Friday, December 31, 2010

Population Growth, Productivity, Jobs, Economic Growth and Productivity

National Geographic's January 2011 issue headlines "Population 7 Billion."  No problem with growth there.  Humans know what they're doing.  As Star Trek's Commander Data would say, we are "fully functional" and have demonstrated it.

What perplexes me these days is the simultaneous push for productivity and job creation.  In hard times, businesses lay off workers and try to find ways to do the same work with fewer people.  The lag in new jobs in the US is a testament to business success in doing that.  At the same time, in order for the economic recovery to continue, people need to be able to buy things.  In order to buy things, they need an income.  So the fewer who are employed are shouldering the work as well as the economy recovery.  In essence, they must buy more stuff in order to keep their jobs.

Yesterday I wrote about the Speed to Landfill Index describing shoddy products race to the landfill.  (Another candidate appeared this morning; an angel food cake pan whose funnel doesn't fit over any bottle we had in the house!)   Arguably, we don't need more stuff.  We need useful items that are well conceived and well made.

National Geographic's article made me wonder if we won't reach a point where we don't need work from all the people on the planet.  Many will say that we don't owe people a living.  China has learned, however, that stability doesn't go hand-in-hand with starvation.

We, in America at least, place a high value on people by 1) what they do and 2) how much they earn.  If it should turn out that there are, one day, not enough paying jobs for the seven billion plus people on the planet, are those who are not employed valueless? 

Products tend to be judged by what people will pay for them.  This is a measure of the value they provide.  I know because I've been working on a business plan all week.  There are a great many things that people value and use but will not pay for.  Web content may be  one example; how many of us use Wikipedia regularly or read on-line newspapers without paying a nickle?  Isn't volunteerism important?  Tecumseh Land Trust in our area has a team of volunteers working to save green space so we don't end up like Star Wars' Coruscant, a world totally paved over.  The people who tout family values should recognize the important role volunteerism has, in the past, played in sustaining those values.  So there are things that people do that are of valuable that do not receive monetary reward. 

Another example is the family doctor.  A lot of the expense racked up by health care delivery is the result of our system preventing family doctors from doing their jobs.  Doctors Synonymous and Anonymous continue to try to enlighten the Medical Industrial Complex ( the MIC) about the value of the intangibles in a patient-physician encounter for driving down costs and improving quality. Because the system is set up to financially punish family physicians for doing their jobs, the MIC can say what they do is not valuable.

Maybe we need a new way of judging value.  Perhaps we need to return to a code of honor or establish a code of service.  Something that captures the full value of a person's actions and activities.  We have mechanisms such as the carbon economy that attempt to capture indirect costs of productivity and luxury taxes that ostensibly capture the hidden costs of enjoying oneself inappropriately or too much.  Perhaps there needs to be a value economy instead of a monetary economy.  And part of that value economy should include helping each of those seven billion people to achieve the most of which they are capable.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Speed-to-Landfill Index

My wife and I are testing out a "bonus" knife set that came with a gift of meats.  The meats were high quality, generously portioned and nicely packaged.  We have been surprised to find that the knife set does not match the quality of the primary product.  I guess we shouldn't be surprised, since experience should tell us that come-ons rarely live up to their hype.  Still, I wonder if the company knows that our decision to make them a place from which we buy in the future has been negatively influenced by these knives.

When Jason Peters wrote of Dreaming of a Tight Christmas, he asked for less shit.  Less for the landfill.  The advent of these knives has us wondering about how to get rid of them.  The new year isn't even hear, but we're faced with the sticky dilemma of what to do with these still-shining, capable looking, sharp items.  Do we attempt to pass them on to a thrift store?  That seems harsh since we can't figure out how anyone would ever get any value out of these items.  Do we wrap them in a box and regift them to the garbage truck?

It made me wonder how many other gifts aren't going to last the week.  How many toys are already broken beyond repair?  How many spurious gadgets, inedibles, and shoddy items are being bagged, canned and set at the curb?  The need to be out-of-sight, because obviously the person who purchased them, however well meaning, must've been out of their mind.

So I wonder if there shouldn't be a new grade for products, like a Good Housekeeping seal or an energy efficiency rating, for speed-to-landfill.  Call it the Speed-to-Landfill Index (SLI) We have product testing laboratories, how about a product demise testing laboratory.  Products could be judged on function (this can't be used for its intended purpose or any other purpose known to humans, animals, plants or rocks), aesthetics (this is too ugly to see light of day), fragility (destructible at a glance from across a crowded room while still in its protective packaging), and lethality (it is making me sick).

Products could be labeled with SLI just as cigarettes are labeled with warnings.  Except in this case, the product would be hazardous to the planet's health.  Products with extremely short time-to-landfill would be required to be covered entirely with the SLI label so as to be entirely unrecognizable.  Individual items inside the package would each have to be labeled, if inconvenient, by hand.

For now, I've got to finish taping up a package.  The refuse man cometh.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Functional Names

It seems to me a great deal of our disappointment with the political system comes from names that don't align with function.

Conservatives don't appear to conserve anything.  Values? Scandals.  Taxpayer dollars?  Bush and Reagan deficits.

