31 August 2006

Cheney Doctrine Observation Week

Much has been made of the Bush doctrine, his decision to treat any country that harbors terrorists as the equivalent of terrorists. Less has been said about the Cheney doctrine, his proclamation that the US will respond to even a 1% probability of WMD in the same way that we'd respond to the certainty of WMD.

In this context, it makes perfect sense that Cheney would shoot a lawyer. Given that they were hunting together, Cheney could reasonably conclude that there was a high probability (I'm not particularly good with numbers, but probably considerably higher than 1%) that his friend was armed. Cheney merely responded as made sense to him.

I think that we Americans should set aside a week each year in which we all practice the Cheney doctrine in our own lives. If you think that there is even a 1% chance that someone has a gun (keep in mind that 40% of Americans report a gun in the home), respond as if they did. If you're a pacifist, hide indoors, locked in the cellar. If you are a no-nonsense kind of guy, just shoot the suspects you encounter throughout the day. (And here, unable to offer the vice president's advice on the matter, I can only point to his example: merely clip your suspect or leave him with the equivalent of a "flesh wound;" there is no reason to turn this personal observation of the Cheney doctrine into a blood bath.) If you're not sure what you are, just scurry frantically, dashing from behind the cover of cars, post office boxes, buildings and grocery store aisles as you furtively go about your daily work and errands.

Regardless of who you are, the most essential thing is to let the terror wash over you, shutting down your frontal lobes and letting the reptilian brain take over. Just keep in mind that a 1% chance of bad things happening is the same as absolute certainty that bad things will happen. Car wrecks, cancer, and, yes, even gun shot wounds are to be greatly feared during this week, seen as inevitable unless you take forceful action. While this may be the mental health equivalent of buying lottery tickets to fund retirement, it is recommended for at least two reasons. One, only this kind of fight or flight response will keep you safe throughout Cheney Doctrine Observation Week. Two, the reptilian brain is rarely disconcerted by the policies of the Bush administration.

30 August 2006

Is Patriotism a Mental Illness?

Imagine a person told about a tragedy - 100 killed in plane wreck or 1,000 killed in an earthquake. The person yawns and say, "That's sad." He's then told about one person who is also an American, yet another stranger, who died in the midst of many. Suddenly, this person sits upright, eyes wide, and says, "That terrible!"

What mental condition would lead him to show such apathy towards the deaths of a thousand strangers and so keenly feel the death of a single stranger?

Popularizing Entrepreneurship

One of the major obstacles to change is that the individual's success is at least as much defined by social construct as direct success with reality. We are social creatures and obviously acceptance by others is one key motivator and measure of success. Further, the distribution of money has as much to do with social norms as natural contribution. This is particularly true when more than 90% of Americans are employees of some kind. The price of equities like stocks and homes can rapidly move up or down, illustrating how volatile markets can be; by constrast, salaries within organizations tend to move very slowly, more illustrative of the glacial speed of bureaucracy than market dynamics.

Consequently, little attention is paid to the efficacy of social constructs themselves; most people are so busy trying to succeed within school or work that they pay little attention to the power of schools to actually transform perception or change minds, or the ability of corporations to create new products, new markets, and value.

One of the challenges of the coming decades will be to transform the role of the individual from one focused on success within a social construct into focus on success of creating and changing social constructs themselves. Just as progress in the last century followed from increasing the portion of work force considered knowledge workers, so will progress in this century follow from increasing the portion of the work force considered entrepreneurs. This suggests that our children will succeed not by putting more energy into conforming to social constructs like existing bureaucracies and corporations but, rather, conforming those social constructs to their own potential.

29 August 2006

Welcome to the Post - Information Age World

Periodically, periodicals publish their declaration that this is a new information age. That could be, but I'd propose instead that we live in a post-information age.

The information age started with the telegraph and telephone, both popular long before you were born. What has happened since about the mid-1800's is not new. Information flows have expedited the flow of commerce and the consolidation of production, necessitiating an explosion of distribution channels and retail outlets. This has been on-going for more than a century.

What defined the last century is continuning advances in the processing, storing, and interpreting of information with technologies as varied as cell phones, laptops, and universities. This has coincided with the explosion in knowledge workers, who were arguably to economic growth in the 20th century what capital had been in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Today, we live in a world in which knowledge workers, for the first time, are no longer constrained by lack of information. In fact, they are probably hindered by it - the proliferation of calls, emails, meetings, books, (and yes, sadly) web sites including blogs probably do at least as much to diffuse attention and lessen productivity as they do to inform action and enhance productivity.

