It's amazing what can be accomplished if nobody cares who gets the credit.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

On compromise, and "winning"

Americans are very focused on the idea of being a "winner." In many ways, our dog-eat-dog business climate benefits from this attitude -- we are willing to shelve our pride, to embrace new ideas, to take an honest look at what the other guy is doing better than us, if we have reason to believe it will benefit us. There are negative aspects to this culture as well -- there is such a thing as a good idea which makes no money for anybody, but you'd be hard-pressed to convince many people of this. If an idea is good, it will make money, right? It will make you a winner.

In Japan, there is a man named Yoshiro Nakamatsu. (Affectionately dubbed Dr. NakaMats.) He is a massively prolific inventor. There are some reports that he is responsible for inventing the floppy disk and the CD, and though these are contested, in particular by IBM, he is massively rich for it. (His bathroom, where he does his thinking, is made of solid gold.) Not all of his ideas are "winners," and he knows it. My personal favorite is a combination bicycle/moped. It is powered by water -- I don't know the details, but the basic mechanism uses the rotational motion generated by the pedalling action of the bicycle to generate electricity, which causes electrolysis; the pressure from the gasses produced power the engine. My friend, who is a mechanical engineer, explained more of the specifics of the engine to me, but I'm afraid a fair bit of it went over my head. The device moves faster than a bicycle, with considerably less work, but probably slower than a moped. There isn't any particular niche for this device, and so it is not a "winner," but I like it quite a bit, and if Dr. NakaMats can make the cycle of water/hydrogen/oxygen into a closed system (that is, where only work enters and only work exits, and therefore all of the hydrogen and oxygen can be reconstituted into water) he will have created the basic system for a sustainable water-powered vehicle. No business on the planet would buy this design from him, or indeed, even use the idea as a base-point -- what use does it have? It's not a winner. And yet, contained in it are the seeds for something incredible. The point I am trying to make is that our "winner" society creates motivation with amazing efficiency, but is not long-sighted.

Writing this on the night of the election, I can say with relative confidence that Republicans are going to retake the house, and by a wide margin. Depending on who you are, this prospect will either enthrall or mortify you (or perhaps you'll look at it with careful neutrality). They now have the monumental task of living up to not only their campaign promises, but being better than the people they defeated. They have railed for nearly two years about how the Democratic party has failed America in its hour of need, and how they know how to fix it. That they have been excluded from the process. It is now time for them to put their money where their collective mouths are; however, (probably now) Speaker of the House John Boehner has stated openly that now is not the time for compromise. That they will not work with a Democratic Senate, with a Democratic White House. The last time this happened, Speaker Newt Gingrich shut down the government in essentially a glorified temper tantrum, before Bill Clinton, who, it must be acknowledged, is one of our greatest living statesmen (whether or not you agreed with what he had to say, you must admit that he was masterful at handling those who disagreed with him) eventually stonewalled him into compromise.

Republicans have "won," as I said, but that is different from doing the right thing, by an inch and a mile. To John Boehner, all I can say is that now that he has "won," by which I mean he has emerged at the head of a race, he had better be ready to compromise. Working with people with whom you disagree towards a common goal is a process of give and take, not only take. I frequently disagree with my superiors, and always tell them when I do; what follows is not stonewalling. They do not call me a socialist or a fascist or a Nazi or the next Pol Pot and refuse to listen to me. Engineers, who above all else must do a job and build a working device, not so unlike politicians, must learn to listen, because they must understand that they are not always right, even when they are convinced they are. It is not a matter of winning and losing. When I disagree with my superiors, it is with the full understanding that I may or may not be right, and that there's a relatively equal chance that what I say will be heeded or discarded, entirely on the basis of its merits. This merit-based judgment is separate from compromise, but the ability to do one implies the ability to do the other.

Barrack Obama is willing to compromise with Republicans, and whether or not this is politically the right move, it is necessary to continue to run the government. I will rarely say this on this blog, but John Boehner and Mitch McConnell are quite frankly in the wrong on this. They are now responsible for doing more than talking. They are now the managers of the massive, eternal project that is America, and they had better learn to compromise, and do it pretty fast. One does not become a winner when one makes short-term gains. One becomes a winner when one completes a project, and does so successfully, and there have been very few engineers in this world who could complete a project with only one point of view working on it.

So, I will say again: John Boehner had better learn to compromise, and learn to do it fast.


  1. AHAHAHA, yes for the Bizarre Foods reference.

  2. Excellent work. Interestingly, or on a parallel, when Clinton lost his first mid-terms, his top advisor said, better to let the Republicans win than to hold a majority by 3 votes. This way, Clinton could say to the Republicans "Ok, put up or shut up." It's time for "O" to say the same thing.