Saturday, May 29, 2010

BP & The Peter Principle

The Peter Principle, advanced by Dr. Laurence J. Peter in 1968 asserts : "In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence ... in time every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties ... Work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence."

People on the right keep asserting that is the explanation for government ineptitude. But Dr. Peter didn’t dream up this theory of incompetence as a descriptor of government. He meant it to be applied to all organizations, especially large organizations. So, when we look for explanations for the BP oil mess, we are certain to find official incompetence as the most likely explanation. As I noted earlier, the reason our government has been unable to “step up to the plate” is that our government really has no expertise that could be applied here—not so much incompetence as no competence.

During a fifty year working career, I had the dubious pleasure of working for large organizations and small organizations in the private and public sectors both. My conclusion was that the larger the organization, public or private, the more likely is the possibility of official incompetence at the upper reaches. Now in government, official incompetence at the top is almost guaranteed, more so if the appointing officials happen to be republican, because republicans are basically antagonistic to the aims of government. For example, the most incompetent government I encountered during my working experience was Ronald Reagan’s. The reason? St. Ronald appointed people to high positions who were actively antagonistic to the official missions of the agencies to which they were appointed. For example, he appointed someone to run the Title X Family Planning Program who was opposed to family planning. Similarly, he appointed people to run agencies like EPA who were negatively disposed to those agencies. Most of his top level appointees were either antagonistic or just ignorant of the agencies they were to run. One cabinet secretary of Health and Human Services was best known for falling asleep in large staff meetings in his conference room. If I were to appoint someone from PETA to run Purdue Chickens, or I appointed someone from Greenpeace to run Exxon Oil, we might expect different results from those organizations.

But, even leaving aside the issue of a person’s disposition to the mission, eventually we seem to appoint incompetent people at the top of large organizations. They seemingly drift upwards, carried by currents of “old-boyism” and other cozy relationships that exist in these large organizations, whether they are public or private.

And in the private sector, we must add to the mix the profit motive. The profit motive is neither inherently good, nor inherently bad. However, like one’s impending death, it does concentrate the mind. We can see the negative aspects of the profit motive when we examine places like Massey Mining, and energy companies like BP, Exxon, or the Union Carbide company responsible for perhaps the worst industrial disaster in modern times, occurring in Bhopal, India, where thousands of people died due to the release of a gas, Methyl Isocyanate in an accident that was, according to reports, an “accident waiting to happen”. Most of the disasters that have occurred were preventable, except that the drive to achieve high profits often overrides the willingness to employ technology to prevent such disasters.

In the case of BP, company officials refused to consider the possibility that the event that occurred was even possible. Again, profit motives clashed with the need to undertake precautions that would be expensive. This is where profit motivation, coupled with the Peter Principle join forces in potentially risky businesses to produce those “perfect storms” we hear about often. Those storms are mostly all preventable. But how?

We need several things to operate to prevent preventable disasters in situations where profit and incompetence can overrule common sense.

First, in any industrial field in which clear risks are present, risks that could endanger the public welfare, we need outside overseers to act as monitors. We call them regulators generally.

Second, the regulators have to be given actual authority to intervene when they observe risks escalating to dangerous levels.

Third, the private, profit oriented companies operating in these high risk ventures should be able to legally challenge the regulators, i.e., a venue is needed to argue the pros and cons.

Fourthly, the share-holders need to hold the boards of directors and the top management accountable when such preventable accidents happen. The people at the top need to be replaced.

Lastly, we need to eliminate the revolving doors that operate between the regulators and the regulated. We have now an abundance of evidence that the Minerals Managements Service allowed people to come into the agency from the companies being regulated. Those revolving doors need to be shut firmly, and we need to create alternative career paths for people coming into the regulating agencies from our universities (if we have separate careers for people who create and people who act as critics, why not for regulated industries?) In the aerospace company I worked for at one stage of my career, the company routinely hired what we called derisively “tombstone admirals”, i.e., guys who had retired from the service and had been promoted to rear admiral on their retirement. Why did the company hire them? Not because they were competent in aerospace engineering. Rather, they were good public relations with the military agencies with which the company did business. These were mostly all Peter Principle actors.

