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

February 01, 2007

Take Advantage of Market Failure In Energy!

Okay folks. Here's your opportunity to make some money and contribute to the sustainability of the planet for future generations -- all by taking advantage of a market failure in today's energy industry.

Here's the situation, which you can read more about in one of the best new blogs on finance, markets and capitalism (www.nakedcapitalism.com): Deregulated electricity markets shift pricing out of the hands of regulators and into the lap of the industry's marginal cost supplier.

That's a mouthful. Why? Because folks like you and me and Aunt Sally do not factor price into whether we flip the switch when we get home at night. Our demand for electricity is impervious to price (the technical word: inelastic).

Price, then, will reflect the profit requirements of that supplier whose energy sits out the outer limit of total demand (i.e. the marginal cost of the 'last' supplier). Of course, other, lower cost suppliers could charge less in theory. But, absent regulation, why would they?

So, how is the price set by this 'last supplier'? Based on the supplier's profit appetites that sit on top of that supplier's costs. And what would be that supplier's costs? The amortized cost of the investment to build the plant plus the operating costs to run it.

Well, it turns out that it's easier to gain financial backing (i.e. capital investment) to build plants that have lower up front investment costs and higher operating costs. That means investors and capitalists make a nice profit by getting a return on lower investment tied to higher ongoing prices for consumers.

Consumers, folks. As in you and me and Aunt Sally.

Of course, it's also possible that you or your Aunty Sally may have the kind of megabucks to get in on the investment side of this game - and the contacts and relationships to be invited into the game. In which case, you'd have to check to see if your energy costs to run your home (or, more likely, your many homes since you're very rich) are adequately offset by the return on investment you get.

Now, what to do about it?

Well, it is in the planet's interest -- in the interest of protecting our precious earth for our children and their children and so on -- to replace the irrationality of this market failure with a market success. Instead of subsidizing capital through government action (note well: deregulation is an act of government!) which, in turn, causes higher energy prices (reread the above) -- and, if you go to the link -- also causes geopolitical instability as well as environmental degradation -- it would be great to find a market mechanism to correct for all this.

How? Well by finding a way to invest in something that has lower operating costs.

What would that be?

Renewable energy sources.

But, they have higher up front investment requirements.

Yes. And, that's where the opportunity comes in.

Listen up Goldman Sachs and pals. Here's what you do. You create an investment security for the broad public that combines up front capital with ongoing price reduction. In exchange for the capital that will go to build higher cost renewable-type plants, the investor gets a claim on the lower ongoing prices promised from that source of electricity. And, Goldman Sachs, if you're really clever and have any good government connections, you throw in some kind of investment credit to the total package.

Come on, now, all you financiers and capitalists. Let's get going.

(PS: Are there a variety of obstacles and details to work out? Yes. And that's why folks at Goldman and elsewhere get paid the big bucks.)

Posted by Doug Smith at 12:45 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 25, 2006

Day Of Reckoning

The United States remains one of the rare -- and certainly the largest -- pharmacuetical markets where government has refused to step in to curb pricing and other practices. Defenders of these practices point to the ideological instruction of shareholder value extremism: we must have free markets in which companies use profits and capital to innovate through research and development that, in turn, bring us ever new and more effective pharmaceuticals. The problem, of course, is when any single answer -- in this case profits and shareholder value -- is repeatedly used like a catechism without reference to it's actual, fact based effects, even the constructive aspects become emptied of all reason, all possibility.

Should we construct our affairs so that pharmaceutical companies make profits and offer an attractive return to those who provide them capital?

Yes.

Yes.

Yes.

Should we construct our affairs so that pharmaceutical companies drive profitability through kick-back like rewards to doctors who promote their high priced drugs, research and development trials conducted without oversight by independent agencies with sufficient resources to maintain objectivity, campaign funding provided to politicians (who declare themselves anti-science) in exchange for extending legalized monopolies needed to support high prices, product development processes that favor marginal advances on existing drugs over fundamentally new drugs (including life-style drugs instead of life-saving drugs), marketing and advertising campaigns that draw attention toward life-style and away from real need, and, finally, legislation that sets up complexly regulated distribution of drugs to older folks who neither themselves (nor their adult children) can even ever hope to understand -- and all because each and every one of these practices and more help pharmaceutical companies do in the United States what they cannot do elsewhere: make unsustainable profits?

Should we continue to allow all of these usurious and unethical practices?

No.

The free market crowd of zealots have become so detached from the facts on the ground about how markets actually operate that it comes as no surprise that Big Pharma is gearing up to fight against allowing for the free market importation of lower priced drugs from Canada.

Here's the problem. If you're an executive in a Big Pharma company, you know that the United States market is your last, best hope for sustaining unethcially high prices and shareholder value. Why? Because other markets are now 'off limits' to such practices because the governments in those marekts have chosen to blend their concern for Big Pharma profitability with their concern for the health and well being of all of their citizens (not just the top 10%).

For the red meat eating ideologues out there, please re-read: these governments blend their concern for profits and people. Blend. They do not prevent or advocate or wish that Big Pharma become indigent groups operating at unsustainable losses.

No. They wish for and hope and listen to reason to help Big Pharma and all private sector companies make profits -- reasonable and sustainable profits. Because that's how markets work.

But, these other governments -- unlike the government of the United States -- have said "No" to single answer, shareholder value extremisim. They know that this form of extortion is no more sustainable than continual, persistent losses.

So, if you're a Big Pharma exec and you look at the markets around the world and you see that, for the most part, your profits will be hemmed in except for one -- the US -- then what do you do?

You put the peddle to the metal in the US and do whatever it takes to drive as much profitablity as possible out of this last 'frontier'. Do the math! If you have 10 markets and 9 of them -- at best -- would produce, say, 10% return on investment while your financial markets are 'demanding' you maintain 25% in total -- then you better get a heckuva lot higher profitability out of that 10th market if you hope to make the total performance meet these expectations.

So, when a mid-term election shifts Congress from R to D, and the D group knows there's not much reality left to what we used to refer to as 'middle class' -- quick fact: the top 1% in this nation have 40% of the assets and they can definitely afford the high prices of Big Pharma's US market drugs while the lowest 60% of families have 1% of the assets and cannot -- and this D group identifies the free market idea of importing lower priced drugs -- well then the 'free market' Rs and their Big Pharma paymasters are going to go to work quickly to ensure that free market thinking like the D's offer do not imperil the 'free market' profits of the status quo.


Posted by Doug Smith at 12:19 PM | Permalink

November 19, 2006

Invest Today In A Free Press

How would you like to invest in the growth of an independent press? Well, go to the Media Development Loan Fund today and you can do just that by putting your money in a safe, low yield bond.

Over the past decade, MDLF has provided low-cost financing and technical assistance (learning related to financing, distribution, business planning, etc) to more than 50 independent media companies -- radio, TV, newspaper, internet and more -- in nearly a score of nations in Asia, Latin America, Africa, Central Europe, Russia and elsewhere that are transitioning toward the possibilities of democracy.

MDLF provide both low cost loans as well as takes equity stakes. They, in turn, use innovative instruments to gather the capital needed for their important work. In particular, with the participation of major financial institutions, MDLF offer investors low interest returns (e.g. up to 3%) in safe bonds -- what they call 'social bonds'. In effect, you can invest in press freedom around the world.

Posted by Doug Smith at 01:33 PM | Permalink

November 12, 2006

Six Sigma Upside Down

Six Sigma programs have been a common aspect of the quality movement that swept industry over that past twenty years. Among the key principles of these programs are (1) all work can be described in terms of step-by-step processes; (2) there are always 'customers' of these processes (that is, people, whether inside a company or, more traditionally, beyond it like real customers) who receive the benefits of the work at hand; (3) defects or errors matter to these customers; (4) data can be kept about such defects; (5) a variety of problem solving and improvement efforts can be made to continuously root out the causes and eliminate such defects; and, (6) those involved will do better if continuously challenged to reduce the number of defects.

Six Sigma itself is a statistical notion conveying that there will be less than 3.4 errors or defects for every milllion opportunities. This is a steep mountain to climb. Still, as an aspiration, it has vastly improved the quality of work over many years now -- especially when combined or driven through an expectation of continuing reducing the number or incidence of errors at some rate (e.g. every year cut defects by 70% or 90% or some other goal).

The six sigma statistic crossed my mind while reading about the track record of the federal and state Road Home program designed to help Katrina victims with the money needed to repair or replace damaged homes. Whether organizations are governmental or private sector, one doesn't expect six sigma performance in an effort only 14 months old. 3.4 four errors out of a million opportunities would be too high a bar.

Still, it came as a bit of surprise that, in a process essentially aimed at providing money to needy homeowners, the pace at getting it wrong would be so wildly at odds with six sigma. Indeed, the numbers turn six sigma on its head. Instead of getting it wrong 3.4 times out of million, this program has gotten it right only 22 times out of 79,000.

Only 22 home owners have actually received cash -- out of nearly 79,000 who have applied.

In six sigma upside down terms, this translates as "of every million opportunities to get it right, those doing the work in the Road Home program succeeded 278 times."

So, here's a suggestion to the Road Home program:

Invite all who have applied to the program to a football stadium. Ask them to use their application as their ticket to get in. Take the $7.5 billion allocated to the program, divide it up by the projected number of those in attendance, put that amount in a cashier's check on the stadium seats, provide some entertainment and call it a day.

Will there be defects?

Will there, for example, be folks who spend the money on something other than home repair or rebuilding? Will there be folks who shouldn't get the money? Will people get the wrong amount of money?

Yes.

But, here's my guess: The number of defects will be far lower than the current rate of getting it wrong at a pace of 999,732 times out of a million.


Posted by Doug Smith at 12:26 PM | Permalink

November 11, 2006

Note To Joe Nocera: Almost There

Joe Nocera of the The NY Times visited the annual Corporate Social Responsibility conference this past week and came away dazzled by the paradoxes. The contradictions would have been hard to miss. For example, what must Joe have wondered as he spoke to Exxon Mobil's and Chevron's corporate social responsibility representative the week following the Stern Report catalogue of the catastrophic risks of continuing to treat environmental damage as an externality. Ditto for Pfizer's 'do-gooder' who, as a person undoubtedly seeks to better human kind and cannot be held individually accountable for his company's maniacal focus on bottom line practices such as kick-back like rewards for doctors who push Pfizer products, research and development trials conducted without objective oversight, campaign funding to politicians who support extending legalized monopoly, product development efforts aimed at minor improvements over fundamental innovation, and marketing campaigns that draw attention away from health risks while misleading consumers about the actual costs of new drugs.

Ditto for Ford Motor Company -- whose advertising mantras for years and years (e.g. "No Boundaries") use the imagery of pristine environmental experiences to push gas guzzling SUVs. Or, how about General Electric? Having fouled the Hudson River for decades, GE poured tens millions of dollars into delaying court-ordered cleanup and miselading the public about it's actions because, from a shareholder point of view, the costs incurred in delay outweighed the costs of the clean up. McDonalds? The same week it's representative chatted about the company's sense of social responsibilty at the NY City confab, McDonalds was also funding the effort to fight a NY City ordinance banning transfats.

The list could go on. Joe could not avoid the paradoxes. When, for example, the McDonald's rep claimed corporate social responsibility is "core to the way we do business", Joe noted: "You could wonder about that."

Nocera picked up this theme again in his conclusion. Having ceaselessly breathed in paradox and contradiction, Joe opined that for companies to become substantively responsible -- as opposed to PR-oriented "responsible" -- would demand all responsible values become core to those companies' business models.

Hurrah for Joe! He is dead on correct. Now, Joe, go back, re-read and re-think this declarative statement you make earlier in the article:

"Do shareholders come first -- above other stakeholders (another favorite buzzword at the conference... encompassing customers, employees, activists and so on)? Of course."

Joe, Joe, Joe. There can never -- never -- be fundamental change to the core business models if shareholders come first and their concerns are the trump card of any discussion. Never.

But, Joe, listen up carefully. This last comment does not reflect today's either/or orthodoxy. The orthodoxy embedded in your all-too-facile "of course". The orthodoxy that insists that either the shareholder comes first. Or the shareholder comes last.

No. The shareholder cannot come last. We saw a long run of the poor consequences from the 1950s through the 1980s of what happens when the shareholder came last. We must pursue shareholder value. We must celebrate shareholder value.

But we must not make shareholder value the trump card of all human affairs conducted by business -- especially if we, as I think we should, choose capitalism as an essential philosophy for the well being of the planet.

Joe, if you are to help us change the core business models then you've got to erase your robocall "Of course" about the primacy of shareholder value. You've got to think again and somehow, some way discover the more profound declaration that the shareholder, like other core constituencies, must abide in equivalency of importance. The shareholder does not come first. Nor does the customer come first. Nor does the employee come first.

The shareholder does not come last. Nor does the customer come last. Nor does the employee come last.

Sustainable and ethical corporations must shift their core business models to this formulation: "Shareholders provide opportunities to the people of the enterprise and their partners to deliver both value and values to customers who generate returns to shareholders who provide opportunities to the people of the enterprise and their partners to deliver both value and values to customers who generate returns to shareholders who..... and on and on."

