Monday, November 29, 2010

Business and lowering costs

Rand's father was a businessman. Her character, John Galt, is a businessman. There is a general agreement among Rand's followers that being like a business makes delivery of services more efficient. So businessmen are highly prized. The basic presumption is that, in responding to market forces, businesses self-select from among competitors in each sector in a way that assure that the surviving businesses, over the long run, are those who have added the most enhancement to products and delivered them at lower costs. This generally-agreed point is flatly wrong and an unrecognized source of weakness in the American economy.
What makes it wrong is the belief within the company that the CEO hired from outside IS an incarnation of John Galt. The fact, however, is that CEOs are hired by corporate boards of directors. Boards of directors are made up of persons who are supposed to return value o investment to stockholders. In a circumstance where a board of directors hires a "John Galt," they will have hired someone with a track record of bringing other companies high levels of profitability. They will have negotiated a package of compensation that will have included severance. In this act alone, they will have fallen behind government in terms of efficiency. Any person who leads or administers services for government is hired at will. This means that when the board determines that the conditions warrant the removal of a leader or administrator, the person is simply removed and no further payment is made.
Positing that the Galts of the world are skilled enough and strong enough to know their own self-interest, the business boards of directors will have lost the battle with so strong a leader and offered the severance package. He is, after all, a John Galt, and therefore able to command what he wants. He, thus, seeks his own permanence which places his services outside of those whose services can be used efficiently. Businesses cannot get rid of their CEOs, and thus cannot lower costs. The hiring of a John Galt is, for the business concerned, a disaster.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Who is John Galt?

Throughout Atlas Shrugged, Rand keeps raising the question of who John Galt is, so maybe we should look at some of the things that may be known about this character. The first thing that we must acknowledge is that Galt is a character in a fiction. For all the advocates of living life in the manner and style of John Galt, be aware that Galt didn't really do so. The character is a made-up bunch of characteristics and speeches and actions about whom we are asked, as we should be in a work of fiction, to suspend our disbelief. So if we think that such a character could not possibly ever have existed, it's our task as readers to suppose that such a character did exist.
What Rand asks of us as readers is that we imagine a man who is completely self-made. The fictional Galt owes nothing to anyone. He is a highly imaginative entrepreneur. He is clearly able to address other people convincingly. He has the ability to organize many different people into action toward a common goal. He acknowledges no debt to society which comes from his having never received the benefits of the society's institutions. He is the ultimate outsider who is capable of delivering sound criticism of all that is wrong on the inside.
I have heard very little comment from Rand supporters that she builds a case that these are his characteristics. For instance, his entrepreneurship was supposed to have centered on his invention of a means of transport that takes advantage of ambient static electricity. Were Rand consistent with this as the source of Galt's financial independence, it would be expected that somewhere in the novel, people would have taken to using such transportation devices. But this doesn't seem to be the case. This great entrepreneurial success is roughly the equivalent of an inventor of a perpetual motion machine. Was it sold? Did anyone buy one? But, in our suspension of disbelief, Rand has asked us to withhold judgment about whether such a device defies the laws of physics. Galt was presumed to live lawlessly, and those of physics were no more valid than those of society. And why should we demand any physics knowledge from a writer who, like Rand, is just out to convince people of the truth of a particular point of view?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Winning by Degrees - misinterpreting by quartiles

News about another report for educators caught Howard's eye today. This one is called "Winning by Degrees: The strategies of highly productive higher-education institutions." Its producer, McKinsey and Company, did a workmanlike job of moving from "problem statement" to "conditions exacerbating problem" to "proposed solutions" to "exemplary attempts at imposing some proposed solutions" to "generalized principles that might be followed in proposing solutions in other places." These are typical stages of a study, and they should, indeed be mentioned. Because such studies want to be referenced in boardrooms where decisions are made and policies determined, the authors advocated 5 bullet points for inclusion in the discussion. Not one magic bullet, but five, are on display for those who seek to become more efficient at leading students to their educational goals. Here are the bullet points that will be taken away:

systematically enabling students to reach graduation
reducing nonproductive credits, contribute to raising the rate at which students complete their degrees
redesigning the delivery of instruction,
redesigning core support services, and
optimizing non-core services and other operations

