by Frank Li
This is the seventeenth article of the series: “Towards An Ideal Form of Government“.
A big challenge in life is durability, or “built to last”, be it for your personal life (e.g. marriage), for your business (e.g. Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies), or for your country (A Country Must Be Run Like A Business).
In this article, I will present a theory that simplifies “built to last” to only two keys: (1) getting the structure right and (2) having conscience. I will use three examples to support my theory: (1) swim teams, (2) the American scale industry, and (3) America.
1. Built to last: the theory
Life is complicated. But some people are just more successful than others, be it in their personal life or in business. Why is that? Well, aside from the DNA (the older I become, the more I believe in genes), I think it all comes down to these two keys:
Getting the structure right. By “structure”, I mean all the basics. For example, you can’t expect a lasting marriage if you marry someone radically different from you, or if you do not understand the fundamental differences between men and women (e.g. a man rarely changes, but a woman changes all the time).
Having conscience. It means you always try to do the right thing, which sometimes can be very difficult. For example, a successful marriage often means a lot of compromise and hard work on both sides for the sake of remaining together.
The same two keys apply to a business. Here the DNA means such things as a company’s culture. The best example of a company built to last is GE, because it has got both the structure and conscience right, for the most part, at least.
The same two keys apply to a country. Here the DNA means a country’s culture and, very importantly, the availability of natural resources. The best example of a country built to last, in recent human history, is America. But America’s days seem to be numbered now. Why? America has been sleeping on the same political system for too long, resulting in an out-of-date structure and a total lack of conscience in its politicians!
2. Example 1: swim teams
I have two children, born in 1987 and 1989, respectively. I had them try several sports until 1997, when I, as a Tiger Dad, chose competitive swimming as their sport and enrolled them in a local YMCA swim team (called “NAPY”). Both of them excelled and I was a happy father. Then a bad thing happened in May 1998: YMCA threw NAPY out! It turned out that NAPY was not a YMCA team per se. Rather, it was a team run by a parent board in conjunction with YMCA. YMCA had enough with the parent board and threw NAPY out!
The parent board struggled to form a new team, with pool times from various local facilities. It was the first time for me, a naturalized U.S. citizen from China, to experience American democracy up close. Man, it was ugly! In fact, it was so ugly that it was the first time I started having doubts about democracy. Specifically,
Most of the board members were in it for themselves (acceptable), but some acted without conscience (unacceptable): It was all about the best for “my kids”, and for as long as they benefited, with everything else (e.g. team’s longevity) being secondary.
Most board members played politics for control, using democracy selectively to their advantages, to such an extreme that the team’s financials weren’t even published to avoid “unnecessary controversies.”
The good news is that a team called NAPV (Naperville Swim Team) was formed and it excelled, including winning a few age-group Illinois state championships (with this Li family earning more points than any other family)! The bad news is that NAPV existed only for about six years, because it was not built to last beyond one generation of swimmers, namely, the generation whose parents controlled the board at the beginning! If the ultimate criterion to judge the success of an organization is built to last, NAPV failed. What was wrong? Lack of conscience on the parent board!
In Chicagoland, there are only two swim teams that have proven to be built to last with sustainable glories (i.e. winning state championships for multiple generations of swimmers). What is so special about them?
Team 1 (in the west) is owned by an individual. It’s a dictatorship. Team management is simple and straightforward – my way or no way: “If you don’t like my way, leave,” with parents having absolutely nothing to say about the running of the team! The team succeeded. The best swimmers in the area joined it, and the team succeeded more!
Team 2 (in the north) is owned by a parent board. Like NAPV, it’s a democracy. Unlike NAPV, Team 2’s parent board has conscience: They built the team with a good structure and they act conscientiously, which means to do the right thing not only for the small (i.e. the current members of the team), but also for the large (i.e. team, community, and future), in both short and long terms.
3. Example 2: the American scale industry
The American scale industry is estimated to be a $1B/year business. Like many other industries, it has been negatively impacted by globalization. However, we, the American scale industry, bear some serious responsibilities for losing the sales and manufacturing to China. Let’s focus on one issue here: a national organization that brings the American scale industry together.
No, there is no such an organization! Currently, there are at least four “national” organizations in America for the scale industry. They are:
ISWM: International Society of Weighing & Measurement.
SMA: Scale Manufacturers Association.
NISA: National Industrial Scale Association.
