Ignorance, Incompetence, and Arrogance

Three Good Men

Two good men died last month. From opposite sides of the office, they left us with the same message: it is important to actually know what you are doing. There is another good man who died in 1988.

Robert Ebeling was an engineer at Morton Thiokol, the company that made the solid rocket boosters for the space shuttle. On his way to watch the shuttle launch, he told his daughter, “The Challenger is going to blow up. Everyone’s going to die.”

It was January 28, 1986. I was flying a B-767 (ship number 612, registration C-GAVF) between Toronto and Vancouver. The Captain was S.R. (Rod) MacDonald. I was the First Officer. It was my leg. We heard about the Challenger disaster when we were over Winnipeg, listening to the news on one of the ADF radios. I can still remember how stunned we felt, how sad for our fellow aviators.

Andy Grove was the tough and brilliant manager who founded Intel in 1968 with Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce. In a 2010 article he wrote for Bloomberg Businessweek, he said, “But what kind of a society are we going to have if it consists of highly paid people doing high-value-added work—and masses of unemployed?”

He wrote when we were still reeling from the Great Recession. Even now, six years later, the people in the trenches have not recovered. The “recovery” part of the economy has gone mostly to the top 1%.

But income distribution is only part of the story. In the same article, Andy Grove also said this about exporting jobs to fatten the bottom line: “Not only did we lose an untold number of jobs, we broke the chain of experience that is so important in technological evolution.”

Richard Feynman died at 69, in 1988. He was a Nobel physicist, but he was also one of the great teachers of the last century. A member of the Rogers Commission which investigated the Challenger disaster, he famously squeezed a rubber O-ring in a C-clamp and put it into a glass of ice water. When he removed it and undid the clamp, the O-ring did not spring back – it kept its distorted, squeezed shape.

The shuttle solid rocket boosters were built in sections. The joints were sealed with large O-rings. The shuttle had never been launched at such a low temperature. That’s what Bob Ebeling was thinking about when he talked to his daughter that day. He had spent the previous (week) trying to convince managers at both Morton Thiokol and NASA to postpone the flight.

The other shuttle disaster was Columbia, on February 1, 2003. It disintegrated on re-entry because a few thermal tiles were missing. They had been knocked off during launch. Pilots do a walkaround before every flight. These pilots were not allowed to do a space-walk to inspect the vehicle before re-entry. From safe seats in Houston, managers took control. Seven astronauts paid with their lives. For the curious: William Langewiesche published his Columbia’s Last Flight in the November, 2003 Atlantic Magazine. (William is the son of Wolfgang Langewiesche, who wrote the wonderful how-to-fly book Stick and Rudder in 1944). It is a good read and worth the time.

Andy Grove said, “we broke the chain of experience.” But it is worse than that. We are losing knowledge. In this day of the internet, where we can theoretically teach ourselves anything we want to learn, knowledge is actually disappearing.

As a pilot I study accidents, trying to learn and survive. Recently there has been another tragedy. The Board has not completed its study, but from what I (and many other pilots) know already, the cause(s) were well known to the trade. For me, that is the tragedy of the tragedy. It happened because trade knowledge was not being passed on.

It gets worse yet. In aviation, we are well into to age of robots. Fly-by-wire was introduced into commercial aviation in the Airbus A320 in 1988. Knowledge and skill have been coded with varying degrees of success. The hard-earned legacy of many crashes and many pilots’ lives lies hidden on a chip. Today’s pilots (still critical to survival) may or may not understand the code or (increasingly) their job.

Why?

Andy Grove, in the article mentioned above, put it succinctly and with more than his usual tact: Our fundamental economic beliefs, which we have elevated from a conviction based on observation to an unquestioned truism, is that the free market is the best of all economic systems—the freer the better. Our generation has seen the decisive victory of free-market principles over planned economies. So we stick with this belief, largely oblivious to emerging evidence that while free markets beat planned economies, there may be room for a modification that is even better.

Ideology blinds us, making learning – true learning – more vital than ever.

