30 April 2007

Sense of Identity or Consequences?

The difference between an act of prostitution and an act of love can't be distinguished by mere observation.

In their book Made to Stick, Dan and Chip Heath discuss the difference between motivation by consequence and identity. The state of Texas, faced with the problem of litter, figured out that 18 to 30 year-old, truck driving males were the largest offenders. The folks tasked with reducing litter nicknamed this target market "Bubba." It was obvious that Hooty the Owl or a weeping Indian wouldn't convince Bubba to stop littering. It turns out, not even a $500 fine for littering had much impact. What finally helped reduce litter by a stunning 80% was an ad campaign that showed role models (like athletes and musicians Bubba would look up to) admonishing people, "Don't Mess With Texas."

The consequences of a fine did less to change behavior than an appeal to Bubba's sense of identity, an appeal to patriotism. The Heaths go further and offer an example of firemen who were offended at the thought that they'd need prizes to induce them to attend a course that would help them to save lives. "We're firemen. Saving lives is what we do."

In this we perhaps have one of the more challenging dimensions of leadership: creating a sense of identity to which one can appeal to encourage behavior change. Leaders who know how to appeal to our better self can create so much more than those who only know how to punish our lesser selves.

27 April 2007

When Values Have No Value

From Harper's April 2007 index:

  • Percentage of American adults held in either prison or mental institutions in 1953 and today, respectively: 0.67, 0.68
  • Percentage of these adults in 1953 who were in mental institutions: 75
  • Percentage today who are in prisons: 97

Lots of men love alcohol and love their families. The men who love alcohol more than their family have very different lives from the ones who love their family more than they love alcohol.
A list of values is of little value for decisions unless it is prioritized. For instance, an institution may value both innovation and tradition. If the institution is a computer chip manufacturer, they may do well to value innovation more than tradition. If the institution is a church, they may do well to reverse that, valuing tradition more than innovation.

Some choices in life and politics are between bad and bad. Politicians like to pretend that they will institute a system that will provide for the needy, but only the needy. Well, this promise is nonsense. A welfare system will have a margin of error. It will either do the bad thing of abandoning genuinely helpless people who need help - the orphans, the mentally incompetent, the unfortunate - or it will do the bad thing of subsidizing the lifestyle of the lazy, the leeches, the societal parasites who exploit assistance. The question is not whether you'd like a perfect system. Everyone would. The question is whether you would prefer a system that ensures that the weak and helpless were cared for at the risk of including those who ought not to get help or a system that makes sure no cheaters get helped at the risk of abandoning those who genuinely need help.

Will a politician accept a system likely to encroach on individual rights or likely to result in abuse of the crowd? Give the individual the rights to own guns even when you know that this will mean more tragic deaths? Give the individual the right to privacy, to free assembly, to criticize the government even though you know that this will result in more chaos, more protests, more disruption of daily life and, yes, even more deaths? We like to think that such choices have to do with the common good. It may be more honest to think about these choices as the choices between bad and bad. Do we limit individual rights or accept more tragedy?

In this sense, the game of politics is rather like the children's game of "Would you rather ... be sat on by an elephant or eaten by a tiger?" Wouldn't it be fun to force candidates to play this game? Would you rather take away freedoms of everyone or allow the tragic death of some? Leave unfortunates homeless and ill or subsidize the slothful? Alllow tyranny to persist or launch an invasion and occupation? Chase investment capital out of the country or abuse workers? Bankrupt farmers or subsidize the cost of food and increase the incidence of obesity? Destroy the environment or trigger an economic depression? Subsidize a person in a mental institution or in a prison, treat him like a person with a mental health problem or a criminal?

Politicians tend to sound alike when talking about the ideals they espouse and would pursue. The compassionate conservative might sound just like the pragmatic liberal. But how different they might sound if instead of talking about the ideal they'd pursue, they spoke instead about the lesser of evils, of how they might choose between two bads. Now that would be fascinating to hear and would, I think, tell us much more about who they really are. It is the choice made between two goods or two bads that defines us.

Those Evil Terrorists and Other Distractions From Life, Policy, and Vision

T-shirt: "Of all the people ever born, half are alive today. Thus, you have only a fifty percent chance of dying."

You'll die. Whether you find this prospect terrifying, tragic, or a relief, it's just a fact. The point of life is not to avoid death; if it were, everyone who eventually died would, by definition, have had a pointless life. The point of life is ... well, it's pretty much whatever you end up end negotiating your own life to be, working out a series of compromises, attacks on, and retreats from society, your own flaws and potential, and the limits of physics, biology, and your imagination.

Which brings me to my point. Mitt Romney was recently asked what he saw as the most important issue. His response? The spread of radical Islamic fundamentalism. This struck me as so utterly inane that I couldn't stay tuned to hear him explain. This is like a high school guidance counselor or your uncle Freddie asking you about your life plans at 18 and you responding, "Well, diabetes is a killer. I plan to avoid that."

I will make some guarantees about terrorists. They will kill some of us. Guaranteed. They might even have one year when they kill more of us than do cigarettes, obesity, guns, food poisoning, or car wrecks. (They might, but I seriously doubt it.) As with all these other threats, I'd feel glad to know that "our best people are working on it" when it comes to mitigating their harm. But does anyone really think that terrorism is the most important issue?

And I'm left with this question: Shouldn’t leadership appeal to higher levels of Maslow's hierarchy than mere survival? Or is that the best we can do when trying to gain consensus among 51% of the voters in a country as diverse as this?

26 April 2007

McCain's Cogent Argument for Troop Withdrawal

McCain argues eloquently for troop withdrawal and against nation building and leaving American troops in harm's way in defiance of the wishes of a majority of Americans. Curiously, he's making this argument about troops in Somalia in 1993. Perhaps he'll watch it and be inspired.

International "Be Your Own Leader" Day

"Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom."
- Soren Kierkegaard

I've tended to write a great deal about autonomy. To me, it seems like a compelling motivation and I tend to forget that all of us subordinate it to other goals at times. Sometimes freedom of choice is simply overwhelming and we'd much prefer a prescription. "Take these classes and then pursue this exciting career as an airport kiosk tender. Trust us, it's the best you can do."

It's worth remembering that the peasants in Prussia ran to the defense of royalty - the very peasants whose lives were miserable and poor. A similar thing happened during the French Revolution. To this day, some people prefer strong leaders, even if their conditions under them are miserable.

I once heard management consultant Peter Block state, "Leadership is a collusion between control freaks and the irresponsible." The very notion of strong leadership may rest of the fact of a significant portion of the population having what we might, somewhat delicately, call psychological issues.

Sometime between the age of 15 and 30, we tell our children that there is no such thing as a free lunch - this after they've been eating them all their lives. Development transitions are tricky. I suspect that we're at a point in history where progress will depend on a critical mass of the population rejecting a model of leadership that we've been dependent upon for centuries.

One way to look at the Protestant Reformation is to see it as a rejection of the strong leader in the form of a pope. The idea at the heart of the Protestant Revolution is that the individual would, ultimately, be responsible for his or her own salvation and peace. The neurotic conditions such a burden can trigger would be itself worthy of its own thesis, but it is freedom.

It is easy to see the Enlightenment-era overthrow of monarchs as another chapter in the rejection of strong leaders.

