31 July 2009
When Barack H. Obama took office, the NASDAQ was at 1440.86. By 9 March, it had dropped to 1268.64, a fall of nearly 12%. A great many critics bemoaned the effect his policy was already having on the market. Since then, the NASDAQ has gone up about 56%, to 1978.5. Since Obama has taken office, the NASDAQ has risen 37%.
I would go on, but I'll just stop here, with the facts. I'll leave you to reach the conclusion that Obama is obviously a friend of Wall Street, a capitalist pig if you will, and George W. was a closet socialist who left investors afraid to put their money into American markets. I run an obscure but honest blog and I would never push my readers into such incendiary conclusions. This time, I'll just report the facts.
30 July 2009
Obama is issuing the Presidential Medal of Freedom to 16 people and having a couple more over for beers. He's going to need to think bigger if he wants to reverse his declining poll numbers. Like invite the people of Ohio to the mall for a kegger.
A new report indicates that tanning beds are as risky as smoking. Even riskier, of course, is tanning until you are smoking.
The housing market is recovering and house prices are slowly edging back up. If the recession recovery continues, by fall the news organizations will be reporting a new financial crisis: how housing is becoming unaffordable. And then wonder why it is that people tend to dismiss them.
Sarah Palin may host a radio talk show. The thought of her using that medium is rather like the thought of Congressman Barney Frank announcing that he's joining the World Wrestling Federation.
Commentators are alarmed by Madonna's biceps. Have we gotten so numb to obesity that we are now alarmed by muscle? I obviously missed the memo that explains this.
29 July 2009
MSNBC's Ed (sounds a lot like, and looks a little like, a leftist Rush Limbaugh) is outraged that Glen Beck (an alarmist from the right) said that Barack Obama is a racist.
It's a topic worth talking about and I think it gets to the difference between race and racism.
If you grow up Latino or Asian in this country, you have a different experience than someone who grows up white or black. If you grow up poor or rich and you have a different experience from someone who grows up middle class. If you grow up in an Italian or Jewish family that clings to its ethnic or religious identity, you have a different experience than someone who grows up Mormon.
Race matters. (As does ethnic group or religion. Without race, religion and ethnicity we'd lose about half our jokes.) Plus, it simply isn't true that a government composed only of Latino Catholic females would be the same as a government composed only of White Protestant males or Asian Baptist transvestites. Race is part of a person's experience and it'd be foolish to discount it.
Racism is the conclusion that members of a particular race (or races) are inferior. Racism settles for less for a swath of humanity.
Pretending that race doesn't matter is a stance only slightly more sophisticated than racism. (Which is like saying that the service at a restaurant is only slightly more sophisticated than waitresses on roller skates).
Believing that race, gender, and ethnic or religious orientation matters and that a community's representatives should roughly match the community is very different from racism. It seems to me that missing this point requires willful ignorance.
26 July 2009
Right now, if things go well, they make big money. If things go poorly, they make their salary (or might even get laid off). The incentive is to take big risks that - if they pay off - result in big bonuses. They are not incented to reduce risk because that would reduce return - or bonuses.
But if these bankers could lose money, they'd be more cautious. They'd still accept risk in the hopes of returns, but they'd be careful about it. It's lovely (I have to assume) to make $2 million in bonus money. It would be worrisome to have to pay out $2 million in a negative bonus. The balance between the hope for the $2 million positive bonus and the fear of the $2 million negative bonus might be enough to incent them make money without being reckless. This is the balance that makes entrepreneurs successful. I don't see why it wouldn't work with bankers. As it is, bankers can't lose money but they can make it. This skews them towards reckless investing and makes things stupidly risky for us taxpayers.
As long as we taxpayers take the risk and they take the reward, they'll continue to try cute tricks with money that mean higher risk and return than is good for the economy.
* Let's see if this new phrase catches on. If it does, remember that you read it here first: the Great Recession of '09.
It also biases students towards studying subjects they already know, given this raises the probability of demonstrating mastery.
One of my son Blake's buddies is in Nepal, studying Tibetan Buddhism and living in a monastery. He is taking a class that had 21 students at the onset, a number that has dwindled to 8. Many of the students were among our best and brightest - mostly American and from places like Harvard. The students were frustrated by the course material, the teacher, and the difficulty of the subject and rather than let their GPA take a hit, they dropped the course.
