Monday, October 26, 2015

If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

I ran errands today. Every step helped to clarify a distinction between conservative and liberal values that has been itching in the corners of my mind: Conservatives like to harvest what they can; they tend to avoid risk and evade personal responsibility for needed change. Liberals like to create and build; they tend to take personal and collective initiative when change is needed.
I live in a conservative rural area and do business in a nearby conservative town. Everywhere I stopped to take care of an errand, I met a situation that needed improvement and people who felt no responsibility for making things better.

My wife, Dianna, and I had decided to cancel our regional newspaper subscription. The circulation representative told her that it was easier if we just let funds, already in our account, run out and so we agreed to accept daily delivery of birdcage liner for another six weeks. Naturally, we were surprised to receive a renewal notice in the mail. I took the invoice into the circulation department. A slightly huffy lady told me not to worry, that I had a stop-date card in the drawer and that’s just the way their computer works. I was irritated but held my tongue. I’m a retired computer systems manager and have strong sensibilities about responsible data management.

My second stop was to drop off ten shirts to be laundered on hangers with starch. My receipt was almost illegible; the thermal print head had probably been going bad for several years. I pointed out that the ticket indicated “boxed, no starch.” A clearly indifferent young woman told me not to worry, that she makes notes on the tickets, that’s what they go by and that’s just the way their computer works. I rolled my eyes and started feeling more than a little disenchanted.

My third stop was to pick up piano method books for one of Dianna’s music students. A regional music company keeps a branch store in town and we generally like to patronize local businesses. They didn’t have everything on my list but agreed to do a computer search of inventory at the main store. As the process dragged on, the clerk looked sheepish and said, “The database is usually kind of slow.”

As we waited, I copped a glance at the connectors on the back of the computer; it was pretty old. The printer used a Centronics parallel cable. You can go into a computer store these days and the typical kid at the counter has never heard of “Centronics.” I asked the clerk what operating system was on his machine. It was Windows 95.

We looked into each other’s eyes with the comprehension and compassion of beleaguered and impotent men. I offered, “I guess your computer department doesn’t love you.” He lowered his eyes in shame. It was a truth that would have been better left unspoken. We eventually gave up waiting for his computer to finish the search. That evening, I got a better price and faster shipping from Amazon.

Stop number four was to pay my monthly rental for a piece of medical equipment. I could have mailed-in a check but I prefer to do on-line transfers, which this company’s systems don’t support. 
Besides, they were on my route; I would deliver their money in person. The invoice I held was printed on tractor-fed, fan-fold, three-copy, carbonless self-duplicating paper. They stamped the back copy with a “Paid” stamp and returned it to me. I could read the stamp, but the print was illegible. By now, I was filled with the glorious fire of righteous intolerance. I asked to see whomever made decisions about computer technology. It seems I needed to talk to Michael.

“Michael, thank you for seeing me. I’m a customer here and rent a C-PAP machine. I’m also a writer and preparing an essay on business technology. Has anybody ever suggested updates such as using a laser printer to produce legible invoices?”

“Well yes, that has come up several times and several companies have tried to sell us new systems. But, what we have has been working for us since 1980 and, you know, ‘If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.’” This was an obvious false premise. It might still be in harness but, of course, it was broken.

My realization blossomed into the radiance and certainty of a full epiphany. I was swimming in the evident demonstration of one of conservatism’s cardinal characteristic concepts – the faulty foundation of fundamentalism’s flawed fallacies. Conservatives prefer to collect and consume instead of creating or constructing. They will even, with unsullied conscience, harvest resources held in common and generated by the labor or loss of others. They prefer to exhaust a resource until, finally, they are forced by desperate circumstance to improvise in an emergency. It goes against their grain to anticipate future or collective problems and take personal initiative or work as part of a community to prepare for needed change.

Another realization erupted to compound and confirm my fresh insight. I used to work as an instrumentation and control system craftsman at a gasoline refinery. The place was rusting in place and, quite literally, falling apart. We were often denied budget money to replace or repair aging equipment. Management usually preferred to pay extra to use an emergency appropriation when pieces of equipment inevitably failed.

For instance, we couldn’t get money to repair a gas flare ignition system. Instead, a member of the fire crew would be sent up the hill to dip an arrow into a bucket of oil, light it, and shoot it over the top of the flare tower. Employees and neighbors started saying the company should just shut the place down.

As it turned out, senior management was planning exactly that. One manager eventually stopped my persistent pleas for maintenance funding by admitting that we were running under a policy of “deferred maintenance.” Oh, I realized, they weren’t all crazy-stupid; they were co-conspirators in a deliberate and dangerous plan to harvest the remaining capacity of the equipment until it (and possibly some expendable personnel) died.

The company built a special machine to add contaminated dirt to coke and asphalt products while staying just within maximum permissible “ash” content. They bought and demolished homes surrounding the refinery as people found gasoline seeping into their basements. They eventually closed the place altogether, wrote-off decommissioning expenses against taxes, and actually made money by drilling shallow wells and recovering old spilled oil.

Considering these as typical examples, the policies and platforms of the current Republican Party begin to make sense. For instance, they prefer to avoid investing in infrastructure – “kicking the can down the road” instead. This feels very much like my refinery’s policy of “deferred maintenance.” This feels very much like the operating tactics of private equity “vampire capitalists.” Will businessmen actually be allowed to run this country into the ground, extracting all possible capital, before moving on to new profit opportunities?

You stop investing in something when you decide you don’t need it. You start to choose hospice and palliative care when Grandma no longer has sufficient value. You stop planting trees on a mountain when you plan to scrape off its top for mining.

Conservatives often covet the profits from privatizing public services. Instead of trying to make government work better, conservatives try to obstruct our government to make it look worse. It is easier, in the short run, to harvest and consume existing resources than to invest in rebuilding systems to be useful or sustainable into our children’s futures. This is exploitation, not conservation as you might expect from the core concept of the word “conservative.”

Would you trust your future to people whose values still include, “I saw it first – finder’s keepers;” “It’s not my responsibility;” “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it;” “Well, you’re not using it;” “Take what you can now and screw the future?”

David Satterlee