Saturday, June 26, 2010

Behind the McChrystal Mess

The news lately has been full of the McChrystal affair, dissecting why they even allowed that writer to hang around for so long. I try not to comment on political matters, but there is one idea that has been on my mind about the thing, and I have not seen anyone else bring this up, so I will.

A common thread in the discussions over this thing is that the Military Code sets standards of behavior for officers, and that the staffers' comments were in violation in their criticisms of the civilian leadership, and that the general himself was in violation for allowing it to go on at all, even if he did not contribute that much criticism personally. But why is this so surprising, when you consider what else has been going on in our society?

For nearly a century, the "Intelligentsia", the intellectual classes, the "elites" or whatever you might call them have been trying to undermine traditional Judeo-Christian morality. The process was slow at first, but it picked up steam in the 1960s and after. Remember the "Sexual Revolution"? Yes, the immediate sticking point was that many people did not want to be bound by Christian sexual standards; they wanted to be free to have all the sexual activity they wished with whomever they wished, whenever they wished. But the Sexual Revolution opened the door to many other things.

The basic fact is, morality is unitary. It is all one thing. Its essential nature is self-control. And if you undermine it in one area, you undermine it everywhere else in the process. So now we not only have the fruit of the Sexual Revolution in broken homes, unwed mothers, abortion, STDs, pornography and on and on, we have a bunch of things the Sexual Revolutionaries did not count on.

Business ethics declined as well, resulting in the Enron affair, Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme, and all sorts of criminal and shady doings, with a backdrop of low-quality products and self-serving, all driven by greed. After all, morality is the basic restrainer of greed; when it goes, greed has free rein.

Political ethics went early, perhaps because they were never too high in some quarters anyway. "Watergate" started in the 1972 election, and we have seen all sorts of "-Gates" since. And while politicians of both major parties keep falling into sexual misdeeds, there has been more and more (or more open) bribery, mutual backscratching, unsavory dealings, and disregard for both the laws and the Constitution among the political class.

You can look at any area of life, and the ethics involved are in decline. Medical ethics? Scientific ethics? (The Climategate emails uncovered the extent that modern scientists will go to in making the data fit their theories to keep the grant money flowing.) Cheating is rampant in the schools, and there have been reports in the last few weeks of teachers and administrators doctoring standardized test answer sheets to make their schools look better. And I am starting to see a few brave souls pointing out that "Rolling Stone" and its writer were not following high ethical standards either, and there have been a lot of journalistic frauds uncovered in the last few years: fictional "human interest" stories, plagiarism, forgeries plugged as genuine, biased and slanted news accounts....No, journalists are no better than anyone else ethically.

So why are the talking heads so surprised that ethics in the Army's officer corps are not what they used to be? These officers grew up in this country in the last half-century. General McChrystal is 55, and his staffers presumably are mostly younger. They have seen every other moral standard go down, so why should they be held to any traditional standard?

I have come to the conclusion that the nearest thing to a universal moral principle in 21st-century American society is hypocrisy: The individual expects to do whatever he wants, but he still demands that the people around him and in authority over him or under him continue following traditional morality and its strictures. Thus, a politician can complain about the lack of civility in modern political discourse, and the next day call his opponent a Nazi. A pastor can rail against the Gay agenda, and hire a male prostitute in secret. A businessman can cut corners in his own operations, and complain about the quality of his new luxury car.

Francis Schaeffer expressed a chilling idea about the Judgment of God: imagine a tape recorder hung around the neck of every man, which kicks in every time he opens his mouth to make a moral judgment about someone else. And at the end he stands before God, and the tape is played; and his own actions are compared to the rules he would enforce on everyone else. Not a pleasant picture for any of us, is it? And Schaeffer did not come up with this on his own; the idea behind it is expressed by both the sayings of Jesus and the writings of Paul.

Where is it all going? In the book of Judges, one statement is repeated again and again about the land of Israel in that time: "Every man did what was right in his own eyes." The result was essentially anarchy. Even police states cannot arrest this drift; not only do you need more police than you have taxpayers, but the police themselves will be corrupted in a very short time, and the anarchy gets even worse.

