Saturday, February 14, 2009

Doing What's Possible

Maureen Dowd writes in today's (Feb 15) New York Times,
At his news conference last Monday, Mr. Obama was asked by Fox’s Major Garrett about the vice president’s startling assertion that even if he and the president do “everything right,” “there’s still a 30 percent chance we’re going to get it wrong.”
Management and policy are fuzzy topics. Knowing a policy will work, especially one that is untried, is impossible. It's not like changing a lightbulb. It is even hard to prove in hindsight that a policy worked, or that a management practice improved an organization. We can 'know' about basic mechanical things. Adding gas to the tank will enable a car go. But GM thought a policy of selling gas guzzlers would keep them profitable.

Sure, there are some policy decisions that we know work. Historically, we know that supplying clean water and sewage systems did more to improve health of communities (which led to other improvements) than anything else.

But it is difficult to do 'scientific' experiments with policy - to have a control group and an experimental group. Even if you have several states adopting the same new policy, are all the other conditions similar enough that we can attribute a change in (you name the topic) statistics to the policy or to something else. And even if the statistics are better, does that mean that things have gotten better, really?

There are so many factors that affect so much, that it is often unclear whether our policy changed the crime rate, for example, or whether a change in demographics (fewer people in the high crime age) or a change in the economy (more people working for better wages) or a combination of these and other factors caused the change. Does an increase in the number of rape cases mean things are worse, or that more people feel emboldened to report rapes?

The other side of this is when we ask managers or politicians to fix something - like turning the economy around. We often have simply no idea whether it is possible in the given situation.

If your boss told you to jump over a three story building, you'd laugh. If she told you to pick up some bagels in a New York deli for lunch (and you were both in Los Angeles,) you'd laugh.

But I've seen managers tell subordinates to do things that were equally impossible - I want you to improve the reading scores of these students in three months, or I want you to improve the morale and increase production by Y% by August - and their workers run to accomplish it, because they simply didn't know it was impossible. (Of course, some things we think are impossible, are actually possible too.)

So I wonder whether Barrack Obama's goals are even physically possible to achieve. And if they are physically possible, are the political obstacles too overwhelming?

And so if Biden suggests that even if they do all the right things, it's possible they will fail, I think he may well be on to something. And despite Obama's seeming truth telling to the public (anything compared to Bush would seem to be incredible candid) he knows that telling the public we might fail isn't the winner that the 'politics of hope' is.

I don't think it is inevitable that our economy crashes and many of us become destitute. But it may require serious changes in our perceptions about what is a good life. As a Peace Corps volunteer many years ago, here in Thailand, I saw that there were alternatives to the models of what makes people happy that I grew up with. The US model is basically 'thing' based. The more stuff you have, the happier you're supposed to be. But I found myself living in Thailand with a lot less stuff, but being happier. In Thailand then, and still today, I see a model that is relationship based - the more family and friends that you can rely on for everything, the happier you will be. (Of course, relying on others means that they can rely on you as well - it's not all take.)

When we went to Bangkok Tuesday night and passed some relatively large and fancy houses in the little villages, one of the Thai farmers said, "Rich Folks." I had to smile. These people would hardly qualify as rich in other places. It's all relative. And this is rich in terms of money and goods. This T shirt on one of the farmers demonstrating Wednesday summarizes what I'm talking about: Give me soul, take away the rest.

I have to admit, Salesian didn't sound much like a Thai name, though, when I asked, he said something about the Northeast of Thailand. I just looked it up. Wikipedia says:

The Salesians of Don Bosco (or the Salesian Society, originally known as the Society of St. Francis de Sales) is a Roman Catholic religious order founded in the late nineteenth century by Saint John Bosco in an attempt, through works of charity, to care for the young and poor children of the industrial revolution. The Salesians' charter describes the society's mission as "the Christian perfection of its associates obtained by the exercise of spiritual and corporal works of charity towards the young, especially the poor, and the education of boys to the priesthood"[1]. The order is named for St. Francis de Sales, an early-modern bishop of Geneva.

And they do have a presence in Thailand and Cambodia. Their interpretation of soul and mine are probably not quite the same. Mine is more focused on qualities of the heart, a spiritual health. And I don't reject physical comforts in moderation.

I'm always leery about religious groups that proselytize around the world. I can't tell if the Salesians in Thailand are merely doing good works or also trying to convert people. (Radical Catholic Mom might know.) I'm here with the American Jewish World Service, but there is absolutely no religious content to what I do, other than the fact that helping others is a basic tenet of Judaism.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments will be reviewed, not for content (except ads), but for style. Comments with personal insults, rambling tirades, and significant repetition will be deleted. Ads disguised as comments, unless closely related to the post and of value to readers (my call) will be deleted. Click here to learn to put links in your comment.