Friday, December 30, 2011

Reminders from Tom, Basics from Jim, News from Me

More snippets of wisdom (or detritus, you be the judge)from my on-going desk-cleaning exercise.

Buried beneath old speeches and memos, a short list of things to think about/things to remember: reminders from Tom Peters, basic premises from Jim Collins, and new rules from me.

Here they are, exactly as I found them, with no additional editorial comment.

Tom Peters' Reminders
*Think in technocolor--passion wins.
*Hire "disrespectful" people.
*Technology change is just starting: bio-tech, nano-tech, wireless, the web, more to come.
*Want to innovate? Hang out with innovators; cool begets cool.
*Ready, fire, aim; action first; avoid analysis/paralysis.
*Prototype=speed to learning
*Talent wins
*Diversity spawns innovation, sameness=extinction
*Design is the soul of business
*Branding=character, story, emotion
*Make every task an adventure
*The soft stuff is the hard stuff
*Reward excellent failures, punish mediocre successes
*Causes matter; causes get people out of bed in the morning

Jim Collins' on Fast Company: 5 Basic Premises
Work is not a means to an end; it's an end in itself
If your competitive scorecard is money, you will always lose
Business is a mechanism for social change--for good or for ill
Entrepreneurship is a life concept, not a business concept
Performance is the fundamental requirement; love what you're doing

Alan Webber's Reminders of the New Situation
There's no such thing as "business as usual."
There's no such thing as "back to normal."
No one is safe.
You are not in charge.

(Ok, a little editorial comment):
There you have it--short and sweet.
Thoughts on life and work, change and success as we get close to ringing out the old year and ringing in the new!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Six Two-Word Terms for the Future

This cleaning out your desk thing turns out to be incredibly worthwhile!
You get to throw away pounds of paper that have been sitting there for years.
And you get to re-visit things that turn out to be interesting--if for no other reason than that they have historical value.
Take my notes from a speech I gave to EDS in May of 1992.

The premise of my talk was the arrival of a "new economy." I started out by summarizing the headlines of the day (think back to 1992--if you were alive back then!): the agony of IBM, the triumph of the Japanese auto industry, the diminishing power of the three big TV networks, the collapse of the U.S. labor movement, the marketing miracle of Nike, the market power of Intel. It spelled what I called then "the Great Divide"--the split between the old order and the new economy, the rise of global competition, technological innovation, the new workforce, and the new workplace. All of it added up to a gaping economic fault line between the old-line bureaucratic companies and the companies and managers of the future. Those who are stuck in obsolete organizational structure and competitive concepts, and those who are busy inventing new ways to compete.

Some companies were responding by focusing on what I called "table stakes"--four things they needed to do just to stay relevant: attention to quality; emphasis on customer choice and a new variety of offerings; improved customer service; and worker empowerment/flat organizations/teams.
Table stakes. Nothing distinctive there. Things you had to do (and still have to do) just to show that you get it.

But then there was "the new agenda"--six two-word terms that I said would define the future.
First, Latent Competitors. You may know how your traditional competitor was. But do you know who your new, unexpected competitor will be--or where that competitor will come from?
Second, Techno-Fusion. The old version of R&D relied on straight-ahead breakthrough. The new version demands a blending of technologies and fields, biology and physics, nutrition and health, neuro-science and economics: I didn't cite it then (because it hadn't appeared yet) but think of quantum computing as an example today.
Third, Smart Products. Products that tell you where they are, what they are doing, when they need servicing. Products that link with other products to do the work for you.
Fourth, ∫. Business transactions and experiences shift from one-way communication to interactive communication: interactive TV, in-store ordering and customization. They were big back then, before the web made everything inter-active.
Fifth, Real Time. The goal is to make everything happen in real time. Speed is money, speed is quality, speed is customer satisfaction, speed is productivity, speed is strategy.
Sixth, Systems Capability. The company is a system--get all the processes right, you deliver the product right. The system is the solution.

The bottom line I came to in that old speech, given all those years ago: "Keep learning new skills and crossing old boundaries."
Sounds like good advice to me, almost 20 years later.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

What I Learned From Starting Fast Company

It's getting close to the end of the year.
A good time to clean out old drawers filled with even older files.
Here's one I just found: Lessons From Fast Company. It was a speech I gave in Brazil at a program organized by the remarkable Oscar Motomura not long after Bill Taylor and I exited the magazine that we had jointly created.
Here's what my speech notes say:
1. You have to believe in your own idea. I genuinely believed that Fast Company was 'destined' to happen--even though it took more than 3 years to go from business plan to launch.
2. You have to be open to others' input on your idea. Just because it is your idea and it is 'destined' to happen doesn't make it perfect from the inception. Write it down. Show it to others. They will see it differently. They will have good suggestions. They will have bad suggestions. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference. That's part of the process!
3. The world does not need your idea. It's important to remember that--people are getting along just fine without your idea. So learn to see the world through their eyes--explain how your idea solves their problem!
4. Who you are and what you've done are often the best arguments for your idea. Your track record counts as much as the merits of your idea.
5. Do you have skin in the game? If you really believe in your own idea, how do you show your commitment? If you want others to commit, you've got to make your own commitment clear and visible.
6. What's your motivation? Love is more powerful than money. If you're just doing it for the money, the day will come when you look at how little progress you've made on your idea and say, 'There must be easier ways to get rich.' If you're doing it for the love of the idea, that day will never come.
7. It's all an iterative process of learning and doing. Ted Levitt used to say, 'Make a little, try a little, sell a little.' The idea is to keep your own thinking moving forward by coming up with an idea, testing it, getting feedback, refining it. Lather, rinse, repeat.
8. If you plan some things you can leave other things looser. Leave everything loose and it's harder to innovate--constraints act as boundaries within which innovation can take place.
9. Your idea is only as good as the people you attract to work on it with you. It's all about the talent on your team, the allies you develop, the supporters you woo and win.
10. Remember Gandhi: The means are the ends in the making. Be the project you want it to be. Whether the project succeeds or fails in the long run may be less important than how you've conducted yourself in the pursuit of the project.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Every Election Is About a Question

Sometimes one of the candidates makes it explicit: "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?"
Sometimes the question remains implicit, only hinted at by one TV that only airs once: The famous "daisy" commercial that Lyndon Johnson's campaign used to ask about Barry
Goldwater, "Can you trust this guy with the atom bomb?"
Sometimes it's a question that seems frivolous: "Who would you rather have a beer with? Al Gore or George Bush?"
Sometimes it's a question that is more lofty: "What will it take to get America moving again?"
At the moment, as the Iowa caucuses approach, it appears that the Republican Party is split; there are two different questions, and depending on which question you ask, you get a different answer.
One question is, "Who in this field is the 'real' Republican?" In other words, who is a real conservative--and who is just faking it? This is a matter of ideological purity.
The other question is, "Who has the best chance of winning the general election in November, and beating Obama for the White House?" This is a matter of electoral pragmatism.
And then there is the November election to consider.
By the time it rolls around, what will the question be?
Frequently, the side that controls the question, controls the election.
But thanks in part to the Occupy Movement and in part to the internet and social media, while both sides (and a possible third party candidate) fight to define the question that defines the election, for the first time in memory, the question may get decided in a much more democratic, if amorphous and ambiguous fashion.
The question this time may emerge from emails and tweets, from Facebook postings and blogs.
It may be too early to suggest what "the question" will turn out to be.
But I think it would be reasonable to think that, no matter who the Republicans nominate, when it comes time for the first debate, the first and most important question for the candidates to answer should be, "If you're elected President in 2012, what difference will it actually make?"
And then keep answering that one question until somebody finally gets real.
That's a debate I'd like to watch.
For a change.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Power of the Powerless

Over the holidays Vaclav Havel died. The newspaper headlines of his funeral said something like, "The world says good-bye to Vaclav Havel."
I took it as an opportunity to say hello to him.
I sat down and read his amazing 1978 essay, "The Power of the Powerless." It's not easy going; but it's worth making the effort.
In it, over and over again he extols the importance, the virtue, the hard work and courage of "living within the truth." Because so much of what "the system" requires of people is that they live within a lie.
"Between the aims of the post-totalitarian system and the aims of life there is a yawning abyss," Havel wrote. "While life, in its essence, moves toward plurality, diversity, independent self-constitution and self-organization, in short, toward the fulfillment of its own freedom, the post-totalitarian system demands conformity, uniformity, and discipline. While life ever strives to create new and improbable structures, the post-totalitarian system contrives to force life into its most probable states."
And the system? This oppressive regime that demands conformity and imposes over a society the requirement that everyone pretend that what is clearly oppressive is somehow a matter of free choice?
"Therefore not only does the system alienate humanity, but a the same time, alienated humanity supports this system as its own involuntary master plan, as a degenerate image of its own degeneration, as a record of people's own failure as individuals."
In other words, as long as we all go along with our own systematic self-alienation and self-imposed powerless, that is exactly how long the system will hold power over us.
And the weapon of choice for those who wish to express their own power?
"If the main pillar of the system is living a lie," Havel wrote, "then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living the truth."
Havel wrote at a particular time and a particular place, addressing a particular political system.
But his essay and his message are still relevant and powerful today.
In some respects, the cause of Solidarity and Charter 77 are the cause of the early voices of Arab Spring and the Occupy movement. Havel's words may have been prophetic in talking about the need to emphasize "human factors" in defining what makes life worth living, in the responsibility of individuals to speak the truth and live in the truth, to create examples of a "second culture" that finds alternative solutions and modes of expression to the dominant ones that define and govern the status quo.
At the end, Havel writes, "For the real question is whether the brighter future is always so distant. What if, on the contrary, it has been here for a long time already, and only our own blindness and weakness has prevented us from seeing around us and within us, and kept us from developing it?"
What if?
What if the powerless actually became aware of the source of their own power?
The power of living within the truth.

Friday, December 9, 2011

"Welcome Back to The Fight."

