A ‘Cookbook’ of Recipes to Help America Satisfy its Appetite to Solve its Social Problems

In digging for more than a decade in the heap of confusion of American society, I have found that at the root of much of the inability to solve many problems is a simple reality.

The three basic sectors of society –business, nonprofits, and government –have different languages, customs, practices and cultures. The people in those three sectors often do not know each other well, tend not to trust each other, and do not follow similar policies and processes in the pursuit of their needs and goals.

A ‘cookbook’ for solving many of America’s challenges involves remedying the tensions and differences between these sectors – in the Intersector. Regular readers of this column will no doubt recognize this as a reference to “collaborative governance.”

But a deeper, broader and, hopefully, simpler understanding of the practical nature of those underlying problems appears to be an essential precondition to getting more people to understand why they want and need to understand more. Only that way can their voices become collectively loud enough to get political processes sufficiently focused on fixing society’s many and real problems by using those tools.

Much of the discussion of this subject and, to be quite honest, including my own, tends to be abstract and dreary. Dry, academic treatises also impede problem solving. A wrench is a remarkably simple tool whose function and purpose is readily grasped by anyone who has ever had occasion to need one; but a scholarly examination of a wrench would quickly delve into arcana (“the cross product of the position vector and the force vector”) neither useful nor discernable to many people who simply want to unwind a nut.

Consequently, it has become vividly apparent that many people need concrete, specific examples familiar to them to visualize this subject so that they can truly grasp, and retain, what all the abstract stuff actually means.

Imagine, then, a large restaurant. The prime focus might be the food (naturally), but that’s far from the only thing that makes restaurants successful. In fact, it takes a small army of people, with different skills and responsibilities, to make restaurants run successfully and for a long time.

The Chef, of course, concocts the delectable offerings that are basic to earning a restaurant its reputation.

The Maître ‘d is charged with ensuring a pleasant experience around the food – e.g., prompt and polite waiters and clean dishes.

The Manager’s job is to bring the disparate pieces together to make everything flow smoothly, and keep the books in balance to assure the restaurant’s continued success.

These positions, and the myriad staff beneath them, must collaborate closely – water and drinks offered shortly after seating; food prepared to the customer’s expectations; dishes brought and cleared promptly; and the check delivered and payment collected. In a well-run restaurant, those positions not only cooperate with each other, but they also compete to offer the greatest food, service or experience, depending on the role.

Then comes something of a surprise: despite the best efforts of those many, well-intentioned restaurant folks, one-third of restaurants in the U.S. fail within one year!

Why?

Well, the answer is that is it not easy, and far from automatic, for a group of even smart, talented and well-intentioned people to work together smoothly. Not only does each job need to be done well – all the time – but the different jobs must be executed in close coordination. The failure of one sparks the failure of others, until the red ink flows too fast.

Now, if you can, try to think of America as just such a restaurant writ large. Visualize the myriad complex issues in traffic coordination, infrastructure maintenance, water distribution or crime prevention just to name a very few easy to imagine examples. As you overlay in your mind the restaurant metaphor, you can see how there are many common threads in these seemingly quite different situations.

Much like our metaphorical restaurant, most of America can’t succeed with only one or two of the critical pieces out of many working well together. Just as a restaurant with great food but lousy service will invariably fail, so, too, will a republic and all its parts if it can’t balance the oftentimes conflicting needs of its many customers, vendors, service providers, owners, regulators and managers. 

In the world at large, think of the processes and places where the different sectors have to come together to work out the complexities of their inevitable interactions. Those competing and conflicting sectors have to work out (or orchestrate) their problems among themselves or all of society is left to suffer as the failures fester and spread to other sectors. 

Two other core problems can derail even the best-intentioned ‘societal restauranteurs’:

  • Very few citizens notice, believe or understand the important differences in the key jobs – for example, in a restaurant, not many people are much aware or pay attention to the bus staff and dishwashers, but imagine what that restaurant would be like if they weren’t there!

  • Very few people holding those key jobs truly understand many of the other participants as well. A head waiter may know little of what makes a chef’s signature dish renowned; the chef’s understanding of the restaurant’s finances may be comically off base. 

In fact, in many cases, they’re not even speaking the same language. The manager, looking to order supplies, can’t properly gauge demand if the chef’s recipe calls for a “soupçon of paprika.” How many soupçons are there in an ounce? The service staff likely don’t recognize that laundry for table linens cost a lot and should be used prudently.

