed Saturday in fighting in the western province of Anbar, the U.S. military said. They were the first U.S. fatalities reported in Iraq in four days and only the eighth so far this month.

The use of the word 'only' was noticed -- but not initially by the writers or editors. Rather, by folks in the blogosphere across the political spectrum.

Interestlngly, when one now clicks on the link provided in the blog postings, the connection takes you to a re-written paragraph:

They were the first U.S. fatalities reported in Iraq since Tuesday, raising the number of U.S. personnel killed this month to eight. The average of one death a day is down sharply from a rate of more than two a day in recent months.

"Only' is a word whose range of meanings was simply too broad. 'Down sharply' has a narrower range.

It's hard work writing and editing in the daily -- even moment-to-moment -- cycle of news. Not every mistake of quality gets caught. One advantage of a blogosphere of readers and posters, however, is newspapers get the benefit of thousands, even tens or hundreds of thousands of readers who -- at zero direct monetary cost to those papers -- help with quality control.

Once the disrespect to human life contained in the plain meaning of the word 'only' was pointed out to writers and editors who may have chosen the word to convey some sense of progress in the Iraq war, they changed the wording to retain the sense of progress -- 'down sharply' -- while avoiding the hurt to those whose lives are at risk or have already been lost. They narrowed the range of meaning.

There is, of course, a political aspect to using words. It is unavoidable. In newspapers, that unavoidable aspect -- particularly in a culture so highly polarized -- also indicates it gets more and more difficult to avoid editorialization in what are supposed to be reported articles (and not op-ed pieces).

Consider, then, this choice of words in the headline of an article about the federal deficit in today's NY Times:

Surprising Jump in Tax Revenues Is Curbing Deficit

The article reports an expected increase of $250 billion in tax revenues compared to 2005 that will cause 2006's deficit to -- again: here's the word used -- "shrink" to $300 billion from 2005's deficit of $318 billion.

What range of meanings ought the writers and editors at the NY Times expect readers to impute to the words "curbing" and "shrink"?

My guess is that reasonable readers impute the following meaning: the annual deficit is significantly smaller as a consequence of the rise in tax revenues.

This, of course, takes us back to statistical meanings of words and how those affect political speech in the context of journalism. The blogosphere's rapid feedback mechanisms helped writers and editors around the country shift from writing 'only' 8 Americans have died in the first 8 days of July to writing that, in the first 8 days of July, the rate of American deaths for just one day more than one week is down from an average to 2 per day over 'recent months'. Put differently: sign of hope.

Maybe the blogosphere could also help the NY Times' writers and editors re-think whether 'curbing' and 'shrink' are the quality choice of words for a projected deficit drop of $18 billion on a base of $318 billion -- that is, a decrease of 5.67%.

"Curbing" might cover this. A smoker who curbs his or her habit of, say, two packs a day by 6% - or two fewer cigarettes per day (38 instead of 40) -- might -- be using words in some range of acceptable common meaning. Or, he or she might be in denial. But, once the smoker added, "My rate of smoking has shrunk", the question of delusion is settled: the smoker is not using langauge in any remotely acceptable common sense of the words themselves. Friends and family -- or co-workers -- might be sympathetic and supportive. But none would actually think the smoker had established any change in the underlying addiction.

Smokers, of course, are folks struggling against an addiction. Their demons are personal. They are not making, distributing and selling a product whose very essence -- whose quality -- is directly a function of the common sense of words.

But, smokers -- like executives and employees in any organization -- are creatures of habit. In news organizations, writers and editors are creatures of habit in how they weigh and balance the use of words and for what purposes. The best journalistic values -- behaviors and beliefs -- have always sought to keep reported articles as fact-based and free of opinion as possible. Among the many, complex challenges facing news organizations today is the much greater difficulty of avoiding editorialization in reported articles because of the traumatized politicization of our partisan culture. Finding a range of common sense meanings in articles with political content is flat out very hard to do.

Which means that quality control is even more critical than ever before. And, that the controls are as much directed at the habits, beliefs and behaviors of the writers and editors as they are the words. If predictable habit points in the direction of loose, politicized language -- e.g. using 'shrink' for a change of minor dimension -- the article-by-article corrections are both of heightened criticality and also not enough.

Changing the beliefs and behaviors of already employed people in any organization is among the world's toughest challenges. And while relying on the marketplace -- in this case the blogosphere -- to help is useful and important (think : customer feedback), it is rarely enough. Left too long -- or if the customer feedback mechanism is the only one used -- eventually the orgaizations in question -- along with the jobs of those who work there -- shrink.


Posted by Doug Smith at 12:23 PM | Permalink

July 07, 2006

Multiple Choice

Which of the following Republican oriented officials is being described by the Republican Party leader who recently said:

“We’re talking about a man who’s no longer worthy of our support because of his stubbornness to not listen to sound advice and who makes the worst choice every time."

1. George W. Bush
2. Dick Cheney
3. Arnold Schwarzenegger
4. Donald Rumsfeld
5. Ernie Fletcher
6. Condoleeza Rice
7. Bill Frist
8. Dennis Hastert
9. Joe Lieberman
10. Jeb Bush
11. Sam Alito
12. Ken Blackwell

On this particular occasion, the answer is here.

Posted by Doug Smith at 11:12 AM | Permalink

July 04, 2006

Threshold Of Decency

Dear Mr. Durrett,

In your column about Ann Coulter, you write:

The line we walk is to try and ensure our opinion pages embrace a wide array of viewpoints and style. As I recently wrote one of our longtime readers, we pay attention to the political balance of our syndicated columnists. When you see conservative Cal Thomas on a page, you usually can count on the more liberal Leonard Pitts Jr. in close proximity.

I believe this stated standard is incomplete. Regardless of where any writer might sit on a spectrum, there should be an additional requirement for publication in a newspaper claiming readership from any community of adults, children and families: a threshold of decency.

Decency, of course, like any standard -- even the standard of 'spectrum of political opinion' -- demands judgment. And, in the news business, one would expect those judgments to be broad ones. Still, it is difficult to understand how Ann Coulter sits above any threshold of decency. Any single one at all.

Instead of decency, however, you cite 'taste' as the standard to accompany 'array'. And, it seems the 'tastes' you heed are those of your readers: If any reader (enough readers) enjoy Coulter's barbs and one liners, then the standard of taste is satisfied.

This, in turn, suggests that you seek to appeal to a market segment of readers who might buy your paper in order to enjoy Coulter. It means that your concern for value -- for building circulation and profits -- governs any concern you might have for other values such as decency.

You and your colleagues at The Shreveport Times make a choice about your values -- about what you really stand for -- every time you publish. Today, your 'brand' -- "what you really stand for" -- includes giving voice to a kind of hatred that, as you write, is motivated largely by self-promotion on the grounds of political spectrum and taste.

This, in turn, means that should any of your, say, 6 or 8 year-old children ask any of you, "Daddy/Mommy, why do you publicize Ann Coulter's views in Shreveport?", you can explain to them, "Well, we do it because it is important for people in Shreveport with these sorts of tastes to read well-known celebrities who express extreme views so that we can publish other well known celebrities with opposite extreme views."

And this, in turn means, that when your 6 year-olds become, say, 14 or 17 year-olds and, say, take on an editorial role in their high school paper and give voice to a popular kid who espouses hatred and violence, you'll be okay with it.

Or, maybe you won't be okay with it. Maybe you and your colleagues will wonder, "What's happening to our community?"

Posted by Doug Smith at 12:33 PM | Permalink

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 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

May 28, 2006

The Shared Idea Of Authenticity

In our new world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and family, the ideas we share have greater power to lead and mislead us than ever before in history. I'm not saying that ideas lacked potency in previous eras. Not at all. Ideas such as witchcraft, Aryanism... even phrenology had plenty of power to cause ill -- just as the ideas of empiricism and the rights of man produced much good.

Rather, I'm saying that in this new world of ours, ideas are not bounded by place. Instead of having to penetrate borders -- both state/national borders and, more importantly, highly localized borders -- ideas travel with lightning speed across markets and networks. Moreover, powerful vehicles created by human kind -- organizations -- increasingly push and drive ideas as a core basis for competing in the contexts of markets and networks. Ideas that become widely shared ideas -- ideas linked to brand and product and service -- become powerful assets that help win market share and produce gains.

As pointed out in Chapter 8 of On Value and Values, though, shared ideas have no requirement of accuracy. That is, to be shared, there is only a requirement that some understanding of the idea be shared -- not necessarily that the understanding be accurate. Thus, for example, 'weapons of mass destruction controlled by Sadaam Hussein" became an extensively shared idea through the power of markets and networks after September 11th. And, a variety of powerful organizations marketed, promoted and pushed this shared idea -- for reasons linked to those organizations' efforts to win and grow 'market share' in political, media, defense industry, religious and other markets.

It is, of course, possible that "WMD in Iraq" could have become a widely shared idea in an earlier era when most folks still lived out their lives in places as opposed to living 24/7/365 in the contexts of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families. The "Red Scare" of the 1950s points out that possibility. Still, one thing dramatically differs between now and then: lightning speed.

The speed with which the inaccurate shared idea of "WMD in Iraq" took hold was breathtakingly faster than would have been possible in the 1950s. And, that in turn, means that our precious planet -- the planet we'd like to turn over to our children and their children -- is more vulnerable to shared ideas than ever before.

More vulnerable -- more liable to suffer -- to dangerously inaccurate shared ideas. And, more liable to gain and prosper from widely shared ideas grounded in fact, accuracy and the intention to solve real problems in ways that help instead of harm.

Having said all that, we must remember this: Shared ideas do not become widely shared in the absence of ORGANIZATIONS who make it core to their vision, strategy and success to develop, market and push those ideas.

Organizations can be political parties such as The Republican Party of The United States of America. Organizations can be corporations such as NBC or The Washington Post. Organizations can be religious such as The Catholic Church. And, organizations can be tiny, small and even informal -- such as some folks I know who for many years have met several times each year to hold each other accountable for making a difference to others.

Individuals play an essential role is 'spreading the word' about potentially shared ideas. Still, there is no comparison between the role of individuals versus the power of organizations in a world of markets and networks. Indeed, when a single individual really is dedicated to some idea, the key point of progression in that passion and effort happens with the formation of some kind of organized effort.

You want to change local zoning laws, shift to a new focus in politics or commerce or culture? Do you want to take some idea and make an impact with it?

Then get organized! Get at least one organization going and put the heart, soul and resources of that organization into spreading your ideas through markets and networks.

Because that is how things get done.

All of which raises a variety of interesting questions when you read this -- an essay about how numerous media organizations and their celebrity employees have successfully marketed an immensely widely shared idea of authenticity in our culture that is, tragically, an inaccurate and dangerous idea.

These celebrity media types who promote their own careers, celebrity status and, of course, financial well being -- just like the companies they work for who choose to marry their strategy for winning, market share and profits to pushing an inaccurate shared idea of authenticity -- have this in common: They choose value over values.

Of course the fantastic charade is how fraudulent -- how inauthentic - these men and women condemn themselves and their organizations to being. It is tragic -- both for the erosion of their own souls but also -- and worse -- for the destructiveness done to hundreds of millions of real and authentic people who get up every day just trying to struggle through a world gone mad with this trumped up and false shared idea of authenticity -- a 'product' that has a conjurer's mind, a devil's eyes and a hollow-man's heart.

Every single one of us on this planet have the honor and privilege to personally know one or more truly authentic people. What organziations, then, are going to have the courage, the wisdom and the foresight to ground their visions, strategies, products and services on taking the lead to reconnect our actual every day experiences with authenticity to a widely shared idea of authenticity that is also an accurate one?

For how can we find our way out of this darkness without authentic hope? And how can we find authentic hope in the presence of con artists selling us on a shared idea of hope that is hopeless and a shared idea of authenticity that is inauthentic?


Posted by Doug Smith at 02:27 PM | Permalink

May 23, 2006

War on Manners

The Wall Street Journal has responded to a college student's candid criticism of Journal-supported policy by declaring a strong preference for actual failure over any acknowledgement that might be perceived as failure. In their image-dominated world, any whiff of even the possibility of failure is, well, bad manners. Instead, the Journal stands four-square behind sycophantish applause and back slapping. They are a "heckuva job" outfit -- at least when it comes to jingoism in support of a John Wayne kind of image. (One seriously doubts, for example, that the same yawning gap between image and substance would be tolerated in their company or in their investments.)

After scolding the young woman -- or more accurately her family - for ill manners, the editors go on to equate calls for changing our current disastrous path with 'precipitous surrender" in the war on terror. In doing so, the Journal casts it's values with those who prefer image to substance.

For against the yardstick of actual substance -- actual performance -- how else can we describe the current state of affairs with anything other than the word 'failure'? Were the nation a corporation, it would be bankrupt (far more debts than assets -- literally), have virtually no market share (see polls both inside and beyond the US), suffer from spent and aging infrastructure (see state of US military and lack of preparedness for natural or human disasters), and entirely bereft of core competencies -- or, better put, it's executive ranks are the very picture of core incompetencies.

But, hey, the editors at the Wall St. Journal are still promoting the 'buy' side. Or, would it be more accurate to say they cannot bring themselves to acknowledge the 'sell' side's arguments and wisdom. It's all hat, no cattle at the Journal. A war on manners instead of a war on incompetence and bankruptcy.

Their screed appears as an editorial. But, it's actually an advertisement for the Journal's disloyal, anti-American attack on democracy. More than five years of staged Bush speeches in front of folks who either work in the military or sign loyalty oaths, of rules against showing the coffins coming home, of Gestapo-like tactics to tamper with voting, of the utter incompetence that always flows from the absence of open and real problem-solving, have left the Journal editors bereft of ideas or suggestions.

No wonder they use what little imagination they have to rage against manners instead of acknowledging responsibility for the disaster their own Constitution-hating, preemptive war-starting, and drown-the-government-in-a-bathtub fantasizing has fostered. The Journal applauds Rovian character assassination of folks who actually risked their own lives for their country -- but gets sniffy about a young woman's respectful disagreement with a man whose personal war record stands out as an isolated exception among the cabal of draft-and-duty dodging men who had 'something better to do' when their country called.

A friend has a wonderful expression: gradual suddenness. It applies to the precipitous defeat we experience every day under the atrocious, morally bankrupt and incompetent officials whose manners are so loved by the editors of the Wall St. Journal.

Gradual suddenness. That is what the 'larger electorate' is now experiencing. The gradual suddenness of precipitous failure and defeat.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the bravest of them all? In the mahogany, tax-cut lined executive suites at the Wall St. Journal, the mirrors continue to lie on command. And, sadly, the editors themselves remain blind to the ugliness in their souls and, consequently, bereft of any chance to move beyond their adolescence to full adult maturity -- the kind that demands acknowledgement of error in one's self and sincere, heart felt apology and repentence for the harm done to others, to the nation, and to the planet.

Posted by Doug Smith at 11:53 AM | Permalink

May 16, 2006

Incompetence Of The Hands

Incompetence can take on as many forms and flavors as competence. Still, surely one of the hallmark characteristics of utter incompetence occurs when, as the saying goes, 'the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing." This metaphor conveys a basic failure of coordination -- whether in vision or policy/strategy or, especially, implementation. The lack of coordination between the two hands of the same body result in those hands pointing toward only one thing: confusion.

Last night, we learned from the incompetent, uncoordinated and confused elected officials of our nation about plans to deploy up to 6,000 members of an already overstretched national gaurd along the border to assist the border patrol whose numbers the same administration cut significantly a year ago because of budget pressures resulting from the Iraq adventure being waged, in major part, by a national gaurd who were unprepared and underfunded for the duration of that conflict but whose stretched numbers were needed because the same administration couldn't find in the regular armed forces the number of soldiers required because they believe actually in cutting the number of on the ground armed personnnel in favor of quick strike technology and strategy to win conflicts that they define in terms of battles won instead of enduring peace achieved so that the full cost of the initiative is never actually accounted for, thereby yielding unsupportable budget deficits that can only be met by cutting things like the border patrol so that those other needed services fail to deliver when needed and create squeeky wheels that can then be greased by temporary measures such as moving in the national gaurd to do back office and other clerical/admiinstrative support work during the two weeks each year the guard are supposed to be training in things like, say, armed conflict that they might be called on to deliver if ever deployed in a war situation -- but only for so long as it takes for the administration to build up the border partrol to the numbers that were rejected a year ago.

