Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

February 16, 2011

An Ownership Society

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Strategy — by Mark Chubb on February 16, 2011

I have been thinking a lot lately about problems and solutions. Decision-makers find themselves confronted by both of these everyday. Unfortunately, they very rarely present themselves as nicely matched sets.

Indeed, the super-abundance of each sometimes makes me wonder whether some sort of cosmic clothes dryer is out there somewhere randomly producing odd, often unmatched sets of them much like the process occurring in my laundry room that leaves me with a pile of orphan socks overflowing the top-drawer of my dresser.

Like these lonely, mismatched socks, I am reluctant to discard either problems or solutions unless I am sure they have no mate. Others, I have found, seem to think there is a market for both and some desperate sole is out there just begging to cloth their feet with the cast-offs.

We all know many leaders who feel no need to acknowledge much less hang onto problems that present themselves unaccompanied by solutions. And surely we all know people who present problems and solutions or unmatched pairs of both to others hoping someone will rescue them from taking responsibility.

The consequences of both behaviors — favoring solutions over problems and failing to accept responsibility for either — pose many more problems for individuals, organizations and societies than the alternatives: accepting responsibility for problems and engaging one another in the search for viable solutions.

Over the years, it has become clear to me that problems find their origins in one or more of the following places:

  • Power
  • Purpose
  • Process
  • Product
  • Position

Notice that people and performance are not listed among the Ps. People experience problems but are rarely the cause of them without the intervening influence of one of the listed factors. When problems become evident, people often notice them because they are not achieving the results they desire, which of course means problems are all about performance. Performance, however, is the symptom not the cause.

Power problems originate from the desire to place one’s own needs ahead of others and often manifest themselves in the lack of clear and agreed upon priorities among a group, organization or society. (As often as not, power problems come wrapped as someone or some group’s preferred solution to another problem.) In many instances, no consensus exists about how priorities should be determined, which leaves everyone looking for leadership. Those willing to step up often mistake deciding for others rather than engaging them in the decision-making process as a means of achieving effective performance.

Purpose problems arise from a lack of agreed upon principles or the absence of shared commitment to the outcome. Cooperation and trust are not the same thing, and people often agree to go along to get along. At least that’s the case until they discover or discern that the outcome will yield unfavorable results or generate unwanted accountability.

Clear priorities and a shared sense of purpose are important, but a flawed process can prevent people from accomplishing what they want. Too often we delegate the process decisions to experts and technicians who have little stake in the outcome or who stand to lose very little from the failure to achieve results. Handing off decisions about the process to a willing expert solves very few problems if the process designer has no stake in the game and stands to gain more than they can possibly lose from the outcome and results.

Even well-designed processes produce some unfavorable or unintended results. Inevitably naysayers and critics will claim these results are evidence that the whole process is flawed rather than the natural results of applying simple production functions to complex, value-laden problems. Getting people involved in the process means getting them to accept that side-effects and waste are both unfortunate and largely if not entirely unavoidable. Minimizing and controlling these effects should be our priority rather than seeking to eliminate them.

Finally, like power, position haunts many efforts to resolve problems. Too often those with the most to gain and little to lose offer to take on problems beyond either their ken or ability simply to position themselves as leaders capable or making more decisions for others in the future. In most cases, those who really bear the brunt of the problems see little relief from such efforts beyond the momentary lapse of responsibility for dealing with them on their own. More often than not the old problems return or new ones come to take their places.

If we really want to become an ownership society, everyone has to accept some share of responsibility for the problems we face. Likewise, we should expect our leaders to involve us in solving them.

As we look over and critique the President’s proposed budget and the Republican House leadership’s counter-proposal, we would do well to ask ourselves which of the Ps define their definitions of the problems we face. If either solution or some compromise agreeable to both parties is to really produce results for our society and economy, we have to come closer to agreeing with one another about what’s really at stake. Absent this, we run the risk of becoming a nation of renters entirely beholden on others for our welfare and sense of place in the world.

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Comment by john comiskey

February 16, 2011 @ 7:44 am

A Nation of owners, leasers, and renters are we: more renters to come?

Paradoxically, meta-civilization and particularly meta-urbanization contributes to the renter psyche.

Yesterday, Chris. B told us that there is an app for that.

Tomorrow, there will be an app for that, that, and that. Certainly, there is an app for paying (or not paying) your rent.

Today, my oldest son is celebrating his 18th birthday. I am mindful of the lack of an ownership society that he and my 15 year old daughter have inherited. Last week my wife, son, and daughter talked about, amongst other things, house rules for 18 year olds. My son is now free to leave the nest should he choose to do. If he chooses (and he has) to attend college his rent and tuition equates to agreeing to the house rules.

