The Humbling of One Ugly American

A meditation on ‘shit-holes’, given relevance by our Commander-In-Chief.

In the early eighties, I made my first trip overseas, to Europe specifically, on business for a multi-national company.  I traveled there with a colleague whom I had just met a week earlier. She was a US citizen of Mexican origin, educated in Canada and with a BA in French and an MBA in finance.  The first thing notable about her was an elegant dialect that seemed an amalgam of her Spanish, French and English education, blended seamlessly into one.

 

We arrived in Portugal and traveled to Oporto on our first day.  After settling into the hotel, we met to take a walk and get acquainted with our surroundings.  We walked the cobbled streets of Oporto among the shops and vendor carts and I slowly began to absorb a new reality;  a sense of ‘old Europe’ quite different from my experience.  At one point, she asked me what I thought of the place.  I said, “I can’t decide whether it’s quaint or a dump.”  As we continued to stroll through the streets, we passed produce carts.  At one point I observed how unappetizing the produce looked.  Without missing a beat, and in her understated, elegant way with a tone of mild but powerfully delivered condescension, she replied, “That’s because the good stuff is shipped to the US as a cash crop”.  She not only explained the circumstance of my observation, but revealed my ignorance in fact and attitude.  We laugh about that episode to this day as I often reflect back on that experience in our conversations about current events.

 

I wish I could say that was my only instance of American hubris.  But it was most definitely the beginning of my education in the myth of American Exceptionalism.  In the days that followed, we traveled to the Douro region, the port wine growing region in Portugal where our company maintained a house.  In this particular village, our residence was one of three, all owned by port wine-producing companies, which had power and indoor plumbing.  As we descended on winding roads into the valley, one could observe thousands of little plots of land with houses and working gardens, surrounded by vaster commercial vineyards.  If my sense of Oporto was like going back 80 years in time, the Douro was like traveling back yet further.  What I perceived at first was poverty.  But upon further reflection, I have come to understand that what I saw was a vastly simpler and humbler way of life defined by its own circumstances which were quite different from the ones I had always assumed were universal up to that point.   I would not trade my circumstances for theirs, but I gradually came to understand that I could not look down on their circumstances without questioning the justification for my own.

 

My colleague departed early from our assignment to attend to other matters, and for the next few days, I was left on my own to explore the streets of Oporto in my spare time.  I was struck by the number of bookstores that I saw among the shops, and displayed prominently in the windows of many were ‘do-it-yourself’ books.  It suggested to me a people and a culture that had not yet entered the ‘service’ economy, where individuals were still their own primary resource for meeting their needs. It suggested a less sophisticated economy on the one hand, but a more resilient one on the other.

I wandered into a neighborhood store and saw a shelf of aseptic milk, unrefrigerated.  I had never before seen that in the US.  It was a product of necessity in Portugal, where electricity was expensive and home refrigeration at that time was probably much more limited.  But it made perfect sense for them, and I wondered ‘why don’t we do this too?’

I could recite other instances in my brief experience in international business where I made comments or assumptions that were utterly ignorant of a greater world and its varied circumstances, but I gradually came to understand that, while we may live on varying planes of material well-being, there is an underlying plane of human values that is universal, and on which we can relate, and must.  When we speak of ‘shit-holes’ as our Commander-in-Chief has so chosen, we demonstrate our own ignorance of the world’s realities, many of which include our own wanton conduct in contributing to their circumstances in pursuit of our narrowly conceived and often unjust goals.

 

I remember my political science professor observing that the US won World War II not by brilliance of strategy, but by overwhelming the enemy with sheer material and human resources.  My father, a private in a combat engineering platoon of Patton’s Third Army put it a different way.  “We made fewer mistakes than they did.”  Yet, in Vietnam and in Afghanistan, our material might and superior training did not and are not winning the day, and likely will not.  We are fighting in the terrain of human values; a battle-scape that our mythology asserts we should win.  But we’re not.  That should give us pause for thought, but it hasn’t.  We still see ourselves as WWII conquerors and saviors of the world order.  And we confer upon ourselves the right of preserving that order in our image and to our liking.  It is not working, and will not.  We have reached the limits of our advantage.  We have squandered much of our advantage.  And, though many at the top of our particular national pyramid cannot see it or refuse to acknowledge it, we are sliding into 2nd world status in many areas, and 3rd world in some.  Without a mid-course correction of some dramatic scope in our national psyche and values, it is now conceivable that we will reach escape velocity from the orbit of material prosperity and national unity.  The Portugal I remember may come ever closer to the America of our future experience.  But Portugal has evolved and prospered.  I am no longer so certain that we will.

 

I am reminded of another moment in my undergraduate experience.  I worked with a colored lady in the university library reserve room.  She had a high school education, but had obviously earned a doctorate in life’s lessons.  She wore a smile that radiated the warmth of the sun, but betrayed traces of weariness of a life that had its challenges as well as its gratification.  One afternoon as we both sat at the reserve desk observing the antics of some of my peers, she remarked with a weary but warm smile: ‘Honey chil’, there’s ignorant and there’s stupid.  Ignorant is curable. Stupid is forever.”

We might contemplate that truth as we reflect on our president, and ourselves.

Onward.

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Copyright 2018  Integratedman  All rights reserved.

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Memo to Scientists: Don’t March. Educate!