This raises a very different question: What can be done when information no longer limits? And it is the communities, organizations, and individuals who focus on the answer to that question who will advance as much in this century as did those who focused on the question of how to get more information stored, distributed, and processed advanced in the last century.

Power to the State?

Bush apparently still has enough supporters that people aren't particularly outraged by his decision to indefinitely imprison even American citizens without the need to formally charge them with a crime, his self-declared ability to tap phone lines of anyone without court authorization, or even his self-proclaimed ability to simply state that certain laws passed by congress don't apply to him. What it means to accept his proclamation of such powers (a proclamation supported nowhere in the Constitution that he swore to uphold) is to accept that we have an elected king. That is, Bush is able to seize and hold any citizen for any length of time. He's able to get information on anyone for any purpose, basically allowing no one privacy to formulate any kind of thought or organization. And he can exempt himself from legislation at will.

So, let's suppose that none of this disturbs you. You need to think about his. Would you want Bill or Hillary Clinton to have the same powers? What about Pat Buchanan or Ralph Nader? What if we had another terrorist attack from religious extremists and the vote fragmented, leaving a religious extremist with the Presidency? Or what if we have a few more Katrina’s and an environmental extremist is elected President? The question isn't just whether it disturbs you that Bush has these kinds of powers. The question is whether you want anyone who may end up in office to enjoy such broad powers.

If you answer yes to that, yes you would be satisfied to see any prospective president have this kind of power, then you needn't live here to enjoy the "security" such executive power confers. Saudi Arabia or Burma offers such executive power under the guise of security and the only thing particularly secure in such an arrangement is their grip on the executive branch.

Putting aside the fact that the war on terror isn't even a real war (and is instead a metaphor akin to the war on drugs or poverty), Bush granting himself these powers during "wartime" is like declaring that these powers will expire only when the poor, the addicted, or the violent have left us. We are more likely to find ourselves without rights than absent such company as that.

The United States has partly thrived because of good government, but its success has probably had more to do with its distrust of government and its insistence on checks and balances than reliance upon the magnanimity of any one president.

27 August 2006

Requiring a Testable Hypothesis for Legislation

In order to pass legislation, Congress should be required to attach a testable hypothesis. Money to be spent on drug education? Perhaps that is justified by a prediction that illegal drug use will drop. Money spent on a defense program, a command, control, and communication system for instance? Perhaps it would be justified by a prediction that the number of troops killed by friendly fire would drop. And so on. And posted in a public spot - say a web site - would be the data streaming in to either support or refute the testable hypothesis. An outside group of auditors, statisticians probably, would determine whether the real world events justified continued spending.

It couldn't hurt to force some science on federal spending - something that accounts for more than 20% of our economy. And it might even drive out the ideologues.

25 August 2006

Liberals vs. Conservatives: Church, State, Bank & Corporation

One of the key innovations of the Reformation came when revolutionaries like John Wycliffe, Jan Hus, and Martin Luther drove a wedge between a belief in God and a belief in the church. The Protestant revolution was not a rejection of God. It was, rather, a rejection of the notion that church authorities actually represented God for the masses. “We are all priests,” Martin Luther wrote in perhaps the most revolutionary proclamation of modern times.

Since the 1500s, we’ve had conservatives, liberals, and radicals. Conservatives have wanted to preserve institutional authority in the hands of a few elites; liberals have wanted to disperse that institutional authority to a wider group; radicals wanted to do away with the institution all together. During the Reformation, conservatives defended the authority of popes, liberals fought to disperse the power of the church to princes (and eventually individuals), and radicals (like the French revolutionaries) wanted to outlaw religion altogether.

We’ve had conservatives, liberals, and radicals in politics as well. The conservatives fought to defend the divine rights of kings, to defend the supremacy of the aristocracy and landowners; the liberals fought for democracy; the radicals agitated for anarchy, seeing the state as inherently oppressive.

Conservatives, liberals, and radicals have fought in the arena of finances as well. Conservatives fought to stay on a gold standard, to maintain a tight grip on money and credit. Liberals fought to move towards paper currency and to liberalize credit, making it easier for individuals to finance businesses, farms, and consumer purchases. Radicals, in the form of communists, thought that financial markets should not be trusted at all and that the state should allocate capital.

