31 October 2006

Sex & Violence

I saw that Saw III was the top grossing film over the weekend. From what I've read, it falls into the category of the “can't be too graphic" horror movies that sound about as appealing to me as a trip to a dentist who doesn't budget for anesthetic. Putting aside personal preferences, it again brings up the question of movie ratings.

We expect our children will eventually engage in graphic sex and hope that they're never involved in graphic violence - either as thug or victim. Even in very violent cultures, on average there are more acts of sex than acts of violence. A sane community will do what it can to eradicate violence and regulate sex. But only a crazed community would work to eradicate sex and merely regulate violence. Such a community would soon disappear. So how is one to make sense of our movie ratings?

Graphic sex is rated X while graphic violence is rated R, suggesting that we're actually less squeamish about killing than procreation. This odd priority impacts policy.

California has a proposition on the ballot (Prop 83?) that will regulate sex offenders, limiting them from living within a certain distance of parks and strapping them with an electronic bracelet. Oddly, such measures are not first taken against those with a violent streak, but sex offenders - a loosely defined group that includes 18 year-old men who've had sex with a 17 year-old girlfriend. Yet someone who is out after serving time for second or third-degree murder, or someone who has a history of repeatedly violent acts, escapes these odd provisions.

Molestation is not a trivial thing, but it is certainly easier to recover from than murder. So why the special provision against the prospect of molestation but no corresponding provision against the prospect of other violent crimes, crimes that leave physical as well as emotional scars? Could it be that years of accepting the values implied in our movie rating system has distorted our perception of threats?

30 October 2006

Not in His Right Mind

First, two quotes of note, both spoken in regards to the Iraq invasion and occupation.
"Anyone who is not conflicted in their judgment is not thinking seriously."
- Representative Jim Leach, Republican from Iowa.
"I don't know how you operate unless you continually challenge your own assumptions."
- Brent Scowcroft, former national security adviser to both Ford and George H.W. Bush

Brain research indicates that the right brain and left brain have different roles in the complex process of formulating and defending world views. The right brain is the revolutionary, continually challenging the current worldview as new data streams in. Obviously, a person cannot reformulate worldviews as rapidly as he receives new data - the process is too time-consuming and potentially too disruptive. Plus, a worldview that didn't last longer than it took data to stream in would be useless. By contrast, the left-brain defends the existing worldview from new data. At its most extreme, a stroke victim unable to move her arm may insist that she is, indeed, pointing with it. When the brain has been hijacked by the left brain, it is unable to change the worldview no matter how poorly matched that is to reality.

The simple truth is, our minds are much smaller than the world and inevitably our worldviews are limited. Given a lack of omniscience, worldviews need to be regularly tweaked and occasionally shifted. The only option to allowing on-going changes to one’s worldview is to ignore or distort reality.

So what is one to make of Bush's insistence on staying the course in Iraq, even as events have repeatedly unfolded as contrary to his original theories? It is quite simple and fairly intuitive. Bush is not in his right mind.

29 October 2006

The Iraqi Hot Potato

The new plan for Iraq, stated by John Warner and echoed by others, is that we're going to turn to the Iraqi government to solve it. Amazing. The most powerful nation in the history of the world, the one with more Noble Prize winners than any other, can't solve this problem. Their solution? Foist the problem onto a government in turmoil. And they actually think that this qualifies as a strategy. By the time this is over, the invasion will be the fault of the Iraqi people.

27 October 2006

If elected pope …

This year, for Halloween, I was going to go as pope but decided that that would be irreverent. So rather than going as pope, I’m going to run for pope instead.

My campaign strategy is simple, really. Of the 6 billion people on this planet, only about a billion are Catholic. I’m going to go after the non-Catholic vote. As a previously ignored majority, I figure it should be easy to win their vote.

I’ve got in mind a number of changes. One is to revisit the policy towards women. Traditional religions have been notorious in their treatment of women – relegating them to lesser positions and silencing them in churches even though they show up in greater numbers than men. To help signal the kind of changes that I will champion, I intend to change their names from Nuns to Sums.

Concerned with rising obesity levels, I’m changing the name of the Sunday service from Mass to Form and will be using new high-fiber wafers and sugar-free wine.

It’s time to reach out to the Baby Boomers. They’re nearing retirement age and their minds are beginning to drift towards thoughts of their own mortality. They are ripe for conversion. Taking the name of Pope John Paul George Ringo, I feel that my papacy would be specially suited to that mission.

Along those lines, it seems time to end religious intolerance. Religious wars, speaking out about the hell-bent direction of those of other faiths, and the dismissal of “heretical” beliefs just makes the world a more dangerous place. With this in mind, it’s time to let non-Catholics be Catholic. I have my lawyers working on the details of how this could be logically possible, but it seems that if even non-Catholics were Catholic, it would be harder to perpetuate religious hatred. Imagine how disoriented and impotent Muslim fundamentalists would feel if they suddenly learned that they, too, were Catholic. My first papal bull would be to declare everyone Catholic (and as a parenthetical, acknowledge that Albert Pujols is the world's most popular Cardinal).

Please remember me on November 7. I have to admit that my candidacy is not motivated only by a vision of a better world. Outside of the amazing art collection, it seems as though the two best perks of the job are infallibility and getting to wear a cape – something I used to think reserved only for superheroes.