That is an ethical and sustainable scorecard. And it reflects this unprecedented and undeniable fact of the 21st century human condition: we live in a world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families in which our organizations are the new communities that determine the fate of our planet. Our primary ethical challenge can only be met when organizations reintegrate our legitimate concern for value with our equally legitimate concern for other values. Failing this, our most dominant organizations -- for-profit enterprises -- will continue putting value first and, thereby, continue propelling our global society toward social, environmental, political and economic disasters.

Joe, consider only this illogical aspect of your all-too-easy-and-orthodox "of course": Who are these shareholders who come first? I'm imagining you are a shareholder. But, let me ask this, are you a customer? Are you an employee?

Put differently, does Joe Nocera the human being come first? Or, do your concerns only matter to the extent that you happen to own stock in one more enterprises?

Should we put one of our dominant shared roles (investor) above the other dominant shared roles of our new age of human kind (employee, customer, family member, friend)? And where does that leave the extraordinary number of folks on this planet who are not investors?

Joe, if we wish to take your constructive insight about changing core business models as an essential condition to the fate of this planet, then we must move beyond either/or-ism to both/and. We must not elevate any role to trump card status while also avoiding subordinating any role as a last concern.

We must learn to practice the new golden rule: "As employees do unto others as customers, investors, family members and friends what we would have them do as employees to us as customers, investors, family members and friends."

When the employees and executives of Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Pfizer, Ford, General Electric and McDonalds begin practicing this golden rule in earnest, we'll all witness social responsibility (as well as environmental, medical, legal, political, technical, family, spiritual and economic responsibility) blended into the daily lives of those who make, sell, distribute and service the many good things we depend on for leading our lives.

We will experience and have good things to have that are truly 'good'.

Posted by Doug Smith at 12:44 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 17, 2006

Exploding Mortgages V

From Billmon writing about the housing bubble:

"But what makes things different -- and potentially more exciting -- this time around are the gaudy new financing gimmicks Kevin mentions: no money down loans, interest-only mortgages, ARMs that reset to truly usurious rates, etc. If and when these loans blow up, and they will, it could leave many home "owners" with no alternative but to sell and sell quickly -- or simply mail the keys back to the bank."

Who is responsible for this situation?

In our popular culture, the responsibility will get placed largely on the customer - on individuals who signed up for exploding mortgages.

Caveat emptor -- buyer beware -- has a long and important history and some of the responsibility always should lie with the customer.

But in a world where place still fostered shared values, individuals were much more likely to be bouyed in their choices by the shared wisdom of extended yet present family and neighbors who lived nearby and participated meaningfully in their shared lives. Folks would not let folks sign up for exploding mortgages.

Most of us no longer live in a world of places. We live in a world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and family. In this new world, an extraordinary amount of responsibility for the safety, sanity and sustainability of our society rests with organizations -- because organizations are where we come together for an experience of community -- of thick we's -- that allow us to ask and answer: What difference do we wish to make -- together -- to the world we live in?

Our long history of markets in a world of places does not always serve us best in answering this. The singularity of the profit motive arose in a world of places because place itself fostered shared values that moderated the effects of businesses operating out of self-interest. Today, our most prevalent shared values - that is, predictable patterns of belief and behavior -- happen because of markets, networks and organizations -- not places. Of these, organizations are the most important: they set the tone of what matters, of what we really stand for.

While undertandable from a standpoint of history, what most private sector organizations really stand for is profit. But, that is neither sustainable nor sufficient in our new world. It has led, for example, to widespread and entrenched shareholder value fundamentalism every bit as virulent as religious fundamentalism. That, in turn, leads to financial institutions, realtors, mortgage brokers, speculators and others who -- as thick we's -- make it their shared purpose to build profits and shareholder value at any cost without regard for other values.

That, in turn, leads to exploding mortgages.

Responsibiity? Customers? Yes, somewhat.

The core responsibility lies however with the folks who show up to work every day in companies that create and sell exploding mortgages. And until a critical mass of employees and executives of those companies figure out they are responsible for the horrendous things happening to their 'customers' -- and their customers' families and children -- we will continue to move blindly and recklessly through a world we refuse to take responsibility for.

Posted by Doug Smith at 11:25 AM | 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 15, 2006

Exploding Mortgages, IV

According to this NY Times' article, the share of interest-only mortgages jumped from ten percent of new mortgages in 2003 to over 25% in 2005. In addition, a different variant of exploding mortgage -- called payment option adjustable -- represented nearly 16% of new mortgages in 2005. In total, 42% of new mortgages in 2005 had explosive potential -- that is, could blow up if the borrowers found themselves in any of the following situations: (1) rising interest rates that triggered significant increases in monthly carrying costs beyond the income capacity of the borrower (and this goes for the mortgage as well as credit card debt); (2) falling home prices that trigger similar problems or make refinancing out of the question; (3) increases in other costs such as gasoline, health insurance or home heating which force the borrower to make tough choices; (4) loss of job which, if the borrower is actually a couple who premised affordability on two incomes could mean unaffordability if either spouse loses a job; or, (5) illness that either puts the borrower out of work for too long or means a spike in uninsured or underinsured medical costs (which might arise if either the borrower or any other family member gets sick).

These are just some of the risks facing 42% of the borrowers who got exploding mortgages in 2005.

Executives in the mortgage industry who are quoted in the article, however, are not concerned. "It offers an opportunity," said Brad Brunts of CitiMortage, a Citigroup unit. According to Freddie Mac -- the giant mortgage packager that has been under a cloud for years for unethical practices -- the exploding mortgages offer a bonanza opportunity for Mr. Brunts and his professional colleagues to refinance existing mortgages -- to, in effect, wring yet more profits out of financial arrangements already unaffordable to borrowers.

Exploding mortgages were predatory by luring people into unaffordable situations. Now millions of families may lose their homes -- or be forced to drop critical expenditures such as medical or dental help or heating during winter. Millions of families. But it's not likely that many of them sit in the top 20% of society. Instead, the top 20% hold the paper - they are, directly or indirectly, the ones providing the capital and, because the top 20% hold more than 80% of the assets, we know that the capital markets in the US have huge capacity to ride out the difficulties through refinancing and streching out payments before declaring bad debt not to mention capacity to profitably write-off a lot of debt.

The current way markets work, then, favors the holders of capital at the expense of millions who cannot afford the exploding mortgates threatening their futures. One might, in theory, consider turning to courts for redress. But, such efforts to rectify predatory practices have fallen very short. Ameriquest, for example, suffered a mere few hundred bucks per bad mortgage in a settlement aimed at its unethical practices. Road kill.

So, if you're like Mr. Brunts, you look at the more than $1 trillion of likely business that will get re-financed over the next two years and see bonuses and commisions, not misery. In his lack of concern, Mr. Brunts is joined by the head of the National Association of Realtors - you know, the folks bringing you the recent wave of commercials about how comforting it is to have a broker you can trust.

As the Times article notes, "Mr. Brunts says only a minority of mortgage holders will face real problems."

Statistically, of course, 'minority' can mean any percentage less than 50. Linguistically - and culturally -- however, when a person says, "only a minorty....', the rest of us are supposed to hear: 'very minor problem that won't affect you."

In other words, 'tsk tsk... let's just move on'.

Posted by Doug Smith at 02:59 PM | Permalink

July 07, 2006

The Shared Idea Of Citizen

Dan Gillmor is a highly respected commentator on the subject of citizen journalism and, among other things, how citizen journalism will/might affect the ongoing shifts in the world of news organizations. This week, he responded to the proposed shift in language from citizen journalism to networked journalism by acknowledging the usefulness of the distinction and also sticking to his phrase. As he writes:

Not a bad distinction. But the most vital part of this is the fact that it leads us to a better informed citizenry. That is the ultimate goal, at least in my thinking.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines “citizen” in four ways:

1. A person owing loyalty to and entitled by birth or naturalization to the protection of a state or nation.
2. A resident of a city or town, especially one entitled to vote and enjoy other privileges there.
3. A civilian.
4. A native, inhabitant, or denizen of a particular place: “We have learned to be citizens of the world, members of the human community” (Franklin D. Roosevelt).
I’m a proud American (even when I’m not proud of my nation’s official actions or its political leaders). I am a citizen, for sure, in the first definition.

But in this context I use the word more to reflect the other definitions, not just as one who is a formal citizen of a nation-state. In a globalizing world, the distinction is less important than it used to be — not unimportant, by any means, but no longer necessarily the defining status of a human being. Before this radical evolution is over, in a few decades, formal citizenship may seem almost quaint.

The citizens I refer to are members of communities, large and small, geographic and interest-based. We inform each other, using networks and other tools.

Citizenship carries responsibility in any community. Indeed, the idea of being responsible to one’s self and one’s neighbors (virtual or otherwise) is an essential part of what I’m trying to accomplish.

Look closely at the dictionary definitions. With the exception of 'civilian', citizen is strictly defined with regard to place: nation, state, town and so forth. This is not surprising. Our parents and grandparents and all ancestors who came before them lived in places. They connected to other people and they shared values and shared fates with other people because they lived together with those people in places. Our shared idea of citizen is, therefore, replete with place-based content. So is our shared idea of community.

But our actual experience of what it means to owe loyalty to a group, or enjoy protections and privileges of participation in a group have dramatically shifted from the context of place to the context of organization -- whether that organization is formal or informal, for-profit, non-profit or governmental, or large or small. The same goes for our actual experience of the non-place specific meaning of community. In our new world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families, 'community' happens when we share purposes that we pursue with others -- not because of the addresses where we happen to reside.


All of which means that Gillmor and the rest of us need much greater clarity about the variety of issues Gillmor raises:

Do we wish to save the meaning of citizenship from becoming quaint?
If so, how do we strip it of place-requirements while simultaneously shifting the responsibilities of citizenship to contexts of organization and shared purpose?
Is 'interest-based' participation sufficient to support the meaning of citizenship? Are the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship contingent only on shared interest? Or, must there be shared purpose and the obligation to pursue those purposes together?

And. then, there is also this question:

Is the overarching objective of citizen journalism or networked journalism -- or, for that matter, any potentially powerful new idea related to the safety, sanity and sustainability of the planet -- to foster a better informed place-denominated citizenry? Or, however important that might be, would the more potent objective be to foster much better informed folks who can take responsibility to be the best possible employees/executives, customers/voters, investors, networkers, family members and friends -- that is, responsibilities in the core roles that define life in a world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families?


Posted by Doug Smith at 01:30 PM | 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 05, 2006

Value Madness

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

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

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

So, let's recount:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Doug Smith at 12:30 PM | Permalink

June 04, 2006

Not One Ounce Of Prevention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Doug Smith at 12:09 PM | Permalink

May 28, 2006

Government Secrecy Gone Wild: The SEC

Among the most cherished and powerful market principles is the direct relationship between the free flow of information and market efficiency. In our networked economy, of course, this is even more pertinent. The more information that flows, the more powerfully and quickly the markets can adjust. If one or more organizations gain control over information flow, trouble follows (e.g. see today's earlier post of about the flow of information around the widely shared but false idea of 'authenticity' in our political markets).

Those who favor openness and free flow of information also believe the same is the best possible policy for countering the ill effects of dis-information. That is, when one 'let's it all flow" the odds improve that markets will more quickly and effectively adjust to bad or false information.

But, of course, those who currently rule instead of govern our nation have a strong, predictable set of beliefs and behaviours -- strong shared values -- that opt for secrecy over openness, and controlled/trumped up misinformation over the free flow of information.

It now looks like their diseased values have spread to the SEC.

Earlier this week, a jury returned guilty verdicts against two of the architects of the Enron scandals. In a subsequent letter, Chris Cox, the current head of the SEC congratulated the agency for their hard work and persistence in helping with the prosecution. Too bad that Cox's new secrecy policy at the SEC -- the policy of nondisclosure by that federal agency most iconically associated with the idea of disclosure -- is but one more brick in a growing wall separating our government from competence and sanity.

Have Chris Cox and his lawyers lost their minds? The basic point of disclosure laws and practices is to help the markets react and adjust as quickly and as efficiently as possible to 'news' -- especially news of possible wrongdoing. Had Cox's wrong-end-of-the-telescope policy been in place in late 2001, the SEC would have blocked -- not disclosed -- information about the Enron investigations Cox now so proudly celebrates -- and, in doing so, would have left tens of thousands of investors in the dark about what was emerging as a major scandal.

Yes. That's right. The financial markets would not have been given the earliest possible moment to begin adjusting for the Enron malfeasance -- and those same tens of thousands of investors would have held on longer -- only to have been burned worse before the word came out.

Your job Chris is to help faciliate large, effective, and efficient capital markets. That's job No. 1.

Your job is not primarily to 'get scalps', build your resume of successful prosecutions, and along the way harm investors.

Start doing your job.

Posted by Doug Smith at 04:25 PM | Permalink

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 19, 2006

Exploding Mortgages, III

Recently, the National Association of Realtors has run a series of TV ads promoting their brokers' ethics. The ads portray a series of sociodemographically diverse folks giving heart felt testimonials describing how lucky and fortunate and, well, down right life saving was the help and assistance they received from their real estate brokers whose -- well, golly, -- whose ethics saved the homeowners from any number of traps, illusions and pitfalls.

The brand promise here, of course, bears only a random relationship to the brand delivery, at least as experienced by millions of folks who now have exploding mortgages and homes they cannot and never could afford. Are there ethical real estate brokers to be found in the United States? Of course there are. But, have this nation's housing markets experienced the depradations of 'make a buck for me' real estate brokers, mortgage borkers, housing developers, predatory lenders and -- even so-called non-profit financial counselors?

