30 November 2006

What Happened to the Stocks?

I am not referring to technology stocks. Rather, those wooden platforms used by our founding fathers to shame someone who had behaved badly. Head and hands were locked in place and the townspeople could stop by to lob a few inedible vegetables at your head.

Now that the general population and media alike have finally seemed to acknowledge that Iraq was the kind of bad idea usually excused only by heavy drinking, it is time to put some folks in the stocks. My nomination for the first session in the stocks? Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and man so clueless that he doesn't know that he's clueless - the media's biggest cheerleader for wars of invasion and occupation.

What Nobody Says About Social Security

One of the reasons that social security is projected to be a problem is that our population is aging. This problem of more retirees per working person is even worse in places like Italy and Japan. Whereas as one point about 7 - 10 people all chipped in to fund the social security payments of the retired, the projection is that once baby boomers retire the ratio will be more like 4 - 5. Obviously this strains the system.

But system boundaries can be redefined. If you instead define the problem of one of working to non-working population, the problem is less onerous. It is not just those over, say, 65 who working people have to carry; they also carry those under, say, 20. It is worth remembering that as the number of children drops, the ratio of working people to children will raise. If at one point there were about 4 - 5 working people chipping in for the schooling, etc., of every minor, the projection is that it'll be more like 7-10 in the future.

Looked at as a problem of working age population to not-working population (a group made up of school-age children and Winnebago-driving seniors alike), the problem is easier to solve.

(Blogger's note - I'm quickly writing this note in between breakfast and the start of my work day. My researcher has yet to show up for work (and I'm not sure what year they are scheduled to start but apparently it isn't this year), so the numbers I've used are for purposes of illustration only and would match reality only by coincidence. Further, the cost of funding retirement is greater than the cost of funding schooling, so the ratio doesn't have to neatly flip in order for the funding to neatly flip. The point is, you get the point.)

Conservatives don't point this out because they don't want to save social security. Like a man who doesn't wake up his wife in a house fire - not because it would have been too dangerous but because he already had his eye on a younger, sexier wife - conservatives are hell-bent on private accounts (a bad idea that deserves its own posting).

Liberals don't point this out because it suggests shifting money from education to retirement, a budget change that sounds like they're giving up on the future - or at least it sounds like they are giving up on the teacher's unions, one of their stronger supporters.

29 November 2006

Two Evils

“Our discontent begins by finding false villains whom we can accuse of deceiving us. Next we find false heroes whom we expect to liberate us. The hardest, most discomfiting discovery is that each of us must emancipate himself.”
- Daniel J. Boorstin

There are two evil yet alluring philosophies offered in the world of politics. One is the allure of offering strong leadership under which we can be safe; we give up our freedoms and rights and in return we are protected. The other offers supposed freedom that is really just disconnection from consequences, irresponsibility under the guise of freedom. The first is the tyranny of an abusive father. The second is the tyranny of spoiled children. In neither is there room or expectation that the individual will create a life of consequence.

My Nomination for the 2006 Campaign's Most Amazing Moment

At one point during his campaign, Arnold Schwarzenegger was standing in Chinatown in LA, surrounded by the delightful buildings and sights made to look like China. Arnold - the Austrian immigrant who thinks he governs a place called Callie-forn-ya. And he says, The key to success as an immigrant is to assimilate.

Rather than comment, I will resort to another quote, this one by Bill Moyers, from an interview he did for Salon in April of 2003.

"I just did a six-hour series, five years in the making, on the Chinese in America. I thought the timing would be unfortunate, but it turned out to be fortuitous. This is the first series I've ever done, in 30 years, in which I actually found the answer to the question that provoked me to do it. I wanted to find out what the Chinese had to say about becoming American, about the American dream.

"One woman I interviewed, out of the dozens of people I spoke with while making that series, explained it all to me. She began to talk to me about eating chicken feet. You've seen chicken feet in Chinese restaurants, right?"

"Yeah. They're terrifying."

"Well, yes, they're ugly, they don't look particularly nutritious, people are squeamish about them. She said to me, 'As an American, I can eat chicken feet. But I don't have to eat chicken feet. I can turn around and eat at McDonald's and nobody questions me.' I said to her, 'What the hell does that have to do with the American dream?' She says, 'That is the American dream! That I can compose my own life. That I can invent who I want to be.'

"We are creating a new American identity, and to take our identity as being opposed to the world, instead of being of the world, is the greatest mistake that George W. Bush has made."

28 November 2006

Las Vegas is Your Future

I went to Las Vegas last week and am always fascinated by the place. I can't help but wonder whether Vegas is your city's future.

It's not hard to imagine that as we become more anxious about avoiding boredom we'll adopt the themes that garnish their places of commerce. Our restaurants, shops, and public places may be modeled after great sites like the Pyramids, Paris, or Mecca (okay, maybe not Mecca).

If you were to fly someone around in a hot air balloon 100 years ago, floating above the earth's surface, what are the odds that they would have chosen the site of Las Vegas as the world's most popular tourist destination by the year 2000? There is a certain kind of genius there that even I, a guy who has yet to gamble a total of $20 in my entire life, can admire.

What are they marketing besides fascinating sites? Hope. We are creatures of hope and without it life is hopeless. The casinos are merchants of hope and we accept risk in return for hope. And this is the inescapable equation of life -embrace risk to get hope. We see it when we chose a major in school, a partner in life, start a business, or simply plan a vacation. Risk and hope come as a package deal.

And in this Las Vegas offers acceleration for those impatient with how gradually their lives are unfolding. Life is a game of chance but it can take decades for the dice to land. In Vegas, the frenetic energy translates into acceleration: results - good or bad - are played out instantly, the feedback immediate.

