Mad Moderates and Innovation
Thomas W. Mason
Professor Emeritus of Economics and Engineering Management
Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology
Has anybody noticed any positive response to the continued pleas for civility in public
discourse? Reasonable leaders are either silent or drowned out by the noise as pundits point out that
neither the angry Tea Party members on the right, nor frustrated left wingers can be ignored. Since
neither the loud extremes nor most of the media has anything to gain from consideration of real facts
and possible compromises, it is clear that solution-seeking moderates are just going to have to get MAD!
Otherwise, we’ll never get the innovative approaches that are the only way out of our really serious
So how will this work? Can we demonstrate with signs in big red letters that say BE
REASONABLE!? This seems lame, and shouted expletives do not seem to work well with messages of
reason and resolution. Perhaps some creative angry chants need to be developed. BRING BACK
BALANCE could be a low hum that consistently interfered with shouted simplistic solutions.
The recession, by which economists mean economic decline, is over, but history shows that
recovery from financial market crises takes longer than recent typical recessions. Unemployment is too
high, but there has been some job growth from spending. Financial markets have recovered
significantly, even though credit is not growing well. There are no magic solutions to slow progress
toward prosperity. The nation really does need to get serious about debt that has ballooned in both
good and bad times, and sooner or later, that will require compromise. Moreover, the major problems
that we face as a nation can only be fixed by new approaches that will have negative as well as positive
There is obviously a good deal wrong with the current health care policy; our expensive efforts
at education reform have led to inadequate results; infrastructure has been neglected; our prison
population percentage leads the world; and defense expenditures need to be reduced and refocused.
These problems demand innovative solutions. Our private sector economy adapts to new realities. We
need similar flexibility on public sector problems, even if we have to tolerate imperfection in results.
Manufacturing, for example, has experienced phenomenal increases in productivity over the
past two decades. Manufacturing employment is down, but productivity has grown dramatically. How
could that be? The answer is new approaches in both technology and management. By the end of the
20th century, successful manufacturers stopped blaming workers, introduced sophisticated technology
and produced goods that are both better and more effective in using the earth’s resources. A vast
improvement in value has been the result of innovation.
Manufacturing has focused on objectives and made dramatic changes to achieve them.
Compare the progress in that sector with American education. We continue to polarize around
simplistic solutions, like blaming teachers and/or parents, calling for even more spending and returning
to the “good old days” whenever they were. Long ago, W. Edward Deming, the quality guru, said the
problems with workers were management, and we have clearly mismanaged education. Yet, we cling to
“factory” models for education that the manufacturing industry abandoned long ago.
Unsatisfactory results from large expenditures are strong evidence that we should try innovative
approaches to today’s realities. Similar statements can be made about health care and the other
problems listed above, as well as education. However, mistakes will be made as we learn new and
better ways, just like imperfections have marked private sector innovation. Some readers may recall the
clear inferiority of transistor radios in the early days of Sony, but the replacers of vacuum tubes learned,
improved and changed the world. That cannot happen in public sector innovation if we are dominated
by extremists (right or left) who scream loudly about changes which show any possible downside.
Progress will require reasoned moderate responses that continue the efforts to find better ways.
So, if there are any moderates left, let’s shout down the extremists, especially when both their
right and left thinking is mired in the middle of the last century. Insist on finding innovative answers
that match current facts and being patient, when the waves of change do not always produce
perfection. As for those who push their old simplistic answers to complex problems, let’s tell them we
are moderate, we are MAD and we are not going to take it anymore!
Tom Mason was the founding head of Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology’s
Engineering Management Department and founding Vice President for
Entrepreneurship & Business Planning of Rose-Hulman Ventures. He received
the 2010 Mira Award for Education Contribution by an Individual from
TechPoint. He has been advisor or director for several high tech firms and
has been involved in national efforts to integrate entrepreneurship and