A very old friend – we have known each other since kindergarten – recently took up the subject of learning. He is retiring gradually from the practice of medicine, and he is re-examining the mathematics and science he learned forty-five years ago. Recently he showed me his derivation of the number e. It would be an exaggeration to say that I now understand e, but he has taken me parsecs closer. He himself, through his efforts, now owns the number e in his heart and soul.

This kind of learning is possible in our age, but even with the ubiquitous internet we have not yet figured out how (Although Sugata Mitra is getting warm).

So there is hope. But so far I see more loss than gain. Knowledge is leaking away.

The Cycle We Have to Break

There is a tragedy. We don’t want to assign blame or upset the apple-cart, so we don’t learn from our mistakes. Managers, once again, become arrogant and complacent. Engineers have to feed their families. They keep their mouths shut. When teachers are leaned on, they are already paid so little they are more likely to leave the profession entirely. But not all of them. Some stand up and say what needs to be said. Thank you, Andy Grove. Thank you, Bob Ebeling, And thank you, Richard Feynman.

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.

Nothing for Humanity

Our society has made a u-turn. Our democracy has left behind the vision of the Founding Fathers. Our obsession with the moral fibre and hard work of the individual has morphed subtly into a passion for making as much money as possible.

In today’s column, Inequality is a Choice, Nicholas Kristof reports that the Wall Street bonus pool in 2014 was roughly twice the total annual earnings of all Americans working full time at the federal minimum wage.

Perhaps it is time to ask about the purpose of our work. Is it to make as much money as possible? Enough to feed our family? Or should there also be a non-financial component to our work? Should we, as in friendship and love, be thinking about how our work might benefit others?

Oh, I know. I am naive and an idealist. I have enough money to live on, so I have the luxury of having such thoughts. But I have never forgotten how, as a young man, I felt embarrassed and even shamed when a much-respected older friend asked, What is your exit strategy? That’s the only way you’ll make money out of this.

We were speaking of a venture I had started, and of course he was right. But his cynical realism hadn’t appeared overnight. A sickly youth, he had used his time bedridden with rheumatic fever to read the entire library at the British estate where he was put up. He remained an autodidact and became an inventor. He left us many innovations, but as a pilot, what is important to me is that in the late 1920’s he successfully flew the first inertial navigation system. The accelerometers were weights and springs. The integrators were vacuum tube circuits.

He never saw a penny from the invention. It was too soon, and nobody understood it. A generation later ICBM’s provided the motive power for the idea. There was no other way to steer the missiles.

He made a modest living by designing and building devices which were the spawn of more modest ideas. According to the doctors, he was living on borrowed time because his heart had been damaged by the rheumatic fever. He lived into his nineties. He did sell his company. I believe he had a good death.

I am not the first to point out that Wall Street, which began as a legitimate instrument for capital formation, now produces nothing that benefits society. Nor am I the first to ring alarms when CEO’s make four hundred times the average wage at their companies. But perhaps there is method to this madness. Perhaps this Wall Street bonus pool and these CEO salaries are the heroin which blunts the pain of uselessness. These rich folk, for the moment, are in a pleasant haze of denial. But truth settles on us all, sooner or later. Many of them will not have a good death.

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

Rule by Metric

Survival?

In the grand scheme of things, there is not the slightest doubt that humanity can survive. The peril of the planet and the challenges of leaving it are not beyond our husbandry. But it will not be the market that saves us – it will be ourselves.

To this end, there is a heartening article in today’s Sunday Times: Why You Hate Work. The authors have done surveys which, in a nutshell, find that employees (and management, too) are most productive when their needs are met in the workplace. What needs are these? The physical need of rest and renewal. Feeling valued and cared for. Being allowed to focus on the task, and thereby finding purpose and meaning in work. Feeling that their work has made a difference, however small. Surprised?

We are not machines. Our output is not proportional to time spent on the job. Our capacity for creation is huge and unknown, but it is delicate and must be given room to flower.

