Friday, October 30, 2009

A Longer School Year? Part 2

Consider a typical elementary or secondary student in the United States. As September rolls around mom takes him to the store for new clothes, maybe a notebook, new pencils or pens, or crayons depending on his age. With all this new stuff he may even be excited about the new school year (though that is more likely if “he” is a she). Off he goes on the first day of school to meet his new teachers, maybe some new friends and to undergo the rite of passage of being in a grade more advanced than last year.

By the end of September that student has probably settled into his new class. More importantly, his teachers may have finished re-teaching him what he forgot over the summer. By November he is glad for a Thanksgiving break and by mid-December he is more than ready for Christmas vacation. By the time June rolls around, he is tired of school and of his teachers. He can't wait for summer vacation to start. The teachers are also tired of the students and the administrators are tired of the students and the teachers.

The student’s next three months often include family vacation, playing with neighbor kids, maybe camp or a summer job. The first month is great, he enjoys the freedom. The second month is OK. However by August he probably gets bored and complains to his mom that there’s nothing to do. He has had three months to forget what he learned during the school year. Meanwhile the expensive buildings and equipment at his school have been unused.

That type of school year is the heritage of our agricultural past. It made sense when children were needed on the farm for the summer. It still makes sense in many agricultural regions, but not in most urban areas.

There has to be a better way – and there is.

Some places already have year-around school, with students in school for nine weeks and then on vacation for three weeks. Total class time is the same as with the standard year but that class time is more evenly distributed. They find this more effective than the traditional school year. Kids don't get as antsy toward the end of the school year, nor do they get as bored toward the end of a summer vacation. Teachers don't have to spend the first month in the fall re-teaching what the kids forgot over the summer. Because they do not need to re-learn so much, students can learn more effectively. In addition, schools can divide students into four tracks, with one track on vacation and three in school at any given time. That reduces the number of schools needed and frees up resources for other uses.

This is one of those ideas with which almost everybody wins. Students like it; teachers like it; most parents like it. Taxpayers like it because it reduces the number of school facilities required. The only opponents are typically administrators who have to do extra work to manage the different tracks of students. This type of school year is especially effective in elementary schools where there are no sports programs. However I’m confident that it could be made to work in secondary schools as well. Athletes could show up to practice and games even during the time their track is on vacation. In fact those playing fall sports already show up for practice before school starts.

It’s high time we got rid of the anachronistic school year and started using something more effective. This would make for better use of educational time, providing the benefits of more class time without actually requiring that class time.

If you like my blog, please tell others.
If you don’t like it, please tell me.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Longer School Year?

President Obama and others are proposing that the school year in the U.S. be extended. The theory is that more time in the classroom will improve learning. There probably is something to that, but is it really the best way to improve education? I doubt it.

More class time would be more of the same, that is obvious. If teaching or student commitment is inadequate, we would just get more poor teaching and lack of student commitment. If parents regard schools as simply a baby-sitting service they would regard a longer school year as more baby-sitting rather than pushing their children to learn. What we need, before we extend the school year, is to teach more effectively. That is especially true of math, science, logic, and critical thinking.

Look at a typical science project in an elementary school. The child is expected to make a model of island ecology or some other scene. After hours with paper, crayons, and clay, the student proudly delivers the project. The teacher then grades it based on how well the colors match reality and how well shaped the model is. Next open house, that project is likely to be displayed as an example of how well the students are learning. Yes they have learned: they learned something about art, but precious little about science.

Sadly, science is often taught as a collection of bloodless facts which students are expected to memorize and regurgitate. Children who eagerly read mystery stories or watch mystery TV shows are not exposed to the way scientists investigate the mysteries of the universe. Students may follow the clues of the mystery story to the final conclusion of who is guilty. However they are denied a view of the excitement that comes from examining scientific clues and finally reaching a conclusion that reflects the real world.

As an example, we have students being told that nearly all the world's scientists believe in man-made global warming. However that is presented as a simple fact, to be accepted and not disputed. Typically only the shallowest of evidence is presented and no alternative explanations are allowed, much less offered to the students. The teacher is the authority and is not to be questioned.

Contrast this with they type of teaching I read about years ago, in Reader's Digest though if memory serves. The author described how, during the first class of the year, the teacher held up what he described as a model of a skull from a South American animal, now extinct. He said that the animal had vanished, leaving no trace that it had ever existed. He then described the animal, its food, its environment etc. Then he gave a quiz on what he had said. Most students did quite well at regurgitating what their teacher had told them. As a result every student got a zero on the quiz.