Conservatives always win in the short-term. Jan Hus was burned at the stake more than a century before Martin Luther succeeded at starting the Protestant Revolution. Although the American revolutionaries were successful at overthrowing the British rule, it took more than a century for most people within Europe to be considered citizens rather than subjects. William Jennings Bryan, who delivered the famous “Must mankind be hung on a cross of gold?” speech, lost his bid for the presidency three times. Liberals always win in the long-term. Throughout the West, people are free to choose how (and whether) to worship, who (and whether) to vote for, and how much (and whether) debt to assume.

Progress in the West has been a story of the triumph of the individual over the institution, the dispersal of power from elites to the common person. Church, State, and Bank have all become tools for the individual, a reversal.

So, what is the next revolution? What is the role of conservatives, radicals, and liberals?

Today’s dominant institution is the corporation. Like the medieval church, it defines daily life and our options. And once again, we have conservatives who defend its current form, liberals who agitate to change it, and radicals who would like to do away with it. And once again, the radicals will soon be irrelevant, the conservatives will win in the short term but liberals will define the future.

One of the keys to this revolution will have its parallel in the Protestant Revolution. Just as Martin Luther drove a wedge between a belief in God and the authority of popes, so will modern reformers drive a wedge between a belief in markets and the authority of CEOs. When CEOs make 500 times what entry-level employees make, I think we can safely assume that their decisions have been disconnected from market forces.

The corporation, like church, state, and bank before it, is an amazing and powerful institution. Progress will follow from steadily dispersing authority from an increasingly privileged class of elites to the common people.

24 August 2006

Do Bush Deficits Choke NASDAQ?

7 June 2001, Bush signed legislation that cut taxes by $1.35 trillion.
Fifteen months later, NASDAQ had lost $1.25 trillion in value.

Is this just a coincidence? It could be. Financial markets are difficult to understand, much less predict. But it may be that the two numbers are related.

Bush's legislation clearly helped to shift the government's surplus into a deficit. There is only so much money that goes into investment markets each year and it has a variety of options: among them bonds and stocks. When the government is running a deficit, it is bidding for those investment funds, competing with business start-ups and expansion. When the government is running surplus, it is actually freeing up money to find investment options other than government bonds.

During the Clinton administration, the American economy created jobs at a rate of nearly 250,000 per month. Under the Bush administration job creation has averaged about 150,000 per month, in spite of a big increase in government spending. With less money to move into private investment markets, into NASDAQ stocks for instance, there is less money available for job creation.

Could it be that Bush's big deficits have helped to squeeze out private investment and, subsequently, dampened the creation of jobs? It's really not such a radical notion. In fact, it could very well be an idea that Republicans themselves, before their party was hijacked by neoconservatives, might have put forth: private investment markets do a better job of job creation than government agencies.

Economic Goods to Do - a new definition of progress

The traditional definition of economic goods is a definition of stuff - cars, loaves of bread, clothes, and gadgets for which people will pay. Goods to have. A more comprehensive definition of goods will include goods to do - work so gratifying to people that they will give up pay to do it. People taking a job that pays $10,000 or $100,000 less than they might otherwise make are choosing goods to do over goods to have. Such a choice might signal progress.

Studies have indicated that once per capita income hits about $20,000 a year, more money does little to increase happiness. (This is not completely true. If you make more money than other people, you feel happier. This has to do with status rather than the happiness you get from being able to afford more stuff.) After about $20,000, income goes up but happiness stays about the same. This suggests that the economic assumptions of the last century might not hold in the 21st century.

L. Frank Baum is well known for creating the Wizard of Oz. He is less known for pioneering window displays in department stores. Shopping as entertainment is a relatively new phenomenon - it has only emerged in the last 100 to 150 years. In the late 1800s, department stores hired gawkers to stand on the sidewalk outside of stores, staring into the display windows. These gawkers helped to change social norms that frowned on looking into windows as evidence of bad manners. The idea was to entice window shoppers into the store, luring them into a strange and wondrous new world, like Dorothy drawn to see the Wizard of Oz.

Shortly after the Civil War, manufacturers had figured out how to make lots of product. In the late 1800s, the new puzzle was how to sell lots of product. To do that, retailers used display windows, advertising on radio and TV, distribution channels, interstate highways, catalogs, and department stores. During the last century, companies have focused on managing our attention as consumers - using advertisements to get us to buy. The result is an increase in GDP and satisfaction. But that path to progress seems to offer less promise in this century than the last. Ice cream makes you happier, but not if you’ve already had three scoops. We already have lots of stuff. Getting more stuff early in this century is unlikely to make us as excited as it did early in the last century.