Given that history never looks like history when you're living through it, many have missed the overthrow of the banker as the strong leader who determines whether you deserve credit and how long you have to pay back loans. The credit card is both symbol of, and means for, the individual freedom to decide whether or not to incur debt and how quickly to pay it back. As with freedom of religion and democracy, credit has been a promise and a threat. Those in poverty in the 19th century may have felt like victims of fate, whereas today's bankrupt may well feel like victims of their own choices (or the fine print of clever lawyers).

Freedom from strong leadership brings with it a particular accountability that all of us would like to shirk at times. But I do think that once a person gets past the existential void of "but what do I do if not what has been prescribed for me?" this freedom is empowering.

Rather than ask ourselves "Who will be president in 2008?" we might ask ourselves, "Who will I be in the game of politics in 2008?" We should continually remind ourselves to be our own leaders. Companies are desperate for our business. Politicians are desperate for our votes. If we lead, they will follow. Where else would they go?

24 April 2007

The Green House

I've been contacted by three of the major presidential campaign headquarters (he lied, glibly, keeping the reference deliberately vague in order to build some modicum of credibility as he made this bold-faced lie), eager as they are to hear my next idea for a campaign promise they might make in order to win my vote. Here it is.

I'd find it charming if at least one candidate for president were to promise that, if elected, he or she would promptly begin construction of a replacement to the White House: the Green House. How exemplary would it be if our head of state lived in a home that was a model of energy efficiency and smart architecture? It could be a showcase for best practices and technology.

What happens to the White House? It is handed over to the people, turned into an open museum documenting the lives of our presidents. Perhaps nights in the Lincoln bedroom could be given away, lottery fashion, to folks filing 1040 forms each year, 365 lucky winners each year able to "sleep over" in the people's house.

23 April 2007

Boris Yeltsin, Continuing the Tradition of Wretched Russian Government

"Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it's just the reverse."

Boris Yelstin is dead. He was like a drunk driver who drives the car out of the ditch, shoots across 9 lanes of traffic, and gets stuck in the ditch on the other side. His is a story of wasted opportunity.

For one thing, we sent economists to advise Yeltsin and his country, economists who knew all about how to manage an economy assuming one had savvy business people. We also sent business consultants, people who knew all about how to manage a business assuming a stable economy. It wasn't obvious that anyone knew how to create chickens without eggs or eggs without chickens. In that sense, Russia would have struggled with this, its latest attempt to circumvent the gradual progress of the rest of Europe, a tradition that began with Peter the Great.

Secondly, Yeltsin gave away the state, privatizing large chunks of the economy in a way that favored an elite few. Today, 36 men own 25% of Russia's wealth - a ridiculous concentration of wealth that seems a caricature of the inequality found in the West. This is not the result of entrepreneurship - it is a result of government-sanctioned theft. It is this more than his role as the first elected president of Russia that will be Yeltsin's legacy.

These two issues would have been enough to make Russia a mess. But I suspect that there is a third no one talks about: capitalism died about the same time that communist communities realized that they had a non-working model. Yeltin tried to lead Russia from communism to capitalism late in the 20th century, the equivalent of moving a society from 8-track to cassette just as everyone was buying mp3 players.

The battle between communism and capitalism wasn't a battle over the importance of capital. Both sides saw it as paramount to a working economy. It was Marx's, not Adam Smith's, landmark book that was titled Capital. The battle between capitalists and communists was a battle about who should control capital, the state or the banker. It is true that the banker proved superior to the state and the tyranny of robber barons was harder to maintain than the tyranny of police states. In that sense, Russia was overdue to transform away from communism. But the question is, towards what?

In today's $40 trillion global economy, capital is no longer the limit to progress. In the period of time when the average worker is now a capitalist - when even Sears and GM have become huge bankers - trillions of dollars of capital are sloshing around the globe in search of returns. Capital is essential, but it doesn't limit the development of today's leading economies.

What the leading G-7 communities have done in the last century is create hybrid economies. Most citizens are vested in social security and a 401(k) or pension plan. The state regulates some business activity yet businesses are free to do things that regulators haven't even thought about. Laws that prohibit child labor and regulate work place safety have transformed the world from the late 19th century world of Dickens’s and the robber barons who hired Pinkerton men to beat up or kill union organizers. But these laws do not prohibit bankers and entrepreneurs from creating a greater number and variety of businesses than ever before. The best communities have made government and businesses both accountable by using each, in turn, to call the other into account. The point is not to submit to the tyranny of either, but to play each off against the other in a way that gives the individual a fighting chance. It is, finally, the individual who should be empowered and protected by institutions. Failing that, the community itself eventually fails. It isn't communities that are subordinated to bank or state that succeed but those that manage to subordinate both to the average person.

Russia has a history of contempt for the average person. The imperialism of the Tsar's, the communism of dictators and the democracy of Yeltsin and Putin are governments that share a basic contempt for the rights, freedom, and plight of the individual. Whether Russia adopted communism or capitalism is almost unimportant in comparison to this. Until Russian institutions show genuine regard for the individual, Russian society will continue to be a threat to its citizens and its neighbors. Sadly, that doesn't look likely to happen any time soon.

22 April 2007

2040 AD

“Tell me again, grandpa.”
“Oh, it’s such an embarrassing story. We were so slow to see the obvious.”
“Yeah, but I like the story.”
“What part do you want to hear?”
“I want to hear again about how negative you all felt even though you lived in a time with more people, affluence, and knowledge than had ever been had in history.”
“Yeah, that was weird.”
“Why, grandpa?”
“Why? Why did we all feel so poor and powerless?”
“Well, we had jobs, we voted, we were free to speak our minds. The problem was, the whole world was disconnected – everything was disconnected from everything else. Sometimes it felt like we were all locked in the trunk looking for the steering wheel. What you were told to do at work wasn’t necessarily something that created value for customers or stockholder. Your vote didn’t seem connected with creating the world you wanted. And what you learned in school might be disconnected from what was going on in business or politics.”
“Didn’t you know that all these things were connected?”
“We did. Well no, I guess we didn’t. We believed that if only politicians were honest and if only we all worked hard, the world would turn out fine.”
“Hadn’t you heard Deming say, ‘We are being ruined by best efforts?’”
“Well, yeah. Some of us had heard that. It didn’t make any sense though. We didn’t have a perspective on the world that allowed us to connect it all together. We didn’t understand that we could do so well with the pieces and have the whole slowly erode. That just didn’t make sense from our perspective. So, we all worked hard, all tried to make a difference in our own little roles, and all our attempts to make beautiful music sounded like a cacophony. Everyone playing a different solo, all playing over top of each other.”
“You didn’t know you lived on one planet?”
“We knew that. But all our institutions and all of our roles – society and the place you had in it – they were all geared on the old, analytic models, the perspective that pieces added up to the whole.”
“That’s why Douglas Adams quipped, ‘If you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have on your hands is a non-working cat.’”
“I guess. But you have to remember that this was before the revolution. We still thought that finance and business, politics and education were problems that could be solved in isolation from one another.”
“Nobody was killed in the revolution, were they?”
“No. Nobody was killed. It was an intellectual revolution.”
“When did it finally start?”
“It turns out that when Copernicus discovered we were circling around the sun, the first time the term ‘revolution’ was used, we had actually been revolving around the sun the entire time. Same thing with the systems thinking revolution. Turns out that everything had been connected anyway, and people had been creating institutions – schools, businesses, government organizations and non-governmental organizations – for decades, for centuries. We had just never put business formation and social revolution together under the heading of entrepreneurship. We had always treated that process of entrepreneurship as something that stood outside of life rather than defined the process of life. All we did in the revolution was subordinate society to reality.”
“What reality?”
“The reality that history has a force you need to work with. The reality that you have to harmonize rather than clash with nature. And the reality that the individual experience needs an individual context, needs institutions that customize to that individual. We finally learned not to let our institutions force us to ignore reality but forced our institutions to continuously adapt to reality.”
“How did you do it?”
“We changed how we saw the world.”
“If it was that easy, why didn’t you do it earlier?”
“It’s hard to see your glasses, son.”
“So how did it start?”
“From lots of places. But it’s probably simplest to trace back the transformation of how we saw life to when we first saw the earth from space. Saw that it was one place, not lots of places. Saw that it was all connected. We could see what was real. This was one planet – we had just overlaid a bunch of countries and ideas on top of it.
“With that kind of a picture we had to adopt a different kind of worldview. From that point on, the rest was only a matter of time.”
“And it worked out great, didn’t it?”
“It did indeed have a happy ending.”
“Happy Earth Day, grandpa!”
“Happy Earth Day.”

