Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Newfoundland–Problem Solving and Accepting Basic Realities

Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced. - Soren Kierkegaard

Fortune falls heavily on those for whom she's unexpected. The one always on the lookout easily endures. - Seneca

When my grandfather was alive, he was once asked by a local merchant to build a chimney for him.  The local merchant had a reputation for ripping people off and many people warned my grandfather that if he built the chimney, the merchant would likely find a way to not pay him.

Undeterred, my grandfather built the chimney but when the merchant inspected the work, he created reasons why he wouldn’t pay for my grandfather’s efforts..

When the merchant lit his first fire in the fireplace, the smoke, instead of rising up the chimney, billowed back into the room.  A visual inspection of the chimney revealed nothing obvious that would cause this and the merchant called upon my grandfather to fix the defective chimney.

“Pay me first”, insisted my grandfather, “And I will fix it.”

The merchant reluctantly paid for the chimney, my grandfather climbed up onto the roof and dropped a large beach rock down the flue, breaking the pane of glass he had strategically placed across the chimney about half way down.

Some years later ….

One day when I was young, my uncle’s car battery had died and needed a boost.  My father and my uncle had a single piece of wire (not a set of boosting cables) but as his father before him, my father was not without a solution.

They connected the positive terminals of my uncle’s car and my father’s, pushed the bumpers of the two cars together (they were chrome in those days) and the dead battery was brought back to Life.

How did this work?  Because my father knew that the two vehicles were negatively grounded to the chassis (as they are now) and that pushing the two electricity-conducting chrome bumpers together would provide enough of a connection to accomplish the desired effect of boosting the dead battery.

Two hard-working, honest men, my father and my grandfather, who looked at the problem at-hand, accepted the realities of the situation and then solved the problem in classic, creative Newfoundlander style (Bell Islander style, to be precise).

I try to bring the same level of pragmatic, evidence-based, reality-accepting, problem-solving approach to everything I do.

And that’s why when I look at the current situation of my home province of Newfoundland and Labrador, I wonder whether any kind of hope is warranted.

The evidence at first blush says no.  Running massive deficits year-over-year is not a recipe for success and difficult decisions, always punishing one or more groups, are often “talked around” during election time since bad news doesn’t buy votes.

Providing schools to a sparse population spread around the coastline of the 11th largest island in the world seems impossible to do well.  With little money spread over a large area, it not only diminishes equal accessibility of education but potentially the quality of it as compared to other jurisdictions.

Maintaining infrastructure in an environment with so many harsh elements and long distances to cover seems as hope-filled as the dog who hopes to catch its tail.

With the Province at or near the top in nasty health statistics such as heart attack, stroke and diabetes rates, the healthcare system is also strained since, like education, it is difficult to offer high quality services to a few people spread across such a large area.

On top of that, layer on one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, diminished revenue from its primary source of revenue (oil) and have one of the smallest tax bases in the country demand the same level of services as found anywhere in the country and you have a problem.

And that’s just for starters.

Such things are exacerbated by the complexities that politicians and bureaucrats bring to the situation.

Politicians and bureaucrats, typical of any human being, bring a mix of intention and competence to their role.

They range from the intelligent to the idiot …

.... from the public-serving to the self-serving ….

.... from the servant leader to the purely selfish ….

.... from the informed to the misinformed to the uninformed ….

.... from the innocent to the conniving ….

.... from the strategic to the hapless dreamer ….

.... from the tactically astute to the random executor ….

.... from the evidenced-based to the “instinct is better than data” crowd.

And on top of all that, there is another grim reality.

Human beings (voters) are not inspired by reality and in fact, will often avoid anyone who reminds them of it.

Reality rarely buys votes unless it is good news and that is often hard to come by in economies of places such as Newfoundland and Labrador.

However, in such situations, votes can be generated by sharing unsubstantiated dreams of gold-paved streets or pegging bad news (real or perceived) on the other candidate.

We are inspired by hope of a better future, the promise of great things and the belief that all things can be overcome and we run from people who can’t give us this.

