There is a parable I learned long ago from the continuous improvement management philosophy. It’s called “rocks and water.”
Imagine you want to row your boat along a full, gently flowing river. No sweat. Imagine the water level drops significantly, exposing the jagged rocks along the riverbed. Now try rowing. Can’t do it; too many rocks.
In the parable, the water is any enabling resource of which having lots can obscure problems. In many businesses, the water is cash. Too much cash makes it easy to ignore the rocks underwater. Only when the water is drained can we see – and remove – the rocks. Many of the best organizations keep their water level low on purpose so that when rocks begin to appear they can be seen and dealt with.
Now with a panicking New York-DC axis, I can’t help but think about rocks and water. We’ve let the water level rise for decades, hoping it would keep everyone floating along. The so-called “predatory lending” that some point to is just a sliver of the problem. The real problem, as I understand it is that, driven by well-intentioned policies, some smart pencil-pushers figured out how to create a mechanism for avoiding risk altogether. Make the loans, sell the risk to someone else. This opened the floodgates as it became easy to invest with little apparent downside. With the system set up this way, no one feels the pain – until everyone feels the pain.
The river’s drying up now.
The main story being told is that those idiot “back bench” House members scuttled the imperfect-yet-necessary rescue boat for the American economy. In the howls from the editorial columns you can hear the derision. Almost the entire elite of America was unified behind the need to take the rescue deal on offer. How dare these rebels place mere “politics” ahead of the needs of the “market?” Don’t they understand the stakes? To read the coverage, you’d think some small minority had sunk the rescue dinghy because they did not like the color it was painted. Idiots. Cowards.
But take a step away from the panic for just a moment. It was not a small slice of the house of Representatives who voted against the bailout – it was most members of the People’s House. Some were reacting to what appeared to them to be too large a giveaway to the same Wall Street fat cats who had built the house of cards in the first place. Others saw the bailout as a grave rejection of the principles of responsibility, and freedom to fail, that our economy, at its best, is built upon.
But others, most perhaps, saw another problem. They just could not sell a “yes” vote to their constituents. One congressional staffer reported calls flooding in, verifiably from the district, at “a thousand to one” against. Ordinary people are up in arms.
The wise cluck their tongues and say the politicians should have some backbone. But why? It’s one thing to make a judgment call on the margins, but it’s yet another to jettison the clear will of the people one represents. No rational person can believe the “no” voters did not understand the stakes. They knew the stakes. They’d been briefed. They voted no anyway.
Sometimes the things that seem the worst possible turn out for the best. Maybe that will happen now.
If there is one piece of advice my older self wishes it could give my younger self, it is: Do not make decisions under duress and in haste. Looking back, I think of the many times I have been saved from bonehead moves by something that, at the time, thwarted my desire and seemed a setback. And I think of the times I was not saved, of the times that I forged ahead in panic – only to regret the move later.
Public life feels very much the same way these days.
I know from listening to ordinary Americans all through the country that there is a pervasive sense that, at some point, we’re going to have to pay the piper. The people I hear almost lament that nothing seems able to shake us from our collective consumption and obsession with more. When that time comes, companies will fail. Our lifestyle will drastically simplify. We will feel pain, all of us.
Maybe that time is now. Maybe, with the water receding, we can set to work removing the rocks.