Sunday, June 19, 2011

Post No. 166c: We Try Harder; Do We Really?

© 2009 and 2011, the Institute for Applied Common Sense

In what areas is the United States still No. 1? Was it ever? Or was this exalted status something we told ourselves to boost our sense of pride and accomplishment?

Just this week, CNN reported that the U.S. is No. 38 in terms of the life expectancy of its citizens, far behind many nations which are poorer, and spend far less on health care.

In a previous post about the mark made by political thought giant Irving Kristol, columnist David Brooks wrote something which struck us:

“He [Kristol] was unabashedly neoconservative. But he also stood apart, and directed his skeptical gaze even on his own positions, and even on the things to which he was most loyal… ‘There are no benefits without costs in human affairs,’ he once wrote. And so there is no idea so true and no movement so pure that it doesn’t require scrutiny. There was no position in this fallen world without flaws.”

A question might be raised as to whether it would be a good thing for us, as a Nation, to acknowledge that others have surpassed us in certain areas, or are nipping at our heels. There’s lots of rhetoric these days about our “great nation” and how this is the most powerful nation in the history of humankind.

But resting on one’s laurels has its problems, as does continuing to do things the same way, simply because they worked in the past, or through rigid adherence to a particular philosophy.

The Father of one of our friends claims that golfer Tiger Woods can cruise now in his career, “since he has already made his money.” But whether it is Tiger Woods, or legendary basketball star Larry Bird, the existence of talent without continuing effort, and a desire to excel, yields few championship trophies.

In order for the Road Runner to have existed all of these years, he had to outrun Wile E. Coyote everyday, and come up with new ways to “out-coyote” him.

His survival is dependent upon his speed and agility.

A couple of years ago we watched C-Span2 Book TV's coverage of the 2009 National Book Festival, founded by former First Lady Laura Bush in 2001. That such a festival was only started recently might come as a surprise to many, but may reflect something about us.

Many of us consider a good education and the ability to read as givens. Yet, the percentage of functionally illiterate citizens in America would probably shock most.

At least those of us who can read.

A friend of ours spent some time teaching courses at a community college. He often tells the story of a student who, while taking a math test, summoned him. He told her that he could not assist her.

She noted that the issue was not a math issue, but a word issue. When he looked at the problem, she pointed to the word “suspension,” and said she did not know its meaning. Without knowing its meaning, it was impossible for her to perform the calculation necessary.

In response to this revelation, our friend decided that even in his math classes, his students would learn 10 new words each day. After announcing his new policy to his night class and the reasons for the change, a student approached him after class, and said that he was one of the people about whom the instructor had spoken.

When our friend inquired as to what the student meant, the student related an amazing story. He said that although he was not very proud of it, he got kicked out of high school one month before graduation, and did not learn to read prior to that time.

Imagine an educational system where a student can be promoted for 12 years, and still not manage to read. And consider the fact that no one single factor, teacher, school, or system can be singled out for this travesty. They all had to work in concert with one another.

One of our other friends has been in collegiate and professional athletics for years. He has always contended that he’d rather have a bunch of C grade players who hustled and gave their best, than a team of A grade players who didn’t.

After listening to the introductory speakers during the opening ceremonies for National Book Festival, it occurred to us that we have a long way to go in getting the most out of our human resources, and that acknowledging that many of our current systems are perhaps not the best in the world, might be a good starting point.

For some reason, this line of thinking made us re-visit one of the longest running marketing slogans around, that for Avis Rent a Car, the number two agency behind number one Hertz. “We try harder.”

We did not know who started this campaign, but we had a suspicion, and looked it up. And yes, it turned out to be another Bill Bernbach masterpiece.

Its beauty is in its simplicity.

It’s neither un-American, nor un-patriotic to question our standing in the world, and investigate whether what we’ve been doing is really in the long-term, national, collective interest.

Societal responsibility is not dramatically different from personal responsibility. A nation can’t complain about its standing in the world, if it hasn’t done all that it can do to excel, and use its human resources to the fullest extent possible. That includes equipping all of its citizens with competitive tools, and ensuring that they are ready for the fight.