Can you see why the students flunked? If not, you may be a victim of the “memorize and regurgitate” system of “education.” Not even one student bothered to ask the critical question, “How do you know all this? Especially if the animal left no trace of having ever existed?”

That teacher was driving home a lesson in critical thinking, something central to science.

We need more of that in education. Students should be encouraged to question, to think critically, to generate their own theories and then to describe how such theories could be tested. Instead, too often the questioning student is regarded as a troublemaker. As in Kipling's story “The Elephant's Child,” curiosity and questions can elicit disapproval.

In other disciplines as well, emphasis should be on learning and thinking. Some memorization is necessary of course. Students need to memorize addition, subtraction and other mathematical facts. However school personnel should always keep in mind that they are to prepare students for a changing world, a world filled with con artists. Some of those con artists are criminals, some are advertisers and sales people, some are politicians. Students should learn to evaluate claims as they would the clues in a murder mystery.

With a commitment to real learning instead of busy-work, we can improve our educational system, and we can do it with students spending the same amount of time in class as they do now.

Only after we establish a solid educational system should we consider extending the school year. Even then there is a way to get more effective learning time without more time in class, or more homework. I plan to discuss that next time.

If you like my blog, please tell others.
If you don't like it, please tell me.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Big Company Innovation?

The electric light, the telegraph, the telephone, the personal computer, the automobile. All these and more have one thing in common: they were developed by small companies, some by a single individual. In fact the record of true innovation shows that large companies seldom make real breakthrough inventions. While those big organizations often improve on the invention of others they seldom invent anything drastically different from existing products. Why is that?

I believe the short answer is “bureaucracy.” The larger an organization the more bureaucratic it becomes, be it a government or a business. That is probably inevitable, it is not humanly possible to directly manage every employee in a large company. However the executives do want every employee to work in accordance with their ideas. One way to accomplish that (or try to accomplish it) is to write policy statements and hire people to administer those policies. Those people become bureaucrats who see their jobs as administering policy. The policies then begin to take priority over the real goals of the organization.

Consider what happens when such a bureaucrat is faced with a request to try something drastically new. For example suppose an employee of the Smith Corona typewriter company had proposed that the company design and sell personal computers. That proposal would have required approval from layers of bureaucracy. Imagine yourself a manager, an accountant, or a controller asked to pass judgment on such an idea. If you approve it and it fails, you will share the blame. However if the innovation succeeds the credit will all go to the person who proposed it. You stand to gain little or nothing by approving the innovation, but you could lose much. However it costs you nothing to reject it. What will you do?

That in a nutshell is why big organizations are seldom truly innovative. They are infected with bureaucrats whose incentive is to maintain the status quo. They discourage the risk taking required for innovation.

Meanwhile individuals and small groups continue to bless the world with their innovations. Many of today's large technology companies started when some entrepreneur had an idea, then took the risk to pursue his dreams. Google, Amazon, Microsoft and others were started by individuals or small groups who put their own money on the line for their brainchildren. There was no corporate finance department to judge the undertaking as too risky, nor were there any managers to tell them they should concentrate on their jobs instead of those wild ideas. Instead, those innovators were free to pursue their passions, and they succeeded.

“But wait,” you say. “Didn't AT&T (American Telephone and Telegraph Company) come up with a lot of innovations? That was a huge company before the government broke it up, but it was responsible for everything from direct distance dialing to the transistor.”

That is true, AT&T was a very innovative company but how the company accomplished that is instructive. Nearly all those innovations were produced by a small division called Bell Labs (jointly owned with Western Electric). Bell Labs employees were encouraged to take risks, work on long-term projects and even engage in basic research. Employees won six Nobel Prizes for physics, most for work that had no immediate practical application. Long-term results were more useful, including much of the technology behind the computer on which I am writing this.

The Bell Labs secret was that it was almost a separate entity, beyond the reach of bean counters who demand quick results with low risk. The employees could pursue their passions without the pressure for quick commercial success. Other companies have created similar research labs. What they have in common is that creative employees are allowed to pursue their ideas. Those employees can work independently on innovations that may or may not ever succeed. Commercial success, if it comes at all, may be years or even decades in the future.

