31 October 2007

Have You Heard the One About?

I have a new vice - reading the Overhead in ... blogs. Brilliant. It is like found comedy - or is that commentary? Here are some of my favorites from just the last couple of days, all reportedly just snippets of conversation overheard in public places.

Overheard on the Beach


Girl #1: I'm glad we aren't having earthquakes here like back in Cali.
Girl #2: It would suck coming over to Maui and then having an earthquake here.
Girl #1: Hey, can you feel an earthquake in a plane?
Girl #2: Um...

--Kihei, Maui, Hawaii

Girl #1, whispering: Oh my god, I'm choking on this macaroni.
Girl 2: Then how are you talking?
Girl 1: The macaroni is stuck in my throat straight up, and I'm breathing through the hole in the noodle.
Girl 2: Ohhh, that makes sense.

--Virginia Beach, Virginia


Man in skirt to bald woman: Seriously... Marijuana-fueled cars. It'd be great! Everyone would be high, and we'd have clean air!

--Avon, New Jersey

Overheard in New York


Dude: I'm needy and you do stuff for me. That's how our relationship works.

--2nd Ave. & St. Mark's Place

Boyfriend: Listen, you're dissatisfied with me, and I'm dissatisfied with me. We have something in common! I think this relationship can work.

--32nd & 6th

NYU freshman girl: I have a boyfriend -- I don't need a social life.


Old bitter woman to husband: I don't understand sex.

--72nd & 2nd


Father to three-year-old son: The ruler of the universe says to stop chattering.

--7th Ave, Park Slope

Mother to chatty child: Don't you have your pacifier? So pacify!

--Kingsborough Community College, Brooklyn


Southern lady looking at surfers in wetsuits: I never knew there were so many negro surfers!

--El Granada, California

Black woman to tanning salon flyer guy soliciting her: Nigga, you be blind!

--W 4th St & 6th Ave

Sports editor: We need more magical black men.

--Columbia Spectator office


Blonde: So, I woke up and Jessica's underwear was still on my head...

--P.S. 1, Queens


Pilot: Like any pilot, I like to hear myself talk... All you're hearing now is 'Blah, blah, blah.'

--Delta flight, JFK

Stewardess, sounding surprised during landing: Great job, honey.



Little girl: Is George Bush a Republican or a Dominican?

--Times Square

Hobo to another: So, I hear you're an international spy now.

--Washington Square Park

40-something tourist to her daughter: All the homeless may be Democrats, but not all Democrats are homeless.

--Canal & Broadway

LA - Rhymes with Play

Last night I went to the Lakers home opener against the Houston Rockets. My buddy Daryl's first regular season game as the GM of the Houston Rockets. (What is Steven Wright’s line – I went to a general store but they wouldn’t let me buy anything specifically. Now my own friend Daryl is a guy who manages, but doesn’t manage anything specifically.) He invited us up for dinner and the game and we delightedly accepted.

The waiter said it is a busy night in this part of LA, telling us that there were three big events within just a few blocks. Mind you, this is a Tuesday. But then again, this is Los Angeles, the capital of entertainment. Even on a Tuesday there are a plethora of entertainment options.

At the Staple Center, the LA Lakers home opener. A very big deal. Sold out. RIGHT ACROSS THE STREET is a little concert venue – the Nokia Theater. A couple of guys are playing music there during our game – a couple of guys named Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen. But this is LA. That’s not all. The biggest draw in LA that night, according to our waiter? The Mayan Club. What is the Mayan Club, you ask (sounding just like me)? It’s where, once a year, they feature Mexican Midget Wrestling. MMW. This drama includes not just nasty contests between sweet little men – said men are occasionally thrown out of the ring and then thrown back in by the crowd. This is the hardest ticket in town to get. Suddenly, my excitement about watching the Lakers and Rockets is subdued. Bruce is in town? Neil? I don’t get “Hey, Hey, My, My?” or “Badlands?” And I don’t get to toss midgets? You expect me to have fun watching men in shorts when I know that this is going on so close by?

The game was exciting even though I was suddenly and acutely aware of what I was missing. The Lakers have Kobe Bryant, which is rather like having a stock portfolio made up entirely of Google - high performing, exciting returns, and a frightening lack of diversity. The Lakers are one twisted ankle away from being able to beat any NCAA team in the nation. Meanwhile, Daryl (I know - I'm biased) has already put together a team that has an enormous diversity of talent. The Rockets team continued to score points quite steadily, regardless of who played. (The Rockets had four players score in the double digits - the Lakers only two.)

And then the basketball gods decided to smile on Daryl. At one point, two Lakers were standing alone under the Rockets' rim, unable to get the handle on the ball when it, like an extra in a comedy, unexpectedly looped up into a surprising arc, falling neatly into the hoop, scoring two points for the Rockets. The Rockets' margin of victory? 2 points.

Entertainment seems to be one of the few industries in which we Americans run a trade surplus. As I drove home, coming to a complete stop at midnight (my darling wife looks up and announces, in stark contrast to rush "hour" typical of most places, "Hmm - rush day"), I realized that there is little that we Americans take more seriously than playing.

28 October 2007

My Play: the Audience (John Cage Composition Accompanies)

Friday night, while waiting for the play Oscar and the Pink Lady to begin, I wrote my first play. In its entirety.

The Pink Lady was performed at the Old Globe's Cassius Carter Centre Stage - a theater in the round, the stage completely surrounded by seats. As you look past the stage, you see other theater goers looking at the stage. The play started a little late and I found myself quite enjoying the notion that the play would not be performed and the audience would simply have to watch one another watching one another, never particularly sure whether we were performers or in the audience, a role similar to what we all have in life. The brain is able to contemplate itself contemplating itself - a particular trick of recursion that makes us self aware and thus more advanced. Watching the audience begin to watch the audience, I got the idea for my play. Why not, then, have an audience watching itself watch itself - a particular trick of contemplation and entertainment that could, indeed, mean something different for each member of the audience?

And this is my entire play. 45 minutes of the audience in the round watching other members of the audience in the round, the stage becoming secondary to the drama of fidgeting, stolen glances, and muted emotion.

Thinking about it later, I realized that this isn't really a completely new idea. It is, in fact, just a dramatic variation of John Cage's 4 minutes 33 seconds, a musical composition in which no music in played and the audience is free to project onto the pianist (or full orchestra) what they like. Cage's composition is provided here, for your (listening? viewing? contemplating?) pleasure. If my play had musical accompaniment, I suppose I would need to use Cage's composition. I thoroughly enjoyed this BBC broadcast of Cage's composition. I hope you do too.

25 October 2007

Bush Diagnosed with Y2K Bug

Robert Stein writes about Bush's latest domestic policy blunder - proof that the man's wretched foreign policy has little to do with "foreign" and everything to do with "policy." He appointed Susan Orr, "a staunchly anti-birth control extremist to a leadership role in the Office of Population Affairs."

Stein writes,
In 2001, [Susan Orr] pushed a proposal to stop requiring health insurance plans for
federal employees to cover birth control on the grounds that "fertility is not a

There is, perhaps, one explanation for George's embrace of such regressive policy. Perhaps he failed to update his internal, neural software as a precaution against the Y2K bug, and did, in fact, start over from zero in 2000, disregarding two millenia of progress.

California - Land of Children?

George F. Kennan was one of the most influential policy-makers during the peak of America's influence. A remarkably thoughtful man who warned against involvement in Vietnam – in the 1950s – and warned against warming up to the USSR – in the 1940s. Back in 1989, the Atlantic published excerpts from his diary, including these two on California.

Just visiting here, Kennan had keen insights into California. Here in San Diego, evacuation centers have been characterized by live bands, roving clowns, and what participants and observers describe as harmony. At one point, there was one volunteer for every one evacuee down at Qualcomm. (Where else but California would the numbers work out to allow one personal trainer for each disaster victim?) For those of you living in other parts of the country, Kennan’s diary entries from 1951 and 1956 might help you to better understand this odd creature called a Californian. As the father of fifth generation Californians, I'm a little ashamed to say that his words are very much on the mark.