The idea for a metaphor of a restaurant, as a proxy for society writ large, is solely to illuminate that there really are pretty simple and understandable ways to engage more and more people to understand the basic issues of problem solving to gain their support for the process.

Once more awareness exists, a path to overcoming problems should tend to come faster and more easily. But getting to that awareness is hard; the notion of joint dependency through collaboration is often difficult to grasp and illusive in practice. But, it can be done, and the ‘cookbook’ at the center of this piece basically offers simple recipes.

Only three basic steps are required, regardless of the type of problem being confronted:

  1. Identify and assemble the relevant players;
  2. Establish their respective needs and wants; and
  3. Encourage possible compromises that reflect the different needs and priorities of the relevant players.

I have been thinking about and working on this subject for a number of years and see the importance of effective metaphors to convey the relevance and importance of the topic to a broader audience in order to see solutions accelerate.

The Intersector Project (www.intersector.com) has produced the beginnings of a helpful cookbook on the matter, one that is basically agnostic about geography and topics. The tool kit and case studies provide examples and guidance for many vexing issues – from economic development to environmental protection – for all sorts of problems great and small.

We really cannot and should not accept being doomed to working at wasteful cross purposes forever. We have to learn to understand and to talk better (with, not at) colleagues. As in restaurants, a lot can be achieved fairly quickly with good leadership.

Let me know what you think. Your contribution to this subject could be greater than you imagine!

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Is The World Big Enough?

It is widely believed that the rise of other great powers to challenge America’s hegemony constitutes one of the realities of the present world. This is, at a minimum, misguided and potentially dangerous.

Hegemony means essentially unchallenged superiority. That may be true of the U.S. — at least until Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ perversely convinces the world that we are no longer really great.

But, wise friends in Europe today don’t see China or even Russia trying to “challenge our hegemony.”

In fact, both appear to be trying to avoid a position in which they would have no choice but to follow the will of the hegemon. By pursuing their own “spheres of influence,” these powers hope to carve out a place in the world where they’re not subject to the whims of a hostile foreign power, in this case, us.

History tells us that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  Can you imagine the US moving into an absolutely dominating position in the world with a President Trump (or worse, if that were imaginable) at the helm?

At this point in time, nobody else really challenges the U.S. dominance, so why should we even consider running a race we have largely already won? It is, after all, in large part our own policies (and ideology) which fires the fears of our contestants in the world.

Isn’t there enough room for everybody on the globe?

The foregoing thoughts –slightly reworded and revised by me – came to me from a close, old friend who was his country’s Ambassador to the U.S. from one of Europe’s biggest and most important countries. 

I was/am struck by the wisdom and practicality of his thoughts.

Perhaps Trump chose MAGA (make America great again) simply because he could claim credit for something that already existed. After blustering about how weak we had become, he could (and has) claimed essentially unchanged realities as great victories. With so much “winning,” he could recklessly and fearlessly go about his Presidency fluffing his feathers for no other goal than his ego.

Interestingly, many people in America go about their lives not giving much thought to Trump—other than disgust—because so far neither his blustering nor his supreme incompetence have significantly impacted their lives. Our friends in Europe, on the other hand, worry that longer term, if America is actually weakened by Trump, they will be exposed to the hegemonic power of countries they do not trust as they have trusted us.

Perhaps, if we grasped that important point, we might be better able to reign in Trump to save ourselves and our European friends. Therefore, instead of questioning the friendship of Europe, shouldn’t we be focused on shoring it up?

Walls Don’t Work

Relearning History’s Oldest Lesson in the Age of Trump

The present government shut down over simply one word –WALL—is so ridiculous that it belies belief, particularly when one considers the dismal track record walls have offered through history. Even Trump’s newest Chief of Staff, Mick Mulvaney said a wall was not the way to manage or control our borders.

The world’s first known fortified wall was constructed more than 4,000 years ago by Sumerian rulers to fend of the Amorites. Those nomadic tribes simply walked around the wall, and within 100 years the Sumerians were vanquished.

Hadrian’s Wall, built by the Romans to protect Britannia from barbarians to the north, worked well in its day, preventing an invasion and possibly facilitating the collection of taxes, but failed to stop the fall of the Empire that erected it. (Let’s hope there’s not a larger lesson there!)

Even the Great Wall of China, thousands of miles of imposing stone built 25 feet high, was ineffective as a defensive barrier, bypassed by the Mongols in the 1500s and broken through entirely a century later in the fall of the Ming Dynasty.

