#69 Conservative Courage? (2002)

All Rights Reserved © 2002 Thomas W. Day

Webster's defines "conservatism" and "conservative" as "a disposition in politics to conserve what is established . . . a political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions and preferring gradual development to abrupt change  . . . the tendency to prefer an existing or traditional situation to change . . . tending or disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions. . . "  Pretty depressing outlook, don't you think?  Two hundred years ago, this sort of person would be labeled a "Tory," an English-monarchy-loving, King George IX sympathizer.  If you believe that the majority of Americans are conservative, it follows that the majority of Americans are, apparently, ready to rejoin the United Kingdom. 

Most like, it's safe to assume that the majority of humans on this planet are conservative.  Personally, I can't tell conservative Republicans from conservative communist Chinese.  If you swing far enough to either political pole, you end up at the same spot.  Communism fails because government is a flawed concept.  Everybody's-business-is-my-business rightwing conservatism follows the same flaws.  In the end, the government ends up serving itself and the interests of those who provide power to the government.  When that happens, you can't tell the right from the left unless, as Pete Townsend theorized, "their beards have all grown longer overnight."  Pete was hoping for the impossible when he imagined there would be a time when we "won't get fooled again," though.  Since most of us are conservatives, we're easy to fool.

Supposedly, the opposite of a conservative in today's political jargon is a "liberal." Webster's defines that philosophy as one who is "not bound by authoritarianism. . .  [and who is] associated with ideals of individual expression, economic freedom, greater individual participation in government, and constitutional, political and administrative reforms designed to secure these objectives . . . one who is open-minded or not strict in the observance of orthodox, traditional or established forms or ways."  I'm sure these sound like terrible characteristics to most of us.  Damn revolutionaries!  Since I've always had a dictionary within reach, I've never had any problem considering myself a liberal.  Even adding "tree hugging" to the description has no effect on my identification with liberalism.  I like trees and I'm a liberal. 

Words are funny things.  In modern media-speak, words end up meaning what we are told they mean, not what they are intended to mean.  Like the marketing folks say, "image is everything."  If the media, politicos, and the rest of the conservative Powers That Be tell us being a "liberal" is a bad thing, we believe it.  It's obvious, from reading the liberal definition, why that crowd would like us to think conservative.  It's in their best interests to convince the rest of us that a conservative philosophy is good for everyone.  Because it's particularly good for the minority who are in the driver's seat.   Conservatives live to "conserve what is established," resisting change even when change is past necessary and well into damn-near-too-late-to-save-the-world.  Why the majority of us care what the ruling minority wants is something I've never understood.

Here's one theory, though.  Many Americans pretend to be conservatives, not because they want things to stay the way they are but because they don't want them getting any worse.  Now that's a courageous, but understandable, position.  Too gutless to look out the window because there might be something scary there?  The problem with this tactic is that if you're not getting better, you're always going to be getting worse.  In sports, the phrase is "the best defense is a good offense."  In politics, if the ruled class isn't trying to kick the ruling class' butt, we're all spiraling the toilet bowl.

In times of political hopelessness it's comforting, to me, to remember that less than 1% of the early American population deserves to be called members of our "founding fathers."  That's the small percentage who participated in the American Revolution.  The rest, the overwhelming 99%+ rest, were too occupied with survival, collecting wealth, or drinking homemade beer to bother themselves with independence.  The rest were conservatives.

Today's liberals have decided that too many negative connotations apply to the liberal label, so they are taking to calling themselves "progressives."  I don't think that tactic will work.  If a word, "liberal," filled with as many positive attributes as that word owns, can end up being an insult, "progressive" doesn't stand a chance.  Although I do like the truthful insinuation that the progressive opposition would be, by default, "regressive."    Regressive is a much more honest term to describe the majority of card-carrying Republican conservatives.  Often, these younger-than-me folks refer to a mythical time from their youth when citizens "took responsibility for their actions" or when the government was less intrusive in our lives. 