Women marched on Washington to demonstrate their deeply held feelings for our just minted President.  And it was eugh!  The pussy caps endure, but what else survives of that exhilarating  moment to improve any of the conditions that brought them there?

Now scientists are on the march, first in Boston; then with a climactic event planned for Earth Day.  Some unsolicited advice: save your sneakers; you’ve got much more important things to do with your time.  Don’t march.  Educate!

Marching is a great visual, but it’s not likely these days to move legislation in your direction. The President doesn’t give a damn.  I doubt that he watches Neil de Grasse Tyson or Science Guy Bill Nye on cable.  Senator Snowball from Oklahoma doesn’t give a damn. Chief of Staff Priebus will tell you to go home, shut up and listen. Lamar Smith isn’t likely to show up at the Mall for a listening exercise.  And conducting teach-ins among the devoted is just sooo sixties!

So here’s your marching orders, if I may be so bold.

Educate yourselves.

Learn how to communicate with the average person.  You may be whizzes at what you do, but too many of you are too often incompetent about how you communicate what you do to the average person in terms that are relevant and meaningful to him or her.  Why should you care?  Joe and Jane six-pack don’t pass appropriations and climate legislation and environmental regulations.  But they elect the clods that do, and that’s where the battle needs to begin. If you can’t communicate with them and make science important in their lives, you’re toast.  You’re just another part of the elite they’ve come to despise, and with some good reason.

We didn’t become a nation of science dolts over night. It has taken sixty years for the lessons of Sputnik to wear off.  That’s what whip-lashed us into caring about science then.  It will take something equally existential to bring us back.. Climate Change should be doing it, but you’ve been too complacent as a group for too long, and what is existential to you does not seem too important to a lot of other people.

Prepare for  the Long March.

That’s what you’re on.  Not just some giddy road trip to DC with some selfies and cool t-shirts.

The Long March is to Town Halls and State Capitols where decisions are still made close enough to constituents that the perpetrators may have to look them in the eye.  The Repugnantlans made that Long March over the past twenty years,  and we now have what we have in D.C. by way of local voting precincts and state legislatures. The Democrass couldn’t organize enough people with enough energy and focus around a theme to constitute a march.  The result has impacted science and much more.  The cure will have to tread the same path. And the cure will have to fix much more than science; it’s just part of the syndrome.

 Educate Others

Get out of your labs. Embed yourselves in your community’s affairs.  If not your specific subject matter ( string theory and quantum physics is tough to apply at the Planning and Zoning Commission), bring your discipline of critical thinking, of cause and effect, of data informed (but not data driven) decision-making.  Equally importantly, observe and learn from the actions of non-scientists in the competition of ideas in the broader community. That’s the theater in which the politics of science will play out, as with everything else.  That’s where it must begin to find respect and acceptance, and gradually transform processes and results.  But it will take time…as does much of your research.

Clean Up Your Act.

The ethical constructs of the broadly and loosely organized ‘scientific community’ have come under scrutiny and strain of late,  as well as assault.  You need a code of ethics and a governing body as never before to protect you and your science from the onslaught of interests and self-interest that have perverted science as it has most other human endeavors in our complex and contentious society.

The forces of fear and desecration are about in the land, capable of inflicting fatal harm on reputations and causes with or without justification. That shouldn’t be news to you any longer.  Don’t give them justification.

Clean up the peer review process.  Avoid hyperbole in putting forth your hypotheses and projections.  I know you’re only as good as your last grant or publication, as is true of salesmen in any other field, but let your product sell itself.  Don’t oversell it in order to break through the din.

Inform the Political Process, But Don’t Become Political.

You can be scientists or you can be political activists.  But you can’t be both without compromising your position as scientists.

I was deeply disappointed when Dr. James Hansen concluded his career in science with an act of civil disobedience in defense of his science. I could empathize with his frustration, but I viewed his act as an affirmation that his science was insufficient.  Rather than advance his science and his proper message, he diminished it, in my view. Please do not follow his example. You risk far more in the March on Washington and its potential for unintended consequences in our current environment than you stand to gain.

Stand Your Ground.

Defend what you know. Acknowledge what you don’t know. And fight at every  opportunity the falsehoods perpetrated by others with the weapons your science provides. I have witnessed climate scientists in public forums sit passively while self-styled nabobs of science denial rose to proclaim this or that piece of nonsense courtesy of the Heartland Institute or some other propaganda mill, when they should have risen to professionally counter false assertions.  As we have seen too often of late, lies perpetrated and left unchallenged become accepted as truths among the ill-informed.  Successful lies encourage their liars to more audacious levels.

Maintain Your Sense of Humanity and Humility.

Knowledge without purpose is no better than wealth or power without purpose. Scientific knowledge that does not advance the human condition cannot justify its call on the commitment and resources of others that it depends on to advance.

Your knowledge confers on you significant power, but it is ephemeral.  Do not forget the difficulty of attaining your achievements.  Do not become the difficulty impeding the next step of progress.

With all this said, I have no doubt that the Short March on Earth Day will proceed as intended.  But if it is not followed by the Long March, a Death March will surely await us.

Onward

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Escalating Ignorance in the Information Age

Oxymoronic?  Perhaps, but true.  The more ‘information’ that we have produced in the past forty years of networked information systems and the internet, the less we seem to know or trust. We are in an era of information entropy in which more is less.