And that’s just plain Common Sense.


  1. The concern by true conservatives is that change is not always good. Remembering the words again "There are no benefits without costs in human affairs", changes should be made only after careful analysis of known and possible consequences. In spite of the commonly held belief that conservatives simply oppose change, what they oppose is change for change's sake. Examine the choices made elsewhere in the world, try to understand the motivations and the environments in which they are proposed and executed. And, only after doing so, then go through a process wherein those changes are studied within the context of one's own society.

    Change in how we teach and handle those students who are having problems may be behind those students entering college without the fundamentals needed. I was in 6th grade with a 14 year old who had been "social promoted" despite the fact that he could not read more than his own name. We are better today because we have found learning disabilities and learned how to cope with them in teaching those having them.

  2. No form of anything lasts, or is appropriate, into pertuity. At some point, something has to change merely to survive or continuing to function.

    Assuming what got us here will keep us in that state if a fundamental flaw no matter which side of the aisle on which one sits.

    While we agree that change for change's sake is problematic, so is inertia for inertia's sake.

    For survival purposes, every day, an entity should be considering (not necessarily implementing) change.

  3. So we agree. Contemplate change, investigate change, and then, only if that change is warranted and necessary, implement it.

    Life is change. We should adapt to those changes (rather than vainly fight them outright) over which we have no control, change our approach (if it is compatible and actually addresses the problem without undue side effects) when needed, and try to anticipate future problems.

  4. Douglas:

    You indicated in a prior comment that you did not fault the corporations or American consumers regarding their decisions made during years past, despite the fact that they may have contributed to our current economic state here in the U.S. If we remember correctly, you felt that the system worked the way it was supposed to work.

    We believe that we posed the question whether something should be tweaked and you said no. Shouldn't we have done something differently in the past?

  5. The saviour of the world. Thank you for your treatment of this wonderful subject.
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  6. By the way Douglas, what are "true" conservatives?

  7. Thanks much sample CV for visiting our forum. Please come back often.

  8. They're the ones without the tails and horns.


  9. Done what? Not loosen requirements for loans so that those who previously could not qualify would then qualify? Perhaps. Perhaps the government under two administrations should not have encouraged home ownership. Dr. Thomas Sowell remarked that he had never heard of a right to have a house. Yet, we have made home ownership the epitome of "The American Dream."

    So, what should we have done? Encourage home ownership or not? Should we (meaning Congress) seen this coming and demanded the opposite of what it demanded?

    The system worked as it was supposed to. And then the government stepped in and tried to stop it from fixing itself thereby drawing out the pain unnecessarily (in my opinion).

  10. You have brought up perhaps 1 of 25 factors contributing to the current economic stagnation, commonly mentioned by politicians and the people they think support their views.

    Our original question was more systemic in nature, in terms of what tweaks to our socio-economic governance model might have been made.

    A couple of years ago, we heard a collection of economists and technology historians speak on a panel discussing what brought on this recent recession and what would be needed to get out of it. Interestingly, they said "the next great invention which impacts the entire world."

    They gave as examples, the locomotive, the car, nuclear fission, the personal computer, and the internet. They said that nothing of that nature, which inures to the benefit of the common person, had been developed in years.

    Our position? We need more creative people in society who invent things. How do we do that? Check with the experts and the technology historians and check out what have traditionally motivated people to invent things in the past, and implement those things.

    Oh, by the way, that argument used by some that tax policy encourages or discourages inventor / owners to do certain things or investment capital people to do certain things, is hogwash. They always find ways to pursue things that they feel are profitable and worthwhile, no matter what the then-current economic conditions.

  11. 'Spector,

    I finally managed to "re-acquire" my preferred user name, so I can once again post here. Hoo-ray.