Bob Dylan on Change and Facts

Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone recently interviewed Bob Dylan for the magazine's 40th anniversary. Here are excerpts:

Jann Wenner: ... you've changed from outrage to acceptance.

Bob Dylan: I think as we get older, we all come to that feeling, one way or another. We've seen enough happening to know that things are a certain way, and even if they're changed, they're still going to be that certain way.

Asked about his tendency to perform songs so differently from how he recorded them, or even from how he's performed them previously.

Jann Wenner: Do you think your performance of it in this way gives it [It's All Over Now Baby Blue] a different meaning? Originally it was lost and sad; now it's assertive.

Bob Dylan: Yeah. Astrologically, you're dealing with a different day every day of the week. Every day is a different color, a different planet rules it. You could say the same thing, you could feel the same way, you could write the same thing, but if it's on a Tuesday, it's going to be different than if it comes out on Friday. That's just a fact. You can ask any astrologer.

20 April 2007


69 years ago in 1938 ...

Hitler made himself dictator of Germany, invaded the Sudetenland, and began killing Jews.

Meanwhile, in the US, Time magazine named Hitler the man of the year and Action Comics released the first ever Superman (or Super Hero) comic book.

From the above we can conclude which of the following?
a) super villains are real and super heroes are fictional
b) literature is an ineffectual response to tanks
c) writers are easily cowed by men of action
d) the fact that Time magazine named "You" the person of the year in 2006 suddenly seems less impressive

19 April 2007

Political Suicide by Campaign Karaoke: The Sad Story of John McCain's 2007 Spring Offensive

Have you ever had that annoying experience of getting a song stuck in your head? It doesn't even have to be a good song or an appropriate time. Like bubble gum stuck to the bottom of your shoe, when the pop song meme gets stuck in your consciousness you can find yourself sitting in church with the lyrics to a Marvin Gaye song running through your head.

Now, imagine that the song hijacking your brain chose to take over in the midst of a campaign stop. This happened yesterday to John McCain.

Speaking at Murrells Inlet VFW Hall in South Carolina, McCain was asked when he thought that the US Military might "send an air mail message to Tehran." "McCain began his answer by changing the words to a popular Beach Boys song," the Georgetown Times reports. "'Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran,' he sang to the tune of Barbara Ann," the paper notes.

This is just sad. It's been a rough month for McCain. He has been transformed from an American Icon we all were proud of to someone who looks more like that American Idol contestant with funny hair for whom everyone is embarrassed.

Bush's approval ratings have tanked, in part, because his response to a widespread call for troop withdrawal was a troop surge. McCain, inexplicably showing disdain for popular approval in the midst of an election, chose to criticize Bush for not adding enough troops.

His attempt to convince the American people that Iraqi markets are as safe as the Mall of America backfired spectacularly. Wandering through an Iraqi market surrounded by 100 heavily armed troops, three tanks, two helicopters, three French reporters, two turtle doves, and body parts in armor, he looked as oblivious to his own words as a deaf man involuntarily signing in the midst of a grand mal seizure.

And now, the week of America's worst shooting massacre, McCain blithely suggests the mass murder of Iranians. The obituaries for McCain’s campaign for the presidency will likely date to this, the 12th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. McCain's political suicide is a different kind of tragedy, but a tragedy nonetheless.

I was unable to find the video of McCain's performance on YouTube, but here's one place you can view it.

18 April 2007

The Me!Me! Generation Popularizes the Meme

I have been remiss. Tagged with a meme by two delightful people (and bloggers), I’ve taken my sweet time to craft a response. I’m the kind of guy who loves words but can never find a word that matches my tiles in Scrabble. I love ideas but am flummoxed by an imposed subject. Hence, the long delay in responding to these particular memes.

First, from Tisha, a meme that seems rather like a game of “tag, you’re it!” Tisha, the Puerto Rican Belgian from New York, doesn’t really write a blog. She hosts a party. For every one word she writes in her posting, about 1,001 words get written in her comments. She was gracious enough to tag me with the “Thinking Blog” meme, the rules of which are simple: tag five more bloggers who make you think. (And as I think about this, it occurs to me that, like all pyramid schemes, this one must eventually break down. “Sorry sir, but your meme has broken the law of exponential growth. That’s why we had to pull you over.”) Here are five blogs that regularly tickle my brain cells:

Living next door to Alice
Thomas draws from a diverse array of sources that always feel fresh and charmingly subversive.

Life Hiker
The confessions of a retired executive, a former Republican who feels betrayed by Dubya, LH writes a blog much more thoughtful than the subject who frequently incurs his disgust.

Rather Than Working
A lawyer who fully realizes that there is no law requiring bloggers to “stay on topic,” Dave opines about the law, politics, and UPS delivery snafus.

There is No One Right Answer
Michael Kaufman and I once served together on the San Diego Deming User Group executive team. Michael has a great and interesting mind that patiently points out how inane are the policies that govern our schools and corporations.

Barbara (Ehrenreich)’s Blog
Including Barbara on this list is rather like adding Elle McPherson to the list of the cutest girls in your school. Barbara is a real writer, author of Nickel and Dimed and, more recently, Dancing in the Street. She’s even been interviewed by my favorite radio host, the BBC’s Andrew Marr. She’s big time and about as likely to pass along this meme as Queen Elizabeth is to use her sleeve as a handkerchief.

Then, from Cody McKibben, a young ecopreneur, this meme of answering the question of five goals I’ve never taken seriously. Cody has the kind of mindful optimism that will eventually save civilization from staggering from catastrophe to catastrophe like a drunk in a dark room. One can only hope that his generation pulls off this neat, but thus far elusive, trick of inoculating the general populace from insanity.