This is contrary to the normal management mindset which is to plan and control. One management book described business as ballet, not hockey. That meant that managers must plan the details as does a choreographer for a ballet. They must not expect employees to react on the spur of the moment in the manner of a hockey game. That is good advice for managing established enterprises. However such detailed planning and organization is the kiss of death for innovation. Innovation is hockey. The players are turned loose to act as they see fit. And players they are. Such creative people enjoy what they do. The employer's job is to provide them toys for their play, not to direct their actions.

Innovation is a messy process. That is one reason the independent entrepreneur is often more innovative than the highly trained scientist or engineer at a large company. The entrepreneur is playing, doing what he enjoys and such play leads to innovation. At a large company the same person would have his creative juices sucked dry. His play would be seen as a waste of time at best and probably a waste of company resources. Management would label him as a renegade, uncooperative, unwilling to work toward the good of the company.

Likewise in government (the largest bureaucracy in the country), employee creativity is stifled. Most government employees start out with high ideals and a desire to help the country. However they are shoehorned into the system, becoming drones whose job is to carry out policy, not to act in a creative manner.

Any organization that wants creativity must be prepared to put up with the risk, lack of control and general chaos that come with innovation. The organization must allow employees freedom to play and must not punish them for failure of wild ideas. You cannot manage innovation but you can facilitate and allow it.

Creativity is a precocious but unruly child. That child cannot be tamed, but will delight the world with new and useful ideas if allowed to be himself.

If you like my blog, please tell others.
If you don't like it, please tell me.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Market Economy

Last time I pointed out some major problems with a managed economy, problems, which are and promise to remain intractable. Human ability simply does not extend to being able to manage even a small part of the economy, much less the entire thing.

“But wait,” some will say. “What about the problems of a market economy? Don't private companies create surpluses by over production or shortages by underproduction? Don't they sometimes have quality problems or even have to lay off employees?”

All that is true. A market economy is messy for several reasons, most of which also provide advantages to the citizens. There are good reasons to prefer a market economy.

For one thing, a free market facilitates innovation by allowing, even encouraging, individuals and businesses to take risks. Any time large numbers of people take risks some are going to lose. However some will win and those winners drive progress. That is one reason most of our inventions, from electric lights to personal computers, are the product of market economies. That innovation is a messy process, one that often offends those who like to control everything, but it does work to our benefit.

Controlled economies can produce a few showpiece projects such as the Soviet space program, but they do not produce the consistent advances that come from free markets. Indeed controlled economies militate against innovation. They tend to protect existing industries which requires that they discourage competition from innovative newcomers. Computers, for example, have essentially wiped out the typewriter industry and eliminated the jobs of people who used to build typewriters. Could the personal computer have been developed successfully in a country where bureaucrats allocate resources and determine which products will be produced? That is unlikely, and it would certainly have taken longer under such constraints.

The fact is that older products will always have a larger constituency than will innovative ideas. The new ideas start small and must compete with established enterprises, many of which have significant clout with government authorities. The people who depend on older industries will always outnumber those who want the innovation to move forward. This effect also plagues corporations with most large companies finding it difficult to be truly innovative. (I intend to write a blog on that subject soon.)

A related benefit of the market is that it prunes the deadwood. Inefficient, non-competitive enterprises fail and their resources become available to those that are more to the taste of the consumers. In a controlled economy, such deadwood is often protected and continues to waste resources.

Another benefit of a market economy is that it is more effective than one that is controlled from the top. Individual business owners or managers are closer to their customers than are government bureaucrats. They are more likely to notice changes in customer preferences and to react accordingly. If a city is plagued by a particularly hard winter, the local shoe store is likely to order up more boots and warm socks while the local clothing store stocks warm coats and other clothing. The bureaucrat, removed from the scene, may just send the same merchandise as was sold last year.

The local store owner has not only the knowledge but the motivation to meet customer needs. If he doesn't do that, his business will decline and he may face bankruptcy. However the bureaucrat is a third party decision-maker, he neither wears the shoes from the local store nor loses money if they do not sell. His incentive is to meet the quotas someone else imposes on him.

The effectiveness of a market system means that market systems often create a land of plenty for the people. While controlled economies such as the USSR or China (before the introduction of market reforms) are typically plagued by shortages, free markets such as the U.S. often face the problem of surpluses. As a consumer, I prefer a surplus.

