The Culture Of Competence, And The Culture Of Everything Else

What follows is the text of a speech I gave at a convention – namely, the Panhandle Producers and Royalty Owners Association – held last Thursday in Amarillo, Texas. I’d like to thank Judy Stark and the board members of the PPROA, who are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met and quite literally representative of the backbone of the American economy, for having me to speak at their annual gathering.

PPROA’s website can be found here. They can be found on Facebook here.

First of all, thank you for having me here at this august gathering. And further, thank you for bringing me here to Amarillo – as someone born and raised in the New Orleans area, I’m not sure that I have ever seen city streets so immaculately clean as the ones just outside these doors. And next time I’m here, I’ll think about maybe taking y’all up on your Ribeye Challenge. Not this trip, though.

Having said that, I really should express some alarm at something I perceive as a grave threat to the reputation of your great city.

Sod poodles?” This isn’t actually a real possibility, is it? Are you really going to name your new minor league baseball team the Sod Poodles?

This kind of thing is the trend in minor league baseball. Back home in Louisiana, we have a story worth telling, which is that the team in New Orleans; which is currently the AAA affiliate of the Miami Marlins, came to town some 25 years ago as the Zephyrs.

Now, here in Amarillo as I understand it, you’re pretty familiar with a zephyr, even if you don’t traffic in that word. It turns out that Zephyr was the Greek god of the west wind, and he was known to manifest himself as a gentle, but firm, cooling breeze. That’s something I think you can identify with here, as I got to experience some of it last night, but I was told that’s nothing – you guys are used to a good, steady 25 miles per hour coming out of the Rockies.

Well, they have that all the time in Colorado, which is why that literary nickname was attached to the Triple A club in Denver before Major League Baseball decided to award that city a team. When it happened, the Zephyrs went looking for a new home – because you obviously aren’t going to have a major league and minor league team in the same city.

And they ended up in New Orleans.

As it turned out, the name Zephyrs was a perfect fit in New Orleans. Not because of the west wind; trust me, there is no west wind in New Orleans to speak of; usually, when you get any wind in New Orleans it’s a lot softer than it is here, unless it’s a hurricane, and in any event it usually comes out of the south. But…there was, a long time ago, an amusement part in New Orleans that everybody – and I mean everybody; rich or poor, black or white, whatever – used to go to in the 1960’s and 1970’s called Ponchartrain Beach, and the main attraction there was a roller coaster called the Zephyr.

So when the Zephyrs showed up in New Orleans, the town embraced them – in part because how cool is that name? And lo and behold it actually had a connection to something the people of the city had in their collective memories. Minor league baseball doesn’t exactly provide a great deal of meaning to a community, but this was still a pretty good fit.

But then a couple of years ago the team was sold to a new owner, and this guy had a philosophy which some of you will find familiar. You see, one key factor that seems to show up when it comes to how minor league baseball teams operate is novelty. These teams make money in large measure off merchandise sales, which is why minor league teams are (1) constantly changing their names and (2) coming up with such goofy titles for themselves. Like the Binghamton Rumble Ponies, or the Hartford Yard Goats, or the Modesto Nuts.

I mean, I’m guessing in this room we’ve got lots of college sports fans. And as we know, colleges generally don’t mess around with team names. Your team is going to be the Longhorns, or the Red Raiders, or the Mustangs, or the Tigers, or Cougars, or Miners or Cowboys, or even the Horned Frogs which sounds mean enough. Maybe you’re the Aggies or the Owls and people kinda say “I’m not afraid,” but at least you can make a case for your team as something to take seriously. And if you’re a major league sports team, you’re going to be the Warriors, or the Patriots, or Cowboys, Lions, Tigers, Bears…

This guy in New Orleans changed the name of the team from Zephyrs to – I am not kidding here – the Baby Cakes.

Seriously. They’re the New Orleans Baby Cakes.

Now – as stupid as that name is, and it is without question a stupid name, there is some meaning to it. If you’ve spent any time in New Orleans in the first part of a new year, you know that after about the second week in January all the bakeries start doing big business in what we call King Cakes. They’re just about the most decadent things you’ve ever eaten; essentially variations of a coffee cake chock full of sugar and carrying inside them a plastic baby, based on tradition; the cake gets cut at a party or office gathering or whatever, and whoever gets the piece with the plastic baby baked inside it has to buy the king cake for the next gathering.