In 30 years, you may be wandering through a public place that looks like Stonehenge, complete with Druids chanting poems, and you'll know by then how the dice have fallen for your life. Wherever you are, you'll find yourself in Vegas - either a winner or loser or having oddly broke even and inexplicably caught in a strange place and time that looks vaguely reminiscent of a place you've never been.

Recycling Politicians

The US seems stuck. We can't get out of Iraq and we can't stay in. The Iraqis are rejecting American-sponsored democracy, seeming to favor something more absolute, less given to the vagaries of public opinion - something like the religious leadership and political stability offered by a caliphate. Meanwhile, the Republican Party suffered defeat this month in no small part because it was seen to be too intent on ignoring reason and science in favor of religious beliefs. As a result, a number of Republican politicians are unemployed.

Once again, the very juxtaposition of these problems immediately suggests a solution. We don't leave or stay in Iraq. That is, our troops leave but we exchange them for our leftover politicians. Republicans could offer the religious rule that many Iraqis seem to prefer to democracy. The Iraqis have stability. The politicians who gambled their very careers to bring good government to Iraqis have a chance to be that government. The US is free to move on, continually buffeted by the inevitable turbulence and uncertainty that characterizes this wonderful mess we call religious freedom and democracy. And should he accept the role as Iraq's Defense Secretary, Rumsfeld would finally have the lean military he has wanted for decades.

At last, the happy ending the world has been craving.

At Least This Pope Has a Crazy Sense of Humor

Today's News, courtesy of the AP: "Pope Benedict is calling on leaders of all religions to turn their backs on any form of violence in the name of faith."

From 1981 until he was elected pope, the former Cardinal Ratzinger was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - once known as the Holy Office of the Inquisition.

What does it mean to turn your back on violence? Apparently it means to ignore it. So often religious leaders get so self-important and somber that it's good to see that this pope has an appreciation for the absurd.

What OJ Tells us About the Media

Once upon a time, in a land not so very far away, the media had a particular role. Its business objectives included making a profit, yes, but its purpose was to make this a better country.

In today's world, the health of the Republic is subordinated to profits. Fox demonstrated their commitment to this principle of profits first when they decided to broadcast OJ explaining how he would have murdered his children's mother if he had. The fact that Fox chose not to go through with this plan says nothing about their conscience and everything about their awareness of the power of consumer boycott.

The enlightened person realizes that one's own fate is always bound up in the community she's a part of. We exist only in a web of relationships and to ignore the health of this web is to ignore any credible definition of self. Yet what are the prospects for a community when their very media forgets this?

Business guru Peter Drucker said that a business's purpose is never to make a profit anymore than a person's purpose is to breathe. Profit is necessary for a business but it is not a purpose. One wonders how well, if at all, the modern media could articulate such a purpose if unable to use the words "ratings" or "profit."

Perhaps the saddest thing about this is how keenly so many journalists realize this and how well they could articulate a mission. Yet one of the things that I repeatedly see as I go into organizations - from medium-size companies to Fortune 10 companies - is that leadership, sadly, sets the bounds for ambition and rarely can any individuals within an organization sustain efforts that transcend the bounds set by management.

27 November 2006

Wages at an All-Time Low - and that could be a good thing

Wages and salaries constituted only 45% of the GDP last year - the lowest it has been since records were kept in 1929. I think that could be a good thing.

How could a populist applaud the erosion of the working man's wages? Well, one other large component of the GDP is corporate profit. And the fact that everyone keeps forgetting is that in just the last few decades, the ownership of corporations has been rapidly dispersed to a wider and wider group of people. As corporate profits account for a higher percentage of GDP, profit-sharing can be more widely dispersed. Lower wages doesn't necessarily translate into lower household incomes.

The return to knowledge work is wages and salaries. The return to entrepreneurship is profit. As we manage to popularize entrepreneurship (one component of which is the dispersion of corporate ownership), we should encourage the fact of households getting a higher percentage of income from profits.

The point is not to bemoan a decrease in incomes as a percentage of GDP. The point is to insist on an increase in profit sharing so that individuals' goals are aligned with their employers and so that the resultant increase in shared profits and wealth more than compensates for a relative decline in wages.

el goog - the reverse search engine

Google works by pointing us to the most popular sites. It basically encourages conformity of thought by herding us all in one particular direction on any given topic. It has become the new traffic cop of thought and research.

Because of this, I propose a reverse google - "el goog" - as a means to counter its force. El Goog would point you in the direction of fringe theories, dissident opinions, and marginalized thinkers. Where google might begin with a refernce to Wikipedia or the BBC, El Goog would point you to sites that explain conspiracy theories. It might simply sort the sites returned by means of a random priority algorithm.

El Goog! Resist the herd mentality.

The End of Education as We Know it

I once did a calculation, projecting that we'd increase the level of education as much in this century as we did in the last. In the last century, only a small percentage of 13 year-olds were in school and even a smaller percentage of the twenty-something population was. By 2000, about 97% of the 13-17 year-old population was engaged in formal education and about 20-some percentage of adult population had a college degree. This has helped to fuel a huge increase in productivity and economic growth and the importance of education is widely accepted. The problem is, we can't continue with the same model of more formal education for more people as a means for continued economic growth.

If we continued to increase education as much in this century as we did in the last, we'd have a generation of 50 year-old graduates in 2100. Barring some wild innovation in student loan programs, this is probably not feasible.

So given that education is so vital, how do we improve it as much in this century as the last? The answer will probably take a century to articulate, but I suspect that it will start with an observation made by one of our great thinkers.

Russell Ackoff points out that we've taken a classically analytic view of work, play, and learning - approaching them each as separate. We build schools where people are expected to learn but not play or work. We build stadiums and playgrounds for play. Factories where people are not expected to play or learn. Although the human experience defies such neat boundaries - play, work, and productivity are not so neatly contained within proscribed environments - we nonetheless pretend that it is.