I remember six years ago when an acquaintance of mine mentioned that she did not have cable t.v.  I wondered how she could possibly keep informed of current events.  Two years later, I dropped it myself, never regretting my ‘loss’.  Subsequently, I have become progressively more selective in my reading, particularly on the web, finding  that much of what I have consumed provides less insight.

The information age has provided a wealth of data, but not a corresponding wealth of insight. Why is that? Let’s review.

  1.  Reality is changing at warp speed. Yesterday’s facts and truisms are being rapidly  rendered obsolete. This ain’t your granddaddy’s nothin’!
  2.  We are producing mountains of data, but proportionately less ‘information’ (remember: data and information are not the same) .
  3.  The information that we do produce from the data  is often without meaningful context or perspective, and therefore of limited utility, relevance or reliability in a world where context can change as quickly as facts, and perspectives proliferate.
  4.  The institutions and information intermediaries (the press, government, academia, science, professions , unprofessional organizations such as Facebook and Google) that we depend upon for reliable and trustworthy information have almost all been diminished by scandals as they have become ‘monetized’, or otherwise compromised directly or indirectly by economic forces which have bent their values to serve other objectives.
  5. Concerted efforts to distort or undermine or repudiate otherwise valid information have been refined and deployed with devastating effectiveness.
  6. We have become conditioned, if not programmed, to suspend, if not avoid, critical thinking in preference to simple or comforting dogmas, also known as ‘thought on auto-pilot’.  We have willingly become prisoners of our own illusions, or those which too many are willing to sell us, in a world where there are now too many factoids to make sense of very much for very long.

One of the interesting consequences of all this is that in many subtle ways we take more time to do things that once seemed so simple, or to make decisions that are now more difficult in an increasingly complex world. I remember standing in the soap isle of the local supermarket gazing at the various offerings of dishwasher detergent.  There before me was New and Improved, Extra New, Super Improved, and You Won’t Believe Your Eyes, all in similar but different containers by the same manufacturer, all at nearly the same price. Along came a lady who engaged in the same exercise as I.  After a few minutes, we looked at each other and asked ‘What’s the difference?’.  I could just grab one off the shelf and be done, but I’ve been programed to optimize; best value for the price. Ultimately, I just grabbed one off the shelf.  Now multiply this simple example across the plethora of shopping transactions. Recognize that this phenomenon applies to information as much as dishwasher soap. The default for decision gridlock is snap judgment which often leads to the unintended consequence of buyer’s remorse, and the oft resultant lament: ‘What was/were I/they thinking?’

At a higher level of consequence, business and governmental decisions become similarly captive of a world that is devolving from long assumed perceptions of homogeneity to ever more complex and finite sub-groups, sub-cultures, sub-markets, sub divisions; each with their peculiarities and potential risks to the unwary, and few of which we really understand.  Middle east peace? Climate Change? Healthcare policies? Renewable energy strategies? Transportation strategy? Tax reform? Nuclear energy?

So here we are at the pinnacle of the data-pile at which our economic elite, blessed with all the raw data and algorithms they possess, are risk averse to investing their parked trillions for fear of risks they cannot effectively define, and therefore cannot effectively hedge.

And our ‘intelligence services’ with their army of server farms cannot pro-act with reliability; only react once the threat has manifested itself.  You don’t need big data to set up a sting for the witless.  But all their data isn’t helping them to preempt the wily.

And government, which is more reactive than proactive by nature, works on old and fragmented systems evolved from  the vastness of its enterprise and the granularity of its operations as defined by ever more complex regulations; systems which are too big, too complex to upgrade, but too critical to let die.  This also applies to large corporations, which are bureaucratically not too far removed from government.

I do not consider myself an information Luddite.  By virtue of the very nature of my profession, I love good data; I crave good data; I pine for good data; but I also distrust all data until its reliability can be proven.  More is not necessarily better.

Our data and its infrastructure is steadily holding us captive while we perpetuate the delusion that it is setting us free.  Unwilling to accept this possibility, we double down on our bet on artificial intelligence (AI) as the means to master the data-pile and set us free. No doubt, AI will bring many advantages.

But it also holds the risk that in seeking to outsource our thinking and judgements to so-called sentient machines, we are inviting a concentration of power (think Amazon, Facebook and Google) and a potential for manipulation that enslaves rather than liberates us.  Given our own individual and collective imperfections as citizens, professionals and societies, is it reasonably plausible that we can create AI that transcends our manifest imperfections and biases, but is vastly more capable of the harm we can already do without AI’s assistance? Stated more simply, can imperfect humans create perfect machines, or merely machines more capable of leveraging our imperfections to greater consequence?

We need not look far to preview the risks. Darkness is descending as the Trump administration seizes the reins of power and systematically draws the shades on the windows of government.  Today it seeks to withhold information; to render us less informed. Today, as it has for the past two years, it perpetrates blatant lies, increasingly devoid of any subtlety, to propagate its world view.  Imagine what it might do once it has implanted its partisans where all the levers of information creation or influence are located.  Consider a modification of the adage: ‘To err is human; to really screw up takes a computer’.

The possibilities are exponential.

Happy Presidents’ Day.  Better ones are coming. Hopefully.

Onward

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Facts may be optional. Reality Isn’t.

