29 December 2011

Unemployment's Big Drop in 2012

The double-nothings (the decade from 2000 to 2009) were the worst for job creation in half a century. From the 60s to the 90s, the economy created an average of about 2.5 million jobs per year. In the decade from 2000 to 2009, the economy actually lost an average of 100,000 jobs per year.

It seems to me that the central economic question is whether the last decade was an anomaly, an aberration for an economy still generally able to create jobs or ... if the last decade was a culmination in a downward spiral, further proof that our economy is sputtering on its way to stagnation.

If we just look at the raw numbers by decade, you can see that job creation was fairly stable until last decade.

Just looking at these numbers, it is easy to think that perhaps starting with 9-11, the US tumbled into a "lost decade" economically, hardly able to exceed the average of past decades in even its best decade. If that's the case, it is easy to believe that we'll have a return to norm, and that return will seem spectacular. Just an average year for past decades - creating 2 million or more new jobs - would be enough to lower unemployment by a point and change the mood of the country. And given aging baby boomers, this is is not an unreasonable forecast.

But these numbers are not adjusted for the fact that we have a larger labor force than ever. In the 1960s, we had half as many people working (or looking for work) as we do now. Scaling the above numbers to adjust for this (assuming that 1.7 million jobs in the 60s is equivalent to 3.4 million in today's economy, for instance), gives the graph a different shape.

This graph shows a downward slide, a steady worsening in our ability to create jobs. The narrative here would include factors such as the rise of emerging economies like China and India becoming more competitive with our own and making it more difficult for us to create jobs where labor makes (relatively) so much more. This story and graph suggest that until we hit some floor that puts us on par with other countries, we'll continue to struggle. Job creation won't keep up with growth in the labor force and unemployment will steadily rise. You probably have your own narrative to explain this.

Personally, I think that we're facing some hybrid of these two stories, but tend to favor the first story more. That is, I think that we'll continue to feel downward pressure on wages but I do think that the last decade was an anomaly in terms of job creation; I suspect that by the end of 2012, unemployment will be under 7.5% and during the next year we'll create 2 to 3 million new jobs. In other words, we'll create as many jobs next year as we did - on average - in past decades. And given what a terrible decade the double-nothings were, this "average" will seem spectacular.

Voting for Social Safety Net of Your Choice

Curiously, a great deal of our political differences can be captured by our aversion to risk. The thought that we should have universal health care is - at least in part - a question of how much risk we're willing to assume. If you get sick when you have no coverage, this could bankrupt you: in such a scenario, a temporary job loss could wipe out your assets.

Part of the question of how big a social safety net we should have is a function of empathy: do you want widows without children or anyone without work to have something other than bridges to sleep under. But part of it, too, is a function of our own optimism or uncertainty about our future: will we need unemployment insurance that lasts longer than 6 months at some point in the future, or food stamps for our kids in the event that our careers get de-railed by some massive restructuring of industries or technology makes a hard-earned skill obsolete. Do you want to live in a world without a safety net or support?

It would be fascinating to try creating a community that gave people the opportunity to choose which level of taxes and support they wanted. And then lock this in. (Say that you can choose temporarily at 18 and then have to choose permanently at 30.)

The community as a whole would pay for things like basic research, FDA, and defense, the benefits of which would not be experienced individually. After that, the options might look like this:
Pay 11% tax and have to pay for roads, education, medical, unemployment, and retirement.
Pay 22% tax and education, roads, and medical is now included.
Pay 33% and add to the above unemployment and retirement.

It would be curious to see polls of people asked what level of taxes and safety net they'd want if they knew they could not reverse it and could - in the extreme - end up homeless should things go poorly. If you knew that you could become "one of those people," would you be more likely to create a safety net for them?

23 December 2011

One Nation .... Gone to Many

"One nation" was probably always more fiction than fact but perhaps one of the unintended outcomes of how the Internet allows many to many communication is that the "many nations" that compromise this country has never before been so clear. It is not just in the much reported polarization. The likelihood of Americans coming into work in the morning having watched the same news report, the same sitcom, read the same book, heard the same radio ... the likelihood of a shared reference has perhaps never been lower. We're not entering caves; instead, we're all seeming to move from under the bell curve to increasingly remote regions of the long tail.

As our diversity becomes more clear, I wonder what that will mean to our still relatively novel concept of nation-state. The recently departed Christopher Hitchens pointed out that it was only after Lincoln's Gettysburg Address that the term shifted from "the United States are" to "the United States is." About the same time that our own civil war settled the question of whether the united or the states portion of our country was more important, Germany and Italy were becoming nation-states. In the grand sweep of history, the idea of a nation-state is still relatively new. 

Both the concept of nation and the reality of state are "made up, are social inventions. My bet is that it is the state half of this equation that is most likely to change first, though. And it'll be fascinating to see what new inventions come from that. 

22 December 2011

Kahneman Explains Our Love of Irrelevant Issues

One of the great mysteries of life is how we manage to waste so much time in political debate, dialogue, and coverage on issues that are – at best – of marginal importance. I think I finally found the answer to why in Daniel Kahneman’s new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow.

One concept Kahneman shares has to do with our tendency to substitute easy questions for hard ones. For me, this explains why so much air time in politics is taken up with questions of little consequence. 

Kahneman gives an example of an analyst who bought stock in Ford. Asked why, the analyst replied that he'd just been to a car show and left convinced that Ford "sure can make great cars." As Kahneman points out, the real question when buying stock is whether or not the stock is undervalued. But the analyst substituted that difficult question for the simpler question of whether Ford was making good cars. All of us, when faced with a difficult question, tend to substitute a simpler - albeit irrelevant - one. 