"This time I know our side will win."
Fans of "Casablanca" will recognize Victor Laszlo's parting salute to Rick, once he's gotten off the fence, gotten over Ilsa, and decided once again to join the Resistance.
It's the same way I felt watching Barack Obama's much-hyped Teddy Roosevelt-wanna-be speech in Kansas, the one where he came out as champion of the beleaguered middle class.
"Well, Mr. President," I wanted to say, "it's about time! Glad you stopped tending bar with all those rich guys in tuxes and worrying about the beautiful women with their jewels and took a look at the Gini Index. You remember the Gini Index? The one that says that the United States is the most unequal advanced industrial economy in the world! Yeah, that one. So, welcome back to the fight, Mr. President. I sure hope our side will win."
But there were a couple of problems with the President's speech that have kept troubling me.
First was the presentation. This was no Teddy Roosevelt stem-winder.
Something has happened to President Obama. He's lost his . . . groove. His . . . mojo. This speech should have been a rousing call for action. Instead, he seemed decidedly lukewarm about his own subject. Not good.
Second was the content. The President (finally) nailed it when he pointed out the crisis facing America's middle class. And he was right: this country needs a strong middle class if we want a strong nation. Strong economically, socially, politically, you name it. The middle class is the glue that holds this nation together. And right now, the glue is starting to go bad.
No argument there.
But then listen to the solutions the President has to offer, and other than his argument over the tax code--where he is basically correct, we could go back to tax rates we had in the past without killing any jobs or destroying the corporate work ethic--his solutions are very thin gruel.
Take a look at the February 2010 Annual Report of the White House Task Force on the Middle Class.
You remember that Task Force, don't you? The one chaired by Vice-President Joe Biden? You remember Vice-President Joe Biden, don't you?
Never mind.
That report basically regurgitates all the same stuff the President tried to touch on in his speech. Preserve America's manufacturing jobs. Oops, too late.
Invest in infrastructure. Oops, all that money that was supposed to go toward jump-starting the economy after the big crash of 2008--it's still unspent.
Fix public education. Oops, no progress on that one either.
It's more than disappointing.
It's problematic.
Either the President doesn't actually know what government can or should do to come to the aid of the middle class; or he knows and can't deliver; or the whole theory of the case is wrong.
What if the federal government isn't the source of support for the middle class (other than tax policy and large budget outlays for health care and welfare)?
What if it has to come at the local level? What if we should be listening to mayors and governors, to social entrepreneurs and grass-roots organizers--what if they know what the middle class needs, because they're a lot closer to the middle class and its struggles than any policymaker in Washington, DC?
Welcome back to the fight, Mr. President!
Now, remember what you used to do as a community organizer in Chicago?
Let's try that! This time, we just might win!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

What's the Matter With Business?

Another of the benefits of being off the grid for a couple of months: old news is new! And you can consume it at your own rate!
Which is to say, if you're like me, the onslaught of media, when you're trying to swim in the stream, can be overwhelming. I remember feedback from people who canceled their subscriptions to HBR when I was editorial director. They invariably said, "The issues pile up, I can't keep up, and it's easier to cancel my subscription than to feel guilty for not reading each issue."
I'm the opposite.
I look forward to random reading in piled up back issues of old magazines after I get back from a prolonged absence.
Take the September 24-30 issue of The Economist. Page 76, opened at random, offers some startling statistics about how companies work inside. According to a study commissioned by Dov Seidman, author of "How," 43% of American employees surveyed say their company works on a command-and-control culture--management by coercion. Another 54% say their employers are top-down, but with a dollop of carrots and sticks, and talented leaders who try to inspire followership--a category Seidman calls "informed acquiescence." Only 3% actually practice employee self-governance, where a shared set of values and principles guide employees in their work and align them with the company's larger purpose.
But, as Paul Harvey used to say, that's only part of the story!
The Economist goes on to report that, unlike the employees in the belly of the beast, the bosses at the tops of companies who were interviewed saw a very different picture. Bosses, according to the study, are 8 times more likely than the average to say that their company is self-governing. 27% of the bosses say their employees are inspired by the company--only 4% of the employees see it that way. 41% of the bosses say their company rewards performance based on values, rather than purely on financial results--14% of the employees agree.
What does the gap cost companies?
The Economist notes that in companies run through coercion, fewer than 20% of the employees say their company readily adopts good ideas.
In an economy of ideas, that means leadership by coercion renders your organization deaf, dumb, and stupid.
But it's worse than that.
Decades after all the initial work on the importance of corporate culture, after Peter Drucker's early reflections on the coming of the knowledge economy, after Theory X and Theory Y gave way to Theory Z, the vast majority of American companies (presumably the large ones) are still run according to the old model.
Top-down.
Rules and restrictions.
Reports and regulations.
Keep everyone in line. Tell them what to do. Give them enough room so they can do their jobs, but make sure nobody gets too adventurous or creative, too innovative or idealistic.
When Bill Taylor and I started Fast Company more than 15 years ago, we put our manifesto on the front cover of the first issue: WORK IS PERSONAL; KNOWLEDGE IS POWER; COMPUTING IS SOCIAL; BREAK THE RULES.
Maybe it's time to restate those principles. Make them part of the OCCUPY BUSINESS movement.
We need to see that 3% of self-governed businesses grow to become the majority.
The 99%.
It's something to shoot for.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Not Dead, Yet

I've gotten emails lately, several of them, actually, asking me if I'm dead.
How I'm supposed to answer them if I am dead is a mystery.
But since I'm not dead yet, I answered them all.
The logic behind them was simple: My friends knew that at the end of September I'd taken myself off the grid to go with my family to trek the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal.
They figured that I would die on the trek, a notion that I myself partially subscribed to, even encouraged half-heartedly. It made a certain kind of sense. Trekking wasn't something I was partial to; the trip had been my wife's creation, going back to do again a journey she'd made 11 years earlier. So death was a distinct possibility.
But it was not to be.
Instead it was a fantastic trek, filled with great adventure, once I got past the distinct smells of the squattie-potties and the sight of goats being slaughtered in the street to celebrate a Hindu festival.
Great adventure, wonderful terrain, amazing villages, smiling people, and a shot at some new measure of self-knowledge.
And I came back with a new-found insight into the U.S. criminal justice system: Any Wall Street banker found guilty of insider trading or stock manipulation, Ponzi schemes or other financial self-serving, rather than being sentenced to prison, should be sentenced to hike the Annapurna Circuit.
He (or she) would come back at least 15-20 pounds lighter; seriously humbled by the mountain and its rigors; newly awakened to the limits of money and a fresh appreciation of what "enough" means; and an insight into the often inverse correlation between money and happiness.
If nothing else, he would return to America convinced that there is no real reason to wear pin-striped suits and power ties, red suspenders and french-cuffed shirts. There is a lot to life that involves backpacks and sleeping bags, vegetables and fried rice, and 8-hours of trekking in the most beautiful places on God's earth.
It's actually a pretty damned good shot at redemption for anyone looking for a new start.
Even a Wall Street criminal.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Doin' the Do Lectures!

I'm just back from the Do Lectures in Wales and if you haven't heard of'em or looked at their website, then shame on you! And shame on me for not tellin' you. And fook all of us for bein' such stupid gits here in America and turnin' our collective backs on this marvelous gatherin' over in Wales, where the people talk with such wonderful accents, tell fantastic stories, share the most amazin' attitude toward changin' the world, love their music, their locally farmed food, their brilliant cider and lovely whiskey, and generally speakin' live close to the land, pay strict attention to what actually matters, and roll up their fookin' sleeves and do real work to get real things done.
It's the gatherin' you always wanted to go to, mate. It's in Wales, for one thing, which is off in a corner of the world and you don't go there if you don't do it on purpose.
The people are warm, the land is green, the sky goes from blue to gray and the sunshine is as apt to be wet as it is dry.
The humor is warm, the food is delicious, and there's absolutely no pretense. No name tags, no cocktail-party behavior of people standin' there, talkin' with you but cranin' their necks to see if there's somebody more important nearby. No celebrity-seekin'.
It all takes place in a tent that holds maybe 100 people at the most, and most of the people who come pay to live four-to-a-tent, shower in communal showers, get up at 5:30 in the mornin' to go canoeing on the river or to take part in some early mornin' yoga.
It's the perfect answer to all the American conferences that try to out-do each other in size and glam and self-promotion.
Here the talk is about people tryin' things to see if they can make a difference.
Grow It Yourself--to get folks to form small clubs to grow their own veggies.
A local farmer in Wales who's gone all solar, takin' his operation off the grid.
People who love bikin' over drivin' cars, people who are passionate about fixin' education, people who want to tell other people that it's ok not to be famous as long as you're doin' what it is that is right for you to be doin'.
And great humor, the kind of humor that the Irish, the Scottish, the Welsh, the English are so good at.
One speaker starts his talk sayin', "I do love all the self-deprecatin' humor, but I me-self am not so good at it."
There's a lot of anger and resentment at the current government in the UK, and almost as much at the US for it's over-reaching worship of the almighty dollar and it's exaggerated form of capitalism that's runnin' amuck.
But the real spirit is energetic and positive.
The world is a big place.
The problems are everywhere.
Pick something and go to work on it.
Start small and grow it from there.
And laugh and sing and have a pint while you're at it.
It's a beautiful thing, the Do Lectures.
So don't be a stupid git. Check it out on the web.
And then get busy doin' whatever it is that you've always wanted to do to make the world a better place.
Just Do Lecture it!
And stop fookin' around!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Absolutely Positively Apologetic!

Yesterday morning, the call came to my daughter.
It was a very gracious woman calling from FedEx in Texas.
She was genuinely sorry about the service failure. FedEx had called the shipper in North Carolina and refunded the shipping cost.
She sounded genuinely thoughtful and truly helpful.
So, hat's off to FedEx for doing the right thing.

