30 November 2007

Analysis of Republican Debate

Jackie Broyles and Dunlap analyze the most recent Republican debate.

A Small Flaw in Democracy

Bernard spoke from behind his newspaper. “We’re a gloomy lot, aren’t we?”

“We?” I said, looking up from my game of solitaire. “Who is ‘we’? I’m having nothing but fun here. You’re the one reading the news.”

“We have cures for baldness, erectile dysfunction, we eat like kings .... Yet what do we do with this miraculous capacity for speech?”

“Complain about people complaining,” I guessed.

“You twit,” he said before continuing. “You know what we’re complaining about today?”

“Slow service,” I said, looking for our waiter.

“No,” Bernard said, staring at me. “We come here because the service is leisurely. It gives us time to read the paper and talk.”

“Oh. Right.”

“I’ll tell you what we’re complaining about. The projection that social security won’t be able to pay full benefits in the year 2042.”

“Well, I think that’s something that should be addressed.”

“A projection 35 years into the future by the same pundits who can’t tell me what my portfolio is going to be doing 35 hours from now? We’re complaining about this?”

“It’s like climate change,” I said. “These are big problems that take a long time to change. You can’t be cavalier about the problem just because it’s a long way off.”

“Look at me,” Bernard said.

I looked. He’s in good shape for man close to 80. Lean. Intelligent eyes. Wrinkles. Thin hair where hair is left at all. Lots of wrinkles.

“I look like a man who is worried about 2042?”

Come to think of it, his skin looked a bit like parchment. He had a point.

“This is the problem with democracy,” Bernard said. “To cast an intelligent vote you need time to research the issues. Everyone but us retired folks is too busy to read anything. The rest of you, you’re busy doing whatever,” he said, gesturing dismissively at my game of solitaire. “So, you leave your future in the hands of people who have no future.” He turned the page. “Whoever thought that was going to work?”

29 November 2007

The Omnipresent Elvis

I could not resist lifting this from Seamus McCauley over at Virtual Economics.

"When Elvis Presley died in 1977 there were 200 Elvis tribute bands. In 2007
there are approximately 200,000. If this trend continues, by the year 2060 one
person in four will be an Elvis impersonator."

Mentioning this to my son, a college freshmen, he said that a recent aptitude test he took actually included "Elvis impersonator" as one of the career possibilities.

Some days I can hardly wait for the future. (Until I remember that I'll be really old then.)

28 November 2007

Cub News Distorter (at your service)

A recent UN study ranked Iceland as the best place to live in the world. (The US slipped from 8th best to 12th.) In response, Iceland's president Olafur Grimsson announced a new campaign, handing out "We Love Global Warming" t-shirts and bumper stickers.

Trent Lott, of Mississippi, announced his retirement this week. The state's Green Party is excited about what they see as a great opportunity to gain a seat in the Senate, taking advantage of voter's dissatisfaction with Republicans. Of course, given this is Mississippi, the Green Party in question is actually the "The Collared Green Party."

Vice President Dick Cheney went back to his normal work schedule Tuesday, a day after doctors used an electrical current to correct an irregular heartbeat. Although this returned his heart to normal, doctors say that it would have taken a much larger shock to have actually softened his heart. (And on a related note, recent stock market gyrations have been traced back to Dick's EKG monitor. In his attempt at world domination from an undisclosed location, Dick has been working on a stock market manipulation scheme. In his haste to execute it, he got the wires crossed between his heart monitor and laptop. Until he gets this untangled, the world economy is only one stopped heart away from collapse. Wait a minute. Maybe he didn't get the wires crossed. Perhaps this is his plan for world domination. Oh well. Back to the news.)

Today, Bush launched the 43rd annual Middle East peace talks -throwing out the opening pitch in this fall classic by way of another in a series of ultimately ineffectual speeches given by American presidents.

Consumer confidence dropped more than expected in November. Apparently, shoppers are full of uncertainty, wondering if Uncle Fred would really like this cigarette lighter, wondering if WalMart is offering the same galoshes for $2 less, and wondering if this dress makes my hips look fat. Few feel very confident about their gift selections.

A British teacher working in Sudan's capital is being held for allowing her 7 year-old students to name a class Teddy Bear "Mohammed." British authorities are working for her release before she is punished with a whipping. These same officials have yet to find the time to intervene in the Darfur. There is nothing funny about this. It's just absurd.

The dollar has fallen to a record low against the euro, which cost nearly $1.50 last week. The Canadian dollar has passed the US dollar in value, rendering obsolete all those "US $ / Canadian $" prices printed on book flaps. Bush said that he didn't care if a dollar was worth less because he could just print more.

Paul McCartney is a pop genius, cultural icon, the "cute" Beatle, and a billionaire. For some reason, it's news that women will date him. It seems to me that it would only be news if they would not.

Mitt Romney announced that he couldn't appoint a Muslim to a cabinet position, given they make up only 1% of the US population. He did not clarify what sort of cabinet position he might grant to a Mormon, a faith that makes up merely 2% of the US population.

27 November 2007

Do You Follow Your Heart? Head? Intuition?

A friend of mine is asking for advice. He’s in his 20’s. He’s struggling to define what’s next, not sure whether he’s already there or even where there might be. He’s going through the kind of thing that any thoughtful person seems to go through. Specifically, he's debating about whether to pursue an MBA or not, but as with any of these big life decisions, the specific decision hinges on so many other decisions, all feeding into the question about what kind of life one wants to live.

For me, a big part of what is meant by integrity is an alignment of head, heart, and gut. (And in matters of romance, I think it's important to add in a fourth organ.) I feel best when reason, emotion, and intuition all conspire to assure me that I'm in the right place, doing the right thing.

But here’s what I’m wondering. Which is the best leader? What have you relied on at different times in life? Have you plunged into life head first? Heart first? Or have you been led by your gut, that sense of intuition that you can’t articulate? How has it worked out? Does it depend on the situation? What do you think is best to follow?

Thoughts? [At this point, it'd be customary to express yourself in the comments section. Thanks!]

26 November 2007

Institutions, Not Ammo, Says Defense Secretary

Secretary Gates says the U.S. government needs "new institutions for the 21st Century with a 21st Century mind-set." He told an audience at Kansas State University recent conflicts, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, have proved that military power alone can not prevail in this century's challenges. He said that means devoting "considerably more resources" to other parts of the U.S. government.

Because we take war seriously, our defense department often leads in the new frontiers of science. The Internet you're using right now has evolved from an early DARPA program to connect computers.

