What’s Inside the Sausage?

For some perverted reason, I decided to put myself on the ballot for one of Red Wing, Minnesota’s city council seats this fall. Part of that citizen-penance has been to attend city council meetings, especially this fall’s budget planning sessions. There I was reminded, again, that humans are incapable of learning from past experience. If you have ever been part of a corporate budget planning session, especially for a manufacturing company, you wouldn’t be able to recognize the civil service version. Instead of presenting a best-case/normal-case/worst-case revenue budget figure, so the city’s representatives can decide what gets done and what doesn’t, the city’s “finance officer” presents the happiest scenerio possible without any presented data to support his optimism. As usual, the more I learn about how my municipal sausage has been made, the less likely I am to want to eat sausage.

A new-to-me  term titled “tax capacity” was introduced along with a really depressing chart that described how city property taxes could be increased over the next decade. “Tax capacity” is the city finance officer’s best guess as to how much the city can raise tax rates before “something bad” happens. That undefined bad thing would be when the city raises taxes and the cost of services so high that even the current retirement community in the city and the small-to-large businesses are motivated to leave.

The problem with optimistic budget plans is that optimism is not often justified. In the case of Red Wing there are many looming financial difficulties and, by leaving them completely undefined and unanticipated, the city is setting itself up for failure. Here are just a few of the likely bumps in the road in Red Wing’s future:

  • The country elects another borrow-and-spend Republican President and, this time, the House and Senate are also Republican. After a brief bubble in a variety of recently “unregulated” sectors, the economy crashes into a real depression when all of those previously-regulated gangsters and con men crash the house. Housing values fall, businesses fail, tourism vanishes, people move away looking for the few jobs that exist in the rest of the country, and the tax base collapses for loss of population and local income.
  • The Prarie Island Nuclear Power Plant is either decommissioned (as planned) and 6-10% of the city’s revenue vanishes overnight. The city is not only left with a huge hole in the budget, but clean-up costs at the nuclear power plant fall on the city and county as Xcel “bankrupts” out on the obligation, as they have repreated across the country. Thanks to the revenue from this facility, Red Wing has over-built its school system, police and fire departments, city management, and services. The cost of maintaining these facilities and personnel without Xcel’s tax revenue could push local taxes high enough to cause rapid population loss.
  • Prarie Island has a Three Mile Island-level event, which not only forces the plant closed “unexpectedly,” but causes the city, county, and state to spend massive amounts of borrowed money to hang on to something resembling a community. Since there has been no planning for this event, the city moves quickly from prosperous to bankrupt when the bonds/debt comes due.
  • The obviously aging Red Wing demographic takes a jump in years and tax revenues fall when one or two major manufacturers decides to leave the area. What little attraction there was to the city for young families vanishes and they evacuate Red Wing for the Cities.
  • The same “aging Red Wing demographic ” continues to increase in years, allowing more Minnesota residents to take advantage of property tax allowances and the aging Minnesota demographic votes itself a better deal on property taxation in general. That shifts the municipal tax burden to younger families and to a lesser extent on local business. Of course, that provides incentive for the younger citizens to leave the area.

These are just the top of my list. I could add at least three or four more bad news scenarios and I’m sure you can think of a couple I would miss. Even without a significant catestrophic event it is likely that the overall US economy will continue the generally downward path it has been on since the late-60’s and all those bills we put off for a more prosperous future generation will come due on our children and their children. The time to solve those problems is now, while there is still some money available to work with.

When a competent business (a rare organization today) makes an annual budget, one part of the planning is examining all of the good and bad things that could effect that plan. During the Red Wing budget process I heard far too much about how much additional tax capacity the city would absolutely have for the future. I’m not picking on Red Wing here, either. I suspect that my little town is no different than 99.999…% of the country, including counties, states, and the feds. Civil servants are not the right people to be in charge of the budget process. Either citizens, both elected and not, tell their government how to manage the community or the process is out of control. As I’ve said at least a couple hundred times this summer, there is no such thing as a successful non-participatory democracy. The only way to actually find a fix for the looming problems of Red Wing, Goodhue County, Minnesota, and the United States is for citizens to be actually involved instead of pretending to be patriots on-line and in preaching-to-the-choir bar conversations with like minded friends. It’s dirty work and no one wants to do it, but you always get exactly the government you deserve.

nuclear closingsRed Wing and Goodhue County’s golden goose, the nuclear power plant, Prarie Island’s operating license expires in 2033-2034 and Xcel Energy has and will continue to explore shutting the plant down early. Fusion nuclear plants are expensive to maintain and alternative energy is becoming cheaper, more reliable, We are likely near the tipping point for a variety of technologies that will make nuclear even more unprofitable and undesireable. In not more than a dozen years, Red Wing and Goodhue County will lose a huge source of municipal income. There appears to be no local concern or plan to address that drastic change.

The questions that should be asked today, while there is some time left to work toward solutions are: How much of the city’s future debt is covered with savings? Is the city pension fund (or funds) fully covered? Does any new city hire automatically trigger increased savings in the pension funds? Are new hires and capital expenditures justified with the anticipated future population and demographics?

DemographicFor example, in 1995 the city built a new high school complex that includes “a full size greenhouse and one of its kind Minnesota Department of Natural Resources-licensed Aquaculture Facility play host to plant science and agricultural courses. The Hovda Auditorium seats 732 people and supports concerts and community events. The Black Box Theatre allows seating for 250 and hosts smaller productions. . . The sports complex includes a football stadium, eight tennis courts, three baseball fields, four softball fields, soccer fields, a nine-lane all-weather running track and field event areas. The district also owns both of the city's indoor ice arenas: Prairie Island Arena and Bergwall Arena.Minneapolis DemographicThis is a facility that educates about 1200 students. As you can see by the age demographics chart at left, Red Wing’s population is pretty much the same as the rest of Minnesota. However, if you compare that to Minneapolis’ demographics the picture is more than a little scary. Red Wing’s population “hump” is solidly in the 25-64 territory with an obvious hole in the 18-24 age group. Adults in the 18-44 age groups are highly mobile and will evacuate quickly, especially if they are skilled, if the local economy tanks, if local taxes makes the city unlivable, or if the quality of life declines. An empire as substantial as the Red Wing High School could quickly become a major economic drag on the city with even a 10% drop in high school age students. With current trends, it’s not hard to image a much small school age population in the next decade. Those 1990’s high expectations for Red Wing’s growth were likely driven by delusions of grandeur that have not been realized by the city.