That said, the whole episode, with its emotional ups and downs, feelings of helplessness in the face of a system that didn't seem capable of responding in a timely and effective fashion, took me back to the notion of service recovery.
I remember reading Chris Hart's article on service guarantees years ago when I was at HBR, and being impressed with how much sense it made: Everybody makes mistakes; the question is, what do you do about them when they happen? Hart argued that the more a company issues service guarantees against failure, the more likely it is to design a system that won't fail--and to design in recovery systems to deal with the times when something does go wrong.
It was the kind of management article that appealed to me as a manager and as a consumer--and the message has stuck with me for a long time.

But this last FedEx experience made me think a little deeper.
It isn't enough to think about having guarantees and recovery systems. You have to design them into your way of doing business.
For instance: one of the applied lessons from the FedEx experience with my daughter's missing shipment was this: Most companies design their systems to run one direction only--from front to back. But if you want to create the capacity for real service recovery, you need to design a system that it will also run from back to front--you need to be, in effect, to play the tape in reverse, so you can find what went wrong quickly and accurately, so you can then intervene to fix it.

The same thing could be said about the idea of a Customer Advocate Team.
The name sounds great. What customer wouldn't want an internal advocate when things go wrong?
But the real operational question is, what power and what authority does the Customer Advocate Team have?
Can they actually function as advocates for the customer? Or are they limited to sounding and acting like apologists for the company?
If the only authority the team has is to explain to an unhappy customer what the company's policies are, then they don't qualify as advocates. (It was the always spot-on Seth Godin who pointed out some time ago that falling back on the answer that "that is our policy" is about the lamest answer a company can give a customer; in that case, the customer is entitled to say, "I have policies, too, and one of mine is not to pay companies whose policies are idiotic!")
So if you have a company, and you want to set up a team whose members are customer advocates, what real authority do you give them?
Can they unilaterally intercede on the customer's behalf?
Refund money on the spot?
Get a supervisor to over-ride a bad decision or an ineffective business activity?
Dispatch someone to find a missing item, track down a lost package, investigate a messed up situation--in real time?

I do appreciate FedEx calling my daughter to make things right--that was the right thing to do.
Even more, I think about all the ways companies and organizations make mistakes all the time (I just got back from a restaurant experience where they never wrote down the reservation that we'd called to make--and left us cooling our heels on a sofa for 30 minutes while a table opened up--with no offer of anything "on the house" to make up for their bad booking work. As Chris Hart sagely said years ago, mistakes are part of doing business; the question customers want to know is, what do you do next?)
And I've come to appreciate pushing deeper into this very serious issue: how do you design a system to be reversible; and how do you give real authority to your service recovery team so they can actually make a real difference?
Questions that ultimately spell the difference between good-enough customer service (barely good enough) or out-of-this-world customer service.
For me, I have to say, my biggest thanks to FedEx is for a real learning experience.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Absolutely Positively Unacceptable!

On Sunday, if everything goes the way it should, my daughter Amanda will graduate from the Southern California Institute of Architecture.
No thanks to FedEx.
No thanks to FedEx's delivery system.
No thanks to FedEx's service recovery system. (What service recovery system, you ask? Good question!)
No thanks to FedEx's customer advocate team. (What customer advocate team, you ask? Good question!)
Here's the story in a nutshell.
Amanda ordered two special prints from a firm in North Carolina. The prints cost more than $1,000. She needed them in LA on Wednesday to put up her thesis presentation so she could graduate.
The firm in North Carolina sent the prints FedEx for overnight delivery.
That's when things went wrong.
The prints were supposed to be in LA Wednesday afternoon. Absolutely positively overnight.
The tracking information on the FedEx web site said the package was delivered and signed for--by someone my daughter had never heard of.
She called FedEx Wednesday afternoon, having stayed up in a series of all-nighters, very upset. She needed those prints.
FedEx told her they would track the mis-delivered prints--within 48 hours!
You heard that right: FedEx can deliver a package overnight--but it takes two days to find out how they mis-delivered a package!
So I called FedEx around 9pm Wednesday night. They told me the same thing: 48 hours.
I asked for a supervisor.
She told me that FedEx's LA offices were closed; there was nobody for her to ask about the mis-delivered package until the morning.
At 8 am Thursday morning I called and asked for the Customer Advocate Team. I spoke with another FedEx woman--who said they would put someone on the case.
The driver who mis-delivered the package had already left to make his rounds. How would they get to him? Why hadn't they asked him when he reported to work in the morning? What had happened all night? What was the point of taking my call Wednesday night if nothing had happened by Thursday morning? When would we hear from them?
If we didn't hear soon, we'd have to call North Carolina and have another set of the prints made, have them shipped--and hope for the best in getting the thesis presentation up on the wall.
By 12 noon, there was no word from FedEx--but Amanda had found the prints.
They'd been delivered, for no apparent reason, to a storefront shop next door to Amanda's apartment building. Not the right address, not the right person--and no word from FedEx as to why the mis-delivery had happened or where they thought the package was.
So I called the Customer Advocate Team.
I told them their service recovery system was terrible. It didn't work. In an emergency, waiting 48 hours to find out what had happened to an overnight delivery was ridiculous.
I understand your point, the woman said, as if what I was looking for was understanding.
How did they expect to satisfy me as a customer if they hadn't been able to discover what had gone wrong? When did they think their service recovery system would actually uncover and rectify the problem?
I understand your point, the woman said. Understanding wasn't what I wanted.
I want a full credit for the shipping cost, I said. It was more than $250 for them not to deliver that package!
I can't do that, the woman said. The shipper in North Carolina has to request the refund.
But the shipper is getting paid by me, I said. The shipper in North Carolina has no incentive to waste time dealing with FedEx.
I understand your point, the woman said. But that's our policy.
Your policy? I asked. I thought you were the customer advocate. Why don't you call the shipper and facilitate giving the shipper credit for FedEx's mistake?
I can't do that, the woman said. I don't have that power.
So exactly how are you a customer advocate, I asked.
She didn't have an answer to that.
Other than that she understood my point.
So what we have here, my friends, is a company that actually doesn't have a service recovery system.
They can't run their system in reverse--they can't reverse engineer their delivery system when it goes wrong.
And they can't do it fast.
They can't do it absolutely positively.
And they can't fix the billing.
They have a customer advocate team that's a customer advocate team in name only.
They have no real authority, no real power to do anything. They don't even advocate.
They just "understand."
Next time: UPS.
Or maybe Fred Smith will send me a check for $250.
We'll see.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Economics From Polanyi to Spence

In 1944, the remarkable Austrian-born economic historian Karl Polanyi published The Great Transformation.
It is a sophisticated and erudite work and any attempt to summarize Polanyi's argument (even the summary provided by Joseph Stiglitz) is bound to come up short.
But here's my best effort.
The Industrial Revolution, Polanyi says, ushered in a massive transformation of society and economics. With the Industrial Revolution, markets were invented; land and nature became property, and that meant things that had been valued for themselves now had external economic value. People became labor, and they, too, were transformed from individuals with intrinsic human value into a commodity.
The big transformation, says Polanyi, was that instead of economics serving society, as one component of the way people lived, after the Industrial Revolution society served economics. Economics became the way everyone kept score; it became the ultimate point of the exercise.
Along with that came new theories. One of the most pernicious was the notion of a self-regulating market--that the market needed no external intervention, that it would automatically balance itself and produce its own equilibrium.
Polanyi says no.
He says that self-regulating markets inevitably fail. That they are a fabrication, a myth. And that when they fail, they bring about so much social pain and disorder that they invariably bring out the opposite of what they promise: they require government intervention to re-balance the social consequences of market failures.
And so, the myth of the self-regulating market produces the very thing it imagines to be unnecessary--government programs and policies to protect society (and particularly the poor) from the ravages of change and economic disaster.
Which brings us to 2011 and Michael Spence.
Writing in Foreign Affairs, Spence, a Nobel Prize winning economist, turns to the subject of globalization and unemployment. (My thanks to good friend Peter Sims, terrific author of "Little Bets", for calling this piece to my attention.)
Again, apologies for oversimplifying an in-depth piece of economic/political analysis.
Spence argues with clear logic and data that America's unemployment problem derives from the increasing globalization of business and work.
He divides our economy into tradable and nontradable sectors. The nontradable sector is that part of the US economy where goods and services must be consumed domestically; the tradable part of the US economy is the part that produces goods and services that can be consumed anywhere.
Between 1990 and 2008, Spence says, the US economy created 27 million jobs. Of those, 98% were in the nontradable sector. In that period, the tradable sector grew by a total of 600,000 jobs.
The problem: manufacturing has been moving out of the US.
Overall, jobs are being produced in the nontradable sector and in the upper end of the tradable sector, in such areas as finance, computer design and engineering, and top management in multi-national corporations.
This leads to an increasing gap between the rich and the poor in the US; it puts enormous stress on the middle class; and it makes education even more important for the country's economic and social well-being.
Free trade and free markets are good, Spence says--just not for everyone.
He writes, "Although everyone does benefit from lower-priced goods and services, people also care greatly about the chance to be productively employed and the quality of their work. Declining employment opportunities feel real and immediate; the rise in real incomes brought by lower prices does not. For example, according to recent surveys, a substantial number of Americans believe that their children will have fewer opportunities than they have had."
Spence is too polite to say it, but what's he talking about here is the end of the American Dream.
But he is quite blunt about who the market benefits and who it punishes: "In short," he writes, "companies' private interest (profit) and the public's interest (employment) do not align perfectly."
What is to be done?
One thing, Spence says, is for the US to put more effort into preserving what is left of our manufacturing base. "Specifically," he says, "the right combination of productivity-enhancing technology and competitive wage levels could keep some manufacturing industries, or at least some value-added pieces of their production chains, in the United States and other advanced countries. But accomplishing this will require more than a decision from the market; it must also involve labor, business, and governments."
What else?
He ends his essay with a section he calls The Big Tradeoff.
Instead of benign neglect toward jobs in the tradable sector, he says, the US must come to an agreement that good jobs in this sector is a fundamental national goal. Germany has done just that, he argues, with great success.
Then we need to focus on education: "A lack of commitment to education in families and in communities makes the entire field of education seem unattractive, demoralizing dedicated teachers and turning off talented students from teaching."
We need to invest in infrastructure and in technology that will boost employment in the tradable sector of the economy.
We need to fix the tax structure so that it promotes competitiveness, investment, and employment.
"Globalization has redefined the competition for employment and incomes in the United States," Spence writes. "Tradeoffs will have to be made between the two. Germany clearly chose to protect employment in the industries of its tradable sector that came under competitive threat. Now, US policymakers must choose, too."
Spence points out that America has been becoming increasing inequitable as a society.
The ratio of the average income of the top 20% of the population to the average income of the bottom 20% is 4 to 1 in Germany, but 8 to 1 in the US.
Spence's conclusion: ". . . tradeoffs between market forces and equity are possible. The US government needs to face up to them."
And he ends with a powerful quote from Paul Samuelson, a distinguished US economist: "Every good cause is worth some inefficiency," Samuelson wrote.
"Surely, equity and social cohesion are among them," Spence adds.
Michael Spence, meet Karl Polanyi.
The Big Tradeoff, let me introduce you to The Great Transformation.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Can Politics Self-Correct?

