Friday, December 27, 2013

FBS 2013: The Drummond Rankings

Anyone familiar with college football knows there has never yet been an actual national championship worthy of the name.  Up to now, three general systems have been used, all with serious flaws.  Originally, football teams competed in their regions and there was no real consensus about who was best at the end of the year.  The bowls set up alignments by conference and the press polls named their favorite as champion, but this was always unofficial, since in many years the acknowledged contenders never played each other. At every other level, from pee wee football through the NFL, a playoff determines the champion, but for reasons of greed and arrogance the NCAA refused to set up a valid for Division I-A, later called the FBS, teams.   Instead, a corrupt system called the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) was imposed, which was no ‘series’ at all, since two hand-picked teams got to play for the championship according to a subjective system which seemed to favor large state schools, and every other team was left out, regardless of how well they played.  The new ‘playoff’ proposed to begin next year is simply that same corruption extended to a four-team clique, as evidenced by the total lack of published criteria about how a team qualifies for the playoff – a committee with no published qualification criteria will announce the four teams on whatever basis they liked, including sheer favoritism.  The new system is no better than the old, and deserves no support from the fans, whose demand for a legitimate playoff system has been long, clear, and yet ignored by the NCAA.

As I wrote before, every other level of football, from the beginners to the professional leagues, uses a playoff system and has clear metrics on just how a team qualifies.  Ultimately, every valid system is simple in its construction, and two elements decide the teams – record, and opponents’ record (or Strength of Schedule).  I have no official standing with the NCAA, but back in 1980 I sent DeLoss Dodds (who was the NCAA’s point of contact for the playoff debate back then) a simple proposal to use the existing system to have thirty-two teams playoff to decide the championship, using sixteen bowls.  Dodds sent back a form letter which basically ignored the idea, which has been the NCAA’s consistent and contemptible treatment of their responsibility for decades.  I recognize now that there are reasons to limit a playoff (mostly due to the costs and difficulty for fans to attend five weeks of games away from their hometown.  At the least, however, an eight-team system can be established, perhaps sixteen if the first round follows the FCS model and allows the higher-ranked teams to play at home early on.  The key point is finding an equitable way to rank the teams for qualification and standing.  And I believe the system I created in 1980 is still the most reasonable.

For each of the FBS teams, I use a point system as follows:  award ten points for each win, and take away five points for each loss, regardless of the opponent.  Then add additional points according to wins by teams the FBS team has defeated; for each team the FBS school defeats, award an additional point for each win that team has over an FBS team.  Better record is tie-breaker for teams with same point totals. This system is easy to work, awards points for wins over good teams, and does not reward teams for either easy schedules or losing to teams with good records.

Accordingly, my system applies to the 2013 season and creates the following rankings (with BCS rankings in parentheses):

  1. Florida State 13-0, 190 pts  (#1 BCS)
  2. Auburn 12-1, 183 pts   (#2 BCS)
  3. Ohio State 12-1, 176 pts  (#7 BCS)
  4. Stanford 11-2, 169 pts  (#5 BCS)
  5. Michigan State 12-1, 163 pts  (#4 BCS)
  6. Baylor 11-1, 159 pts  (#6 BCS)
  7. Northern Illinois 12-1, 153 pts  (#23 BCS)
  8. UCF  11-1, 153 pts  (#15 BCS)
  9. Missouri 11-2, 152 pts  (#8 BCS)
  10. Alabama 11-1, 151 pts  (#3 BCS)
  11. Fresno State 11-1, 149 pts  (#20 BCS)
  12. South Carolina 10-2, 143 pts  (#9 BCS)
  13. Louisville 11-1, 142 pts  (#18 BCS)
  14. Oklahoma State 10-2, 141 pts (#13 BCS)
  15. Arizona State 10-3, 141 pts (#14 BCS)
  16. Oklahoma 10-2, 139 pts  (#11 BCS)
  17. Oregon 10-2, 128 pts  (#10 BCS)
  18. Clemson 10-2, 125 pts  (#12 BCS)
  19. Duke 10-3, 125 pts  (#24 BCS)
  20. Rice 10-3, 124 pts  (BCS unranked)
  21. Bowling Green 10-3, 121 pts  (BCS unranked)
  22. UCLA 9-3, 114 pts  (#17 BCS)
  23. Ball State  10-2, 113 pts  (BCS unranked)
  24. USC 9-4, 113 pts  (#25 BCS)
  25. LSU 9-3, 111 pts  (#16 BCS)
  26. Wisconsin 9-3, 108 pts  (BCS unranked)
  27. Miami (Fl) 9-3, 106 pts  (BCS unranked)
  28. Notre Dame 8-4, 106 pts  (BCS unranked)
  29. BYU 8-4, 104 pts  (BCS unranked)
  30. East Carolina 9-3, 101 pts  (BCS unranked)
  31. Virginia Tech 8-4, 100 pts  (BCS unranked)
  32. Georgia 8-4, 99 pts (#22 BCS)  
   35Texas A&M 8-4, 96 pts (#21 BCS)

If all we want is to pit #1 vs #2, my system is in agreement with the BCS and the two human polls, and in fact also with the six computer ranking systems the BCS uses for its ranks.  But if we extend to a simple four-team playoff, things change.  BCS darling Alabama gets 3rd place in their scoring, but based on actual wins and how their opponents did they only rate 10th place.   My third and fourth teams, Ohio State and Stanford, only get seventh and fifth place in the BCS, in large part because they won early and lost late, while teams which lost early and won late got extra support in the BCS system.  I rolled the numbers all the way thorough #32 to show how the BCS starts to fall apart as we get further along; UCF and Northern Illinois did a better job than the BCS granted them, and there is an increasing disparity between the polls and objective results as we look at teams in the two and three-loss range. 

So how would my system plug in a playoff?  As a compromise to the logistics and the networks, an eight-team playoff is both functionally feasible and worth calling a playoff.  I’d take the, what, thirty-nine existing bowls and re-assign teams according to a simple three-level system of designation:

The top eight teams are in the playoffs.  They play at the top four locations, and each week the top surviving teams stay where they are and host the others.  While some fans won’t be able to afford making up to two additional trips to see their school, the rising interest in a bonafide NCAA FBS playoff will ensure seats get filled; 

The next teams are assigned according to conference and bowl alignment agreements;

The remaining bowls are filled according to bowl preference and team acceptance. 

That would produce the following playoff line-up if we applied it to 2013’s season:

Rose Bowl:  [1] Florida State vs. [8] UCF
Sugar Bowl: [2] Auburn vs. [7] Northern Illinois
Orange Bowl:  [3] Ohio State vs. [6] Baylor
Fiesta Bowl:  [4] Stanford vs. [5] Michigan State

Let’s say FSU beats UCF, Auburn beats N Illinois, Baylor beats OSU, and Michigan St beats Stanford.  That gives the following second-round playoff match-ups:

Rose Bowl:  [1] Florida State vs. [5] Michigan State
Sugar Bowl:  [2] Auburn vs. [6] Baylor

Now let’s say the two games both end up in upsets; Michigan State upsets Florida State and Baylor beats Auburn.  The same two bowls would be used, and the higher-seeded team stays put.  That would give us:

Rose Bowl:  [5] Michigan State vs. [6] Baylor

It’s workable, it’s based on common-sense standards for ranks, and it’s not your canned-product football we’ve choked on for decades.  