Trump’s wall, of course, isn’t intended to stave off armies seeking to destroy us, but desperate and destitute “invaders” seeking a better way of life. The Berlin Wall provides a helpful example here. Nearly 100 people died trying to cross it – most shot by East German guards – but thousands more circumvented it, by climbing over (and evading the guards), tunneling under, or even flying above it. 

It is widely understood, perhaps even by our President, who appears to not truly understand much, that a wall across our southern border won’t do much to stop illegal immigration. It doesn’t even pretend to address the largest source of the problem: people entering the country legally and failing to depart when their visas expire.

It’s also widely understood that there are much better ways to enforce border security – cameras and electronic sensors backed by mobile interdiction teams, for example.

Good arguments, to be sure, but entirely beside the point.  Trump doesn’t want a wall, he wants a fight. Trump was rocked by right-wing media howling when it appeared he’d sign a funding bill without money for a wall. And he believes that his intransigence in support of a lost cause makes him look strong with his base. As Mueller circles, resignations mount, and the stock market tanks, Trump desperately needs a win, and losing a fight over wall funding is as close as he can get to one in the new political environment confronting him.

The real question is why the Trumpists that constitute his base are going along with the charade. They seem sincerely concerned about (largely illusory) hordes of “invaders” sweeping across our southern border. The $5 billion that Trump’s not getting could prove effective if spent in other ways. But Trump’s hold on this segment of the population is complete, and moderate Republicans are a vanishing breed. What’s left is Trump’s party, through and through and, like him, they value the fight more than the outcome.

Unfortunately, we can expect much more of the same over the next two years.

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THE NEW WORLD THAT DISCOVERED US

A Christmas Parable, Part II

After the Christmas brush with extinction from a passing asteroid – and after a massively fast effort to translate the ‘gobbledygook’ signals from that interstellar object – it was learned that the rock, about the size of our moon, was home to intelligent beings. The called their home ‘Htray’, and had earlier broken our language code well enough to understand us and our global problems.

Their messages conveyed that they had been observing us for a long time and were curious to know more about us which is why they steered so close. In Earth time they were way ahead of us, and had experience with what we are living through. Best of all, they told us not to worry! Everything would work out.

That was a relief to everyone who heard it. But, the Htrayians didn’t tell us how, they only let us observe their world as they had constructed it.

Our challenge became to learn how they had done it, so that we might then go about benefiting from that.

One of the first things we learned was that Htray did not have a First Amendment. That seemed strange and unlikely, until it turned out that they had an interesting and much more sophisticated rule. They required full disclosure of all public information BUT put strict limits on what people could say about other people to avoid insults and aggravation, and virtually debased public rhetoric.

We also learned there was only one language for all 2 billion people on Htray.

Htrayians also had eliminated all military entirely, because they had outlawed war completely, which allowed for much more social and health benefits for everyone.

There was also no taxation on Htray. Instead everybody was required to give a minimum of ¼ of their income to government, and a maximum of ½ for people who made twice the average.

Everybody had the right to vote but if a candidate lied, he, or she, lost 1% of their votes for each lie, as decided without appeal by a committee of elders.  

Everybody got health care and the population had stabilized at about 2 billion people even as more people aged longer.

As Htray’s story emerged, more and more Earth people began to wonder how it all worked as well as Htrayians apparently believed.

The basic idea, that we all can now more clearly see, is that we earthlings are truly only one large family group of similarly afflicted souls. That is a vital start and stimulus. But it is only a start. 

Much of what Htrayians did was the reverse of what our own earthly intelligent beings thought was the best way to do things.

Scientists began to wonder what kind of beings those Htray folks really were.

At about the same time, it was discovered that Htray was actually spelled Htrae. Was there any hint there at all?

It was then that a six year old gifted girl, child of a scientist, asked why Htrae was Earth spelled backward!

Our alien saviors were, in fact, exactly like us but with an extra set of eyes in the back of their heads, simply an alternative outcome to the us we know from history and circumstance.

Time had twisted on itself to illustrate what might have been, or perhaps what still could be, if we could find a way to add those two eyes?

The End Of The World

On the 18th of July a news flash on CNN warned that scientists had spotted a previously unseen distant object on a path that appeared to possibly intersect with our Earth.

Initially there was not a lot of alarm but people everywhere tuned themselves to this interesting and possibly very dangerous intersection.

As the days passed the news became more specific. The object was very large and moving very fast. The scientists could not agree on the margin of error of the distance it would pass by. They were clear, however, that if it did not miss it likely would be the end of everything.

Naturally people everywhere began to plan –or not plan at all—depending whether they were by nature optimists or pessimists. The optimists did not plan at all. The pessimists wanted to dig deep and survive.

