Our national problem: Self-interest first, - America last

by Ginosar  

Part One-

OVERVIEW:

We are facing serious national and global problems on scales we never experienced. We don't know what to do and what we try to do often falls apart a short time later. Currently we are facing so many problems, it is difficult to count them: here are some of them:

Housing market collapse, financial markets instability, low dollar value, lost economic power, oil problems, erroneous energy solutions, failing infrastructure, domestic auto industry collapse, inadequate health coverage,  Swine Flu, ineffective antibiotics, massive illegal immigration, global warming, Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Iran's nuclear weapons, inadequate education system, lower real wages, poverty, and more.

What happened?

How can the most powerful and richest nation on earth be unable to solve almost any of its serious problems? Why did they arise in the first place?

There are many reasons for it, some are beyond our control, such as the growth of India and China and their demand for seats at the economic and political tables, or the unification of Europe, but many, I believe, are due to our national sickness of ignoring reality, and thinking almost only about ourselves.

 

"National sickness" is a strong phrase, but I believe it is justified because this national weakness is ingrained deeply in our culture, it is widespread, and prevails even in face of national crises. This deficiency in our culture causes our great nation, guided by an excellent Constitution, endowed by so many natural and human resources, and populated by mostly earnestly good people, to fail in so many of our important efforts. These failures cause a lot of needless pain and suffering to a very number of people, and can reduce our ability to remain a great nation. It also reduces our ability to contribute to urgent global improvements.

 

This weakness is not caused by lack of skill, or ability. The sickness is our highly ingrained unwillingness to look at reality, accept it, and develop realistic solutions to it. Instead, we think how the situation can benefit us, even if it causes unjust suffering to many other.

 

This self interest is natural. We are born with it, and as babies and children we need it for our survival. However, my wife, a social worker, emphasized that to counter this essential self interest in the early stages in our lives, we are born into a family to teach us how to balance our self interest with the needs of those around us, and later, with the need of society. Too many families do not provide this essential guidance.

We, as individuals and as a nation are not maturing much beyond the stages of this early self interest.

Some may say that this self interest is a viable and useful asset  and benefit the country. I strongly disagree. Some self interest is understandable even desirable, but my experience over many years and in several varied professions proved to me that our inability to see reality and deal with it stems from our excessive self interest.

 

Of course every person sees reality according to his/her own background and wishes, but when professionals are given responsibility to solve problems they should be able to rise above their narrow self-interest and accomplish the tasks given to them. Professionals, after all, are trained to separate reality from fiction in their own fields. However, in my many long and varied assignments to oversee professionals I have watched carefully and was disappointed. And so was top management. I witness too many professionals, from politicians to engineers, teachers to financiers, are rarely able to focus on the problem and solve it effectively.

In short, we in the US often live in a dream world and believe that our self centered approach to life can be sustained indefinitely without real cost to all of us.

 

Take just one current example: any one with common sense and basic understanding of finance knows that if you sell millions of homes, with no money down, to people with very limited incomes, many of them will be unable to pay their loans with a slight change in the economy. This will force the mortgage industry, loan speculators (many Edge Funds) and companies associated with it, to fail. Why the big surprise now?

Listen how they call these risky loans: "subprime mortgage loans." Subprime? We lie openly to ourselves!

 

Here is a typically example I have often witness how professionals are unable to focus together on a problem and solve it:

In a meeting of engineers (or any profession) developing a technical direction for a project, each of the participants recommends a direction that on the surface seems to offers a practical solution. But when you evaluate the discussion without a personal bias you can see that they are not trying to solve the problem, but to elevate their ego or improve their own position in the company. In short, each one attempts to advance his own cause and not concentrate on the solution.

 

It is difficult to recognize the above personal bias since the discussion seems quite rational and factual, but the facts are selected to support the speaker's point of view, and also are not the most relevant facts.

A company can not be successful for long if that is typical behavior. It may benefit the individual for awhile but not the company.

What is even more serious, often the person involved can not grasp his own bias if faced by it!

 

The same situation exists on our national level: Our 2007 federal budget is approaching three Trillion dollars; that is ten thousand dollar per every person in the US. (It does include Social Security and the various medical benefit programs however). We can accomplish tremendous amount of good with this huge resource, but our government and both branches of Congress propose solutions and create laws that too often do not benefit the nation. They frequently do not even benefit the citizens that live in his/her district. They mostly benefit the Congressperson's reelection. The day after a congress person is elected, he/she is preparing for the next election. I had long personal discussions with a number of Congresspersons and found that their main motivator is the quest for power. (Of course, many are outstanding legislators.) It is not surprising that the public rates Congress extremely low.

 

I have worked for many years in a wide variety of fields: electronics, environment, private industry, military industrial complex, national grassroots lobbying, state government and studied in several excellent universities. The underlying behavior was often similar: private interests were paramount, not the task at hand, or the interest of the institution.