How odd, then, if it is a pronouncement of the Secretary of Defense that helps to trigger thinking about new institutions for a new century. (I think that ultimately, these kinds of social constructs, in order to be effective, will have to be transnational rather than American, but that's a separate issue.)

We spend too much on defense. Our department of defense could be called a department of offense now that we've adopted a policy of preemptive wars. I'd join the chorus on all these complaints and more. But Gates' speech today is a reminder that defense issues have drawn some of the best minds and ideas of civilization.

It's quaint to laud a comment that development might be helped by something other than dropping bombs or kicking in doors. But Gates should be applauded for saying this. By virtue of his position, he has the attention of people the rest of us don't. How wonderful that he seems to be using that privilege wisely.

24 November 2007

At 18 - Access to Elections and Pornography

My son Blake's buddy turned 18 today. Blake was telling me, "Now Chris can go to x-rated movies and vote."

In its wisdom, the government has decided that young adults should have access to these two milestones - pornography and elections - at the same time. It's one of the rare occasions when government policy leaves me feeling nothing but admiration. How fitting that they should be lumped together.

23 November 2007

Consensus Trance and Holiday Shopping

Communities are defined by a consensus trance about how civilization is supposed to work. This trance goes through periods of transformation - like the shift from medieval beliefs in spirits and witches to post-Enlightenment trust in science and progress.

About a century ago, a big piece of the consensus trance gradually shifted. Credit became something normal and helpful rather than sinful. Paul’s injunction to “owe no man anything” had earlier given force to the distrust of debt, which society frowned upon in 1900 the way that it frowned on homosexuality in the 1960s – it was something at best to be pitied and at worst to be banned as un-Godly, a sign of moral corruption and communities that accepted it were bound for imminent collapse.

As it turns out, credit is not so bad. It creates opportunities. A bank lends a company credit to build a factory. The company lends the consumer money to buy its products. This system has proven robust.

It works because the company hires people to make products. The people take these jobs to earn the income to pay back their loans for the things that they buy. You have to look at the whole system in order to appreciate its stability. You'd panic about oxygen levels if all you knew was that we mammals are using oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide. But once you understand that plants are exhaling oxygen while breathing our carbon dioxide, the system looks stable.

But sustaining this system depends on consensus trance. If households stop buying, they’re likely to lose their jobs when products stop selling. If banks stop extending credit, they’re liable to see defaults increase as the economy slows.

FDR could have been talking about economics when he said that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Oddly, this consensus trance of credit and consumption has worked for more than a century. About the only time it doesn't is when the trance itself is questioned, and some link in the chain is broken. And then the trick is getting society back into the trance before they have a good look around to see upon what fragile structures we're all standing.

Sales are down this holiday season. Do your bit. Stare into the eyes of a mannequin until you feel that consensus trance once again begin to take hold. Reach for your credit card. Walk towards the neon lights. Things will once again be merry and bright.

21 November 2007

Decoding the Complexity of Causation Within Corporations

It occurs to me that the central problem with corporations is one of causation. No one quite understands the chains of causation from effort to output, product to pollution (or any unintended effect), and the link from management attention to change in state or results.

It's all a mystery, really. This is one of the more important domains in which systems thinking and dynamic modeling can improve things. It is difficult to encourage autonomy when people are unclear about what to do, about how much Jeremy's efforts might have helped and how much Jessica's hindered, or vice versa. For now, the corporation is a big black box and one proof of that is how strictly defined are efforts and goals within corporations. It's rare that managers are working with a testable hypothesis about how to improve and even rarer that they are collecting data to help decode the system dynamics they presumably manage.

Advances in data collection and computer modeling may allow for sophistication in simulation and modeling that exceeds that of which a human manager is capable. Causalities could be revealed in much the same way as those found in pharmaceutical testing or meteorological models. Brains are simply not big enough to simultaneously compute the wide variety of causes that play into outcomes. In less than a decade, we'll find managers working without tools for modeling systems dynamics as quaint as we now find ditch diggers working without backhoes.

As people within corporations and stakeholders within communities better understand the causation of complex corporations, resources, time, and attention will be better applied to more profitable and less unintentionally hurtful outcomes. Without such tools and models, we increasingly find ourselves trying to steer from the trunk, tasked with managing complexity we're unable to comprehend.

Free Will

When my children were in their early teens, I read them Jostein Gaarder's wonderful book, Sophie's World. It told the evolution of philosophy in an engaging narrative. It's a wonderful book. Years later, Richard Linklater made Waking Life - a video that will be looked back on in 30 years as ground breaking in so many ways. It delves into similar subjects as Sophie's World. Both have an Alice in Wonderland quality to them, illustrating as they do the otherworldly nature of other world views. Here is an excerpt from it.

20 November 2007

Bush's Big Lie

Former White House spokesman Scott McClellan reveals in a new book that Bush asked him to lie about the outing of Valerie Plame. Sadly, Bush wanted McClellan to lie in order to restore his credibility after the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

It would be hard to think of a more poignant symbol of this lost presidency than a lie told to restore credibility. But the real lie of his presidency is not a lie that will be revealed in memoirs. Rather, it's a lie that is always and never mentioned.

One of the first lessons learned studying economics is the lesson of opportuinty cost. Any one thing you choose to do with your time or money comes at the expense of countless other things. If you spend the money on remodeling, you won't have money for a new car. If you spend the evening at the opera, you miss the basketball game.

The big lie that Bush has been telling is that nothing this country could do would better the planet or the lives of Americans more than spending a trillion (or two) in Iraq. The lie McClellan revealed pales in comparison to this. I can think of no bigger lie that Bush could have told. And this is a lie that Bush has never tried to hide. He doesn't even know that it is a lie.

The Bridge Players' Revolt of 2007

Lunch with Bernard and his sister Maddie. Again, me, the human buffer.

We were eating our salads when Maddie announced, “Her daughter has a penis allergy.”

“Peanuts?” asked Bernard.

“Yes. She has a penis allergy.”

“She’ll outgrow it,” I said.

“This is serious. When she’s exposed, her breathing becomes difficult and there’s swelling. It doesn’t take much for this to happen – even if they’re just unwrapped in the same room she has a reaction.”

“That does sound severe,” Bernard said.

“I hope you’re right,” Maddie said, looking at me, “about her outgrowing this.”

“My first wife never did,” Bernard glumly announced to his salad.

“Have you seen that George Bush’s approval ratings have gone back up?” she abruptly asked.

“Well there’s a simple reason for that,” said Bernard. “The comedy writers are all on strike so now there is no one to properly report on what he’s doing.”

“They still have newscasters.”