Liberals don't appear to protect our liberties.  Government solutions?  Eroded self-efficacy.

Progressives don't appear to make progress.

And so on down the ballot.

If we had to come up with alternative names for these groups, names that represent what they actually do, what would they be?

The Circle of Understanding

Adrian Snodgrass's and Richard Coyne's Interpretation in Architecture, Design as a way of thinking is a study of interpretation and the development of understanding.  This study is called hermeneutics.

Architecture's approach to design is of to me as a product designers and developers.  Architects look at space in terms of how people will use it once its built and, often, how people will use the building as it is modified, upgraded or re-purposed.  Award-winning designer Dennis Carlson of Carlson Technology started with a background in architecture and synthesizes product designs, using mechanical and electrical engineering, from the perspective of how people will use the product.  I like to think of his designs as part artifact and part the choreography of use.

Dennis must use mental simulation to envision versions of the product in their use environment.  "How will they be used?"  "What are user goals?"   "How will they be viewed by users?" "How will they be viewed by non-users?" A high-school mentor of mine, Frank Wells, a custom woodwind mouthpiece maker, told me about mentally projecting a series of solutions on the wall until he came up with an idea that worked.  Snodgrass and Coyne would look upon this as dialoguing with the product.  Dennis and Frank ask directional questions that result in additional understanding.

This may seem obvious, but many designers use propositional design in which designs are built from basic elements of technology.  Establishing an ongoing dialogue with a product is not part of the process.  There is often no attempt to understand the product, its foreseen application, and how it might be used in the future.  This cookbook approach to design is what is taught for the most part.  It is an attempt to take the artistry out of the process.  The goal is to remove personality-based variation in product outcomes.  Standards are written and oversight is increased because manager's can't take the chance that inspiration and creativity will be absent from the design team.

The desire to remove artistry is ubiquitous.  This is what AHRQ is attempting to do with Evidenced-Based Medicine.  It's what the US Dept of Defense's acquisition system is intended to do.

Standards-based practice laced with heavy oversight leads to mediocre outcomes.  The reward for excellence doesn't exist; unconventional, artistic approaches are rare.  Ingenious approaches that make it out of the morass become legendary, their designers living legends like Burt Rutan and Kelly Johnson.

The cautions about removing artistry apply to complex issues in general.  John Warfield and Aleco Christakis have developed approaches for dialoguing with and about problems in order to unleash creativity and understanding.  Their methods use structured dialogues that democratically address challenging issues.  They require investments in time and money to conduct.  The return on these investments is difficult to quantify, to assess against a standard, until the failed or mediocre product is fielded.  Then there is plenty of time to dialogue about the shortcomings.  Often this is the point when designers like Dennis Carlson are clean up the mess.

Dialogue aims at understanding.  According to Snodgrass and Coyne, true dialogue is the opposite of argument.  It would seem that the capacity for dialogue has been lost.  Certainly our elected representatives have lost the art of dialogue and have instead refined the art of argument.  Instead of questions that intentionally work toward deeper understanding, party-line propositions are being hurled across the aisle. 

Is it any wonder, though?  These people, our elected officials, came up through a propositional educational system that was one-sided, dogmatic and control-based rather than dialogue based.  Our founding fathers enjoyed a mentor-student education in which questions were encouraged.  Critical thinking and statesmanship resulted.

How has this happened?  Could it be standards-based education?  Teaching to a test?  Ashley Trim explored some of the causes in her exploration of "Waiting for Superman and a Real Conversation."  Good teachers, read artistic teachers, are required to solve the problem.  Oops, the system isn't designed to produce artist teachers.  An infinite loop that needs to be broken.

Maybe it is time to take baby steps in dialoguing.  Question everything.  Listen carefully.  Be mindful of the answers.  We should all be hermeneutic Picassos.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Deficits, Spending, Size and Decision Makers

People in the United States are concerned about the federal deficit and deficit spending.  You can check in at to find the national debt is about 14.5 trillion dollars as of this writing.  In a 1994 report entitled Understanding the Federal Debt and Deficit, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York printed, The first great surge in the national debt was caused by U.S. participation in World War I.  By the time the war ended in 1918, the debt had increased from a little over $1 billion to about $15 billion.

The second surge took place during the Great Depression.  There was high unemployment and, therefore, less taxable income. New social programs meant that the government had to borrow in order to finance increased spending.  As a result, the debt climbed to almost $50 billion by the start of World War II.  Does this sound familiar?  By the way, that $50 billion is about $721 billion in today’s dollars.

Steve Soft’s zfacts shows that much of today’s national debt is owed to federal spending during the Regan, Bush and Bush administrations.  Wikipedia’s National debt by U.S. presidential terms confirms this.  The page notes that there is a correlation between U.S. national debt and party affiliation of the president in office.  Makes you wonder what the supposed conservatives are conserving...apparently not our tax dollars.

Households and businesses point out that when they don’t have the money, they have to cut back on spending.  If a friend was spending of $3 trillion plus dollars per year and still going broke, you’d think that there would be some obvious places to tighten the belt.  The problem is budgeting is like one likes to cut back.  The same is true of the federal budget.  Anytime someone wants to cut something, a bazillion (using the hyperbolic accounting system) people start jumping up and down.  Everyone wants their piece of the pie.