Yet another reason to prefer a market economy is freedom. In a market economy, each person has a right to seek the employment of his choice, subject only to opportunity and his ability. Then he can spend his money as he prefers. Nobody sets a quota of so many bakers, so many movie stars, or so many carpenters. Nor does any bureaucrat decide what kind of shoes a logger or an office worker shall wear. In fact, if a computer technician wants to wear hiking boots to work, he is free to do so as long as his boss does not object – and many have done just that (a source for several jokes about such employees*).

In my opinion, freedom is the most compelling reason to prefer a market economy. The United States of America was founded on the belief that individuals are free to make their own decisions. Handing economic decisions over to the government eliminates a most important part of that freedom. Our work, where and how we live, indeed most important aspects of our lives are all controlled by our economic decisions. We have the right to make those decisions for ourselves. We should defend that right from well-intentioned politicians.

Oh Lord, protect us from those would protect us from ourselves.

*One such joke claims that no good computer operator would ever engage in any sport that requires changing clothes. That eliminates sports such as tennis or jogging. However hiking or mountain climbing are OK and many such employees wear their lug soled boots to work in case a mountain should suddenly spring up in the middle of the computer room.

If you like my blog, please tell others.
If you don't like it, please tell me.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Intellectual Arrogance and a Managed Economy

Last time I told about Bessie, the pony who was smart enough to open gates and steal grain but not wise enough to know that such antics could get her in trouble. She died painfully by eating seed oats, treated to kill pests. Like Bessie, we humans can be too smart for our own good. While we should not shrink from difficult tasks, we should also realize that there are some things that remain beyond our ability. That is probably nowhere more apparent than when we try to manage things we cannot fully understand. One such area is the economy.

“But wait,” you say. “We have lots of economists in this country. Surely they understand the economy.”

No they don't, at least not in the detail necessary to manage everything for our benefit. Nobody does. There are just too many factors for any person or group of people to get a handle on all of it. That is one reason that managed economies like that in the Soviet Union were such failures. By trying to determine how much of each product would be produced they created shortages of every commodity except misery. The intent was good but the task was beyond human ability. The economy is just too complicated and interwoven to be managed efficiently.

Consider even a small segment of the economy, something like shoes. How would you manage the production of shoes for your country? Obviously you need to know how many are needed and in what sizes. You would look at numbers of children and adults, how many male and female and of what ages are in the populace. However that is only the start. People need different kinds of shoes, some for the office, some for construction work, some for farming etc. Children need shoes suitable for play and everybody should have some suitable for exercise.

What about preferences? Are you going to allow different styles? Will you provide for hikers, skiers, boaters and other special needs? If so how will you determine how many of each should be produced? Will the country's rulers get better shoes than the janitor in the school? There are probably hundreds of shoe types possible, each needed in twenty or more different sizes. Produce too many of a size or type and some go to waste, too few and someone goes without.

Even if you are able to determine how many shoes of each type and size to produce, your task has only begun. Where will you get the raw materials, the equipment, the facilities, and the workers to make those shoes? You need leather for the uppers so you need to be certain that enough cattle are slaughtered to provide that leather. In the process you may upset your co-worker who is trying to provide enough milk for the country. You may also upset another co-worker who manages meat and is already plagued with an excess. You need machinery for your shoe factories, but for that you compete with another co-worker who is trying to equip coat factories.

Those problems multiply for every component of your shoes. Shoe manufacturing draws on nearly component of the economy, mining, machinery, agriculture, transportation, etc. Furthermore, each component you need raises similar questions. The farmer cannot produce cows for your leather without feed and land for those cows. The land that provides his hay can also be used to produce carrots, potatoes, cabbage etc.

The result is that the entire economy is tied together by competing supply chains. A change in any demand can cause shortages or excesses in seeming unrelated commodities. An extra demand for ice cream can cause farmers to keep marginal dairy cows instead of sending them for slaughter. That can cause a shortage of leather which in turn causes a shortage of baseball gloves. Children with no baseball gloves may turn to other pursuits and cause shortages of other toys. Meanwhile manufactures of baseball bats may suddenly find that they have produced more than the market will consume.

That sort of thing spreads throughout the economy. Every item in the grocery store requires a myriad of inputs before you put it on your table, and every one of those inputs competes for resources with other things.

