January 9, 2009
Defect Analysis and LiberalismBy Paul Carlson
Liberals are on the ascendant, and conservatives are working hard to regroup. Unfortunately, many of the voters in the recent election would not be able to define either of those terms, much less describe their underlying history and principles.
What are the primary differences between liberals and conservatives? Readers of American Thinker are familiar with many, such as groupthink versus individualism, government programs versus private charity, and good intentions versus actual results. In this column I'll endeavor to present something new.
This is not familiar territory for many readers, so let's take it in steps. Say you are a factory boss, who manufactures widgets. Your plant employs a hundred people, and accepts a dozen truckloads of raw materials per day. From your freight docks pour forth thousands of top-quality widgets.
Then some trouble develops. There are many more defective widgets than usual, and your assembly line foremen haven't isolated the problem. Your profits, if not the entire operation, are in danger. For a smart boss, the next step is to call in an expert.
One friend of mine is just such an expert, an engineering consultant who troubleshoots at factories worldwide. He'll use precise tests and measurements, general observations and psychology, and special logic and algorithms.
In our recent discussions, my friend has applied this precise engineering viewpoint to a wider situation: liberals and conservatives, and how they deal with social problems. To make this leap, one must grasp certain terms and concepts. (These ideas were first developed by a man named W. Edwards Deming.)
"Special and common causes of variation" are bone-dry engineering terms normally utilized for quality control. "Human factors" are mentioned, but only within the context of a factory and its workers.
A successful troubleshooter will soon discover the problem(s) underlying those defective widgets, and the reason(s) the factory's output has varied (dropped) from the expected standard.
It may be due to antiquated machinery. This is one type of "common cause" variation, and the solution may require the installation of expensive new machinery, or perhaps a major adjustment to the entire assembly line. Such trouble is slow to develop, and can be predicted over the long term.
However, in what is termed a "special cause" variation, the problem may instead be transient. One batch of substandard raw material, or one inattentive worker, can also cause defective widgets. That type of problem cannot be pinpointed in advance, but fortunately, a simpler (and far less costly) solution is called for. Better materials must be run through the line. A lousy worker must be retrained or let go.
These ideas of common and special causation apply to more than factories. A familiar example of "special and common" variation involves commute drive times. Traffic jams are "common" (in both an everyday and engineering sense), and have an average effect on one's commute. Your drive time will vary from day to day, but it's predictable overall. However, occasional "special" factors (again, used in both senses), such as an engine breakdown, will also affect your commute. These cannot specifically be foreseen.
Therefore, identifying a problem's cause, and type of cause, suggests the best way to accomplish your commute. You don't have to spend millions to widen the entire road when it's your engine that is broken. Repainting the road stripes will not help when an individual persists in driving while drunk.
This common/special engineering analysis can be applied to virtually every social problem, and proposed government solution. You don't need to rejigger an entire factory every time one batch of defective material, or one careless worker, is what's actually messing up the operation. But that is the sort of thing liberals in government often attempt. They plan to alter the whole of society via massive programs, when strange glitches old and new, and quirky human foibles, are the real problem. In other words, looking toward the next four years, a plethora of unpredictable flaws will just mess up that smooth socialistic "Yes We Can" vision.
The concepts of common and special cause also work in understanding why politicians do what they do. Liberals tend to assume that all social problems are "common," to be addressed by redesigning the whole system. They always call for some new congressional or regulatory or judicial action to impose a blanket "solution" that seldom works. Domestically, such blunt measures usually create new problems, and exacerbate others. Internationally, vague ideas about "America's image abroad" lead to naïve assumptions that a new President will make this country beloved everywhere.
Conservatives tend to assume that all social problems are "special," best handled by a specific tweak addressing that singular case. Thus the best way to fight crime is to prosecute each criminal, even though this does not address the reasons why new criminals will pop up. Internationally, terrorists are best dealt with militarily, often via pinpoint strikes, while PR specialists can worry about America's image later.
The Presidential winner's policy statements read "Obama will," over and over again, followed by glimpses of an unlikely Paradise. Such assurances are made despite the constitutional role of Congress, and the constant influence of lobbyists, not to mention actual public opinion. Plus, this assumes Obama's proposed initiatives are flawless, which (as we've seen) they cannot be, and for multiple reasons.
To be specific, Obama's proposed energy policy can be compared to altering the raw material stream through a widget factory. The supplies (various sources of energy) are both costly and unreliable, and the national economy (the factory) tolerates no letups. Yet an eco-leftist ideology, in trumping any clear analysis, virtually guarantees failure.
Regarding education, that field is laden with ineffective workers: a massive bureaucracy plus too many lousy teachers. Rather than one difficult worker, who might be retrained, there are thousands entrenched at every level, protected by Obama-friendly teacher's unions. By their very nature, all Federal initiatives are blunt instruments, which can only mal-adjust the assembly lines that are public education, and create both "common" and "special" type problems.
The Federal government, and the President's cabinet especially, have gained unprecedented powers. Sweeping promises have been made, and massive "solutions" will soon be implemented. The USA is about to see misguided and expensive tinkering on a huge scale. All for a "common cause" that does not exist.
Paul Carlson lives in northern California. A variety of articles and projects can be found on his web domain.