Thursday, October 24, 2013

College Football, the BCS, and the So-Called Playoff System

I will start this post with a disclosure; I am a Baylor graduate, and therefore regard the BCS with more than a small measure of mistrust.  Having seen how large schools with money and influence have used a great deal of immoral influence to essentially buy championship trophies over the years, I doubt the claims from media and those same self-anointed feudal barons of football that the system works very much at all in a fair and reasonable fashion.  The simple fact that after more than a century of organized football there is no national championship for FBS football built off a playoff system, even though literally every other major sport has a functional playoff system, including the ‘lower’ divisions of football. 

But it’s one thing to be cynical, and another to dive into the deep end without a thought to the process.  We are in the last year of the BCS system for – allegedly – determining the national champion of college football, to be replaced by a skimmed-milk version of a playoff system next year. This post examines elements of both the BCS and the 4-team playoff system starting next year.

So far as I am concerned, college football has never had a true national champion.  There were teams so dominating that they were the champion by consensus, there are schools with trophies in showcases that claim championships, which in truth prove only that school’s ability to manipulate voters and a corrupt system, and there are schools which played well enough to deserve a place in the decision but which were wrongly denied for any number of subjective reasons, such as belonging to the ‘wrong’ conference, not beating the ‘right’ opponents, or some other excuse.   The BCS system was allegedly going to correct this, but in practice the façade quickly failed.  Fans did not accept the BCS as valid, even though in most years the championship placed favorite contenders against one another and produced a credible result. 
The simple fact is that fans demand playoffs for FBS football.  Not some ‘+1’ system or another contrived means to keep fat cats happy, a legitimate playoff where the champion proves themselves on the field against the top contenders.  The BCS simply does not pass the smell test.

For this essay, I did some looking into the BCS system, primarily using the official BCS site and a very helpful blog called BCS Know How.

The basics of the BCS are pretty simple; the system uses a formula to determine a 1st and 2nd team for BCS rankings, which play each other for the championship.  The problems start with the way those rankings are determined.  The short version of the BCS formula is that two human polls, the USA Today Coaches Poll and the Harris Poll count for two/thirds of the formula, with four selections from six computer polls making up the remaining one/third.  The human polls are the heavy movers.  

The Harris Poll, according to the New York Times, is a “motley group of voters in the poll — which includes former financial consultants, television executives and Internal Revenue Service employees

I’m sure we all are glad to know that one/third of the decision to rank the top college football team have a base of voters who often “have nothing to do with football”.  Particularly troubling about the NYT story is the observation that most Harris Poll voters know only about the teams they see on network TV; if a team is not nationally televised, the voters will not be able to know much at all about them, and will rely on secondary impressions.

The other human poll, the USA Today Coaches Poll, might at first appear to be a more reasonable look at the best teams.  But there’s maggots in the cheerios here, too.  First, the voting panel is just 62 coaches from the American Football Coaches Association; this means that dozens of FBS coaches are denied a vote for purely arbitrary reasons.  But the bias goes far deeper.

A 2011 empirical study by Doctors Michael Strodnick and Scott Wysong determined that coaches tend to favor their own teams and conferences, and were consistently biased in favor of large and traditional schools and against smaller and non-traditional schools.  

Essentially, the Harris and Coaches Polls both rely on emotional preference, something not used in NCAA Basketball RPIs or valid playoff systems.

Recognizing this flaw, the BCS committee decided to add the results of six computer polls; the polls from Jeff Anderson & Chris Hester,

Richard Billingsley,

The Colley Matrix,

Kenneth Massey,

Peter Wolfe,

and Jeff Sagarin.

At first these polls may seem very scientific and trustworthy, but problems show up pretty quick.  First, of course, is the point that the computer polls only make up one/third of the BCS score – the subjective human polls are twice as heavy in weight as the computer polls.  Second, the BCS formula rejects the highest and lowest computer ranks, for no valid reason.  The argument might be made that the BCS is trying to eliminate outliers, except that with only six computer polls, rejecting two of the results would mean rejecting fully one/third of the data, comparable to rejecting the votes of 21 coaches or 35 of the Harris Poll voters.  Further, any valid poll methodology eliminates outliers, so again there is no valid reason to reject any of the poll results, unless doing so is a tacit admission that the poll is invalid.  But since selected results from any of the polls are rejected by the BCS process, this indicts the entire poll spectrum.
A closer look at the computer polls reveals reason for concern as well. For example, Massey Wolfe and Sagarin include FCS schools in their rankings but Anderson & Hester, Billingsley and Colley* do not.  This alters the population sample of the various polls, preventing a genuine apples-to-apples comparison.

(* Colley does not list discrete FCS schools in its rankings, but includes ranks for ‘FCS Groups’ without explanation or member identification)

At the express direction of the BCS committee, margin of victory may not be considered in the computer polls.  Pollsters like Sagarin and Massey have shown a polite dissent by releasing not only the official BCS rankings using an ‘approved’ formula, but also a set of rankings using margin as a valid consideration.  Sagarin goes to the point of listing a formula called ‘PREDICTOR’ which include victory margins, and has commented that he considers those rankings more valid in projecting actual game winners.  I understand the desire to eliminate manipulation of a process by dumping points on an opponent, as Alabama did to Baylor in 1979 for example, by using their starts to score 28 points in the fourth quarter to make their win look more impressive.  However, when a team controls the game throughout, pulls its starters in the third quarter and still wins by a crushing margin, that fact is a salient indicator which should be considered.  I found the refusal by the polls to reveal their exact formula/algorithm a bad sign, as this prevents the replication which is a requisite condition of any valid scientific case.  

In 2010, BCS Know How did a series on the computer polls and revealed some specific by each poll:

Anderson & Hester:  Does not consider previous years results.  For SOS counts opponents and opponents of opponents.  Sets a ‘conference strength’ then uses that as a benchmark to set specific SOS.  Ranks according to wins, losses, SOS by formula, wins against poll top 25, losses to poll non-top 25.

Billingsley:  Does consider previous years as a starting point for rankings.  Premium awarded for staying undefeated.  Considers the SIZE of the attendance where the game is being played as a factor in game quality, which is bias in favor of larger schools.

Colley Matrix:  Based on winning percentage and SOS.  Does not consider previous years in rankings.  Punishes teams for playing ‘weak’ opponents.  

Kenneth Massey:  Claims to base rankings on ‘equilibrium point for probability model applied to binary (win or loss) outcome of each game’.  That seems to mean you get points for winning when you are not supposed to win, and lose points for losing when you are not supposed to lose.  Previous years are considered, and so is date of the game as well as venue. 

