08 August 2011

Deja Vu

I became a supervisor at Bell Labs around the time the AT&T telephone monopoly was broken up in 1984. IBM had fought off a similar lawsuit, but the AT&T management agreed to settle their suit by divesting the Bell Operating Companies — their only direct connection to their end customers. The AT&T guys figured they were bright enough to compete and win in the computer business. After all, the No. 5 Electronic Switching System was just a big computer, wasn't it? The Unix operating system was invented at Bell Labs. Piece of cake, right?

Wrong. AT&T had been a regulated monopoly for 100 years. The senior managers didn't have a clue as to what competition was about. And they pushed out any new senior manager brought in from the outside to show them. They simply intensified their internal power struggles to the point that any information from outside the company was treated as noise, unless it could be used as a tool in the incessant maneuvering. Reality, the profit motive, didn't matter anymore. The company had gone into a collective neurosis.

Eventually, AT&T failed, and was bought out by Southwestern Bell (one of the former Bell Operating Companies) which promptly changed its name to at&t. And Bell Labs died.

When I reflect on Congress' past months of debate, and the lame compromise that raised the debt ceiling, I see the same pattern. Incessant wrangling for position and power, manipulation, and trying to make the other guy look bad to the voters. Any information from reality is ignored, unless it can be used to hurt the other party. The rulers of our ship of state are in collective neurosis. They are fighting tooth and nail over the arrangement of the deck chairs, while the ship of state is sinking.

So you heard it here, folks. The downgrading of US debt by Standard & Poor's, however superficial, will probably be seen years from now as the definitive point at which US power, influence, and standard of living began to decline. Our leaders are incapable of doing what it takes to reverse it, and the voters won't force them.

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