It's hard to imagine a more intrusive government than the mind police who forced loyalty pledges out of intellectuals and Hollywood actors, the McCarthy-Eisenhower 1950's Republicans.  But these kids aren't old enough to remember, or to have experienced, that group of terrorists.  Fortunately, either am I, but at least I was alive during that period and read about it.  Finding a positive difference in attitude or social responsibility between the Jay-Ed "I look pretty in hoop skirts" Hoover FBI and the Soviet Union's Secret Police, any time between 1948 and 1975, would be an experiment in fine detail discrimination.  I would like to believe that most Americans would be unimpressed with the responsibility accepted by the radical racists, found from coast-to-coast and board-to-boarder, who ran the country, business, and most neighborhoods all through the 20th Century.  Having experienced half of that century, I wouldn't have great difficulty in continuing this list of vicious and irresponsible conservative activities from the "good old days" for several dozen pages.  It's old and depressing news and you'd be bored.

I think you know, or ought to know, that those Good Old Days were only good for a select group of people; mostly privileged, white, and well-connected males.  In the 1950s, that group could make a kind claim to being some sort of working majority.  Today, that isn't the case.  Tomorrow, it will be even less true.  Still, conservatism marches on.

The key conservative characteristic I see that makes me want to avoid becoming one is an omnipresent fear.  Especially the fear of change.  Everyone who reads, thinks, or works knows that the only constant in this world is change.  Nothing is constant.  Change proves that nothing about the way the world works fits the conservative definition.  It's a radical fantasy.  "Existing or traditional" situations are destined to become history.  "Established institutions" become bone yards.  No matter how much we may "prefer gradual development to abrupt change," the longer human culture exists the faster changes happen.  In the first 50 years of the 20th Century, it was estimated that human knowledge doubled.  That pace was about the same as the previous 50 years.  Today, global knowledge doubles every 5 years.  By 2020, it is estimated that our knowledge base will be doubling every 72 days.  At the current rate of computer development, by 2020 we may have computers that equal human capacity.  In fact, you could reasonably expect computers to equal all human capacities in that near future.  In the face of that, does any aspect of conservative philosophy fit a practical application?

Fear of the inevitable seems to me to be the ultimate cowardice.  A political or personal philosophy based on extreme cowardice is about as doomed as any social meme yet constructed.  It's also a common thread in the history of failed cultures.  All the way back to the earliest recorded Chinese governments, history is littered with the remains of cultures who tried to stop, or reverse, progress, knowledge, and change.  I think you could draw an accurate line between the rise of conservative thinking and the fall of any particular culture in history.  It's possible that there is a social critical mass that occurs when a significant majority of a culture's members spend a significant portion of their time trying to stop the clock, instead of doing what they can to go where progress is going.  When that critical mass is breached, the culture crashes and gets replaced by the target culture that change was trying to obtain. 

Monarchies, dictatorships, communism, and other conservative politics are all attempts to put an anchor on progress.  These philosophical dead ends all try to maintain the status quo in the face of overwhelming momentum.  To do their damage, these systems have to convince a significant portion of the general population that what's good for the ruling class is good for the ruled class.  This task is a lot easier if the victims are less than brilliant.  Education is the arch enemy of conservatism, which explains why progressive universities often house so many "liberals."  Science and conservatism are at opposite poles of human activity. 

The more technically astute the general population, the less likely that culture is to be conservative.  You can see dramatic examples of that in micro-cultures within our own macro-culture.  Places where fast moving technology is originating are always more liberal than where the technology is barely used and hardly understood.  Compare the lower Midwest and the old South to central California (Silicon Valley, Santa Clara, San Francisco),  Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Washington state, for example.  The more current the technology, the more liberal the politics.  The more stagnant the culture, the more primitive the technology.  The best way to open up regressive, oppressive cultures may be to export technology to the work force.  It seems to be working for China, as god-awfully conservative as that government is, technology and change are collecting momentum faster than the conservatives can build speed bumps. 

None of this proves that some apparently technical individuals won't be conservative.  Individuals may feel that change is moving so quickly that it weakens their position in society.  Putting the brakes on change may buy a few extra moments, which is all an individual's career lasts in cultural time, of power and influence.   A conservative technologist ought to be viewed as one of the most distrusted, interest-conflicted individuals in any culture.    Never trust a man who wants to sell you a horse-drawn wagon when someone else is selling hydrogen powered rocket ships.