Yes. For example, see this, this and this. And, for the latest update see this.

Beyond the contexts of friends and family, we live our lives in markets, networks and organizations. The organizations in those markets -- like the National Association of Realtors, the local realtor down the block, the bank, the mortgage company, the credit card company, the US Congress (see Bankruptcy Act), Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Citigroup, Ameriquest and on and on and on and on -- choose how to position what they really stand for in terms of brand promise as well as the extent to which the products and services they deliver match those promises.

That our life experiences with the gap between brand promise and brand delivery have taught us to be skeptical is not a surprise. Some exaggeration is a built-in corollary of the constraints posed by 30 second ads, billboards and banners. Of course there is exaggeration because companies must choose what to emphasize.

But, exaggeration need not be immoral, unethical and damaging to others. Exaggeration -- even the need to competitively exaggerate in markets -- need not be a mandated corollary of societal suicide.

The horse of unethical, sharp practices has long since left the barn of the last half decade in the housing markets. Tens of millions of folks -- of families with children, of the elderly, of young individuals and couples struggling to live what used to pass in reality not just commercials as the American Dream -- confront serious housing affordability problems -- and far too many realtors who are members of the National Association of Realtors responded to the real, human needs of these people by pushing them into higher priced homes with exploding mortgages so that the realtors could make more and higher commisions. Me. Not both me and we.

It's a sickness. A sickness infecting souls that have lost the capacity to blend concern for money and profits with concern for other values -- and to do so in real time, not hindsight; in today's real estate transaction, not on TV in some commercial.

Hey, the pursuit of profits in markets has showered humanity with untold benefits. Let us rightly celebrate the power of markets to make lives better. But, let's stop killing the life enhancing, life giving power of markets by deluding ourselves that self-interest starts and stops with profits. It does not. Adam Smith's famous butcher, baker and candlesttick maker were also interested in -- and guided by -- the values they shared with other folks with whom they were fated to live their lives. Were there butchers who sold rotten meat? Yes. But, did a majority, even a plurality, of butchers as a matter of policy and routine harm their customers -- their neighbors -- by selling hurtful products at unaffordable prices? No. And there's nothing in The Wealth of Nations -- or any economic theory or practice since then -- that suggests this is a desirable characteristic if it dominates and dictates the course and conduct of commerce. This sort of unethical conduct is meant to be a regrettable, if predictable, by product. An exception. Not the rule.

Over the past five to ten years, sharp practices in the over heated housing markets, though, have become more than exceptions. And, no amount of after-the-fact horse pucky from the National Association of Realtors waxing on about the wonderfulness of their members can hide the consequences of financial rape perpetrated by realtors who, in turn, have been abetted by other 'thick we's' known as financial service institutions, law firms, Congress, housing devleopers and so on.

The widespread habit of showing up to work from 9-to-5 and allowing our legitimate concern for value to trump our equally legitmate concern for other values (e.g. shared prosperity, family, liberty and justice for all) has infected not only the body economic -- but also the body politic. It must stop. Not by turning our backs on profits, money, wealth building and winning. But, rather, by each and every one of our thick we's -- especially the thick we's of organizations where we work -- asking and answering how the organization's particular vision, strategy and common good contributes to the greater good of our society and our planet. And, then translating the answers into performance -- into a blended, ethical scorecard that converts promise into results.

Yes, we must turn away from those, like Grover Norquist, Karl Rove and their cabal, who -- in their own maniacal pursuit of winning and value -- have fostered a popular culture that hates government and, thereby puts folks in charge of governmental organizations -- governmental thick we's -- who, it logically follows, cause those thick we's to be self-hating.

We must restore a proper and legitimate role for governmental thick we's. And that means we must learn all over again that there are situations and contexts in which government regulation -- yes regulation -- is proper and needed.

But, in a world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families, law and regulation are necessary but not sufficient. We cannot foster a safe, sane and sustainable planet for our children and their children if we don't take shared responsibility for doing so. And, yes, that means acting individually as friends, family members, customers and investors in ways that account for more than 'me'. But, again, such is necessary, not sufficient.

The critical crucible in our new world in which we can and must take shared responsibility is the organization. Unless and until we act there to ensure a sustainable blend of value and values -- unless and until we act to ensure that our brand promise as well as our brand delivery -- honor all that is right and just including but not limited to profits, we will continue to march in darkness toward the precipice.

And, our shame will mount and we will occasionally be so shocked when we look back over our shoulders at the wreckage of human lives in our wake that, in mock preservation of our souls, we'll hire writers, directors, camera folks and actors to create the image of what can only be best described as nostalgia for our better selves.

The time has arrived for before-the-fact vision, strategies, products and services that blend all values.

And those who must -- indeed, the only ones who can -- make this happen are ourselves in our shared roles as employees and executives in the thick we's we call companies, agencies, firms and organizations that have the whip hand of the planet.

If you think for one second that what you and your colleagues at work do is "just business", then you are continuing to sleep walk toward the destruction of the planet by missing the opportunity every single day of your working lives to make a difference with others by creating and implementing businesses that are just.

And, you can start today.


Posted by Doug Smith at 12:02 PM | 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

May 13, 2006

Letter To Billmon About Leviathan

Dear Billmon,

Thank you for Leviathan. The picture painted of an already-happening police state is a dark one -- yet one I fear millions of us might sleep walk to and through unless we wake up to the new realities and responsibilities of living in the world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families described in On Value and Values: Thinking Differently About We In An Age Of Me.

We can save our nation and the world from the nightmare of Leviathan. But, first, we need to identify who 'we' are -- or, rather, when we are a 'thick we' versus a 'thin we'. The fate of our nation lies with choices made by 'thick we's' as well as 'thin we's". But right now, the choices discussed in popular culture's democracy topic lie mainly with the 'thin we's' -- the we's such as NASCAR dads et al shaped by common interests expressed in markets as opposed to thick we's shaped by actual shared fates and shared purposes for which those in the 'thick we' must hold themselves mutually accountable for implementation. "Thin we's" elect folks (e.g. Bush v. Kerry); 'thin we's' consume things (e.g. hybrids v. Hummers); 'thin we's' -- in roles as consumers and voters and investors -- are courted by thick we's competing in markets and networks.

'Thin we's' matter -- a lot. We cannot shift and evolve without shifts and evolution in thin we's. But, thin we's are not in some sense real we's. Unlike organizations, friends and families, thin we's are more like collectivities of me's. Thin we's never hold themselves accountable as we's for choices. Rather, and this is key, thin we's look to thick we's -- to organizations -- to implement the choices for them and to deal with the consequences of those choices. Thin we's elect officials; thin we's buy cars or computers or cereal; thin we's invest in companies. But it's thick we's who must implement the full range of implications of those choices.

Today, our most powerful thick we's are organizations, not towns or neighborhoods. That is different from the time of Hobbes, from the time of Jefferson.... indeed, from the time of Eisenhower when he warned of the military-industrial complex -- when he foreshadowed a powerful and scary upshot of the transition from a world of place-based thick we's (towns, neighborhoods) to organization-based thick we's in a world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families.

Even Ike could not have had more than a foreshadowing about what happens when networks are thrown into the mix with markets and organizations -- when the strategies of organizations seeking to grow/thrive in the context of markets (including, what Schumpeter described as our political markets) get wired up in networks. Perhaps, the picture you paint in Leviathan would not have surprised Ike -- but he would not have conceived that the reality might have happened in quite this way or with what a friend describes as quite this 'gradual suddenness'.

Today, the most powerful and dangerous thick we's in our nation -- those private sector corporations led by shareholder value fundamentalists, government organizations led by Bush Administration power fundamentalists, and those fundamentalist Christian churches being led by satanists instead of Christians -- are indeed making choices that can lead to the Leviathan nightmare. But, note that such choices are being made far more hierarchically then democratically within the thick we's themselves. The choices jeopardizing our society are coming from the top of such thick we's and they are being made in secret.

That, however, is neither fated nor required by how organizations should or must work. All organizations -- just like all societies -- even Hobbesian ones -- blend hierarchy and democracy. Always. Hobbes' blend was 99.9 parts hierarchy and .1 democracy. But, let's remember that even the fearful Hobbes permitted people to undo the government through revolt.

If you look at choices that matter where you work -- where ever that may be -- the blend is not 99.9 hieararchy to .1 democracy. It may, in your view balance more toward hierarchy. However, having advised/consulted to hundreds of organizations in close to fifty different industries over more than a quarter of century, I observe that the blend has shifted toward more democracy. The challenges of competition demand it. Indeed, the challenges of implementation and performance demand it.

One of the great failures of the Bush Administration comes from the shared beliefs and behaviors of Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney and others who simply and stunningly have not had executive experience in this new world where organizations cannot succeed with 99H/1D approaches. While I personally believe far too many critical choices in organizations are still made far too hierarchically and secretly, I cannot from personal experience or observation point to a single top management group of a successful company on the planet who continue to use 1970s H/D mixes to meet the needs of 21st century performance. Not one. Instead, what I read/observe daily about the Bush administration and, consequently, what we all read daily about the trail of failure and incompetence that follows in the wake of their outdated 99H/1D bet on hierarchy. (Indeed, I believe we can bet that the only effective part of the Bush Administration -- the part run by Rove for the past many years -- uses a different blend of H and D. Why? Because that Rovian part is focused on actually solving real problems against which they have to hold themselves accountable for actual -- not made-up -- performance.)

The shift in corporations, non-profits and the hinterlands of government enterprises not yet infected with the Bush approach has not gone to .1 H/99.9D. I'm not saying that. Nor do I believe such an extreme imbalance in the direction of democracy is more promising than Hobbes. Not even the Athenians had 99.9D/.1H. But, the shift is on -- especially with regard to issues such as quality, customer orientation, front-line problem solving and so forth. What has not happened, however, is a shift toward a more blended approach on issues that cut to the heart of what a corporation stands for and how the vision/mission/strategy of the corporation -- the common good of that particular thick we - contributes to the greater good of the planet. There we continue to see hierarchy and secrecy -- we see after the fact attempts at 'buy in' instead of before the fact inclusiveness and shared problem solving. One can be dead certain, for example, that the phone companies did not widely discuss and debate within their respective thick we's the choice about whether to hand over the phone records to NSA. (And, no surprise, we may now see that those executives have condemned their employees, their investors and their customers in ways that a more open, better blended democratic and hierarchical process would have avoided.)

You rightly worry in Leviathan about the profound effects of habits formed in organizations where, in our roles as executives and employees, we make assumptions about the values and purposes associated with nanny networks, security cameras, political speech and so forth. OnVVS points out that our most predictable beliefs and behaviors (which I equate with our actual values as opposed to just abstract ones) derive from a blend of relationships, roles and ideas. All these sources of shared values most powerfully reinforce each other when we are part of a thick we who share meaningful parts of fates and purposes together -- friends and family to be sure -- but, in our 21st century, the context beyond friend and family most present in our lives is that of organization.

Organizations -- again, not limited to work organizations and not limited to private sector either -- are where we interact persistently with other folks beyond friends and family. The habits of belief and behavior we form in organizations are reinforced by relationships there, roles there (e.g. boss/subordinate; marketing v. engineering; team problem solving vs boss/subordinate problem solving) and ideas there (vision, mission, strategy, brand... things like 'shareholder value' and 'the customer is always right' .... indeed, the entire concept of 'corporate values'). What you note as your greatest worry -- point five in Leviathan at the bottom of the section 'Mining Disaster' about the replication of behavior and values found in corporate America -- is one of the core pivot points and generative experience bases in our lives in markets, networks, organizations, friends and families. DeTocqueville reported on the power and potential of replication of behavior and values found in small towns. OnVVs argues that, for tens upon tens of millions of us, small towns are not our thick we's. Organizations are. And, only when we learn to take responsibility together for the choices of our organizations and how those choices contribute to the greater good, will we move and evolve forward. Only then will we revitalize how best to use the inheritance and legacy of the Founders in our dramatically differently structured lives and world. Only then will we migrate and revitalize our democracy where we actually live together with other folks (organizations) instead of only where we make consumption choices (markets).

Yes, we might stumble forward. We might continue our deep seated beliefs and behaviors that have us act as if what happens at work is 'only business' and that somehow we can offset the consequences we cause in pursuit of profits and shareholder value as the obsessive, singular trump card concern by somehow acting righteously as consumers or investors .... that we can somehow in our individual roles oppose our actions as 'me's' and thin we's in ways that effectively counter the unbelievably stronger array of resources and power of our thick we's.

But, we cannot leave a safe, sane and sustainable planet for our kids and their kids if we continue to travel down this path and confuse the pursuit of happiness with the pursuit of value over values. We cannot solve the problems of, say, rampant obesity, unaffordable housing, predatory lending, gasoline/oil addictions, environmental depredation, the attack on science -- or government spying -- unless we take a stand inside the organizations where we work that have something to say and do on these matters.

Nor can we sustainably respond to these challenges if we abandon value. Value matters. But, until our brands, strategies, missions, products and services bake equivalent concern for all values, including value, into the common good of our thick we's, we will continue to walk the dark path forward. If we fail to take responsibility for the thick we's in our lives and mindlessly perpetuate allowing secretive, overly hierarchical approaches to reinforce a path we seemingly are on today, then surely the Leviathan follows.

