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.

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.

Work is Dead

Hello, Grandmas and Grandpas. Ever wonder why your kids are living at home? Or why, when they do make money, it’s one-shot, scavenger deals that pick away at the edge of the economy? Our kids – gleaners, snatching the crumbs?

For an answer, take a look at the corporate executive. No, not the entrepreneur, still in charge of the company he founded twenty years ago. No, not even that new political god, the small business owner – he (or she) is so busy with cash flow that there is no time for vision. I am talking of the CEO of a publicly traded company, hired by the Board of Directors and responsible to the shareholders.

The job of this CEO is to systematically devalue work.

Why, you ask? Remember – the time horizon for a CEO is the next quarterly report, which is never more than three months away. He could spend his time dreaming a vision for the future. But – especially in these hard, competitive times – he doesn’t dare. The bottom line has to look better three months hence and his only choice is to cut costs. So he merges, divests, moves work offshore, and fights unions. He cuts costs, because that seems to be the only way he can protect the shareholders.

But work, and workers, are more than just a cost to the company. They are also its most important asset. A generation ago workers were loyal, dedicating their life’s work to the company that kept a roof over their heads and food on the family table. That loyalty is long gone. Today every worker is stressed as his salary and benefits suffer the Death of a Thousand Cuts. He can’t quite voice it, but he knows his company thinks he is replaceable and essentially worthless.

So we have the Occupy movement and We are the 99%. We have to do something to stop this race to the bottom. But what?

We might start by asking Who are the Shareholders?

As I wrote March 18, the shareholder is most likely a hedge fund, which owns a stock, on average, for twenty-two seconds. The decision to buy and sell the stock is made by a computer algorithm.

So the Board exercises its fiduciary duty and hires a CEO, who in turn exercises his duty to the shareholder, who turns out to be no one, a chimera, a moving target.

Our work, our careers, are being devalued by an algorithm, for the profit of a very few. Sadly, no one else is in control.

First Letter to the 99%

Dear Young People,

It’s winter. The heady autumn of Occupy Everywhere is now last year’s news. Mitt Romney says corporations are people. Newt says government doesn’t make jobs, private enterprise makes jobs. All politicians are promising jobs. None of that helps if you don’t have a job.

A young man interviewed on NPR has a job. He says his company doesn’t represent him politically. He says his company doesn’t have the right to use the profits it makes on HIS WORK to vote against him.

Perhaps you gave gone into debt (like the country) to get an education and you still can’t find a job. You are bummed, and rightly.

This is all pretty discouraging stuff. But wait. Start from another perspective.

The government doesn’t need you. No corporation or small business needs you. The jobs they may or may not offer can be filled by you or by someone else, interchangeably.

But the world needs you. There is no one else in the world who has exactly what you have to give.

In my post of December 11, 2011, Advent and Jobs, I asked, “Who decides what my work will be?” If you’re young and you don’t yet have dependents, you have a chance to give the finger to The Market and decide for yourself.

This is not easy, and I have no illusions that it will be possible for everyone. But I write this in hope and in the belief that looking clearly at the problem is a good start. So before you take that job as a “greeter” or as an “associate”, think about the work you want to do. All work – however strange and useless it may appear to The Market, is worthy of your human dignity if it comes from the heart. So try to make time – quiet time – to listen to that voice inside – and it will come, but it is a soft voice – that will tell you about the work that you are meant to do, the work that will be your vocation. Then fight for it with all your might.

I don’t know how you’re going to do it. I would tell you, but I know the solution is unique to you and I am not privy to it. What I do know is you might have to ask for help. It could be as little as asking a parent, sibling, or friend with a credit card to pay $2.95 to iPage or $3.15 to FatCow every month so you can have your own website. Set it up with WordPress and you can work on it anytime you have access to a computer and WIFI. It may take a year or two to learn the ropes and find out how to attract people to your site and figure out what you are selling or giving away. At the end of the second year you owe your parent, sibling, or friend $72.

Then who knows? When Mitt or Newt or even Barack gets around to offering you a job, you might just say no.

What Now? Haircut?

Winter is coming and the occupy camps are being dismantled. Is this the end of the movement?

No way. First, the idea we are the 99% has spread around the world. Second, the mountain of bad debt created by the financial “industry” is still there. Third, Generation Do (I called them GenGive) is going to dismantle that mountain piece by piece, starting by taking their money and business away from banks.

They’re not stupid. They know it will be a slow process that proceeds by increments. But make no mistake: ideas are coming. If the 99% are not wanted by this economy, they will make their own economy.

Start with Generation Do moving their money out of banks and into credit unions and new local co-ops. Add Bitcoin, a new and apparently viable global internet currency. Restore barter. If you have a roof over your head and enough to eat, consider working for nothing. Leave the consumer economy behind – it is doomed anyway. Let those who own that mountain of debt take a haircut.

