08 February 2020

Why Pete Buttigieg Could Be Our Next President

One simple distinction for leaders is eloquence. Bill Clinton was the best speaker I've heard in politics. Obama created a similar confidence in listeners, exuding intelligence as he calmly explained things. And now we have Pete Buttigieg who is easily the most eloquent of the great candidates in the 2020 field. (He may have been making a dig at his opponents in the debate last night when he said, "As everyone up here has so elegantly [rather than eloquently] said.")

Republicans love to talk about Democrats as socialists but of course that is nonsense (stock markets actually do better under Democrats and have for a century). In truth Democrats nominate moderates who prefer markets to government agencies but are not afraid of government. It is true that Democrats prefer candidates who actually believe in science rather than conspiracy theories and Keynesian policies to unregulated markets but only in the mind of the most excitable Republicans (that is to say, talk radio and Fox TV hosts and their fans) does that make anyone a socialist.

One thing that sets Democrats apart is their insistence on inclusion. It is older white men who vote Republican. Democrats lead in just about every other group - young, minorities, women and - speaking of minorities - the college educated.

51% of men vote Republican and 59% of women vote Democratic. The last Democratic nominee was a woman.

54% of whites vote Republican but 90% of blacks, 69% of Hispanics, and 77% of Asians vote Democratic. The last Democratic president was black.

50% of those over 65 vote Republican. 67 to 58% percent of voters under 44 vote Democratic. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Donald Trump were born within 66 days of each other; Bill was sworn in when he was 46 years old, the third youngest president ever. Donald Trump was 70 - the oldest president ever when sworn in for his first term.

Like Obama and the Clintons before him, Pete Buttigieg has moderate politics and a distinct identity. He's young. If he won this election he would become the youngest ever president. And he would be the first gay president.

Like Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton before, it is not Buttigieg's policies that make him a liberal but instead his identity. (And like Bill Clinton, he was a Rhodes scholar.)

So why might he become President Buttigieg? Because what he shares in common with the two previous Democratic presidents is eloquence, moderate policies with an emphasis on use of reason rather than emotion to solve problems, and an identity as an "other." It may not be a fluke that he won the Iowa caucus.

Graphs from Pew here.

17 January 2020

Alphabet (Google) Joins the Trillion Dollar Club

This week Google joined Apple, Microsoft and Amazon in the trillion-dollar valuation club. 

Location matters.
Microsoft and Amazon headquarters are 11.7 miles apart.
Apple and Google headquarters are 8.7 miles apart.

In 1901 US Steel became the first billion dollar company.
1955, GM, first to hit $10 billion
1995, GE, first to hit $100 billion
1999, Microsoft, first to hit $500 billion
2018, Apple, first to hit $1 trillion.

Here are some things you may find by googling Google.

Larry Page DOWNLOADED THE INTERNET in 1996 as part of his doctoral work at Stanford.

Larry Page grew up in the Bay Area and his dad was a big Grateful Dead fan, had a weekly radio show about the Dead. When Google could afford it, Larry Page hired a chef who had worked for the Grateful Dead to feed his employees. Every winter they had employee trips up to Squaw Valley and one year, Google employees were coming back to the chef to ask what had been in the ganja goo balls that was making them hallucinate.

3 years ago someone at Google told me they were spending $2 billion a year on employee meals. (Food - the fuel of knowledge workers - is free at Google.) I'm sure that has gone up. I don't think they serve ganja goo balls anymore.

In 1998, Jeff Bezos was so impressed with Page and Brin that he invested $250,000 in Google, buying what is now 6.6 million shares at the equivalent of 4 cents per share. (It closed today at $1,479.52 a share, so up 39,059X on Bezos investment.)

16 January 2020

Is the Future Non-Factory Jobs? (One Way to Understand the Jobs Numbers for Manufacturing)

Each month bls.gov releases the new jobs numbers. "The economy created 130,000 jobs last month." The technical title for this jobs number report includes the phrase, "nonfarm." Farming is such an insignificant and volatile portion of the nation's workforce that it is excluded from the official record of new jobs created or destroyed.

Once upon a time, farming was hugely important. Now it is not. We may eventually say something similar about manufacturing jobs.