Economic progress can no longer exclusively focus on economic goods to have. Philosophers argue for the importance of three kinds of goods: goods to have, goods to do, and goods to be. To date, economic goods have generally been assumed to mean economic goods to have.

Studies of happiness indicate that goods to have make less difference than goods to do. Engagement in activity - what psychologists call flow - does more to increase happiness than getting more stuff. This suggests that economic progress will increasingly require us to pay increasing attention to economic goods to do. Companies will need to focus on our attention as producers, at how engaged we are in our work, in order to make as much progress in this century as they have in the last. It is not so much “do what you love and the money will follow.” Rather, it is more like, “Once you have a certain amount of money, no things will bring you as much joy as doing what you love.”

Economic progress has meant more economic goods to have for a century. For the sake of our happiness and our planet, it is time to begin shifting the emphasis to economic goods to do. It isn't stuff we need - it is engagement. Making this shift to a new kind of economic good will require a significant change in how work is defined. It will also lead to great progress.

23 August 2006

Your Neighbor's Life

Paul writes in Colossians that covetousness is idolatry. The Old Testament is particularly critical of idol worship, dismissing it as at best silly because idols made with hands are unable to do anything for the worshipper. No matter how much the idol worshipper does for the idol, the idol is unable to do anything in return.

So it is interesting that Paul equates covetousness with idolatry. To covet suggests that you want what is someone else’s – their spouse, house, dog or car. No matter how much energy you put into wanting someone else’s life, that life won’t be able to do anything for you. In fact, it is one of the best ways to distract someone from what is great about their own life – pointing out what is better in the life of another and making one waste his time, energy, and attention thinking about getting pieces of someone else's life rather than living one's own.

From Pragmatism to Systems Thinking

Knowledge workers are pragmatists. They are problem-solvers less interested in ideology or general laws than the solution to a specific problem in a specific context. One of the reasons that the factors that lead to global warming seem to have their own, unstoppable momentum is that our experts are pragmatists. They are focused, heads down, on the problems of getting elected, designing new software or hardware, increasing sales, or any of a thousand other problems that confront them. Yet there comes a time when it is no longer pragmatic to be pragmatic, when our leaders and experts have to take a systems perspective.

Moving into the information age from the industrial age took, among other things, a shift in dominant philosophy from Enlightenment philosophy to Pragmatism, from general laws to specific solutions. It is time for another philosophical shift: from pragmatism to systems thinking. Systems thinking comes in a variety of guises and under a number of labels: ecological thinking, systems dynamics, self-adaptive complexity, holistic, etc. It encompasses thought that borders on the mystical (e.g., the Gaia Hypothesis) to thinking that approaches mathematical opacity (e.g., Chaos Theory). But what it does is emphasize the relationships between events and entities, the domino effect of changes, the ecosystem more than the species, the context or environment more than the process.

Knowledge workers can solve the problem of global warming. The problem is not untenable and is not beyond the minds of our leading experts. But solving it will require a solution that spills across boundaries – from politics to science and technology, from international agreements to habits and social norms. This solution will require the widespread adaptation of a new way of thinking.

18 August 2006

Life, liberty and ?

“Life, liberty, and property,” the philosopher John Stuart Mills wrote. About 100 years later, Thomas Jefferson changed his phrase to, “Life, liberty, and happiness.” This confusion and property and happiness might, in part, explain the abundance of shopping malls in this country.

Bush, Cheney, & Rumsfeld: The 3 Stooges of the Apocalypse

This is obviously a fictional exchange but everything inside of “quotation marks” is an actual quote.
George, Dick, and Donald are in the Oval Office, chatting with Tony Snow as he tries to get up to speed for his new job as White House Spokesman.