Here's today's counter-intuitive notion.
I'm not even sure I buy it, but it's worth thinking about.
Here goes.
Most systems have a self-correcting feature. Especially in nature. Too many bunny rabbits running around in your fields? Coyotes will take care of that and reintroduce something approaching equilibrium. (Okay, this may be a New Mexico-driven example, but you get the idea.)
Economics believes in this idea: supply and demand, balancing each other out.
Physics, too: for every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction.
How about politics?
Is there a self-correcting mechanism in the American political system?
You could argue that you see it in the way the country votes in national elections: a Dwight David Eisenhower brings out a John F. Kennedy, a Lyndon Johnson produces a Richard Nixon who then makes necessary a Jimmy Carter, who in turn delivers Ronald Reagan, George Bush gives us Bill Clinton, the second Bush produces Barack Obama.
Just like the laws of economics or Newton's third law. There are laws of politics.
But do those laws govern what happens inside a political party?
Conventional wisdom today says that to win a party's presidential nomination, a candidate has to start off appealing to extreme groups. They're the ones who turn out for primaries and caucuses, the ones who contribute serious money and are willing to do the hard and tedious work of political organizing.
So veer hard to the extreme to get the nomination, then move to the middle in the general.
But what if?
What if there is a self-correcting mechanism for political parties?
What if, this year, when faced with more and more candidates who appear to be running from the extreme for the Republican nomination, the party discovers its self-correcting mechanism?
What if Republicans wake up one morning to discover that it's lunacy to turn their party over to candidates who don't accept evolutionary science? To candidates who reject evidence of human contribution to climate change?
Or who genuinely think that the national economy can be rejuvenated simply by revoking all environmental regulations?
Or who want to restore the gold standard?
Or who think that being gay is a form of "personal enslavement"?
What if Republicans veer to the middle during these upcoming primaries and re-discover the old Republican roots?
Here's why that's an interesting idea to consider.
First, in the middle of a pack of candidates who do espouse extreme views, there are a couple of Republicans who are very clearly signaling to voters that they are . . . reasonable. Civil. Pretty mainstream, actually.
Wouldn't it be healthy, for the Republicans as a party, and for the country as a whole, if Americans suddenly discovered, or re-discovered actually, an appetite for reasonableness.
What if the Republicans, of all things, became the party that espoused a return to old-school politics?
What if the Republicans, who can take credit for inventing modern scorched earth politics, actually walked away from that technique and announced to American voters that the Republican Party was going to campaign on a platform of sensible, mainstream, non-culture war policies?
The Republicans could claim to have invented a whole new law of politics--a law with as much power and appeal as anything in nature, economics, or physics.
And I'll bet they'd find a lot of people who would jump at the opportunity to see what it's like to have the debate over America's future suddenly sound . . . sane. Positive. Practical. Down to earth. And back to reality.
But like I said, I'm not even sure I buy it.
Conventional wisdom is so hard to shake. Still, I'll be watching.
Maybe we'll start seeing some coyotes roaming around in the Republican primaries.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The False Claims Department

Reading the papers this morning, two headlines catch my eye.
In Libya, Seif al-Islam, Muammar Qaddafi's son, the one who the rebels claimed they had captured? He made an appearance in public at a hotel in Tripoli.
Looks like he wasn't captured after all.
In New York, the district attorney has asked the judge in the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case to drop the charges. The woman who accused DSK of the sexual assault was deemed to have lied repeatedly to law enforcement officials. The NYT quotes prosecutors as saying, "the nature and number of the complainant's falsehoods leave us unable to credit her version of events beyond a reasonable doubt, whatever the truth may be about the encounter."
And then there's the headline about the rise in allegations of cheating in New York public schools--complaints of test-tampering and grade-changing have tripled. With bonuses, jobs, and reputations all on the line based on student test scores, the incentive to lie, cheat, and cover up have all grown.
So here's the headline I didn't read.
There are no secrets any more.
And if you think you have a secret, you won't have it for long.
Every since satellites detected the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, it's gotten harder and harder to lie.
The second headline I didn't read is the one every politician has heard since Watergate. It's not the crime that will get you, it's the cover up.
No secrets, no cover ups.
Or as Mark Twain once wrote, "If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything."
It's worth a try, right?

Saturday, August 20, 2011

My Meeting With Rick

I know I've already blogged on this, but now that he's running for President, it's useful to re-tell the story of my meeting with Rick Perry.
It was a number of years ago. I was in Texas to give a speech. But I had a few hours free before the speech, and the very friendly fellow who'd brought me down to address his group made me an offer I couldn't refuse: How would I like to meet Texas Governor Rick Perry and sit in on a meeting he was having with two gentlemen from Mexico.
I soon found myself sitting in a small conference room in the hotel where my speech was to take place. I was introduced to the two gentlemen from Mexico: an older, distinguished looking man who, it turned out, was the publisher or Mexico City's largest and most influential newspaper, and a young, movie-star handsome gentleman who was a member of the Mexico Senate.
They were there, they explained to me, to ask Governor Perry about the open-meetings law and provisions of US law that required more transparency in government.
In Mexico, it seemed, there were no such laws, and they were researching the ways the laws worked in the US to make the case back home that Mexico would benefit from more open government.
After we waited awhile, the Governor came in. Sat down across from us. Put his big boots on the glass-topped coffee table so we could all admire his official state-seal-of-Texas cowboy boots.
And then, without warning, he started in on a diatribe about water that Mexico was illegally withholding from Texas.
"We know it's there," he said, twanging away like a hillbilly. "We got satellites kin prove it. Satellites show us real clear you all are keeping that water on yer side of the border. And that's wrong, see. That's against the treaty we have with you all."
And on and on. All about the illegal impoundment of water by the Mexicans, depriving Texans of their legal rights to all that water.
There was nothing to do but sit there with the two Mexicans and listen to him rail on about something these two gentlemen had no authority over and hadn't come to talk about.
Finally, having had his say about water, Perry turned to the matter at hand, government transparency, open meetings, sunshine laws.
"What ya got to understand," he said, "was these laws are a double-edged sword. Now you take the problem of bidness plans."
Let me stop here.
"Bidness."
He actually said "bidness."
Not business. Bidness.
"Now you take the problem of bidness plans."
He looked at the two Mexicans.
"You all know what a bidness plan is, right? That's what you got to have when you want to start a bidness. Well, in Texas, if someone writes up a bidness plan and then goes to the government for some kind of assistance, well, they got to show the government their bidness plan. Now, under all those laws, that means that bidness plan could be read by just about anybody who wants to. So that's how transparency works, see? It's a double-edged sword."
The meeting was over soon.
After Perry left, I looked at the two gentlemen from Mexico
They shrugged.
I tried to apologize to them, although I had nothing to apologize for. Other than being an American and in the same room.
Finally, the young, handsome Senator said, "I'm glad he explained what a business plan is. That wasn't something we covered when I was getting my MBA from the Stanford business school."
Ouch.
Now Rick Perry is running for President of the United States.
He doesn't accept the science behind global climate change.
He wants to teach creationism in the schools on a par with evolutionary theory.
He sees nothing wrong with conducting a Christians-only prayer rally as Governor of Texas.
He threatened to look into Texas seceding from the Union.
I only got a glimpse of the remarkable insensitivity and mind-numbing simplicity of the way this man thinks, talks, works, and treats others.
Imagine what he could do in the White House.
Maybe it's time for another prayer rally--all denominations.
We'll think of something appropriate to pray for.

