02 June 2020

Property, Protest and American Traditions

I'm feeling somewhat vindicated this week. My great (a bunch of times) grandfather moved to Boston about 150 years before the Boston Tea Party - in which radicals threw valuable Davison tea into the harbor.
We Davisons protested at the time but were largely - like our tea - drowned out by political activists who supported this looting.
It has taken a long time but finally those so-called "patriots" have come around to understand that property matters more than progress - a pretty surprising insight for a nation of coffee-drinking heathens.





31 May 2020

Exclusion: What the Black Lives Matter and Trump Supporters Have in Common

I've read a ton of history and it has made me think that I know something about the dominoes that fall across a generation. Even history has a history and things in one generation define another. For example, Sir Edward Coke introduced patent law in 1624, a Brit invented the first steam engine in 1699 and by 1800 the West was in the midst of an industrial revolution that raised productivity and wages for the first time since the ancient Greeks. A string of dominoes that fell across generations.

It goes the other way as well. John Maynard Keynes protested the Treaty of Versailles that ended WWI. He was British but knew that the allies' insistence that Germany pay for World War One would be an impossible burden for Germany and would devastate its economy. A big reason Hitler came to power was because Germans were impoverished and humiliated by their defeat and were susceptible to the rantings of a madman who promised a return to greatness. A string of dominoes that fell across a generation.

The people who elected Donald Trump and the Black Lives Matter protesters have something in common. Both are protesting exclusion, showing disdain for systems they think don't benefit them.
Globalization - the shift away from the nationalism that fueled two world wars - has been a clear success. It has made rich nations richer and drastically lowered poverty in poor nations and dramatically reduced deaths from war.

But progress is always disruptive and while globalization has made goods cheaper for everyone and profits and wages higher for some, it has also meant the loss of jobs and industries for some people and regions. Globalization is wonderful but we have not done enough to make its benefits widespread. Trump supporters protest this globalization that they feel excluded from.

Our law enforcement and legal system has been a clear success. Crime rates are lower than at any time in history. The odds that you will be killed go down every decade. But these benefits have not been evenly shared. Blacks still disproportionately get arrested and even killed by police. This weekend people have protested this legal and law enforcement protection from which they feel excluded.

I am so upset when I see Trump destroy, vandalize or attack another institution that supports globalization, that makes the world and not just our country better. Last week he announced - in the middle of a pandemic - that he would stop funding the World Health Organization. Nothing could be more destructive and stupid and yet his supporters cheered him on. Same when he has attacked the WTO, NAFTA, NATO and the UN. He's wantonly destroying these international alliances that support a better world in which we trade goods rather than bullets across borders. As I mentioned, I have a strong opinion about how dominoes fall. Unchecked, his vandalizing international organizations will mean less prosperity and more warfare in the future. It might happen within a year or two. It may take a generation. It will lead to tragedy. You either move in the direction of more harmony between nations or less. Nothing is static. I know that almost no one believes me in this but I'm horrified and gut sick at what Trump is doing and even more so by the fact that all the Trumpbros are cheering him on.

To a lesser extent - because riots and a few buildings is so much less destructive than war and the cost to national economies from trade wars - I'm horrified by the looting and rioting in cities this weekend. But it comes from the same place. People who don't feel like they are benefiting from something don't care if it burns. Trumpbros cheer the destruction of international institutions and some protesters cheer the destruction of businesses or police stations.

We have to do a better job of inclusion. The difference between how fast I can run and how fast you can run is trivial compared to how much faster we both can go riding in a car or plane. Prosperity is not about individual self-reliance. It is about the systems individuals are included in, from education and financial systems to business and legal systems. When a country does better from trade, it needs to do more to include the communities hurt by trade, to heavily subsidize their re-training, re-location and even pump huge sums into the area in the form of startup funding to let that community of talent find a new market, new set of products that can provide wages and a sense of pride.

The same thing needs to occur within our minority communities. These communities need to feel like this is "our police force," not a group of strangers who view them suspiciously and treat them badly. 
The same thing with the courts.

When people feel excluded from an institution or a privilege or a system, they won't care if it gets destroyed. They might even cheer as it burns down.

My visceral reaction to Trump supporters and protesters destroying things is one of incredulity and anger. I'm trying to change that, to figure out what we need to do to make those people feel included in the story of progress that transformed our grandparents' lives and will transform our grandchildren's lives. Progress is a beautiful thing. Rather than get angry at the people who are angry about not being included in it, I need to figure out how we better include them in it rather than tell them that they should care about the systems they don't believe care about them.