But all of this requires a balancing act and continued mental agility within the regulating agencies, and within the companies being regulated. Mental agility is not high on the list of characteristics by which American companies hire and fire senior executives. Maybe they need to rethink their approach to management. And maybe they might discover that the profit motive works as well with competence at the top, maybe even better, as with the current crop of incompetent executives.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Oil Drilling Ain’t Rocket Science

“Houston, we have a problem . . .” fateful words in the world of real rocket science. Happily, a combination of real rocket scientists and engineers at Houston and onboard the space ship functioned to produce a positive outcome. So, what’s the difference between space science and oil drilling? One word, apparently—technical competence. In the world of space science, we have been blessed by high levels of technical competence within the private space companies that make the equipment allowing us to go into space safely, and Federal Government engineers and scientists at NASA, who know what to do when we get there. These engineers and scientists play out the “what-if” games before bad things happen, so that when they happen, the scientists and engineers know what to do to effect real solutions. Sometimes, even with these competent people in charge, awful things happen, as in the explosion of one vehicle, and the disastrous re-entry of another. Still, given the harsh conditions found in space, and the harsh realities to be overcome in physically getting there, the space guys fare well.

So, what have we in the oil industry? Gamblers. They’re apparently closer to the investment bankers who brought down the world economy, than they are to space scientists and engineers. They know how to do a few things pretty well—like drill deep holes, even under extreme conditions, like 5,000 feet under the water. But, they seem not to have learned or understood Murphy’s Law—if things can go wrong, they will go wrong, at the worst possible time. As a result, our oily executives balance drilling investments against returns on the dollar, and have demonstrated to all of us that they are perfectly willing to gamble on using lower cost technology, even if it is less effective technology.

But they are also demonstrating something we don’t like to think about. They are basically incompetent, once things do go wrong. The BP response should have shocked the world by now. Their “fixes” do not resemble NASA’s fixes, i.e., BP’s simply don’t work, and often resemble something a junior high science class might devise (apologies to all junior high science classes). It’s surprising only that BP hasn’t yet tried duct tape to plug the hole.

Given, their slapstick comedy approach to this disaster of their own making, I guess it was inevitable that the public would become disaffected, and turn their attention to what the Government is or is not doing to fix the problem. Everyone is now blasting the Obama government for not immediately coming to the rescue, as they did when the words, “Houston, we have a problem” were uttered. But, guess what, the Government has no equivalent to NASA when it comes to oil. Oil exploration is not, as it turns out, a joint venture like space. No, we merely license the geniuses of BP, Exxon et al, to undertake the whole venture, with, as it turns out, minimal interference from the Feds. Now, when the grand fuck-up occurs, and oil is clogging the coastal environment, killing off wildlife and fouling our beaches and marshlands, everyone suddenly wants the Federal Government to ride in like the cavalry of old to the rescue. But there is no cavalry. The Feds don’t know how to stop the oil—they have no technology. There is no cadre of scientists and engineers standing by ready to wade into the battle. So, asking/demanding that Obama intervene flies in the face of our current reality.

Now, mind you, these demands are coming from the same people who decry Government interference with private interests. I’m sure Sarah, her tea party mindless minions, and the current favorite of morons everywhere, Rand Paul, are screaming the loudest. Except they don’t seem to know which to yell louder—“get the government off our backs", or “why won’t the government stop this oil leak and fix the problem.”

Perhaps, this mess, large and getting larger every day, should inform us that offshore drilling is not for the faint of heart. Perhaps, no more offshore drilling should be permitted by anyone, until we have forged a joint venture, like NASA and the space companies, and until we have the BEST, MOST EFFECTIVE, technology in place to prevent such blowouts, AND, the technology to correct the problem when, not if, another blowout occurs. And if we run out of gasoline before that happens, I suggest that everyone buy a bike.

And on another front, it is rumored that Newt Gingrich, having asserted confidently that President Obama is a worse threat to America than Adolph Hitler, Joe Stalin and Mao Tse Tung combined, is now embarked on another book that suggests all liberals and progressives are actually space aliens.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Thanks Mr. Moyers

The audience sits in rapt awe, listening intently. Then the lights dim, and the curtain falls. And a legacy program ends. Bill Moyers sits and tells us that he is now 76, and there are things he wants to do before his wonder of a life is ended, things that do not mesh easily with the demands of a weekly news show, of the caliber he has been delivering for years. So, The Bill Moyers Journal is at an end, the single best program on television, bar none.
My wife and I have watched, really in awe, at Moyers’ ability to deliver week after week, a program, of such intelligence that, at the conclusion of each show, we would sigh and say, “well, he did it again.” The Journal brought more than craft to an art form—discussion of recent events of national import-- that long ago withered and become a bad joke on other networks. Only PBS has managed to remain above the degrading spectacles imposed on us by the Faux News Network, CNN and their poor cousins, ABC, CBS, and NBC.
Weekly, Bill Moyers brought us intelligent, thoughtful guests, an amazing array actually, and joined with them in a thoughtful discussion of important issues facing the Nation. No shrieking, no phony Beckhole tears, no broken Palinesque English. It has been a dazzling feat to remain an objective, thoughtful, quiet discussion venue, a reliable place to escape from the vast wasteland called Cable TV. Intelligent conversation . . . what a concept.