Friday, August 19, 2011

One Cheer for The Pope

According to this morning's papers, Pope Benedict XVI is in Spain, where he gave a speech on the problems caused by pure bottom-line-driven capitalism. Not a bad theme to take up in a country where, last time I checked, the unemployment rate was above 20%--one of the highest, if not the highest, in Europe.
(So even though I'm not a fan of this particular pope, let's give one cheer to him for raising the right issue in the right place at the right time.)
Seeing the coverage reminded me of a conference I attended in Rome some time back at the invitation of the Opus Dei-affiliated university there.
The theme was capitalism and social change.
The opening text was a papal encyclical on the subject, and the participants ranged from academics who wanted to debate the history of capitalism in Europe and the fundamental properties of the free market to social activists using their faith as the basis for economic and social activism to the former head of the IMF and the current head of the Vatican Bank.
Talking with one of the university professors after the formal conclave was over, I was struck by a huge opportunity--and reminded of it just now by the pope's speech in Spain.
The idea goes something like this.
Capitalism, as we practice it in the United States, isn't working--or, to be more accurate, needs to work better.
As the pope said in Spain, capitalism that focuses only on the bottom-line leaves out too much--too much social, environmental, emotional, even spiritual value.
Voices around the world are joining in this discussion; Michael Porter's recent piece in HBR is one example; the rise of social entrepreneurship globally is another; the efforts by finance professors to generate interest in integrated reporting, yet another.
But who can lead the conversation?
It seems unlikely, maybe even undesirable, for the US to lead such a discussion, a gathering compared by a friend in Vienna to a "Geneva Convention on Capitalism."
Who might have the standing to bring together the nations and interests for a convocation on the rules of capitalism?
My thought after the conference in Rome: What if the road to the future of capitalism runs through Rome?
What if a pope--not this one, but perhaps the next one, a younger, more enlightened one--were to take up the message that capitalism needs to find a new basis, a new way of keeping score, a more fully articulated set of values?
Could the future of capitalism emerge from a forum in Rome? Could we some day be talking about the Rome Convention on Capitalism, the way we talk about the Geneva Convention?
So: here's one cheer for this pope. And we'll hold off on the other two until we see who his successor might someday be.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

America, In Reverse

All it takes is one quick read-through of this morning's New York Times--a superficial read of a superficial view of America, admittedly--to get me thinking that my wonderful country, like Jubilation T. Cornpone in 'Li'l Abner,' is leading the charge, right back to the rear.
A few articles of note.
The Republicans (except Mitt Romney) hate the EPA. They want to shut it down, board it up, stop it from enforcing environmental regulations.
Which means, what?
They want children drinking dirty water. Breathing dirty air?
I thought we all agreed, a long time ago, that a clean environment and a healthy economy aren't opposites--they're mutually reinforcing.
Now, the Republicans are charging, straight back to the rear.
Then there's the article on mass transit in America.
Let's review the situation.
Gas prices are high and likely going higher. Auto ownership, with insurance, is expensive. The cost of living is up. Jobs are scarce.
Ordinary people need transit to get to work. They need a good transit system for their own needs. America needs transit to conserve energy.
Right?
So the news is, transit fares are up, service is down--and ridership is way up, 10 billion trips per year, levels not seen since the 1950s.
And this is good for America, how exactly?
But don't despair.
The op-ed page has a great solution, offered up by a guest columnist, Jennifer Finney Boylan, an English professor at Colby College. Jennifer's father had a wonderful practice at dinners where all kinds of people who were quite happy to disagree with each other would gather around the table and argue the issues of the day.
Then, at a certain point in the dinner-table debate, Jennifer's dad would announce that it was time for every guest to argue the opposite side of the issue they were debating--to reverse their earlier position.
Jennifer's suggestion: the Democrats come up with $2 billion in tax cuts, the Republicans are assigned $2 billion in tax increases.
Ding! Everyone argue the opposite side!
Maybe that's a way to get our country moving ahead, instead of charging full speed, right back to the rear.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Rick Perry: Republican Mike Dukakis

Conventional wisdom says Rick Perry is the second coming of George W. Bush--only worse.
I say he's the Republican version of Mike Dukakis--only worse.
Now, most Americans who think of Michael Dukakis--if they do--only remember the Presidential campaign. The goofy shot with the tank and the helmet, the awkward answer in the Presidential debate about what he'd do if his wife were raped, the Willie Horton ad. They remember a man who looked about two sizes too small for the job.
I wrote speeches for Michael Dukakis when he was Governor of Massachusetts.
That was a job he excelled at.
He had a terrific team working for him; he was smart, shrewd, in command. He was the longest tenured Governor in the history of Massachusetts. He had techniques and programs that he put to work in Massachusetts that got results.
Remember the Massachusetts Miracle?
Probably not. But that was one of Dukakis' campaign themes: that he had brought jobs and economic growth to Massachusetts in the middle of an economic downturn, and he could do the same thing for the country, if he were President.
Remember the response the Greek community gave his candidacy?
Probably not. But that was another of Dukakis' secret weapons--he was the first American of Greek descent to run for President and gain the nomination.
Which brings me to Rick Perry.
He's running on the basis of his record in Texas--his version of a Texas Miracle. In an economy that's flat on its back, his state has generated a stunning percent of the nation's total new jobs.
And he's running as a Texan--his version of the Greek identity. Texans love their own, take care of their own, support their own, and, most important, finance their own. Already the call has gone out through the Longhorn State (and through the President of the University of Texas, who, apparently, has already put out the word for alums to whip out their checkbooks and write some big numbers for Perry) that it's time to bring the White House back home where it belongs.
But just a few days into his campaign, and already you get the feeling that he's too small for the job.
He's never run a national campaign before, and it shows.
What worked for Dukakis in Massachusetts, where he could be a technocrat, a liberal, a guy who rode the T to the office every morning, didn't work for America; he came off as a man without big ideas, out of touch with ordinary people, and, frankly, a little odd.
Perry?
What worked in Texas may not play in the U.S.--especially not when people hear his voice and catch his style.
The swagger and boots and big talk, threats and cavalier dismissals of complicated issues could very well get him the nomination.
The field, other than Romney, looks kind of weak, splintered, undistinguished. Kind of like the field Dukakis beat.
And like Dukakis, Perry will have his core supporters and their money.
But I'm also betting that, like Dukakis, Perry will find, if he does get the nomination, that the job is several sizes too big for him.
He could well be another Texan who's all hat, no cattle.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

We Need More Ray Andersons

Ray Anderson's obituary appeared in the New York Times today.
I'd gotten an email two days ago telling me that Ray had died. And while the obituary was okay, it hardly did him justice.
The headline read, "Ray Anderson, a Carpet Innovator, Dies at 77."
A carpet innovator?
How about, "Ray Anderson, A Giant, A Great Man, A Hero, Dies Too Young."
I shared a platform with Ray about a year ago in Atlanta at a conference on design and the environment.
He gave a simple talk, speaking in a simple way.
He told us he had cancer. That was how he started. Just like that.
Then he told us that America was sick, too. That our national way of doing business was poisoning the environment.
He talked about his own epiphany and transformation.
How he'd made a commitment to turn around Interface. To make a carpet company into a green company.
It wasn't a business decision. It was a crusade.
And it has been a wonderful crusade, a brilliant campaign, a teaching lesson, a preaching lesson.
The company thrived when Ray turned it into a model of environmental practices.
Carpets, which are typically the greatest contributor of waste to landfills, under Ray's guidance, became a source of best environmental practices.
He cut waste; he cut emissions; he cut energy use.
He got so good at it, he started a side business, consulting to other companies that wanted to learn how to do what he was doing.
He was a hero.
He was a great man.
He was a remarkable, modest, giant of a man.
Very simply, we need more Ray Andersons.
Because the one we had, the original one, is gone.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Life Is Short, Art Is Long

In the last week, I've been to two operas, a rock concert by a (the?) legend of rock n' roll, and a jazz concert.
Let's talk about art.
First, the rock concert.
Bob Dylan and his band in Albuquerque. Before driving down, I do my homework. Check recent set lists and accompanying reviews. By all accounts, Bob is on a roll. Now 70, his shows of late have been energy filled, vocally edgy, full of passion.
Yeah, I know. And this is Bob Dylan I'm talking about.
So we drive to ABQ, make the hike to the funky little hatch-shell-like stage. Not a big crowd. Amazing. If Bob Dylan comes to my town, I'm gonna be there! But apparently, New Mexicans have something better to do.
The band comes out--grey suits, cool hats, looking good. Bob comes out. Little flat-brimmed hat, boots that make it look like he's wearing spats, dark pants with a strip up the side, a little-boy-lost jacket, some kind of shirt that sparkles when he speaks--little goatee. He looks good.
He sounds great! Rips through his songs. Terrific vocals, sharp elocution, a real poet's elocution, singing the words sharp and biting them off. The band is tight. And Bob! He comes out from behind the keyboard and sings! He croons! He sells the songs to the audience! He freakin' emotes!
No, he doesn't talk to us, but he looks at us! He grins at us! He dances around for us!
I've been to Dylan shows where you wonder if he's got a pulse! This 70-year old dude is rockin'!
Oh, and his Oscar is on stage with him. Very cool.
Not one encore, but two.
Great show. Amazing songs by an amazing song-writer, poet, recording artist, voice of our time.
Then a couple of nights later, at the Lensic, it's the kick off event of the New Mexico Jazz Festical, and Ms. Dee Dee Bridgewater, channeling Billie Holiday.
She's the un-Dylan.
Flirts with the audience. Gets propositioned by a guy in the audience! Appears to take him up on it! Flirts with the band, a brilliant quartet that can flat-out play jazz.
She sings beautifully, dances, shimmies, shakes, works it. She talks about her loves, her life, puts on a great show.
She's not Lady Day, but she does a great Lady Day. Even stops the let's-all-have-fun vibe long enough to do a deeply moving version of "Strange Fruit."
And then there's the Santa Fe Opera.
Two operas, in fact: Griselda and The Last Savage.
It's not cheap to go to the Santa Fe Opera, but it is a fun experience.
There's tail-gating before the opera in the parking lot; a fun talk before the opera to explain and describe the background of that night's performance; a beautiful setting; a terrific opera house.
And then there are Griselda and The Last Savage.
In talking about Griselda before the performance, director Peter Sellars called it "weird" Said he didn't understand one of the characters at all; said he'd but out a number of arias and substituted one that isn't in the opera; said he'd tried 30 or more different endings, and still wasn't sure about the ending we'd see that night.
Not a good sign: when the director says he doesn't understand his own characters, edits the opera, and doesn't like his own ending.
And indeed, it was a terrible opera.
All operas may be strange--this one was unintelligible. And given what a questionable opera it was to put it, you can credit Sellars for at least trying.
He was given a lemon to work with--and while he didn't produce lemonade, at least he produced a sliced lemon.
Then there was The Last Savage.
It's supposed to be a comedy. The director did everything with it except provide a laugh track.
There were three spit takes; one spoof of King Kong; one spoof of Chicago; a set and costumes that were pure TV sit-come.
More a Broadway show than an opera.
Which raises the question: Who do you hold responsible when art fails?
If Bob Dylan puts on a bad show, it's Bob Dylan's show and his responsibility.
If Dee Dee Bridgewater can't deliver Billie Holiday, it's on her (shiny, bald, beautiful) head.
But Griselda and The Last Savage?
Who do we hold accountable for something as big and complex and complicated as a bad opera?
The singers tried mightily to sing, act, emote, connect.
The orchestra played with great skill; the conductor tried to present a masterful combination.
The director, set creator, costume creator, arguably, tried to come up with smart, interesting interpretations.
But these were two terrible operas.
So is it the artistic director? Someone we never see, never interact with, never encounter? Who doesn't explain in the program his choices, the story behind, not the opera itself, but why he picked these operas for us to experience?
He is, in the jargon of our time, the curator.
But is curation an art? Or a job?
And how do you evaluate a curator? How do you review a curator?
How do you walk out on a curator?
Questions after a week of art.
A week that showed, once again, that life is short, and art is long.
And in the case of the Santa Fe Opera, the art right now is very, very, very long.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Tyrants and Revolutions