Perhaps the answer to learning is to break down the walls between work and learning and play, changing our expectations of all institutions. Montessori's high schools are much rarer than Montessori preschools. Why? Perhaps part of the reason is that she felt that teens were ready to run businesses as a means to both feel productive and to learn. Imagine how much that could benefit communities? And what of requiring any MBA grad actually manage a community improvement project - some activity directed at addressing a problem of road salt dumped into creeks reducing the number of trout spawned? or homeless populations that lower property values? or intersections with accidents? or creating a voice for residents trying to influence local government? Imagine a work place that actually awarded a group of employees a degree for deciphering the code of their culture and how to change it for the better - a task that may involve a blend of formal education, assessment and practical changes to policy?

25 November 2006

How to Measure Fair?

I recently read that the world's two richest men - Bill Gates and Warren Buffet - said that the most important issue facing communities was the issue of economic fairness. To my thinking, there are at least two measures of economic fairness: distribution of income and social mobility.

The first, income distribution, is fairly straightforward. People are born with a variety of skill sets and abilities. Some are able to make millions per year and some can barely tie their shoes. It seems as though a fair economic system would let the folks who make lots of money keep lots (but not all) of their money and would make sure that everyone has at least the first two levels of Maslow's hierarchy (physiological needs and safety needs) met. Communism in its purest form is not fair because it doesn't let those who work harder or smarter or better keep more money. Capitalism in its purest form is not fair because it ignores the plight of the inevitable losers.

The second measure of fairness is social mobility - the degree to which those born to poor parents can and do become rich or those born to rich can and do become poor (and the middle class rise or fall as well). We want an economic system that rewards initiative, creativity, intelligence, and hard work. These character traits are not limited to second and third-generation wealthy, so we would expect to see some variation from generation to generation.

In an economy so dependent on knowledge work, a fair economic system depends on a fair school system - giving each child, no matter how poor his neighborhood, the chance to gain academic and vocational skills that could enable him to make as much money as someone born to affluent parents.

24 November 2006

Finally - A Plan for Iraq

Here's a plan that would save us money and lives and might even gain us friends in Iraq. Only Halliburton might lose in this plan.

First, it is worth noting that before the invasion, Iraq's total GDP was $22 billion. We are now spending $100 billion a year on the occupation. The plan follows almost automatically from the juxtaposition of these two facts.

Pull out the troops. In its place, put in a plan to pay each Iraqi a sum that would total up to about $55 billion - about $1,000 per Iraqi and more than twice as much as they had before the invasion. This plan suggests a variety of questions, but it would be an opportunity for the conservatives who so strongly supported the invasion to show their faith in markets.

How to rebuild Iraq? Let every family have money to pay for contractors to repair their portion of the country. This might well prime the pump, stimulating construction projects and new businesses. We could have a plan to pay the sum for, say, two years, and after that draw down the sum by about 20% a year until it reaches a stable point.

What would be the result? We'd save money and lives. Iraqis would have resources to help themselves. And the 50% plus unemployment might even drop as the economy was infused with money that could be used to buy goods and services.

What is the old bumper sticker? Tourists go home (and leave your daughters). This could be similar. Troops go home (and leave your budget). It's time that the conservatives remembered that they don't trust government programs and do trust markets. Let their policy reflect this.

Ugly Residue of Protestant Faith

Martin Luther was able to form a new religion in no small part because he appealed to the desire of German princes for independence from Rome. At one point he wrote "Some have estimated that every year more than 300,000 gulden find their way from Germany to Italy … We here come to the heart of the matter. … How comes it that we Germans must put up with such robbery and such extortion of our property at the hands of the pope?"

The Protestant movement coincided with the emergence of nation-states as the new dominant institution in the West. Having a state religion made it easier for the head of state to maintain control. It also became a catalyst for centuries of wars that were fought by parties who saw little difference between religious affliation and patriotism.

In this is the still unfortunate residue of the Protestant innovation in religion. At its best, the Protestant faith shows an independence from church dogma that characterized centuries of the Roman Catholic monopoly on thought. At its worst, it becomes an adjunct to the feelings of national superiority that justify violence or injustice.

At its best, religion transcends national boundaries. At its worst, it becomes apologist for the meanest of nationalist feelings.

The Invention of Santa Claus

In the late 1800s, factory output soared. Suddenly, factory owners no longer limited by how much they could make were limited instead by how much they could sell. Capitalists had learned to rapidly make products; in order for this new economy to work, consumers had to learn how to rapidly consume them.

One key to this was retail. Department stores emerged about this time – Marshall Field’s in Chicago and Macy’s in New York were doing business during the Civil War. But the success of consumerism depended on two fascinating social inventions that helped make the new retailers successful: window displays and Santa Claus.

Advertising was not new to this period. But a particular form of it was. Department stores had to stimulate interest and one way that was done was through store window displays. In the late 1800s, it was considered rude to stare into windows, so stores hired professional gawkers whose job it was to stare into store display windows and induce others to do the same. A pioneer in store window displays was L. Frank Baum (1856 to 1919) – better known as the author of The Wizard of Oz (1900). Both his books and displays invited observers into a magical world that promised delight.

The second social invention has become as ubiquitous: Santa Claus as we know him was an invention that helped to transform this period of mass production into one of mass consumption. It is no coincidence that Christmas gift giving emerged from this period. “In 1867, Macy’s department store remained open until midnight Christmas Eve, setting a one-day record of $6,000 in receipts.” Around 1870, Christmas made “December retail sales more than twice those of any other month.”[1] Santa Claus and window displays were simply forms of a new and important activity – marketing - changing people's minds about what they considered normal purchases.

In the words of children, what did Santa Claus bring us? By 1870, the United States had the largest economy in the world. “For the first time in history, even ordinary folks could aspire to ownership of those hard goods – watches, clocks, bicycles, telephones, radios, domestic machines, above all the automobile – that were seen in traditional societies as the appropriate privilege of the few. All of this was facilitated in turn by innovations in marketing ... Mass consumption made mass production feasible and profitable; and vice versa.[2]

Merry Christmas and Happy Shopping.