At the budget meeting I heard several recommendations from city bureaucrats that the council approve hiring consultants to do work I would have expected the city employees to be doing. That reminded me of some of my consulting jobs where management wanted close evaluation of low paid employee activity when that same examination of management and executive effectiveness would have produced far greater returns. So, with that in mind I’d like to know who evaluates the effectiveness of city employees? With all of that consultant money being spent on things that should be at least partially researched and evaluated by the existing city employment, why not hire a management consultant every few years to evaluate the efficiency of the city’s employees including all levels of city management? In fact, that should be in the city’s charter that such an evaluation is the first thing an incoming City Council undertakes.

Instead of allowing city employes to speculate on corrosive and unproductive concepts like “tax capacity,” I’d like to see city employees refocused on business concepts like “value added” service to the community, customer service, and data-driven customer satisfaction. Obvious and tested business concepts like “return on investment” with the return being value provided to the taxpayers would be core to a well run city. I have no idea how to get this conversation started and history, unfortunately, shows that Americans want entitlements, wasteful spending, and incompetence reduced; just not the entitlements, wasteful spending, and incompetence that benefits them. Personally, I think catestrophe is the only thing that successfully motivates human beings. We are, by nature, stodgy conservatives afraid of change in any form and Americans are more conservative than most 1st world nations.


The End of The Rat’s Eye View

For all I know I’m dead now.

I expected to be dead in 1978, so having survived this long (7/19/2013 as of this writing) has been unexpected, sort of amazing, a little disappointing, and definitely surprising. Way back in May of 2013, my wife, Robbye Elvy, and I decided we were going to spend at least a year on the road. That meant my Comcast account would close and I’d lose my old RatsEyeView.com (some Chicago yuppie asshole owns this one now) and http://home.comcast.net/~ratseyeview/ websites. No point in paying for the first, since it was never seen by many readers, and the second would just die because Comcast no longer provides webspace for new subscribers and, if we came back to Minnesota, I’d be “new” and website-less.

So, I decided to move all of my old Rat Rants to Google Blogger and schedule them for one release a week until I ran out of old material. New material would just get slipped into the mix when the inspiration came. And now we are at the end.


#193 Fighting for "My Country"

There are things that we don't talk about in polite company. There are words we don't say out loud in public. There are ideas we don't ever mention when there is a chance that they might be brought up when we are running for office, applying for a job, or asking for a home loan. I'm not as old as McSame, but I'm old enough that I don't worry much about the damage my words will do to my political chances, career opportunities, or housing situation. As a refuge from the 1960's, I distrust the motivations of the people in power, almost always.

Patriotism is one of the least understood concepts in American life. What we often mistake for patriotism is usually nothing more sophisticated than nationalism. Webster's defines patriotism as "love for or devotion to one's country" and nationalism as "a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups." The second definition is pretty wordy, but informative.

"Love" is an emotion that requires sacrifice, understanding, commitment, perspective, and knowledge. You can't love your country, spouse, children, or friends if you don't exercise these capacities. You can be addicted to them, infatuated with them, or dependent on them without loving them. When patriotism is linked to the kind of service typically promoted by the military, the line between informed patriotism and ignorant nationalism is more than just blurred.

Since 1948, the overwhelming majority of American military actions have been inspired by reasons other than national security. The argument that we needed to fight and die in Vietnam, for example, because of some fear of the spread of communism was dishonest, wrong, and immoral. Nobody with a functioning brain believed that the Viet Cong were going to invade the United States. Once the Pentagon Papers made it clear that American forces were not attacked in the Tonkin Gulf and that the entire justification, as weak as it was, for the military build-up in 1964 was based on a deliberate lie, even the dumbest nationalist would have to admit that there were other reasons for committing American lives to that pointless Asian civil war.

Korea was the same as was the 1959-60 Caribbean War, the evacuation of US corporate employees in Lebanon in 1976, our involvement in El Salvador in the 1980s, the military maneuvers in and around Iran, Libya, Chad, Syria, Egypt, and Lebanon (again) throughout the Reagan years, the invasion of Grenada, the continuing occupation of Panamas, the continuous occupation of the Persian Gulf since Reagan's regime, the 1990 exercises in Liberia, and, of course, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. These are not battles of self-defense, they are hostile corporate take-over maneuvers. The Iraq Invasion and Occupation is about oil. Nothing more, nothing less. There have been rare humanitarian uses for the US military, but the overwhelming purpose of our armed forces has been to protect American and international corporate interests. In other words, working class kids are being sent to die or be wounded to protect the investments of our ruling elite.

It's a lot less inspiring to admit that one has wasted and corrupted the best years of one's life fighting to protect the wealth and power of oil company executives, DuPont's rubber plantations, Chiquita's bananas and pineapples, or to control Third World economies so that even more jobs can be shipped to sweat factories in places that don't bother with livable wages, OSHA, or democratic governments. As uninspiring as that is, most of the time Americans are doing just that in our military "services."

It's common knowledge inside the military that the various "services" are more committed to protecting their own interests over that of the nation. The constant shuffling of double-dipping military officers into the military-industrial corporations they were assigned to monitor is a national shame and embarrassment. When institutions become huge, it's almost impossible for them to remain focused on their real mission. The US military passed huge about five generations ago and is now such a monstrous proportion of the national employment and budget that it more often seems to believe the existence of the military is the national mission.

