Lowest Common Denominator

At the airport, there are two security lines. There is one where you have to take off your shoes, and another where you do not. Yes, you guessed it: for the second you need elite status.

It shouldn’t be surprising that an airline, a corporation, would divide humanity into two classes. It is the invisible hand of the market at work.

In today’s New York Times, Josh Barro, in Facing Elite Bloat, Airlines Move the Goal Posts, writes about his elite fall from grace. It seems that now plebes contend with not only the elite and the super-elite, but even higher orders. Remember how we used to speak of the 99% and the top 1%? And how now, more often, we refer to the top 0.1% or even the top 0.01%? Well, this elite thing has done so well for the airlines they are now facing elite bloat, where some plebes have invaded the bottom tier.

Their first response was to add classes to top the top elite, perhaps platinum, diamond, kryptonite, and unobtanium. But that didn’t fix things. As Josh Barro writes, “But mostly, (the airlines) have dealt with the problem by devaluing the lowest tier.”

Does that feel familiar? It probably does if you have a job, or if your degree is not from an elite university, or if your annual income is less than $1M. It certainly does if you are a tradesperson, or a nurse, or a teacher. You know, one of those people who has to rely on union seniority or tenure to have a chance in the marketplace.

Yes, it is as true in politics as it is in marketing – we have discovered a common denominator lower than greed: feeling superior.

So before you vote next time, ask yourself a question: do I feel superior to anyone? If you do, chances are someone has been pulling your chain.

Money is the New Religion

The Mall

The upscale mall near us occupies a huge contiguous tract north of the freeway. Its enclosed Main Streets have two levels, open to the non-sky, as if each building had a balcony upstairs connected with its neighbours. At the end of each street is a gussied-up big-box store – two-story of course – opening onto the mall. Stairs, escalators, and flyover bridges connect levels and balconies, so the penitent can wander in wonder through the architecture of the age. Light filters in overhead through cloudy glass. Along the streets and balconies gaudy alcoves harbour treasures and artifacts. Seen from above, the two streets intersect, forming a cross. Soon after it was built, my wife said, That’s our Chartres.

History

The great cathedrals embody all that was noble and profane in the Middle Ages. Although Chartres was built with remarkable speed, it was a product of several generations. Begun in 1194, it was mostly complete in 1250, by which time many of those involved with the heroic effort were second or third-generation. The stained-glass windows, miraculously preserved through centuries of war and weather, are narrative art for a time when few could read.

But there is more: the cathedral was also a free-trade zone outside the purview of the feudal lord. Merchants set up their stalls in the zone and even in the nave itself, although wine-sellers were occasionally banished to the crypt. Taxes on the stalls were payable to the clergy.

So far the activity is merely profane – that is, secular, or not connected to religion. (Profane is from the Latin pro and fanum: before the temple.) But as human custom tends to, the commercial practices proliferated and evolved, until by the late Middle Ages indulgences had become the Wall Street of the twentieth century or the indiegogo.com of the twenty-first. The Butter Tower of Rouen Cathedral was capitalized by selling pardons for the use of butter in Lent.

Belief

It seems that mystery is the father of faith. The architects and artisans of Chartres responded to the beauty of the world by doing their best to compete with it. Their homage to God was an artifact and a space that educated and inspired wonder and ascribed God as the author of all. The cathedral was the railroad of the nineteenth century and the airline of the twentieth. Man as artisan constructed huge works from technologies on the edge of human understanding. Did the traveller on the Orient Express understand the physics of the steam engine? Does today’s passenger understand the physics of flight or inertial navigation? Do the viewers (or the makers) of the film Gravity understand orbital mechanics?

Where am I going with this?

I admit I am groping. But we are again today in an age of indulgences. We know that capitalism and free markets are the foundation of democracy – or at least that’s what everyone says. They say that we should bow to the market, should let it decide everything, or else we are threatening freedom and democracy.

Today’s received wisdom is the same as is was in the Middle Ages – only the object of faith has been changed. We understand the market about as well as we understand orbital mechanics. We are invited to have faith in matters beyond our understanding. So we bow not only to technology, but also to the market and the almighty dollar.