Five Goals I've Never Taken Seriously

1. The goal of staying fashionable. My sense of fashion is only slightly more developed than that of a dog in a sweater.

2. The goal of growing up. I still find young people (between the age of 0 and 25) more fascinating than most of my peers because they are still so full of possibility. For them life has yet to become a habit of expectations and self-fulfilling prophecies. I find that open-ness utterly charming.

3. The goal of getting organized. Other people seem to have a portion of their brain able to sort and categorize. To me, everything is related to everything else and I quickly become overwhelmed with the task of sorting or categorizing. Sigh.

4. The final goal of the World Cup. I can’t help it. I’m an American and actually think that the World Series is aptly named even though none of the teams competing have yet come from outside of North America.

5. The goal of fitness. Someone once asked Steven Wright how he was doing. He said, “You know that feeling you have when you’re leaning back in a chair and you start to tip but at just the last moment you catch yourself? I feel like that all the time.” My fitness program is like that. I’m always teetering on the edge between running-in-a-marathon shape and full-fledged stay in your bed all day obesity, never quite able to completely kick the exercise habit or ever actually make exercise a habit.

I’d be intrigued to hear the following bloggers answer this same question about five goals never taken seriously.
Chesca at Ex-skin diver
Cce at Madmarriage
Damon's Wacky Thoughts
Eric Byers
Paula at Escape from Cubicle Nation

There. I've passed along two memes. This must be what a petri dish feels like.

Medi-ology Portals

"The trouble with facts is that there are so many of them."
- Samuel McChord Crothers

We're seeing the beginning of a collapse of what was once two separate entities. Media and politics are inexorably merging like two blobs in a lava lamp. The catalyst for this will be the main stream media's attempt to get market share by presenting a particular world view. Rupert Murdoch's success at Fox is a harbinger of this new media. It is going to be a place where worldviews are nurtured rather than subject to the daily onslaught of facts.

Once upon a time, geographic communities shared a worldview and the local media reported on community events. The events were the important thing – the story mattered most. Today, we have a fragmentation of worldviews within every geographical community. Geographic community says little about shared worldview. Within an area like San Diego we have Low Riders and Bio-tech executives, neo-Bohemians and Rednecks, Lawyers and Retail Store Clerks. They may all live in the same geographic community but they all have their own worldview. These shared worldviews shape interests more than shared events or stories.

The Internet has allowed the emergence of a new geography of ideology, a clustering of worldviews. The regular readers of my little blog come from places like New York, London, Delhi, Kuala Lumpur, Brussels, Portland, and Texas. (A fact made all the more remarkable given that my reading audience could comfortably fit inside a 1960's station wagon.)

Thomas Kuhn popularized the notion of paradigm filter. One’s paradigm, or worldview, creates a filter on what matters and what doesn’t – what registers and what doesn’t. Scientists who believed that Ptolemy correctly defined circular orbits thought that data indicating orbits were more elliptical were simply errors to be ignored. If your mother-in-law is convinced that you’re a slob, wearing a clean white shirt is seen as anomalous behavior rather than evidence that she should change her paradigm.

Worldviews determine at least two things: one, the stories that matter and two, how those stories should be told. For one reader, the hurricane is a proof of global warming and for another it is proof that God has tired of bacchanalian excess in the French Quarter.

We’ve never had more options. The proliferation of products, careers, and lifestyles has been accompanied by a proliferation of worldviews. As I get further into my forties, I become more acutely aware of the glut of extremists – the alarming number of crazies whose beliefs are not exactly like mine. Put simply, media sources that pretend to be general sources are increasingly challenged to address a market so fragmented.

Rather than geographic-based media outlets like local newspapers and TV or radio stations, my prediction is that we’ll see an explosion in portals that support particular worldviews. If the folks at CNN or MSNBC were smart, they’d offer entry tests that sort their audience into different worldviews, providing content that matches these worldviews. As the Internet allows a proliferation of channels, expect to see CNN –Green Planet; CNN – Evangelist; CNN – Max Your Money; CNN – Pining for FDR; CNN – Pining for Reagan; CNN – Proud to be American; CNN - Wish I Was French; CNN - Gratuitous Sex & Violence; CNN - Science Will Save Us; CNN - What Are Those Crazy Celebrities Doing Now?, etc.

Historically, political parties have provided this service of managing the worldview of like-minded people within a particular geography. Increasingly, it will be media outlets that provide a common audience, forum, and worldview to a particular group. I predict that we’ll see a collapse of politics and media into worldview portals.
And speaking of multiple worldviews, here are a few great blogs that regularly explore the issue of the clash of old and new media:

17 April 2007

The Fuss (about Imus) & Hush (about corporate censorship)

I had a surreal moment in Osaka. Standing in a department store, I was watching a number of demure and modestly dressed Japanese women paw through sweaters and blouses. I was carefully watching them for some reaction, any expression indicating that they understood the lyrics playing in the store. "Where are my bitches? Where are my ho's?" asked the rapper on the store's sound system to an audience that seemed completely unconcerned about his loss. Apparently, someone had simply thought it hip to play this music, the latest fad to sweep over from the States. The result was, for me, like a moment in a hidden camera skit.

I don't pretend to understand the misogyny in rap. It's obvious that Imus didn't either -his attempt to be cool by borrowing from its vocabulary failing as spectacularly as if he'd tried break dancing. But I also don’t understand how his atonal attempt at humor became a cause to be fired. Pity the poor fool tied to the tracks when the American self-righteous train has worked up a good head of steam.

I quite dislike this notion of someone sanctimoniously deciding what audiences can hear. Whether the censorship comes from the government or heads of corporations, it is censorship. Comedy is dangerous. Duds and offensive comments are an inescapable part of comedy. Can you imagine if everyone weighed his or her words as carefully as a politician running for audience? We’d lose an entire generation to drugs, a desperate attempt to escape the monotony of monotone.

I don’t like the race to politically correct speech. Some topics can’t be discussed in measured tones. I have yet to find a polite way to express my outrage at our former boy cheerleader’s obvious and egregious policies, for instance. It is not for the big institutions or moral police to decide which topics deserve language that might offend most. Imus’ audience has a right to listen to the man, even if it offends people in power.

One day the church or government or corporation legitimately spares the congregation from something 98% of them agree is egregious. The congregation applauds. Then, the next day, it protects them from disconcerting messages that point out that the church, state, or corporation is abusing its power over the congregation. If the dominant institution is censoring the message, the dominant institution is never called on its excesses, it mission, its power. Whoever controls the message to the people controls the people.

Historically, people find themselves imprisoned after fierce battles. The next generation may awake in chains, lulled to sleep by the measured and boring tones of a media designed to assure its audience that everything is fine and there is no cause for outrage.

But the truth is, there are worse things than outrageous comments. There are, in fact, some events that can be described no other way. It doesn’t end outrage if we censor outrageous comments – it simply ends our ability to discuss it.

16 April 2007

Tearing Away the Veils of Maya

Today's mass murder at Virginia Tech hit most of us in the gut. I don't apologize for becoming inured to the daily reports of atrocities flowing from Iraq or the Darfur region of Sudan. We have six billion people on this planet and every second more die. It simply isn't possible to react to every tragedy or outrage that happens daily. I refuse to live life as Woody Allen described it when he said something like, "I can never enjoy a meal as long as I know that someone somewhere is starving."

