Russia Today Versus the World

We just returned from a boat trip across Russia, from Moscow to St. Petersburg, to see firsthand the world Peter the Great began for Russia in the 1700s. Objective observers are vividly struck by today’s Russia and how it is generally seen in the West in ways quite different from its observable current reality.

Two earlier exposures to Russia — in 1956 and 1978 — further sharpen the vast changes wrought over the last 30 odd years. The shift to market-based economics has, with help from very high oil prices, enlarged the middle classes to the point that both those leading cities now suffer from an engorgement of cars (virtually all Japanese, European and American models), to the point that traffic in those cities is becoming the biggest choke to their growth prospects. Their system evidently failed to anticipate those amazing numbers, despite building many modern roads and highways.

The people of Russia throughout the trip, despite daily news from the Middle East and Ukraine including the tragic downing of a commercial airliner, are clearly prosperous, relaxed and enjoying their unusually warm summer weather, apparently barely aware of global issues.

One-on-one chats with everyone who could be engaged in a private conversation (about a dozen people, all told) disclosed that they: [1] deplore the Ukraine situation; [2] support the Crimea annexation; [3] love America and its people; [4] support the Russian government; and [5] are worried about the attitude of the American government.

One young man from a small town on the Volga River married with two young children and a working wife, whose basic job is as a manufacturer’s rep in the food industry and has a family income in dollar terms of about $20,000 said:

“I work hard. Our life is relatively good today. We have confidence in Putin. Why he wants to take on the problems of the Ukraine is a mystery to everyone. We trust and like American people but worry that your government does not trust us or our government. All we want is a chance to continue to improve our lives. Seeing interested Americans visit us gives us all more hope. Thanks for visiting us.”

A constant theme was Russia has always needed strong central leadership and Putin has been all of that for them. He has presided over the boom years following the difficult first years under Gorbachev and Yeltsin, and they credit their current relative prosperity almost completely to him, and seem not yet to grasp the possible consequences of current events on their personal lives.

While Ukraine’s drift toward the West holds some possible adverse economic consequences in due course for Russia, it hardly needs Ukraine to prosper. Russia is a powerful, fully modern society.

Nor is Russia in need of more territory. Perhaps they might wish to be lower in latitude on the globe, more like Europe and the US, but that is how their cards were dealt way back and no amount of hostility or ambition is going to change that reality.

It strains credulity that Russia stands to gain in any way from nurturing hostility with either Europe or the US.

At the periphery, Russia’s global interests in projecting power in the world are its activities in the Middle East. But beyond appearances of influence and playing games, the stakes between Russia and the rest of the world seem to be more clearly aligned than ever before.

The aptly named (by history, anyway) Peter the Great had vast vision, boundless energy and compelling powers of persuasion. He saw the need to understand and bring European sophistication into the life of Russia. The path since then to the present has been fraught with complications and troubled times — wars, revolution and economic communist stagnation, yet Peter’s vision seems finally close to being realized, if today’s conditions can be sustained.

Russia, the United States and Europe have much more in common than not, and if we all could get reciprocally clearer pictures of each other deeper than Cold War era stereotypes, to the point that leaders feel that throb, this just might be the right moment in time where there could be a collective hegemony among all our peoples.

We get bogged down in daily squabbles in the news. Perhaps it is time for a bigger, broader vision to be advanced on the world stage.

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HOW TO MAKE ORDINARY PEOPLE EXTRAORDINARY

In the late 1970s, as penance for earlier sins, I signed on to help Jimmy Carter and my fellow citizens as Assistant Secretary of Commerce for International Trade.

One of the first things I learned needed to be done was to improve the substance and speed of the critical information the U.S. government collected to help American businesses see and find trade opportunities around the globe.

Because the USA is such a large single market, relatively few companies saw any need to develop overseas customers. As a result, the USA for a long time, bought more from the rest of the world than it sold and ran a big trade deficit, which over time is a very bad idea.

The information that was collected was in fact quite good and helpful, but it often took as long as 18 months to get into the hands of people who could use it.

As we sorted through the ways to address this challenge there were three basic approaches:

[1] Build a new cadre of people more attune to collecting and distributing information. Discussion of this idea lasted about 5 minutes because it is virtually impossible to eliminate and replace some 2,000 civil servants and Foreign Service officers.

[2] Contract with a private company to do the job–IBM for example. Again, the answer was “no,” because the information is classified, and no private company could be trusted.

