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Mike Richman


Ask and Ye Shall Perceive

Four questions to ponder this year

Published: Thursday, January 5, 2017 - 12:00

Before I dive into this column, a quick programming note: You may have noticed some formatting changes in today’s issue of Quality Digest. Starting today, on each Thursday we will present a special edition of our newsletter, with a pair of particularly thought-provoking articles from our library of contributed content and an exclusive piece of editorial written by one of us on the QD staff.

I’m kicking off the in-house portion of this effort with a look at some broad, industry-affecting questions on my mind as we start the year. How, we all might wonder, could 2017 ever top 2016 in terms of momentous and unexpected occurrences? The short answer is that it probably can’t, and for many of us in the United States, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Just because this year will likely (hopefully) be less crazy than last doesn’t mean that everything is smooth sailing on the political, economic, and social fronts, however. The year 2017 opens with numerous questions, the answers to which will have significant repercussions for everyone, not only in this country but around the world.

My purpose here is not to grind axes or prove points. These questions that I have been asking myself can be answered in different ways by different sources at varying levels of authority. I merely pose them here to generate some discussion, because I’m interested in the perspective of those of you for whom quality and performance excellence are ways of life. Please let us know what you think.

Bridges or walls?

Oscillating waves of nationalism and globalism have affected public policy since the founding of our republic, and the effects of those swings have been most noticeable in issues involving trade, immigration, and military deployments. The momentum in recent decades has been in favor of globalism, especially regarding trade, and it was long taken as an article of faith by most economists that free trade represented a net positive for the economies of participating nations. That faith has been challenged, however, and a fair number of academics, politicians, business owners, and working people now argue that tariffs and other protectionist policies are beneficial to the U.S. economy.

So is the United States of 2017 a nation of bridges or walls? Every country gets to decide for itself how engaged to be with the rest of the world, but if you believe that there is such a thing as American exceptionalism, then the United States clearly has several international roles to play (moral, economic, political, humanitarian). Restricting that engagement may protect jobs and even some industries, but protecting your way to economic growth is akin to trying to inspect quality into a product; it’s better to organically design a system for success rather than attempting to artificially force success upon it.

There are corollary questions here, of course: Can manufacturing jobs really be brought back to the United States? Are labor unions forces for good or ill? Is legal immigration a net positive or net negative? Many will follow straight partisan lines in answering these and related questions, but instead of blacks and whites, perhaps we should all think in shades of gray more suitable for today’s complex and interrelated world. Maybe an individual can believe in stricter controls over immigration, for example, and at the same time desire unfettered access to and from markets around the world, possibly accompanied by an active foreign policy. There are many ways to approach these issues, and it’s beneficial to keep an open mind—even if you’re against open borders.

Does a top-down economy really work?

We’re gonna find out.

Listening to the 2016 campaign rhetoric and looking at the appointments for this incoming administration, it’s clear that the federal government will commit to reducing taxes and cutting regulation for big business; some small businesses and a tiny percentage of individuals will likely benefit from this as well.

As for the rest of us? It’s unclear how much, if any, effect will be seen by changes to the tax code. Fewer regulatory hurdles for businesses will be almost invisible to consumers unless efficiencies are achieved that will allow for reduced prices on goods and services.

In theory, the traditional winners of tax and regulatory reform (big business and wealthy folks) will take their resulting riches and pour it back into the broader economy through buying lots of stuff and creating jobs. Known by some as “trickle-down economics,” this is a controversial idea that has staunch adherents and opponents. The track record is decidedly mixed.

In recent memory, the administrations of Reagan and both Bushes were proponents of this top-down approach, which certainly helped drive market valuation and a lot of wealth for a small number of people. A look further down the economic scale revealed far less benefit. The middle class was hardly better off, and little if anything trickled down to those at the very bottom. In particular, the resulting cuts to social programs (needed to offset the tax cuts in the endless attempt to balance the budget) tended to cause real harm to those most in need.

That’s not to say that the bottom-up approach has worked that well, either. “Economic redistribution,” as practiced overtly and covertly by the Obama administration, tends to create closed systems that don’t create value and discourage growth. Those who were at the bottom of the economy in 2009 are still pretty much stuck there, and although many now have healthcare insurance, it’s an open question as to whether the basic premises under which the Affordable Care Act was passed are, in fact, valid. Are the poor better off with some form of healthcare, or is it simply more expedient for insurance companies and medical facilities?

Should government just get the heck out of everyone’s way (and is that even possible)?

This is really an extension of the top-down or bottom-up question I wondered about above, but it has some broader philosophical underpinnings, too. The question could possibly be better stated as, “Is big government necessarily bad?” Many would say, “Yes,” and it’s hard to argue in favor of bloat and waste. A lean enterprise, the federal government ain’t.

But it’s also easy to forget the power of federal government to act as a benevolent entity. For those of you with a historical frame of reference, cast your glance back to the Great Depression, which occurred after an earlier era of laisse-faire, top-down federal economic policy. The consecutive Republican administrations of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover believed in letting big business have its way, and the 1920s were, from all indications, a hell of a party for a lot of wealthy people—some of whom, in late October, 1929, were jumping off buildings.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president in 1932 at an absolutely horrific time for this country. The Great Depression that kicked off with the stock market crash in that bleak autumn three years earlier had devastated all economic sectors, not only in the United States but around the world. Roosevelt got to work immediately upon his inauguration and pushed through dozens of federal programs to allocate funds for infrastructure, which created millions of jobs. They weren’t great jobs and the work wasn’t absolutely essential in all cases, but they were jobs that provided livings for workers and their families.