25 October 2006

Timetables, Benchmarks and Other Ways to Avoid the Hard Questions

Bush announced that he is going to establish benchmarks for leaving Iraq and explained why benchmarks are not the same thing as timetables about as well as he has explained his reasons for the Iraqi invasion in the first place. This is to say that anyone listening was simply left perplexed.

Putting aside the fact that the difference between timetables and benchmarks is trivial, there is a problem with both. One of my heroes, management guru W. Edwards Deming, used to admonish managers to do away with exhortations and slogans in the work place. What Deming continually asked is "By what method?" You want to increase sales by 10%? First he'd splay his fingers, look at them and say, "10 ... that's a nice round number. I wonder how they ever thought of that. If they can just increase sales by 10%, why didn't they do that last year? If they already know the method, why did they wait until this year?" If you don't have a method to achieve a goal, the goal is merely speculative.

What is worse, Bush is basically admitting that the US is unable to "solve" the problem of establishing a stable government in Iraq and is now turning on his heels to point the finger at the immature Iraqi government, foisting off responsibility for establishing security to them. He's turning to them to ask, "How long do you think you'll need for this benchmark?" If someone had asked US officials how long they thought it would have taken to establish a secure Iraq, they would have (Rumsfeld actually did) say that it might be about 3 months. This speculation turned out to be speculative, based as it was on neither an accurate assessment nor clear strategy.

Bush has not yet shown that he knows the difference between a strategy and an admonition. This is not so very rare for men in power who can simply make declarations and see things happen within their staff. But when the declarations are made against complex forces, against the tide or winds, against social dynamics he doesn't begin to understand, the consequences are never as satisfactory.

Bush says that he will soon have benchmarks. The real question is, "By what method?" So far, the operating theories that the Bush administration has used at every step of this invasion and occupation have been proven false. Until they offer a new, overarching operating theory, benchmarks will be meaningless.

Bush and the US Joined in Dissatisfaction

WASHINGTON - In a somber but combative pre-election review of a long and brutal war, President Bush conceded Wednesday that the United States is taking heavy casualties in Iraq and said, "I know many Americans are not satisfied with the situation" there. I'm not satisfied either," he said at a speech and question and answer session at the White House 13 days before midterm elections.

To the surprise of the press corps, Bush went on to say, "I know many Americans are not satisfied with their president. I want them to know that neither am I.”

Cell Phones and Infertility

Recent research has indicated that use of cell phones can lead to infertility. However, officials have not indicated that use of cell phones can be assumed to substitute for use of contraceptives.

24 October 2006

A Confusion Between Rights and Being Right

Governments in France, the UK, and the US are corrupting a precious legacy of Western Civilization. France's lower house of parliament recently passed a bill making denial of the Armenian genocide a crime. The British recently charged an activist for passing out anti-homosexual leaflets at a gay and lesbian festival, enforcing a law that allows the crown to prosecute anyone causing a person "alarm or distress" on "at least two occasions." Bush has decided that habeas corpus is a gift that he is free to take from anyone he deems unworthy of it.

This confusion between what seems to be right - squelch the speech of activists who harass those with whom they disagree or indefinitely hold suspects without the need to go public with potentially dangerous information - and rights - freedom of speech and the right to trial - can very easily lead down a slippery slope towards benevolent dictatorships. Communities need to reverse their trend of worrying about what is right for the individual and instead focus on protecting individual rights.

Bad Religion

In this country, we seem to have a number of folks who fail to understand the difference between a person being free to choose his or her own religion and being free to impose personal convictions onto others in the form of law. In Europe, they seem to have the opposite problem, failing to understand the difference between social norms and freedom for the individual to dress as she pleases.

First the French and now the English are making an issue of Muslim women wearing veils. Just as absurd and indefensible as the religious right's attempts in this country to turn scripture into legislation.

Speaking of legislation, it is time to mandate education on religion. It should have at least three components - how so many have consolation in it, how it has been used to wreck havoc on society, and the necessity of religious tolerance. If taught why and how so many have found peace and joy in faith - beliefs that are based in nothing scientific - students will come to appreciate the potential of faith. If taught how religions have resulted in negatives like chronic guilt, religious wars, and the rejection of scientific thinking and reason, students can come to appreciate how dangerous it is to let religion dictate to societies. If taught how much persecution has followed from forcing religion on the individual (as happened in medieval Europe) to forcing the individual to abstain from religion (as happened in so many communist regimes during the Cold War), students will learn the importance of religious tolerance. How communities believe that they can sustain healthy policies and respect for the individual without ensuring that students understand these issues is puzzling. When communities "do religion badly," it is hard for them to get much else right. Such an important issue should not be left to chance.

23 October 2006

The Nonsense of Linking Illegal Immigration and National Security

A great deal of noise is made about how illegal immigrants are "illegal" and that should settle the issue. Proponents of this issue as one that matters continue to say that this is also a security issue, although they never offer a single statistic to substantiate this claim as any thing other than speculation.

To illustrate the absurdity of this, imagine taking an issue that also cracks down on "illegal" behavior and actually has statistics to show that it is a national security issue - something that kills about 20,000 Americans a year. Imagine trying to win an election on the basis of "cracking down" on speeding.

Illegal immigration as a political issue is not about legality or about security. It is about xenophobia, which I am pretty sure is Greek for fear of Hispanics.

