Monday, January 24, 2022

In Spock We Trust

If you really want to know why the world is as messed up as it is, there are five people you can blame:  John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and John F. Kennedy.  Not that any of them ever claimed to be nefarious villains plotting world domination. The truth is that none of them actually knew they were setting humanity on a course of destruction as they were actually doing it.

Before you go searching for hidden messages in their speeches and lyrics, let me assure you that you won't find any, because the real crimes they committed was actually one crime they all committed: they successfully achieved goals previously only attainable by men three times their ages.

If you know your history, you know that prior to 1960, nobody in the western world expected to be a millionaire before turning 50. In those days, the legends dictated that hard work and persistence would eventually be rewarded with good fortune.  If you wanted to achieve greatness any other way, you'd probably have to marry the boss's daughter.  Other than that, millionaires took the form of the Monopoly man, balding, graying, with a little paunch and maybe a mustache.

The Beatles and JFK changed all that.

In 1960,at the age of 43, John Kennedy became the youngest candidate elected to the presidency in American history.  In 1964, the Beatles were, in John's own words, "bigger than Jesus Christ," and millionaires in their own right, ranging in age from 20 to 23. Which means that in the span of three years, one of the world's greatest wishes was granted and one of its major tenets was destroyed: 

You really could be young and have it all (I go into detail about this in my book).

By 1960, the boomer youth culture that began in the late 1950s increased by an order of magnitude, as well-monied, big spending boomers cultivated a tsunami of hedonism that eventually raised the divorce rate, broke up the family, inspired feminism and produced the Me Decade that spawned super selfish fortunes and corporate greed.  But there was a far more insidious force in play: the replacement of sound, critical thinking with feelings and non-accountability. Somewhere along the line, steady, rational processes gave way to short cuts and self-indulgence.

On this, I speak from personal experience.  I was raised during this time as most traditional notions of family, sex, honor, thought and justice were summarily thrown on the scrap heap in favor of feeling good and "just getting it done without really understanding why." I was a sophomore in college, hopelessly confused about growing up.  I mean, I could pose along with the best of them, but I had no idea why I was doing whatever it was I was doing. The thing is, neither did anyone else. We all sprinkled our conversations with familiar hack phrases that made it seem we knew what we were talking about, but we really didn't.  And yet we all graduated college, some with honors.

To me, nothing made sense and everything ran counter to traditional development of confidence and character.  It became increasingly difficult to figure out not only what to do with my life, but how to go about even thinking about it.

And then one day, I found myself in front of my old, seven inch black and white portable Sony television, watching an old episode of the original Star Trek, where Mr. Spock was calmly explaining to the rest of the Enterprise crew that their seemingly desperate situation wasn't hopeless, and that with a simple application of logic, a solution was at hand.

I was thunder-stuck. In one moment, I realized that all of my own conflicts were due to an upbringing in which feelings and ego had replaced construct and character.  This was the reason why nothing in my youthful life made sense: Up to that point, nothing in my head had been required to make sense, so nothing ever worked. 

That was the instant that my life changed forever.

From that very second, I committed to never making even the most trivial decision without logical, accountable analysis. And when I say trivial, I'm talking about things as minor as how to leave a room so that I'd never have to retrace my steps after closing the front door. I'd literally sit on the edge of my bed, planning the most efficient means of leaving my roach-ridden apartment in the most time-efficient manner possible.

It worked.

Within a few months, everything in my life, from my grades to my (first) girlfriend sprang up like roses around me. I reveled in the rewards brought to me by simple reason.  I never looked back and have enjoyed those rewards ever since. I was lucky. Spock spoke and I listened. Others, however, have not fared so well.

To this day, many of my peers and their offspring, still haven't realized that the world revolves on logic, analysis and critical thinking.  They applaud statues being felled, dictionaries being redefined, history and curricula being rewritten to accommodate and soothe their juvenile frustrations, even though most of them are now senior citizens. Of course, they're easy marks for clearer thinkers, but the fact there are so many of them, makes it seem as if they're insurmountable.  They're not. A lifetime of screaming and kicking and holding their breaths until they turn blue is now coming to fruition -- and the fruit is plenty rotten.

It's almost over. Logic and reason always wins out.  As the man says, "Live long and prosper."

Saturday, January 08, 2022

Mourning Holistic Accountability

History is replete with misinformation.  For example, a lot of people are under the impression that Henry Ford invented the automobile. He did not.  By the time Ford got into the business, horseless carriages had been rolling along for sometime.  Some vehicles were electric. Some were powered by steam.  The gas-driven internal combustion engine was somewhat late to the game.  In fact, long before the invention of the internal combustion engine, gasoline was considered to be a waste product of the oil industry, whose main product was not fuel, but lighting oil for lamps.  Midway through the 19th century, rivers in Pennsylvania churned with John D. Rockefeller's gasoline as it rushed along the countryside,

But that's not what concerns me here.  What really concerns me is Henry Ford's true contribution to the decomposition of the American -- if not the world's -- human condition.

To be precise, Henry Ford's real contribution to modern society was his revolutionizing the labor process.  Ford was the one who hired efficiency experts who pronounced his means of assembling products as costly and inefficient.  Their recommended remedy was the assembly line, in which each man on the line performed only one task.  The theory was that by specializing at that one task, each man could perform his task faster and at a higher level of output.

The theory proved true, and from that day forward, anyone producing any kind of mass-produced product adapted Ford's assembly line to their own production facilities.

History will tell you that Ford's innovation not only made his cars more affordable, but also raised the wages of his laborers to the highest in the industry (Ford was famous for rejecting unionization by paying his workers more than the unions demanded, a situation that eventually deteriorated under latter day management). 