The Range of Human Endeavour

We humans span the noble and the profane and continue into the ignoble and the self-serving. It happened with religion after Chartres was built. The practice of indulgences took a few centuries to moulder and spread, but it was one of the principal motivations behind Martin Luther’s ninety-five theses, nailed to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517. Luther said, Wait a minute – this is not what Jesus meant at all. Thus came the Reformation and more wars and Protestantism and Christianity without profit.

Not much has changed in five hundred years. The noble – the making of art and the building of large, co-operative works – is still followed by the profane – normal commerce. But inevitably – and today is no exception –  the profane is followed by the self-serving, and the whole process is debased. We are once again at a crossroads like the one Luther faced down in 1517.

Inventive mankind has gone from barter to money to lending to banking to capital formation to finance. The average man gropes along behind progress, believing in what he cannot understand. Meanwhile elite MBA’s twist the corporation (human co-operative effort) into re-structuring for maximum stakeholder value. (The definition of stakeholder is left to the MBA’s). Banks no longer turn savings into investment capital but instead operate for maximum profit and market share, extracting their cut not as interest but as fees. (There is no interest rate connected with fees, so there is no appearance of usury.) Investment banks invent financial products which they peddle to pension funds and then bet against in the market, making huge profits at the expense of their customers.

These shenanigans depend on our faith and our ignorance. They twist the institutions of our society so they work not for mankind but for a small elite.

This small elite no doubt believes in itself. That, too, is human. Like all of us, they construct a world-view. They are smarter and work harder, and deserve their spoils. Their efforts are a natural winnowing.

But that is their world-view, not the Word of God. There is no reason for us to believe it.

I also understand why we believe in money. It is a matter of survival, and is getting more so every day for us, the great unwashed. But let us not worship money. That can only lead us to suckerdom, as P.T. Barnum famously observed. We would do better to open our eyes and learn and not lose the hope of human co-operative effort toward great things. Perhaps we might even tape a thesis to the door of the mall.

As inspiration we can remember Job, centuries before Christ and millennia before today’s selfish deeds. Covered with boils and tempted by cynicism, he could still say:

I know that my redeemer liveth;

and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth:

and though worms destroy this body,

yet in my flesh shall I see God.

 

Job 19:25

Management: Blinded by Success

Blinded

We have become very good at management – so good that we have set it (and ourselves) on a pedestal. But management is not a panacea. We throw it at every problem, expecting the usual success. More and more we are encountering intransigence as we attempt to solve problems with measurement and money.

Two of the most pressing problems facing us today are health care and education. The cost of the former is out of control. The quality of the latter is declining and testing isn’t fixing it.

The reason is straightforward: health care and education require a relationship between individuals – one person helping another. True, there is more to it than that – but the basic requirement remains. Ask anyone whose life was changed by a good teacher.

Atul Gawande

I am a huge fan of Dr. Atul Gawande. He writes like a dream, takes me into his world of medicine and surgery, and seriously addresses the problems facing his profession. But his most recent article Big Med (the New Yorker, August 13) took me into new territory. He describes how hospitals (including his own) are forming into conglomerates, and compares the management of these conglomerates with that of The Cheesecake Factory, a large and successful restaurant chain.

I devoured the article with my usual fascination and perhaps a touch of trepidation. The next day, I brought it up with one of my sons, who had also read it. He had been horrified, he said, both by the idea that health care could be “managed” like a restaurant chain, and by the “creepy” remote monitoring (by closed-circuit TV) of doctors on the job.

We had a lively discussion. In hindsight I can see my son brought me around to his point of view.

Finland

For the last decade the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has been ranking countries in educational achievement using PISA tests. (Program for International Student Assessment). Finland has consistently ranked at or near the top. What is its secret? Respect for teachers.

The Finnish position on education is the opposite of the North American (especially the U.S.) position. There are tests, but they are not standardized. Teachers make and give tests to see if the student has learned and if they themselves have taught. Teaching is a higher-prestige occupation than medicine or the law. Teachers must have a degree, but it is not in education. The degree itself (at least an M.A. with a thesis) is the license to teach. When asked what might make them leave the profession for, say, business, Finnish teachers cite not higher pay, but loss of autonomy.