30 May 2020

A Tough Trick: Giving People a Sense of Autonomy When Their Work is So Defined by Systems

Political turmoil always comes with economic progress because identity and the work we do is so intertwined.

I think that one of the tricks of the next economy that will be hardest to pull off is this: give people a sense of agency even though their productivity is defined by systems.

Right now almost no one I knows thinks that their salary has anything to do with dozens, hundreds of systems they have nothing to do with and yet what we make is 95% defined by systems rather than our own effort.

Machines automate more and more manual work every year. Algorithms are going to automate more and knowledge work every year.

Factory workers thought that their productivity was about them and not the factories they worked in. Knowledge workers think their productivity has something to do with them and not the educational and information systems they work in. It has been - and will be - tough to realize that's not the case.
We haven't evolved biologically in the last few thousands years but our productivity has gone up enormously. And continues to rise.

What are the systems that let the exact same animals be so much more productive?

Roads and highways and railroads and airports that let us send and get products and services from a broader region.

Educational institutions, unions, companies that have processes that make people more productive.

Information systems that let knowledge workers work more efficiently.

Laws and law enforcement that protect property and extend those principles to things like patents so that investors and innovators will invest in new products and technologies with the hope of returns.

The electrical grid and the appliances that work off it.

The fossil fuels and engines that require(d) thousands of innovators and inventors and that let a guy with a chain saw cut down more trees in one day than his great grandpa could in a month.

The social norms of employer and employee (Between 1800 and 2000, the percentage of workers employed by someone else rose from 20 to 90. By 2000, over half of employees worked for organizations with 500 or more employees; in 1800, none had.)

Language. Writing. Email. Software.

And so on, and so on, and so on.

The systems that most fascinate me appear at the level of economies. An agricultural economy has its own set of principles, practices, beliefs, and technologies. An industrial economy another. Those evolve and change and farmers and factory workers and knowledge workers in an information economy think that is who they are rather than just who people become in order to be productive. That identity, that definition of what it means to be productive, evolves and changes over time as the systems we live and work in evolve and change.

This is a big reason why social invention fascinates me. It means stepping outside of systems to shape them rather than let them shape us. (Okay. That's absurd. Our systems will always shape us.) 

Everything is made up and everything matters. Polygamy or monogamy? Made up. But it matters. The 10 most violent nations in the world practice polygamy which means lots of young men without partners wandering around angry. Dictatorship or democracy? Totally made up. But it matters. The 10 richest nations in the world are democracies.

One big obstacle to progress is that people defend the systems that define them even when those systems - like an agricultural economy for instance - are gradually made obsolete.

Progress comes from challenging and improving and inventing systems. That's tough work. Particularly when people define themselves by those systems. But here's the trick. Here is how you give people agency when their productivity is defined by the systems they live in and work with. You make them systems  thinkers and social inventors. You make their work the work of defining and shaping those systems.

Gloria Steinem Explains Why Women Gamble Less

"Someone asked me why women don't gamble as much as men do, and I gave the commonsensical reply that we don't have as much money. That was a true and incomplete answer. In fact, women's total instinct for gambling is satisfied by marriage."
- Gloria Steinem

29 May 2020

Post-Satiric Satire About How Life Cost Money

I was about to write about how we spend $200 billion a year on law enforcement because of crime (we have 15,000 homicides a year) and then the officers we hire to keep the peace shoot 1,000 more people a year. We spend big money to save lives and instead they add to the killing. We could save money and lives by laying off everyone in law enforcement.

Even better, think of all the money we could save if we spent 0% of GDP on healthcare instead of 17%. (I could go on with the cost savings we'd have if only we cut out all these fancy new costs we've incurred since the Dark Ages. Life expectancy then might have been only 30 years but you could get by on about $200 a year.)

Let me point out that if you think it is absurd that we would accept 1,000 homicides a month because it is too expensive to save lives, note that we simply accept 1,000 COVID deaths a DAY because it is too expensive to save those lives through methods like aggressive test and trace.

Then I remembered that when you have a deranged president beloved by 33% of the population there is no such thing as using satire to make a point and that every stupid proposal just sounds like another proposal. Rather than become an argument to save more lives by spending more money on making our world safer, this point would be seen as a sincere argument to make the world less expensive because, after all, the point has never been about making life longer but instead simply making it cheaper.

Put more succinctly?  
Life cost money.
All in all, though, it's a price worth paying.
Thank you for coming to my TED talk.