So yeah – it’s an embarrassingly stupid name for a baseball team, but it’s not completely devoid of meaning in New Orleans.

Here’s the thing, though. The fans of the Zephyrs hated the new name of the franchise with an unbridled passion. The op-ed pages of the local newspaper were full of comments along the lines of “What the hell, man?” and there were message boards, Facebook groups, you name it.

The owner of the team didn’t care.

Why? Because here’s the thing – minor league baseball is about selling merchandise. You don’t win championships anybody really cares about in minor league ball – your championship-caliber players are the ones who will inevitably be called up to the big leagues during the season – and because of that your fans aren’t there to demand victory. Your games are basically an excuse to drink beer and sit outside on a summer night while mingling with other people similarly engaged, and the money you make off that experience mostly comes from selling those people baseball caps, jerseys, sweaters, bumper stickers, bobbleheads and other gear.

And one rule on merchandise sales is, the kitschier and goofier, the better.

So when the team in New Orleans started calling itself the Baby Cakes, the sports fans in town lost their minds but it was still a good commercial move…in Year One. It turns out all the teenage girls in New Orleans thought the Baby Cakes was just a dreamy idea, and they bought up all the swag they could.

For the first year.

After that, nobody wanted New Orleans Baby Cakes hats, shorts or anything else. Let’s face it, that’s a stupid name and everybody ought to be embarrassed by it. Which they are.

So a couple of weeks ago the franchise announced that when the stadium contract is up at the end of next summer they’ll be moving to Wichita. And presumably they’ll be something other than the Baby Cakes when they get there.

The Prairie Chickens, or the Corncobbers, or the Gluten. Who can say? They’ll pick whatever name they think they can best put on a t-shirt to sell, because that’s what minor league baseball is about.

You guys know this, because you have your own minor league experience. Why am I spending so much time on this?

Here’s why. Minor league baseball is a good example of an industry – and there are more and more of them in our society now – in which the difference between being objectively very good at your job and being terrible at it is almost nil.

Quick question – who won the Pacific Coast League championship last year? I ask, because if you win the PCL it pretty much means you’re the best minor league team in all of baseball. I’ll bet if I tell you it’s the Memphis Redbirds, who knocked off the El Paso Chihuahuas in five games last year, most of you will say “Yeah, if you say so.” Nobody cares. If you’re good at your job as a player in Triple-A baseball you’ll move up to the majors, probably before anybody even recognizes you. At the end of the season it’s hard to tell who are the best players and who are the worst based on that fact.

And I’m talking to a room full of people in whose jobs that’s absolutely not the case. Right? Let’s go drill an oil well somewhere. What happens if we do a good job of it? We all get rich! If we aren’t so good, there’s a range of results which involve various stages of unhappiness – like millions of dollars get spent and there’s no oil, or worse than that you get the Deepwater Horizon.

The point is, in your world you don’t exactly get rewarded by coming up with the dumbest team name in all of baseball. You either do a good job and everybody knows it, or you don’t – and everybody knows it.

Interestingly enough, and we don’t give this enough credit because we’ve been so successful over the centuries in Western society, we are now at a time in human history where more of us than ever before can do a terrible job at our daily work and survive by talking a good game about the lousy job we do. That was almost never possible for the vast majority of human history. If you think about it, doing a good job was pretty much crucial to human survival in almost every pursuit until recently – you couldn’t BS your way through harvesting the crops, or mining for coal, or weaving wool, or making horseshoes. Your product spoke for itself – and nobody gave a tinker’s damn about your carbon footprint, or whether you’re woke, or if you’re a fan of Chik-Fil-A. For the vast majority of history, you could be the most deplorable person on earth – so long as you could provide a product or a service your neighbors needed and wanted, they’d come to you gladly with cash or barter in hand.

What does this mean? It means the people in this room, who employ some of the most advanced technology known to man – we’re talking about computing power and scientific expertise which dwarfs what it took to go to the moon – are carrying on a tradition which is centuries, if not millennia old. I call it the Culture of Competence. But what it really means is People Who Know How To Do A Good Job.

