Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Always Too Late

Over the weekend we watched a couple of very different films, different but with an oddly similar factor involved, a factor which could also be applied to our real life situation in 2014.

The two films: from 2011, Margin Call (on DVD); and from this year, shown on HBO on Sunday night, The Normal Heart.

Margin Call is set in a Wall Street investment bank, on the cusp of the 2007/8 financial crisis; The Normal Heart is set in the gay community of early 1980s New York City, when a crisis has arisen with a then unidentified disease killing off, at an alarming rate, a specific group of people: gay men; the film deals with the rise of HIV-AIDS, and founding of an advocacy group. It's a heart-rending story, difficult to watch at times.

On the surface of it "crisis" seems to be the only common denominator. Something extra occurred to me as I watched The Normal Heart on Sunday, remembering dialogue from Margin Call, seen a couple of evenings before. Time and again in Margin Call, as word spread up the investment bank's hierarchical ladder, the person on the next higher rung would say exactly what his colleagues on previous rungs of the ladder had said to the lowly employee who had stumbled across something darkly sinister in the statistics: "Explain this situation to me purely in layman's terms", or "Tell me exactly as you would explain it to a child, you know I don't understand this stuff". Gob-smacking! (I know the film is a work of fiction, but I suspect there is basis in real life). Even more gob-smacking was when another employee stated that, on several occasions, earlier warnings of something going wrong had been passed up the line, but all these had been routinely ignored.

In The Normal Heart (adapted from a play by Larry Kramer, partly autobiographical), warnings of a disastrous outcome to an unidentified plague were being ignored by those on high, ignorance was being spread, not a single person in a position of power would do anything to help finance proper research. They didn't understand, they didn't want to understand. Even some of the gay men objected to the one person who began fighting very hard for their cause.

What people in both films saw as their entitled way of life, pleasures, level of income, place in the world, was not going to be made available for change under any circumstances. Examples of people in the top layers of finance or governance not being of sufficient caliber to understand and act immediately on these extremely serious situations, and not having enough moral core to care, even though dire warnings were being passed to them.....And then it was too late.

Ring any bells? C-c-c-c-c-climate change?


mike said...

I haven't viewed either movie, so I'm not sure what you saw. I'll assume both were accurate depictions of events.

It took six years for President Reagan to publicly recognize the HIV-AIDS epidemic, due to moral, ie religious, political concerns. The right-wing, conservatives were fond of the notion of a moral disease wiping-out the gay population. So, I believe the onset of the AIDS crisis is different from financial management not understanding consequences of a chain-reaction, as the economic downturn of 2008 presented itself. Both events did involve ignoring facts, but for different reasons. I would say the AIDS crisis had errant morals, while the financial crisis had errant ethics.

The 2008 financial crisis was induced by the real estate bubble that has been historically cyclic and was predicted and discussed well before the collapse. The too-big-to-fail banks with their repackaging of risky, sub-prime loans was a disease of professional ethics that added the death-blow.

I do agree with your assessment that it's typically the peons that correctly identify a concern, then inform their superiors, only to have management turn a blind eye of ignorance, sometimes even punishing the messenger by various means. As I've stated in many previous posts, companies (and government) are collectives of our friends, neighbors, relatives, et al, and these individuals want promotions, better pay, bonuses, and stock options...that's only doable if one goes with the flow, doesn't ruffle feathers, and succinctly performs the goal-setting parameters of upper management. Most low-level employees salivate at the notion of becoming a mid-level manager...mid-level managers salivate at the notion of becoming a high-level manager. A company has many incentives to align an employee with corporate goals...companies love obsequious personnel.

It took me many years to realize that managers are managers, because they perform the tasks designated by upper-management by delegating to the lower-level. They don't necessarily get there by being smart intellectually, but by being socially smart and fitting-in to the buddy system and network. I believe that most truly intelligent individuals will not perform well in a corporate structure unless they are at the top. Corporations want "yes" people.

Corporations pander to themselves by stating they have open-door policies and no complaint or concern is ignored. Uh huh.

Once again, I accuse the selfish X-gene of human nature...LOL.

Twilight said...

mike ~ Well, both films were fiction with fact at their hearts. There would be some dramatic licence going on for sure, how much I'm not certain. Seeing the two in fairly quick succession was what got me thinking along these lines - if I'd seen the movies weeks apart I wouldn't have been pondering on them in the same way.

There's an issue of scale too, I thought as I read your comment.
The HIV-AIDS story originated in a localised community affecting a very specific group (at that time); the financial collapse affected a much larger group with widespread tentacles; the link to what's happening now with climate change is on a huge, huge scale potentially affecting the whole world.

Just a thought.

Yes, fine details of each example are different, of course, but there does seem to me to be commonality.

Ethics and morals - fine distinction!

Top level managers come in many varieties - my favourite type are those who have worked their way up through the ranks and know their business top to bottom. Nowadays those are few and far between, I suppose.