So many right hands. So many left hands. So little knowledge or awareness by the ones of what the others are up to.

Incompetence.

Posted by Doug Smith at 12:07 PM | Permalink

April 27, 2006

The Price Of Oil? Homeland Security

From the Seattle Times:

"America's unchecked appetite for oil is seriously jeopardizing U.S. security, despite the billions of dollars the U.S. spends to safeguard steady access to cheap oil. Americans spend $1 billion every weekday on imported oil. Many of those dollars are used to frustrate critical U.S. diplomatic goals, underwrite terrorist organizations and finance jihadist movements in the Middle East and southern Asia."

From Harvard Magazine:

“The consequent global warming is already linked to a pattern of record floods, droughts, heat, and other extreme weather events around the globe, and is expected to lead to extinctions of some plants and animals. But such news from the natural world has done little to galvanize political will. Even forecasts of disastrous effects for the human sphere—severe drought in parts of Africa and Europe in the next century, and rising sea levels worldwide that will someday drown major cities—have thus far failed to mobilize public action in the United States. The time to act is running short.It’s a grand problem,” says professor of earth and planetary sciences Daniel Schrag. “One that most people haven’t even thought about.” Even within universities, he says, “research on energy has basically decayed away to almost nothing over the last 30 years. Around the country, there just isn’t that much intellectual capital, and the reason for that is really quite simple: the cost of oil has been low for a very long time.”

Posted by Doug Smith at 04:13 PM | Permalink

Family Values

Advice given to lawyers from a general counsel at a recent panel discussion:

"If there's a family crisis or something with the kids or other clients, we don't care about it -- get the job done," Linda Louie, general counsel for the National Hot Rod Association, told an audience of about 100 women Wednesday. "You are a commodity to us -- show me how you can solve a problem."

That is, show me how you can solve a problem I have because in the world of markets, networks, and organizations, it's all about me instead of we and the only thing that matters is whether you are adding value to my problem because, face it, you're just a commodity, a cog in the wheel. Family crisis? That's your problem not my problem. Kids? Ditto. Face it. Value is the trump card -- every thing else is just road kill.

That's Linda's view. What's yours?

Posted by Doug Smith at 03:43 PM | Permalink

April 24, 2006

The Wolf At Our Door

Susie Madrak notes that Howard Zinn has written the all-too-predictable commentary about those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. "Now that most Americans no longer believe in the war", Zinn asks, "now that they no longer trust Bush and his Administration, now that the evidence of deception has become overwhelming (so overwhelming that even the major media, always late, have begun to register indignation), we might ask: How come so many people were so easily fooled?"

Zinn's article is worth reading -- especially for his appeal that we focus on the accurate facts about poverty, health and other difficulties that have beggared at least half our population instead of the lies of self-serving presidents who are interested in power instead of the common good or the greater good.

Still, hidden within Zinn's lament is a critical problem we all face -- namely, of paying a price for remembering recent history not wisely but too well. The Bush Administration has forfeited all ethical, legal, and practical right to our credulity. Bush = Lies is simply too evident and painful. (Even the Bushophiles cannot keep their spin spun consistently.)

Let us not, as Zinn notes, be misled by self-interested liars. But, there is an additional question of great importance. As highlighted in the children's parable of the boy and the wolf, how will we proceed to judge if any threats and dangers in the coming years are real and, if so, what to do about them?

For that boy is not just one individual. He is our nation and the world.

Posted by Doug Smith at 12:51 PM | Permalink

Nature Abhors A Vacuum

The Bush Administration has emptied itself of all that has been key to governing the American democratic experience: openness, accuracy, candor, debate, competence, values, charity, hope, forgiveness, ethics, the rule of law, inclusiveness, dissent, consent, shared accountability, the common good, and the greater good. They have sucked all the air out of our government and, whether this November or some future November, our nation will start to pay yet one more price for their sins. Instead of the Bush-style ignorance of all the many difficulties and real problems that face us, we will instead see a Congress so bent on investigating that it will risk yet more years of neglecting the many challenges that beset us. Such investigations will be necessary to healing the grave wounds done to our body politic. But, while necessary, investigations will not be sufficient to moving that body politic forward into the demanding 21st century. And, in a choice between just re-working the past versus both that and taking responsibility for the future, most politicians will find the former has great reward at little risk while the latter is loaded with risk. The surest thing going once Bush lacks a Republican Congress will be the public -- and even the corporate media -- embracing those who remind us just how bad this president and his administration have been. Responsible leaders must do this -- and, yet, we must pray that they will also do more than just that.

Posted by Doug Smith at 12:14 PM | Permalink

April 23, 2006

The Decency Line

By mid-2005, according to the Economic Policy Institue, 28% of families living in the US did not have the incomes to afford the items in EPI's basic family budget for secure, safe and decent lives. There are 108 million households in this nation. So, 30 million familes cannot make ends meet and fall more and more in debt with every passing month.

That was almost a year ago. Since then, we've seen interest rates rise, consumer debt continue unabated and the price of energy (home heating oil; gasoline) skyrocket. The Bush Administration's sabre rattling toward Iran has had the predictable effect on the price of oil, now well over $70 a barrel and rapidly driving up producer prices that, in turn, will drive up consumer prices for more than just gassing up the car.

With nearly 30% of families already living below the 'decency line', the outlook for economic sustainability and sanity in the US is grim. There are many differences in affordability of life depending on where one lives (e.g. rural vs. urban), size of family, and local price patterns (among other things). Still, a very gross picture emerges from comparing the median income to the median family budget required for decent living. According to the latest figures I could find:

In 2005, the median family budget required $40,000 of income.
In 2004, the median family income was $43,200. (So, make it $44,000 for 2005)

The median is the point at which half the households are above; half below.

At 108 million households, this means 54 million operate, at best, within $4,000 of not being able to make ends meet (30 million of whom already cannot).

These are pre-tax incomes, by the way. So, the margin for (t)error is even less than the $335 per month indicated.

Everyone sees what's happened at the gas pump this last month. And, the Washington Monthly online has an interesting statistic: the typical household uses just over 90 gallons of gas a month. In the past year, of course, the price of gas has gone up more than 50 cents per gallon -- meaning this one item alone has eaten up $45 a month -- or, more than 13% of the margin of (t)error.

If you live well above the 'decency' line, these movements in gasoline (as well as interest rates and other) prices are annoying. And, it's not even noticeable if you are someone like Lee Raymond who just retired with an obscene pay package from ExxonMobil -- a company that, under Raymond's immoral leadership denied it had any power over gasoline prices. But, we are rapidly approaching a point where half the households in this nation will not be able to afford a decent, basic life.

Posted by Doug Smith at 02:04 PM | Permalink

April 19, 2006

The Bunker

The Bush Administration has spent more than five years making close-mindedness, one-way conversation, we're always right, no fresh facts or information, and insularity into highly predictable shared values for themselves -- that is, for the answers to 'how we do things around here in the Bush Administration".

Here's the harvest.

Posted by Doug Smith at 05:28 PM | Permalink

April 18, 2006

Competence Is Not A Red/Blue Question

Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame in Vanity Fair: "We have never had a presidency in which the single unifying thread that flows through its major decision-making was incompetence....."

Posted by Doug Smith at 07:46 PM | Permalink

Health Care and Ideology

Part of our cultural orthodoxy hates government and loves the market. It typifies the all-or-nothing, either/or-ism of our times. For the Republican Right Wing, this means: Thumbs up to markets; thumbs down to government. (It only means that in their advertising. In real life, the Republican Government of Bush and pals have piled up the largest government spending and deficits ever. And, they happily savage the rule of law in favor of a government that knows no bounds.)

But, in the orthodoxy, the talking points and the assumptions always begin with market idolatry and government-bashing. We will not find a path out of this darkness without adopting a both/and view -- without seeing when and why markets work best and when and why governments work best and, most importantly, how markets and governments can collaborate to achieve optimal and sustainable solutions.

Health care provides a prime exhibit for our 'head in the sands, either/or' approach. Today, health care spending is out of control while the quality of our health care lags other that of other nations. Like so much else in contemporary life, health care is increasingly a haves vs. have nots affair. Those who can afford insurance and those who qualify for government help versus those who fall out of both buckets.

Chaos reigns. But, instead of sincerely tackling this grave and complex challenge, those who claim to be leaders instead demagogue about markets vs. government. Unfortunately for the orthodoxy, however, the private markets idolators are increasingly pushing a fiction. Consider only this: Overhead and other costs not spent on direct care account for 13% of the expenses of private sector insurers and only 2% for Medicare. Government is over 600% more efficient and effective than markets!

Why? Well, one reason has to do with the ideology of shareholder value fundamentalism. Instead of seeking sustainable returns that benefit shareholders, customers and employees in some reasonably blended fashion, the shareholder value radicals pursue profits and only profits in order to satisfy expectations of financial markets that, not coincidentally, they themselves shape. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom: we must have more profits because the financial markets -- that is, ourselves, say we must have more profits.

So, how does a private insurer insure steady and growing profits in health insurance? Well, by combining steady increases in premiums with steady increases in costs used to screen out unhealthy people as well as fight off claims from all people. Why do private sector health insurers spend 13% of their budgets on things that don't make us healthier? Because private health insurers are more in the business of making profits than the business of insuring people.

Medicare doesn't have this motivation. And, under the assault of the 'we hate goverment' crowd, Medicare has had decades of pressure to reduce any costs that cannot be linked to direct benefits. Which -- in the both/and spirit -- is both a good thing -- and also a bad thing in that such pressures have probably also led to reducing coverage that might be needed.

In any event, the orthodoxy celebrates markets for their efficiency -- yet also fuels the capital markets ideology of shareholder value fundamentalism that, in turn, drives up administrative costs of private insurers more bent on financial results than insurance results.

But, there's more. Our capital markets also support the market for corporate control. One way of gaining more leverage over the bottom line is through market consolidation. Healthy market competition disappears when markets are so concentrated that either monopoly or oligopoly power sits in the hands of too few. Which, of course, is just what has happened among private sector health insurers who now have dangerous amounts of market power in most of the United States.

And so how are you feeling right now? Have you been reading along and thinking to yourself, 'this is a severe criticism of markets and celebration of government?" I hope not. I'm not contending that either markets or governments are the single answer. Instead, I'm suggesting that our nation faces a health care crisis of great complexity. We can solve it. But, to do so, we must understand and deploy markets when they work best and government solutions when they work best. None of which will happen so long as the conversation remains one of our typical screaming matches.

Posted by Doug Smith at 03:44 PM | Permalink

April 13, 2006

The Dangerous Union

Today's most dangerous union has no meeting or hiring hall, no dues, no plans for strikes and no formal organization or name. There are no workers in this union. There are folks who work. But neither their self image nor the image of them held by others would translate through the word 'workers'.

Today's most dangerous union is small relative to population as a whole. Only one in ten families have full-fledged membership -- although another ten to fifteen percent of families hope that one day they'll gain admission.

Today's most dangerous union embraces all faiths, ethnic groups, genders and sexual orientations. It welcomes those who detest as well as love their fellow human beings, those who are hard headed and hard hearted as well as softies.

Today's most dangerous union dominates every industry and sector. They rule and control markets and governments. They need not issue threats or decrees or five year plans. Their shared ideas and shared values are as predictable as night following day. They are the orthodoxy of our times.

Today's most dangerous union includes folks from all walks of life, all kind of jobs and titles, all manner of hobbies and skills and predilections.

Today's most dangerous union has all manner of diversity and, at the same time, one unyielding answer to all of life's most pressing questions: Shareholder value fundamentalism.

The single answer now destroying our nation and our planet -- not to mention sustainable shareholder value itself.

Posted by Doug Smith at 04:27 PM | Permalink

April 12, 2006

The WMD Doctrine

By now, all but the ideological zealots know that the Bush Administration 'fixed the intelligence to fit the war'. Laying deeply flawed claims to being a "CEO presidency", they also famously commented that they would roll out the war much like a product. And, so we might call this the WMD Doctrine: Words of Mass Deception -- spin and exaggerate in order to build market share for your product (including your 'ideas' as products).

It seems to have spread. For example, having raked in unprecedented profits, big oil companies run ads that present themselves as nearly impoverished while, of course, prices at the pump get ready to rise with summer temperatures. The US military admits it's hyped Zarqawi for the benefit of "the home audience in the US." A few years ago, Royal Dutch Shell falsified oir reserve information to run a number on investors. But, then that's a form of accounting subtrefuge that exploded well before the appearance of the WMD Docrine. Ameriquest celebrates the American Dream in its TV ads while bilking folks in its boiler rooms by providing exploding mortgages. On a small scale, NBC news tries to provoke the creation of news by asking folks to dress as Muslims and attend NASCAR races.

And, now we read that major pharmaceutical companies hype diseases in order to sell drugs that folks actually do not need.

Posted by Doug Smith at 02:14 PM | Permalink

April 10, 2006

Casualness and Swagger

"My sincere view is that the commitment of our forces to this fight was done with a casualness and swagger that are the special province of those who have never had to execute these missions--or bury the results."

So writes Lt. General Greg Newbold (Ret.) in Time magazine about the incompetence and braggadocio of the rush to war by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and others who had never worn the uniform of their country -- a policy Gen. Newbold, then the nation's top military operations officer, vociferously opposed. In their swagger, the Bush crowd ignored Newbold. But, then, that's no distinction. They ignore everyone and anyone who does not goose step to their command. These are dangerous men -- men who have wreaked havoc on the world out of arrogance and ignorance.

Among the missteps cited by Gen. Newbold (a first hand witness who, unlike, say Bob Woodward, was not trading integrity for book royalties): purposely distorted intelligence to sell the war, micromanagement by Rumsfeld (who, let's remember is more interested in his personal theories of 21st century force readiness than actually focusing on the battles at hand), alienation of allies, and woefully inadequate numbers of troops and material to get the job done.

None of this is a surprise to any human being who has paid any attention to the inept, ideological and corrupt Bush Administration -- or to the official Republican Party that the Bush crowd has invaded and rules with an iron fist. What is, perhaps, new 'news' to readers is Gen. Newbold's reminder that, while enlisted men swear an oath to those who command them, officers swear an oath to the Constitution.

The Constitution that Bush reportedly describes as 'just a piece of paper' -- and about which Bush's Attorney General -- like Bush's Vice President and other pals -- are so dsimissive and desctructive.

Gen. Newbold writes to remind officers of their duty to the Constitution -- a well timed warning in light of the latest news that Bush and friends are actively planning an illegal, ill advised invasion of Iran, possibly with tactical nucleur weapons.

This oath by military officers to our Constitution is also a useful guide and example to those Truth Seeking Americans who seem to believe that the only good American is an American who swears a personal oath of fealty to George Bush. These folks have a penchant for militarism in their expression of loyalty. What better antidote than Gen. Newbold's wake up call: the highest and best duty of miliatry officers -- like citizens -- is to our Constitution. Not to another human being.

Posted by Doug Smith at 07:57 PM | Permalink

April 09, 2006

The Shared Idea Of Transparency

All values, including financial and economic value, reflect patterns of belief and behavior. Think, for example, about pricing. Yes, pricing derives from some balancing of costs incurred, competition and some sense of what the item in question is worth to those who might buy it. All three, though: cost, competition, worth to the customer --- mirror belief and behavior, both rational and irrational.