We take this for granted when we work in industries where it’s required, but we do so at the risk of ignoring the fact this ethic is not universal. For example, think about this – exactly what’s the difference between, say, a Gender Studies professor who does a really good job and one who doesn’t?

If you can’t answer that question you’re not alone. And there’s a whole culture out there built on the idea that things like standards and objective truths are somehow racist, or sexist, or bigoted, or otherwise undesirable.

This is, of course, crazy. There’s nothing wrong with feminism, per se, but it doesn’t help you build a bridge.

But it’s worse than that, because it’s a siren song which will ruin the people who believe it. It doesn’t matter your ethnic background, or your sex, or who you’re attracted to or whatever – if you show up to work ready to kill it at your job you’ve got the opportunity to be a success and get rewarded for it. That’s the genius of America, and we all know it.

Or at least we’re supposed to.

Problem is, the larger culture out there doesn’t seem to be committed to reinforcing the things most of us in this room see as no-brainers. Ask yourselves this: what was the last movie or TV series you saw that glorified the American entrepreneur and his journey from nobody to somebody?

You might struggle with that one. I asked somebody last night that question and what he came up with is the Wolf Of Wall Street. Which is a tremendously entertaining movie, but it isn’t exactly the best endorsement of capitalism you ever saw. It’s about a stock broker who basically swindles everybody he comes in contact with, not somebody who does a good job building something real. I think we’d agree most of us aren’t trying to be Jordan Belfort in our daily work.

Fact is, it’s rare that our culture gives us positive examples of the virtues of competence and professionalism. I don’t know if the TV and movie people, or the record industry people, or the artsy people, or whoever, think that doing a good job is a boring subject to create content about – or if there’s something more to it. But if you think about this, what you’ll be struck by is the lack of emphasis on excellence within our culture.

Been to an art museum lately? As a kid, you might have come to an understanding of the visual arts a little like mine was – which is that you know a painting or a sculpture is good when it looks like what it’s supposed to represent. Sure, this is subjective stuff, so if it varies a bit by capturing the mood or motion or some other character behind the subject of the art you’d still appreciate it as good.

But when somebody paints a bunch of stripes or squiggly lines on a canvas and wants $40 million for it, you’re excused for saying to yourself “I think I could maybe paint that myself and save a bunch of money.” Spatter a bunch of paint on a canvas, and is anybody really going to know it’s not a Jackson Pollock? That’s an example of an industry which has at least partly gotten away from the classical definition of what’s a good job.

And back to TV. On TV, they’re still doing some original, and often quite salutary work.

But are they helping to carry the message to the masses that if you do an objectively good job you’re going to be successful in life?

Maybe the best show on TV just popped out its second season. If you haven’t watched Ozark on Netflix you’re doing yourself a disservice. Ozark stars Jason Bateman and Laura Linney as this professional couple from Chicago; he’s a financial planner and she’s a stay-at-home mom who has a background as a political operative and consultant. And they’re living this pretty good life, until Bateman’s business partner gets blown away and he ends up on his knees in a warehouse with a gun to his head because it turns out what he really does is he’s a money launderer for the Navarro drug cartel. And rather than getting rubbed out and disappeared, he talks his way into moving the family down to the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri where he supposedly has this wide open opportunity to hide the cartel’s drug money everywhere and the feds won’t see it.

The show is terrific, but let me tell you – you will not watch anything darker, or scarier. These people are in constant danger of either going to federal prison or getting whacked in significantly ugly ways by Mexican druglords, and in every episode that is made clear. And as compelling as it is, what you get out of the show is that while Bateman and Linney are very competent people, there is no real reward for that without also being more ruthless and morally compromised than the next guy.

If you’ve watched Breaking Bad, which might be the most celebrated TV show of the past decade, you’ve seen this same pattern. That’s a show about a legitimately good man, a high school chemistry teacher recognized by everyone as excellent at his craft, who nonetheless is abused by the system when he develops cancer the school district’s insurance plan won’t cover and to pay his medical bills he puts his chemical expertise at work making crystal meth.