Yet occasionally, events like Columbine, the Shuttle explosion, and today's massacre come across more vividly, like high-definition reality.

I suppose that media psychologists could explain this. It's not hard to imagine that some people seem so similar to our own friends and neighbors and children and some situations seem so similar to our own that the fact of tragedy seems more real. By contrast, everything we hear about remote regions of Africa or the Middle East often seems so foreign that even tales of tragedy seem abstract.

Hinduism teaches the concept of Maya, described as the illusion that reality is made up of separate selves and things. One point of enlightenment is to realize that this is an illusion. The apostle Paul wrote of believers as all one body. Statisticians see groups as having tendencies and know that, for instance, 2% of any group is going to die before the age of 50, even if they can't tell you which 2% it will be. Religion, psychiatry, and statistics have different ways of making the point that we share a fate and our individual experiences are, at some level, random variations of the human experience. It's not just that good and bad fortune is unpredictable - it is that, at some level, we share one another's fortune.

If there is any good to come out of tragedy's like today's it is simply this: it tears away the veils of Maya, reminding us that whatever we think makes us different is trivial and insubstantial in contrast with what makes us the same, .

Globalization - tipping the hat to reality

Since about the 16th century, a form of globalization has been in full swing. Trade, conquest, and information exchange has simply increased since then, as Portuguese and Dutch trader's exotic 16th century travels has now become the stuff of today’s spring break vacations.

But it is difficult to talk about globalization when the term is so fuzzy. I’d like to suggest two dimensions to globalization. One is the increased trade of goods, services, and information that spills across national boundaries like trade winds. The other is the construction of agreements and institutions to give a structure to this reality. Call the first globalization flows and the next globalization structures.

At this point, it is hard to imagine anything short of a catastrophe limiting globalization flows. It takes far less imagination to envision hiccups, disruptions, and derailing of the process of globalization structures.

In this country, conservatives and liberals are united in their fear of globalization flows as a force that will erode national autonomy. For liberals, globalization threatens a return to the days before Teddy Roosevelt when labor and the environment lay unprotected from the rapacious advances of robber barons. For conservatives, globalization means that the US will be like Europe, our masculine independence threatened by blue helmeted troops more inclined to act like bureaucrats than cowboys. Some conservatives even see the emergence of global institutions as heralding the coming apocalypse.

American fundamentalists are not the only ones who see globalization flows as a threat. It is no coincidence that Al Qaeda terrorists brought down the World Trade Center Towers. Trade brings with it strange customs and ideas that defy regional cultures. The Renaissance and Enlightenment were led by communities active in trade; along with the taste for foreign products came openness to foreign ideas. Local clerics, just as much as local merchants, could be put out of business by foreign trade. If Al Qaeda could disrupt world trade, they might succeed at protecting their daughters from the bump and grind of hip hop, their sons from the allure of materialism.

For now, globalization structures have been largely left to the institution best suited to the realities of globalization flows – the modern corporation. And the corporation has seemed to do the most to define the globalization structures. The WTO, GATT, IMF, and the World Bank regulate globalization flows in ways that seems to most clearly benefit corporations.

Many people forget that one of the key motivators for the emergence of the modern nation-state was the gain in trade. In 1550, a European trader would literally pay tolls about every six miles. Nation-states created a huge free trade zone that encouraged trade and specialization - two boons to productivity. Globalization structures is similar in that it suggests the creation of institutions that do for world trade what the nation-state did for "national" economies.

But done wrong, globalization structures could be a realization of the fears of liberals and conservatives alike. If these institutions are lackeys to the corporation, they could indeed become an instrument for direct attack on the progress of labor unions and environmental activists, a race to the bottom for wages, benefits, and regulations. Conservatives fears of a loss of autonomy, an inability to stand up against countries with different traditions and values, could also be realized. But done well or done poorly, globalization structures is a deed that must be done. To ignore the importance of these institutions is to ignore the degree to which globalization flows can destroy or build communities.

The reality is that we live on a globe and the use of nation-states is a convenience, a tool to improve quality of life. Ideas like Sweden, South Africa, and Canada are social constructs. Greenhouse gases may emerge from a particular national economy, but they disperse perfectly throughout the atmosphere. Terrorist’s cells may meet in a particular country, but their ideology - like McDonald's - is not constrained by national boundaries.

The nation-state has evolved since the time of Louis XIV. Advances like human rights, environmental protection, and worker rights need to be built on, not crowded out as the work of globalization structures takes places.

The good news is the bad news. We’ve entered a phase of human history when no community can be isolated from this simple truth – we live on a globe and share a fate. Institutions that pretend otherwise are institutions that will become increasingly ineffective.

15 April 2007

Force vs. Power

The less power a person feels he has, the more likely he is to use force. This seems to me a constant within communities and across time.

Kids in ghettoes who feel like they have no options, no power to actually create a life that looks desirable are more likely to engage in violence, to use force. Primitive cultures that have little power to overcome the elements are more likely to engage in war. In some earlier cultures, men had a 60% chance of dying in warfare. Communities with less developed economies are more violent places.

We see this to a far lesser extent with frustrated managers. Lacking the power to achieve particular objectives, they resort to threats.

There is, of course, more to violence than just this variable. Cultural momentum, genetic tendency, greed, and anger all contribute to violence. But the variable that seems to me most defining is this matter of power. As people become more able to effect the changes they want, to live the life they value, they are less inclined to use force.

13 April 2007

Profits are Environmentally Friendly

This is a posting in praise of profits.

Profits have, rather oddly, gotten a bad rap. One reason for this is because they are misunderstood.

Profit is what is left over after you've paid the factors their due. Labor gets wages. Capital gets interest. Resources are purchased. What is left over after various inputs are paid is profit. Profit is the difference between the market value of the output and the market value of the inputs.

In an ideal world, the inputs of labor, capital, and resources would be minimal and the outputs of products and services would be maximized. You'd only have to work about 4 hours, buy a guitar for $500 (your capital), rent a studio for an hour, and create millions in value, collecting royalities for decades. In an ideal world. The beautiful thing about profits is that it signals that you've created more value than was there when you started. You've orchestrated inputs like resources, capital, and labor into lots of value.

Every community ought to have the goal of maximizing profits. If you can create a million dollars worth of value with thousands of dollars of input, you're creating quality of life with minimal impact on people's personal time and scarce resources. Among other things, minimal input suggests little environmental impact. If a community could create value without using any labor or resources, why wouldn't it?

One other reason that profits have gotten a bad rap is because they have been associated with capital and returns to an elite few. But we've made our largest companies public - literally spread their ownership across the public. And the really smart companies have made their employees owners - sharing ownership through outright grants of stock and stock options.

Historically, ownership has been very concentrated. Even today, "the typical big company distributes 75 percent of its stock options to only its top five executives." Because of this, the average person has tended to see profits as something that come at the expense of the little guy, something that simply make the rich richer. But this is not an indictment of profits. This is an indictment of how profits are shared.

One reason to popularize entrepreneurship is to transform the role of employee from a wage earner to someone who shares profit. Profits are a great thing. Hoarding profits into the pockets of a half dozen executives is not.