The other day in the airport, I struck up a conversation with a guy from Wisconsin. He told me that his dad was one of 11 and his mom was one of 4. All 15 of that generation (we're talking about folks who started careers in the 1950s) were dairy farmers. There were 64 cousins in his generation. Of those, only one is a dairy farmer and he's going bankrupt. (This cousin has only hundreds of cows; the dairies that are surviving are big businesses with thousands of cows.) Nobody in that group of cousins is encouraging their children to prepare for life as dairy farmers.
Manufacturing jobs as a percentage of the total workforce are now where farm jobs were in 1963: 8.4%, suggesting that manufacturing is running about 60 years behind farming. Defining factory jobs is harder than defining farming jobs, though. I've seen a note at BLS.gov to the effect that an increasing number of jobs in manufacturing fall into the category of knowledge work. Programmers for the robots and process design experts are among the folks who now fall into the category of manufacturing; a decreasing percentage of the folks in manufacturing are not working on production lines as we classically envision it from pictures of the 1950s. They are as much a part of the information economy as are the programmers and analysts sitting in cubicles for software or service companies.

Of late I've seen an uptick in our consulting for projects that are production line transfers. The vast majority of our work is with companies developing new products. These production line transfers have literally gone from zero percent of what we do to about 10%.  What does it mean to transfer a production line? A factory line in, say, Pennsylvania is being transferred to Monterrey, Mexico. The savings are huge and irresistible and when the transfer is done, the US has fewer manufacturing jobs.

Trump has defined his presidency in large part by two things: radically slowing immigration and bringing back factory jobs. Immigration has dropped under his watch. Initially, factory jobs rose as well but there is a problem with that.

His sudden imposition of tariffs made domestic sources more favorable and seemed to have raised the percentage of jobs created in manufacturing to meet this uptick in demand. The problem is, though, that supply chains are complicated. If I bought cheaper steel from China to manufacture a car, say, a tariff on Chinese goods may cause me to shift over to an American supplier of steel within a month or so. Short-term, that would raise the number of manufacturing jobs. But given that ultimately I need to compete on the global market, this need to pay more for a key input might cause me to make a more dramatic change over the next year; I may shift my entire production line out of the US to where tariffs don't distort input costs and threaten my profit margins. Short-term, the tariffs may raise manufacturing in the US; longer-term, they may drive it out. And that seems to be what is happening.

When Trump was sworn in, manufacturing was 8.4% of the total workforce. As a percentage of new jobs created in the prior 12 months, that rose above 10%. For nearly a year. During the last twelve months, though, it has dropped to about 2%. During the last twelve months, manufacturing jobs as a percentage of new jobs created is about one-quarter of what it was when he took office.

This is not something to celebrate or to mourn. This is simply a fact. Once upon a time we were in an agricultural economy and children grew up expecting to work on farms. Decades later, that expectation shifted from farms to factories. A good society prepares its children for jobs that will keep them employed at good wages, though, and cares less about whether they will work on farms in factories or in cubicles or in the home office than if they are making good wages. A bad society forces traditions on its children and tries to prepare their children for jobs that were suitable for their grandparents but not for them.  It's not an agricultural or industrial economy any longer.

It is true that there are problems with the information economy and some evidence that we're getting diminishing returns from encouraging more children to get college degrees to prepare for work. That said, children are much more likely to grow up to work on a laptop than they are in a factory or on a farm. Promising to bring back factory jobs is like promising to make your skin look younger; it may work for a time but the long-term trend is against you.

08 January 2020

Why Automating Truck Drivers' Jobs Could be Good News

I've heard and read concern about the millions of truck drivers who could lose their jobs to self-driving trucks.

Here are two reasons why I don't think it's a big deal. It might even be a positive.
1. Every year the American economy destroys nearly 30 million jobs and creates about 28 million. It is a very dynamic economy.
There are currently about 3.5 million truck drivers. Let's assume that they are ALL gone in a decade. (That strikes me as wildly optimistic or pessimistic, depending on your perspective.) All gone in a decade means that every year 350,000 lose their jobs. That sounds like a lot. You know what percentage of jobs destroyed that is? Just over 1%. It's a dynamic economy. We can create new jobs for them. Our economic health is never defined by the number of jobs we destroy; it is defined by the number of jobs we create.
2. What kind of jobs will be lost? Dangerous ones.
Across the American workforce, per 100,000 workers, there are 3.5 fatalities a year on the job.
Transportation workers? About 15 to 16. Truck drivers are more than 4X as likely to die on the job as the average worker and twice as likely as police officers or fire fighters. In most jobs they'll be safer.

