General Motors – Too Big to Fix?

14 April 2014 | By ken in Society | No Comments Yet

“Business Decisions” at GM

Could some companies be just too big to manage effectively? They may offer too many dark corners, too many layers of responsibility, too many opportunities for their executives to get distracted and forget.

Complex and intractable problems do not find solutions under such circumstances. On the other hand, these are ideal circumstances if you have anything to hide.

That seems to be what investigators and reporters are finding as they sift through over 200,000 pages of documents, looking into the Cobalt’s ignition problems that caused several deaths. The defects themselves were not hard to find – and indeed they had been found. Now two of the engineers who found them have been “suspended.”

It turns out that both of them were “deposed last year in a lawsuit filed against G.M. by the family of a Georgia woman who died in a Cobalt crash in 2010,” according to The New York Times. “In his deposition [one of the engineers] was asked by the family’s lawyer . . . whether G.M. had made ‘a business decision’ not to make the ignition switch stronger and less prone to failure.”
‘That is what happened, yes,’ he said.” (See, “GM Suspends Two Engineers.”)

But it took other documents to illuminate what exactly that meant. In 2004, “an engineer who was working for G.M., described the problem, but said, ‘After talking to Ray DeGiorgio [one of the suspended engineers], I found out that it is close to impossible to modify the present ignition switch.’”

“He added, ‘The switch itself is very fragile and doing any further changes will lead to mechanical and/or electrical problems.’”
“A month later, in March 2005, the inquiry was closed, partly because of cost issues, with this explanation: ‘The lead time for all the solutions is too long. The tooling cost and piece price are too high. None of the solutions seems to fully countermeasure the possibility of the key being turned (ignition turn off) during driving. Thus none of the solutions represents an acceptable business case.’” (See, “GM Documents Show Years of Talks on Flaw.”)

That seems to mean that the problem was too costly to fix. And that was that. The problem had been assigned, researched and then disposed of.

Clearly this is not the first time that problems have been “disappeared” in large organizations, and for sure it won’t be the last time. But what can be done about it? Will “business decisions” become the standard euphemism for abandoned dilemmas and ethical lapses? This is the kind of thing that gives big business and bad name

Mary Barra, GM’s CEO who is testifying before an angry and skeptical Congress, is under pressure to come up with something better. But Congress itself is notorious for short attention spans and easy distractions, and for sure it will move on. Will she?
Perhaps we could have a “Lost and Found” office for such problems, someplace to park them with someone assigned to remember their existence. That would not be a popular job, but perhaps the person could be paid enough to keep at it.


10 April 2014 | By ken in Society | No Comments Yet


“So what makes the obvious unsayable?” asks Paul Krugman in The New York Times.

He’s talking about the case for inflation, which is generally viewed as a bad thing. It conjures up people losing their life savings, watching the value of their earnings erode, and so forth.

But economists have known for some time that modest inflation is a good thing. It helps people in debt and it stimulates the economy. Krugman draws the obvious point, once you think about it, that moderate inflation is good for the poor, bad for the rich. If the value of money declines, the value of what you owe declines – and that’s obviously better for the poor as it makes it easier for them to get out of debt.
Not so good for the rich. If the value of money declines, the rich will be less rich.

So that is what is “unsayable.”


07 April 2014 | By ken in Society | No Comments Yet


We like to think America is exempt from the limitations of other countries, that we are richer, better, wiser, freer. But why is that so important to us?

To be sure, our founding fathers made a fresh start, free from established religion and inherited privilege, with extraordinary rights for individuals and wonderful opportunity. We were weak and poor then, but much of the rest of the world has caught up with us since, and with wealth and power our flaws have blossomed too.

Citizens of other countries have great affection and pride for their native lands, but we don’t hear them boasting of their superiority. It’s not required for their politicians to proclaim they have unique and morally superior destinies. So when surveys or objective comparisons show that we may not be No. 1 in every respect, we recoil.

That happened again when Nicholas Kristof reported in The New York Times on a new index of “social progress” that ranked us 16 out of 132 countries. The headline was “No, We’re Not No. 1. No We’re Not No. 1.” Kristof knew we would find that hard to accept.