Race and Performance

Watch baseball this week and note how varied are the races of the players on the two teams vying to become World Series champs. The engineers and programmers working on the technology development project inside of companies represent far more racial diversity than the administrative side of the house. Watch a great musical group like Pat Methany's or Bela Fleck's, and you'll be struck by the racial diversity.

When performance standards are clear and the playing field is level (that is, kids from any culture are free to enter), racial divides begin to melt.

So, what is one reason that race continues to be a factor in so many arenas of American life? Because in the domains of business (as opposed to technology) and politics, performance measures are so arbitrary and so "colored" by perception that race becomes a factor.

Racism should not just be attacked directly, but where racism is present, it should be a signal that performance metrics need to be better developed, understood, and used.

The difference between a blog and a diary

You know the difference between a blog and a diary? Your roommate won't read your blog.

University Punt, Part 2

High schools and universities should feel obligated to find the intersection of three things for each student: what the student is good at, what they enjoy, and what there is demand for.

What the student is good at: Each student has a certain set of skills or potentialities. A great teacher or coach is able to lead a student through experiences that reveal that potential to the student - that help them to develop that skill. Sadly, schools tend to focus on the possibilities that lie within the traditional categories of logical-mathematical and linguistic intelligence. If a child's strength or potential lies more clearly within the categories of musical, bodily-kinesthetic, artistic, interpersonal or intrapersonal intelligence, school less clearly reveals that. A child deserves to be clear about what he or she is good at by the time they have been in the school system for 12 or more years.

What they enjoy: The experience of flow - the engagement in an activity so intense that one loses track of time, self, and other possibilities - is one of the biggest determinants of joy. There is a difference between what someone is good at and what creates flow. One of the conditions that promotes flow is a task that is neither too difficult (something that would create stress or anxiety instead of flow) nor too easy (something that would make someone bored or simply feel in control instead of flow). Flow can be used as a development compass - bored students need new challenges and stressed students need a new skill. Again, by 18 children have the right to expect to know what kinds of activities promote flow.

What there is demand for: Finally, children need to understand which activities contribute to others, which activities create value for which others will pay. Playing video games may be something a child is good at and something that promotes flow, but its consequences are contained to a virtual world. This matter of demand is perhaps the most opaque for children.

Each child should approach life after school with a clear sense of the intersection between these three elements, prepared to pursue a career that allows them to feel competent, engaged, and like contributing members of society. That these three issues are treated as peripheral to education rather than central to it is yet another thing that so perplexes me about our modern world.

Universities Punt, Part 1

Our best and brightest are being failed by our universities.

For an 18 year-old clear about career goals, our university system generally does a great job of preparation. But for that poor and interesting kid - the vast majority - for whom such a thing is unclear, universities largely walk away.

Starting in high school, students should be coached in reaching the conclusion about two things. One, drawing from Stephen Covey's work, they should be taught the distinction between the four elements of work (or life, for that matter): the physical / economic, the social / emotional, the intellectual, and the spiritual / meaning. For most people, happiness at work depends on all four of these. If you are making good money, but hate your co-workers or hate yourself for what you do, you'll never make it 40 years. If you make good money, love your co-workers but are simply not learning anything, are rarely or never stimulated, you'll eventually walk away from the job. Finally, if you make good money, love your co-workers, and are mentally stimulated yet feel like what you do makes no difference to anyone (even your boss yawns at your efforts, much less customers or the world at large), you may last 40 years but only with a diminished vigor.

Physical / Economic: In a job, do you want to play with ideas or big pieces of wood? Working inside of an office or outside in the fresh air? What kind of physical environment do you want to be in? What are your financial goals and what is realistic given your skills and the demands for them?

Social / Emotional: How willing are you for risk? Do you have the emotional perseverance to take the risk of starting a business? Do you need a nurturing environment that encourages you or do you have the ability to withstand the rejection of, say, a sales job that might lead to more income? What kind of co-workers is it important for you to be with all day?

Intellectual / Mental: What kind of intellectual problems do you want to face? What questions would you love to answer or regularly confront?

Spiritual / Meaning: Finally, what kind of difference do you want to make in your work? If everyone made the same wage, what would you do because you think it matters? How do you measure what is fulfilling or meaningful?

If students become conversant at these elements, they can better filter through the myriad possibilities for majors or careers. That would be no panacea, but it would be a start.

That odd religious qualification for politics

Why does religion matter for politicians? Most people would consider me religious. I'm one of those people who usually attend a "religious service" two or more times a week. Yet little perplexes me quite as much as the seeming ironclad requirement for a political candidate to be Christian.

If you were to purchase a car, would you rather have the one made or designed by the Buddhist, the agnostic, or the Christian? How about a meal? A wooden cabinet for your living room or a new stereo? How important is the religious affiliation of the person who made what you are about to buy?

Obviously, we don't even consider it. We examine the product instead and make our decision based on the designer or maker's skill - not their religious beliefs. So why does the religion of political candidates matter a whit? Why not focus on their ability to formulate policy, to deal with people?

Yet I have to admit that I'm not completely apathetic about religious affliation. As I get older, I get more uneasy about the idea of religious people being able to start a nuclear war. I think that only atheists should have such power. I don't want the person who could end civilization to have the consolation of an afterlife. I want the guy at the buttons to feel eager to squeeze as many years out of this life as possible.