Our Metrics

Where have we gone astray? It’s the metrics, stupid.

By worshipping the market we come to the conclusion that the purpose of enterprise is the bottom line. Managers define productivity as income or profit per employee, or worse, as hours worked per dollar of wages. It is any wonder that the phrase the working poor has made it into our modern vocabulary?

We are using hours and money to measure the value of work. Then we use the market to make our existential decisions for us.

This is not because we are evil. We are human and in trying to grasp our complicated selves we seize what is doable and ready to hand. And as to the larger decisions, we are overwhelmed and beg to be excused. For how often, in our daily lives, are we visited with silence, peace, and courage? It takes all of these to acknowledge the existential decisions that face humanity. Our humanity. Us.

Money is useful. Only by having some – in today’s society, at least – can we make a space for thought. Money is a tool, a medium of exchange, and exchange is essential.

Money is also an abstraction, a practical means of evaluating both things and ourselves. But the value of things is debatable (that’s why we need money or barter in the first place) and we ourselves are beyond value. And when we cede to the market we are putting our trust in an abstraction of an abstraction, a tool without form.

What Metric?

Let’s go back to what is really essential: exchange.

Farmers a century ago did much of their work alone, but building a barn required co-operation. (That’s where the phrase barn raising comes from). If I help my neighbour, he will help me in the really big jobs I can’t do alone.

Today we have before us a really big job: the survival of humanity. No amount of management or regulation can achieve this. Nor can capital, in the way we think of it. Financial capital will of course be necessary, more than ever before, and the financial world would do well to refocus on its primary purpose. But the other capital – human capital – is more important by far.

Each of us, however poor or simple, has a light within. How can these small flames be kept burning? How can they be nurtured and combined to illuminate and power a larger purpose?

Not by demand. Not by fear. As in all things human, we give ourselves willingly when we feel valued – in fact we give willingly that which did not exist before we felt valued. It is how we treat each other that determines whether our gifts will flower or come to naught.

So it is with work. Our survival depends on each of us doing his best work. What metric will we use to value that?

Passing the Squonk

The Dream

In the dream only the exact name of the term was unclear. There were equations, but the equality was in question. Did that term, whatever it is called, really cancel out? Situation followed upon situation with no logical relationship. Always, though, there was the missing term. What was it called? Was it really ever there at all?

As I emerged into semi-wakefulness the question remained, more urgent than ever. What is it? Why does it disappear? I lay quietly, trying not to breathe, not to think of anything else, to remain open to wherever I had been.

Johnny Jellybean

In the 1960’s I worked at a television station as a studio assistant, the station’s euphemism for stagehand. A local actor/comedian/magician had pitched them a solo show called Lunchtime Little Theatre. In those days television was black and white, and low budget was live to air with no camera men or sound men. Low budget was me and a video switcher and Johnny Jellybean. Johnny and I would set up and aim the three vidicon cameras. We would go live and Johnny would act his heart out, mostly improvising I’m sure because he never had any script or notes; the switcher would dance around between cameras, and Johnny would sometimes ride one of the vidicon dollies, pushing it around the ten by twelve studio space with one foot and grinning into the lens as the switcher focused alternately on Johnny and the moving background. It was a lot of fun. Then it would be over and I would strike the set.

Johnny was the first thing that came into my head as I lay there after the dream. I thought, my God, that’s fifty years ago, where did that come from? Then I began thinking about dogs.

Dogs

They greet you like no one else does. They take pleasure in the day, sticking their heads out of the car window. When the wind comes up they delight in it – they get a gale in the tail, as Grandpa used to say.

They shed. Their farts are silent but deadly. They eat grass and puke. They drink from the toilet.

It’s a package. Sure, kennels advertise expensive Labradoodles, guaranteed hypo-allergenic, but really you’ve still got a dog. A dog is a dog, as somebody said.