Manager skill-sets are different and more rarely come by, or at least come by naturally - this I understand. This has to be partly why so many wrong people are promoted - this and the Old Boy Network. I'm a believer in The Peter Principle - every employee (and politician) tends to rise to their level of incompetence. ;-)

LB said...

Twilight ~ As I've mentioned before, I used to manage the office for a school. Students would come to the office with "passes" for over-the-counter pain relievers, either Acetaminophen or Ibuprofen, kept in a cupboard near my desk. In spite of the fact that many of these kids were also on other prescription medications or consuming things that, in combination with these OCTs could have had serious health consequences (on their livers, stomachs, etc.), staff continued to send them to the office for drugs without the legally required written permission of their physicians (and parents).

So although I personally refused to participate in something I knew might be harmful and never gave up trying to educate everyone, many of the same kids continued to pop OTC pills day after day, one or two at a time - *always* with the full consent of some accompanying staff member *other* than myself. And mike, just so you know, I didn't *delegate* the task to someone else - I just made it clear it wasn't safe and wasn't being done with my consent.

For twenty years, I periodically tried to point all these issues out, hoping to change things by alerting everyone (administrators, counselors, teachers, aides, students, parents, the State) to the potential dangers of not being mindful of our ethical and legal obligations. And for twenty years, I was scapegoated as being overly controlling of office supplies. One counselor even told a student to insist I give them an OTC by reminding me that they weren't mine to hoard. How's that for missing the point?

When the State came in for an inspection, I had a brief moment of hope, but I was wrong. They didn't care either, even when I made it very clear *how* OTCs were being dispensed. Instead, they seemed more concerned with other procedures, including the one for administering *prescription* medications that were kept in a locked closet.

I realized that until and unless one of our students suffered direct health consequences obviously traceable to our practice, nothing was going to change because no one cared. It took too much effort to think about and consider.

In retrospect, I should've quit but where was I going to go? Unless you're self-employed, these kinds of things happen on a regular basis *everywhere* - only most of us aren't paying enough attention, so we don't notice.

This is just one example, as are the two examples you've talked about in your post. No matter what the issue is, I think most folks would rather not worry or think about what *might* happen *or* what's going on behind the scenes. People are better at caring in retrospect and not as practiced at being mindful and proactive, especially when they have the full support of the rest of the group behind them. Group denial is a powerful thing. I think it's easier to blame managers or people in power, when often times we're just as culpable. It's frequently ordinary people like you and me who are complicit.

We'd all rather claim ignorance and blame somebody else, and then be morally outraged when disaster strikes and the truth can no longer be ignored. Those of us who notice so much more also struggle more than most with what to do with what we know.

Like I said, I can think of a whole lot of examples.

mike (again) said...

Ethics and morals are often shown in dictionaries as synonyms, but they are not. For a very good discussion of their distinctive differences:


Regarding climate change, I think there is a huge moral and ethical failure...and I would one-up it as a tremendous legal failure, as well, eg, there are individuals, corporations, and organizations that have played a large part in subjugating, misrepresenting, deceiving, and obviating the evidence.

I just read that last month the Earth's atmosphere had over 400 ppm carbon dioxide for the first time in a million(s) years. Yeowzers! This past winter with its unusual cold from the "polar vortices" proved to the average sucker that we are becoming colder, not hotter...LOL. Never mind that the north and south poles have deteriorated to the point of no return. Sadly, this reminds me of a "Far Side" cartoon showing a tombstone with the words, "I told you so".

Twilight said...

LB ~ I don't have any background from which to be able to comment on your school office experiences. It's surprising that a school nurse wasn't involved in dispensing even OTC medications though, especially as in the USA there's such emphasis on making side-effects of meds known.
I guess a school nurse would have involved more salary to pay though. It's always money, in the end.

I do disagree with your thought that "it's easier to blame managers or people in power", LB. Those people are put in their positions for a very good reason - or would be in an ideal world, in which we obviously do not live.

It might feel better to blame ourselves, and I'm not saying we bear no blame at all, but in the model of "civilisation" we have to work with, we ought to be able to rely on those "above us" to have sufficient knowledge and skills to make sure things proceed smoothly, in spite of our petty selfishnesses and carelessness. I shall never let managers and those in power off lightly by blaming ourselves or everyone else, when we do not have the necessary power to do what needs to be done.

mike (again) said...

LB - I'm glad that you cared enough to do what you did. Yes, it's a fine line whether to be compliant or to stand your ground. Sometimes the battle ain't worth it. It's that rare moment...the Murphy's Law moment...the malefic planets align...and voila, the perfect storm.

Most of Twilight's post today really has to do with risk management, which is a fascinating topic to me. I used to perform purification process validation, on top of my other duties at work. Validation is one method of minimizing risk by always manufacturing a consistent product. I took validation VERY seriously, but I soon learned that the concept of validation to one person meant something entirely different to another. Factor-in business constraints of resources for benefit.

I'm sure that the employees of the West, TX, fertilizer plant that exploded thought they were all safe and protected by all of the regulations in place.