We need to change our values and expectations. We need to show more appreciation for profits, need to see them more as something of great economic value. And we need to change our expectations of how profits in publicly held companies are shared. Corporate profits are going to continue to increase. We need to make sure that this increase is widely felt.

12 April 2007


Oh the media loves a good scandal.

Paul Wolfowitz is the brain-damaged wonk who came up with the idea to invade Iraq. As a reward for such a brilliant idea, George W. made him head of the World Bank. That, apparently, was fine.

What is not fine, by contrast, is that Wolfowitz wrongfully promoted his girlfriend within the World Bank. This is news and did provoke an apology from Paul.

He doesn't apologize for egging on our president to invade Iraq but he apologizes for a few thousand dollars wrongly spent on his paramour?

Ai ya ya.

I have lived in this country for 46 years and I still haven't got the hang of its strange customs.

Kurt Vonnegut, 1922 - 2007

It's a sad day. We've lost an icon.

In his most recent book, Kurt Vonnegut [at 18 on your right] expressed his sense of betrayal at the cigarette manufacturers who had been promising him death for years. He once explained that he smoked because it was the only socially acceptable means of suicide.

When I was a teenager, Vonnegut was my favorite writer. Like millions of his readers, I felt like I knew him, like he was an old friend. I can't help but feel sad for a variety of reasons. I was fond of him. I'll never again have that happy option of reading his new book. And I feel like we so disappointed him. This country didn't live up to his ideals, to our own potential.

It seems as though writers make a trade off. A writer has to be more aware and more able to articulate what is going on than the average person. And what is going on is rarely commendable. Judging from his last book, Man Without a Country, Vonnegut had simply had enough. He observed that people with a psychological defect had taken over. People unable to feel the pain of others, people intensely focused on their own good, were formulating policy in government and corporations. Only such personalities could so blithely ignore the tragic consequences of wars, layoffs, and environmental rot. The price Vonnegut paid for his keen awareness and wit was, ultimately, a keen sense of sadness about the human condition.

Vonnegut was delightfully contradictory, in ways that made perfect sense. He declared himself both an agnostic and someone who wouldn't have wanted to be a human being if it weren't for the Sermon on the Mount. He was one of the few survivors of the bombing of Dresden, a Nazi POW, and the experience helped make him a pacifist. He was an unrepentant socialist to the end, arguing that Stalin's purges and gulags had as much to do with socialism as the Spanish Inquisition had to do with Christianity. And he forecast the economic rise of the Chinese long before it was fashionable - although the rise he forecasted was fictional (in his novel Slapstick) and followed from their shrinking themselves in order to make their resources relatively abundant.

Vonnegut had worked with Ronald Reagan at General Electric, witnessing first-hand the emergence of Reagan's speaking ability and speech (the one he repeatedly gave traveling around the country in the days before CSPAN forced politicians to change speeches more than once a decade). He didn't see Reagan as an icon. To him, Reagan was a co-worker whose ideas had already bored him decades before they won national attention. And that seemed to capture Vonnegut's philosophy: to him, leaders were just people to whom we ought not to genuflect and the victims of war were just people who we ought not to dismiss.

Just days ago, I wrote about Vonnegut's take on the Sermon on the Mount. It seems fitting to repeat a portion of that in closing.

“For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the beatitudes, be posted anywhere.”
– Kurt Vonnegut

Imagine how different this country might be if "Blessed are the merciful" were posted in our courthouses, or "Blessed are the peacemakers" were posted on the walls of the Pentagon. Imagine how different our country might be if we had taken this brilliant comedy writer seriously. Vonnegut was an incredibly funny man who dared to ask what our world would be like if only we took life seriously.

God bless you, Mr. Rosewater.

10 April 2007

Does Progress Threaten Democracy?

If you hit the brakes at 20 mph, your car might stop in about 20 feet. If you are traveling at 90 mph, it will take you closer to 600 feet. Its simple physics: the faster you are traveling the further into the future you'll find yourself before you can change.

We're hurtling into the future at about 1,000 miles an hour. No, wait. That's how fast we're spinning. But it is true (albeit cliché) that the pace of change is incredibly rapid. Technology. Economics. Social norms. Science. All are changing rapidly.

The consequence of this is that today's policy is going to influence our lives in twenty years, in forty years. Not in a year or two. One of today's presidential candidates will be sworn into office in January of 2009. The bills he or she signs into law will not take effect until about mid-2009, and much of his or her policy proposals will take much longer. The influence of these laws will take even longer.

Think about education policy, for example. Changes to preschool policy made by the new president will (if they do anything at all) change the lives of adults who don't reach their working prime until the year 2050. If carbon emissions were stopped today, the climate would continue warming through 2020, so slow is the delay there. Changes to Medicare or social security will impact taxpayers and recipients in 2030.

2020, 2030, 2050. These dates are absurdly distant and yet making intelligent policy choices suggests that we're predicting the impact of policy this far out.

Elliot Jacques, the deceased Canadian management consultant, championed the notion of segregating the population into different bands based on different time horizons. Some people think ahead about 3 weeks and others think ahead about 30 years. The problem is, according to his theory and data, only a fraction of the population has a time horizon beyond a couple of years. It could be that Jacques is wrong, but my own (and Norman's, who introduced me to him) experience suggests that he's not.

So, here we have a conundrum. Democracy depends on the voting decisions of a majority of the population. This majority has a time horizon of less than a couple of years. The policy they're voting on has impact decades out.

And finally, this simple question. Is the accelerating pace of progress a threat to democracy? What if we're traveling at 90 mph and able to see only 100 feet into the future?

The Slow Waltz of Consensus Reality

A $20 bill is consensus reality. The fact that it is worth $20 in goods and services is a fact only because we all agree it is worth $20. In different times and places, we may well have required a leaf of tobacco, a particular kind of stone, or a small bit of metal to complete the same transaction.

Changing consensus reality is a slow process. The notion of money as an electronic blip, allowing you to buy something at the mall by swiping a card, is not something one can spring on a population that only knows barter. The evolution from exchanging things for things to things for symbols of things is one that took centuries. The further evolution of those symbols from precious metal to mere pixels took centuries more.

Yet social progress is a matter of shifting consensus reality. Gradually. Money is just one of many bits of social reality that needs to be negotiated, debated, and agreed to in order for modern economies and cultures to work. Given that things like money and traffic laws pretty much require the cooperation of everyone, consensus reality moves very slowly.

This brings me to climate change. It has taken us a couple of centuries to agree that the basis of society is shared consumption and production. Now, climate change suggests that a key ingredient in that worldview - affordable oil - might actually require us to rethink that model. This is problematic, to say the least.

Changing consensus reality is a slow process unless a community is in crisis. A crisis has a way of creating new consensus very quickly. "We're under attack!" is a claim that can be quickly verified and acted on.

One of the problems with climate change is that it is abstract, slow moving, and there is a long delay between when carbon is pumped into the atmosphere and when we experience the effects. I can't think of any examples in history of communities adjusting to such threats in advance.