The Squawk Box

By now I was awake. Dogs and Johnny Jellybean stayed with me, wandering around, trying to be relevant. And the term, too: squank? squonk? Wait – Johnny had the Squawk Box! It was like a little wooden bird house hanging from a rope, except that there was no perch or hole. Was there a grille? Sure – it was like those speakers high on the wall aboard navy ships. Now hear this!

My memory is fuzzy. What did the squawk box squawk? Was it random tapes the switcher chose? Was it stuff Johnny had prerecorded? But I do remember the progression.

At first the box would squawk perhaps twice during a show, interrupting whatever Johnny was doing. He would mime anger, grab his wooden mallet, and hit the box. The squawk would stop. That was then. But as the months (and years, I think) went on the play got more sophisticated. It became a game between Johnny and the switcher. The box would squawk again after Johnny turned away. Or Johnny would turn away and then turn back, raising his mallet, daring it to start up again. The play would go on, keeping us high-school students, home for lunch, in stitches.

But in high school I wasn’t working at the TV station yet. Maybe in those days Johnny still had cameramen. That’s when he rode the dollies. The cameramen pushed him around, changing focus. The vidicons had tripods, not dollies. Could the switcher even change the focus of the vidicons? Did they have zoom?

After the Dream

Still I tried to stay in the space, keeping dogs and Johnny in mind, trying to follow the scent. Even on those rare occasions where dreams stay close, that’s hard. It is like flying at night, looking for traffic, when you have to scan the sky not looking at anything because if you look it will disappear into to the cone-rich fovea. Just so I stayed aware of the space without looking.

I began reliving the dream in consciousness. Scene after scene played in my head, and indeed they are still doing so today, weeks later. As in the dream each scene is seemingly unrelated but has a common term, the term we want to make disappear.

Our Human Nature

Memory of pain fades. We are natural optimists. Sometimes a little naiveté makes the day go more smoothly.

And why not? Should we be perpetually conscious of all the evil in the world? Should we feel pain all the time? Of course not. We would become cynics, insensible to the beauty around us. That’s no way to live.

But neither do we, as independent thinkers, really want someone or something else to pull the wool over our eyes, and that’s where it gets tricky. We are vulnerable, you see, to those who would for their own reasons present us with a pretty picture.

 

The Scenarios

There are many, limited only by the extent of human creativity and cunning.

Pension funds, desperate for the 8% returns of yore, snap up fancy financial products composed of slices of sub-par mortgages, themselves issued fraudulently. No risk! Eight percent return!

Hedge funds return 20% by trading illegally.

The football industry gives fans what they want – tough, violent conflict – and sweeps the bodies under the rug.

Airline industry management gives travelers what they want – cheap tickets – while gutting the pioneering companies and pocketing their shareholders’ savings.

Too big to fail banks trade for their own accounts, seeing their mission as making money rather than as lending money to entrepreneurs.

What is the missing term?

Risk

CDO’s are rated AA or AAA. Hedge funds will take your money if you have enough. You don’t have to know how they make your 20% return. Football gives you spectacle. You can luxuriate in the vicious hit as the players relish their salaries and fame. Neither of you needs to watch the dementia and death that follows. Flying is safer than driving a car. Airplanes land themselves. The inherent risk of flying and crashes and death are irrelevant. You just bought a cheap ticket. And of course you own shares in MegaBank. It’s nothing to you if they are not meeting their primary obligation or if the taxpayers have to bail them out. Or is it? Do you pay taxes?

The Pretty Picture, Bad News, and Drool

Dogs drool. Some breeds are olympic-caliber droolers. Chances are if you own one of these dogs you have come to terms with drool. It makes you laugh. After all, you’ve got the whole dog. Same with your life. You laugh, you cry. It’s all there.

Near the end of the run of Lunchtime Little Theatre, the Squawk Box antics began to merge toward the manic. Increasingly, the box just would not shut up, and Johnny mimed more madness. One day the whole thing came to an end. As Johnny hit the box, it got louder. More and more voices emanated from the box as he hammered it with his mallet. He didn’t stop. He beat the shit out of it. Beat it to a pulp. Beat it to splinters.