My daughter is 15 going on 30 and has a sense of “transitional adulthood:” 21-30, live rent free in your parents’ house, get a really nice car, go on expensive vacations, and work more for the immediate benefits rather than saving for a house and a future family. She said she would not leave the roost until at least 30.

A father’s wish is for a meta-app that would facilitate ownership.

1. Civic mindfulness and responsibility
2. Self-reliance (see quote below)
3. Less self-indulgence
4. Life long-learning
5. Prayer/reflection
6. Application for a mortgage

And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner; not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.
–Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance (1841)

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 16, 2011 @ 5:22 pm

Some wit said that at age 18 few Americans even comprehend the situation most people on earth face, but by age 30 a surprising number of Americans have better insight into the problems of others and the world generally. This seems to be without regard to whether the education coocoon has prevented being in touch with the reality that exists for most people. So interesting comment John.

As to Mark’s post note the absence of the POLICY “P” in his list. Why? Washington long ago gave up the difficult task of trying to deterine what good policy would be and what would it require? Now it is issue analysis [perhaps the legal contingent is quite responsible for this approach?] and now most in Washington and other political circles wait to see which side of an issue they can milk for whatever purpose and policy in partiuclar good policy is not worth worrying about or the time of day.
The policy choices facing the political and military and other elites because of the MURBARACK downfall is a case in point. Not much in the way of foresigh when in fact an aging and probably sick dictator closes in on his earthly end. I guess the US just thought MUBARACK was going to live forever. REAGAN is still alive is he not?

Comment by Mark Chubb

February 16, 2011 @ 10:16 pm

John, I like your list, and wish you luck instilling these virtues in your two children. As the father of two teenage daughters myself, I feel your pain.

I’m not completely sure my parents would agree, but I think parenting has become much more complex and difficult. Our kids are exposed to many more influences than we were, and it is very hard to compete with much less filter the messages they’re getting. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

My experience with adults leads me to believe that we can only hope to help our kids overcome the negative and potentially destructive influences to which they are exposed by teaching them how to reason about the world around them. I am particularly convinced that they need to learn how to assess their own strengths and weakness as well as the flaws in others’ reasoning.

I am sure we have both had plenty of experience dealing with people who think they know themselves well, but who nevertheless engage in self-serving behavior for reasons they clearly do not recognize. This leads them to overlook the impact of their actions on others. Helping kids recognize these tendencies in others may help them avoid doing the same things themselves.

Bill, I appreciate your take on the flaws of the current policy-making process. When I was in graduate school we equated policy-making with problem solving. Introductory courses introduced policy analysis as a diagnostic discipline that emphasized rational analysis and facilitation of agreements among conflicting interests. The idea was to present decision-makers with options so they could weigh the advantages and disadvantages of competing positions. Advanced courses (and subsequent experience in the field) made it clear to me that this process is rarely followed in practice.

I fear you are correct that we have come to rely on others to decide which positions will prevail and have taken a highly, if not overly, legalistic approach to writing prescriptions for policy problems with little regard for or interest in implementation or evaluation beyond answering the questions who wins and who loses. The entire notion of win-win solutions rarely comes up unless it is beyond acknowledging it as an ideal, which suggests it is also somehow unattainable or at least quite rare.

Thanks too for your observations about the application of my post to the recent events in Egypt. For the sake of time and space I resisted the temptation to draw such a connection myself.

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 17, 2011 @ 3:04 am

AS to child raising I believe we all need to have our successes labeled, even when children and young adults. Too much emphasis on the negative can kill the hope and positive view of the world children and young adults can bring to US.

And of course many of US seeing what the real world was about never really wanted to grow up.

Comment by Educatin & America: Its Failed Destiny

February 17, 2011 @ 6:26 am

My int’l development colleagues in India and China for instance have their kids at Princeton and Yale. As Chris Uncle, if they need a US contact, I am available…These “kids” have been raised to aspire! They are leading the 21st and 22nd century….

Look at the “stats” on American education and mores pecifically the failed present Goldman Sachs administartion and its implementation of an Education Czar and the drop out rate, never mind the few in comparison we are graduating in science and mathematics too truly compete — Chinese officials in a discussion years back emphasized how we have graduating law students and they have scientists and engineers graduating in droves and in fact pointed to their own executive helmenship with science backgrounds — They aaid we would Not compete and We would become a third spoke in the wheel – gues what, see our failing beloved Republic!