In a distant land sits an aging, angry, voracious tyrant.
His grip over his people is powerful. Based on random acts of violence, unmeetable expectations, and unquestioning loyalty. Everyone is afraid of him. Everyone seeks to please him. He has money, power, reach, the ability to reward or ruin whomever he pleases.
And then one day, it all changes.
One day the people rise up, demonstrate, assert their power--and the despot's world is changed forever.
No, I'm not talking about Hosni Mubarak. Or Moammar Gaddhafi.
I'm talking about Rupert Murdoch.
It has taken this emerging hacking scandal in England to reveal the inner operations and cultural underpinnings of his empire.
But in some way, we already knew that. We knew about his politics, his appetite for power, his insatiable drive for control.
What was less clear was how willing, first, elected officials and police authorities were to subjugate themselves to Murdoch and his minions, and, second, how easily the rest of us convinced ourselves that, since this was the way things were, this must be the way things are meant to be.
In other words, to accept a horrific version of journalism and media as the new norm.
If it weren't for this scandal, for Murdoch's over-reaching (or under-reaching) of his abominable standards of ethical journalism, we'd all still be wearing status-quo colored glasses.
And, to be honest, less has actually changed than we might wish. But like Arab Spring, this uprising offers us a little crack through which some day light might filter, and a set of questions worth asking.
Why does it take so much obvious intolerable abuse to get us to voice our collective outrage at the status quo?
Where else can we look, emboldened by this example, to see other version, other models of large scale social-self-hypnosis? Where else are we convincing ourselves that everything's ok, just because it is what we've become benumbed into accepting?
Where should we be lending our voices, our energy, our dollars to try to right large-scale social wrongs (and I would put today's over-whelming media consolidation into the category of a very large-scale social wrong)?
And if what we are witnessing is the global practice of a huge convergence of money, power, politics, and opinion-making, then what can we do to fight back?
Can we launch a Media Spring? A Journalism Spring?
Is it time for social uprising that mirrors the twitter and facebook revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East?
Are there more aging tyrants who need to be toppled?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

How Is Education Reform Like A Fad Diet?

Americans are getting fatter and our public schools are failing.
It's a toss up as to which will get us first, obesity or stupidity.
To make matters worse, our approach to dealing with both national crises is the same.
Take obesity.
We all know what it takes to lose weight. Eat healthier foods, eat smaller portions, and get more exercise. It is a time-tested program that works. It may be the only program that works.
But every year Americans spend millions of dollars on fad diets, diet books, videos, and programs. We buy the fad diet book, then buy the products pushed by the author of the fad diet book, then buy the sequel written by the author of the fad diet book.
The predictable result: obesity is spreading across America like a plague.
What about the crisis in public education?
Here we're more inventive than with obesity.
We pass a federal law that mandates testing. The idea is, if teachers, principals and students know that they'll be tested, everyone's performance will improve.
(It's like saying, if you have to weigh in every day, you'll feel compelled to lose weight.)
Except those creative educators in Atlanta found a better way. They cheated.
An investigation into Atlanta's remarkable improvement in test scores found that cheating was rampant, involving 44 schools and at least 178 teachers.
And the head cheater was the superintendent, Beverly Hall, who, by the way, was America's 2009 Superintendent of the Year.
Memo to obese people: When you get off the scale, just lie about what it said. You'll still be overweight, just like our school kids will still be unable to read, write, and do math. But the numbers will look better.
Here in my home town of Santa Fe, we know a little something about cheating.
At the last school board election, three new reform-minded candidates were elected, forming a new majority on the 5-person board, as close to a referendum on the public schools as you could get.
To thumb their noses, the outgoing school board members, as their last official act, gave the superintendent a contract extension, basing their action on a report that the administration produced detailing areas of improvement by Santa Fe students.
Turns out, upon closer inspection, that a data analyst in the administration cooked the books. She said she was tired of only hearing bad news, so she came up with some numbers that made the district look better. The truth, however, is that Santa Fe public schools are something like third worst in the state, and the state is about dead last in the nation.
When in doubt, fudge the numbers.
Then there's the strange case of the hard reality of education reform, in general.
In a terrific piece in the NY Times Sunday magazine, Paul Tough, who wrote the book on the Harlem education project, took reformers to task for the same kind of phony baloney with numbers.
He came to the defense of Diane Ravitch, who had criticized reformers for over-promising and under-performing.
One example: the highly touted Bruce Randolph School in Denver. The real numbers for the school show just how hard it is to make real progress in educational reform: Tough points out that the average ACT score at the school last year was 14, the second lowest of any high school in Denver; in tests given middle schoolers, the school place at the first percentile in reading and writing (in other words 99% of Colorado schools did better), and in the fifth percentile in math.
The reformers' response: unfair comparison! Our students are starting way behind and have farther to go.
Memo to obese people: it's unfair to compare you to healthy, fit people! You are starting way behind and have farther to go!
The truth is, when it comes to obesity we know what to do.
When it comes to education we also know what to do.
As Diane Ravitch wrote in a letter to the NY Times on July 10, "Good schools are no mystery. They have a dedicated principal, a stable staff with a mix of veterans and young teachers, and a strong curriculum that includes not only basic skills but the arts, history, civics, science, world languages, literature and physical education. And they engage parents and community leaders to support their goals."
In other words, eat better food, smaller portions, and get more exercise.
We know what we need to do to lose weight and to improve education.
The truth is, both are hard. They take time. They take dedication. They don't admit to fads, silver bullets, or overnight moon-shot programs. Snake oil salesmen have a field day in both categories, making ridiculous promises, muddying the debate, scooping up tons of money, and never delivering results.
In Rules of Thumb I wrote that change is a math formula.
It happens when the cost of the status quo is greater than the risk of change.
Today, in obesity and education, the cost of the status quo is exorbitant.
So far, we've tried to lie, cheat, and fake our way out of it.
Isn't it time to try the hard, honest, patient path, the one we know yields real results?
Otherwise, it says here we'll die fat and stupid. And that's s sad combination.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Racing Headlong, The Wrong Direction

The headline in today's San Francisco Chronicle says, "Poor, students feel pain in new budget."
The Democratically controlled legislature, lead by Democratic Governor Jerry Brown, has passed a new budget which cuts the state's support for poor people, who'll be getting less medical care and welfare support, eliminates services for disabled people, closes down state parks, and increases the cost of tuition for students who want to go to one of the state's public universities.
At the same time, the state will cut its sales tax from 8.25% to 7.25% and drop vehicle licensing fees by almost 50%.
In other words, faced with a budget crisis, the great state of California is going to stick it to the poor, the needy, the sick, the old, and the young who want to get an education, while cutting back two highly regressive taxes--disproportionately benefiting wealthy Californians.
And these are the Democrats!
In Ohio, the Republican governor has produced a two-year budget plan that dramatically changes Medicaid benefits and slashes state support for education and financing for local government. Critics say the Republican plan will lead to lay offs of teachers and cops.
But the governor is proud that his budget keeps in place an $800 million cut in personal income taxes.
From coast to coast, and in the halls of Congress, where President Obama is pleading with the Republicans to consider raising a few taxes on business if he'll make considerable cuts in social programs, America is racing headline the wrong direction.
We are taking a country that is already the most unequal advanced capitalist economy in the world, and making it more unequal.
We are trashing schools, slashing social services--and safeguarding the privileges of the wealthy.
It's worth taking a minute to review the bidding, as they like to say at country clubs where bridge is the game of choice.
How did we get here?
We got here because the super-rich of Wall Street turned the American economy into a casino. With them as the bank. They got to use our money. When the game went well, they got even richer. When the game went belly up, we lost our money--and they got even richer.
Now, in the interest of--well, I'm not too sure what it's in the interest of, actually; maybe in the interest of continuing to play make believe that America is a land without social classes and a country where the game isn't rigged--something, our political leaders seem trapped in brain-lock.
We have huge financial problems, so let's stick it to the poor and the vulnerable, punish our children, who need the best education they can get to have a shot at competing in the global economy, and instead safeguard the interests of the wealthy.
Remind me again: what is it that rich people do for America? Do they actually create jobs? Produce valuable goods and services? Those 11,000 Americans whose combined wealth is greater than the combined wealth of America's poorest 23 million citizens--what do they do that they deserve even more tax breaks?
America has always been the nation on earth that is racing the fastest to get to the future.
Now we're running as fast as we can, in the wrong direction.
I hope we either change direction right now, or else get wherever we're headed soon, so we'll at least have more time to put right all the things we're getting wrong.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The German Question

