February 28, 2007

Mirror, mirror

Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz has caused a minor earthquake for arguing in a recent memo to company executives that the ubiquitous coffee merchant has lost its way. Asking that the company look in the mirror and reflect on the decision it made to grow from 1000 stores to 13,000 over the last decade, Schultz contends that Starbucks has been watered down and commoditized.
I say "Bravo, Mr Schultz!" If only more companies took stock at the concept of unbridled growth.
This reminds me of a conversation I had with 1-800-GOT-JUNK founder & CEO Brian Scudamore last year here at Queen's. He said he wanted to take his rubbish and debris removal company from a $120-million to a $1-billion company over the next decade. I asked him what consideration he had given to the environmental footprint a $1-billion company would have and whether he felt the service & experience that now defines his company could be sustained at that level of sales. Sadly, he had no real answers to these questions.
Contrast this with Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, whose company by the late 1980s was on track to be a $1-billion company within a decade. This was no cause for celebration. He recognized that Patagonia "had exceeded its resources and limitations; we had become dependent, like the world's economy, on growth we could not sustain." In typical Chouinard fashion he considered every and all options, including even dismantling the company.
In the end, he chose to advance an "ecology" of values and focus on a path for Patagonia for the next 100 years. As he writes in an excerpt from his outstanding book, Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman, "When you get away from the idea that a company is disposable, all future decisions in the company are affected. The owners and the officers see that, since the company will outlive them, they have responsibilities beyond the bottom line. Perhaps they will even see themselves as stewards of the earth." [Illustration: "The Mirror of Galadriel" by Alan Lee]

February 15, 2007

Family Values

The rapid proliferation of organizations and related web sites touting family values should be of great concern to anyone who truly cares about the protection of minority rights, equal rights, and equality of opportunity. The collective power of said organizations is serving to sway legislation in the United States--the self-declared beacon of democracy--toward the actual limiting of human rights.

Hinged on Puritanical moral arguments about the nature of sex, sexuality, and marriage these organizations are advancing an image of family not seen since "Father Knows Best". America presents a great paradox: the billions successfully spent on marketing centre around the objectification of young women and, increasingly, young girls. And yet, rampant censorship of words and images reflecting basic nudity and sexuality is carried out by network television and even some cable channels--many owned and operated by the very same entities spending the marketing dollars.

It is a shame that no political leader has the courage to say to these organitions and their growing membership that they have the power to affect legitimate social and economic change by directing their energies to tackling the real causes of family destruction: poverty, lack of education, irresponsible fathers, alcoholism, and sexual & physical abuse.

The overwhelming majority of sexual and other assault crimes in America are carried out by heterosexual men. There are tens of millions of dollars in unpaid child support owing by "deadbeat" fathers. The level of poverty among single mothers is one of America's greatest tragedies. The proportion of those who are visible minorities is the other great tragedy.

Familes are destroyed by indifference. Instead of focusing their efforts on boycotting Disney, movies, advertisers, etc, and limiting equality rights, these "family" organizations should be using their faith's tenets to help bring pressure to their elected leaders and bring their fellow citizens (and families) out of the tyranny of poverty.

February 13, 2007

Queen's in the Senate

Last night I had the privilege of attending a very special event hosted by the Ottawa branch of the Queen's School of Business alumni association. The reception was in the Senate Foyer and we had 120 guests attend. There were some good nibbles and a cash bar. I turned around and there was our guest speaker, former Prime Minister Paul Martin. He saw me and immediately came forward and stuck out his hand (what a great political tactic--it made me feel special). We chatted a bit. I was tongue-tied and stupid.

After about 45 minutes we moved into the Senate Chamber (see attached image) and we all took our seats. I was rather emotional, as it is a great privilege to be able to go past the brass bars and actually enter the Senate. In fact, as "Commoner" (a member of the House of Commons), Paul Martin is allowed to enter but not to speak in the Senate Chamber. Last night an exception had been made, and he noted that the event was also a privilege for him. Interestingly, our Head of State (The Queen or her representative, the Governor General) is not allowed to enter the House of Commons.

