30 December 2010

Redefining the Nation-State as a Phase of Life Instead of Place

More Americans are retiring in Mexico. It costs less to live there.

Mexicans are still trying to come to the US for work. Jobs pay more here.

What if, over time, nation-states are less places than way stations for phases of life? What it will mean to be American is that you have a good job. What it means to be Mexican is that you are retired. You know, sort of like what it means to be  New Yorker or a Floridan.

"Mom, where do people go when they die?"
"South America, honey."

29 December 2010

Breaking the Handcuffs of History - From Stimulating the Old Economy to Creating a New One

I'm a firm believer that the farther back one goes into history, the further ahead one can predict. This, of course, depends on understanding patterns and dynamics that drive events. As much as I love history as a means for understanding how we got here and the direction we're heading, I often see history used as a way to define what is possible rather than create new possibilities.

In today's economy, there are frequent parallels drawn to FDR and the slow recovery from the Great Depression. I'm not sure that the right lessons have been drawn from this.

WWII seemed to have ended the Great Depression. Industries like information technology and commercial aviation were direct products of the war effort. Industries like pharmaceuticals and media were less obviously a product of the war than of the many beneficiaries of the GI Bill that created so many knowledge workers who, in turn, created or made possible new industries so dependent on knowledge workers.

One lesson is that if we also stimulate the economy and fund education, we'll also stimulate GDP and create jobs. This is partly true - as can be seen by the fact that we've partly accomplished these goals. (GDP is again rising; unemployment stays disturbingly high.) But it seems to me that there is a more important lesson.

FDR partially, and the second world war more completely, didn't just nudge the economy towards full employment. FDR created entirely new departments and government bureaucracies in addition to the new industries that were spun off from the war effort. It wasn't just that old industries and government agencies employed more people: entirely new industries and agencies created jobs.

Bush started - and then Obama continued - a huge stimulus package. But neither have actually helped to create new industries.

Alternative energy is the obvious new industry that could be created by government initiative. Others include longevity enhancement, nanotechnology manufacturing and repair, commercial "space" travel, and mental health through cognitive science (and not just pharmaceuticals) to name just a few.

To date, the attempt to create jobs by cutting taxes for corporations and buying bonds from banks has proven wildly inadequate. Corporations now sit on top of a record $2 trillion in cash - money that's not being used to create products, processes, or jobs. Banks are still not loaning. Corporations and banks have money but they are not creating.

Instead of wasting stimulus potential through tax cuts and bank financing, the government would do well to directly fund the creation of new technologies and companies. Yes, fund new companies that represent new industries that would absorb displaced workers and hire new ones.

The real lesson of the recovery from the Great Depression is not to merely stimulate the old economy. It is, as well, to help play midwife to new ones. Until we're that bold, I think that our recovery is going to look more like Japan's decade long stagnation than any previous recovery we've enjoyed.

27 December 2010

iBudget: The Per Person National Budget, Allocated by You

I think it is time that federal budgets be translated into per person amounts so that we all can have some sense of perspective.

The idea of a $14 trillion economy or a $3.5 trillion federal budget is mind numbing. I propose that all talk about budgets and taxes be adjusted to per person totals. Our roughly $14 trillion economy, for instance, translates into about $46,000 per person. The first number makes no sense to me; the second does.

So, even if - like me - you haven't a clue what $663 billion for defense looks like, you can understand what it means to have each person pay $2,200 a year for defense, or about 5 cents of each dollar they make. A National Science Foundation budget to finance all basic research is about $7 billion. Sounds like a lot, but that means each American chips in about $23 a year. In other words, if you go to a nice, but by no means extravagant, restaurant, you'll spend as much on that one meal as you spend to help fund basic research.

It wouldn't be hard for the federal government to have a website that allowed people to enter their income to see how much they were funding in each category. And I think that if we can calculate taxes we owe each year, we should also have the ability to allocate those taxes. I'd be fascinated to see what gaps showed up between current government outlays and what the average person thought we ought to allocate to. If we were really brave, we could let each tax payer allocate - the total budget distribution a weighted average of every taxpayers' allocation.

These steps would make the budget process more personal and maybe even make it feel a little more like it was our government.

23 December 2010

On Conversation

I was recently with a friend who left me dismayed. He's become the guy whose opinions are not opinions but are, instead, "the way things are." This dismayed me because such an approach takes all the joy out of every conversation and because it was a reminder of how easily I could become (could be?) that guy. I have very strong opinions.

