Of Burgers-Fries and Excellence

Photo by Peter Dawn on Unsplash

My favorite local hamburger joint is the simply named “Burger Shack.”  The hamburgers are good, made to order, with an option for a gluten-free bun; prices are decent.  Where this joint completely outshines the crowded competition is that the fries are far and away the best around.

One might think that with a commonplace menu centered on burgers, fries, and milkshakes the fare could easily become mediocre.  There is plenty of that available in the surrounding culinary community.  The national mass-production chains cater to the market for mediocre.  They had occupied the so-so field for so long that it appeared that all the burger rivalry was solely among the giant mediocrities, working hard to find new ways to repackage and remarket the same thing, becoming more alike in their efforts to appear different.

Who knew that people—lots of people—could be attracted to excellence in burgers and fries?  A few daring souls made a go at the chance that there may be customer demand for more than mediocre.  The market allowed it and rewarded it.  Competition to rise above mediocre has become fierce, with customers benefitting from the choices offered.    

Not that I would forbid mediocrity.  Mediocrity is O.K., as far as it goes, but only O.K.  I am happy that there can be more.

Enjoying better burgers, pleased with better shoes, and glad for better dentists, I find the insistence on mediocrity and the outcry against excellence astonishing.  How frequently we encounter voices decrying competition, seeking to standardize everything by treating everything and everyone the same!  Is that what people really want?  We used to have a shelf full of trophies “won” by our children just for showing up.  We failed to convince the kids to take them to their own homes for display.

More astonishing is the assertion that celebration of mediocrity and condemnation of competition promote diversity.  The theory is that diversity cannot compete in a system that rewards excellence.  What is the alternative prescription for diversity from these levelers?  They demand removal of standards that applaud excellence in achievement or that recognize merit in performance.

Reality reveals opposite results.  This leveler ethic promotes either or both of two outcomes.  First, things tend toward the same as differences are discouraged; efforts that improve performance are placed at risk of suppression.  Second—alternatively or concomitantly—the levelers who rise above to be in charge of administering this doctrine decide recognition and advancement, and they do so based on whatever standard suits their fancy or is then in vogue.  Such standards tend to be unmeasurable, subject to whim, suiting the arbitrary caprice of the chief levelers.

In short, diversity is always in danger in the tyranny of mediocrity.  No one must be more beautiful, according to the day’s definition of beauty.

For a time the big burger chains, which initially arose by offering a better, excellent idea (until the idea became standardized) put the local mom and pop joints out of business.  Markets, though, have allowed competition to work its magic, tolerating room for some intrepid innovators to test customer interest in burger excellence.  Some succeed.

There comes the levelers’ claim that competition is inhuman, or at least unkind.  It supposedly disadvantages those who are not excellent, who are only mediocre.  Since not everyone can excel, this competition must be stopped.

That claim is inhuman and unkind.  People everywhere are mediocre or less than mediocre at some things, but each can do something better than someone else can.  The variety of talents and gifts is constantly amazing (and sometimes amusing).

If mediocrity standards are imposed, however will we discern the excellence that each has to offer?  Each person may be stymied from discovering what he or she is best at doing.  How does one find the divinity in his or her humanity, embedded in the unique gifts from God awaiting to be developed?  How many advances will be lost? We will be poorer for the loss.

I do not know how long it took the owners of Burger Shack to find out that they could offer an excellent product.  Perhaps they are still finding out.  While the year’s virus restrictions play to the advantages of the big, national firms, the last time I was at Burger Shack it was booming, even under the restrictions.  If allowed, people find a way.

Of Incentives and Jobs

Remember the early days of the recession and its intensification by the policies of Washington? Remember how the politics of envy ended up causing more job losses as the demagogues in the White House and on Capitol Hill lambasted incentives employers offered to successful employees? Good thing that the politics of envy are now behind us, that we have all grown up and recognized how foolish it all is to feel better by pulling other people down. Then again, maybe my blog post from 2009 still has some relevance today.

Weird things happen when we decide by law who should have jobs and who should not and we order how people and businesses should spend money. I am not referring to the legality of telling people who receive money from the government how to live their lives and run their businesses. I am referring to the wisdom of it. And by “weird” I really mean “bad.”

On Friday a press release came across my desk, issued by seven travel-meeting-event industry trade associations. Their basic message was that the public beating up of companies over the meetings they hold and the incentive programs that they have for employees is killing the travel, tourism, and meeting industry and the people who work in it. They estimate that 200,000 jobs were lost in that industry in 2008, and a larger number of job losses are predicted for 2009.

