28 February 2009

Out of Iraq: The Good, the Barack, and the Confusing

Before I launch into criticism of Obama's planned withdrawal from Iraq, let me set the context. I don't think that we should have invaded. I don't think that we should be there. I am happy that Obama is serious about leaving Iraq. There. With that said, I find myself once again cringing at one of Obama's plan.

Obama said that combat troops will be out of Iraq by August 31 of next year. I find this announcement nothing but confusing.

I work with project plans for a living. In order to launch a new product, teams have to make a series of events take place: products get designed and tested or molecules manufactured and tested, and factories get set up, etc. Lots of things have to happen between now and when a product launches. It is popular but wildly misleading to simply say, "Oh. We'll launch this product in May of 2014." In the world of development, teams face so many unknowns that declaring that they'll hit a date 5 years out is just silly.

When we plan product development, it is not unusual for us to put together a plan that predicts 2 years, say, for tasks and 1 year for uncertainty. That is, we'll make two years out the goal and three years out the commitment, but we can only say that we have about a 5 to 10% chance of being done in less than two years and about a 5 to 10% of being done in more time than three years. If we want to hit market quickly we don't want to settle for 3 years from now. If we want to bring to market our best product, one in which the features and quality are great, we can't commit to two years because resolving issues may require more time than we hope. So, we forecast a range.

By contrast, leaving a country we've invaded is messy, unpredictable, and complicated. If Obama has certain prerequisites to troop withdrawal, it boggles the mind that he can predict with such accuracy exactly when those prerequisites will be met. He can, however, predict this moment 18 months from now to the day. If, instead, he just wants to leave by a certain date, regardless of what prerequisites have been met, why wait 18 months out? Why not leave sooner if the date is a commitment of his regardless of prerequisites met?

Getting out of Iraq is a great idea. Too bad that Obama either doesn't know what he means by that or hasn't bothered to tell us.

27 February 2009

The Entrepreneur's GI Bill

Obama's new plan will create a deficit of $1.5 trillion. This is the difference between taxes collected and money spent in just a single year. Outside of the US there are only 6 (six!) countries with GDPs that are bigger than this. This would be a mind boggling sum were it not so mind numbing.

I am going to repeat myself here. We're spending all this money in the hopes of a multiplier effect - in the hopes that the money spent by the government will trigger money spent by businesses and households - that will jump start the economy. But if that is the goal, why not go after it more directly?

I am having trouble letting go of the idea of a movement to fund new businesses that would be to our time what the GI bill was to the explosion of knowledge workers after World War 2.

If we are going to spend such a massive sum, why not be more direct in going after what we want? If we give households money, they are as likely to buy cars from Japan as wheat from the US. Even businesses are likely to subcontract work overseas. One of the problems rarely mentioned in this age of globalization is how much of a stimulus package might leak abroad.

We want jobs. Why not use the stimulus money to create companies that would provide these jobs?

The GI Bill really was instrumental in helping to create a new economy where professionals with advanced degrees did more to stimulate GDP growth than did captitalists and factory workers. People who would not have otherwise gone to college - who could not have afforded it - got degrees and careers that their parents could not have imagined. By creating so many knoweldge workers, the GI BIll helped to create the innformation age.

Why not look back in 30 years at the amazing companies that were started by the infusion of start up capital that triggered the creation of companies that found new industries and created new wealth? People who would not have otherwise started companies could become the new generation of entrepreneurs. This would not just stimulate consumption but two other things vital to a sustained economic solution to our current plight: new jobs and wealth. By creating so many entrepreneurs, this new stimulus package cold help to create an entrepreneurial age.

Ultimately, our twin deficits (trade deficits and government deficits) will not go down until we begin to produce more and begin to create wealth faster than we deplete it. Why not replace deficit spending with investment in our one remaining economic strength: innovation and entrepreneurship?

I love Biden and Barack. But until they can tell me why their plan of tax cuts and government spending is a better use of money we don't have, I'm going to wince every time I hear about their stimulus plan. As it now stands, it just makes me nervous.