There is only one real answer: a return to faith, and with it morals, from the grassroots up, and the removal and/or marginalizing of those who still reject that one answer. Nothing else works or has any real possibility of working. We have gotten by as long as we have on the memory of a moral consensus, but the memory fades more with each generation, unless somehow it can be renewed.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

We All Scream for Ice Cream

Since I wrote my last post on competence, something has happened to remind me that competence is the precursor of high quality, and incompetence leads to low quality.

My wife and daughter and son-in-law went together to buy me a gift for Father's Day: a White Mountain hand-crank ice cream maker. We like home-made ice cream, and we make a fair amount of it. Historically, the White Mountain ice cream makers have been regarded as the best. Expensive, but reputed the best.

So, yesterday evening we went over to my daughter's, and the box was put in front of me. I opened it, we put it together, ingredients were mixed and I started cranking. That's when the trouble started.

It's a simple machine; you turn the crank, the gear on the end of the shaft turns two other gears which rotate the canister in one direction and the dasher in the opposite direction, while the ice and salt in the outer wooden bucket lowers the temperature of the mix.

But on this one, as I cranked, the gears kept jamming. Crank a couple of turns, jam. Back it up, crank half a turn, jam again. Eventually I figured out that if I pushed in on the crank, hard, while turning the handle it would go a little longer before jamming again. Forget any ideas about the kids helping crank the thing.

Then, after about fifteen minutes of disjointed cranking, the ice cream began to thicken a little bit (not done, just beginning to stiffen) and the gears started to slip, between jams.

We finally got out my daughter's old machine, transferred the ice cream mix and ice to it(minus some metal particles that had gotten into the ice cream) and finished it while my son-in-law and I tried to figure out what was wrong with the White Mountain.

The first thing we noticed was that the gears were rough castings, coated with a finish, but no lubrication (and no, the instruction book did not say to grease the gears during our assembly). They were also fitted together very loosely, and did not mesh tightly together. There was a lot of slop in the gear box. There was also a lot of slop where the dasher shaft came through the canister top, about a 3/4" hole in the top for a shaft about 9/16" in diameter, which is how the metal particles from the gears got into the ice cream. Even the wooden bucket was not that well made; my grandfather was a cooper (barrel maker) for Seagram's, and over the years I have learned at least enough about his trade to spot whether such work is done well or not.

We finished the ice cream in the old machine, ate it all, and came home. I got online and started looking up "White Mountain Hand Crank Ice Cream Machine Problems", and found our experience was not unique. There were a number of glowing recommendations, but there were also a number of complaints. One of the glowing reviews that seemed to come up on every site was from a person who had had a White Mountain for twenty-three years. But most of the negative reviews seemed to be from people who had bought one in the last four or five years. The problems seemed to be of three major types: leaky wooden buckets, metal shavings in the ice cream, and the gears jamming and slipping.

White Mountain is an old company, dating back to the 1850s in New England. But like many other companies I have seen, the ownership has changed repeatedly in the last fifty years or so. The booklet in the box was marked "Holmes Group, Inc." Holmes is a maker of portable electric heaters, fans, and air cleaners. But the invoice from the online retailer called it a "Rival White Mountain" model. It turns out that both of these companies are owned by an organization called Jarden, which owns both Rival and Sunbeam, Holmes, Coleman and a batch of other producers of sporting goods, small appliances, smoke alarms, playing cards, and all sorts of unrelated things.

The old White Mountain ice cream makers were made in New England. Mine had no markings anywhere on it to say where any part was made, but there was a small item on the carton, "Assembled in the U.S.A. from Foreign and Domestic Components."

So we have yet another instance of a product from this country with a good reputation for quality that has gone down the drain. Forget about craftsmanship; just order parts from various countries (whoever is cheapest), slap them together and ship them out. And don't bother with testing the product; as long as it goes together, ship it out to the retailers.

This is not just individual incompetence; it is corporate incompetence, at all levels. The product reviewers who had tried to get the company to honor the "Five year warranty" had problems getting the parts to fix their machines, too. This is not a complicated machine, and they are charging a premium price for it. They are living on their past reputation, and it is beginning to fade.

I am not going to frustrate myself dealing with the warranty. We have a return authorization from the retailer, and I am going to send it back. It will cost us for shipping, and a restocking fee, but will probably avoid a lot of frustration. And in the future I will do what I can to avoid buying any products from Jarden and its subsidiaries.