From Kennan's diary:

California again, this time for research at the Hoover Library in Palo Alto.
MAY 13, 1956

California reminds me of the popular American Protestant concept of heaven: there is always a reasonable flow of new arrivals; one meets many—not all—of one's friends; people spend a good deal of their time congratulating one another about the fact that they are there; discontent would be unthinkable; and the newcomer is slightly disconcerted to realize that now, the devil having been banished and virtue being triumphant, nothing terribly interesting can ever happen again.

California is outwardly one-dimensional, in the emotional sense. Looking at the faces, listening to the snatches of conversation, one wonders whether such a thing as anguish exists at all—whether, in fact, there is even any anguish in love, or whether this, too, comes, is experienced, passes, and dies with the same cheerful casualness that seems to dominate all the other phenomena of existence.

These people practice what for centuries the philosophers have preached: they ask no questions; they, live, seemingly, for the day; they waste no energy or substance on the effort to understand life; they enjoy the physical experience of living; they enjoy the lighter forms of contact with an extremely indulgent and undemanding natural environment; their consciences are not troubled by the rumblings of what transpires beyond their horizon. If they are wise, surely the rest of us are fools.

NOVEMBER 4, 1951

I have today that rarest of luxuries: a day of complete leisure, with no obligations, away from home, where not even family or house or neglected grounds can lay claim to attention. I am out here for three days on business and am the guest of a friend whose home, swaddled in gardens, looks down from a hill on the rooftops and foliage of Pasadena. It is strange, and somewhat enervating, after watching the death of the year in the growing austerity of the East Coast autumn, to sit now in a garden, to listen to the chirping of birds and the tinkling of a fountain, to watch the foliage of the eucalyptus trees stirring in a summer breeze, and to feel the warm sunshine on the back of one's neck.

My thoughts are full of this southern California world I see below me and about me. It is easy to ridicule this world, as Aldous Huxley and so many other intellectuals have done—but it is silly, and a form of self-condemnation, to do so. These are ordinary human beings: several million of them. The things that brought them here, and hold them here, are deeply human phenomena—as are the stirrings of anxiety that cause them to be so boastful and defensive about it. Being human phenomena, they are part of ourselves; and when we purport to laugh at them, as though we stood fully outside them, it is we who are the ridiculous ones.

I feel great anxiety for these people, because I do not think they know what they are in for. In its mortal dependence on two liquids—oil and water—that no individual can easily produce by his own energy (even together with family and friends), the life of this area only shares the fragile quality of all life in the great urban concentrations of the motor age. But here the lifelines of supply seem to me particularly tenuous and vital. That is especially true of water, which they now have to bring from hundreds of miles—and will soon have to bring from much farther away. But equally disturbing to me is the utter dependence on the costly, uneconomical gadget called the automobile for practically every process of life from birth through shopping, education, work, and recreation, even courtship, to the final function of burial. In this community, where the revolutionary force of motorization has made a clean sweep of all other patterns of living and has overcome all competition, man has acquired a new form of legs. And what disturbs me is not only that these mechanical legs have a deleterious effect on man himself, drugging him into a sort of paralysis of the faculty of reflection and distorting his emotional makeup while they are in use—these things are not too serious, and perhaps there are even ways of combating them. What disturbs me most is man's abject dependence on this means of transportation and on the complicated processes that make it possible. It is as though his natural legs had really become shriveled by disuse. One has the feeling that if his artificial ones were taken away from him, he would go crawling miserably and helplessly around like a crippled insect, no longer capable of conducting the battle for existence, doomed to early starvation, thirst, and extinction.
One must not exaggerate this sort of thing. All modern urban society is artificial in the physical sense: dependent on gadgets, fragile and vulnerable. This is simply the apotheosis. Here the helplessness is greatest, but also the thoughtlessness. And the thoughtlessness is part of the helplessness.

But alongside the feeling of anxiety I have at the sight of these people, there is a questioning as to the effect they are going to have on, and the contribution they are going to make to, American society as a whole. Again, this is not conceived in terms of reproach or criticism. There is really a subtle but profound difference between people here and what Americans used to be, and still partly are, in other parts of the country. I am at a loss to define this difference, and am sure that I understand it very imperfectly.

Let me try to get at it by overstating it. Here it is easy to see that when man is given (as he can be given only for relatively brief periods and in exceptional circumstances) freedom both from political restraint and from want, the effect is to render him childlike in many respects: fun-loving, quick to laughter and enthusiasm, unanalytical, unintellectual, outwardly expansive, preoccupied with physical beauty and prowess, given to sudden and unthinking seizures of aggressiveness, driven constantly to protect his status in the group by an eager conformism—yet not unhappy. In this sense southern California, together with all that tendency of American life which it typifies, is childhood without the promise of maturity—with the promise only of a continual widening and growing impressiveness of the childhood world. And when the day of reckoning and hardship comes, and I think it must, it will be—as everywhere among children—the cruelest and most ruthless natures who will seek to protect their interests by enslaving the others; and the others, being only children, will be easily enslaved. In this way, values will suddenly prove to have been lost that were forged slowly and laboriously in the more rugged experience of Western political development elsewhere.

23 October 2007

Disaster Purgatory and Other Random Observations About Our San Diego Firestorm

What follows are some odd observations about our fires here in San Diego County. Things seem to be gradually returning to normal. Well, as normal as one can expect in the wake of a fire that raged through about 150 square miles of the county, destroyed perhaps 1,250 homes, and made evacuees of 300,000 residents (10% of the county's population). Some communities are still threatened, but the number of people now threatened has plummeted in the last day or so. Chula Vista (my city) called off evacuations, as have Solana Beach, Del Mar, and parts of Poway. This is the best news we've had since the bad news began.

I saw the national news tonight - both Brian Williams and Katie Couric were broadcasting from San Diego. Based on that, I would have thought that things were getting worse instead of better. In fact, the situation was really precarious yesterday and has considerably improved today. Apparently, considerably improved doesn't make for interesting news.


The biggest difference in the fires today didn't seem to follow from the governator's trip here, Bush declaring it a disaster area, the military helping out, fire fighters from other parts of the state and country coming to help, or even the hard work and good planning of our fire fighters and local officials. All that was commendable but would have been of little consequence if not for the winds dying down. The night before last the winds were incredibly intense - howling in uncharacteristic ways for our region. Today was calm and that seemed to make all the difference. Most of the fires are only 0 (that's right - zero) to 10% contained, so the fact that property is not being consumed at the same rate as yesterday seemed largely attributable to wind speeds and directions.


In his new book, Daniel Goleman shares studies in which people play a "take it or leave it" game. You have a partner. You have $100 to split. The partner offers you some amount and keeps the rest. You take it or leave it. If you take it, you at least get something. If you leave it, neither you nor they get a dime. Economists might suggest that you'll take whatever is offered - anything is better than nothing. As it turns out, if people aren't offered some amount they consider reasonable, they will penalize the selfish person they're playing with by leaving the entire amount. Everybody loses when one person gets selfish. Further, if they track heart rates and stress levels, they'll find that people get very stressed when they are offered some paltry sum. Unless they think that they are playing a computer program, in which case they don't take it personally and just shrug off the low ball offers.

Why is this relevant to the fire? Although it has been little reported, it appears that arson is responsible for at least some of the numerous fires. If so, post-traumatic stress disorders are likely to be more acute. Because of the different levels of stress that accrue from the exact same outcomes administered by chance or evil intention, people recovering from natural disasters are less likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress. Earthquakes, fires, floods, and hurricanes are terribly stressful, but people recover from them better than if they suffered a comparable level of injury or property loss due to the actions of other people. If indeed this is arson, levels of stress will go up and long-term complications will be worse.


Most evacuees went to Qualcomm Stadium, where the Chargers play. About 10,000 people were there. They asked people to STOP bringing donations at a particular point because they had more than they could use or store. Also, I heard one rumor that they had about one volunteer for every evacuee.


I was touched that four different households - four different couples - offered to take us in should we have needed to evacuate. It's odd how such a stressful event gives a person a chance to feel less alone.


