Wednesday, December 23, 2009


The day after Warren Buffett bought BNSF railroad, a little line of grain cars with one locomotive stopped at the Valier rail line spur to load up and left itself parked across the highway for minutes. Bad planning: long train, busy grain-shipping season.

Last week I went to Shelby, a major BNSF rail/truck shipping transfer yard, and was blocked again because I didn’t use the town’s bridge over the tracks. I could have but I like to watch the trains. This one was long and entirely truck trailers stacked two high. There were very few marked Hanjin, which usually dominates the trains, because this train was coming from the East and the Hanjin traffic crosses the Pacific, coming towards the East.

In the news: Buffett and a staff of about 20 people in Omaha oversee a collection of Berkshire operating companies that employ more than 200,000 and sell goods and services including energy, candy, clothing and luxury flights. Burlington Northern brings Berkshire another 40,000 workers, and Mr. Buffett said the takeover won't have an effect on employment.

"We've got 20 people in Omaha, and there isn't one of them that knows how to run a railroad," Mr. Buffett said. "You'll be running the railroad, and you'll run it in an efficient way, and when times are good, you're going to have more people employed than when times are bad."

Brian Kahn
, who runs a Yellowstone Public Radio program as well as Artemis Common Ground, this week interviewed Daniel Finn, St. John's Professor of Theology and Economics, discussing Pope Benedict's recent encyclical, which calls for major restructuring of the global economy to "achieve justice." This was new info for Kahn and me, too. You can listen to it at:

One of the remarks Finn made was that in Europe it is often assumed that the employees of a major corporation will sit at the table with the board of investors and managers. This is a shocking idea for the democracy of America, which is often stuck in a model some brought from England in the 19th century, which had defied the Pope and invested in prosperity as a marker of God’s approval. See Finn’s credentials at He received his Ph.D. at the U of Chicago the year before I arrived in 1978, so I feel confident that Jim Gustafson and David Tracy, both strongly humanistic men working within the Catholic context, were major influences on him. I also want to mark that St. John’s is Benedictine, a place where the arts are loved. The best religious thought has always been humanist: what is good for human beings, acting on this planet for the greater good of all including nature. There is a long tradition of this INSIDE the Catholic history. We’d be fools to reject it.

The advice I keep seeing in essays and hearing in radio talks is that the crying need over the next decade will be in the twofold character of management: first, the motivating and guidance of employees and second, logistics, the getting and scheduling of things and events. The two main models we’ve be following have been athletic and military, with a lot of overlap. They make very little room for humanities patterns for management. What does that mean?

Both the athletic and military models are based on the assumption of adversarial relations outside the group and strict control inside the group. They are also based on force and hierarchy as well as strategy, often secret strategies. But the most crucial strategy is not that on the battlefield: it is logistics. The general that outruns his supply lines has lost his army. No boots, no food, no fight. Warren Buffett knows this and that’s why he bought a railroad as well as empowering the workers. Aside from motivating workers, including them means far better logistics.

What might be humanistic management strategies? I would point to transparency: understanding what is going on and the necessity for ordinary stuff like schedules and inventories and bookkeeping. I would point to the honoring of those who do the small jobs -- as they say in the theatre, there are no small parts, only “small” actors. Yet after a generation that drove their kids to be big and important, white collar, heads of companies, major players, and that had few kids so they could put them all through good colleges and grad schools “so they won’t have to work as hard as I did,” we’ve come to a place where we have to either outsource work or import workers to get things done. That means not just being able to speak a language besides English, but also learning a kind of meta-culture, an ability to look at human basics beyond what is conventional in the local place, the taken-for-granted community.

Nationally Obama is doing this, but it scares the wits out of people who don’t know how to get to that level of thought. They are still way back there, stuck in the belief that anyone not just like them is not even American. Locally, Valier’s town council is young (from my point of view) men whose success has come from the hard and often stubborn work they learned to do in high school, usually on athletic teams. They are about to meet their new mayor, a woman from “outside” who has been in the corporate world and who considers herself a poet. I will be fascinated and take a lot of notes.

The major problem of this area in the coming years will be the management of diminishing water resources. In the past the water has gone the same way as the management of Blackfeet trust funds: with a big white thumb in the pie. The law is there, was there all along. The problem will be managing the transition from thumb-in to thumb-out, which will hurt a lot of people. The more all parties involved can keep their goals clear and reasonable, the more they can mix practicality with idealism, the less damage and desperation there will be. I worry about a town that resented learning Blackfeet history because “it has nothing to do with us.” But I also worry about a tribe run by resentment and entitlement. Both sides are largely Catholic. That might be an unexpected plus, if the priests are on board with their Pope.

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