George is red in the face, coughing as Donald pounds him on his back. Dick walks up, singing, Peace time gives me a queasy feeling, to the Eagle’s tune “Peaceful, Easy Feeling.” He suddenly notices George’s condition.
Cheney: What’s going on here?
Rumsfeld: Oh, he choked on a pretzel. How are you, Dick?
Cheney: “Except for the occasional heart attack, I never felt better.”
George finally manages to dislodge the pretzel, now lying on the ground gasping for air as Dick and Donald continue to chat.
Rumsfeld: "It is unknowable how long that conflict [the war in Iraq] will last. It could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months."
Cheney: "I think they're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency."
George sits up and asks for a drink.
Cheney: Why were you eating those pretzels without a drink, George?
Bush: "I'm … not very analytical. You know I don't spend a lot of time thinking about myself, about why I do things," George says as he reaches for another handful of pretzels, ignoring the water that Rumsfeld proffers.
At this point, Cheney introduces Tony Snow, suggesting that Snow will need to ask some questions in order to prepare for his job as the chief spokesman.
Snow: Do you have some idea about how you’re portrayed in the media, about how you’d like to change that?
Bush: "I glance at the headlines just to kind of get a flavor for what's moving. I rarely read the stories, and get briefed by people who are probably read the news themselves," George says as he looks outside at the trees. Tony Snow looks to Rumsfeld for help.
Rumsfeld: "I'm not into this detail stuff. I'm more concepty."
Snow: Well, people seem concerned about the resistance movement. Have you got an estimate for the number of insurgents working in Iraq?
Rumsfeld: "I am not going to give you a number for it because it's not my business to do intelligent work."
Snow: So, should we position you as having been tricked into Iraq by the intelligence community?
Bush: "There's an old saying in Tennessee — I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again." Heh, heh. That’s from that British rock group, The Whom.
Snow looks pained: Don?
Rumsfeld: "Needless to say, the President is correct. Whatever it was he said."
Snow: So, what is the most important message you’d like to get out to the American people?
Bush: "The most important thing is for us to find Osama bin Laden. It is our number one priority and we will not rest until we find him."
Rumsfeld, folding his hands: "We do know of certain knowledge that he [Osama Bin Laden] is either in Afghanistan, or in some other country, or dead."
Tony Snow: You have certain knowledge of this? And you, Mr. President, where do you think he is?
Bush: "I don't know where bin Laden is. I have no idea and really don't care. It's not that important. It's not our priority," George says as he begins to play Nintendo.
Snow: So you’re saying that Iraq is now our focus? Why?
Bush: "The war on terror involves Saddam Hussein because of the nature of Saddam Hussein, the history of Saddam Hussein, and his willingness to terrorize himself."
Snow: Terrorize himself? I don’t believe I heard you right.
Bush: "I know what I believe. I will continue to articulate what I believe and what I believe — I believe what I believe is right."
Snow: Don, can you help me out here?
Rumsfeld, nodding: "I believe what I said yesterday. I don't know what I said, but I know what I think, and, well, I assume it's what I said."
Snow: Well, how should I talk to the American people about this war?
Bush: "I just want you to know that, when we talk about war, we're really talking about peace."
Rumsfeld, nodding sagely as he looks at himself in a hand mirror: "Death has a tendency to encourage a depressing view of war."
Snow: Well, can you explain why you said “Bring ‘em on” when the insurgent attacks in Iraq first started?
Bush: "I'm the commander — see, I don't need to explain — I do not need to explain why I say things. That's the interesting thing about being president,” George said as he walked away from the Nintendo controller in search of more pretzels.
Snow: So, would it be fair to say that we’re doing more foreign policy negotiations now?
Bush: "This foreign policy stuff is a little frustrating.”
Rumsfeld, shaking his head: "I don't do foreign policy."
Snow: So do you think that things are going well over there?
Rumsfeld: "Well, um, you know, something's neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so, I suppose, as Shakespeare said."
Bush: Heh, heh. Yeah, thinking makes it so. Heh, heh. Thinking is dangerous Rummy. That’s a good one. You’re so diplomatic, Don.
Rumsfeld: "I don't do diplomacy."
Bush: Heh, heh. Neither does Dick. He’s been awfully quiet over there. You shot any lawyers lately Dick? Eh? It ain’t duck huntin’ with you, Dick. It’s, Duck! Dick’s huntin’. Heh, heh.
Cheney: "Go f*ck yourself."
Snow: So, what message should we convey to the American people?
Bush: "Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we." And, "I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn't do my job."
Rumsfeld: "I don't do quagmires," Donald said, continuing to write down his “don’t do” list. "I don't do predictions." "I don't do numbers."
Tony Snow slowly backs out of the room. George is back to playing Nintendo, humming Dick’s song, Peace Time Gives Me a Queasy Feeling.