“Yes, but it’s one thing for a newscaster to say, ‘Today American bridge players were told they could stay on the team in spite of holding up signs that said, “We did not vote for Bush.”’ It’s quite another for writers to point out that bridge players who made a protest this mild were about to be stripped of their one source of income. And that this became a big issue when they did this in China – a country we’ve criticized for human rights violations. And further, that we’re going to model freedom on the world stage by taking away someone’s job for expressing disappointment in an elected official?”

“Well, if anyone should know how to keep their mouths shut, it should be bridge players,” Maddie said indignantly.

“They did keep their mouths shut!” exclaimed Bernard. “They held up signs!”

"You'd have thought that they were trying to defect," I commented.

“Well, you shouldn’t do that in front of communists. If they think that we’re not all in this together, they’ll just exploit our weakness.”

“Weakness?” sputtered Bernard. “We let citizens express themselves and somehow that’s a weakness?”

“The world of bridge players will never again be the same,” I said.

“That’s right,” said Maddie. “It’s getting so that you can’t go anywhere without hearing about how upset people are with our president.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” Bernard sighed.

“Well, I’d like to at least have lunch without hearing about why people think he’s such a Mormon.”

“No,” I said, “that would be Mitt Romney.”

19 November 2007

Programming Self

I see it everywhere. Walking through public places, children, teenagers, and even adults are plugged in to iPods. Suddenly, I become suspicious of the term "programming."

Self is a narrative that the brain tells itself to create a coherent experience, says my daughter who is majoring in cognitive science. Does that mean that who I am is just the plastic thingy that holds together the six pack? I should be more offended, but I'm just a narrative so I let it slide.

Our culture is becoming more fragmented. In LA County, more than a 100 different languages are spoken in homes. Even people who all speak English talk about things I can't understand - esoteric is the new dialect, as religious, business, technical, and cultural groups all generate a slew of terms and concepts that require nothing less than years of immersion to understand and decode. We're becoming tribes of specialists doomed to feel alienated unless we show an interest in politics or sports or celebrities.

The media, then, becomes the narrative that holds culture together. Suddenly, the programming that is being distributed more incessantly than ever before - through iPods and Internet and TV and radio and magazines and newspapers - makes perfect sense. It feeds our need for cultural cohesion. Programming might shape young minds. Culture might be the default cult for which there is no de-programming. Or it may just be that individual lives need a narrative outside themselves that provides a sense of cohesion. In either case, those iPods seemed inevitable.

What's Wrong with Fred Thompson

I do not understand the many Americans who seem to get so excited about candidates. I follow politics. I think that the stakes in politics are extremely high. I get excited about policy and elections, but I just don’t think that candidates are people much different than the rest of us. (Well, I will allow that they have an incredible capacity to absorb inordinate amounts of praise and criticism – levels that would leave the rest of us with psychological whiplash.)

But some people were incredibly excited about Fred Thompson’s entry into the race. Curious about that, I watched George Stephanopoulos's interview with Fred Thompson available here.

I was not impressed. Thompson seemed to show little regard for the implications of his policy or even the rationale for them. To me, he showed that he didn't understand the war on terror, which wasn't that surprising – he didn’t even seem to understand the interview. His tone suggested that he was genuinely offended that Stephenopolous would "challenge" him to describe policies and seemed amazingly uninterested in thinking through the implications of anything he suggested. Here are a few things that stood out to me.

Speaking to supporters about Radical Fundamentalism, Thompson says that this threatens “nothing less than the demise of Western Civilization." I still don’t understand this claim.

A couple of weeks ago, Newsweek had an article about the increase in the number of kids with food allergies. One theory is that children growing up in clean environments don't encounter serious threats to health, so their immune systems overreact to otherwise innocuous substances, like milk or peanuts. It's not that milk or peanuts will kill a child - but their immune system's overreaction to them can.

Radical fundamentalism can't destroy our civilization, but our reaction to it can. In their best shot to date, terrorists killed 3,000 Americans. By this measure, guns, cars, wrongly prescribed medicines, and depression all pose a much graver threat to our civilization, each taking the lives of tens of thousands of Americans every year. But deaths don’t threaten civilization. Thompson knows that. If they did, Thompson would be anti-war.

We can overreact to threats to life. We can ban driving, foreign travel, exposure to dangerous ideas, and privacy. This might save lives. It would threaten our way of life, our civilization. It’s not the threats to life that will destroy our civilization. Like the anaphylactic shock that kills an allergy victim, it is the reaction to the threat that kills, not the threat itself. To be an American is to realize that freedom comes with the cost of life.

Thompson goes on to tell Stephanopoulos that this threat has to be defeated primarily militarily. Most interestingly, when Stephanopoulos points out that there is no conventional army or nation-state behind this threat to attack, Thompson says, "What's the alternative?" When Stephanopoulos counters with, "You tell me, you're running for president," Thompson shows a gift for non sequiturs that would warm the heart of any Bush supporter by saying, "That's exactly right. You make my point." Thompson shows no indication of having questioned whether our invasion and occupation of Iraq might have worked against us in the fight against extremism, offering platitudes that sound like the kinds of things that someone might have said at the beginning of the Iraqi invasion.

Although he's eager for war, Thompson can't imagine anyone pulling the plug on a loved one. He seemed genuinely heartfelt sharing his conviction on this matter, based in part on losing his own daughter. But Thompson again shows a gift for thoughtlessness when pressed by Stephanopoulos to explain the consequences of his stance on state laws. It's not just that he seems to be offended that Stephanopoulos would challenge him, but he says that he doesn't have a legal position, he's just sharing his opinion. In this response he seems to show a lack of awareness of two things - one, as president his opinion could easily become the basis for law and legal positions, and two, in a democracy any candidate has to explain himself fully to the voters.

To his credit, Thompson did use a word rarely heard by any candidates - "sustainability." He uses it in regards to social security, seemingly less impressed with Medicare's dire condition (a problem Life Hiker has pointed to). It seems to me that sustainability could become the unifying theme of a good campaign - from the need for sustainability in federal spending and entitlements to the need for sustainability in economic and environmental practices.

The answer in which he seemed to me most obviously lost was Thompson's attempt to refute Stephanopoulos's claim that Giuliani and Romney have a decided advantage in management experience. That is, they have lots and Thompson has none. He gives a meandering answer in which he challenges the importance of managing crime and roads, suggests that he actually does have management experience in government and then promptly says that government hasn't managed anything well in a generation (seeming to negate whatever management experience he'd just claimed credit for). Finally, he says that managers are people hired by leaders, suggesting that he doesn’t really need management experience. This conclusion seems to me a dismissal of the importance of management that only someone without experience in management could express.