But there's nothing written by Hobbes or anyone else for that matter that says or mandates, "This must be so."

We can act differently. We must. As Gandhi said, 'We must be the change we wish to bring about." In part, that means let's do what we can as "me's" and "thin we's" to elect a president -- and a Senator and a Congressperson and a Governor and a state, county or local legislator -- who have the vision and courage to see this new world we live in and lead us to a more promising future for our children and grandchildren. But, as per Gandhi, we cannot hope to find that path through merely replacing Bush and friends with different and competent leaders who, while benevolent, continue to bet on unsustainable blends of hierarchy and democracy -- or on a concern for value that remains dis-integrated from a concern for values. I can imagine a president who is the leader needed. When I do, I also imagine that she or he reminds us that we are responsible for the future of this planet -- and that our responsibility exists both in choices we make as consumers, voters, investors and other "me or I" roles -- but, especially in and as part of our thick we's. For it's in those we's that the resources, knowledge, information and motivation is most powerful. A president or any leader can show us this path forward. But, we -- as thick we's -- must walk it -- must make and implement and take full responsibility for choices together. It is in our real, every day thick we's -- the thick we's of where we work, learn, play and pray - that we face the choices that will determine the fate of the planet.

And, it's there we can turn things around. The thick we's of auto companies can drop Hummers in favor of hybrids -- if they have the courage to blend concern for value with concern for values. The thick we's of food companies can reverse how their products and advertising and marketing contribute to obesity and other eating disorders. The thick we's of Homeland Security, the FBI, the IRS and others can stand up and say, "Our job is to govern, not to rule with the iron grip demanded to reelect Bush and the ideologues of Bush forever more."

All this is possible -- if thick we's learn and even demand healthier blends of hierarchy and democracy in how they govern themselves.

But, that is most likely to happen when we learn first to 'think differently about we' and about our responsibility to blend our legitimate concern for value with our equally legitimate concern for values.

Posted by Doug Smith at 04:36 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

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 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 17, 2006

Principle of Disagreement

Edward Rothstein of the The NY Times has a wonderful summary and set of reflections about a recent Yale conference on strong leadership versus the popular will. Here's my letter to him:

Dear Mr. Rothstein,

Thank you for the excellent report from the recent Yale conference about leadership and democracy. There is a strand -- a view -- that may not have been fully revealed at the conference; namely, that all human societies find some blend of hierarchy and democracy in how they govern or manage themselves. Sometimes that blend balances toward one or the other -- but there's always both at work. The discussion about strong leadership - about lions and eagles -- sounds like it reflected the uses of hierarchy which, as your fine article pointed out, might be 'good' or 'bad' -- the same as democracy.

Perhaps most critical, though, is your point near the bottom about the principle of disagreement. Think of this in terms of beliefs, behaviors, and attitude -- and ask yourself, from what sources do those beliefs, behaviors and attitudes spring so that they become a predictable set of values? How does it happen that a principle of disagreement exists in real life, not just in democractic/hierarchical theory?

(And, quick note: hierarchy itself cannot work well in the absence of some 'principle of disagreement'. See, for example, the recent Time magazine piece by the retired general who points out that officers owe their duty to the Constitution. In other words, even within the hierarchy of the military, there is a source for legitimate disagreement.)

There are a variety of well established sources for what makes human belief and behavior predictable -- that is, how it might happen that a principle of disagreement becomes habit. In addition to genetics (e.g. evolutionary psychology), human relationships, shared roles and status and shared ideas all shape values.

Those who attended the conference, like your readers, cannot answer your profound questions about the principle of disagreement and virtue without taking a deep breath and 'seeing' that these sources of shared values have radically altered as a result of how we live our lives today (versus how the folks who were discussed -- Lincoln, Hitler, and so forth -- lived theirs).

They -- and importantly those who followed their leads -- lived out lives mostly in contexts of place: of neighborhood and town and among friends and family so determined. Not all. Not 100%. But mostly. And, the values they predictably shared (e.g. a principle of disgreement; the blend of hierarchy and democracy in problem-solving and government) happened as a consequence of the human relationships, roles, status and ideas they shared because of place. In this sense, place operated like a forge whose heat forced folks to share values so that they could co-exist and achieve what mattered to them.

We don't. We live in markets, networks, organizations, friends and family. Our shared values derive from relationships that happen in these contexts (e.g. the folks we interact with at work often shape our values more than neighbors whose names we might not even know), from the strong shared roles of customer, employee and investor, and from ideas that spread because of markets and networks. For example, unlike our ancestors whose place-based ignorance stemmed from an absence of new ideas, our ignorance comes from too many ideas and the lack of information about which are accurate and useful (see, e.g., the widely shared idea of 'WMD' a few years back - the use of a powerful idea in our new contexts of markets and networks by leaders more bent on hierarchy than democracy -- importantly, even within their own organizations, let alone the nation.).

One of the predictable patterns of belief, behavior and attitude in our new world of markets, etc. is 'either/or-ism': the all-or-nothing, on-off, 'red' versus 'blue' pattern that so quickly turns any interesting question into declarations instead of real debates. This is not a healthy sign for any real principle of disagreement.

And, yet, if we examine our life in organizations, we find that the blend of hierarchy and democracy quite often offers a healthier support for the principle of disagreement than our life in markets. Markets aren't very promising contexts in which to disagree in constructive ways. We make choices in markets (Pepsi v. Coke; Republican v. Democrat; and so forth). But, even when we vociferously support our choices, we are not engaged in either real debate or real dissent. We are more likely acting out our role as consumers (or investors) in an unbelievable large context (markets) where our voices aren't actually heard in the manner of dissent or problem solving about truly shared purposes so much as feedback to those selling us ideas and products.

This behavior in markets is useful. It does provide feedback. But we should not confuse it with the principle of disagreement in the context of family, among friends or in organizations. It is in those contexts where our roles, relationships and ideas must blend to help us make choices that actually go beyond consumption to some form of the 'common good' -- that is, toward the identification and implementation of shared purposes that matter to our lives together with other people we actually know and care about.

This is why the blend of hierarchy and democracy -- and the presence or absence of leaders who interact with followers in testing the limits of both -- matters much more in organizations than markets.

When I look at organizations that are even reasonably succeeding in today's chaotic world, I tend to see a principle of disagreement that is healthy and predictable. When I look at organizations that are failing (e.g. the Bush White House), I do not see this.

Your excellent article is profoundly important in it's note about the essential nature of a principle of disagreement. Now, let's hope that more and more of our colleagues and others will start connecting the dots of where, why and how such a principle thrives versus does not -- and why it matters to the safety, sanity and sustainability of the planet.

Posted by Doug Smith at 02:24 PM | Permalink

April 14, 2006

When Decisions Are Not Enough

A number of retired military officers are calling for the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld. Meanwhile, the White House continues to support Rumsfeld with the same 'doing a great job' comments we've heard many times before, perhaps most famously applied to FEMA head Mike Brown in the wake of Katrina. Rumsfeld has certainly failed the test of performance. Take any of his assigned challenges -- whether Iraq, Afghanistan, the war on terror, or his own vision of a reengineered 21st century military. Simply ask yourselves what 'success would like like' against any of those challenges. Try your best to answer in terms of real outcomes instead of endless activities. Then weigh actual performance against the outcomes and, inevitably, Rumsfeld comes up short. Drastically short.

Even reasonable folks on the Republican side of the aisle acknowledge Rumsfeld's failure. This particular post caught my eye, though, because the writer holds Rumsfeld's previous accomplishments in such high esteem. And, in doing so, the writer betrays a characteristic failure that has bedeviled all of us since 9/11: the utter lack of appreciation on the part of our elected officials, our media, and ourselves to acknowledge that profound change demands more than decisions.

There are two kinds of change faced by organizations. In one, decisions are enough. In the other, decisions are necessary but insufficient because a critical mass of already employed people must learn new skills, behaviors and ways of working with one another in order to succeed at both change and performance.

Consider, for example, three challenges that confronted Rumsfeld:

Achieving military victory in Iraq.
Nation building in Iraq following military victory.
Reengineering the military for the 21st century.

Delivering performance results against the first of these three was/is profoundly different from the second and third. The military had been thoroughly rebuilt during the Clinton years (in significant part because of true bipartisan support for the reforms). The 'already employed' folks in the military and defense and related organizations already had the skills, behaviors, and working relationships to go into Iraq and achieve military victory. Put aside the decision to take that step. Once the choice was made, that decision was enough.

Not so with the second and third challenges. Nation building in Iraq as well as reengineering the military for the 21st century cannot succeed without profound changes in skills, behaviors and working relationships among people who are already employed -- that is, human beings like you and me and everyone else who must deal with all the anxieties, uncertainties and questions about the risks that real change presents with respect to job security, career aspirations, friendships at work, and, even, our search for meaning and fulfillment.

This is why 'behavior-driven' change is so much more difficult than 'decision-driven' change. The track record for success in behavior-driven change is much worse than decision-driven change. It probably always will be harder. But, the odds of success in behavior-driven change rise dramatically when leaders understand that decisions are not enough.

Rumsfeld -- as well as Cheney, Bush, Rice and others -- do not get this. They come from the "CEO as decision maker" school of leadership. Which, again political preferences aside, is good enough when decisions will be sufficient. These folks are not alone. For example, the 9/11 Commission and its staff also failed to appreciate this difference. They worked their tails off. They did a really wonderful job under very difficult circumstances. And, the recommended decisions they shaped truly make sense.

Still, a read through of their report shows they -- and, I guess, those like Robert Mueller and Porter Goss -- who must figure out whether and why to implement such recommendations went into the challenge without recognizing when and when not decisions would be sufficient.

My guess, though, is that Mueller, a good guy who is so dedicated to doing what's right as opposed to what's only right for him and his vision (compare Rumsfeld), has learned a lot about the difference between decision versus behavior-based change. Let us hope so.

If he has, though, he separates himself from Rumsfeld.

Rumsfeld has failed. He has not delivered performance. He should resign or be fired. I share the view that such is unlikely. But, whether he goes or doesn't go, let's hope that our discourse over the many failures of this incompetent administration will begin to include insights and lessons about decision-based versus behavior-based change -- because guess what? Most of the challenges we face and will continue to face are of the second kind and most of the leaders we elect and the media who claim to inform us about them have yet to master anything but the first.

Posted by Doug Smith at 12:46 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

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 27, 2006

Secretary Snow's Star System

As noted last week, Secretary of the Treasury John Snow is out on the circuit hawking his boss's wares. Just ask him and he'll pull open one side of his tailored overcoat and show just how great the economy is doing as a direct result of tax cuts, unprecedented spending and deficits, and federal subsidies-and-rule-making for oil and energy companies, pharmaceutical companies, defense contractors, financial service companies, communications and media companies -- pretty much any private sector company..... and, of course, nonprofit organizations that promote Christianity of the 'complete faith, no works' kind. You know, the kind with a litmus test of being reborn in biblical literalism while staying as far as possible from Christ's message of acts of forgiveness, tolerance and charity.

One of the latest steps taken by the Rebulican right wing employing Snow is to throw gasoline onto the already raging fire known as the pension fund crisis. Several decades ago, millions of workers in the U.S. depended on pensions that were funded by the companies for whom they worked. It was part of the 'deal'. In the bubble years, many companies' pensions soared because of the stock market -- and, a number of questionable practices sprung up like putting all of the pension assets in the company's own stock (violation of Rule #1 -- diversification -- that every single one of those pension managers would advise their parents and children to follow). With the growth-on-paper of pension assets, companies also got lazy about actually funding future pension liabilities with cash and other hard assets.

Then, the bubble burst. And, the Bush Administration came into office. By the middle of Bush's first term, nearly all private sector pensions were underfunded. That means, they did not have the assets to meet liabilities. The federal agency responsible for monitoring and serving as insurer -- the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation -- was also underfunded, especially after it got hit by the airline bankruptcies.

A competent group of federal officials from the executive, legislative and agency parts of the government would have looked at the balance sheets and taken steps to restore -- well -- balance. But the Bush Administration -- and their handmaidens and sponsors that rule the Republican Party -- have instead chosen the novel approach of inviting companies to decrease -- not increase -- how and if they fund pensions.

This is very good news for shareholders. At least in the short term. Of course, like all policies of shareholder value fundamentalism -- the ideology that makes "what does this do for next quarter's earnings?" the single test for every question, large and small -- this latest piece of incompetence will, soon enough, destroy shareholder value along with, of course, the security of tens of millions of workers who thought they could depend on funded pensions to see them through the years ahead.

It is a travesty of incompetence. Put ideals to one side. My father was a Republican. I learned from him the ideals -- the values -- of fiscal responsibility and of the responsibilities in a free market economy that must be exercised by owners. Those are values. Those are ideals. And, those are evidently now viewed by these Republican rulers -- well, to paraphrase what the Attorney General once said about the Geneva Conventions -- they are evidently 'quaint'.