Peter Wolfe:  Eats small children then spits out their bones to find the results.  Well, maybe not, but Dr. Wolfe does not say much at all about how he determines his rankings.   All he will say is that he tries to create a “maximum likelihood estimate” of a team winning a given game.   Wolfe counts results from 730 different schools, by far the broadest population sample, but his limited explanation seems to suggest a modified transitive property theory, mitigated by not counting margin.  He does not say, but the explanations imply that prior years are considered when determining expectations.  Finally, Dr. Wolfe is a professor at UCLA, which may or may not influence his initial assumptions.

Jeff Sagarin:  Counts preseason rankings, ratings compound both opponent records and records of opponents’ opponents.  The preseason ranking factors are removed when the BCS ranks are first released.  Undefeated and single-loss teams gain a premium value, and road wins are considered especially important.

Now, let’s have a look at the playoff system starting next year.  According to BCS Know How,

The playoffs will use a six-bowl system using three ‘contract’ bowls and three ‘host’ bowls for the abridged playoff system, using four teams.  The highest-ranked champion from five minor conferences (CUSA, Mountain West, Sun Belt, AAC, and MAC) gets one of twelve spots in a system suspiciously similar in appearance to the BCS, with champions from the six major conferences and five ‘at-large’ positions to be determined by a selection committee, which also announces the rankings.   

The selection committee will release a ‘Top 20’ ranking each week beginning in Week 8 of the season, very much like the BCS rankings.  Two semifinal games will be held either Dec. 31 or Jan. 1 of each year, with a championship game the first Monday in January that is at least six days after New Year’s Day. 

The committee will have absolute authority in selecting the four teams in the playoffs, and although they “will be instructed to weigh strength of schedule, win-loss record, head-to-head victories with other teams in contention and whether the team won its own conference“, it’s impossible to know how objective that process will prove to be in practice. 
No information has been released about who will be on the Selection committee, or what criteria will be used to choose the members.
No metric has been announced to determine which teams should be chosen for the playoffs.

No information has been released regarding whether polls will play a role in the playoff team selection, or if so how they could be used.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Job Matching

I’m in an unusual position these days.  On the one side, my wife is looking for work, and on the other I am hiring to fill a position for my company.  First off, no, I can’t give the job to my wife.  The experience does give me some insights into the stress for both job seekers and businesses in the job market. 

Except for a few of us, I’m thinking the top of the class students who get several job offers to choose from, looking for a job is stressful and annoying.  We need a job to pay the bills, we see all kinds of places where we are sure we’d do a really good job, but very few of the places we contact is interested to even offer an interview.  It doesn’t get better with experience, either.  When I was laid off from Reliant Energy in 2009, I didn’t get a job interview for weeks, even though I began applying for open positions immediately and found many for which my skills superbly fit the job requirements and description. I understood the numbers, the factors which drive the traffic of job searches, and I knew the ebb and flow of company interest in applicants.  I knew it would be a lot like fishing, where things you never saw controlled your opportunity and access to the decision-makers, but the emotional burden of slugging through the process with no visible results was heavy for all of that.   In the end, my job search paid off, though I was lucky to apply at the right place at just the right time.  My advice to you job seekers on that count, is that you have to keep trying, so that when the right place and time come together you will be the one who gets that chance.   I can’t say it’s unfair, because as much as it feels unfair to get no response to applications and constant effort, there’s no rule that someone has to answer you.  I am trying to keep my wife’s confidence and hope up, because I understand how she feels, and we both understand that while there will eventually be a resolution, how and when are out of our reach to know right now. 

So now I consider the employer’s point of view.  OK, the job seeker is not all that concerned with how the employer feels.  I think that’s a mistake, though.  While there are bad companies and bad bosses even in good companies sometimes, establishing rapport is important for the job seeker, and it may help to understand that the company, or at least the person doing the hiring, really does want to get the position filled.  The thing is, the employer does not want to just get someone in the spot; they need the right person there or else they will be worse off than they were at first. 

I have an opening to fill.  The position received a fair amount of interest, and I received seventeen applications in less than a week.  I started by trying to contact the applicants by phone - since the job involves a lot of talking with customers by phone, this is a primary skill I can test while screening applicants as well.  Not everyone was available on the first try, but most did answer right away, and there were only two applicants I could not speak to before I reached my decision for the first cut.  So the first thing that jumps out at me, is that if you apply for a job, you’d better have a phone number available which reaches you right away.  Trusting emails or your answering machine may mean you fall behind other candidates before you even know you were considered.

The next point that jumped out at me as I spoke with candidates, is how few of them knew anything about my company.  In an age where so many online tools exist to research companies, anyone applying for a job with a large firm must be able to show they have done their homework.  The fact that anyone applying for the job had to go through the company website means they were only a click away from learning all kinds of things about my company and what it does, how long we’ve been in business, and how we built our brand.  When someone applies for a job that way but admits they don’t know anything about my company when I call, that’s not a good sign. 

On the other hand, a number of candidates set themselves apart early on by the way they answered questions, and their apparent interest, not so much in getting hired as in getting this particular job.  Just as people who apply for jobs are silently praying that the position is not the job from hell, employers are hoping they don’t accidentally hire the employee from hell.  A candidate can do a lot to help themselves by just showing they are comfortable with your company.  

Another suggestion to candidates, is to know your target.  I’m a credit manager, and that means I exchange emails and have phone conversations with a lot of customers.  So anyone working in my group has to be comfortable with talking to customers, and with answering a lot of emails, sometimes very complex ones with lots of attachments and details.  Several of the applicants did not seem to understand the job, even though the website clearly defined the duties and requirements.  A couple spoke in a way that suggested they wanted this job only until they found one more to their liking, which is a bad signal to send when applying to a company for a specific open position. 

The best candidates seemed to be able to understand my position, to figure out what I was looking for then show how they were that person.  This ability not only helps me set them ahead of other candidates, it assures me that communication with that person should not be a problem once they are on the team.  And communication is a huge part of a group’s success.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Limits of LinkedIn

I want to be open as I begin this article; I like the LinkedIn site very much, and I find a lot of interesting articles and perspectives.  But I have noticed a few problems with the site as well, due not to glitches so much as its design and apparent purpose.  LinkedIn is a great place to read articles if you are finishing school and getting ready to go job hunting, if you are moving and need to job hunt, are considering a career change and need to job hunt, and … well, the pattern is clear.  The site is also useful in advice for companies trying to find good employees, or for people thinking about starting their own business.  That is, LinkedIn is set up for starts and beginnings.    That’s fine, so far as it goes.  But LinkedIn is pretty empty for effective articles on developing employees, long term competitive advantage, or ironing out inter-department issues.  Sure, they have articles on such topics from time to time, but the published articles often turn out to be little more than collections of buzz words or self-congratulatory commercials.  A big part of the reason, I think, is that LinkedIn does not operate as a genuine forum, but is rather a tiered community of haves and have-nots, and anyone outside the acknowledged hoi polloi is expected to simply read and applaud.