At dinner the other night with friends in San Francisco, the question of Germany came up: The German economy seems to be doing well, much better than the rest of Europe, better than the U.S., with much lower unemployment and much higher economic security.
How do they do it?
A friend at the dinner table suggested it was a function of German industrial policy--that Germany was doing today what we accused Japan of doing in the past with its Ministry of International Trade and Industry, namely orchestrating a set of policies that would favor the competitiveness of national industries, particularly manufacturing. So, while the U.S. has largely let the market dictate what has happened with our manufacturing base--and seen jobs move to other, lower-cost parts of the world--Germany has retained its manufacturing base, its jobs, and its overall economic well-being.
Of course, none of us at the table had a lot of facts at our fingertips, just widely divergent opinions. While this would have made us exceptional pundits on every TV talk show, it left me wondering if there were any facts to be had.
In other words, a job for The Global Detective!
Thanks to some friends in Austria, who quickly hustled together a series of banking advisory reports and newspaper and magazine articles, I quickly had some data, facts, and arguments from informed sources that I could draw on.
Some interesting stuff: for instance, not everything we thought was true, or assumed was true, turned out to be true.
One Economist report noted that a study found that Germany's performance with manufacturing jobs wasn't what we all assumed: Over the last 40 years, Germany has lost one-third of its manufacturing jobs, more or less the same percentage as the U.S., despite, as the economists note, a "union density" that is twice that of America.
Another report explained Germany's current economic performance in light of a rather dismal performance in the decade prior--when Germany was thought of as "the sick man of Europe" (which I mistakenly thought had always been Italy's claim to economic fame).
Yet another analysis pointed out that Germany's overall economic growth hasn't been particularly stellar; what's made it look so good is its declining population, which means that when you calculate growth per unit of population, then Germany starts to look very good.
But overall, Germany today has been getting good reviews.
The question is still, why--and secondarily, what can the U.S. learn?
There are a number of explanations that recur.
One answer has to do with historically strong German corporate brands. For a nation its size, Germany has a substantial number of global brand leaders in a wide variety of sectors. These companies have grown from national champions, when economic borders were more closed than today, to global champions, able to compete and win around the world.
Germany has benefited from its well-documented Mittelstand companies--the mid-sized companies that often specialize as top-quality suppliers, producing the parts and components that other companies then assemble into finished products.
What explains those two factors?
You could chalk them up to history, education, and culture: how the German corporate structure has evolved, how young Germans are trained and educated and brought into the workforce, and what German culture values and stresses.
Another broad set of factors involve labor costs, which Germany has managed to keep relatively low, and management-labor relations, which seem to be generally collaborative and highly productive.
This, along with the overall orientation of German firms toward steady, stable, if unspectacular growth, you can attribute to governance: co-determination, which puts union members on the management board, seems to produce decisions that are aimed at a broader sense of social good and public and national well-being, rather than pure individual financial gain or even "shareholder value maximization," which is the mantra in the U.S.
There is geography: Germany is benefiting from its proximity to Eastern Europe, which is experiencing its own economic burst.
There are factors that seem to relate to social habits, cultural patterns, and personal values: a high savings rate, low personal indebtedness, a general lack of interest on the part of average Germans to leverage themselves to the hilt. Germany didn't get hit by the housing bubble and the derivatives disaster the way America (and the PIGS in Europe) did. Perhaps Germans simply have better and longer historical memories that Americans: after World War I, Germany was seared by inflation and monetary collapse, so much so that generations later, the country still seems thoroughly committed to moderation in all things economic.
To me, however, one of the most telling factors in the comparison between Germany and the U.S. today is the difference in economic equality.
When you look at the Gini Coefficient ratings for the two nations, the numbers tell the tale: Germany, at 27, is one of the lowest, if not the lowest, rated nation among all advanced, industrial, capitalist countries. It is, in other words, the most equal.
The U.S., with a rating of 45, is the least equal.
In other words, it is as if we were two countries playing the same game with totally opposite definitions of victory, totally opposite goals, totally opposite values, totally opposite aspirations.
Germans want stability, predictability, equality, social and economic sustainability. They want a society that is coherent and cohesive.
This is not a function of industrial policy. Rather it is an outgrowth of culture, history, and experience.
Americans, apparently, want the opposite.
We want huge disparities within society, great divergences between the haves and the have nots, an economy with vast differentials that holds out the promise of great fortune for individuals who make it, and the certainty of deep misfortune for those who do not.
What can we learn from Germany?
That you can have a capitalist country and still have much greater social and economic equality than the U.S. does today.
That you can rely on markets to perform, while creating "economic design specs" that channel market choices in directions that benefit society as a whole.
And, perhaps, as the old saying goes, that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

What's The Point of the Exercise?

Ah, the joys of hanging out in San Francisco!
You get to hear smart people talking about interesting things, for one thing.
Like last night, when the good folks from the Rotman School of Business at the University of Toronto, lead by the truly exceptional Roger Martin, hosted an evening discussion of a new book, Artistry Unleashed, by Hilary Austen, and then this morning, when the topic was Roger's new book, Fixing the Game.
The two books, and the two discussions, had much in common, without actually making the link explicit.
Hilary's book argues for the importance of the artistic instinct in business--using the kinds of creative tools that artists use to make their art. The discussion last night was framed around "quantitative versus qualitative"--business loves what it can measure, fears what it can't. Artists are all about what can't be measured--your instincts, your imagination, your creative spark.
Roger's book takes on the dominance of stock-based compensation as the incentive to drive CEOs and top managers to higher performance, comparing the business game to the NFL. In the NFL, you've got the game on the field, which is all about winning and losing, and the game in Las Vegas, which is all about the point spread. But, Roger points out, the players and coaches can't bet in Las Vegas--which is exactly what CEOs and top executives are not only allowed to do, but encouraged to do through their incentive-based compensation.
Two good discussion, both of which stopped short of asking the fundamental question: What's the point of the exercise?
Why do companies drive creative thinking out--and then hire consultants to bring it back in?
Why do companies believe that their stock price is the true measure of their performance?
The answer in both cases, it seems to me, is that since the last half of the 20th century, American business has lost track of the real point of the game.
We've substituted pure financial return for the larger purpose of business--to create and grow a sustainable organization capable of making and keeping customers, developing a strong group of committed employees, and contributing to the larger benefit of society. And make a profit.
But not just to make a profit.
And not to maximize shareholder value.
Not to make a profit at the expense of sound business practices.
Not to make a few people as wealthy as possible.
According to Marcus Buckingham and others, something like 80% of all Americans hate their jobs (those who still have jobs).
According to the Gini Index, America is the most unequal advanced capitalist society in the world, and become more unequal over time.
The deeper issue that both Hilary and Roger are writing about is the widespread system failure that our current approach to business represents.
What is exciting is the thinking and questioning and commenting that Roger and the folks at Rotman are leading.
Now we need to see it spread.
Spread and go deeper.
Go back to first principles, to first questions.
Questions like, What's the point of the exercise?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Darwin Is Alive and Well In Tanzania!

Do Animals Trust?
Or, Why Animals Would Die If They Trusted, and Why Humans Would Die If They Didn’t

Polls say something like 40% of Americans don’t “believe in” Darwinism. It’s safe to say that here in Tanzania 100% of life not only believes in Darwinism, it also practices it and depends on it.
Rule #1: All life wants to live and will do everything in its power to stay alive.
Rule #2: A mutations either contributes to the ability of a living plant or animal to survive—or it doesn’t.
Conclusion: Nature is the ultimate pragmatist. What increases the capacity of a living thing to survive—what works in evolutionary terms—itself survives. What doesn’t, doesn’t.
Look at a plant, a bush, a tree, an animal, a bird, and you will find clues as to what has helped it survive.
The whistling thorns on the acacia have two lines of defense against hungry giraffes. The first are the thorns designed to discourage hungry giraffes from grazing on the tender green sprigs of the acacia. But giraffes evolved with lips and tongues capable of nibbling around those sharp thorns. So next came gull-shaped bulbs that sit between the thorns—and are filled with attack ants. When the bulbs are shaken, disturbed, moved in any way, the ants swarm out and attack whatever has caused the gull-shaped bulbs to move. For instance, the tender tongue and lips of a hungry giraffe.
Or take the honey guide, a bird that uses its distinctive song to attract the attention of human hunters from the Hadza tribe. The men of the Hadza tribe depend on a supply of honey as part of their hunter-gatherer diet. The honey guide sings to get the Hadza’s attention (and sometimes the Hadza whistle the honey guide’s song to see if any are around) and then lead the Hadza to nearby trees where bees have hidden their honey combs.
It’s easy to see what the Hadza get out of this arrangement, but what in Darwin’s name do the honey guides get?
The answer comes when you watch the Hadza harvest the honey and what happens next.
The Hadza stick their arms into the honey holes, ignoring the stings of the bees—or trying to numb the bees by smoking them out with a punk fire. Then they pull out comb after comb of the bees’ honey and eat it right on the spot, slurping down the deliciously sweet honey, eating the larvae, and spitting out the wax.
But it’s the wax the honey guides want! Without the help of the Hadza, the honey guides wouldn’t be able to get to the honey combs in the first place—the birds have no way to get inside the trunks of the trees to access the combs. And then without the Hadza chewing up the combs and spitting out the wax, which the humans don’t want, the birds wouldn’t be able to get the one part of the combs they want, the wax.
It’s all existentially pragmatic, on both sides. If it didn’t work, it wouldn’t survive. And if it didn’t survive, it wouldn’t work.
Which brings us to the topic of trust.
Do animals trust each other? Is trust a survival instinct for animals?
When a herd of zebras is grazing together, do they stand so that the stronger ones can protect the weaker? When the leaders start to run and the rest of the herd takes off instantly, is that a measure of trust?
My friend and mentor Richard Leider says yes.
Animals do, in fact, trust each other. Look at how younger elephants learn to look up to, to respect and to trust the older ones. Look at what happened some years back when young male elephants had no older males to teach them the ropes. The herd was running riot, and it wasn’t until some older, mature males were introduced into the mix that the younger males settled down and learned the ropes. Trust, he says, is part of the animal kingdom.
I say no.
What we’re seeing in animals, what he’s describing, isn’t trust. Animals don’t know about trust, much less practice it. What we’re seeing, what they’re practicing, is behavior that results from millions of years of evolution.
Their leaders aren’t leaders because the other animals “trust” them. They’re leaders because they are the biggest, the strongest, the toughest, the fastest.
If you are, say, a zebra, and you are none of those things—not the biggest, strongest, toughest, fastest—and one of the zebras who is all of them starts to run, you don’t ask yourself whether you trust him. You don’t call a meeting of the other lesser zebras to see what they think. You run. He runs, you run. Otherwise you’ve just increased your chances of being eaten.
Or try flipping it the other way: for animals to be capable of trust, they also have to be capable of not-trust.
Can you honestly imagine a herd of wildebeest who stop as their leader starts to run, and engage in thoughtful wildebeestian dialog as to whether or not they trust this particular leader? Should they run? Or not run? He’s been wrong before, you know. Remember that time he thought he smelled something, but it turned out to be nothing? This is a pretty nice grazing spot. And if we run, and it turns out there’s no reason to run, we’ll have left it for no good reason!
Of course, if the leader was right, the weakest of the wildebeest is now jackal fare. So much for not trusting the leader!
But what about humans?
We have a problem very different from the other animals.
We are small and relatively weak. We do have opposable thumbs and a great big brain. We have a fight or flight mechanism like the other animals, but we also come equipped with an over-ride switch: our left-sided, problem-solving brain. Our consciousness. Our social networking skills. Our ability to work with each other, plan with each other, depend on each other. In other words, to trust each other.
We need to be able to trust each other to survive. Animals need not to have to trust each other to survive.
Darwin is alive and well and surviving in the Serengeti of Tanzania. It’s where you go to see how the world really works, how life works, what it takes to survive.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