28 May 2020

In Praise of Breasts ... and a little commentary on "free" speech on social media

Breasts are wonderful. They feed babies. They're beautiful. And you can't post a picture of breasts on Facebook. You can on Twitter but they warn viewers before one can see them.

Lies and conspiracy theories are awful. Being in a pandemic highlights the fact that a distortion of facts can literally kill people. You can post lies and conspiracy theories on Facebook and now - in some instances - Twitter will warn you when you're about see a lie or conspiracy theory.

If you post a snuff video which results in a death, it will be be taken down (and I'm not sure but think there would be criminal charges as well).
If you promote behavior which results in a death, it gets left up.

Weirdly, people are outraged that Twitter now warns when something is a lie but these people are not outraged that they warn you when you're about to see nudity.

Don't pretend that social media isn't already selectively flagging and censoring content on platforms or that such actions don't already reflect judgment calls. Don't pretend that you want to live in a world where there is not a degree of content moderation and / or warning flags on platforms. Don't pretend that even "speech" doesn't have consequences for which you are responsible.

27 May 2020

An Attitude of Progress and Embrace of the Unsettling

One of the many mini-obsessions I have among the larger obsession of how we make progress is this question of how we deal with the fact that given that progress so often looks and feels like disruption and threat, we resist the very forces that might move us forward.

Some delightful quotes on this theme are to be found in this piece by Maria Popova.

“Cut short of the floundering and you’ve cut short the possible creative outcomes”
- Denise Shekerjian

And from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”

"The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory, and to do something without knowing how or why; in short, to draw a new circle. Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. The way of life is wonderful: it is by abandonment."

Find the post here.

Global Antipathy Towards Globalization

Sadly, globalization has fewer defenders than nationalism. It's easier to excite the masses with cries of "Us vs. them" than "Us."

Since 1945, globalization has lessened global inequality, dramatically lowered deaths due to war, and increased prosperity. Put more simply, globalization fuels the twin goals of peace and prosperity that only ideologues dismiss as the most important goals of policy.

Here Martin Wolf explains how growing tensions between the US and China are reminiscent of the growing tensions between the US and Germany nearly a century ago.

On Zoom, Nobody Knows If You Have New Shoes or No Shoes

The move came from a deep impulse but little thought. It had been so long since she'd been in the office, so long since she'd worn new shoes anywhere. While on the zoom call she tried to nonchalantly drape her leg over her knee with a dramatic flourish so as to display - albeit briefly - her beautiful new shoe, a work of art she'd found online. What she hadn't anticipated was the leg cramp triggered by the odd angle that caused her leg to flail outwards, knocking her laptop cattywampus onto the floor, the screen cracked, her zoom meeting frozen.

They really were beautiful shoes. Adding in the price of the new laptop, they were also the most expensive pair she'd ever purchased.

Even so, she did get some satisfaction to hear from her friend that after, the frozen image they had of her was just her "absolutely gorgeous shoe and ankle" while they continued in their meeting.
"So not a complete loss," she thought. Plus the three days it took for her new laptop to be delivered - what might be categorized as sick days in this new online world - were the most relaxing she'd had in months.

The Meta-Conspiracy Theory of Trump Supporters

To be a Trump supporter now means having to believe or defend any number of conspiracy theories.

Which is the most popular of the many conspiracy theories Trump supporters believe? That supporting Trump doesn't require believing in conspiracy theories.

22 May 2020

Win-Win - the need for courage and consideration (Thank you Stephen Covey)

One of the cooler things that I got to do was to work for Covey Leadership Center for a few years. I still feel really fortunate that I got to teach the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People seminar multiple times. (Quick people need to take it only once to get it. Those of us who are slower had to teach it multiple times.)

Habit 4 is Think Win-Win. Lots to it but one really powerful framing is in terms of the need for both courage and consideration.

If you are only considerate, inquiring about and respecting the other person's win without fighting for your own win, you will end up in lose-win relationships. They win, you don't.

If you are only courageous, articulating and defending your own win without regard for theirs, you will end up in win-lose or win relationships. You win, they don't.

There is too little time and too many people to put up with those relationships. I still find myself forgetting courage or consideration and need to pause to make things right.

Be considerate and insist that the folks in your life do the same. Or, if you'd rather, be courageous and insist that the folks in your life do the same. Either way it's a win-win.

Be a winner who surrounds yourself with winners.

14 May 2020

Fear of Mexicans and Millionaires, or Immigrants and Billionaires Will Stop Defining American Politics

The 2018 and 2020 elections represent a return to normal politics.