It's not that Snow will be without a pitch. The ideology, we know and hear daily, is all about individualism and individual risk taking in free and open markets. Bracing stuff. Every single one of us is out there on our own to make or break it -- that's freedom. Stop the "Nanny State". Stop the "Nanny corporation." It's all about an ideological view of "me" and "I". The value of living in completely free and competitive markets and having the opportunity to make it on your own. That's what America is. Of course, we should permit corporations to stop funding pensions. If millions of individualists out there cut a deal with their employers that, in part, were based on pension expectations, then, well, then let's correct for those individuals' misunderstanding of what individualism and true freedom are all about. Let's set them free from the freedom-killing possibility that they might have income disconnected from any current labor. True freedom is the right to go out there, compete, and make money based on the labor you put in each day. Pensions? Sure, make that an investment choice for yourself. But, grow up and get free. Don't expect any free lunch from others who are working hard just to make it on their own. Really, a company should not even be allowed to promise future income streams for past work. It ought to be against the law if we want to have a competely free marketplance!

Unless, of course, the company is dealing with senior executives. Then the idea of providing future money -- in rather large amounts -- for past as opposed to current effort is an effective form of executive compensation in John Snow's star system.

The blend of arrogance and incompetence in folks like the affable John Snow leads, of course, to stories like this -- only one of zillions of similar stories that are part of our economy's -- of our society's -- overall narrative by and in which folks who do not do their jobs get million dollar send offs while folks who have and/or continue to do their jobs get stripped of financial security -- all in the name of 'shareholder value fundamentalism'.

In the slick Snow sales pitch, the stars in the star system take no individual risk on actually being paid for real performance yet get plenty of individual reward while the 'non-stars' risking their financial security every single day on performance receive little actual reward for their effort. No wonder 80% of the workforce still makes basically the same pay they did when Bush took office. And, job insecurity being what it has been, it's also no surprise that the average family income is less now than in January 2001. Meanwhile, with dramatic increases in consumer debt (both credit card and home equity related), American families face precarious financial futures. To all of which, we can now add increasingly value-less pension promises under the individual-risk-loving-for-all-individuals-except-CEOs policies, practices and, again, sheer incompetence of the Bush Administration.

Posted by Doug Smith at 01:00 PM | Permalink

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 03, 2006

What Gets Measured

What gets measured, gets done.

It's one of the core precepts of good management and good leadership. It is not always the easiest thing to do -- especially if the challenge at hand is best measured -- or evaluated - in qualitative ways. Reducing stress in your life, for example, is a more difficult measurement challenge than, say, quitting smoking.

Still, without attending to measurement and evaluation, it is not possible to use performance to drive change.

As with all precepts, though, there is the subtle opposite equally worth attention. That is, if you wish something your organization is doing to cease, then it makes sense to stop measuring and evaluating it.

What does not get measured, does not get done.

These choices, too, tell us much about the quality and character and vision of leaders.

Posted by Doug Smith at 12:14 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

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

March 01, 2006

Leadership 101

Among the principles of Leadership 101 are two critical aspects of effective communication. First, effective communicators tell the truth and listen. Second, in their communications, effective leaders are grounded (listeners have a sense the leader is on solid footing; that his or her messages are deeply rooted in strong beliefs) and clear (listeners can easily make sense of what the leader says -- the messages hang together).

These two pairs of Leadership 101 intertwine. Effective leadership means that, in his or her communications, the leader is grounded and clear about the truth -- and that the same is on display in how well the leader listens. It is not enough to get these two pairs half right. A leader who is grounded and clear about untruths and doesn't listen, for example, is a leader likely to take an organization over a cliff.

As described in Taking Charge of Change, leaders who face the daunting challenge of leading organizations through a period of profound change must lay out a clear vision for what the change is, why it is important and necessary and how it will be brought about (including the goals by which success is indicated).

Through telling the truth and listenting - and through being grounded and clear in doing both -- leaders achieve the understanding and support needed. Those following the leader can articulate the what's, why's and how's of change. They understand and can easily articulate the vision, the strategy and the earmarks or goals that indicate success and drive the enterprise forward.

None of which means there is an absence of disagreement. Quite the contrary. Through being grounded and clear in how well they listen, leaders invite disagreement so they and others can learn from it and adjust. Effective leaders seek commitment to the vision, strategy and goals by all who will hold themselves mutually accountable for delivering the vision, strategy and goals. But, because the world is dynamic and changing, effective leaders do not confuse such commitment with agreement in every particular. Again, quite the reverse.

One way of evaluating the effectiveness of leadership in an organization involves assessing the quality of understanding and commitment of those who are following. Because people are wonderfully differentiated, it's a mistake to expect 100% uniformity when asking those who work in an organization about their understanding and commitment to the vision, strategy and goals of the organization. Still, effective leadership inevitably generates such shared understanding and commitment in at least 70% to 80% of any organization.

So, what should we interpret about the quality of leadership in the following organization facing profound change:

- 42% of the employees are foggy about the mission and strategy
- 58% are clear about the mission -- but 85% of them attribute the mission to an untruth
- 72% of employees support terminating the change effort even if the goals have not been achieved
- 51% (out of these 72%) believe in the rapid termination regardless of goal achievement
- 37% of employees believe that customers who seek such rapid termination without goal achievement consider those customers as bad people

These 37% were not asked about their moral assessment of the more than half of their fellow employees who agree with those customers.

What can we learn from this survey of employees about the effectiveness of their leaders?

Have their leaders told the truth and listened? Have their leaders been grounded and clear?

Would you invest in this company?

Posted by Doug Smith at 02:10 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 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

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 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 21, 2006

ExxonMobil Explains Windfall Profits

Yesterday, a Vice President of ExxonMobil conducted a web-based news conference to preview both the company's windfall profits of over $30 billion in 2005 (from extraordinarily high energy prices) as well as ExxonMobil's proposed 'framing' for why the profits are no big deal. "Many people say that the energy industry is reaping unfair profits and that consumers are paying the price," Cohen said. "But one has to have a point of reference. The reason that energy industry earnings are so high is that our business is immense."

Hey, we're a big industry. So, we make big profits.

Only, according to Cohen, ExxonMobil is really not so big -- or, well, yes it is big, but it is a small player in the world of energy because it supplies only two percent of the world's energy.

So, if you're keeping score on the proposed 'point of reference' needed for framing and understanding the $30 billion in profits, ExxonMobil is very profitable because it is part of a big industry -- but it is not such a big part of that industry that it can really do much about the workings of the industry.

ExxonMobil might seem like a giant oil company to you. But, really, it is only a small player in a big industry -- and pretty much toothless to do anything about prices that threaten households of millions of people who, this winter, must make tradeoffs between gasoline to get to work and fuel oil to heat the home against food, medical and other necessities. Nor can or should this bit player in the big industry pay any more taxes that it already does because it needs the money to be able to afford the oil refineries and other activities required to supply 2 percent of the world's energy to -- well to whom?

For that answer, let's take a look at ExxonMobil's 2004 Corporate Citizenship Report, in the section entitled Economic Progress and Corporate Governance where the people of ExxonMobil commit themselves as follows: "ExxonMobil's primary benefit to society is providing affordable energy to people all over the world."

So, let's continue our search for the best 'point of reference' for understanding ExxonMobil's $30 plus billion in profits in 2005. The company makes big profits because it is in a big industry. But, it is a small player in a big industry and cannot do anything to affect price swings in that industry. However, it is committed to being a good corporate citizen, primarily by providing affordable energy.

It's just that, hey, we're a bit player and there's really not much we can do to make energy affordable because the industry is huge and, as explained yesterday by the Vice President of ExxonMobil, "Oil and gasoline are global commodities and are subject to price swings in the same way as agricultural products, minerals and steel, and it's a very competitive market."

So, how does ExxonMobil hold itself accountable for bringing affordable energy to the people of the world?

Well, according to the Corporate Citizenship Report section on Economic Progress and Corporate Governance, ExxonMobil does this by paying taxes and making community contributions. Yes, you've read this correctly. ExxonMobil doesn't actually do much about making energy affordable in what might seem the more obvious ways such as keeping prices as low as possible. Rather, it pays taxes and makes community contributions (although evidently not the kind of community contributions Citgo is making this winter -- the kind that bring energy to low income communities in danger of freezing.)

So, let's wrap up our search for the best point of reference to frame our understanding of ExxonMobil's $30 plus billion in profits from the high energy prices in 2005 that made energy unaffordable to tens of millions of people around the world:

- ExxonMobil has big profits because it's in a big industry
- However, ExxonMobil is a bit player in this big industry
- So, ExxonMobil cannot do much about prices that made energy unaffordable to tens of millions this winter
- As a result of it's bit player status, ExxonMobil chooses to fulfill it's commitment to providing affordable energy by paying taxes and making community contributions instead of attempting to work directly on affordability
- However, ExxonMobil's community contributions do not include Citgo-like programs that intervene in low income communities in some danger of freezing this winter because they cannot afford high fuel prices
- And, because ExxonMobil is a bit player that needs all the cash it can get to keep supplying affordable energy to the people of the world, ExxonMobil cannot pay any more taxes that it already does, which, by the way is a lot of taxes

Got that?

Posted by Doug Smith at 01:35 PM | Permalink | TrackBacks (1)

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)

January 11, 2006

Even The Appearance Of Impropriety

The most difficult principles of human conduct are, of course, the ones most easily abused. Still, for those who imagine the possibility of ethical behavior from lawyers (and from lawmakers), the princple that 'even the appearance of impropriety is improper" stands as a firm, strong guide to conduct. It means, for example, that in a nation committed to the rule of law -- the rule of principle instead of personality -- lawyers and lawmakers faced with a question that might -- might -- raise the spectre of impropriety ought to find a path forward that is most consistent with proper conduct and regard for the rule of law, the rule of principle itself. It is this ethical precept, for example, that suggests a judge ought to recuse him or herself if there is even the appearance of a potential conflict based on personal self-interest (something, by the way, Supreme Court nominee Alito failed to do in a case against a company in which Alito held stock).

Like any demanding precept, this is a difficult and challenging one for human beings to adhere to. But, isn't that the point? All of which makes the letter Congressman David Dreier wrote to his constituents to explain why he supported an ethics rule change in late 2004 that allowed Tom DeLay to keep his majority leadership position notwithstanding his indictment and notwithstanding the previous rule enacted by reform minded Republicans that demanded indicted officials to step down from their positions.

In the letter, Dreier (who is evidently being asked to lead the Republican Party's post-DeLay, post-Abramoff, post-Scanlon, post-Cunningham, post-Noe, post-Ney, post-Libby, post-Safavian approach to ethics) supported the rule change that favored keeping indicted Tom DeLay as majority leader because, he argued, otherwise any official would be subject to the possibility of having to step down if indicted by politically minded prosecutors. (The possibility of politically motivated prosecutions, of course, has risen in a world where politics has been made a blood sport by those like Karl Rove who now exert so much control over a Republican Party that once actually stood for principles and not just 'power and winning at all costs'. In that sense, the DeLay Rule was much more concerned with holding onto power than committing to principle.)

Put differently, lawmaker Dreier has turned the ethics precept about impropriety on its head. He had made black, white and white, black. He wrote his constituents, in effect, that even the possible appearance of a political motive by prosecutors should be enough to outweigh the possible appearance of illegality by lawmakers. His position -- the rule now governing how Republicans respond to the appearance of impropriety and illegality among their members -- is an insult to the ethical precept about impropriety and to the rule of law. This DeLay Rule is more consistent with the rule of men, the rule of Tom DeLay than the rule of law. It substitutes the interpretation of people like David Dreier and Tom DeLay for principle.

In this, Dreier advances a new approach to the world's oldest democracy. Let the rulers -- the personalities in power decide when and when not to ask their buddies to step aside. Let us turn this nation from one ruled by law to one ruled by personality.

Dreier's letter, of course, is itself an impropriety for anyone who believes in the rule of law. The Republicans in Congress who voted to amend their reform to allow the indicted DeLay to retain his powerful position acted improperly -- and, again, certainly acted to create an appearance of impropriety.

Now that Abramoff has agreed to work with prosecutors, the same Republicans are scurrying to correct for their past actions. They want to be able to claim proper conduct. Unfortunately, by the standards of the ethical rule regarding impropriety -- and in the eyes of any human being who can see past 'red' vs. 'blue' ideology -- these Republicans are focused and obsessed more on creating an 'appearance of propriety' than on reforming themselves to actually have and follow proper conduct.

Posted by Doug Smith at 12:18 PM | Permalink

December 29, 2005

Annals of Incompetence

What do a South Dakota radio station, Virgin Islands perfume shop, a Utah dog boutique and scores of Dunkin Donuts and Subway shops around the nation have in common with nearly 17,000 other small businesses? Two things:

First, they received more than 85% of the billions of dollars Congress asked the Small Business Administration to distribute through lenders to small businesses in New York and Washington DC needing to recover from September 11th.

Second, they were in no way affected by the terrorist attacks.

Getting something -- anything -- wrong 85% of the time demands extreme "Brownie/FEMA" like incompetence -- incompetence on a scale that, seriously, shreds the use of the word 'administration'. Are you or anyone you know aware of any program or business or initiative that failed in its purpose and objectives 85% of the time?

Response of SBA Adminstrator Hector Barreto: "SBA implemented the program as Congress intended."


Posted by Doug Smith at 07:57 PM | Permalink | TrackBacks (4)

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 20, 2005

Kong Attacks Financial Markets!