It seems to me that the big question in politics should be, How do we improve quality of life for more people? That’s a big question and answering it is one that isn’t easy. No one can feel confident about their ability to answer it.

By contrast, the little and largely irrelevant questions – silly questions best characterized by whether or not we should be able to burn the flag – are ones for which we have clear answers as long as we have strong opinions. Answering these questions leave us feeling confident in our own judgment. Answering the big questions, by contrast, makes us feel uncertain. For most of us, we prefer feeling confident to feeling inadequate. The result? We choose questions because of how they make us feel rather than what their answers will do to improve the world.

And that’s a pity. Just think what we could do with all the attention paid to politics if it were focused on real, albeit difficult, questions. 

16 December 2011

Newt Wit

The narrative on Newton Elroy Gingrich is that the man - for all his flaws - is very intelligent. More important than whether you believe that is the fact that Newt so obviously does. He trusts his own intelligence so much and the intelligence of others so little that he envisions a world where he is more dictator than president. This alone is enough to fear the consequence of his supposed intelligence. Worse, what he says suggests that he is not really that smart.

Could anything more clearly demonstrate how muddled his thinking than his stance on the judiciary and Federal Reserve? Sadly, pointing out the flaws in Newt's thinking requires explanations of longer than 2 minutes, which probably ensures his safety from any scrutiny in this age of media sponsored attention deficit disorder. But if you have five minutes ....

Let's start with the economy and what that implies for the Federal Reserve. There are only two ways that the government can influence the economy: through monetary or fiscal policy.

Monetary policy has to do with setting interest rates, growing or contracting the money supply, and changing banking regulations so as to make it easier or harder to get credit. Get this wrong and you can trigger a recession or inflation. The Fed is in charge of monetary policy.

Fiscal policy has to do with taxes and spending. Congress and the president are in charge of this and change it with their budgets and tax laws.

As it now works, the Federal Reserve Chairman (Bernanke now, Greenspan before) is in charge of monetary policy. He does not have to mediate negotiations between Republicans and Democrats or face the risk of presidential veto. He simply adjusts monetary policy based on his professional judgment about what is best for the economy. Politics does not enter into it.This makes his ability to respond to economic issues relatively easy and quick.

By contrast, fiscal policy has almost everything to do with politics and nearly nothing to do with economics.  Chronic deficits are more product of Congress's political judgment than their economic judgment and any changes in tax rates or budgets result from prolonged and difficult negotiations between two very different parties.

So, what is Newt's solution to the "problem" of the Fed's independence from politics? He would fire the Fed Chairman. The impact of this, of course, is that it would make Fed Chairmen - and thus monetary policy - as politically driven as fiscal policy is now. The impact of that? Well imagine a world in which both tools of economic influence were subject to political ideologies and perceptions with little regard for economic realities. Imagine, that is, the Federal Reserve as ineffective as Congress.

Newt also wants to fire judges who disagree with him, even close entire courts that make rulings that he finds offensive. Not only is this an egregious attack on the separation of powers, it again suggests that even rulings on the interpretation of law would be subject to the political nonsense that has resulted in a single-digit approval rating for Congress.

Newt's reasoning skills are flawed and his mind continually distracted from considering consequences with the allure of shiny new thoughts. How anyone can conclude that "at least Newt's smart" escapes me.

In last night's debate, in defense of his inane idea to close courts with which he disagreed, Newt said that Thomas Jefferson did something similar. The proper response to that is, "I've read Jefferson. You, Newton Elroy, are no Thomas Jefferson."

08 December 2011

November '11 Tweets

As part of trend towards ever-younger billionaires, I predict some 9 yr old will launch a new market that lets kids trade excess candy.

7 billion people. Now is it time to colonize space?

First I've noticed that the word "harm" is smack in the middle of pharmacy.

Unlike paintings, music, books & films, vid games R co-created by audience. 1st gen of gamers not likely to accept the way things R. #OWS

It took centuries before we coupled luggage and wheels into one product. Another century before we put wings on luggage and packages?

"Young men sleep with their dreams and old men sleep with their conscience. " - John Prine

Why couldn't we tax each hour of the week by 20-some seconds in order to save up for an extra hour every weekend?

Biz idea for group with heavily discounted rates on travel - quadruple A.

Now that Michael Jackson's doctor was found guilty, we need to find someone to hold responsible for Elvis's death.

The ratio of love songs to songs about teleconferences seems wildly disproportionate to actual experience.

You have two choices: make a choice or don't make a choice. Wait. Maybe that means you have no choice. About having to choose, I mean.

Always an interesting day when the weather forecast includes mention of an asteroid. http://bit.ly/vD67Ix

My latest biz idea: not dot.com or dot.om but dot.amish The webiste domain for folks without electricity.

RT @sacca: Dance like no one's watching. Sing like no one's listening. Tweet like no algorithm is coldly deciding your social worth.

Have to appreciate the obvious thought Rick Perry put into considering consequences of eliminating the dept. of .... uh ... um ...

11/11/11 = tres once, which is much bigger than dos xx's. Forget about cosmic consciousness - stay alert for drunk drivers.

11-11-11. Or as the turkeys refer to it, "the last days."

Who had the authority to give out the first PhD? They obviously didn't have one.