Friends of ours built a place up in Tahoe - a place they intended to eventually retire to, toggling between San Diego and the mountains until then. This summer, they lost the Tahoe home to fire. Today, they lost their San Diego home.


Once we learned that the evacuations in our city had been reversed, we felt a huge sense of relief. This evening we went to the grocery store for comfort food - ice cream. We stood in a line of people about 12 wide in front of the freezer. Apparently, we weren't the only ones seeking relief in something cold and comforting.


Today we ate lunch at a little taco shop nearby. 6 fire fighters walked in. In response to compliments for their good work, one said, "We aren't doing anything. We're not out on the line. We're just on call for the normal problems here in the city." He sounded disappointed, like the younger kid who had to stay home when his older sister got to go to the aunt's wedding.


An estimated 300,000 people evacuated - about 10% of the county's population. This is partly caution, partly conspiracy of "how bad can we make this?" (And I'm not belittling how it bad it was for many people - I've heard estimates of up to 1,000 homes destroyed. That's a very big deal.) I hadn't realized before that the evacuation numbers make it seem worse and thus better (as a story) for the media, make it worse and thus better (for the careers and recognition) for the city officials, and make it worse and thus better (for the story telling and sympathy) for us residents. In a sense, everyone involved is game to make it seem worse in order to make themselves look better.


On the first day of an evacuation, it seems like an adventure. The poor folks who won't be able to get back into their homes for weeks are likely to go through stages of anxiety, depression, anger, and disbelief as the days drag out and life does not return to normal.


For nearly two days, we were in disaster purgatory - neither safe nor sorry. We weren't really safe because we knew that the fire could continue to come at us and we'd need to evacuate. We had to be ready. We weren't sorry because we got to stay in our home. This is an odd state to be in - the emotional equivalent of leaning back in your chair and catching yourself at the last second, again and again.


There is some talk already about how silly we San Diegans are to live in such a combustible community and then plan to rebuild in the same potential paths of future firestorms. This is similar to the chatter about how simple are the folks in New Orleans to build in a flood plain. I remember looking at a map of the US years ago - a map that showed the disasters likely to hit different regions. Tornadoes in the Midwest. Hurricanes in the Gulf. Earthquakes north of us in LA and San Francisco. Blizzards in the north. San Diego not only has great weather, but it stood out as a place with no legends indicating the disaster de jour for that area. Yet no one is immune. To be alive is be living in the path of some potential disaster and the reason we rebuild is not because we believe the last disaster will be the last disaster but because all of life is lived in the gap between disasters - personal or regional. The only option to building in the zone of a potential disaster seems to be homelessness.


I’m digging in the closet for my kilt now and plan to perform the Scottish dance of high relief (an emotional antonym to high anxiety). The neighbors have already gathered to watch, so I feel obliged to finish this posting and move on.


My dancing could quickly change into nervous movement. The fires that have died down and no longer threaten us are not really contained - just relatively dormant. It got better on its own. It could once again worse on its own. Life is like that sometimes.

22 October 2007

The Turds in Northern Iraq

Bernard once again felt obligated to dine with his sister Mattie and to bring me along as a buffer. Bernard intentionally chose a place with a confusing menu. "She gets so distracted by the foods she doesn't know, she sometimes forgets all about sharing her political opinions with me," he said. His subterfuge worked - but only for awhile.

“Of course there are problems in Iraq. It’s all because of those Turds in the north,” she abruptly announced, folding her hands as if this settled the matter.

“Is she talking about the Shiites?" I whispered to Bernard, feeling confused.

"No. I think she's confusing the Turks and Kurds," he whispered back. "Who?" Bernard asked Mattie.

“I’m sure I heard Bush say it was the Turds in Northern Iraq who were intentionally de-stabil-i-tating the country.”

“Hm," mused Bernard. "I doubt that it’s the Turds.”

“Well, I don’t know who they are," Mattie tossed her head. "But they’re probably the same people working in those Slurpee stores. They always have those foreigners with thick accents behind the counter and I know they’re just here to spy on us. I don't like them. I mean, if they didn’t have bad intentions, why else would they call them 9-11 stores?”

“I think they are called 7-11 stores, named after their store hours,” Bernard sighed.

For a moment, Mattie paused, looking confused. Then she shook her head. “That can’t be right. They’re open 24 hours.”

"So, you think that they're terrorist?" I asked.

"Of course."

"Well," I turned to Bernard. "That does sort of make sense. Heart disease is the number one killer and those stores don't exactly sell fresh vegetables."

Suddenly, Mattie smiled, "Oh look - it's my gypsy sandwich."

"Who had the gyro?" asked our waiter as he stepped up to the table.


San Diego County is on fire. Already, officials have evacuated 250,000 people, 5X as many as were evacuated in the 2003 fire that was so bad. Humidity is in the single digits and wind gusts have ranged from about 20 to 100 mph - perfect conditions for a fire when coupled with our driest year in 130 years. Even beach communities have been evacuated and one fire looks set to burn right to the Pacific. Baja California has fires south of us. Orange County has fires to the north of us. Hwy 15, which runs north east out of town, is closed. The 8 fires now burning are all east of us. The weather is not forecast to change for another day or two. They say that the biggest fire is 0% contained. We've not yet been asked to evacuate and hopefully won't be - but voluntary evacuations have already begun east of us and the winds are blowing west ... I'm not sure where we'd go if we do have to evacuate and have visions of bobbing off the coast in a life preserver, watching the fire turn our beaches into glass.

And most of the day, unbidden, I've had the chorus of this old Ohio Player song running through my head. (A chorus I remember perfectly from 30 years ago by virtue of it being perhaps the only one word chorus I know.) The whole thing is a little distracting.

21 October 2007

The Republican Party Begins to Fracture

Historians will look back on this 2008 election as the point at which the Republican Party began to fracture. The Republicans inability to get strongly behind any one candidate for president seems proof of an inability to get strongly behind any one definition of conservative.

The Republicans problem is one of an unstable coalition. For all their overlap, political, religious, and business conservatives have some very real differences in opinion about the world and how it works. As issues like immigration, abortion, and trade are becoming more important, so are the differnces between these conservatives.

Commentators and analysts commonly use the term "conservative" as if its meaning is clear. The real question is, "Conserve what?" Are we talking about preserving a particular notion of church, state, or business? For the most part, these three types of conservatives - religious,political, and business conservatives - have voted as a block in presidential elections. It is becoming harder for them to do so.

Religious conservatives might want regulations limiting stem cell research, whereas business conservatives might not. Political conservatives might see gay rights and abortion as rights to be protected like the right to bear arms - a stance that gets them into conflicts with religious conservatives. Political conservatives might want to protect national industries and local jobs, feeling keenly about American products, whereas business conservatives might see such moves as obstructing progress. Political and business conservatives might also have very different opinions about the degree to which we should welcome immigration.

Business, political, and religious conservatives don't have the same goals - they simply have had overlapping goals. As the degree of overlap shifts, so will the definition and power of the Republican Party.

Illegal immigration and free trade is one area where the rift between political and business conservatives is threatening to fracture support for the Republican Party. Business conservatives want easy immigration and free trade policies that will keep down labor costs. Political conservatives, by contrast, want protection from foreign workers who make a fraction of what it takes to live comfortably in the U.S. For political conservatives, the notion of a national economy is important; for business conservatives, the notion of a national economy is quaint.

Abortion and gay rights are areas where a rift between political conservatives and religious conservatives has grown more pronounced. Rudy Giuliani, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ron Paul have a libertarian bent towards rights that offends religious conservatives. If Rudy wins the presidential nomination, his support from James Dobson-style conservatives is likely to be lukewarm at best. By contrast, if Mike Huckabee wins the nomination, he's likely to get less support from those political conservatives who don't mind the Enlightenment-era philosophers' penchant for supporting science that didn't always accord with church teachings.

It's not clear that these three types of conservatives will be able to reconcile their very different views of the world - at least not to the point of alignment they had during the last part of the 20th century. If they don't find a way to create a new, coherent vision of what it means to be conservative, the Republican Party could look back at the beginning of the 21st century as the beginning of their end.