In theory all that is governed by mathematical rules called differential equations. However even the simplest differential equations require calculus and can be difficult to solve. The equations that govern the economy are not simple, they can involve hundreds of terms and many of those terms are not precisely known. Worse yet, because of the interdependence in the economy, all those equations are coupled together. You cannot solve just one, you have to solve nearly all of them at the same time. The math required would be horrendous, even if we knew enough to write the equations.

So do you think you could successfully manage shoe production for a country, or even a village? If not, think of the difficulty of managing an entire economy, all those complicated equations with terms not precisely known, all of them coupled together. No wonder managed economies don't work. In fact it doesn't work to manage even part of an economy. Because of the interconnectedness of the whole, you cannot change one part without causing changes throughout. Many of those changes will be unanticipated and often your best intentions will create problems.

Unfortunately that difficulty (impossibility really) does not prevent some from trying to impose a managed economy on their countries. There are people with enough intellectual arrogance that they think they can do it. I believe that arrogance comes from a combination of lack of understanding of the problem and what Sowell calls the unconstrained vision, or the vision of the anointed. Such people simply do not recognize their own limits and thus feel free to overstep their abilities at the expense of the citizens.

A market economy clearly has its problems but those are seldom as severe as what a group of smart but unwise people can do if they try to replace it with a managed economy.

If you like my blog, please tell others.
If you don't like it, please tell me.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Too Smart?

Bessie was a pony, a smart one. She learned how to open gates. She learned how to steal grain. She learned how to get into the apple orchard. Bill, her owner, was proud of her ability and used to brag about what she could do. Her life was interesting, spectacular – and short.

One day Bessie watched Bill put some grain near the tractor, then drive off. It only took a minute for her to open the gate, and another five minutes to figure out how to open the lid on the container where the oats were. When Bill got back Bessie was on the ground, writhing in agony. By the time the vet got there it was too late. The oats were intended for use as seed and were treated to kill pests. That treatment was also highly poisonous to horses.

As a boy on the farm I saw similar events. Many animals would be smart enough to get in trouble. Their intelligence allowed them to find what they wanted but they lacked the wisdom to realize that what they wanted might not be good for them. I'm afraid humans can have similar problems. We often fail to recognize that intelligence and wisdom are not the same thing. For example, intelligence may allow us to solve a complex problem (as Bessie the pony did getting to the grain). However wisdom can tell us that what we see is only part of the situation and there may be more that we don't know about. If we arrogantly assume that we know all we need to know, we can get in trouble.

For example intelligence may show us that a particular investment looks good, so we put our money there. However wisdom might have shown us that the only information we have is from the company itself with nothing from an independent auditor. Maybe that information is correct or maybe the company is run by someone like Bernie Madoff. Or maybe the company was audited but the auditors were fooled or even bought off. In fact wisdom will tell us that any investment that sounds too good to be true probably is.

We can trust our intelligence too much. Then we tend to ignore the fact that we don't know everything, nor is our reasoning ability perfect. This leads to a dangerous intellectual arrogance. For example the decision to invade Cuba's Bay of Pigs was made by a group of the most intelligent men ever assembled in the White House. However they depended on their own thinking, not even asking for outside advice. That and other decision-making problems led to one of the worst foreign policy disasters in U.S. history.

This problem can affect our personal lives, our business success, and our national well-being. In personal life it has the advantage of affecting only the culprit and his family. However such arrogance in business or government affects people not involved in the mistakes. If a businessman makes a mistake it can cost the jobs of employees. If a political leader makes a mistake, it can cost the country or state in terms of money, safety or even freedom.

What can we do about this? The first step is humility, the recognition that we don't know everything. We can be fooled or make mistakes. Intelligence is not the problem, intellectual arrogance is. Any time we are very confident that we are right we should re-examine the question, looking for flaws in our thinking. In fact we should go farther and look for similar decisions in the past where we were wrong in spite of all we could do. We should recognize that perfection is not given to men, and that includes the person we see in the mirror. We just might be wrong and we should consider the consequences of a mistake.

This intellectual humility does not preclude stretching our abilities, but it does mean care in what we attempt. That is especially true for those who find themselves in the role of third-party decision-makers, making a decision that affects others who have little or no say in the matter. The temptation there is to follow our own preference since we do not suffer the consequences or our own decisions. The result may be problems imposed on others while we go on our merry way, congratulating ourselves for our accomplishments. Meanwhile our victims suffer for our decisions.