So Mr Martin spoke for about 20 minutes and then took about 45 minutes of questions. I looked over and sitting at the entrance was Kingston's very own Member of Parliament Peter Milliken, Queen's BA'68, who is also Speaker of the House of Commons (he is not technically allowed to proceed past the brass bars, and he observed protocol). After the Q&A I made a point to talk to him, as I have been a long-time supporter of his. I then made my way back to Mr Martin and exchanged a few words with him. All-in-all very memorable...

February 6, 2007

Your cheatin' heart

A new report by Maclean's magazine highlights that 53% of all Canadian university students admit to serious cheating in written work, 56% of all business students admit to cheating, and 44% of profs said they didn't report students caught cheating. Let me give you a moment to let those figures settle in...................Doesn't leave you with a very good impression for the future now, does it? It's worrisome that such a large percentage of those entrusted to uphold our standards of academic honesty aren't doing so. One has to wonder what has changed in the university and our culture for such alarmingly high incidents of cheating? On the silver-lining side of things, at least these cheaters honestly self-reported for the study!! [Illustration: Zanne DeJanvier]

February 2, 2007

Unwelcome Ideas

In his 1982 book Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism Philip Kitcher argues that despite their appeal for balanced treatment and tolerance, Creationist's theory (a.k.a. "Intelligent Design") has no place within scientific curriculum as it cannot offer any advancement of knowledge nor any viable predictions more successfully than Evolutionism.

Now I am not so much interested in the did-He-or-didn't-He? debate as I am in Kitcher's thesis that ideas have to earn our right to respect. He believes that not all views are deserving of our attention because some theories are better than others. In case this smacks of an infinite relativity, Kitchers strongly emphasizes that we need not "abandon our intellectual standards but that we use them to examine the credentials of the ideas that others espouse".

Still, we have to determine what grounds we have to claim that some views (moral or scientific) are better than others. Kitcher suggests that some views or theories shold be more preferable because they have greater explanatory power. To Kitcher, tolerance is rooted in the desire to learn the truth and the undogmatic person must realize that the doctrine s/he clings to may in fact be wrong. We have to encourage discussion and our attention to alternatives must be evaluated by how much they can contribute to our understanding.

It seems to me that we do seriously investigate values, for we believe that values ought to be investigated. Why? Because some values are better than others. We do demand explanatory power continuously from our values and our theories. The question is not merely what would constitute evidence for better values or moral claims, but also what sort of evidence do we have for the propagation of our claims? These are the kinds of demands, says Kitcher, that we must place on ideas so as to determine whether they are worthy of our attention. [Illustration: Artist Unknown]

February 1, 2007

History redux

Imagine the following headline: "Majority Democratic Congress passes act to withdraw all funding of foreign government". The quoted experts would forecast that the withdrawal of American military would de-stabilize the foreign country's economy, lead to an OPEC oil embargo and a subsequent world economic recession. Sound familar? This is, in fact, what happened in 1975 to South Vietnam.
I am not a historian nor a political scientist, and I was only four years old in 1975, but I can't help but think of the striking parallel to our times. The American body politic, disenfranchised under the disgraced Nixon, embraced Reagan's optimistic, down-to-earth persona and "government is the problem" ethos. Reagan's administration would go on to raise the national debt to 41% of the GDP, turning the United States into the world's largest debtor nation. Fast forward to the good-old-boy, "compassionate conservative" persona cultivated for G.W. Bush. Taking the advantage of a disgraced president, Bush ran with a platform of "family values" and national security, and found himself propelled into the presidency. Bush's second term will serve as a case study for decades to come: as of 2005 the national debt rose to 64% of GDP; in 2006 the U.S. had the world's largest deficit (while Canada had the world's 12th highest surplus); and as of February 2007 the National Priorities Project estimates that the U.S. has now spent $360-billion on the military's engagement in Iraq.
Under reflection, one must concede that the Democrat's return to majority status in the Congress is largely the result of a public voting against the Republicans rather than it voting for the Democrats (similarly, the election of Prime Minister Harper here in Canada was primarily a rebuff of the former Liberal government). It may well be a sufficient rage, however, to put a Democrat in the White House. The only question now is whether Mrs Rodham-Clinton and Mr Obama can put their egos aside and seriously contemplate the tactic of running together rather than against one another...[Illustration: Artist Unknown]