Thompson is running second among Republicans in national polls and Republicans have a way of winning presidential elections. Fred Thompson as president. It’s a scary thought but, if you're like Thompson, it's not one you have given much consideration.

17 November 2007

Civilization's Big Bifurcation

I'm growing increasingly convinced that we're at a point of bifurcation. Alert readers are quick to ask, "What could he possibly mean by that?"

Bifurcation in systems dynamics refers to a problem with not one but two solutions. It's just a fancy way of saying that from here we can move forward in one of two directions - neither of which is pre-determined.

In terms of our civilization, resting as it does upon a fragile yet improving set of complex relationships between technology, practice, manners, and laws, I'm using bifurcation to refer to two paths that lie before us.

One path, one solution to our current problems, is one we're reminded of every time a politician rants about global warming or Islamo-Fascism. It is the path of relative collapse, civilization returning to a simpler time when the planet provided for only 100 to 200 million malnourished and scantily clad humans animated by fear and distrust.

The other path, another solution to our current potential, is one we rarely hear about. It is the path of increased complexity, progress, and prosperity. On this path, we find ourselves reconciling the current conflict between the economic and the ecological, finding a way to make our practices sustainable while living lives of increased interaction, trust, and joy.

The only certainty is that what we're doing now is not sustainable. It may appear sustainable, but that is only because we're not looking. We're like the occupants in a train traveling 60 mph towards another train, happily chatting in the dining car and looking around within the car to confirm that we're fine. A look out the window, however, suggests that we're not. Already 90% of the ocean's edible fish have been decimated. We're running up against the limits of water storage. Temperature changes are triggering dangerous levels of drought and flooding in different parts of the world. Insurance companies have forecast disaster claims equal to the world GDP in 20 to 30 years as storms intensify. About 1/4 of the world's population lives in countries that are collapsing - countries that would have been declared bankrupt and closed if such a thing were possible. Increasing evidence mounts that what we're manufacturing is not compatible with good health.

In the midst of this, apathy seems fashionable. Not apathy in terms of people refusing to take individual responsibility. Rather, apathy in the sense of people refusing to insist on collective action.

If you want a BA degree in four years, you had better get to work now. If you want to launch a profitable drug in five years, you're already late by five. If you want to avoid water, climate, population, or pandemic crisis in 10 to 20 years, you have to begin working towards a solution now. The larger the goal, the bigger the system you're trying to influence, the more important is a sense of urgency. Sadly, the farther away are the consequences, the less the sense of urgency.

The status quo is not an option. The only question seems to be whether you want your children to live in a world much better than yours or much worse.

15 November 2007

The Late Great Micheal O Dhomhnaill

When I was fresh out of college, living north of Bellingham, WA, with my new Canadian bride, I hosted a radio show. Among the performers featured on "Celtic Folk for Celtic Folk and Other Folk" was the Bothy Band. Micheal O'Dhomhnaill, who was instrumental to its success, went on to found Relativity and Nightnoise. Last year, O'Dhomhnaill died at the early age of 54.

Here are two songs. The first is a delightful performance of Fionnghula by John McGlynn, a song I first heard performed by the Bothy Band and then again by O Dohomhnaill's last band, Nightnoise. (I would have taught it to my children if only I could have ever learned the words.) The last is performed and sung by Micheal O'Dhomhnaill with the Bothy Band, an example of his great voice and guitar playing.

I still think that Celtic music is played too rarely. It's not just that it includes the poignant and playful, but I suspect that Hendrix was inspired in part by bag pipes. Blame it on my Scottish heritage by way of Boston and then Nova Scotia, but I think that the music has a universal appeal. Enjoy.

14 November 2007

Paul Anka Does Grunge Rock

One of the joys of being middle aged is that I can enjoy both of these songs. If you don't get the beauty of Paul Anka's treatment of Kurt Cobain's anthem to troubled youth, you're too young. If you don't get the angst of Cobain's performance, you're too old. If the juxtaposition of these performances doesn't make you laugh, you're not awake.

Here it is - proof that music, like language, is infinitely malleable.

13 November 2007

In Praise of Plastic Surgery

Sadly, Kanye West's mother died in surgery - cosmetic surgery. It's easy to criticize the woman for taking such a risk for the sake of appearances, but each year, millions do.

I'm not much into appearances. I've never quite cracked the code on dressing well or looking good. But looks matter - more to some than others. I have no problem with that. All of us are genetically wired to notice attractive people and to give them a little more attention. A female who looks like Natalia Estrada has more opportunities than one with a cleft palate.

During medieval times, you were born poor or rich. Serfs were serfs and until the Great Plague killed about 30 to 50% of Europeans, disrupting the social order, your level of affluence was pretty much defined by birth. There was nothing you could do about it. It is still difficult for anyone to change class - few poor become middle class and even fewer middle class become rich - but it is possible and, more importantly, most people approach life with the expectation that they can change their finances. For me, that's a wonderful thing.

Looks in the 20th century went through the same change as money in the Renaissance. Suddenly, the sperm lottery wasn't the sole determinant of whether you could be attractive. Along with diet, exercise, and fashion, the individual suddenly had a new tool - cosmetic surgery. No longer did genes randomly inherited determine the size of your nose or breasts or even your body's strategy about where to place excess fat.

There is a great bumper sticker that says, "Don't change how you look. Change how you see." It's a wonderful sentiment, but until everyone agrees not to notice or respond to beauty, we can hardly blame people who fight against fate in the form of their genes.

12 November 2007

Time for Automakers to Learn from Tech Industry

Last quarter, GM lost about $39 billion. It wouldn't take too many quarters like that before I was forced to borrow money from friends. Ford, too, is struggling, having narrowed their losses for the most recent quarter to just $380 million - beating analysts' expectations. While that might be only 1% of GM's loss, it still seems like a big number to me.

One reason that oil is difficult to replace is that if it were suddenly rendered obsolete, about $7 trillion in wealth - as yet untapped oil reserves - would suddenly be worthless. The folks who sit atop this vast wealth aren't particularly inclined to see that happen.

So, what vested interests have an interest in rendering oil obsolete? Why not auto makers?

One of the ways that Intel and Microsoft and Seagate (and others) have fed each other's success is by co-evolving. More storage or computing power allows for more sophisticated software (bloatware, to its critics). More sophisticated software requires more storage space and computing power. If you have a ten year old car, you can go pretty much wherever a brand new car can go. If you have a ten year old computer, you find large swaths of computer land are off limits for you. Whether it is planned or simply serendipitous, this rapid evolution of technology has helped computer sales. Today, even our phones rapidly become obsolete.