So, what makes for predictable patterns of belief and behavior? Some of this is found in our DNA. In addition, though, we learn or pattern our belief and behavior through how each of us individually respond to what happens in our relationships with others, the roles we play in our lives (e.g. employee or parent), and in the ideas we absorb and act on. My guess, for example, is that the other day when audience members booed a man who told President Bush he was ashamed of Bush and Bush's policies, those audience members responded through some mix of shared ideas having to do with respect for the office of president -- as well as the ideas that undoubtedly helped select them for audience participation -- that is, the ideas the Bush Administration has used for more than five years to ensure that the president only speaks to supporters so that the television images portray unified enthusiasm.

The shared idea of Truth -- with a capital T -- has done much damage the American body politic ever since the Republican Party embraced Truth Seekers in it's big tent. Like most aspects of contemporary Republicanism, this has gone from bad to worse during the Bush years. Bush himself is said to have the 'black vs. white' world view of many recovering alcoholics -- the predictable belief and behavior to cast all issues and questions and policy choices in stark contrasts. That, of course, fits the shared idea of Truth strongly held by Truth Seekers. And, it means that Truth Seekers will vote disproportionately for a Truth Seeking Republican Party.

It also means that folks angered or dispirited by the the dangerous and already incurred consequences of a government of Truth Seekers (e.g. preemptive wars, the Unitary Executive, Terry Schiavo.... the Rule of Truth instead of the Rule of Law) pattern their belief and behavior around being anti-Truth Seekers. The stark contrasts becomes us v. them. And so, our nation's culture wars slip into a Cold Civil War.

Finding our way out from this suicidal pattern will rest on many things, including luck. But one sure part of any sane path forward will be to drop the shared idea of Truth in favor of shared ideas of accuracy and transparency. Enough with whether every single thing said or done is the Truth. How about putting serious resources behind making sure folks know whether X or Y or Z is accurately described and are transparent.

Consider, say, the federal budget. Is it transparent? No. The full cost of the Bush wars are not included in the budget. Tens of billions are provided under additional appropriations. How about the number of troops and other personnel in Iraq? Not transparent. Tens of thousands of defense contractors have folks in Iraq. They are not counted. Neither of these are about the Truth. As Joe Friday said on Dragnet: "Just the facts, maam."

How about executive compensation? Is it transparent? No. How about net pension liabilities? No. How about unemployment figures? No. How about poverty? No. How about the information we need to judge the future of Social Security? No. Do we get to see and read legislation in any kind of remotely reasonable time frame before it is voted on by legislative bodies? No.

Do our elected representatives even get to see such legislation? No. It is now standard practice for the ruling party to schedule votes past midnight while actually making the legislation -- often hundreds, even thousand of pages -- available for perusal only hours before the vote. This, for example, was what happened with the disastrous prescription drug law.

Speaking of which. Were the projected costs of that law accurate or transparent? No. And the Bush official who hoped to fix that got fired.

Why? Why the lack of dedication to accuracy and transparency?

Because our popular culture has a much stronger, more predictable set of beliefs and behaviors dedicated to the shared idea of Truth and Truth Seeking.

And, it is destroying us.

Posted by Doug Smith at 12:33 PM | Permalink

April 05, 2006

Katrina Update

I just received the quarterly newsletter from an outstanding affordable housing organization in Portland, Oregon called REACH. The Executive Director's opening commentary included this quote from NBC TV anchor Brian Williams, made shortly after Katrina:

"If this disaster doesn't lead us into a national conversation on the subjects of class, race, urban planning, the environment .... then we have failed."

Katrina, like September 11th, created what philosopher Avishai Margalit calls a 'flashbulb memory" -- blinding light snapped inescapably right in front of our eyes. But memories -- even flashbulb memories -- are not conversations. They are images that, to become conversations, must connect to sustained focus, dialogue, action, and results. To an iterated effort that seeks both insight and change.

Recently, my daughter, like thousands of other students, went to the 9th Ward for spring break. The images -- and words -- she brought back portrayed a part of New Orleans every bit as devastated as it was a few days after Katrina hit. Put differently, the disaster remains as static and constant as it was when the flashbulb went off 7 months ago.

National conversation? No. Millions of us have conversed about Katrina in some reasonably sustained ways. Thousands struggle to do something in response. But there has not been any sustained national conversation replete with focus, dialogue, action and results. For that to happen, we would need 'convesation leaders' who have power and access to keep the focus and effort front and center. People like Brian Williams -- and, of course, those who hold public offices.

Like September 11th, we're mostly left with the flashbulb blinding our eyes.

Posted by Doug Smith at 03:17 PM | Permalink

March 30, 2006

Flunking Quality Education

The New York Times reports that, for the first time, the No Child Left Behind law has been used by a state board of education (in Maryland) to take over failing schools (in Baltimore). Journalism being what it is today, the story focuses first and foremost on Republican vs. Democratic political squabbles in the state and city -- and whether this action will be a harbinger for similar squabbles in other states.

Thus, a startling fact is presented in a context of politics: 27% of schools in the United States of America are failing the standards set by the law.

27%. More than 1 in 4. Failing.

Ever since the No Child Left Behind law was passed, many educators and others have worried that a maniacal focus on test results would cause schools to confuse test performance for real, quality education. No one argues against tests and standards. Rather, that once we make any metric the 'single answer' to all issues, much that is required to help kids learn how to think, read, evaluate and mature into folks who prosper and contribute to themselves, their families, their organizations and society gets lost.

Too much.

Consequently, my guess is that the 27% failure rate understates the crisis created by this single dimensioned law.

We need a Constitutional Amendment gauranteeing every American child the right to a quality education. We need to establish that right and then demand that all involved in delivering against that right work together -- including asking kids themselves to get more involved in local education policy and affairs. In this regard, the Times article is typical: Not a single student is quoted.

Posted by Doug Smith at 03:50 PM | Permalink

March 29, 2006

Incompetence Through The Lens Of Incompetence

Let's just spend a moment on reporting versus editorializing. The basic idea is that the first -- reporting -- provides a description of what has happened. This week, for example, the Bush White House swapped out Andy Card as Chief of Staff for Josh Bolten. That happened.

The second-- editorializing -- provides a perspective on why something happened or whether the thing that happened is positive or negative or any number of other expressions of opinion. Editorialization is a form of opinion. Reporting is meant to be fact telling.

So, what are we to make of this sentence in USA Today's article about the change in Chief of Staff at the White House: "The Bush White House already is known for its discipline and managerial skill."

Is that reporting? Is it editorialization?

Actually, it makes no difference. It is incompetence. It is an incompetent description of an Administration that, in turn, is incompetent.

The Bush White House is among the most incompetent collection of managers and leaders that can be found in one place in America today. Every policy and direction these managers attempt to implement goes sour. Their incompetence precludes any reasonable test of the merits of their ideas. Decent folks can debate issues such as deregulation, homeland security, tax and fiscal policy, environmental and energy challenges and approaches, educational reform, the conduct of war -- and on and on. But, the Bush White House puts such debates beyond the pale of actual proof about whether any particular set of ideas and approaches work because, as the track record now brutally shows, nothing the Bush White House touches -- regardless of who is Chief of Staff -- ever works. Except of course: getting elected.

Perhaps USA Today meant to say that. Perhaps the writers and editors of this article intended to communicate that "The Bush White House already is known for its discipline and managerial skill at getting elected."

But the last part -- the part that could have qualifed as accurate reporting and a reasonable, competent opinion -- was left on the cutting room floor.

Or, perhaps USA Today meant to qualify the sentence by reference to some limited group-- Washington 'insiders', a press corps hungry for an audience, the 30% of Americans who seem wedded to the Bush ideology of infallibility, or maybe others.

But, for anyone who has ever witnessed actual discipline and managerial skill, this comment by USA Today is itself an indication of incompetence.

The sad thing, of course, is that it perpetuates a lie by reinforcing a piece of advertising -- a shared idea circulating in our world of markets and influencing folks who are trying to go about their daily lives. The fact that this particular idea is filled with helium does not prevent if from staying afloat -- especially when it is 'reported' as fact.

Posted by Doug Smith at 03:54 PM | Permalink | TrackBacks (1)

March 19, 2006

The Politics of Incompetence

We are well versed now in a Republican Party ruled by folks whose sole objective is power and winning and who have the support of marketing experts armed with block by block, 9 digit zip code level information on which to base branding campaigns that appeal to fear, greed, bigotry and the twin fundamentalism of our age (religious and financial) -- all delivered through a corporate controlled media whose ownership benefits from the financial fundamentalism. It's all a pretty sweet deal -- if you are maniacally concerned with me instead of we.

In addition to trotting out wars as 'products', this Republican Party also, of course, gins up spin campaigns aimed directly at elected Democrats whose timidity is critical to the Bush plutocratic putsch to replace the Constitution with a more pliant set of rules. Over the winter, for example, the meme trotted out was that Democrats are only angry -- that they have no ideas and can only rally themselves by being "anti anything Bush".

You've heard of this right? This is anti-branding campaign - branding the Democrats in ways so that, notwithstanding the abysmal poll numbers for Bush, folks' minds are poisoned with 'but imagine how much worse it would be if we elected people who are just angry?'

Of course, it's the Republican Party that has no ideas -- if by ideas we mean rational conceptions aimed at solving the most critical probems now facing our nation and the world. There are, undoubtedly, Republicans with such problem solving ideas - expressions of rational concern. But not the official Republican Party -- that Party, that organization is ruled by the irrationalists -- the folks whose anger, greed, fear and bigotry have accumulated to the point where there is really only one test for policy: does it support what is cast as the Bush position of the moment?

This test of loyalty to an ideology of power is the last possible position for a Party and an Administration riddled by incompetence. Utter and complete incompetence. Imagine, just for a moment, that the 'won/loss' record of the Bush years were even a mixed picture? Iraq, fiscal responsibility, education, medicare, environmental responsibility, Constitutional government and the rule of law, political appointments, disaster relief, the war of terror -- please make the list as long as you like and, just for a moment, imagine that the Bush administration even had a decent major league batting average of, say, .250 (or one in four)? (One request: do not include winning elections in the list. Winning elections are, of course, a condition precedent to governing -- or in this case ruling -- a nation. But, for our purposes, winning elections has nothing conceptually to do with actually solving problems that 'we' face together. It might be on a list of solving problems that "Republicans" face -- but not that "Americans" face.)

Were that the case, the quick sands of reality would not now be swirling -- the government would not be in a free fall of incompetence. But it is not the case. On too many critical matters of our day, the Bush Administration has failed the test of competence. It doesn't even have a decent minor league batting average -- let alone one we would hope for the major leagues of being a world power.

Consequently, taking the 'anti anything Bush' position is the epitome of cool rationality and the opposite of anger. The surest way our nation can make choices over the remaining three years of this administration is to "Just Say No" to anything the Bush administration proposes because, based on their atrocious batting average, we know this: Whatever they choose to do, they will do incompetently.

In matters of great and small import, when you are choosing policy, strategy, and direction, you will be well advised to include competency as a minimum threshold of debate and discussion. For example, consider the debates over how best to invest/save for college and/or retirement. There are many choices out there -- and if you and your family discuss them, it's a good idea to have a conversation open to many ideas and thoughts. But, one thing is certain. Whether the idea is putting some investment in non-US equities versus bonds versus small cap mutual funds versus a house versus any-number-of-a-zillion alternatives, you had better be sure that you (and those advising and working with you) are competent.

If, by any chance, you were 'taken' by any number of incompetent financial advisors who misread or misled you during any number of recent bubbles, etc -- the one thing you for sure should avoid is continuing to work with them. Whatever ideas they propose, you should reject. NOT because the ideas in the abstract lack any potential appeal. (Remember, for example, that the Republican Party once believed in ideas like small government, fiscal responsibility, 'realistic' foreign policy, and the Constitution). No, you should unhesitatingly reject any idea from such failed advisors because the ideas come from folks whose track record has proven one practical and overwhelmingly obvious fact: they are utterly and completely incompetent.

Posted by Doug Smith at 01:23 PM | Permalink

March 02, 2006

Carnival Puts Profits First In Katrina Response

News comes today that Jeb Bush helped Carnival Cruise Lines grab a lucrative contract to send three of its ships to New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. Carnival executive Ric Cooper has given tens of thousands of dollars to Jeb Bush's Florida Republicans and George W. Bush's GOP too. Jeb, of course, has high level access. He can, and did, email directly to Mike Brown of FEMA to seal the deal.

Corruption? Or, a corporation reaching out to help those in need in a crisis and a 'can do' Governor and FEMA director cutting through read tape?

Those are the red vs. blue political questions. Let's focus, though, on the first part of the second question: a corporation reaching out to help those in need.

Here's what a Carnival spokeswoman says about Carnival's civic spirit in a time of crisis: "The ships have played an effective and critical role in housing and feeding thousands of people who desparately needed help and we are extremely gratified to have been there for them."

My hunch is that this description is not far from accurate. People did need help. Those who work for Carnival must feel good about having provided it.

So, is this a case of a corporation putting the needs of the nation above profits -- of reaching out in a time of crisis to do the 'right thing'?

Well, the article goes on to mention "Carnival officials have defended the deal, saying the company will not make extra profit because the $236 million price covers the revenue it would normally receive for up to 120,000 passengers it could book."

Let's look at the fine print and the facts. A catastrophe of Category 5 proportions hits the Gulf Coast and cripples it. How many passengers who had already booked cruises canceled? How many of the 'up to 120,000' who would normally book postponed such plans? Put differently, what would Carnival's actual cruise revenues have been had they not sent the ships to New Orleans?

Next, note the phrase "will not make extra profit". As just suggested, actually Carnival probably did make extra profit when the comparison is between the actual revenues if they had kept the ships for cruise use versus the actual revenues gained by sending them to the Gulf.

Morever, there is a qualitative issue raised by 'will not make extra profit'. A devastating hurricane strikes and hundreds of thousands of people's lives are put at risk. Tens of thousands of other Americans reach into their pockets to provide money and other assistance. That is charity. Stories also circulated about businesses providing support without compensation. That is charity.

A business that provides support at it's normal profit margin is not charity. It's an exercise in putting profits first.

Let's replay the tape. Katrina hits. Jeb Bush contacts Carnival or the reverse. Carnival immediately volunteers three cruise ships -- at cost. Red tape is cut. The ships get there and people are helped.

Okay, let's replay it this way. Ditto on the contact. But this time Carnival says, "We'll send the ships and cut our normal profit margin by X%."

Either way, Carnival does 'the right thing'.

What Carnival did, though, was to extract maximum value from a revenue generating opportunity. Values in the sense of reaching out and doing the right thing were merely a by-product. They played no determinative role in this decision. Carnival probably reaped extra profit because they would not have had 120,000 normal passengers. They charged the Government full price. And, the bonus was, they were able to make 'we were there to help" claims for their brand.

Any way you look at it, Carnival did not do the fully right thing.

And, among other things, here's why it matters -- profoundly. An effective and efficient government should have competitive bidding. Indeed, effective and efficient private sector companies have competitive bidding. It just makes sense. However, in a time of crisis, bidding processes that make routine sense might impede responsiveness. Moving quick counts. Any effort consistent with speed that captures the spirit of competitive bidding is great. But, with Katrina-like disasters, all of us would hope that speed of response rises in importance -- and we would expect people who care enough to send help would move quickly and do the right thing in abiding by the spirit of effective and efficient decision making.

Put differently, we must rely on the good judgement and the values of those in a position to act.

When such players abuse that trust -- when they line their pockets and take full financial advantage -- the reaction will likely include this: further government restrictions on such decisions, even in a time of crisis.

And that means when the next crisis hits, our collective response will be worse, not better because players like Carnival and their executive Ric Cooper who undoubtedly have spent decades decrying government red tape and bureaucracy got a golden opportunity to demonstrate the power of the spirit of the rules instead of the letter of the rules and saw and seized the 'gold' by putting their self interest above interest in others.