An example of this is LinkedIn’s section devoted to ‘Influencers’.  Generally, an ‘Influencer’ on LinkedIn is someone who owns or runs a company (or worse, is already a media parasite or politician), and who has established a virtual pulpit from which they preach their message.  While readers are free to respond, they in no way enjoy a level field.   What’s worse, the ‘Influencer’ articles are often politically biased, disrespect the character and perspective of many readers, and/or toss out broad assumptions with next to nothing for support.   The articles provoke a lot of comments, sadly often because they present weak arguments or are laughably illogical, for which readers take the ‘Influencer’ to task.  Many LinkedIn members have already noticed that some ‘Influencers’ toss of shamefully biased articles with no apparent oversight by the website’s management – it seems to be only a matter of time until someone at LinkedIn has to write an apology for some ‘Influencer’ who goes too far over the line.

The problem is that LinkedIn does not exist to provide an affective resource to professionals. If someone benefits, that’s great but it’s frankly unintentional.  LinkedIn is taking the road of mass media, which is all about traffic and ratings.  More is better, ‘quality’ is just ‘quantity’ misspelled.  And to LinkedIn, there’s no such thing as bad publicity, even if their credibility dies a slow death on the way to short-term profits.  I write this as a member and fan of LinkedIn, but one who fears the site has begun some bad habits, the kind that could kill the site of they are not mended.  

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Toyota's Clown Decision

Over the past few months, my wife and I started receiving inquiries from car dealers, asking if we wanted to sell our 2010 Toyota Rav4.  The first couple seemed to be ordinary junk mail, but as they kept coming, sometimes with bids sight-unseen (although they could check the VIN for records of any incidents), it became obvious something was going on.  It turns out that the people at Toyota have made a very bad decision again.  Dealers were calling to buy our Rav4, because a lot of customers found out Toyota made a big mistake in their new model.

If you pay close attention, you may notice that the Rav4 no longer has a spare tire.  At first, I thought the commercials meant they had moved the tire from its convenient rear mount, but it turns out they weren't satisfied with normal stupidity.  Nope, the Rav4 no longer has a spare tire at all, not even the weenie donut tire which past idiots thought should replace the useful full spare.  Instead, you get a temporary inflation kit, which may get you going again, as long as your flat is small and only in the tread, but of course this would ruin the old tire even if it would normally be fixable, and the inflation kit would also have to be replaced.  Toyota, to be blunt, made a very bad decision, and one which will hurt its brand.

To see why I say that, let's look at the decision.  First, what upside is there in getting of the spare tire?  Well, obviously Toyota makes more money, because if you look you'll see the Rav4's MSRP is about the same as it was when they had a complete package.  Hmmm, you get less but the price is unchanged.   I'm sure Toyota likes it, but it's not something Toyota could pretend made the Rav4 better for customers.  Toyota has said the new Rav4 is lighter without the safety equipment, so it gets better mileage.  Well, the 2011 Rav4 had the spare and got 24 mpg in the city (EPA), while the 2013 model ... also gets 24 mpg city.  So Toyota doesn't look too smart there.  And that's it for upside; unless you really like the look of the new model so much that you don't care about what you'll do if you get a flat in bad weather, have a blowout, or face any number of real world conditions, there is no upside.

Now for the downside.  I'm 53 years old, and I have seen all kinds of tire situations.  I've had sidewall punctures, one blowout where the tire simply ceased to exist, one where the tread fell off ... you get the idea.  The point is, if you drive long enough, sooner or later you will have a flat tire where the equivalent of fix-a-flat will be useless.  And if it happens somewhere you can't get help quickly, like on a road trip with your family, not having a spare tire becomes a very serious matter indeed.  No, Toyota won't get sued for being cheap and showing they don't care about safety, but they have forgotten what built their brand, and why they should – first and foremost – make quality and true service the foundation of their product.  The people who have long experience in driving know the need for a full-size spare tire; they are already displeased by Toyota’s craven attempt to pass off a cheaper, less safe auto.  Those who have not experienced a serious road incident will not be happy to find themselves essentially stranded because some marketing guy in Japan figured short-term profits were more important than taking care of our customers.  The bottom line here is that there’s no way to spin this as anything but putting profits ahead of people, and that never sits well with customers.  Representatives for Toyota only made things worse when they claimed most people don’t know how to change a spare tire.  Insulting your customers after cheating them is not a wise business practice.

So why does this hurt the Toyota brand?  Aren’t other companies doing the same thing?  Won’t a lot of young buyers buy the new cars without the spare tire?  Yes and yes, but both of these excuses miss the point for Toyota.  I’m old enough to remember when Toyota was a struggling brand, a company which made a pretty good car but was dismissed as a cheap carmaker, a choice only for someone who could not afford the quality cars.  Toyota built their brand by making sure their cars were economical, safe, and dependable – in other words, a car with no bad surprises.  Not including basic safety equipment is by definition a bad surprise, and the buyers will discover this trick at a time when they are already upset about having a flat tire.  What, exactly, does Toyota think these people will think about Toyota when that happens?  Obviously, the execs at Toyota have stopped paying attention to what customers want and need, just as US automakers did some years back, with the same arrogance that their success will continue simply because they expect it to continue. 

To the people at Toyota, I will be clear:  I bought a Rav4 because you convinced me at the time that it was the safest and most dependable vehicle of its type.  When I buy my next car, it will again be whatever is the safest and most dependable.  A full spare tire is not optional, and I will not consider – even for a moment – any vehicle which does not have one.  I will not be swayed by marketing schtick or what some ‘focus group’ pretends, if you do not provide a product worth my money you will not get it.  There are competitors who want my business, and someone will make a car/truck with the safety and dependability I require.  Right now, I have no intention of buying a Toyota, not only because you took out a vital part of the vehicle, but also because you showed that my needs and opinion are not considered in your brand.  The best course for Toyota would be to recognize their blunder, admit it, then work on rebuilding the trust they have violated.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Forced Anonymity

I'm not some famous writer, I must admit.  But I have to say it's annoying that I have not been able to view my own blog for a few days.  Google can't find it, which is a bother.  They can't even find a cached version, so my lack of recognition has reached new levels of irrelevance.

If I was working on some serious investigation into government corruption, my conspiracy sense might be triggered, but I'm just posting the odd bit of personal interest.  My last article praised Discount Tire, so if I was looking for conspiracy, I'd have to figure out how Goodyear took over Google.  Hmpf.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Praise for Discount Tire

We live in a world full of cheats and con artists.  It can make a person really cynical, facing a horde of people out to get your money by a range of dishonest and lazy means.  So, when someone stands out for their integrity and work ethic, it's important to recognize them.