"Be all you can be" applied to the mission of "fighting for your corporation" takes on an interesting meaning. For example, a huge part of the national budget is the cost of maintaining a military, military pensions, and military health care. Obviously, the military serves the orders of corporate America without question, but what would it do to the character of those services if corporate America were obligated to pay for that service? Currently, every man, woman, and child, is going into debt to the tune of $5,000/year for our military expenditures. What kind of sense does that make? Wouldn't it be more reasonable to obligate the people who get the advantage of that government service for the cost of the service(s)?

On the other hand, if only corporations receive the protection of the US military, who protects the nation? If corporate interests control military operations, what would keep them from using their military against US citizens? If the military is owned, controlled, and directed so completely by corporate interests, how is military service a patriotic act?

Many Vietnam veterans discovered that they were more able to serve their country from outside of the military. The most patriotic veterans joined organizations such as Veterans for Peace, Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Rolling Thunder, Military Families Speak Out, Gold Star Families for Peace, and Patriots for Peace to object to the use of military force for corporate purposes. In this time of challenge to democracy, the Bill of Rights, Constitutional government, true patriots have to carefully consider which side of the battlefield they choose when our "of the corporation, by the corporation, and for the corporation" government goes to war.

November 2008


#197 Sweating the Small Stuff

A few weeks back, I was having lunch with a friend who is a long-time St. Paul resident. He was telling me some of the history of his neighborhood, east St. Paul, and when he got to some of the famous gangster stories of the area he mentioned one of the old mobster hangouts that is still pretty popular with modern gangsters. He said, "The cops know all about it. Every Wednesday night, the neighborhood is surrounded in black limos when the gang guys show up for their meeting. The drivers drop off the bosses and find a parking spot close to the restaurant." He described this flood of black suited stereotype gangsters whacking each other on the back and deciding what part of Minnesota they are going to screw up next over a big steak with a side of spaghetti. He made it sound almost civilized.

I disagree.

Maybe the biggest problem with the lawyer-based legal system we suffer is that we put all of our resources in exactly the wrong places. In life, manufacturing, and in business in general, it's a good idea to consider the old saying, "Don't sweat the small stuff." The Pareto "80/20 Rule" is all about that tactic. If 80% of your expenses come from 20% of your problems, the idea is to work on that 20% first. When you've solved those problems, you work on the next 20%. Randomly cherry picking easy problems to deal with because the 20% are complicated is exactly how General Motors ended up being a 2nd tier manufacturer. Our major manufacturers have been playing catch-up since Japan fired up the Quality Revolution in the 1960's.

But the small stuff is exactly the only thing we sweat with our criminal justice system. We arm our police and send them after everyone but the folks who are committing the really big, really harmful to society, crimes. We waste time and money chasing down people doing drugs in the privacy of their own homes, people having sex for money, kids downloading music and movies, parking violators, and people who don't mow their lawns regularly. While police are piddling with silly crap, Rome is burning and the Huns are tearing down the walls.

February 2009


#192 Comparing the Candidates

Watching the recent speeches, I realized something amazing about the Republican candidate: John McSame is Eric Cartman, sort of grown up. Listen to his ranting, his strange nasal grunt used to punctuate his "important" moments. If we could just get him to sing "In the Ghetto," I think it would be obvious that John McCain and South Park's Eric Cartman are the same guy.
twoboobsI wish I had written this brilliant analysis, but I didn't. However, it is so perfect that I wanted to do my bit to distribute it further. The comparisons between the two sets of Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates are clear and obvious. One set is completely unsuited and unprepared for any office more critical than small town American (preferably small town Alaska or Arizona where nothing of importance ever happens and nothing of value is created). The other set is prepared, educated, intelligent, and capable. If you are still inclined to vote for the unprepared pair, racism is clearly your motivation. In fact, you are simply casting your vote for two pink boobs.
In the 2008 Presidential Election, what if the candidates resumes were reversed?
  • What if the Obamas had paraded five children across the stage, including a three month old infant and an unwed, pregnant teenage daughter?
  • What if John McCain was a former president of the Harvard Law Review?
  • What if Barack Obama finished 894 out of 899 graduates from the Navy Academy in 1958?
  • What if Barack Obama had been a prisoner in Vietnam for five years and suffered from Delayed Stress Syndrome?
  • What if McCain had only married once, and Obama was a divorcee?
  • What if Obama was the candidate who left his first wife after a severe disfiguring car accident, when she no longer measured up to his standards?
  • What if Obama had met his second wife in a bar and had a long affair while he was still married?
  • What if Barack Obama had failed at an attempted suicide?
  • What if Michelle Obama was the wife who not only became addicted to pain killers but also acquired them illegally through her charitable organization?
  • What if Cindy McCain graduated from Harvard?
  • What if Obama had punched a woman in the face in the halls of Congress?
  • What if Obama had been a member of the Keating Five? (The Keating Five were five United States Senators accused of corruption in 1989, igniting a major political scandal as part of the larger Savings and Loan crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s.)
  • What if McCain was a charismatic, eloquent speaker?
  • What if Obama couldn't read from a teleprompter?
  • What if Obama was the one who had military experience that included discipline problems and a record of crashing seven planes?
  • What if Obama was the one who was known to display publicly, on many occasions, a serious anger management problem? Or if he used high levels of profanity in his private and public conversations.
  • What if Michelle Obama's family had made their money from beer distribution?
  • What if the Obamas had adopted a white child?
  • You could easily add to this list. If these questions reflected reality, do you really believe the election numbers would be as close as they are?
Educational Background:
Barack Obama:
  • Columbia University - B.A. Political Science with a Specialization in International Relations.
  • Harvard - Juris Doctor (J.D.) Magna Cum Laude, Editor and President of Harvard Law Review
  • Taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School for twelve years.
Michelle Obama:
  • Princeton University - BA in Sociology, Cum Laude
  • Harvard Law School, Juris Doctor (J.D.)
Joseph Biden:
  • University of Delaware - B.A. in History and B.A. in Political Science.
  • Syracuse University College of Law - Juris Doctor (J.D.)
John McCain:
  • United States Naval Academy - Class rank: 894 of 899
Cindy McCain:
  • BA in Education - University of Southern California
  • MA in Special Education - University of Southern California
Sarah Palin:
  • Hawaii Pacific University - 1 semester
  • North Idaho College - 2 semesters - general study
  • University of Idaho - 2 semesters - journalism
  • Matanuska-Susitna College - 1 semester
  • University of Idaho - 3 semesters - B.A. in Journalism
Todd Palin:
  • High School Graduate
Some try to sweep the issue under the rug but this is about racism. It covers up, rationalizes and minimizes positive qualities in one candidate and emphasizes negative qualities in another when there is a color difference.
Education isn't everything, but this is about the two highest offices in the land, the second highest office and the spouses who wield influence over them, as well as our standing in the world. You make the call.
November 2008