I'm sure the citizens of Charleston, W.Virginia, thought there would always be safe water to drink, although a chemical company was located just before the city's water intake.

I'm sure General Motors thought that little ignition switch problem would go away on it own after a while.

I'm sure the NSA thought they could do as they pleased, even though they had over a million contract workers and all systems were secure from any one employee, particularly a contract employee.

Twilight said...

mike (again) ~ Good list of "accidents waiting to happen", that happened. I wonder in how many of those cases words of warning from below had attempted to pass up the line of management.

Validation was a word I recall hearing several times in "Margin Call" and didn't really understand what it meant in that context - so thanks for the information!

LB said...

Twilight ~ With regard to the school failing to hire a school nurse - the problem wasn't that the school and its staff didn't *know* they shouldn't be dispensing OTCs (since I made them aware and one has to assume the STATE knew as well!) but rather that that no one cared.

Plus, putting the legal requirements aside for a moment, shouldn't it have been common sense?

It was a small school and one of my duties as office manager was that I was in charge of first-aid, a responsibility I took seriously. But what did it matter, if no one listened? Not even those who were *not* in management? If even one other person had joined me and spoken up, our case would've been strengthened - and we might've attracted others who cared.

Hopefully I've misunderstood your comment but if your point is that only someone with the proper *credentials* is worth listening to, then I'd have to respectfully disagree. It's this mindset that allows so many of us to blindly follow our leaders and experts without questioning their authority and without becoming more deeply involved.

I think more times than not, the bigger issue is that we're not paying attention and instead rely on someone in authority (or the group) to tell us what to do, instead of following our individual consciences and inner guidance. It helps if we have the wherewithal to research and choose as much as we're able - admittedly these are luxuries not everyone has.

When my mom was dying (and in the hospice wing of a larger facility), before I left that first night, I asked the RN in charge to make sure she had a warm blanket. When I returned early the next morning, my elderly mom -who was unable to communicate and so thin she looked like a skeleton barely covered in skin- was lying in her bed in a very cold room with only a thin sheet covering her, and the window was open!

It bothered me that I'd neglected my own responsibility by trusting the nurse to follow through with what seemed to be such an *obvious* and simple task. All night long, nurses and nurses aides went in and out of my mother's room, yet none of them thought to bring her a blanket or to close the window and turn up the heat.

My mistake (and one I learned from) was that I'd wrongly assumed they were paying attention to these kinds of details and that they'd take good care of my mother in my absence. It still bothers me sometimes. I hold everyone responsible who saw and did nothing - myself included. If we don't pay attention to and handle the small stuff, how can we ever hope to effectively address larger issues?

You're right mike - what matters to one person (and what seems significant) may not matter at all to another, it's all relative.

Adding - when it comes to climate change, how many of us are making individual efforts to do what we can, instead of waiting for someone in power to solve the problem for us. It's complicated and overwhelming, I know, but doesn't it matter that we make the effort?

LB said...

In my last sentence, what I meant to say was . . . **even if we can't solve the problem***, doesn't it matter that we (at least) make the effort?

Twilight said...

LB ~ I suspect we're commenting at slightly crossed purposes. My remark about a school nurse came from my own experience at school, that's all. I was not insinuating that you or anyone else was incapable of advising students about matters pertaining to meds.

I think there's a fundamental difference in our views of life, LB, as to leaders and leadership. It could be that one of us, probably me, is not expressing myself clearly enough.

Of course we should all take responsibility for our own choices in everything. When it comes to the bigger picture, nation-wide, world-wide though, we have to rely that those in power are up to the job with which they've been entrusted. Our tiny individual contributions to any issue are way too small to solve the huge problems facing the world now.

Sorry, but no matter how good and angelic our actions individually it will not help in the larger scale - for that we need government and leadership.

Let us not argue. You've put your points and I my own.

LB said...

Twilight ~ I don't disagree with you that our leaders (and those in power) shoulder much of the responsibility. I only added my comments to challenge the popular notion of "Us versus Them". Sometimes we are them, which means our individual actions matter.

But you're right, let's not argue.:) There's enough of that in politics, and look how little it accomplishes.

anyjazz said...

Mike has it I think... Morals, ethics. But the heart of it is still greed. Disregarding moral and ethical decisions in order to make more money. When the answer to the question "What is the right thing to do?" is "The thing that makes(and/or keeps) the most money."

I suppose the same is basically true for power but, what good is power if there isn't the money to maintain it?

Twilight said...

anyjazz ~ Yes greed and selfishness, and utter disregard for those on the many rungs beneath them.

Anonymous said...

Here we are, peeps -

Twilight said...

Sabina ~ Thank you for that - and Bravo! (once again) to George Monbiot for a super article, pulling no punches.

LOL! His birthday is 27 Jan. same as mine.

Anonymous said...

You are most welcome. I too admire his insightful concision.
I've Aquarius on the 5th and Merc (chart ruler) in Libra - no small wonder I so much enjoy both your writings!