Monday, April 27, 2009

Post No. 111: Been There; Done That

© 2009, the Institute for Applied Common Sense

We frequently suggest that in tackling problems, we examine history, starting with a minimum of 5,000 years, and as far back as 13,000.

However, we’ve come to the conclusion that history alone may not always be able to help us out of jams.

Alan Greenspan recently lamented that those principles he relied on for 40 years no longer apply.

An historian once noted that we should always proceed with caution when we think that the policies of the past can be reapplied, and will generate similar results.

We might do well to consult physics, and better understand the laws of static and dynamic forces. (These are older than humankind and history.)

In order to assess or address anything within a dynamic system, one must freeze or suspend all movement or change, of as many variables as possible, or otherwise isolate the component at issue.

We also know that slight tweaks (no, not tweets) of a variable can result in dramatically different results.

Logic dictates that the larger and more complex the system, the more difficult it is to manage or affect any part of it.

As comforting as it may be psychologically, to resort to playing marbles and pick-up-sticks, it is of questionable value to return to many practices of the past.

Imagine trying to reconstruct that romance which you had with that guy or gal back in school (altered state of consciousness or not), and hope that those old moves lead to the same results.

As a nation, we can never re-create the circumstances extant when prior practices and policies were implemented and applied.

The world may have changed every year back then, but it now changes every nanosecond. We need to recognize this, and conduct ourselves accordingly.

It’s actually lazy and simplistic to merely repeat the practices of the past, even if they were successful. It requires far more energy, commitment, focus, and innovation to craft appropriate approaches to new conditions, everyday.

Sitting on the sidelines and simply watching changes occur without responding also may not be the best tactic.

To suggest that our enemies or competitors have been sitting still, or that the conditions in our country have been in suspension, is just plain science fiction.

For years, Corporate America used large, 100 year old silk-stocking firms to perform its outside legal work. The Logistician and his partners sought that same work, somewhat successfully, by offering a lower rate. They were smaller, more nimble, had lower overheard, and more importantly, hungrier.

Yet, many corporations were reluctant to make such a change. If things went awry, someone would undoubtedly question why the referring counsel did something out of the ordinary, and did not stick with the tried and tested firms.

Hollywood’s like that. It’s far easier to explain why “Men in Black 12” did not generate record box office numbers, than a new concept.

But consider this.

If you‘re surprised about a development over a span of 30 years, like the demise of our educational and industrial systems here in the U.S., you probably were asleep at the switch, and not paying close attention to changes on an annual, much less a monthly, basis.

We all have a tendency to go through repetitive motions. They’re safe, familiar, less subject to scrutiny, and require less effort.

UPS had a marketing campaign which referred to “moving at the speed of business.” Hong Kong is a 24 hour business city. Imagine what happens to others when their business communities are asleep.

It’s the nature of competition, and the nature of change.

There’s been much noise about returning to the policies of Clinton, or Reagan, or Kennedy, or FDR. Quite frankly, returning to those dated tactics, no matter which side of the ideological line they may fall, may not be particularly helpful.

Those circumstances no longer exist, and will never exist again. And that doesn’t take into consideration the efforts to revise history.

We can’t duplicate the economic variables. We certainly can not re-create the psychological and social variables.

Going forward, we need to craft new procedures, new principles, new tactics. Ones that fit our current conditions, which have never existed before.

So to all of our politicians and policy makers out there, please detach yourselves from your ideological goals and preferences, and repeating that mantra about what you think worked in the past.

Try to figure out what’s most likely to work, TODAY, going forward, based on current conditions, and those we anticipate.

The world is far flatter than we once thought.


  1. Yet, that is what the current administration has done. And did it while demanding that spending bills be passed without deep consideration.

  2. I don’t think it is possible to divorce oneself from the past. That does not mean that we simply keep doing the same things expecting a different result. We are where we are because of the past we have experienced. There is value in the history, both in what we want to recapture with new energy, and what we have learned is no longer useful. To ignore these considerations is to lose part of our total strength. Also, it is impossible to do anything from this point forward that is not influenced by the past. The degree with which we are able to use it to thrust us forward and not as an anchor will determine how well we meet our future. While we may not put “new wine” in “old wineskins” nothing should keep us from using the old wineskin as a pattern for the new wineskin. It is the wine that is important.

  3. We observe over time that when we set a pot of water on the stove and turn the burner on high that it takes 10 minutes each time to begin boiling. We might conclude that water boils in ten minutes. In reality it boils based on its temperature not time. When looking back at history we must use the same discipline to discern what is applicable and what isn’t. We can see through out history that whenever government spends money they must take property from someone to fund it. Taking capital from the private sector reduces the potential for growth and the possibility of new jobs. (Keynesian economics has shown through time not to work)

    We can see from history the socialism doesn’t work. (Eventually the socialists run out of other people’s money – Margaret Thatcher) We know that countries unable to protect commerce must eventually rely on others for their protection and will eventually lose their self rule. Not educating the majority of a population for the purpose of controlling them and causing them to become wards of the state will eventually lead to the secure continuation of the oligarchy at the expense of individual freedom (China). Unrestricted immigration without forcing the immigrants to assimilate (to learn the culture and language) will result in the decline and fall of the host civilization (Rome).

    Perhaps some of these historical events may not have application but being ignorant of their occurrence is a very dangerous position to take for our population.

  4. Some interesting observations, Coop. The last tweaked my curiosity since I often muse about the so called fall of the Roman Empire. There seem to be as many reasons for the fall of that empire as there are historians. Some might even say it never really fell but simply eroded away over a hundred years or more.

  5. There seems to be a tendency for humans to want to maintain the status quo, yet be unable to keep it up. For whatever reasons (technology, increasing population, togas etc), society changes (which is why I'm more in the 'erosion' camp of imperial roman decline).

    I think the real difference today is the rate of change. A few centuries ago, your lifestyle wouldn't have been that much different to your grandparents, with the odd tweak hither and yon, but now the differences are far more extreme.

    Maybe historical decisions are just not dynamic enough to deal with modern dilemmas. It would be like using a rural village council's policies to decide on a global economic strategy.

    Although, that would be one hell of a village fete . . .

  6. As a practical matter, the same forces that made the Roman Empire great, contributed to its decline. It's the nature of most things. The trick is in recognizing when the decline is just beginning, and making corrections in a timely and surgical fashion.

    As you pointed out in one of your recent articles, there is a good side and a bad side to all conduct. Very few things are all one or the other.

    Think about how many of the exceptional athletes play past their prime. They always believe that they can pull it together, because the have exceptional talent generally far above their contemporaries. At some point, they can not.

  7. Yet, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

  8. Today, Sunday, at 2:00 pm EDST, C-Span2 Book TV will once again air a book discussion program involving "The Tyranny of Dead Ideas: Letting Go of the Old Ways of Thinking to Unleash a New Prosperity."

  9. Today, Sunday, at 1:00 pm EDST, C-Span2 Book TV will air a book discussion program featuring Edmund Andrews, and his book, "Busted: Life Inside the Great Mortgage Breakdown."

  10. At this moment as we type this, PBS (in certain markets) is airing a documentary on Herbert Hoover and the events leading up to the Great Depression. Some of the causes of the Great Depression might surprise you.


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