#196 Games Wall Street Plays

My favorite quotes of the month are all about how "the best and the brightest" are being put upon by terrible ideas like limits on CEO salary and talk about cranking up the upper bracket income tax rate. It's actually possible that this country has directed its best and brightest into do-nothing mobster occupations like tax accounting, finance, MBA-style management, marketing, law, and similar unproductive manipulative skills. Many so-called "top schools" have refocused their output into accounting, law, and MBA programs, moving out of the much more capital intensive science and engineering disciplines.

Obviously, under a constant barrage of Republican and faux-Republican (Clinton's "Eisenhower Republican" administration) for nearly 30 years, the federal government's talent level has fallen to 1929 levels. Reagan and the Bushies stuffed the legal system with hundreds, if not thousands, of untalented neocon fruitcakes and it will take decades, if we cared to do the work, to purge that collection of morons from the judicial system. Dedicated talent fled civil service after Reagan made it clear that talent was the last thing he wanted in government. Bush actually actively chased talented civil servants down and tossed it out for 8 years.

If the United States wants to make a comeback, we are going to have to reverse all of this foolishness. The federal government is, once again, going to have to find a way to staff itself with scientific, industrial, economic, diplomatic, legislative, and white collar criminal investigative talent. Our universities and K-12 education system is going to have to relearn how to educated itself, then its students, in disciplines that are based in science and technology, not tax-evading money laundering games.

As anyone who follows history knows, Reagan's "miracle of the markets" is based on the squalor of criminal behavior. Markets, when allowed to run wild, are nothing more than a collection of gangsters in suits wallowing in greed, corruption, and collusion. Game theory has long proven that the basic capitalist theory was a misreading of human nature. Libertarian theory is so far from reality that it appears to be as reality-based as Creationism. Humans are both greedy and lazy. The greediest and laziest are often best suited to take advantage of a system that is not based on laws that regulate those tendencies. Executives are not the cream of any crop and haven't been since the first generation of any industry. Once the founders are gone, the politicians move in and sharks begin to feed on the business culture, turning it from productive to vicious.

Now, we are stuck with a generation or two of our best and brightest who are unsuited for any productive work. The American X, Y, and Z Generations are rarely engineers, scientists, doctors, technicians, or even schooled in any reality-based discipline.

Obviously, the cure is in our tax system. It should be clear that a tax system is designed to encourage or discourage activity. We tax the stuff we don't want to happen and we don't tax the stuff we want to encourage. Currently, our tax system is designed by exactly the people our culture ought to be discouraging. There is no upside to inherited wealth, which is the reason for inheritance taxes. G.W. Bush is the posterboy for why wealth and power should not be inherited. There is no advantage provided to businesses or the culture for excessive executive salaries, it's not like these morons could go somewhere else and make money. We should stop providing corporate tax breaks for executive income expenses. We need alternative energy research and development. We need a working education system. We need manufacturing, infrastructure, and technology. We don't need more lawyers, tax accountants, or MBAs. The fix is to tax the things we don't want to death and to reward the activities we desperately need.

Leadership is top-down. When the top of our corporate structure is incompetent, uneducated, and corrupt, you can expect the economic levels below them to follow. For the last 30 years, from the President to CEOs, our "leadership" has been drawn from the worst of the worst. We have to fix that.

February 2009

#191 Religulous

I saw Bill Maher's Religulous last night with a friend in a tiny, out-of-the-way theater in St. Paul. Two theaters are showing this film, although the show was better attended than all of the offerings in my local mega-theater for a very late night showing in an area with limited parking. It's not for lack religulous-toastof audience that this film is languishing in obscure "art theaters." It's most likely fear. If this is true in a "liberal" state and city like Minnesota and St. Paul/Minneapolis, consider how much more true it is in the nation's Red States (when did being "Red" become a positive?).