[1] James R. Beniger, The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986) 260.
[2] David S. Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why some are so rich and some so poor (New York: Norton, 1999) 307.

23 November 2006

Fourteen Categories of People

There are a variety of reasons that my politics tend left. One is my sincere confusion about the absolutes that seem so absolutely clear to so many on the right.

For instance, the conservative may think that some are worthy of some kind of public assistance - perhaps orphans and widows - and others should fend for themselves. That is not so clear to me. It seems to me that there is, instead, a spectrum and the lines one draws, the categories that are useful, depends on the situation.

I don't consider myself needy but there was a stage in life when I greatly benefited from public assistance. My parents provided for me. I have no obvious physical handicaps (you have to watch me engage in sports before my lack of celerity, coordination, and skill become glaringly apparent). To a certain brand of conservative, I would likely be an example of someone who needed no public assistance. And yet I could have never afforded to pay for college myself - not private college that is. I was only able to get university degrees because my education was subsidized by the government. Could I have made a living without university degrees? Yes, but I doubt that I would have done as well.

To neatly categorize people as those who need help and those who do not is to set arbitrary categories that ignore the subtleties and grays of reality. As I listen to some conservatives offer their stark truths I think of the delightful (and fictional) Chinese encyclopedia, the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge that Jorge Luis Borges pretends to quote, as follows:

"For your consideration, friends, the fourteen kinds of animals: those that belong to the Emperor, embalmed ones, those that are trained, suckling pigs, mermaids, fabulous ones, stray dogs, those included in the present classification, those that tremble as if they were mad, innumerable ones, those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, others, those that have just broken a flower vase, those that from a long way off look like flies."

I realize that much of liberal policy can seem wishy-washy, to come in shades of gray rather than black and white. I suppose that if the world seemed to me more clearly black and white, I would more readily embrace a philosophical stance that was less nuanced, less full of caveats. But I do know that there are about as many categories of things as there are people to categorize them. Some people look embalmed, some are trained, some are pigs, and some tremble when they are mad. Along this spectrum of people one has to draw the line differently for different reasons.

If we are serious about freedom, we have to allow each individual this most personal of freedoms – the freedom to categorize the world as he or she sees fit. It is this element of freedom of religion that still so few understand. In such a world, to have one group stand up and pretend to talk for everyone is not just scary – it seems as though their description of reality is as odd as Borges’ fourteen categories of animals.

21 November 2006

Wealth and Power in the Attention Economy

In the attention economy, there are three classes: those who depend on others for the structuring of their attention, those who are independent, and those who structure the attention of others.

Wealth and power in this attention economy suggests control over the attention of others. You may run the company in which thousands work, able to direct the attention of the company towards a particular market or emphasis. You may control the media that directs the attention of viewers, listeners, or readers. You may write influential books or TV shows that change how people think or write sofware programs that define how they work.

Poverty in this attention economy suggests dependence on others for the structuring of attention. You may depend on a boss to tell you what tasks to think about and how to think about them. You may depend on TV programming to decide where to focus for the evening or weekend.

Who controls your attention? Whose attention do you control? The answer to those questions suggests a great deal about the resources you have command over. Because until you have control over your own attention, you can’t control much else.

17 November 2006

Airport Security Made Simple

As a frequent flyer, I spend too much time in airport security lines. I've put time in line to good use and thought up a simple solution for the problems of having to repeatedly show ID: wear a simple t-shirt that has an arrow pointing up to my face and just below it text that says, "Yep, it's me."

Two Paradigms Walk Into a Bar

Two paradigms walk into a bar. The one paradigm says,
“I’m right and can quote myself to prove it.”
The other paradigm sits stunned, looking at his drink. He finally looks up, dazed. “You are a reliable source?”

Paradigm 1 says, “As I was saying just yesterday.”
Bartender: “You’re quoting yourself?”
Paradigm 1: “Sure. Who else can I trust?”

Bartender: “But you aren’t always consistent.”
Paradigm 1: “It seems to me that I am.”
The bartender turns to the second paradigm. “How about you? Do you trust your memory?”
Paradigm 2: “Sure. I mean, what I remember always seems to jibe with everything I can remember.”
Bartender: “Don’t you ever forget?”
Paradigm 2: “Not that I remember.”
Bartender: “What if I could point out to you times when you forgot?”
Paradigm 2: “You have apparently forgotten that I don’t trust anyone else's memory.”

The bartender asks, “You really don’t refer to any other sources?”
“I don’t trust any sources other than me,” say paradigm 1 and 2 simultaneously.
They look at each other, surprised.
“At last,” says the bartender. “Something you two agree on.” He smiles. “You finally have some basis for agreement.”
“I’m not so sure,” say the paradigms, once again in unison.
After staring incredulously, the bartender finally admits, “You may be right.”

16 November 2006

A Life of Faith

Faith is a fragile but vital thing. Lives are acts of faith. Relationships require faith. Learning suggests faith in the future relevance of what you’re learning. Many of us are aided through life by faith in a God of love. But one of the hardest things to retain faith in is the self you have yet to become.

Faith is the evidence of things not seen. That is, it is evidence that is created because the individual undertook a task or project not prompted by evidence but, rather, by hope or expectation. A life of faith need not require faith in the supernatural, metaphysical, or God.

All of us have some notion of what we aspire to become. To lose faith in some variation of that is to accept that our life will never be different than what it has been. At best this prospect is tiring. And oddly, such resignation is itself an act of faith – faith that things will never change.