Talk Radio

I think that a lot of what we hear on talk radio is proof of demand for certain opinions more than its proof of the accuracy of those opinions. Talk radio is to politics what science fiction is to science.

Quadrant for Assessing Political Proposals

Politics needs a four quadrant grid, to assess proposed government programs. The veritical axis would go from "Really expensive "to “This will bankrupt us.” The horizontal axis would go from “Inane” to “This will never work!”

Why American Idol gets more votes than off-presidential elections

Apparently, three things make the difference. One, people of any age can vote for American Idol. Two, people can vote multiple times and it is the number of votes, not voters, that brings American Idol's numbers up there with American politics. Three, people actually like singers and are not so hesitant to encourage them.

The Media's Responsibility

“I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity;
I would give my right arm for the simplicity on the far side of complexity.”
- Oliver Wendell Holmes

Very, very few of us directly experience events in DC or the Middle East. We only know about global warming because of a pattern of events and scientific measurements that no one person could have hoped to capture. The media both works as the community's senses and makes sense of the world. So, what is the reality it is working to depict?

Reality is that we live in world of massive interdependency, emergent qualities, system dynamics. From terrorism to the environment, economic growth and currency fluctuations to immigration and lifestyles, our world is the product of systems. Yet our language evolved in a time of fairly simple subject - verb - object constructs, linear relationships like "Og hit Mog." Language doesn't lend itself well to describing complicated relationships better captured by multivariate equations and systems simulations.

For now, we seem to have a divide. On the one side are those who represent the world in fairly simple terms - talk show hosts and most successful politicians. On the other hand we have experts whose explanations of the world are often too sophisticated and nuanced to easily follow. Yet in a democracy, it is vital that a critical mass of the electorate understand the world in order to throw their support behind policy that will be effective, which is one of the reasons that the founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson so emphasized the importance of education.

So, what is the media's responsibility in the midst of all this? It is to use its power of communication to translate the difficult systems issues into easy to comprehend reports, stories, and visual graphics. This is the central challenge of communities throughout the West, it seems to me. The concepts of systems dynamics need to be made accessible to the average person. It is not just good policy that depends on it - it is the future of democracy.

17 August 2006

The Media of Terror

Never has a generation been less likely to die a violent death and never has the media put so much time, attention, and energy into frightening the population into believing it will die such a death. Sadly, just as advertisers have learned that sex sells products, the media has learned that terror raises ratings and sells newspapers. Fear is primal and, like sex, works at a level below rational thought. And that is probably the worst thing about the new media of terror: it short circuits rational thought, eroding public discourse and good policy. Just as a person whose psychological condition disconnects him or her from reality has trouble coping, much less thriving, so does a society whose media disconnects it from reality.

Why Housing Prices Have Gone Up and Up

There has been quite a lot of speculation about why house prices have risen so much in the last decade. I think that perhaps the most overlooked cause is Costco.

People now buy in bulk. They get 48 rolls of toilet paper, 32 cans of diet coke, 4 lbs of spinach, etc. Why? Because thanks to Costco bulk is so cheap. Or at least it seems that way. But what happens? People began to feel crowded. They find that their living quarters are cramped. They are hemmed in by bales of foodstuffs, paper supplies, and appliances. They begin to shop for a larger living space and as more people are in search of bigger homes, demand drives up prices, spiraling upwards.

The net effect? Food prices drop by about 5%. House prices rise by about 50% Our discretionary income falls and our weight rises. All because of Costco.

Predecessors to Democracy

Democracy doesn't just emerge once a tyrant has been overthrown. Rather, the history of the West suggests that it requires particular predecessors, certain conditions, in order to emerge. For instance, a critical mass of the people have to believe that religious belief is best personally defined by the individual, not defined by the community for the individual. That is, church is made a tool of the individual and not vice versa.

Because if the community believes that certain people (whether they be popes or imams) speak on behalf of God and that the individual is responsible to obey that word, there is no space in the public discourse for democracy. What does the voice of the people matter if one has access to the voice of God?

Why does this matter? Well, it matters because it has a very real impact on policy options. The Reformation preceded Democratic Revolutions in the West. The church was reformed before political tyranny could be reformed. It is not obvious that democracy can flourish in a community that has not already gone through such a religious transformation. Martin Luther's cry "All men are priests!" preceeded Thomas Jefferson's "All men are created equal" by about 250 years.

The reader likely needs little guidance in thinking about what our own Western history suggests about the Middle East today. At a minimum, it suggests that attempts to create democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq without addressing these issues of religion is, at best, optimistic.