I bought my first tire from Discount Tire back in 1986.   I had GoodYear Eagles on my LeSabre, but when a sidewall failed the GoodYear people proved to be thieves and nothing but.   That is, I drove over something on Interstate 10 and the tire went flat with less than a thousand miles on it, and the GY folks offered nothing but said I had to buy a full-price replacement, which I was dumb enough to buy.  Less than a week later, the new tire failed but GY refused to offer anything, which in my book insures I will never say a good thing about their company again, let alone spend money on them.   Anyway, I was low on money and got a tire from Discount Tire.   Less than a week later, one of the remaining Goodyear Eagles failed and went flat, but Discount Tire repaired the flat even though I didn't buy the tire that went flat from them.  That was an early indication of how Discount Tire does business.

Well folks, in the twenty-seven years since then I have bought, by my memory, twelve tires at Discount Tire (on my Buick, then my Dodge, my Honda and my wife's).  I have never yet had a bad experience at Discount Tire, whether it's getting a flat fixed, getting the pressure checked, rotating tires - when all four of my wheels were stolen off my car in 2001, the guys at Discount Tire went all out to help me with inexpensive replacements and to make sure the wheels were balanced and in good order.  These guys know their business, they are fast, hard-working and professional, and I figure I will be buying tires from them for life, and so will my kids.

What makes Discount Tires stand out is not just their prices, or - much as I love them - their service at any one location.  It's that they maintain a very high standard of service at ALL of their locations.   I mean, we all know that service can vary from place to place, so can product quality, and the difference can depend on things like management, training, logistics, or other variables.  So, for a company to consistently deliver a high level of performance, day in and day out at ALL of its locations, is something truly impressive.   It means that EVERY major point is not just covered but reinforced, from the home office down to the guys working the bay.

Well done, gentlemen, and thanks.    

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Salafi Jihadism and US Grand Strategy Part III – The Avenging Angels

War is a terrible thing.  Even when it is just and properly executed, war means death and destruction.  Worse, many brilliant and experienced warriors have observed that wars never follow the original plan.  Worse still, the politicians who plan and begin wars, and who are responsible for explaining the reasons and need for support to the people, are generally lacking in both comprehension and fortitude in their duty.  This is not to say that wars should be rubber-stamped for approval, but once the decision is made to enter war, it must be seen through or else the cost will be much worse and the results disastrous.  This is the lesson from history.

Jihadism comes from Islam, but does not represent the whole of Islam.  I don’t say this to excuse the apathy most Muslims display when asked about Jihadists (indeed, most Muslims should condemn Jihadism on moral and religious grounds, since the greatest number of Jihad victims always come from Muslims murdered and tormented by these monsters).  Rather, it should be understood Jihadists have popped up like snakes from the ground several times in history.  Muslim extremists created the Hashashin, the men trained and drugged to believe that Allah would reward them for murdering selected political targets.  Jihadists warred against India as early as the 14th Century, specifically for refusing to convert to Islam (the Jihadist leader Tamerlane was particularly infamous for public torture and murder of Hindus).   In the 15th Century, Jihadists led a mob in Fes (Morrocco) which murdered thousands of Jews in a wave of unprovoked killing.  Jihadists took over Afghanistan in the 18th Century by fighting a bloody war with the Hindu majority in 1761.  The Barbary pirates were Jihadists intent on destabilizing regional governments and plundering trade vessels (the U.S. response led to the creation of the U.S. Marine Corps).  Jihadists in the Sudan killed British citizens and reinstituted Slavery in the 19th Century.  Also in the 19th Century, Jihadists invaded and claimed the cities of Kabala and Najaf, slaughtering thousands of Muslims in the process.  These are by no means the only examples of a long, bloody history of fanatical mass killing,.

As stated in the last post, Jihadists are created and supported to destabilize target governments, but do not, as a rule, gain nominal authority themselves.  When terrorists do gain political power, they end up eschewing terrorism officially, and often there are efforts to wipe out the remaining members of operational cells as well, to prevent embarrassments to the new regime.  This is not surprising, if you consider that the nature of Jihadists is chaos, which is never useful to stability.  By definition, then, all  Jihadist groups exist for either foreign applications, or for limited duration.   Jihadist leaders, as well, are often victims of purges because if they become popular or influential, they can destabilize the regimes of their own patrons.  This is just one reason why old groups fade from view (Islamic Jihad, for example) and new groups show up with new faces.  This is also why Jihadists are not overly dismayed when leaders are captured or killed; a martyr often serves their purposes better than someone building their own sect.   In terms of grand strategy, Jihadism has lacked specific long-term goals, focusing on removal of targets and enemies.  It is for this reason that terrorism has caused more death, suffering and damage to Islamic nations than to non-Islamic nations. 

The Salafi brand of Jihadism seeks to evolve terrorism into a more constructive goal; creation of the Islamist super-state, to reinstate the Caliphate.  This goal, however, is still very much in its infancy, because before 1995 terrorism depended on splinter sects for its recruiting and organization.  One suggested reason for the name of Al Qaeda (‘The Base’ or ‘Foundation’ in Arabic), was to build a global Islamic organization with Sunni leadership and direction, to claim broad general support in Islam for restoration of the Caliphate.  This is also consistent with Jihadist strategic thought, which incorporates three stages:  Da’wah, Hijrah, and Medina.  The Da’wah stage establishes Jihad leadership, the Hijrah stage recruits members and creates action cells, and the Medina stage focuses on creation of the Caliphate.  Within that grand strategy, the same thinking applies to operational planning.  At that level the Da’wah stage establishes cell leadership, the Hijrah stage deploys cells to the targets, and the Medina stage activates the mission.

Salafis are distinct for five ideological rules: 

  • Tawhid (the unity of God) expresses the universal or global reach of their mission, which is why Salafis, unlike earlier terrorist groups, seek targets anywhere in the world.
  • Hakimiyyat Allah (God’s Sovereignty), which rejects all human law on the ground that God’s law is perfect and absolute.  Therefore in service to Allah, a Salafi may violate any code or statute.
  • Bid’ah, which rejects all innovation to Islam, especially any argument that tolerates non-Muslims or is in variance to original teachings and customs
  • Takfir, or the rejection of a Muslim from the Umma with no trial or hearing, to declare him or  her to be apostate on the accusation alone, for which the accused must either repent and show penance, or be executed as Kufr.
  • Jihad as the central commandment from God against regimes deemed infidels
These rules not only shift terrorist ideology from a regional perspective to a global perspective, the ruthless violence against all dissent allows Salafis to enjoy disproportionate influence in terrorist activities.  It should be worth noting at this point, that Salafis do not cooperate with either the Muslim Brotherhood (whom they regard as too moderate and likely to give up the Jihad) or Shiites (meaning they do not trust the governments of Iran or Syria, which they consider apostate).   Salafis represent less than one percent of all Muslims, but they are well-organized, tight-knit (forget about infiltration), and well funded.