The beauty of faith is that it doesn’t require past evidence. The beauty of faith lived is that it will eventually create its own evidence. If even one person has faith that a God of love works through individuals to show care, there will be evidence that a God of love works through individuals to show care. If you have faith in the you who has yet to be, you will eventually create evidence of that self. Faith is a fragile but vital thing. Nurture your faith until it reaches the point that it has produced its own evidence.

I’ve grown convinced of two things. Most people have little sense of their own potential, of what they could become, of the impact they could have, of the fullness with which they could live life. And almost no one realizes how much work it will be to realize that potential. Getting through it all requires faith. Don’t mock your own sense of potential, no matter how ill-formed or unrealistic it may be. Nurture it, grow it, create something real with it. It just might return the favor, because this is, ultimately, a reciprocal relationship: first we nurture our faith and then it nurtures us.

15 November 2006

I Love America

I once again got one of those "America - love it or leave it" kind of emails that always perplex me. I'm never quite sure how to respond.

I guess one could just agree … in a way that disconcerts them. This is a great country. It’s big, beautiful, has lots of opportunity, has helped to create fantastic things like the modern corporation and jazz music. We let our creative people – in the arts, business, or even politics – take their shot at disrupting the status quo. This is a wonderful place.

But which America do they want me to love? The America of Woody Guthrie or Senator Joseph McCarthy? The America of labor union activists or robber barons? The America of hip hop or rock or hymns or jazz? The America of John Steinbeck or Hunter S. Thompson, Eudora Welty or Walt Whitman? Tony Robbins or Billy Graham? Ralph Nader or Pat Robertson? The America of Jimi Hendrix or George Strait? Hells Angels or the KKK? Rednecks or latte-sipping yuppies? Wall Street types who get $30 million bonuses at year end or agricultural workers who get $30 at the end of the day? Evangelicals who get in your face to save your soul or the atheists who get in your face to tell you that you don’t have one? Ivory-tower liberals or sitting-at-the-diner-counter conservatives? Strip miners who leave the ground turned inside out or environmentalists who want all construction projects to stop?

America is such a big sprawl of a place with such diversity that I’m never sure what it means to say that you love it other than to say that you are a cultural omnivore who loves (not just tolerates) diversity. It is an amazing country and the oddest experiment in social diversity that this planet has ever witnessed, a place where worldviews and religions are started like fast-food franchises. To say that you love America is to say everything and nothing, I suppose.

I love America.

500 Years of Modern Science and Still No Way To Un-Scramble an Egg

I don't know why someone doesn't just come out to say, about Iraq, that there is no way to fix the wreck. Sometimes in life things are bungled so badly that they can't be fixed. Perhaps there is no exit strategy, no means to achieve success, not even a stable definition of success. Perhaps we've simply opened a Pandora's Box that can't be closed.

Until the moderates admit this, the neocons will continue to defend their policies from change with the claim that, "They haven't got a plan to improve things," where the "they" is the moderate Republicans and Democrats who oppose their policies. As long as moderates deny that this may be beyond repair, they continue to leave themselves open to the "They haven't got a plan" accusation.

Enough already. The drunk slumped behind the wheel is right; we don't know how to repair the car he has so badly wrecked. That doesn't mean that he should get to keep driving.

14 November 2006

Your Media Has Been Hijacked

Again I wake up to morning radio news that is focused on Iraq. My president (sigh, yes, he is my president too) spends roughly half of the state of the union speech on Iraq. Politics, media, and even discussions have been hijacked.

It is as thought the neocons have come to the dinner party and no matter which way the conversation turns, they bring it back to their obsession with car wrecks or dissecting frogs.

What is never mentioned about this chosen fiasco is that the invasion and occupation of Iraq has stolen the bandwidth that would have otherwise gone into domestic and foreign policy issues of great import. Not only do we fail to arrive at a consensus about these issues but these other issues don't even get discussed.

Here is my proposal (realizing that writing into a blog is the equivalent of speaking into a mirror). For one week, the American media ignores Iraq. The situation has reached a stable point - bloody, tragic, chaotic but stable. Neither Democrats or Republicans have a clue about how to extract us from it without triggering even worse chaos that threatens to engulf the gulf. The media is obsessed with Iraq but the attention we pay to it doesn't seem to be of any help.

Instead, for one week we get our country back. Stories are about health care, education, transportation, housing, crime rates, the environment, outsourcing, free and fair trade, the political shift in Central and South America, new discoveries in fields like cognitive science and genetics, and the wealth of events that define the modern world. It is worth remembering that there are 300 million Americans and 6 billion people on the globe who are busily living.

One week with no Iraq. Really, is it too much to ask?

13 November 2006

Promise to Change Drivers - Not Repair the Car

Democrats have to be careful about making any promises to improve the situation in Iraq. Rather, they should make the distinction between changing drivers and repairing cars.

Iraq may simply be a car wrecked so badly that it can't be repaired. Sometimes even the best doctors can't save the patient.

But the guy who wrecked the car is Bush. And the Democrats should be terribly careful to continue to make him responsible for the fiasco we've seen so far and the fiascos to follow.

Rather than promise to fix the car, the Democrats should emphasize the need to change drivers. You don't have to know how to repair the car to know that the guy who wrecked it ought to be replaced behind the wheel.

Democrats can do a much better job of foreign policy than George and the Neocons and they should limit themselves to that promise. If George can suck them into promising that they have a good repair for Iraq and hold them responsible for fixing his mess, the errorist has won.

They Think You're an Idiot - Prove Them Wrong

Perhaps no issue more squarely puts the neoconservatives into the camp of unAmerican than their opposition to the estate tax. Quite simply, it is not enough for them that inheritences up to $6 million are exempt from taxes. They think it is unfair for folks inheriting more than $6 million to pay taxes at all.