Call of Duty sold $400 million in 1st 24 hrs. Key to its success is getting to compete w/ Russians who have only dial-up.http://n.pr/tiLHTE

Time to modify Warhol's prediction "everyone will be famous for 15 mins" to, "in the GOP, everyone will be a front-runner for 15 mins."

Focus on competition, grades, ranking, and status are all substitutes for a focus on meaningful personal goals

If only Bloomberg could have ended occupy Iraq as quickly as he ended occupy Wall St. #OWS.

"companies today are 3X more likely to get to $250K in revenue during an 18 month period than they were 6 years ago"http://bit.ly/vvsOCW

Curiously, it did not seem as though all the human beings were being human.

New Muppet movie is PG. Not for content. Because theater owners terrified at thought of mobs of unsupervised 6 yr old puppet groupies.

Neutrinos travel faster than light. You know what that means? Once I build my neutrino-mobile I can time travel.http://bit.ly/tw3TQp

He thought a country falls into a recession whenever a generation whose favorite subject was recess grows up to run the economy.

Cashier at grocery store asked me, "Is that to go?"

So old that I can remember when you could read the entire World Wide Web on a long weekend.

"TV Survey" call just came in. Tired of being ignored, I hollered, "More sex! More violence!" Glad to finally be making a difference.

Deficit a huge non-issue. W/ unemployment at 9%, it's dumb to raise taxes or cut spending now & Congress can't commit future Congresses.

Instead of Longhorns my university mascot will be Unicorns. Like an army of one - Autodidact U.

Did they really think they could distract us from the fact that we still don't have personal robots or flying cars with four-blade razors?

Eventually it dawned on me that the flashing red light was not going to change.

Seen: I dream of a world where chickens can cross the road without having their motives questioned.

Ah, Thanksgiving - the one day during the year when Americans eat to excess.

Can't really work out the Macy's Day Parade. It's a series of ads for float sponsors ... and still they break for commercials?

Rolled out of bed (a term redefined post-feasting) so thankful that we don't have to be so thankful today.

Fascinating how whether the market falls or rises, they're able to provide a perfectly plausible reason.

Has anyone calculated how much in the way of jobs and GDP California - w/ its music, movies, and software industries - has lost to piracy?

Tom was in a very heavy metal band. He played percussion. Jack hammer, to be specific.

Just bought Greek yogurt, doing my bit to help out that poor country. Social activist with active culture.

Saw shockingly large numbers at ice cream shop last night. They must have been suffering post-Thanksgiving weekend caloric withdrawals.

In a few generations kids will sing nursery rhymes w/ nonsensical terms like "cyber Monday" "black Friday" and "terabyte Tuesday."

And what if people simply grew tired of the recession and began acting normal? Consumer confidence up 15 ptshttp://reut.rs/unuf79

Product idea to help with job-related stress: little wine boxes about the size of juice boxes for lunch or break.

Record levels of wealth disparity might just be a natural consequence of record levels of market volatility.

07 December 2011

Sure You Have What it Takes to Win. Who Doesn't? The Real Question is, Do You Have What It Takes to Fail?

The older I get, the more convinced I am that we don't do enough to celebrate failure. Progress depends on it.

In January, one team will win the Super Bowl. The only reason they get to do that is because 31 other teams did not. In sports, nobody wins without someone losing. You can't hope for a win without simultaneously hoping for a loss. Loss is not due to lackluster effort, unimaginative creative visualization, or bad karma. Loss in sports is designed into the outcomes. Just like wins.

But sports is just made up. We don't have to have failure in the real world, you might say. We can, for instance, design an educational system in which everyone wins. Perhaps. But failure is still an essential part of life and is as vital to progress in the real world as it is to champions in the artificial world of sports.

Think about it. If history is any guide, sometime in the next year some people will start a new company destined for greatness - a company that will, in its prime, remind us of GM, IBM, or Google in theirs. But even more companies will flag somewhere between inception and this grand goal, will get buried in the landfill of failed expectations. Lots and lots of variables go into winners and losers and no one can be exactly sure which will make the next generation of winners win and which will make them lose.

If a community wants to be home to the next big company, it has to fund lots and lots of companies you'll never hear of. Uncertainty alone means that winners require lots of losers.

The same is true in the competition for the next generation of theories to explain psychology, cosmology, disease and everything else. Again, given that everyone has a shot at defining the next big theory, lots and lots of theories will have to be expounded in order for the few that move us forward to emerge. A million books will be published this year - yet only a tiny number will sell more than a million copies. And the list of such ensured failures goes on.

By definition, the vast majority of attempts to change the status quo will fail.

Yet the advance of history depends on these winners which - in turn - depend on these failures. To avoid failure is to avoid winning. Any community that doesn't teach its people that failure is inevitable, noble, and essential to progress risks having too few big wins.

And in the end, I wonder if failure or winning isn't somehow more random than we'd ever care to admit. Given this, perhaps it is worth remembering that you do what you do because of who you are, not because you really expect to "win." And maybe an increase in the portion of people doing this is the definition of progress.

06 December 2011

The Theology of Emoticons

In the near future, theologians reading the King James version noticed what they concluded was the first use of emoticons. In Matt 6:

32(For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.

Once they'd found the smiley face in the middle of the verse, theological debate ensued.