19 October 2007

No, Really. What is so Funny About Peace, Love & Understanding?

A little something for your weekend - a duet between Nick Lowe, who wrote this song, and the Elvis of import, who made it a classic. For extra credit, answer the question: what is so funny about peace, love, and understanding? And why is it that the people who argue for that are considered naive and simple and the people who argue for something as messy, dangerous, and unpredictable as war are considered pragmatic? When will neuroscientists find the switch for organized violence and simply switch it off? (What was it my son said the other day? "This isn't rocket surgery.") I'll shut up now and just let you enjoy the song while formulating your own follow up questions.

18 October 2007

Foreigners Will Fund Your Retirement

Our attitude towards immigration and trade could cost us our retirement.

In a great column on American exceptionalism, Fareed Zakaria explains that Americans rank dead last among countries surveyed on their belief that trade between countries is a good thing. Americans acceptance of immigration has also precipitously dropped in recent years. This new anxiety comes at a bad time.

This month, the first baby boomer began to collect social security payments. She's merely the first of a very large parade. During the next twenty years, 46 million college-educated baby boomers will retire. There will not be enough American-born workers to replace them. By 2015, the United States and Europe will face shortages in workers. In 1950, the ratio of working age to elderly was 7 to 1; by 2030, it is projected to be 3 to 1.* No matter how we structure retirement, it ultimately rests on this: the people who are working have to make enough to pay for their own lives and the lives of those who aren't.

There are four things that will either make this coming demographic shift a non-issue or make it a huge issue.

One is productivity gains. If a person in 2030 is 3X as productive as a person in 1950, he can more easily take on the task of funding more retired people. To the extent that these productivity gains come from capital investments, returns to capital can help to fund retirements.

Two is the total ratio of non-working to working people. It is true that there will be more retired people for every working person in 2030, but at the same time there will be fewer school-age children for every working person. Non-working = in school + retired. As the retired number goes up, the in school number will go down. Factoring in school-aged children makes the ratio of working to non-working look less worrisome. Plus, real advances in medical and psychological treatments could make it possible for a higher percentage of the working age population to be productive.

Three is the number of immigrants. Just as we're projecting a drop in working age population, Africa, Asia, and South America is projecting an increase. Inviting immigrants to maintain our population of window washers and brain surgeons will help them and help us.

Fourth is trade and investment across borders. If my retirement fund pays me from returns to capital invested in a foreign company, I've helped to create jobs for foreigners and they've helped to fund my retirement.

The truth is, we need a combination of these four factors in order to smoothly sail past this jarring and unprecedented shift in demographics. No one factor listed above would be enough, on its own, to ensure retirement funding.

I've written before about how oddly inflated is the concern about immigration in this country. The truth is, we have only two choices: take a step back in prosperity or step further into this age of globalization. Insulating ourselves from the outside world is not an appealing option. The politicians who feed Americans' fear of immigrants or trade are doing worse than pandering to phobias - they're setting us up for failure.

The facts from the * paragraph are taken from James Canton's The Top Trends That Will Reshape The World in the Next 20 Years.

17 October 2007

Warning - Blog Author Ranting About World War IV

We're getting to the point where there aren't a lot of explanations left. Malice? Stupidity? Conspiracy? Drugs?

At this point, the American government seems intent on igniting a regional war - a conflagration in the Middle East designed to suck in all countries. Norman Podhoretz, one of Giuliani's advisers and head of the gang of neoconservative thugs, says that we're in the midst of World War IV against Islamofascism. Of course, his claim makes about as much sense as the Belgians attacking us after Timothy McVeigh's attack in Oklahoma City. Whatever this is, this is not a battle between nation-states, but this subtle distinction escapes the likes of Podhoretz, Bill Kristol, and Paul Wolfowitz and people (like Bush and Cheney) who think these neocons have a clue about the world. And yet, Podhoretz's view about the world is becoming real - not because it describes something coherent or inevitable but because the leaders of the most powerful country in the world seem to believe him.

Last week, the House Democrats seemed to get to George's secret stash of hallucinogens before he did. They decided to reprimand the Ottoman Empire for its treatment of Armenians a century ago. This while showing itself wildly ineffectual against the atrocities in Darfar. It's rare that I agree with Bush, but I have to agree with him that this is really bad timing. Now, emboldened by their outrage against those self-righteous Americans, the Turks have announced their intention to send troops across the border into Iraq.

Meanwhile, Russian President Putin scolds Condi Rice after making her wait for a meeting, then heads south to meet with Iranian president Ahmadinejad and announce support for Iran's pursuit of nuclear technology. Throughout all this, the Bush administration continues saber rattling, threatening Iran and rebuking Russia.

The entire thing plays out like a poorly plotted conspiracy novel where the one guy who is supposed to save the world from pending doom has been distracted by Viagra and Prozac and is happy to accept his senior officer's suggestion that he just follow orders and not worry about any of this. It's like we're in a Tom Clancy novel but the hero decided to walk across the book store to pursue the heroine of a Harlequin instead, leaving his story to be played out like dada art.

It's no wonder that in the midst of all this, Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert have such high ratings. Absurd is the only thing that can make sense of this. I came across a quote at http://www.overheardinnewyork.com/, a collection of comments overheard in New York. One of these random quotes seems to sum up this period of neo-absurdist policy better than I ever could:

Guy on cell in the Financial District: "So, the ecstasy turned out to be Excedrin."

16 October 2007

As American as Baseball & Apple Pie

Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul are certainly the most interesting and provocative candidates running for president. I love that Kucinich wants to set up a Department of Peace and that Paul wants us to stop acting like an empire. They have no chance of winning, though, and for good reason. Liberals are more sensitive to market failures and more willing to step in where businesses fail. Conservatives, by contrast, are more sensitive to government failures and are more willing to stop subsidizing failed government programs. But some liberals simply go too far and just don't trust markets, ever. Same goes for some conservatives and government programs.

It's not true that Ron Paul wants to abolish all government or that Dennis Kucinich wants to abolish all businesses. But they both stray close enough to such positions to have earned Americans skepticism and distrust. Kucinich's health plan isn't just an attempt to step in to rectify market failures. He makes explicit his distrust of markets when he says that companies ought not to profit off of illness. It would be hard to pack more misunderstanding about capitalism into a single sentence. Ron Paul basically wants to do away with all government programs save defense. (Okay, so I'm exaggerating, but not by much.) He wants to keep us from the pitiful lifestyle of the Swedes (where the tax burden is over 50%) and imitate instead the enviable lifestyle of the Mexicans (who suffer a tax burden of only 18.5%).

The reason that Paul and Kucinich have never gained much traction in the polls is that the average American - however much he's become disgusted with businesses or government - still fundamentally believes in markets and elections and the results they produce. Most of us have caveats about such beliefs, but very, very few Americans believe in doing away with government programs or company profits. For that reason, the two men who carry suspicion of these two institutions the furthest have found themselves the furthest from the center of the American polity and of any hope for victory. For Americans, disgust with government programs and profitable companies is like disgust with family; it's inevitable but not to be construed to mean they're ready to be estranged. For all their kvetching, Americans love their markets and elections and are not only willing to live with the results but are unwilling to live without them.

Americans - Can't Get No Satisfaction

Americans aren't satisfied. MSNBC's Bob Sullivan reports that Life is Harder Now. The folks from Gallup report that "just 28% of Americans say they are satisfied, while 71% say they are dissatisfied." At least part of the problem may be that we've entered into a new age in which it takes even more to feel safe.

Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard professor most often cited in connection with bankruptcy, debunks the common notion that Americans are buying their way into debt by spending too much on lattes and designer jeans. Housing, education, and childcare (now a necessity in a world of dual-incomes) leave households with less money even though they're making more (because of those dual-incomes).