Regarding the United States, the U.S. has four general pillars of Grand Strategy:
·        Defense against attack from enemies, foreign or domestic
·        Protection of American citizens and interests worldwide
·        Support for democratic republics which protect individual freedoms
·        Discourage/Defeat rogue regimes

While methods and tactics have differed, these values have been supported by both major political parties for more than eight decades now.  With regard to the Jihadists, the pillars may be described as follows:

  • No more 9/11-style attacks (which is why the Obama Administration kept pretty much all of the Bush counter-intelligence structure)
  • Government support for private security firms and coordination with businesses to prevent violence and international incidents
  • Advocacy for the nascent Afghan and Iraqi republics, even if they are not ideal in structure or ideology
  • Strong diplomatic and economic efforts to address Iran, Syria, Libya, and Egypt

Unspoken on the surface, but a very real aspect of the implementation of U.S. policy in the Middle East, is the Avenging Angel tactic.  During the Bush Administration, this was most often represented by the teams hunting down Al Qaeda leadership, while the Obama Administration has preferred Special Forces in the military, most notably the SEAL teams.  Each method has seen advantages and costs, but both were chosen by professionals as the best option for the extant conditions.  More on this in a little while.

The careful reader may note a key flaw in the Salafi strategy – the lack of a comprehensive grand strategy.  Sure, they want a Caliphate, but there is no clear means to attaining goal.  Worse for the Salafis, each group leader considers himself an Amir, but in most situations there is no simple means to choose an overall leader.  Bin Laden tried to sort that out by creating Al Qaeda, which posited a clear hierarchy, but Bush answered effectively by using his Avenging Angels to take out leadership at every opportunity.  Obama is doing the same thing but is pursuing figureheads and logistics experts, where Bush focused on financial and training providers.  The lesson learned by the Jihadists is to have leadership identified only at local levels, but by definition this works against their long-term goals.

The Salafis have also seen their assumptions collapse in the Middle East.  This should not really be surprising, since the Middle East itself has rarely enjoyed stability since the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I.  Dissidents have been common since the boundary lines were first drawn, and over the years the matter has simply become more contentious.  And, as noted above, violence from Muslims has been around for as long as Islam has been around.  Jihadists end up working against their own interests, by attacking Muslims even more often than non-Muslims.  The Salafis hope to correct this by striking global targets outside Dar Al-Islam, but their rejection of Shiites and other radical Muslims damages their ability to build a long-term consensus. 

The chief mistake of the Bush strategy was not in attacking Afghanistan and Iraq, but in staying too long, giving Jihadists a focus for cooperation.  His greatest success was in destroying network cohesion and the supply chain for Jihadists, especially the Salafis.  President Obama, conversely, erred badly in not confirming permanent support for US interests in the region, and in displaying apparent confusion in response to Jihadist attacks.   The Obama strategy should be to demonstrate resolve to protect Americans and US interests, to keep US forces mobile and emphasize command and control by Afghan and Iraqi defense forces, while focusing on regional stability.  Regimes in Iran, Egypt and Lebanon, while not aligned with the United States, will find value in suppressing Jihadists.   Insurgents may not be completely eliminated, but destruction of both finance and logistics chains will prevent major attacks and allow the regional governments the chance to control the threat. 

Follow-up steps by the United States should be clear advocacy of regional governments which respect individual rights.  While this clashes directly with radical Islamists demands for uniform application of Sharia, the majority of Muslims may be expected to support authority which does not represent either capitulation to American dominance or to radical dissidents, who in any case are a small minority.    

The trump card for the United States, however, remains its ability to strike anyone, anywhere.  This does not condone escalation of drone strikes, because the U.S. must avoid civilian casualties, but effective use of air and information supremacy assets has produced notable strategic advantages.  The well-deserved reputation of US covert forces to take out high-value targets regardless of defenses gives the US an ‘Avenging Angel’ trump card which, simply by existing, forces enemies to change operational methods, communications, and logistics.   These agents appear superhuman in their ability to know what the enemy is planning and to thwart operations in early stages.  This ability comes through the combined effort of US interagency communication, an example of which follows:

The NSA tracks electronic communication and determines the subject is high-value.  The FBI Financial Crimes unit (FIFU) works with banks and similar institutions to interdict financial support.  The NRO creates a virtual profile showing home, work and travel locations for the subject.  ISA begins formation of the supplies needed for direct action teams, while the CIA works up a threat profile for executive review.  The State Department is briefed and policy impact is discussed.  JSOC creates an action team while executive review decides on a course of action.  From discovery to action decision, the timeline may be as little as six hours, in the case of a previously unknown subject.  Once a profile is in place, action may be deferred until optimal conditions are reached, trigger events occur, or a threat warning changes the paradigm.  A daedelus condition may be maintained. 

This example is not a static template; a range of options exists depending on the urgency of the condition and the value of the target.  The example demonstrates, however, the ability of the US to bring multiple resources to bear on a target, to do so quickly, and to do so virtually anywhere.  This ability is significant not only in individual cases, but also makes reduction of military force possible without loss of credibility.  Further, integrated operations between such agencies is infeasible in Middle Eastern countries and is difficult for rival powers in China or Russia to duplicate for political reasons.  I’m not talking just about the ability to assassinate or apprehend a target, but also the ability to disable financial and supply chains, disrupt operations, find and destroy data, or otherwise prevent undesired behavior by enemies.  The strategic value of this ability is commonly undervalued by orders of magnitude, in part because non-American agencies are reluctant to admit their limits in this regard.  That is, any professional intelligence group is able to kill people or steal information, but the ability to take strategic action without leaving evidence of the action, or to do so in a manner which denies enemies the ability to retaliate, is competence of a completely higher order.  When this ability is employed by an agency operating for the common good, such as removing threats to the general population or debilitating the ability of a rogue regime to attack neighboring countries, the added moral value magnifies the credibility of that agency.     

Friday, May 03, 2013

Salafi Jihadism and US Grand Strategy Part II – The Grand Illusion

We live in an age of morons.  Unfortunately, many of them now hold high office.  As an example of this foolishness at the top, consider articles like this nonsense from Foreign Policy magazine:

Arrogant socialists imagine that key strategic goals for US foreign policy in the coming decades will depend on impractical economic whims, chicken-little scare tactics about the environment, denial of the US role as world leader, and dependency on central government.  Yet the hubris is similar to that displayed by conservatives not so very long ago, due to a similarly distorted view of the world.    In the case of the conservatives, at least they were not alone in their fantasy.