Dateline Wall Street: King Kong has broken free from theaters nationwide to attack the transparency and integrity of financial markets!! Cleverly dressed in the guise of unfunded pension and other benefit liabilities, Kong has eviscerated the credibility of the balance sheets of hundreds of the nation's largest companies. The crisis seems to have unfolded with startling speed. What may have been minor adjustment errors when Kong was first brought to America now amount to nearly $450 billion!! Said one analyst, "This devastates the S&P 500." But while investors and others reel from Kong's rampage, those at the Financial Accounting Standards Board responsible for getting Kong back under control seem dazed, like deer in the headlights. "This is very political and complicated," said one spokesperson who sought even greater anonymity than is usually accorded accountants as their professional due. "We're going to need several years to work this out."

Several years? Haven't they seen the movie?

***********************************************************************************************************

More than half the households in America own equities. And way more than half have folks who are employed, with millions of these employees working for companies that have contracted with them to provide pension and other benefit coverage.

Our world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families is so complicated that probably only a small fraction of people in investor households know that hundreds of publicly held companies now have pension liabilities that outstrip pension assets by just under $300 billion, or that other benefit obligations (e.g. health and prescription drugs) outstrip other benefit assets by nearly $150 billion.

$450 billion of obligations that are not funded. That's a lot of money. For example, it is the same amount just approved for the 2006 defence budget. And, according to Standard & Poor's, it equals a fifth of the tangible book value and 70% of the 2005 earnings of the S&P 500.

No wonder the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) is hard at work trying to figure out how to handle this in a way that helps investors and others get the information needed to make judgments about the economic and financial well being of companies.

FASB will not, of course, require companies to make any radical adjustments. There won't be a new rule demanding an immediate write-off against earnings. Still, one wonders what 'transparency and integrity of financial markets' means when companies have had and will likely continue to have so many ways to miscast their degree of control over these King Kong liabilities. Just one example from S&P: "These evaluations derive from current estimates of what returns and interest rates will amount to over decades. Agreeing on the current Q4 2005 estimate poses quite a challenge -- estimating Q4 of 2035 would appear to be far less of a science."

30 years. Company accountants must consider all the factors that might happen over thirty years in determing the current value of liabilities. Really, now, let's get ourselves some perspective. Even those many, many, many accountants who do their professional and personal best are merely guessing. And, we know too well that plenty of accountants -- and chief executives and chief financial officers -- 'manage financial statements'. For them, "30 years" is an open invitation to "make it up!" (And, by the way, it's also an open invitation to prosecutors with personal agendas to go after even well intended chief exeuctives and chief financial officers under Sarbanes-Oxley).

So, stakeholders beware! Whether you are an investor or an employee with an interest in any of these companies, beware! And be prepared. The odds are that the obligations will be re-written and reduced, the generally accepted accounting approaches will be 'smoothed and managed' to minimize the financial reporting strain, and the real story underlying all of this -- the nation's broken system of sharing the risks and costs of health care and old age -- will continue to go untended or made worse through radically increasing the individualization instead of sharing of such risks.


Posted by Doug Smith at 02:38 PM | Permalink

December 19, 2005

The Science of Market Research Turns On Science

Market research is a social science as opposed to natural science. Market research, when done well, uses the scientific approaches of sociology, anthropology, psychology, political science, linguistics and more to identify, characterize, understand, respond to and, yes, shape human belief and behavior.

Like other social sciences, market research operates with less elegance than natural science. It is tougher work because subject to more doubt and uncertainty. Still, top executives in thousands of companies across the land authorize (cumulatively) billions of dollars and tens of thousands of person hours in market research -- all with a view to fulfilling visions of growth and performance.

It's been five decades or more since folks in corporations figured out that scientifically sound approaches to understanding markets could and would generate innovation as well as promotion that, in turn, could support growth. The science of market research is as much embedded in our market economy as the profit motive.

Given all that rides on the scientific soundness of their research, marketing and other functionaries must beware of coming into a meeting with the Chief Executive, Chief Marketing Officer and other C-suite denizens with shoddy work.

Yes, it's critical for the researchers to understand the vision, mission and strategy of the company and to do their research with a view to promoting performance and growth. But, it's the rare CEO who encourages and welcomes ideology completely bereft of facts and sound method. Executives whose interests suffer from market research findings will argue against those findings. But, debating such results is a far cry from an ideological drive to eliminate market research itself. Where would be the gain in that? Yes, you might -- in theory, but rarely in practice -- gain your point and advance to the top job. But once you had a board and financial markets demanding growth, what would you do? Reinstitute the science of market research that you so assiduously destroyed?

Again, yes, there are soft aspects to market research and yes, there are debates guided more by self-interest than fact or logic. But, still, look at the pattern of dependable and predictable belief and behavior in companies across the land: a huge investment and reliance on the science of market research.

Science.

Now, what does the science of market research tell those who seek to gain and hold governmental office?

According to Chris Mooney's new book, market research has guided those currently in control of the Republican Party to promote an attack on science as a means of generating votes and attaining, holding and using elective office.

With regard to climate change, biodiversity, contraception, drug abuse, air and water pollution, missile defense, evolution and other high profile matters, market research of likely voters has evidently indicated that elections can be won by throwing the entire edifice of science into doubt -- in effect, destroying science in order to gain power.

The recent results of this market research are impressive. Elections have been won. Authority over governmental policy has been gained. That authority has been used to further the erosion of the public's faith and trust in science (that's right: 'faith and trust').

The medium-to-longer term effects of this market research, however, are troubling. Again, in a corporation dependent upon scientifically sound market reserach for growth, innovation and sustainable performance, high level attacks on the foundational soundness of such research would, at best, generate short term gains -- and those gains would be measured only in terms of the internal political power of those leading the attacks. In the medium-to-long term, there could be only two results: either the destruction of further growth, innovation and performance because the attackers who gain power refuse to shift course -- or, a period of confusion, fear and anxiety as those with sound, scientific market research skills and expertise try to adjust to their former attackers now claiming to seek their help.

Among the many potentially tragic aspects of using scientifically sound market research to destroy scientific soundness is this: CEOs and others whose company performance depends on scientific market research disproportionately contribute money and other resources to those taking the lead in the desctruction of science.

These CEOs and others, of course, can change course. They have tremendous power to determine who controls the Republican Party and whether that Party's policy will continue to pursue the attacks on science that, ultimately, will destroy the soundness of the Party's own market research.

As they sit in discussions with those in power, let us hope the CEOs and others will think through the implications in a manner consistent with what they'd do in their own companies. Yes, there are undoubtedly many opportunities for short term gain in terms of tax and regulatory policy by supporting the attack on science. But, even with such gains, the medium-to-long term prospects in a 'science-less' economy and society for the performance of these CEOs' companies -- not to mention their children and grandchildren -- are dim.

Posted by Doug Smith at 01:58 PM | Permalink | TrackBacks (1)

December 18, 2005

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 17, 2005

The Five-Step Shuffle

According to a new study cited by Christian Sarkar, it is more important than ever for Chief Financial Officers to:

(1) focus on delivering against growth and earnings commitments expected by financial markets that punish missed commitments while also
(2) complying with the morass of rules and regulations imposed by an angry Congress seeking to get re-elected by 'doing something/anything' to protect the integrity of
(3) demanding and punishing financial markets who, it will be recalled, were
(4) reeling from illegal and unethical behavior of -- well,
(5) Chief Financial Officers and others obsessively focused on delivering against growth and earnings commitments demanded by financial markets that punished them for missing such commitments.

Got that?

No wonder Reuters reports "CFOs too bogged down to focus on strategy."

Posted by Doug Smith at 04:58 PM | Permalink

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)

Board Governance: Too Many Cooks At Red Cross

With the resignation of Marsha Evans, the Board of Governors of the American Red Cross must once again search for someone to continue the much needed modernization of the giant charity. Perhaps the Board should change how they govern themselves before asking yet one more leader to take on that job for them.

While most of us link the Red Cross with disaster relief of the Katrina variety, the charity is in fact a highly complex, large organization. In 2004, Red Cross spent more than $3 billion on services including disaster relief and recovery, blood and biomedical, services for military members and families, health and safety, volunteers, young people and nursing.

This size and complexity would rank Red Cross in the Fortune 1000 -- a set of companies whose Boards of Directors, by the way, average 11 members.

In our work on teams, Jon Katzenbach and I repeatedly found the the effectiveness of small groups begins to deteriorate badly at about 10 to 12. There is no iron clad rule dictating Boards be 'small groups'. Still, if the 1000 largest companies in the world average 11, the small numbers probably amount to what the gurus like to call a 'best practice'.

All of which would be worth pondering by the 49 people listed as members of the American Red Cross Board of Governors.

Posted by Doug Smith at 04:19 PM | Permalink

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)

December 10, 2005

The Spirit Of The Law

Our founding fathers and mothers had an easier time grasping the upside of 'the rule of law, not men'. Not that the late 18th century in North America was some kind of Eden. But, the variety and persistence of capricious interference from across the great pond gave a daily primer on how laws -- principles -- applied fairly were a superior approach to governance when compared with power exercised in pursuit of personal whim.

Viewed this way, the rule of law might be updated for 21st century folks by comparing what it means to go about daily life subject to the 'rules' of well ordered principles instead of personality -- the rule of principle versus the the rule of personality.

Which do you prefer?

Which better serves some sense of being treated fairly in daily life?

Imagine, for example, that you are about to go through a subway turnstile when you notice that a stranger is having trouble getting a token to work in the machine. You make a pretty quick judgment about helping or not helping. In this case, you decide to help and you give a token to the stranger who -- faced with his or her own busy life is grateful for the relief from what promised to be a hassle involving purchasing a better working token. The stranger quickly reimburses you the price of the token.

You're feeling pretty good. Your gesture of kindness is a tiny one. It's not likely to guarentee you any 'lifetime good person' award. Still, it is in small things that we all have our best, most regular chance to 'do good'.

Now, what are the odds that you have read or are otherwise familiar with a 1992 law that prohibits selling tokens to others? Seriously, now. What are the odds? About zilch. About 1 nano-milli-micron away from zilch. Unless, of course, you're a transit cop. Then the odds of being aware of this law rise; say, to fairly high probability.

In our 21st century market democracy, there are, in practical effect, an infinite number of laws on the books. Really. Consider it this way. If you were to sit down and attempt reading every law already written, you could never complete the task because, by the time you even imaginably got toward the end, there would be thousands of new legislated laws -- not to mention adminstrative rulings and judicial opinions.

"Notice" -- that is, some basic notion that we are aware of laws that our actions might violate -- is a key aspect of our aspiration to be ruled by principle instead of personality. Even in hoary England of post-Magna Carta times, though, notice was a difficult matter. Today, though, 'notice' is what lawyers call a 'legal fiction' -- a concept we can, at best, strive for in applying 'the spirit instead of the letter of the law'.

In the token example, the odds of notice are zilch for both of the passengers. The odds of notice are much higher for the transit cop. And that means our market democracy -- our aspirations for living out our daliy lives ruled by principle instead of personal whim -- depend on the actions of the transit cop.

So, now you're the transit cop. What do you do? You, too, must exercise judgment. You must do your best to apply the spirit of the 1992 law -- especially if applying the 'letter' of that law would, in your judgment, actually violate the spirit.

For a moment, let's recast the event itself. The passenger with the extra token sees another passenger struggling and declares, "I'll help you out. But I want $20 for the token."

Or, imagine that the interaction between the two passengers is just as written up near the top of this post -- only instead of using the token to go through the turnstile, the struggling passenger reverses course and exits the station.

As a transit cop doing what you can in your small sphere to practice the beliefs and behaviours attached to the rule of principle versus personality, you might exercise judgment quite differently in these latter two situations than in the first.

Let's say, however, that even in the first described situation, you as transit cop are concerned about a possible violation of the 1992 law. Even then you have some options in applying the spirit of the law. For example, you might approach the donating passenger and inform him or her that there is a law against the sale of tokens -- in other words, you might give a warning for 'next time'.

Or, you might ask the donating passenger to give the money back.

Or, as Susie Madrak of Suburban Guerilla alerts us by way of the Associated Press, you might be a transit cop in Atlanta and choose to handcuff the donating passenger and cite him for a violation of the 1992 law.

This is what you have done -- you the transit cop. This is how you do your job. This is how you choose to exercise your judgment in the pursuit of the rule of principle instead of personality. And, assuming you've had 'notice' of the rather longstanding and pretty well understood ethical notion of 'do unto others', this is how, presumably, you would like to be treated in any analogous situation. Which means, of course, you as transit cop better get on the Web and start reading -- first all the laws of every jurisdiction in Georgia and then onto every jurisdiction throughout the remainder of our market democracy.


Posted by Doug Smith at 12:29 PM | Permalink

December 05, 2005

The Values Bubble In Real Estate

Today's Los Angeles Times reports that the incidence and variety of mortgage fraud is increasing as rapidly as insurgencies in Iraq. It's a good introduction to what happens when an 'anything goes' profit motive is given a field day by political forces who claim the 'only good regulation is no regulation'.

Mid-way through the article, Eric Von der Porten, a Silicon valley mortgage banker laments, "Is it suddenly okay to hoodwink national banks and government-sponsored mortgage companies?"

Memo to Eric: There's nothing sudden about this at all!

For more than thirty years, our nation has embarked upon an all-or-nothing adventure in hating government. Starting with the Reagan administration, the governing philosophy has assumed that regulation and government are bad. That trend began rationally -- for too many decades those in power operated as if Total Regulation was the single answer. Now our dominant single answer is, No Regulation.