Grades, in this case, are an obstacle to the students learning something that runs so contrary to their current thinking that they are unlikely to do well at it. And yet this would be the kind of thing that - whether learned well or poorly - is most likely to stretch their minds to new dimensions.
Grades date back to the very early days of the Information Age. Buyers of cotton in the south, on behalf of British manufacturers, would send single letter grades to report the quality of the cotton. In these early days of transatlantic communication, even a single letter was expensive to send and they had to find ways to minimize the cost of communication. This is hardly the case today.
This is just one more story that points to the perverse incentive of grades to avoid learning. There are others. Essentially, there is little evidence that grades assist with learning or improving the educational system. It is, however, a practice that is so ingrained that teachers and students can hardly imagine a world without grading. Once a practice achieves this level of acceptance, it doesn't even need to be defended. It's just the way things are.
25 July 2009
One the one hand are the conservatives who oppose universal health care. They see this as expensive and as a way to subsidize the lives of people who are careless about their money, their health, and the treatment of their liver. They don't see health care as any more of a right than membership in a Country Club.
On the other hand are the liberals who see universal health care as proof of the goodness and modernity of a community. And they oppose the notion that wealth ought to translate into privilege when it comes to somethings as essential as health care.
Obama is obviously closer to the second group, and I think that he may be leading us down a path we cannot afford. Health care for him could be what Iraq was to Bush - a vague idea that proves unsustainable because of a failure to move beyond platitudes and hand waving to the point of designing something that won't collapse once it makes contact with the real world.
Health care ought to be a right. But that statement is not the end of a conversation. It is the start of one.
People regularly criticize the US for how much we spend on health care. In 2007, it was an estimated 17% of our total GDP and in a decade it could be 20%. These facts are cited as proof of the failure of our system. I am not so sure.
Once you've bought your house, your car, shoes and meals, where are you going to put your money? Why wouldn't an affluent country put an increasing percentage of additional income into purchasing more years of life with more life in those years? It is conceivable to me that we'll eventually spend 20% to 35% of our GDP on products and services that enhance our feeling of well being, strength and agility, and mental acuity. Spending more on health (and I'd include psychological health under this umbrella) seems to me a sign of progress.
And this gets to the root of the problem and the essential problem to solve in regards to health care. When I say that health care is a right, I am referring to a particular level of care. You deserve police protection but you do not deserve a personal body guard. (But if you are rich, you can hire a personal body guard.) You deserve health care but you do not deserve a hip replacement at 85 (but if you are rich ... well, you get the idea).
Everyone deserves health care. Some basic level of preventative care, anyway, and coverage for broken bones, disease, etc. It's not obvious to me that health care necessitated by bad life choices (obesity, drug and alcohol abuse for instance) are rights.
And as to where the money ought to come from to fund this? I think that it ought to come from two places. One, it ought to come from a tax on products like fast food, video games, TV and corn syrup that contribute to obesity. Two, it ought to come from a tax on the premium health care that only the wealthy can afford. Any product or service deemed too luxurious to be covered by universal health care (and that should include a variety of procedures and drugs) should be taxed as a luxury good and the money put into a pool to provide basic care. This will draw revenue from groups that can afford it and groups that drive up health care costs.
Making our current level of luxury health care universal is a vote for bankruptcy. To decide that a swath of the population doesn't deserve any health care in the most affluent country in the world is a vote for immorality. The first step is to define what we mean by universal health care, carefully - bounding that in ways that provides essential care without creating an unsustainable health plan.
22 July 2009
I'm talking politics with my buddy Daryl - who is essentially a libertarian. He is intrigued as to why I'm a liberal and decides that we ought to argue climate change to explore why we reach different conclusions.
Daryl is skeptical about the fact of climate change but allows that even if it is happening it's threat to life is much less than even malaria. His argument is essentially that of Bjorn Lomborg's, who says that scientists and politicians warning of climate change are overly emotional about the issue and would divert their resources elsewhere if they were conducting rational analysis of different threats.