TV manufacturers have learned a lesson from this. In February of 2009, all analog broadcasting will stop and viewers will be forced to upgrade to High Definition - an act sure to stimulate hardware sales.

It seems to me that auto makers would want to take a similar approach with their cars. Imagine if they were to design cars that depended on something other than oil. Something that polluted less, or ran on cheaper fuel, or needed fueling less often - all of these options could help to stimulate sales. We so often talk and write about how positive might be the effects on our environment and our continued funding of extremism if we broke our oil addiction. But just imagine what this could mean for the auto industry.

10 November 2007

Norman Mailer - Dead at 84

Norman Mailer, like all great writers, refused the banal generalities used to caricature rather than characterize people and events, unafraid to be blunt. He died today, and David Wiegand of the San Francisco Chronicle writes:

Perhaps the quintessential American author of our era, Mailer, 84, married six times, fathered eight children, stabbed one of his wives during a booze-fueled party, once ran for mayor of New York City, and carried on feuds with other writers with such bloodlust that the whiny dustup between Donald Trump and Rosie O'Donnell seems like a lovers' tiff.
In an interview with Mark Binelli for Rolling Stones 40th Anniversary published this year, Mailer shared his ideas on LSD, Bush, and the "greatest generation," of which he was a part.

I never really went into LSD. I sort of disapproved of it. I felt it was too easy. I have always had this very strong, call it a feeling, call it a prejudice, call it a conviction ... that the mysteries are not easily available. You have to earn entrance into them. You didn't learn things for too little. You had to pay a price. And I felt that LSD was blasting superhighways into the mysteries. And what I really didn't like about LSD is that people who were taking it were seeming to become less and less as they took it. They got emptier and more vapid.

Bush & Terrorism
You wrote about how the threat of nuclear annihilation created an existential crisis among young people.
That your death will be without meaning.
Do you see a comparable thing going on today with the war on terror?
9/11 is a perfect example of that. The horror, the shock, is that you get up in the morning, you say goodbye to your children, you kiss your wife, you go off to work, and you are dead. That was intolerable shock. That is why terrorists are so hated, because they destroy the idea that you are going to have a meaningful ending to your life, so therefore, what's the sense of working hard, if you are not doing it in the name of a higher purpose? That is why Bush can keep pushing the button: "Terrorists! Terrorists! Terrorists!" In a certain sense, Bush is a terrorist, because anyone who keeps evoking the word "terrorist" all the time is pressing a button to get a reaction, without any higher moral intent.
So what is the story of Bush, then?
Bush is a terrorist.
Do you think he is the worst president of your lifetime?
He is a spiritual terrorist.
It is interesting that, in retrospect, he makes somebody like Nixon look pretty good.
Nixon was a mean son of a bitch whose inner life probably smelled of old urine, but he was intelligent as hell, and he was serious, and he could recognize the limits that were incumbent upon him whenever he got into a venture. So looking back on him then, yes, we would be far better off with Nixon than we would be with Bush.

The Greatest Generation
What did you make of the baby boomers' belated embrace of the "greatest generation"?
[Laughs] I don't think we ever saw ourselves that way at all. It's cute. It has nothing to do with reality. The reality is we groused, we pissed, we moaned, we were furious. We just pissed and moaned right through the war. The idea of the greatest generation, it was low appeal to our vanity. I don't know what it was to younger people. But I think the smarter ones just said, "Oh, more bullshit."

Time for a Virtual Democracy

Tim Harford, the Undercover Economist, has an interesting posting about the difference in efficiencies between markets and elections. It is upon the responsiveness of institutions to these two dynamics - markets and election - that our quality of life rests. In the comments, section, the point is made

Your vote buys one of two gigantic packages - a president or a congressman (at the national level, at least). But your dollar can be split into many parts and be used to buy many different products.

If we could choose to vote for every policy, power and person in government, and not be directly affected when we abstain from voting, then a vote might be more like a dollar.

It seems clear to me, at least, that the vote is a FAR blunter tool than the dollar.

And as I read this, I wonder, why? Why is it that we have to vote for one person or party or another? Why not vote on things issue by issue? We certainly have the technology. We can vote on whether Barry Bonds home rum record should have an asterisk or whether Britney Spears should get custody of her children. Ours is a wired world and there seems little reason why the public couldn't vote in an on-going basis for a variety of policy issues.

Imagine that every 2 to 4 years, you voted for one business conglomerate that was going to provide you with all your products and services in the coming 2 to 4 years. Your phone service, ice cream, automobiles, and housing would all be provided by whoever you "voted" for. We'd think that this was absurd. And yet, that is what we do at voting booth. Is it any wonder that so few Americans vote and so many are dis-satisfied with those who are elected? Isn't it time that we reflected in our democracy that we have made some advances in polling and communicating in the last 225 years?

09 November 2007

The Post-Information, Post-Revolutionary Entrepreneurial Economy

It’s popular to point out that we’re in an information economy. Popular but a little dated. By 1900, we had universities producing knowledge workers, albeit in small numbers. By 1900, we had telegraph and telephone. Credit and retail and their interdependent relationship had already begun. The rest of the century was a ride on this wave of information, knowledge work, and credit-fueled consumption.

It’s true that information matters today, but in a way very different from how it mattered in 1900. Back then, the point was to get more information. From telephone to IBM to Google, fortunes were made by companies able to provide more information since that time. Like water to a person living in Death Valley, it didn’t ever seem possible to get too much information. By contrast, in today’s world we’ve reached a tipping point. It is no longer information that limits but, rather, attention. We have too much information. The life of person living in Death Valley and a person living in Puget Sound are both defined by water, but the relationship is very different. Information matters, but not as something that is scarce and that limits.

The question now is how to live in a world with a glut of information. Once the information has been dispersed, how to again make progress? Not by dispersing more information but, rather, by dispersing decision making. This is going to radically change the distribution of power and the role of the employee within corporations. It will lead to the popularization of entrepreneurship

This tipping point of information will no more lead to the entrepreneurial economy than the growing complexity of the industrial economy led to the information economy. Other factors will come into play. But basically, the shift is the same. By about 1900, the limit to progress had shifted from industrial capital to knowledge workers, from factories to information. Today, the limit to progress has shifted from knowledge workers to entrepreneurs, from the worker as someone handed a script to the worker as someone expected to improvise.