[3]Find a way to make the 2,000 existing employees better at their jobs. Since it was our only option, the question became HOW?

I had come from Wall Street and had seen how Merrill Lynch had seriously improved the skills and productivity of its thousands of brokers by supplying them with computer terminals (this was, remember, 1977 – well before Microsoft, and Apple made such technology commonplace).
Well, we did it with help from IBM. We built what we called WITS – for Worldwide Information and Trade System. We even got the Department of Defense to provide some satellite communication time to make the system available everywhere almost immediately.

The result was the information got much better, I believe because people began to believe it could be used in a timely way. And, from collection to availability, the time shrank from about 18 months on average to just a few days.

Today, the same basic system exists, but with the Internet and Google it is much more extensive, immediate and effective.

The result of that experience taught me then that it is possible to create tools that enable ordinary folks to be extraordinary and make government more effective, less expensive and much more productive.

All we need is to be open to changes. A lot of that has been happening in the past two decades. But a lot more can and should be encouraged.

50/50

Most people learn early in life that luck and odds play an important role in their lives. Some of those people are better at playing those odds than a lot of their brethren. There are examples and metaphors galore, some of which may surprise you.

You probably weren’t very old the first time you learned that the the odds on a coin toss, whether it had been preceded by a string of either heads or tails, are always the same – 50/50.

Similarly, a woman who already has three baby boys effectively has the same 50/50 shot at a girl on the fourth try as on the first.

There are examples at race tracks where betting on outcomes indicates varying odds based on people’s opinions and prior race results. Still, as was seen recently at the Belmont Stakes shot at a Triple Crown for California Chrome, what seemed to be a sure thing, turned out not to be. The odds of a great horse winning those three races in a row were something less than 50/50. Something similar happens in sail boat racing in identical boats. In such cases the skill of the crews, skippers and navigators, plus the fickleness of winds, make the difference. Still, most racers begin a race among a dozen boats believing they have a 50/50 shot at winning.

Then there are residual practices in certain situations that the 50/50 assumption has to be set aside in favor of one beneficiary or another. For example, there is hardly a married (or unmarried) couple of opposite sexes that has not tangled over the right way to leave a toilet seat after use. Either way, one or the other, the user has to be continuously alert to the possibility of making a mistake in how the seat is left. Most men apparently ultimately submit to female demand that the seat should always be left down, despite a compelling case that it really is, or should be, a pure 50/50 proposition.

There are many customs from the distant past under the heading of “noblesse oblige” in which women, for example, always precede men through a door. But, in today’s new world of full equality between and among the sexes in virtually all respects, has it not come to the point that the 50/50 rule should take on a broader, wider and balanced meaning and application?

Either that, or movable toilet seats should become thing of the past. Perhaps it is time for toilet makers to design toilets without movable seats. Pure habit has created stasis.

That, at least, would rid modern society of one really unnecessary irritant.

A TIDBIT FROM 1979- a lesson for today

In the summer of 1979, Jimmy Carter suffered from a political malaise and gave a speech about it. In the following days, he fired with one stroke, five cabinet officers — the type of purge that was common in the Soviet Politburo but virtually unheard of here — as if it were their fault. He then met with his White House staff and read the riot act to them, as well. Finally, for good measure, he called in his entire subcabinet for a serious talking to.

He marched alone into the East Wing room, jammed with more than 300 of the most senior people in his government. He took off his jacket and laid it carefully on the floor next to the podium. He then stood before the podium, visibly emotional and pumped.

His words were simple and brief. “You folks are my subcabinet. What I did with some of your bosses, I can do with you, too. Now, if you are not comfortable with supporting my programs, it is the time for you to leave. Any questions?”

The first question came, near where I was sitting, from Cliff Alexander, Secretary of the Army.  The substance of it has long been forgotten. It was anodyne, and Carter’s response was equally unmemorable.

The second question came from Gene Baroni, Assistant Secretary of HUD and a Catholic priest. That question was also quickly forgotten was along with Carter’s response.

Both questioners were ‘fire proof’ because of who they were.

Then, from the far side of the room, an unknown man stood and addressed the President with earnest respect.   He politely said,“Mr. President, I am afraid you do not understand the problem.”

A deep hush fell over the crowded room at such unprecedented candor and directness addressed, in public, to the leader of the free world.

He went on. “Mr. President, with deepest respect sir, we often work night and day for several months preparing a decision memo for you, and at the end of the day we certainly know more about the substance of that issue than either our bosses or you—with all respect sir.”

