Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The Backside to Mr. Pelham's Iran Story

The journalist Nicolas Pelham, who writes for The Economist, has published an interesting, quite entertaining and well written article in 1843, the sister magazine of the Economist, called "Trapped in Iran" about his recent visit to Iran. He details his difficulties getting out of the country, being interrogated by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, having his papers seized, and being forced to remain for several months in Iran before finally obtaining an exit visa. However, the backside to this story has been completely omitted, probably on purpose. In the comments below, it is the political aspect of the story that are considered, not the different cultural, social and religious descriptions that also form a part of Mr. Pelham's essay.  

Firstly, one cannot be so surprised at what happened to him in Tehran; when one writes for The Economist, the main news magazine of the anti-Iranian Anglo-Saxon establishment, such things can happen. Had Nicolas Pelham been from another news outlet, an independent, alternative or at least relatively neutral observer of international events, things would surely have turned out differently for him. But The Economist! This paper has hardly written a single unbiased op-ed about Iran, taking the US position that Iran must have another government because it does not accept Israel’s right to exist and that it is to blame for all the chaos in the Middle East.

One must never forget Iran’s recent past and difficulties with the US and the UK. It might be difficult to image in the West, but it is a country that has been threatened and oppressed by the US for decades, and before that by the UK, going back all the way to the British forced nationalisation of the Iranian oil resources at the turn of the 20th century. A fierce economic war has been waged against Iran for over 40 years, with illegal sanctions imposed upon it, unilaterally by the US. This has not much to do with the type of regime in Tehran, but with Iran refusing to bend to US will. Iran must be broken because Iran is a key piece in Uncle Sam’s geopolitical chessboard for world domination. The immense oil and gas resources of Iran are less important than they were, but are of course coveted as well.

It is well known that spies loyal to the US and Israel are operating inside Iran and are constantly trying to steal information, sabotage infrastructure or stir up the people against the government. One remembers the famous Stuxnet virus that was unleashed against Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities by a joint US and Israeli operation, or the murder of several Iranian nuclear scientists simply for working on Iran’s civilian nuclear programme. There is the now very open support, by many well-known US politicians, for the MEK, an armed opposition group which was previously considered a terrorist organization both in the USA and in Europe. With all these points in mind, one can fully understand that Iran’s security services are careful with regard to Jewish journalists working for The Economist. No wonder Iranians take all possible precautions towards certain foreigners.

The fact that Nicolas Pelham does not mention this whole background is chocking to say the least, either in its ignorance or its insidiousness. If he is unawareness of all these events in recent Iranian history, he is simply a poor ignorant soul. On the other hand, if he is aware, but consciously avoided mentioning any of it in his essay, he is a cunning propagandist. In either case, he is not worthy of being a journalist. He does not for a second mention that there is perhaps a rational and understandable reason why he is treated the way he is by Iran’s authorities. Instead, he makes the whole situation he is involved in seem Kafkaesque; as merely being caught up in an absurd Iranian bureaucratic nightmare where there is no reason, no explanation behind the administrative and penal process which involves him against his will.

But not all foreigners are targeted in this way in Iran, far from it. There is no general paranoia about foreigners in Iran from the authorities, contrary to what one may think after reading Mr. Pelham’s essay. Many foreigners – mainly tourists - visit Iran every year; it is actually one of the hottest new destinations for Europeans, despite the negative image that is being constantly projected in the West about this country.

Finally, introspection is fundamental before pointing fingers at others. Of course Iran’s government and administration are far from perfect; they have streaks of authoritarianism and aspects of a police state, like many countries in the Middle East and beyond. But one must also not forget the terrible way in which the US and UK treat their own journalists and dissidents, or how bad they are at upholding laws of freedom of expression, even against their own citizens! Just think of Manning, Assange, Snowden, Drake, Seth Rich, Sibel Edmonds, and many others, who are either imprisoned or have had their careers ruined or reset when they refused to align with the State and express the right opinions in the subservient Western Main Stream Media. In the West as elsewhere, if one does not have the right opinions, or, worse, if one is considered a threat to the State, then the supposedly inalienable and guaranteed human rights quickly vanish. It is sad and alarming to constantly see such hypocrisy and holier-than-thou attitude from the West given these circumstances.

