Congress should stick to its role as a marginally competent board of directors and stop micro-managing the Postal Service into oblivion.
For 30 years, a meddling Congress has been driving the Postal Service from health into bankruptcy while ignoring the three major drivers of its collapse: Congressional mandates, defined-benefit plans for postal workers, and declining mail volume. Clean up the first two and the declining mail volume could be managed by competent executives and dedicated workers empowered to modernize and expand the system. I’ll suggest a cure that Congress can and should enact. For details of the financial situation I suggest reading “The Cost Structure of the Postal Service: Facts, Trends, and Policy Implications,” released July 20, 2011 by the Office of the Inspector General
Congress mandates unnecessary services. To subsidize special interests, it compels delivery of 2nd and 3rd class mail at a loss. It limits any increase in the price of stamps to the rate of inflation and ignores more rapid increases in operating costs such as transportation. In 2006, it mandated that the Post Office pay $5.5 billion each year into Federal coffers until 2020, ostensibly to pre-fund health care costs for the next 75 years. (Gross revenues for the post office were only $63 billion in 2011). This last piece of micro-management was passed unanimously by Congress. It should have been obvious to any member with a business background that this would accelerate a financial crisis while doing nothing to solve the long term issues of fiscal soundness. It did, however make Congress look better. Through the magic of bookkeeping, it reduced the Federal deficit by $5.5 billion each year!
Defined-benefit plans, like the health care benefits for retired Postal workers, are intrinsically unsustainable because Continue reading
In this election year, the majority of voters are split into two, irreconcilable political camps. Each camp is certain that its view of reality is right, logical and productive and that the other group is wrong, irrational and dangerous. These opposing dogmatic views inhibit cooperation for the common good at a time of national crisis. How have we come to this?
In his New York Times bestseller How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer describes how each person chooses what to believe and what to do. The bad news is that few of our beliefs or decisions are reasonable. Even worse, what we consider to be our rational beliefs are probably at odds with objective reality. Furthermore, our most logical decisions are likely to disappoint us. Continue reading
(First posted October 2010)
Oliver Stone’s movie Wall Street: money never sleeps is a fictionalized version of the collapse of Lehman brothers and the subsequent Wall Street bailout of 2008 and 2009. It tells a chilling and realistic tale of a tribal culture isolated from the rest of humanity. It paints a picture of selfishness, greed and parochialism among investment bankers and fund managers which is consistent with my own experiences as a CEO.
The story― into which real events, pundits and journalists are woven and put on display, mentally destitute and trivial― is built around the character of Gordon Gekko, played with Oscar potential skills by Michael Douglas. It portrays his initial state of disgrace and ostracism from the Wall Street Tribe; not because if what he did in 1987―his actions were commonplace then and the actions of a piker by current standards― but because he lost his money. There is a clear parallel in the movie between Gordon’s fate in 1987 and the fate of Lehman Brothers in 2008. Both were sacrificial lambs successfully culled out by tribal enemies. Continue reading
I struggled through Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig nearly 40 years ago and recently reread it for a book discussion group. It was like revisiting an old and very influential friend; one that I had found irritating and rambling on first acquaintance, next obscure, then interesting, and ultimately inspiring and stimulating.
This semi-autobiographical book, written in the first person, weaves several journeys into a fabric that challenges western concepts and expands thinking. The surface story recounts the real trip of a father and his 11-year-old son, as they travel by motorcycle from St. Paul Minnesota through Bozeman Montana (and Bend Oregon!) to San Francisco California. This tale is a faithful and fascinating travelogue description of an actual 17-day trip taken by Robert Pirsig and his son Chris in 1968. However, it is also a vehicle―like the motorcycle― which Pirsig uses to describe several other journeys. One of them is his own passage through insanity and back. Another is the development of Western thought from the rhetoricians of Greece, through Aristotle and Newton, to modern science and its analytical techniques (perhaps a form of insanity when pursued without value!). Still others are trips from parts to wholes… in maintaining a motorcycle and within the human spirit. This is where Zen comes in.
Zen clashes with Western science. Zen teaches that everything is one; that apartness is an illusion partly learned in cultures. However, science thrives on apartness. It starts by isolating a scientist (the observer) from the objects he analyzes. Next the observer isolates one of these objects from the rest of the universe using a test tube, a laboratory, or a motorcycle repair shop. Then the observer dissects the object with physical tools and with the knife of analytic thought. He studies its pieces and learns how the pieces interrelate through a series of hypotheses (guesses). He follows this with experiments, which test the hypotheses. He prunes out mistaken ones and affirms others. Zen, on the other hand, focuses on the unity of observer and observed and learns from it. Zen assumes that analytic thought immediately kills something vital; something essential to accurate understandings and to harmonious lives. It kills quality.
For example: When biology students study frogs, they go to a pond, catch some frogs and bring them to the lab. Then they kill and dissect the frogs to study their limbs and organs. They learn vital things about frogs, things we call facts. However, to do so they have to Continue reading
My friend Dean is a recovering alcoholic. He uses the support of his family, his Catholic faith and AA to stay on the wagon. He has led a productive and inspiring life for the last 40 years. Long ago he told me this part of his story: “When I was drinking, my family and friends tried to rescue me; I took everything they did to help me and used it to sink lower. One day, I looked in the mirror and said to myself: I don’t want to do this anymore. From that moment on, all their love and support were critical to my recovery.”
His message was an “aha!” moment for me: We cannot save other people! —no matter how much we care for them or how clearly we see their path to temporal or spiritual salvation. We can help them only when and where they chose to lead themselves. The idea that we, as individuals or as a nation can “save” other people or nations is one of the most pernicious and destructive ideas floating around. If we could save others, they would be unnecessary for themselves, the ultimate in human degradation!
As clear as this reality is to me, it seems to be a truth hidden from those bent on saving unwilling people or nations. We are mired in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Continue reading
Kenneth Pomeranz and Steven Topik, professors of History at UC Irvine have authored a brilliant collection of vignettes in their book The World that Trade Created— society, culture and the world economy 1400 to the present. They use these brightly-colored threads to weave an impressionistic and painfully honest tapestry of our global economic system. The modern world which we know and love emerges brightly in the foreground with its prospering advanced societies, abundant and varied foods, and self-congratulatory cultural myths about how we earned it with open markets and free trade. However, the same threads create the much darker background of poverty, slavery, drug addiction, and desolation wrought by winners onto losers using government sponsored monopolies, force, and intimidation.
The World that Trade Created portrays a global civilization powered as much by drugs, greed, force of arms and dumb luck as by wind, water, coal and oil. It describes societies built by indentured servants and slaves; native slaves in the silver, gold and copper mines of Central and South America, and imported African slaves in cotton, sugar, rubber and coffee plantations around the globe. Ironically, the majority of slave holders and slave traders were members of Christian churches; Dutch Calvinists, Portuguese and Spanish Catholics, as well as British and American Protestants. These people and their church leaders rationalized their religious beliefs to support a pernicious practice that made them wealthy.
According to the authors: “Marco Polo claimed that public safety and commercial honesty were far better maintained in China than in Europe; without Christianity as the basis for morals.” This claim destroyed his credibility in Catholic Europe. In Southeast Asia, women controlled businesses and inherited wealth until the European males Continue reading