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Sigma Newt

From the Scrapbook

Aug 15, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 45
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We can’t say we were surprised that Newt Gingrich’s reaction to the debt ceiling deal was like no one else’s in all the world. No sooner had the agreement been struck than Gingrich released a statement that was vaguely disapproving. But then he went positive: “As president [wait​—​Newt Gingrich is running for president?], I will approach solving America’s debt crisis by adhering to three principles.” We knew it had to be at least three.

The first principle is that the highest priority of federal fiscal policy should be private job creation. The second is that national security spending should be permanently safe from political considerations.

So far, so normal. Only in the third principle did Gingrich’s inimitable Newtness show itself. Government spending, he said, could be reduced by half a trillion dollars a year “by applying Lean Six Sigma to the federal government.”

Our first reaction, as it so often is when listening to Gingrich, was “Huh?” We were evidently sick the day our business prof discussed Lean Six Sigma. Our next thought was, quick! To Wikipedia! (We click so you don’t have to.) 

Six Sigma, we learned, is a “business management strategy.” It looks as if it could have been designed for Newt Gingrich, appealing to his every intellectual need. There are impenetrable attempts at quantification, lots of jargon, and miles of lists: for example, DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) is not to be confused with DMADV (Define, Measure, Analyze, Design, Verify). We’re sure either one would light a fire under those bureaucrats down at the Federal Interagency Committee for Management of Noxious and Exotic Weeds.

Whether business gimmicks​—​sorry, management strategies​—​can make government more rational is an old question that crackpots from Henry Ford to Ross Perot to Al “Reinventing Government” Gore have answered with a resounding “Yes!” 

We won’t bore readers by offering our own views on the subject. But we do note with pleasure that once again Newt Gingrich has succeeded in reminding us of one of our favorite lines from one of our favorite movies: “You just keep thinkin’, Butch,” the Sundance Kid tells his partner with an affectionate smile. “That’s what you’re good at.” 

We never could tell whether the Kid was being ironic.

More Gas from the New York Times

While the New York Times can barely conceal its glee at the phone-hacking scandal embroiling the rival Murdoch empire, The Scrapbook confesses to a certain schadenfreude of its own at the Gray Lady’s latest embarrassment. The Times’s slanted coverage of the natural gas industry continues to generate -radioactive fallout. 

Steven F. Hayward explained round one in our August 1 issue (“New York Times Passes Gas”). In a pair of long front-page stories in late June, the Times purported to expose the prospects of the “gas revolution” as not just hyped but likely fraudulent: Industry dissidents were likening the shale gas boom to the dot-com bubble and a Ponzi scheme.

Hayward’s chief criticism of the series was its “stupefying economic ignorance and disregard for any data analysis.” But he also faulted its reliance on “the sensational views of two would-be whistle-blowing ‘insiders,’ along with leaked emails and documents.” The Times posted online hundreds of pages of source materials but took care to black out the names of email senders and recipients.

The series brought a hail of criticism, including from the paper’s own ombudsman. His column in mid-July argued that “such a -pointed article needed more convincing substantiation.” 

In particular, he deplored the misleading identification of one of the few sources actually named, Deborah Rogers. Far from being an energy industry insider, Rogers is a goat farmer proud of her prize-winning artisanal cheeses. While the Times correctly stated that she once worked as a stockbroker and is a member of an advisory council to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, it failed to note that this group of business-people, academics, and local notables meets twice a year to offer thoughts about business conditions, for which participants receive $100 a pop. Also left out was Rogers’s personal clash “with Chesapeake Energy, a leading shale gas producer, over its drilling on land next to hers” and her activism with the anti-shale-gas Oil and Gas Accountability Project.

Oddly, the author of the piece, reporter Ian Urbina, and his editors, instead of admitting missteps and moving on, dug in their heels. National editor Richard L. Berke defended the story as “deeply sourced, meticulously reported and measured.” The editors, he said, “would not change a word.”

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