And based upon this, politicians sell hope and bright futures without having the foggiest idea of how they will accomplish anything or even if anything can be accomplished at all (and some have no intention of trying to accomplish anything, running for office for their own selfish needs).

Would you vote for someone who told you that we faced gloom and doom with the possibility that our problems can’t be solved at all but if they can be solved, will require phenomenal sacrifice on our part?

Most would not. 

Would you vote for someone who indicates “I have no idea what needs to be fixed or how I would fix it but give me a chance”?

Unlikely.

And so we accept the promises of politicians in blind faith and without evidence and get frustrated when the next round of politicians produces the same result as the last lot that we just threw out.

Meanwhile, politicians discover a few things (or knew them all along):

  1. Things like economies pretty much run themselves and cannot be turned on a dime as claimed during elections
  2. Economies are not easily turned in a positive direction because of human interaction or desire
  3. Economies can be easily turned in a negative direction because of human interaction
  4. Reality doesn’t care what you think, especially when evidence is intentionally ignored
  5. Things we don’t like have reasons for existing which we unfortunately discover once we are exposed to the history of them
  6. Regardless of the state left behind by a departing politician and regardless (mostly) of the competence or incompetence of departing politicians, most find lucrative careers that far exceed the career potential that existed before their political career was launched.

The final point reminds me of the old cartoon showing a doctor and patient having a serious conversation in the doctor’s office.

“I have good news and bad news”, says the doctor.

“What’s the bad news?”, asks the patient nervously.

“You have one month to live”, replies the doctor tersely.

Shocked, the patient exclaims, “If that’s the bad news, what is the good news?”

The doctor smiles.

“See that cute receptionist out front?”, the doctor asks, “I’m having sex with her twice a week.”

News, good and bad, is entirely perspective-based in its definition and impact.

The Bottom Line

I have not found in the last 20+ years, a single politician anywhere, including in Newfoundland and Labrador, who can use an evidence-based position that the Province’s current and future situations are things to be feel comfortable about (with the exception of those who use politics to substantively grow their personal interests).

I have also not found a single politician who even likes to be asked for such things.

Fortunately for politicians, there are very few of us who demand evidenced-based answers and so we can be easily ignored.

I hear lots of rhetoric and shouting about having the answers while becoming angry with people who ask for evidence.

I see lots of finger pointing at the previous administration or the opposite side of the Legislature as the real reason why things are not working well.

I watch politicians who point at those of us who demand data and decry our “negativity” as a means of deflecting questions that are difficult or impossible to answer.  That’s like a car driver suddenly exclaiming to a passenger in a car, “Hang on, the brakes just failed” and having the passenger respond with, “Why do you always have to be so dramatic?”

As my father and grandfather before me, I try to look at the situation at hand, the realities and complexities of the situation and the evidence that describes my reality before coming up with a solution.

If I don’t honestly acknowledge my reality, I have no way of creating a meaningful path to a solution or a better future.

I wish the electorate would do the same because if they did, we might actually start electing politicians who aren’t afraid to campaign on reality instead of fantasy.

Meanwhile, Seneca’s words come back from thousands of years ago in timeless poignancy and appropriateness:  Fortune falls heavily on those for whom she's unexpected. The one always on the lookout easily endures.

I wonder if any politician could refute what I just wrote using evidence and deliver such a refutation in a thoughtful, respectful, evidence-based, solution-focused way.

Because any politician who can do that is the type of politician we need in larger quantities before we reach the tipping point where it won’t matter who we elect.

I think such people are out there (and there are a small minority who have already been elected) but the dirty, muck-raking, being on-call 24/7, thankless world of politics keeps most good people away.

I think we must do more than merely fret and complain about our reality and our future.

I think we must accept realities and demand that politicians speak to us in the language of informed realities and the language of evidenced-based solutions.

I think we must demand that politicians serve us and not their own needs.

There are many things that I think about but what I am more interested in is this.

What do you think?

In service and servanthood,

Harry