Gallup reports, "The current 28% satisfaction level is very low by historical standards. Since Gallup first asked this question in 1979, the average percentage of Americans saying they are satisfied with conditions in the country has been 43%, with a low of 12% in July 1979 and a high of 71% in February 1999." This is remarkable - near the end of Clinton's presidency, 71% of Americans were satisfied. Today, 71% of Americans are dissatisfied. The wonder is not that the Republicans are concerned about the 2008 election. The wonder is that they have any hope at all.

Nearly 70% of the dissatisfaction is attributable to economic and political issues. Of the reasons given for dissatisfaction, the top ones are as follows:

2007 Sep 24-27 %

War in Iraq not going well 23
Economy is doing poorly 20
Healthcare issues 13
Congress not doing anything 9
Government has wrong priorities 8
Bush is doing a poor job 8
High gas prices 6

I also think that one other reason is worth mentioning. About 20 years ago, 80% of pensions were designed for fixed payouts. Work at GM for 25 years and you'll retire with a monthly income of $2,800. In this world, people knew exactly what they had to do and how much to budget. Today, about 80% of retirement plans are fixed contribution, not fixed payouts. You put in 10% of your salary each month and we'll match that with 50%. Depending on your returns, you could have somewhere between $25,000 and $25 million when you retire. Americans are taking on more risk for their own retirement. It is not just that differences in incomes will be even more extreme - now those differences will be exacerbated, rather than mitigated, by retirement plans. Even people with more money are not sure it’s enough.

My father gets a pension from the state of California and knows exactly how much money he'll get every month until he dies - whether he dies tomorrow or in 2029 at the age of 100. By contrast, the majority of my retirement will be funded from 401(k) plans. I'm not sure whether my portfolio will go up 13% this year (as it had by about June) or down by 2% (as it had by mid-summer) or back up by 17% (as it was again just last week). I'm at the point in my life when I can see three years of savings wiped out in one bad week on Wall Street. My dad knew exactly what to do to fund his retirement - he could calculate payouts from a formula. I don't really know how much to save or whether to feel optimistic or pessimistic about my retirement future (I've felt both, just within the last couple of months).

All this translates into more uncertainty and more dissatisfaction. Despite low unemployment and inflation rates - a combination sure to bring smiles to economists' faces - people are unhappy with the economy. Globalization is creating more opportunity but it is creating more risk - and to date, companies and the government have done little to mitigate that risk. Combined with Iraq's drain on our finances and reputation and our government's ineffectual dealing with this and other issues, it's no wonder that dissatisfaction stays pegged so high.

15 October 2007

Cockfighting Tastes Just Like Chicken

News Flash:

"5,000 Birds Seized in Cockfighting Bust
Tuesday October 16, 2007 4:16 AM
SAN DIEGO (AP) - More than 5,000 roosters, hens and chicks have been seized in what authorities said Monday was the largest cockfighting bust in U.S. history.
Agents found 4,400 birds Saturday at a 7-acre compound in the Otay Mesa industrial area of San Diego, near the Mexican border."

This is oddly fascinating to me for at least two reasons. One is because it apparently took place about 10 miles from my house and it made international news. (Slow news day?) Two, a line casually inserted in the article read as follows:

"About 80 percent of the roosters, hens and chicks seized have been euthanized"

I wonder if the most popular way to euthanize a chicken is over a grill or in a pan. The important thing is that they let these poor birds die with dignity - and barbeque sauce. And how would we explain this to a Martian? "We don't mind killing - we just don't like dragging it out."

14 October 2007

Sanchez Confused - Poor George Takes the Blame

Because I'm Bernard's friend, I once again found myself at a restaurant with his sister Mattie. She was raving about the restroom.
“This is a really fancy restaurant,” she said. “They have emotion sensors and even have a little farting corner with fans that disperse the odor.”
"Fans for farts?” Bernard asked.
“Yes. They’re just on the wall, and the fans point downwards to take away the gas. Very clever.”
“Mattie,” Bernard sighed. “Those are for drying your hands.”
“Oh no. I don’t think so,” Mattie smiled. “They have paper towels for hands.”
“What’s an emotion sensor,” I stupidly asked.
“They sense when you want water for your hands or want to flush the toilet.”
“Emotion sensors that sense desire. Very useful. I think they have those on Wall Street. They’re designed to detect fear and greed,” I said. Bernard gave me a look of grief and shook his head.
“What?” Mattie asked.
“Nothing. He’s just talking,” Bernard said.
“He’s such a strange man,” she whispered to Bernard, her voice as loud as when she spoke. “He says such confusing things.” She folded her hands into her lap and then said, “Have you seen the news reports.”
“About what?”
“All about General Sanchez.”
I was impressed. Mattie grudgingly watches Fox News in spite of the fact that it’s a “little liberal for my taste,” as she once told us. That she would know about Sanchez, the former head of the military in Iraq impressed me. Sanchez has now said that Bush’s troop surge is a desperate attempt to make up for years of mistaken strategy in Iraq. That Mattie would know about this and even bring it up gave me hope. Perhaps the conservatives were learning from their mistakes and could change.
“I did hear something about that,” Bernard said cautiously.
“Yes. Apparently because of him, President Bush now has to invade Iran.”
“What?” Bernard exclaimed.
“He was head of the invasion of Iraq but apparently he got everything mixed up. President Bush wanted to go into Iran but Sanchez went into Iraq.”
“Sanchez got the countries mixed up and attacked Iraq when Bush wanted to attack Iran?” Bernard repeated.
“Well,” Mattie said in another of her loud, conspiratorial whispers, “he’s one of those Latino-Americans. English is probably his second language. Of course he got the orders confused. Now we have to do this all over again.”
Bernard and I sat in stunned silence. Finally, I found words, “That’s going to be a hard one to do all over again.”
“You do know,” Bernard said, “that Iran’s population is more than twice that of Iraq. As if Iraq wasn’t hard enough.”
“It’ll go better then,” Mattie said. “The more people, the better a democracy does because they have more voters.”
“More voters?” I asked.
“Yes. It’s just like big countries have better economies because they have more shoppers.”
“So, you think that’s a good idea? Attacking Iran?”
“It’s not just me. Bill Kristol thinks so too.” She paused. “And that man has such a lovely smile. It’s not like he would just attack people who didn’t deserve it.”
“Of course not,” Bernard sighed. "Where is our waitress?"
"She's probably using that fancy bathroom," Mattie said. "I just love technology."

Moby (yep, that Moby) riffs on this issue from a different angle:

13 October 2007

W. Edwards Deming's Birthday

October 14 is W. Edwards Deming's birthday. Born in 1900, he delivered his last four-day seminar from a wheel chair, within a month of when he died in December of 1993. In his last couple of years, he'd end up in the hospital from time to time and the doctors would examine him and then say, "He's just old." After resting up, he'd head back out to conduct more seminars, desperate to change the prevailing system of management. Even in my thirties, I found it exhausting to conduct three and four day sessions. As much as I admire his philosophy, I envy the passion he had for his work and personal mission even more.

Deming's message seemed to have two dimensions. One had to do with seemingly abstract concepts and the other had to do with the individual.

Walking through a GM plant in the late 1980s, he muttered, "The worker must be released." Three of Deming's 14 points were to "Drive out fear," and to remove barriers that rob employees and managers of "their right to pride of workmanship." As I work with a variety of companies, I still see little evidence of this as a goal and a great deal of evidence of the benefit of making them goals.

Deming's management philosophy he labeled a "system of profound knowledge." It includes four elements: psychology, a theory of knowledge, appreciation for a system, and an understanding of variation. He convincingly argued that one could not, and ought not to, be in management with at least some rudimentary appreciation for these four elements.

By psychology, he was referring to the importance of respecting intrinsic motivation as essential to creativity, problem-solving, and quality. One example of what he meant by variation is the use of control charts by factory workers as tools to improve quality, perhaps the most visible element of the quality movement with which he was often associated. Appreciation for a system is complex, but it basically points to the importance of orchestrating parts, processes, and people to work well together. Finally, the question at the heart of theory of knowledge is simple but profound: how do you know what you know?