January, 2003


Customer Service in the 21st Century

I recently experienced some terrible customer service from my local credit union. At first, I decided to blow it off and start looking for a new credit union or bank. Since I’d come to that credit union because of awful and incompetent service from Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and Charles Schwab, I decided to put a few moments of effort into registering a complaint with the credit union. Their response was encouraging, so I put a little more effort into them and they responded respectably. After resolving many of my complaints and restarting our relationship, I wrote this note to the branch manager.


Thanks for your email, patience, and interest in my complaint. It may not sound like it, but I appreciate the attitude Affinity Plus employees take with complaints. I actually care a lot about the idea of a community credit union and have more than just money invested in Affinity.

I'm discovering that my background in manufacturing engineering, quality control and reliability assurance, and technical writing makes me an odd customer. One of the rules US companies used to know when they actually made products is that customers base their loyalty on their experience with the products and customer service. Screw up either and you are lost. In the late 80's, when we quit making our own stuff and farmed that work out to other countries, management lost sight of anything more complicated than exorbitant salaries and bonuses and buck-passing. A good rule of thumb for customer complaints is that rarely more than 1% of customers will bother to complain about poor service. Ignore that 1% and you can pretend you are shipping nearly perfect product or performing to your customer’s expectations.

I actually worked, for a very short time, for a company in Chicago whose quality “policy” was to ignore the first customer complaint under the assumption that no more than 10% of the 1% would complain twice. With that set of procedures, they could claim a product failure/return rate of less than 0.05% with a 50% known defect manufacturing process. The company I’d recently left worked for years to drive our actual product failure rates below 1% during warranty (which was 3 years instead of 90 days for the Chicago company) while my new employer believed they were doing more than twice as well by ignoring customer complaints.

The difference between the two companies in other areas was substantial, too. However, my old employer relied on return customers and consistently produced a 20+% profit margin for the ten years I worked there. My new employer was, not surprisingly, happy to turn any sort of profit and usually broke even on the rare occasion the bottom line was considered. Obviously, the Chicago company had next-to-no return business and no customer loyalty. I lasted slightly less than 30 days in Chicago. They had no need for my experience and I had no interest in participating in their business “plan.”

I’ve found that the worst thing any organization can do is to ignore the few complaints they receive and create obstacles for customer feedback. I can not explain why Americans are so disinclined to complain when it might do some good, while we’re more dissatisfied with our quality of life than most 1st world nations. Regardless, any company that wants to perform at a level above its competition has to keep this psychology in mind.

Thanks for your interest and for pursuing solutions to my complaint.


Tom Day


#68 Management by Hiding (2002)

All Rights Reserved © 2002 Thomas W. Day

Back in the decade of constantly changing management techniques, David Packard, of Hewlett-Packard, wrote a book called "The HP Way."  In this business biography, he took a bit of credit for "inventing" the "management by walking around" style.  Sam Walton gets a lot of credit for popularizing the technique, too.  If these managers actually walked around some, that's a good thing.  As for their having invented a style of management, that's bull.

In fact, this is ancient, common sense stuff.  Walking around management is the basic tactic of nearly every successful from-scratch start-up manager.  Mostly because the manager is the managee and he has to do the walking around, and do the work, to keep things moving.  Good managers keep walking around until they sell the company to someone who has a burning desire to kill or stagnate a successful business. 

Walking around management is still a popular topic of conversation, even if it doesn't get applied all that often outside of small businesses.  I found about 1,400 hits on the subject in a recent Yahoo search.  The phrase is live and well, regardless of the condition of the actual practice.  Lots of execs like to think of themselves as being a hands-on manager because even the lamest of the breed knows that anyone who isn't hands-on is useless.

However, most managers claim to be walking around when they're mostly hiding.  MBA-style managers in large companies are too busy keeping their backs to walls to do a lot of walking around. When you step onto the production floor, or anywhere where work gets accomplished, you bump into people who could use a little management assistance.  That distracts the MBAs from their primary task of promoting themselves to their equally clueless (and even more immobile) superiors, which derails the all-important promotion schedule.  The last thing a modern manager wants to do is to be useful to the people he manages.  In the never ending quest for stock bonuses and outrageously huge salaries, messing with people who do work is an unrewarding enterprise.

This immobile and distorted perspective isn't something that MBA factories have changed or created. (I'm probably not going to live long enough to see an original idea spawned in the MBA academia.)  They're not to blame for something that has been around for as long mismanagement.  In my 40-year working life, the most common work-related complaints I've heard (or produced) have been about lazy and incompetent management.  A good manager is hard to find.  Sounds like a country-western tune, doesn't it? 