24 February 2009

Republicans Remind Country Why We Cheered At Obama's Election

If you ever wondered what it sounded like to hear a black man sing country, your curiosity was sated tonight. Obama sang the litany of woes common to jukebox country tunes. "You lost your job, your house, your student loan, your girlfriend," he told the nation.

To the man's credit, he shifted gears, finally sounding optimistic and hopeful after his seemingly obligatory notes of doom. I particularly liked the lines about "We don't do what is easy. We do what is necessary," and the inclusion of an actual pun: "a down payment on the principle that everyone deserves health care." And how refreshingly honest to finally include the cost of war in the budget after 7 years of treating it like an annual surprise?

Whatever qualms I had about his speech tonight were dissolved as I listened to Gov. Bobby Jindal deliver the Republican's rebuttal. He had the audacity to criticize Obama's plan by pointing to the Federal Government's response to Katrina? Seriously? Bush's incompetence is the best thing he can find to criticize about Obama? Have the Republicans loosened up on drug use for their elected officials? There are legitimate angles from which to criticize Obama and his stimulus package. Jindal instead just seemed to obliviously indict Republicans. In spite of their efforts to show color in their public face - first the new RNC head and now Jindal as spokespeople for the GOP - Republicans seem intent on hurtling towards irrelevance, almost as if they've all suddenly heard their own rhetoric about the evils of government and are suddenly embarrassed by their involvement in politics and are doing all they can to be voted out in massive waves.

The Republicans refusal to cheer the stimulus package reminds us that they've essentially placed a bet on continued economic downturn for the next four years. In order for their refusal to support the stimulus package to seem credible in 2012, the economy has to continue to limp along in spite of our spending another trillion (or two or three). This seems unlikely. And Americans will likely remember that the Republicans sat out the attempts to stimulate the economy - a sit in that could easily be illustrated by footage from tonight's speech when the Republicans sat mute during a standing ovation for Obama's package.

It would be so nice if the Republicans abandoned their commitment to idiocy. We could use a good alternative. But alas, the Republicans are as close to clueless as Obama is far from perfect. For me, it is still a no-brainer: I'll side with the guy who does the right thing poorly to the party that does the stupid things so well. No wonder my conservative friends are so angry when they talk politics. Who wouldn't be with that kind of party to represent your interests?

Mardia Gras News Brief

Clinton recently said that it is time for Obama to begin to talk up the economy. Given that so much of economic activity is a fuction of confidence, it might be worth working on the lowest level of consumer confidence in the history of its measurement (since 1967). This seems like good advice to me. Have we gone from a president who was the master of denial to one who is the master of bad news? How about some hope now that Obama has his stimulus package?

The average home price in Detroit - about $18,500 - is about equal to the average price of a car from Detroit. I don't have the data on this, but this has got to be a first.

Informal poll on CCN Money's site indicates that the average person thinks that the economy is unlikey to turn around until AFTER 2011. We don't forecast - we just project the present into the future.

The San Francisco Chronicle may shut down. This could be due to one of two things: so close to the epicenter of the Internet, it had to be the first old-media casualty; or, people are just tired of bad news and have simply stopped paying to hear how little money they have.

Happy Mardi Gras. Tomorrow is the beginning of Lent. I think that I'll give up on giving up. I recommend that you do the same. This economy is not nearly as bad as the politicians and press would love for you to believe. Politicians are trying to gain license to pass whatever legislation they want. The media are simply trying to get and hold your attention now that one of the most fascinating elections in history is past. During the Great Depression, GDP was halved and unemployment was 25%. Last quarter, our economy dipped about a point. This is NO Great Depression. But just think: once people realize that, the politicians will be busy taking credit and the media will have a great story about the stunning reversal in fortune.

Obama says that he's going to halve the deficit, saying that our budget process has been an exercise in deception. Looking behind this, we see that he's talking about halving the massive $1.3 trillion deficit inherited from Bush. This means that he'll halve the deficit ... or, put more simply, bring it back to the outrageous sum it was just a recently as last year. Good thing that we're moving beyond deception in this process.

21 February 2009

Did the Conservatives Win the Last Election?

President Obama on Saturday said his new stimulus bill would deliver the fastest and broadest tax cut ever and would usher in "the most sweeping economic recovery plan in history."