Posted by Doug Smith at 12:39 PM | Permalink

February 26, 2006

Rope A Dope

Those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it. It's a famous -- and wise -- adage. Too often, though, the assumption is that one must be deep into scholarship to identify the themes, patterns and strategies to be avoided. Not so. Even sports fans in high office might find warnings to avoid -- if only they and those surrounding them have open, flexible, attentive, and democratic minds.

For example, consider what many deem the most brilliant fight ever waged by Muhammed Ali and the lessons of history we now -- tragically -- are repeating:

OCTOBER 30, 1974
MUHAMMED ALI USES THE "ROPE-A-DOPE" TO KO HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION GEORGE FOREMAN IN THE "RUMBLE IN THE JUNGLE"

Here are some excerpts from this (behind firewall) HBO account of the fight:

Excerpt: Ali’s opponent was undefeated Heavyweight Champion, George Foreman.

Read: Bin Laden's opponent was America, the world's only superpower.

Excerpt: Promoter Don King had come up with the notion of having the fight take place in Zaire, and labeled it the "Rumble in the Jungle."

Read: Promoters Cheney, Rove, Rumsfield, Rice and Bush had come up with the notion upon taking office in January, 2001, of looking for an opportunity to have the fight take place in Iraq -- regardless of whether any provocation for a fight actually came from Iraq. Once the provocation arrived (see below), they labeled it "The War on Terrorism" and carefullly rolled it out like a product strategy timed best for their electoral goals.

Excerpt: As with any huge international event, this one had extraordinary subtext. Ali’s flamboyant nature, good looks, endless sound bites, and strong pro-African beliefs, made him a huge favorite in Zaire. By contrast, George Foreman surrounded himself with his entourage, and isolated himself from the African people. By the time the fighters entered the ring, the crowd was yelling "Ali, boma ye!," meaning "Ali, kill him!"

Read: As with any huge international event, this one had extraordinary subtext. Bin Laden's flamboyant nature, charismatic personality, endless sound bites and strong pro-jihadist, pro-terrorist beliefs, made him a huge favorite in terrorist networks. By contrast, George Bush surrounded himself with his entourage, and isolated himself from the American people as well as people everywhere."

Excerpt: Ali had boasted that Foreman couldn’t keep up with his speed. To prove that point in the first round, he threw lead rights at Foreman from across his body. The lead right from a right-handed fighter is the easiest punch to see coming, so in a sense, Ali was openly taunting Foreman.

Read: Bin Laden had boasted for years he could hit America at a time and place of his choosing. To prove his point in the first round, his box cutter wielding terrorists threw airplanes at some of America's most symbolic targets. The Promoters had been advised by the outgoing Clinton Administration to pay most attention to terrorists as opposed to bad actors like Sadaam Hussein. But the Promoters chose to ignore this because they hated the Clinton administration and, so, turned a blind eye to the information set forth in the August 6, 2001 Presidential Daily Briefing. Bin Laden was openly taunting America.

Excerpt: In the second round, Ali fell into a strategy few had ever seen. Ali fell back against the ropes, and waved Foreman to come get him. He protected his head, but Foreman pounded away at his ribs and his gut. Round after round, quite possibly the hardest hitting heavyweight in boxing history unleashed his fury. Only the ropes kept Ali from being launched into the ringside seats. Under the thudding attack of Foreman’s sledgehammer fists, to Ali, every three-minute round must have seemed an hour long.

Read: Just as he had on earlier occasions, Ben Ladin pulled back after the September 11th attacks. The Promoters used the greatest military ever assembled on the planet and the courageous men and women who served in it to pound away at Iraq. Round after round, undoubtedly the hardest hitting heavyweight military power in history, unleashed its fury on Iraq. Only the Pakistani mountains and caves -- and the obsession of fighting where Ben Laden wasn't -- kept the head of Al Queda from being captured. Under the thudding attack of the Promoters' sledgehammer military, though, every day must have seemed to the Iraqis like a year in hell.

Exerpt: But there was a nefarious method to Ali’s madness. After several rounds of relentlessly throwing leather, Foreman began to tire, his arms began to drop. In the seventh round, Ali let Foreman in on his secret. "I beat him for one, two, three, four rounds—beat him good", Foreman said. "At about the seventh round, I had him beaten, I knew I had him, he fell on my side and whispered, ‘Is that all you got George?’ I knew something strange was happening in my life especially because that was all I had."

Read: But there was a nefarious method to Ben Ladin's madness. After nearly three years of relentlessly throwing fire power, money, the blood of brave men and women, national honor, treasured democratic values, the Constitution of the United States, the rule of law and much ballyhooed bravado ("Let's Roll", "Mission Accomplished", "Bring It On", "Deadenders". "Last Throes", "These Colors Don't Run"), America began to tire. Ben Ladin kept taunting. He continued to release tapes saying that America would never catch him. The numbers of terrorists grew wildly as did the number of their attacks around the world. It dawned on more and more Americans -- even those who had put self interest above country to aid and abet the Promoters -- that something strange was happening.

Excerpt:
Ali sprung like a cobra in the eighth round. He exploded with a right-left combo, over Foreman’s lowered arms, directly to the chin of the exhausted champ. Foreman went down, and couldn’t beat the count. Ali had stared down the barrel of the world’s most powerful heavyweight—a physically superior opponent—and completely out-thought him in the ring. Ali’s strategy, the infamous "rope-a-dope", reversed the odds. Muhammed Ali was the Heavyweight Champion of the World, only the second man to ever win the title back.

Read: The time has come to put a different fighter in the ring against Bin Laden, Al Queda, and the world's terrorist networks because our nation -- and our values -- have never been more vulnerable to terrorists or to those whose ideological obsessions, unlimited appetites for power, and bottomless incompetence endanger the entire world every day they show up to "make their own reality."

Posted by Doug Smith at 01:00 PM | Permalink

February 20, 2006

Both News And Advertising

"News is what someone wants to suppress. Everything else is advertising,” said Reuven Frank, a former head of NBC news.

Insightful. And, incomplete. Frank's comment reflects the widespread bias for either/or certainity. Either news or advertising. If only things were so simple.

We live in a both/and world. Every item you read, hear, and see -- whether about hunting accidents or credit cards or anything else -- is BOTH news AND advertising.

Why? Because there will be voices, sometimes including your own, wishing to suppress the item. And, there will be voices, sometimes including your own, wishing to promote -- to advertise -- the item.

Which means all of us must connect the content of information with the source of that information if we are to understand it. And, we must look at our own values as we interpret both.

Consider, then, the information regarding the Bush Administration's choice to outsource east coast port security to a company run by the government of the United Arab Emirates. And, the associated information that, prior to September 11th, the UAE government had important ties to terrorists and jihadists, while since 9/11 the government of UAE has taken steps to reduce such ties.

Now, include yourself and ask: For whom is this news? For whom is this advertising? And how do we govern ourselves -- solve our most pressing and complex problems -- when some see this as news and others as advertising? And, how do we do this together?

Posted by Doug Smith at 12:58 PM | Permalink

February 17, 2006

Back Story to Next Year's 24

This week's New Yorker has a wonderful review of TV's long running show 24 and it's protagonist Jack Bauer. As fans know, each season, Bauer, with others, defeats terrorists bent on havoc and do so over the course of a single day divided into 24 TV shows, one for each hour (actually, as the NYer points out, closer to 44 minutes to allow for commercials).

Here is a potential blockbuster story for 24's producers to consider for next year's show:

Once some terror alert surfaces for Jack's consideration, we see his colleagues Chloe and/or Edgar quickly use Google video to find footage of David Sanborn, a powerful Treasury executive nodding approval to a staffer who works for the Committee on Foreign Investments, indicating Sanborn's support for what turns out to be a unanimous vote by the Committee in favor of turning over the safety and security operations of several major East Coast U.S. ports to DPW, a company owned by the United Arab Emirates.

Quick cut to a Democratic Senator expressing concern that these ports, already among the major facilities most vulnerable to terrorist attack, might further be endangered by this sale.

Quick flashback to Sanborn as head of operations at DPW, the job he held before taking the job at Treasury.

Quick cut to the current head of port operations for DPW as he (or she) briefs a new employee about the key tasks of integrating the management of the new East Coast ports into DPW's worldwide efforts. (Note to producers, writers and directors: This new employee will turn out to be a key character in next season's show -- someone Jack Bauer will be very concerned about.)

Quick cut to a dinner attended by Sanborn and his current boss, Jack Snow, the Secretary of the Treasury. At the dinner, Snow asks Sanborn about an earlier sale of several other ports to DPW by CSX, the company Snow ran before he became Secretary. Sanborn warmly smiles and tells Snow that the CSX sale was a win/win for the shareholders of all the companies concerned; and, he assures Snow the current deal will work out just as well.

Back to Bauer.

What do you think? Good TV? Would the verisimilitude of seeing real people like Sanborn and Snow help with the believability of the plot? How about if the two deals -- the sale of port operations by CSX as well as the one involving east coast ports -- were real? What if the Committee really did give unanimous consent to the deal?

Who knows? Maybe it could all really happen.

Posted by Doug Smith at 07:50 PM | Permalink | TrackBacks (2)

Science Update

Earlier posts have pointed to the corrosive effects of ideological claims of Truth (with a capital T) on the empirical and democratic (free speech) requirements of science. Whether it's a fascistic young man without any science education dictating science policy or market researchers turning their fact-based findings of their own science on unwanted facts from other sciences, the medium and long term effects remain terrible for our children and their children.

"Though all the winds of doctrine let loose to play upon the earth," wrote John Milton in opposition to censorship by government, "So truth be in the field ... let her and falsehood grapple (because) who ever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?"

Censorship. For too long we've considered it as a concept limited to adult entertainment. But now it operates within a Bush Administration bent on secrecy in all matters -- a Bush administration, to name just one example, whose market research indicates they will win elections by denying global warming and, so, seek to prevent scientists in the employ of the federal government -- that would be in the employ of us as in 'we, the people' -- from putting their concerns about global warming into the open.

Reasonable people deeply hope that the resignation of the young man for lying about his resume will be the harbinger of an end to such censorious behavior.

About which I am reminded of Mr. Darcy's comments (in Pride and Prejudice) when informed by Mr. Wickham that the latter sought three thousand pounds to pursue the law: "I hoped rather than believed it to be the case."

Posted by Doug Smith at 05:32 PM | Permalink

Education and America's Future

Jefferson, like many of the Founders, pinned the fate of American democracy on an educated public. Here is one of his lesser known comments, taken from a letter to John Adams: "I have great hope that some patriotic spirit will... call it up and make education the keystone of the arch of our government."

This week, just such patriotic spirits have launched an effort to fulfill Jefferson's wish by amending the Constitution to guarantee the right to a high quality education to all American students. Other nations have such a right -- but, more than two centuries after Jefferson, America does not.

I'm glad to be working with the folks at Our Education who seek to give voice to students across America in matters that affect their -- and our nation's -- future.

And, I encourage readers to go to their website -- both to sign the petition if young enough and support the effort if you are older.

Posted by Doug Smith at 03:38 PM | Permalink

February 11, 2006

Competence Is As Competence Does

Any sincere politics directed at governing our complex world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families would find its way to some minimum threshold of competence as a prerequisite to office. Minimum competence has no partisan home. A person either qualifies by exceeding the minimum threshold or does not.

Minimum competence is also a prerequisite to performance. No matter how much I might like to be an opera singer, I cannot because I lack the minimum competence to perform. Notwithstanding whatever might have been the case with desire or will (or the lack thereof), Mike Brown lacked the minimum competence to lead the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Had it been a private or non-profit organization governed by folks who cared deeply about performance and purpose, Brown simply would never have been hired. Nor, had he participated in mangagement at any level, would his performance be rated at 100% (see earlier post: Yes, this happened.)

All of which raises a variety of questions about the comments made yesterday by Ken Mehlman, the head of the Republican Party, about competence. In a speech to conservative activists, he exclaimed, "We do not and we never should question these Democrat leaders' patriotism, but we do question their judgment and we do question their ability to keep the American people safe," he said. "These are people we know love their country, the question is: Can they protect it?"

Judgment and ability are two critical aspects of competence. According to the head of the Republican Party, every single Democratic leader lacks these two characteristics. Every single one. Somehow this man has evaluated every single Democaratic leader in the United States of America and enthusiastically admonishes conservatives and Republicans -- indeed anyone reading or seeing his quotes -- to distrust the minimum competence of any human being who has the label "Democrat".

So, let's put this in other terms that make the broad generalization understandable. Imagine a person in a powerful position saying, "I don't question the patriotism of women. But I do question their judgment and ability." Or, "I don't question the patriotism of Catholics. But I do question their judgment and ability." Or, "I don't question the patriotism of every employee at Fox News. But I do question their judgment and ability." Or, "I don't question the patriotism of men and women who have served in Iraq. But I do question their judgment and ability." These parallels have nothing to do with the worst aspects of 'political correctness'. They have everything to do with this reality: Human beings have traits. They have gender, race, religion, height..... and they have jobs and affiliations.

Among the other attributes of minimum competence to govern and lead in our complex world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families is an orientation and capacity for problem solving. Neither you nor anyone you know would hire or happily work with any manager or leader who was utterly lacking in this capacity. Again, we're discussing a minimum threshold. You might currently work with others whose problem solving orientation and capacities fall short in your opinion. But, falling short in general differs from falling below some minimum threshold.

A part of that minimum threshold is this: Problem solving demands inviting and respecting (even if not adhering to) as many points of view as possible. Two heads are better than one. Again, every single one of you have experienced problems that were better solved through multiple view points instead of a single view point.

When Ken Mehlman seeks to involve himself in solving problems of getting Republican candidates elected to office, we can be sure he seeks out many viewpoints. At least with respect to electoral politics, we can be confident he rises above the minimum threshold of competence.

But what about governing itself? What about the minimum competence to deal with the vast array of problems facing government, problems such as providing affordable health care, dealing with hurricanes, rebuilding nations destroyed in wars, educating children, countering terrorists, assuring fiscal responsibility, accounting for money spent, finding and keeping the line between lobbying and corruption, protecting the enviroment and assuring America's respect and standing in the world?

Those are difficult problems demanding the very best in problem solving and, therefore, demading officials who rise above a minimum threshold of competence. They demand openness to many points of view. Ken Mehlman declares himself opposed to this kind of problem solving when it comes to the job of governing America instead of the job of gaining and keeping the power to rule America.

By his own words, he -- and any in his audience who take his words as their leader seriously to heart -- fall below the minimum threshold of competence upon which all of us rely to keep the planet safe, sane and sustainable. Not because Ken Mehlman is a Republican or a man. Rather, because his own beliefs and words evidence his lack of minimum competence. Ken Mehlman declares himself and all who would follow him opposed to any point of view regarding the problems we face if that point of view is linked to a human being who bears the label "Democrat". Based on recent national elections, Ken Mehlman and all who would follow him declare themselves opposed to problem solving that invites and encourages the participation of tens of millions of people.

Based on the track record of the past several years, Mehlman may not be alone in this regard. There was Brown at FEMA. There was Katrina. And, we have also seen poor problem solving on display in a prescription drug program that does not work, a rebuilding effort in Iraq that has basic security and infrastructure woefully broken, an education policy in tatters, a counterterrorism effort more characterized by questionable legality than results or efficiency, an utter lack of fiscal responsibility starting with no accounting for money spent, an increasing line up -- literally of the police type -- of corrupt officials, broad attacks on science that undermine environmental efforts, and an all-time low in America's standing among people around the world.

Every aspect of this atrocious performance record would have benefited from the kind of minimum threhold of competence Mr. Mehlman lacks. These are world class problems we face. We need at least a minimum orientation toward problem solving in those who we elect to govern if we hope to do better than today's tragic track record of bad performance.