After the Great Recession, we had Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party. Occupy became the Sanders supporters. The Tea Party became the Trump supporters. They got all the press attention and assumed that they had all the voters. They didn't. They don't.

The average American is not afraid of Mexicans or millionaires, or immigrants and billionaires, and know that there isn't a single example of a prosperous economy that wasn't created by and didn't create both. (Show me an economy without any rich people or without any immigrants and I'll show you a really lousy economy.)

So in 2018 we did - and in 2020 we will - hear from the majority of Americans who are happy to have rich people (on top of everything else they do, they can help with all the taxes we have pay) and immigrants (they can help us to increase supply and demand, helping natives to start and work in businesses and buying the many products and services these businesses generate).

08 May 2020

The Month in Which the Modern Information Age Was Born

In December of 1947, Bell Labs researchers laid the foundation for the world that so defines us today.
Doug Ring and Rae Young wrote a memo "Mobile Telephony: Wide Area Coverage," in which they laid out the idea of a honeycomb of hexagons and repeating frequencies within cells, a system that would eventually be called cellular phones.
John Bardeen and Walter Brattain - working under the management of William Shockley - were perfecting the transistor that became the foundation for computer chips.
Claude Shannon coined the term "bit" as he defined a new field that would be known as information theory. (No one had previously thought of a unit of measurement for something as abstract as information.)
All within one month.
Why mention this?
World War 2 ended in 1945. A tremendous amount of money, problem-solving and research went into this problem of how to save democracy. WWII was a tragedy but it triggered a tsunami of problem-solving and breakthroughs. More importantly, it was a catalyst for new ideas and exposed everyone to new situations. It wasn't just that a lot of knowledge came out of this. It set in place processes, practices and new technologies that continued to generate new knowledge. As all that potential shifted from war to peacetime, it created new possibilities. About two years after the world war was over, its momentum helped to lay the foundation for the smart phone you're holding in your hand right now, a supercomputer in your palm linked to endless libraries of information.
Our response to COVID-19 could be very similar, a catalyst for ideas that will create new worlds. Some good will come out of these odd times.

07 May 2020

A Pandemic of Conspiracy Theories: Why Trump's Followers Feel Like They're Stars in the Truman Show

Ideology lowers IQ about as much as a blow to the head. ISIS, the Nazi Party, the Medieval Church, Stalinist apparatchik, Trump supporters .... every group has people of varying intelligence. But their intelligence is subordinate to the larger group and that means intelligence is channeled into loyalty, not understanding.
There is a stunning number of conspiracy theories running a muck among Trump supporters. All are variants on "MIT, WHO, Gates Foundation, CDC, New York Times, CNN, BBC, the EU, China, (etc., etc.,) are in collusion to control you or profit from you and here is what is really going on ..." First, just from a logistic perspective, getting all of the folks in all of these organizations (these are really, really smart people who really, really pride themselves on original thinking) to agree to fake a global pandemic is inane. In this country alone we can't muster agreement to rebuild crumbling bridges. Second, the conspiracy theories all have the same purpose: undermine the authority of anyone who makes Trump look like the fool he is.
Occam's razor can be explained this way: if you hear hoofbeats, assume it is horses and not unicorns. Go for the simplest explanation. Could it be that experts throughout the world - even the doctors in your local hospital - are conspiring to fake a global pandemic in order to put a microchip in your body so they can track your location? (A conspiracy theory propagated by folks on smart phones with microchips that never leave their person.) Is that possible? I actually think that it's practically impossible given a million things that all have to be aligned to make this true, but let's say, sure, It could be a unicorn.
What's a simpler explanation? Trump has bumbled handling this pandemic from the start and unless he can find a way to discount every expert who might be able to shed light on that fact, he has to take responsibility. He's already done a great job of inoculating his followers from facts by insisting that they stop trusting the mainstream media or twitter or libtard friends and trust only his interpretations. Trump loyalty - as with any true love - demands a level of abstinence from all others, particularly those investigative journalists and so-called experts.
Is the whole world conspiring to make up a pandemic? Are you caught in the Truman show? Or is Trump just a con man? Occam's razor suggests that it's one con man fumbling with a global pandemic rather than a global conspiracy intent on killing millions just to make this one con man look bad.
Are the people who believe these conspiracy theories stupid? Not necessarily. Some of them just want desperately for there to be unicorns. For them this is all a loyalty test. Their revelation won't come from increasing their intelligence. It will come from them simply deciding that its better to be led by simple truths than simpletons.