However a bigger problem with “too smart” third-party decision-makers is the tendency to assume that they have solved the problem. After all, they are smart enough (at least in their own minds) to fix things. Therefore the solution they concocted must be the right one. No need to evaluate the results, the effort has been made so let’s move on to the next issue. This is especially a problem with government functionaries who can “solve” a problem by edict, usually throwing lots of money and regulations at it. Once the program is in place it takes on a life of its own and is seldom subject to critical evaluation by its supporters.

A bit of intellectual humility, in personal, business, and public life will go a long way toward a better life for everyone.

If you like my blog, please tell others.
If you don't like it, please tell me.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Aristocratic Attitude, Part 2

“President Barack Obama is enlisting Hollywood celebrities including actress Rosario Dawson and musician Will.I.Am to draw attention to his health care overhaul agenda.” (Breitbart, 7 Nov 2009) That is more of the same nonsense, expecting us to listen to celebrities (self-appointed aristocrats) instead of thinking for ourselves. We should ignore everything those celebrities say.

Now on to today’s topic.

One difference between our aristocracy of politicians, entertainers etc. and the official aristocracies in places like England is that theirs is hereditary. In most cases, the U.S. aristocrat cannot hand the title down to his heirs. Children of our movie stars seldom become stars themselves unless they have at least some acting ability. Children of our politicians do not automatically replace their parents in congress, the governor's mansion, or the White House. There is one partial exception.

Consider what happened when two senate seats were vacated, first in New York when Hillary Clinton resigned to become secretary of state, then in Massachusetts when Edward Kennedy died. In both cases there were plenty of people who wanted someone from the Kennedy family to take the available senate seat. After all, a Kennedy had represented Massachusetts for over 50 years and Robert Kennedy once represented New York. In fact in many New York wanted Caroline Kennedy appointed even though she had no discernible qualifications beyond her family connection. To her credit, she made no effort to get herself appointed.

That of course is in addition to the other Kennedy family members who have held office, often receiving many votes on the basis of their name instead of thoughtful consideration of qualifications. And our vice president has publicly stated that he wants more Kennedys in office! (Appearance on NBC, 27 Aug 2009)

All that sounds like desire for a hereditary aristocracy, something our constitution wisely prohibits.

The family has my sympathy for the death of Senator Kennedy. My father died of a similar cancer so I have some understanding of what they are going through. However neither sympathy nor family connection is a good reason to grant someone political power. It is dangerous to elect our representatives for any reason other than their ability and trustworthiness to do the job right. Whether a candidate is in the Kennedy family or not is completely irrelevant to his suitability for office. We should reject dynasties and aristocracies as dangerous to the country.

Such aristocracies can also be dangerous to the aristocrats. Frequently people will not hold them accountable for their actions. Instead many will make excuses for them and defend them, as some are doing now with Polanski. Psychologists call such excuse-makers “enablers” because they help people continue their unacceptable or dangerous behavior. Such enabling encourages them to think of themselves as not subject to the same rules and consequences as normal people. They develop an attitude of “It won't happen to me, “ or “I'm better than the normal person, therefore I can get away with this.

Of course we cannot know this next for certain, but I suspect that such an attitude was complicit in the 1997 skiing death of Michael Kennedy. Tragic though that accident was, it was also avoidable had young Kennedy and his companions just followed the rules expected of most skiers. They were playing football on the slope and the ski patrol warned them to stop. They continued to violate the rules. I've never skied at Aspen, but at other places where I have skied the offenders would have been kicked off the slopes as soon as they repeated the offense, maybe even on a first offense, depending on how dangerous the violation was. Yet the Kennedy party continued to violate safety rules and was not ejected.

Had the Kennedys been removed from the slopes, Michael Kennedy would probably still be alive today.

There's more. Young “John-John” Kennedy was killed in the crash of a plane he was piloting. That was a clear case of pilot error; he was in over his head. Pilots I know have told me that he was flying “too much plane.” His limited experience did not qualify him for the aircraft he was driving nor for the conditions he faced when he went over the water. Why was he flying beyond his qualifications? I doubt we'll ever know for sure, but it is quite likely that his privileged upbringing led to an aristocratic attitude. He may have believed that he didn't need the long experience that normal pilots required.