The Japanese gave Deming a great deal of credit for their economic revival after the devastation of World War II. What became known as the quality movement, or TQM (total quality management) became very popular in the U.S. as Japan gained large shares of automobile and electronic markets in the U.S. While American and European companies were focused on rework and blaming individuals, the Japanese companies that drew from Deming's teaching were focusing on system-wide improvements. At one point, the German and Japanese luxury cars had the same quality, as measured by flaws; but the Germans were using as many people to perform re-work at the end as the Japanese were using for the entire production process. Last year, the profits of Toyota (a company that has given huge credit to Deming) were more than the next five largest car companies combined.

Deming argued that bad managers focused on finding individuals to blame whereas good managers focused on changing the system: they had appreciation for a system and knew that an individual who may appear bad in one system can thrive in another. Progress comes from creating and modifying systems that allow real individuals to get real results. Understanding what to attribute to the system and what to attribute to the individual depends on understanding variation - seeing the difference between common cause (outputs caused by the system) and special cause (egregiously bad or amazingly good results that come in defiance of the system).

To this day, most managers still practice management without an articulated theory of management. Much of what animates management practice is little different from what once animated Indian rain dancers, a reliance on exhortations and slogans and tradition that has inspired hundreds of Dilbert cartoons. That management so often lives at the intersection of science and the occult is not something for which we can blame Deming. He tried to transform us. Perhaps, in time, he still will.

Re-discovering the Individual in a World of Massive Interdependency

How do we reconcile these two realities that seem to seriously clash? On the one hand, we have the reality of our need for autonomy, intrinsic motivation, and motivation that comes from pride and a strong sense of linkage between what we do and the results we get. The importance of the individual. On the other hand we have the reality of massive interdependency, an economic and social reality in which the individual is noise in the signal, static in the crowd. Our own personal experience tells us quite loudly that we’re unique, irreplaceable, and essential. Yet the world continues with the loss of any one individual – whether that loss is to discouragement, distraction, or death. What does progress look like in a world in which individual autonomy and social interdependency have seemingly come into conflict?

The reality seems to be what’s described by systems thinkers – we live in a world that arises out of the interaction of millions and billions of people and can be traced back to no one individual. Yet the societies that have tried to build on this realization have turned into socialist nightmares – exercises in the denigration of the individual that have not only turned out to be spectacular social failures but have invariably crushed the individual.

Hitler’s secretary Taudle Junge shared this about the man. “He didn’t think in human dimensions. Humanity was never of any importance to him. It was always the concept of the superman … the nation, always this abstract image of a vast German Reich, powerful and strong. But the individual never mattered to him. Though he always said he wanted to make people happy – he started a variety of welfare and recreational organizations in the Third Reich – personal happiness was never of the slightest importance to him.”

Happiness of the individual has to matter. Liberation leadership – leadership that leads to the discovery and realization of the self – has been the leadership that has gradually, steadily and surely triumphed over the model of controlling leadership that denies the individual’s experience and need for autonomy.

And yet, societies are emergent realities – products of the interaction of lots and lots of individuals who must, by definition, be expendable, replaceable, ultimately unimportant to the integrity of the whole.

Specialization has meant that we’re increasingly likely to find ourselves a part of some greater whole over which we feel as though we have little or no control. If you are an employee of IBM, you are one of 366,486; at HP, you’re one of 156,000; at Wal-Mart, you’re one of 1.9 million. It’s terribly difficult to make one’s mark, to feel engaged in making a difference, in such loud and crowded places.

Our impact on the whole, our contribution to society, is not some abstraction – it comes through a very real and intimate part of our lives: our work. Einstein changed the world through his work in theoretical physics. Edison changed the world through his work in technological invention. John Lennon changed the world through his work as a singer and songwriter. It is through our work that we do or don’t change the world and as our tools for doing our work become bigger and more unwieldy – as the tools we use are social constructs as massive and full of specialization and process as a corporation – we lose room for self-awareness and realization that seems to precede the acts of genius – or the inspired moments that even the most banal of us experience – the acts that have moved us forward.

The reality is one of massive interdependency – ask anyone who has tried to get a building permit, or make a change to processes within a corporation or tried to change behaviors of groups as varied as gangs prone to violence and consumers prone to carbon emissions. Yet the reality is also one of individuals struggling to hear and be heard, generally resigned to having little or no impact on their world – and by extension the very definition of their lives. Every individual is outnumbered 6 billion to 1.

The beginnings of a reconciliation of this will necessarily come from within the corporation. The corporation is the dominant institution of our time and any significant social change will begin there. Further, the corporation is now the place where the individual most consciously chooses to contribute – the tool for work. Yet this has been made backwards, and too often the individual has instead been expected to be the tool for the work of the corporation rather than the corporation being a tool for the work of the individual.

A large part of what is missing an awareness of systems and systems dynamics. The corporation is a complex system that is, too often, the product of pronouncement and top-down dictates. The West has tried this before, this reliance on dictatorship: the medieval church, the renaissance-era nation-state, and the bank of the era of JP Morgan. Such dictatorship work for a while – for as long as a genius like Rothschild or Henry VIII is creating a social construct and hasn’t time or ability to bring along the masses whose confusion would only slow the process. But once these institutions are living, breathing, essential parts of our daily life, societies next step for progress is the step of dispersion – dispersing the power over these institutions through revolutions like democracy and disintermediation. The corporation has reached a similar place, a place where the genius of founders must become the common sense of the masses – the very definition of civilization and its progress. (Think of the genius of Isaac Newton to have invented calculus and the progress of civilization that now depends on millions of children each year gaining the same tool of calculus. Newton showed genius by creating calculus, but society has massively benefited by its popularization.)

Banking disintermediation – the process of dispersing the power of powerful bankers across the population – relied upon a number of innovations. Computers, fiat money, central banks, monetary policy, Keynesian theory, and credit cards were all essential to reaching the point at which credit was the choice of the individual and not the banker, a world where labor has become the capitalist.

The transformation of the corporation will be similar, reliant on a variety of changes, shifts, and new technologies. No one thing will transform the corporation, yet one technology that will prove essential is technology to better enable the individual to see the global impact of his or her local actions. The absence of such technology today is glaring in its omission. Because it is missing, management cannot trust the individual to act upon individual interests. In lieu of visibility and clear consequences we have control. No one wins in this scenario.

There are some systems tools already, tools that help the individual to see her part in the whole. And this is the paradox: we’re social animals and we can’t realize our individual potential without realizing our place in the whole. Niels Bohr, the Nobel Prize winning contemporary of Einstein, said that atoms had always been thought of as things but perhaps should better be thought of as relationships. Desmond Tutu said that “A person is a person through other persons.” Perhaps we, too, should be thought of as defined by relationships. We are wired to compete but less obviously, we’re wired to cooperate, to hold open doors, to feel joy at the accomplishment of others, to see our joy in life echoed in the eyes of another, an echo that amplifies our own.

We’ve woken up in a world of massive interdependency, a world in which we depend on others beyond our line of sight. Major parts of our lives have disappeared beyond the horizon. The response to that is not to retreat back into worlds of our own making. Nor is it to cry out for control over behavior from strong leaders who will save us from our own selfishness and petty interests. Rather, it is to enhance our capacity to see, and enjoy or suffer the consequences of, the ripple effects of our actions.

Individuals need linkage between their actions and the outcomes. Barring this, they become disengaged. Corporations have become places where the game is not so much about the linkage between individual action and outcome as it is the politics of recognition, a game that swings in and out of phase with the larger game of making a real and positive difference. Once corporations put in place tools that allow the individual to choose actions without being coerced, enjoying or suffering the consequences just like an agent in a market economy, the corporation will have begun the transformation towards becoming a tool rather than treating the individual as the tool. And as individuals again gain autonomy and control over their own lives, the individual will thrive. And as happens every time the individual is allowed to become more, society thrives in unpredictable and amazing ways. On the surface, this transformation of the corporation will make it seem as though we’re entering a time of great change. In fact, it will merely be proof again that social transformation begins as it always has – with individual transformation.