The second point is one that will probably result in the greatest misinterpretation. This is where those whose desire is to turn collegiate education into trade school will, as they have before, propose that the traditional subject areas of the liberal arts and sciences are not productive and call for their removal from the curriculum. This was not what the report said. The report said that students often take more than 150 hours of credit on their way to a degree which calls for a minimum of 120 hours to complete. Increases of hours of credit are the kinds of events that usually follow events like the changing of majors, in which a path undertaken may wind up being neglected. In other words, few of a student's nursing hours can be counted towards the student's completion of a degree in political science. The key to resolving this, as recommended by McKinsey and Company, is better up-front academic advising that leads students to more efficient paths to completion. At no point in the McKinsey and Company report does anybody say anything about revising the content of the curriculum.

At this point, Howard acknowledges that he is fighting a straw man who has not yet appeared and made claims that certain parts of a curriculum are unworthy of being maintained. He has just seen this happen too many times. So he vows no more than a watchful eye at this point.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The absurdity of Rand hating altruism

Rand's childhood change from prosperity to poverty really hurt her. There's no doubt about it. And the the seizure of her father's store in the name of the people is the triggering event. What was supposed to have happened in the "worker's paradise" never came to pass. And from the failure of the worker's paradise to come to fruition, Rand draws the conclusion that people should make no attempt to care about others. Apparently, the "in the name of the people" is an indicator of attempts to do good for others.
Keep in mind that Howard was just sucker-punched by an educational institution. If he drew conclusions following lines of reason similar to Rand's, he would have to conclude that education is harmful, mean, and not to be pursued. But the ugliness of those individuals who made their list and stuck Howard's name onto it doesn't not automatically spread to the entire enterprise of education.

Who's Howard and why is he shrugging back?

As this blog begins, Howard is a 61 year old American white male who lives with his wife, Barb, in a slightly too big house on the Northwest side of Chicago. Every once in a while he is called upon to teach philosophy in a local community college or distance learning program. When he does, a week of the course is devoted to discussions of egoism vs. altruism, with chunks of Ayn Rand's writing pulled into the conversation to advocate the position of the ethical egoist. Rand's most famous work is a thousand-page-plus volume called "Atlas Shrugged." It has been a best seller, in some form or other, since Rand published it in 1957. The Atlas referred to is the character of Greek mythology who was condemned to forever support the world on his shoulders. Rand's original publication featured a cover illustration of a giant supporting the globe. Many who have read the entire work suggest that Atlas represents the brilliant person of business who, by virtue of his or her great strength, is the sole enabler of wealth and prosperity - in effect supporting all of humanity although not interested in or intent on doing so.
As it happened, Howard was RIF'd from his job on 22 October, 2010. The company that RIF'd him was the City Colleges of Chicago, where he had been an exemplary employee for over five years. 78 people lost their livelihoods one way or another by that RIF'ing. And loss of a livelihood is a darned good way to fall into poverty. Poverty was a fact of life too-well known to Ayn Rand. It is well known that she spent her childhood in Russia in times slightly before and slightly after the revolution that led to establishment of the Soviet Union. Before the revolution, Rand's father was an exemplary businessperson - establishing a small pharmacy that was successfully supporting Rand's family. After the revolution, Soviet soldiers marched into the pharmacy, took it over in the name of the people, and set the Rand family out with no resources whatever. Rand's life, in the absence of a livelihood for her father, changed dramatically from one of prosperity to one of poverty. This means that Rand had an experience somewhat similar to that of Howard.
From that experience, Rand developed ideas that were eventually to become a philosophical basis for extreme political conservatism. The basic idea of the conservative movement that would ultimately follow Rand, was that governments do not have a right to do anything in the name of the people and that they must be prevented from doing so by the strength of the leaders of business. Howard shrugs back that it is not the right of business to exert its strength in ways that hurt the little guy. Howard shrugs back that it is NOT the right of business to avoid taxation by claiming to be the only source of prosperity. Howard shrugs back that businesses are not entitled to tap into the common resources of the people in ways that enrich the few at enormous cost to the many. Howard is starting a blog. In it, expect that he will shrug back some more. Because Howard understands that businesses have no more right to steal than did the Soviets who took over the old Rand drug store. Howard will shrug when Atlas doesn't. Sometimes Howard will shrug when Atlas does. But, on way or another, Howard is about to start shrugging back.