Asset Management

Do we truly understand what we're doing, and if so, is that the kind of people we want to be?

Cutting corners and taking advantage of others is as American as apple pie.

By Jim Montague

One of my first jobs was working in the produce section of a long-gone supermarket in Brooklyn, N.Y., back when it was gritty and unfashionable. Among other tasks, I operated an old analog scale, marking weights and prices. I'd heard of the "thumb on the scale" method of cheating customers, but for me it was a reminder to be careful when weighing people's fruits and vegetables.

It appears I was in the minority because in the many years since the mid-1970s, I've run across some great examples of honesty and precision, but also an endless and overwhelming flood of cutting corners, shakedowns, rip-offs and every other name for theft, as well as all the accompanying excuses and justifications for it.

Admittedly, many were prosecuted in the police blotters and follow-up coverage I used to write. However, I also discovered that many more cons, deceptions, bait-and-switches and swindles are perfectly legal, and have become common to the point of accepted, normalized, expected, institutionalized and even celebrated.

For example, why sell bar soap, powdered detergent and concentrated juice, when you can add quarts or half gallons of water and double or triple your money? I remember my daughters tried to make milkshakes a few years ago, but when they got done blending the air out of their cylindrical "half gallon" of ice cream, they had just two medium-sizes glasses that weren't even full.

I'm sure anyone can think of hundreds of similar examples from their own experiences of unnecessary services, strangely fluctuating package sizes, and unexplained fees. Just over a year ago, my health insurance provider added my family's prescriptions to our deductible for the first time ever. The insurer later reported this was a mistake, but I'm sure it wouldn't have been fixed if we hadn't protested loudly. I admit I'm turning into a grumpy old man, but it sure seems like there's a flock of seagulls out to tear my wallet apart.

Thankfully, these cons seem less prevalent in process controls and automation, no doubt because components in many applications must run flawlessly for years if not decades. However, I've still heard a supplier or two talk about "open Ethernet," even though devices using different protocols on that common network still can't talk to each other or interoperate. Heck, ExxonMobil and its friends in the Open Process Automation Forum (OPAF) friends aren't pushing for plug-and-play process controls because they've already got so many satisfactory choices.

I'm pretty sure many of these sad situations can be traced back to the constant pressure to "do more with less" forever. It doesn't make sense, but it sounds better than "too cheap to invest."

Now, I'm a fan of free-market capitalism, but as practical innovations and honest gains grow scarce, I think the temptation to maintain our prosperity and lifestyles by cutting corners becomes impossible to ignore. It's just easier and quicker to make the money we're sure we need by taking advantage of others, instead of chipping away to earn it more slowly and ethically.

My two-part question is: Is there any widespread impulse towards integrity, or pride left in offering others a good deal, or are these luxuries that are too costly in today's lean-mean world? My two-part, follow-up question is: Do we truly understand what we're doing, and if so, is that the kind of people we want to be?

Maybe it is. After all, the U.S. was founded and built up by people moving from one continent to a second, infecting and decimating its indigenous people with disease, and pushing the survivors off their land. Oh, and then making people from that third continent come and work for us for free for a couple hundred years. Hence, all the festering anger because, after all, how could anyone begin to contemplate sincerely apologizing for injuries that huge? Best to keep it all bottled up.

Well, South Africa held its famous Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and restorative justice efforts after apartheid, where victims and oppressors alike could share their experiences. No way we could do it, right? I mean, no one has the capacity for that much integrity, do they?