Even the old communist governments figured out that workers respond to incentives. Under the power of incentives people work harder, smarter, and more creatively. They may even enjoy their work more. Sometimes incentives that take the employee out of the normal routine can be very powerful. If left to their own devices, businesses will experiment with different packages of incentives to guide their employees into the most efficient ways to accomplish company goals and objectives. Will they get it right? Often they will not. When they get it wrong, they try something else.

What is the best set of incentives, and should the incentives include travel and recreation programs? I do not know, and neither do you. No one has enough information, smarts, or involvement to know. You may know what works for you, but are you willing to say that others should be offered the same rewards or that you should be given the same incentive program designed by someone somewhere else or in some other line of work? Everyone meeting company goals gets a set of golf clubs. That may work fine for Harry, but how about for you?

While it may be lots of fun to rant about businesses sending employees to Florida for a weekend, do we have any idea how that might figure into the incentive programs in those businesses? If you take that option away, what other option will work as well or as efficiently? Again, I do not know, and neither do you.

Up until recently, I did not have to know or pretend to know. We left it for businesses and their employees to figure out. In view of the efficiency of our businesses–which efficiency continued to improve and lead the world even in 2008–American businesses have been getting the incentives much more right than wrong. When we decide to make those decisions for other people, especially when we try do so through government force, we can be pretty sure we will get it wrong. Who wants to explain to the 200,000 travel and tourism industry people who are in danger of losing their jobs why businesses should not be holding meetings in Williamsburg or San Antonio or Nashville? Step up now; a frozen turkey if you get it right.

(First published February 8, 2009)

Of Washington and the Life of the Nation

Washington, D.C., is a strange place. I speak from experience. My whole working career has been in Washington. In many meetings with people visiting Washington I have explained to them that Washington is not America. Few have been surprised by the remark. In many visits away from Washington (and in connection with my work I accept nearly every invitation to leave town and be among those whose lives too many in Washington try to run) I am ever and powerfully reminded how different the rest of America is from Washington. I have not been surprised. Kansas City is much closer to America than Washington ever was or will be.

In support of the point I offer a few painful examples. I see one each day that I drive into the city. Looking at the cars around me I note that very few are more than a few years old. At the same time I am impressed by how many of the cars are foreign luxury models. It is typical, when paused at a stop light, to notice that many of the surrounding cars are BMWs, Mercedes, Lexus, Acuras, Audis, and not an insignificant number of Jaguars, high end Range Rovers, and Porsches. I also see a lot more Prius cars and other hybrids. This is not to say that there is anything inherently wrong with driving any of these or any other late model high-priced cars. I merely note it as very different from what I see when paused at a typical traffic light in other cities and towns in America.

As an aside, I am grateful to the people who buy and drive a Prius or other model of hybrid, because they subsidize my purchase of gasoline. Their cars do use less gasoline (though not enough less to compensate their owners for paying so much more for their cars), leaving more for people like me who drive regular gasoline-consuming vehicles. That reduction in gasoline demand helps reduce the price.

The Prius drivers might be offended were I to tell them, however, that I am entirely unimpressed by their conspicuous token of environmental sensitivity. Their purchase and operation of a Prius, after all, is very likely more harmful to the environment than is my more conventional automobile. First of all, they pay $10,000 or more extra to buy their hybrid, and if the price system works at all efficiently that means that making a Prius or other hybrid consumes far more in resources than making a conventional car. Second, the hybrid car fans and their coteries in the D.C. area have convinced the masters of the highway networks to create special less-traveled commuter lanes that the hybrid drivers are permitted to use, meaning that they reduce the efficiency of the highway infrastructure. So, to the Prius drivers of the world I say, thanks for the subsidy, but save your enviro lectures for when you are looking in the mirror.

The automobiles of the nation’s capital region are a sign of an even more painful reality of how Washington is different from the rest of America. It is also the wealthiest part of the nation, by far. On April 25, 2013, Forbes magazine published an article about the richest counties in the United States in terms of average income (Tom Van Riper, “America’s Richest Counties”). Six of the ten richest counties are in the Washington, D.C. region, including the top two and one more out of the top five. While recession lingers in the rest of the nation, Washington and its suburbs are doing rather well, with unemployment down to 5.5%, well below the national average.

I will also say that I am not opposed to wealth and wealthy people. I wish all of the world to be wealthier and rejoice that it is far wealthier today than people of just a few generations ago could have dreamed. But we could all live so much better still. I ache that the policies of governments around the world stifle economic growth and development and hold so many of their people down in poverty. The poor nations of the world are not poor because their people are less talented and intelligent than others, but because their governments are so oppressive and have been for generations.

Therein lies my beef with the wealth of Washington and its environs and the key to its estrangement from America. That wealth is hard to explain from the perspective of value added to the rest of the nation. Washington is basically a one-company town. Unlike other one-company towns, however, it produces little that adds enough value to the lives of others that would allow it to prosper in open competition in free markets. The product of Washington instead is forced upon the rest of the nation, whose productive income is confiscated to keep the Washington wealth-eating machine going.