21 October 2006

This Will Disrupt Everything

An increasing amount of attention is being paid to creativity and entrepreneurship within business schools and corporations. For now, the movement looks innocuous - a means to marginally improve business performance. Yet it will disrupt everything.

Entrepreneurship is the new limit to progress, just as land, capital,and knowledge work were in previous economies. But history indicates that adjusting to a new limit to progress is disruptive - changing social constructs as varied as the dominant way of thinking and the dominant institution. When capital replaced land as the limit to progress (a process of transformation that played out fully from about 1700 to 1900), it forced democratic revolutions, the rise of the bank and modern financial markets, and the adoption of Enlightenment thinking to take the place of the Renaissance mind. When knowledge workers replaced capital as the limit to progress (from about 1900 to 2000), it forced the transformation of financial markets, the rise of the modern corporation, and the adoption of pragmatism in place of Enlightenment thinking.

Just as an invisible underwater earthquake can trigger a tsunami that everyone notices, so does a shift in the limit to progress trigger social changes that no one escapes.

The Need for Research into Social Constructs

A handshake is a social construct. So is a $20 bill, Mass, democracy, and disco dancing. Social constructs are fascinating because they are made real only by agreement. Should everyone - or even just most people - suddenly agree that handshakes are dumb, currency is not to be trusted, Mass is in error and democracy or disco are out of fashion ... well, theses suddenly become ideas instead of realities.

This is not to say that social constructs are arbitrary - any more than car design is arbitrary. Some designs move better on the road and others move better off the showroom. Design is essential to success in a car. Even though in theory car designers have a large number of options to choose from, in fact they are constrained by variables like fashion, the laws of physics, and the price of gas.

The dynamics of social constructs are fascinating. Collectively, our understanding of them is at best sketchy. Few individuals understand the concept; even fewer know how to operationalize it. Yet there is perhaps no area of inquiry that is more important to explore or to understand, no domain the mastery of which would do more to promote progress.

Which is to say that we should be funding research into this area of inquiry. Attempting nation-building in Iraq without research into social constructs to draw from is like trying to build a plane without developing some theories about avionics and as much as anything reveals our ignorance about our ignorance on this important topic.

20 October 2006

Be Irrational - Vote as if You Make a Difference

Living in California, voting is a part time job. And the ugly secret that they never tell you in high school civics class? The odds of your vote being the deciding vote are actually lower than the odds of winning the lottery. That means that gradually, only the irrational will vote - which probably explains a great deal about election results.

A little tidbit. The Nazis rose to power in part because of the political turmoil after World War One led to frequent elections. Eventually, turnout dropped to the point that the extremists were able to take the election. Heil Hitler wasn't a song on the lips of a majority of Germans - just a majority of the voters who were persistent.

So, what's the moral of the story? Persevere. In politics, short-term irrational actions are eventually made rational. Don't let the extremists be the ones to steer this ship of state.

The Liberal Media Bias

A majority of journalists are liberals. In this election, that will actually work against liberals.

First, it will be a problem because journalists can hardly seem to contain their fascination with the thought of Democrats regaining the House and perhaps the Senate. The problem with this? Reporting on this as though it were a done deal is going to alarm the conservative base that will plug its nose and pull the lever for Republicans. The result? Republicans will retain the Senate and, shockingly, come so close in the House that whether they "win" or "lose" will be academic for all purposes other than finger-pointing. That is, if the Democrats win by a single seat, say, they will be blamed for what happens even though they'll be largely ineffective to make anything happen.

Second, the fact that so many journalists are liberals has been a problem for liberal causes for years and will continue to be so in this election. If you've ever seen a math nerd dance, you intuitively sense the problem of people valiantly trying on activities that simply don't fit. Liberal journalists report what they don't understand and fail to properly analyze or review it. They accept nonsense from neo-conservatives and are afraid to label it as nonsense because they think that to do so would reflect a failing to provide unbiased news. To the math nerd, most dance moves look plausible, just as to the dancer most math problems look plausible. Liberal journalists are simply at a loss about how to report on conservative movements because they make little or no sense to them. Trying to be fair, they end up striving towards "fair and balanced" reporting of issues that are nonsense - issues like bombing people into liberation, banning the use of stem cells that would otherwise be disposed of, or insisting that kids who have grown up rich should not have to pay a tax on the income they've inherited by luck even while arguing that people who receive their income from working should pay taxes.

18 October 2006

Uber-Entrepreneurs and the New Foundations

The Bills - Clinton and Gates - are probably the most obvious of a new breed: people who are helping to create a new type of social invention. In this, Bill Gates may have graduated from entrepreneur to uber-entrepreneur.

Foundations and other NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are making progress against issues that governments are unable to address. The Carter Foundation builds toilets in small African villages. This seemingly innocuous task mitigates disease which promotes productivity which enables autonomy. The Bills are targeting poverty, the environment, AIDS and other diseases, and are enlisting the help of others to accomplish these projects.