“People that say that facts are facts — they’re not really facts . . . there’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts. And so Mr. Trump’s tweet amongst a certain crowd . . . are truth.”     Scottie Nell Hughes, a Trump surrogate.

Last month, I was mildly disturbed to learn from the media that my profession of auditing, as well as the professions of science and journalism and medicine and to some degree law, have all been rendered irrelevant by a society that has elected to disregard fact and truths that emanate from facts, and embrace opinions posing as truths and  rooted in thin air,  grown in the hothouse of anger and ignorance.

Such was the result  of the election postmortem in which the Forces of Trump declared that facts no longer matter.  It’s what people choose to believe, by whatever means they come to their beliefs, dubious or otherwise.  You have to give them their due; their election results have validated their hypothesis, at least in the short-term.

But in the short or long-term, ‘truths’ must ultimately reconcile with reality, or they are not true.  Reality trumps belief.

I’m not worried about job security.  But my job and those of my colleagues in various organizations and capacities become more difficult when we operate in a world where our stakeholders demand the facts they want to hear to comport with the beliefs they cherish, rather than the facts they need to know in order to define the truths that will sustain them.

My profession of auditing is about reconciling ‘truths’ as have been reported  in financial statements to supporting facts, and reconciling those facts with reality.  Reality is the key here.  It is immutable.  It can be ignored for only so long, but eventually, it dominates.  See sub-prime mortgages, LIBOR, pension plan assumption of returns s on investment versus realized returns, unemployment statistics versus household income, the Boomer generation’s retirement aspirations versus asset accumulation, military budget versus military power effectively and conclusively applied, health spending versus health outcomes.

Let’s do a brief overview of the information ecosystem as it has evolved with human-kind.  In the beginning, all that humans needed to know confronted them directly and often overtly without any subtlety or obfuscation of intent: hunger, climate, illness and injury, bigger predators, or more aggressive predators of kind from two caves down the road.  Threats were immediate; responses were immediate or irrelevant; outcomes were immediately determinable and of little interest to anyone but the subject and his immediate dependents.

But we evolved, dare I use that term.  We learned from  experiences that informed our understanding of our environment, limited as it was, and we explored options. Our experience became intelligence, accumulated information that we could draw upon with the same utility as stone tools.  Intelligence gradually replaced emotion as our considered response to events that confronted us.  And as intelligence grew, we concluded that we could control events to our preferences rather than be at their mercy.

Eventually as we became more complex societies, probably due to facing more daunting challenges that could not be overcome alone, we determined the need to share information. Our languages and means of communicating evolved with the scope of our experience and the sphere of our social engagement.

Information at this stage became more symbolic as it was shared beyond the bounds of an individual’s personal experience or observation and confirmation.  And the more symbolic it became, the greater risk that  it diverged from the reality it represented.  So if I had two shiny rocks in my hand, I knew I had two shiny rocks in my hand.  But my shiny rocks might not be the same as the fella’s downstream, and without some reliable way of differentiating them and explicitly communicating what each of us has, we really haven’t communicated very much.  Facts matter.

The rest, as they say, is history.  Trusting that you can see where my primitive example is going, I won’t belabor it, but will get to the point.

Our sustainability  as individuals and as a  society is based on an informational paradigm that goes something like this:

Sustained existence depends on productive action against forces of decline and deterioration.

Productive action depends upon proven theories or ‘truths‘ of how the universe works (scientific law and principles, public policies, law, social customs, business models).

Truths depend upon a system of facts and logical relationships among those facts that inform actions which understand reality and reliably achieve intent.

Facts are symbolic representations of realities that we seek to understand  and communicate in order to relate to them in intended ways.

Reality is immutable, irrefutable,  and will ultimately trump (small t) all else.

But over time, a problem has developed with this paradigm. As our world has become more complex and our spheres of dependency have expanded, we have depended on ever-growing networks of intermediaries to give us the facts that we depend on for truth and guidance for actions that we hope to take for our sustainability, and hopefully our prosperity beyond the barest requirements of our existence.  And to repeat, those facts are symbolic representations of reality, not to be confused with reality itself.

So what could possibly go wrong with this?  First, we may not gather all the facts we need.  Second, the facts we gather may be imperfect representations of the reality they purport to represent. Third, the intermediaries we rely on for facts may be incompetent or deceitful in providing information we can relay on. Finally,  we may choose to exercise concerted ignorance to the facts that do not comport with our preferred beliefs or ‘truths’.

When facts are compromised or disregarded, our sustainability is at risk. When the truths on which we take action no longer comport with reality, there will be a collision between our expectations and reality, often referred to with the euphemism ‘unintended consequences’.

    *    *    *

We should distinguish between truths and opinions.

Opinions can exist free of facts, dangerous as that is.  Truths cannot.

Truth:   “the property (as of a statement) of being in accord with fact or reality”

Opinion: “a: belief stronger than impression and less strong than positive knowledge b :  a generally held view”

For example, I may have an opinion that my pension fund will be able to meet projected obligations based on an assumed rate of return of 8% over time, but if historical facts inform that I am only earning 3%, and known information does not provide credible basis for a prudent person to reasonably expect that 8% or better will be achievable in the foreseeable future, then my opinion on the assumed rate will not matter against the truth of realized (real) rates of return.