Thanks Mr. Moyers, and thanks to your entire crew who aided in the production of this masterpiece of public journalism in action. We are indebted to you.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Teabaggers and 1984

“We want to take our country back.”
That’s the rallying cry of teabaggers everywhere, as they run about in their Hummers, from NRA meetings to schools, where they trash classrooms of teachers with whom they disagree (see Maine Tea Partying). They listen to people like Palin, the Beckhole and Gingrich, who specialize in making stuff up, like the Faux News Network, whose motto now is:
“We make stuff up,
So you don’t have to”.
I’m thinking that the rest of us, normal folk, just ordinary Americans, really need to have our own “take back our country” rally somewhere. Yeah, we need to retrieve it from these roving bands of right wing, gun-toting idiots, who have decided that the Obama big, socialist style government is intolerable, unlike their favored Republican, big, Fascist style government. They want smaller government and lower (no??) taxes, and they definitely don't want Government messing with their Medicare, prominent and now common forms of “doublethink"
In George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, “doublethink” is the act of simultaneously accepting as correct two mutually contradictory beliefs. It is related to, but distinct from, hypocrisy and neutrality.
Orwell speaks of doublethink as a Party strategy, intended to get the (stupid) people to support the Party and its policies. He speaks of the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them....To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies — all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.
Does this not define the Republican Party, Murdoch’s Faux News Network, and the Teabaggers almost perfectly? So, might we then classify them as the new agents and cheerleaders for their proposed Police State.
Yes, it may well be time to “take back our country”.
But be careful what you wish for . . .

Friday, May 14, 2010

Guns and Power

The NRA's in town and Sarah barbie and the Beckhole will be speaking to the assembled thousands of cheering NRA'ers.
And in the halls devoted to the art of gunnery, the fans will experience the touch of the smooth, black steel, the solid feel of the instrument, the smell of the oil, sighting down the barrel, the sound of the controlled explosion, imagining the effect—the bullet tearing through flesh, ripping away at internal organs, blood rushing out of the wound. The animal stumbling, then falling. Power, it conjures up power over the other.

Similar perhaps . . . the sound of engines grumbling, roaring, some shrieking, the acrid smell of oil and exhaust smoke, the burning smell of tires screaming into turns, and imagining, yes imagining the machine roaring at full speed into a side barrier and exploding in a fireball.

Ahhh, heady stuff, very manly for the testosterone set.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

UK Coalition

Impressive, those Brits. Somehow, I cannot imagine a similar ruling coalition here in the US of A. With whom would the Republicans coalesce? Certainly not with a center or center-left party. Maybe they might join forces with a hard right . . . oops, they are hard right. Libertarians? Doubtful. Greens? Whoa, I think not.

Perhaps what we need here is an actual center right party, of hmmm, let’s see, compassionate conservatives, i.e. conservatives who believed in the liberties granted by the Constitution, and who understood that the US is not a religious (Christian) theocracy, and who believed that all Americans deserved decent health care, and . . . oh, but you get it. See, David Cameron described himself as a “compassionate conservative” despite the fact that Shrub thoroughly trashed that term. Here it means, someone who has compassion for the many problems besetting the uber-rich. Cameron apparently is either oblivious to the current meaning of the term, or he means to inject new life into the term (or he’s an idiot?). Perhaps he represents an older generation of rich people, that group that understood and acted upon the concept of nobless oblige, the view that with wealth, power and prestige come social responsibilities, implying a moral obligation to act with honor, kindliness and generosity. People like Shrub, Sarah Palin, and Rupert Murdoch, of course, recognize no such obligation, and they act accordingly. Perhaps the Brits might reawaken the concept here, allowing us to move past idiots like Murdoch and his Faux News Network.

So perhaps we should watch our British friends with considerable care for clues as to the new meaning of compassionate conservatism. It may prove both entertaining and enlightening.

