Letter to the Editor

'Asking the right questions'

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Dear Editor:

Those involved in seeking truth remind us the first step in making good decisions is to ask the right question. On an Internet search, Stephen Wunker, contributor to a Forbes site, makes the following statements: "We are trained to be solution-finders. In school, we are given questions and graded on the quality of our solutions. As we develop in our careers, management examines the solutions that we propose, not the questions that we have asked. For annual reviews, "performance" is usually defined as creating and implementing solutions rather than finding the best problems to tackle. We become wonderfully efficient at solving problems, even if they are the wrong ones to solve. Few kudos come from asking the right question.

Yet the right question is often the key to breakthrough business success. With a properly framed question, finding an elegant answer becomes almost straightforward. Bank of America has had a massive win with its 'Keep the Change' program that rounds up customers' debit card purchases to the next highest dollar, sweeping the difference to a personal savings account. The patented program is breathtakingly simple, for both the bank and the customer. The question might be something like: "How can customers save money without thinking, planning, or clearly foregoing consumption?"

Before beginning an experiment, scientists must consider what they are seeking to prove and focus their attention on how to eliminate variables, ask questions that will answer their critics and can give consistent truthful answers. Psychologists, dealing with a person who consistently makes bad decisions, often ask, "How is that working out?"

A common statistic is that more than 90 percent of those who start a business fail within the first year. Beginners fail to ask the question, "Do I have enough capital to start and sustain me until income exceeds expense?"

Given the situation in our governments, both the federal and many states, legislators are locked into positions with opposing views. Listening to their arguments, we hear the same positions stated over and over and no one changes. I want to ask them if they are asking the right question. Too often, they are defending a position that is not rational or depends upon that which they believe to be popular. Basic questions must be asked in the beginning. The first is to agree in the function of government. We can agree on national defense, roads and transportation, law enforcement, education, enacting laws, collecting taxes, etc., but we cannot agree on how far these laws extend into our personal freedoms. Compromise and tradeoffs have guided us in the past, even in writing our Constitution. Leaders had enough foresight to provide for differences of opinion and a Supreme Court to seek to resolve differences.

How can we work ourselves out of the situation in which we find ourselves? First, we and our leaders must spend more time asking about the real function of government. Second, they must realize they are elected to represent us seeking what is best for all our country and for the world. The partisan "immaturity" exhibited by "some" of our leaders must take a backseat to the total good for all our citizens, especially to the weak and the powerless, those most affected by the mistakes made in our country.

As citizens, we must ask ourselves what is true in all the information coming to us through so many sources. Many of us choose to listen most to those who think as we think. Some depend on repeating the same thing over and over with increasing volume. Some phrases are picked up by many and repeated in exactly the same way. Usually, blame is placed on another. To counter such phrases, it helps to listen to those who disagree. Listening to those who have experienced the past sometimes brings clarity. Our prejudices take over unless we learn others must be heard. Allow me, if you will to share past experience. I was 10 years old as the "Great Depression, Drought, Dust Storms" reached its worst. Banks closed, many lost meager savings and lost farms. Unemployment was very high and there were very few places to turn to for help. Many of the procedures put in place to keep such from happening again have brought prosperity to following generations. We should be very appreciative for Social Security, unemployment insurance and much of the public and government help which have lessened the impact of the present depression.

President Roosevelt and others put in place bank regulations (there is that terrible word) which have made the banking system much more trustworthy. Welfare programs, food stamps, minimum wage, student loans, veterans' benefits have lessened the effect. Recently, it has been announced that only one of every 50 persons is on food stamps. Many who draw on food stamps do so because wages paid, even full time workers, will not provide basic needs, much less health and educational needs. Other programs have brought uncounted blessings. Aids to transportation, roads, higher education and hospitals have brought great benefits. I have been reminded recently of the great value we have received from our great university systems.

Yet, there are those who believe austerity is the way to dig out of the hole in which we find ourselves. They have cut services of teachers, police, firemen and other public servants and then tell us government doesn't create jobs. Higher pay for government jobs than workers merit. A study made comparing educational level, tenure and skill level required indicated the salaries of public workers was comparable to private workers. Some are advocating increased spending on improvements to schools, highways and bridges to jump-start our economy. It worked 1932-1940. There are problems in our system, but cutting whole good programs is not the answer. Cull what is not working, build on the good that has been developed, and future generations will count us as blessing them.

Lester Thornton