Mr. Mehlman, by his own admonishing words, lacks this competence. Or, he is just grandstanding. He is just putting his passion for winning and ruling above his concern for people, values, America and the planet.

Either way, he is dangerous. And, he is spreading his disease of incompetence to others.

Posted by Doug Smith at 12:29 PM | Permalink

February 08, 2006

Freedom of the Press At The Tribune Company

In our new age of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families, the organizations in which we actively participate are the closest contexts to what we have traditionally meant by the words community and town -- to the experience of sharing meaningful aspects of our fates (political, economic, social and more) with people who are not necessarily friends or family. Organizations can be work-based or volunteer, for profit, not-for-profit, governmental, formal, informal, large, small or otherwise sized. Of these, though, organizations where we work stand out for their importance to our character, our values and our fates. We have much on the line in organizations where we work. And, we have it on the line with others upon whom we depend for our livelihoods, our well being and our actual and not just professed values.

If we wish to understand our actual beliefs and behaviors with regard to any particular value, we need to look at how and whether that value is practiced in the organizations where we work more than the towns and neighborhoods where we happen to reside. In our towns and neighborhoods we are mostly consumers and friends and neighbors. Yes, the shared idea of citizen is powerful and important. We should vote and otherwise participate in local affairs. But democratic practices designed for a world of places require retuning to fit our new 21st century of markets, networks and organizations.

Just do a time and motion study of your life. You do not have time to actively participate in the role of citizen in all the many aspects of local government. Instead, you do have time to be an informed voter -- an informed consumer of local government policy and services. Do that. Be an informaed voter, an informed consumer. But don't kid yourself that somehow you can stop 'bowling alone' if by 'bowling together', you mean governing together some place-based community of folks with whom you actively share fates.

Stop dreaming about places your ancestors used to live with other people. And start taking responsibility for the values of the organizations -- the 21st century 'towns' and 'communities' -- where you actually do share fates with others beyond freinds and family.

Of course, to be an informed voter and an informed consumer, you rely on organizations -- and the people who share fates because they work together in those organizations -- to provide the information you need. That is more likely to happen if there is free speech and free press within those organizations. For decades, for example, there was not free speech or free press within tobacco companies. And, as millions of uninformed consumers died as a result.

All values are hardest to live by when self-interest is vulnerable. For decades, undoubtedly executives and employees of tobacco companies must have worried that information about links between disease and tobacco would hurt their self-interest. So, instead of pay and jobs and wealth, they sacrificed free speech. And that's just a fact. That's just the way it was.

Beyond our own organizations, of all others where we -- as consumers, voters, shareholders, networkers, family members and friends -- ought most to pay attention to free speech and freedom of the press, news-based organizaitons should be high on the list. For example, if you'd like to understand the real values that folks stand for in media companies, look at the values they actually practice where they work. For the folks who work at the Tribune Company in Chicago, the actual and real shared beliefs and behaviors regarding free press and free speech says much more about their character and their values than does their participation as customers in local, state or federal governmental markets.

And so, it's interesting to note what one former Tribune reporter says about the fate of an article on executive pay in a newspaper owned by the Tribune Company -- it was edited to exclude the pay of the top executive at the Tribune Company:

"It started as an assignment to analyze some executive compensation data for the paper’s annual CEO pay section. As I crunched the numbers, it became apparent that FitzSimons’ pay would figure prominently in the article. It seemed like an article we needed to publish, even if it would reflect negatively on the Tribune’s top exec. So I wrote it. My editor signed off on it. The copy desk cleared it and slated it for publication last May. And then, 36 hours before the article was to appear, it was killed. Tribune editors ducked questions about why they hadn’t run the article, and declined to schedule it for publication. As a member of the Trib’s investigative reporting team, I’d often been in the position of demanding answers from public and corporate officials about their conduct. When it became apparent to me, after months of evasive corporate-speak on the FitzSimons article, that the Tribune wasn’t willing to subject itself to the same kind of scrutiny, I resigned."

So, let us ask, "What do the people who work at the Tribune Company really stand for when it comes to freedom of the press and freedom of speech?"


Posted by Doug Smith at 03:17 PM | Permalink

February 05, 2006

Hitler Youth

A 24-year old Republican campaign zealot with neither science credentials nor understanding is setting policy for the National Aeronautic and Space Administration. The policy is directed against the free inquiry and empiricism on which science rests. Put differently, the policy is aimed at destroying science in favor of fundamentalism. The odd thing, of course, is that so many corporate executives and their companies who depend on science for innovation gladly hand over zillions of dollars to support the Republican Party that, in turn, spawns these young fascists. (And, yes, Virginia, just like there is a Santa Claus, there are also 21st century fascists. We must learn to name them if we are to understand them.)

It's all a short term arbitrage. These particular corporate executives -- whose single answer for all questions is build wealth for themselves and their mythical shareholders -- trade money and support for young ideologues whose single answer fundamentalism runs to hate-filled, anti-science, end-of-the-world religion (which, by the way, has nothing whatsoever to do with Jesus Christ whose message and meaning are grounded in love, not hate). It's a devlish bargain. The rich get richer and find it even harder to fit through that famous eye of a needle (Matthew 19:24), while the young end-of-worlders gain power in a Party that has lost it's soul.

Meanwhile, the rest of us watch as the bargainers destroy both value and values. These misguided folks deserve our forgiveness. But we must not confuse forgiveness with support if we are to preserve this planet for our children and their children.

Posted by Doug Smith at 12:17 PM | Permalink | TrackBacks (2)

February 04, 2006

Patriotism

"Give me liberty, or give me death."

-- Patrick Henry rallying support for independence from the English military in 1775

“I would only point out that you really don’t have any civil liberties if you’re dead.”

-- Senator Pat Roberts rallying support for unlimited military power of the Commander-in-Chief in 2006

Posted by Doug Smith at 01:53 PM | Permalink | TrackBacks (1)

February 03, 2006

Accuracy and Truth

When we share an understanding about roles such as customer and employee (or parent and child), the values we share -- the predictability of our beliefs and behaviors -- rises. For example, when you walk into a clothing store, there are a variety of highly predictable beliefs and behaviors that you as customer and those who, as employees, serve you can count on. These are shared values. The shared roles of customer and employee influence those shared values. They help explain predictable belief and behavior and do so without comment on whether those values are 'good' or 'bad' or anything in between.

Shared relationships also are highly predictive of shared values (again, whether 'good' or 'bad'). When you persistently interact with others known to you by name in some open ended way, the values you and they share -- the pattern of belief and behavior -- become predictable. At home or work these values might explain who makes what kind of effort, how you respond to certain situations or opportunities, what your shared beliefs and behaviors are with respect to decision-making, faith, the environment and more.

Shared relationships and shared roles are two of the most powerful determinants of shared values. Another are shared ideas. Consider the shared idea of 'red state' and 'blue state'. This idea has spread across our new world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families to fuel any number of beliefs and behaviors. For example, it is highly predictive of the way media employees approach a wide array of stories. You personally may not like that, or you may. You might think it 'good' or 'bad'. But as a predictor of some shared values, the shared idea of 'red state/blue state' exists and does explain much of what happens in the media.

Unlike the world of places in which our grandparents and their grandparents lived, shared ideas have much broader potential influence in our new world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families. I say potential because, before any shared idea might shape shared values, there must be awareness. If the 'red state/blue state' idea had never been so widely aired in the media, it quite simply wouldn't have become so powerful a shaper of shared values.

Consider, for example, the idea of 'water ice in comets'. It is a shared idea that shapes certain behaviors and beliefs among some scientists. In all likelihood, however, it has zero influence on the shared values of you and folks you know because you've never really heard about and, if you have, you've pretty much forgotten it.

Now, imagine for a moment that people well set up to spread ideas through the media -- people who work with media companies that have large audiences, people in powerful positions in government and corporations, and so forth -- decided that water ice in comets was important. In making that choice, of course, they would need to have some explanation for its importance. All of us in this new world of markets, networks and organizations are quite busy. Our attention comes at a premium - and if folks in media, governmental and corporate organizations wish us to pay attention to water ice in comets, they'll need to explain why.

So, let us assume they do. Let us assume, for the moment, that the explanation is "X". "Water ice in comets is important to all of you because of X". And, let's assume these organizations and the people in them succeed. A concerted campaign is made over the next three to six weeks through media, governmental and corporate (and, perhaps also certain 'interest group' organizations such as the Heritage Foundation or MoveOn) and we all wake up this coming Spring sharing the idea that 'water ice in comets is important because of X'.

Now, let's talk about truth and accuracy. By the standards of strongly shared ideas, most of us who bought into this whole thing would believe "Water ice in comets is important" to be the truth-- especially in a culture in which shared ideas spread through markets, networks and organizations have become so powerfully oriented to ideology (compare 'red state/blue state'). "Truth" as a shared idea that influences shared values comes dressed more and more as ideology -- as repeated opportunities for us to affirm what we stand for, who we are, what we believe.

What about accuracy? Is the statement "Water ice in comets is important because of X" an accurate statement?

Well, you don't know, do you? Because I've written "X" as opposed to any specific content. You do not know whether the statement is accurate. But what you do know is that our shared experience in the world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and familes predicts that -- so long as X is not ridiculously inaccurate -- there would be widespread shared belief and behavior that 'water ice in comets is important' -- that the importance would be held as truth.

In light of this phenomenon, the standards for what might pass as 'accurate enough' to get believed become quite important. Consider, for example, this news item about a lawsuit against the former head of the Bush Admiinstation's Enivornmental Protection Agency who, immediately after September 11th, used all the power of government and media to assure people the air quality was safe enough for them to return to their homes and apartments in the areas affected by the terrorist attacks. That became a powerful shared idea -- both for the folks who lived in lower Manhattan and, probably for a brief time, for folks around the country. "The air quality is safe enough" became the 'truth'. But, it turns out it wasn't accurate.

Or, consider this. In his State of the Union address this week, the president declared his administration and his party were intent on reducing the nation's dependence on oil through, among other things, investing in alternative energy technologies. That is now a widely shared idea. It is the truth -- at least among people (in red states? 'red' people in 'blue states'? children?) who have a shared value -- a predictable pattern of belief and behavior -- to credit what a president of the United States announces in a State of the Union address.

Was it accurate? Well if behavior must match belief in order for accuracy to be claimed, perhaps not. A day after the speech, funding for key alternative energy efforts was cut.

Later in the week, the House of Representatives passed legislation reducing health, education and other spending aimed at alleviating difficulties faced by the poorest Americans. The shared idea here is "fiscal restraint". That is what is syndicated as 'truth' in our markets, networks and organizations.

But is it accurate? The fiscal savings involved here are but a tiny fraction of 1% of the budget deficit and an absolute dollar amount quickly canceled out by other spending increases in a government that has generated record-breaking deficits. In a language that values 'accuracy', it's hard to apply the description 'fiscal restraint' accurately to the Bush Adminstration. That's just 'what is' -- it's about predictable beliefs and behaviors -- about values shared by those in the federal government and elsewhere whether or not any of us think it is 'good', 'bad' or 'in between'.

Ideas cannot become shared ideas without some awareness of those ideas. You and others will not share beliefs and behaviors regarding water ice in comets without first having awareness. But, in an age of markets, networks and organizations, we all can and do become aware of ideas without regard to their accuracy. Our understanding --even if completely inaccurate and wrong -- can and does lead to shared ideas and shared values. When this happens, truth deviates from accuracy. We share ideas and accept them as truth even though they are inaccurate.

All of which suggests that our future and the future of our children and others around the globe will become more sustainable when our markets, networks, organizations, friends and families put more effort into the shared idea of accuracy than the shared idea of truth.

Posted by Doug Smith at 01:26 PM | Permalink

February 01, 2006

What Do People Who Work at CNN Really Stand For?

The employees and executives who work at CNN are a thick we -- a 21st century community whose shared purposes and goals, shared roles and relationships in the company and shared ideas shape and determine their character as human beings. During their workday, CNN employees and executives depend on one another for significant aspects of their fates as people -- from their material well-being in the form of wages and benefits to friendships and social affiliation to their pursuit of meaning and fulfillment. If they or anyone wishes to understand the values -- the character -- of what CNN employees and executives 'stand for', the best evidence lies in their collective beliefs and behaviors. A reliable guide can be found in what the CNN brand stands for -- what blend of the pursuit of value (money, profit, wealth) and the pursuit of values such as objectivity, accuracy, free inquiry, dialogue and so forth.

Like others in this new world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families, people who work at CNN might think -- mistakenly -- that what happens at CNN is just 'a job'. That the decisions, actions, beliefs and behaviors on display from "9-to-5" are merely 'what happens at work" and bear little if any relationship to what they as human beings stand for and the nature of their character. This is a profound misunderstanding of the nature of being in a world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and family -- in a world where our core experience of sharing fates with folks other than friends and family happens in organizations -- not places.

When folks who work at CNN go home to their families, their kids and their friends, they must seek to integrate their work and home lives, not separate and isolate them if they are to avoid our unique form of 21st century schizophrenia. What happens at work speaks volumes about their character as people -- and speaks that to their kids and others, not just their co-workers.

With that in mind, let's ask the people who work at CNN about their values, about their belief and behavior in support of democracy, civility, the rule of law, family and tolerance as demonstrated in the recent choice to provide a talk show platform to a fellow named Glenn Beck. According to a spokesperson -- a person from CNN who speaks on behalf of you, the employees and executives of CNN, who speaks about what you really stand for, Beck was hired not because CNN 'wanted any political point of view or ideology', but rather because 'We set out to hire an entertaining, engaging talk show host, and his brand of humor and lighthearted approach was one we liked."

The 'we' here are you -- you, the people of CNN. This spokesperson is speaking on behalf of you and what you stand for. So, when you get home tonight, pull your kids together, invite over some good friends, and explain to them how thrilled you are to have Glenn Beck as a co-worker. In addition to his light humor and lack of any political ideology, go ahead and tell your kids about how, as a radio talk show host in Philadelphia, he "called victims of Hurricane Katrina "scumbags," said "It took me about a year to start hating the 9/11 families," called Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, "a pretty big prostitute," and said, "I'm thinking about killing Michael Moore, and I'm wondering if I could kill him myself, or if I would need to hire somebody to do it. No, I think I could."

Tell your kids the values you really stand for.

Posted by Doug Smith at 12:24 PM | Permalink

January 29, 2006

Beggar Is Better

The path to a growing, robust economy is through impoverishing workers, according to Eduardo Porter of the New York Times. You see, here's the skinny: Unions have been too successful. Private-sector union members, on average, make 23% more than non-union employees. This, in turn, means that unionized companies -- such as Ford and GM -- operate at a severe competitive disadvantage. Porter must believe this is the sole disadvantage explaining why these auto giants have announced layoffs of 60,000 workers in the past few months. Porter doesn't seem to think product strategy, distribution channels, shareholder value demands from the financial markets, executive compensation, or anything else is worth throwing into the mix of any explanation about the failures of these companies. Or, at least if he is thinking such things, his editors have deleted such musings.

You see it's that 23% advantage that's killing competitiveness. The path to business success, by this logic, lies in reducing the wages of workers (and, of course, it also lies in reducing health and other benefits). Beggar thy workers! That's the answer!

It's an answer and strategy that has characterized the US economy for decades. Real wages have steadily declined for more than thirty years. Meanwhile, folks at the top of the heap are doing better and better. Since we're looking at car companies, let's consider Michigan. In the past 20 years, families in the bottom 60% of the population have seen their incomes rise a total of, at most, 26% -- or at best just over 1% per year. Those in the top 5% in Michigan -- the auto executives and other well-to-do who guide the economy -- have seen their incomes double -- rise by a total of over 100%; or, straightlining for simplicity, by 5% per year. Put in dollar terms, the lowest sixty percent of families have gotten pay raises of between $165 and $2200 per year while the top folks have seen their incomes rise by over $4800 per year for 20 straight years.