Try to name an economic product or activity that is not somehow subject to special handling by or permission from someone in Washington or controlled from Washington. After the Dodd-Frank Act, for example, all financial activities have become more subject to direction by Washington bureaucrats than ever before. Today, a bank has to pay more attention to its regulators than it does to its customers. Who gets the best attention out of that arrangement? The same is true for energy producers, communications firms, health care providers, and you can continue the list. All that special handling comes with a toll, payable in taxes, or borrowed from the financial markets, or layered upon private incentive and individual initiative. Today in Washington the most convincing argument for new rules and laws is to announce that something is “unregulated.” When you regulate liberty, how much liberty survives? How much of America survives?

Next year, 2014, will mark the 200th anniversary of the burning of Washington by the British in the War of 1812. The curious thing about the burning of Washington was that it did not make a lick of difference. The rest of the nation went on about its business, little harmed or even affected. The same was true during the Revolutionary War when the British occupied Philadelphia. Rather than end the war it did nothing to bring the British victory. In America the nation was not run by its government, and in fact government was mostly irrelevant to the daily life of the people. That was very different from European experience, where nations were so dominated by their rulers that capturing the capital was tantamount to beheading the country.

Washington is strange to America. That can be tolerable, but only if it is smaller and less significant. Let the real nation draw its life from the people and live where they live their lives without direction from their rulers. Let us have a Washington whose disappearance would not mean much to the rest of the nation.

(First published May 18, 2013)

Of Hope and Just Getting By

Working in Washington, D.C., and living in the D.C. suburbs as I do, I am fond of saying that I eagerly accept opportunities to get away from the Capital region and spend time in real America. That has always been a bit of an overgeneralization, expressing a usually correct but not unerring description. Washington is not real America, but there are parts of this nation that have already gotten ahead of where the smart people of Washington have been able to take the nation. Those places are not what I mean when I refer to real America.

Our large, industrial states are examples of misrule by those who assume that their ability and right to rule, and the inexhaustibility of the wealth of their cities and states, are given and immutable. Wrong on all assumptions. These states, once beacons of progress, growth, and development, are wastelands of decline: economic, social, moral, and even demographic. Millions of people—those who could—have been leaving these states for decades.

The recent bankruptcy of Detroit is a prominent symbol of where this misrule leads. At its prime a bustling metropolitan center approaching two million in population, Detroit has been steadily falling from its prime to a dilapidated city of barely 700,000 who remain to wonder where have the productive people gone, and what is to be the future?

I recently returned from spending several days in such a place, mixing with, talking with, associating in the daily lives of the ordinary people living there, people with whom I had lived as a wide-eyed teenager a generation before. I am not referring to the urban center of the state. The region I visited has been for 150 years a mixture of industrial and rural economies, and as I recalled, a happy mix. Now the villages and towns are actually smaller than in my youth and shrinking. The number of productive enterprises is fewer and those that remain, smaller. The schools have remarkably fewer students and struggle with how to keep their programs going with declining enrollments. The largest employers are the instruments of government welfare services—as well as a couple of new state prisons—and the local hospital network.

The people were friendly and pleasant, yet something did not feel right. I understand the wisdom that “you can never go home” if you expect to find all the same. I expected change. New technologies were present, hand-held electronic devices ubiquitous, a fair number of new cars, if not the foreign luxury models so common in Washington. It was not, though, a happy place of happy people. Why?

It was only near the end of my stay that I recognized the ailment. The region has become a land of small hope, particularly small hope of progress. People there were not living their lives to get ahead, to advance, to build a better future (I cannot recall seeing a single new house in the several days of my visit, though the dump north of town is working on its third mound). Most of the people in these formerly vibrant communities, with what I remember as bright expectations for the future, were now living their lives to get by, just to get by, to get on from day to day, holding on to what they have.

Taxes are high, so it is not easy to keep what you earn. Regulation makes it hard to do anything new. For those reasons, businesses have been leaving, and so have the talented youth. Talk with the people about their daily lives, and not long into the conversation the problems of wrestling with this or that regulation or working with some officious government apparatchik will come up. And yet so many of the people expect the solution to their problems to come from some new government program or service rather than from their own effort.

I say “most” of the people are so ailing. There are a few exceptions, and interesting ones. Two religious groups seem to be growing—and not the establishment churches, whose places of worship, grand and beautiful buildings, eloquently testify to bygone days of prosperity but now show signs of neglect. The two groups are the Latter-day Saints, whose Church was founded in the area nearly two hundred years ago and whose membership is growing steadily, and the Amish/Mennonites, who in recent years have moved in strong numbers to take advantage of neglected farm land. There are also some very prosperous farm businessmen, also gathering up land and putting it into obvious productivity. Finally, I would mention the growth of mini-wineries, although this latter movement seems after about 25 years to be approaching maturity.