What we're seeing is a repetition of a pattern. When social problems defy the solutions of current social institutions, pioneers build new ones. The American Civil War was about slavery. It was also about a new reality. New means of transportation and production meant that the old boundaries of state governments were no longer sufficient. The Republicans understood this better than others and insisted on a union - a federal government that was strong enough to govern new interstate realities of railroads, factories, and legal contracts and transactions that would spill across state borders. The multinational corporation grew out of an invention of this period of the 1860s: the modern "interstate" corporation. (And to this day the Republican Party is perhaps most simply thought of as the party most aligned with the corporation.)Regional states could not be allowed to hinder corporate interests and a stronger federal government had to emerge as the context in which a new corporation could be invented.

Social inventions like nation-states, corporations and the foundations that have become so wildly popular in recent decades are created by visionaries who simply don't see a way to address real problems or exploit potential without creating a new means to do that. Entrepreneurs start businesses within a free-market economy. They aren't inventing businesses - just creating a specific one. Uber-entrepreneurs (an odd German-French contraction I've just coined**) are those who invent a new form of social invention: Martin Luther or John Calvin with Protestant churches, Henry VIII or Louis XIV with nation-states, the Rothschilds with international bond markets are examples of uber-entrepreneurs. Perhaps in a couple of decades we'll realize that the flurry of foundations established late in the 20th century represented a type of uber-entrepreneurship, the invention of a new social institution.

** disclaimer: sometimes I hate the net - it seems to reveal that nothing is really new. It turns out that the term uber-entrepreneur has been used before. Perhaps my definition is unique, defining an uber-entrepreneur as someone who isn't necessarily successful but helps to pioneer a new type of social invention.

17 October 2006

The Price of University Age Apathy

A tank of gas: $45
Your student loan: $215 a month
Your mortgage: $2,500 a month
Political apathy: priceless

No generation of Americans will enter the work force with more debt (the vast majority of which will be in the form of student loans) or faced with such outrageously out of reach home prices. And no generation of students will have plowed through school more apathetic about politics and influencing the policy that could impact their reality. Only 28% of unversity-age adults vote.

Is it any wonder that Cheney could hastily fly back from the Middle East last year to break a tie in the Senate, allowing that august body to finally cut spending on one thing: the subsidies to the student loan program? He knew that there could be no political fallout from this generation.

What if We the People Determined How Our Money Was Spent?

So, what are you spending to support our federal government? On average, you spend about (family of four amounts in parenthesis)

$78 ($313) a year on energy expenses, only a fraction of which subsidizes research
$25 ($101) a year on the environment - less than what many people spend in a week at Starbucks
$19 ($75) a year to support scientific research.
$49 ($195) a year on transportation
$1,370 ($5,480) a year on defense
$333 ($1,333) a year on Iraq and Afghanistan.

Think about this. We spend more on Iraq in a month than we spend on the environment in a year. We spend about as much on transportation as we do on a single tank of gas. If these really are our national priorities, I'm more out of touch with mainstream America than I thought.

I think that it's time to begin a national campaign, starting out in focus groups around the country to determine the national priorities and translate them into budget amounts. What if real Americans engaged in real conversations about what mattered and what they'd like to create with their combined clout of nearly $3 trillion, the $9,000 a year each of us spends on the federal government. What an amazing country we could create.

Well, I'll be ... those viagra spam ads are working

The U.S.population hit 300 million this morning.

16 October 2006

Presidential Prediction Through 2020

John McCain will win the presidency in 2008. You may have read that elsewhere. Let me be the first to say that his presidency will be like Carter's. Even his political opponents will express respect for his principles and honesty and even his supporters will acknowledge their disappointment in his efficacy. And, like Carter's, his will be a single-term presidency. Not only will McCain simply have too much mess to clean up from Bush to ever look good, but he will simply wear out. He will not only be the oldest president ever elected to a first term but, as a former prisoner of war, the combined toll of age, wounds, and the stress of the job will lead him to campaign rather half-heartedly, if at all, for the 2012 campaign.

There is a lot that can and will be said about the intervening years, but I'm in the mood to make an uncharacteristically long-term political forecast: Elliot Spitzer will win the 2012 election and will handily win re-election. Spitzer - President in 2020.

Blogs - daring to print the news that is purely speculative (as if that sets us apart from the mainstream media).

14 October 2006

Noble Peace Prize for Making Loans?

Muhammad Yunus won the Noble Peace Prize. He has pioneered the use of micro-loans as a way to fight poverty. His is a brilliant idea that deserves the additional focus that it will get now that he's been made famous by the Scandinavians.

Yunus's idea is simple. Rather than offer charity to the poor, offer them credit. In a typical loan, he'll give a woman enough money to buy a sewing machine or cow, just enough capital to enable her to begin working for herself rather than working for subsistence wages. These women are able to pay back the loan while still generating more revenue than they made as employees. Some have gone on to what their village might consider moderate affluence. Nearly all are in better financial shape than before they received the loan.

Poverty can be mitigated but sustained by charity. It can be ignored by free markets. Much better that policy be used to invest in people who haven't the means to invest in themselves. This breaks the cycle of poverty and what Yunus has done is shown that access to credit is as important to this process as access to education or health care.

As mentioned earlier in this blog, one of the most transformative forces of the 20th century was the extension of credit to a wider and wider swath of the population, the popularization of credit. How wonderful that the world community will be given more reason to consider access to credit as much a right as education or health. In a market economy, as all the world is fast becoming, access to financial markets is key to freedom, to autonomy. In 20 years, it will be considered a right. Noting its importance in making the world a more peaceful place, the Noble Prize Committee has shown itself a visionary group.