Many of the film's reviewers tentatively talk about their reaction to Religulous by reminding us all that "religion is a sensitive subject."  In this case, "sensitive" means "dangerous." Overwhelmingly, religious people share traits with other crazy people, especially the trait of unpredictable (and predictable) violence. From Timmy McVeigh to Osama bin Laden, religious fanatics are among the scariest people on the planet. Just to calibrate yourself, consider that when a few of the major theaters attempted to cash in on Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, protestors swarmed those theaters attempting to scare off viewers with their abortion clinic tactics. Mostly, they found themselves outwitted, overwhelmed by numbers, and ignored, but the message was received by the theater chains. None of the major corporate commies have anything resembling the courage to show a film as controversial as Religulous, but showing a snuff flick like The Passion of Christ is right up their alley, sewer, or ditch.

religulousReligulous is well made, entertaining (as this subject can be), intelligent, and disturbing. As any rational person knows, the connection between many nations possessing the means to destroy the world (in fire) and the desire to create a self-fulfilling prophesy by so many fools is scary stuff. Listening to these fools try to justify their "Bronze Age" beliefs is depressing and scary. The first twenty minutes are funny, but after a while the relentless stupidity of the "faithful" is nothing more than ghoulish and gloomy. Maher isn't trying to entertain us. He's trying to frighten the few remaining intelligent, unsuperstitious souls left on the planet into action. Mostly, he succeeded in convincing me that humans are the bottom of the evolutionary heap and the best thing that could happen is for humanity to breed itself into a plague that reduces our numbers as quickly as possible, to save the rest of the world from "God's dumbest creation."

I've read some reviewers complain that Maher "made to look foolish" the faithful he interviewed. Maher simply asked them questions and reported their foolish answers. Religious nuts, apparently, don't like mirrors.

One of the typically irrational reviewers of Religulous, Tim McNabb in a website misnamed The American Thinker, claimed "Maher claims that agnostics represent 16% of the population, but so far they have not built 16% of the nation's charities (unless you count voting for Democrats)." That's typical of religious arguments. As Maher discovers when he interviews Francis Collins, a "scientist" who made strange claims for "faith" and backed his arguments with an obvious lack of knowledge of the Bible he worships. If he's the head of the US government's Genome Project, that segment of the scientific world is in trouble, if not dead and buried. Fortunately, the US is no longer leading this field of research, so progress has not been stopped by Collins. As Maher reminds us, the majority of scientists in the world are agnostic or atheist. They attempt to remedy the world's problems with science and technologies that actually "fix" those problems rather than cater to the pitiful results of overpopulation, starvation, superstition, and ignorance.  

Another religious apologist asked, "Was Maher afraid he might muddy his clownish jape if he actually brought into the mix a learned theologian." Actually, that tactic has been tried (The God Who Wasn't There and The Lost Gospel of Judas) and religious nuts liked it even less. "Learned theologians" tend to be as agnostic as they become historians or scientists. The more you know about the history of, for instance, Christianity, the more you doubt. Obviously, Maher consulted with many learned theologians, because his timeline of Christianity was accurate and his knowledge of the history of the Bible and the things actually in the Bible exceeded that of the Christians he interviewed. In fact, most of the professed "Christians" know less about their religion than the average uninterested agnostic.

Religious excuse-makers argue that "99% of the world's population can't be wrong." That's the dumbest of all arguments for any subject. Humans are insane and ignorant by nature. Not only can 99% of us be wrong, but as Maher says, we have a long, violent, depressing history of getting practically "everything exactly wrong." From math to nature to the universe, humans have long believed in concepts that were so far from logical or right that it's hard to take humans serious, even if you are one. Mark Twain speculated that we "fell from the higher animals." If we don't start correcting some of the more dangerous misunderstandings our species believes, we may take out the higher animals with us in our suicidal drive to Armageddon.

Maher has either created this link or linked himself to it, http://disbeliefnet.com. Whatever, it's an interest source of information/entertainment on what the majority of the world's nutjobs are up to.

October 2008


Killing Teams

One of the things I’ve written and thought about a lot over the last 30 years is teamwork, team-building, and team-wreaking. I recently read a book that had a lot of insight into the whole process, Smarter Faster Better, and that book also explained how easy it is to break existing teams. I have been blessed in my 50 year work career to have been on four excellent and productive teams. When those opportunities appeared, I wallowed in the incredible experience of being part of a group whose product dramatically exceeded the sum of the parts. And then they died and I mourned the loss almost as much as I would the death of a friend.

The first team experience I had was as a part-time employee of my step-grandparents’ flooring store. Initially, I was hired to sew scraps of leftover carpet into throw rugs for the store’s customers. It was the kind of beyond-expectations service my grandparents’ regularly delivered and one that taught me a lot about doing quality work (everyone involved in teaching me how to do that job had high standards for the work and product I would deliver to customers. From the blatantly gay accountant to the African-American and Hispanic and traditionally Midwestern  flooring installers to the sales people (mostly the store owners), everyone involved in that company’s purpose was committed to being the best at their job. I quit that job to make my first and last serious attempt at being a rock star, but I can still sew carpet and lay a pretty mean floor: tile, linoleum, carpet, or wood. I wasn’t bright or experienced enough to appreciate that first job’s environment, but it was an experience that stuck with me for a lifetime.

The next three team experiences were in industrial engineering, audio equipment manufacturing, and higher education. All three of those teams were formed without any sort of upper management guidance or serious support. They just happened, mostly because of the right middle management person at the right time. The skill sets in those teams were wildly diverse as were the team members’ education credentials. Each of these groups met and exceeded their intended tasks and goals. None of them lasted more than a couple of years.

Creating anything takes hard work and is always complicated. Any kid knows that breaking things is easy. Most MBAs and other mismanagement types specialize in breaking up teams and creating conflict for their own self-promotional goals. I suspect there is a Harvard MBA class titled, “Busting Teams and Making Youself Look Good in the Process.” I’d imagine the Wharton School of Finance has the same silly-assed class and Donny Trump might have even passed it.

A functioning country, especially a marginal-democracy like ours, is a lot like a barely-balanced team. When President Obama took over in 2009, that balance had been wreaked by banksters, war mongers and profiteers, and lousy management. Since he used the first two years of his Presidency to shoe-horn in the ACA, whatever momentum and clout he once had burned up in the effort. By 2010, the bare Democratic congressional majority was vanishing and the federal government was being filled with people who would rather see the country collapse and be overthrown by communists or fascists than succeed under Obama. This election, they might get their wish.