"What does this mean?"
"I think it is accidental."
"Do you explain away any inconvenient thing in the Bible this way?"
"As an accident?"
"Why don't we just assume that this is the word of God and as such there are no accidents?"
"Well this is hardly the stuff of a Dan Brown novel."
"Let's not degrade this conversation with reference to fiction."
"So you suppose that this is serious?"
"Let's assume that it is. So what do we make of this?"
"Well, let's look at the context. It's the sermon on the Mount and Jesus is telling people not to worry about natural provision because God will care for them."
"So the smiley face is a happy, reassuring sign that lets people know that these temporal things are not so important. God will provide."
"Perhaps. But that wouldn't do much to explain the many people for whom God apparently did not provide - the untimely deaths, the starvation, the disease. It could be that this smiley face is the first instance of sarcasm."
"Please, Jesus was sarcastic?"
"Well, it would explain so much."
"Jesus is love. The smiley face is obviously an expression of joy."
"Ha! Sarcasm."

And just like that, the discovery of the first emoticon created a new rift, a new schism in the Christian world. After the discovery of this first emoticon, the Christian world was still divided into Catholic and Protestant but each of those was further divided into sarcastic and hopeful. And perhaps it was the toll of thousands of years of observing human nature, the times, or an actual insight into reality but the new believers in God the Sarcastic were surprisingly numerous.  It was - and remained - a curious world.

02 December 2011

Bad, Sure, But Still Better Than Bush. And He Got Re-elected

This latest jobs report makes Obama’s re-election more probable.

In Obama’s first year, he presided over the worst loss in jobs since the Great Depression, more than 5 million jobs gone. In spite of that, he compares pretty well against Bush at the same point in his presidency – 34 months in.

In spite of his miserable start, Obama actually compares favorably with Bush.34 months in Bush had “lost” 2.3 million jobs whereas Obama has “lost” 1.8 million. (And yes I agree that causes of job loss go back much further than the prior month and that president’s don’t “create” jobs. I also believe that  there is no single variable as important to this statistic as presidential policies.)

You might argue that Obama has, of course, spent a terrible sum to improve on Bush’s bad record. And it is true that Obama had presided over  the biggest deficit ever. But if you look at the rate by which he increased it, it isn’t that different from what happened under Bush.

By the end of his third year, Bush had swung the deficit negative by over $600 billion. By contrast, Obama has swung it negative by $800 billion. That is worse. And the total is huge. But still, it is plausible that the story will be quite different for Obama by the end of his first term, in comparison to Bush.

Comparing annual deficits in the fourth year of their term with the deficit in the final year of the prior administration makes Obama look good by contrast.

Bush had increased the annual deficit by $650 billion. Current projections suggest that Obama will have increased it by $300 to 400 billion. It is not that Bush did better than Obama – he just had the good judgment to make things worse from a far better starting point.

This should be good news for Obama’s re-election prospects. If Bush could beat the Democrats – Kerry in particular – after a first term that included job losses, a huge increase in deficits and the terrible tragedy of 9-11, perhaps Obama’s shot at beating a weak GOP field – Romney in particular – after a first year that included job losses, a huge swing in deficits and the assassination of Osama seems reasonable.

[Find the numbers from 1939 to 2011 here.]

01 December 2011

Obviously The Superrich Need to Spend More

Here's an intriguing editorial by Nick Hanauer about why we should tax the rich more and poor less.

It reminds the reader that most of the debate about tax rates is more about moral judgment than economic policy.

There are cliched narratives that seem to color most discussions about tax rates.

Democrats argue that the rich are greedy crooks who raise spoiled children and the poor all had unfortunate childhoods and might still have recovered to become something if only they hadn't run into the fore-mentioned greedy crooks. Obviously, Democrats say, the rich should be taxed more and the poor should not be taxed at all - should in fact be given money from the rich.

And the Republicans, of course, argue that the poor made themselves that way by smoking crack and having babies out of wedlock and sleeping in the back of class and not brushing their teeth regularly. Meanwhile, the rich are all that way because they work harder, have saved more, and are generally someone you'd  want to sit beside at jury duty. For this reason, Republicans argue, it just seems wrong to penalize the hard working rich folks in order to give their money to people who'll blow it all on beer and bingo.

Instead of focusing on judging the poor or rich, Hanauer focuses on a really practical matter. Rich don't spend money at the same rate that they earn it. If a community wants to grow the economy, it has to grow spending and a poor person will spend a greater portion of an additional $1,000 than will a rich person. (A fact born out by studies of marginal consumption.)
As Hanauer puts it,
"there can never be enough superrich Americans to power a great economy. The annual earnings of people like me are hundreds, if not thousands, of times greater than those of the average American, but we don’t buy hundreds or thousands of times more stuff. My family owns three cars, not 3,000. I buy a few pairs of pants and a few shirts a year, just like most American men. Like everyone else, I go out to eat with friends and family only occasionally."

So, unless you think that economic growth itself is immoral, the practical thing is to shift some money from those who save it to those who spend it.

Trend Spotter as Sport

The Atlantic has a fascinating article: South Korea's Hottest IPO: Boy Band, Inc.

In essence, a Korean record and entertainment company went public last week, and now has a market cap of over $300 million. Such things allow people to invest in a company, but what if you could invest in a band?

Imagine a site where you could "bet on" or invest in bands or artists. This could be just an online game site, essentially, but one that let people predict band popularity.

I think for lots of folks, the ability to quantify or show their ability to be a taste maker or trend spotter would be worth it. And there would be two ways to show how cool you were. The obvious way would be to have a high-value portfolio that showed your ability to spot the hot acts before they were hot. The less obvious way is to have a stagnant value for your portofolio, to show that you are a contrarian, uninterested in what's popular.

For the bands, it might be a vehicle for promoting new acts, letting them prove to clubs and promoters that they are indeed rising stars.