When conservatives win, they aren't eager to pass environmental protection legislation or pull out of wars to appease liberals. Yet when liberals win, the first thing they do is rush to enact the fastest tax cut?

Give Reagan credit. He seems to have made tax cuts a new requirement for any administration - conservative or liberal.

Now if we could just find a president who would make each administration as eager to avoid war as taxes ...

20 February 2009

An Alternative Stimulus Package

I have finally come up with an alternative to Obama's stimulus package. (I apologize to my faithful readers for having taken so long to arrive at this.)

The point of any stimulus package, it seems to me, should be to create jobs quickly and then - longer term - actually expand the economy. Tax cuts and government programs might help with this, but these seem to me rather old school. As it is, we've pumped about a trillion dollars into banks and are wringing our hands, fretting that banks are not making loans. And some of the big programs that are being funded will not even start until 2010.

The finance industry has just lost hundreds of thousands of employees. These people need jobs. And, generally speaking, they are specialists in assessing the value of assets and translating business plans into funding. I say that we employ these people first and use them to create millions of jobs. Here's how.

Set up regional boards all over the country. Run competitions for business start up ideas. Bias the approval towards businesses that will create good-paying jobs. And start funding business start ups. Quickly.

Make the criteria a little different than the usual banker filter. Act more like venture capitalists than bankers. That is, don't worry so much about whether 95% of the businesses succeed and are able to pay back their loans at 10%. Rather, play it more like a portfolio, hoping that at least 1 out of 10 or even 1 out of 50 succeeds and goes on to become a big employer.

The businesses that qualify for these start ups would be ensured two years of operating expenses. After this time, they could either fold or get a new round of financing from traditional sources or simply be self-sufficient.

The GI Bill after World War 2 created a great many careers by funding education for people who would not have otherwise become professionals. Just think of how much bigger a deal this would be - a wave of businesses that might not otherwise get started continuing to employ citizens and generate returns for decades.

This would stimulate innovation, create jobs, give a boost to the economy, and provide unpredictable results - combining the best of government largess and market dynamics.

Rather than a stimulus package that funds banks to provide loans, why not go directly to the point of funding corporations to provide jobs? Why continue to funnel money through an intermediary that costs us trillions? And why just stimulate consumption? Why not production? Imagine a trillion dollars in new business financing - or even a mere $500 billion. Just think of the potential impact.

The original stimulus packages were bold enough to stimulate banking activity that would not have occurred without government financing or incentives (such as low interest rates). Why not stimulate corporate activity that would not have otherwise occurred?

It is a new century. It is worth considering the use of new techniques.

Mitch Hedberg

Because my son loves Hedberg and because it's Friday. Enjoy.

19 February 2009

The Executive Compensation Bubble

A buddy of mine yesterday said that the $500,000 pay cap for CEOs was still too high. Obama has tapped into the national outrage at executive pay by capping CEO pay in companies that receive aid from the government. In 1985, CEOs made 40X what the average worker did; by 2005, they made 450X. To my amateur's eye, this looks like a bubble.

There are at least two problems with Obama's CEO pay cap. One is that is only addresses the problem of excessive executive pay in companies that receive aid from the government. The other is that it leaves the definition of this pay cap to the government.

I own lots of companies. Probably you do too. Or, more accurately, we own shares in companies. If you actually owned a company outright and chose not to run it yourself, you would hire a company manager and agree to some salary to pay him or her - just as you would for all the other employees. And you would probably pay him or her more than other employees. But I'm guessing that you wouldn't just say, "hey, why don't I give you, say, $12 million a year?"

It seems to me that the real solution to excessive CEO pay is to have the people who own the companies determine the pay. This might not have been possible in the pre-Internet days, but today it should be relatively simple to give shareholders say in executive pay.

The result would be lower overall pay, I'm sure. But more importantly, it would allow variation. $500,000 is simply not enough in some instances and too much in others. Better, it would put the determination of pay into the hands of owners, not government officials.

I don't think that executive pay is the result of market dynamics. I think it is now the result of executives who know how to avoid market dynamics. By putting in place mechanisms that would allow us shareholders to "negotiate" with CEOs, we'd see market forces correct the bubble in executive pay. At that point, it is unlikely that we'd need DC to define a cap on CEO pay any more than we'd need it to define a cap on janitor's pay.