One thing we should all recognize as “truth” is that Donald Trump couldn’t build a successful team with someone else’s brain. Trump’s long record of buying and breaking things is a perfect predictor of the country’s future under his mismanagement. This is the national train wreak Republicans have been working (I know, poor choice of words.) and praying for since Reagan and if we aren’t incredibly lucky they will learn all about unintended consequences. Too bad we can’t get off of this train and watch from a distance.


#176 This Is Not America

It's late February and this is the first time I've felt like saying something in the Rat Rants. The first two months of the year have been depressingly like the last seven years and I see no signs of improvement on the horizon. I get a moment of "I told you so" because of the home and mortgage crash, but that was something I'd have loved to have been wrong about.  Listening to math-deficient "economics experts" babble about "home ownership" as a sign of booming economics for the last seven years has been tough to take. When an expert doesn't know the difference between ownership and borrower-ship, the country is in big trouble.

However, that isn't what inspired me to sit with my computer and write this Rant. For the last seven years, and often before that, a Pat Metheny/David Bowie song has haunted me; "This Is Not America." The refrain is getting louder every day.

The radical Right has brought us Big Brother in a form that even Orwell didn't imagine (or at least describe in writing). All my life, I've watched movies and read books about countries that "disappear" people and considered that the worst fate a person and families could experience. A country that can justify taking citizens in the night (or, worse, in broad daylight) without warrant, justification, or an expectation of a trial is without a reason to exist. A country whose court systems excuse this behavior has stepped out of the small group of civilized nations and into savagery. My country, the United States of America, is just that kind of nation. But I'm here to tell you, this is not America. This is G.W. Bush's primitive little nightmare nation, a country that once could have been great, a country that at least one time in its history rose up, unified, to fight corrupt and evil nations just like the sort that we are now beginning to resemble. This is not America.

The United States of America does not torture anyone, let alone innocent citizens. The United States of America does not condone capital punishment and John Adams explained why when he defended the British soldiers who were some of the murderers in the Boston Massacre. The United States of America is a curious, courageous, scientific nation, not a superstitious, backwards country of fools and cowards. The United States of America is a democracy, not a corporatocracy, not a theocracy, and not a kingdom. The nation was formed as a republic, with the dream of one day being an educated democracy. Business and government serve the public, not the reverse. The United States of America is a symbol to the world of all that can be good in human nature and society, not a terrorist power that tries to frighten the rest of the world into submission. This is not America.

The United States of America is not a country that directs all of its protection and concern toward the richest citizens, neglecting the poor and the working classes to labor in despair and fear. The United States of America is not a class society, regardless of the pitiful whining of the rich and their inbred idle offspring. The United States of America would never attack a smaller, undefended nation to steal that country's natural resources and to undermine their culture and government. The United States of America would never accept the inane jabbering of a Supreme Court that deemed the rights of the rich and powerful and their corrupt and psychopathic organizations, corporations, to be above and superior to individual citizens. The United States of America would run a judge who made such a foolish decision out of town on rail, tarred and feathered. This is not America.

George Bush will be an example of Oscar Wilde's great observation, "Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go." I only hope that when Little George leaves he takes his vicious nation with him. It was not America. When those selfish conservatives leave Washington, they will cause great happiness all over the world.

February 2008


Running vs. Walking

I am a candidate for the Red Wing City Council in 2016. When I am introduced as such and people ask me why I am “running,” I tell them it’s more like I’m walking for the office. One of the heroes of my youth was Minnesota’s Senator Eugene McCarthy. Likewise, Senator McCarthy was a reluctant politician, far more comfortable with academia and the solo lifestyle of a historical and political author. He once said, “I said didn’t want to [be President], but I was willing which is a much stronger commitment than wanting the Presidency.”

clip_image001The man who wrote one of the best books about what our government should look like--insteaad of what it did look like--titled The Limits of Power, changed everything about how many in my generation felt about what democracy should be. Of course, like many of the idealists who crashed and burned against the Democratic Party’s corporate machine in 2016, we were eventually convinced that the United States was unwilling to be a democracy. Lightweights like Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey grew half-of-a-pair and lightly challenged the no longer standing President Johnson and pretended to have a plan for exiting the war in Vietnam. Nixon and his cronies came up with their “secret plan” to resolve the war, while working behind the scenes to sabotage the Paris Peace Talks that Johnson had made the main objective of what remained of his Presidency. Nixon also set the course for the Republican politicians who would come after him, particularly the Reagan administration which felt justified in dealing directly with Iran to rig the 1980 election. The idea that a Republican congress would do anything to prevent an African-American President from achieving any of his goals to restore the US economy--including costing Americans’ thousands of jobs, homes, security, and savings—isn’t much of a stretch after Nixon’s treasonous example. Eugene McCarthy not only demonstrated honor, duty, humor, and sacrifice in his attempt to enlighten the American public, he taught some of us that there is no such thing as a non-participatory democracy and that every citizen has to make an effort to be part of local and national politics if we ever hope to have a society that is just, decent, and equitable.

So, I’m walking for Red Wing’s city council. If I don’t “win,” it won’t cause me any sort of anguish. Like Senator McCarthy, I have a full and complete life and I despise meetings. If I’m elected it will mean that I have to attend 2 long, tedious meetings a month and do an untold amount of research on every issue the council acts upon. If I’m elected, I will go way out of my comfort zone to talk to people who are involved in and affected by the council’s decisions. I’ll spend my evenings reading city policy documents, contracts, budget details, and becoming familiar with the state and federal guidelines for city government. I am not a Political Science student, a representative of or vested in any special interests, or someone who enjoys public speaking or power and authority. I have more hobbies and interests than I have time to pursue. I have a family that gives me all of the company and relationship time I have patience for, so I’m sure not in this for the attention.