I can cede this point, but think that it misses a larger point. The habitat is not really a marginal cost kind of issue. We need it in roughly its current condition in order to survive. If the price of gold goes up and we run out, oh well. If the price of habitat goes up and we run out, oh hell.
Even this Daryl counters to say that no marginal analysis of a habitat is ever going to accept a future value of zero. No calculation would allow that such a price was worth it. Instead, Daryl says, the environment might change and so would behavior. If coastal cities get flooded, people move. All this takes time and the analysis of the cost assumes that human behavior does not change in response.
This conversation took place as I was already puzzling over what cluster of beliefs make conservatives' world view different from liberals. And in this case, I mean conservatives as people who believe in minimal government action because they trust in individual response, as opposed to liberal beliefs' that individuals don't always do what is best for the larger system.
Let's look at the economy, for instance. A conservative says that if unemployment jumps up, wages will drop and eventually people will be hired again. There may be pain for time as people re-train or accept lower wages, but prices will drop and the sooner people accept this new reality the better.
A liberal, by contrast, will argue for intervention. When people lose their jobs, they buy fewer products. As companies sell fewer products, they layoff more workers. As more people lose their jobs, they buy fewer products. Liberals argue that economies do not always self correct and can actually fall into a spiral of worsening conditions. At this point, government intervention to raise spending, lower taxes, or lower interest rates can reverse the downward spiral and get the economy going again.
Listening to Daryl, I realized why it is that so many conservatives are against measures to combat climate change. Such measures are expensive. (Conservatives are more honest about this than liberals, as one would expect from a group arguing that intervention is not worth doing.) And they don't really believe that these systems need intervention. As the climate changes, there will be winners and losers and people will adjust; farmers in Canada and Norway will benefit while farmers in Bengal and Guatemala do worse. Life never was fair. Intervention is likely to be too expensive, the problem is likely to change, and any intervention is bound to have unexpected consequences.
I guess I might agree if it were not for the fact that climate change already seems like an intervention on a process that has evolved over billions of years. And I don't doubt that the planet and even some people will do well on a globe that potentially has more storms and runs 3 to 7 degrees warmer. But I do doubt that the cost for this adjustment will be less than the "intervention" that would lessen the current intervention into the ecosystem that is the product of carbon emissions.
To the extent that conservatives argue for letting systems naturally adjust, theirs will more often be the policy we use. Liberals who want to intervene in systems have more obstacles to enacting their policy: from gaining agreement that intervention is needed to assessing and gaining agreement over exactly what kind of intervention is needed. In order to get their way, conservatives merely have to wait for the rest of the population to reach a stalemate on what to do.
I think that it's true that our knowledge of systems is in its infancy. The language of systems dynamics is not even a century old and still gets little attention. Because ultimately, the battle between conservatives who argue doing nothing and liberals who want to implement policy is a battle between people with simulation models and people with faith in the self-correcting nature of systems. History suggests that systems do not always correct, as studies of the Great Depression and select ecosystems suggest (see, for instance, Jared Diamond's Collapse).
The option is not to cling to faith. Given the importance of systems to life and civilization, our only option seems to radically improve our ability to model, understand, and predict systems' behaviors.
I sympathize with the conservatives' contention that many interventions actually worsen systems or - at best - simply squander resources to change what cannot be changed. And I know that politicians and governments with the power to intervene in economies and financial markets can become the instruments of abuse. But I don't have conservatives' calm faith in systems' ability to self correct before things get worse. I guess that makes me a reluctant liberal.
And it suggests one other thing. We should aggressively invest in the study of systems' dynamics - systems as varied as ecosystems, economies, financial markets, the Internet, international labor markets, the spread of terrorist ideologies, and social progress. We can't afford to be dependant on systems we so poorly understand.
19 July 2009
RD: Our distinguished legislators just seemed to have wasted a week of intense activity pretending that there was some reasonable chance that Sotomayor might not be confirmed. The time suck that was this parade of platitudes effectively stole a month's worth of potential productivity (which, depending on your level of cynicism about the work of Congress, is either a good thing or a bad thing.)
AW: I’m thinking ‘Barnum & Bailey’ must be happier now that the ‘National Circus Show’, aka Supreme Court Confirmation Hearings has gone into hiatus until the next Supreme Court Justice chooses to retire.