Increasingly, it is fair to say chaos reigned.

The latest news forecasts were that it would pass close by but probably would not collide.

As it got closer it appeared that Christmas would be the day that would decide the fate of the human race. The day time sky contained a large approaching object which grew by the second.

Great shadows and rushing winds of hurricane force everywhere began to disturb vast swaths of population.

People and children began to run wildly and aimlessly to nowhere and everywhere.

Many people hunkered down in their beds with as many pillows as they could find. Those who could find sleeping pills took all of them hopefully to die calmly and quietly or at least sleep through the worst.

On Christmas Eve the more or less 7 billion humans on earth seemed to be ready for the worst.

Christmas morning dawned bright and early and the object in the sky appeared to be disappearing fast beyond earth into the rest of the Universe.

People everywhere were amazed to be alive and the one topic of conversation in all languages was rapidly spreading.

“Now that WE have survived annihilation, we can see more clearly than ever before that we, who inhabit the whole Earth, are simply ONE collection of people, who regardless of all our differences including languages, just might be able to make our world a better place, if we remember this brush with extinction and stop bickering about the nothings of importance compared to extinction!”

PS – The object that had just passed Earth turned to out to have been a planet. It sent a message that took a week to translate—it said “Been there. Done that. It can work!”

RECESSIONS PRECEDE RECOVERIES?

Recently we have been relearning, despite decades of experience, that what goes up also goes down.

Despite Trump’s attempt to stimulate the economy a year ago with a tax cut for his supporters and the very rich, the economy of late, and financial markets, have been stumbling in quite an ominous way.

This has led to some mumblings among analysts and investors that IF we are inevitably going to have a recession, let’s get on with it so that we can also get on with the inevitable recovery.

Strange things are stirring in our world which many people regard as worrisome particularly with regard to confidence in the basics of our economic/financial process.

Confidence is the essential base for consumers to buy –particularly big ticket items like cars and houses—out of fear that their ability to pay off debt incurred may be adversely effected by future changes in employment levels and the effect of that on their wages.

Confidence in the future is at the root of our democratic, market society. That confidence has been eroded by many serious political uncertainties largely brought on by Trump and many of his misguided policies in regard to international trade, budget deficits and other risks around the world.

The Trump ‘game’ is slowly grinding its way to a conclusion.

Therefore, this is as good a time as any to get on with the inevitable recession to pave the way for a post Trump recovery!

THE WORLD AHEAD?

A few years back I was fascinated with what the world might look and be like in the year 3000.

Here already is a tiny peek ahead at three separate items which are tantalizing.

Among the things I imagined was that there would be basically one language, and a world government to allocate resources among many fewer people on the globe than we have today.

Now, we are confronted daily with global warming as a doomsday risk AND we also see that population size correlates with more warming.

I had not expected to see confirmation of my population size guess so soon. But, I am in complete agreement with the view that population size is a critical component in addressing the threat of too much warming.

In 1929, the famous crash in financial markets occurred. One of the key causes of that crash was far too much cash lending leverage at that time, which prompted inescapable selling that got out of hand and drove the country into the worst, longest depression in its history.

Today, the use of financial leverage has been better contained and managed by governments.  But there now appears to be a new type of perhaps even more powerful leverage, which the famous Seth Klarman of the Harvard Business School now calls psycho-leverage (PL). PL is the powerful echo chamber of social networks enabled by the Internet. That echo chamber is capable of magnifying prospective value/price changes more, and more quickly, than financial leverage did in 1929.

We all need to factor that new force in our financial system into how we invest and protect ourselves from the emotions of excessive volatility.

Until WWII we had, and some of us enjoyed, the stability of a predictable national leadership process sometimes referred to as the ‘establishment’. That was based primarily on predisposed ideas about family, birth and selective education.

In recent times we have seen that automatic, established process of inevitable leadership solely from establishment figures give way to a new idea of meritocracy based on records of accomplishment with help from the press.

Fareed Zakaria, the brilliant and insightful journalist, commented recently that meritocracy has shown its own weaknesses in that it opens many doors to many excesses which traditional establishment types – perhaps exemplified by George Bush Sr — knew how to avoid, even to the point that they anticipated, saw and felt limits which they would observe and respond to, even if it might cause them losses of some sort.

These are three quite important new developments in how our world works or does not.

We should try not to be too judgmental in assessing these newly observed phenomena. They are simply what they are and, good or bad, they are part of a world in which it helps to recognize that things are constantly changing.

There really is no status quo for very long!