Democracy and Capitalism

Financial markets were relatively primitive before the development of representative governments. The Venetians led the way in the evolution of bond markets in the early Renaissance, and the Dutch followed a couple of centuries later, making more advances. Finally, after the Glorious Revolution, the English established financial institutions like the Bank of England that would become the foundation to the modern world of finance. All these developments followed the deveopment of representative governments.

The link is fairly straight forward. Kings and queens who need money would rather tax their subjects. They take $100 from you and it is now theirs, to do with as they please. But parliaments who are themselves subject to taxation would rather loan the government money in the form of bonds. Citizens pay $100 for a bond and get $5 payments for years - perhaps for as long as the government stands. Parliament would rather own an asset that could be bought and sold in bond markets than simply lose money through taxes.

Yet the demands of a government like England or France for money during the Napoleonic Wars was huge - requiring the rapid growth in the size and complexity of financial markets. Once financial markets were able to finance large governments and armies, they were well prepared to finance railroads and factories. It is no coincidence that the Napoleonic Wars ended in about 1815 and the first steam engine railroad began operation a decade later in 1825.

Representative government and its demand for money was the social invention that created the context for railroads and automated factories.

World Full of People

Six billion people. What are the odds that it's all about you?

12 October 2006

Nailing Jello to the Wall

As I read Woodward's State of Denial, I find myself increasingly appalled at George and his administration and increasingly impressed with the quality and integrity of the military people. It's too bad that they were given a task the success of which was wildly improbable and ultimatlely had little to do with military skills.

Pornography of Fear Sullies the National Conversation

Fear, like sex, hits a primal chord that is hard to ignore. Because sex plays the audience in ways that aren't particularly rational, society has chosen to regulate access to pornography. It's about time that we did the same thing with fear in politics.

One of the big, big problems with the way that the pornography of fear has hijacked the national political conversation is that what a person or group focuses on is what they create. Death is inevitable and whether someone who worries every day about death actually lives longer than the person who spends little time worried about it is not the point. The point is to live until you die and fearing death the whole time you live is not much of a life, in the same way that a policy focused by fear isn't much of a policy.

Tell someone not to think of elephants and what will they immediately think of? Elephants. We worry about terrorists in Iraq killing Americans and what do we now have? Terrorists in Iraq killing Americans.

Politics instead needs a focus on what we want to create - not what we fear. Until the American public and their politicians end their addiction to the pornography of fear, we're unlikely to get that. Never has a generation been faced with such extraordinary possibilities and never has its media been so focused on rubbish. It's time to realize that what we focus on is what we gravitate towards.

North Korea and Nuclear Ambitions

Does anyone seriously question that more and more countries will aspire to become nuclear powers over the next decade or two? If that is the case, does the US really want to pursue a policy of disarmament through intervention every time this happens? Are we really going to threaten invasion of countries armed with nukes every time they get nukes? And how paranoid is that going to make the already paranoid leaders of these countries?

If Iraq has reminded us of nothing else, it should have reminded us that our good intentions need to be run through a filter of what is practical, what can become sustainable policy.

It was a form of apostacy to say that perhaps the best solution to the problem of Iraq was to continue to endure Saddam's rule, looking for opportunities to change rather than forcing them. Perhaps the real policy towards North Korea should be to quietly allow them to be armed, abstaining from talk that makes them feel even more compelled to be armed and hostile, looking for opportunities to change rather than forcing them. People who say that this is dangerous are ignoring the obvious: it is dangerous to make a ruler with nukes feel cornered by the world community.

Media Misses Biggest Influence on Audience

Our media is focused far more on political changes than businesses changes. Yet it is changes in the realm of business that are going to most change the life of the average person living in a G-7 country (the US, Canada, Japan, France, UK, Germany, and Italy).

Political policy is a huge determinant to quality of life and ought not to be overlooked, but that is hardly a possibility. Yet for the quality of life of the average person living in a G-7 country, business policy is at least as big. Assuming that you live in a democratic country with accoutrements like sewage and running water, your sense of dread or enthusiasm is likely to be a function of whether your company knows how to properly channel your potential into meaningful and engaging work.

More emphasis needs to be paid to business policy and differences in the reality that companies create for their employees, in much the same way that the media now looks at how national policies change the lives of average citizens.

09 October 2006

Elliott Spitzer as the New Democrat

Too much attention has been paid to the political prospects of Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, or John Edwards for the 2008 election and too little been paid to Elliott Spitzer's rise in the party. Spitzer represents the future of the party.

In 1901, Republican Teddy Roosevelt became president and redefined the role. He challenged businesses in a way that made his Republican peers nervous - feeling that big business needed a big government to counter its power. He realized that labor needed an advocate to balance its battle against capital. Roosevelt was ousted from the Republican Party and his sentiments towards labor were adopted by the Democratic Party, which rode the rise of labor in the 20th century to electoral strength.

Yet late in the 20th century, the division between capital and labor was muddled. Business geniuses like Sam Walton made their employees partners in their business, offering them stock and stock options to align the interest of labor and capital. Through pension funds and mutual funds, labor became the new capitalists. Suddenly, the vote for Republicans or Democrats seemed less clearly about economic policy and more apparently about culture values.