Data on how dangerous jobs are here:

Data on how many jobs are destroyed and created each quarter are here:

03 January 2020

Now It's a Cult

In a Facebook conversation yesterday, I pointed out to a Trump supporter that believing Trump means that you have to discount the CIA, the NSA, the FBI, our courts, the media and scientists. For starters. His response was that I couldn't know who was right because I didn't actually see whatever it is that Trump is talking about this time.

This is how members of a cult talk. There is no objective reality that can be tested with observation or theories. There are no facts. Really, you have just two choices: either believe the leader or don't. You can be part of the conspiracy against him or you can be part of the group that supports him.

21 December 2019

How Selfish and Selfless Overlap

Let us say that you were a complete hedonist. You only did what made you feel good.

Wouldn't you still do things for other people? Given how we are wired, doesn't it make a person about as happy to make someone else happy as anything one can do? For instance, have you ever seen anyone making a baby laugh who looked like they were having a miserable time?

"Bring me a wave separate from the ocean and I will show you a person separate from the universe."
- Alan Watts

14 December 2019

Has Wealth Creation Become More Exclusive?

As managing partner of Andreessen Horowitz, Venture Capitalist Scott Kupor argues that much of the gains from startups have shifted from later-stage, post-IPO to pre-IPO private markets. By the time we normal people get into the market, early investors have already captured a lot of the value.
From Scott Kupor's Secrets of Sand Hill Road (updated with data as of today).

"Consider the following example. Microsoft went public in 1986 at a $350 million market capitalization. Today, Microsoft has a market cap of approximately $1.2 trillion. That's a 3,430x increase in market cap as a public company. [An initial $1,000 investment in MSFT when it went public would now be worth $3.4 million.]
"In contrast, Facebook went public at a $100 billion market cap and now trades around $555 billion.[An initial $1,000 investment would now be worth $5,550.] ... For the public market investors to eventually earn the same multiple on their Facebook holdings as has been the case for their Microsoft holdings, Facebook would have to reach a market of more than $340 trillion. To put that in perspective, US GDP is about $20 trillion and global GDP is about $100 trillion. "

[Ron again, not Scott.]
In other words, folks who bought Facebook stock will never get the returns of folks who bought Microsoft stock.

Two possible explanations - not mutually exclusive.
My notion of the third economy is that finance was democratized (banks and stock markets made tools of us common folks in the same way that the first and second economies made tools of church and state). It seems sad that we've gone backwards on this and so much of the gain on capital has been pushed back into less accessible private markets that fund early stage startups where elite investors can get higher returns.
There may, of course, be another explanation for this. Capital no longer limits but knowledge workers do. Median pay at Facebook is $240k. That's median pay. It might be that the knowledge workers who are the limits to the information economy are now getting the returns that capital used to get.

24 October 2019

Trump as Your Rogue Mailman

Trump creates so much daily chaos that it is easy to lose track of why Congress has moved ahead with impeachment hearings. A simple analogy to explain his conversation with the Ukrainian president might help.

Congress authorizes social security payments. Of course, they are just legislators so they don’t actually deliver the check to recipients. Your mailman – a part of the executive branch – does that.

Imagine that the mailman tells the social security recipients on his route that he’s running for city council and he will give them their check but first they have to make a public statement claiming that his political opponent is involved in a corruption scandal.

Once this is revealed, you would expect an investigation into the mailman’s behavior. You would not be surprised if he were fired.

So, what does that have to do with Trump’s situation?

Congress – the House and Senate – authorized money for the Ukraine. Why? Largely to defend itself from Russia. Russia has already invaded – and now occupies – the Crimea. (Another quick analogy? Imagine that Mexico had taken Texas from the US because a chunk of its residents spoke Spanish. That’s essentially what Russia did by invading and taking Crimea from the Ukraine.) Russia may have plans to take more – perhaps even all – of the Ukraine. The US would rather deter Russia with a show of support than to wait for Russia to again attack and force the US and NATO to either just watch Russia conquer the Ukraine or force a war between NATO (the Ukraine is not a member of NATO but has applied to join) and Russia. Congress wants to check Putin’s aspiration for conquering former Soviet territory.

Trump, apparently, does not.