It's a courage thing.  Walking around involves being seen, becoming expected to accomplish something useful, and having to take an occasional position regarding actual work and working conditions.   This would amount to an endless pile of issues and activities that are better left untouched by an ambitious exec.  Any manager, even a CEO, who does those things has courage and is about as rare as an honest politician.  Being accessible means you have to make and explain decisions, provide (or withhold) resources, and you have to manage. 

And you thought becoming a manager put an end to all the hard stuff?  Don't worry; nobody expects anything significant from management.  We're used to gutless, brainless, pointless, clueless edicts from the void.  We'd just get confused (and productive) of you did anything beyond the norm.  Sleep little exec, sleep.  Mamma will wake you when the bankruptcy court convenes. 

November 2002


#67 Science and Academia (2002)

[Yet another misread of history, government, and science. At the time I wrote this, it seemed logical to conclude that if nations with socialized medicine were devoid of creativity that the socialized medicine was the problem. How that I possess an Australian fake hip and a German heart stent, I realize that those nations are simply more conservative than the U.S. and didn’t jump into the business until their products were sorted out, unlike our medical system that leaps first and thinks later.]

All Rights Reserved © 2002 Thomas W. Day

Recently, I stumbled upon an article, by a person who I respect greatly, Dr. Richard O'Connor, calling for a different way for drugs to be developed and tested.  His motivation was, in part, due to the disclosure of the close, financial link between drug companies and a physician, Dr. Martin Keller of  Brown University, who is a recognized "expert" and is a clinician whose research is most commonly cited as the justification for an entire group of medications.

The Boston Globe found that Dr. Keller received more than a half-million dollars in "consulting fees" from the companies whose products he's "tested."  The Boston Globe reported that the doctor didn't bother to report "his relationships to these companies" to the medical journals that published the results of his clinical trials.  Personally, I'm not convinced that medical journals are more ethically bound than physicians, but I could be wrong.  This kind of conflict of interest is as common in medical research as misspelled words in a personal letter from G.W. Bush. 

Dr. O'Connor's conclusion from this un-shocking discovery is that taxpayers and patients should consider changing the way medical products are developed.  He states that he's "willing to pay a lower price and a higher tax, and let the government fund research.  Profits and healthcare are a dangerous combination."   That's probably a logical conclusion, based on a belief in government funded research and the hope that medical research is done, primarily, to benefit humanity. 

Unfortunately, that hopeful vision is probably unfounded.  If government funded medicine were capable of producing worthwhile research, Europe's various socialized medicine systems would be the source of an occasional breakthrough in medicine or technology.  If not-for-profit research were a functional idea, our own university systems would be hotbeds of creativity. 

For the last thirty years, the only purpose served by European "research" has been to provide a source of human lab rats for American biotech experiments.  Every US company does its initial product testing in Europe.  And if it weren't for US-subsidized clinical trials, European physicians would be completely deprived of evidence that they do any science at all.  Since most physicians are fond of imagining themselves to be scientists, so that would be a serious blow to the ego. 

We Americans are always being told, by our intelligenza, that European-everything is better than the mess we've made out of capitalism.  If "better" means classically, traditional, functionally unproductive, and unchanged by reality or necessity there is no question that European values rock and rule.  If anyone could beat a dead horse on the right spots (with a precision-made buggy whip) to make it do work, Europe has the experience to get the job done. 

But the fact is, government managed medicine stifles creativity and initiative.  For that matter, government managed anything can always be counted on to crush the life out of whatever is being managed.  So our only government sponsored hope might be with those shining faces and hopeful dreamers in higher education.  Well, now we're sunk for sure. 

Our own academics, secure and comfortable with tenure, pensions, and graduate students to do their grunt work, don't seem to be able to produce anything interesting without corporate sponsorship and initiative provided by royalties.  Even with those initiatives, many academics want more.  Our universities are well stocked with researchers who not only earn six-figure salaries but who also own the patent rights and corporate sponsorships to their research.  In other words, these state and private institutions are doing nothing more sophisticated than providing state funded facilities and cheap, highly educated manpower to corporations.  I think this is called "corporate welfare," but I might be minimizing the welfare aspect of the situation.