AW: It’s been amazing the past week the questions asked of Judge Sotomayor in terms of her rich life experiences as Republican Senators want to insure she follows the letter of the law. I have no doubt our Founding Fathers would be so happy to know this. After all, I’m sure the experiences suffered by those under British Rule probably had no bearing on how our Constitution was written.
RD: Obama remains supremely confident of himself even as the evidence for the efficacy of his stimulus package has yet to come in. (The joy of being an opposition candidate is that there is a freedom in being able to criticize someone else's policies rather than play cheerleader for one's own.) One might think that the unreasonable adulation coupled with the unreasonable criticism might be enough to cancel out, leaving our president's fairly fair minded about their own foibles and strengths. Instead, it seems as though the job brings with it a conviction of one's great ability. The exalted leader seems to make about as much sense as wigs and horse drawn carriages. The man is just a man. But we insist on mixing politics and religion, making him into either deity or demon.
RD: Sean Hannity recently ran a piece on exorcisms. I went to his site the other day and was amazed at the number of ads (or was it mere click throughs to more material?) that warned of the coming apocalypse. There is an element on the right that really does seem convinced that there is no happy ending possible for a country that has embraced happiness and science over sober superstitution.
AW: Einstein noted we can’t “simultaneously prevent and prepare for war.” Maybe we can’t support universal health care and health insurance companies for much the same reason.
AW: The people who have the compassion and courage to donate an organ to save another person’s life should not have to wonder whether they will be punished for it later by health insurers concluding that they have a “pre-existing condition”.
AW: And about healthcare . . . a young Portland couple have been charged with 2nd-degree manslaughter and criminal mistreatment in the death of their 15-month-old daughter because they are members of a religious group that believes in prayer healing vs. modern medicine. I’m thinking it might happen that more and more parents will rely on faith when the cost of health insurance puts any other ideas out of the question.
AW: Our President told Africa, “No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top . . .”. Hmmmm . . . looks like Obama will have to consider reducing the federal income tax.
14 July 2009
I like this, though. It shows restraint. You'll note that the average pay will be under $1 million. Very crafty of those bankers to stay off the radar like that. And to think some people say that their inflated sense of self worth clouds their judgment when it comes to managing public perception.
12 July 2009
And this got me thinking. I have even less time left than her, presumably. This question should have even greater urgency for me.
So, I wonder why we don't ask this question instead of, "So, what do you do?" of people who have become old like me.
Please don't feel offended if you see me in the next week or two and I ask you, "So, what will you do now?"
11 July 2009
Google has a fascinating policy of letting programmers work one day a week – 20% of their time – on their own projects. This has already translated into popular products like gmail and google news. Some projects come from central management and some come from the cubicles. This is not much different from successful economies where some projects (e.g., NASA or the early Internet) come from centrally-planned government programs and some come from unexpected sources like the garage or the back of a cocktail napkin.
One of the insights to come from the world of probabilities and into the world of finance in the last century is the notion of the high probability of low probability events. The lottery is the simplest example. The odds of any ONE person winning are incredibly low. Buying a lottery ticket to win money is almost like buying an airplane ticket to commit suicide. The odds are terribly low for any one person to win and yet the odds that SOMEONE will win are incredibly high.
Venture capitalists differ greatly from bankers in this regard: they take an equity position in success and know that only a small percentage of their investments have to become the next Yahoo or … well, Google in order to offset the many investments that don’t pay off. They don’t embrace failure but they know it is inevitable.
Google has seemed to realize that a corporation has a huge advantage over a venture capitalist in this game. A corporation can provide a risk free environment in which individuals can start projects that might become market successes or merely technical successes or might never become successful. The corporation can provide the infrastructure (e.g., HR, marketing, etc.) that can absorb so much time from the entrepreneur. And if one of these projects like gmail or google news should become successful, they offset the many projects that don't come to fruition.
Further, even the failures are never clearly failures. If an employee learns a new skill or gains a new market insight from trying something new, that can be applied to the next venture. And with everyone taking on their own project, the entire organization has a vastly different mindset in regards to projects. Thinking about how to create and deliver products to market becomes pervasive. This sort of culture can be more valuable than any one project.