And if you watch the whole series of Breaking Bad like I did, which is to say spending three weeks a couple of summers ago binge-watching it on the couch, you’ll know that it’s almost Shakespearean in its moral lessons. You watch Bryan Cranston’s character reap great rewards from his success as the best maker of crystal meth around, and you derive a guilty pleasure from it. They actually show $80 million in CASH at one point that he’s made making his product, and it is extremely seductive. But eventually, things start to go wrong – as they should for somebody who creates as much harm as he does – and you get stuck going along with what turns out to be a disastrous, terrible ride to the bottom.

That isn’t to say Breaking Bad doesn’t contain a good moral lesson. It does. The problem is it’s a negative lesson, not unlike Ozark – which is bad behavior in search of a buck will lead you to a rough place in your life. Sure, we can all agree with that. But this is a room full of people who work really hard at doing something which is pretty damned difficult, and it takes character and an appreciation for objective truth, not just intelligence and cleverness, to pull it off successfully.

And do you think the culture, and the political world which derives from that culture, appreciates what you do as honest people doing an objectively good job?

If you do, good for you. I’m not really seeing it. Drill a well, and you’re producing oil here in America based on professional standards which more or less outstrip anything you’ll see in Saudi Arabia, or the Sudan, or New Guinea or in Siberia. After all, America’s now the #1 oil producer on the planet, which hadn’t been the case for better than half a century. Do you get credit for doing your job better than anybody else in the world in your industry?

Not really, right?

Then try to get your product to market, and what do you get? They scream at you for running trucks off the well pad, they howl about the tanker cars on the train, and God help you if you try to build a pipeline. Back home in Louisiana we have goofballs camping out in trees trying to stop Energy Transfer Partners from building the Bayou Bridge pipeline across the state. It’s a freakshow.

So my message to you guys is this – you’re in an essential industry to the preservation of Western civilization, whether that fact is apparent to you or not. What you do is a big deal. Not just because your product keeps everything moving; it powers the grid, it’s what fuels our transportation, it’s the building blocks of the plastics and other products without which our lives wouldn’t make the slightest bit of sense. It’s always hilarious watching environmentalists organize protests against the oil and gas industry using iPhones and laptop computers made out of plastic.

What you do is essential to the rest of us living our lives. But it’s more than that. What you do might be the best example of the fundamental precept of Western Civilization, which is the pursuit of excellence. Drill that well and do it correctly, and you are following in a tradition which goes back thousands of years – from the Greek and Roman philosophers, to the founding of the Church, to the discovery of the New World, to the Enlightenment, to the inventions which touched off the industrial revolution, to Edison and Bell, to the victories in World War II and the Cold War. That might sound like a lot, but it isn’t, for us – we are a people dedicated to the prospect that if we kick ass at our jobs we will benefit, and so will all of our friends.

That has been true for Americans, and the rest of Western Civilization, for centuries. It’s so true, and there have been so many benefits, that other people have made a pretty good living on the periphery of that tradition. We see it all the time. We see it in our politics, we see it in our culture, we see it even in the business world. We have so much prosperity that there are folks who make a pretty good living doing a lot more talking about a good job than doing one. Watch cable news for a while and you’ll see it. Or, especially back in my state, count all the billboards the shady plaintiff lawyers have put up along the interstate.

Sometimes it gets a little scary thinking that the talkers might outstrip the doers and make the future more dependent not on whether you can do a good job but whether you can “message” your exploits in the right way. I know a lot of you think it’s frightening that there isn’t as much objective reality out there as there perhaps ought to be, and you’re right. We’re raising kids who tend to be a lot better at how they feel about math, for example, than actually doing math, and that makes the future hiring of petroleum engineers a challenge.

But here’s the good news. No matter how bad it might get out there, remember that society is always going to depend on the people who can do a good job. In this room are folks from all kinds of backgrounds, with all kinds of personalities and individual stories, who have that very skill. You’ll always be the people society turns to to get things done, and in that is the power to inspire and influence the rest of the population.

You’re carrying the most important legacy of all – the culture of competence upon which our whole society is built, and through that you’re providing the literal fuel on which our economy is built. You’re the vanguard of pretty much everything we count on, even though you’re taken for granted by all the folks who run on hot air.

So here’s to you. Go out there. Do a great job. Get rewarded for it. And don’t let ‘em get you down, because they depend on you more than you do them.

But please, do me a favor: don’t name that team the Sod Poodles. I have seen that future, and there’s nothing there but tears and U-Haul trucks.

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