16 February 2009

Art as a Getaway Vehicle

Art used to be a representation of reality. Now, in this age of digital sound and video, we are inundated with reality. Or at least we think we are. So art has a new role: the escape from reality.

When Adam Smith described the division of labor in a pin factory, he told the story of how productivity would soar. This turned out to be a kind of prophecy but it is even more true of information than products. The almost cliche, probably true tidbit that a single edition of the Sunday New York Times has more information than a medieval peasant absorbed in a lifetime seems to make this point.

So, what is the protection for the psyche of a curious animal suddenly confronted with gigabytes of information at any moment? Information that provides no information about what to do next, what you should do, what you could do? You opt for information (for surely meditating on nothing can hardly compare with focusing on something in this information age) that takes you away from reality rather than plunges you into it.

And if the escape gives you some moments of vicarious bonding with a superhero while you are at it, all the better. Not only are you faced with fictional situations that require no response, you feel equipped with special powers with which to deal with this situation.

Art has morphed from a vehicle that brings art to us into a vehicle that, like a getaway car, takes us away from reality.

14 February 2009

Bernard on Love: Happy Valentine's Day From R World

"Do you think that love is something that only emerges out of certain relationships or do you think that it’s an impulse that looks for expression? Does it come out of interaction with other people or does it start from inside us?”

“Is love something that looks for someone as an excuse or is it something that seizes you by the lapels and shakes you out of your stupor? Is that what you’re asking?”

“Yeah. I guess.” Bernard had a way of making me wonder what I was talking about. Bernard was eating a cup cake. I felt a little self conscious just watching him and wondered if some time we might meet over something other than a meal. His eating etiquette did not seem to be improving.

“The Greeks were so much smarter than us. They had multiple words for love. We still don’t appreciate how much confusion we create because of our careless way with language. Rather than question our language, though, we just hire more lawyers.”


“Sure. Almost always when we call in the lawyers it is because it turns out that the things said – even the things for which we’ve created a contract – were exactly different ideas hiding behind exactly the same words.”

“What?” I don’t know how Bernard did it. I started the conversation with a question and quickly lost the thread of what we were talking about.

“Two people say that they’re in love. And they are. That’s true. But then it can take them months or years to realize that although they were both saying love they were referring to different things.”

“One person is talking about affection and another about arousal?”

“Something like that. That is part of it.” Bernard rather ungraciously turned the cupcake paper inside out to chew the cake off of it. I glanced around to make sure that no one else noticed. “The Greeks had three or four words for love – words that loosely lined up with our words for affection, loyalty, passion, friendship, and desire. And even with that finer distinction, they had room for confusion.”

“So what is the cure, Bernard?”

“Talk your way into love. There should be a minimum word count before two people can declare themselves to be in love. There is a reason that the heart craves conversation and love letters.”

“So only poets should fall in love?”

“No,” Bernard laughed. “None of it has to rhyme. But relationships have to be defined with at least as much care as a house or a piece of electronic equipment. You start with a purpose and then you talk through design details for a house or piece of hardware. If those things are going to work, they’ve been thought through. You think that relationships are any different?”

“How do you start?”

“Start from anywhere and go everywhere. That’s the conversation of love. Stories from childhood. Discarded dreams and dreams that stick to your shoe like gum on a hot summer day. Fantasies. Fears. Philosophy.”

“That’s a lot.”

“That’s the risk of love. You have these conversations about love even before you are sure that their definition of love is the same as yours. And in the end, no two people ever share the same definition of love. We just need some overlap and respect for the rest. When you love someone, you don’t just share a definition of love; you let them keep what’s unique about their definition, what they love about their idea of love.”

“You need your idea of love to be the same but in the end you need to love them enough to let them hold onto their own idea of love?”

“Yes. If you love them enough, you feed that because there is nothing more vital to a heart than to have its idea of love loved in turn.”

“Why does that make sense, Bernard? You are saying that you have to share a definition of love in order for love to work and then you are saying that you have to accept the fact that you won't fully share a definition of love?”