All that to say that the many critics who are already pointing out why Google Chrome OS – Google’s attempt to capture Operating System market from Microsoft – will fail could be right. The odds of this ONE product becoming a success are pretty low. (But it is still a good bet. Microsoft gets about $15 billion a year in revenue from Windows.) But each time they try another venture like this, the odds of generating profit to match what's generated by their search engine go up.
Oh, and one other thing. I remember when Microsoft’s Excel and Word were obvious failures. It took some time before they seemed like something other than cute substitutes for the seemingly invincible Lotus 1-2-3 and Multimate Word Processor. The fact that gmail does not have as much market share as Outlook does not mean it will not eventually have more. It is rarely the released product that conquers the market – it is usually the evolved product that owns a market.
It is true that lottery tickets are unlikely to pay off. It is also true that only people who buy them ever win the lottery.
08 July 2009
- Noam Chomsky
72% of Republicans said they would support Sarah Palin for President in 2012. At the risk of pointing out what might seem to be obvious to some, let me just say why it would be a bad idea for Palin to be President.
Leadership suggests a capacity to predict consequences of an action. The complexity of the decisions you make is limited by your ability to predict consequences.
Listen to Sarah talk. Tell me this woman is responsible in this sense. Tell me she can predict consequences of any system that is at all complex when she can't articulate anything that is at all complex. Sarah very quickly gets lost in syntax and grammar. One can only imagine what happens in that head of hers when she is considering something like the economy or foreign policy.
Critics are right to wring their hands about the deficit that Obama's building up. But the commentary on the right is annoying on two points. One, while Bush was stacking up IOUs like leaves in fall, they were silent on the issue of deficit spending. Two, they gloss over the fact that Obama is going to have outrageous deficits because he started with outrageous deficits. $1 trillion of the deficit from this year is inherited from Bush.
We've had worse deficits (as a percentage of GDP) than Bush's, but not during an expansion. And not so quickly after we were running a surplus.
The Republican Party used to be well populated by fiscal conservatives. That is, people who liked to avoid deficit spending. The GOP was hijacked (a story well told by Jonathan Chait in his book, The Big Con) and all the fiscal conservatives were muzzled. At least until now.
I don't even mind that the fiscal conservatives have been given a voice again. I think it is healthy. But until they start their critique with a expose of the massive spending increase and deficits run up by their own party for the 6 years it owned Congress and the White House, their words lack credibility. Bush's budgets became the new baseline from which any stimulus package had to start.
By definition, a stimulus package will increase the deficit. If Obama had - like Bush - inherited a surplus, his stimulus package would not have required huge deficits. It might not have even required deficits.
It's important not to be quiet about the deficit. It is just as important to be honest about its cause.
07 July 2009
It seems to explain everything.
- The essence of the message from my brother in law. I don't know what more I could offer by way of commentary or sentiment. It, inexplicably, amuses me. (Is it legal to say that it inexplicably explains so much?)
05 July 2009
There seems to have been a time when the purpose of the news was to get us in touch with reality, report on what is happening.
After watching Fox report on how Obama is losing so many jobs (in a recession that began before Obama was even nominated by his party) and CNN speculate on whether Michael Jackson's ex-wife will sue for custody of kids we average Americans would not recognize even if they ended up on our porch selling cookies, I can only conclude that reality has become too much. Now even the news has to perform the task previously reserved for TV sitcoms, soap operas, and movies: it has to give us an escape from reality.
Color me strange, but for all my day dreaming, I've always kind of liked reality. Too bad the TV producers don't think I can handle it anymore.
A lot of our practices are about imitating. This is the opposite of inventing. We don’t call it imitating. We say that we’re studying principles of organizations and looking to apply what is proven or successful. But we’re imitating.
The problem with this and the practice of it is perhaps seen most readily in our approach to work within organizations.
In his book, Good Business, Csikszentmihalyi quotes Robert Shapiro, former CEO of Monsanto. He makes a critical point about how individuals are fit into organizations.
“The notion of job implies that there’s been some supreme architect who designed this system so that a lot of parts fit together and produce whatever the desired input is. No one in a job can see the whole. When we ask you to join us, we are saying, ‘Do you have the skills and the willingness to shape yourself in this way so that you will fit into this big machine? Because somebody did this job before you, somebody who was different from you. Someone will do it after you. Those parts of you that aren’t relevant to that job, please just forget about. Those shortcomings that you have that really don’t enable you to fill this job, please at least try to fake, so that we can all have the impression that you’re doing this job.’”
