Monday, May 28, 2007

Gasoline Is Too Cheap: A Contrarian’s View

A recent poll reveals that half of all Americans believe gas should cost no more than $2.49 a gallon; another 40% believe it should not exceed $3.00 a gallon, only a statistical handful believe gasoline should cost more than $3.00 a gallon.

This is not surprising, of course. We have all been taught from the time we were propped up in front of the television set that when it comes to paying for anything, less is more.

Regrettably, “cheaper is better” ranks as something less than a universal truth. Gasoline is a good example of an exception to the rule. Indeed, I posit gasoline should cost $6.00 a gallon, perhaps more, and that would be a good thing.

Heresy? Perhaps. For sure the proposition that gasoline should double in price won’t come as good news to a nation of drivers, where jumping into a car by one’s self and driving 20 miles to work or 100 miles to see Mom and Dad in a gas-guzzler is considered as much of a “right” as speaking about it.

And, while gasoline and speech are both subject to inviolable law, they are subject to different inviolable laws. Indeed, I suspect gasoline is subject to a law that is even more inviolable than free speech. Gasoline is subject to the law of supply and demand, a law that cannot be denied, at least not for long. And, as soon as the reins come off the market, gasoline will be $6.00 a gallon.

Six dollars! Can we stand the pain? Yes, we can. Others do it everyday. I was in Belgium last year doing some management training and I was shocked to see gasoline priced over $6.00 (U.S.) a gallon. Even more shocking was that there was no wailing and gnashing of teeth, no bawling, slobbering, or whimpering, no pandering and no begging government to "do something about it!" Indeed, no one said much of anything about gasoline prices. It was just the way it was and, more importantly, people in Europe have learned to adapt. They drive less and they drive more fuel-efficient vehicles that result in the use of less gasoline. The use of less gasoline, over the long term, exerts downward pressure on pricing – you remember, that pesky law of supply and demand?

To the contrary, our seeming obsession to hold down the price of gasoline will have the opposite effect. Lower prices will increase demand and put upward pressure on prices. Moreover, the longer we keep the lid on the pressure cooker of gasoline prices and our finger stuck in the relief valve, the more assured the coming explosion will be severe, dramatic and tragic. In a nation that pays homage to the “free market,” this one should have been obvious.

Finally, consider there is one more law, or better said “principle,” that demands gasoline cost more, not less. It is a principle even more important to our welfare than “get it cheap now.” It is a principle that recognizes diminishing commodities that come from the earth are not ours for the taking but ours to use for the “common good,” a value of democratic society that somehow got lost in the virtue of selfishness. It is a value that includes the best interest not of just us, but of our children and their children and so on. It is a very old principle, one the Lakota Indians articulated as follows: “The world is not a gift from our parents but is on loan to us from our children.”

A wise friend, Carl Hammerschlag, who lived the first half of his life with the Indians interprets this to mean that we owe to our children a world at least as good as we found it. To leave it as good as we found it means to leave it clean and to leave some for them. Some of what? Some of everything.

My generation and the ones who have followed have done a disturbingly poor job with that thing called fossil fuels, ignoring their diminishing quantity, their lack of renewability, and their impact on the environment we are leaving to our progeny.

A suggestion: While we cannot right all of the wrongs generated through greed and avarice, perhaps we should at least throw those a bone to those who are to follow us here and belly up the bar where a gallon of gas reflects not just the price of oil and the cost of cracking it into gasoline, but the cost of a diminishing, vanishing resource which future generations will need if only to buy enough time to replace it.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Art of Balance

I spent yesterday afternoon with a good friend who, like me, spends a lot of time on the road talking with managers and supervisors about the art and science of management, team building, mentoring, workplace relationships, and leadership. Sitting near a beautiful hot spring outside the high desert city of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, that we both call home, the cool breezes wafted off the mountains that surround this special place and our discussion progressed from the ideal institutional manager to the person inside that manager, and we examined the premise that until a manager becomes balanced internally he or she cannot balance others, lead them, set an example for them, or motivate them over the longer term.

How can a manager, for example, concerned about the future of his children in a world with an ever more impoverished environment be a willing party to pushing ever more waste into our biosphere? How can a manager who has little knowledge of other cultures and fundamentally misjudges them, or least shoots his values through the western prism, ever understand, let alone motivate, those upon whom he looks as lesser? Can a manager balance her work with the rest of the moments in her life by increasing work hours or tethering herself to the job with one of the myriad of electronic marvels? How long can she ignore the guilt we all feel when leaved our loved ones to their own devices?

What efforts do most of us put into understanding our environment, culture, ethics, values, and how we fit into this living world? How do most institutions help managers address these issues, if they address them at all? Can institutions simply mandate behaviors that ignore fundamental beliefs? The answer is, "Yes, they can," but only for the unthinking, for those who have given up trying to make sense of work and life and how they should be connected in a way other than work being a necessary evil to provide for the rest of life. There are many managers and other employees who are willing to just stay busy and get paid, if for no other reason that it takes away the pain that comes when trying to adjust one’s beliefs and actions to make them consistent. Unfortunately for most institutions, the busy are not the creators, but merely the executors of instructions.

Jeremy Narby, an activist anthropologist, observes that the answer may not be found in institutional solutions, those solutions imposed on us by modifying our behaviors, but inside those who control institutions, to-wit, leaders must first learn to control “[their own] predatory nature[s],” and that [just] because we have made our way to the top of the food chain, if we are to survive successfully in world of ever-diminishing resources we can’t act “like hormonal adolescents with power tools,” an elegant way of saying that there has to be something more than the profit-motive to motivate the best and brightest among us, those who think, who are socially conscious, who care how it all ends.

How many managers do you know who have come to peace, meaning a balance, with what they are doing vocationally and their fundamental beliefs about life, family, friends, animals, the earth, that which really matters? Perhaps the system isn’t the solution, after all, but rather the solution is found inside each of us and is different for each of us – that one size does not fit all. Perhaps our learning to distinguish between “me” and “you,” and “us” and “them” as the primary paradigm of life has resulted in a duality that defines success not was winning, but rather, in making someone else lose, whether it be the person in the next cubicle or the next company or the next country. If it is not in our nature to hurt others, and I believe it is not, then a new paradigm of cooperation, participation, and self-organization should be considered as an alternative to the command-and-control model of management. That said, this requires more than simply teaching participation “techniques.” It means looking at the world differently and seeing more one than two.

To find our answers, we need to spend more time thinking about what matters, and less time fiddling with our integrated circuits, playing with our “executive gameboys,” and sending electronic mail, which serve the worthwhile purpose of high speed communication but regrettably allow us to lose ourselves “out there” and forget about what is “in here.” Technology in some ways has made us better and more efficient at doing that which we have not taken the time to understand.

How to achieve this balance will be the subject of many more discussions among us, and from these may emerge some answers, not for others, but for those who participate. If there is a learning from these conversations that can be projected, can be passed on, it will not be in the form of answers with universal applicability, but rather, in the form of creating an environment in which each participant is comfortable in identifying his or her fundamental beliefs, what they value, and then determining whether his or her actions are consistent with those beliefs, and if not how balance can be achieved.