 

EXAMPLES: I would like to illustrate this issue by a few concrete examples from various fields that I was a major player in, and therefore deeply aware of the details and outcomes. Admittedly, I am talking about my own activities, but I like to give concrete examples, rather than theory.

 

Example 1. SUPERFICIAL INVESTIGATION LEEDS TO MISTAKE.

When I was a manager of digital circuit design at Litton Industry (then a significant company in the military-industrial field) five senior people in engineering, including me, were asked to evaluate the key development project of the company. We listened to several presentations by the project manager and his key staff, and four of us approved the project. I, however, continued my investigation by digging much deeper into the facts:

I discussed privately with each key staff and in great details the key steps in the project. I asked detailed questions such as: what were their goals, how far they had came, what were the major difficulties, could they solve them, how long would it take, and more. In private they were reasonably open, and because I understood technology well they knew they could not distort facts because I would know it. I could then see the total project in its true details.

I presented my findings to top management and recommended to stop the project. Management agreed.

 

Why did the other well experienced senior staff come to opposite conclusion? Probably because they looked at the surface, listen to self-serving presentations, and did not want to cause trouble.

 

Example 2: ENGINEERS BLIND TO COMPANY NEEDS.

As head of Research and Development I proposed that we design a specialized computer that would be produced by highly automated equipment. Two years later, during initial design by the Engineering department, I realized that the system would  be too costly, and not competitive. I asked for a review of the project and listened carefully to each of the five technical managers, and noticed that each proposed a design, in his own area, that was fascinating to him personally, but had nothing to do with our company needs. I suggested they change direction and drop the high cost automated approach because we would produce only a few systems, but I could not convince them. Their typical answer was: but this was your own proposal. I answered that two years earlier it seemed a cost-effective approach, but not in our current situation.

During a review meeting I presented my objections and all key staff, including the VP in charge disagreed with my conclusions. The president, however, listen carefully, however, stopped the project, and told them to redirect it to answer all of my reservations. He was interested in company profits, they were more interested in satisfying their desires.

But that was still not enough to wake the professionals up. To redirect their effort I asked the VP of Marketing to present the company marketing plan. It was fascinating, even after the presentation they still were back to their old approach, ignoring everything they had just heard! And these were highly educated and experienced engineers!

Only after I was quite forceful, demanding a change, was I able to refocus their direction to satisfy the needs of company and customer and not their personal goals.

Mind you, I did not have authority over these managers, all I had, was the power of logic and facts.

 

Example 3: PRIVATE INDUSTRY FALSIFYING INFORMATION

During my environmental studies at UCLA I specialized for a period in SO2 (sulfur dioxide) pollution and studied in depth over 50 of the most relevant research reports in this area. A friend at the ARB (California Air Resources Board) gave me a "request for comments" issued by the ARB about setting a new SO2 standard and asked me to respond to it. The ARB received only two insignificant replies from one thousand requests it sent to air pollution specialists across the nation. My friend also gave me an advanced copy of a report by a private company requesting to significantly increase the permissible SO2 standard in California. He was concerned that because the owners of the company were previously high level, respected managers at the EPA (national Environmental Protection Agency) it was possible that their request would be accepted by ARB.

I studied their proposal to increase SO2 limits, and I became outraged at their high level of deception. On the surface their report seemed rational because it was backed up by a large number of references, almost all of which I was very familiar with. The deception was that almost in all cases the use of the reference was false - there was no relationship between the point they were making and the reference! The references did not support their claim- period. They completely misrepresented the facts.

 

I wrote a detailed scientific report why the tight standard of SO2 should remain, send it to the ARB and discussed this in a meeting with some of my professors. They had difficulty accepting that those known individuals would use such a deception. UCLA gave me a budget to fly to meet with these individuals and discussed my concerns with them.

 

I flew first to the ARB meeting in Sacramento and listened to the private company making its SO2 case. I did not want to confront them in public and embarrass them, instead, during the intermission I met with each of the three ARB Commissioners present and told them my own findings. Two agreed that the standard should not be relaxed. I discussed it with the third commissioner at some length and eventually he changed his mind and also agreed to retain the lower limit of SO2. ( I did not mention the misinformation of the company - it was not necessary).

I then met in another city at the office of the company whose misleading report I studied and presented my reservations about their misuse of research papers.

It took several hours of detailed discussion until the manager I talked with said that if it was up to him he would agree with me on these points, but "it was not possible." He did not elaborate why it was not possible, but, after careful observation of their operation and meager facilities it was clear to me that the company was doing poorly economically and had to "sell" itself to the coal industry that paid for their effort.

It was a sad to observe that even highly regarded professionals will falsify information if their economic benefits were involved.

 

To be continued.

 

 

 

 

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