12 October 2007

Apparently, the Child Abuse Settlements Haven't Hurt Them Too Much

From The Week magazine:

Good week for: The God squad, after the Vatican purchased a controlling interest in Italy’s AC Ancona soccer club and announced that the team and its fans would henceforth eschew taunting the opposition, cursing, and bribing officials. The team will soon receive a pep talk from Pope Benedict XVI.
Now, who are the opposition teams going to thank for making their victory possible? And one has to wonder if this is only the beginning of the church's attempt to diversify their holdings of idols.

Meanwhile, here in California, priests have been asked to donate a month's salary to the church to help fund a $200 million sexual abuse settlement.

A New Commons & an Old Problem

We have private property figured out. If you own a farm, you can choose to fertilize or let it sit idle, as you wish. You protect it or invest in it and the results of your management are yours to enjoy or suffer.

It wasn’t always this way. Private property was a product of the first economy. Between 1300 and 1700, the West solved the problem of land and its limitations. Through trade, exploration, conquest and the establishment of private property, the West made precious land more valuable – creating an agricultural revolution that became the basis for the industrial revolution to follow.

But before this first economy, villages typically had a commons area – a shared pasture upon which everyone and anyone could graze sheep, cattle, and horses. One of the big problems with this arrangement was that each person had the incentive to get the most from the pasture and put the least back in. You would have incentive to add one more cow to the pasture because anything you gained would count as gain to you. Generally speaking, the additional burden on the pasture could easily continue to rise until it collapsed – so to speak – unable to handle the burden of so many animals. Suddenly, the pasture would be unfit for any animal, much less so many. No one individual had the incentive to worry about the whole. We see a similar problem in the harvesting of fish from oceans today.

Private property helped to overcome this – helped incent private parties to invest in and protect land. The market economy we have today still rests on this same solution – we never really solved the problem of the commons, we just did away with the problem by transforming the commons into private property.

Today, this has caught up with us. Our climate falls into the category of commons: no individual benefits from abstaining from dumping more carbon into the atmosphere, yet collectively we all suffer should the climate reach a tipping point and suddenly turn nasty on us. It is the problem of the commons revisited, although this time there is no simple solution like subdividing the atmosphere into vacant lots.

The problem of the commons is not just a problem in regards to natural resources and environment. The value of a corporation is emergent – emerging out of the interaction between shareholders, employees, customers, and management. It, too, is a kind of commons and, in a sense, all of modern society falls into this category. Safety, prosperity, and general well-being are products of complex interactions that rarely depend on just one thing or stability or progress.

So here, some 700 years later, we again face the problem of the commons. I suspect that any solution to changing us from fiercely individual individuals to those who share a sense of the commons will itself emerge from a variety of places, will itself be emergent. But one key to it may come from the sense of community that comes from the example of the Dutch who didn’t divide up their commons as much as they jointly created them, claiming land from the sea through joint efforts.

Imagine you live in a bog. You build a path to your neighbors place, a rise of dirt between your homes. A third neighbor decides to join your little network, and as you each build a path to his house, you suddenly realize that you’ve built an enclosure, a patch of land that is bordered by the three paths that connect your three homes. Whose land is this? If any one of you were to drop out of the network, the block to the water would rush back in and you’d lose the land.

My buddy Rick claims that this reality is why the Germans, Danes, and Dutch have a keener sense of community – an ingrained sense of shared destiny and notions about how to share the wealth and mitigate the losses more as communities than as individuals.

Perhaps step one towards treating the commons as the commons – whether they be natural commons like our water or environment or emergent commons like our education and economy – is to realize that these commons are equal parts gift and the product of joint cooperation. Perhaps the solution to this economic problem of dealing with the commons lies in seeing as illusion the sense that our fates can somehow be extracted from the fate of the whole.

11 October 2007

McCartney's Divorce

Paul McCartney accused his ex-wife Heather Mills of just marrying him for his money. The latest reports are that she will get a divorce settlement of about $140 million. It turns out that Paul was wrong. Apparently, she only divorced him for the money.

Public Service Announcement - Dyslexics' Halloween This Saturday

Saturday is 13 October. You should have a little candy by the door. Just in case. On 13 October, the dyslexics are likely to come trick or treating. Don't make them feel any more conspicuous than they already do. Just give them the candy and wish them a "Happy Halloween."

09 October 2007

Inventing Civilization - Again

Imagine you lived in a community with houses lit only by sky lights made of magnifying glass. The problem is, this design leads to fires as the light focused on objects causes them to spontaneously combust. If you lived in such a place, you’d likely be so busy fighting fires that you’d have little time or inclination to understand the design flaw, much less fix it.

Our society has reached a similar point. Our mental models – our view of the world – are such that many of our problems are actually structured into our society. We live in a fractured world that has been fractured by a fractured world view. Our society is based on the belief that if only each individual were to do what is best for self, society will automatically improve. Perhaps the most famous quote of Adam Smith’s is “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

In our fractured world view, we believe that if only schools focused more on excelling in education, society would improve. If only businesses focused more on profits, society would thrive. If only politicians focused more on legislation, society would be better. And so on.

But in fact, we’re all humans being human, as much as our institutions want us to pretend to be students or employees or citizens. As the systems thinker Russell Ackoff points out, to focus on play or work or learning in isolation is never as effective as allowing play, work, and learning to blend and interact. To improve a school’s education separate from some idea of how one would improve society as a whole is a meaningless exercise that ultimately leads to nonsense like a concentration on standardized tests. To focus on profits without focusing on improving lives leads to the oddly perverse process of claiming success even while destroying one’s habitat.
The basis for today's dominant world view traces back to Descarte's rules for thinking - a notion that the world is best understood by breaking it into pieces. If the individual pursues his own self-interest, or the organization pursues its own interest, the world will be made better. That mental model helped our ancestors to invent the modern world. That mental model has also been rendered obsolete by its own success.

What has happened in a world of 6 billion people, 200 nations, and 2 million corporations is that we've run out of room to engage in such a philosophy, to use such a mental model. It is as if we've prospered with moves that work only with considerable independence and elbow room, conditions that have faded.

One simple fact of economic development is this: the more advanced the economy the more interdependent. You can live independent of others, but your lifestyle will be like that of Tom Hanks' character in Cast Away - simple, crude, and fragile. As we enjoy more affluence, we increasingly depend on the ideas and technology, the work and products of others. Rarely is a product so simple that it can be made by a single person; more often what we consume is the product of corporations, of teams of people.

And yet our underlying philosophy is still geared towards an atomistic viewpoint, a construct that assumes the ability to work, live, and act in isolation. It is as though our all our models assume a vacuum and yet we live in wind tunnels. Many of our social problems have less to do with reality and our ability to address problems in reality than with how out of sorts are our social constructs, based as they are on mental models that are no longer effective approximations of reality. Global warming, for instance, is not techologically impossible or even terribly difficult to solve. It is a problem that traces back to the failure of social constructs as much as failure of technology - there are not even institutions responsible for this problem. The world we've invented includes few social constructs designed to deal with highly interdependent global realities.

Our reality is massively interdependent and full of emergent phenomenon - phenomenon that comes out of the interaction between two elements and not from the focus on any one element. Until we adapt a mental model to accord with this - and begin to design society in response to this reality - we'll continue to create our own most pressing problems.

Liberation Leadership

For me, the measure of progress is autonomy. People with cars are more advanced than people who only have shoes because people with cars have more choices about where to go and when. People who live in a democracy are more advanced than people who live under rule of a despot because they have more choice about how to live their lives.

If autonomy is the measure of progress, it suggests something about leadership. Peter Block once said that he saw leadership as a collusion between control freaks and the irresponsible. In my mind, genuine leadership shows people a way out - it instructs, inspires, and liberates a person to live life more fully. Great leadership should end at some point - leaving the person more free than when first led, more able to define and pursue a life of one's own choosing.

One of the many problems with most models of leadership is that they institutionalize leadership into a position. I think that leadership ought to be better thought of as a project - like parenting. Get the led to a particular point and then allow them their own lives. Employees, citizens, and believers all ought to reach a point of graduation, like students, after which they are expected to operate with what they have learned.