“We rarely hear anything more after the memo has gone to you. Then, when your decision is announced and it seems to us, with all respect Sir, that you have missed some very important factors, we feel that it is our duty to help get you and it straightened out. If that is what you mean when you suggest that we are not supporting your program, then that is why I believe, with all respect Sir, you do not understand the problem. For example, Sir, I have never been in the same room with you before. I think it would help the country if you could hear directly from more of us.”

The hush in the room became a collective gasp. Carter stepped back in astonishment and said: “How can that be possible? How many people here have never been in the same room with me before?”

Immediately, about two-thirds of all the hands went up. Carter, realizing his gaffe, said: “Well, you have now! And do not forget it!” Then he picked up his coat from the floor and left the room.

As you can see, I have not forgotten that scene and moment.

The lesson that Carter and his staff apparently never learned was the importance of a President knowing and hearing directly from his most knowledgeable appointees and making sure they know and understand from him how and why he is reaching his decisions. As our current President stumbles, the lesson of 1979 may provide guidance for regaining his footing down the stretch of his political career.

Boomerang Effects of Good Intentions

We go through life full of the best intentions in how we behave and in being helpful to friends and neighbors.

More often than seems fair, those intentions go awry and we find ourselves digging out from under misunderstandings or worse.

For example, you say to your wife, “Honey, you look great today!” She says with annoyance, “You mean I did NOT look great yesterday?” You cannot win for trying.

You report to your boss that $17 is missing from petty cash for stamps. He goes nuts trying to find the culprit, who turns out to be you, because you forgot to record a purchase for stamps. New job?

You hear from the production manager that the last month was double the previous month. You mention that to your neighbor and the next thing you know you are arrested for leaking inside information.

You see bank robbers exiting a bank. You write down the license plate of the getaway car. You tell the police. The robbers are caught. They get out of jail and beat you up badly.

In class, the professor asks for volunteers to tell him the three key things he just taught. You raise your hand and reel off two and draw a blank on the third. Another genius adds the third and you feel like an idiot.

Is there a theme in all these homely examples? Perhaps the best thing for a person to do is to say nothing, remembering that no good deed goes unpunished.

For example: A factory worker takes his lunch daily in a brown paper bag. At the lunch bell, he sits in the corner with his buddies and takes a bite from his sandwich, then spits it out saying, “Peanut butter, bah!” One of the buddies asks, “Why don’t you get your wife to make something different?” To which the worker responds “Leave my wife out of this. I make my sandwiches myself!”

Go figure!

The Hidden “You” in You

There is a lot of fascinating work being done about how our minds work and how memories are formed, stored and recalled. I am full of admiration for those neuroscientists and claim no real ability to understand their science, but a fascination with what they claim those processes can do.

That said, I cannot figure out how I remember certain things from my earlier days other than that those memories/thoughts obviously struck me at the time as very interesting and worth remembering. Maybe there is a file drawer somewhere in the brain for such moments?

One of the courses I took at Harvard, which was then regarded as a “gut,” was the introductory course in Sociology taught by George Homans in the early 1950s.

What I learned in that course has been of great value to me in my career in law, investment banking and government because it gave me insights into how to get into other people’s heads and think like them. I have repeatedly found that ability -often very hard to achieve–essential to solving misunderstandings.

Two particular stories stand out among my memories.

At the end of the course, Homans said: “As you go out and on into life I plead with you to forget all the interesting and valuable things you learned in this course, particularly when it comes to being a parent.

If you think too much about what you learned here, you may be forever asking yourselves if you are crazy or if other people are. Remember, by definition we are all somewhere on the many continua of human behavior, including the abnormal. That does not mean that any of you are actually abnormal in the conventional meaning of that term. In fact if you were actually abnormal, you probably would not be sitting here now. So use your new knowledge carefully.

And, when it comes to your families, remember ONLY one thing. Just LOVE them. That will assure you will be a successful parent!

Unthinking love is for family. Thinking shrewdly is for the rest of life.”

After four children, nine grandchildren and five great grandchildren, plus a lot of negotiations in business, finance and government, I have concluded that Homans was absolutely right.

It is a rare academic who has the wisdom to proffer such profound advice.

He also told a related anecdote about his time studying in Vienna in the early 1930s. The famous Sigmund Freud was still practicing his analysis. Homans wrangled an invitation to meet the great man.