The same pattern pertains in other states. And, according to a spokesperson for New York's Business Council, this is a great thing because the wealthy pay 'huge sums in taxes' enabling New York State to have generous social services for the poor.

So, here's the strategy: Beggar workers so that companies can be competitive so that the executives and shareholders of those companies can continue doubling their incomes every twenty years so that those folks can pay 'huge taxes' to support government social services needed to respond to poverty which, of course, will be rising rapidly as we make sure that workers continue to see their incomes remain flat to declining and any health and other benefits disappear.

To Eduardo Porter and the editors at The New York Times this is as good as a glory road to national health and prosperity. And, it's all down to the the success of the American Union movement.

Posted by Doug Smith at 01:55 PM | Permalink

January 27, 2006

Superficiality Is Spectacular

Not. But this kind of headline would surely please the chuckle-headed editors at the Los Angeles Times who use their musing on corporate participation at the Sundance film festival to proclaim, "Greed is good". Right away, let's not lose our balance over the participation itself -- the partying, free goodies, and financial support given to independent film makers and others. Sundance is a staging ground for potential commercial successes. Of course corporations want to be there to seek out opportunities to promote their brands and companies. There is nothing necessarily bad in that and much that might -- might -- be positive. We do live in a world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families. We do live in a world that must find a way to integrate and blend our concern for value with our concern for values.

But, 'greed is not good'. Greed has never been and will never be good. Greed's more modest cousin -- self-interest -- has and can fuel markets to produce all kind of good. But self-interest and greed are not the same thing. Greed is what drives a sociopathological obsession with value that splits off and subordinates concern for other values. Greed is what causes the yuck-it-up editors to lament that their company ethics policy forbids them from accepting any of the free gifts. Hey, why not? Get on the greed bandwagon. Open yourselves up for all comers. Why not put Jack Abramoff on your editorial board while you're at it? Or Tom Delay? Or Ken Lay? Or Jeff Skilling? Or Bernie Ebbers? Or Martha Stewart? Or Richard Scrushy? Or Armstrong Williams? Or Duke Cunningham? All these folks believe and behave with full fidelity to the precept that 'greed is good". And, hey, look at the kind of country they've given us?

Oh, and while you're at, go home tonight and celebrate greed with your kids. Bring them into the party. Encourage them to go out there and be greedy. And to grow up believing and behaving that greed is good. Go ahead. You say you believe it.

Posted by Doug Smith at 01:02 PM | Permalink

January 26, 2006

The High Cost Of Bad Leadership

Regardless of the legal outcome of the Skilling and Lay trial beginning next week, the high cost of their bad leadership is well established. In exchange for the unsustainable run up in shareholder value -- the single answer to all challenges in the Enron regime of Skilling and Lay -- energy markets were turned into casinos, employees at both Enron and other organizations lost jobs, consumers went without power and other necessities, marriages were ruined, and people were endangered. Evidently, Skilling's defense will combine claims that he was unaware of the bad deeds going on and, to the extent he approved anything, all such approvals were legal according to the accountants and lawyers advising him.

I was reminded of all this when I received a notice in the mail about a product defect. Over the past several decades, we've all become quite familiar with the strong shared concept and idea named 'product recall'. For example, The Salt Lake Tribune runs a service for readers to be sure they are up to date on all such recalls. In our new world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families, bad products can find there way into anyone's life anywhere. The human beings selling you a bad car, a bad toy or an exploding mortgage don't live down the block or around the corner. You don't see them at church or your kids' school. You don't know them in any meaningful way. You know their companies-- and their brands.

If single answer fundamentalism drives their company and brand to choose value over values -- to put your health, safety, security and well-being in jeopardy because of the dedication of the executives and other decision makers to the single, all determining goal of building shareholder value -- you cannot count on 'locality' to bail you out. Corporate cultures driven by shareholder fundamentalism are prone to reach into your life and shake it up -- with dangerous products...... and with bad leadership.

A century ago, the adverse effects of bad organizational leaders likely stayed within the ambit of the places those leaders lived with others. Plenty of harm could and did result. But, today, in our new world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families, the high cost of bad leadership takes on entirely new and breathtaking scope. So far, though, we've not adjusted to this new reality.

It's great that we have product recalls. Now, however, we need to figure out as many and as effective means as possible to have 'leader recalls'. And waiting for a drawn out legal process triggered after most of the damage has been done is better suited to a mid-20th century world of places than our new 21st century world of markets, networks, and organizations. Meanwhile, for shareholder activism and democracy to work demands, among other things, rooting out and eliminating unsustainable shareholder value fundamentalism in favor of a blended values approach that honors and builds shareholder value and values in concert with employee value and values, customer value and values and societal value and values. We must find a way to save shareholder value from itself -- and from the bad leaders whose extreme self-interest now imperils the world to be inherited by our children.

Posted by Doug Smith at 12:45 PM | Permalink

January 24, 2006

Meaningless Politics, II

In his comments on the Alito hearings in The New Yorker, legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin appropriately criticizes the highly choreographed dance that makes it difficult to really learn anything substantive about folks being nominated for life time tenure on the one body in our Constitutional government that truly and fully have the power to shape law and policy without 'the consent of the governed'. If there's anything we should see and hear at all -- any single most important thing -- Toobin writes, it should be to give us a clear sense of a nominee's politics. The Alito hearings didn't do that clearly or forthrightly. They were, in Toobin's phrase, a 'charade'.

And it is in the interest of making sure words like 'charade' and 'integrity' have meaning that I suggest Toobin take a second look at his assessment that "Alito's career, as well as his testimony, shows him to be a man of intelligence and integrity." Intelligence? Certainly. He intelligently followed the rules of the dance and avoided providing a forthright, clear explanation of his beliefs, his values and his politics on the issues that most concern our nation and the world.

Integrity? No. For, let us ask Alito and let us ask Toobin, how can a human being who participates in a 'charade" claim integrity or be described to have integrity?

Alito did what he needed to do to get a job. He certainly did not share with us what he really believes in as a man, as a judge, as a lawyer, as a leader and as a fellow American.

He was the central actor in a charade. Only this charade was not some joke or after dinner game. If Alito had any integrity -- a shred of meaningful integrity -- he would have risked his self-interest in service of his nation. Integrity is not something revealed when nothing is on the line. It's best displayed -- like all virtues -- when much is on the line.

When writers like Toobin put 'integrity' in the same paragraph as 'charade', they'd be well advised not to attempt to ascribe both to the same person. Not at least if they intend their words to have meaning.

Posted by Doug Smith at 09:40 PM | Permalink

January 16, 2006

Martin Luther King Jr.

As we reflect on the birth, life and dream of Martin Luther King Jr., let's commit ourselves to having the courage to be the change we wish to bring about. Only adults can take responsibility for their own change. No one else can do it for us. If we wish to find leaders who care about building a better future for our children and the planet, then we must find a way to exert that leadership ourselves. If we wish to continue the great democratic project begun in 1776, then we must commit ourselves to democracy itself because it is simply not possible to build and support democracy with anti-democratic methods. If we wish to commit ourselves to the rule of law, then we must do so through respecting law above person because it is simply not possible to adhere to law without adhering to principles -- even when those principles require taking action against people whose self-interest and ideology seek to destroy the law instead of uphold it. If we wish to do well and do good at the same time, then we must act to heal the breach between our legitimate concern for value and our legitimate concern for values. We must cease forever our illusory notion that we can somehow make value (profits, wealth and winning) the trump card for all serious questions. We must stop the madness of shareholder value fundamentalism terrorizing our new world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families. We must not repeat the errors of radical, anti-value revolutionaries. We must not succumb to the temptation to destroy the value that has and can bestow material well being. But we must move past our obsession with value and reintegrate value the singular as a healthy, sane and sustainable conern in the house of values the plural. We must save value from itself by humanizing it with the better part of our natures. And, we must do this as employees, customers, investors, networkers, family members and friends. We must do this. No one else will do it for us.

Posted by Doug Smith at 01:34 PM | Permalink

January 14, 2006

Wal-Mart For NeoLibs

NeoLibs (or, if you prefer NeoProgressives) such as Matt Yglesias, Jonathan Cohn and Ezra Klein are troubled about this week's news that the Maryland legistlature shot down a veto by their Governor and passed legislation requiring Wal-Mart to pony up more health benefits for Wal-Mart employees. The NeoLibs argue workers would be much better off if liberals, progressives and others sought an alliance with Wal-Mart allowing Wal-Mart to continue its current meager benefits practices in exchange for Wal-Mart helping to get federal action for things like universal health care. Look, these NeoLIbs say, we live in a Darwinian world where corporations spend "98 percent of their effort maximizing profits and share prices". Let's be real, let's be tough guys and let's cut a pragmatic deal with the Wal-Marts that let them continue to profit maximize while they help us get federal legislation to overcome the effects of their profit maximizing ways (in this case, the effects of having workers with low wages and little to no benefits).

All of which qualifies Klein and pals for a Wolfowitz award for Naive Pragmatism -- those proposals in which reality exists only as a subset of fantasy.

The world we actually live in -- as opposed to the Naive Pragmatic world of Washington parlor policy -- is one of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families. In this world, organizations are the most powerful crucible for experiencing community (thick we's) whose common good for all involved contributes to the greater good of society -- for finding non-governmental approaches to fairness, justice and equity among other things. If we can find approaches that work inside organizations, we ought to be looking for them. But that begins with this: Shareholder value fundamentalism is as dangerous to the stability and sustainability of our new world of markets, networks and organizations as is any religious fundamentalism.

The NeoLibs like to sound tough with their acknowledgement and agreement about profit maximization. But, like Wolfowitz, they evidently have little real world experience in such organizations. They have a single answer to all problems: let the corporations profit maximize and turn to government to fix the problems created. This logic is profoundly flawed.

Start, for example, with this proposition: when seeking solutions to problems, identify and address the root causes of those problems. Extreme profit maximization -- single answer fundamentalism -- is a root cause of the lack of health care for folks who work at Wal-Mart. Proposing to solve this by reinforcing the practice of extreme profit maximization -- the root cause of the problem in the first place -- makes no sense. It's like trying to fix all manufacturing quality problems by inspecting finished products as opposed to building in quality at each step along the way. (Another root cause, of course, is a government policy grounded in extreme individualism, in putting all risks and rewards on an individualistic basis instead of blending in policy promoting shared risks and shared rewards. In criticizing the NeoLib recommendation to align themselves with extreme profit maximizers, I'm not suggesting that complex challenges such as fair and just access to health care is entirely solvable without a government willing to re-balance "me" and "we". But, even then, any effective government policy would acknowledge that, in our new world, the most real 'we's' beyond friends and family are found in organizations -- not places we call towns and neighborhoods.)

Solving problems by addressing root causes of problems ought to be a straightforward enough concept. At a more conceptual level is this: No corporation -- indeed no organization of any kind, whether for profit, non-profit or governmental -- can sustain performance without having that performance benefit all those who matter to the enterprise: supporters/shareholders, employees/exectuives, and customers/beneficiaries. "Performance" is the measurable evidence of an organization's common good -- the mission, vision, strategy and so forth by which the organization seeks and achieves what's needed by the organization's supporters/shareholders, employees/executives, and customers/beneficiaries.

In the NeoLib fantasy, there is only one constituency: shareholders. Which, of course, begs this question: "Hey, why stop at benefits? Why not encourage Wal-Mart to lower wages, convert all jobs to no more than two years in length, and, while we're at it, lock employees in at night and turn off the time clock?"

If profit maximization is the single answer to all important questions, then there are no limits to what we -- as a matter of public policy -- permit profit seeking firms.

Sustainable organization performance demands balancing and blending the interests and benefits of shareholders, employees and customers. That's pretty much standard among folks in the private sector who spend far less time in Washington DC cocktail parties than the Neo folks, whether NeoCons, NeoLibs or NeoProgressives.

That crowd, however, is comfortable with policy recommendations, like this instance, that leave the real human beings who work at Wal-Mart struggling in poverty and ill-health while (1) Wal-Mart continues to generate unsustainable profits for executives and shareholders; and, (2) some theoretical set of forces are working their way toward federal legislation and the implementation of that legislation that supposedly will -- in a very distant future -- bring relief to these workers and their families.

At it's core, the NeoLib fantasy suffers from the same phenomena as the NeoCon fantasy: utter disregard for real people, real facts and real time
.

Posted by Doug Smith at 12:56 PM | Permalink | TrackBacks (2)

January 12, 2006

What Do People Who Work at IRS Stand For (Part 2)?

In an earlier post, I asked what values were shared at IRS among the people who work there with regard to their commitment to fairness as opposed to politically-motivated intimidation. The executives and employees of IRS -- like executives and employees of any organization -- are a thick we, a 21st century community of people who share purposes and share fates in more important, meaningful ways than do most folks who happen to reside in what we think of as 'communities' (towns, cities, neighborhoods).

Other than friends and family, organization-based thick we's are the most critical crucible in which our values -- our beliefs and behaviors -- get shaped and where our values most influence other people in our new world of markets, networks and organizations. All of which makes the question, "What do the people at IRS stand for?" of prime importance for them and for all they affect and influence.

Yesterday, for example, we learned that the people of the IRS have a practice of freezing claimed tax refunds of thousands of low-to-moderate income taxpayers, people who depend on those refunds for food, housing, heat, transportation and other basic necessities. The stated shared purpose of the people at the IRS for this practice is focused on catching (and reducing the number of) tax cheats. That is an important purpose and objective. However, the practice itself is evidently poorly designed and implemented because as many as 80% of its targets ultimately get their refunds (although sometimes it takes 3 years!).

Ought the people at the IRS care about and seek to reduce cheating? Of course. But, when employees at IRS go home at night and tell their family about 'what their shared values stand for", do they seek to say, "we believe so strongly in catching cheaters that we accept and indeed defend the need to make poor, innocent and law abiding people even poorer."

And, with regard to their values regarding tax cheaters, we might also ask them to explain to their family and friends the answer to this: "What have you been doing/are doing now with respect to Jack Abramoff, Tom DeLay and others who, by all evidence, seem to have controlled tens of millions of dollars over the last several years? Have you audited them? And, if not, why not?"

Posted by Doug Smith at 12:19 PM | Permalink | TrackBacks (1)

December 27, 2005

John Yoo and The Liar's Paradox

Most readers have heard of The Liar's Paradox: "This sentence is false." For most of us, it is a kind of linguistic game -- a curiousity demonstrating the flexibility of language. For philosophers and logicians, however, it has sparked centuries of debate and reflection -- one upshot of which is to point out the sentence's primary purpose is to confuse us.

We must try to make sense of the world we live in. We cannot always depend on clear language to be clear - and the Liar's Paradox teaches us to be wary of those who manipulate our desire for clarity to mislead and confuse us.

Consider, then, this version of the Liar's Paradox: "The rule of law is that there are no rules."

Or, if you prefer, read any number of memoranda and books by John Yoo, the lawyer whose devotion to executive branch 'flexibility' eviscerates the plain meaning of constitutional law in favor of confusion. Yoo's writings about 'flexibility' are now policy in an executive branch who -- in the name of The United States of America, in our name -- apply them to "lock up human beings indefinitely without charges or hearings, to subject them to brutally coercive interrogation tactics, to send them to other countries with a record of doing worse, to assassinate persons it describes as the enemy without trial, and to keep the courts from interfering with all such actions."

Yoo claims that September 11th demanded legal reasoning in the face of unprecedented challenges -- challenges for which, he asserts, there were no books to look into. For a lawyer, this is an astonishing statement -- among the most venerable aspects of lawyering is looking to the past for guidance. His assertion is a sham. That there are unprecedented aspects of today's complex challenges (e.g. asymmetrical warfare) is not a logical corollary for the statement: there are no books to look into.