In the most advanced economies – like the U.S. – more than 90% of the work force is employed within an organization. It’s doubtful that we’ll ever return to the days of the 17th century when each person was his own agent. The entrepreneurial economy will build on the advances of corporations and specialists just as the information economy built on the advances of factories and financial markets. It is not plausible that even 10% of the current employee population will leave organizations to form their own business. It is plausible that their roles within these organizations will fundamentally change.

In today’s world, the choice between employee and entrepreneur is quite binary. You either take the risk of starting your own business or you remain an employee. Left unexplored is the vast space between those two extremes. One of the main social innovations in the next decade will be an attempt to create way stations between those two extremes, offering employees more of the risk – return profile, and autonomy, of an entrepreneur and, for the particularly savvy corporations, offering entrepreneurs more of the infrastructure support and relative security of an employee.

But this matter of popularizing entrepreneurship is deeper still, getting as it does to the crux of progress.

Entrepreneurs as we normally think of them create and define a business. They perhaps don’t have as much freedom as we’d like to imagine – they do, in fact, have to meet a market need and run a business efficiently enough to make a profit. But they do get to define the business. For many, they represent the epitome of freedom. If they’re successful, they don’t even have to work in the business – it generates an income for them. But even if they have to – or choose to – immerse themselves in the work of the business, it is of their own defining. They don’t impose upon themselves any of the incessant meetings, odd tasks, and stupid policies that knowledge workers within so many corporations grate against.

And progress as its been embraced by the West is not about higher levels of enlightenment, more sex appeal, lower body fat, more knowledge, or more wealth. That is, it could be about any of these things but isn’t about any one of these things. Progress is about autonomy for the individual. If you have a car, you have more autonomy than a person with only shoes. If you have shoes, you have more autonomy than a person who is barefoot.

In this sense, the popularization of entrepreneurship represents a natural culmination of progress. And even the very notion of entrepreneurship is set to rapidly mature in this next economy.

Much of the progress of the last 700 years has come in the form of social invention – creating new institutions like the modern corporation, bank, church, or nation-state. This kind of progress has itself been a series of entrepreneurial acts, the creation of institutions that house new behaviors and create new value, new outcomes. These new institutions have emerged in a series of revolutionary acts, social earthquakes that disrupt families, cities, borders, and normal practices.

One of the things that will be so fascinating about the fourth economy, the entrepreneurial economy, is that it’ll make this act of entrepreneurship the norm. The culmination of economic progress is autonomy for the individual, something that will come about through the popularization of entrepreneurship. What this will mean in practical terms is that the individual will be living within custom institutions – a transformation of the very notion of institution. As we move towards a world in which more and more people are taking on the role of entrepreneur – creating or customizing institutions as a means to realize their potential and match their own passions – we’ll be moving towards a world in which social invention is no more an act of revolution than is investing in a mutual fund. The final revolution will be to mass manufacture revolution, the final product of the market economy.

08 November 2007

Bush vs. Clinton - Income Growth by Percentile

The amount of joy you get from a scoop of ice cream depends on lots of things. One big determinant of how much joy you get from it is how much you already have. If you already have 1,000 gallons of ice cream, your enjoyment isn't going to go up much if you get another. If you have only one scoop of ice cream, your joy will go up more. As you get more, your marginal utility (fancy economist speak for your additional joy from the next unit) falls. It is as true of money as it is for ice cream and clothes. A person with only $100 will get far more excited about another $10,000 than a person with $1 million. To be a Bush supporter is to deny this very simple and hard to refute claim.

CSPAN posted some charts today in conjunction with Bernanke's hearing, one of which I've recreated here. For me, this graph seems to capture what is indefensible about Bush's policies. (And note that even the median income in 2006 was probably much lower than what most people think - about $35,000.)

Income growth was higher for everyone during the 1990s. For those in the top ten percent, incomes grew twice as much. More important, though, is what happened to those at or below the median. The difference for those in the bottom 10 percent could hardly be more dramatic - during the 1990s, their income went up 11% and so far this decade, their incomes have dropped 3%.It is not just that the incomes are growing more slowly. The increase in marginal utility under Bush's tenure has been negligible. Is it any wonder his approval ratings have been abysmal?

Another Day, Another Batch of Headlines

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili drew an angry response from Russia on Thursday and faced growing censure from supporters in the West after he quashed opposition protests and imposed emergency rule. The response from Bush was more confused. "Georgia has a president,? Does that mean I'm governor there?" he asked aids.

Here in San Diego, Marines have put their drill instructor on trial for being abusive. Seriously. If they lose this trial, said their defense attorney, they're going to appeal on grounds that the judge was judgmental.

In New York, a restaurant is offering a $25,000 dessert. It includes 28 different cocoas, 5 grams of edible gold, and medical coverage for any health complications resulting from obesity. McDonald's has announced that they'll begin selling fries that include stents for only $12,000.

Yesterday, in Texas, a man set a record by sitting in a tub filled with 87 rattlesnakes. The stunt did two things for him. One, it gave him the Guinness record. Two, it substituted for a normal election. The voters in his district said, "Okay! You've proved it. You're ready to sit in congress."

Televangelist Pat Robertson endorsed Rudy Giuliani, surprising observers who thought Giuliani's support for abortion would make it difficult for him to win the support of the evangelic community. Robertson said that he'd prefer to support a candidate who would not only fight for the rights of the unborn but be willing to bomb the cities of the born, but if he had to choose, he felt like he had to go with someone willing to bomb the born.

A couple driving near Chelan, Washington had a cow fall out of the sky and onto the hood of their minivan. I have no clue about how to embellish this.

07 November 2007

Odd Numbers in Defense of Oil

"In Vegas, I got into a long argument with the man at the roulette wheel over what I considered to be an odd number."
- Steven Wright

Congress has approved a new Pentagon spending bill. It's for $460 billion and does not include provision for Iraq.(Basically, including Iraq would make it about $550 billion.) Isn't that like paying tuition for your kid and learning that it does not include classes? Meanwhile, Iraq's GDP is about $40 billion. Add in Iran ($194 billion), North Korea ($40 billion), and Libya ($34 billion) and you have GDP totals of just over $300 billion. I say that we use our defense budget to simply buy our enemies instead, price equal to annual GDP. We save 44% and they no longer constitute a threat.

Today, General Motors announced that they LOST $39 billion in the third QUARTER of this year. Exxon also reported a drop in profits for the 3rd quarter - they made only $9.4 billion, down from the $10.5 billion they made in the third quarter of last year. Their revenue for the quarter was $102 billion.