Or this could be just a silly idea - like investing in boy bands.

29 November 2011

Edison's Most Important Invention, or Time to Sponsor Social Invention

It's hard to choose which of Edison's inventions was most impressive. He had 1,093 US patents for products as varied as the light bulb (which became a symbol of innovation), phonograph, radio, and even something akin to a motion picture projector. 

I think that his biggest invention, though, was something completely different. As it turns out, Edison did not "invent" all these things. His really big invention was the first industrial Research & Development lab. Edison did not share credit with his employees and lived in a time when people were more ready to attribute inventions to a single genius than a group of cooperative scientists and engineers. What we think of as Edison's inventions were sometimes his own and sometimes his employees.

The R&D lab was a social invention that allowed a plethora of technological inventions. And Edison's lab became a model for in-house R&D labs that sprung up within modern corporations and universities that were themselves social inventions. With the R&D lab, we institutionalized technological innovation.

Technological invention is a novel design that allows parts to do jointly what they could not do on their own.
A social invention is a novel design that allows people to do jointly what they could not do on their own.

Both social (banks and stock markets) and technological inventions (steam engines and trains) have the potential to enable. 

Edison's lab was not the first social invention that spawned so many technological inventions, though. In 1623, England passed a law that granted monopoly powers to technological inventors, what we now call patent law. Within a century, in 1699, the steam engine had been invented and the industrial revolution began. 

The result of the industrial revolution? The first per capita increase in income in about 6,000 years. Social invention is as important to progress as technological invention.

Edison's lab marked a huge shift, from merely encouraging invention (with patent law) to actually sponsoring invention (with R&D labs that made invention normal work). 

In the West, we no longer violently resist social invention, as we did with the invention of new forms of church and government during the Protestant Revolution and democratic revolutions. We encourage social invention in the business world, encourage and reward entrepreneurs. What we don't do, though, is sponsor it. That is, in terms of social invention we are closer to the conditions for technological invention prior to Edison's R&D lab. 

Given how much social invention can change and improve lives, perhaps it is time that we moved from merely tolerating or encouraging it to actually sponsoring it. And maybe the big social invention that could help with this is getting serious about turning our corporations into business incubators and changing the role of employee to something more akin to entrepreneur.

And yes, this is one of the big ideas behind The Fourth Economy: Inventing Western Civilization. 

27 November 2011


Suddenly, everyone realized that they had all the stuff they needed and had heard all the stories before.

But after a couple of weeks, bored and unsure what else to do, they one by one turned their TVs back on and returned to the malls.

21 November 2011

No Super Heroes on this Super Committee

There are only two questions Congress should consider: how do we create jobs and how do we raise living standards.

It is absurd to take on the question of how to reduce the deficit. With unemployment at 9%, it's stupid to raise taxes or cut spending. And given that unemployment is unlikely to drop to 6 to 8% before this Congress has finished its term, they can't make any progress towards deficit reduction anyway. Today's Congress cannot commitment a future Congress (if they could, the pre-Civil War Congress could have committed all future legislatures to uphold slavery).

Deficit reduction is a problem for tomorrow's Congress to solve. Job creation and GDP growth is a problem for today's Congress to solve.

The Super Committee failed to reach an agreement that would solve the deficit. So what. It would have all been promises that only future Congresses could have kept - and you can guarantee that those future Congresses won't be coming to Washington just to implement someone else's plan.

That deficit reduction during a recession has become such a huge issue is reminiscent of the push to invade Iraq. Austerity economics during a recession is an inane idea and yet we've somehow found ourselves unable to talk about anything but.

20 November 2011

Business or Politics - Which Makes the Biggest Difference?

Want to know one reason that daily papers face diminished readership? They focus on what the average person knows to be issues of diminishing returns.

Imagine someone making $40,000 a year.

In one scenario, they get a new president who lowers their taxes by 2 percentage points.

In another scenario, they get a new CEO who raises their salary by 2%.

The impact on after-tax income in the first scenario is about $100. The impact in the second is nearly $700.

And this does not even delve into the myriad policies changes having to do with issues like leave time, opportunity for advancement, equity sharing, and the ability to influence the (positive or negative) impact on the community.

Throughout the West, changes in management and policy at the level of employer will make a bigger difference than changes at the government level. And this belief about the diminishing returns to a focus on government policy vs. the advances that could accrue from a focus on corporate policy is one of the reasons that I wrote The Fourth Economy.

18 November 2011

Heisenberg's Political Uncertainty Principle

Heisenberg's uncertainty principle adapted to politics:
You can make sense to people or you can make sense of the world. The more that you capture and explain the complexity of reality, the less you make sense to the electorate; the more that you make sense to the electorate, the less accurately you explain reality.
Thus, the tension between successful policy and successful politics.

16 November 2011

Bachmann's Brilliant Idea on Iraqi Reparations

The GOP gaffes come so quickly that something that may have garnered attention in a normal year gets completely overlooked. For instance, in last Saturday's debate the sometimes lucid, sometimes inane Michele Bachmann indignantly demanded that Iraq compensate us for the expenses we incurred invading and occupying Iraq.

To put this in perspective, Iraq's annual GDP has risen to about $80 billion, still about $20 billion short of what we spend each year in the Iraqi occupation. So she not only thinks they should pay us back for all the bombs we dropped on them but she thinks that they could?

Not just a terrible idea but an untenable one. And perhaps that should be the motto of so many of these GOP candidates: our ideas shouldn't threaten you because there is no way they will even work.