Collateral Damage

The July news was filled with stories of two young men shot down by police during the usual sort of police activity that provides absolutely no value to the public but is solely intended to generate income for states, counties, and cities. Of course, the shooting of five cops by a deranged Army veteran suffering from delusions and PTSD from his tours in Afghanistan has overshadowed the vast discrepancy in danger to cops vs. the people they stop and assess “the cost of being black” taxes. For example, the FBI counted 51 law enforcement officers were 'feloniously' killed in the line of duty in 2014 while so far this year “1,502 people have been shot and killed by on-duty police officers since Jan. 1, 2015. Of them, 732 were white, and 381 were black (and 382 were of another or unknown race).” Since the FBI doesn’t have access to all of the country’s police records, that count is obviously low. Any way you count it, it looks to me like if there is a war going on, the cops are winning

The question is, “Should they be winning this way?”


#194 Why the Red States Are Red

When I started the Rat’s Eye View, way back in 1998, I imagined it might become something like Capitol Hill Blue or truthout.org. I had delusions of making a difference in the national dialog and of something resembling journalism. Scott’s generous and kind submission is as close as I got to my dream.

By Scott Jarrett

Surfing the Web today, two days after the 2008 Presidential election, I went to look at the final map of Blue and Red States as they represented victories for the presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain. It dawned on me that there are two substantial characteristics that all the red states share, and with the exception of New Mexico and Colorado, some important characteristics shared by the blue states as well.

The first thing I noticed was that the Midwestern red states are all land-locked. In other words, they have no direct commerce with the rest of the world through shared waterways. Even Indiana, whose border just barely brushes against the Great Lakes, went blue. One could argue that the Mississippi River cuts a border between some of the red states, but the Mississippi doesn’t serve much international commerce like the Great Lakes do.

The second thing I noticed was that the red states that are connected to international waterways –mostly Southern states – are all former slave states. And the chief commodity traded internationally through these coastal red states is oil.

All the red states are either completely disconnected from the rest of the world in terms of social exchange, or are at best connected only by the culture of corporate oil.

So what? In the 21st century even Kansans and Tennesseans get the Internet, TV, radio and other media. Aren’t they making decisions based on the same available information as the rest of us? Aren’t they as well-informed?

The answer is: “Yes, except that all information exchanged between humans is processed within a social context.”

Let me defend this statement. Language itself evolves socially, as can be seen simply by observing different accents in different parts of the country. On a more subtle scale, meanings differ greatly in different regions. An example might be the use of the word “ma’am”. In the South it is still customary to address a woman with this polite term. In many southern circles it would be considered rude to omit the word. But if you were to call a woman “ma’am” in some parts of the Northeastern United States, you might get punched. Ma’am in these regions is equated with “madam” (from which it is contracted), and this word has long had the connotation of referring to a woman of ill repute. So even with the same vocabulary, we are saying vastly different things.

Here’s fodder for a red and blue conflict: does the offensive connotation for the word “ma’am” derive from some deep-seated Yankee view that Rebel women are prostitutes?

These kinds of issues are why people are repulsed by the idea of voting for a presidential candidate whose middle name is Hussein? Hussein is a very common name in the world. What if a candidate’s middle name was Bubba, or Jesus? How would your colloquial language spin dictate your voting responses if the candidate for president had one of these very common names as a middle name?

My point here is that since information is conveyed between humans through language, and language evolves socially and locally, there is little hope that any pure information can be processed without this inherent “colloquial spin”. The only possible way that information exchanged between humans can be processed objectively would be to expose the information to a diverse set of social filters and then openly invite possibilities other than those automatic ones you have around you in your comfortable social context. You would basically have to be tolerant of many diverse perspectives; even willing to embrace them.

My contention after looking at the electoral map today is that the red states can’t possibly escape their own colloquial language spin to correctly process objective meanings from the facts that we all have access to on the Internet, etc. They lack the exposure to diverse interpretations in their daily lives. They are too cut off. The blue states do all the interacting with the rest of the world for them. In fact, if you look at the map you will see that the blue states totally surround and protect the red states. One might argue that the red states are good states to live in if you are afraid of the outside world.

It is an interesting observation that the red states are the ones least likely to suffer from an attack from another country. Can anywhere be less of a target for terrorists than Arkansas? Yet the good citizens of these states act out of fear that they will come under attack by some foreign power unless the US actively protects them. So they vote on behalf of the Industrial-Military Complex and the corporations that feed it. Why aren’t they afraid of the corporate takeovers of their good farmlands that have been going on for decades? The terrorists don’t have nearly as much interest in their farms as the corporations do. Is it because their farms are being taken over by people they perceive to be Americans like them, so it is all right somehow?

In conclusion, I believe that the red states vote as they do not from a lack of available information, but from an inability to break through the “surface tension” of their isolated, colloquial sense of the world as expressed and understood through their use of the language in their social context.

November 2008

#175 Back to Quality

When I first started the Rat's Eye View, I mostly wrote about business and the decline in management capability I, personally, experienced in business. While the last couple of years have been more about politics and the rapidly down-breeding human race, I still think about business concepts and management. It just doesn't seem as important as the destruction of  democracy in the United States, the establishment of an ignorant theocracy in place of constitutional government, or my government's attempt to colonize North Africa for international oil corporations.

There appears to be no fix for the Rise and Fall of Great Nations, so for the moment I'm going to return to business and the concept of customer service and quality. Everything good in business comes from these two concepts. Some writers have considered the two as separate and, maybe, equal, but I think they are inseparable. Without a culture of service to the customers of the core business, there is no motivation for pursuing quality. Without the concepts of quality management, the tools for serving customers are insufficient.

Quality and service are hard concepts for the current breed of manager to grasp. Like professional athletes, the kind of people who gravitate into management, especially those who have inherited the position, tend to believe they possess some inherent capabilities that allows them to rise above the mundane problems of their business and customers to see the "bigger picture." There is no bigger picture. The problem with the real picture is that it is complicated, technically challenging, and constantly changing. The more simple view found by overlooking the problems of service and quality has nothing to do with the survival of the business or providing value to the business; it's just daydreaming disguised as management.