So, put this in perspective. Exxon's annual profits are about equal to Iraq's total GDP. And as Greenspan said, we wouldn't be in Iraq if not for oil. So, wouldn't it be cheaper all around just to get out of Iraq and then give Exxon 10% of our defense budget? And then we'd have enough money left over to directly subsidize our auto industry as well.

Or, we could put some money into alternative energy, treating that like a urgent priority given how expensive it is to protect oil resources and to recover from climate change. Then we could .... nah. That would be too expensive. Better to just keep spending the half trillion a year.

Finally, a barrell of oil is soon to cost $100. I should be a little discomfited by this, but I'm not. Dick Cheney has promised that once oil hits $100 a barrel he's going to declare the day a new national holiday.

06 November 2007

Today's Headlines - Another Look

Ron Paul raised $4 million in one day, breaking Mitt Romney’s one day record for fundraising. If he’s unable to win the election, he plans to use his newly discovered fundraising skills to raise the money to simply buy congressmen.

The writer’s strike has shut down TV productions all over town. Love of Life and Scrubs is said to be taking advantage of this lull in script production to film scenes for their foreign markets, showing actors gesturing and talking emotionally. The reasoning is that they can dub in the foreign language dialogue later, once the strike is settled and the writers are able to inform the actors of what it was they were saying. Rumor has it that Arnold Schwarzenegger has a similar plan.

In spite of the fact that Mukasey refused to denounce waterboarding, he’ll likely be confirmed by the Senate as the new attorney general. Bush said he doesn’t understand the fuss. He’s no fan of snowboarding either, but no one has brought that up.

Rosie O’Donnell is reportedly finalizing a deal with MSNBC to start her own TV show, doing political commentary. Donald Trump was outraged. “What makes executives think that anyone would want to watch an obnoxious personality prone to juvenile fights?”

Bush called Musharraf’s firing of the Pakistani chief justice and closing down of TV stations a mistake. Apparently, Musharraf now says that he had only meant to turn off his TV, not actually shut down TV stations.

NASA scientists said they discovered a fifth planet orbiting a star outside our own solar system. Citigroup and Countrywide have already announced new subprime mortgage program for investors interested in buying real estate there.

The Pentagon is having trouble meeting its recruitment goals, so it is planning to lower its entry requirements. “As it turns out,” says a Pentagon spokesmen, “having been arrested for carrying guns or fighting does not make a person unfit for military duty.”

Researchers have recently discovered one difference between men and children. Breastfeeding raises the IQs of children by 7 points. By contrast, the mere sight of breasts actually lowers the IQs of men by 14 points.

05 November 2007

Outrage Fatigue and 2 Georges

I'm suffering from outrage fatigue. After nearly seven years of George, mine seems to be a common condition. The presidential election is now one year away but already Americans have distracted themselves with the small differences between Hillary, John, Joe & Barak and with the larger, but less relevant, differences between Rudy, Fred, John, and Mitt.

George doesn't have foreign policy. He looks into the soul of a leader like Putin or Musharraff and places his confidence in them, seemingly confused when they rule like despots. When the people of, say, Pakistan turn against the leader he's bet on, he's left alienated and ineffectual. While Pakistan has been brewing as a major issue, George trusted his friend Musharraf to quell riots there while he pushed to attack Iran, showing a gift for multitasking through even the most important events of his administration. At this point, he could easily leave the next president with military conflicts and / or civil wars raging in a row of contiguous countries stretching from Egypt to China, an unprecedented swath of policy failure which boggles the mind, including as it does Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan - countries that are home to about a third of the world's Muslims. It would be hard to have intentionally created so much chaos.

Meanwhile, here at home, George made only his fifth veto. In addition to vetoes against funding for stem cell research (twice), troop withdrawal, and health care for children, he's decided to veto a water bill. Water issues constitute a quiet crisis, something we're acutely aware of here in southern California. "Today, mankind is using about 160 billion tons more water each year than is being replenished by rain. If this water were carried in water trucks, it would require a 300,000 mile-long convoy of trucks every day - a convoy length 37 times the diameter of the Earth. This is how much water we are using and not replenishing." [from James Martin's The Meaning of the 21st Century] Whether George's environmental legacy would best be represented by an ostrich or Dodo bird is an argument I'll leave for others.

George is also appointing an attorney general, a supposed advocate for the people of this country, who believes that torturing and wire-tapping citizens is perfectly fine - showing a casual disregard towards the individual not seen since King Charles was beheaded for thus ignoring the rule of law and the rights of citizens.

I could go on, but I'm just tired of it all. Tired of the former frat boy cheerleader who seemingly seizes on every policy decision as an excuse for doing a cheap imitation of Alfred E. Newman. Tired of the press taking him seriously and acting as if anything he and his advisers said still makes sense. Quite simply, I've got outrage fatigue.

All that to say that Lowell George (a southern California boy) and Little Feat were my favorite band when I was in high school. One evidence of genius is that its products don't age. Lowell was more than a wicked slide guitar player with funky white overalls. He was a songwriting genius. This song in particular seems to capture my current political funk. Sing along if you care.
"Telephone is ringing.
Tell me it was Chairman Mao.
I don't care who it is ...
I got the apolitical blues."


Systems Thinking and the New Economic Age

The Change in Thinking video really was a foundation for a larger claim about a new economy, a new society. But to the extent that it stood alone, its points were largely as follows.

1. Reductionist thinking was not something abstract that stayed in books. Applied to the real world of work and commerce, it gave the distinctions that fed division of labor and even the way we approached institutions: we built institutions for learning and work and play, separating into different domains the most essential elements of being human.

2. Reductionist thinking turns our focus inwards - towards the pieces of a problem. By contrast, systems thinking focuses us on the relationships between those pieces. Most of the really interesting problems we face today defy reductionist thinking - defy problem solving that focuses on a part. We created this modern world by applying the reductionist way of thinking. We can't hope to transform it by reliance on the same.

3. To illustrate the extent to which reductionist thinking has been conflated with thinking, I offer the Monty Hall Paradox. Simply put, reductionist thinking with its focus on the parts misses most of the problem. By contrast, focusing on the relationships - even with the card we tend to ignore - is the essence of systems thinking. Focus on the relationship rather than the two "closed" doors (or cards) is twice as effective.

4. Leaders need to begin introducing the elements of systems thinking into their organization. Our world is full of systems. Introducing new methods of thinking, consciously creating intellectual capital, and challenging our defaults in perception and problem framing are essential to dealing with all the truly interesting problems.