What's the Opposite of Capitalism?

No, it's not communism.
It's Hadza-ism.
Never heard of it?
Try checking out the Dorobo Fund website (and while you're there, make a contribution).
Or read yesterday's New York Time's piece on what separates men from apes, based on studies of hunter-gatherer societies: collaboration and cooperation.
The Hadza are a tribe of about 1,000 people living in Tanzania as they have for something like 70,000 or more years. As hunter-gatherers.
Every day, the men of the tribe get up with their hand-made bows and hand-carved arrows, some more blunt-tipped for shooting at birds, others with metal-honed arrowheads and shafts carefully covered with poison derived from a rose bush, and go looking for animals to shoot and honey to collect.
Every day, the women get up and collect their digging sticks so they can sit at the base of a large bush and tear away at the ground until they uncover tubers that will feed them, their families, and the tribe.
As hunter-gatherers, the Hadza are constantly on the move. So they have few possessions. The men carry knives and hatchets, bows and arrows, and perhaps a small bag with a few important items. But if a Hadza man already has a knife, for example, and he somehow gets another one, he'll simply give it someone in the tribe who needs a knife. He has no need of another thing to carry. The same applies to the women.
The Hadza are a non-hierarchical society, with no "leaders" and no apparent need for leaders. The men and women are equal; the lack of "stuff" makes it easy for a woman who objects to the way she is being treated or who simply wants a fresh start to go off on her own or join a new camp.
The hunting and gathering part of their lives take up roughly 10% of their time. The rest is spent talking and telling stories, gambling (the men throw pieces of wood against a tree until only one of the wood pieces turns up with the same side as the "guide" piece), and enjoying the company of each other in camp.
The Hadza are remarkably happy and easy going. They laugh a lot (and sometimes argue loudly).
They are a society that operates on immediate gratification: an animal that is killed is eaten immediately, as is honey that is gathered, and tubers that are unearthed. They live in the perpetual present.
They seem to lack for nothing, at least nothing that they actually want or seem to need.
Now you could call them primitive. Or backward. Or maybe even uncivilized.
But none of that is true. Far from it.
They live as emerging humans lived tens of thousands, maybe even millions of years ago.
The live close to nature. They live with a way of life that is deeply connected to the animals they hunt, the honey they collect, the tubers they dig. They don't want to use guns--guns would upset the fragile and sustainable balance that they've learned about over centuries and continue to practice. They don't even use matches--not when they can make fire with a stick and some punk and a knife they can use as a flat surface.
Now I'm not saying I want to swap places with the Hadza. I couldn't make it, for one thing.
But we could learn from them.
We have so much stuff, and we still want more. We get everything we can ask for, one way or another, but it doesn't make us happy. Have you checked out the figures for the number of people in the US who are taking anti-depressants every day?
Having stuff doesn't make you rich, and being rich doesn't make you happy.
Wanting more stuff than you need just fills your life up with things you don't need and can't use, but doesn't do anything to fill the hole that's inside, the one hole that matters when it comes to figuring out what your life is about and what your way of life is worth.
For what it's worth, the Hadza have it figured out.
And we need them around to remind us.
Fact is, we need them a lot more than they need us.

Friday, March 11, 2011

When You Ask the Wrong Questions . . .

You Get the Wrong Answers.
One of the first things you notice when you return to the good old US of A after a prolonged absence (especially an absence that was all about cutting off all connections to the web, emails, and media in general, while living in a tent in Africa) is what America and Americans are talking about.
No, I don't mean Charlie Sheen, although apparently he has a firm grasp on the media's imagination.
I mean things like the Wisconsin State Legislature, which apparently thinks that the real, deep, underlying, systemic cause of that state's economic problems is the ability of public employees to bargain collectively. Interesting connection, that one. I did not see it coming. I thought the deep, underlying, systemic cause of that state's economic problems--and much of America's--is our national sense of economic entitlement. We want what we want, except we don't actually want to pay for it.
Or I mean the hearings called by US Representative Peter King, an elected official who is apparently the poster-child for Ding-Dongs, or maybe that's just a connection that I make based on his seriously misguided attempt to explore the connection between Islam in America and radicalization. Perhaps it would be unkind to point out to Representative King that it wasn't exactly Muslims who blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, or holed up in a mountain cabin sending exploding letters to people, or dropped anthrax powder into the mail.
Maybe we should have hearings into why Americans are disaffected from America.
Because that's the hit I'm getting upon my return home.
Americans aren't too happy about America these days.
The feeling is, I sense, that, for too many people, we've gone over to the dark side of the American Dream. The old deal was, work hard, study hard, pay your taxes, play by the rules, and you'll get ahead.
Today, people hear that and just laugh.
Today the tax code seems reserved for the already-wealthy, access to power is reserved for the already-powerful, and the laws protect those who are already very well-protected, thank you very much.
A meritocracy (or the promise one) has turned into a plutocracy. Them what has, gits. Them what doesn't have, gits blamed.
It's not a pretty picture, and it wasn't always this way, and there are plenty of things that can be done and are being done to try to fix the situation.
But meanwhile, we've got people in Wisconsin and Washington, DC, to name just a couple of places, who are steadfastly asking the wrong questions and consistently coming up with the wrong answers.
It may make for great political theater.
But it also makes for lost national opportunities and a sad betrayal of the promise of America.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

So Near and Yet So Far

I'm back on US soil after a 16-day safari in Tanzania, much of it spent camping with Masai and Hadza tribespeople. But more about that later.
This morning, my first in the US since enduring about 19 hours of flying torture at the hands of the amateur-night-at-the-opera airline known as KLM, I walked 15 minutes down to the nearest newstand and picked up the NY Times, the FT, and the local paper, all of which featured headline news from Africa. Not just the stories of Libya and Egypt, but also the implications of all the changes shaking that continent--from terrorism to oil prices. All of a sudden a continent that most Americans don't care much about and know even less about (even as China races to lock up rare and valuable minerals and raw materials) is dominating the world's attention.
But what I'm thinking about is slightly different: it's the relationship of proximity and news.
For 16 days I was roughly in the same neighborhood as the events that were shaking the world.
Every morning I'd rumble out of my tent around 6:15 and walk up the gentle hill to the campsite and the first fire of the day. I'd pour myself a cup of cowboy coffee and then find a place to stand and watch the sun rise over a landscape of stunning beauty and simplicity. Each morning the moon would gradually surrender another slice; the Southern Cross would still be visible as I sipped my coffee and then all of a sudden it wouldn't be. The birds would start slowly and quietly to greet the new day and before long they'd be loud and constant in their songs.
But what made the morning were the reports from what my fellow campers and I came to call "Radio Pallangyo"--named for Pallangyo, the trusted right-hand man of Daudi Peterson, the remarkable leader of Dorobo Tours who dazzled us with his easy command of facts both natural (he's the #2 ranked birder in Tanzania) and political (he's been working steadily to safeguard the rights and dignity of Tanzania's badly treated tribal minorities).
Pallangyo would come out of his tent and stroll easily to the campfire, greeting the early morning risers with Swahili words of good morning, pour his own cup of coffee. And then, after he was settled, we'd ask him for the latest news from "Radio Pallangyo."
Because as near as we were to the events in Africa, we were off the grid when it came to news.
All we had was Pallangyo's lone plastic radio, tuned every morning to the BBC World Report and Voice of America--when he could get a signal.
And so like small town Americans from another time and another era, we'd sit around the campfire and ask Radio Pallangyo for a recitation: what had he heard that morning? What was going on in Libya? Would Qaddafi hold on? Who was the military backing? Had the dictator actually threatened to kill his own people? Was it possible: first he was blaming Al Qaeda for fomenting revolution, then attacking the West with the same charge!
Every morning Radio Pallangyo gave us the headlines and set the tone for the talk around the campfire.
We were in Africa, Africa was on fire, but we were off the grid and all we knew came from a tiny plastic radio that sat in one tent and gave us the news we craved before we set off to hike the green hills of Africa, spotting wildebeest, zebras, antelopes, and countless birds.
There we were, on the front lines of global change, so near and yet so far.

All Rights Reserved 2009 (c) Alan Webber, Rules Of Thumb