Defect Analysis and Liberalism

-By Paul Carlson

Liberals won the day in November 2008, and conservatives are working hard to regroup. Unfortunately, many of the voters in the recent election would not be able to define either of those terms, much less describe their underlying history and principles.

What are the primary differences between liberals and conservatives? Readers of the Publius Forum are familiar with many of them, such as groupthink versus individualism, government programs versus private charity, and good intentions versus actual results. In this column I’ll endeavor to present something new.

This is not familiar territory for many readers, so let’s take it in steps. Say you are a factory boss, who manufactures widgets. Your plant employs a hundred people, and accepts a dozen truckloads of raw materials per day. From your freight docks pour forth thousands of top-quality widgets.

Then some trouble develops. There are many more defective widgets than usual, and your assembly line foremen haven’t isolated the problem. Your profits, if not the entire operation, are in danger. For a smart boss, the next step is to call in an expert.

One friend of mine is just such an expert, an engineering consultant who troubleshoots at factories worldwide. He’ll use precise tests and measurements, general observations and psychology, and special logic and algorithms.

In our recent discussions, my friend has applied this precise engineering viewpoint to a wider situation: liberals and conservatives, and how they deal with social problems. To make this leap, one must grasp certain terms and concepts, as first developed by a man named W. Edwards Deming.

‘Special and common causes of variation’ are bone-dry engineering terms normally utilized for quality control. ‘Human factors’ are mentioned, but only within the context of a factory and its workers.

A successful troubleshooter will soon discover the problem(s) underlying those defective widgets, and the reason(s) the factory’s output has varied (dropped) from the expected standard.

It may be due to antiquated machinery. This is one type of ‘common cause’ variation, and the solution may require the installation of expensive new machinery, or perhaps a major adjustment to the entire assembly line. Such trouble is slow to develop, and can be predicted over the long term.

However, in what is termed a ‘special cause’ variation, the problem may instead be transient. One batch of substandard raw material, or one inattentive worker, can also cause defective widgets. That type of problem cannot be pinpointed in advance, but fortunately, a simpler (and far less costly) solution is called for. Better materials must be run through the line. A lousy worker must be retrained or let go, no matter the reason for his difficulties.

This applies to more than factories. A familiar example of ‘special and common’ variation involves commute drive times. Traffic jams are ‘common’ (in both an everyday and engineering sense), and have an average effect on one’s commute. Your drive time will vary from day to day, but it’s predictable overall. However, occasional ‘special’ factors (again, used in both senses), such as an engine breakdown, will also affect your commute. These cannot specifically be foreseen.

Therefore, identifying a problem’s cause, and type of cause, suggests the best way to accomplish your commute. You don’t have to spend millions to widen the entire road when it’s your engine that is broken. Repainting the road stripes will not help when an individual persists in driving while drunk.

This common/special engineering analysis can be applied to virtually every social problem, and proposed government solution. You don’t need to rejigger an entire factory every time one batch of defective material, or one careless worker, is what’s actually messing up the operation. But that is the sort of thing liberals in government often attempt. They plan to alter the whole of society via massive programs, when strange glitches old and new, and quirky human foibles, are the real problem. In other words, as shown in each day’s news, a plethora of unpredictable flaws are already messing up that smooth socialistic Yes We Can vision.

The concepts of common and special cause also work in understanding why politicians do what they do. Liberals tend to assume that all social problems are “common,” to be addressed by redesigning the whole system. They always call for some new congressional or regulatory or judicial action to impose a blanket “solution” that seldom works. Domestically, such blunt measures usually create new problems, and exacerbate others. Internationally, vague ideas about “America’s image abroad” lead to naïve assumptions that a new President would make this country beloved everywhere.

Conservatives tend to assume that all social problems are “special,” best handled by a specific tweak addressing that singular case. Thus the best way to fight crime is to prosecute each criminal, even though this does not address the reasons why new criminals will pop up. Internationally, terrorists are best dealt with militarily, often via pinpoint strikes, while PR specialists can worry about America’s image later.

The Presidential winner’s policy statements read “Obama will,” over and over again, followed by glimpses of an unlikely Paradise. (Note, since November that linked page has been modified, with a pseudo-moralistic “we must” now appearing instead.) Such assurances are made despite the constitutional role of Congress, and the constant influence of lobbyists, not to mention actual public opinion. Plus, this assumes Obama’s proposed initiatives are flawless, which (as we’ve seen) they cannot be, and for multiple reasons.

To be specific, Obama’s proposed energy policy can be compared to altering the raw material stream through a widget factory. The supplies (various sources of energy) are both costly and unreliable, and the factory (the national economy) tolerates no letups. Yet an eco-leftist ideology trumps any clear analysis, thus the Cap & Trade bill virtually guarantees failure.

Regarding education, that field is laden with ineffective workers: a massive bureaucracy plus too many lousy teachers. Rather than one difficult worker, who might be retrained, there are thousands entrenched at every level, protected by Obama-friendly teacher’s unions. By their very nature, all Federal initiatives are blunt instruments, which can only mal-adjust the assembly lines that are public education, and create both “common” and “special” type problems.
Paul Carlson lives in northern California. A variety of articles and projects can be found on his web domain.

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