But it seems to me that the best conversations are the ones that don't smack down possibility before it's even out of the womb. Instead, conversations that play with possibility, coddle it, and explore it are best. This means that a person can talk without being defensive. (I do think that there is something expansive about good conversations. They don't make us hunker down but instead draw us out to dance.) This means that a person gets to discover for himself or herself what is or is not workable in this possibility. And finally, in the end, it clarifies the real purpose of a conversation. Conversation is not about the battle of ideas or an exchange of information: conversation is about, not just getting to uncover ourselves but getting to discover ourselves. A good conversation leaves you vulnerable at times. It is as much about confessing what you don't know as what you do. It is not about alternating monologues but instead about co-creating a dialogue. This means cooperation, not competition.

Next time you are in a conversation, try the following. When someone mentions something that you disagree with, play with it. Listen to them. Ask them questions that get them to explore the consequences of what they're saying, rather than having you point this out. Not only do they get to understand themselves better, but you, too, might come to understand them. And if there is anything that we all want, it is to be heard and understood.

Finally, I'll try not to be the guy who "knows." My own conclusion about life is that it is easiest to be arrogant when you've not really tried anything. If you are sincere about trying to accomplish something that matters, you'll inevitably be humbled by life ... and if you are honest about it, this will leave you open to hear what someone else might know that could be a help to you becoming who it is that you're becoming.

19 December 2010

What if Twitter & Facebook Were Revolutionary?

When we listened to just a few, we listened a long time. Politicians and pundits were expected to go on at length - speeches and programs of 30 to 60 minutes, essays and books that were hundreds of - or even a hundred thousand - words.

But today's model is less about spending time with a few respected voices than spending time with lots and lots of friends and friendly - or not so friendly - voices. Even if we double the time we spend collecting news and opinion, we have to fragment it over more and more people. This necessarily forces concision, forces us to condense our thoughts into fewer words. 

Brain cells continually communicate with each other, but they are very efficient at it. These cells tend to communicate by exception, minimizing the "I'm here" signal. The brain already burns an enormous amount of energy even with this minimalist model. This efficiency is the only way to allow billions of cells to be connected. 

Facebook status comments, tweets, and texts seem to be moving us towards this model of communication over a broader net of people - a truly distributed model that doesn't dispense long messages outwards from some central point (like radio or TV) but instead sends lots and lots of short messages between nodes, or people. This model is not about hierarchy; it is about connection. 

For centuries, the progression in the West has been towards dispersing power outwards rather than concentrating it in a few. It seems as though we are now rapidly evolving a communication and reporting model that supports this more than ever. 

Stay tuned: power follows the flow of information and communication. Our old institutions that place power at the top - from church and schools to governments and corporations - are going to rapidly evolve as the communication structures that hold them in place shift. In fact, they used to call this kind of thing revolutionary. This could get really interesting. 

10 December 2010

Time for Real Business News

In today's world, we rightfully praise brave reporters who work inside of repressive countries, struggling to report and analyze facts. But right here in the US, we have closed societies that get even less objective reporting than what comes from these countries: the corporations that define so much of our societal norms, incomes, and menu of products and services are largely exempt from real reporting.

Imagine even something as simple as the approval ratings of CEOs and senior management by a companies' employees, something akin to the approval ratings of presidents or Congress. "Do you approve of the strategic direction of your senior management team?" Or, "Do you think that the CEO is adding value to the company?" would be incredibly revealing questions that could be asked of employees at, say, Fortune 500 firms. Investors, prospective employees, strategic partners, customers and - of course - current employees would greatly benefit from such an insight. As it is now, though, the thing that passes for business news is simply movements in stock price and new product announcements. And when reporters talk to anyone about the company, it is inevitably a CEO or other Chief of some kind. This is akin to taking the word of only the president in a country when trying to understand it.

Modern corporations define far too much of the modern world to be exempt from reporting standards similar to what we subject democratic countries and their leaders. (And as the Wikileaks brouhaha has revealed, even supposedly open Western nations react badly to the equivalent of diplomatic gossip being leaked.) It's time for this to change. The question is, what network is brave enough to pioneer a new standard for business reporting? And speaking of business, it seems to me that such reporting would make for good business.

07 December 2010

Who Do You Trust?

Harris Poll:
The industries that are trusted by the most people are supermarkets (29%), hospitals (29%), banks (20%) and electric and gas utilities (19%). 
The industries that are trusted by the fewest people are tobacco (2%), oil (4%), telecommunications (7%), and managed care companies (7%)

Funny thing about trusting banks more than tobacco companies. Tobacco companies are quite explicit about the product that they're selling; by contrast, banks are a little more opaque (have you tried making sense of your credit card contract?). You can trust tobacco companies to sell you a product that is bad for you; you can never be sure with banks and their loans.

Poor Americans. We don't trust our big institutions - from government to corporations - and yet we can't live without them. 

01 December 2010

November Tweets

Oh no! Tomorrow if you vote one way it'll be social armageddon and economic stagnation & if you vote for the other, the reverse.