What history doesn't mention, however, is the real cost of Ford's innovation, and it goes something like this:

Prior to his assembly line, any and all labor possessed a quality I call holistic accountability.  Simply put, it means that craftsmen owned their projects from inception through completion.  They conceived, planned, engineered, constructed and finished their products, taking care along each step to assure its integration into the overall design.  If a step didn't fit perfectly, the craftsman went back and made adjustments until it did.  It was only after verifying its integrity that he'd move on to the next phase of the project. Back then, products were "built to last a lifetime" and craftsmanship was often the basis of personal pride.

Ford's assembly line essentially obliterated all that.  By displacing labor efficiency with economic efficiency, each worker on the assembly line became task-oriented, doing only his job without much regard for its overall integration into the product as a whole.  The result, as you experience to this very day, was devastating to our society: In the wink of an eye, "a job well done" devolved into "it's not my job."

The atomization of the workforce is a direct descendant of Ford's assembly line. It's the reason why the guy in the produce section can't tell you where to find canned tuna fish, or why the woman at Window #2 sends you to Window #3.  Perhaps the most cinematic illustration is the moment in the 1993 movie Falling Down, when the fast food joint won't serve breakfast at 11:35 because "we stop serving breakfast at 11:30."

Need more?  Try getting a medical diagnosis without traipsing to a minimum of three doctors, each of whom specializes in something so narrow and focused that he won't commit to anything outside his own specialty. Hop on a customer service call, and if you can get past the automated menu, see how many people are required to "get you to the right department for that."

This is what happens to a society that ethically, morally, economically and politically disengages from holistic accountability.  Everyone stares at his own navel with no regard for the big picture.  Meanwhile, thousands of companies hire human resource directors who hire coaches and motivational speakers to unite the company -- because it isn't their job.

There's a reason why we attach value to descriptors like "hand-made" while we eschew terms like "mass-produced."  It's become the hallmark of genuine quality and holistic accountability.  It's true of every product you buy -- and even truer for every child you produce.

Monday, January 03, 2022

The Rule of Big

As the world careens mindlessly from the conditions I pointed out years ago (A Nation of Children), it seems that the data is in, and that much to many people's chagrin, I was right:  The undermining of America's most prominent brands and institutions is well under way -- for all the same reasons.

This isn't my opinion, mind you.  This is pure, raw data supplied to the public by no less than Dow Jones, whose job it is to track this stuff. I just interpret the more far-reaching conclusions, and believe me, they're not good:

According to Dow Jones:

Walt Disney, Verizon, and Boeing, as well as California-based biopharmaceutical firm Amgen and tech conglomerate Honeywell, were the worst stocks of 2021, according to stock market index Dow Jones.  Disney and Verizon stocks saw double-digit percentage losses, while the other three firms booked losses in the single digits.

Not too pretty, is it?  And yet it was completely predictable.  Not because these giants are incapable of healthy growth and profitability; but because all of them have abdicated their founders' brand strategies.  The fact that brands grow and die is nothing new. The manner in which they grow and die, however, has changed.  And here's how:

There's an old adage about the Three Generations of Wealth:  "The first generation creates it.  The second generation spends it.  The third generation loses it."  As a rule of thumb, it's pretty accurate for both family and corporate brands.  Think about the canny progenitors who founded companies like Ford and families like the Kennedys, and then think about their grandchildren and great-grandchildren,  an army of inept buffoons who steer the ship on to the rocks so predictably that the phenomenon has inspired its own HBO series (Succession).

Ever wonder why this happens with such regularity?  Well, it happens precisely because of the brands' successes. It's the same scenario, deployed repeatedly across families, enterprise, education and government.  I call the the Rule of Big and it goes like this:

The size of the entity is inversely proportional to its structural strength.

What that means is that the larger the brand, the less need people see for maintaining and nurturing the brand, which weakens the brand overall.  Back in the day, an old saw was that "nobody went broke buying IBM," on the theory that IBM was a dominant market player and would never do anything to forsake that position.  That was in the 1960s.  Take a look at IBM and its market today.  Not too pretty.  Same story with Xerox. Remember when "he went to Harvard law school" meant something?  Today, not so much, although people too lazy to think still accept its mythic value..  The Rule of Big ensures that most large entities begin to atrophy and die, like huge blue whales slowly decomposing -- not from sharks, but from tiny, greedy, self-involved bacteria.

People mindlessly jump on gravy trains simply because the brands, families, universities and governmental agencies are huge, figuring that if they're that big, they must know what they're doing.  What they don't realize is that the larger the entity, the less focused the brand is on its core strategy.  The result is less attention to productivity and more distraction on non-business matters, such as diversity hiring and cause marketing, neither of which contribute to core deliverables and both of which contribute directly to brand atrophy.

Doubt that the Rule of Big exists? Take a look at "some of the biggest universities" across the country. Is there anyone, anywhere who takes Harvard, Yale or U.C. Berkeley seriously anymore? Does anyone view the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times as anything close to impartial sources of news?  Start looking around, and notice how many things in your life simply aren't as reliable as they once were. Don't even get me started on medical information.

Why should you care?  Take a closer look at those equities listed above.  How many are in your investment portfolio or 401K? Do you even know? Or have you been lumped into a "highly rated fund" composed of equities you were too lazy to investigate?

Has the Rule of Big lulled you into being one of the walking dead who figures "my investment firm is one of the largest in the country?" Newsflash:  Your fund manager knows even less than you do.  He probably can't even define collateralized mortgages -- and it was his company reliance on them that caused the financial meltdown. 

Maybe it's time you looked at the real data yourself.  Maybe it's time you realized that the Rule of Big is everywhere -- and getting even bigger.