There is a sidelight to the Michael Kennedy death that might also bear on this. At the time of his death he was separated from his wife who caught him in bed with the babysitter. The indications were that the affair began when the girl was only 14 and thus included statutory rape. However authorities were unable to collect enough evidence to prosecute. Regardless of the girl's age, that continues a Kennedy legacy of sordid sexual affairs, a behavior pattern quite contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church to which they claim fidelity. Some Kennedys act like they are immune not only to human law but even to God’s law.

Putting all that together, we get a picture of the Kennedy family as a de facto aristocracy in this country. That aristocratic status harms both the country and the family. Citizens should reject the aristocratic trappings of the Kennedys and concentrate instead on qualifications.

If you like my blog, please tell others.
If you don't like it, please tell me.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Aristocratic Attitude, Part 1

Do we have aristocrats in the United States? Officially of course the answer is “no.” Unofficially we might reach a different conclusion. Many in entertainment, government, and even business think of themselves as entitled to the preferences granted the aristocracy in places like England. Worse, some of our citizens seem to defer to such people as they would to aristocrats in other countries.

For an example suppose a man tricks a thirteen-year-old girl by claiming he wants her to be a model. Then during a photography session he gives her alcohol and Quaaludes in order to have sex with her. She says that no, she doesn't want to do it but he pressures her to submit and does it anyway. Most men would spend many years in jail for statutory rape and would then have to register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives. That is entirely appropriate, such predators are not to be trusted. Not so if he is one of our self-appointed aristocrats and if others of similar attitude have their way.

Of course I'm referring to the case of Roman Polanski, the actor and film director who did just that, then fled the country to avoid prison time. His arrest in Switzerland has prompted an outcry from many of the other Hollywood stars. For example Whoopie Goldberg said, “I know it wasn't rape-rape. It was something else but I don't believe it was rape-rape.”

I don't know what “rape-rape” is or how it differs from the regular rape Polanski committed. However I am convinced that Goldberg's statement reflects an attitude that Polanski can't be guilty because he is one of the elite. And Goldberg is not the only Hollywood star advocating Polanski's release. Can you imagine how those people would react if Joe the carpenter committed a similar crime and was released? They have a double standard, one law for ordinary people and another for themselves and other “elites.”

Nor is this attitude limited to entertainers. Richard Nixon famously said, “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” Of course Nixon learned that the people had a rather different belief about his aristocratic attitude.

Nixon was not alone. Remember Abe Fortas, William Jefferson, Alcee Hastings, Dan Rostenkowski, Timothy Geithner, etc. etc. etc? We've had myriads of government officials either convicted or obviously guilty of taking bribes, tax evasion, theft and other crimes. We've had one president impeached and disbarred but not removed from office. In every case, the politician had defenders who claimed he either could not be guilty or was justified in what he did. How could those criminals and their supporters not understand that they are subject to the law, just as the rest of us are?

In this country we have a concept called “rule of law.” That means, or is supposed to mean, that everybody is subject to the same laws – and the same punishment for breaking those laws. Anyone who commits a crime is supposed to be tried and punished, regardless of position in government or society. The thief, the murderer, the rapist, each should get the same treatment whether be he the school janitor, a football star, or the president of the country. The question should not be who he is but what he did.

I know that we will not be perfect in this. The rich can hire better lawyers than can the poor. However at a minimum, class-blind justice should be our goal.

In aristocratic governments there may be some special accommodations for the “upper class.” However our constitution specifically prohibits aristocracy in this country. Roman Polanski should receive the same punishment as anyone else for his crimes, as should a congressman, a football star, or a company president. Whoopie Goldberg should be regarded as a good actress (which she is) but she should have no more influence on public policy than Joe the Carpenter does.

Of course the other side of this coin is the number of people who go “ga-ga” over celebrities. Some people just lose their independent thinking in the presence of movie stars or other famous people. Many U.S. citizens even seem to think that there is something special about a foreign prince or duke. That attitude allows such people to exercise unwarranted influence. We must not only avoid trying to be aristocrats ourselves but must also avoid treating others as aristocrats. We must judge their actions and opinions the same way, regardless of station in life.

About two hundred years ago, economist David Ricardo said: "I wish that I may never think the smiles of the great and powerful a sufficient inducement to turn aside from the straight path of honesty and the convictions of my own mind."* We should take that admonition seriously.