Bernard frowned. "Did I say share a definition of love?" I nodded. "I guess I should have said, share a conversation about love."

"For how long?"

"Why the whole time, of course," Bernard said. And then he shrugged as if he’d suddenly lost interest. He had a child like expression as he looked around for the waitress. “I love these cup cakes,” he said with enthusiasm. “I think that I’m going to have another one. Would you like one?”

13 February 2009

Doesn't Nadya Sound Like a Swedish Name?

I recently talked with an English guy from Sweden.

I queried him about the country and he said, "Well, you know, in the UK we have these lovely little bits that are surrounded by poverty and unsafe areas. But in Sweden, it all seems to be lovely bits. They don't seem to have any areas with poverty. Everyone has a Volvo and a three-bedroom place. I don't know how they do it."

And then he told me that Swedish companies offer 18 months of paternity leave for new fathers. Should the father not want to use his, he can lump it in with his wife's leave, giving her a total of 36 months. 3 years leave per child.

If I were Nadya Suleman, I would have moved to Sweden before giving birth to 14 children. Just think about it: 42 years of paid leave. With leave polices like that, who needs a career? It makes you wonder, really, how it is with such inducements that Sweden has a population of only 9 million.

11 February 2009

President (Does NOT Go) Ballistic

Already friends of mine on the right have given up on the notion of Obama offering anything new or better. This from the same people who gave Bush 5+ years to prove his incompetence.

I have confidence in the man for the following reason. Studies of how well people do managing complex systems have shown that the people who make decisions and turn them into action without further adjustment - people shooting cannonballs rather than guided missiles - do poorly. It seems simple but the real point is that your angle of departure matters less than your ability to adapt to found conditions.

I was able to catch just a portion of Obama's meeting yesterday in Florida. This seems to me democracy in action. This performance was not ideal - ideally, groups of average citizens could weigh in on the policy decisions behind this massive stimulus package - but it was refreshing.

Obama didn't just advocate a bill - he explained it. And more than that, he took questions. This seems so basic, but compare this with Dick Cheney.

I think that it may well be true that Obama has made some real mistakes in his first few weeks in office. Possibly more than Bush made in his first year. But I'm also confident that Obama will outperform Bush for the simple reason that this demonstrated willingness to listen and respond to real people suggests to me that Obama is not just shooting cannonballs. He's willing and able to be responsive and not just admonishing. This seems to provide every reason for hope.

On a related note, Obama's fresh approach may change punditry. Instead of Bush talking to pundits about the average person, pundits who then tell us average people what we thought and feel about what he said, Obama seems to go straight to the average person. And we learn that these average people are much more interesting and varied than are the pundit's abstractions of them.

Darwin Turns 200 - Still Refuses TV Interviews

..."It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one most adaptable to change."
- Charles Darwin

It is hard to think of a more ringing endorsement of a man's profound understanding of biology and life than this: Charles Darwin celebrates his 200th birthday tomorrow. To me, this shows that he has, not just theoretical understanding but, practical knowledge. If any of us detractors could live so long, they might have better grounds on which to contest his claim to understand how life works.

Evolution is an idea that - like us hurtling through space at thousands of miles an hour in orbit around the sun - is obviously, intuitively, and spectacularly wrong. It is wrong because it defies our own observations and the gut sense that comes from a life time of perception that sees cause and effect through the window of hours or - at best - years but staggers at the notion of causation that plays out over millions and billions of years.

For this reason alone, Darwin's odd conclusion that various life forms evolved is a stunning insight. He saw finches with different characteristics in different environments but he did not, obviously, himself watch the slow evolution of different length and shaped beaks. Darwin's insight came from observation of a result, and from this he worked backwards to a process. Try that. Imagine seeing a cake and figuring out baking.

I find in Darwin's life great inspiration as well. The man worked, on average, only a few hours a day and yet he made one of the greatest contributions to thought of all time. (Further confirmation for me that busy is too often a poor and misleading substitute for productive or - even more importantly - creative.) And the man did not release his great work until he was 50.

One of the many reasons that I admire him is that, for me, the concept of evolution seems to shed huge insight into even social change and development. After reading a great deal of history, I have become a radical incrementalist. That is, I believe that things change radically - but usually in small increments at any given time. Societies evolve.