Hope is an essential ingredient in happiness. Hope comes from the belief that a desirable future is attainable, so much so that it draws out extra effort to realize its promise. Genuine hope in your own effort can be contagious, and those who have it can help revive communities. You cannot do much to give hope without that personal effort, but hope comes naturally with that effort and the opportunity to keep the fruits of one’s efforts. Our nation’s founders were filled with hope and with it created the greatest nation on earth.

There is no hope, though, in just getting by. In the end, you cannot get by if getting by is all there is to your hope. No future there, only decline. For hundreds of years people have been leaving their lands where they struggled to get by and have been coming to America, to them a land of hope and the freedom that feeds hope. When I leave Washington to look for America, that is what I am looking for. I hope to find it ever.

(First published July 20, 2013)

Of Liberty and Breaking the Rules

Sometime in the 1990s, before the days of YouTube, I received a homemade video from a man who owned and operated a small business near Dallas, Texas. He ran a landscaping company, had a handful of employees, and, according to the video, was in violation of some rule or regulation of the federal government every day. He did not intend to be in violation. He did not want to be in violation. As he explained, it was just impossible to comply with all of the requirements.

The video began with the owner sitting behind his desk, explaining the problem. He stood up and took the camera with him as he walked through different parts of his operations, pointing out what was required of him, his business, and his colleagues.

In the main office he described the employment rules, the tax laws, the related mandates and regulations that applied because he had hired other people. He walked over to the equipment and described the numberless “safety hazard” regulations, from warning notices that had to be glued beneath the seats of garden tractors, to how he and his workers used, carried, and stored their tools, gear, and machines, and what they were supposed to wear while using them. He discussed the multitude of formal requirements for managing and applying the fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals that are commonly used in his business, including their handling, storage, clean up, and their transportation. Speaking of transportation, because his company used trucks and other vehicles, there was another long list of rules and regulations that applied to that part of the firm.

Added to all of this, there were numerous reports, applications, notices, and other papers to be filed with a variety of agencies on a regular basis. When he was through, he sat down again behind his desk and said, “I break the law every day. I don’t intend to, but I cannot avoid it. I can’t keep up with it all as long as I stay in business.”

How did we get here? Is this America? Is this the land of the free and the home of the brave? Is this a land of freedom sustained by law? It is an unknown America, too unknown to most but too familiar to people who run a business, especially the people who own a small company. The rest of us see little of it, though perhaps we suspect it is there. Some of us catch glimpses.

In a large business it takes longer for the regulatory burden to become overwhelming. For a while the boss can hire more people to help carry the load. In the large firms of America there is a host of employees who produce no goods or offer any services to any customers. They spend their careers complying with their slices of these federal rules, laws, and mandates so that some of the other employees can be involved in what the business is all about, providing something to a customer for which the customer is willing to pay.

The customer may not realize that a large share of what he pays for he never receives; it goes to pay those people who work to keep the business in compliance with the government rules. More than businessmen would be wealthier without this heavy, dead hand clamped on firms, factories, and farms. The necessities and luxuries of life would all be a lot cheaper. Or, another way to say it, we would get more of the goods and services we pay for, less of our money sunk into these hidden costs for unproductive activity.

America’s Founders sought to create a land of freedom, not dominated by government and the officiousness of government functionaries. To them “unregulated” was a goal, not a criticism. They also knew the danger of what could happen, even in America. James Madison wrote, “It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood. . .” (James Madison, Federalist no. 62)

And yet here we are. What the Texas businessman faced in the 1990s has not become any lighter since. When was the last time that you read the full text of a law? Who has read the Obamacare statute, the Dodd-Frank Act, or any of the other voluminous, incoherent laws recently enacted, each written on more than a thousand pages? For each page of law enacted by Congress today government bureaucrats write ten pages of rules and regulations, all of which are enforced as law though never voted on by anyone who himself has been voted into office by the people.

In the land of the free, whose founding document begins with “We the People”, why do we tolerate it? One of the complaints against the king of England in the Declaration of Independence reads, “He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.” And yet we have done the same to ourselves. The Dodd-Frank Act alone created several New Offices and has already stimulated the hiring of more than a thousand new officers.

“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?”

Scrooge trembled more and more.

“Or would you know,” pursued the Ghost, “the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have laboured on it, since. It is a ponderous chain!”
(Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol)

There was a time when the chains had to be broken to restore the rule of law.

(First published August 8, 2013)

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