Regardless of what one thinks of Iran's government, it is absolutely necessary to support – morally, politically, publicly - the continued independence of Iran from the aggressive beast across the Atlantic. The affairs of Iran are entirely the business of the Iranian people, regardless of what The Economist and the like may say.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

What Macron Can Learn From Putin

In France, the strike over a pension reform project is over, but it had gone on far too long. Millions of people have been affected by the refusal to work of a few thousand civil servants, but Macron remained invisible and silent for several weeks in December 2019. This public transport strike was the longest since 1986. Many French people were struggling to get from their home to their workplace, but Macron did not really address the subject until his year-end wishes – a strange occasion for such a topic - more than three weeks after the start of the strike. 

While Macron had pension reform in his campaign program, and while he was personally elected by an absolute majority by universal suffrage and the parliamentary majority of his party stems directly from this election, the President of the Republic preferred to let his Prime Minister speak on this subject, to use him as a "fuse", an expression which is as frequent in France as it is condescending. This absence of Macron from the public sphere should be shocking for everyone, because it shows a person who does not take full responsibility for his actions. But this absence is especially frustrating because Macron does have the powers to carry out this reform. Instead of complaining that France is "irréformable", as he has already done, he should start by better understanding and using the power that is his via the Constitution of the Fifth Republic.

At the risk of appearing provocative, what would Putin have done? A comparison with the Russian President is interesting because Putin constitutionally enjoys powers similar to those of Macron, because the Russian Constitution of 1993 is largely modeled on the French one of 1958. In addition, Putin has carried out in 2018 a major pension reform which earned him strong disapproval in Russian public opinion. In fact, the Duma voted and Putin signed a reform to increase the retirement age from 60 to 65 years for men and 55 to 63 years for women, no less. Critics would say that Russia is not as democratic as France, that it does not really have rule of law, that it does not have political pluralism in the form of the intermediate bodies that exist in France. There is some truth to this criticism, but this does not mean the example of Putin can be completely dismissed, especially during this strike which has affected so many French.

In reality, Macron could have done much more. For starters, he should have entered the political arena and shown his support and concern for the millions of French who were impacted by the arm wrestling between government and unions. This is what Putin does; he is constantly in communication with the Russian people, directly and through the media, especially in this kind of tense social situation. And no one can claim that this impacts his authority or weakens the position of the President of the Russian Federation. This is an excuse that is often given in France to explain why the president apparently has to remain silent and stay above the fray ("prendre de l’hauteur", as the French say) during major social crises, when these crises are the very consequences of his own political will (the yellow vests crisis is another example). The President of the French Republic is obviously not the only one responsible for the crisis the country is going through, but he is certainly the first and the last responsible for this type of social crisis. Putin understands this and acts accordingly.    

Macron should have had as an absolute priority - not to reform the pension system - but to end the strike, or at least limit its scope significantly, in order to save citizens further difficulties. Constitutionally, the French President is responsible to the sovereign people, and could therefore judge that the strike of certain parts of the public service is not acceptable if the absence of public service causes prejudice and suffering to the French people. This is, moreover, what the Constitutional Council decided (n° 79-105 DC of July 25, 1979): that the right to strike is not simply self-given in the public service, but on the contrary, is always to be put in relation to the public service provided, and that it is possible to decide "the prohibition of the right to strike to agents whose presence is essential to ensure the functioning of the elements of the service whose interruption would affect the essential needs of the country". Is not public transport used daily by the French is an "essential need "? Certain public functions are already excluded from the right to strike, such as the police, judges, soldiers, penitentiary staff, etc. And in 1964, De Gaulle had already succeeded in prohibiting the right to strike of air traffic controllers (law then partially repealed in 1984).     

The limits of power are not known if they are not tested. Macron is must consider all legislative levers and policies at his disposal, to implement his own policy, as does Putin when necessary. Concretely, there are several options available to him. With a majority in parliament or in the Council of Ministers, the President could pass a law by ordinance, which would limit the right to strike in public transport. The government could also seize article 49-3 of the Constitution in order to put back the unions in the common civil law, by making possible the seizure of their goods, which is not possible today (for this a modification of the Code du Travail is required[1]). In this way, Macron could also request that the accounts of the unions become public and be subject to the control of an independent body, which is not the case today. Macron can seize the Constitutional Council, in order to introduce a more restrictive regulation of the right to strike, or to ask that the law on the "service minimum" is strictly applied. The Council of State could also be seized by the President, to extend the prohibition of the right to strike for certain categories of civil servants. Politically, these initiatives would probably require the alignment between the government and the management of the public establishments concerned (notably the RATP, managing the Paris subway, and the SNCF, the French State railway operator). In short, Macron must bring together his constitutional law experts and think about the exact tactics to adopt. It is not acceptable that in a State, supposedly governed by the rule of law, a few thousand strikers in public transport could harm so much and prevent the executive and the legislative branch of the French State from passing a major element of its political program.