We have come to apply the concept of evolution to phenomenon as varied as software, language, customs, markets, and technology. It is hard to imagine understanding any dynamic system without the notion of evolution.

As essential as his stunning idea has proven, it still pales in comparison to turning 200.

07 February 2009

Holocaust Deniers and the Tyranny of Thought

The Pope is now apologizing for the beliefs of a Bishop about the Holocaust. Bishop Richard Williamson believes that gas chambers were used to cleanse Jews but doesn't believe that any were actually killed in them. For this, he may face expulsion.

Lest I get labeled as a Holocaust denier, let me just say that his claim seems absolutely absurd. And for that reason it doesn't need to be censored - just outed. If someone says, "It is not raining outside," when it is, you don't have to shut him up - you just have to point people's attention to the weather outside. Ideas do not need to be censored or promoted - they need to be thought through and proved or disproved (or left in the category of indeterminate) on the basis of logic or evidence.

Rather than order this Bishop to recant, how much more powerful would it be to force him to defend his beliefs in a public forum where he'd be forced to confront testimony and proof from tens to hundreds of thousands of people and sources?

We don't want to teach children that ideas can be dismissed as wrong or absurd by authority. It is better to teach them why some ideas get discarded as ineffectual or evil or simply stupid. The point is not to approve or disprove ideas based on the power of the authorities behind the ideas; the point is to approve or disprove authority based on the power of the ideas behind the authorities. Freedom is a package deal.

Obama's Unilateral Economics

We've had a global economy since Marco Polo made Venice rich by turning it into a trade center linking Europe and the Orient. By degrees, local economies have become more intertwined ever since.

This matters when assessing Obama's stimulus package. I suspect that historians biggest criticism will be that Obama is trying to do in the world of economics what Bush tried to do in the world of diplomacy - go it alone.

It is possible to save a single house on a block of burning buildings. It is meaningless to save a single room in a burning house. My own feeling is that our national economy is so intertwined with the global economy that our situation is closer to that of the room in the house than house on the block.

Today's economic problem is not contained to any one country. It spills across continents. There is no market immune from the global troubles or any market that is going to rise back up alone.

I still believe that Keynesian economics is powerful and offers a lesson worth remembering: in a down economy, if everyone does what makes sense they'll make things worse. As people cut costs to adapt to a drop in sales, sales everywhere drop and the ripple effect is to make a bad situation worse. A stimulus package in this context makes every kind of sense and is necessary.

But Keynes did not like the idea of allowing capital flows across borders. It made it difficult to effect national policy. But we'll never get back to this world of self-contained national economies, and yet the lesson of Keynes holds: when individuals do what makes the most sense in a recession we can easily tip into a depression.

So, what to do? I'll write more about it, but the real point of this post is simple: any solution that Obama tries to hammer out with the Senate is going to be too small in scope. Not because nearly a trillion dollars falls short of absurdly sufficient to stimulate. No. By too small in scope, I mean that any solution focused on a national economy is going to do little to reverse a global slow down. Until Obama focuses his attention on jointly creating a global solution, we'll likely scratch our heads and wonder what we got for our trillions.

06 February 2009

Bernard on Civilization as the Burden of Consciousness

Bernard didn’t waste anytime with small talk. Something had been keeping him up and the words spilled out even before I could read my menu.

“Civilization is the burden of consciousness. Our brains are big enough that it takes an enormous amount of complexity and work just to occupy them.”

“What?” I said, disoriented.

“We created all this society stuff to keep up with the development of our brains.”

I paused. I was irritated. Bernard knew that I rarely ordered the same thing twice and I needed to look at the menu each time. He wasn’t giving me time to do that. “So you’re saying that the Egyptian slaves built the pyramids because they were bored?”

“No. They had to create an outside world as complex as the one in their head.”


“Because otherwise they’d be bored.”


“Don’t be willfully obtuse,” Bernard sighed. “Communities do this. I has been a joint effort. Consciousness is like a vacuum that sucks civilization after it, inventing games, social constructs and technologies to occupy us.” He didn’t really need me to listen. He just kept on talking.