Short form:

Facts do not always fully or accurately represent reality.

And Truths and Opinions are not always supported by complete and accurate facts.

But truths and opinion without complete and accurate facts will inevitably collide with Reality.

And Reality will always win.

I hope we have enjoyed this respite from facts in 2016.  2017 awaits, as does Reality.

Onward.

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In our next exciting episode: Escalating Ignorance in the Information Age

Requiem for a Lightweight

Trump did not win. Ms. Inevitability lost.  It was inevitable. The only surprise is that so many refused to see what was so obvious until it was too late. I saw it coming and said so; first in September, 2011, then in  June, 2013, and again in June, 2016.  However, there is a much more profound consequence of this election that remains ignored in the post-election ruminations of the media.  I will touch on that later, but first, the postmortem.

Did the Russians steal the election from  her?  No.  Whatever they may have done was minor to what she did to herself long before.   Hillary, paranoid of right-wing conspiracies long before Russian hacking became a national security threat,  dismissed security concerns when she was Secretary of State. She dismissed security concerns regarding her own personal server(s).  Her campaign dismissed security concerns as if they had no prior knowledge of her email vulnerability, and no prior exposure to ‘third rate burglaries’.  How much more damage could the Russians have done to her than she and her dream team had already done to themselves?

Did the leaked emails kill her?  Probably not.  If there were any smoking guns revealed, I’m not aware of them from what was reported in the press.  Most of it was a lot of embarrassing but petty, small-minded trivia erupting from her camp followers and hangers-on which reflected the shallowness and self-serving mentality that many of us associate with the political culture in general.

Did Comey and the Gang That Can’t Shoot Straight do her in?  She may be convinced that he did, but I would give equal credit to Willful Bill, who just had to stop by the AG’s plane to discuss grandkids for 45 minutes. That may not have justified Comey’s subsequent actions, but in the current take-no-prisoners climate, it must have upped his need to protect Number 1, not wishing to be Lynched for his boss’ poor judgement and not knowing her loyalties.  Between a rabid Congress and incompetent Justice, he didn’t have any good choices.  Only responsibility.

Hillary didn’t lose because of Comey. She didn’t lose because of the email server. She didn’t lose because she’s not likable enough.  She lost because she was an inferior candidate,  a fragile ego hiding behind a brittle mask of toughness, and unwilling to acknowledge her own weaknesses; a striver who could not calibrate her ambitions to the dimensions of her abilities; a closet Republican wearing the mask of a liberal; a chameleon  who struggles to blend in but only manages to stand out and irritate with every tone-deaf effort to justify herself;  a panderer to minorities who did not understand that elections are won by majorities; a self-styled political operative who failed to grasp that the ultimate election was the Electoral College and not the popular vote; a candidate so seriously flawed in image and limited in substance that her flacks had to re-brand  her every two or three weeks as the New, Exciting Hillary, only to experience serial failure.  All the Queen’s horses and All the Queen’s men couldn’t put Hillary together in the end.

But the real story of Hillary’s loss is not that she won by nearly 3 million of the popular votes.  It is that she didn’t win by far more and that she lost the ultimate race, the Electoral College, by so much and against an opponent as deplorable as hers.  Hillary’s real measure of loss is the votes that were cast against her and the votes that stayed home. If one adds the 4 million votes for Gary Johnson, most of which we can presume would have gone to Trump or stayed home, she would have lost the popular vote or been in a dead heat, and still lost the Electoral College.  Voter turnout over the prior election appears to have increased by at least 7 million.  Voter registration is reported to have significantly increased for this election.  If we assume that the Democrats were largely the beneficiaries of registration growth, but she only won by 3 million votes, what does that suggest about how much of her base eroded, like the out-going tide of public mood pulling grains of sand from under her feet while she stands at the water’s edge,  contemplating the view of the horizon, only to discover herself pulled out to sea by the undertow she didn’t know was there.

But it would be unfair to blame Hillary’s loss on Hillary alone.  It takes a village.  In this case, the Democratic party.  Consider that after her amateurish campaign against a relatively unknown newcomer in 2008, the Democratic Party is handed a victory that it  largely did not earn as a party, and then proceed to lose ground in two consecutive mid-term elections in which it should have built on momentum to solidify its gains, but basically left Obama to swing in the wind.  And now it has the temerity to insinuate, if not charge, that it lost 2016 because Obama ‘didn’t do enough’.  I hope that when Mr. Obama writes his memoir, he devotes a chapter of rebuttal entitled ‘The Audacity of Dopes’.

     *  *  *

This election has been a collection of ironies.

First, that Ms. Experience should be severely challenged by a virtually unknown quantity in Mr. Sanders for the second time in her illustrious career and survive not on her merits, but on her careful engineering of the backroom Democratic machinery in an undemocratic manner.

Second, that the chief strategies of Hillary and Trump were to debate each other’s deplorability, and against all reasonable assumptions, she lost.

But the greatest irony is that she was defeated by a candidate who  attacked her for being a pawn of the elite, and who is proving day by day to be a more corrosive agent of middle class economic and social decline than Hillary would ever be.

How did this come to be?  The ultimate blame belongs to the electorate.  We pay more attention to sports, reality TV and the Kardashians than to the politics that influence our daily lives.  We are a society that embraces the cheap and easy  and frivolous at the expense of quality and durability, and it shows in our political choices as well as our clothes and food.

