Saturday, June 12, 2010

Preventive Maintenance

It is hard to read the opening remarks of Paul Volker's recent address to the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, whose transcript appears in the latest issue of The New York Review, without feeling that "I told you so" is embedded somewhere in the subtext. However, when we consider the current economic crisis in a broader view that includes other disasters, such as the fall of Enron, we realize that, from a philosophical point of view, we face an opposition of two fundamental strategies. One of the prevailing themes in both the book and documentary versions of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is that the only factor of importance was the bottom line on the balance sheet. If the numbers were good, nothing else mattered, which is basically a variation on the mantra, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." As a management strategy this directly opposes the more conservative view that all systems require preventive monitoring and maintenance, and the amount of maintenance required increases in direct proportion to the complexity of the system. This is why cars are sold with a booklet providing a maintenance schedule: You do not want to be in the position of worrying about how to fix it after the engine has choked up due to the absence of oil.

In the opening paragraph of Volker's address, he seems less distressed about how overt the warning signs of a downturn were than he was about "so little willingness or capacity to do much about it." Both of those nouns are important; and I realize that they seem to have provided me with an I-told-you-so moment of my own. Last November when I was on a run of posts dealing with the impact of the propagandizing efforts of the "consciousness industry" through mainstream media, I summarized my own assessment of the danger as follows:

Ultimately, the consciousness industry succeeds through undermining not only our capacity for reflection but also our will to reflect at all.

The same nouns are there, just in the opposite order; and it may be that the erosion of capacity is corollary to the erosion of will. Without will there is no motivation to reflect, particularly if one is trying to reflect on a system as complex as the financial mechanisms that had been cooked up by the "smartest guys" at Enron or their successors' efforts to turn massive amounts of debt into tradable commodities.

One of the oldest adages in politics is that people get the government they deserve. To the extent that government is also sustained by both willingness and capacity to run and maintain the system, this seems to be a principle that generalizes. People get the economic system they deserve; and, while we are at it, another generalization is probably that people get the health care system they deserve, too. Can we cram all of those principles into one teabag?

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