It is not a supply side problem. Buddhists say that the way to happiness is not by being controlled by your wants but by controlling your wants. Or, as the Buddhist Economist might say, "If only you would reduce your demand to zero, supply would become infinte."

Bush Blinded by the Lens of the Nation-State

“We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.”
- Anais Nin

The prospect of civil war in Iraq is increasingly real, and yet Bush and most of his critics seem united in the notion that US troops should stay in Iraq until the Iraqi government is stable. That goal may be unrealistic and the reason for it may be the same as the reason that the invasion has proven so problematic in the first place.

A solution starts with a change in perspective. The same problem that got us into Iraq is causing us problems in the occupation: Bush continues to address political problems as national problems, even when those problems defy such neatly defined boundaries. His answer to terrorism was the invasion of two countries; his answer to civil strife is building a stronger Iraqi army. Yet trying to address these problems as national problems seems only to exacerbate them. Terrorism is a problem that spills across national borders and belongs to no single nation; the civil strife in Iraq stems from a conflict between nations within the borders of a single state. Simultaneously offering the autonomy implied in democratic rule by forcing a single state onto multiple nations is a guarantee of conflict. What got us into Iraq is what is keeping us there – assuming that the best leverage point for dealing with any political problem is through established nation-states. Yet the really significant problems of this century – from terrorism and tribalism to global warming and economic stability – defy neatly defined national solutions.

First Blinded by the Nation-State Lens
Bush labeled 9-11 an act of war. If it were, the fact that we have the best military in the history of the world would be an advantage. Yet it turns out that the war on terrorism is more like the war on poverty or drugs than World War II. Imagine being handed a CD and having only a turntable on which to play it and you get some sense of Bush’s predicament when he confronted 9-11. Wars against terrorists and wars against nation-states are very different and yet Bush opted to respond to a terrorist threat with a conventional war strategy.

Bush ended despotic regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq but has made little progress against Al Qaeda: Saddam is on trial yet bin Laden is free. Defining and conquering Al Qaeda is more difficult than defining and conquering nations. Where others saw a messy ideological battle that was part foreign policy and part crime-fighting, Bush saw clearly defined invasions. This was the first time that he was blinded by the lens of the nation-state.

Blinded Again
Three years after the Iraqi invasion, our occupation has divided the American public, increased international animosity, and has not yet delivered a government able to ensure safety or even basic utilities. In the last two months, 6,000 Iraqis have been killed. American generals and the British ambassador are warning of possible civil war. Some experts say civil war is not just possible but is already underway. One cannot blame Bush for a lack of commitment. Our $100 billion annual spending represents a multiple of Iraq’s $22 billion pre-invasion GDP. Our troops have already spent as long fighting in Iraq as they spent fighting against Hitler. So, why has this occupation gone so badly?

Where Bush sees Iraq, historians see three former Ottoman regions populated by Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds consolidated into a single nation after World War I by the British. Iraq did not emerge out of a shared culture, philosophy or economy – it was the product of a British idea. These three groups still find it difficult to reconcile their differences into a single community. British occupation, Saddam’s tyranny, and a democratic constitution have apparently done little to address the reality of three separate people, or nations, distrusting one another. This problem of different nations sharing a single state has led to brutal civil wars in Rwanda and Yugoslavia.

The common claim is that the Bush administration is engaged in nation building. This is a misnomer.

Nation-states represent a confluence of nation and state, a people who share an identity (the nation component) and a government (the state component). Given that a nation suggests a shared culture, language, and worldview, a nation is very difficult to build and doing so can take decades or centuries. By contrast, building a state involves setting up a government and can be accomplished in years or decades.

It is doubtful that the Bush Administration can actually build a nation in Iraq. The reconstruction of Germany and Japan after World War II represented a triumph of policy – yet it did not involve nation building. Germany and Japan were clearly single nation-states. The Marshall Plan helped to rebuild the German state, but it did not create a German nation. It would be more effective to accept multiple nations than to try to build a single nation.

History suggests that when a people are allowed self-determination, one of their first acts is to create a state that aligns with their sense of national identity. To ignore this impulse is to sow the seeds of on-going civil strife and war. Starting from the premise that Iraq is actually three nations now governed by one state would be no panacea, but it could provide a starting point for genuine progress towards stability in the region.