On the day of the meeting he took a streetcar downtown to Freud’s office. A lady got on the street car, with some difficulty because the little boy with her had both his fists clenched. He wouldn’t/couldn’t hold on to anything. She struggled to keep him safe on the rocking street car.

Homans thought that was odd behavior and quite interesting.

His interview with Freud went well and Freud asked whether he saw any interesting behavior lately. Naturally the little boy with the clenched fists immediately came to mind and he asked Freud what he thought that was all about.

Freud stroked his beard and thought for several minutes and finally asked, “Was that little boy you?”

Homans laughed and told Freud he thought it was a shrewd question, but no it was not him. Freud said to always beware of shadows in life.

Therein lies the hidden ME in me, which I think has served me well now for quite a spell.

Now all you have to do is find your hidden YOU.

The Role of Hammers in Life

We all discover hammers early in life, sometimes to our parent’s distress.

Hammers are, of course, used to drive nails mainly into wood to hold things together. They are used to bang things into place, break windows in emergencies and deliver a well-focused punch to some resisting object. People also hammer points home in arguments. In Japan the nail [person or issue] that stands up cries out to be hammered down.

We are taught to respect and be careful of the hammer because if it is misused, it can be quite dangerous.

One wonders when the hammer, as we know it, was first invented. Obviously, it was preceded by almost any hard object used to bang on or break some other hard object. One hopes the genius who figured how to combine all the elements into the modern hammer made out like a Steve Jobs in his/her day.

The value of a hammer, and what it can do, has been an interesting question for quite a long time. Generally, the use of the hammer is seen as just one small step in more extensive undertakings, and therefore it is not singled out for any special recognition or value.

Some years ago, a small specialty chemical company in Massachusetts built a new plant which was having trouble getting started after its completion. The managers hemmed, hawed, and fussed to no avail. Then the CEO had the idea to call in an MIT professor he knew to take a look. The Professor drove out to the plant about an hour away. He then walked around the plant for a half hour scrutinizing all its steps and pipes and then asked for a ladder and a hammer. They were supplied. He carefully put the ladder up against one particular pipe, climbed half way up the ladder, and sharply struck the hammer once on that pipe. Immediately there was a loud gurgling noise, which he told the managers indicated the plant was finally working. Then he went back to MIT.

About 10 days later the CEO received his bill which simply said “For services: $10,000.” The CEO thought that was pretty steep, so he consulted his board for advice. They suggested that he request itemization.

The professor immediately complied. “Services rendered: $5 for the hit with hammer, $9,995 for knowing where to hit.”

The bill was promptly paid.

So much for taking hammers for granted. Without the hammer, the $9,995 of knowledge would have been worthless!

PERSISTENCE MATTERS

There are a few aspects to human behavior that matter a lot in getting things done in life. Curiosity, imagination, flexibility and just plain grit are, of course, way up on any list of the most important of these traits.

One other characteristic is also very important, though it can be a two-edged sword. That is persistence. If one is too persistent, they can become a pest (and their own worst enemy).  But if one never pushes the normal limits, the chances of getting what one wants also begin to wane.

Many years ago, I watched with wonder as a colleague in the investment banking firm where I worked announced to us that he was going to get the banking business of a big Canadian tycoon who was famously aloof, unapproachable and tougher than nails. The only serious problem our colleague had was that he did not know this man or anyone else who knew him.

Accordingly he dreamt up a strategy of “hanging out” in this man’s office waiting room. He presented himself one day and said he needed badly to meet the man with some important and valuable information. He was told that he needed an appointment. He said fine; give me one. The answer was that the travel schedule was too up in the air, but if he would be patient they would see what they could do.

He waited; went away and came back over and over for days, then weeks. He saw the big man—who also saw him — many times.  One day when my colleague was hanging out in the waiting room– through which the man had to pass to get to his appointment schedule—the man paused and roared “Who the hell are you? You are not paying me rent for using my waiting room. What do you want?”

My friend, quaking in his boots having finally gotten the guy’s attention, said “You want me as your banker because I will make you even richer. Give me 10 minutes and throw me out, if you like. But, when you hear what I have to say, you will hire me!”

The guy said “Ok, it’s worth 10 minutes of my time to get you out of my office! Come in.”

They came out together 10 minutes later, and my friend ended up at the tycoon’s side for the next 10 years. The guy’s fortune grew ever larger while my friend did very well too! And, they remained friends forever.