The Soviet Union appeared poised to dominate the Eurasian continent by 1980.  Europe was in upheaval, the US had somehow lost a war in Vietnam to a band of primitive thugs, the US economy was mired in both high unemployment and high inflation at the same time, and most self-proclaimed experts in the media announced the US was done.  Then a lot of things changed.  The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan turned into a disaster, the US revived under Reagan on all fronts, and American exceptionalism returned to favor not only in the US, but in many other nations.  This reached an apogee in 1991, ironically after the US made mistakes in judging the intentions of Saddam Hussein.  Hussein sent his army into Kuwait, imaging the US would not dare try to stop what he had all but completed.  Instead, George HW Bush directed a masterful campaign of diplomacy, influence, and military power to destroy Iraq’s military and make clear the US’ ability to obliterate any enemy of significance.  Unconfirmed reports from the intelligence community in 1991 generally relayed the same message at the Politburo:   

“о дерьмо”

AirLand battle doctrine was not only superior to anything on the books anywhere in the world, the Gulf War demonstrated not merely superiority but absolute supremacy of US training, logistics, and weapons systems.  Since 1991, only Iraq has been rash enough to plan for any kind of direct confrontation with main battle forces of the United States.  Even today, twenty-two years after the Gulf War, most strategic textbooks in China, Russia, or other potential opponents make clear that the only sort of warfare which may be waged against the US with any hope of survival (let alone victory) is asymmetric warfare.  This, by the way, was the reason for the sponsorship of the PLA’s propaganda piece, ‘Unrestricted Warfare’, in 1999. 
The success of the Gulf War led to a number of mistaken assumptions, by both Democrats and Republicans.  Bill Clinton used the success to justify a scale-down of military force, but also drastically increased the number of troop deployments, such as into Bosnia and Somalia.  George W. Bush was misled into believing that an invasion of Iraq would enjoy success similar to Desert Storm, although conditions and objectives were very different.   The limited goals of Desert Storm, the overwhelming unanimity of support, both domestically and internationally, and the restraint after freeing Kuwait, all combined to make Desert Storm a very different conflict from prior and future engagements.  If anyone had paid attention to Clinton’s blunders in Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia, the errors of assuming easy victory could have provided important lessons.  Ironically, the US was far better prepared for the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan than in occupying Iraq.  The reason is that the United States always understood that occupation of Afghanistan was impossible, the only viable strategy being to help Afghans rule themselves.  In Iraq, the lack of a coherent exit strategy has made the campaign bloodier and less decisive than it might have been.

Switch now to the Jihadist perspective.  Before 1972, Americans were largely out of sight and out of mind to the Arabs, Persians, Jews and other Middle Eastern people.  World War 2 made it clear that the US was formidable when angered, but few nations tried to build strong friendships with the US before 1972, with four notable exceptions:  Israel, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iran.  Muslims in general found it easy to ignore the US, except for business deals. 

When Britain withdrew from the Gulf in 1972, the US was by default the referee for the region, which led to the rise of four general groups:

  • Pro-US nations, especially Israel, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iran
  • Soviet client states, like Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Egypt (before 1979)      
  • Arab nationalists, usually starting as NGOs to test the climate
  • Neutrals like Algeria, which rejected diplomatic ties with the US and USSR but did business with both
Without going too far down the rabbit hole of splinter groups from these four general groups, we can recognize that there is a fractal effect from major changes in global policy, and this in turn created the opportunity for Jihadist groups to grow in size and influence in the Middle East.  At first, most of these groups followed the pattern of European terrorist organizations – indeed, the IRA and Baader Meinhof Gang both operated training camps in Middle East countries in the 1980s, and their influence colored thinking in PLO, Fatah, and Islamic Jihad operations and strategy.  The Jihadists, however, rejected Soviet connections from the start, basing their funding and ideology on strict Islamist principles.  This home-grown methodology limited the growth of the Jihadists early on, but also kept the American and Soviet agencies from infiltrating them and identifying leadership.  There is some evidence that certain European agencies were able to gain access through funding, most notably the DGSE of France and a number of Balkan organizations, but far more that recruitment through madrasas and funding through mudarabha were the means of building such groups.  The Jihadists commonly used tactics of planning and logistics that focused on mosques and Islamic communities for early staging, then abandoning all direct connections to nominal Islamic associations when activating a cell.  This demonstrates the desire to decentralize operations as much as possible, and to partition Jihadists from official government offices.

This point brings up a key aspect of Jihadist goals – while there are several nations supportive of Jihadist actions and ideals, there is no currently nation under Jihadist leadership, including Iran.  Jihad by nature is insurrection, and therefore all establish political hierarchies seek to dismantle domestic Jihad activity , preferring instead to sponsor foreign actions which destabilize enemies; there is no actual desire to establish the supreme Caliphate, as this would deprive these officials of power and influence in the region.  Even in theocratic states like Iran, sponsorship of terrorist groups is meant entirely as a weapon to attack foreign enemies, not establish a Jihadist state.  This is why, for example, wealthy donors from Saudi Arabia support terrorists – it’s a form of danegeld to send the monsters somewhere else than their own front door.

Next:    Salafi Jihadism and US Grand Strategy Part III – The Avenging Angel 

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Salafi Jihadism and US Grand Strategy - Part I

In 1972, Great Britain essentially ceded its role in the Middle East to the United States.  The move was one of political expedience, as the UK's leaders hoped to cut their costs supporting long-time allies by passing the duty off to America.  The thinking was that the U.S. was already committed on a global scale because of its many alliances and international commitments at economic, military, and diplomatic levels.  Also, in 1972 the United States enjoyed strong approval by most Mid-East nations, specifically because the United States had never broken a promise to an ally in the region, and had never held colonies there.  However, the move radically altered the world power structure, as the Middle East has always served as a fulcrum for regional domination in Europe, Africa and Asia.  The Soviet Union could not afford an American-dominated Middle East, as this would  make Soviet domination of Eurasia impossible.  Therefore, while careful to avoid direct military confrontation in the Middle East, the USSR continued its proxy strategy by supporting client states in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen (among others) and creating disruption in US client states like Egypt, Iran and Jordan.  The Soviets' efforts were often ham-handed, but they gave inspiration to other nascent groups seeking to gain power through asymmetrical conflict, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and (ironically) the Baathists in Iraq.

The United States intelligence community was aware of the Soviet actions, but could not generally oppose them in like fashion.  Also, with the US global focus on Asia at that time (the Vietnam conflict and building the China buffer especially),  the US felt that the Soviet actions in the Middle East were strategically disruptive but not an imminent threat, a decision proven wrong by the events in Iran at the end of the decade.

The combination of the Shiite revolution in Iran and the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan led to an explosion of radical movements in the Middle East, especially those which used terrorism.  This was because government efforts, whether regional or global, had failed to wipe out such groups, because such groups could act with little logistical support and because such groups appeared to gain credibility in short time.  These groups early on fell into three types:

  • Secular groups seeking political power, which generally failed due to limited popular support and because they were seen as direct sedition by the governments;
  • Islamic groups based on nationalism, which achieved limited success but had trouble gaining support outside their demographic membership; and
  • Jihadists which proclaimed loose versions of Jihad, in support of 'umma' or similarly broad and vague ideals.

The secular groups were seen as direct threats by most governments, yet also had some of the least public support, so most of these were eradicated quickly.  The nationalist groups were more successful, but could not continue in strength once their main objective was gained.   The third group learned from the first two, and   made sure their membership was spread out across several nations, that they did not directly oppose any host government in their actions, and that patronage was built through extant political, financial, and religious structures.   Terrorism therefore evolved from the fairly primitive PLO and Fatah, to Islamic Jihad and Hamas, to more elaborate constructions.