Imagine (he wrote, using an example from some source long forgotten) that you have a pond with a lily pad problem. The surface covered by the lilies is doubling every day and, experts tell you, the entire pond will be covered by the end of the month. 31 days from the time that the lilies are first introduced and the time that they completely cover the pond. It will not be until day 24 that even 1% of the pond is covered. Even on day 29 - just two days away from the time when the pond is completely covered - the pond is only 25% covered. If, on day 30, you decide that there might be something to the forecast that so alarmed your expert, you're still only dealing with 50% coverage. Worse, you have only one day in which to do something.

This seems to me one of the most important issues to face us. How do we build consensus around reality that is, as yet, still abstract, and still mere possibility? Terrorists grabbing hold of Russia's atomic arsenal? Pandemics that kill one-third of the population? Collapse in the world's financial system or information systems or electrical or water or transportation systems? Proof that these issues are real issues will come too late.

09 April 2007

The News Reality Show

The Project Censored topic - the 25 top "censored" stories of last year - has provoked an idea for a reality show. What if we had a news reality show that actually took us through the backroom discussions in the newsroom? It might be like an on-going All the President's Men.

Thomas questioned the credibility of the stories, suggesting that Project Censored's list of 25 might better be pared down to 10 really credible stories. One story in particular (the claim that Halliburton sold nuclear technology to Iran), seemed to rely on one reporter with anonymous sources. Given the propensity of many to believe the worst about Halliburton and the Bush administration, there would be demand for such a story and a clever reporter would obviously know that. So, the story may or may not be real but it certainly needs more substance before it ought to break out into the big time. This raises a larger question of what goes on in the background of such stories. The stories about why certain stories don't become news are stories that would, themselves, be worth hearing.

Think about how many investigative reporting stories either start or end with more uncertainty than substance. Rumors, leaks, unsubstantiated reports ... all need to be sifted through in order to find something credible that can be included in the news. Witnessing this process itself would be both fascinating and informative. Imagine a reality TV show that showed how our reality is reported. "The meta-reality of reality," they could call it. Or, "The stories they aren't telling you on the nightly news," or, "Why you don't know what you don't know."

Cheney Tasered, handcuffed, and sent for psychiactric evaluation

Now that I have your attention, this whimsical bit of news from The Week Magazine:

Bad week for ...
Executive privilege, after a Connecticut man, captured following a high-speed car chase, tried to talk his way out of trouble by telling cops he was Vice President Dick Cheney. John Spernak, 42, was promptly Tasered, handcuffed, and sent for psychiatric evaluation.

It’s unclear to me for which of the host of reasons this guy was Tasered and sent for evaluation. His high-speed car chase? Telling the cop he was Cheney? The cop actually believing that he was Cheney? The mind reels with possibilities.

Where is the Singer Songwriter Presidential Candidate?

For my nickel, the singer pales in comparison to the singer songwriter. Oh, there are some amazing voices (folks like Frank Sinatra or Judy Collins or George Strait) able to interpret a song in ways that make you think it's theirs. But musicians like Springsteen or Lennon & McCartney are the folks who define music.

Why mention this in the same breath as politics?

It occurs to me that the current crop of presidential candidates is making the same play as American Idol contestants. They are competing on voice, personality, and their ability to interpret familiar standards like "rely on markets," "support our military," and "improve health care." They're singers, competing against one another on performance and song selection.

What seems missing is the politician who is actually a singer songwriter. Nobody would say that Johnny Cash or Bob Dylan had the kinds of voices that would win on American Idol, but they became icons because of the songs they wrote. Who in the current crop of politicians is promoting new policy in the way that an FDR once did? Who among the current crop might show more genius for policy formulation and philosophy than speeches? I suspect that there is so much voter ambivalence in part because voters have heard most of these songs before.

I'm ready for someone who transcends trade-offs and talks instead about how the confluence of events we find in this unique point of history has made possible something that the average voter hadn't previously thought of.

Leadership suggests at least two things. One, the person has followers. Two, the person is going somewhere those followers are not. Leadership is different from popularity. I'm ready for someone who talks about the art of possibility and doesn't just sing the same tired songs. Enough of choosing between great voices: I'm ready for new songs.

07 April 2007

You've Been Tagged - Mention a "Censored" Story on Your Blog

The more time I spend before the bank of TV's at the YMCA, the lower my opinion of cable news. Anna Nicole, the making of Deal or No Deal, Anna Nicole, Disney allowing gay couples to wed, speculation about who fathered Anna Nicole's child, and a fireman in a bikini and wig are, apparently, the really important stories of our time.

Meanwhile, you can actually read about real stories that have been effectively censored by the main stream media at Project Censored. (I might quibble with their use of the term "censored." "Studiously ignored" might be a more correct term, but I don't blame them for using the more inflammatory word.)

What kinds of stories have our august "news" providers decided are less important than the question of who inseminated Anna Nicole? Among the 25 "censored" stories are these amazing tidbits:

* Halliburton has been charged with selling nuclear technology to Iran
* Homeland Security has awarded a contract to KBR (a subsidiary of Halliburton) to build detention centers on US soil
* Cheney's Halliburton stock rose over 3000 percent in 2004, soaring from about $240,000 to more than $8 million in the same year that Halliburton was awarded more than $10 billion in contracts from the Bush-Cheney administration.

These are just three of the stories that, in the estimation of the folks at Project Censored, have been inexplicably ignored. Do your bit - broadcast at least one of the 25 headlines on your blog. Why should the news we consume be defined by a handful of big companies intent on subordinating news to titillation? This your chance to shame the mainstream media into doing its job.
Folks who've posted or opined on at least one Project Censored Story:
ThomasLB at Living Next Door to Alice
CCE at MadMarriage

05 April 2007

History is Your Future

"To be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to be forever a child."

I'm fascinated by history. Not history as a set of immutable facts about artillery shells and wigged men marching in the parade of manifest destiny but, rather, history as the answer to the question of how now happened.

Gaining knowledge of history is the first step towards gaining control over the future. To attempt change without understanding the momentum of history is futile - like flies frantically waving their arms to re-direct traffic. History has its own momentum and the leaders who matter are those who learn to work with the force of history in the same way a judo expert uses an opponent's strength.

History has trends. George W. believes that democracy is the natural state of communities and ridding a community of a tyrant will automatically lead to the emergence of a democracy. The notion that democracy might require prerequisites, might be a developmental stage (and not even a final evolutionary stage) seems to elude him. History suggests that the unfolding of life and communities has a particular order.

It is only because of the patterns of history that we can live lives of coherence: we know that tomorrow the sun will rise at about 6:30 because it did today and the day before; we know that our retirement accounts will grow about 5 to 10% a year because they have for decades; we know that there will be demand for our skill next month because there was next month. Our lives are acts of prediction and that prediction comes from knowledge of the past. A community’s future is never better than its understanding of the past.

One of the things that history and the future have in common is that they are both unattainable through anything but today's understanding.

Power vs. Freedom

“Much of our business culture is infatuated with power – amassing it, holding on to it, using it to vanquish competitors and dominate markets. In contrast ... freedom ... packs a bigger wallop than power. Power is about what you can control; freedom is about what you can unleash.”

- William C. Taylor, from the Foreword to The SAIC Solution.

Vonnegut and Posting the Beatitudes in Public Places

Yesterday, I read Vonnegut's latest, A Man Without a Country. It was like getting together with an old friend for lunch and remembering why you had once been such good buddies. He makes so many poignant and provocative points. One in particular struck me as worth repeating.