“But now the problem is that we Americans don’t really accept any rituals. It used to be that social complexity had to keep up with the complexity of consciousness, but now it’s reversed. We’ve made it too hard, made the construction of civilization and meaning a burden that we foist onto the individual.” Bernard did not even pause as the waitress came to take my order. I realized that he was again drinking espresso.

“We are a nation founded by Puritans who thought that rituals were a corruption of something pure. We threw away mass and art in church buildings. We reject rituals and social constructs and yet still there is a need for ceremonies, for some sacrament to mark milestones in life. But not many people have communion, or Bar Mitzvahs or whatever it is that ancient cultures have. We’ve been purified of rituals and still have a need for them so … we create them – rather poorly – on our own. What used to be a community tradition has become individual choice or responsibility.”

“So you are saying that it is not just that civilization is the burden of consciousness. You are saying that this burden is now personal?”

“Yes. And it’s an impossible task. By the time you realize what ritual is needed to become an adult or to leave home, you are a generation or two beyond that. The person immersed in the experience can’t be expected to also construct a way to commemorate, or symbolize it.”

“So I’m lost. You’re saying that we’ve purged our culture of rituals or that we just make them up ourselves? Civilization is the burden on consciousness or the burden created by consciousness?”

“I’m saying two things. One, civilization is a side effect of consciousness. Two, rituals are now left to the individual to choose or create. Now that everyone has to customize his own personal civilization – his own private culture – civilization has now become a burden to consciousness.”

“So we’ve gone full circle?”

“Everything living does.”

“So what is the prognosis?”

Bernard began to laugh. “Consciousness will become more complex. It has to, just to keep up.”

“Poof! Just like that? We’ll evolve more intelligence.”

“More social intelligence, yes. We already are.”

“We are?”

“Sure. What do you think the Internet is? Social sites like Facebook? We’re laying the foundation for new social inventions that can be shared. And we have huge networks to tap into.”

“Bernard,” I said laughing. ‘You’ve joined facebook?”

Bernard shifted uncomfortably. “Er. Yes. I have.”

I could not help but chuckle. “Bernard, I thought that was for college kids. No?”

“Not anymore,” Bernard said. “Everyone needs help constructing a life in a do-it-yourself culture. Not just kids.”

04 February 2009

Health Plans Daschle'd!

Daschle is out as Secretary of Health. Speculation has it that Obama's health plan may well suffer as a consequence. It is not my intention to defend Daschle; I simply don't know enough about him to do that. Instead, I'd like to attack the folks who've attacked him.

Commenting on an earlier post of mine, Damon reminded me that there is plenty of hypocrisy in DC still. He's right. The Democrats often talk about the importance of government programs, and funding those with more taxes from the rich than the middle class and then .... well, it turns out that once they get money they are obviously just as reluctant to pay taxes as anyone else. Hypocrisy indeed.

Yet this is noise. Really. Our infant mortality rate is the highest among industrialized nations, even though we spend more on health care than any other country in the world.

The question that Congress should have asked is simple to phrase and hard to discern: will Daschle help to make ours a better health care system? If he can, he will literally save lives. No one stops a fireman as he is about to run into a burning building whether or not he has outstanding parking tickets. We're just happy to have him rescue lives.

George Washington killed representatives of the government that claimed rule over him. He ordered his men to attack British soldiers. There was nothing legal or honorable about this - at least from the standpoint of the British. But this had to be done in order to wrest away independence. No one judges Washington for having killed British soldiers: people judge Washington for having helped to create the most curious and imitated experiment in the history of government.

If Daschle had been able to change our health care system to work better and more affordable for everyone, it would not have mattered whether or not he'd paid his taxes properly. The point is not to appoint a Secretary of Health who has a clean record; the point is to appoint someone able to effect change.

Yet scandal is so much easier to understand than policy. The good news is that we got Spitzer out of politics. He used prostitutes. The bad news is that we're floundering around with regulation and bailout packages that are literally costing us TRILLIONS of dollars. If Spitzer's expertise in financial market and company regulation might have saved us even billions, would his penchant for prostitutes have mattered? If Daschle could save us billions in health care cost, would the fact that he failed to pay thousands in taxes matter?