According to his account: “This Social Progress Index ranks New Zealand No. 1, followed by Switzerland, Iceland and the Netherlands. . . . . The United States excels in access to advanced education but ranks 70th in health, 69th in ecosystem sustainability, 39th in basic education, 34th in access to water and sanitation and 31st in personal safety. Even in access to cellphones and the Internet, the United States ranks a disappointing 23rd.” (See, Kristof)

If an individual person had such difficulty accepting facts, we would attribute it to insecurity, an underlying fear he was not as perfect as he needed to believe he was. What can you say about a whole society? Does the explanation lie in our need for some unifying myths or creeds or counter an underlying doubt?

Since America is essentially a nation of immigrants, of people who have migrated here from divergent cultures, all we have in common is our citizenship and allegiance – and the memories of the promises that drove people to come to “the land of opportunity.” Having so many differences among us, perhaps we need a common creed that needs to be affirmed and reaffirmed, an article of faith if not an irrefutable truth.

Moreover, in coming here, our ancestors gave up so much, their languages, native customs, their cultures and their families. Belief in the superiority of their new country may be one of the few things they could all hold onto, especially given the inevitable fact that for many who struggled and sacrificed to make it here, the dream turned out to be not as perfect as it seemed at a distance it was going to be.

The report makes it clear how much things have changed. Kristof writes: ‘Ireland, from which so many people fled in the 19th century to find opportunity in the United States, now ranks 15th. That’s a notch ahead of the United States, and Ireland is also ahead of America in the category of ‘opportunity.’ . . . Germany is 12th, Britain 13th and Japan 14th.”

So, perhaps, this conviction of American exceptionalism is actually a sign of being exceptionally in need of myths and unifying beliefs, exceptionally diverse and uniquely desperate to find common ground on which to stand.


03 April 2014 | By ken in Society | No Comments Yet

Climate Change

If you know anything, you know climate change will never be reversed. The best we can hope for is a slowing down of the rate greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere. So we all already know “the worst is yet to come,” as The New York Times headlined its piece on the new UN report.

But why repeat the obvious?

My guess is that it is like raising our voice when we don’t feel we are being heard. The repetition is a sign of just how poorly the message is getting across.

As Mark Bittman put it: “when every scientist in the world [not] in the employ of climate change deniers tells us that we’ve long since passed the place where we could ‘turn back’ the effects of global warming, acknowledging its effects should be no more shocking than arising to a blanket of snow on the ground after having watched flakes fall through the night.”


31 March 2014 | By ken in Society | No Comments Yet

Much More Than Hunger

Poverty calls to mind starvation and inadequate clothing, leaky roofs, no doctors or medications for illness. But David Brooks recently reminded us of something even more important. The primary effect of poverty is “raw fear.”

“People in many parts of the world simply live beyond the apparatus of law and order. The District of Columbia spends about $850 per person per year on police. In Bangladesh, the government spends less than $1.50 per person per year on police. The cops are just not there.

“In the United States, there is one prosecutor for every 12,000 citizens. In Malawi, there is one prosecutor for every 1.5 million citizens. The prosecutors are just not there.”

Most of us take civil order for granted. To be sure, crime and violence exist – but, generally, they are exceptions. When they occur to us, we are usually shocked. And we usually feel safe on the streets, unless we live in a crime-infested, drug-infused decaying urban area such as Detroit was until recently. But that level of security was achieved a relatively short time ago. In poor countries it still does not exist.

Brooks adds: “Even when there is some legal system in place, it’s not designed to impose law and order for the people. It is there to protect the regime from the people.” The wealthy and the established, by and large, are immune from prosecution, and corruption means that being ‘privileged’ means having the right to do what you want with impunity. (See, “The Republic of Fear.“)

He concludes: the “primary problem of politics is not creating growth. It’s creating order.”

Brooks does not specify this, but it is implicit that such legal order inevitably includes human rights. Having rights means that you are entitled to make choices about matters affecting your values and beliefs, your desires and convictions. You can have opinions and inclinations, likes and dislikes. Some ideas are worth dying for, but that should not be the acid test against which our everyday impulses and thoughts need be measured.

If “raw fear” is the result of lacking physical safety, so can it flow from knowing that someone more powerful feels free to assault you or take what you have. It also shades off into anxiety and shame when you know they might, that it just has not occurred to them yet.

Those of us who enjoy these privileges tend to take them for granted. That’s the point of having them, not needing to check them out constantly. We simply know they are there –until they are not.

We are allowed to live on the surface of life, but that is part of what it means to be human. For the most part, we are able to see things as they are, without being paranoid or haunted or guilty.
Brooks reminds us how easily we forget that dimension of life.