“For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the beatitudes, be posted anywhere.”
– Kurt Vonnegut

He goes on to ask what it might be like to post "Blessed are the merciful" in a courthouse, or "Blessed are the peacemakers" in the Pentagon.

04 April 2007

Faux Fortune Cookie

What is the difference between a day when joy grabs you by the lapels and head butts you into giddy gladness and days when you're inclined to turn off the phone and go fetal? It might be your choice of recreational drug. Or, it might be the difference between living in possibility and living in expectation.

It's a complex world and expectations are simple. So many things can happen that the odds of our exact expectations being realized are remote, rather like winning the lottery.

When the world fails to meet our expectations it hasn't failed. The world is still there - busily buzzing at the intersection of past and future, what has been and what will be, just as it has been for your entire life. The world is innocent. We are the ones who occasionally lose sight of the fact that we're one in six billion and unlikely to do much to steer this unwieldy planet. We'd have better luck driving an office building and yet we persist to sit at the window and honk our horns, shake our fist, and feel frustrated when the building next to us won't get out of the way and let us through. Our expectations are often as silly as quoting Drucker to an infant or tickling the belly of a businessman.

And this is not so bad. What are the odds that our expectations of life will ever be as amazing as life? What these finite minds project onto an infinite universe will always be some fraction of what is possible.

With that in mind, here is a low-calorie, faux-fortune cookie:
Let the world be what it is and simply see what it has in store for you. Open yourself up to possibility today, laying aside the stale expectations that would otherwise drive you like a flock of bored habits.

02 April 2007

Dr. Beyster - a Different Kind of CEO

We see a great deal reported about the differences in heads of state; less about the heads of corporations. And when CEOs are written about, they are too often written about as either villains or heroes. CEOs are generally talented people who vary wildly in their ability to actually create value or jobs. Their philosophy, policy, and strategic decisions matter. It is a mystery to me why the media focuses so much on the details of presidential candidates while generally ignoring CEOs. Anyone interested in quality of life and the future of this planet should pay at least as much attention to the various and competing philosophies of CEOs as they do the competing philosophies of politicians.

I've written quite a lot about how CEOs are the last of the monarchs. (If you doubt that, try this simple test. Publish, regularly, words that question George W. Bush's intelligence, integrity, and intentions. Note that your citizenship is not revoked. Now, assuming that you work for a Fortune 500 firm, publish, regularly, words that question the CEO's intelligence, integrity, and intentions. See how long your employment lasts.) Some abuse their power as monarchs, some try to do good work with it, and some actually try to change the role of CEO from monarch. From what little I know of his actions, it seems like we have an example of the latter here in San Diego. Robert Beyster's name has remained inexplicably obscure in the business world. Hopefully that will change.

Robert Beyster has, at last, written a book. As my copy is only now shipping, I can recommend it only because of what I've heard of Dr. Beyster and his company and not anything in the actual book. Dr. Beyster is a reminder that not all CEO's are created equal and given his track record it is hard to believe that his book won't be a valuable read.

Some companies don’t just give stock and stock options – they actually expect employees to accept entrepreneurial roles. Robert Beyster, founder of SAIC, articulated a key challenge to his company as being the recruitment, retention, and reward of entrepreneurial employees who are also team players. For Beyster, this is not mere rhetoric. He has built a company with hundreds of operating divisions, 44,000 employees and $6.7 billion in sales. [1]

Through stock ownership, he’s made millionaires out of hundreds of employees, and has retained only 1.3% of the company – an amount still worth about $100 million. SAIC’s top management operate more like venture capitalists than a strategic management team anxious to impose strategic and process discipline onto lower-level managers. They are less interested in "strategic fit" than profit potential. The market success of projects, products, and business divisions are their own consequences, and shared equity helps to align the interests of shareholders, management, and employees towards the natural consequences of business success.

What’s more, SAIC shareholders are the employees and the employees are the shareholders. Using an internal market for share trading, only SAIC employees, directors, and consultants could own shares under Beyster's management. (Since Beyster has retired, that has changed.) Few leaders have done as much as Beyster to make explicit the fact that by the close of the information economy, it is the knowledge workers employed by corporations who also own these corporations, who are both the source of equity and value. And Beyster's strategy seems to have worked.

From the time that Beyster founded the company to the time that he retired a few years ago, revenues and profits had grown an average of 35% per year for 35 years, an amazing feat of business growth. It wasn’t until his 32nd year at SAIC that he failed to grow both revenues and profits over the previous year.

Employees everywhere can only hope that their corporate board members read Beyster's book. And this is the paradox of Beyster's example: from what I can tell, his focus was not on directly driving business results or creating wealth but was, rather, on creating an environment that encouraged employees to do this. Oddly, most corporations look like the former Soviet Union - centrally planned and boasting five year plans against which they expect behavior to conform. Beyster seems to be one of those rare corporate leaders who showed confidence in market signals and the entrepreneurial initiative of employees. He's actually proven a viable alternative to the common corporate model.

If transforming the corporation in the next few decades will become as important to progress as transforming the nation-state was to progress in the 18th century, Beyster's philosophy and strategy deserves our attention. He's already offered an example of what it means to blur the distinction between employee and entrepreneur.

In 20 years, I suspect that names like Robert Beyster and Dee Hock will be better known to business students than names like Larry Ellison or Jack Welch. Today's media focuses on the CEOs who've succeeded in the old model; tomorrow's history books will focus on the CEOs who who helped to create a new corporate model. It is hard to believe that Robert Beyster's story won't be included in the larger story of the transformation of business in the 21st century.

[1] The San Diego Union-Tribune, Saturday July 17, 2004, p. C-1, “Founder of SAIC steps down from his position as chairman.” Numbers reported for the fiscal year ended in January, 2004. The title of his new book states that the company has now grown to more than $8 billion.

Policy for the Distracted

Q: How many people with ADD does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Hey look! Isn't that Angelina Jolie on TV?

It'll be one of the great mysteries of history as to how the American population came to believe such patently absurd claims as "if we drop more bombs on the Iraqis in a month than we dropped on the Vietnamese in a decade, they'll come to love us," or "the best hope for stability in the Middle East is having 19 year-old kids from Kansas police a people who's culture and language they don't understand," and, "given we don’t have enough money to finance social security we should simultaneously finance social security commitments and launch a new retirement program," or, "we ought not to burden the dead with taxes when we have all these perfectly healthy working stiffs and investors to tax."

Or maybe it won’t be a mystery but will, instead, be clear to future generations who look at the way this generation consumes media.

The new media has played a role in manufacturing a form of attention-deficit disorder, a kind of attention skipping that encourages people to jump from topic to topic, to spread their attention so thin as to be unable to think deeply about topics. Young people multitask about half the time when consuming media (e.g., 62% of the time they are reading they are monitoring something else, like watching TV, listening to music, or instant messaging).

It may well be that Bush himself is not, as many of his critics suggest, unable to think deeply. It may simply be that Rove and Bush have been the first to intentionally craft policy specifically formulated to be consumed by the distracted. It is no wonder that their defenders like Michael Savage and Bill O'Reilly are so prone to hate speech; it is simply one more form of distraction.