NCWM: National Conference on Weights and Measures.
Each acts on its own, but together they undermine the American scale industry, including working against each other, especially on the fundamental issue of regulation vs. free-market. As a result, here are two simple realities:
All three private organizations are dying, due to declining membership.
The most active one is NCWM, a pseudo-government organization, for regulations.
How ironic is it? I believe this is a snapshot of America: There are more and more takers than makers! Read: Government Employees and Manufacturing Jobs: Takers and Makers. Here is an excerpt: “More Americans work for the government than work in construction, farming, fishing, manufacturing, mining, and utilities combined.”
In contrast, the Chinese scale industry is thriving. At the national level, it’s simple and straightforward, with one organization (CWIA) representing everybody (i.e. manufacturers, dealers, and end-users), and with the government playing a minimum role in regulation.
How to change the American scale industry at the national level? We must have a right structure, which means to have one organization representing all (just like the Chinese do), and we must act with conscience, which means to do the right thing for America, not just for your own organization (yes, it’s nice to be king). Specifically, the three private organizations must merge for one simple reason: there is room for only one! NCWM must realize that, at this time at least, the more it tries to regulate, the more it will hurt the American scale industry, because it has been over-regulated already, especially when compared with China! For more, read: American scale industry: what is that and how should it be?
“That government is best which governs least.” Who said it? Thomas Jefferson! For more, read: What Did Thomas Jefferson Mean?!
4. Example 3: America’s political system
America has good DNA (What is America, Anyway?): our founding fathers left us with a good foundation. Very importantly, our land is replete with natural resources, which allowed us to screw up a lot more than many other nations (e.g. India). But still there is a limit to it and we are reaching that limit now!
I have already published a lot on this subject (Frank Li’s articles). Here is the bottom line:
Structure: we must get it right first. One key is to have term-limits, starting with one-term (e.g. six years) for the American Presidency!
Conscience: We may have all the laws on earth, but some people will find a way to beat the system. Therefore, it’s critical that we elect the right people in the first place, namely, people with demonstrated accomplishments and people with conscience. There is no bulletproof way to do it, but minimally we must raise the statutory requirements for the American Presidency, such as the minimum age to 55 (from 35) and only after having served as a state governor for one full-term, at least.
Still wondering why America is so deeply in trouble? Wonder not! Most of our politicians serve themselves first, their constituents a remote second, and their country dead last, thanks to this “getting re-elected ad nauseam” thing! How long do you think America, or any country, could last when it’s structured like that, with its politicians totally out of conscience?
What is the relationship among the three examples? Example 1 shows how democracy works in the small, with conscience being the key. Examples 2 and 3 are much bigger in size. Neither the American scale industry nor America had a big problem until China showed up as a competitor. Now, both are deeply in trouble, because of an inferior structure and because of the lack of leadership and conscience in their leaders!
Conscience, according to Wikipedia, is “an aptitude, faculty, intuition or judgment of the intellect that distinguishes right from wrong.” It’s inherent to most of us as human beings. Any doubt? Read these three stories:
1. Elderly Man Returns Cash Stolen from Sears in ’40s. Here is an excerpt:
The man’s conscience has been bothering him for the past 60 years.
2. Fatal hit-and-run suspect in custody. Here is an excerpt:
Nearly four years after a 20-year-old Joliet woman was killed in a hit-and-run accident, a Naperville man knocked on the woman’s sister’s door and admitted he was the driver.
3. Justice Roberts Inside Beltway: Did He Forget What’s Outsides? Here is an excerpt:
Chief Justice John Roberts need fear no such fate because he has lifetime tenure on the Supreme Court. But conscience can be a more implacable and inescapable punisher – and should be.
Bottom line: Always try to do the right thing, not only for yourself, but also for the whole (i.e. more than yourself)!
Nothing is built to last, if we can’t get the structure right first and if we don’t always act conscientiously for the whole!
Here is a quote: “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire, called conscience.” Who said it? George Washington!
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About this Author
Frank Li is the Founder and President of W.E.I. (West-East International), a Chicago-based import & export company. Frank received his B.E. from Zhejiang University (China) in 1982, M.E. from the University of Tokyo in 1985, and Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University in 1988, all in Electrical Engineering. He worked for several companies until 2005, when he founded his own company W.E.I. Today, W.E.I. is a leader in the scale industry not only in products & services, but also in thought & action.