U.S. Grand Strategy was not well-considered for most its history.  Until FDR's election, U.S. Presidents were disinclined to think in global terms, preferring to avoid fights if possible and raise forces as needed.  Roosevelt agreed with Churchill even before Winston was Prime Minister that the Nazis represented a grave threat to the free world, and also that the Fascists in Japan were a threat to the Pacific region.  But even Roosevelt could not prepare U.S. forces for the war in advance, a lesson not lost on later Presidents so far as Europe and Asia were concerned.  But while Harry Truman supported the nation of Israel in part to stabilize the Middle East, and Eisenhower cultivated the Saudis to give the US a key Arab ally, no formal grand strategy for the U.S. included a Middle East plan.  Aside from standing by allies and opposing the Soviets, the rest was ad hoc.

After the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, humbled by their defeat, and with the U.S. stinging not only from the loss of Iran to Shiite extremist revolutionaries, Islamist groups had reason to believe their strategy was succeeding.  Lost in the noise for most people was the fact that the terrorists made up a very small portion of Muslims - Shiites, Wahhabists and the newly arrived Salafis.  With Soviet sponsors removed, terrorism became a domestic product and internal sponsors directed the flavor and character of the movements.

The U.S. also gained from the events, as sponsorship of the Afghan mujahadeen demonstrated that indirect support could achieve strategic results.  While the Islamists made effective use of asymmetric warfare, the U.S. was discovering that unconventional warfare could be more effective for them than nominal doctrine.    

Next - The Gulf War

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

The Fear of God

It's difficult to talk to a lot of people about God.  Some refuse to admit He exists, and others will only accept God if He happens to be soft and cuddly, a dispenser of material pleasures and comforts.  Some might be bold enough to allow God to care about Justice, but only in a politically correct manner which is consistent with humanism and social fashion.  What would Brangelina do, in a phrase.

Try to point out that this thinking puts God in a box, tries to make Him a puppet, and you will be accused of all sorts of evils, especially of being judgmental and a hypocrite.  Never mind that anyone making such charges would - by definition - be guilty of the very same offense.  I really have come to believe this is why so many people do not have a relationship with God; they have absolutely no sense of the God who truly exists.

So what does this have to do with the fear of God?  Well, for one thing, God is not tame.  I pray to God every day, but with more energy and focus on some occasions.  Like in 2008, when my family and I were in our house while Hurricane Ike roared past.  Not a big hurricane by most standards, but the power and the threat from the storm was very real.  I don't even think 'storm' is the right word.  A storm passes by in a couple hours, and varies in intensity, but a hurricane roars for half a day, with high wind and heavy rain, knocking out power and the phones before it even starts so you feel completely alone and helpless, and you spend more than a little time worrying about whether the plywood you put up over your windows was thick enough, put up securely or otherwise might fail to protect your house and family. At such moments you grasp how small we humans are.  The same when your child is seriously sick, or you wife was in a car accident, or when you lose a job, and so on.  The world is much bigger than we are, and the God who made the world and everyone in it, is great beyond measure.

But God is not just good because of power.  He is also pure goodness.  To some folks, that makes God seem like Santa Claus, but authentic good is scary.  Imagine someone who never lied.  Someone whose word was always sure to be good.  Someone who never spread rumors, who never exaggerated, who never took anything that was not theirs.  Someone who was not only the best student in the class, but who set aside time to help the slowest students improve.  Someone who made statements that seemed like assumptions, but in fact were always completely right.  Someone who could look at you and know everything there is about you.  Someone, in short, who never made a mistake, never got an answer wrong, and in any disagreement proved to be right.

Now imagine that this perfect person lived with you, so that everyday you saw the huge difference between your own ability and theirs, your own character and theirs, your own blunders and their perfect results.  Wouldn't you be intimidated?   Now consider that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent.   Still think He's someone to mess with?

But God is also scary good in His essence.  I have been privileged to know some people who lived lives of great service and work, who were humble yet confident,  I could see God at work in such people, and friends those people scared me.  People like that are very, very different from ordinary folks, and as much as I want to hear God say 'well done, thou good and faithful servant' when I stand before Him, I am well aware that my actual results are likely to cause Him to comment 'get a mop'.  

God is scary.  Like a strong parent is scary, or a good wife.  Like a teacher who is top in his field, or a coach who means to make you a champion.  You do your best, knowing it needs to be done better and better every day.  It's not about fear of punishment, but fear of missing the mark, of turning out to be less the man than you hoped you could prove you were, in fact.  It's about learning there is a perfect piece of music or art you are meant to make, but you are afraid you won't do it properly.  It's about wanting to be the person you were meant to be, to reach full potential rather than make mistakes.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  We would do well to remember.  

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Really Stupid Ideas In History Part Four: Karl Marx

I first learned about Karl Marx back when I took a course in Economics.  The professor sort of glossed the theory of Marxism, because Marxism is as much about Politics and Sociology as it is about Economics.  I was, therefore, left with the sense that Karl Marx was a generally smart person who applied his knowledge to try to create a better strategy for money and employment.  After all, with so many governments declaring themselves ‘Marxist’ to one degree or another, there had to be something rational about his theories, I supposed.

But having finally read ‘Das Kapital’, I realize now that Karl Marx was not only unable to understand basic economic facts, he was remarkably stubborn in ignoring glaring blunders in his own theories.  I read that he took thirty years to write the first volume of ‘Das Kapital’ (Engels, a singularly inept theorist in his own name, forced the second and third volumes through the publishing process and onto an unsuspecting public), but I suspect what really happened was it took Marx three decades to find a publisher doltish enough to put his rant into print.  I mean, just how dull does a student or scholar have to be to actually take Marx seriously?  A man whose formulae never once seriously addressed the risk of investors and business owners?  A man who actually tried to promote the idea that a product’s value depended on how hard someone had to work to make it?   That innovation, globalization, process improvement and logistics were somehow undesirable?  Karl Marx got more than half of basic economics wrong, and crippled the better part of three continents with his notions for half a century.

The professional success of Rosanne Barr in the late twentieth century proves that people sometimes back incredibly poor choices, but one might wonder just how Marx reached the conclusions he did.  Marx was born into a wealthy family in Germany, and as soon as he got out of school (with very poor grades at first) Karl began to punish his parents every chance he got.  Kicked out of Germany, then France, Karl finally settled down in London, where his personal application of economics left his family destitute and nearly starving.    Like most narcissists, Marx believed that the only solution to economic disparity and poverty was the scientific application of revolution and Socialism, specifically using his model for class warfare and stealing wealth from the people who made it.  By 1850, Marx had settled into finding ways to sell his rants as some kind of science, for which purpose ‘Das Kapital’ was written. 

Marx made his money through his writing and in organizing socialist groups in Europe and the U.S.  That is to say, Karl had learned what sold in the popular newsstands and took care of his family’s finances in a manner far different from his proposed solutions in his essays, speeches and books.  By the time he died in 1883, Karx had mastered the art of political hypocrisy, selling with full voice a political theory he had personally abandoned long before.