This particular video was meant to be a set up to a video explaining the new economic age, an age that will transform the corporation as the Enlightenment transformed the nation-state, or the Renaissance transformed the church. To see what larger framework this fits into, you can go to this post from August - The 4th Economy.

Basically, systems thinking is going to be an essential part of the coming transformation. Our really important problems have little regard for national boundaries or institutions that pretend to neatly parse the experiences of being human or regional effects. A job in Michigan might depend on economic conditions in Europe or the value of the dollar. Floods in Southeast Asia might be exacerbated by carbon emissions in the U.S. Problems in manufacturing might have little to do with manufacturing and everything to do with the approach to design. Most of our problems came out of an over reliance upon reductionist thinking and won't be solved by continued reliance upon this view that, at its core, insists that the world can be as neatly fragmented as an orange.

Our founding fathers had adopted a new way of thinking. They were men of the Enlightenment, a revolutionary and different way of thinking in its time. In our own time, we need leaders who not only adopt this new way of thinking but are able to create new experiences that help others to appreciate systems. For those paying attention, I think that the world is already offering such experiences in abundance. Seeing them simply requires a change in thinking.

02 November 2007

1 Change in Thinking - Intro

In 1994, I made a video I titled A Change in Thinking. It was my attempt to argue that we need a change in thinking in order to move into a new economic age. Systems thinking seems to me a way of thinking better suited to our new realities that seem to defy reductionist, or analytic thinking.

In this video, a much younger me wanders around various beautiful sites in San Diego that includes Balboa Park, La Jolla Cove, Torrey Pines Golf Course, an orchard, and the Natural History Museum. Beginning with this introduction (or skipping directly into segments that more intrigue you) you can watch this 30 minute video straight through.

2 Change in Thinking - New Economic Age

Once people change their thinking, all other changes follow. In this segment, I compare the philosophy of Rene Descartes and Adam Smith - making the claim that organizing around the principles of analytic, or reductionist, thinking led to capitalism. An economic and social revolution followed from an intellectual revolution. This pattern is set to happen again, as organizations and leaders begin to organize around the principles of systems thinking.

3 Change in Thinking - Intellectual Capital

Intellectual capital is to this economy what industrial capital was to the industrial revolution. Yet it is not enough just to teach rules. Rules work in one environment but not necessarily in another. In a changing environment, you need to be continually sensitive to changes in the success of particular rules. Theories ought not to become beliefs that can't be tested.

4 Change in Thinking - Learning

The difference between education and training? You'd send your daughter to a sex education class, but not a sex training class.

To create new learning - something needed in order to keep pace with new and changing environments - one needs experience and a theory. This kind of learning challenges and changes our existing categories, our existing ways of thinking. Traditional learning tends to conform to our existing categories. Systems thinking suggests a very new and different way to think about education.

5 Change in Thinking - the Monty Hall Paradox

This Monty Hall Paradox is counter-intuitive. You're likely to win money betting on it with friends, a win-win because it'll teach them to look for relationships and earn you money.

Basically, get yourself three cards and another person. One should represent the dream job and the other two can represent your unemployment check. One person should play game show host, the other contestant. After the person chooses one card, lift up one of the cards she didn't choose - showing her the unemployment check. Now, ask her if she'd like to switch from the first card she picked to the one you didn't turn over.

This simulation is set up to allow a group of people to choose whether they will always stay with their first choice, always switch, or flip a coin to decide whether or not to switch. The narration in the video assumes that you've done this and run 20 simulations testing each rule, or scenario. Note that the most common belief - the , it doesn't matter so I'll flip a coin belief - actually falls into the category of self-fulfilling prophecy. If you flip a coin, you really do get 50-50 results. But if you challenge what you think you know, you'll probably learn something new.

6 Change in Thinking - Systems Thinking

In this segment, I focus on the defining characteristic of systems - what emerges from their interaction. Analysis ignores this and in the process often misses what is most important. You can know all about the behavior of the gas hyrogen and the gas oxygen but fail to predict the behavior of the fluid H20.

Chapter 7 Change in Thinking Video - Leadership

In this final chapter, I simply declare that just as it would be good for a person living in Itay to speak Italian, so it would be good for a person dealing with systems to adopt systems thinking.

Systems thinking will be to the next economy what reductionist, or analytical, thinking was to the industrial revolution. It's time to begin taking a systems perspective.

How Many Foreigners Would You Kill to Save an American?

I'm proud to be American, kind of. I'm proud to be a Davison, kind of. I'm proud to be a Californian, kind of. But my being an American or a Davison doesn't make me feel like my own life is automatically worth more than an Armenian or a Gonzalez or Lee. I don't think that we ought to casually kill Pennsylvanians in order to ensure the life and property of Californians. I've no illusions about Americans or Californians or Davisons being superior to non-Americans, non-Californians, or non-Davisons.

All that to say that I'm convinced that one of the thing that separates the neocons like Cheney and Norman Poderhertz from us normal people is their willingness to use a "foreigner discount rate" equal to nearly 1. Cheney has talked about a 1% doctrine. Simply stated, if there is even a 1% chance that a country poses a threat to the US, we have the right to use preemptive force to stop them. This kind of patriotism seems to me more of a pathological condition than a noble sentiment. It seems more like a sign of mental illness than a sound basis for foreign policy. The foreigner discount rate of nearly 1 suggests that a foreigner's life is worth some fraction of an American's.

You might say that I'm biased. I am, afterall, married to a Canadian. But I've met a variety of people from other countries and have yet to be able to make generalities about them any more than I can about Americans. Some are fat, some are thin, some are generous, some are selfish, some are violent, some are passive ... people are people no matter where the international sperm lottery has placed them.

There is a chance that Iran will gain a nuclear weapon within the next three to five years. There is an even smaller chance that once they have this, they will use it against another country. And there is an even smaller chance yet that this country will be us. How many Iranians does that justify killing today? Cheney and Poderhertz would likely say, all of them. I just don't buy it.

I don't like the idea of killing, but I'd be glad to pull the trigger to stop one foreigner from killing 100 innocent Americans. I wouldn't even be very squeamish about sanctioning the murder of one foreigner to save the life of one American. But once you get to the point of killing 10 foreigners for one American, or 1,000 foreigners for one American - at that point the mathematics of morality seems to make patriotism seem like an excuse for discounting the lives of others rather than a healthy affinity for one's own.

This is one of the questions I would love to hear asked at these seemingly weekly candidate debates. How many foreigners would you sanction killing in order to save the lives of 100 Americans? At this point, we'd learn whether these politicians are more in touch with their patriotism or their humanity. It seems to me like a fairly important question.