There is a lot of possibility, of course, between No Regulation versus Total Regulation. Most markets work best when there are some agreed upon rules. Often, those rules are easiest and most practicable to install and enforce if done by some third party. Sometimes, those third parties can be private sector, non-institutional government organizations (for example, professional sports leagues that set and adjust rules). More often in the history of human beings, though, the third parties have been governments.

When done well, rules and regulations set predictable behaviors -- values about fairness and approach -- that provide all who participate some predictability they can rely upon. That kind of predictability in values also arise among small numbers of people who persistently interact -- say in families or teams. When the context rises to zillions upon zillions of folks interacting over markets and networks, however, a government that sets, enforces and updates rules and regulations can spell the difference between orderly markets and Hobbesian, anything goes markets. (And, again, let's be clear: a regime of Total Regulation provides order but kills all vitality and innovation while simulataneously increasing costs to unsustainable levels).

So, here we are: We live in a world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families. We live in a world where the costs of 'either/or' approaches -- either No Regulation or Total Regulation - become increasingly unsustainable. And, we live in a world where our politics is currently dominated by a discourse of either/or-ism.

That we are experiencing a 'value' bubble in real estate is not new news. But, as this artlcle points out, we also are suffering through a 'values' bubble -- inflationary expectations that somehow, someway individuals and companies left entirely to their own devices will routinely do the 'right thing' because -- now listen carefully -- because it is in their self-interest. This is the governing orthodoxy. Markets are the only solution to every problem. Self-interest is what makes markets work. Therefore, sayeth Socrates, Self-interest is the only solution to every problem.

Evidently, unbridled self-interest is not a full solution to orderly real estate markets that produce the greater good.

Posted by Doug Smith at 01:32 PM | Permalink

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 13, 2005

The Incompleteness of Hierarchy

Peter Drucker, the preeminent management thinker of the 20th century, died this week. Let's honor him, ourselves and our posterity by picking up on one of his central teachings; namely, that, while powerful and useful, hierarchy is incomplete. It is but one thread in the fabric of management and leadership -- albeit the thread most prominently displayed.

When matched to a division of effort that fits any challenge at hand, clear lines of hierarchical authority work efficently - even elegantly -- to deliver effective solutions. The big word in this, though, is 'fit'. Let's say we work in a restaurant and the chef is overseeing a group of folks who need to deliver a set menu of, say, 15 meals every evening. Assume also that the number of diners varies within a well understood range, there are steady, reliable relationships with vendors providing ingredients and so forth, and that the staff has worked with the chef for many, many months. In this context, the challenge of providing the diners the 15 meals is well served by a clear division of effort and hierarchical lines of authority. Would those in the kitchen also benefit from respectful, cordial and constructive working relationships? Yes. But, such is the case with all hierarchical arrangements. Indeed, it's a comment on our culture's bizarre obsession with the good vs. evil of hierarchy that one even has to write this additional sentence.

Yet, even in this orderly, well understood and predictable example there is a need for non-hierarchical aspects of management. How, for example, will those reporting to the chef learn? Through hierarchy? Yes, in part. But, not strictly through a chef giving orders.

Still, let us all praise hierarchy as a part of what makes our world work well. But, let us stop this unrelenting bad practice of assuming that hierarchy is ever enough by itself. It is not.

And, as Peter Drucker saw over the greater part of his life, pure, unalloyed hierarchical approaches are very dangerous -- indeed, they inevitably fail and, in their failures, cause misery to all affected. Put most simply, there is this: The vast, vast majority of challenges we face today do not lend themselves to purely hierarchical approaches. The challenges are too fast moving, too dynamic, too unpredictable, too chaotic. These challenges do not 'fit' a managerial and leadership approach grounded in order, clear division of labor, formally granted authority, stable working relationships, or futures that predictably extend routine pasts.

Whether the challenges have to do with restaurants -- or nations -- the 21st century will not yield either effectively or peacefully to strictly hierarchical approaches. There are many ways we can honor Peter Drucker for the gifts he bestowed upon us. But one powerful tribute would surely be to, as quickly and richly as possible, get our conversations beyond the all or nothing assumptions about hierarchy -- to dedicate ourselves to using non-hierarchical approaches to discussing how we can respond to so many challenges that now lie between us and our best future together. There is a word for such approaches. Democracy.

But, to blend democractic and hierarchical approaches in a best path forward, we must overcome the illusion that either is complete in and of itself.

Posted by Doug Smith at 12:53 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

November 01, 2005

Big Pharma and Bird Flu: A proposed deal

Three weeks ago, executives from several major pharmaceutical companies sat down with President Bush to exchange ideas on how best to prepare for a possible bird flu pandemic.

As noted previously, much of the pandemic possibility lies in a race between mutation of the bird flu and finding and distributing effective antidotes. Big Pharma told Bush they are reticent to invest in antidote development in the absence of laws holding them harmless from liability lawsuits and damages from people who get shots and either die or get seriously ill nonetheless.

So, how about this deal? The Bush Administration and Congress agree to quickly pass such laws in return for Big Pharma agreeing to forego patent protection in the case of bird flu antidotes as well as proactively sharing all advances among themselves and with other companies and nations around the world.

This is a win/win for everyone. Congress and the Administration can act quickly to protect all of us -- thereby avoiding the nightmare of a Katrina re-run. Moreover, it would be the kind of real collaboration most folks long to see from Washington. And, Big Pharma can move quickly into action with all their talent, expertise and knowledge in a way that would also help them diminish claims that their sole interest lies in profits.

Posted by Doug Smith at 06:34 PM | Permalink

October 30, 2005

Mirror Mirror

According to recent census data, roughly 9.000 folks live in Spanish Springs, Nevada -- a bedroom community outside of Reno. Not surprisingly, the ever expanding gambling industry -- which, I would guess a majority of those 9,000 depend upon for their incomes -- has set its sights on building a high-end resort/casino in Spanish Springs. Given that so many Spanish Springs folks work directly or indirectly for the industry, one might have thought: no problem.

Wrong. According to this local news piece, "Spanish Springs Homeowners expressed their concerns against gaming in their neighborhoods....Reasons varying from crime to traffic to drunk driving are all a part of why many Spanish Springs residents do not want a casino near them. Many neighbors say they want gaming to stay in tourist areas and in downtown ... not near any neighborhoods."

This takes NIMBY-ism to a higher level. It's okay to make our living off a 'gaming' industry that generates crime, drunk driving and traffic -- not to mention gambling addictions, prostitution, spousal abuse, bankruptcies and more. Just keep our employers -- and those who pay our employers -- out of our 'family-oriented' neighborhoods.

We're for 'gaming' during 'our shift' -- but we oppose it the rest of our day.

Sounds confusing to me. Wonder how it sounds when the parents in Spanish Springs explain it to their 8 to 10 year olds.

Posted by Doug Smith at 04:36 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBacks (2)

October 26, 2005

Where To Pump Big Oil Profits?

The LA Times reports that Big Oil projects earnings of nearly $100 billion - both this year and next. Like any business, these companies must now choose what to do with the money. Here are the choices laid out in the article:

1. Invest in more production, refineries and distribution
2. Slap the industry with a windfall tax
3. Mandate the industry put money into alternative energy research
4. Reward shareholders with dividends and stock buy-backs
5. Diversify by going into non-energy related businesses
6. Consumer rebates

This is a reasonably full list. Note, however, the language, especially "slap" and "mandate". Each of these options get described in terms of Congress forcing the industry to take steps, as opposed to the industry taking such action itself. In addition, it's worth noting that the alternative energy suggestion is phrased in terms of research instead of results. It's a tentative exploration instead of a commitment to outcome-based goals.

It is doubtful Congress would take such action. Still, if they did -- or if the industry were to find some way to work together like the semiconductor industry did so successfully with Sematech -- each effort would have dramatically increased odds of success if they focused on results instead of activities. Performance is the primary objective of change, not change. Any effort to find a blended, more sustainable approach to energy would benefit tremendously by first setting a goal such as: "By 2010, at least 20% of energy uses come from alternative sources."

If Congress were to mandate (and follow through) on that, this industry -- filled with dedicated, talented and creative people -- would deliver. If Big Oil were to use a healthy chunk of their profits to create their own 'Sematech" with this kind of outcome-based goal, they'd succeed.

And, when they did, all of us -- and all of our children and grandchildren -- would be better off.

Posted by Doug Smith at 12:23 PM | Permalink

October 19, 2005

Shareholder Values at Roche

As of today, scientists know two things about avian influenza ( the 'bird flu"). First, that the disease is deadly. Second, that transmission from birds to humans is rare. In the dice game of mutation, however, both characteristics could change. Humans might become vulnerable to birds. The disease might become less deadly.

Mutation at this biological level happens lightening fast. Both shifts could very well happen over the course of this autumn and winter. All of which means we need to pay attention to the pace and effectiveness of the other mutating phenonmenon -- human kind's medical response as determined by markets, governments, networks and organizations.

Looking over the past several decades, we can find much to give us confidence here. There is a nearly vertical growth curve in indicators of scientific advance (patents, scholarly articles, technological advances, etc). And, still, we must remind ourselves that we are human. There is that other part of the picture: greed, selfishness, fear, bigotry and so on. There is the track record of governments that have not distinguished themselves in terms of performance that matters such as planning, preparedness, fairness, coordination and so forth.

And, there is the profit motive -- the celebrated engine of bringing good things to life. Good things like Tamiflu, the patented pharmaceutical owned by Roche. Big Pharma has not distinguished itself over the past several years in adhering to the Hippocratic Oath, that, among other things, demands all health professionals to 'keep the sick from harm and injustice'.

Roche, like other big pharmaceutical companies, has recently written a caveat into this oath: so long as they can pay, we can make profits and we can preserve our patent rights.

All of which means Roche's reversal of its announcement last week that it would remain the sole manufacturer of Tamiflu is good news on two counts: (1) that Roche will now consider licensing others; and, (2) the speed of the change.

One week. That's much, much faster than any similar shift has happened with those pharmaceutical companies who have refused to sell anti-viral AIDS patented medicines to impoverished peoples. It is, as the management gurus like to say, a dramatic improvement in cycle time.

At least two potential causes are known. Kofi Annan has put pressure on Roche. And, Cipla, an Indian pharmaceutical company announced it is nearing readiness to distribute an un-patented version of Tamiflu. Put differently, we can see both governments (the UN) and markets (competition from Cipla) at work in the 'mutating phenomenon" that will determine human response.

Both are good news. Now, let's ask Roche and it's shareholders (as well as employees): At what profit margins will you license Tamiflu? Will you use 'quality requirements" according to the Hippocratic Oath, or as a smokescreen for restricting distribution?

Put differently, what do you stand for? What are your values?

Posted by Doug Smith at 12:17 PM | Permalink

October 18, 2005

Ignorance at The Economist

Over the years since 9/11, The Economist has run a series of commentaries on globalization, corporate responsibility and the common good under such titles as "Profits over people", "Globalization and its critics", "The good company", and "Profits and the public good". The pieces are clearly written and worth reading -- if you're interested in a refresher course on the best available thinking about 19th century economics.

Those of us who struggle with 21st century realities, however, need access to better and different thinking. It's been more than 230 years since Adam Smith wrote about the power of self interest to motivate his local butcher, brewer and baker. Today, the vast majority of those who read The Economist, like the rest of us, get our dinner from 'farm through food' chains that stretch across the globe and run through thousands of corporations. "Self interest" continues to matter tremendously. But, the 'self' in the phrase is no longer traceable to a local baker or butcher. It's just more complicated than that.

Continuing to preach -- and the tone in these pieces could easily come from a pulpit - about the wondrous power of the profit orientation to bring good things to life has all the superficial appeal of an idiot savant. Yes, there is wisdom. Profits and the profit orientation in markets matters to the health and well being of the globe.

But, note to The Economist: we already know that.

How about taking the risk to learn something new -- something that can actually help the rest of us make choices in dealing with complex current reality?

Posted by Doug Smith at 12:01 PM | Permalink

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)

October 13, 2005

Box Cutters, Mad Cows and Wetlands

Roughly three million people lived in the United States when the Constitution was ratified. Today, more than 300 million do. Yes, there are also many more states – a much larger geographic area over which the 300 million of us spread out. Still, the prospect has sharply risen that individual and group actions and behavior can affect many more people in many more ways than a few centuries back.

We spread ourselves over more than geography in our world of markets, networks and organizations. For example, as described in yesterday’s post about Citigroup, choices made by people in Citi’s New York offices can profoundly affect the happiness (or lack thereof) of people throughout the 50 states. Thus, it’s no surprise that the choices made by the nine people who sit on the Supreme Court reach far more broadly and deeply in the early 21st century than the late 18th century.

Yesterday, the Court (led by new Chief Justice Roberts) chose to hear three cases concerning the Clean Water Act of 1972. The cause celebre of the three involves John Rapanos, a Michigan farmer found civilly and criminally liable for filling in wetlands on his farm.

Serious issues of fact exist about whether the Rapanos site was a wetland and adjacent to, or by hydrology, connected to navigable waterways. The Supreme Court and other appellate courts, though, have a long tradition of focusing more on the law than facts. So, with Rapanos and the other two cases, the arguments and choices will more likely be about the scope, reach and legitimacy of the Clean Water Act of 1972 than about how wet was John Rapanos’ land seventeen years ago.