Leadership that does not have the goal of liberation is not leadership - it is control. Leadership creates choices, control constrains them.

08 October 2007

Columbus Day, Biological Warfare & Conquest in Parallel Universes

When Columbus led the European parade to the new world, he brought germs to which America's indigenous populations had never been exposed. Estimates suggest that up to 95% of the American population was killed by these strange germs for which the locals had no immunity.

The earlier stages of globalization had proven nearly as deadly to Europeans. A ship carrying dead and dying seamen reached port in Italy in 1347. The cargo included the pandemic known as the Black Death to Europe - killing somewhere between one-third to two-thirds of the population.

European civilization could easily have been displaced by, say, Asian culture if the plague had been brought by foreign conquerors rather than domestic traders. Fortunately for Europeans, the terrible Black Plague was not a companion to people staking a claim to their continent.

It does not take an overly active imagination to reverse the order of exploration from Asia or the Americas to Europe, instead of from Europe. Had such a thing happened, it's conceivable that the area in what we know as the south of France might include a city named New Huron in the state of New Iroquois, or the area around the city we call London might be named New Beijing.

That peoples from the earth's various continents would eventually meet and merge was inevitable. That it would move in the direction it actually did was not.

Happy Columbus Day! Or, as they say in a parallel universe, celebrating the discovery of Europe, Happy Deganawida Day! [Picture is of Haiwatha discovering the wheat fields of central Europe.]

07 October 2007

That Crazy Stock Market Invention

NASDAQ has doubled in the last five years. Here are some reasons that don't seem to be mentioned often.

1. Since George took office, the dollar has significantly fallen in value against most currencies. If a European investor were buying American stock five years ago, she'd have to first buy a U.S. dollar, paying about 1.05 euros per dollar. Today, she'd only have to pay about 70 (euro)cents for each U.S. dollar. A Canadian would have had to pay about $1.60 per U.S. dollar five years ago but only a dollar per dollar today. The net effect is that American stocks are discounted to foreign investors. Hugely. It's a 30 to 50% off sale.

1A. No country has done more to subordinate to the modern corporation than the U.S. Our corporations are hugely successful and we do a great deal to ensure their success. Investing in American companies is a great investment and still our best product. As our currency has fallen, foreigners are buying more of our best product, as most international economics textbooks would predict. This has helped stock prices to rise.

1B. Investing in American companies is a way to invest in the world economy. Companies like Intel and Microsoft get over half - considerably more than half - of their revenues from outside the U.S. To invest in the U.S. stock market is to invest in the global economy. The global economy is doing fantastically well.

2. There aren't that many investment options and there is an enormous amount of money to be invested. We're all capitalists now - it is not just Nathan Rothschild or JP Morgan with excess funds, looking to maximize returns. Today, almost everyone is saving something towards retirement in one form or another. Worldwide, there are over $20 trillion dollars in mutual funds, and that is just a subset of the investment total. Money might leave the stock market, but ultimately, there are not too many other places for it to go. A steady demand for investments has helped stock prices to rise.

2A. Companies are learning more about generating profit all the time. Company profits have steadily risen in the last decade or two and are likely to continue rising. Companies have not really been serious about profits, historically, and the potential gains in this area are still largely untapped. Stocks are still one of the most promising long-term investments available.

2B. The number of individual investors steadily increases as more people move beyond subsistence wages. This means that demand for good investments is steadily growing.

All this suggests that the stock market is still a place to put your money. (I write this Sunday night, suspecting that the latest news about job creation will, perversely, drive down prices on Monday. My concern is not with short term gyrations, though. I'm talking about investment options for the next five to twenty years.) The stock market will eventually be seen as one of the more incredible inventions of the modern world - an invention that not only generated wealth for millions and millions and millions of people, but has financed the creation of a slew of new technologies, products, and jobs. We have yet to exhaust its potential.

05 October 2007

Future Prediction

For about 3 months in 2009, the Little Rascal faux-Mohwak will become wildly popular, only to die out as quickly and inexplicably as it sprung up (so to speak).

03 October 2007

Mob or Majority?

The only thing that keeps the majority from becoming a mob is the rights of the individual. Here are three tidbits from O'Reilly, Goleman, and Milgram to argue my case.

I’m at the gym the other day, getting news without sound. Bill O’Reilly is on. A graphic flashes up, something to the effect that “Was it proper that the police tasered that guy at Florida State who asked a rambling question of John Kerry?” The poll results? 75% said yes, and 25% said no. The vast majority of Americans agree that it makes sense to inflict pain on a guy who they find annoying.

Daniel Goleman, in his new book Social Intelligence, tells the story of 3 year olds in a study. Stage one, the 3 year olds are exposed to adults playing a game by clearly observed rules. Stage two, puppets come into the room and begin to play the same game – but make obvious mistakes. The reaction of the children? They begin to clamor for the puppets to behave properly. Not only do the children learn the rules, they seem to have a compulsion to foist those rules onto others, ensuring social conformity. (Goleman speculates that the basis for this might be genetic.)

In a famous study at Yale, Stanley Milgram learned how willingly individuals become Nazis. In the wake of World War 2, wondering at how an entire nation could become willing accomplices to evil, Milgram set up a study that appeared to have two volunteers – one of whom inflicted pain on the other in a study of memory. One volunteer would read a list of paired words, like “bird,” and “nest.” The other “volunteer” would be tested on memory, as the first volunteer would read “bird” and the second volunteer would be expected to say “nest.” If the second “volunteer” forgot the response word – or didn’t say anything – the first volunteer would administer a shock. The shock administered would steadily increase in voltage, up to 450 volts, an amount marked “dangerous.”

As it turns out, the second “volunteer” was actually an actor. The shock was simulated. And as the shock increased in intensity, this actor would scream in pain, would begin to complain about a bad heart, and would eventually not speak at all. The actual volunteer could continue to administer the shock even if the actor was not responding – a penalty for not remembering.

Milgram expected (as did almost everyone he asked) that only about four-tenth of one percent of the population would ever take the shocks all the way to the max level of 450 volts. As it turns out, more than half did. (Since duplicated dozens if not hundreds of times across countries and age groups, the results of Milgram’s study indicated that the average person would, indeed, be a willing accomplice to evil even if they might not initiate it.)

All this to say, O’Reilly’s data might indicate that we still haven’t done a particularly good job of over-riding the impulse to conform and to enforce conformity. As a guy whose ability to fit in has always been spotty (at best), this tendency of groups frightens me.

The real brilliance of the founding fathers was not just that they embraced democracy. Knowing the psychology of groups, they went further: they granted civil rights to ensure that the individual was protected from the democratic majority eager to coerce conformity.

02 October 2007

Religious Right Inexplicably Rejects the Only Candidate to Dress Like the Church Lady

This summary from the Telegraph.

A powerful group of conservative Christian leaders is set to abandon the Republican party if Rudy Giuliani is nominated to run for president because of the former New York mayor's support for abortion.

It's hard to believe that conservatives would find the Republicans' leading candidate distasteful. I wonder why that is?

Given that Hillary and Rudy are the front runners for their respective parties, one thing does seem certain in this age of uncertainty: our next president will wear a dress.

01 October 2007

Clarence Thomas Opens Up

From Harper's Index:
Number of words spoken by Clarence Thomas during Supreme Court oral arguments since February 2006: 132
Number by Samuel Alito, the Justice who spoke the second-fewest words: 14,404

Thomas received an advance of $1.5 million for his new book, and Dahlia Lithwick reports that it is,
the largest advance ever paid a sitting Supreme Court justice and that the agreement with this most conservative justice on the court coincidentally came from News Corp., the leviathan media empire owned by the conservative Rupert Murdoch.

This raises the obvious question of whether all taciturn people could be prompted to open up with a million dollar advance or, anticipating that his words would be so valuable, Thomas was merely reluctant to offer them up for the paltry government salary of only $203,000 a year, holding out for a better offer for his opinions. (Of course, Clarence has done pretty well in his government job. If his publisher had paid as much per word as his government employer, his advance would have been more than $200 million.)