The legal and political tools necessary to carry out significant reforms in France and to limit strikes by civil servants are therefore available to the presidents of the Fifth Republic. The successive failures are mainly due to lack of firmness, clarity and political courage of the last presidents: Chirac, Sarkozy, Hollande and now Macron. To successfully implement reforms in France, it is therefore necessary to fully want to exercise the power of President and not worry so much about opinion polls, the opposition, and the media. Macron has shown neither the will nor the courage to implement the reforms that he himself wanted. Reforms and policy initiatives such as the raise of gasoline prices, the transformation of the status of railway employees (SNCF) or the pension reform, cannot even be proposed, in the current French political climate, without serious consequences for the French people.

In order to reform France, the political culture needs to change; more precisely, a change in the balance of power in favor of the President of the Republic is necessary. In other words, to reform France, the exercise of presidential power should be closer to the one in Russia. Such an initiative can obviously only come from the President himself, the main protagonist of this recurring French political tragedy. What a pity that Macron is the umpteenth president not to have understood this.   


Note: 

[1] https://www.ifrap.org/emploi-et-politiques-sociales/reformer-le-droit-de-greve-en-france

Friday, May 1, 2015

Processes and People


It is easily forgotten that a firm is far more than just the sum of its employees. Indeed, the success of a company is the result of the contributions of all of its assets. These assets, tangible and intangible, consist of e.g. its existing stored information and experience, the efficiency of its organisation, its connections with government and the local community, its established processes, its IT systems, its intellectual property (including the brand), its material resources (including inventory), its land and real estate, and, of course, its human capital. 

Employees are merely one part of the many assets the company uses to reach its objectives. Apart from the employees, an important set of company assets are the processes that the company has established over time. Hardly any employee knows all the processes of the company they work for. Most processes existed before the majority of the company's employees started working for the company, and most of these processes are still in place when they leave it.

The modern company that is looking to grow in a competitive environment is so dependent on such processes both internally as well as towards its customers and suppliers, that it could arguably be stated that it is the employees that are there to make sure the processes function properly, not that the processes are there to support the employees, as is often believed. At the core of this observation is the fact that the human factor is a risk that must be monitored and mitigated as much as possible because man is fallible.

Therefore, in order for company processes to be as little disturbed as possible by indecisive and erroneous human actions, the selection of key personnel is made carefully. The modern corporation is structured in such a way as to make sure there is little possibility for it to be subjected unreservedly to the influence of the limited and flawed human being. Companies generally try not to depend crucially on any single individual, making sure that no one is irreplaceable.2 As J. K. Galbraith observed:

In the large organization, even the risks associated with the selection of leadership are reduced. Organization replaces individual authority; no individual is powerful enough to do much damage. Were it otherwise, the stock market would pay close attention to retirements, deaths, and replacements in the executive ranks of the large corporations. In fact, it mostly ignores such details in tacit recognition that the organization is independent of any individual."[2]

The importance of processes in corporations can be illustrated by the “chain theory” that is part of Theory of Constraints (TOC), which was developed by Eliyahu M. Goldratt in the 1980s.[3] In this model, the human resources of a company are seen as links connected together in complex processes or “chains” These links make up the chains; they allow the processes to flow along the chains. A company is thus made up of many such interconnecting chains, visually forming a sort of tree. Every division or department within a company is as slow as its slowest and thus most costly link on each chain.

A company can improve its performance and lower its costs by identifying and strengthening its weakest links; the objective is to remove the bottlenecks. This can be done for example by adding resources, rotating employees, providing training, modifying processes or redirecting information flow. Once a solution to the weakest links has been found, other employees or groups of employees become the new weakest links, and the process of searching, identifying and resolving these weaknesses is then repeated until the cost of doing so exceeds the cost of not dealing with it. 

The way most companies deal with quality control for processes and for employees is revealing of where their priorities lie. Quality control is often given the highest priority for processes; modern companies often go to great lengths to assure state-of-the-art processes, spending both huge amounts of time and money to implement and perfect them. However, the same can rarely be said for employees. Companies instinctively follow the adage that no one is indispensable.



Notes:

[1] This is especially true in recent years as the average employee turnover has increased.

[2] J. K. Galbraith, The Affluent Society, p84 (Penguin Books, 1999).

[3] See www.goldratt.com