There are in fact zillions of books and other writings to look into (including The Constitution) for guidance about how to conduct an effective campaign against terrorism within the dictates of the rule of law and a constitutional form of government that separates powers into three branches and guarantees certain rights to its citizens.

John Yoo is described by professional colleagues as brilliant. He is undoubtedly clever. But cleverness and wisdom are no more identical than the rule of law is with the rule of lawyers.


Posted by Doug Smith at 01:05 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

December 24, 2005

The Santorum Brand: Update On Meaningless Politics

An earlier post discussed Pennsylvania poll results indicating that Senator Rick Santorum's personal brand, while well defined and understood by Pennsylvania voters, was nonetheless not doing a good job of appealing to a majority of them. Beginning with the Clinton impeachment, Santorum chose to brand himself in ways that gained him notice within the national Republican Party by making well publicized statements in support of extreme born-again fundamentalists, including his very open support for the scientific claims of intelligent design creationism.

Thus, in 2002, Santorum used an op-ed piece to speak clearly and loudly on behalf of what his brand meant on this issue; "Intelligent Design is a legitimate scientific theory that should be taught in science classes."

Among the many steps Santorum took to identify his brand with these ideas was his joining the advisory board of the Thomas More Law Center, an organization well funded by the extreme right wing interests and given to throwing its money and legal expertise to any effort seeking to have local governments establish religion through the inclusion of intelligent design creationism in science classes.

The First Amendment prohibits government from establishing religion. We read and hear much these days about another right wing nostrum: original intent -- the notion that the meaning of the Constitution is frozen by what the words meant to the Framers. It's a not-even-thinly-veiled effort to restrict government to operations within the ambit of late 18th century meanings and conditions. If you can't fit your proposed approach to 21st century realities within the original intent of 18th century writers, then fuhgeddabodit.

The Santorum brand includes original intent -- it's necessary to his efforts to gain and maintain voice and power in national Republican circles. Brands like Santorum's have never required any logical or principled consistency. That the plain meaning -- the original intent -- of the Founders prohibited establishing religion has never barred Santorum from actively supporting the Thomas More Law Center project to do just that. Really, in the Santorum approach to brand management, dealing with this seeming inconsistency merely requires definitional shifts. "Intelligent design creationism has nothing to do with establishing religion because it is science."

Naming things is the key to Santorum's brand strategy. Truth is entirely a matter of definition and the marketing and public relations needed to shape shared ideas in support of that definition. Thus, to Santorum, 'science' is a word like any other word and it's meaning is determined by what leaders like Santorum tells us it means.

Thus, the Santorum brand also includes this strain of definitional meaning. The kind of careful exploration of what science means that was on display in the Dover case courtroom is irrelevant and unnecessary to the Santorum brand. A corollary of the Santorum brand, of course, is this: words have no meaning. "Science"? "Truth"? "War"? "Clear Skies"? "Family Values"? "The Rule of Law"? "Mission Accomplished"? "Victory"?

The Santorum brand stands for the proposition that if you wish to understand how and when to use these words, pay attention to Santorum and he'll tell you.

Now, we learn that Santorum -- has re-tooled his definitions and brand a bit -- by dropping his affiliation with the More Center after the recent court decision castigating the then-majority of the Dover school system who forcibly installed intelligent design creationism in Dover school classes.

Key word: after.

One can almost hear Santorum and his brand advisors huddled together strategizing over how to play the result of the court's decision. "If the Judge rules in favor of the Board, we hold a press conference with the Board members and folks from the More Center to celebrate this victory for American values. If the judge goes against us, we drop the affiliation with the More Center, making sure to blame the More Center from its methods so we can appeal to Pennsylvanians who mistrust 'outsiders'."

The earlier post also noted that the Santorum brand was doing best among anxious, fearful, emotional and confused teenagers. And, so to Hamlet, Scene II when Polonius happens upon Hamlet who, unbeknownst to him, has overheard the plotting against him:

LORD POLUNIUS
O, give me leave:
How does my good Lord Hamlet?

HAMLET
Well, God-a-mercy.

LORD POLONIUS
Do you know me, my lord?

HAMLET
Excellent well; you are a fishmonger.

LORD POLONIUS
Not I, my lord.

HAMLET
Then I would you were so honest a man.

LORD POLONIUS
Honest, my lord!

HAMLET
Ay, sir; to be honest, as this world goes, is to be
one man picked out of ten thousand.

LORD POLONIUS
That's very true, my lord.

HAMLET
For if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a
god kissing carrion,--Have you a daughter?

LORD POLONIUS
I have, my lord.

HAMLET
Let her not walk i' the sun: conception is a
blessing: but not as your daughter may conceive.
Friend, look to 't.

LORD POLONIUS
[Aside] How say you by that? Still harping on my
daughter: yet he knew me not at first; he said I
was a fishmonger: he is far gone, far gone: and
truly in my youth I suffered much extremity for
love; very near this. I'll speak to him again.
What do you read, my lord?

HAMLET
Words, words, words.


Posted by Doug Smith at 12:28 PM | Permalink

December 18, 2005

Letter To The New Republic

To The Editors,

In "Bad News", Franklin Foer warns against a vast left wing conspiracy of bloggers hell bent on 'savaging' newspapers such as the NY Times and Washington Post -- papers whose objectivity, writes Foer, is an essential bulwark against the right's alliance with business and mastery of partisan media.

Yes, Foer acknowledges in Rumsfeldian terms, there have been some 'bad apples' at the 'papers of record'. Still, he excitedly exclaims, absent (real?) journalists writing 'without fear or favor', the rest of us will remain clueless about critical events with "a strong basis in fact'.

One can almost see Jimmy Olson's gratitude to Foer, our very own Clark Kent out there protecting truth (I mean 'objectivity'!), justice, and the American free press from the evils of the Internet!

There is one tiny problem though. It's found on the very next page of The New Republic in a piece contrasting a meaty proposal by four Congressmen worried about the Republican culture of corruption with House Speaker Hastert's useless concept about training legislators in the 'nuances of House rules."

Both proposals have 'a strong basis in fact'.

Only Hastert's was printed by The New York Times.

Bad news, indeed.

Sincerely,
Douglas K. Smith

Posted by Doug Smith at 05:34 PM | Permalink

Values Then and Now

Then:

"Those who would sacrifice essential liberties for temporary security deserve neither liberty nor security."

-- Benjamin Franklin

Now:

Commander-in-Chief George W. Bush acknowledges that for several years now he has acted preemptively and unilaterally without legally required judicial review* to authorize the sacrifice of individual liberties through government monitoring of phone calls and emails of Americans Bush himself personally believes have posed a threat to security.

* The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 established a Court to ensure judicial review of executive branch requests for surveillance of Americans. Between 1979 and 2002 (the year Bush chose to use his personal, unreviewed judgment for when to sacrifice personal liberties), the FISA Court did not reject a single warrant application. Not a single one.


Now:

"The president does not get to pick and choose which laws he wants to follow. He is a president, not a king,"

-- Senator Russ Feingold upon learning of Bush's personal surveillance program.


Posted by Doug Smith at 11:51 AM | Permalink | TrackBacks (1)

December 14, 2005

Hope For The Holidays

Thomas Rice (who with his colleagues at the Interaction Institute for Social Change have brought hope to literally millions of people) sent along this reflection on HOPE by Vaclav Havel and suggested that it be shared with others:

HOPE

Either we have hope within us or we do not.
It is a dimension of the soul and is not essentailly dependent on some
particular observation of the world. HOPE is an orientation of the spirit, an
orientation of the heart. It transcends the world that is immediately
experienced and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. HOPE in
this deep and powerful sense is not the same as joy that things are going well
or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for
early success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good,
not because it stands a chance to succeed. HOPE is definitely not the same thing as optimism.
It is not the conviction that some thing will turn out well, but certainty that something makes sense
regardless of how it turns out. It is HOPE, above all. which gives the strength to live and continually
try new things.

Vaclav Havel

Posted by Doug Smith at 09:10 PM | Permalink | TrackBacks (1)

December 11, 2005

Craig's Fist

Christian Sarkar alerts us to an urgent call for government action and political will by Craig Barrett, Chairman of Intel. who warned BusinessWeek the United States continues to fall behind other nations in producing the scientists and engineers demanded for sustainable national economic performance. The percentage of science and engineering degrees granted in the US have trailed competitor nations by double digit differences; and, when engineering is isolated, the US rate is one-sixth that of Japan, less than one-tenth that of China.

Barrett calls on government, particularly Governors, to exert the political determination needed to raise science and engineering education standards. And, he asks others in the business community to join Intel in supporting such efforts.

One commentator at the BusinessWeek online site writes in, "I agree with Mr. Barrett's comments. But why aren't any politicians taking note of this issue?"

Well, perhaps because people like Craig Barrett throw their political dollars in support politicians like Rick Santorum and George Bush whose political platforms weaken instead of strengthen science. Year upon year of high profile attacks on evolutionary, environmental, health and other sciences have popularized an anti-science cultural orientation that, in turn, has fueled instead of stemmed eroding education standards and career aspirations.

Craig Barrett's warning is spot on. Our nation -- our governments, our businesses, our schools and our young people -- will revitalize our best future with a sustained commitment to better science and engineering education and careers. Let us all stand up and applaud Craig Barrett.

And, let's hope that all of us, including Craig Barrett, will do more than shake our fists at the dangers of an irrational approach to science. Let us hope all of us will put our money where are mouths are so that warnings like Barrett's are more than lip service.

Posted by Doug Smith at 12:35 PM | Permalink | TrackBacks (1)

November 28, 2005

Show 'Em Some Love

When the truth is found to be lies
And all the joy within you dies

Don't you want somebody to love
Don't you need somebody to love
Wouldn't you love somebody to love
You better find somebody to love

-- The Jefferson Airplane

Posted by Doug Smith at 12:40 PM | Permalink

November 26, 2005

The Santorum Brand

In our world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families, political candidates for high profile offices such as Senator, Governor and President must pay a lot of attention to branding. Retail politics -- where the candidate him/herself kissed babies, spoke to town halls, knocked on doors -- went out with Elvis. Yes, candidates still do these things - but only as scripted events aimed at media coverage.

We all know this. So, it's interesting when any poll paints as distinct and clear a picture of a candidate's brand -- what the candidate stands for -- as this recent one in Pennsylvania testing voter responses to Senator Rick Santorum and Bob Casey Jr. on a variety of dimensions. The two men will likely face off in next year's senate race in the Key Stone State.

Santorum currently leads Casey only in the following categories:

Registered Republicans
Conservative political ideology
Abortion should be illegal in all circumstances
Born again Christian or fundamentalist
18 to 24 years old
Votes mostly or strictly Republican
Considers social issues most important
Does not subscribe to the theory of evolution

Perhaps most striking is the age range -- especially if one combines the full list into a description of a typical Santorum enthusiast.

'Either/or' political branding picked up momentum with the Clinton impeachment and, since 2000, has entirely occupied and defined our political markets for government control. A key part in this is 'identity politics' -- branding strategies for winning and keeping control of government through persuading voters to express their identities at election time.

The 18 to 24 year old Pennsylvanian, anti-science, strict Republican-voting fundamentalists who see themselves as 'conservatives' on social issues were between 11 and 17 when Santorum chose Clinton's impeachment as the coming out party for the Santorum brand. These kids now old enough to vote ranged from sixth graders to high school seniors -- the prime age when hormones start insisting on responses to the question about 'who am I?"

The poll is as close to a sociological Rorschach test as we could ever have. It tells us that the Santorum branding strategy grounded in appeals to emotion, fear and anxiety paid off among those folks most likely to be receptive; namely, hormonal , identity-seeking and anti-science Pennsylvania teenagers who sought in fundamentalism a single answer to all of life's questions.

This is not a big tent.

And, it seems the Senator has begun retooling what he hopes Pennsylvania voters will believe that he stands for. Still, over the past 7 plus years, Santorum has deeply branded himself as a kind of Cadillac of the religious right. Our nation is filled with branding gurus and experts. Santorum may succeed in shifting his brand beyond the narrowness of its current meaning. Still, the first thing any real expert will tell him is that once a brand like Cadillac takes root in the consciousness of consumers, it can take a generation of forgetfulness before times are ripe enough for a new launch.

Posted by Doug Smith at 11:12 AM | Permalink | TrackBacks (1)

November 20, 2005

Edelman's Opportunity At Wal-Mart

Wal-Mart has hired Richard Edelman's firm to lead the giant retailer's public relations response to the intensifying debate over Wal-Mart's values and practices. This is a wonderful opportunity for Edelman and those who work in his firm to put into practice Edelman's own values about the responsibilities of public relations professionals in our complex 21st century. According to an Edelman post in November 2004, , PR firms should avoid the 'anything goes' standard of lawyers of claiming that since all deserve representation, firms can take on any client regardless of that client's character and values. He believes PR firms should have a higher standard on who are represented and what is said on their behalf. In addition, he believes in full transparency of work methods. "It is more than what you say. It is how you say it that matters." Finally, Edelman writes of how important it is for PR firms to have a seat in the highest councils of companies in order to ensure that these high principles are adopted and applied.

His firm now has an extraordinay chance to live these values. As we know, Wal-Mart increasingly means controversy in a manner not unlike Iraq or tax cuts or Supreme Court nominees. What the Wal-Mart brand stands for -- every day low prices, low wages, employees with benefits, government subsidy of employees without sufficient benefits,local business erosion, keeping inflation low -- is subject to many claims.

Edelman must have decided that Wal-Mart was a worthy client deserving of the very best in PR help - that is, that Wal-Mart met his first principled test on 'whom to represent'. Now, on a daily basis, those who are working on the Wal-Mart account have the chance to apply the rule on what is said and how it is said.

One suggestion: In choosing how to counter various anti-Wal-Mart assertions, challenge Wal-Mart's highest executives to adopt a policy of acknowledging what is reasonable in those claims.

For example, avoid limiting yourself to writing only this on the Wal-Mart website:

"As of today, 620,000 associates have signed up for health insurance coverage in a Wal-Mart sponsored plan."

Why not present this information about the 620,000 associates while also explaining how many of them went beyond signing up for benefits to actually receiving them. Then note that hundreds of thousands of Wal-Mart associates do not have health insurance. Go on to explain Wal-Mart's position regarding associate health insurance as well as government subsidy. Provide readers of the website an understanding of Wal-Mart's objectives in this area and what the company is doing to pursue these objectives. For example, in choosing how to say what steps Wal-Mart is taking, include the Susan Chambers' memo that has recently been completed regarding an approach to benefits at Wal-Mart being recommended to Wal-Mart's Board of Directors.

It is important and undertandable that a PR firm hired by Wal-Mart should present Wal-Mart's side of the story. It is also important -- both for Wal-Mart and for Richard Edelman - to insure that the public debate and discussion of the challenges Wal-Mart faces are conducted with high standards that Edelman would have all in the PR field apply. Bending over backwards to insure that Wal-Mart's side of the story is presented in a manner that encourages real debate, real discussion and real problem-solving will be the highest, best testimony to Edelman and his firm.

Let's wish him and his firm well as they move to the higher ground.

Posted by Doug Smith at 05:10 PM | Permalink

November 19, 2005

Market Based Discussion Doesn't Work Well

Figuring out the best approaches to difficult problems is hard work in any context. But, it is much harder in a market context than an organizational one. Take as an example Iraq. The problem solving effort does move forward in both contexts; that is, the political market for government direction and policy as well as any number of organizational contexts (e.g. the US Army). A major difference between these two contexts arises from objective and purpose. In organizations, purpose relates to the organization's reason for being. In the case of the US Army, that purpose has shifted in Iraq from winning a militery conflict toward assisting Iraq in the transition to stability. The second, we've come to learn, is much more complex than the first. Still, when those involved in the organization show up to work each day, they do their best to problem solve together toward the purpose at hand.