Since people don’t want to lose something they value, we just have to figure out what they don’t value and cut that.  What don’t people value?  Well, it seems they don’t value Congress.  Gallup reports that the average congressional approval rating since 1974 is 36%.  This would be fine if Congress was batting in the World Series, but if your boss only considered you 36% effective, how long would you last?

Every two years, we hear calls to “Throw the bums out!”  So every election year, the two chambers have a chance to move slightly from one side of the political fence to the other.  But if new blood is the answer, why is “Change” a recurring theme in campaigns?  Why is being a Washington outsider an asset in nearly every election?  The new people don’t appear to do any better than the ones before.

What if new blood isn’t the answer?  Here’s a thought.  Why don’t we try addressing the deficit and the low Congressional approval ratings simultaneously?  What if we cut the number of congressional representatives?

Let’s see what this would do.  The current salary for House and Senate members is $174,000 per year.  There are 100 Senators and 435 members of the House.  A little multiplication and we find this is $93,090,000 per year.  That doesn’t take into account the fact that congressional officers (the speaker, majority and minority leads) make more.  It also doesn’t account for the allowance congress people get for staff, office expenses and mail.  In 2003, this ranged from $700,000 to $1,600,000 for House members and from $2,200,000 to $3,800,000 for Senators.  If we take the low end of these numbers and add it to the figures above, we find that the United States people spend more than $618,000,000 a year for a service that only rates a 36% approval rating on average.  True that’s only four thousandth a percent of the national debt and two-tenths of a percent of the annual federal budget, but you have to start somewhere.  And you have to wonder if things would run better if there were fewer congress people sitting around.

We’re a democratic republic, so we can’t eliminate representation all together.  What is the right number of congress people?  Let’s start with senators.  When the constitution was written conditions were very different.  Healthcare was even worse than it is now; people, who got sick, didn’t have many options besides letting their bodies heal themselves.  Transportation was iffy and time consuming; it took a long time to get to the capital; roads were poor or non-existent and weather played a major role.  Congressmen were not full time; they had business duties that might keep them away.

These conditions indicated the need for backup representation that doesn’t exist today.  Congress has one of the best healthcare packages in the nation; even people who are moderately and seriously ill are able to continue their participation.  While we may all agree that air travel is annoying, it still possible to travel to Washington from even the most distant state in a day.  Additionally, senators are now full-time servants of the republic; they don’t generally have other businesses to keep going.

So, maybe we don’t need 100 senators, two from each state.  Maybe 50 will do.  With that single amendment, we would’ve saved ourselves more than $118,700,000.  Not bad, but we can do better.  Anyone who’s been in the business world knows that 50 people are too many for a meeting.  Look at what happened to the planet Pluto when over 2,400 people got together to decide it if was a planet or not. 
People tend to prefer meetings with eight attendees or less if they want to get something accomplished.  Thomas Jefferson was leery of this, because such a small number would have the ability to consolidate power and take control out of the hands of the people.  James Madison also said, “Sixty or seventy men may be more properly trusted with a degree of power than six or seven...”  When there were 13 states, there would’ve been 26 senators.  This is still too big for a reasonable meeting, but Misters Jefferson and Madison were right about a lot of things, so let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and settle on 25 senators – one from every two states instead of two from every one state.  Moving from 100 to 25 senators would save taxpayers more than $178,050,000 a year.  And 25 is a nice odd number, perfect for preventing tie votes.

What about the House of Representatives?  In 1789, one person represented the opinions of 30,000 United States citizens.  Today one person may represent the opinions of over 650,000 people!  Imagine if you won $6,500 in the lottery, but the lottery guy was a penny short and paid out only $6,499.99.  Would you miss the penny?  That’s the same weight your opinion has with your representative, unless you’re able to stir up a lot of friends with the same opinion who are willing to make calls and write letters.  But if you’re willing to do that, why not just represent yourself?

So I recommend we do away with the House of Representatives all together.  We have the technology and security today to make purchases over the internet.  We should use that same capability to directly influence the direction our country is taking.  Let the smaller senate maintain continuity; let the people weigh in directly on the issues.  This would make us more of a DEMOCRATIC Republic than a Democratic REPUBLIC.  It would empower people to take up their civic duties and make a difference where they feel disenfranchised today.  It would make getting a good education all the more important.  And on top of all that, it would save over $380,190,000 per year.  Add that to our savings from the down-sized senate, and we’ve racked up $558,240,000 per year in savings without clipping a single coupon.

People are rightly reluctant to tinker with the content of the documents on which the government is founded.  The Declaration of Independence states this truth bluntly:
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.
I don’t believe the causes that appear to be weighing down the people of this country are light.  Thirty years of poor performance ratings take them out of the transient category.  And I don’t believe the people we elect are entirely to blame.  Their good intentions are lost in a broken system.

I think we’d all agree we’re no longer the country we were in 1789 when the constitution took effect.  A lot has changed.  Many people assert that the United States is the best country in the world.  That may be true, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be even better.