Saturday, April 5, 2014

Honor? Please!

We are creatures of our experience.

You know, from time to time I hear about honor punishments and killings of women in the Middle East or claims about sharia law. Those references bring back memories of a friend I once had from Pakistan. We worked together at the Postal Service. Let's call my friend Mahmud, because, well, that was his name.   

Mahmud's father was filthy rich. His dad was involved in some sort of export, import business and had multiple homes throughout the world. Mahmud was brilliant. He wanted to prove to his dad that he could make it on his own. Mahmud was urbane, stylish, sophisticated and world traveled. He had a Ph.D in economics from an Ivy League school. Due to family influence, Mahmud's career aspirations were more in business than academics. Mahmud had a gorgeous, intelligent, friendly and sparkling wife, and two of the cutest kids you would ever see.

We worked together in a part of the Postal Service that produced product cost and revenue data, and used, among other things, econometric analysis to analyze the data and produce forecasts. Mahmud and I were reformed minded. We both wanted the Postal Service to scotch its simplistic (and in our view, misleading) unweighted labor productivity metric in favor of an advanced weighted measure. We were determined to produce an alternative productivity model on our own, in our spare time. To help, we wrangled authority to hire a temporary employee -- she was a Vietnamese refugee right off the boat -- to transcribe, organize and, at our direction, crunch reams of data that we had accumulated in hard copy over the years, so we could analyze it and establish baseline multi-factor productivity trends.  

Our refugee hire worked her tail off, so when a suitable vacancy opened we hired her on to a full-time permanent job with benefits. I remember, years later, how proud she was when she tracked me down to brag that her daughter had been admitted to Duke Medical School and thank us for taking her on when she despaired for her future. I said, no need to thank anyone, you earned it.

Anyhow, the partnership with Mahmud was one I enjoyed, where I could offer him insights and understanding of the data we were using, and counsel on how to wind his way through the bureaucracy, the regulatory system and the political climate (in those days, where merit still counted for something, one could actually do all that). And Mahmud could offer me on-the-job, one-on-one graduate school level training in matters statistical and econometric.  While our planned approach proved to be too unwieldy to implement, we were part of a movement that was ultimately successful, and led to the Postal Service adopting a measuring called Total Factor Productivity (which was subject matter of a post last February).

After a few years with the Postal Service, Mahmud was restless and impatient.  He wanted a bigger stage and a more important position, so he moved on first to a consulting firm, and then to a very large corporation headquartered in New Jersey that we all know of, and most of us have been customers of at one time or another. Mahmud was a chief of one sort or another in that company's strategic planning department, came to wear thousand dollar suits, and was known take us out to lunch on his expense account when business beckoned him to Washington, DC.

One peaceful Sunday morning I was at home. The phone rang. "Hi," the caller said "This is Mahmud, how are you doing?"  "Fine," I said and we talked back and forth about work for a few minutes.  Then Mahmud said, "Grady, I wanted to ask you a question because of your legal background." "Ok," I said. Mahmud asked "Is it against the law in the United States to assault your wife?" "It sure is!" I responded.

That was the last time I talked to Mahmud. I heard through the grapevine he resigned his job and left the country. We are all creatures of our experience and this was one of mine.

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