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1998-06-11 08:13:06


Why All Incumbents Are in Trouble, Including Steve Forbes



In September, 1996, Michael Gerner posted a lengthy article. It has been posted on many y2k sites since then.

He offered a good summary of how y2k happened. Most of the problems still exist. They have not been solved. For example, the lack of a date standard still plagues the programmers. There is no agreed-upon solution to this problem. It is a problem of interoperability: one computer communicating with another.

He begins the essay with an accurate realization: when learning how serious this problem really is, a person in authority will ask: "Who's to blame for this mess?"

Mr. Gerner's essay is an attempt to deflect blame from programmers and managers who brought us to this disaster. He ends his essay with this statement: "We need to work together to fix this rather than spend time bickering on who caused it. Because, if the truth be told, we're all partly to blame."

This is the standard line from the manager of every failed project: "We're all to blame; hence, no one in particular is to blame. In short, don't blame me." It rarely works. The bigger the disaster, the less well it works. Decisions are made by individuals. Those who make them are responsible for them. Those who suffer from them have a right to look around for new leadership.

Y2K is about blame: assigning it and evading it. As surely as an Army General Staff is responsible for a military strategy that failed, so are the programmers and managers who made the decision to adopt a two-digit century and then refused to change it for four decades. Those managers who forgot to tell subsequent managers also failed. From 1964 (the IBM 360) until 1995 or 1996, most managers knew nothing about the problem. Now they will take the hit. They will be blamed. That is the nature of cause and effect in history. Leaders on whose watch the disaster arrived must take the blame. The more silent they were just prior to its arrival, the more they will be blamed. The more they dismissed the imminent disaster as a minor event, the surer is their replacement when it hits. In our day, Herbert Hoover is the classic American example, and Neville Chamberlain is Britain's.

But there is a much better example. The Pharaoh who enslaved Israel -- who forgot Joseph's name -- did not take the historical hit. The Pharaoh of the Exodus did. So did all those Egyptians who were under his authority. The blame compounded over time. So it will be with the blame for y2k.

On May 15, Steve Forbes publicly assigned blame: the Clinton-Gore Administration. Clinton's y2k czar -- a czar with about four staff members and no authority -- John Koskinen has dismissed this as a partisan attack. Well, that's politics. Forbes is making sure that Al Gore gets some of the blame, since Forbes plans to run against Gore. Forbes seems perfectly positioned: an outsider who bears no responsibility for y2k nationally. But he isn't well positioned. He, too, is an incumbent -- just not a political incumbent. And on y2k, his magazine is notoriously on the wrong side of the issue -- worse than any other mainstream media publication.

His magazine's reporters have riduculed y2k and those who say it's significant (e.g., me). Also, Forbes Publishing has not announced that it is 2000-compliant. So, the ticking clock will reveal who's responsible. If John Koskinen wanted to inflict damage on Mr. Forbes' presidential hopes, he might issue the following press release:

"In the March 12 issue of FORBES, there were several articles that dismissed the Year 2000 Problem as trivial and riduculed those who say that it's a problem. The series was called 'Y2K fear merchants.' It was under the general category, 'Y2K Reign of Terror.' The articles implied that those who are warning the public about y2k are the terrorists. FORBES Magazine was in effect telling its readers that the Millennium Bug is no big problem. One article said explicitly that those who say otherwise are in it for the money. On May 1, another series on y2k appeared, ridiculing those people who are trying to prepare for y2k personally. How is it, then, that Mr. Forbes is now blaming the Clinton Administration for being asleep at the wheel on this matter? Surely the President did more to deal with y2k prior to May 15 than Steve Forbes did. How seriously can we take Steve Forbes? Is Forbes Publishing compliant? How much money has Forbes Publishing spent to get compliant?" And so on. In short, Steve Forbes is eminently vulnerable on y2k.