Just like social security checks, Congress has authorized money for the Ukraine. Just like social security checks, Congress does not actually deliver the check. Trump’s White House – which is, like the post office, a part of the executive branch – delivers that money. And just like our rogue mailman, Trump was using his position of power to withhold money as a way to get something of personal value. He was asking the Ukrainian president to declare that they were investigating Joe Biden for corruption before Trump would deliver the Ukraine money Congress had already authorized.

Trump is not a monarch. He is subject to laws just as every other citizen. And when he uses the executive office to extort foreign heads of state to do him a personal favor, he is as much in violation of law as the mailman who extorts the social security check recipients on his route. 

16 October 2019

Some Policies my Ideal 2020 Candidate Would Pursue

My ideal candidate would take the following positions on these issues.


  • Make it easy for entrepreneurs to succeed.
    • incubators in communities the way earlier generations planted libraries and universities as just one of the many support structures to put in place to make more citizens more entrepreneurial. Do all we can to make citizens wildly successful and then tax the ones who achieve success at high rates (say, marginal tax rates double that of middle class) to pay for investing in the next round of new entrepreneurs.
  • Make a huge investment in research
    • We will spend about $3.5 billion on DARPA - Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency - this year. DARPA has helped to fund amazing technologies that helped birth modern computers, smart phones and satellites. We are still counting the trillions in returns on early investments of millions and billions in DARPA. I would match the DoD's R-and-D spending with similar levels of spending on Department of Education, Department of Energy, etc. to something like the table above. This would not only employ a growing number of doctoral graduates (we could conservatively assume about 140,000 new jobs for staff and leading researchers with the numbers above) but would lead to returns of trillions in the future as we solve problems of energy, commute times, poverty, environment, etc. Entrepreneurs can translate this research into development, creating new wealth and jobs in the process of deploying new processes, services and products that build on this research.
  • Make it easy for employees to use corporations as tools for creating wealth
    • Laws requiring mechanisms inside of corporations that allow employees to create wealth through innovation and entrepreneurship and dictating that between 0.5% to 2% of that corporation's employees are paid more than the CEO as a result.
  • Tax inheritance more than capital gains more than income
  • Massive spending on research on alternative energy, upgrading infrastructure to reduce carbon emissions and the introduction of carbon tax. Innovate our way out of a fossil fuel economy.
Social policy
  • Make it easy for single moms to succeed
    • Make high-quality childcare free
    • Sex is one of the most wonderful acts and rape is one of the worst. The main difference is consent. Pregnancy and childbirth is one of the most wonderful acts ... unless it is forced on you by others, in which case it is one of the worst. It should be the choice of individual women about whether and when to have sex or babies, not the choice of the men in their community. 
  • Annually - and aggressively - reduce childhood poverty
  • Provide universal healthcare
    • This would include death panels and other criteria about what level of care we have a right to and what level of care the community should not be billed for.
  • Transform K-16 into an education system that creates a common sense of community but a wildly diverse workforce that includes the knowledge workers that are the primary focus of schools today AND trades, entrepreneurs, makers, government and service workers and other emerging career paths
  • Treat investigative reporting like research. That is, it should be funded by the government with oversight of the agenda by citizen boards. (We should more aggressively follow the example of the BBC.)
  • People whose data is key to the success of a social platform (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, etc.) should receive a portion of that platform's revenue (idea taken from Andrew Yang).

17 September 2019

A Curious Explanation as to Why Europe's Population Fell During the Dark Ages

Learned something curious from Berkowitz's Sex and Punishment, a book I picked up from the Harvard Bookstore a week ago.

Medieval priests used penitentials to define rules and punishment. A lot of prohibitions involved sex and some were odd. (To be fair, in an age before cars, guns, and corporations there wasn't much other behavior to regulate.) In a few regions, the penalty for performing fellatio on one's husband was greater than the penalty for killing him.

The penitentials offered a labyrinth of penalties and prohibitions. Among other things, it left only about 4 days a month during which it was "legal" to have sex. Even those limits weren't enough: married couples could be prosecuted if they were known to enjoy sex too much. Pope Gregory (~540 to 604) declared that marital sex was blameless only when there was no pleasure involved.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, during the period of the Dark Ages when these penitentials had the most influence - from about 500 to 1050 - Europe's population actually shrank.

So that's kind of interesting.