If a sociologist ever wanted to examine the effects of greed on society, our medical and university research systems would be a fine place to start.  The ineffective sugar pill control model would be Europe.  So far, the statement that democracy is an inefficient, perverted form or government, but it's the best we have so far, also applies most accurately to capitalism and research.  Which means we're not going to see any amazing breakthroughs until somebody comes up with a better system.

I hope you're not holding your breath while you wait.

Footnote: http://www.undoingdepression.com/news05.html

November 2002


#66 A Voice of Courage (2002)

All Rights Reserved © 2002 Thomas W. Day

The country lost a voice of courage this year.  Paul Wellstone, my own US Senator, died along with his wife, a daughter, and several staff members in a plan crash in northern Minnesota.  In the midst of a heated political battle for his Senate seat, Wellstone was, characteristically, attempting to attend a friend's father's funeral when his private plane went down attempting to land on a small, rural airport in heavy fog.  Minnesotans are still in mourning, some are so grief stricken you'd think they'd lost a member of their own family.

It's possible that Paul's politics seemed so radical that you might not understand how a state could elect and love such a man.  Wellstone was often called "the most liberal member of the senate."  Maybe he was.  He thought of himself as the voice of the voiceless.  A representative for the rest of us, to put Apple's unused motto to good use.  Wellstone treated his office as a calling, a sacred obligation to the people who voted for him, not just the people who donated money.  He took a lot of heat from conservatives for being "anti-business."  Looking at his voting record, it's hard to see how anyone could find that in his actions, but reality never gets between a conservative and his dogma.  Wellstone felt that corporate interests and the ruling-rich have all the representation their money can buy and that at least one elected official should represent the  other 99.99% of the population.  Out of only 100 Senators, I guess, statistically, we should have felt specially lucky to have even one guy on our side.

Paul's most recent outrage was, after considerable soul searching and research, voting against granting unilateral unprovoked war powers to the G.W. Bush gang.  He was pissing into the wind, since the majority of the senate did their flag-waving best to bring prosperity back to the military-industrial complex and a recession for the rest of us.  You are more likely to be remembered for being right than for joining the crowd, though.  Eugene McCarthy, another Minnesota Senator, was the only vote against the Tonkin Gulf Resolution that gave us ten years of the pointless, vicious Vietnam War.  McCarthy's courage, Nixon's impeachment and resignation, and Johnson's appendix scar may be the only remnant of those years that history bothers to record.

History is papered with the few men who took courageous, against-the-grain stands against warlords and the mindless masses.  Wellstone will be remembered as one of the few in the Senate who had a conscious to listen to, when this vote was taken.  As usual, the mob carried the motion, but truth and morality rarely enter into mob action.  (In fact, I can't think of a single moment in history when any majority was on the right side of an issue.  It's always a calibration point  to remember that less than 1% of Americans participated in the Revolutionary War.  99% of our "founding fathers" were Tories.  Most modern "conservatives" would have been proud to be called Tories.) 

History, though, appears to have a nose for the truth and an attraction to courage.  Twenty years from now, Congress' conservative cowards will be forgotten and the few who placed their position on the line to vote against this foolish war for oil will be remembered.  Paul Wellstone was one of the most courageous men in politics. 

It took him a while to admit to his conscience, since he was in a nasty campaign race for reelection, but he did the right thing in the end.  I guess those who knew Paul never had any doubt how he'd vote.  He had me guessing, though.  It's hard to know who's going to be caught up in a political stampede.  I guess I haven't been involved in Minnesota politics long enough to know how difficult it would be to panic Paul Wellstone.

It's hard to imagine Minnesota politics without Paul's presence.  For at least the last few decades, Minnesota has been a hot and cold place, Wellstone and Rod Gramms, the progressive and the ultimate regressive.  Mark Dayton put up enough of his own money to offset Gramm's corporate and right-wing attachments and Dayton's election left Minnesota with a slight tilt toward a progressive Senate position.  If Wellstone's opponent, ex-St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman, wins this election, a lot of state and national balances will be altered.  Dayton is enough of a non -entity that his position is barely able to muster neutrality.  Coleman is the ultimate Republican yes-man.   Any butt that will further his political ambition is a butt worth kissing. 

Wellstone will be missed well beyond the next few years.

November 2002