As surely as Mr. Clinton cannot evade responsibility for what goes on under his authority, so Steve Forbes cannot escape responsibility for went on under his. As surely as his magazine blamed those who have warned the public on y2k as being in it for the money, so can Mr. Forbes be blamed for being in it for the votes. He got on board late in the game, when it looked politically opportune. Better late than never, I suppose, but FORBES Magazine has done far more in 1998 to ridicule y2k than the Clinton Administration has ever dreamed of. FORBES is marked by its personal viciousness in its attacks on those who have tried to warn people, especially Peter de Jager, who in my book is a hero. The March 12 article has a link, "Lone Crusader Gets Rich." It takes you to a hatchet job, published in Mr. Forbes' ASAP Magazine (Oct. 6, 1997), with a caricature of him, as if he were a joke. We read: "Peter de Jager, Year 2000 speaker/consultant, Brampton, Ontario, in the racket of the decade..." Got that? The racket of the decade. Now Steve Forbes sends a letter to Congress saying Clinton-Gore have not done enough about y2k. Give me a break!

Sally Katzen and John Koskinen have never resorted to personal villification, unlike FORBES. His hack journalists having poured contempt on Mr. de Jager's crusade, Steve Forbes has now embraced it as his own -- with no public apology in the lead editorial for what his magazine did to Mr. de Jager. I am not impressed. (If he apologizes now, after this posting, it will look suspiciouly political -- a way to head off future attacks.)

Congresssman Larry McDonald in 1981 told me this of a room full of conservative leaders: "There are men in this room who have made their careers by walking across the bodies of our wounded." I guess I should get used to it. I don't.

Nevertheless, Mr. Koskinen will probably not take this approach. That is because Mr. Clinton has done practically nothing that he can admit is y2k-related. The President is not about to tell the public that his recent executive orders on cyberterrorism and critical infrastructure protection are y2k-related: preludes to martial law. That would create panic prematurely. (The worldwide panic will come. The question is: How soon?)

In the year 2000, every incumbent will be scrambling to evade blame for y2k, and every challenger will be doing his best to pin the failure on the incumbent. The incumbents have remained silent for too long. They will not be able to evade responsibility. Their silence will testify against them.

This is why y2k will lead to a total overhaul of politics, along with everything else, all over the world -- the most widespread political housecleaning since the Great Depression.

It is time for the "outs" to begin preparing to replace the "ins." The Year 2000 Problem will be THE issue in 2000, all over the world.

Today's "ins" will not still be "ins" in 2001. I don't mean just in politics. I mean in every nook and cranny of society. Those who today wield power by means of computers will not be in power in 2001 and beyond. In education, in business, in the media, in religion, in every area of dominance by "the best and the brightest," there will be a great housecleaning. The Establishment will soon be into a long period of forced retirement.

Get ready for a wild ride. A great transformation is coming.

With this in mind, here is a quick survey of Mr. Gerner's 11 reasons why y2k hapened.

* * * * * * * * * *

When any Board of Directors hears about the year 2000 problem, the first question on their lips is likely to be, "Who's to blame for this mess?"

There is no single easy answer to that question. In fact, it appears that several business and technological problems have combined in order to form what some people are calling, "The Millennium Time Bomb".

1. Lack Of Widely Accepted Date Standards. . . .

2. Computing Resource Restraints. . . .

3. User Demand. . . .

4. Applications Have Lasted Longer Than Expected. . . .

5. Backwards Compatibility. . . .

7. Historical Data. . . .

8. Procrastination. . . .

9. Other Business Priorities. . . .

10. Business Process Re-Engineering. . . .

11. Accounting Conventions. . . .

12. Hindsight Is 20-20, Foresight Is Normally Less Effective! . . .

Looking back on it all, of course we can see the faults and where decisions could have been better made. A four year old child can understand the 2 digit year problem. But four year old children don't usually write applications let alone run corporations. It's adults who do that: adults subject to all the pressures of everyday working life, who have enough on their plate to get on with without worrying about a problem that is around the corner and which will (they hope) be solved anyway by somebody else.

We're human. Nobody can claim to be fault free on this one. "People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones."

We need to work together to fix this rather than spend time bickering on who caused it. Because, if the truth be told, we're all partly to blame.


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