And on another front, Dickie Bird Cheney’s old firm, Halliburton, claims it has no knowledge of how that massive blowout occurred, but it certainly had nothing to do with Halliburton’s known ineptitude. Heckuvajob Brownie thinks it’s all because Obama doesn’t care . . . anyone want to buy a nice bridge in Brooklyn?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

We All Want Something To Do

Listening, reading and watching stories that are emerging about the Perfect Storm that is the BP Oil debacle, I am becoming frustrated with the discussions masquerading as punditry. As the oil continues to foul the ocean and closes in on our shoreline, it is increasingly difficult to listen to the idiots on the Faux News Network and others of their ilk.
Not long after September 11, 2001, I grew frustrated with our malenfant president. Remember George W, aka Shrub? I wrote the following to various newspapers, without success. I continue to believe that our nation needs to get serious about ridding ourselves of Middle East oil dependence, but not by following the idiotic chants of bimbo Sarah to "drill, baby drill."
Here's what I said before, and I continue to believe in the basic message.

In his several messages to the American people, (then) President Bush consistently veered away from asking anything serious of the American people in the battle against international terrorism. “Go about your lives,” “spend money,” perhaps even, “visit New York.” I am of a generation that remembers John Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for you . . .” I remember WW II rationing, saving everything for the war effort, blackouts. Now our boomer President asks us to continue our profligate ways, so as to demonstrate our resolve not to be intimidated.
Now it may be a failure of vision – the Bush boys never understood that “vision thing.” But it seems to me that we have (had??) the finest opportunity since the dark days of gasoline lines in the 1970s to move this nation forward on the energy front. George W. should be asking us to spend and to sacrifice, on energy. President Clinton blew the best chance in 25 years to reform our health care system. I would hate to see us blow this opportunity to finally free ourselves of 20th century thinking on energy.
I realize that our vice president (Dickie Bird, aka Darth Vader) thinks that conservation is a mere personal virtue and not worthy of strategic policy making, but I would suggest that perhaps his administration is simply incapable of thinking fresh. They seem captured by their own past and by their links to Big Oil. But here we are once again, forced to create and maintain shaky alliances with Middle Eastern partners to preserve our connections to oil, so we will be able to continue powering our way in the world using early 20th century technology.
Now it is clear that bombing Afghanistan was not something we were hankering to do. And it is equally clear that we could not do what was required in Afghanistan without the tacit support of the neighboring countries. So the shaky alliances are more than useful. They are necessary, vital even. And I concede further that we will need Middle Eastern oil for some time. Every time I get on a highway leading anywhere, I find it populated with monstrous SUVs. Once, when pulling into a local Maryland supermarket parking lot, I reeled from the sight of someone pulling in to park his . . . Humvee. Think of that . . . a $100,000, supremely ugly, military troop carrier in use to carry home a six-pack of beer and some diapers. How . . . efficient. Isn’t the owner proud?
Why, instead of prattling on about drilling in an arctic wildlife refuge, can’t our President lead for once in some new, productive . . . innovative direction? Are we really that captured—bought and paid for—by Big Oil, et al that we can no longer expect anything creative and sensible from our Presidents?
This, I suggest, is a time for sacrifice, and for creative thinking.
Could we not as a Nation consider investing in conservation over the next 10-25 years? We might begin by buying and using only energy efficient appliances:
• Investing in energy-saving applications such as insulation,
• Investing in new technology such as solar appliances,
• Buying only automobiles that get 25-30 miles per gallon. In ten years, SUVs would be a thing of the past, like bell-bottomed trousers and tie-dyed shirts.
• Here’s a biggie: a Federal or state car tax that is based not on value or age, but on gasoline mileage. Cars that get 40 mpg or above are assessed no tax; cars that get 30-40 mpg pay $50 per year; cars that get 25-30 mpg pay $100 per year; cars that get 20-25 mpg pay $250 per year; cars that get 15-20 mpg pay $500 per year; cars that get less than 15 mpg pay $1,000 per year. Assessments are based on original design testing. Aging will not improve them, so the tax stays in place as the cars age.
Creative Thinking
Then our President and the Congress should agree on a heavily funded research initiative on new energy sources that could become practical alternatives to our current reliance on fossil fuels. If we’re going to invest, put, say, $50 billion on the stump (if you don’t like the dollar amount, choose your own) and get companies to propose research and eventually demonstrations for new approaches. Open the competition to any and all companies—so long as they have attractive ideas and the capability to implement their research proposals, allow them to compete. Use the National Academy of Sciences to serve as the review panel.
Make this an ongoing research commitment, much as we have done in biomedical research. Throughout our history, US industry has responded magnificently to crises, especially when there’s money involved. Our national investments in defense and space research have yielded immense returns in technology that have proven their value in all kinds of commercial and industrial applications. We have been fooling around with investments in energy, but as often as not, the investments are intended more to prop up particular industries than to advance our knowledge base. It is time now to use our technologic base and our money to move us into the 21st century in the energy realm.
Our President should commit us, as John Kennedy did in the last century, to a meaningful goal. Instead of going to the moon, perhaps he might consider a goal of energy independence (OPEC independence??) in 20 years. It would be nice to think that this horrific shock to our national psyche created the national will to change our country from the biggest, baddest energy hog on the planet, to the most creative, energy efficient country on earth.
So, how about some fresh thinking, President Obama, and our overpaid, bloated Congress?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Happy Mothers Day

A turtle’s shell

is tough they say.