We don’t want a President.  We want Santa Claus, who will fulfill our every wish with no effort or sacrifice on our part.  Many of us, especially Democrats, expected the newly elected Obama to do it all, and we turned our back on him like yesterday’s meatloaf when  he couldn’t fix everything in the face of a Congress of indifferent Democrats and largely rabid Republicans led by the treasonous Mitch McConnell and the gutless John Boehner.

The American public, programmed by the media for cultural ADD and narcissism, turned on Obama for failing to meet its expectations and now turns to Trump with the same level of hope that it first projected on Obama, but hope resting on a dubious foundation.

I suspect, based on the anecdotal knowledge from my small sphere of acquaintances but with  no statistical foundation for the assertion, that many who voted for Trump view him not as a leader but as a hammer.  They have few expectations that he will  ‘make things better’.  Rather, they hope that he will ‘drain the swamp’ and break the system that they feel has done so much for so long to put their well-being at risk.  They are willing to take the risk that out of the rubble that Trump will create,  they can fashion a better life for themselves. That is likely an ill-conceived calculation.

Ironically, many of these people are professionals whose well-being is tied to the very system they hope Trump will dismantle.  They seem to embrace a detached sense of cause and effect, seemingly dismissing effect. Many of these people in my acquaintance are analytics in fields of finance and management and medicine and engineering where facts matter and have consequences, and image is to be viewed with professional skepticism. But they see the current system as beyond redemption, and in need of recycling.  I share the view that the current system is seriously flawed, but if Trump is the cure, I’d prefer the illness and a search for a credible remedy.

   *  *  *

There remains one critical question for the economic elite and their political gofers to contemplate.  When Trump’s masses discover in the next year that he is the Hillary they feared, what will they do?  When they discover that he and his wrecking crew have stripped them of the few remaining benefits and safeguards that the current political  order provides and they have taken for granted, what will they do.  Can Trump put back in the bottle the anger he has released, or will he be its next victim, but not its final victim? When the Tea Partiers and Occupiers realize that they are not each other’s enemy, but that they share a common enemy, what happens next?

   *  *  *

I voted for Hillary Clinton, much as I distrust her.  I deemed her less dangerous and destructive and more subject to control and containment than Trump.  I did not do so gladly, but I considered the option of not voting a dereliction of a citizen’s duty. Even among two genuinely lousy choices, one is usually less lousy than the other, if only by a hair’s width. I hope that this requiem for Hillary’s political life does not become a requiem for our great national experiment.

I am reminded of Simon and Garfunkel’s lyrics:

Sitting on a sofa on a Sunday afternoon
Going to the candidates’ debate
Laugh about it, shout about it
When you’ve got to choose
Every way you look at it you lose

Bookends  1968.

Not much has changed.

But everything has changed.

Onward

20161226

Hindsight is Foresight Foregone

It’s not that we can’t see the future; it’s that we don’t bother.

Granted, none of us can predict it, nor do I presume that some magic algorithm applied to some special pile of Big Data can ease the Fog of the Future.

In part, it’s laziness. Here in the USA, we’re predisposed to the here and now and me, and the rest will sort itself out.  As indeed it does.  But often not as we hoped.

In part it is because we know from abundant experience that too many pious prognostications by proselytizers of progress have turned to sink-holes of time, effort and money.  So why bother.

In management we have evolved the discipline of ‘risk management’ which is part institutionalized experience and part pseudo-science.  ‘Risk management’ is somewhat of an oxymoron like ‘military justice’, ‘artificial intelligence’ and ‘virtual reality’. It trades on a figment of truth to create the illusion that it is more than it is.

Risk management has some level of foundation in its effort to deal systemically with known and knowable risks, but today’s world is increasingly subject to unknowable risks for which there is no statistical basis of quantification of either loss, cost of prevention or remediation.   But that’s not the real problem.

Many in my profession of accounting and auditing gravitate to the  ‘risk management’ mantra, and strive to incorporate it into their mission statement. After all, if you can’t be a ‘risk taker’, being a ‘risk manager’ or a ‘risk something’ is the next best thing. It’s sexier than mere accounting and auditing.  And besides, there’s plenty of precedent for the need for ‘risk management’ given the losses that businesses have incurred for themselves, and more frequently for others in their carefully contrived relationships.

But, truth be told, even the growing cadre of risk management acolytes have trouble peddling their wares to the C suite where hype and hope too often trump (no pun intended) reality and even the crudest calculations of probability.

Let’s take a few examples out for a test drive:

  •  Does anyone see any problem with Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk and Larry Paige and the other space cadets filling the skyways and byways with their latest magical brain-farts without benefit of adequate regulation and incubation for proof of concept within laboratory controlled settings, much less in the free-fire environment of that freaky place we call the ‘real world’?
  • Is the latest episode of the Theranos melodrama really a surprise?  Or was it the highly probable outcome of a flaky premise sold to incredibly greedy people willing to believe and suspend critical judgment?
  • And let’s not beat unduly on Theranos. It’s just one of a number of Unicorns in the magical kingdom of Silicon Valley and other tech redoubts where people with more money than brains can throw it at the wall, hope that something sticks in the lottery of high-tech chance,  and praise themselves that their failures are really essential tuition and down-payment for future greatness.  In their magical kingdom, failure is virtue.  In the real-world, failure gets you fired.
  • Where is China going, and where is it taking us?  The West lost that gambit four decades ago with an essential, but ill-conceived opening of relations.  The drive of corporate greed for access to a billion consumers overtook any attempt of western governments to modulate the normalization in a manner that would minimize the foreseeable disruptions we have experienced economically and strategically.  Accordingly, China has grown into an unruly adolescent (in modern world terms, its considerable historical lineage notwithstanding).  Given its desperate economic and environmental constraints, and it’s likely belief that its salvation is in expansion, military conflict with its neighbors and the West seems inevitable in the near to intermediate term.  Trump and China should easily understand each other: a coercive bully that believes he\it has a right to dominance on its terms without obligations to others. I suspect that this is in part an act China has found it can get away with because, unlike with Trump, no one has yet drawn a firm line in the land, the water or the air that they are prepared to defend (although we are beginning to with questionable allied support). Corporate executives are now marveling at how they could possibly have lost their technological edge (which they often willingly gave away in many cases for access to that one-billion consumer market)  and now are losing the market itself in a tightly controlled totalitarian environment where the ‘rule of law’ is more a farce than even a mere political fig leaf of cover.  Who’d a thunk?
  • Was the Shell Oil retreat from the Arctic really a surprise,  or merely unfettered stupidity colliding with reality?  When we have so much evidence of failure to properly engineer and install  and monitor and regulate and mitigate such ventures in much less hostile and much more stable environments, what would make any prudent executive or government think that Arctic exploitation would be just another hole in the ground?  Did BP’s experience give anyone in Shell’s HQ pause for concern?
  • How about them GMOs?  Scientists are complaining that the average clod on the streets is unjustifiably suspicious of the risks of GMOs.  But when we look at the recent history of our ‘conventional’ food supplies, the engineering of obesity, the evisceration of regulatory oversight and quality control, is there not reasonable cause for concern by the public of what will next be foisted upon them in the guise of progress at their ultimate risk and cost?  This is actually a case of the person on the street exercising ‘risk management’ in the suspicion that those in the Corporate suite will not. At least, not in the consumer’s behalf.
  • And then there’s fracking; a mindless grab for resources beyond any exercise of prudence, with costs to society measured only in financial terms to date, with studied ignorance of the collateral environmental, social and economic costs beyond the measure of defaulted securities.

There are a number of simple questions that executive management could ask itself and save a lot of grief when contemplating a new venture or circumstance, or coping with an existing or intractable situation  (like Palestine):

  • Has the situation ever happened before, and what can we learn from it.
  • Are there any parallels, if not direct precedents, to this situation that can give us a clue of dynamics and outcomes?
  • Do we understand the context (historical and present circumstances) of our intended act, and do our assumptions take that context into account?
  • Have we tested our assumptions about what should happen if we take this action?
  • Have we defined performance standards for our expectations that will give us quick feedback if we’re going off the rails of our expectations.
  • Have we asked ourselves how the opposition/competition/stakeholders/regulators are likely to respond, and have we taken appropriate steps to address reasonable concerns.
  • What could possibly go wrong, and what’s the worst that could happen….?
  • ….and if it does, what are we prepared to do about it?

These are so simple, they don’t even deserve to be sexified as ‘risk management’.  They’re basic management, or even common sense.  Yet the frequency with which they are ignored and often even disdained by the supposedly educated meritocracy has numbed us of any sense of amazement.  Rather, it has implanted a cynicism and contempt and suspicion of all forms of authority: legal, moral, scientific, political, religious, social that accounts more for the rise of Trump, Sanders and Br-Exit than any conventional political explanation.

We could go on, but I’ll trust the point is made, if not accepted.  In the corporate, government and personal world, risk-taking trumps risk management more often than not, and often with predictable consequence.

It’s not that our capacity for foresight is so bad.  It’s that we don’t bother to seek answers we know we’re probably not going to like. And when they’re thrust upon us, we often find ingenious ways to ignore them rather than to deal with them.

So, to say that hindsight is 20/20 because we have the benefit of knowledge that is not previously available is at best half the truth.  As often as not, we just don’t give a damn.

*  *   *

Word of the day:  de-escalate.

Onward

20160710

 

The Bully-In-Chief and the Naked Empress

You would think that a society that has spent the past ten years wringing its communal hands over how to deal with school yard bullies and their consequences would recognize one in the man-child Donald Trump, and have a clue of how to deal with him.  Obviously not.

Most interesting is the self-inflicted dilemma of the Repugnantlan Party; those stalwart wearers of flag lapel pins,  supporters of our troops and police, champions of right to life until born, true believers that they have a monopoly on patriotism, self-appointed protectors of the constitution that they are systematically raping in the name of God, country and free enterprise….They stand trembling in the shadow of Trump.  Ironically, the shadow is less than the man, but the Repugnantlans are less still in their collective incapacity to confront this breathing amalgam of narcissism, arrogance, deceit and rank ignorance, and say to themselves and the society that they presume to lead “This man does not represent our values, and we will not lend our Party’s label to his twisted and destructive enterprise.”   Or something to that effect.  But that apparently demands more courage than they can collectively muster.