Was that socialism? Well, maybe. Was it necessary? Uh, yeah. We had 25-percent unemployment at the time. It took World War II to finally push the country back to full employment and a firm financial footing, but Roosevelt’s daring actions to get the country moving by putting people to work proved to be an immense help.

I’m not advocating for the return of the New Deal or arguing that regulations shouldn’t be cut. I can even see the wisdom of limiting or even eliminating some federal programs, departments, and agencies. But I think we need to remember that the government does a lot of good for a lot of people, and we shouldn’t forget that. Social Security and Medicare in particular have been godsends for the elderly.

How do we harden our vulnerable networks?

Let me pause my questions here to make a declarative statement: This is, first and foremost, a national security issue. The political maelstrom that has swirled around a possible Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee network, serious as that may be, is a mere side note to the broader issue at hand.

And the issue is a grimly serious one, indeed. Every day, countless numbers of new devices are being woven into networked systems and becoming part of a broad ecosystem known as the Internet of Things (IoT). Automobiles, consumer electronics, home appliances, medical devices, health records, municipal assets, monitoring stations, building sites, financial services, and many, many more are all connected to the web and, potentially, subject to attack by criminals and/or foreign entities (by no means two mutually exclusive groups).

So what do we do? Proponents of cybersecurity assure us that systems can be hardened against attack, but no security measure is ever perfect. There is little doubt that hacking is a weapon for bad actors who can be anywhere across the globe, and that as long as this country has enemies who seek to hurt it, or thieves who wish to rob it, we will have a certain degree of vulnerability.

Putting genies back into bottles is almost never wise, nor even practical in most cases. Rolling back or even slowing down the algebraically increasing speed of adoption for the IoT, therefore, is nearly impossible. Especially for those in industry, the idea of working without the support of connected devices is almost preposterous, never mind that a mere 20 years ago almost no one even had internet-connected telephones.


At the end of each Quality Digest webinar (which you really should be checking out on a regular basis), we offer the chance for audience members to ask some questions. In that vein, I’d like to close out this column by asking you for your questions as we begin 2017. They can be related to any of the broad topics I mentioned here, or something completely different. Reading and addressing comments from our users is my second-favorite thing to do in this job (closely behind selling ads), so I hope you’ll comment below; I promise to respond in a timely fashion.

Hopefully, we can together explore some questions and find common ground in the answers—or at least agree to disagree, for if there’s one thing I’m sure about, it’s that dialogue is the best thing we have going for us in this country. As long as we can talk, and question, and listen, we’ll be just fine, even if we don’t always reach the same answers.

Here’s hoping 2017 is our best year yet!


About The Author

Mike Richman’s picture

Mike Richman


Interesting Article

I wish asking one simple question was the pivot to change. What does arise from the lessons learned from the past is more questions of validation and clarity. As a nation of people we have grown from simple communal gatherings to assist and prosper together to a machine billed as a method to generate great wealth and prosperity for ALL. And where does All end?

Backed into looking for that defining essay to understand the end goal I am faced with the 5 "Why's". So to speak!

Why did we move from simple to industrious? Was it progress or was it simply the beginning of an age of deceit that separated the have's from the have not's. I do not believe for a minute that anything was created to dupe the unknowing rather it was created to capitalize and grow. So without the ideas of growth, the capital to put it in motion and the desire to see it to fruition we as a people would simply stagnate. So a system is born to grade, revise and improve, then eventually steer one idea into another to sustain the growth needed to enable population booms.

Why the greed, not financial greed either. Why emotional greed? The kind that has for centuries turned friends to foes for the sake of being accepted in a hierarchy of peers as superior. On a grand scale we have all fallen to the expectation of placement in society where we are graded by accomplishment and status. Which is where the financial greed comes in. Without the higher collections of value be it monetary or physical gain we fall into the abyss where being heard as valuable is non-existent for a great majority.

Then what is purpose? How do we decide when the boundaries of right and wrong are reached?Can we, if we are continually rediscovering the outer limits of human tolerance while recreating the culture norms that embody our society? In the midst of MORE it seems greed of all forms lends to hidden values that are better described as dark sides then redefined as necessity for those unwilling to understand truths.

Fast forwarding to today when people are more infactuated with the fake and false inputs because they feel more sensational and express offense and fear for the truth because it is to simple and less arguable! 

Is it time to inspect, recalibrate and audit? Always!

And so the button is pushed... Enjoy a Prosperous and Thought Provoked Year!

Re: Interesting Article

Thanks very much for responding to my request for feedback! And whew... there's a lot in your response that's worthy of thought. To start with, I don't believe any of us can escape the shadow of greed. No one, no matter how social conscious, can put others first all the time. It's like that eternal question... is there any such thing as a truly selfless act? No, because the giver is getting something from that interaction at all times, and even if that something is "only" a sense of satisfaction from helping one's fellow human, it is still a self-interested response. And yet, if that act creates benefits for the giver and receiver, which ripple out to affect others for the good of society, do we really care whether the initial impetus for the good deed was self-interest or not? In terms of technological advancement and the march of progress, I would argue that the complexity that you point to has been a great boon for mankind. Yes, the differences between the fantastically wealthy and the abysmally poor are more pronounced now than ever before, but at the risk of a horrible oversimplification, the poor in modern America are better off than the poor in nearly every culture in nearly every age throughout the history of humanity. Is that worthy of self-congratulations? Absolutely not! Government should, I believe, continue to help those in need and do as much as possible to get out of everyone else's way. We the people, and those that represent us, must continue to assist the least-fortunate among us. I'm happy to see my tax dollars used in this way, and happy that I and others can fund charities as well to help bridge gaps that taxes can't cover. As you say, we must always inspect, recalibrate, and audit our thoughts and emotions. As quality professionals, we can do no less.