15 November 2011

Arthur Rubinstein on Life After Attempted Suicide

Sounds similar to the wonderful Buckminster Fuller.
And then I find this wonderful quote:
"In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer." -Camus
(Thanks @vanillabean45 )

14 November 2011

Jimmy Kimmel Takes Candy from Babies. And that's hilarious. Seriously. So stop your crying.

10 million hits for Jimmy Kimmel's video  in which little kids were told by their parents that they'd eaten all their candy. Hilarious. I can hardly wait for the one next week in which people are told that their spouse has cheated on them. And then people at the doctor are told that they have cancer. Could be a whole series. Should be a riot.

Socrates, Buddha, Jesus, & Muhammad Never Wrote a Word

Bernard had been drinking. His eyes were watery and his grin sloppy. He was preparing for Thanksgiving with family. I was his designated driver. When he is drunk, Bernard seems to be in one of two states - giddy or quiet. He'd been quiet long enough that I thought I'd risk his becoming giddy by asking a question. As it turns out, no topic is sober enough to counter a drunken Bernard.

"Have you noticed one thing that Socrates, the Buddha, and Jesus have in common?" I asked.
Bernard began to chortle. "No! But I do know what John the Baptist and Winnie the Pooh have in common," and then he dissolved into laughter.
"What," I groaned.
"Same middle name!" he doubled up in laughter, nearly hitting his head on the table.
I was trying to feign tolerance but in fact I had to laugh. "No," I shook my head. "Although I guess this is true of Winnie and John as well. Have you ever noticed that Socrates, Buddha and Jesus never wrote anything?"
"No," Bernard confessed.
"At least, as far as we know. They just wandered around and taught people. And yet look at how long their teachings have lasted," I said. "Look at how much impact they have had on people's thinking for thousands of years."
“Same with Muhammed,” he called out from the backseat.
Muhammed didn’t write anything down,” Bernard said. “Add him to your list of great, unpublished teachers.”
“Wow,” I nodded. “Socrates, Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammed.”

"Oh, Ron," Bernard giggled, "did you hear about Buddha's lost teachings?"
"No," I replied.
"Everyone knows that the Buddha taught that want is at the root of unhappiness," and Bernard began to giggle some more. "Did you know what he taught is at the root of happiness?"
"No," I repeated.
"Wanton!" And Bernard giggled at his wit. "Want makes you unhappy, and wanton makes you happy! Get it?" And again he laughed. Bernard is, to his credit, a cheery drunk.

"That's very witty for a man who slurs his words, Bernard. But seriously, doesn't this call into question the whole model of writing as a way to change people's thinking. I mean, doesn't this seem to you like some kind of indictment of writing?"
"Maybe," Bernard bobbed his head while wrinkling up his bottom lip. "Or maybe it just proves that you can't focus on getting published and changing the world at the same time." And again he laughed.

Then Bernard sounded very sober. “Well think of this. Three major religions – Jews, Christians, and Muslims – call Abraham their father and yet he didn’t write a thing.”
“Abraham is another I didn’t think of.”
“And think of this,” Bernard said. “All three groups have given birth to religious people who are considered ‘people of the book.’ That is, people who define a great deal of their religion by reading scripture. And yet given none of it would have been written in Abraham’s time, he couldn’t have defined his religion that way. Maybe all three religions have killed religion by putting it into books.” And then he giggled, throwing what I thought was a good insight into doubt.

"I guess," I said, actually considering the possibility that he was serious in spite of his giddiness.
"Or it might just prove that if you write things down you make your message harder for future generations to co-opt and call their own. Precision makes popularity less probable," he said with amazing precision for one so bleary eyed. "If you want to be happy, be wanton with your words Wonald," he laughed again. "And if you want to have an impact, don't write anything down. Leave other people creative freedom to change your words so that lots of people take ownership of them."

"Too late," I said shaking my head. "I've written hundreds of blog postings."
"Ha!" Bernard snorted. "You call that writing?." And then Bernard tilted his head back and laughed loudly.

(revised and updated from Nov 2009)

10 November 2011

Name Confusion

An old friend was born in Norway and is named Sveinung – but he goes by Sven. He shared this the other day:

So I says, “Hello Marvin, I’m Sven.”
Marvin says, “Swen?”
Me, "Sven."
“Oh, Vance?” questions Marvin.
“No. It’s Sven,” I say.
Marvin shakes his head and mutters, “Tell my wife, bad ear …”
His wife says, “I’m Judy.
I say “I’m Sven.”
Judy says, “Hi Stan,” and mutters, "that wasn't so hard"

Markets and Irrigation

It's worth knowing where the rain falls and rivers run. But that needn't be the final word on the distribution of water. Irrigation was one of the first inventions to allow what we know as modern civilization.

Markets distribute profits and income. That's good to know, but it needn't be the final word on its distribution. Distribution of income may, in fact, be one of the things that first made civilization civilized.

07 November 2011

The Simple, but Sweeping, Answer to the Question of How to Create More Jobs

We can continue to try repairing the old economy or we can create a new one.

Financial crises, stagnant wages, persistently high unemployment, protests, and growing government deficits coinciding with a loss of government jobs are all legitimate problems in their own right, but they are more likely symptoms of something deeper. We’re living into one of the four biggest economic transitions since the Dark Ages.

Since about 1300 CE. a pattern of social invention and revolution has created three economies:  an agricultural, an industrial, and an information economy. And that pattern is now repeating to create a fourth, entrepreneurial economy.

These changes we’re experiencing are different from normal business cycles. This is bigger.