Nor were the alternatives all that attractive.  A party that has embraced a thinly disguised agenda of bigotry, religious zealotry, misogyny and elitism under the brand Conservatism, and thus done severe damage to the meaning of that term; that same party has looked desperately in its wings among the kooks and Hucksters, and mini-narcissists in waiting, for an alternative to the Enfant Terrible, to no apparent avail.  Short Form: they’re screwed.

The question before the Repugnantlans is: Do we face a firestorm at the convention in the effort to save the party?  Or do we face a firestorm at the voting booths and watch the party be bludgeoned into dust, at the possible tangible loss of Congressional majority.

Given the level of courage and integrity currently in evidence in the party leadership, it is conceivable that they would rather suffer the risk of defeat in the less frightening confrontation and anonymity of the voting booth, than to risk the physical, in-your-face, mano-a-mano confrontation that is promised by Thugs for Trump at the convention.

And as disturbing as all this is in what it says about the state of Party leadership, what is even more disturbing is that there is a constituency that is big enough to give Trump this power.  The question is: is this a constituency of mini-bullies supporting a master bully in their greatest fantasy of power, or as some observers suggest, are Trump’s followers mostly very angry people who see Trump not so much as their leader, but their hammer to render a failing system to the dustbin of history. A similar speculation has been rendered of Bernie Sanders, who is beginning to sound more like Trump in his prognostications for the coming Democratic Convention.

Then there’s the Demo-crass.  They have a different kind of fear, or should.  They face the risk that fewer people will turn out for Ms Inevitability, a.k.a ‘Hillary Don’t-Cry-For-Me-Argentina Rodham-Clinton’, than the die-hard crazies who will turn out for Trump.  On paper, she should have this thing licked.  She’s got ‘credential’s.  She’s engineered the back room of the Convention.  She’s got an enviable Rolodex ( because, as she acknowledged in the prvate computer server grillings, she’s not particularly tech savvy) and the financial backing.  What she lacks is credibility.  Not necessarily an insurmountable problem for a politician.  But she has such an incredible knack for shooting herself in the foot, that it’s totally reasonable for the average person to wonder if she can be trusted with nukes.

In one of her rare moments of candor, she acknowledged after the Florida primary that she is ‘not a natural politician’,  like her husband or Obama.  So why is she running for the position of Politician in Chief?  Is it because she’s a superb, wonky tactician like her husband?  Uh-huh!  When the press were battering her phalanx of flacks, she carefully sequestered behind her security wall.  When an attack was needed, she sent out Bill.  When credibility was needed, she grasped for Barack’s coat-tails, and when that was inconvenient as in the case of the Pacific Trade agreement, she let go.  She claims to fight for the underdog, but what has she ever won for the underdog of substance? Health care, voting rights, better treatment of women anywhere in the world?  She claims experience, but where is the wisdom?  Health care? Libya? the Russian Reset? Syria?  Is her wisdom and pragmatism possibly hidden in that gold-plated speech she gave to Goldman Sachs which remains more closely guarded than her official emails as Secretary of State.  Could it be that if that text ever saw the light of day, it would reveal her to be as shallow and vacuous as the Mitt-ster?

Hillary is nothing but an avatar of women’s and minorities aspirations, but without the substance and quite possibly the will to deliver more than pious platitudes. A candidate whose image quite likely has to be re-invented every two weeks by her army of ‘advisor’s who are still groping for a credible product, isn’t much of a vehicle for progress.  An individual who has struggled against as improbable opponent as Bernie Sanders, in spite of all the advantages she amassed for her presumed coronation, must be profoundly lacking in substance.  A person, whose chief praise in recent weeks is that she has broken many barriers, but always seems to do it the hard way, is not a strong credential for endorsement.  I can’t really picture myself pitching my wares to a prospective employer with the line:’I git it done, but always the hard way’.   Endurance is fine, but competence would be better. She is the Demo-crass equivalent of Jeb Bush.  They  could make an awesome fusion ticket of irrelevance and incompetence.

On any rigorous assessment of substance, Hillary is an empty suit.  Indeed, the Empress has no clothes.

Hillary’s only claim to viability as a candidate is that, next to Trump, she looks at least sufferable, and may almost pass for presidential.  But even that may not be enough to save her if the terminal boredom or revulsion of so many independents and many in her own party is enough to deny her the critical margin for victory.

And then there’s the wild card:  The Republican Convention is July 18 to 21.  The Democratic Convention is July 25 to 28.  What if the Repugnantlan Party finally found the testicular fortitude to deny Trump the nomination on merits (or lack thereof), and installed Romney as the plug-and-play answer?    A contest between two equally brittle avatars.  But on surface, it is conceivable that Romney, an executive in private and public enterprise, could appear to have more chops than Ms Inevitability.

The Demo-crass High Command would have to assess  very quickly which old horse has the better chance.  The Demo-crass will be in the same convention dilemma as the Repugnantlans of reconsidering the ‘presumptive’ nominee, but the Repugs will have gained first mover advantage, which Mitt, the consummate capitalist, knows is critical.  Could the Hillary Horde pivot quickly to a new opponent and a new strategy?  Not likely, if two presidential campaigns are compelling evidence. Could the Democratic Party?  Probably not a prayer.

Can Elizabeth Warren save the ticket?  She would likely carry the ticket.  But if I were her, I’d be extremely wary of signing on to the HIll ‘n Bill show.

Onward.

20160612