These cases pit the legitimate use of government regulatory authority against the legitimate uses of property. Folks who are more ideological than reasonable are lining up on predictable sides. But most of the 300 million of us don’t live our lives in idealized abstractions. We live in a real world that is profoundly interconnected and complex. A world where quite recently for example, the private property interests in a cow and box cutters were entirely eliminated if the cow happened to be mad or the box cutter owner brought his or her property to an airport.

Indeed, just a month ago, we experienced the adverse effects of improperly – even dangerously -- mishandled wetlands, navigable waterways, and hydrological connections when Katrina hit a Gulf Coast imperiled by erosion notwithstanding the Clean Water Act of 1972.

Our complicated world of markets, networks and organizations uses private property to build immense economic value of great benefit to all of us. In doing so, though, these markets, networks and organization also handle chemicals, poison, disease, earthmovers, concrete, steel, fish, microorganisms, bio-engineered plants and on and on. As much as they help to regulate our affairs, neither the laws of contract nor tort (personal injury)— nor property -- are sufficient to govern ourselves in such a world.

With these three cases, we are going to get our first glimpse of how the nine human beings on the Roberts Court choose to shape how and when government helps us govern ourselves. And the choice of these nine will affect the other 300 million of us. Indeed, it will reach into and affect the lives of hundreds of millions outside the United States who are, nonetheless, connected to us, hydorlogically and otherwise.

Posted by Doug Smith at 03:02 PM | Permalink

October 11, 2005

Delphi's Viral Bankruptcy

Two centuries from now Robert Miller, the CEO who took Delphi Corp into Chapter 11 last Saturday, will be as little remembered as Ebenezer Monroe -- the farmer who may have fired ‘the shot heard round the world’ on Lexington green in 1775.

Miller’s filing, though, has already ricocheted across the planet. In just a few days, the Delphi bankruptcy reached into and shook up the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Tens of thousands of United Auto Workers (current and retired) –- and their families -- awoke Sunday to the possibility of strikes, radically reduced wages and benefits, lost jobs and diminshed or eliminated pensions. Eventually, some will follow Delphi to bankruptcy court.

Thousands of auto parts suppliers (hundreds who sell to Delphi) are already revisiting options that include fire sales, mergers, closing down and, yes, bankruptcy. Tens of thousands of people work for these copmanies. They, too, heard Miller’s filing. Tonyia Young worries her employer Guide Corp. will match the steep wage and benefit cuts planned at Delphi. Tonyia will undoubtedly witness some in her position follow Delphi into bankruptcy.

Men and women who run small businesses near Delphi and other affected companies could hear the “bang!” of Miller’s court action, too. Said Mary Mosley, owner of the Lighthouse Bakery and Deli about a mile from a Delphi plant: "It's scary because a lot of businesses are connected to Delphi. It makes a big difference."

Some of these merchants will follow Delphi into bankruptcy.

What to Mary and Toniya were anxious murmurs must have been a sonic boom to people at GM. It’s not just the $1.2 billion Delphi owes GM. Far worse are these twin threats: (1) Any disruption in Delphi operations could shutter GM plants heavily dependent on Delphi parts; and, (2) GM might have to reassume $11 billion of liabilities it had hoped to shed when it spun Delphi off six years ago.

By Monday, GM stock had plummeted and some openly speculated on what was once unimaginable: That GM might follow Delphi into bankruptcy.

Not everyone rose to cold gruel for Sunday breakfast. Chinese auto parts manufacturers whose business has tripled since 2001 are looking at the kind of sustained growth that, fifty years ago, prompted the head of GM to brag, “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” European auto parts suppliers who've done a better job of implementing strategy than Delphi see opportunities to pick up assets and become stronger. And, many investors think the tea leaves finally point to the kind of industrial restructuring that can make them rich (or richer).

Unlike these potential winners from Delphi's bankruptcy, the thousands of workers, families, businesses, merchants and others who stand to lose will see the viral contagion pile trouble upon trouble onto the quality of their lives in the places they reside: personal and business bankruptcies, divorces, worsening drug and alcohol abuse, broken local government budgets, deteriorating services, a sense of isolation and despair.

In 1775, people like Ebenezer Monroe shared fates with others because of the places they lived together. People from other places were unwelcome if they brought trouble with them. We don't live in a world of places anymore. Instead, ours is a world of markets, networks, and organizations. In our new world, place is contained by - and is subject to -- business, not the reverse.

And, so it is that CEO Miller's message heard round the world is quite the opposite of what echoed from Ebenezer Monroe's musket. Monroe exclaimed to the British, "Take your business out of my place!" Miller of Delphi proclaims to all adversely affected by his Chapter 11 filing, "Take the problems of your places out of my business.”

Posted by Doug Smith at 08:46 PM | Permalink | TrackBacks (1)

October 09, 2005

Suggested Reading

A few weeks back in a post entitled Downsizing Journalism, I commented on the suicidal effects that cost-focused strategies have on newspapers: cost reductions in the face of declining circulation reach into the newsroom which, eventually, reduces the quality of the news which leads to declining circulation and more cost reductions.

There are three parts to the phrase "newspaper business
": (1) news; (2) paper; and, (3) business. With the rise of the Internet -- and shifting habits of younger people -- paper has emerged as a very expensive form of distributing news. Put differently, paper drives a wedge between part one (news) and part three (business).

This is not trivial. And, that's why every executive and employee in newspaper organizations (and anyone else who cares about this topic) should read Ken Auletta's article in the October 10, 2005 issue of The New Yorker. (Sorry: The magazine, at least as of today, chose not to post the article on its website).

Auletta uses the recent resignation of the Los Angeles Times' editor as a focal point to explore the fundamental problems facing newspapers. He has done a masterful job of presenting in clear and compelling ways the tensions between the Los Angeles Times' editors' desires to be a world class newspaper versus the coporate headquarters' desire to deliver steady growth and earnings from the newspaper business.

The title of Auletta's article is "Fault Line". It's brilliant. Not only because he so clearly lays out the inherent tension between striving for quality news versus meeting bottom line expectations - but also because, as happens too often in organizations facing profound change, the leaders from both sides fell too easily into a game of finding fault - the 'we/they' battles that never produce win/win strategies for change. Never.

Auletta has done something else in this article. He has provided journalists an example of excellent journalism. He has done a careful job of reporting both sides of this story. He has not pulled punches; but, neither has he taken cheap shots. He has succeeded in portraying all the players as human beings trying to do their jobs in a tough situation. In other words, he has shown respect to the people in his story and, thereby, shown respect to the readers of his story.

The Los Angeles Times can achieve both aspirations: (1) world class news; and, (2) profits and growth. But it cannot succeed if either goal trumps the other. Auletta's piece -- if carefully read and used -- can help the people of the Los Angeles Times find their best future together. Indeed, it can help all people in newspaper businesses convert the 'paper' wedge pitting 'news' against 'business' into a clarion call for shared collaboration and creativity required to deliver both high quality 'news' and high quality 'business'. Both/and. Not either/or.

Posted by Doug Smith at 01:46 PM | Permalink

October 06, 2005

Frontier Land

Customer and employee experiences of Frontier Land at Disney World might match the real thing if two Florida legislators succeed with a National Rifle Association bill they’ve proposed.

The bill makes it a third degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison and $5,000 in fines if any business enforces company policies that prohibit employees from stowing guns in the trunks of cars and trucks at work.

Roughly five percent of adult Floridians carry concealed weapons – which suggests that up to 2,850 of Disney’s 57,000 cast members (employees) could be packing iron in the Disney parking lot – something company policy now prohibits.

Like other businesses, Disney’s concern is safety. Three of four workplace homicides involve guns. Business folks figure the farther away the weapon, the less likely the violence.

"If they have to get in the car and drive home to get a gun, chances are they are going to cool down a little bit," said a spokesman for Weyerhaeuser who opposed a similar bill passed in Oklahoma.

Supporters of the bill counter: "For a business to tell you that in order to come onto their property, you have to give up your constitutional right is wrong." Adds, Joe Negron, co-sponsor and candidate for state attorney general, "An employer needs to recognize the right of its employees to lawfully defend themselves."

Negron and the NRA have a better grip on how to win votes and contributions from some of the people who like to carry concealed weapons than they do about the requirements of the Second Amendment to the Constitution:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Though awkwardly written, the amendment’s dependent clause (‘necessary to the security of a free State”) describes the purpose and the limits of the right to bear arms.

In plainer English, and as interpreted by The Supreme Court: The right to bear arms exists so that State’s can have well regulated militia’s to protect the State.

The individual right has a group purpose – the maintenance of militias and the protection of States. Like much of the Constitution, it balances the rights and responsibilities of “I’s” – individuals – with the interests and purposes of “we’s” – the ‘people’.

The proposed Florida law seeks to overthrow the Constitution’s plain meaning in favor of extreme individualism. There is, for example, no provision in the bill requiring those carrying concealed weapons to be active members in the Florida National Guard – something that might be more in line with the Second Amendment, but hardly the kind of thing to win votes for Negron because, I suspect, the 353,000 armed Floridians would rather continue being inconvenienced by company policies than, say, find themselves doing a tour of duty in Iraq.

This weekend brought news of more bombings that killed tourists in Bali. Along with the terrible loss of life, this will hit Bali’s economy hard – which, undoubtedly, was a primary objective of the terrorists. It’s the kind of incident that should reinforce Disney’s determination to figure out how best to do security screening at it’s theme parks – which, if you think about it, is the kind of task envisioned by the spirit of the Second Amendment; namely, an action taken to make us – to make ‘we’ -- safer.

Only, now there might be a catch. If the NRA and Negron have their way in Florida, Disney’s legal authority to check for weapons will apply to customers only. The 95% of Disney employees, who don’t pack iron, and presumably would ballot in favor of current Disney policy, will run the risk of learning the tragic way about those who prefer unbridled individualism to the common good.

Posted by Doug Smith at 08:29 AM | Permalink

October 04, 2005

Corporate Leadership

By mid-September, corporations had donated more than $300 million to Katrina relief efforts. It’s intriguing to compare that number with the $250 million that remained to be spent on critical unfinished aspects of the 1995 Southeast Louisana Urban Flood Control Project, known as SELA. Between 1995 and 2005, the Army Corps of Engineers spent $420 million on SELA, $50 million of which came from local and state coffers. With 20/20 hindsight, one imagines scores of corporations would gladly have ponied up the difference .

Preparedness, though, comes with hard choices made ahead of time – not afterwards. And, while executives and employees across America reached into their personal and corporate pocketbooks to lend a hand to the victims, few would have supported calls for higher taxes (whether corporate or personal). We know that the prevailing political winds over the ten years of SELA had businesses supporting tax cuts instead of tax increases.

In our nearly $12 trillion economy, the $250 million to complete SELA looks like chump change – or, a needle in the haystack we call ‘government’.

And, that is significant. Elections are won and lost more on big messages (“Cut Taxes”, “It’s Your Money”, “Keep America Safe”) than details. It’s difficult to believe any candidate running for, say, president, over the past ten years would have spent money, gotten much air time or gained a lot of support for a message such as “We need to fully fund SELA”.

What about candidates for mayor or governor? Yes, it seems more likely that specific references to SELA would have been more believable. Yet, and this seems obvious, when voter turnout for state and local offices hovers between 10 to 20%, victorious electoral strategies tap into the emotional appeals that energize the base. Again, “Cut Taxes”, “It’s Your Money”, “Keep America Safe” – or, looking ahead a bit “Competence in Government” and the like).

Voters may go to the polls with single issues on their minds (e.g. taxes, abortion, Iraq and so forth). But few if any get riled up because of a single issue like ‘finish the job with SELA”. That is just not going to happen in our busy world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and family.

Which means that we, the voters, end up having to rely on government officials and others whose job, duty or interest lies with worrying over things like the infrastructure on the Gulf Coast.

We’ve heard much in recent weeks about the large percentage of our nation’s economy that has depended on the Gulf Coast. A corollary points to the interest -- and the job -- of businesses from oil and energy to food and retail to ensure we all gain from a ‘Gulf Coast that works’.

And, so we come full circle. Elections are won on generalities, not specifics. Generalities favor messages about cutting taxes, not raising them. And about ‘letting the market fix things” not ‘government’. The job of building and maintaining infrastructure like levees and highways and so forth does not belong to any market. It belongs to government. Government fails to do that job without sufficient resources. Government failures reinforce the messages that government doesn’t work, only the market does. And, government failures reinforce the messages about cutting taxes and ‘it’s your money’.

It’s a spiral – but one that heads down, not up. There are many ways to reverse the spin. One surely would be for business leaders to revisit what ‘corporate citizenship’ means in this totally interconnected world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and family. Quarter-by-quarter profits might rise in a fiscal environment of low taxes. But, ultimately, government cannot function without resources -- and businesses, like the rest of us, are dependent on the infrastructure that government must build and maintain.

The $300 million businesses have contributed is an interesting number when compared with the $250 million that remained to be spent on SELA. But an even more interesting and compelling number is this: how much business -- how much profits -- will be lost between the time Katrina hit and the time the Gulf Coast’s contribution to America’s economy is back to pre-Katrina levels?

That answer will dwarf both the $250 million and the $300 million numbers.

Posted by Doug Smith at 12:06 PM | Permalink