It covers him from harm.

Our love seems soft

Compared to him,

So tender, light, and warm.

Yet, like him.

Tough it is I say.

It grows anew each day,

To cover us,

To cloak our lives,

So bright, so warm, so gay.

So many years, so many lives

We have lived.

Each Mothers Day

Reminds me

Of just how wonderful you are.

With all my love

Happy Mothers Day,

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


I was sitting the other day by our pond, our little garden retreat. I was watching first a skink scamper about looking for food. Then a little butterfly came by, also hungry. And it set me to thinking about God, evolution and “intelligent design.” And I thought, suppose the believers got it partly right . . . that there is a God and that God actually creates everything. And then I pondered that thought further. It seems to me that there is a serious bifurcation going on here. I mean, so many things are just so beautiful that it would be nice to think some supreme being invented them. But what, I thought about all the other things, not quite so beautiful. If God created this charming little butterfly, then who created Rush Limbaugh? Surely not the same God. Not possible.

So, then I thought, hmmm . . . maybe, just maybe there is more than one God. It’s always seemed to me that, rather than a kindly old guy with a white beard, God must surely be a woman. A guy couldn’t possibly create a butterfly. But a gal God surely could and would. So, maybe there’s a guy and a gal up somewhere creating and observing.

So, the gal God creates, as I say, the butterfly. And the God then, not to be outdone, creates a T-Rex, just because he can, and he’s a guy after all.

So, then the gal God turns her attention to flowers, creating say, the rose. So, the guy God, trying to be helpful, adds thorns to her creation. So, they go like that, tit for tat for a long while, meanwhile filling up the Earth with their creations, sort of like we fill up first our houses, then our basements.

So, then, in a fit of creativity, our gal creates a lovely young thing, more or less in her own image.

And the guy God then, not to be outdone, creates someone in his own image, sort of, and it turns out to be a bozo—say Atilla the Hun, or maybe Rush Limbaugh. I figure that, he just wasn’t paying attention.

And then she creates music, filling the Earth with gorgeous sounds. She begins of course, with the sound of birds, and wind whistling through the trees. He counters with thunder. Finally, in a feast of creativity, she creates Mozart and allows him to fill the lands with beautiful, man-created music.

It takes our guy a while to consider this new creation. Finally, he says, “By George, I have it . . . I’ll give them Hip-Hop.”

And so it was done.
And a thoughtful reader commented:
"I copped his flow
It’s deep bro
Two gods—awright!
One fly dime, one baad dude
But his bitch with rap
Whassup with that?"

Monday, May 3, 2010

Republicans and Their Oil

So, how’s that “drill, baby, drill” working our for ya, Sarah, you bimbo? The BP well continues to leak at a rate of 200,000 gallons per day, dwarfing even the Exxon-Valdez tragedy.

And, guess what? It turns out that there is a good shot that Dick Cheney and his minions played a role—not certain, but a good shot. For one, his old buddies at Halliburton supplied part of the cement gadgetry that was supposed to secure the well and keep it from leaking. Halliburton, not one of the world’s reliable suppliers, has supplied inadequate equipment in the past, leading to a giant spill off Australia’s coastline. Then there’s that secret energy task force that Dickie Bird chaired, but wouldn’t tell us anything about. Turns out that the task force vetoed the need for oil drilling companies to employ an acoustic switch that would likely have prevented this spill—they thought it too expensive and unnecessary. So, our very own Darth Vader is at the least “involved” although he ain’t talk’n.

Then there’s the de facto head of the Republican Party, Rush Limbaugh. First, old Rush, never one to actually engage his muddled brain before speaking, told us that the explosion was probably caused by environmental groups, as a way to gain support for their anti-offshore drilling positions. Then when that seemed too ridiculous even for Tea Baggers to buy, Rush changed his song to one advocating that we should just let nature take its course and correct this little problem. No need to rush about doing anything.

I am waiting for George Will to weigh in next, by telling us that, like the absurd Arizona anti-immigration law, perhaps this was just one of the things we could all learn to live with. Come on, George, we’re waiting . .