Spitzer has been an activist as Attorney General in New York. Right now, labor owns corporations but lacks any real mechanism for exercising influence over corporate policy. In a plot twist that might have amused Dickens and has been oddly overlooked by the media, labor has become the capitalist. Spitzer, more than any politician at work in the US (he is now running for governor of New York) understands this new reality. His efforts have less easily been understood as attacks on corporations or trusts as Roosevelt championed than as attempts to empower the new labor with new means to exercise their will over the new corporation. His efforts have less to do with curtailing the power and size of corporations than in ensuring that the many owners of these big corporations are properly represented.

If the Democrats want to win again, they have to demonstrate that they know the difference between attacking business and attacking a lack of representation in those businesses. This country was founded by a people who refused government that offered them no representation. The next generation of politicians will represent the large segment of the American population that refuses management that offers them no representation. Elliot Spitzer understands this dynamic and sentiment. His will continue to be a fascinating career to watch.

Why Oil Producing States Are So Often Bad States

Many of the oil-producing states in the world are notoriously immature politically, characterized by authoritarian governments, chaos, or both. Why would a blessing of natural resources so often lead to a curse of bad governments?

The most basic factor of production, or source of wealth, is land. Land refers to all natural resources, from oil to timber to acreage used for ranching or farming. When markets first emerge in a community they are characterized by trade of natural resources - whether it is pepper from the Orient to medieval Europe or gold from the New World to the Orient.

Land is a gift of God. Weather and soil conditions determine crop yields. Those who find themselves atop oil fields or gold mines are more likely to point to God's provision than chance. When land is the basis of wealth, as it is in the early stages of social evolution, religion is a strong partner to commerce and the state.

The state is key to this stage of economic development because it is the state that defines and enforces property rights, lending order to a process that could easily devolve into chaos. Given that communities at this stage of development have been characterized by tribal customs more than national law, the state competes with local counts, barons, or tribal elders for authority and this authority ultimately comes from religious standards or overwhelming force (or some combination).

Power is asserted at this stage of development. Whoever is able to assert power has wealth because economic wealth accrues from control over natural resources.

Once communities reach the next stage of development - dependent on capital that requires the emergence of financial markets and technological development - individuals matter more and power is dispersed from the state to capitalists. Political and economic power are jointly dispersed in the interplay of progress. (In England and the U.S., it seems as though the political power was dispersed before, or along with the economic power; in Singapore and China, it seems as though the economic power has been dispersed before political power.)

Until states move from dependence on natural resources to dependence on capital (and then later the knowledge workers who are key to an information economy), political power is a crude instrument that almost always overlooks the need for individual autonomy. And given that force is key to ownership - as opposed to creativity or knowledge as might be key to ownership in a more advanced economy - literal battles for control will define politics. And given that the natural resources are so obviously gifts of God, religion often colors these brutal struggles for control. And finally, given that in the West (Jewish, Muslim, and Christian communities) religion is the force that dominated before the emergence of markets and the state, the battles to define the community are between secularists who follow market forces ("but people pay for rap music") and religious leaders who follow precepts ("but pop culture is immoral and should be regulated or banned").

When the basis of wealth in a country is land, it probabaly will be governed with brute force. If these oil-producing states had to rely on the creativity and initiative of their people for wealth, they'd be forced to govern more liberally.

Social Evolution and Iraq

Social evolution is an oddly overlooked topic. I would argue that the Bush administration's problems in Iraq have less to do with intent, planning, or execution than with Iraq's stage of development. It shows their disregard for the principles of evolution or even development.

Evolution suggests that we can't have animals until we have plants for them to eat and can't have carnivores until we have other animals for the carnivores to eat. Evolution suggests that things develop and emerge as an environment produces a particular species that, in turn, becomes a part of the environment that produces another species (and perhaps renders another extinct). Even development suggests a particular order, a need to put up the framing of the house before hammering in sheet rock.

Bush, who has at best shown a disinterest in evolution, opts for a different model. He simply banishes the tyrant, says, "Let there be Democracy," and rests during August.

He says that it is a kind of prejudice to say that Arabs can't have democracy. Actually, it is a kind of ignorance - various Arab states do have various levels of democracy. But the fact is, certain social constructs have to evolve within communities in order for them to arrive at nation-states instead of tribes, to arrive at democracies instead of theocracies, etc. Iraq demonstrated few, if any, of the predecessors to democracy that Japan and Germany had before the reconstruction efforts after World War 2.

To this day, policy analysts overlook this critical analysis - at what stage of development is Iraq? How do the regions of Iraq differ in their development, their readiness for financial markets, political compromise, secular education? What does that suggest about the type of government needed? Readers of my blog hopefully know that I'm nearly idealistic about the importance and value of giving individuals autonomy. Having said that, at a certain level of social development, fairly autocratic governments actually make sense. The attempt to install democracies prematurely can simply create chaos, as it has in Iraq. It is one thing to say that a person should be free to define his or her own life; it is quite another to force a kindergartener to live on his own.

The question not being asked - the question that is essential to reversing the decline into chaos that defines Iraq - is what type of government is appropriate to their level of development? What does that suggest about the "soft" development that is so overlooked. It is one thing to build churches or banks. It is quite another to have people gather for fellowship or shop for loans. The best governments start with where people are - where their beliefs and customs and social practices have them.