There can only be a few explanations for such support. One is that you think that the working stiff who is stupid enough to have been born poor or middle class should be the one paying taxes on the income he has earned so that the fellow born rich doesn't have to be taxed a dime on the money he has done nothing to earn. The other is that you think that neither the working class stiff or the rich should pay the taxes but that, instead, the next generation should pay the taxes, deferring the cost of government to the next generation in the form of debt.

There is, of course, one other explanation. The rich actually think that you are an idiot and would eagerly support tax relief for Paris Hilton and her trust fund buddies, agreeing to pay their share out of your hard-earned income.

12 November 2006

Top Down or Grass Roots?

There are at least two ways to arrive at government regulation, programs, or spending. The first is as a result of experts conferring in private rooms. The second is as a result of the public meeting in town halls.

The politicians in DC still don't seem to realize that this process makes more difference than the particular outcome in terms of support or protest.

Watch for the politicians who learn how to use technology to involve a wider swath of people in the formulation of policy. When a politician steps out of DC to involve groups in town hall meetings -- meetings that involve dialogue and not preaching -- that politician will rapidly rise to power and prominence. And the politicians still trying to contain politics to the beltway are going to be taken completely by surprise.

If the last election taught nothing, it should be that Americans simply don't trust supposed experts conferring in private rooms. Even better than transparency is involvement. If politicians want power, they should do all they can to disperse power by engaging others in a dialogue in which their input actually changes policy.

11 November 2006

Keepers of the Worldview

A theory is comprised of a set of testable hypotheses. By contrast, an ideology is not subject to tests. For some reason, the world of science and technology has been largely defined by theory but the world of business and politics has not. In the place of theories that are continually challenged we have, instead, defenders of worldviews.

Today, the keepers of the worldviews in the world of politics are, oddly enough, media personalities. I rarely watch TV news but did this election week, sitting in a hotel in the DC area on election night and the next two evenings. I was flabbergasted by how seriously the political reporters take themselves - Lou Dobbs, Keith Olbermann, Joe Scarborough, Chris Matthews (who confuses hard-hitting questions with rudely interrupting), and Bill O'Reilly obviously are so impressed with their view of the world and the importance of articulating that for us mere mortals who would otherwise be unable to make sense of the world.

But in this world of complexity where there is enough data to support just about any reasonable worldview, it is vital to have keepers of the worldview who defend it from the facts, events, and people who would erode its authority. Or at least that is what the elites seem to believe.

The truth is there is an enormous amount of power and wealth to be had in pushing a worldview that is accepted. All of these personalities are paid huge salaries and have real influence over policy. Sadly, what they are doing is often little based on theory and more often seems based on ideology. Just imagine public policy making as dramatic and as impressive advances as science and technology has over the last century. Just imagine the adoption of the scientific method in the world of politics. Perhaps it's time the FCC stopped fining indecency and began fining fact-free assertions.

Rethinking Government

Our founding fathers were Enlightenment thinkers, heavily influenced by the philosopher John Locke who was, in turn, heavily influenced by Rene Descartes. Descartes might have been the first to define analytic thought, advising one to break seemingly intractable problems into smaller pieces that could be more readily understood before aggregating those insights into a whole. Descartes believed that if parts of a problem could be understood, the whole problem could be understood. Adam Smith believed that if each individual did what was best for him or her economically, the whole community would be taken care of. Our founding fathers believed that if each representative did what was best for his district that the whole country would be taken care of. Descartes' analysis was the foundational worldview onto which rested the construction of capitalism and democracy.

As it turns out, the analytic approach is not always best. Since Descartes, we've had a variety of thinkers who have shown us that understanding of the pieces is not always an effective means to understand the whole. You can know all about the gases hydrogen and oxygen and not predict that in combination they'd form a fluid with radically different properties. Systems thinking, or synthesis, points to how emergent phenomenon can define a thing far more than analysis of its parts would reveal. Keynes invented macroeconomics, basically pointing out that in a Depression what might make perfect sense to each individual would actually be awful for the overall economy. When sales are low, businesses are not going to invest. When they don't invest they can't hire. When they don't hire, households lose income. When households lose income, they can't buy. When households don't buy, sales are low and businesses are not going to invest. What makes sense for each part of the economy makes no sense for the overall economy.

Descartes first changed thinking about thinking. Adam Smith changed thinking about economics, and our founding fathers changed thinking about government, both basing their perspective on Descartes' analytic thought.

Systems thinkers have again changed our thinking about thinking. John Maynard Keynes has changed our thinking about economics. As yet, we've had no parallel change in government based on systems thinking. Perhaps its time to think about how we'd do that. Perhaps the task should begin with thinking about how we'd design Congress to encourage its members to care more about the country than their own district.

Why The New Congress is Guaranteed to Disappoint

The Democrats have taken back the House and Senate. For that I'm glad. Nonetheless, the 110th session of congress is certain to disappoint and the fault lies not in human nature but in the design of government by our founding fathers.

It is common to decry our form of democracy as great but its execution poor because of the greed and corruption of politicians. This kind of apologia sounds rather like defenders of communist ideals who say that communism would have worked if only people weren't so selfish. Adam Smith's capitalism worked in large part because it did not depend on the butcher or baker transcending his self interest but, rather, used that. What is needed is a new design of government that does not depend on the transcendence of human nature.

One of the reasons that our 110th Congress is guaranteed to disappoint is that it is based on the assumption that if each representative does what is best for his or her district, they will automatically do what is best for the whole country. Each congressman does all he can to lower taxes and increase government spending in his district. To the extent that he is successful, he simply drives up the national debt. This may be among the simplest explanations of why public opinion of one's congressperson is invariably higher than the opinion of Congress.

The problem with Congress is not a problem of poor representatives. It is a problem of poor government design.