Stuff of Dreams

Chicago?

Reading a New York Times article last month about the Dreamliner’s troubles, something jumped out at me. Deep in the article were the words Chicago-based Boeing.

Of course I know that Boeing moved its headquarters to Chicago some years back. But still, airplanes are made at airports, else how will they fly away?

Boeing field, Seattle, where the first B-17 crashed on takeoff with the controls locked. Boeing Field, almost downtown, nestled between the freeways. Boeing Field, where I myself went in 1974 for simulator training on the new B-727-200. Everett, WA, where the mighty Whale has been put together since forever. Boeing and its people are a part of the Pacific Northwest, and nothing will ever change that.

The Dreamliner Project

On the technical front the B-787 is ambitious. Carbon-fiber construction, fly-by-wire and all that, of course, in the service of reduced weight and therefore greater economy of operation. But these technologies have been proven in the field with the B-777 and Airbus aircraft. The leap forward is the almost complete elimination of hydraulic systems, replacing them with electrically operated everything. Six huge (by aircraft standards) generators provide enough power for a small city. And infamously, two lithium-ion battery packs provide power to start the APU and to back up cockpit instruments.

It is on the business front, however, that the real leap has been made. Following business school dogma, or perhaps to be near their largest customer, Boeing management made the move to Chicago. There they hatched a plan to build the new plane by doing less than forty percent of the work. The rest they farmed out to fifty-odd “strategic partners” around the world (See James Surowiecki’s Requiem for a Dreamliner? in the February 4, 2013 New Yorker).

The Problem

As everyone now knows, the B-787 has been grounded following two incidents involving the meltdown of a lithium-ion battery pack. My own experience with these batteries is limited to a lightweight portable circular saw I used last year in a roofing project. It worked beautifully, except for when I used it to rip a ten-foot length of decking and overheated its battery pack. Wisely, it shut down and refused to go further. I had to wait half a day for the pack to cool enough to be recharged.

That battery pack still works fine today, thanks to the built in sensors and software. And I have learned to appreciate the lithium-ion battery’s tendency to overheat when a large current demand is placed on it, such as ripping a long board or starting an APU.

From the New York Times’ coverage this last month I also learned that the lithium-ion battery produces oxygen when it overheats, leading to the possibility of an uncontrollable fire. It would seem that when it comes to using lithium-ion batteries, it would be wise to know what you are doing.

The Solution

Recently Elon Musk (PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX) wrote to Boeing to offer assistance with the battery problem. His offer was declined (Flight Global, January 29, 2013). Apparently, it is better to look like you know what you’re doing than to actually know anything. Isolated in Chicago, Boeing management are doing damage control by gagging their Chief Engineer in Seattle and labelling the battery failures “maintenance issues.” (For an elucidation of this process in aviation, see the papers and speeches of Mark H. Goodrich.)

Whither the Dream?

Flying is based on confidence. We fly because it is cheap and we believe it is safe. We are lured by deals and fed statistics proving that flying is safer than it ever has been before. We understand that with today’s technology aircraft usually “land themselves.”

But none of this is so.

Our single most polluting act is not driving a car or consuming coal-fired electricity, but taking an airline flight. The cost of climate change is not factored into those cheap tickets. But – perhaps closer to home – neither is the cost of non-existent pilot training or remote project oversight in aircraft manufacture. The statistics are re-assuring but mask obvious truths: a) in two recent tragedies the pilots stalled the airplane and didn’t recover b) the Dreamliner is at risk of failure because of the financialization of business.

The B-787, as far as I can see, has the potential to be a winner. There are no technical obstacles that cannot be overcome with a little real work. But the danger lies in the dream, in the concentration on maintaining that flying is risk-free. Because, you see, there was something else that jumped out at me in the New York Times article. A Boeing Chief Engineer was quoted about the difficulties of building an airplane with fifty “strategic partners.” It may be my research, but I have been unable to find that quote since.

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.