Recently, a couple of local, pointedly obvious experiences reminded me of how management can snatch defeat from the claws of success. When I first moved to Minnesota, I stumbled on a new multiplex theater in Oakdale, Minnesota. I only discovered this out-of-the-way theater because it was near a store I like a lot, Fleet Farm. The theater is about 5 miles from my home and there were several closer, equally well-equipped theaters near my home at the time. However, the Marcus Oakdale Theater became my default place to watch movies because on my first visit I found the seats to be comfortable, the screen to be acceptably large, the sound system to be well-tuned, and the popcorn to be edible. Not an overwhelming endorsement, but good enough to stop my unmotivated search for a better facility. Over the last decade, I've probably watched a hundred or so movies at the Marcus Oakdale. I'm usually with one or two other people, so we're talking about a couple thousand dollars in ten years. Not a spectacular expense, but not insignificant.

This year, I convinced a friend to watch a western with me, 3:10 to Yuma. It's an Elmore Leonard story and I"m a dedicated Elmore Leonard fan. My friend wasn't either a fan of westerns or particularly interested in Elmore Leonard. I was hoping to make a convert. He wanted to pass an afternoon escaping from life's problems.

From the moment the projector fired up, an irritating black line appeared on the left side of the screen. My friend noticed it immediately. The line was sometimes joined by lesser lines, but the big black line remained on the screen for the entire showing; from popcorn commercials through the previous all the way to the end of the movie. My friend never stopped noticing the line, I could sometimes forget it was there because I'm a nutso western fan, but it was too often obvious to me, too.

The next day, I wrote to the theater's management, describing our experience and disappointment. A few weeks later, I received a letter from the theater's management apologizing for the bad experience and explaining that the theater had received a defective print from the distributor and it took several days for the distributor to provide a replacement. "It's not our fault," or something equally lame was the explanation. A couple of guest passes accompanied the apology.

Since then, I've seen three or four movies. I haven't used the guest passes yet. There is a new complex of theaters in my neighborhood and, when I wanted to take my grandson to a movie I decided to check out one of the new theaters. The seats were comfortable, the screen was pretty large, the sound system didn't blatantly distort, and the popcorn was edible. I have a new favorite theater and, when I visit Fleet Farm, I drive by my old favorite theater, remember that I have some free passes and wish I'd remembered to put them in the car in case I was in the area with some time on my hands.

The distain the manager demonstrated toward his customers, me, in continuing to show a damaged film with no warning, reduction in price, or acknowledgement that we might be intelligent enough to notice a defective product was enough of a de-motivator that I'm just not inclined to spend my own money to try that theater again. Burn me once, shame on you. Burn me twice, shame on me.

In the college where I work, we have a coffee shop. From first hand observation, I'd suspect that the original concept for the school's coffee shop first started as an afterthought. It appeared to be something to do with a large room on the top floor of the building. The room didn't seem to fit into the school's classroom plan, but it would be wasted space if nothing went in that space. The initial facilities were almost laughable. The original manager, Ben, was a recent school graduate and was driven by unseen, unpredictable forces to make the coffee shop a hangout for students and instructors. He seemed to be particularly focused on making instructors happy, maybe because we were the only predictable customers he'd have; students being temporary customers at best. Ben offered better-than-cafe coffee, went through a variety of pastry suppliers until he found a decent bakery, and worked hard to encourage kids and instructors to patronize the coffee shop. It became a success, in spite of management's ignoring the facility and Ben's requests for more equipment and more comfortable furniture. Ben had no nearby competition, but he tried to make an impression anyway.

Eventually, the school's mismanagement decided that Ben wasn't a "professional" manager and he was replaced by a lady who claimed she had managed cafe's "in the real world." She lasted a couple of months and disappeared. Since then, we've gone through a collection of managers, each equally disinterested in the regular customers, providing more than the minimal service, and each imprinting absolutely no character on the facility.

For a few years, that worked. Then, a cafe opened across the street. It's a hassle, comparatively, to go outside, cross a busy street, wait in line with many more customers, to get a cup of coffee, but the service and coffee is significantly better. I've not only found myself surrounded by fellow instructors across the street, but the school's management is regularly over there, too. We are so used to indifferent service from our own facility that we automatically switch allegiances to a better service provider, even when we are the competition. How screwed up is that?

My turnaround came when I bought a cup of coffee and had the cup dissolve on me, spilling hot coffee on my hand, causing me to drop the cup, and waste a few minutes cleaning up after myself in class. When I bitched about it, my students all said they'd had the same experience. I took my complaint to the cafe manager and was told that he'd received a shipment of defective cups and it would be a couple of days before the supplier could replace them. He wasn't even slightly embarrassed that he'd been caught providing crappy product, that he knew would dissolve before his customers could naturally empty the cup. He just smirked at me for being foolish enough to think he cared. I started bringing coffee from home the next day, until I discovered that other instructors were going across the street for better service. On the rare occasion that I don't manage to brew my own coffee and don't want to walk an extra block for coffee, I bring my own cup to our coffee shop.

Ben has moved on to become a "professional" facility manager for a successful local club. I was reminded of Ben when a student came by my office to tell me that he was working for Ben and that he had asked the student to invite me to his club. Ben is still driven to extend exceptional service and I'm sure the quality naturally follows.

This all reminds me of an old (badly paraphrased) saying, "It takes $50 in advertising to convince a customer to try your product. 5 seconds of poor service will lose that customer and it will take at least $5,000 to bring that customer back again." Quality service takes constant attention and unwavering focus from management. Anything less is a lot less than the current breed of management imagines. 

December 2007