October 13

This week is October, Friday the 13th. You know what that means: all the dyslexic kids will be out trick or treating.

05 October 2006

Weapons of Mass Distraction

Perhaps I'm heading down the slippery slope that will eventually turn me into the old, gout-ridden man who spouts conspiracy theories to the neighborhood children. Or perhaps the party in power has simply earned my distrust. But one has to wonder...

Is it at all possible that Mark Foley is a sacrificial lamb for the gutting of the constitution? I heard John Yoo on the radio the other day, very matter of factly stating that the US - the richest country in the history of the world - could not afford to grant habeas corpus because it was too expensive. He says this with the same calm manner that Bill Kristol uses when he casually suggests that we should trigger World War 3. The Bush administration is deciding who does and who does not qualify for constitutional rights - as if this were something that they could decide. Meanwhile, Mark Foley decides to IM a page and is busted - a story that conveniently breaks the very day that Congress passes legislation enabling Bush's decision to parse out constitutional rights like food stamps, deciding who is worthy.

Is it the Republican Party that is using this sex-less sex scandal to distract us from the real issue of constitutional rights or is it the media? Is it just a coincidence that the network (ABC) that decided to rewrite the 9-11 report to shift blame towards Clinton in the national consciousness is the network that broke the story on Foley?

Kids! Kids! Don't just ride your bike over my petunias! Stop and listen. I have a story to tell you about life in a country that believed that individual rights were more important than state-sponsored paranoia. It was a wonderful country and then that drunken frat boy drove it into the ditch.

University 2020

Education supports society and society supports the dominant institution. At one point in Western history the dominant institution was the Church - today it is the Corporation. So what does that suggest about the change in education?

For the medieval church, education was simple - everyone was taught church doctrine. Between 1088 and 1150, universities at Bologna, Oxford, and Paris were established. Basically, a heretic is someone who does not accept the dogma of the church - an independent thinker. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Inquisition began almost exactly at this time - suddenly universities were encouraging thought and minds opened to new ideas were not so easily shut again. Soon, instead of education being subordinated to the church, the church was subordinated to education of radical thinkers like Dr. Martin Luther. Soon, new churches were being founded and minds were shaping churches just as churches had earlier shaped minds.

For the modern university, education is simple - prepare students for gainful employment. That is, subordinate education to the needs of today's dominant institution - the corporation. Within the last century, attendance at universities has exploded as jobs as knowledge workers and managers looked more promising than jobs in manufacturing and agriculture. The sixties probably saw the popularization of corporate heretics - people who began to reject the way that corporate policy and conformity polluted the environment and the soul. The nineties were even more interesting. The generation that questioned authority in the sixties were, perhaps unsurprisingly, questioning the corporate model in the nineties. New technologies like the Internet (which is actually a confluence of a myriad of technologies) and venture capital markets were merged with notions of social constructs - the idea processes and practices, organizations and groups were "just made up." Suddenly, start-ups proliferated as a growing number of minds were shaping new companies just as companies had earlier shaped minds.

This suggests that education will soon be transformed. Instead of preparing students to become employees, universities will prepare students to become entrepreneurs. Education will increasingly have less to do with "civilizing" students in the traditional sense of encouraging conformity and will, instead, point students towards conforming social constructs to their own potential, to harmonize with what it means to be human and what is required to sustain an ecosystem.

Successfully making this transformation will require a number of changes. Chief among them is making a more concerted effort to understand the individual and his or her potential. It will mean a customization of education unlike anything we've seen outside of the world of autodidacts. Increasingly, things like lectures will be "tuned into" over the Internet and certain professors will have millions of "students" in the same way that singers and actors have millions of fans. Those professors who are not wildly popular will have difficultly getting an audience to listen to their version of Shakespeare or logarithms. Instead, they will play brokers - helping students to put together a package of formal education and community / work experience that allows them to better understand their own potential for contribution and making a living. Instead of the big question about "what should I study or do or BE?" being incidental to the machinery of universities, it will become the central, organizing question.

A Brief History of the Modern University

Schools and universities have always been subordinate to the dominant institution. They get their funding and their support because they support the Church (even Harvard, established in the 1600's, turned out more theology students than anything else initially), the State (geography lessons are important for soldiers heading off to conquer or rule colonies) or the corporation.

The origins of the modern university can be traced back to Wilhelm Humboldt, whose brother Alexander was not only friends with Thomas Jefferson and Simon Bolivar but whose wide-ranging travel and writing led to his having more geographic spots named after him than anyone else (e.g., Humboldt County in California). To make a gross simplification, before Wilhelm universities taught accepted knowledge, conveying what was known. After Wilhelm, the model for higher education became a research university - an institution that actually created knowledge in the form of studies and research that could be conveyed. The Prussian government agreed to finance Wilhelm's university in Berlin because its research was so helpful to industry. By WW1, Germany led the world in industries that depended on knowledge workers - industries like automobiles and chemicals. Even after the allies defeated Germany, after the first world war, they were unable to make much sense of the patents and formulas they found, given that British and American education were not up to German standards. Since that time, the modern university naturally feeds the corporate need for fresh knowledge and fresh knowledge workers.

There are divinity schools that prepare young people for the Church. There are military schools that preare young people for service to the State. But these two forms of higher education are dwarfed by the number and size of universities that prepare our youth for the Corporation.