Until our media does a better job of reporting on policy than scandal, we're probably doomed to watch a parade of policy makers who are careful about not making mistakes rather than reckless about making a difference. Perhaps one reason that change is so hard to effect in DC is that the people who finally get there have learned to be cautious about making waves. It seems that this misses the point.

03 February 2009

Is It Too Much to Ask for a Sustainable Stimulus Package?

Shouldn't any policy have to be sustainable?

As Obama pushes for a stimulus package, it seems to me that the biggest concern is that we'll spend trillions - literally - on economic programs that simply defers the inevitable. Getting Americans to spend money we don't have to buy things we cannot afford is not a novel solution to our economic problems. I might even suggest that such an approach has helped to put us into this recession.

I love the idea of approaching alternative energy development as if it were NASA or the Cold War. This is great because it not only could create employment and help to stimulate the economy but it is a solution that can become sustainable - creating an entirely new industry that becomes not just self-financing but something that could more than pay back any investments made today.

I do not like the idea of subsidizing home purchases. Already home prices are too high and the struggle to finance these inflated prices helped to create the mortgage crisis that dominoed into the financial crisis. Home prices that are such a huge multiple of incomes are simply not sustainable and stimulating the housing market seems to me just a distortion of a natural equilibrium.

Some of the items in the stimulus package could help to create a shift. Others are simply sending good money after bad.

For me, the filter that ought to be applied to every item in this stimulus bill is this: will it help to create jobs and will those jobs eventually lead to something sustainable? This is the difference between using credit for shopping and using it to start a small business.

This is a great opportunity to create new industries, technologies, and products. It might be worth looking at this trillion dollar spending package as something transformative, something to position us for 2015 rather than an attempt to just get us back to 2006.

02 February 2009

The Purpose of Teams

Last week, working with a development team, I had this thought.

The purpose of managers is to remind teams of goals.

The purpose of teams is to remind managers of reality.

Groundhog Prediction

Today was Groundhog Day, not that the people of Pennsylvania noticed. Apparently, the forecast is for six more weeks of football coverage and celebratory conversations.

[I realize that this suggests a lack of sophistication, but Groundhog Day is my favorite movie. It has what are for me all the elements of a great movie: humor, an absurd plot, redemption of the hero, love, philosophy, and something sort of like time travel. Because of the movie, I actually notice the event.]

01 February 2009

Obama Threatens Blogosphere

I blame Obama.

I have, of late, dropped off from my normal rate of postings at R World. One reason is just work: it has been intense during the last two weeks. But I also blame Obama.

When you see a man driving blindfolded or riding a horse seated backwards, it doesn't take much analysis before you can holler out advice. Bush was this man.

My issues with Obama, by contrast, are more subtle. They are not going to be as obvious to me. And given that what Obama is doing is more thoughtful, it takes more thought on my part to both consider what he's doing and what might work better.

This is going to make it hard on all bloggers, I imagine. The rate of postings might plummet throughout the blogosphere.

First Bush screws up the real world. Now Obama screws up the virtual world. The next president will have nothing left to go after save our imaginations.

Bernard's Super Bowl Prediction

Surprisingly, Bernard had a prediction over breakfast today.

"Somebody wins, somebody loses," he said matter of factly.

"That's it? That's your prediction?"

"It's designed that way."

"That doesn't really qualify as a prediction, Bernard. That's more of a tautology."

"Okay, you want a name?"

"Yeah. That's how this works."

"Steelers in 4."

"The Steelers will win in 4 quarters? This isn't boxing, Bernard. Of course they'll win or lose in 4." I paused to sip my tea. "So, why do you think that they'll win?"

"It's like they say after the game: it's the fans."

I laughed. "So you are saying that the people of Pittsburgh are so much better as people or fans that their team will win?"

"I'm saying it's winter. People in Pittsburgh have more incentive to go to Tampa than people from Phoenix."

"Hard to argue with that."

"The poor Cardinals won't even be able to hear their fans, they'll be so outnumbered. Or hear themselves call plays, for that matter." He leaned forward, "It's all in the numbers, Ron."