Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Quality Goes In...Before the Spin Goes On

No rocks in his head: Mike Gravel talks about his plan for America (found at onegoodmove.org)

Tomorrow, on Geek Wednesday, we'll be asking the most burning question in technology today: is Steve Ballmer really a tech executive or just a former extra from the Jackass program? But today, Part 2 of Terry's discussion of the quality level in public policy. In this section, you Krugman fans may notice that my co-blogger takes up a couple of themes (trade with China and food) visited in Mr. K's Monday column at the Times. I'm here to assure you that I get Terry's posts every Saturday, before anyone has seen Krugman's column; and I've got the email logs to prove it. This is about the fourth time this has happened, by the way, and my opinion is that McKenna and Krugman are on parallel rails of a TGV track of punditry consciousness. Or maybe (since they're both from New Jersey), there's some complex triangle involving Jim McGreevey...

Now while we wait to see how long it takes for Drudge to pick up that rumor and report it as established fact, here's Terry with Part 2 of "Zen and the Art of Blogging".

Apple Store

Think of how often we are confronted with major public policy questions: champions from both sides emerge to do logical battle. Then it is up to us to separate the rhetorical wheat from the chaff. Politics may be trivial in comparison to the larger philosophical questions, but the quality of our lives is very much impacted by the results of politics. So let’s consider the quality angle of a few political questions. I’ll start with the Iraq war. The various arguments that are bandied about vary not according to the arguer’s intelligence, but by his or her political baggage. Thus, persons who typically favor the military have been more likely to argue in favor of the president’s policy (their support is wavering now); persons who are more interested in social policy, generally have been more likely to argue against the war. Logic doesn’t help us sort any of this.

But suppose we ask a new question: is the Iraq War a good or bad experience? Nearly everyone would agree that the Iraq War is a bad experience. If bad, then we can assign it low value. Hmmm… if it has little value, then what? All the arguments in the world can’t make us overlook the low value or Quality.

For Robert Pirsig (as expressed in Lila) his study of Quality began while in college, when he noticed that any number of hypotheses could be developed to explain any problem (and he was working in the hard sciences, so this dilemma was especially troubling). He became so obsessed over the question that he flunked out, but his obsession also led to his eventual enlightenment – and perhaps also to his nervous breakdown. And let me make it clear that I am not an amateur philosopher, but as a layman, I find myself distressed by the inconclusive nature of logical arguments. For what good is logic if it can’t help us sort out the value of various points of view? For both Robert Pirsig and for myself, the arguments (or spin) become just more sound and fury… (and as Shakespeare said, they signify nothing).

My point is to boil Pirsig’s complex thesis into this simple statement: Quality is intellectual job one. Saying that, let’s look at another issue. One that has fewer political overtones than the Iraq war. Consider our trade with China. We’ve abandoned much of our manufacturing sector in favor of buying the same goods from the Chinese (at lower prices); yet in spite of this enormous boon to them, their reward to us has been to ship us worthless animal feed (filled with ground plastic) that proved poisonous. By the way, they have done worse to others: they sell poisonous cough medicines around the world, replacing sugar syrup (expensive) with di-ethylene glycol (a poisonous solvent). It amuses me that anyone would believe that China had sufficient protein to export their excess (animal feed typically includes added protein). Sources of protein include wheat gluten, dry milk, egg powder, fish meal, and so on. It is the Americans and Europeans who possess the most excess protein, especially dairy sources. The Chinese do have poultry, eggs and fish, but they also need to feed a billion citizens, and presumably need to use their protein at home. Still, we bought the feed, and the feed killed a few of our pets – now there is a rising concern about the quality of all Chinese goods. And what do the Chinese buy from us? Their well-to-do citizens import a few of our big cars, but much of what they could purchase from us, they counterfeit instead. So how would you rate our experience with the Chinese so far? Not that good! So of low value, or low Quality.

I hope you see what I’m after. When voices are raised that our trade with China is causing lots of problems, and that we need to use government to correct the abuses, economists argue instead that the unencumbered free market will eventually turn the China trade to our benefit – though just when, they can never tell us.

Let’s look at one more issue – our food. Food is a fairly neutral matter. But consider how food becomes a public policy concern. We have ever more obesity in America, and at younger and younger ages. We also have illnesses such a diabetes and heart disease, also appearing at ever younger ages. But what do we see when we walk around a typical American grocery store? We see that all of the fresh food is placed along the walls. The aisles are devoted to processed foods (and to non foods). We have entire aisles devoted to cookies, or chips. Or soda! And the breakfast cereal section is cluttered with over sweetened and highly processed junk. If we look into the grocery carts at the checkout lines, we see carts full of the same processed junk: brightly colored bags of chips, huge bottles of soda, cookies, and boxes of “diet” meals. So what can we conclude about the quality of our food? Again – it is of low Quality.

And the next time you read a discussion about whether we should ban soda and snack vending machines from our public schools – you should put aside the money the schools get from the vendor and instead consider the value added by making junk food available.

I’ll close by returning to Iraq. This blog has repeatedly argued in favor of leaving. We remain willing to listen to the other side (represented by George Bush and John McCain) but if they want us to hear them, they need to overcome our gut reaction that arguments in favor of staying have no value or quality.

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