Politically we are the 99% is just starting to take hold. Money is powerful only when citizens get their “facts” from TV. (Under the banners of flag, cross, fetus, exclusive marriage between men and women, they march onward to their own deepening impoverishment.) The internet is global and still free for those with access.

Let’s get our own information. Let’s follow the money and work systematically to subvert its power.

Thank you, Ohio!

Thank you, Ohio! You have spoken up for the dignity of teachers, firemen, police officers, and countless others on whose work our society depends. You have spoken clearly and no, Governor Kasich, your law was not too much, too soon – it was not the right path. A race to the bottom, sidelining the very people who make this country work, will not fix what ails us.

Retired state employee and union worker Monty Blanton was quoted in today’s New York Times saying, “What we were actually fighting for was our livelihood.” Amen, brother. A society cannot survive unless it values the honest work of its citizens.

Could this vote mean that even frustrated Tea-Party-leaning voters are asking themselves who really speaks for them? Are they wondering if they have perhaps unwittingly become mouthpieces for the Koch brothers, Art Pope, and the other bankrollers of the far-right agenda?

Look Out, World

The city is Athens, not Lexington or Sarajevo. But this shot, too, will be heard around the world. Prime Minister Papandreou has called for a referendum on the bailout.

It is too bad – but the bailout is too little, too late. When lenders get greedy and make dubious loans because they pay 8% or 11% there is an obvious risk, and the risk is the lender’s. Germany, France, and the European banks have been slow to recognize this.

The 50% haircut in this deal is a good start. But the deal burdens the Greeks with further austerity measures. Papandreou has seen what Merkel and Sarkozy have not: that an economy is not about money – rather it uses money as a means of exchange. Instead it is about the shared destiny of its people, and citizens have a say in the political process.

True, the Greek economy was and is corrupt. True, a large portion of it was under the table. The Greeks will have to work all that out.

But the world is going to be working out something else: that making high-risk loans can result in a 100% haircut. That privatizing profits and socializing risks is a shell game that can’t last. That fancy financial products like Credit Default Swaps are dishonourable and lead to ruin.

Look out, world. We have been living in a fool’s paradise. Reality is about to hit the fan.

Honour and the Economy

Employers cherry-pick from life’s prime time because our market economy has dropped the old and the young, relegating them to the status of mothers and fathers and homemakers.

Imagine the curve of a moon, half-hidden below the horizon. On the left we rise as newborns, climbing the moon’s rim, finding our gifts, the ones we are meant to leave behind. Presently the lucky will join the economy, feeding their families and keeping a roof over their heads.

But the luckiest among them are tempted to stop time. Sacrificing their connection to society and their honour, they cling to the moon’s apex, cheating death. There is nothing new under the sun. In the eighth century B.C. Homer writes of Agamemnon that “. . . surely in ruinous heart he makes sacrifice and has not wit enough to look behind and before him . . .” Iliad 1. 342-3.

Because the moon is in the West. Their honour gone, the greedy sit astride a setting economy. True – the old, the young, and the less fortunate sink first, but as is increasingly evident today worldwide, the luckiest, the craftiest, and those operating on the edge of legality will not be spared. All will drown in the Pacific, off the coast of California.

“And though the last lights off the black West went

Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs – ”

Gerard Manley Hopkins: God’s Grandeur

How can we make our economy rise as the sun in the East?

Imagine the curve once again. Imagine a curve that includes us all. The economy is not about the money, stupid. Money is a means of exchange, not a system. And an economy that shuts out the majority of its citizens cannot survive. The economy, our collective welfare, depends on the inclusion of our honourable work. All of our honourable work.

Imagine the weak among us, the old and the young, clinging to the curves of the heavenly orb as they near the horizon. The young have much to learn and no one to teach them. The old have come to expect a secure retirement and employers are balking. The solution is in front of us, but we are not looking.

Rather than expel these outliers from the economy because the numbers don’t add up, include them. True, the old cannot work fourteen-hour days, and the young must spend more time learning than earning. But neither has to feed a family. They have to live, but in the Navajo creed it is dishonourable to desire more than you need. It is, as their elders would say, the spoiling of holy things.

Teachers and learners are vital to society, to our economy.

So let us include them, and everyone, recognizing that the strength of an economy, of a society, is in the collective gift of its peoples. We can work, now, to seventy-five and beyond in many cases, our health improved by the engagement. Older people have a perspective potentially invaluable to the young, and can do much in helping the latter realize their gifts. All we need, as outliers on both ends of the curve of life, is self-respect and a living wage. The return on investment will be beyond the wildest dreams of venture capitalists.

Let us stop dishonouring ourselves by cherry-picking. Instead let us honour ourselves and each other, fitting together as the ancients, the poets, and the native elders have taught.