    Since you seem to permit (encourage?) a certain degree of digression-from-topic, permit me to posit this observation vis a` vis “new inventions” (warning – extreme judgmentalism ahead):

    Whereas the environmental lobby wants America to be energy-independent;

    And whereas the want us to be thus without using those nasty crude oil deposits which lie abundantly beneath the surface of our nation;

    And whereas they have all sorts of brilliant ideas about alternative energy;

    And whereas they have for decades been demanding that government and industry develop these brilliant ideas which are “sure-fire money-makers”;

    And whereas they insist that people would embrace this alternative technology “If only it was brought to market!”;

    And whereas they have been beating this same drum for about forty years;

    And whereas it would seem to this observer that four decades is a sufficient time span for the ideologues in question to develop, finance and bring to market all of these “in-demand” alternative technologies for themselves;

    Then be it resolved that these geniuses should go the hell ahead and JUST DO IT instead of continuing to demand that government and industry do it for them!

    There: I feel better now.

    The Independent Cuss

  12. Independent Cuss: Glad that you got the issue resolved. By the way, the Disqus notifications have been different for about 7 days. Maybe that had something to do with it.

    Some would argue that in America, it does not exist, if one can't make money off of it.

    To borrow the lyrics from a Bobby Womack song, "It Ain't Commercial."

    In certain parts of the world, folks love fried chicken. Opening up a Koo Koo Roo Chicken franchise there (which is grilled, skinless chicken basted with a tomato sauce) would be sheer folly. It does not matter if eating skinless chicken is considered a healthier option.

  13. Thank you very much for your kind comment on my blog.
    You have an interesting forum here.

  14. Hmmm, I don't know what happened with my Google ID before but I am from:

  15. Thanks much Nicholas V for paying us a visit. Please consider returning on a regular basis.

  16. Independent Cuss brought up something interesting. And the Inspector offered the usual counter argument. I agree with you both... to some degree.

    My SIL complains that Big Pharma, for example, keeps us from learning about those ancient "natural" cures for everything from gout to diabetes. She also believes the story of the 100 MPG carburetor and that the automotive industry bought the patent and hid it away.

    I say that "How does that explain why no one else in the world ever managed to duplicate the invention?"

    You see, if a product, a device, a method, an energy source, a cure for cancer, etc. that benefits all mankind could be found by one person or group then it could be found by another, somewhere else. Most inventions happen in several places at once, in similar forms. The marketplace then determines which is "better." I offer the story of videotape formats. Clearly, Beta was superior to VHS. Except that VHS offered longer record time, was distributed to more machine producers, and was cheaper for the customer.

    We can apply that lesson to energy sources. Oil is cheap, even at today's prices (which are artificially inflated), and ubiquitous. It replaced whale oil, which was not cheap, not ubiquitous, and was a bit hard on the whales. In the early days of the automobile, there were three main propulsion systems: gasoline, steam, and electric. The market chose gasoline because it was cheaper, more efficient, and more reliable.

    In the 50's, there was much hope for nuclear energy to provide electricity. It was said that it would make electricity so cheap to produce that the meter would go the way of the buggy whip and power companies would charge flat rates for power. Didn't work out that way, did it?

    But people still dream, still tinker and invent, and maybe a reliable, safe(r), relatively inexpensive, energy source will be discovered. They will do this in spite of a lack of government funding because the potential rewards are enormous.

    We learn this lesson over and over but it never seems to sink in.

  17. Douglas:

    Very nice discussion. We agree with roughly 93% of what you have to say - factually and historically.

    But here's our problem with the analysis, and we've said this on numerous occasions. We quite frankly don't know, and we seriously doubt that others can prove with any degree of accuracy, that in the field of human affairs and activities, doing X results in Y.

    We are not dealing with physical science parameters.

    All political parties, and all proponents of various policies and private / non-profit/ corporate / governmental entity action, claim that they have the solution, and no one really does. If the solutions were that clear cut and obvious, then there would be no debate / discussion, and we would just do V and get W..

    Here's the other thing. We frequently speak of "governance models." No two models in the world are the same. There are at least 203 sovereign states in the world. There are perhaps a minimum of 2,743 components to each, and figuring out that 2 or 3, or even 25 of the components dominate, and dictate success or failure, seems an intellectual reach to us.