The last shift in the West – beginning around 1900 - took us from an economy led by advances in capital to one led by advances in knowledge work, a transition from an industrial to an information economy.

Progress from about 1700 to 1900 came from dramatic increases in capital: steam engines, factories, stock and bond markets, and banks were invented or recreated and the communities that increased capital the most advanced the most.

Progress from about 1900 to the present followed from the rise of knowledge workers: inventions like the modern university and corporation, and radical advances in information technology helped to create an information economy in which companies making virtual products often became more valuable than those making “real stuff.” Communities that ignored the question of how to create more knowledge workers and make them more productive, and just focused instead on capital, were left behind. When the limit shifts so must the focus.

The emergence of each new economy has forced a revolution in the dominant institution. This is no small thing. The power of elites over the institution is dispersed outwards. People once used as tools by the institution begin to use the institution, instead, as a tool. “We are all priests!” Martin Luther declared, overturning the notion that religion was something to be defined by the pope. The first economy, from about 1300 to 1700, was catalyst to the Protestant Revolution. The second economy, from about 1700 to 1900, brought us democratic revolutions. The third economy, from about 1900 to 2000, democratized finance as knowledge workers’ pension funds and 401(k) funds came to define investment markets.

This new fourth economy will likely transform the corporation – today’s dominant institution - in similar ways. Most obviously, the role of the employee will become more like that of an entrepreneur.

The simple, but sweeping, answer to the question of how to create more jobs is that we need to become more entrepreneurial. The question of how we become more entrepreneurial will first be answered within the corporation. 

Depending on how one measures it, corporations make up between one third to two thirds of the 100 largest economies in the world, yet very few of them encourage entrepreneurship.

Developed countries are considered lands of opportunities where people can expect to make more than heads of state. (About 6 million Americans make more than Obama.) By contrast, corporate employees are about as likely to make more than the CEO as past citizens of Iraq, Libya, or 17th century France were to earn more than Saddam, Kaddafi, or Louis XIV. Such restraints to opportunity and autonomy suggest huge gains could follow from democratizing corporations and creating more entrepreneurial opportunities for the employees within them.

Our media and attention is fixated on political – and sometimes financial – changes we could make to create jobs, but it may turn out that such changes are merely incidental to the scope of the changes needed within corporations.

Despite initial appearances, we’re living in a time of incredible opportunity. Shifting our focus to overcoming the limit of entrepreneurship will mean advances as dramatic – and at times as disorienting – as those of the last three economies. (And if you’re a student of history, you realize how very dramatic that is.) An entrepreneurial economy is ready to emerge. Millions of new jobs depend on today’s communities redefining the corporation as dramatically as past communities redefined church, state, and bank. The fourth economy is ready to emerge but it’s not something we’ll see as long as we stay focused on trying to repair the third economy.

Ron Davison has consulted to some of the world’s largest corporations and is author of The Fourth Economy: Inventing Western Civilization, available on amazon.com. 

05 November 2011

Montaigne on Trusting the Simple Man

This man I had was a simple, crude fellow - a character fit to bear true witness; for clever people observe more things and more curiously, but they interpret them; and to lend weight and conviction to their interpretation, they cannot help altering history a little. They never show you things as they are, but bend and disguise them according to the way they have seen them; and to give credence to their judgment and attract you to it, they are prone to add something to their matter, to stretch it out and amplify it. We need a man either very honest or so simple that he has not the stuff to build up false inventions and give them plausibility; and wedded to no theory. Such was my man; and besides this, he at various times brought sailors and merchants, whom he had known on that trip, to see me. So I content myself with his information, without inquiring what the cosmographers say about it.
- From The Complete Works by Michel de Montaigne, translated by Donald M. Frame.

04 November 2011

At the Life Counter

"Yes," he says, rather tentatively. "I'd like mine with more honesty, meaning, and love, please."
The guy at the counter - who strangely kept changing appearance almost like a shape in water, looking old and then young, blue skinned and then grey haired - just stared at him.
"Did you hear me," he finally asks.
The man  - suddenly snapped into focus and looking like one of those apron wearing guys from 50s- style diners - laughed.
"You want more of this and less of that? Is that what you want?"
He could have sworn he heard a strong Brooklyn accent, which made this seem all the more surreal. "Well yes. Specifically, I'd like more honesty, meaning ..."
The guy at the counter interrupted with a wave of the hand. "I heard ya. I heard ya." And then he laughed.
"What? What's so funny."
"You think you're the first to want to change your order?"
He just stared. And then the man leaned across the counter and said, "You got two choices: either you choose life or you don't. The rest of it? You don't got that much choice about."
He stood there silent, now uncertain about what to do.
"So, what'll it be?"

01 November 2011

Tweeting Through Oct 2011

How Greece could pay down their debt: sue all modern countries for patent infringement on ideas of democracy, science, philosophy ..

Offering simple and natural for Halloween this year - just dropping a tablespoon of unrefined sugar into each kid's bag.

Now those are some last words. Even if you don't read the whole of Steve Jobs' sister's eulogy, scroll to the botttom.http://nyti.ms/vBfEx9

This year I'm going as Herman Cain so I can tell trick and treaters, "If you don't have candy it's your own fault. Go get your own candy."

A relief pitcher was brought in just to intentionally walk a batter. So happy to know there's a pro athlete job for which I'm qualified.

Either my day was far too long yesterday or I'm suffering from an acute bout of lackadaisical tolerance.

Why name a section of a modern jet "coach?" That suggests they modeled it after primitive, 19th century transportation. Oh wait.