So, what can one draw from this story? The chances of pulling that result off have to be about equal to winning a national lottery by oneself even if you buy a bunch of tickets.

The difference is that the lottery is pure, statistical chance. To break down a prospective client’s door to make a pitch takes guts, skill, charm, wit and, most of all, persistence.

I do not recommend this particular technique to anyone, even though it may inspire a few hardy types to be bold, never timid and go to the edge, if you feel well prepared and can afford to take the risk of failure.

Tell It to Grandma

A long bunch of years ago a young, cocky, and recently rich entrepreneur had been flying so high he had begun to believe he was out of reach of ground fire. When he suddenly hit an air pocket of reality he quickly became very worried and confused and sought advice on how to navigate the turbulence.

He came in to the investment firm in which I was a partner to explain his predicament and get ideas about how to get out of his hole. His immediate problem was an upcoming annual meeting and report to his shareholders, who were not yet aware of his problems.

He began with a long, convoluted and detailed explanation about how he got blindsided by a tricky lender. Various partners who attended a lunch with him asked questions and offered some ideas.

One was to make a tender and buy in his public shares.

Another was to seek a safe haven with a merger with a big rich company that needed some new dynamism.

Still another was to let the news get out and grin, bear it and plow ahead.

The last thought was pretty original. Open the kimono, show a more normal side of him and tell the story in a way not seeking sympathy but only understanding enough to buy him time to right the ship in a less stormy sea.

That idea sparked a lot of conversation about how to do that.

Hire a super PR genius to figure it out.

Appoint a committee of his board to write a report which he could use to buy time.

Put out a press release on Friday night before the long Memorial Day weekend.

And then the oldest, wisest man in the room, who was famous for being a three dimensional genius, said, “Do not listen to any of this drivel. Go home and write a letter to your grandmother explaining what happened in terms that you are certain she will understand. Confide that you made some mistakes, ones that you are now painfully learning from. Tell her that the basic business you started is still valid and will get back on a solid basis soon, if you can get folks to sit still and give you a chance. Do not show the letter to either your lawyers or PR geniuses; they would surely mess it up. And get to work and keep your head down.”

It worked. He got his chance and things got back on track.

Sadly, just a few years later he got into another, bigger jam. Ultimately he sold out, retired and died much too young.

Moral: Do not ever get drunk on your own whiskey, but if you do your grandmother might bail you out.

Healthy, Wealthy, Wise

As we begin seriously considering what the next decade holds for the U.S. health care system based on the elements of Obamacare, we must bear in mind that it is not simply how many people are covered and how many are not.

Crucial to the success or failure of the whole complex system is whether the many elements of the plan, that are largely invisible to the public, are able to make the whole health delivery system more efficient and more effective.

If that happens, which it will if all parties to the process collaborate, then the cost curve can be bent and total costs, as well individual costs, can be brought down to make the system relatively more affordable, and more credible to a public that has been swiftly losing confidence.

Many of these hidden parts have been in development since the law was enacted four years ago.

According to a number of reports, many are already showing real promise, including steps to make duplication far less necessary, methods to get medical records suitably protected in the cloud to be readily accessed from anywhere, efforts to make use of very expensive equipment much more effectively and further steps to make confinement in hospitals shorter and more efficient.

Far too many people are rooting for Obamacare to fail for ideological reasons. That is both a shame and shameful.

Congress has produced a prodigiously important step forward in national health care, the Supreme Court has upheld that law and the responsibility of all now is not merely to give it a chance but to actively participate in helping it succeed, because if it fails we all will suffer badly and those who wish for failure will inevitably be among those hurt. That simply makes no sense.

Whatever one’s views of individual mandates, keeping your own doctor or contraceptive coverage, the underpinnings of Obamacare offer the promise of stopping the skyrocketing costs that are threatening the quality and availability of coverage to the 55 percent of Americans who receive health insurance through their jobs.

So, the national goal ahead of us should be to work together to give Obamacare a real opportunity to succeed, which brings to mind a line I heard a few years back, well before Obamacare was a glint in many eyes.

I was with an old friend — actually at the time he was 94 — I asked him how he kept busy, and he said he had some kind of doctor’s appointment every day to deal with the inevitable things that come with age. He then added that he had come to the conclusion that, “A doctor a day keeps the apple away!”

Perhaps he was signaling that old-fashioned remedies — like eating apples — were not sufficient to prolonging life, but that modern doctors, given a proper chance to do their jobs right and a system that supports them in that pursuit, just might succeed.