Attention Tuning

All around you is a sea of information. Some you can perceive and some you cannot. We're wired to hear things from one spectrum of the wavelengths around us, to see things from other spectrums yet need to rely on cell phones, radios, TVs, wireless cards and the like to perceive others. And even if you have an FM radio, say, you still have to tune it to actually hear any particular station. Until you tune the radio, you have only static. It is not that the stream of coherence and information doesn't already exist - it's just that you cannot perceive it until you tune in to that exact frequency.

Some of life is like colors - as long as your eyes are open you will see whatever colors are presented. Some of life is like radio or TV - until you tune to a specific frequency you will miss it altogether.

Traditional education is like eyes open. You show up in the modern world and a series of people fill your consciousness with a stream of information that you can use. A sense of mission is like radio or TV - until you focus on a particular potential you will miss opportunities and the spectrum of possibilities for realizing that potential.

Get a sense of your own potential, get excited about what it could mean, and your problem won't be in failing to see possibilities but, rather, in narrowing your focus. Having a sense of your own potential is not a guarantee of a great life - but it is a guarantee that you won't walk blindly past great opportunities.

10 November 2006

Post-Modern Politics

The dada movement in the 1920’s was perhaps the most fascinating example of artists taking license to use consumers of art as the medium for art. Dada was a term intentionally chosen because it was meaningless. Yet it was an exercise in social manipulation that one has to think helped inspired modern politics.

Tristan Tzara, founder of the dada movement, advertised an event starring the popular Charlie Chaplin. Hordes showed up to see him. When they learned that not only was Chaplin not there but that they’d been lied to, they rioted – not realizing that they were Tzara’s medium and the riot was his art.

Today, dada has transformed into blah – blah, as TV and talk show hosts like Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Al Franken, and Olbermann work in the medium of public outrage. Outrage is the medium and elections are the pieces of art.

For Every Political Action there is an Equal and ...

Yesterday George once again authorized military training in Latin America. Why? It is to counter what is seen as a leftward movement in the political climate south of us. Leaders like Ortega, Lula, and Chavez are making George nervous because they are neoliberals.

Yet I think that one can make the argument that this perceived tilt towards the extreme left is more of a reaction to a perception that the US has tilted towards the extreme right. To the extent that citizens in Central and South America are threatened by our national interests and corporate and financial clout, they'll be inclined to do what they can to counter that influence in their region.

Re-asserting our military presence in the region will do little to alleviate their concern about our influence and will actually exacerbate the trend towards the left. One might have hoped that George would have learned a lesson from when his foray into the Middle East to combat terrorism actually created more terrorists.

08 November 2006

Lazy may not be your problem

“Sometimes we confuse work ethic with love of what you’re doing.”
- Jim Dietz, SDSU Baseball Coach, speaking of Tony Gwynn

When I taught Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People seminars, folks would receive feedback about how well they did in each of the 7 habits. Invariably, people scored lowest on habit 3 - put first things first. At first blush, this suggested that they weren't driven enough, organized enough - didn't do enough to set and keep priorities. Years later, I don't see it that way.

Habit 1 is “be proactive.” Habit 2 is “begin with the end in mind” - articulating a compelling vision by which to live one's life. Habit 3 is to then “put first things first” - doing the things that support your vision. My own opinion is that breakdowns in habit 3 actually reflect problems with habit 2. If people have discovered or created a truly compelling vision, putting first things first will not be a problem. If they have a vision that comes from a sense of obligation instead, putting first things first will be a chronic problem.

Finding a sense of purpose that resonates is difficult work. If you think that you are not disciplined, you may find that you simply have not created a compelling vision for yourself. Compelling suggests that it is exciting, suggesting a possibility that captivates you. It also suggests that is credible to you - something that you see as possible, perhaps even probable.

Once you've truly found yourself, even you may have trouble stopping you.

07 November 2006

Uh-Oh! My Parents are Home

George Bush must feel like a high school kid who threw a party because his parents are away for the weekend who has just heard them unexpectedly drive into the garage. Now the mad scramble to see how quickly he can hide all the empty beer cans before the new session of Congress is sworn in next year.

At last - the frat boy has adult supervision.

Set a Clapping Quota Already - Please!

I find the state of the union speeches repugnant. Why? More applause than even great performers get during musical, comedic, or dramatic performance. It seems symptomatic of what is so false and pretentious in politics.

Tonight I watched Rahm Emmanuel speak to a very happy audience. He was announcing a win of the Congress - a big deal. I'm delighted that the frat boy may finally have adult supervision. So why mar this moment with gratuitous and incessant clapping?

My idea about the first thing that the new Congress should do? Set a quota on clapping for political speeches. Introductory applause. Two interruptions. And then a rousing close. More than that and you aren't allowed to introduce legislation for six months.

Out with the wild-eyed ideologues!

American people are fairly pragmatic. The vote results in today's election are not a vote for liberals - most of the Democrats who are winning tonight are not anybody's idea of wild-eyed liberal. Many of them are social conservatives.

Instead, the "vote the bums out" attitude is a rejection of what is widely perceived as wild-eyed ideologues who to this day cannot admit that their policy does not work. Some Americans are conservative and some are liberals. The swing voters are pragmatic. When you move into a state of denial, you can expect to lose their vote.

What Even Conservatives Don't Understand About Deficits

I've heard liberals and conservatives express confusion about why supposed conservatives would support such large and sustained deficits. There is a good reason for this.

If your major constituency is the rich, there is a very good reason to sell as many bonds as you can. When the government spends more than it takes in from taxes, it has to close the gap by selling bonds - getting money today by promising to pay interest on that debt over a defined period of time. If you are rich, the backing of the United States is about as sure a means to protect your money as you can find. If you are sufficiently rich, you have an incentive to protect at least a portion of your money in very safe investments.

So, what is the downside? One is that the fastest growing portion of the government budget is interest payments. Interest payments squeeze out other expenses. The other is that the government squeezes out the private sector in investment markets. Quite simply, if the government did not sell any bonds, investors would be forced to put them money into the private sector - corporate bonds or equities.