Pelosi has proposed to Boehner that they settle who'll be Speaker of the House with a best of 7 series between the Giants and Reds.

Hooray!! We're going to reduce the deficit by laying off all government workers and contractors! Finally a solution to chronic unemployment.

The term "horseless carriage" stuck for years. By contrast, the term "carriage-returnless typewriter" to describe the computer never took.

Idea for my first ever art show. Accidental exhibit: portraits of museum guards.

The simplest explanation for the last election could be aspirational voters who vote for tax breaks they wished they qualified for. 

"Don't tell me the sky is the limit when there are footprints on the moon."

Make financial news more anthropomorphic .OK: “Market takes a breather.” Better: “Market couldn't be bothered to get out of bed this morning & put its pants on.

Bush: "I could have done things better." He still thinks it was about execution. Yet, the better you do the wrong things the worse it gets.

One secret to happiness seems simply having very low standards for what one finds amusing.

In restaurants, hotel lobbies ... anyone else notice that TVs are the new wallpaper? And most inexplicable are the muted talking heads.

Think that a buddy concerned about the deficit should start a new political party. How about "the party's over" party.

Veteran’s Day … "... as many Vietnam veterans committed suicide after the war as were killed during it." Respect soldiers? Stop sending them to war.

Of all the things I could be thinking about ... I keep thinking, "it's only only 9-ish here, not noon. Wait at least an hour for lunch.

Sandi bought me a reversible pullover. I guess that means I can pull it on or pull it off. No idea why they felt compelled to point that out.

1 in 5 Children live in poverty. Rand Paul would like to point out that this is just one more reason to do away w/ child labor law.

The FDA will soon require graphic pictures on cigarette boxes depicting the consequences of tobacco abuse. I so hope that fast foods and groceries aren't next.

Cameron and Obama say that Suu Kyi is an inspiration and a personal hero. Now if only they had enough power to pressure the Burmese junta.

Solved the deficit while eating cereal this morning:nytimes.com/interactive/20… via @nytgraphics Now you try.

Veni, vidi, visa. I came, I saw, I charged it. Visited the 2nd largest mall in US last week in Philly. It was just like a mall only more so.

As I see it, I have 3 choices: gain 10 lbs, lose 10 lbs, or buy a new belt. 

Mary Karr's Liars' Club is to growing up agnostic in Texas what Angela's Ashes is to growing up Catholic in Ireland. That rare book that is funny & poignant.

He got on the TSA no-fly list. Why? Thanked them a little too enthusiastically for the pat-down and body scan.

Listened to talk @ Neuroscience Institute on Memory. Supposedly experts but they couldn't explain where memories of past lives are stored.

Not only were they never published, but as far as we know Socrates, Buddha and Jesus never even wrote anything.

As it turns out, making things simple is not always so simple.

One problem w/ positive thinking is that if you're smart enough to delude yourself than you're too smart to fall for it.

The Pope created 24 cardinals today. To keep up, the Archibishop of Canterbury plans to create 36 bluebirds tomorrow.

Still wowed by the serendipity today. Visited the 6th floor museum on this, the 47th anniversary of JFK's assassination. Riveting & surprisingly poignant.

Quirky Austin. I wonder if a simple proxy / metric, for how much personality a city has is the ratio of locally owned businesses to chains.

Ken Starr has become the president of Baylor. I wonder how long before he'll found a school of proctology there.

Thanksgiving - when Americans celebrate settling a new continent ... and Europeans celebrate being left in peace & quiet on the old one.

Special greetings from this San Antonio tourist for your Thanksgiving feasting: remember the ala mode.

In 1960, smokers in US = 42% & obese = 13%. By 2009, smokers = 20% & obese = 35%. Did 22% of Americans stop smoking & begin overeating?

Billy Joel had both hips replaced. I hope he sprung for the auto-gyration disco ball joint version.
New bucket list item: start a motorcycle gang.

One rarely mentioned benefit of face masks: they keep touchdown celebrations from escalating beyond hugs and high-fives.

The real reason that newspaper revenues fell precipitously in the last decade: Bill Watterson retired. http://bit.ly/ec4xCb

I think flying would be more exhilarating if we traveled 550 mph at an altitude of 30 feet instead of 30,000.

Woman w/ huge neon pink purse, "Victoria's Secret" written in huge glitter font on the side. @ that point does it still qualify as a secret?

I'd have more respect for the media if just once they announced, "nothing newsworthy happened today, so we're just going to play some music"

Simple guide to pursuing audacious goals in 3 easy stages: arrangement, rearrangement, and then derangement.

Mine is a condition common to many San Diegans, I'm claustropedic. My toes start to feel panicked when they're closed in for too long.

Rush Limbaugh? Ha! Let's tackle him.