“It’s a Procrustean concept, and it studiously and systematically avoids using the most valuable part of you, the part of you that makes you different from other people, that makes you uniquely you. If we want to be a great institution, that’s where we ought to be looking. We ought to be saying, “What can you bring to this that’s going to help?” Not, ‘Here’s the job, just do it.’”
What does Shapiro mean by “a Procrustean concept?” Procrustes was a figure in Greek mythology who forced travelers to fit into his bed by stretching their bodies when they were too short or cutting off their legs when they were too long. It is probably true that the vast majority of employees are both stretched to the limits of their capacity in some aspects of their job and literally cut off from real and crucial parts of their self in others. In either case, fitting into a job in such a way does little to realize their own potential or, by extension, the potential of the organization.
In fact, such programming of one’s actions is antithetical to what any society would hope to see emerge: genius. “One admires genius because one has the imagination to see that there is no mechanism in him or his work, nothing that can be analyzed and rationalized, ” Barzun writes. Again, imitation is the opposite of creativity, a way to suppress genius.
And yet tailoring even a job to the individual is something we rarely do. We prod students, congregants in church, employees, and citizens into a particular way of being. We are focused on what is “best” without regard for what is unique.
But what if the purpose of social inventions like church, school, and business was to provide a forum for the individual to realize his potential and not simply realize the vision of some leader?
In this world, the guide to progress will be rooted in the psychology of engagement, in what makes us most happy.
Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi has spent decades studying what makes people most engaged. He has called the state of engagement “Flow” and has found that it is in this state that people are most happy, most creative and from which people are most likely to emerge more able and developed. In short, the path of flow – found in challenges that stretch us beyond those in which we feel in control (much less bored) and less than those that make us feel anxious (much less overwhelmed) – is the path to self development. It is by following the path of flow that we find our own unique path and realize our potential.
If you can imagine a world in which learning and work follow the path of flow for the individual, you can begin to imagine a world in which social invention is necessary – where work and learning are as dynamic as a video game that raises the challenge as the gamer gets more skilled. This world is not chaotic, but it certainly is not static or generic.
And such a world is congruent with the basic theme of progress since about 1300: increased autonomy. We have increasingly given the individual more options and more freedom on how to construct his own life.
Accomplishing this will require massive amounts of information that is custom to the individual. That is, this kind of world could only sit atop an information age. There are a great number of obstacles to creating such a world but the major obstacle at this point in history is simply awareness: very few people are aware it is possible or even that is desirable. It’s time we ended this. Pass the word along. It’s time we stopped settling for somebody else’s life and created the context for our own.
02 July 2009
During the first few centuries after Christ, there were lots of gospels and epistles. In the 4th century, the church sorted through the list of dozens and dozens of possible books to come up with the list that 98% of Christian churches use today. Discoveries at Nag Hammadi and the Dead Sea revealed some of the variety represented in the discarded books.
A belief about the Old Testament God being a different entity than the New Testament God were typical of the different ways this new religion was defined. Some advocated asceticism (a denial of any physical pleasure) as a means to greater enlightenment, prohibiting sex. Others took the reverse position, and felt that the body was irrelevant to spiritual salvation and were criticized for tolerating and encouraging licentious behavior.
Of course people have questioned the authority of the Bible before. But I suspect that as interest in the gnostic gospels like the Gospel of Thomas and Gospel of Judas increases, we’ll see even greater variety of challenges from under the umbrella of Christianity. It won’t just be those outside of Christianity who challenge the Bible during this second protestant revolt.
In the 16th century, we had a protestant movement that challenged the authority of the Catholic Church. Today, so quietly that it is largely escaping notice, a new protestant movement has begun, one that challenges the authority of the Bible defined by the Catholic Church. This will probably lead to even greater variety of denominations and definitions of what it means to be Christian. And this will be in keeping with the trend of all modern social change: greater autonomy and definition by the individual and less by authority figures. It will, in the end, be just more reason that the 21st century will be a fascinating time to be alive.