Management or Collegiality?

As recently as a generation ago, doctors and teachers could and did operate alone: the private practice and the one-room schoolhouse. Since then huge advances in technology have made that impossible. So much knowledge is available today that health outcomes are compromised if the patient’s medical history is not instantly available to the specialist. Learning is limited if the teacher cannot back up her teaching with the Khan Academy and Coursera and learn from these herself. As Dr. Gawande points out, doctors (and teachers) must continue to learn from each other.

All this argues for collegiality. Good management can make sure fresh food isn’t wasted at The Cheesecake Factory and it probably has a role running schools and hospitals. But as Finland’s example shows, it is counterproductive when used to control doctors and teachers.

Why is this so? And why now, more than even a decade ago?

Financialization

Financialization. The word is not in the dictionary, at least not yet. But there it is in Nicholas Lemann’s Transaction Man, the excellent and revealing article about Mitt Romney’s background in the October 1, 2012 issue of The New Yorker. With financialization – financial “products”, hedge funds, and private equity – management has been taken to a new level where, effectively, only money matters.

Of course, money is called productivity and efficiency among other euphemisms. But what it means in practice is that human interaction, energy, and invention are now virtual qualities at best, and at worst ignored altogether. Is it any wonder that in North America and especially in the U.S.A. health care and education have the highest costs in the world and some of the worst outcomes?

Human Potential

George Romney told his son, who idolizes him, that “there’s nothing as vulnerable as entrenched success.” During Wednesday night’s debate Mitt himself said his goal was to maximize the potential of each individual. How ironic is it that the son’s policies and politics – the real policies, not the slight-of-hand wordplay visible Wednesday night – are systematically dismantling his cherished management and stifling each individual’s God-given gifts, effectively fulfilling his father’s prophecy?

Mitt Romney may, in his heart of hearts, believe in the sacred gifts of each human being, and even in the absolute necessity of their being channelled into paths that benefit society as a whole. It is, alas, probably too late for him to see how his actions are undermining his belief. That is for us to see and correct.

Mitt the Spider

Spiders are kind to their own. Well, story except for the kinky Black Widow, who eats her husband after sex.

Spiders are very good at controlling the populations of lesser insects – gnats, for example.

Above all, spiders dine in style. Pheasant under glass has nothing on them. Have you noticed? A fine, strapping exoskeleton gets stuck in a beautiful, geometric web whose strands are stronger than steel. There is no rush, no baring of teeth or ripping of flesh. No blood on the floor.

The spider, epicure and medical professional, injects a magic potion under the shiny shell. The guts and muscle of the beautiful captive are reduced, sautéed and flambéed. Only then does the spider dine – elegantly and unhurriedly.

After the meal the prize remains. The beautiful prey is still there, intact and whole, framed in the skyscraper web. Its value seems undiminished.

But it will move no more, except when the wind pulls at the strands binding it. The soul is long gone.

So too does private equity provide for its own.

Tea and The Street

The media are abuzz this week with comparisons of Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party. Many are eager to point out similarities, particularly in the trajectories of their media coverage.

The fundamental difference between them, however, is being ignored. The Tea Party is a local phenomenon while Occupy Wall Street has become a global movement.

The Tea Party proclaims government as the one true bad guy. Reduce government and cut taxes and all will be well. Occupy Wall Street, meanwhile, is accused of having no message and no demands – no recipe for reform, no cure. The two movements are speaking different languages – and now as the cause spreads this is true literally as well.

Bill Frezza, a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, said on NPR’s Morning Edition (October 4, 2011) that “business is not run for the benefit of the country.” Nor does the corporation create jobs, he said, except indirectly as a consequence of growth. In fact business regards job creation as “expense creation” and therefore something to be avoided. The segment (and transcript) are here: Venture Capitalist Warns of Job Creation Myths. This is our local, Tea Party language.

The language of the global movement has its root in humanity. It speaks in the voices of ordinary people whose gifts are unwanted by the economy. It takes as given that society would be better off if these gifts could be given.

The challenges that face humanity are larger than the individual, larger than the corporation, perhaps even larger than the United States of America. They will not be solved today, this quarter, this election cycle, or even this generation.