A Difference Between Reagan and Bush

Bush the younger has said that he wants his presidency to be like Reagan's, not his father's. He has erred terribly in his attempt at emulation.

Perhaps more than any candidate, Reagan understood the theater of politics. When he wanted to stand tall, he invaded Grenada, one of the smallest countries in the world, and did not even allow the press to cover that invasion so intent was he on controlling image.

George bought into the myth of omnipotence, the image that Reagan projected, and decided that he, too, wanted to be strong in the world, standing up against and battling evil. The problem is, he thought there was substance behind the theater and took on a real war, the outcome of which could not be so easily managed.

Reagan was smart enough to realize that it was easier to manipulate perceptions and voters than reality. George, like a fan of magicians who doesn't understand illusion and really does try to catch the bullet with his teeth, took on the impossible task of invading and rebuilding Iraq. This has proved to be a far cry from standing tall on the shores of Grenada, a country that could have been subdued with a SWAT team.

Like Reagan, George is performing theater. Unlike Reagan, George doesn't realize it is theater.

05 November 2006

Iraq - agreement means trouble

Years ago, almost everyone agreed that we should invade Iraq. Pundits, politicians and the common person all agreed. Today that agreement has shattered after a brutal encounter of policy with reality.

Today, almost everyone agrees that we should build up Iraqi defense and security forces. Pundits, politicians, and the common person all agree that this is the predecessor to our exit from Iraq. This commonly held, never thought-through opinion will prove just as faulty as the decision to invade.

Already the long-oppressed, now in rule Shia are using their official power to take revenge on Sunnis. Even medical staff is killing wounded Sunnis in the hospital. Hatred of America is widespread. Iraq has descended into a Civil War.

So, how can it be that the only real agreement about Iraq is that these people should have more sophisticated weaponry, more knowledge of military strategy and tactics, and better military communication equipment? Into this kind of situation the consensus is that we need to provide more military capability? We really think that people intent on genocide will right their ways if only they had a stronger military?

Some days it is harder than others to be a populist.

Murdering Moderates

155 Iraqi professors of both sects, mostly moderates, have been assassinated since the 2003 invasion, the Hindu has reported. When things get extreme, extremists thrive.

At one point I had this fantasy that the Iraqi war was a plot by moderates on both sides - a way to lure violent extremists from both sides into a battlefield. The eventual result? Only moderates who stayed away from violent solutions would be left standing.

But of course, violence doesn't work that way. And it is particularly disturbing for Iraq that even moderates are being targeted because moderates are always the glue that holds societies together.

A similar thing will happen Tuesday in this country. The murders will be political, of course, but it will be moderates who will be victims. Anyone who fails to feel some measure of delight at the prospect of Republicans losing their grip on Congress has simply failed to pay attention to this 109th Congress. Nonetheless, it is quite sad that their reign of error will be truncated by the political death of moderates.

Politics is about compromise - finding a peaceful solution to clashes of worldviews and values. Only fools think that there are violent shortcuts to political compromise or think that soon everyone will "get it" and the idiots on the other side will admit the error of their ways, repenting of being naive (pick one: conservatives or liberals or environmentalists or pro-lifers or ...) and joining with us in the forward march of progress. As the influence of moderates over the process wanes, the political process becomes more defined by acrimonious name-calling than progress.

Iraqis may think that they are murdering moderates but the real victim is a sense of inclusion in the political process by the average person and a resultant sense of optimism about the future of the country. As we vote moderates out of office, the result is similar – the average person feels more alienated and less optimistic about the direction of the country.

04 November 2006

When Good Politics Makes for Bad Policy

The growing gap between effective politics and effective policy has already cost us trillions and will get worse before it is corrected.

The most obvious example of this conflict can be seen in the policies pursued by Israelis and Palestinians. No political party can gain popular support unless it talks tough about retaliation. Yet the policy of retaliation has simply sustained a horrific condition of mutually-inflicted terrorism. In that situation, good politics makes for bad policy; what is effective at the polls fails when it makes contact with reality.

When leaders fail to articulate the stakes and make clear the links between present actions and future conditions, the press focuses on the story of politics. Rather than report on policy the media focuses on polls. When this happens, societies' become increasingly dysfunctional.

U.S.A. - under surveillance always?

We live indoors. We walk outdoors from our houses into our cars, only briefly passing through the open air. We live behind walls and our neighbors are unable to see us shower, sleep, stare at the walls or pick our nose. Most people would be outraged if they were told that they could no longer expect such privacy and that friends, neighbors, or the government would be watching them go about their daily routines, knowing that they'd be constantly monitored.

Yet this is the direction we're moving in terms of the life of the mind. Sadly, many Americans who would be outraged at the thought of someone looking in their windows as they got dressed yawn at the thought of someone monitoring their phone calls, book purchases, video rentals, and web surfing. According to at least one international comparison, we now rank as poorly as China and Malaysia, categorized as surveillance nations.

This matters for so many reasons. Perhaps the most important is that we have yet to reach the pinnacle of development, a peak that simply does not exist. Old social constructs - old worlds of theocracies, aristocracies, and robber barons - never willingly give up control. Challenges to their control is always initially perceived as subversive. If the state is successful at monitoring our thoughts and communications, where is the room to challenge the state, how do we further develop in ways that are a threat to the old constructs?

And if history teaches us nothing else, it is the inevitability of this: governments that put in place measures to protect the state inevitably use those measures to protect the governing party or administration. There is no exception to this rule - only differences in the time it takes for someone to make the inevitable leap.

Perhaps the simplest distinction between good and bad government is this. In a good government, the individual's life is private and government policies and practices are transparent. In a bad government, the government's policies and practices are private and the individual's life is transparent. In just the last century, we have spectacularly evil examples of this very thing in Mao's China, Stalin's USSR, and Hitler's Germany.