Now I know why in science fiction those identical coveralls are popular. No need to pack luggage that might delay you.

Idea 4 website named gargle to offer cognitive cleanse (think brainwash not mouthwash) AND pick up poor typists trying for google.

If it was up to us Americans, the one change we'd make to Canada would be to warm it up some. Oh wait. We are.

“The trouble with quotes on the internet is that it’s difficult to determine whether or not they are genuine.” - Abraham Lincoln

His personal goal was to hit the 101st percentile. RT @tnr Where do you fall on the @WSJ #income calculator? http://ow.ly/77N3P #OWS

Forget it and lose a century: markets untamed by democracies or democracies untamed by markets are just different forms of tyranny.

I wonder if in some parallel universe gravity on planets varies like climate here. "Nobody lives there. It's too heavy."

Scare people? Occupy Halloween: announce at door that you're not there for a handout but will camp out in their living room indefinitely.

Angry at the bankers? You would be too. Somehow they claim they know NOTHING about my share of the $21 million from Nigeria.

At work designing my new fashion line. I'm calling it Arab Spring and will base it on Gaddafi's wardrobe. http://bit.ly/o791HM

Wonder if Jobs would have received so much praise if someone had invented a device making iPods as easy to pirate as, say, music.

Planning a novel in which characters debate whether life's defined by free will or a novelist. If it writes itself, we'll know who is right.

RT @ebertchicago: Handy WashPost chart showing how Cain's 9-9-9 plan would affect the rich,poor and in between.http://wapo.st/ozSdps

File under, more downsizing. Due to budget cutbacks, the GOP's frontrunner has changed from McCain to Cain.

RT @drgrist: Word of the day: ignostic. An ignostic is someone who purposefully remains too ignorant of a problem to have a position on it.

Actually just got a phone call that caller ID labeled, "phone scam."

#CNNDebate Favorite line of the night: Romney: "Instead of blaming like this president does ..."

#CNNDebate Once 14th amend is mentioned, GOP candidates oppose constitution? So judgment does matter as much as constitution? So confused.

#CNNDebate Also love that Perry is so hip to the jive that he twice addressed Herman Cain as "brother."

#CNNDebate One reason to admire Rick Perry - he actually just tried to deregulate the debate, trying to confiscate Romney's time.

#CNNDebate Question for candidates: Boxers or .... professional wrestlers?

Another GOP debate tonight. I wonder if they have secret backroom poker games to determine who will emerge as front runner each week.

Idea for Classical Idol reality show with historical composers judged by modern pop stars. "Mozart, you need a melodic hook."

Fascinating RT @tnr: 2. Excellent animation of the 2012 Republican campaign as a (literal) horse race, by @Slate http://ow.ly/6YKXE

Baffled his "w/ Jesus in my heart & Buddha in my belly, all I do is sing Allah-la-la-la" t-shirt offended rather than united all religions.

I Ching. You, however, Clang.

Spreading like online trading, occupy wall st. is now in 207 locations.http://bit.ly/pQfh3o

The avant garde composer John Cage wrote a song 4' 33 - 4 mins and 33 seconds of silence. A guy just told me, "I have that." Don't we all?

I'm rebranding The 4th Economy. I'm going to call it Economy 4S.

As an apparent concession to critics who've called him clumsy, Rick Perry is now wearing a hard hat during speeches.http://read.bi/mQKvYj

Post-game analysis presumes to tell you why someone won whereas post-debate analysis presumes to tell you who won.

If only he'd used his super powers for good and not evil. Apparently, even before he was president, Obama started a global recession.

How long before we have a fact check app for text we read online? To this decade what spell check was to 80s.

RT @TIME: "Employers aren't looking for is someone who can do the job but someone who can reinvent the job." - Thomas Friedman at #CIW11

From someecards - Let's celebrate Columbus Day by walking into someone's house and telling them we live there now.

Bankers were going to occupy the inner city this weekend to protest poverty but couldn't find any good hotels.

The Fourth Economy is now available in France athttp://amzn.to/mYqD66 The words entrepreneur and millionaire are already translated.

Nobel Prize winning poet Transtromer is already featured in a video starring Shia LaBeouf. Nice. Hollywood is not all senseless violence.

Curiously, capitalist models explain the recent surge in demand for socialist models.

Whoa. Just had a little carrot wine. Really should pay closer attention to those expiration dates.

10th anniversary of invasion of Afghanistan and still we confuse war and occupation, nation-building and setting up a government.

Just because your mind is simple doesn't mean the world is.

GUI before they were born, Pixar in childhood, iPod in adolescence. No 1 structured consciousness of 20-somethings more than Jobs.

Jobs obsoleted the notion that good design and good engineering were somehow different.

RT @DanielPink: RT @WareMalcombCMO: "Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life." Steve Jobs

We have lower class, middle class, upper class, upper middle class, lower middle class. Is there a lower upper class or upper lower class?

RT @fivethirtyeight: Cain, Perry, Bachmann, Trump, Giuliani, Romney, Palin, Gingrich, Huckabee, Christie all led 1 or more polls this year.

This coffee shop advertises an "Extreme Happy Hour." Not sure how that would, in practice, differ from "Hysterical Hour."

#OccupyWallStreet is everywhere. Protestors popped up when I checked my portfolio. Now marching across monitor with itty bitty signs.

"Defy aging" the ad says. Apparently it doesn't actually halt aging but does give it the finger.

Caller ID has really taken the fun out of making crank phone calls.