    In some models, a certain degree of governmental involvement works, and in others, it does not. We seriously doubt that anyone can even quantify that optimal amount. Is it 5%, 23%, 47%, 63%? We don't know, and we doubt anyone does.

    Now, that being said, it is a different notion, and a different argument, if a people or society chooses to pursue a goal IN A PARTICULAR MANNER. Some may prefer socialism, some may prefer autocratic dictators, some democracy, some local power, others federal power. But this notion that one thing works and another does not concerns us, since it limits our search for solutions to very complex, global, interconnected problems.

    As the Laughingman used to say, if you think that every problem is a nail, then you'll think that every solution involves a hammer. We as humans on this earth have the capacity to be far more creative and effective than that. If we'd just put our personal preferences aside and focus on solving the problem.

  18. Douglas wrote:

    "My SIL complains that Big Pharma, for example, keeps us from learning about those ancient "natural" cures for everything from gout to diabetes."

    Fascinating. While we acknowledge that certain forces have tried to destroy depositories of human knowledge since the destruction of the Great Library in Alexandria, Egypt, ....

  19. We don't really disagree as much as you think on this. We very much agree that relying on one entity to do everything (or maybe even on important thing) is not the best idea. I just like to err on the side of non-government directed enterprise.

    What some people or society prefer is irrelevant to me, what actually works is important. I came to this belief by moving around the country and working in different offices for the same company. The job was the same, the goals were the same, but the methods preferred were different, I am talking about the paperwork, tracking, priorities, and such.

  20. Nicholas,

    Welcome to the sandbox; glad that you joined us. Vis a` vis user I.D.s: you are now in Disqus territory, pardner, and the familiar forum rules no longer apply. Disqus assigns to you any screen name they decide that you should have, and they posts comments in an order which is utterly baffling to me (though I am told that it makes sense . . . sort of).

    My advice: do as I did and open a free Disqus account so that you can at least choose your own screen name.

    Oh, and don’t count on getting e-mail notifications when a new post is made on a forum thread to which you subscribe – I haven’t received one in weeks. Rather, check your Disqus threads regularly for updates.

    Did I mention that I am the local curmudgeon . . ?

    The Independent Cuss

  21. Douglas referred to "non-government directed enterprise." What "government prodded" or "government encouraged" enterprise? We will tell you this, in the private sector we see people run faster, and work harder and longer, since they are more motivated by a host of factors.

    But whether the government should run or control an entity is a different issue than whether the government should encourage, promote, or facilitate certain type of pursuits. Our problem with the pure private sector model is that it is chaotic, helter-skelter, checkerboard in nature, and does not encourage coordination, and does not make long range plans.

    We, as a nation, will never come up with just the right mix, and we'll never even figure it out, because of who we are as a people. We will fight each other over our conflicting ideologies to the death, while other countries with more autocratic and less democratic systems will prevail economically, at least in the short run.

    Some contend that the essence of who we are as a people is fighting over how to do things, and that much of what occurs in this country can be explained by this perpetual conflict. Sometimes, and in certain areas, that's a good thing; in others, not.

  22. Thanks Independent Cuss for the information which you shared with Nicholas V in particular, and our readers in general.

    Disqus is a Web 2.0 ( vehicle. As with many things in life, riding the technological evolution wave is more difficult at times than riding a surfboard.

  23. If you want to see the mind blowing article with real facts and figures, this has really tremendous impacts on readers.

  24. The SyFy Channel is conducting a Twilight Zone marathon today. We just finished watching an episode where a 5 year old boy's grandmother is so in love with him that she dies on his birthday, and gives him a toy telephone so that he can speak with her on a regular basis when she is gone. During one of the conversations, she convinces him to commit suicide so that the two of them can be together.

    When the paramedics arrive, they use the latest medical technology during their efforts to save the child. While we watched the scene, we said to ourselves that the child would have a higher probability of survival today, in light of the advances in medical equipment technology.

    But then we recalled the CNN article referenced above about the U.S. being No. 38 in terms of life expectancy.


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