Bungled that Like Bush in Baghdad

There's a new phrase floating around the NFL this season, used to dis' rookies who drop passes or fumble the ball. "You bungled that like Bush in Baghdad."

Okay, okay. I made that up. But it doesn't mean that it shouldn't be true.

Testing in Schools

The emphais on standardized testing is so odd. 75 years ago, parents could predict with some accuracy what their daughter would do for a career. A large percentage would become teachers, nurses, or (mostly) housewives. 10 years ago, it would have been very difficult to pick the career, the number of career options had so proliferated. Today, many teenagers are going to work in jobs that aren’t even well known or defined as yet. What is so odd is that we’ve never lived in a time of such wide variety in careers or a time when so much emphasis was placed on standardized tests. Madness.

They should stop with the testing. Really. Instead, they should bring in teams of people and say, “You can’t get your MBA (or certificate in project management, or whatever) until you’ve made progress on this problem of [pick a project as varied as homelessness in Chicago to “nation building” in Iraq to funding Medicare]." All socially conferred degrees or professional designations should result from socially beneficial activities, where the grammatical construct is subject-verb-object and the subject is a group instead of an individual and the object is a social problem and not a test. Taht could simultaneously enhance the value of education and whittle away at (and occasionally eradicate) otherwise intractable social problems. And it would do more to emphasize work in teams, vital given that all signficant accomplishment happens within a community.

This would do so many things. It would force education from ivory tower and into the streets, force it to make real contact with real social problems. It would also force policy makers and politicians to allow regular change and force a more empirical approach to policy formulation and testing, eroding what is perhaps the most pervasive problem in policy: ideology trumping the scientific approach.

David Brooks on Lieberman and McCain

David Brooks of the NY Times had a recent column that was a mix of good points and wishful thinking. He basically puts Lieberman and McCain into a category of politicians that the electorate will embrace as an alternative to the partisans in both parties. Interesting premise but it fails on one really important part: McCain did not lose his party’s primary and is, for now, the front-runner for the Republican nomination. If David Brooks can get voters to think that the Republican front-runner is a moderate non-partisan, the Republicans win again.

The truth is, McCain is very conservative. . If you say, “Well, he’s against torture,” I’d simply say that such a stance is less conservative / liberal than totalitarian / democratic. “Liberal” Stalinists and “Conservative” Nazis both supported state-sponsored torture. McCain is simply more interested in defending rights than attacking or protecting ideologies. The conservative tradition has seemed to produce some of the strongest defense of individual rights in the face of the state (and depending on how you define conservative, some of the most egregious infractions against those rights). I don’t think that liberal or conservative automatically tells one anything about whether the individual will be treated with dignity or treated like chattel.

What Brooks is really doing is vying to define the Lieberman defeat. The market determines the price of a house or stock. It has no price until a group agrees. I think that political events are similar – they have no meaning until that meaning is agreed upon. Brooks is saying, “This means that people are going to turn from extremism to moderates like McCain.” Of course, he never once mentions Bush’s extremism because he’s been defending it as actually quite moderate for the last six years. We’ll see whether his interpretation of the events in CT as proof that voters are becoming extremists holds. If it does, the Republicans have a much better chance in November. If the other story takes – the people are taking back politics from the power elites – then the Republicans (as incumbents) will have a tough time in November. Like bidding to determine the price of a stock, Brooks is jockeying to define what this political event means. His view could win, but it'll take a lot of media help. He may get it.

What the main stream media rarely if ever reports is the percentages of Americans who support policies painted as marginal or extremist. For instance, about two-thirds of Americans support some kind of universal health care, yet this is consistently represented as a marginal view espoused only by die-hard liberals. About 85% of Americans think that big business has far too much influence in DC and would support moves to curtail their influence – again, the big business media simply doesn’t report this. From this perspective, it could be that Brooks is (willfully?) clueless about real trends in the US.


I've figured out who is behind the media of terror. It's the hippies.

Think about it. First, they get us to walk through airport security barefoot, the slippery slope towards a change in social norms. Now, they've managed to force us to give up toothpaste, hair gel, cosmetics, deoderant, perfume whenever we want to fly. We've all been forced to go natural, like people living on a commune. Soon, we'll be traipsing through security completely unencumbered by textiles or modesty, everyone agreeing that this is a bit of a hassle but it's worth it if we're kept safe. And airport terminals will look like Woodstock brought indoors to be near a Starbucks. Islamic fundamentalists? ha! It's the hippies.