(Yes, I know, this is a simplification. Many will immediately recoil and get heated up -- but that has a lot to do with our perspective on context. How many of us 'react' because we are operating within a market perspective versus an organizational one? That is, we are commenting/promoting a point of view we wish would take hold of the political and governmental direction as opposed to contributing to a debate based on the purpose of the US Army and with an obligation to at least imagine we are part of the Army responsible for carrying out that purpose?)

I was reminded of this difference when I read of Representative Murtha's proposed resolution:

Therefore be it Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That:

Section 1. The deployment of United States forces in Iraq, by direction of Congress, is hereby terminated and the forces involved are to be redeployed at the earliest practicable date.

Section 2. A quick-reaction U.S. force and an over-the-horizon presence of U.S Marines shall be deployed in the region.

Section 3 The United States of America shall pursue security and stability in Iraq through diplomacy

Murtha is operating within an organization - Congress -- charged, among other things, with guiding the purposes of the US Army and others. Look closely at his three Sections. Re-read them. Are they a call for the abandonment of Iraq? Are they a call for the immediate withdrawal of troops? Do they suggest the United States should ignore Iraq?

No. Representative Murtha is proposing an alternative strategy -- an alternative approach to a phenomenally complex problem.

The market for political control and government policy, however, did not hear or interpret Murtha's proposal as strategy, however. The market quickly reduced the meaning to branding and product simplification. What the politicans, media and others who compete in that market did was deny the public any real, thoughtful problem-solving guidance by instantaneously transforming Murtha's strategic possibilities into 'up or down', 'you're in or you're out', "stay the course or cut and run', 'you're with us or against us', 'you're for Bin Ladin or you're for America', and so on.

Think about this. Only, for a second, pick any REAL problem or challenge you face at home, school, work, church or elsewhere. Is this the approach to problem-solving you'd like to bet on? Probably not. But then all of those contexts -- family, school, work, church -- are more like organizational contexts than giant, anonymous and abstract market contexts.

Posted by Doug Smith at 12:34 PM | Permalink

November 16, 2005

The Rule Of Principle, Not Personality

Any widespread belief and practice of 'the rule of law' can be understood as a strong commitment to principle over personality. Consider, for example, a game such as Scrabble. The rule of law applied to Scrabble means that the players mutually accept a set of rules -- a set of laws -- for playing the game; and, that, while playing any particular game, the players abide by them.

There are occasions, as any regular Scrabble players knows, when words are spelled out that are not covered by existing rules; that is, particular plays that demand review under a set of agreed upon rules that leave the acceptability of the word unclear. Many Scrabble players agree on a rule that words must exist in dictionaries. Only by playing the game do they, in the heat of competition, come to agree on 'what particular dictionary or dictionaries". Then, at some point having specified dictionaries, they find themselves debating the acceptability of words such as 'app' in common usage that have yet to find themselves in those dicitonaries -- and so on.

The rule of law in Scrabble evolves during games and between games. Perhaps 'app' is not accepted during a particular game; but agreement is reached to find and accept a dictionary with more updated contents.

One phenomenon than any Scrabble player understands, however, is this: It is simply neither possible nor credible to claim 100% objectivity. Players are involved in these difficult moments and choices. What the players aspire to is the use of agreed upon principles to outweigh their individual subjectivity. But, subjectivity -- the potential for a rule of people not principle -- is always present. For example, one player may be more 'up' on current words than another. When the 'between game' rule making chooses whether to include newer, more conteporary dictionary, that is a reality that is undeniable. Each of the players -- each of the rule makers -- involved cannot credibly deny that their relative skills, knowledge, persoanal preferences and so forth are involved.

What they can credibly suggest is that, with all humility, they seek to continue playing Scrabble together with orderly expectations about the rules and an overall commitment to rules.

Humility in a regime of law, then, demands that we acknowledge the reality that our personal points of view are part of the reality within which we set and abide by rules. What we demand of those who very actively participate in rule making is that they both acknowledge this reality with humility and that, as part of their contributions to the rule of law, that they tell us when their personal beliefs are most at risk of influencing the game.

We ask them to be human beings, not machines -- and to be honest about that.

Thus, if a client seeks an advocate -- say, a corporation charged with sex discrimiination seeks a talented, accomplished female attorney to represent the corporation -- the client expects the attorney to avoid letting personal beliefs from getting in the way. But the client does not expect -- nor will the attorney find it possible -- to deny or ignore the existence of those beliefs. This is why some attorneys -- both men and women -- don't accept certain assignments and why others do.

Of course, the opposite is also evident; namely, that some lawyers actively seek assignments because those assignments are strongly in line with their personal views. Many lawyers, for example, actively volunteer for death penality cases because they so strongly oppose the death penality.

This, it would seem, is what must have motivated Sam Alito when he sought the Reagan Justice Department job in 1985. He strongly opposed a woman's right to choose and he wanted to work in a Justice Department that might do something to curtail or reverse that right. He evidently felt just as strongly about working for a Justice Department that might seek to disenfranchise voters by reversing the Constitutional right of 'one person, one vote'.

In other words, Sam Alito pursued the opportunity to change the world in a way he actively supported -- to make the United States a nation that reflected his strong personal beliefs -- to change the rules.

Suggesting that he would 'say anything just to get a job', it seems to me, fails to give Sam Alito credit for (1) his deep personal opposition to one person, one vote and a woman's right to choose; and, (2) his deep desire to use the skills and tools he had acquired to actively participate in a Repubican administration he believed would seek to change those principles.

Alito, though, went on to differentiate for Feinstein his sense of an advocate's job versus a judge's job. "I'm now a judge... I'm not an advocate. I don't give heed to my personal views, what I do is interpret the law."

Well, let's first note that he fails the test of humility. It would be refreshing for a nominee to the Supreme Court to acknowledge that they have personal views and to explain what those views are. In doing so, the nominee can -- and indeed should -- explain what and how he works hard to limit the effect or influence of those personal views in matters at hand. But to suggest that judges somehow are not human beings - that they do not have subjectivity -- is neither credible nor, frankly, human.

Second, though, let's also acknowledge that Alito understands through his experience as a judge that he is expected to put his personal beliefs to one side. I simply cannot accept any other proposition.

But, third, let's go on to ask about the risks of personal points of view influencing the interpretation of law. Those are even larger in the world of courtrooms than they are in Scrabble. And, the stronger a personal point of view, the more likely that point of view will find it's way into law.

So, based on his comments to Feinstein, we know this:

Alito deeply opposes a woman's right to choose as well as one person, one vote.
Alito lacks the humility to acknowledge that he is a human being with deep personal views that are necessarily part of the reality of doing his job.
Alito understands that a judge is supposed to avoid having the rule of personality/subjectivity interfere with the rule of principle/law

And, finally, Alito is seeking a job for which he has been nominated by a Republican administration that itself deeply lacks humility and is just as deeply opposed to a woman's right to choose and works hard to discourage voters from exercising their franchise.

Values are best understood by looking at that combination of belief and behavior that is most predictable. Before jumping to 'good' versus 'bad', let's look hard at 'what is and why'. Alito's beliefs and behaviors are laid out across a life in which he has worked hard to reverse a woman's right to choose as well as one person, one vote. This is who he is; this is what he stands for.

And, in our rule of law, there is no current rule that makes anything he's done illegal. He's a person seeking to change the world and taking action in whatever sphere is available to him to do so. That is his right according to how we play 'Scrabble' in our nation today.

Another part of how we play 'Scrabble' is this: the Senate must decide whether or not to put Alito on the Supreme Court. As they make their decision, let's hope they will look at the nominee's deep personal beliefs and choose whether those beliefs best serve the rule of law in the United States. Put differently, the Senate must choose whether to put Sam Alito the human being -- not some fictitious Sam Alito as computer -- on the Supreme Court.


Posted by Doug Smith at 01:14 PM | Permalink

November 08, 2005

Law Quiz

If you visit Dave Wilton's wordorigins, you can explore the evolution of meaning for various words from A to Z. "Quiz", for example, has gone from a noun describing an odd person to a verb about mocking or making fun to our contemporary verb of testing. This phenomenon -- that the meaning of words do not stand still -- is neither new nor surprising. Any parent of any teenager experiences it almost daily.

All of which should bring some humility to the raging controversy over judical activism, results-oriented judges and so-called legal originalists. "Law" itself has meant many things to many peoples over time. One constant, though, is this: the law is expressed in words.

If those words do not speak to us in our times, then the words are written in dead letters. This is reality. We cannot hope to govern ourselves if we do not have judges who understand both that words must mean something and that those meanings must relate to our lives as we live them today. The notion that, for example, the Constitution is as inert at stone is a sophistical sleight-of-hand. It is proposed by those who wish to bring their own meaning into our national conversation. Meanwhile, the opposite concept that the Constitution is a hyper-active, attention deficit riddled engine for social change is equally suspect.

Judges have jobs like the rest of us. Their unique responsibility lies in significant ways in the interpretation of words to fit both principles and our lives. That's a hard job. But none of us advance either our undertanding or their performance by denying legal words the same standing we routinely grant to 'quiz' -- or 'hot' or 'right on' or 'cool'. So, let's 'get over it'.

Posted by Doug Smith at 01:00 PM | Permalink

November 07, 2005

Focusing Energy At Chevron

Chevron has invited a handful of experts as well as the general public to join a discussion about the planet's energy future.

We should applaud this effort. Wherever the effort sits on the spectrum of 'toe in the water/public relations' to 'serious inquiry", it does allow for discussion -- perhaps most importantly among the employees and executives of Chevron (the 'thick we' so well positioned to do something about how Chevron's actual strategy creates a best future for the planet).

In saying, this, though we also need to pay attention to how Chevron sets up the dialogue because how a problem is defined contributes critically to the effectiveness of problem solving itself. As the old Yankee once said, "Well's begun is half done."

The current question is posed like this: Who should be primarily responsible for ensuring we conserve more energy -- governments, businesses or market forces?

Look, this is obviously an important question and can support a healthy debate. But it is also defective in a serious way because of the use of 'primarily'. That word -- indeed, even the question without that word -- sets up an 'either/or' debate. But, no one can solve the complicated energy challenges we face with either/or approaches. We need both/and thinking and problem solving.

The debate would be richer and more pragmatic if the question posed were this: "How can business, government and non-governemental organizations work together to ensure we conserve more energy? And, how would any of us know such efforts were successful?"

Posted by Doug Smith at 12:41 PM | Permalink

October 23, 2005

Ben & Jerry's Redux

Many who admired Ben & Jerry's iconic status as a socially responsible company worried about the dilutive effect of Unilever's acquisition of the ice cream maker in 2000. And not without reason. According to current CEO Walt Freese, the company under Unilever softened its commitment to continuing the efforts of its founders. There's a lesson in this about corporate social responsibility (which we'll return to below). But, in addition, there's a profound lesson about brand.

If most people knew one thing about Ben & Jerry's brand it was this: the mission and the company were not just about crazily named ice cream. The brand stood for both making good ice cream and taking action to improve the lives of people.

When Unilever went 'soft' on Ben & Jerry's social mission, they also turned their backs on one of their own core competencies: branding. They jeopardized the soul of Ben & Jerry's brand. So, CEO Freese's decision to embark on a $5 million dollar campaign to save small family farms is both good corporate social policy and good corporate economic policy. It is Ben & Jerry's redux -- a return to what the company stands for.

From it's beginning, Ben & Jerry's brand -- like it's mission -- stood for both the pursuit of value and the pursuit of values. The two were intertwined; each contributing to the success or failure of the other. Like many other businesses facing growth and competition, Ben & Jerry's stumbled. Eventually, the company reached a point of mediocrity -- but it was mediocre performance with regard to both value and values. The failures on both fronts reinforced each other -- just as the earlier successes had done.

The orthodox business press (those who worship shareholder value as if it were an idol), jumped on the failure as evidence that Darwinian concern for profits is the one true path. Celebrations must have ensued when Unilever took over the troubled company.

Based on Freese's announcements, these celebrations were premature. But, there's yet another and deeper lesson in all this: It is a heck of a lot easier to reestablish a brand that stood for integrating value and values than to change 'value-only' brands into more sustainable promises and experiences.

Unilever has hundreds of brands for products it makes and distributes around the world. As our interconnected globe of markets, networks and organizations spirals into ever increasing complexity and messiness where social, environmental, political, technological, religious, medical, and legal challenges cannot be disentangled from economic ones, Unilever -- like all enterprises -- must find its way to an integrated concern for value and values.

This goes beyond the profoundly unethical so-called balanced scorecard -- the wolf in sheep's clothing that justifies concern for values only if it promotes shareholder value. Instead, drawing from the heritage of Eastern philosophy, we must learn to see and act on our legitimate concern for profits with our equally legitimate concern for all human values. Each -- like the original vision of Ben & Jerry's -- must serve the other in reinforcing ways. This is not the one-way street of the balanced scorecard (concern for employees and customers okayed as long as shareholders benefit). The ethical scorecard demands that the pursuit of value serve the pursuit of values that serves the pursuit of value that serves the pursuit of values.... and on and on.

It's extraordinarily difficult and complicated to turn a behemoth of Unilever's size away from 'profits and value only' to a more sustainable approach. The sheer number of issues they are tackling is mind boggling. The challenge they've set to find some coherent and transparent way to set goals and evaluate progress is daunting. (And, as can been seen in their 'five year record', they have yet to wrap their minds around the true integration of the financial with the non-financial).

Still, kudos to the employees (including executives) of Unilever. They've given deep thought to the challenges ahead. They have publicly declared their intention and commitment. And, with enough focus on performance -- real outcome-based goals that integrate concern for value with concern for values -- they have a real chance to get where Ben & Jerry's was at the beginning: a brand that stands for the fully human enterprise.

Posted by Doug Smith at 01:28 PM | Permalink | TrackBacks (1)

October 16, 2005

Meaningless Politics

We know we live in fractious, partisan times. Our public discourse weighs in with more heat than light. Truth is up for grabs. Not that truth is an easy matter. Still, our contemporary beliefs, behaviors, attitudes and speech have made the always challenging prospect of determining truth – especially shared truths – more complicated.

For the moment, though, let’s distinguish between truth as evidenced by reasonably observable facts from truth that is more purely linguistic and definitional. “The sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening”. Few among us, whether “Red” or “Blue” or “Liberal” or "Moderate" or “Movement Conservative” would debate this empirically observable statement.

Facts, though, often require more work to observe. Do 21st century market economies contribute to the risks of global warming? As we’ve seen in the debate over this question, even facts (e.g. about ‘causes’ and ‘risks’) can find themselves heavily subject, even perhaps hostage, to the other flavor of truth sharing: truth as language.

The most famous recent example of this flavor may be former President Clinton's declaration: “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is”. His was, at a minimum, the classic lawyer’s response to a question; namely, ‘let’s define our terms’.

There is a critical difference, though, between lawyers who define terms for purposes of a particular transaction and the body politic having some minimal agreement on the language needed to govern together – to make sense of shared lives.

And, so, consider this incident from a recent election. A candidate for a city office receives a questionnaire from a politically active interest group. One of the questions asks ‘whether the candidate would favor city ordinances” supportive of the interest groups proposed policies?

The candidate responds, “I prefer a legislative solution to the issues raised by these questions.”

As a matter of language, ‘city ordinances’ are legislation. The candidate has been asked, “Would you favor legislative solutions of the type we’re proposing?” The candidate answers, “I prefer legislative solutions to the questions you raise.”

The candidate has given a 'non answer' answer. But, the problem here goes beyond a candidate being slick. The audiences for this comment -- voters and others including young adults and children -- become accomodated to langauge without meaning. They are told by candidates who, if elected, will be their political leaders, that there is a difference between 'city ordinances' and 'legislation'.

We cannot have shared values without shared language. It is not humanly possible. If we politicize language beyond the reach of shared meaning, we cannot govern together. Indeed, we cannot hope to live together in anything other than cheap ignorance and moral despair.

Posted by Doug Smith at 01:02 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)