Letter from Langdon: The Indirect Approach

[imgbelt img=curve.jpg]By focusing only on spending and short term results, Congress will have a harder time getting that wild cow, the deficit, out to pasture. Richard Oswald explains how the shortest way isn’t always best.


Michael Patrick

This rural route in the Little Panoche Valley of Fresno County, California, twists and turns toward its destination. But a “shorter” route might never reach its destination. Photo by michaelpatrick
The hurrier I go the behinder I get. 

I don’t recall the joke, but that’s the punch line my aunt once delivered to her older sibling. They thought it was hilarious. Not long after that, Mom’s baby sis was killed in a one-car crash while hurrying to some long forgotten destination.

That’s life sometimes. Focusing on a goal seems to make it all the more elusive. Rushing out to plant ahead of the storm guarantees a crop failure. Over feeding livestock so they’ll gain weight faster means digestive upset and weight loss. Using futures markets to make more money ends up losing money, creating a wreck.

The hurrier I go the behinder I get.

Economist John Kay wrote about people and corporations who reach for the stars but lose their grip and fall to earth instead. According to Kay, trying to make a lot of money simply for the sake of having a lot of money is not the way to go. Time after time, the direct approach fails because focusing on one thing ignores so much more. That’s why sometimes humility leads to success while pride goeth before a fall. 

Investor Warren Buffett is a good example of the best way to wealth. Buffett says he didn’t set out to be rich, but simply enjoys what he does. Henry Ford was sued by investors wanting greater returns, so Ford paid dividends and used the money to buy them out. Corporations like Merck, Pfizer, Proctor and Gamble, Walmart, all offer corporate examples of results … or the lack thereof … based on their business plans.

Boeing got bigger by not worrying about profits even as ICI imploded because they did. That’s what Kay calls obliquity, or indirect achievement.

[imgcontainer left][img:cattleherding.jpg]The shortest route to the getting cattle through a gate probably starts with moving away from your goal.

When I was young and wanted to do something in a hurry like say, driving my livestock through a gate, I took the direct approach. It was them or me, all or nothing. The longer it went the more upset me and my cows and sows got. A simple chore and what should have been easily attained goals became sweaty frustrating failure.

That’s why I now know, when penning a wild cow, you never look at the gate.

I don’t know how many spring planting seasons I’ve started that way, by looking at the gate. The sky is clear blue, giving a green light to planting and a bumper crop when suddenly the light turns red to flood or drought or bugs and weeds. I’m left wondering how something as inanimate as a goal can sense my intent and go the other way. Other years I’ve been preoccupied, hardly even noticed what I was doing, made what I thought were mistakes at every turn until harvesting a bumper crop.

That’s just the way it goes.

I’m sure when Congress and the President who followed spent the Clinton surplus that’s not what they were trying to do, just as I’m not quite sure President Clinton ever really thought he could build that surplus in the first place. On the other hand starting two or three wars and letting big banks do whatever they want with other people’s money does seem like a pretty straight line to the deficit, just like brokering the peace and trading with your neighbors should do the opposite. 

Now in spite of all the infighting and politics the economy seems to be recovering. The stock market is higher; people are going back to work. I see a steady line of freight trucks heading north and south along I-29 past my home. They aren’t cruising at 60 miles per hour to conserve fuel anymore. They’re in a hurry, going 70 or 75. 

With things looking up, some of our leaders say we can’t afford it anymore and we’ve got to do something right now by doing nothing on the budget. They won’t even pass a plain old five-year farm bill. They’ve drawn the straightest line they could by refusing anything more constructive than sitting on their hands.