Wake up America…everywhere I travel in addressing substantial business development projects whether in biodiesel or iron ore, PKS to olive cakes to olive stones, coal, no matter where, the Chinese are present at the table – I see few Europeans and certainly fewer Americans – we have lost our competitiveness..we have sold our USA label in manufacturing and quality and thanks to Hank and Bernanke et al, the money mongers have raped us, not our kids of most –

Educational costs and tuition out of reach — local budgets and school administrators have no reality aboutr them and our kids, this talent, this American prowess, this innovative way of achievement – to “excel” is now found in the generations past!

God Bless our beloved Anerica!

We have been duped – I call for the immediate resignation of our government – how unresponsive to the needs of our kids and to us, stripping of us and raising fees – indifferent to the future, seeking only their interests, while the Chinese have stockpiled the treasures in precious metals and so much more and when at the negotiating table in Africa, I only see Chinese brilliance at play and when I look at the global ports and who is managing them, when I look beneath and see Chinese Naval vessels prowling close by…I don’t worry any longer ’bout the kids as their future is now etched in stone by this ineptness from the good ‘ol beltway fellas, I worry that tomorrow morning as food prices escalate and apparent inflation takes hold as I see in my daily grains trading, etc., more and more baby-boomers will be seeking homeless shelters —

Wake up America – you gave the keys of the shop away! How dare you hoodwink so many dysfunctional and arrogant Americans so lazy and so intent on having little focus on those of us within who have duped us -a government on both sides of the aisle whose prowess in power have taken our identity from us —

God Bless us all!

I talked about Lybia, now Ethiopia next and then watch the Muslim Brotherhood and how radical Muslim factions will turn the Middle East into a hot bed of course led by the dastardly deeds of the “Brutes of Tehran” who you have permitted to secure the trigger mechanism and soon to engage the shock and awe which will jeopardize humanity — much like the way the world turnwed its cheek to the SS and their evil ways — shame on you!

Christopher Tingus

Comment by An Independent State: Palestine

February 17, 2011 @ 7:50 am


A suggested topic of interesting discussion and very pertaining to global affairs and Homeland Security issues would be the fact that eight (8) nations have now acknowledged Palestine as an independent state with Argentina with the leading number of Hebrews as population in South America – With the Muslim Brotherhood knocking on Israel’s door shortly from Egypt, Hezbollah and the “Brutes of Tehran” knocking on Israel’s door as eell as others, coupled with this present executive administration who has openly portrayed a cold shoulder to the Israelis for Barry’s obvious reasons….DHS and others should be quite cncerned that as pressure builds and more nations recognize Palestine as an independent state and pressure builds on Israel with its concerns – border safety, tensions will mount —

Thanks for cnsidering such a topic and how this affects US regioal policy and Israeli-Palestinian – Arab League relations — other?

Christopher Tingus

Comment by Art Botterell

February 17, 2011 @ 1:38 pm

Not sure we’re all ready to take the “ownership society” formulation for granted. Like all such generalizations its merits can be overcome by its limitations if we take it to the extreme.

In many cases the zero-sum nature of “ownership” tends to act against the notion of shared responsibility. People optimize locally in the interests of the bits they think they own. That not only gives us sub-optimal solutions for the whole, but also turn owners against other owners, as well as deepening the divide between owners and non-owners.

(In any event, I’m not sure where the incentive is imagined to lie for owners to give of their substance in order to allow non-owners to join the ranks of ownership. So the “ownership” value system may, to some extent, be a nostalgic artifact of an earlier era when we imagined all frontiers to be infinite.)

Which is not to argue against ownership in principle or in favor of (dread word!) communism. Rather, it’s to suggest that a lot of our problems may result from a naive desire to oversimplify life by taking bumper-sticker philosophies like “ownership society” to the extreme.

In fact I would suggest that Extremism, in all its forms, is the fundamental challenge to Homeland Security.

Comment by Mark Chubb

February 17, 2011 @ 11:24 pm

Art, I couldn’t agree more. I’m pushing for shared ownership in the sense of the the commons. By tis definition, we all have a stake and we worry less about optimizing our own returns and more about promoting the general weal.

As the post suggests, I am particularly critical of efforts to promote ownership over other ends when it comes to the peddling of favored solutions disconnected from any sense of responsibility for the problems they purport to address. This is precisely why I argue for careful analysis of the problem and its origins through reflection, discussion and collaboration with others.

As your closing comments suggest, group dynamics can produce undesirable results of their own as illustrated by Cass Sunstein’s work on extreme positions. I too would like to move beyond bumper stickers and sloganeering to have deep and meaningful conversations about how we can work together in, among and across communities to make our society and others safer and more secure.

That leads me to the conclusion I think Bill Cumming might have been driving at in his comments: It’s not just a job for the professionals and technocrats.

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