Next time I plan to discuss the family that has the position of de facto aristocracy in the U.S. You can probably guess which family that is.

*As quoted by Thomas Sowell

If you like my blog, please tell others.
If you don't like it, please tell me.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Power of Expectations, Part 2

Fans of American college football recognize the Brigham Young University (BYU) Cougars, consistently one of top programs in the country. It was not always so. One player described the team prior to 1972 as the college football equivalent of flying standby. In 47 years the cougars had 31 losing seasons, only one conference championship and had never been to a bowl game. What happened? What turned that team around?

What happened was a coach named Lavell Edwards. By 1994 his BYU teams had 16 conference championships, had played in 19 bowl games and had won a national championship. He had only one losing season in 23 years. How did Edwards create such a remarkable turn-around? More importantly, what can we learn from how he did it?

Of course there was no single magic bullet, Edwards did a lot of things that made a difference (many described in the book, Lavell, Airing it Out). However one of the biggest actions was that he changed expectations. Without that, none of his other improvements would have been very effective.

Prior to the Edwards era, BYU did not expect a winning football team. The school just faced too many disadvantages. It was a religious school, committed to ideas like turning the other cheek. The team lacked money for recruiting and could not hire as many coaches as other schools had. School rules against drinking, smoking, non-marital sex etc. kept many good athletes away. Perhaps most importantly, many players would take two years off to serve a church mission. The coaches thought that those missionaries would lose their competitive fire. Opposing coaches felt sorry for BYU because those players were off preaching instead of playing football.

Coaching meetings often turned into gripe sessions, dwelling on all the reasons they couldn't win. The results were predictable.

Then Edwards became head coach and decided that he had to make some changes. He encouraged players on missions to return and play – and they did not lose their scholarships for going on missions. He believed that religion and football were compatible, and he diffused that belief through his staff.

Lavell Edwards shifted the focus of BYU football from what they could not do to what they could do. He wanted to win and he found a way to do it. He convinced coaches and players that they were expected to win – and they did.

He was also wise in just what expectations he encouraged. At the time, all the top teams had great running backs and emphasized a ground game. It was unrealistic to think that BYU would be recruiting those “blue-chip” players; they wanted to play on teams with winning records. However it was realistic to try a different emphasis. Edwards went to a passing offense. He recruited passing quarterbacks, along with good receivers, and linemen who could block for the pass. He hired assistants who could coach a passing game. He soon drove opponents crazy with his offense.

The result was a big turn-around in both attitude and games won. Recruiting became easier. BYU players regularly made all-conference and even all-American teams. One even won the Heisman Trophy, symbolic of the best college football player in the country. Significantly that trophy winner was a quarterback, the Cougars still weren't attracting top running backs.

Opposing coaches began to complain that returned missionaries gave BYU an unfair advantage.

Coach Edwards' method of changing expectations is instructive.

He looked at what was possible, not what he would have liked. Knowing he could not get the top athletes other teams had, he found a way to work around that.

He never said nor implied that it would be easy. In fact he let everybody know that there would be a lot of work and uncertainty involved.

His message was that improvement was possible and he expected everybody involved to do his part.

This approach applies elsewhere as well. In school, students should be expected to meet difficult but realistic goals. It would be unrealistic to expect a middle school student to do a problem in calculus of variations. However that middle school student should be challenged to do middle school math – and expected to meet the challenge.

In business, employees should be expected to contribute to the profitability of the company. Not every important assignment will be challenging, but when a difficult task needs doing, those assigned to it should be expected to get the job done. There should be no excuses. Nor should there be excuses for sloppy performance in routine but necessary tasks.

In public affairs, we should expect everybody to earn his own way except for those who have serious handicaps. Expecting people to remain on the dole becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It discourages independence and interferes with the development of their full human potential. Every normal human has the capacity for growth and for earning his own way. We must not provide excuses that encourage dependence. Race, poverty, unhappy childhoods, all can be overcome, but only if expectations motivate the effort to overcome them.

We must set challenging but realistic expectations whenever the opportunity arises, then hold people accountable to meet those expectations. Truck drivers should be expected to drive safely and on schedule. Company presidents should be expected to make profitable and honorable decisions. School teachers should be expected to teach their subjects and students to learn those subjects. Politicians should be expected to live up to their promises and fired by the voters if the don’t.

If you like my blog, please tell others.
If you don't like it, please tell me.